"To Disorient the Troops"
Tamás St.Auby’s exhibition in Karlsruhe, part 1.
"Once we’ve come to realize that we are free and capable of rearranging the elements of life, we will instantly comprehend that practically we have no other choice in life than ceaselessly break through the given, prevailing pattern, the coffin." Tamás St.Auby
The arch enemy of political art is temporariness. It is so extensively defined by the period it was conceived in that it loses its most essential nature, its vivacity, in the changed political, economic and cultural system of another era. Even if the socially relevant component of their content has lost its validity or become anachronistic, such objects have no place in the system of autonomous artworks, because they still bear the stigma of political dependency. Consequently, they find themselves in the no-man’s-land between contemporary art and autonomous art, until contemporary attention is drawn towards them for some reason and places them in the historical system of art, which is still not equivalent to being absolved from their "archaic" status.
This is precisely what has been taking effect throughout the posterior reception of the "counter art" of the 60s and 70s within the Hungarian neo-avant-garde. From the perspective of contemporary art, neo-avant-garde is too historically bound, yet it is too much of an "accessory" of recent past for there to be a sincere excuse for the twenty years of delay in processing it (1). However, a great fallacy of the contemporary consciousness is that precisely due to the fact that the neo-avant-garde is yet to be processed, it is considered as a single homogenous mass of works, without any differentiation in terms of the cultural and political heterogeneity of attitudes (2).
The main reason for this lies in the very definition of "counter art". The broad spectrum of radicalism characterizing the opposition to the Kádár-era’s official canon eclipses both the causes and consequences, and creates the illusion that the only significant characteristic is playing (however seriously) with the regime. Of course I have no intention to depreciate one of the fundamental aspects of neo-avant-garde art, namely that it was the segment of culture most stricken by prohibition in terms of the three P (permit, promote, prohibit) principle of Kádár’s cultural policy, and which, accordingly - sooner as well as later -, also bore the moral capital this entailed. Nonetheless, different levels of political consciousness not only render the oppositional character of neo-avant-garde more differentiated, but they also influence the aesthetic afterlife of works and oeuvres.
Here is a brief summary by Péter György about the epistemological sources of Hungarian neo-avant-garde: "If we consider the genealogy of Hungarian neo-avant-garde, the European School, which in turn goes back to Kassák, a social democratic, at once anti-communist and anti-capitalist tradition is clearly outlined" (3). This triple tradition was conveyed by the still living members of the European School, Endre Bálint, Dezso Korniss, and Béla Hamvas from the antifascist right wing, who had for a while been collaborating with Lajos Szabó and Béla Tábor, members of the illegal revolutionary socialist movement equally opposed to bolshevism and capitalism. All this was complemented with the intellectual impact of 1968: "These ideas were accompanied at the turn of the 1960s and 70s by the sensible presence of the utopian thinking transmitted - also as an escape from the pervasive Marxism - by the new leftist ideals, student or hippy movements that had reached across the iron curtain" (4).
In the thinking of neo-avant-garde artists, these effects collectively took shape in a world view that might be termed mystical or spiritual new leftist approach. The mystical element implies the period’s lack of a coherent conception of the world, a desire for the lost harmonic whole, the extent of which is perfectly indicated by the fact that it attracted groups of artists and intellectuals within and without the avant-garde movement alike, from János Pilinszky and Miklós Erdély through Béla Kondor, György Kovásznai and Tamás Szentjóby (5).
This instance provides the language for the world view of the third generation of avant-garde, but its content is associated with the new leftist ideals that can by no means relate to the suffocating rhetoric and cultural practice of official Marxism, with the fragmented yet inseminating impact of critical Marxism. Béla Hamvas converging with Adorno and Marcuse. As opposed to the earlier history of avant-garde, the objective is not the debate about the feasibility of leftist utopias, but the creation of constructs that distinguish and isolate themselves from the Stalinist language of the misappropriated left wing, while remaining faithful to the legacy of the "original left", namely social solidarity and the internationalism of art, among others.
