Hues of Independence

23Jun - by admin - 0 - In Material

This article, written by Daniel Muzyczuk, explores the meaning of the underground and its role in Democratic opposition in  the Eastern Bloc, focusing particularly on Czech, Polish, Hungarian and East-German examples.

Translated by Marcin Wawrzyńczak. Previously published in David Crowley, Daniel Muzyczuk eds. Notes From the Underground (Łódź: Muzeum Sztuki, 2016).

Hues of Independence

1. Still from ‘Plastic People of the Universe’, directed by C.sar de Ferrari, 1970. Courtesy of Česka Televize

In his insightful study about the intersecting paths of political dissidents and underground musicians in 1970s and 1980s Czechoslovakia, Jonathan Bolton notes that researchers of such relationships necessarily rely on two kinds of sources of a completely different nature:

As with samizdat, where we can never really track down the exact circulation of particular typed texts, we must read the underground legends without, ultimately, having a clear sense of their spread or reception; nevertheless, we must also remember that imaginary circulations were just as important as real ones. The legends about Bondy, Jirous, and the Plastic People were both descriptive of an underground environment and constitutive of a cultural identity. [1]

So on the one hand we have the hard facts relayed by historical sources of established credibility, while on the other hand we keep encountering mythologised stories about heroic deeds, their reach unknown. The notion of universality gains a wholly new meaning here. These differing narratives were often aimed at specific audiences: sometimes with the purpose of peer communication within alternative culture; occasionally, they were directed at the larger set of dissidents or counter-culture activists or even at the society at large or the state apparatus, particularly the security  services of the respective countries. The transition to democracy has facilitated wide access to sources produced in different circulations and different contexts, as a result of which identifying the addressees of the different messages is becoming difficult, and mapping their striking distance – virtually impossible.

In this essay I will discuss the discourses and practices of special communities that combined musical and visual work, or actually saw them as one. This intermedia production was often informed by the perception of independence as the need to create a parallel culture, one that would be a world in itself and unto itself, and therefore one that has its own full cultural life. Contrary to what it might seem, this is a story about the clever exploitation of possibilities offered by states rather than a narrative of struggle, persecution and oppression. In his essay about the late-Soviet rave generation, Alexei Yurchak makes an interesting diagnosis according to which independence – at least in perestroika-era Soviet Union – meant evading the state apparatus. He wrote:

I argue … that the logic of nonofficial discourses and practices in late socialism was based most of all on attempts to have a meaningful life in spite of the state’s oppression. Hence, the nonofficial (or ‘countercultural’) practices involved not so much countering, resisting, or opposing state power as simply avoiding it and carving out symbolically meaningful spaces and identities away from it. [2]

Of course, each of the countries in the Soviet Bloc had its own institutions of compulsion and control. It is also worth noting that we are talking about a very long period, from the late 1960s to the early 1990s, when liberalisation processes occurred with various degrees of intensity. By looking at a broad range of relationships between the state and the ‘independents’, we will be able to grasp the whole complexity of the issue as well as better understand what happens to countercultural terms when they are transplanted from their natural habitat of Western democracy to real socialism.

 

Assaulting Culture

2. Still from ‘Plastic People of the Universe’, directed by C.sar de Ferrari, 1970. Courtesy of Česka Televize

The history of The Plastic People of the Universe, their idea of the underground and their subsequent involvement in the democratic opposition movement is well known. And yet it continues to shine uniquely as the most radical moment of Eastern European counterculture. Analyses of the writings of the group’s chief ideologist and manager, Ivan Martin ‘Magor’ Jirous, have revealed new insights reflecting how culturally complex a phenomenon The Plastic People were. Asked about the meaning of the term ‘underground’ in an interview included in Césare de Ferrari’s 1970 film entitled Plastic People of the Universe, Jirous cites The Fugs and Ed Sanders and speaks of a ‘total assault on culture’ (figure 1). [3] Already in 1965 the same phrase appears, as ‘atentát na kulturu’, in a song by the band Aktual, run by Milan Knížák, and this may have been in that context that Jirous had first heard it. [4]

So the underground was for Jirous a cultural formation, its defining characteristic being confrontation with the establishment. It is worth noting that it doesn’t matter here whether ‘the establishment’ refers to Western society or to the communist party and the cultural elites. Another source that Jirous cited in his early texts was Marcel Duchamp and his famous dictum that the ‘great artist of tomorrow will go underground’. This pays witness to a need to escape from the commercialisation of art and withdraw to an area of anonymity that would protect one from the invisible hand of the market. But the two quotations (from Sanders and Duchamp) evidence also Jirous’s ambitions to follow the example set by Andy Warhol in the Velvet Underground and create a cultural structure as rich as The Factory (figure 2).

In the interview cited above, Jirous – the artistic director of The Plastic People of the Universe – says that the band is not just the music but also the work of artists, meaning Jan Ságl and Zorka Ságlová – authors of the costumes, stage designs and, in the case of the latter, land-art projects that the members of The Plastic People helped create. A few years later, in reaction to growing pressure on the band and its milieu, Jirous was to formulate in his famous manifesto, A Report on the Third Czech Musical Revival, the theory of a second culture which was doubtless a development and concretisation of the notion of the underground as a cultural formation based on subculture.

The attack on The Plastic People of the Universe and other bands began in 1974 with the cancelling of concerts. But the group was still neither official nor unofficial. On 30 March 1974, the so called ‘České Budějovice massacre’ took place, where Czechoslovak riot police broke up a Plastic People show and clubbed the fans before herding them into a train and sending them back to Prague. In the following years tension grew, culminating in the arrest and subsequent prosecution of four leading members of the scene on 17 March 1976, a month after the Second Festival of the Second Culture in Bojanovice. The detainees included Ivan Jirous – manager and ideologist of The Plastic People of the Universe, Vratislav Brabenec – saxophone player and lyricist, Pavel Zajíček of the band DG307, and the folk singer Svatopluk Karásek. In the same year, Czechoslovak TV broadcasts a documentary titled, aptly, Atentát na kulturu (referring thus to both The Fugs and Aktual), which presents the arrested men as deviants and drug addicts who participate in orgies and use dead rats for drumsticks (sic!) (figure 3). The Report on the Third Czech Musical Revival is written during this time, becoming, in the light of the subsequent events, a crucial manifesto. In it, Jirous again refers to Sanders, but lends a new meaning to the words ascribed to him: ‘[The underground] is a movement that operates primarily with artistic means, even though its representatives are conscious of the fact that is not and should not be the end-all of an artist’s effort’. [5] Then he explains what kind of culture the underground is supposed to serve:

