“A Kind of Perverse Novel”: Performance Art and the Secret Services

Kata Krasznahorkai and Sylvia Sasse (eds.), Artists & Agents. Performance Art and the Secret Services (Leipzig: Spector Books, 2019), 686 pp.

What do performance artists and secret agents have in common? The editors of Artists and Agents. Performance Art and Secret Services, Kata Krasznahorkai and Sylvia Sasse, investigate the question what happens when both sides meet, taking a closer look at different aspects of the collisions that can occur during this encounter. The volume, which can be used for browsing or as a reference work, offers 600 pages worth of different perspectives on the issue, including the workings of censorship, the openings of police files, repression by secret services such as the KGB and the Stasi in the literary field, and research into secret service files in their relation to artistic practices, including music and film. The book represents an extensive piece of forward-looking research that holds many surprises, even for experts in the field, taking its place next to other studies on the subject of surveillance and control in the cultural sphere after the fall of the Iron Curtain.(For example Balázs Apor, Péter Apor, Sándor Horváth, (eds.), The Handbook of COURAGE: Cultural Opposition and its Heritage in Eastern Europe (Budapest: Research Center for the Humanties, 2018). Františk Stárek Čuňas, Martin Valenta, Underground Symphony of Plastic people (Prague: ÚSTR, 2018); Kata Krasnahorkai, “hightened alert: The Underground Art Scene in the Sights often he Secret Police – Surveillance Files as a Resource for Research into Artists’ Activities in the Underground often the 1960s and 1970s”, in : Art Beyond Borders: Artistic Exchange in the Communist Europe 1945-1990, Jerome Bazin, Pascal Duborg Glatigny, Piotr Piotrowski (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2016), 125-135; Ilko-Sascha Kowalcsuk Stasi specifically. Surveillance and repression in the GDR (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2013); Ivo Bock (ed.), Censorship system in Eastern (Central) Europe ( 1960s – 1980s) (Berlin: LIT, 2011).) The editors  managed to fuse a complex body of material, from innovative basic theories to the analysis of intelligence files, photographs, text logs, observation reports, authentic private notes and interviews into an overall well-balanced whole that resonates multiply.(The authors, together with Inke Arns, also curated the eponymous exhibition Artists & Agents – Performance Art and Secret Servises at Hartware media art association in Dortmund (16.3 -1.6. 2020).)

Academics have often raised the issue of the secret services and their role in relation to unofficial or semi-official art in Eastern Europe. Due to the permanent surveillance of the so-called parallel culture in Eastern Europe, it was assumed, for example, that it would be possible to find documentation in the secret service files that in some cases were not even available to the artists themselves. As Anna Krakus writes in her chapter about the video recording of an event staged by the White Alternative in Warsaw: “If you look at the material in the Institute for National Memory, you yourself are in the middle of the performance, nothing gives you the feeling of being there more clearly than this shaky hidden camera that moves directly among the participants.” (p. 333) Another important point is the fact that the artists often consciously watched their own performances with the look and in the manner of the secret police, as was the case with the Romanian artist Ion Grigorescu in his photo series Electoral Meeting (1975), or with Polish filmmaker Józef Robakowski in his movie From my Window (1978-1999).

According to the volume’s editors, secret police agents could be found wherever happenings and performances were being planned or carried in the formerly Socialist countries of Central and Eastern Europe. However, one thing that is certain is that 30 years after the fall of the so-called Iron Curtain, we still know precious little about how the secret police spread misinformation, to use the editors’ terms, “both about and through art.” In their introduction, the editors state that after reading the secret police files from between the year 1950 and 1990, they came to the conclusion that the police “intervened in the art world in a frighteningly creative way.” (p. 10)

