Revolutionary Voices

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Performing Arts in Central & Eastern Europe in the 1980s

by Ola Herbich


Performing Revolution in Central and Eastern Europe Festival, a performing arts festival in New York marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of Communism in Central and Eastern Europe

Wednesday, November 18, 2009–Saturday, March 20, 2010

The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
Vincent Astor Gallery @ Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center
111 Amsterdam Avenue (at 65th Street), New York, NY

I attend ‘”cultural” exhibits with a sense of trepidation: limp cadavers of culture neatly displayed in vacuum-packed perspex prisons, ripped out of context and out of time? I can’t help but smell death with an agenda. As I walked into the Vincent Astor Gallery, nestled behind Lincoln Center, where New York’s high society parades around, I assumed this presentation was not going to be any different. Exhibit A: a stuffed cat theater prop sitting under a taxidermist's bell jar. Exhibit B: a costume hanging on a faceless mannequin. Exhibit C: work on paper arranged into national categories and accompanied by labels attempting a linear narrative. However, standing defiantly in the middle of the room is a black wall filled with giant white letters exclaiming TRUTH! and FREEDOM! in various Eastern European languages broken up by new wave show flyers and photographs of punk and rock ‘n’ roll gatherings. The wall envelops a space with a television on maximum volume blaring archival footage of dissident theatre performances with punk and new wave songs inserted into the mix, augmented by appropriately bad and eye-squintingly bright 80s style graphics explaining the lyrical content.  And they haven’t played it safe.  Before I had time to consign myself to resignation, Dezerter’s “Spytaj Milicjanta* starts booming from within the black womb, arguably their most aggressive song with loud fast riffing, snarling vocals, and ACAB-themed lyrics. Definitely a disconcerting experience for the old Russian ladies who were the only other people in the room at the time.

What is ‘political’ or ‘revolutionary’ art? At this point, the distinction between dissent and dominance is slippery, if not invisible. More often than not, cultural forms pass freely between these realms (eg, Napalm Death explaining grindcore on a BBC children's program or east London hipsters appropriating punk logos). But as you walk through the collage of evidence on display in Revolutionary Voices you begin to realize its curators are convinced that the performances they are referring to were instrumental in causing a revolution and are thus ”revolutionary.” It is only when oppressive regimes make themselves seen with clear boundaries, in this case the Communist states’ cultural police and censors carrying out Soviet orthodoxy, that dissident art can bloom, and this is also why ultimately the Communist regime had an expiration date whereas our capitalist one continues to run our lives.

So what does punk do when the boundaries of the oppressive “other” are so clearly marked? If punk’s emergence in the West can be seen as a reaction to late capitalism and the consequent frustration of an oppressed youth in ‘democratic’ societies, it took on a very different character behind the Iron Curtain where those boundaries could be performed and tested with violent consequences, both metaphorical and actual. This is clearly shown through a display of never before seen spy files on members and associates of the Theatre of the Eighth Day in Poland with hilarious sections such as “Threat (Actual)” and “Affected Area”. These are accompanied by an enlarged photograph of the gargantuan archive of social mapping that the Communist spy network in Poland had amassed. No doubt most of the punk communities in Poland and other Soviet bloc countries had similar files on them hidden amongst neatly arranged shelves—stamped, understood and under control. The authorities’ strategies for sanitizing the dissenter included sending them to a mental asylum (Yegor Letov of the U.S.S.R’s Grazhdanskaya Oborona), the army (Poland’s Nadzór and the Independent Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia’s Čonkić of Pekinška Patka), Siberian Gulags or even murdering them (supposedly Ivica Culjak of Yugoslavia’s Satan Panonski during the socialist government’s dissolution). Sadly for the sake of a wider audience these examples have been omitted from this exhibit. However, for that same reason the viewer can see how punk in Eastern Europe had much closer ties to other musical genres and art forms as it was considered just another type of revolutionary performance, thus equally susceptible to being shut down or censored. Therefore seemingly different "types" of artists organized together to create a stronger unified front.

On display are a selection of illegally published contraband books by the Czech Union of Musicians Volunteer Youth Organization's Jazz Section on "John Oko Lennon" and the history of Czech Rock ‘n’ Roll which includes punk acts. There are also examples of performances carried out in spaces familiar to any punk such as private homes (Vlasta Chramostová’s Living Room Theatre, Czechoslovakia), churches under reconstruction (Church of God’s Mercy, Poland) and on the streets (The Orange Alternative Happenings, Poland). Concerts had mixed bills with folk, punk, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, ska, metal, and new wave bands sharing information networks through word of mouth and letters and exchanging cassette tapes recorded by the bands or their audiences that would never be granted an official release.** While in the West similar behavior was primarily an economic issue with political consequences in creating an alternative exchange system, in the East the exchange of such material was illegal and therefore primarily political even though it had economic consequences. Western influence was mainly through the most popular bands that had the notoriety to permeate through the Iron Curtain such as the Sex Pistols or Discharge; thus, punk forms evolved independently, and to a Western observer, in a very esoteric way. Eastern European punk’s edges were subsequently blurred with bands such as the U.S.S.R’s Spinki Menta creating their own type of acoustic folk punk or Czechoslovakia’s Fourth Price Band blending new wave elements and saxophones with ease and without the slightest hint of irony. Meanwhile a photograph on view of the Hungarian rock ‘n’ roll band Europa Kiado shows a collection of what any Westerner would identify as a bunch of skinheads fronted by a shirtless Mötley Crüe type wreaking some serious damage in a dilapidated space. At the same time bands remained less loyal to a particular type of sound, often changing drastically if it meant getting their message across to wider networks of dissent, such as Siekiera becoming a disturbing new wave band complete with a radically new look. What was important was to sustain the compulsion to dissent and to successfully outwit the regime by punching holes through their structures of control. Under the martial law introduced in many of the Soviet Bloc countries in the early 80s, punk was part of cultural guerilla warfare.