The aim of the underground here in Bohemia is the creation of a second culture: a culture that will not be dependent on official channels of communication, social recognition, and the hierarchy of values laid down by the establishment; a culture which cannot have the destruction of the establishment as its aim because in doing so, it would drive itself into the establishment’s embrace; a culture which helps those who wish to join it to rid themselves of the scepticism which says that nothing can be done and shows them that much can be done when those who make the culture desire little for themselves and much for others. [6]

It is worth comparing Jirous’s declarations with another source – a brief text, ‘A Silent Hungarian Underground’, published in 1973 by Béla Hap, founder of the Hungarian samizdat periodical, Szétfolyóirat. Hap described the underground as an artistic movement which neither supports nor attacks the establishment, but remains outside it. Any attack on the establishment would acknowledge its existence . . . It wants to be a form of unidentifiable, unanalysable, ungraspable, and incorruptible outsider art. PRIVATE ART. [7]

3. Still from ‘Atent.t na kulturu’ (Assault on Culture), directed by Ladislav Chocholoušek, 1977. Courtesy of Česka televize

This definition was formulated in a milieu centred on a rather specific periodical which made evading official restrictions on production and distribution both its working method and a content management principle. Thus a term originating in the West became here not a distant and utopian idea, as in Jirous’s text, but rather a daily praxis of cultural production. This is confirmed in Hap‘s text: ‘What are the information channels of the underground? Pencil, pen, brush, nail, typewriter, photo camera, tape recorder, private home, forest, clearing, tree hollow, air, whatever, mouth, ears, telepathy etc. . . . It creates film out of film waste, out of what the superficial world discards’. [8]

But this pragmatic definition didn’t protect its author from constant surveillance and reprisals. Let us return however to Jirous and The Plastic People of the Universe. It is clear that the oppression encountered by alternative culture in Czechoslovakia made it possible to reformulate the organisation’s goals and the ways of achieving them. But the very form of government still seems unimportant for the notion of the underground. The establishments are different, but the forms of relationships with them are similar. At this point we arrive at the crucial – and heavily mythologised – moment of the publication of Charter 77 –  an emanation of the underground’s alliance with the dissident movement.

Martin Machovec notes that Jirous, Hlavsa or Brabenec had no political agenda, and confrontational slogans were formulated to create space for ‘doing your own thing’ rather than to achieve any kind of political change. He also believes that state oppression played a role in the crystallisation of the underground’s positions and operating methods, writing that ‘they were compelled to become politically radicalised because of the totalitarian regime’s intolerance and brutal oppression. However, their radicalism did not lead to a kind of a “world revolution” but rather to the activities of the defenders of human rights in Charter 77’. [9]

In its clash with the regime, the underground found allies in political dissidents and thus the war for culture and democratic structures in Czechoslovakia became a binary conflict: the state against Charter 77. In a 1995 interview, Egon Bondy spoke about the meaning of the term ‘underground’:

It was rather the shared lot of those who’d found themselves representing positions even more radical than the ordinary dissident. We definitely wanted to distinguish ourselves from the so called ‘grey zone”’, from people, often with good jobs, who would consider themselves dissidents because they cursed the regime at home. The Czech ‘underground’ brought together people from all kinds of backgrounds and there was never any friction between them. Among my closest friends were Protestants and Catholics, deeply religious people, who still didn’t reject me, an avowed Marxist. [10]

Also Bondy speaks in a way which suggests that ‘the underground’ ultimately became a descriptive term, losing, as a result of the conflict, its projective, future-oriented character. In fact, at first, members of the underground had perceived dissidents as part of the establishment. This perspective can be sensed in Charter 77 itself, when it is pointed out that the signatories enjoyed better protection from oppression than figures from the underground. Jirous’s criticism of intellectuals from Havel’s milieu had been internalised, and the struggle for human rights became the groundwork of the alliance. The history of The Plastic People and Charter 77 represents actually the only example of a lasting alliance between the two groups, compelled by the state. Let us notice that the very term ‘velvet revolution’ probably originated from the Velvet Underground, a key inspiration for The Plastic People. [11]

At this point it is doubtless worth noting a completely different reaction to the notion of the underground, presented by Mikoláš Chadima, member of bands such as Kilhets, Extempore and MCH Band, in the introduction to his book, Alternativa. Od rekvalifikací k «Nové» vlně se starým obsahem. Chadima reconstructs the scene, noting a possible tripartition: for him, the establishment and the underground are two circles, beyond which there is also the alternative. Miroslav Vaněk saw the matter in similar terms, writing that, ‘this branch of rock music constitutes an alternative to official pop and big beat (rock and roll), but is also an alternative to the other end, the so called Underground’. [12]

4. Extempore Band, IX Pražske jazzove dny (Prague Jazz Days), 1979, photograph Jiři Kučera. Courtesy of Mikolaš Chadima

In Vaněk’s statement, the political aspect of the distinction is lost. For the alternative, as Chadima described it – unlike the underground after 1976 – was still willing to take avail of all the opportunities offered by the state. This transition is also bound up with a generational change which means that the battles fought by the older heroes did not matter to younger musicians. An idealistic set of connotations was replaced by pragmatism. This is a similar action to the abovementioned vision of alternative culture as a practice characterised most of all by ingenuity in evading the regime. One example of a subject operating in this fashion was the Jazzová Sekce (Jazz Section) of the Union of Czechoslovak Musicians, founded on 31 November 1971, which organised concerts, festivals and exhibitions. Over 15 years, it published 28 bulletins and a series of monographic publications under the  Jazz Petit imprint. They were self-published but of high quality (with subjects such as punk, land art, dada or graphic scores). It also organised the Pražské jazzové dny (Prague Jazz Days), an event that took place eleven times between 1974 and 1982. Despite its name, the festival was not only open to avant-garde rock and punk, but also to non-musical projects such as experimental film screenings or theatre shows (figure 4).[13]

The Jazz Section’s key venue was the amateur club U Zábranských, where alternative rock bands such as Kilhets or Extempore performed. [14] Due to the expansive nature of its activities, the Jazz Section found itself at odds with its patron organisation; this led to radicalisation and further expansion. In 1979, the Section joined the International Jazz Federation (member of the UNESCO International Music Council), and later joined the European Association for Musical Research and the European Nuclear Disarmament (END) movement. We can say that – like with The Plastic People of the Universe – the organisation’s radicalisation and eventual dissolution occurred despite the fact that it originally lacked any outright political goals. At the same time, the Section was increasingly involved in helping dissidents publish materials and organise concerts. At first, the regime responded by piling up bureaucratic requirements. Despite these difficulties, the Section continued operating and its membership grew. In 1984, the Section was officially dissolved, whereupon it moved underground where it continued to function for two more years in an increasingly oppressive atmosphere until, in September 1986, its five leaders were arrested and put on trial for ‘operating an unauthorised enterprise’, ‘engaging in illegal lucrative activities’, and ‘distributing illegal publications’. [15] Two of the members went to prison for over a year.