In the framework of the given dictatorial state, this is only feasible along the lines of the method described by Guy Debord in relation to the analysis of the total image of capitalism: "In analysing the spectacle we are obliged to a certain extent to use the spectacle’s own language, in the sense that we have to operate on the methodological terrain of the society that expresses itself in the spectacle" (6).
The intention to devise such constructs is sporadically discernible throughout the oeuvres of several neo-avant-garde artists from János Major to Endre Tót. Gyula Pauer’s Demonstration-sign Forest (1978) is also a gesture of protest that grasps the regime at the root of its own falseness, as by imitating a demonstration, it refers to the restriction of artistic activity and freedom of speech in a deceitful dictatorship proud of its revolutionary origins. Still, few retrospective exhibitions allow for so much as gauging the coherence and consistency of intentions, without which all is but imagination, a "project of ideas" devoid of any justification.
And herein lies the fundamental significance of the St.Auby retrospective exhibition at the Badischer Kunstverein Karlsruhe, entitled Exist.enzminimum St.andard Projekt 1984 W. In Karlsruhe - and, unfortunately, not in Budapest - it has become clear that Tamás St.Auby’s "parallel construct", contrived continually since 1965, is in fact a consistently constructed world system. Not only does it offer a mode of existence alternative to state capitalism (so-called "socialism") and the gradually infiltrating western type capitalism, but also employs the fundamental elements of these principally economic systems in a way that by forming a new linguistic structure above the decayed structure, he has created an aesthetic system that is essentially poetic, politically related to the critical left, and is in fact liveable in practice.
The condition for this aesthetic system is autonomy in the sense described by Adorno: namely, breaking free from the system of art institutions run by a state apparatus that strives for hegemony (an institutional system that managed to unite utterly different artistic endeavours, those pro- and contra canvas art, in opposition against it), and from its doctrine of realism (7), as well as from a static, unreflected perception of art, detached from reality (8).
St.Auby introduces a radical change in the relation of art and reality when he goes further than simply shifting emphasis, and superimposes an imaginary picture of reality over art with the intention of extending the new model to embrace the entirety of life. Due to the emphasis on reality, the key notions of St.Auby’s non-art art are socially embedded: work, class, strike, direct democracy, solidarity. The markedly topical nature of his works lies in these very notions. As it happens, St.Auby has not simply survived the risky process of recontextualization, but even gained strength as a result, for the immanent aesthetic value, the existence of which was presumable based on the documentations of the 60s and 70s, has survived the period and proved real. This is one of the major conclusions that can be drawn from the show in Karlsruhe.
His work is current and topical, in other words, vividly timely: the fact that it cannot drowned by the retrospectively unchangeable structure of the past is closely related to the aforementioned autonomy, as a kind of internal assurance. The external assurance, however, ensues from the relation of the above key notions to various social systems, which is, in a sense, more complex than an inner circle consistently developed by a single person.
Our point of departure should be the fact that the circumstances which called the works into existence have continued to exist after the political transformation in several key aspects, precisely because the pre- and post-1989 economic-political systems are by far not as different as we like to believe. The common denominator in so-called socialism (more accurately: state capitalism) and western capitalism is the very notion of work - wage work - in the common mode whereby the workers sell their free time to the owner of the means of production on a seemingly voluntary - contractual - basis. As regards the transaction, which leads to alienation (9), it makes no difference whether the owner of the means of production takes on a state- or private form. The gist of the matter lies in the subordinated relation of worker to capital.