A major strategy found in all ‘Revolutionary’ art forms shown in Revolutionary Voices was to re-present the totalitarians by revealing their strategies, which relied on being misunderstood. The revolutionaries thus used specific iconographies that veiled a critical language obvious to other dissenters but hidden to anyone else, creating a sort of parallel iconographic universe. Lyrics found in dissenting music commonly turned Communist rhetoric against itself through sarcastic delivery. Dezerter were masters in this respect, which probably accounts for the censor’s slip up. Other lyrics used covert references to abstract revolutionary concepts. The thudding beats of new wave bands like Kult, also represented in this exhibit, replicated and perverted the clockwork drudgery of everyday life and the Soviet iconography of massive organized marches used to distract through spectacle and sustain conformity. Theatre groups similarly used abstraction in the form of color and body movements to relay critical historical metaphors. Another strategy was the instigation of chaos against a society based on strict codes of order, as seen through the rise of improvisational theatre and performance art. Punk, jazz, metal, rock ‘n’ roll and any number of permutations in between had chaos as part of their stylistic DNA and probably accounted for their immense popularity during this time. But if this all sounds a bit too serious, The Orange Alternative performance group inject some fun into the room through flyers and photographs recording their spontaneous social interventions on the streets. They used humor to overcome fear with laughter and to disrupt social order by gathering a community to introduce new signifiers of dissent. The Secret Agent’s Day Happening, March 1st, 1988, memorialized here with a flyer showing a jolly cartoon Batman figure, saw 30 people dressed as spies pretending to communicate through radios and requesting IDs, even from the police!

Despite the impressive amount of evidence on show, the exhibit fails to evaluate the impact these performances had in relation to non-artistic events such as the shipyard worker strikes in Gdańsk, and suffers from trying to cram in the entire Soviet bloc region into one room. Communist Romania, the most oppressive regime of the lot, had no alternative theatre spaces or powerful ideological institutions within which to hide, such as the Catholic Church in Poland. The exhibition focuses heavily on theatre and music that emerged during Perestroika in 1986 and Glasnost of 1987 under Gorbachev, when new political programs of more liberal economic and social policies were introduced, rather than material from the periods under martial law. Hence it is difficult to see how effective these performances were in radicalizing or even just reaching out to ordinary people, other than acting as a lubricant for change rather than causing it. Similarly, much of the ephemera on display here was not seen outside a small circle of artistic types and many items are being made public for the first time, such as a poster for the completely banned Dżuma (The Contemporary Theatre, Poland 1983), a play based on Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year and Albert Camus's 1947 novel La Peste, which presented communism and martial law as a deadly disease. However, the inclusion of photographs of huge music festivals such as Jarocin Fest in Poland (located in a rural area where police had less man power and running annually from 1981) and the documentation of the compulsive production of contraband material gives one the sense that the preconditions of a revolution were in motion. Even if these performances did not create change, they are symptomatic of a populace that desired it at an increasing rate.

In the end, the fall of Communism was not a violent one, except in Romania. Rather, it marked the end of violence that began as soon as the Soviet regime took over each country. The incessant agitation caused by seemingly unstoppable cultural programs of dissent did play a part in its overthrow. Only time will tell whether punk in the West will be remembered for helping to change our own oppressed societies. Whether its actual, as opposed to its self-imagined, purpose will become clear with time is another question. I left the gallery feeling that Western punks could learn a lot from the strategies presented here, ideas that have since been left in the hands of record collectors and punk historians when they could more broadly revitalize a music community that is either stuck in its ways without any relevance to real conditions of production and oppression or has been caught unawares that it has been smoothly co-opted by neoliberal cultural strateies. Do yourself a favor, go to this exhibit, and as Brygada Kryzys would say, “Obudź Się!”***

* “Ask a Cop” from Dezerter’s first 7” 4-song single “Ku przyszłości” (Tonpress, 1983). Tonpress was a state label through which most vinyl was produced, and this was their first aggressive punk release clocking in at 50,000 copies sold in a single press. Who knows how Dezerter managed to get the songs past the censors, with the board actually selecting the songs to be recorded that they thought were lyrically acceptable and only realizing the anti-Commie sentiment a year later. The rest of the pressing was subsequently destroyed, which may have been up to thousands of copies. The fact that there was enough demand in Poland alone for 50,000 copies of such a punk single in a country of 36 million is impressive.

** As a side note, a good example of this is Poland’s "Fala" compilation LP from 1985 on Polton Records (LPP-014), set up by Polish exiles in the West, which includes all of the previously stated genres, bar metal and jazz, and contains some of the most brutal punk acts such as Siekiera. Incidentally, Fala means wave which is telling because many people did not distinguish between punk and new wave as the social ties were so strong, calling the two genres collectively "punkwave."

*** "Wake Up!" from Brygada Kryzys “s/t” LP (Tonpress, 1982).

More from Ola Herbich here.