 

Third Circulation

Exploring the Czechoslovak scene, we can clearly see key concepts and lines of division present in many countries of the bloc, but nowhere else did they achieve such density nor lead to such heated debates and a resulting crystallisation of positions. In Poland in the 1980s a brief moment of alliance between anti-communist activists and the underground can be noted, as mentioned by Piotr Rypson: ‘I have a photo where we are walking with Tomek [Lipiński] and two other friends in a Solidarity demonstration – happy, delighted, smiling. Tomek had just changed his image – he’d stopped spiking up his hair, stopped wearing metal jewellery, put on a V-neck sweater. I remember us concluding that it doesn’t make sense to antagonise the public visually at a time when society is changing – and changing the reality at hand.’ [16]

In 1981, during the short-lived ‘Solidarity carnival’, a period of liberalisation that was ended abruptly by the introduction of martial law, Brygada Kryzys, a band run at the time by Lipiński and Robert Brylewski, was invited to perform at the Solidarity-organised ‘Przegląd Piosenki Prawdziwej’ (Festival of True Song) at the Olivia venue in Gdańsk. This moment was very brief however, and Lipiński’s words explain why: ‘In 1980, the situation changed. We, as anarchists, naturally saw the regime in a similar way as Solidarity did. From the beginning of 1981, however, we began viewing Solidarity as a new establishment, one which spelled no positive prospects. On the other hand, Solidarity in itself, as an anarchistic movement, was acceptable for us . . . As long as Solidarity was anarchistic, we were on the same side’. [17]

Punks become temporary fellow travellers on a trip that lasted only until Solidarity had crystallised as a formation with specific views about its intended position in society. Also the political police perceived members of the two groups differently. Solidarity and political dissidents enjoyed a kind of esteem while youth counterculture movements were disparaged as the expression of demoralisation. Paweł ‘Konjo’ Konnak notes that the security police, the SB, clearly saw a difference between the second and third circulations. He remembers the moment when the archives of confiscated samizdat were opened: ‘It’s interesting what happened to the confiscated Totart stage props and publications. A year later, following the elections of June 1989 and pursuant to a deal negotiated by Solidarity with the communists, opposition activists whose underground production had been confiscated were able to collect it back from the SB storerooms. When we too came to claim our meagre junk, the Solidarity gentlemen kindly told us that we had never been any kind of underground and showed us the door. And the Publishing and Advertising Section of the Pill of Progression Metaphysical-Entertainment Conglomerate has the right to nothing’. [18] Paradoxically, this policy meant that materials of lesser subversive potential were irrevocably destroyed while the political samizdat survived.

Another strategy of scene division was followed in East Germany. The authorities in the German Democratic Republic were always wary of the musical scene. Erich Honecker, for example, stated in the 1960s: ‘it was overlooked that the enemy exploits this type of music to drive young people to excesses through the use of exaggerated beat rhythms. The pernicious influences of such music upon the thoughts and actions of young people is being grossly underestimated’. [19]

In 1976, Wolf Biermann went to perform in Cologne in West Germany; upon his return, he was refused re-entry to the DDR and stripped of his citizenship. The avowed Marxist and socialist bard was a persona non grata in East Germany, because his poetry was too realistic and reflected the absurdities of everyday life all too well. Thus ended a long process of growing separation between the nonconformist songwriter and the state. It was a significant moment also because the future landmarks of East German punk were already looming on the horizon. Bert Papenfuß-Gorek, a poet associated with the Prenzlauer Berg scene and the bands Rosa Extra and Ornament & Verbrechen, reminisced: ‘Biermann’s era was completely finished. He was still hanging around, and some friends even had his albums and were still listening to that rubbish, but I would have nothing to do with that anymore. I was on the side of the MC5 and Ton Steine Scherben’. [20]

Papenfuß-Gorek not only suggests the alleged worthlessness of Biermann’s music but also a lack of interest in its themes. There was no place here for a dissident position – the expression of an open contestation of political authority. Rather, this was an attitude that defies everything that the establishment embodies, and it didn’t matter whether it was a Western or Eastern establishment. Punk in East Berlin declared war on the system in the broadest sense. In a documentary film about Sascha Anderson, Papenfuß-Gorek says: ‘We were against the GDR party dictatorship, not explicitly against the idea of socialism or communism … there were many who described themselves as real Marxists. There was everyone from anarchists to people who saw the Western welfare state as an ideal. That was basically the spectrum’. [21]

5. Licence given to AG Geige in ‘Recognition of Artistic Quality’, 1987. Archive of Frank Bretschneider

But the regime saw no difference and cracked down on youth subcultures as vehemently as it fought the political opposition. Following a period of direct reprisals against the punk movement, which were supposed to eradicate it by 1983, in the second half of the 1980s the East German authorities changed strategy. Instead of compulsory military service, police harassment, detention or, in some cases, imprisonment, the state sought to extend control over counterculture groups. The policy of granting licences for public performances was relaxed (figure 5). This development is described by Susanne Binas, member of the band Expander des Fortschritts:

It was incomparably easier to obtain a license after the mid-1980s than in earlier years. In order to perform in front of an audience, each band had to present its repertoire to a cultural commission of the district government in a special audition. In earlier years, these posts were largely occupied by political bureaucrats with little or no musical background. In contrast to that, however, our band, auditioned in front of a commission composed of jazz musicians, who were amenable to, and familiar with the broad spectrum of our musical innovations like threechord textures, slap bass, cut ups and samples, tapes, or even quotations by Heiner Müller that were peculiar to our style of music. They deflected demands for high levels of musical proficiency and expertise typical of earlier periods by upholding the principles of artistic freedom and pointing out the existence of an interested audience. [22]