"Many believed that the essence of socialism/communism was to abolish private property (and the market), which it did. As a result, many communists today (of course the ‘many’ are not so many) believe that the communist (Bolshevik, soviet type) experiment of 1917-1989 still bears the potential of emancipation despite all the horror it entailed. This fallacy results from the misinterpretation of the notion of ‘private property’. Any Marxist should know that ‘private property’ in a capitalist system means that producers are detached from the means of production, which are in the property of others, and that production can only result from the synthesis of workforce and means of production, which is realized by the workers selling their working time to the owners of the means of production. In this regard, it is irrelevant (by far not so from another perspective) whether the owner of the means of production, in other words, the appropriator of surplus value - if not identical to the producer - is a private person, a corporation, an investment fund, a holding bank or the state itself. The systems deemed ‘socialist’, if subjected to the normative criteria of socialism/communism, prove to be systems of state capitalism, as it has been extensively argued by a number of critical Marxists since 1918, stressing that even a socialist transition (as well as its alleged political form, the legendary ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’) is impossible, if production, consumption, redistribution and development projects are not controlled by the workers (with a right of decision, which entails property rights) on the level of economic units and popular economy," (10) describes Gáspár Miklós Tamás. State capitalism never abolished money, wage work, commodity production, class, social division of labour and state - all of which were supposed to be the goal of a hitherto unrealized socialism.
This model is illustrated by the very book that Miklós Haraszti dedicated to Tamás St.Auby: the illegally disseminated Piece Rate. A Worker in a Worker’s State (1972). At the Red Star tractor factory, where Haraszti as a labourer had a first hand experience of the functioning of the wage labour -based system, the state capitalist exploitation was realized similarly to any (current) corporate unit of late capitalism: forced into a competitive situation, the only way a labourer doing piece work can produce the quantity required for a sufficient wage is by maximally exploiting their time and renouncing their natural needs, while endangering their health.
The scene of Centaur (1973-75) with the women working at a box-making workshop, compelled to adjust their rhythm and series of movements to the ceaseless abstract operation of the machine, is a visual parallel to Piece Rate, an analysis of the system from a very similar aspect. But just as the time span of Piece Rate is not limited only to the Kádár-era, the Centaur is so vivid today with its 35 years old restored documentary images because it addresses ever so current issues.
This exhibition presented St.Auby’s oeuvre in the most complex form ever, for the first time placing Centaur in the context of the four stages of the Subsist.ence Level St.andard Project, while, also for the first time, the objects that represent the beginnings of Hungarian conceptual art were gathered together in a separate room, in chronological order.
St.Auby has divulged in several interviews how he abandoned writing poetry on account of irresolvable linguistic problems in 1966 (11), in the year of the first happening, but there are objects dating back to 1965 which were supposed to form the basis of a Neo-Dada exhibition with Gábor Altorjay in the apartment of Pál Petri-Galla. The exhibition was never realized, but Cooling Water and New Unit of Measure were both made for this show (12).
In Karlsruhe these were installed on the ledge lining the first room, which proved to be very fortunate, as the objects could be placed one after another in a row, as a sort of enumeration, yet without the depressing museum methodology (or props, like pedestals).
Both multiples are mentioned in the interview recorded in 1971 by László Beke (13). The apothecary jar holding warm water, as two different entities, together make a transparent, sterile object that debars any external intervention into its nature; it has its own independent course of development as a kind of metaphysical symbol of destiny. This metaphor is still strongly related to metaphysical poetry’s perception of the world, but the object itself is already a product of Fluxus, which strives to connect life and art (14).
"Bare existence is under constant pressure, under the pressure of reality," says Szentjóby, to continue thus: "Of course, the impact of Cooling Water - I hope - is due not only to the information it conveys about the tragic, but also to the automatic and destined change it embodies. It turns the approach in a direction that seems insignificant under the graver pressures of everyday life, but I still do believe that this destined change, this, so to say, abatement, decreasing intensity or cooling, is tragic as it is" (15).
The object New Unit of Measure is more complex in terms of history of origin and layers of meaning. An essential source for the entire thematic, humour is obvious here. In fact, two kinds of it straight away, as the general creative intention comprises humour both as means and end, but sometimes this gets out of hand, because one cannot always reckon with the interpretative preconceptions. Originally, Szentjóby really intended to create a (politically neutral) object that would serve as an alternative for metre, the traditional unit of measure.
The hollow lead rod, shorter than one metre, is a "meditational object" with intentionally ambiguous meanings. Also, owing to its material and connotations, not even in its inert position at the exhibition could it give the impression of being harmless enough for anyone (even Szentjóby) not to associate it with a police baton (16). The creative intention loses control over the object, which dons a different quality, adjusting itself to the critical expectations of the Zeitgeist, for it becomes a political piece despite its maker’s intentions, and is referred to as a political object in all subsequent interpretations.
