Central Europe Review: politics,

society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 2
17 January 2000

Július Koller, U.F.O.-nauts, 1970
Július Koller,
U.F.O.-nauts, 1970
A R T :
action word movement space
Czech experimental art of the 1960s
Vít Havránek

[Click on photos to see full image!]

The conception of the exhibition and the catalogue "akce slovo pohyb, prostor" ("action word movement space," on at the City Gallery in Prague until 26 March 2000) constitutes a proposal to consider how today, at the end of 1999 and the beginning of 2000, one can understand the reverse side of Czech and Slovak art of the 1960s. When in 1966, Josef Hiršal - together with Bohumila Grögerová - prepared the publication slovo, písmo, akce, hlas (word, letter, action, voice), presenting the parallel trends of the 1960s in the rest of Europe in a condensed form, he made use of the term "experimental art" in order to set parameters. Hiršal and Grögerová included new types of artificial poetry, permutational and programmed art and happenings under the flag of experimental art, as their selection of manifestos, essays and artistic programs presented it.

I believe that this publication constituted, in the Czech milieu, an important new interpretation of meanings and values, a new objectivization of theoretical criteria, which of course elicited little response in the field of art. Over the course of the 1960s, marked not only by political struggles but also by true theoretical polemics, two dominant trends took shape in art: Tachism, drawing on the strong domestic tradition of Surrealism (for which Czech Informel has become the established term); and Constructivism, in the Czech context, struggling against tradition and for recognition and a foundation for itself. The two spheres had strong personalities as their theoretical spokesmen; these personalities determined the basic parameters of the art of the 1960s in the Czech milieu and also delimited the later framework of interpretation in the 1970s and 1980s (the exhibitions of Czech Informel, the Poetry of Rationality, Czech Imaginative Art and so on).

Radek Kratina, White Relief, 1968
Radek Kratina, White Relief, 1968
Not even Jindřich Chalupecký [renowned Czech art theoretician, ed] was able to undermine this polarized model. Chalupecký, although he acted as a critical and enthusiastic defender of the territory "on the borders of art," could be in harmony with diametrically opposite artistic strategies (happenings, Pop Art, New Figuration, Land Art), because of his complex character. Thus he was not able to create a sharply defined counterweight to the two leading trends of his era. During the subsequent 20 years of Normalization, not only was this promising development of personal and group projects halted within the artistic community, but intellectual debate was also smothered. As a result, the natural change in perspective on the 1960s that occurred in the rest of the world did not take place in the Czech context. When one returns today to a view of the "other" - that is, experimental art of the 1960s - one harks back to an interrupted reflection.

As is clear from the title of the exhibition, I have chosen the above-mentioned publication by Josef Hiršal and Bohumila Grögerová as one of the points of departure. Another equally important factor influencing the current perspective on the 1960s is contemporary sensibility, to a certain extent determined by changes in the realms of technology and mass communication and the continuing social revolution.

Václav Jíra with drawing machine, early 1960s
Václav Jíra with drawing machine, early 1960s
In the 1990s, the mediated character of all human experience has become a manifestly relevant theme. Electric energy, photography, film, television, the telephone, mobile communication, electronic environments - these are the extensions of our senses and at the same time the vacuum pumps of our consciousness and unconscious. They are practically linked directly to our senses and they create spaces into which we can enter through our senses without posing any questions, whether or not we want to, whether or not we are even conscious of it. They activate a new sensibility in us.

Marshall McLuhan pioneered the theory of the media as an instrument of human experience. His work Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, [1] published in 1964, introduced to the world the study of the role and influence of the media on human society. Only now can one understand the revolutionary applicability of his perspective, in which every technology gradually created for man a totally new environment, and environments were not passive packaging but active processes. The oft-cited slogan "the medium is the message" elegantly and briefly asserts that: "The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance." (p 18, English edition).

Typical of the 1990s is an increasing tendency towards "synaesthesia." It is one of the strongest qualities of contemporary sensibility, introduced by the accumulation and linking up of technology. The most attractive impulse is that which has an impact on various senses simultaneously (sound, touch, sight, motion). In contrast to a more visual-literary culture (strictly divided and fragmented according to specializations), contemporary reality and contemporary art involve the participant in a much more intensive fashion through the medium of their synaesthetic impact - speculative, auditory, visual, kinetic. The contemporary world prefers art that is spatio-temporal, synaesthetic, dematerialized: synaesthetic art of a non-object character. This kind of art also demands a new viewer, a perceiver whose birth was described by the critic Jiří Padrta in a review of an exhibition of kinetic art. Padrta described this perceiver as a type, "highly active, open, not only in terms of sight, but also in terms of multiple-sense perception, able to register and emotionally grasp very diverse sensations at the same time." [2]