6. Jan Kummer and Frank Bretschneider during a recording session of AG Geige for radio, Karl-Marx-Stadt, 1987. Photography Lutz Schramm. Archive of Frank Bretschneider

But that isn’t all. As in Poland earlier, where the term ‘ Muzyka Młodej Generacji’ (music of the new generation) was floated in 1978, the phrase ‘Anderen bands’ (other bands) then entered official discourse in East Germany. The idea was to avoid Western vocabulary (the name ‘punk’ remains taboo for official media). Some bands changed their names to sound less controversial. Repackaged in this way, new wave music could be presented to a mass-media audience. In 1986, the East German youth radio station DT64 started broadcasting ‘Parocktikum’, a weekly show that played bands such as Hard Pop, Cadavre Exquis or AG. Geige (figure 6). The scene was divided into two camps: the punk underground, interested in no compromises with the state, or simply with the East German social order, and the alternative. [23] The choice of the term ‘other bands’ seems very fitting in this case. One can easily find analogies with the Czechoslovak discussions and the division between the underground and the alternative.

 

Places and Structures

7. Zuzu-Vető, ‘New Flags, New Tendencies, Communism now’, Fiatal Műveszek Klubja, Budapest, 1983. Courtesy of Janos Vető

The Czechoslovak case of cooperation between the Jazz Section and the U Zábranských club is worth comparing with other institutions with similar profiles (i.e., state-funded spaces that weren’t hostile to semi-official activities). Such spaces included the Fiatal Művészek Klubja (Young Artists Club) in Budapest, the Riviera-Remont club and Post in Warsaw, and the Leningrad Rock Club. Each exploited the resources offered by the state in a different way that, combined with the socio-political context, produced specific subcultures. In Hungary, the situation was seemingly clear: according to a policy implemented by prominent politician György Aczél in the 1960s, each manifestation of cultural life was labelled as belonging to one of three categories known as the ‘three Ts’ (Tiltott = banned; Tűrt = tolerated; Támogatott = supported).

However, a look at the 1980s new-wave scene confirms that the division applied to the whole culture where, as in Yurchak’s characterisation, contacts with the state were avoided but the resources and infrastructure provided by it were exploited to the full. In her book about the Hungarian music scene in the 1980s, Anna Szemere writes about a subculture that she describes as the ‘marginal intelligentsia’, the focal point of which was Budapest’s Young Artists Club. It was a meeting place for political dissidents, musicians as well as visual artists. Established in the 1960s, the Club gained full momentum only in the last decade of socialism in Hungary thanks to its open formula which accommodated punk concerts as well as political discussions with members of the democratic opposition. Such activities triggered official reprisals, including frequent event cancellations, but that only added to the place’s popularity. New wave bands such as Balaton, Trabant, A. E. Bizottság or Vágtázó Halottkémek found perfect conditions here for developing their innovative ideas. Young Artists Club was also the best environment for them due to its exhibition programme. Artist János Vető, for example, whose works created in a duo with Lóránt Méhes (as Zuzu-Vető) were presented in several exhibitions at the Club, was also a member of Trabant (figure 7). The Young Artists Club was a place where much of his artistic activity was focused. Soon new venues with a similar profile started springing up. Szemere arrives at interesting conclusions, describing this movement towards new spaces of autonomy:

Subconsciously, musicians must have known that only by establishing physical spaces and places (primarily venues, but also radio and television stations, etc.) could they re-create affective spaces and places, which are the stuff and goal of music-based social events and rituals. The reconfiguration of the political-social space surrounding the community compelled it to seek stability in the building of physical places. This territorial approach to renewal seemed indispensable for many members of the underground if they were to retain a minimal sense of continuity with the past and regenerate a sense of collective identity. [24]

8. Commonpress 51, catalogue of the exhibition ‘Hungary Can Be Yours’, 1984/89. Courtesy of Artpool

Szemere describes the sociocultural location of this movement as ‘marginal’, a term whose semantic scope overlaps with the alternative, with the difference that marginal positions no longer seek to situate themselves ‘towards’ anything, but simply occupy those areas where the power of the establishment was weak. It is worth mentioning here one of the many examples of the practices of the Young Artists Club that reveals a successful combination of youth culture with the visual arts as well as reflecting the official attitude towards the venue’s activities. In 1984 Artpool organised at the Club an exhibition called Magyarország a tiéd lehet! (Hungary Can Be Yours!). A multimedia project, it was divided into two rooms: in a black one,  together withworks by foreign artists, one could watch also a broadcast from a white one,  that included artworks by Hungarians (figure 8, 9). [25]

9. Floorplan of the exhibition ‘Hungary Can Be Yours’, 1984/89. Courtesy of Artpool

A cassette tape was also released, number six in the Artpool Radio series of compilation tapes (a kind, effectively, of an audio magazine), presenting recordings by non-conformist artists such as Tibor Hajas or Tamás Szentjóby and bands such as A. E. Bizottság, Vágtázó Halottkémek or Európa Kiadó (figure 10). The authorities deemed the exhibition to be politically subversive and ordered that it be closed down. [26] The significance of the event itself and of the violence of censorship is highlighted by the fact that after the transformation, in December 1989, the project was reconstructed precisely in exactly the same place.