A more intense social consciousness would be brought about by 1968 for the generation of Szentjóby. 1968 marks not an event, but an era, the temporal localization of which is a difficult task, but according to Péter Konok’s peroidization it lasted until about 1972-74. "This is confirmed by events such as the restructuring of world economy, the oil price boom, the overwhelming victory of he politically neo-conservative and economically neo-liberal state in the West (or, for instance, in Chile), the dwindling of reforms in the East, the waning and commercialization of counterculture, etc." (17).
In the history of Hungarian neo-avant-garde art, there was a turning point around the same time with a reinvigorated wave of emigration, but that process had begun way before: St.Auby mentions in a radio interview how he began to make a list of defected acquaintances and friends and gave up at around 260 (18).
But probably the most intense or shocking moment of the 1968 events in Hungary was the invasion of Chechoslovakia. Szentjóby heard the news about the aggression of "friendly socialist countries" and the "inventive" reaction of the attacked Czech and Slovak people on a portable radio on 21 August 1968 (19). Instead of responding with a counterattack, they invented alternative methods of diversion. For instance, they changed the signposts and switched street names to disorient the troops. The original idea of the Czechoslovak Radio 1968 had come from a recipe that was invented when a military decree prohibited the people from listening to the radio, and they "listened to" newspaper-covered bricks on the street instead.
When in 1969, Szentjóby covered a brick in sulphur instead of newspaper, he created both a homage to the original idea of the multiple invented by the people - art’s democratic turn - and a memorial of the ’68 revolution. The idea of non-art art is rooted in the multiple Czechoslovak Radio 1968.
"There is always an immanent factor in avant-garde activity concerning the democratization of art. Namely, that professional skills should not be a requirement, that there be room for just the man, absolutely bare, to express himself through art. So the endeavours that avant-garde mentality finds beautiful - and this is now an aesthetic category proper - are such that could be done by anyone. That is what we find truly beautiful. This is not a general factor, but a very strong one" (20).
Portable Trench for Three (1969) was on display at the Iparterv II. exhibition for three days before it was banned. While this was a case of group censorship, the Budapest Police Department had already made it a priority with a deadline to prevent Szentjóby’s actions: "The main organizers of happenings should be warned to desist from organizing shows in the future. With special regard to Tamás Szentjóby, who pursues this activity most vigorously. Szentjóby should be warned that in case he is unwilling to abandon organizing happenings in the future, we will propose his incarceration in a psychiatric facility. Deadline: 30/06/1968. In charge: BPD. Pol. Dept. III. Division." (21).
Just as abstract art was classified as subversive activity in the forties and fifties, by the sixties, happening and actionism became bearers of this title. The primary message of Szentjóby’s life program Be prohibited! (1970-75) obviously and logically derives from the state of being censored, that is, from assuming the role of being forced into illegality. The reference to contemporary politics, however, is not exclusive, and may even be misleading, as St.Auby’s opposition is an extended, practically global opposition, which cannot be limited to the period and scope of the three Ps (Permit, Promote, Prohibit).
"The scope of being prohibited goes well beyond the three Ps." - he says. "Be prohibited! is an aesthetic suggestion, a suggestion that forms a life course, a suggestion that ignores every kind of legal, economic and cultural prohibition" (22). This is why it can be called being prohibited as an existential condition life plan, in other words, independent from the unforeseeable development of the nature of world systems, because the condition for achieving freedom is the state of permanent difference, the constant rebuttal, erosion, passionately furious clobbering of the guile or aggressive conventions of art and society. Be prohibited is the pessimistic yet realistic program of ceaseless opposition, called for by the claim for intellectual and existential freedom. "Contrary to the rumours circulated by the hierarchical elite culture, it has become clear that I am free if I demonstrate my freedom. That is, I should do precisely what the traditional signs: - ‘PROHIBITED!’ - conceal: - ‘PERMITTED!’" (23).
