Interview about the Second Public Sphere in the Former Eastern Bloc

Interview about the Second Public Sphere in the Former Eastern Bloc

The topics addressed by conference participants ranged from subversive artistic practices and the role of gender in them to anti-politics, dissident life, the formation of networks as conduits for nonconformist activities, and the micro- and macro mechanisms of cultural agency in the official social state apparatuses.

Interview by Andrea Bátorová 

The topic of the three-day conference Performing Arts in the Second Public Sphere (org. by Katalin Cseh and Adam Czirak, Free University Berlin, May 9 -11, 2014) focused on the second public sphere as a space belonging to unofficial, event-based activities in the countries of the former Eastern Bloc between the 1960s and '80s. The organizers' idea was to redefine the borderline between the official and the unofficial cultural realms by examining underrepresented artistic practices located in the often invisible niches of the state-socialist cultural apparatus. The topics addressed by conference participants ranged from subversive artistic practices and the role of gender in them to anti-politics, dissident life, the formation of networks as conduits for nonconformist activities, and the micro- and macro mechanisms of cultural agency in the official social state apparatuses.

Andrea Bátorová: The complexity of the "first and second public spheres" in socialist Central and Eastern Europe begins with the terms themselves. During the conference you organized, various participants referred to the fact that the borders between these spheres are permeable and elastic. In his keynote address, the art historian Piotr Piotrowski even suggested that in the case of Poland during the 1970s and 1980s, a third public sphere might also be relevant. So we have, on the one hand, the paradoxical and unique example of the former Yugoslavia where socialist and capitalist ideologies were at loggerheads, but where they often also cooperated; and we have, at the other end of the spectrum, Romania and Hungary where there was censorship and all kinds of other restrictions. And of course, there is a wide range of specific sociological situations in between these extremes that highlight the heterogeneous character of socialism in Central and Eastern Europe. How would you define the first and second public spheres in Eastern Europe in this complex context? To what extent are the differences between these two spheres productive when it comes to contemporary discourses about art?

Adam Czirak: I completely agree with your thesis that the structure and historical development of the parallel cultures in the so-called Eastern Bloc could not have been more heterogeneous. Accordingly, at our conference we came across several polemic arguments directed against any cross-national dichotomization of the first and second public spheres. Despite this, or maybe even because of this, I think that the term second public sphere–meaning an "unofficial public sphere"–makes for a productive approach to a comparative analysis of the Eastern European neo-avant-gardes.

To use the distinction between a first and a second public sphere is not to deny geopolitical or cultural differences within the Eastern Bloc, but rather to use the distinction as a tool for comparison and differentiation. Talking about second public spheres sheds light on certain political and epistemological aspects of autonomous art production behind the Iron Curtain. The "first" public sphere can then be understood as that register of everyday communication that was strongly influenced by socialist ideologies; it was functionalized by them and, therefore, exclusively served the realization of the communist project. Even if we have to consider geopolitical differences and diverse degrees of restrictions in the particular art scenes of Eastern Europe, this official public sphere, the discourses of which were regimented, was kept under surveillance by the state and was permeated by censorship, as well as bans on writing, display and performance. One could say in regard to its hierarchical order, the first public sphere was actually not public at all (as understood by Immanuel Kant, Jürgen Habermas, or Hannah Arendt), but simply a domain where the "discourse police" (Diskurspolizei) could exercise its power. It was precisely the development of underground networks in the state socialist countries that demonstrated that no public sphere can be closed in a totalitarian way, and that no communication system can be utterly regulated. Those who distanced themselves from the dominant art doctrines (of Socialist Realism and of aesthetic conformism) necessarily became adversaries of the hegemonic art system and relied on presenting their works and actions in the second public sphere, that is, in the cultural periphery – in culture houses, private apartments or art studios, in basements, or in nature.