In Leningrad, in turn, the year 1981 saw the founding of three organisations that offered a glimpse of cultural freedom and anticipated perestroika: ‘The Leningrad KGB [state security police] decides to stage a pioneering social experiment and the following are established at the same time: The Experimental Fine Arts Society, the Literary Club and the Rock Club. They are fostered by the trade unions, whose mission includes supporting factory-affiliated cultural centres to confirm the “culturalisation” of the working masses’. [27]

10. Artpool r.di. 6, audio casette, 1984. Courtesy of Artpool

Each of the three – the Association of Experimental Visual Art (TEII), Club 81 (a literary organisation) and the Ленинградский рок-клуб (Leningrad Rock Club) – had a different structure. Club 81 was a recognised association of some 70 unofficial writers who organised lectures, conferences and concerts at the Dostoyevsky Museum (the famous writer’s former apartment). The Leningrad Rock Club was supposed to function much like the Association of Soviet Composers, that is, to issue concert permits and to act as a censor in the field of youth popular music. What proved far more important however was the space where the institution was housed: it became an influential venue for rehearsals, live shows or simply meetings (figure 11). It was the place where bands such as Kino, Alisa, Akvarium or Zoopark successfully launched their careers. In this context it is worth noting that liberalisation did’t produce the same effects in all areas. Timur Novikov, the leader of the New Artists group, felt ill at ease in the elitist structures of TEII and for this reason sought his own, alternative, methods of collective visual-arts practice. He remembered the Club as a place of unique atmosphere:

The New Artists collaborated with the Leningrad Rock Club. I myself was a member of the rock club, as the official designer of Kino. The New Artists designed the Kino sets and records and held exhibitions at the club. The Leningrad Rock Club was an exciting place to be at that time. Hoards of strangely dressed young people flocked to the concerts, with the police hot on their tracks. In the 1980s, long hair was out; crew cuts dyed all the colours of the rainbow were in. All the gigs were accompanied by arrests and document checks, which only added fuel to the flames. [28]

11. Timur Novikov, Sergey Kuryokhin, Joanna Stingray and members of Kino, Aquarium and Alisa in Leningrad Rock Club, 1985. Courtesy of Joanna Stingray

While most of the musicians collaborating with Novikov, such as Victor Tsoy or Sergey Kuryokhin, worked with success at the Leningrad Rock Club, Novikov himself and the painters with whom he worked decided to start their own place (figure 12). Its activities and the one-of-a-kind community that formed around it are described by Konstanty Usenko:

Timur organises the legendary Assa Gallery in an abandoned komunalka. Installations exhibited there will later appear in an eponymous film. Assa’s most famous show is one presenting the works of Andy Warhol himself, little known in the USSR at the time. Novikov, who corresponded by mail with the Pop Art master, had received from him several copies of the famous Marilyn Monroe poster and exhibited them in 1986 in a vacant communal flat in Leningrad. . . . Spaces in Papa Om’s new musical squat are also populated by painters and performers. Besides the neo-expressionists, there were also necro-realist filmmakers there, led by Evgeny “Yufa” Yufit, from the first punk crew from Kupchino. “Yufa” tries his hand there in video art making. In 1988, the Friends of Mayakovsky Club, led by Novikov and the Kino drummer, Gustav, organises at H4/B4 an exhibition commemorating the ninety-fifth anniversary of the artist’s death. News about it spread rapidly around the northern metropolis. Sergey Kuryokhin’s avant-garde orchestra, Pop-Mekhanika, gave a concert. [29]

The Leningrad Rock Club helped create a musical scene of great vitality, a scene that (like the New Artists) wasn’t interested in politics. During the period of perestroika after 1985, liberalisation opened the way for an explosion of youth culture which could be witnessed in film, music and the visual arts. It was thanks to the alliance between the disciplines that bands like Kino or Akvarium shot to real stardom and the official media had no choice but to report about their successes.

12. Timur Novikov, Joanna Stingray and members of Kino in the ASSA Gallery, 1985. Courtesy of Joanna Stingray

In Poland, the Riviera-Remont club, through the many initiatives that took place there, helped forge alliances between visual artists and musicians (from jazz-experimental and new-wave backgrounds) on an unprecedented scale. A student club financed by a branch of the Socjalistyczny Związek Studentów Polskich (Socialist Union of Polish Students) of the Warsaw University of Technology, the Riviera-Remont ran several artistic programmes in the 1970s: the Remont Gallery, managed by Henryk Gajewski; a theatre centre; a cine club called ‘Kwant’; the Remont Jazz Club and the Remont Folk Club. In 1980-1981, Andrzej Zuzak launched, with a group of friends, the Polish name (Alternative Art Agency) which was to be the first independent artistic management agency supporting young alternative rock bands and other forms of artistic activity.

13. Post, no. 2, 20 September 1980. Courtesy of Piotr Rypson

In 1974, Andrzej Mitan initiated the ‘Diaphora of Music and Poetry’, a series of meetings taking place through 1981, presenting recent innovations in music, poetry and the visual arts. The Remont Gallery, which Gajewski ran with Andrzej Jórczak and Krzysztof Wojciechowski, was geared towards conceptual reflection in the field of photography. Exhibitions were accompanied by theoretical brochures with essays by Polish authors and translations of key international texts. Its programme’s greatest highlight was a widely advertised visit of Andy Warhol (1974) which never happened: the whole thing was a happening/prank staged by Gajewski. In 1978, the latter organised a festival called I Am (International Artist Meeting) which featured two events that were to leave a lasting impact on the Warsaw new wave scene. One was the show of the leftist British punk band, The Raincoats, cited by numerous scene members as their first contact with the new music. The other was Gajewski’s meeting with Piotr Rypson, the future manager of Tilt (a new wave group), artist and curator, for whom the festival marked the beginning of a fruitful collaboration with the Remont. In 1979, Gajewski reorganised the gallery, renaming it Post Remont, and started publishing with Rypson a zine called Post, combining punk and artistic reflection (figure 13). Łukasz Ronduda describes their collective activities thus:

In their post-gallery, Gajewski and Rypson adopted the role of artists-managers, using progressive production and marketing strategies, characteristic for pop culture in developed societies, to support punk culture. They used them to fulfil a selfless artistic vision rather than, as managers in the West, to commercialise the punk movement and commodify its music, fashion and lifestyle. [30]

Let us note that in this interpretation, the Post Remont appears as a subject whose scope goes far beyond even the broadest formula of an artist-run space. It was, after all, a student gallery combining conceptual art and youth music with publishing (figure 14). At the same time, all these activities were made possible by state funding. The alliance ended abruptly with the introduction of martial law in Poland in December 1981 and Gajewski’s emigration to Amsterdam.

 

14. Kryzys playing at Post during Henryk Gajewski’s exhibition ‘Other Book for Children’, 1979

DIY?

 

In the West, the litmus test ultimately distinguishing truly independent artists from those collaborating with the establishment was traditionally the label a band was on. If it was with one of the majors, the band would face accusations of betraying its principles and selling out. But in communist-era Eastern Europe this benchmark didn’t apply. At this point, the mythology bound up with the key concepts that I wish to expand on in this essay becomes fully apparent. Did publishing a record on a state-owned label carry the same ideological meaning as publishing it on a major commercial one? I will try to answer this question, again citing several examples that will allow us to distinguish a range of hues far more varied than simple opposition-based contrast. Already in the USSR, traditionally perceived as the country most restrictive in its approach towards youth culture, we deal with a whole gamut of different policies. As will be demonstrated, the status of an officially recognised artist – one allowed to represent the country abroad and therefore also hold a passport or be able to publish – didn’t depend on artistic compromises but on the policy of the different republics.