In the existential relation of state power, however, this condition of being prohibited came to a termination. Tamás Szentjóby was first interrogated as a witness in the Haraszti-trial concerning Piece Rate, soon after which, on 18 October 1974, the police searched his apartment and confiscated the manuscript of Konrád & Szelényi’s The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power, which he was going to photograph due to the impossibility of other forms of multiplication. The outcome is well-known: Szelényi and Szentjóby "accepted" the offer to emigrate. János Veto’s photograph from 1975 was taken at the airport before take-off (24), and juxtaposed at the exhibition with the émigré’s pillow, it is a symbolical closure to the period of Hungarian neo-avant-garde.
(to be continued)
Translated by Daniel Sipos
(1) "Processing it", as "Putting it into writing": the resources are available, from the Artpool archive through the Portable Intelligence Increase Museum.
(2) As Edit Sasvári notes, the internal stratification of contemporary art became apparent precisely in the uncontrolled environment of Balatonboglár from 1972. Tamás St.Auby’s situational metaphor also reflects on this: "Knowingly or unwittingly, people always divide into two groups: hierarchic iconophiles and anarchic/heterarchic iconoclasts. Perforce, artists and Prohibited artists alike. Witch-hunting repression pressed everything and everyone together, and thus - although they had fundamental legal/economic/cultural differences of opinion - they were united in rebellious ferment against their common repressors in this witch-hunt. Solidarity did work to some extent - of course only emotionally -, but only until the lid was removed from the cauldron after the coup of 1989, whereby all the compressed snakes and frogs leapt out in all directions, and today they refuse even more to communicate with one another than before." - Public unhealthy fragments. Mail interview with Tamás St.Auby. An interview by Dénes Krusovszky, Marcell Szabó and Péter Urfi. Puskin utca, 2008/4. 19 http://puskinutca.files.wordpress.com/2009/10/puskin-utca-04-vegleges.pdf
(3) Dénes Krusovszky - Péter Urfi: A small room. Interview with Péter György. Puskin Utca, 2008/4. 25-28. http://puskinutca.files.wordpress.com/2009/10/puskin-utca-04-vegleges.pdf
(4) László Beke: A subjective history of Hungarian conceptual art. in Pál Deréky - András Müllner (eds.): Mu/te? Studies in Hungarian neo-avant-garde, Tankönytár, Budapest, 2004. http://www.tankonyvtar.hu/muveszet/ne-ma-15-fejezet-laszlo-080905#ftn.d4e4192
(5) Then again, their sources are not always the same: Miklós Erdély’s mysticism, for instance, is related to Jewish mystic literature.
(6) Guy Debord: Society of the Spectacle. Transl. Ken Knabb, Rebel Press, 1983. p. 9.
(7) Béla Hamvas, one of St.Auby’s masters, writes thus about realism: "Realism has existed since man began to suffer from reality to such extent that he could not endure it any longer without art. This art is realism. Realism is none other than a lifestyle and life course with the intense suffering from reality in its centre. This agony is the very same as the one that gave rise to socialism as its artistic side-product. Socialism is none other than a kind of revenge on reality." Béla Hamvas: Carnival. Vol. III. Medio kiadó, 1999. 91-92.
(8) "So we have to operate on four fronts: first, eliminate yet preserve the ‘purely aesthetic’; second, comply with the demands of ‘purely aesthetic innovation’ and ‘reformation of bourgeois proportions’; third, express ourselves in pop-actuality; fourth, bring the status quo to its knees." Public unhealthy fragments. Mail interview with Tamás St.Auby. An interview by Dénes Krusovszky, Marcell Szabó and Péter Urfi. Puskin utca, 2008/4. 19. http://puskinutca.files.wordpress.com/2009/10/puskin-utca-04-vegleges.pdf
(9) "The industrial worker of today is just a cogwheel in a giant mechanism. Toiling away, he has lost his creative role. This process of reification began when the first loom was put into operation, and still continues today within capitalistic forms of production, and has made man, who constructed the machine, into its slave. [...] The urban proletarian’s child hears his worker father talk at the dinner table not about the respect of labour and the love of the processed material, but about the very conflict between the wage worker’s human desires and his daily grind. The young proletarian shall set out on the road to life with this attitude. He does not fancy his past, he feels rootless in the present, and he does not know what the future holds." - writes Lajos Kassák in "Talents" in 1934. In: Lajos Kassák: We should live in our time. Magveto Könyvkiadó, Budapest, 1978. 167.