Artists & Agents. Performance Art and the Secret Services is divided into the following chapters: “Archive and Agents,” “Theories,” “Documentation,” “Interaction and Counter-Action,” “Counter-observation,” and “Processing and Decompositions,” all of which refer to the period before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Still, the penultimate chapter, “Re-reading, Re-enactment, Re-construction” contains numerous examples of works of art that were created after 1989 and in which the artists reflect on the archives of the secret services (Cornelia Schleime, Nedko Solakov, CsillaKönczei). Similarly, in the last chapter (“Archive Appropriation”) one finds case studies regarding the appropriation of archive material as an artistic practice in contemporary art (Jens Klein, Arwed Messmer, Simon Menner, Tina Bara, Alba D´Urbano).  It must be said that the division of the material and its distribution across the different chapters could have been more specific, which would also have made the book more reader friendly. The present division presumably owes itself to the fact that the individual themes dealt with in the book are difficult to parse, and that overlaps between them occur with great frequency.

In their joint statement “Looking Forward to Further Good Cooperation. On the Artistic Processing of Files,” Krasznahorkai and Sasse provide helpful tips as to what we should keep in mind when reading a police dossier. It is important, they argue, to be aware that such a dossier is a kind of fiction authored by the security apparatus, which is to say that that neither the real situation nor the real sequence of events can be inferred from its material. In this context, they refer to the scholar Christina Vatulescu who in her book Police Aesthetics. Literature, Film (2010)  suggests that reading secret police files is “collective literary work”, “a kind of perverse novel based on the imagination of officials and autocrats.”(Artists & Agents – Performance Art and Secret Services, p. 567. Christina Vatulescu, Police Aesthetics. Literature, Film, and the Secret Police in Soviet Times (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010).)

It was the East German artist Cornelia Schleime who more than anyone else has brought to light the fantastic nature of these reports in her artistic work, which is also the focus of the chapter  Looking Forward to Further Good Cooperation.” (pp. 581 – 587) In 1993, Schleime created a photo series in which she portrayed herself as “that person” (herself) about whom she read in the protocols and secret service files that she was able to consult that same year.(The artist traveled in 1984 from the GDR and was spied on and then before.) In her collaged photos she staged situations according to the descriptions found in the Stasi papers, absurd representations far from any reality, demonstrating both the Stasi’s distortion of reality and its manipulation of the very idea of documentation.

When after staging of the first happening in Hungary, The Lunch – In Memoriam Batu Khan  (1966), Hungarian artists Tamás Szentjóby and Gábor Altorjay were asked what their goal had been they replied: “a takeover.” Even though their statement was meant ironically, it allows us to ask: power by whom over whom? Who are the two fighting sides? Are they the representatives of official or unofficial art, or is this perhaps an argument about high and low culture? In her exciting article “´Dissociating´ Theory. The Hungarian Secret Police and the ‘Theory” of Happenings, (pp. 96 – 114)Krasznahorkai chronicles the intense disapproval of happenings as a genre and their classification as harmful to the socialist society by the Hungarian secret police. Cognizant of the fact that in the 1960s and ‘70s the happening and performance scene was under close and extensive observation in Hungary, Krasznahorkai analyzes the fact that the secret police not only documented action art, but even conducted lively discussions about the question what happenings and performances were. This occurred as part of the search for ideological pretexts why such events should not be permissible in Hungary. As Krasznahorkai argues, this type of “theorizing existed so that the informant might have a better sense of what needed to be monitored and reported.” (p. 96)

What then did the Hungarian secret police mean by “happening”? Krasznahorkai answers by using example of reports based on police observation of The Lunch – In Memoriam Batu Khan. In the respective file we find the information that even before the happening, three informants were assigned to its observation. In the course of her discussion, Krasznahorkai points out that the attempts by the secret police to theorize happenings were by no means harmless, on the contrary, as “a theory based on art historical reasoning became itself a dangerous instrument for the formulation of suitable destruction measures, not only against happenings, but above all against the artists involved in them. ” (p. 109)