15. Ganelin, Tarasov, Chekasin, Con Anima, LP issued by Melodia, 1976. Cover design by Eugenijus Cukermanas. Courtesy of Vladimir Tarasov

In an essay accompanying a re-edition of Sergey Kuryokhin’s record titled, tellingly, Degrees of Freedom, Alex Kan reveals the scale of the different treatment of artists in the different parts of the USSR:

There was no way Melodiya would consider publishing avant-garde record of an underground musician. The fact that a few years earlier, in 1976, the Ganelin trio managed to get their magnificent Con Anima published on Melodiya, seemed a total aberration, an exception which just proved the rule. The trio lived and worked in a more liberal semi-Western Lithuania, and with Tarasov playing full time with the Lithuanian Philharmonic, Ganelin holding position of the music director at a prominent theater, and Chekasin teaching at a music school, they seemed and were much more established and respectable than a wayward pianist from a much more conservative Leningrad. Even for the trio it took five long years before their second release could see the light of day – the authorities at Melodia in Moscow, having realised the gaffe they made with Con Anima, put up stubborn resistance and Concerto Grosso was not published until 1981 (figure 15). [31]

The history of the recording and release of Degrees of Freedom aptly reflects the working conditions of progressive musicians in Leningrad. The album, with solo piano music, was recorded late at night in the studio of the Leningrad Institute of Film, Theatre and Music by a sound engineer that Kuryokhin was friends with. Smuggled to Britain, the material was released on vinyl by Leo Feigin, owner of Leo Records (figure 16).

16. Andy Warhol holding the sleeve Sergey Kuryokhin’s LP ‘Ways of Freedom’, 1985. Courtesy of Joanna Stingray

 

There was no information on the cover about the circumstances of the original recording, but there was a disclaimer – ‘The musicians do not bear any responsibility for publishing these tapes’ – which suggested that the record was in fact a bootleg. In this context, it is worth examining another example of East-West music smuggling. Joanna Stingray came to Leningrad in 1984, During this trip she managed to meet numerous artists and scene members associated with the New Artists group, the Assa Gallery and the Leningrad Rock Club. Two years later, she published, on the Australian label Big Time, the compilation Red Wave: 4 Underground Bands From the USSR, with recordings by Akvarium, Kino, Alisa and Strange Games. At the same time, she made a documentary film featuring music videos by each of the bands and a presentation of the context in which they worked, including footage of Timur Novikov playing on the utiugon, a self-made instrument. On the cover, Stingray put the following note: ‘I have brought their music to the West, in hope of creating better understanding between people. MUSIC HAS NO BORDERS! (figure 17)’ [32] But the Soviet authorities thought otherwise and Stingray was punished for illegally exporting state property. As she recounted,

The tracks were recorded on reel-to-reel tapes that were outdated, large and unwieldy. I hid the paper with the lyrics under the lining of my boots and the tapes in a secret pocket of my jacket. I was smuggling the music out as if I were a drug courier. The safest route was from Leningrad to Finland because they didn’t search people as thoroughly in the Leningrad airport as in Moscow. (…) When I returned to the Soviet Union, I first went to the VAAP (Soviet Copyright Agency). They gave me a long lecture and a paper to sign saying that I had smuggled the recordings out without the musicians’ knowledge. I quickly agreed to sign it, gave VAAP the royalty fee and thought that the matter was settled. I returned to the States riding on a cloud and prepared for my wedding to Yury Kasparyan. But after that meeting they banned me from entering the Soviet Union for six months, with the result that I missed my own wedding. [33]

17. Red Wave’ compilation, LP, Stingray Productions, 1986. Courtesy of Joanna Stingray

Record smuggling and bootlegging are a constant feature of stories about early new-wave music publishing. In Poland, for example, Kryzys (as well as Deadlock) had their first album released by Blitzkrieg Records, a Barclay label, founded to publish Polish and Chinese punk (the latter represented by ‘The Dragons’, which was probably a fictitious band). Robert Brylewski, the leader of Kryzys, reminisced,

There was a French guy, Marc Boulet, who travelled around the world, recording avant-garde bands … He cassette tape-recorded two bands, one of which practically didn’t exist and the other had no bass player, returned home and, riding on the wave of interest in Poland at the time, sold the material to the major label. Barclay Records. which issued it with a wrapper saying, “Solidarité avec le rock polonais” [Solidarity with Polish rock]. Boulet didn’t organise anything – he simply took out the tape recorder and recorded a rehearsal at the Amplitron student club … we organised the instruments themselves, using a metal ashtray from the hallway in lieu of cymbals. … The Kryzys album was actually a random compilation, and if you happen to find a copy somewhere, you’ll see that the songs I wrote are credited to someone called Zedlecki. Who the hell is Zedlecki? [34]

Was hiding the name of the songs’ composer a deliberate act of camouflage, similar to Stingray’s disclaimer on the cover of Red Wave? It’s hard to say, but it seems unlikely, for Kryzys functioned at the time as more or less a ‘legal’ band, so it didn’t need to conceal its members’ identity. In 1982, the independent British label Fresh Records released Brygada Kryzys’s live album without any prior permission from the band and even unbeknownst to it, and only later sent an envoy on a legalisation mission (figure 18). According to Brylewski: ‘I wasn’t aware at all that someone had that tape. I only learned about the record when they brought it from Berlin. A guy came in a leather jacket, begging us to sign a backdated contract’.[35] It is worth noting that another record by the band was published in the same year by the state label Tonpress.