(10) Gáspár Miklós Tamás: The ghost of the welfare state. In: Eszmélet/77. 106-107.
(11) Breaking with "mystic poetry" does not mean he stopped writing poems. St.Auby’s linguistic competence is an essential component not only of his later neo-dada actionist poetry (like the Please cycle, which, in his definition, is a series of instructions for action), but of Centaur, too. Poetry is not always manifested in a linguistic form, but often as a dimension of aesthetic need, elevating the artwork.
(13) Conversation with Tamás Szentjóby. Recorded on magnetic tape by László Beke on 11 March 1971. Published In: Jelenlét. Szógettó. Literary and arts journal of ELTE BTK, 1989/1-2. (14-15). 255-262.
(14) A product of Fluxus as well as "Zeitgeist". Neo-avant-garde artists (let us narrow the circle down to Tamás Szentjóby, Miklós Erdély and Gyula Konkoly) intuitively stumbled upon the tendencies of Western contemporary art without any immediate experience or knowledge; tendencies - such as Fluxus - with which they would later come into contact. "In early 1969," recalls Gyula Konkoly, "I made a gigantic paintbrush, and a small one, and a gigantic telephone, and that summer, fumbling around at the second Armory Show (the 1969 Iparterv Show), I invented Art conceptuel. And St.Auby also invented it. We were part of the world’s flux of time, and similar causes simultaneously led to similar conclusions. The capital had not witnessed the likes of this for a long time." Konkoly cited by István Hajdu: Outflow and mesmerism. The impact of 1968 on contemporary Hungarian art. Balkon, 2008/9. 16. Meanwhile, St.Auby still calls these pieces "pop-objects" in 1971.
(15) Conversation with Tamás Szentjóby. Recorded on magnetic tape by László Beke on 11 March 1971. Published In: Jelenlét. Szógettó. Literary and arts journal of ELTE BTK, 1989/1-2. (14-15). 260.
(16) "And that was when I freaked out, oh my God, maybe I won’t even exhibit it, I’ll be so frightened of the fact that I’ve just put a police baton on display at an exhibition, and to top it all, as a new unit of measure? A police baton as the new measure? But then I thought this wouldn’t be that obvious for the audience, and when everyone at the exhibition kept coming up to me with 'so what’s the idea now, er... a police baton...?', well then I got really annoyed, which I regret, because in fact, at least then, I was much more interested, not interested, concerned, about there being a new unit of measure than the reference to a police baton." Ibid. 261
(18) A Haunting. Hungarian avant-garde in the 70s, Gábor Németh’s radio show. Participants: Edit Sasvári, Miklós Haraszti, Tamás St.Auby, Gábor Klaniczay. http://www.artpool.hu/boglar/radio/szellemjaras.html
(19) For Szentjóby’s account of the personal aspects of the events of ’68, including the origin of Czechoslovak Radio 1968 and Portable trench for three, see the interview of Maja and Reuben Fowkes: http://www.translocal.org/revolutioniloveyou/stauby.html
(22) A Haunting. Hungarian avant-garde in the 70s, Gábor Németh’s radio show. Participants: Edit Sasvári, Miklós Haraszti, Tamás St.Auby, Gábor Klaniczay. http://www.artpool.hu/boglar/radio/szellemjaras.html
(23) Tamás Szentjóby: "autocensorship = compromise = precious little" In: Jelenlét. Szógettó. Literary and arts journal of ELTE BTK, 1989/1-2. (14-15). 270.
(24) "The first dispatcher of IPUT is banished from the country by the authorities - he is crossing the border with a pillow hidden in his pants on 5 December 1975." Photo: János Veto