In her article “´It has become officially known´: The Double Performance of Documents (pp. 146 – 160) Sylvia Sasse describes how the secret police criminalized and pathologized art. Sasse analyzes in detail the mechanisms that constitute the position of the observer and puts forward a theory about what she calls the “double performance of documents”: “Secret service files usually reveal little about the observed,” says Sasse “but they reveal a lot about the diffuse fears of the observers. … Like hardly any other type of text or image they reveal that every attempt to define ‘the Other” or some kind of deviation implies, first of all, an act of self-construction.”  (p. 146) As part of her reflection on the self-construction of the observer, Sasse also analyzes the GDR artist group Clara Mosch, which was founded in 1977.(Members of the group were Carl Friedrich Claus, Thomas Ranft, Dagmar Ranft-Schinke, Michael Morgner and Gregor Thorsten Schade.) The group was continually spied upon by the Stasi, and a sophisticated plan was hatched for its destruction. This was possible mainly due to the fact that a friend of the group, Ralf-Rainer Wasse, played a dual role as a participant and as a police informer whose photos of the group’s meetings and activities served as documentation for both the group and the Stasi at the same time. In his observation reports, Wasse even reported on himself as a third-party participant. As Sasse argues, this example shows not only how the Stasi tried to document supposedly critical art, it also demonstrates that in doing so the Stasi documented itself: “This is why the files in question …. lie about the artistic action, but tell the truth about the actions of the Stasi.” (p. 149)

Secret police files document not the activities of citizens as enemies of the state but the way in which events can be interpreted as potentially hostile by filtering them through the eyes of an informant. As Sasse writes, “in this sense, these sources are monuments to the functioning of the secret police, and not just in their materiality, seriality, correlativity, but above all in their performativity. They do not simply document an event but give visibility to the performative production of the document and of documentation and its uses of the monument itself. In this way they produce what they aim to refer to as a trace.” (p. 150)

In the case of the so-called “satellite states” of the Soviet Union, research for the book was conducted in the form of case-studies. In the case of the former Czechoslovakia, the editors concentrated on the capital Prague. This approach is less comprehensive and leaves the more extensive archival work (also in the case of countries such as Slovakia) for the future. In his contribution, “Who is watching? The Photographic Documentation of Happenings and Performances in Czechoslovakia,” (pp. 341 – 349) Tomáš Pospiszyl analyzes the relationship between Czech performance artists Petr Štembera, Karel Miler and Jan Mlčoch and their audience, with references to the small street performances by another Czech performance artist, Jiří Kovanda.

A step  in the direction of archival research is the publication of a secret police report devoted to the 1966 visit by French artist Serge Oldenbourg to the Fluxus festival in Prague, where he proceeded to gift his passport to a Czech citizen. (pp. 134-144) The Czech citizen promptly tried to leave the country using Oldenbourg’s passport, but was apprehended. The secret police observation report, which the book includes (in full length), details the chronology of this legendary “criminal incident” with great precision.

Another look at the workings of such reports is provided by another file, this one devoted to two art actions by Milan Knížák’s Object Aktual (1968) and Object Větrník (1974).(He had been under strict surveillance and was subsequently sent into custody where his long hair was cut off (in the socialist system, long hair was officially understood as a form of disobedience). As can be seen from the report, Knížák himself thought that the cutting off of his hair was not lawful. After his release he hired a lawyer and planned to take legal action against the state.) Knížák’s file includes tactical plans for operational observation that are quite reminiscent of similar plans by certain action artists: maps, drawn sketches, the names of the participants, precise descriptions of clothing, locations, movements , technical equipment and the participants’ activities, in addition to the their reports in their capacity as police informants.

In all post-socialist countries, the subject of the past and the involvement of individuals with the secret services is a highly sensitive issue. In a chapter entitled “Dangerous Research,” Sasse and Ilijana Kamenova conduct an interview with the Bulgarian expert Hristo Hristov who has done important work in the local secret police archives.(A law on access to the archives of the secret services was passed in Bulgaria in 2006.) He published the results of his research on the website desebg.com, which brought him and his family numerous problems, including death threats. Hristov investigated what is known as the State Security’s “active operations,” including extreme methods such as murder, kidnapping and sabotage, and he wrote a book about the murder of Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov who was part of the so-called “enemy emigration.” In 1978 Markov was killed in London in what came to be known as the “umbrella attack.” Hristov argues that in Bulgaria more than 42% of the archival materials were destroyed shortly after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Nevertheless, the archive of the Bulgarian Dǎržavna sigurnost (State Security) still contains a wealth of material on how the authorities wanted to gain control of the cultural scene.