18. Brygada Kryzys, Live, LP, Fresh Records, 1982. Courtesy of Robert Brylewski

This means that within two years Brylewski had his music published by a major Western record company, an independent Western label and an official domestic publisher. Another special case, and not only because their albums were released by the official Soviet record company, Melodiya, were the Ganelin Trio. They were among those avant-garde jazz musicians who were allowed to perform abroad. Their first album was issued in Poland following their appearance at the Jazz Jamboree festival in Warsaw in 1976, and here again the artists didn’t have much say about the publication (the song titles, for example, were invented by the Polish publisher). Ganelin, Chekasin and Tarasov started performing behind the Iron Curtain, and their concerts featured more and more multimedia elements. They were also aware of the work of Fluxus and John Cage, and it was these influences that inspired the group’s perhaps most radical performance, Household Music-Making in Nine Rooms, presented first at the Vilnius Philharmonic in 1979 and later also in Moscow, among other places (figure 19). The show proceeded in a surprising fashion. A live album released by Leo Records credits only Chekasin and Ganelin, ignoring Tarasov who was present throughout the performance – but sleeping. Tarasov himself described the event:

I sleep on a bed for the entire first act, and then I leap out of bed and grab the newspaper „Pravda” upside down. It was all very blatant, but we were not afraid. … Household Music-Making was absolutely a demonstration. If I remember, I sleep, then I jump up and we play all kinds of reworked songs, we eat sandwiches. I’ll never forget, after the concert at the Vilnius Philharmonic people kept repeating, ‘You fellows will have problems, you will have problems’. They were afraid. They were afraid of us of course. But they were also pleased. Maybe they were jealous, that we let ourselves do these things. The same was true at the ‘Neringa’[36] where you sat at a table telling jokes, constantly glancing back, afraid, that someone might hear you. Of course, they heard everything. [37]

19. Vladimir Tarasov during the performance of the Ganelin trio at Vilnius Philarmonic, 1979, photograph Gregory Talas. Courtesy of Vladimir Tarasov

Norman Weinstein, who wrote an introductory text for the album, noted,

You will hear an alarm clock sound at the conclusion of ‘Home Music Making’. Tarasov was on stage – sleeping! – throughout the Ganelin/Chekasin duets wakes up! This bit of theatre of the absurd accurately summarizes the inability of many critics to understand the Russianness of these masters whose every note demands we waken. But you may need no alarm. Just put this recording on your system and listen. [38]

Who was awakened in the first place was the audience of this unique performance. Inspired by performance art seen in the West and transplanted to the field of music, the action left a strong impact on another generation of Lithuanian artists, some of whom, like Česlovas Lukenskas of the group Post Ars, soon started their own intermedia activities. This transfer of ideas between seemingly separate worlds of music and the visual arts was made possible by the fact that the Ganelin Trio enjoyed the status of the official representation of Soviet free jazz.

In Poland, between 1982 and 1988, Andrzej Mitan, Cezary Staniszewski and Tomasz Wilmański ran the RR Gallery at the Remont club. Mitan had already been involved in the club’s concert activities. The death of composer Andrzej Bieżan in a car accident in 1983 became a pretext for realising a unique project, started by the posthumous publication of recordings of Bieżan’s music. Mitan did something unprecedented in the Eastern Bloc, publishing a series of long-playing records with avant-garde music in covers designed by leading Polish visual artists, all that in an interesting concatenation of official and unofficial circulations. The publishing process of the Alma Art series was highly complex and required negotiation with numerous institutions. The records were co-published by the Remont Club of New Music and the Polish Student Association’s Academic Bureau of Culture and Art, with funding from the organisation’s Information and Publishing Committee. Then Alma Art had to apply to the Ministry of Culture and Art for permission to publish the first batch of the records.

With endorsement from Józef Patkowski, then president of the Association of Polish Composers and founder of the Polish Radio’s Experimental Studio, permission was granted. The artists were allowed to use the Column Room of the Primate’s Palace in Warsaw for recordings, which they made using their own equipment. Another permission was required for the Pronit plastics producer in Pionki to start pressing the records; this was done during the weekend, outside the plant’s official schedule. As some copies had artist-made covers, Andrzej Mitan and Andrzej Zaremba worked hard to organise the necessary materials – such as 10 kilograms of red pencils, velour paper or photographic paper – despite severe market shortages. Finally, the materials were assembled. [39] Mitan describes the process in terms that bring to mind the parallel economy or collective working methods characteristic for the second or third circulations: ‘In a rented vacant flat at Sienna Street in Warsaw, I set up a manufactory workshop where the artists made the designer sleeves’. [40]

The records were then sold through standard distribution channels. The whole series included nine albums: Helmut Nadolski’s Jubilee Orchestra (cover by Andrzej Szewczyk), Andrzej Bieżan (Tadeusz Rolke), Andrzej Przybielski (Jerzy Czuraj),  Janusz Dziubak (Edward Krasiński), Andrzej Mitan w Świętej Racji (Ryszard Winiarski), Krzysztof Knittel (Włodzimierz Borowski), Jarosław Kozłowski (Jarosław Kozłowski), and two records of Andrzej Mitan’s music (with covers by Cezary Staniszewski) (figure 20).

20. Andrzej Mitan, ‘W świętej racji’ (Holy Reason), LP, Alma-Art, 1984. Design by Ryszard Winiarski. Collection of Muzeum Sztuki, Łódź

E. Bizottság was also very lucky in getting their two records released in communist Hungary. The band was formed by a group of artists associated with the Vajda Lajos Stúdió in Szentendre, an artistic community dating back to the late 1960s that was geared towards non-professional and amateur art. From the very beginning the group’s output was a particular mix of youth subcultures with Dadaist and Surrealist inspirations. The following account of the community’s beginnings in early 70s captures its institutional complexity and ideological specificity:

When László feLugossy had finally avoided conscription (but was ordered to undergo psychiatric treatment instead), István Ef Zámbó organised a happening on the occasion at the Szentendre market square. He read out his text (he had already started writing books and manifestoes at the time) and handed out various useless objects, provided by Lászlo Terebessy, to members of the audience. The event was called Nalaja Happening, referring to the group’s dadaistic-surrealistic language, called the nalaja. The happening was interrupted by the police, and several participants, including Ef Zámbó himself, were arrested and prosecuted. At this point begins the counterculture myth of Szentendre, although it was mainly a series of naive actions that helped the town’s young residents to ‘bypass’ the system. Since the authorities feared the young artists, they decided to legalise their activities in order to better control them.