(Ľudovít Kupkovič, Viera Mecková, Alex Mlynárčik), Heliopolis, project for
an Olympic City in the High Tatras, 1968-1974
VAL (Ľudovít Kupkovič, Viera Mecková, Alex Mlynárčik), Heliopolis, project for an Olympic City in the High Tatras, 1968-1974
Lucio Fontana [an Italian artist famous for slitting open his canvases, ed], considered one of the spiritual fathers of the "other" approach of the 1960s, gave precise expression to, and thus predetermined, the direction of the new art of the 1960s in his "White Manifesto" of 1946. This art was struggling for a dynamic and "consisted in a unity of time and space." "We want to go beyond painting, sculpture, poetry, music," wrote Fontana. "We need an art that would be in greater harmony with the needs of the new spirit... The motionless pictures of yesterday no longer satisfy the longings of the new man, formed by the necessity of action (emphasis added, VH) and co-habitation with machinery, demanding a constant dynamic. The aesthetics of organic motion replace the aesthetic lassitude of rigid forms. In the name of this change, which has occurred in the character of man, and in the name of the spiritual and internal changes in all human relations and activities, we abandon the use of the familiar art forms and begin the development of the new art, consisting in the unity of time and space."

The manner of interpreting the 1960s proposed by the exhibition "action word movement space" is oriented towards the search for new criteria, deriving from the temporal structure of an artwork as a process, in contrast with the form-content polarity of Art Informel and Constructivism. In the great majority of "other" work, the process is more important than the actual artistic realization (the object).[3] The viewer is no longer confronted with a finished object but takes part in the artistic event. In those instances in which the new rules urge him to do so (happenings, interactive installations, varia-mobiles), the viewer directly co-creates the work; he participates physically and mentally and his freedom of interpretation of the event also increases.


Milan Grygar, Acoustic Drawing, 1986
Milan Grygar, Acoustic Drawing, 1986
The artist not only wants to create works but first and foremost to live. He or she decides to give his or her own life to art, to formulate a new living contract. The new contract has other rules: poetry, absurdity, fantasy, a conceptual quality. Two possible paths become apparent. The first is the more spontaneous, playful and cruel demonstration taking place in the street. It demands a high degree of personal engagement. The action scenario of Milan Knížák's One-man Demonstration links a robust, lively corporeality with an action idea - live in a different way - and right away one is given an example of how to do so. [On 16 December 1964, Knížák changed his clothes in 17th of November Street in Prague. He also drew on a sheet of paper, read aloud from a book, burned the pages of the book and swept up the ashes. He addressed pedestrians with a sign, asking them to support his efforts by crowing like a rooster, ed.] The viewer can have the role of the neutral observer, the co-creator or the unconscious target of action-poetical manipulation. Group actions lead to a renaissance of ritual and games, as in the works of Eugen Brikcius, for example. [Time was a subject of a number of his happenings. For example, Happening No 7 (1967) started with a group of participants who were supposed to watch the hands of a clock in Prague's Jungmann Square; they could compare the "normalized time" on the public clock with individual time, as registered on the watches of the participants. In an early action performed in the Špála Gallery in Prague, Brikcius had participants sit down and listen to the slow ticking of a metronome interrupting the silence, ed.]

The second path of action art suppresses physical engagement and, instead, takes place in the space of ideas. It enriches the rules of thought according to which one guides oneself in life or by which one is guided. Life as a conceptual project (for example, the works of Július Koller). The instrument of the action is the text; the result of the action is an awareness leading to the undermining of the rules in effect in everyday life.

word - order - chance

Experimental poetry inspired
Zdeněk Pešánek, Advertising Kinetic Eye-catcher, 1956
Zdeněk Pešánek, Advertising Kinetic Eye-catcher, 1956
by linguistics examined language as a system of signs in which content was adjoined to the sign mechanically. The system of signs has its inorganic rules that are in themselves an interesting field of study. Thus language is organized just as other sign systems are and is, like them, subordinate to rules or "permutations." In "The First Manifesto of Permutation Art," Abraham Moles defined permutation as the "combinatorics of simple elements with a limited diversity, which opens up perception of an immeasurable field of possibilities." In Moles's view, "permutation stands in the very center of artistic activity; it means diversity in uniformity."[4] New music, systematic and geometrical painting and sculpture, experimental literature, poetry and abstract film are all communication systems in which it is possible to define "simple elements with a limited diversity." Permutation is a horizontally expanding level among artistic disciplines thus far developing in isolation. The disciplines of statistics, eurhythmics and mathematics inspired and revived the traditional artistic systems.