In preparing our conference, we were convinced that the concept of a second public sphere does have analytical potential, and that it enables us to ask questions about the significance, political nature, and impact of autonomous art under ideological repression, as well as to investigate the specific conditions of art production from a transnational perspective. We were looking for an issue that would allow us to discuss artistic, sociological, and ideological questions in relation to each other.

Katalin Cseh: For me, the second public sphere represents a social and cultural field of strategies for alternative action that existed parallel to the official and controlled publicity of late socialism. But this separation is not at all clear-cut, and the existence of the second public sphere draws our attention to the heterogeneity, the contrasts and conflicts that existed within the societies of the former Eastern Bloc. The second public sphere is a sphere of autonomous and uncensored action, fragmentary and open, that positions itself on the fringes of official culture – mostly underground, although sometimes visible above the ground. How paradoxical the relations between the first and the second public sphere were can be shown through a statement by György Konrád in which he says that acting in subcultures means to extend the given hegemonic order rather than to completely deny it. This applies (partly) to the nonconformist art scene. Art´s second public sphere was understood in some cases—in Hungary (Gyula Pauer, György Jovánovics), or in Czechoslovakia (Július Koller)—as a pseudo-reality with a strong fictional character that was opposed to the absurd world of real-existing socialism.

Event-based art in East and Central Europe developed mostly in the aforementioned pluralistic unofficial art scene. Either it remained there completely (inner emigration), or it directly or indirectly experimented with the limits of artistic freedom (e.g. with the use of a coded sign system). As a popular and self-evident medium of expression, the body moved into the focus of artists' interest. As the case studies presented at our conference have shown, the readings of and the reactions to the marginalized cultural situation through performance are multilayered, ranging from isolated, ironized, self-censored, melancholic, actionist, political, and feminist to philosophical and fictional.

AB: Both of you are researchers of theater and drama, which predestines you to work in an interdisciplinary fashion. What would you consider the key contribution of theater and performance studies to your efforts to understand the second public sphere? How relevant are concepts such as liminality or ambiguity in this context?

KC: As we conceptualized our research project, the departure point was to reflect on the lack of East, Central and Southeast European event-based art forms in most of the canonized literature on drama and performance theory, and their history. Only performers such as Marina Abramović who have already been integrated into the Western history of performance were present. The discourse on neo-avant-garde event-based art is dominated by art historians, and it therefore tends to exclude concepts such as performativity or fleetingness. To a certain extent, I understand the art historians' reluctance, but I believe that the general approach taken by performance studies (both in the German and the Anglo-Saxon tradition) can be helpful for exploring unknown facets in Eastern European performance, photography, installation, and action art. The doubts of those art historians and theoreticians who distance themselves from canonized performance literature are understandable, as most drama theories were not developed in and for the social, political, and cultural regions of Socialist Eastern Europe and, therefore, are not applicable to performance art in the region. Some problems stem from the terminology itself (performing arts, performance art, action art, event, live art, happening, Fluxus). Still, we can gain insights from a theory that addresses the transitory character of a performative event, regardless of where this theory was first introduced. Performances exist only in the moment they occur, and they are not to be captured or reproduced. This radical tenet of theater studies—advanced, for example, by Peggy Phelan or Erika Fischer-Lichte—is extremely useful when it comes to thinking about the circumstances and the atmosphere of performances that took place, say, in a private apartment in front of a camera, or that were organized in the natural environment of a chapel near lake Balaton in Hungary. Reflecting on the fleetingness of event-based art means to have a different (sensible) lens through which to look at archival and documentary collections.

But, as you pointed out, researchers of theater work with interdisciplinary methods and theoretical approaches. This is why I think that we can only reconstruct the history of Eastern European performance art by using the capacities and achievements of local and international art history, visual theory, performance studies, and media studies through a simultaneous dialogue with the artists themselves.