In her contribution Traces of Performance Art in the Archives of the Former Securitate (pp. 536 – 561), Mǎdǎlina Braşoveanu analyzes the documentation of art performances in the archives of the Romanian secret police by examining two actions by the group “MAMU” (Marosvásárhelyi Mühely, “Studio Tȃrgu Mures”), which formed in the late 1970s.(The group of artists devoted themselves to conceptual and action art, organized interventions in nature and organized their exhibitions in an independent room – a theater lobby, with which they wanted to offer a kind of alternative institution to the officially established forms. The author curated a documentary exhibition entitled Traces of the Oradea Network of Artists – Tȃrgu Mureş – Sfȃntu Gheorghe in the Archive of the Former Securitate at the Studio Gallery B5 in Tȃrgu Mureş (2015).) The festival organized by MAMU in July 1982 offered the Securitate a unique opportunity to experience the group’s networks. Among other things, Braşoveanu asks how it was that such activities were even possible in Romania at that time.

In a chapter entitled Did the Polish Secret Have a Sense of Humor?” Anna Krakus analyzes the activities of the Orange Alternative group, which was active in Wrocław in the 1980s. The author describes the different approaches that two agencies of the Polish security apparatus, the Citizens Militia (MO, or Milicja obywatelska) and the Secret Police (SB, or Služba bezpieczeństwa) took to the group’s actions. Members of the Orange Alternative interacted with the MO and the SB in a rather satirical manner. For example, the Orange Alternative happening entitled Citizens Militia Day took place on October 7th, 1988,  in two separate locations. The Orange Alternative collected flowers and planned to distribute them to the members of the Citizens Militia. This was forestalled by MO members, yet everything occurred in a friendly atmosphere and overall the group had a surprisingly relaxed relationship with the police. Krakus notes that from the archive files it can be gleaned that even Služba bezpieczeństwa, the more dreaded of the two police forces, did not pay nearly as much attention to the Orange Alternative as one might have expected.

There is only sparse documentation about another happening by Orange Alternative, satirically titled The Day of the Secret Service, which the group organized in 1988. During this action participants disguised themselves as secret agents. To be sure, all the events, activities, and materials—including posters and texts—that the SB did not understand were classified by them as subversive and thus “political.” According to W. Frydrych, the activities of the police were crucially important for understanding the meaning of the happenings organized by his group.  (p. 333)

The archival research by Łukasz Ronduda offers another crucial insight into the SB’s work. In his chapter, titled “Cover name ‘Letraset´: Strawmen and Inflated Egos,” Ronduda analyzes three operations by SB: “Foreigners”(1972), which targeted the participants of a project by artists Jarosław Kozłowski and Andrzej Kostołowski; “Letraset” (1975), which was directed against artists Marek Konieczny and Przemysław Kwiek, and “Artists”, which targeted Janusz Haka. In the early 1970s it was important to Koneczny and Kwiek that they should be able to fill commissions they were given by the Plastic Arts Workshops (Pracownie Sztuk Plastycznykh, PSP, in charge of commissions for posters and other public design) in the spirit of the neo-avantgarde. In 1975, Kwiek and his partner Zofia Kulik therefore wrote a letter to the Ministry of Culture in which they complained that they had to work “for the PSP, this idiotic, pretentious institution”, and that they were only assigned to work on commissions without artistic merit, sometimes even drafted by other artists. Ronduda explains that the PSP was a strictly controlled element of the official propaganda machine, and as such it immediately began operations against Kwiek and Konieczny, including telephone tapping, the monitoring of their postal correspondence, and other measures. The idea was to prove that the artists acted at the behest of foreign security services. The police operations against them ended when it was determined that the artists’ action had an economic rather than a political motivation. Still, as Ronduda reports, Konieczny lost his libel case against the PSP and had to pay a large fine.