The reductive approach to art as a set of signs sharpened the organization inside the system into two polarities. The design composition method could oscillate between the order of the system (as in the works of Jan Kubíček) and chance (Zdeněk Sýkora's works, for example).


Hugo Demartini, Spatial Demonstrations, 1968-69
Hugo Demartini, Spatial Demonstrations, 1968-69
Kineticism tells the story of the change of the visual form of the world that technology and science have brought about. Because of the impact of photography, film, the microscope, the telescope and other instruments, the world has offered itself to us in thus far unknown forms and appearances. The accompanying sign of the new face of reality is dynamism: that is, the instability of forms and the increasing degree of thus far unknown "visual genres."

Detail, the structure of detail, moving detail, zoom in motion, motion without "motive," light dissonance, the breakdown of the world, the fluidly changing form (Nicolas Schöffer's anamorphosis, for example).

Kinetic art combines the integration of real movement and electric light into the art object. This results in several important structural changes. The kinetic object is not de facto an object but a mechanism creating a kinetic performance. The kinetic performance acquires a temporal dimension (scenario) and becomes a composed event in time. On the level of the scenario-program, the kinetic work enters into the above-mentioned sphere of "permutation."

Kineticism refreshes human sensibility. It uses technology; its pedigree is derived from Constructivism, and nonetheless - paradoxically - it turns the interest of the individual to the dynamic and mechanical aspects of the natural and universal settings and actions.

in space

Space became a crossroads of the expanding media:
Stanislav Švec, Town-House-House-Town, model, 1965
Stanislav Švec, Town-House-House-Town, model, 1965
paintings (such as those of Yves Klein), photographs and sculpture merging with architecture; kineticism, action, environment, system art. [On 28 April 1958, Yves Klein invited a number of people to the opening of his exhibition in the Iris Clert Gallery in Paris; the visitors saw only a bare gallery space, freshly painted white, totally empty, "filled" only by them and the artist, ed.]

From today's perspective, the 1960s were a time that introduced a wide range of new methods, from which the hybrid "synaesthetic" space of the 1990s emerged 30 years later.

For "other" tendencies, a hybrid of approaches and techniques is characteristic, as well as a new interdisciplinary character (two or more traditional fields). The conflict between the revolutionary intentions of movements such as Fluxus and the Zero group - kinetic art and the environment on the one hand, and the museum manner of presentation of the authentic remains, in some cases photographs of actions in real time, on the other - recalls one of the essential qualities of the "other" approaches and their specific nature in contrast with the rest of the art world. The meaning of these experiments for our era consists in the involvement of the viewer, in his or her participation in the action taking place in the real time of the performing work. If one exhibits a fossilized object documenting a real action, one violates the meaning of the creative activity. The object used, the role of which had been secondary, indeed interchangeable, comes into the center of attention; it replaces the icon-art object with all its attributes.

For an interpretation
Miroslav Masák,
Otakar Binar and others, Project for the Rest Spas in Teplice, model, 1967
Miroslav Masák, Otakar Binar and others, Project for the Rest Spas in Teplice, model, 1967
of works of a non-icon character, one must look for sources in authentic descriptions and photographs enlivened by our imagination, rather than in material relics. Often these no longer exist physically - in contrast with traditional artistic objects. They come back to life in the co-ordinates of thought and imagination, in a different time, in a different milieu, in a different social situation. For this very reason it is inspiring and entertaining to reconstruct them; for this very reason they activate in us unfamiliar patterns of living and enable us to see and experience the world from different perspectives.

Vít Havránek

Translated by Kathleen Hayes

The above is an abridged version of a text that appeared as the introduction to the catalogue for the exhibition "akce slovo pohyb prostor" ("action word movement space"), curated by Vít Havránek, which runs at the City Gallery in Prague until 26 March 2000.


1. Marshall McLuhan, Jak rozumět mediím [Czech translation of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, published in 1964 in New York, Toronto and London], Prague, 1991.
2. Jiří Padrta, "Světlo a pohyb" (Light and Motion, review of an exhibition), Výtvarné umění XVI, 1966, nos 6-7, p 327.
3. Abraham A Moles, "The First Manifesto of Permutation Art," in: slovo, písmo, akce, hlas (word, letter, action, voice), prepared by Josef Hiršal and Bohumila Grögerová, Prague, 1967, p 54.
4. Josef Kroutvor, "Zanikání i pokračování" (Dying Away and Continuing), Výtvarná práce XVIII, 1970, no 3, p 1.


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