The group founded a discussion club, according to the Aczél principles described earlier, and adopted the name of Lajos Vajda, a pre-WWII artist active in the town, thus emphasising the significance of the classic avant-garde in Szentendre. Exhibitions as well as works by amateur artists were qualified by the Népművelési Intézet [Culture Institute], responsible for community and cultural centres, amateur groups and the promotion of art, again according to the ‘three T’ formula. Since the qualifying committee members, who enjoyed respect in the community as expert figures, usually supported the Vajda Lajos Stúdió, the town authorities gave the artists a postindustrial space as a permanent exhibition venue where the Stúdió continues to function to this day. [41]

In 1980, continuing the countercultural-amateur traditions of the Szentendre artistic community, a group of artists who were eventually to form A. E. Bizottság decided – just for fun – to take part in a talent show. Their unexpected success drew the attention of the public and of other new wave bands, but also of filmmakers. In 1982, at the Balázs Béla Studio (BBS), the idea was conceived of making a documentary film about the new music scene, including bands such as Trabant, Balaton or VHK. Soon it was decided to focus on A. E. Bizottság alone, and since the band members were artists, the filmmakers thought to conduct an unusual experiment: the band was asked to make a film about itself, with funding provided by the studio. András Wahorn, as the group’s leading member and someone with filmmaking experience, became the project leader and the original script was co-written by László feLugossy. But the resulting footage was unusable and BBS decided to cancel the project. Help came from one of their filmmakers, Gábor Bódy, who liked the experiment enough to lend Wahorn his own video camera, a crew, and some money to finish the film.

21. A. E. Bizottsag, ‘Kalandra Fel!!’, LP, 1983, Start Records. Design by Andras Wahorn. Courtesy of Andras Wahorn

That’s how Jégkrémbalett (Ice-cream Ballet, 1984) was made. At first, it enjoyed limited screening rights at home, but when, following Bódy’s inspiration, A. E. Bizottság were invited to the Berlin Film Festival, it was banned altogether. The band described their situation as ‘undorground’, a pun on the Hungarian word undor, ‘distaste’. [42] A year earlier, A. E. Bizottság were invited by Hungaroton, the official record company, to record an album. This had been provoked by a radio interview where the company’s head was asked why a band so popular still hadn’t released a record. The apparatchik replied, falsely, that work on the record was under way. Wahorn sensed an opportunity and decided to hold Hungaroton to their word. The impossible became possible and Kalandra Fel!!, featuring strikingly avant-garde music, was published in 1983 (figure 21).

 

Twittering Machines

 

22. ‘DDR von Unten’ compilation LP, 1983, Aggressive Rockproduktionen. Cover design by Rolf Kerbach. Archive of Alexander Pehlemann

Zwitschermaschine were a legendary DDR band formed by visual artists Cornelia Schleime and Rolf Kerbach with a member of the Prenzlauer Berg poetry scene, Sascha Anderson. The group’s compositions were featured on side A of East Germany’s first punk record, DDR von Unten / eNDe, which also included tracks by Sau-Kerle (the Schleim-Keim duo under a different name) (figure 22). Published in 1983 in West Germany by the independent label Aggressive Rockproduktionen, the violent and formally complex music of  Zwitschermaschine was complemented by Anderson’s poetry, which produced a unique effect, especially in combination with the relatively straightforward punk of the Schleim-Keim duo. But punk was only of the band’s inspirations; others were the intermedia experiments of an earlier generation of DDR free jazz artists, where a liaison between the music and art scenes was provided by figures such as A. R. Penck or Helge Leiberg. [43] The album, as it will turn out much later, was not just an artistic event. In his speech upon receiving the Georg Büchner Prize in 1991, Wolf Biermann revealed that Anderson had been a Stasi informer since the 1970s. [44] Based on archival research, Seth Howes further complicates the picture, writing:

…the evidence suggests he employed dissemblance and misdirection to ensure the record made it to production. Anderson provided information on the record’s progenitors and recording sessions only after the fact, and staved off Stasi intervention by doling out incriminating information at strategic times. Though a representative instance of his unethical ‘art of betrayal’, in this particular case, he also managed to have the record released by providing just enough information on its participants to placate his dissatisfied handlers, but little enough to ensure the project continued. Paying for the record project’s completion by betraying its participants, Anderson achieved the original goal: the release of a punk record of Eastern provenance in the West. [45]

At this point, all the previously mentioned divisions collapse. The last act of the ‘war’ between the regime and the punk movement took place in a recording studio. The release in the West (from smuggled tapes) of a music album recorded by an East Berlin band was made possible by an artist who was a Stasi informer. So wasn’t the record partly at least a tool of the secret police (even if we don’t know what their motivations might have been)? And who is the underground? The title of a Sau-Kerle track on DDR von Unten is intriguing in this context: Untergrund Ist Strategie.

 

Underground Is a Strategy

The panorama sketched above is naturally a selective one. My goal has not been to describe all circumstances but rather to find examples that might revise our understanding of key concepts. But what emerges from this collection of paradoxical accounts? Above all, a narrative about the different dynamics of liberalisation and their impact on specific countercultural practices. We have seen how Western terminology was adapted for local purposes, yielding disagreements between the leaders of the different groups. But the examples cited in this essay do reflect some general principles. Firstly, as noticed by Yurchak, the underground preferred to avoid a collision course with the state; as a result, political dissidents and groups with clearly defined political goals formed alliances with the independents only under immediate duress. In all other cases, the opportunities offered by the state, whether in terms of infrastructure or other, were eagerly exploited. The enemy was not so much a specific socio-political regime as the establishment, however broadly defined.

But there is also the other side of the coin – the Eastern Bloc countries’ policies towards punk. On the one hand, punks in DDR were persecuted, on the other we have the perestroika and the independents, who came to embody political changes as much as party leaders. The history of institutions and distribution networks described herein is a history of concessions made to pacify or better control the youth. After all, one of the reasons for organising the Jarocin Rock Festival was the possibility of taking pictures of most Polish punks. This element poses significant limitations in the research of ‘independent’ circulations. The story of Sascha Anderson shows how even crucial moments in the history of counterculture may have been orchestrated or inspired, directly or not, by those in power.

In fact, Anderson isn’t the only one whose biography had to be revised after the transformation. Gábor Bódy and Egon Bondy were secret police informers too. All three were central figures in their milieus, so it is safe to assume that they had been recruited partly because of what they could do. This is a third element that needs to be added to those listed by Jonathan Bolton in the passage quoted at the beginning of this essay. Besides official documents, we should not only research the underground mythologies, but also look closely at the other side of the coin, for the underground can also be a synonym of the group guarding the establishment’s hegemony.

References

 

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