The archives of the secret police are currently accessible in most countries of the former Eastern Europe, but not everywhere in Western Europe or the USA. The present volume includes some information and analyses of instances of police surveillance in Western countries, too. For example, when the well-known Swiss writer Max Frisch was allowed to see his police file shortly before his death, he learnt that he had been observed for 40 years, and proceeded to process the information in an unfinished manuscript entitled Ignorance as State Protection? (1990, publ. 2015).

In her contribution, Liliana Gómez analyzes the CIA files related to Operation Condor, an initiative to support right-wing dictatorships in Latin America during the Cold War. “Making conflicts invisible is part of political violence,” the author writes, “it favors historical amnesia and creates blanks in memories and in archives. In order to counter this amnesia, artists articulate counter-semantics and critically deal with disregard, silence, and forgetting in post-conflict situations.” (p. 588)  In 2009, the so-called “Archives of Terror” files were released in Paraguay(In 1993 the Center for Documentation and Archive for the Defense of human Rights was established in the Palace of Justice in Asunción, Paraguay to house this archive.) and the files pertaining to Operation Condor were reassembled by the Paraguayan film director Paz Encina and the Chilean artist Voluspa Jarpa. In her text, Gómez focuses on Encina’s short film Familiar (2014) and on Jarpa’s multimedia installation In Our Small Area Around Here where the artist poses the question if the artistic use of archive material has historical consequences, or not.

All told, this rich and multi-faceted volume seeks to answer questions related to the tasks of archives, their working methods, as well as questions of authorship, memory, culpability, responsibility, and historical objectivity. One of the issues at the center of the book is the vast gulf that exists between the mechanical nature of institutional apparatuses, on the one hand, and individual behavior or perception on the other. How do you see, record, and document reality of (or in) institutions? What is at stake here is the contrast between the rigid skeleton of an institution’s mechanical workings and the multiplicity of life outside of it, which the institution can only partially comprehend, and in a mostly reductive (hence manipulative) fashion. This is why an institutional file or dossier is of necessity a caricature of reality, and all the more so in the case of the reports of the secret services, which beyond their documenting function were designed to discredit their subjects.

To be sure, the investigation of the past in (formerly) totalitarian states is a highly sensitive topic that has to be treated with great sensitivity and caution. To uncover important yet undesirable facts, especially where they concern complex situations of persecution and collaboration, often means throwing salt in the wounds. Given all this, the editors of this mosaic-like volume made a very timely contribution to the research into a range of complex topics, adding to our understanding of the past in the former Eastern Europe. The book is surely only the beginning of a long series of follow-up studies and other explorations of “perverted novels” that will bring an even greater degree of specialized investigations to bear on these questions.  It will be up to these future studies to fill the omissions and lacunae that the geo-political complexity and diversity, specificity, and richness of the material inevitably leaves in even the lengthiest volume devoted to their research.

Translated by Sven Spieker

Andrea Bátorová
Andrea Bátorová teaches at the Institute of Cultural Studies, Faculty of Arts, at Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia. Between 2011 and 2017, she was a researcher at the Institute for Cultural and Visual Studies of the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava. Her research focuses on alternative and unofficial art and its societal contextualization between the 1960s and the 1980s in Eastern Europe, especially in the former Czechoslovakia. Between 2007 and 2009, she worked as an assistant curator at the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart in Germany. Her doctoral thesis, entitled Action Art in Slovakia in the 1960s: Actions by Alex Mlynárčik, was published in German in 2009 and in Slovak in 2011. She published monography The Art of Contestation. Performative Practices in Slovakia in the 1960s and 1970s (2019) and she has contributed to a number of books, including Performancekunst als Renitenz. Kritik und ihre Publizität in Zeiten politischer Repression (Bielefeld, 2019), Performing Arts in the Second Public Sphere. Event-based Art in Late Socialist Europe(London, 2018), When exhibitions become politics (Cologne-Weimar-Vienna, 2017), among others.