AC: I think that from an art historian's perspective, some questions still remain unanswered: what are the reasons for the popularity of the performing arts in the former Eastern Bloc? Is there a special kind of resistance in artistic gestures that cannot be reduced to the production of objects? "Flexibility" has emerged as a unique feature of the performance scenes behind the Iron Curtain. To avoid censorship, artists performed their works in the form of readings, spontaneous interventions, or in the framework of short-lived exhibitions that often lasted no more than a couple of hours. In this way, they were able to avoid the danger of being banned. Finally, performance theory is useful for describing the creative resolution of borders between genres and media. And here again lies an argument for the importance of public spheres: Eastern European performance art was by definition transgressive and hard to pinpoint because it constantly needed to react to the containment strategies of the authorities. It was the looming danger of official control and restriction that determined the political character of these actions, as well as their aesthetics. Even if the performances were personal acts, they always confirmed the existence of artistic networks and demonstrated the relative freedom of communication in the "niches" that existed within the official public sphere. Performance theory cannot only produce an aesthetics of action art, it can also act as a pointer to the interconnections between art, politics, and social structures.

AB: In the last two decades, academics have begun to deconstruct the dichotomy between Eastern and Western Europe. Recent research on networking practices between East and West, but also within Eastern Europe have revealed a more diversified and heterogenic landscape that moves beyond the conventional Cold War myth of Eastern Europe's isolation. What is your opinion and experience regarding this research?

AC: I think we have a paradox here. You can take the restricted conditions of production as an explanation for why the protagonists of the second public sphere in Eastern Europe developed so many creative and politically subversive artistic practises, and why they organized themselves in such an incomparably efficient manner. Some art communities in Poland, Hungary, or Czechoslovakia were well connected with fellow artists in West Germany, France, North America, Latin America, and elsewhere. In spite of their different ideological alignments, stylistic origins, and historical, social and cultural backgrounds, they thrived on international cooperation. One of the most important outcomes of our conference has been the fact that we could map such international networks and personal collaborations between artists and art critics. Of course, the participants from Romania and the former GDR emphasized the limited conditions of international collaborations in these countries, but what I have found very interesting was Via Lewandowsky's interpretation of the relative isolation of his own art as a possibility to experiment freely with aesthetic questions, independently from Western trends (Lewandowsky studied and worked in Dresden in the 1980s).

KC: Let me outline two perspectives that are of great importance. One is connected to certain aspects of Eastern European historiography; the other, to the isolation of unofficial art in Eastern Europe. The theory and practice of Piotr Piotrowski's "horizontal art history" has taught us that we have to approach the diverse art scenes of the former Eastern Bloc both on a macro and a micro level in order to give equal credit to those formative elements that emerge from below. At the conference we discussed comprehensive topics and individualized case studies, but in both cases we learned that that an adequate picture of what we still call "the East" can only emerge from the communication of the regional with the global. Despite the heterogeneity of the cultural and artistic "side-products" of the Socialist regimes, we can, nevertheless, find similarities or parallels between different event-based art forms across the region. This is why I reject the idea of an isolated cultural sphere; alternative forms of communication and exchange existed on either side of the Iron Curtain. With some exceptions, artists found effective ways to get to the information they wanted: through scholarships to the West; through friends who crossed the border and smuggled magazines back to their home countries; or through lively discussions in apartments. There are many examples of how censorship couldn´t compete with creativity, also because some dictatorships (e.g. Hungary) did not want to destroy their "liberal" image in the eyes of the Western part of the world.

AB: What was the aim of your conference and what are your plans for this field of study for the future?

KC: Our aim was to set up an international network of scholars, artists, and individuals who are interested in underground art in Eastern, Central, and Southeast Europe and to bring them together. We would like to keep this dialogue alive and let it flow into a publication. To this aim we developed a website ( as an interactive platform for gathering information about events, for finding new partners for future research or art projects, and for exchanging knowledge. The website includes a database that gives us the chance to share and work with documents that for a variety of reasons are not otherwise accessible.

AB: Thank you.

Berlin, August 2014. Published on October 23, 2014.