Performance Art in the Second Public Sphere

Katalin Cseh-Varga and Adam Czirak, Performance Art in the Second Public Sphere: Event-Based Art in Late Socialist Europe (New York: Routledge, 2018), 264 pp.

The compilation of sixteen case studies of performance art in Performance Art in the Second Public Sphere: Event-Based Art in Late Socialist Europe presents a panorama of performative strategies in the context of East, Central, and Southeast Europe. This “site-specific” approach reveals the diverse conditions under which performance art was produced in the region. The editors, Katalin Cseh-Varga and Adam Czirak, avoid suggesting a comparative terminology for East and West; instead of defining their collective volume geographically—as in: “Eastern European performance art”—they use the socialist political system and the sociological idea of the “second public sphere” to delimit their field of research. The contributions include art historical performance studies, theater studies, as well as social and cultural approaches to performativity as a tool for activists.

In the introduction, the editors discuss Jürgen Habermas’ concept of the public sphere as a starting point for an understanding of the second public sphere. In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962) Jürgen Habermas had described the public sphere as a communication forum determined by power relations that play out differently in a feudalistic or a bourgeois society. Nancy Fraser criticizes Habermas’ model of a single class and suggests a model of multiple and competing spheres within a transnational public sphere. Hungarian sociologist Elemér Hankiss also applies this idea of multiple layers and determined three categories for the socialist system before 1989. He declares the first sphere the, hierarchically organized, official and state controlled public, which is opposed by the third sphere, which he views as an alternative society. In between he defines the second public sphere as an ambivalent spectrum that is both skeptical and intertwined with the first, party- controlled, space. Hungarian theorists Miklós Haraszti and György Konrád characterize the second public sphere as being connected to the first. They describe it as an unconscious layer that holds radical potential to disrupt the official established system. Throughout the volume, each author applies another notion of the public sphere, and each performance challenges the relationship between multiple public spheres in a different way. Additionally, authors consider archival material and primary sources for each of the performances discussed.

Related publications have been promoting Eastern European performance art since the late 1990s but often from or alongside the American and Western European position. In 1998 the international exhibition on performance art Out of Actions featured an essay by American art historian Kristine Stiles that considered Eastern European performance art within other global developments in the field. In the last revised edition of Rolsee Goldberg’s pioneering study Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present (1979, 2001, 2011), she covered Eastern European protagonists such as Russian artist Oleg Kulik or Yugoslavian pioneer Marina Abramović and discusses their socio-political situation of censorship and marginalization, as opposed to the situation of Western European and American artists. The common aim in both cases was to argue for an inclusive and reciprocal relationship between Eastern European and Western European and American artists. UK-based scholar Amy Bryzgel, who also contributes an essay on feminist performance art to the present book. Keeping the traditional canon as a reference point enables her to challenge its exclusivity.

Performance Art in the Second Public Sphere: Event-Based Art in Late Socialist Europe builds on this international research, but it also considers the knowledge produced within Eastern European countries. Slovenian art historian and director of the Museum of Modern Art, Ljubljana Zdenka Badovinac, pushed this research as early as in 1998 when she curated the exhibition and catalog Body and the East to establish a survey of Eastern European performance art. Another more recent publication also recognizes Eastern European sources and resources in their agency. The editors Ana Janevski and Roxana Marcoci worked with the Museum of Modern Art to promote easy access to a wide range of influential Eastern European research in Art and Theory of Post-1989 Central and Eastern Europe: A Critical Anthology (2018).

Katalin Cseh-Varga and Adam Czirak contribute a specific, case-study based evaluation. In order to avoid one generalized research field, they compile case studies that consider the specific socio-political situation in relation to performance artists’ strategies. They structure their book into four parts based (1) on the question as to how artists build transnational networks; (2) where event-based art took place; and (3) how feminist and queer performances questioned the relation between public and private realms. The book’s final essay (4) assesses this historical art production through contemporary reenactment practices. The editors lay out the discourse of the public sphere and propose that the second public sphere functions as an alternative public realm for performance art, as opposed to the official socialist ideologies that determine the first public sphere. Based on this understanding each case study presents a different notion of a performance artist’s experience and negotiation of the public sphere.

Yugoslavia’s international relations serve as a recurring example for an ambivalent socio-political situation where independent art production could exist within a state controlled cultural field. While Dietmar Unterkofler addresses semi-official venues to define Yugoslavia’s student cultural centers, Miško Šuvaković argues that Yugoslavia’s critical theater existed in an alternative public sphere. Meanwhile Andrej Mirčev applies Alexander Kluge and Oskar Negt’s concept of a proletarian versus a bourgeois public sphere to define two realms which Yugoslavian artist Tomislav Gotovac challenged with his naked performances. Ileana Pintilie and Christian Nae examine the oppressive and isolated situation in Romania, which serves as the counter example to Yugoslavia. Both authors argue that the performance experiments by artists such as Ion Grigorescu or Geta Brătescu happened in the artists’ studios and often even without an audience. The hostile political situation made any activities within the party-controlled cultural public space impossible. Pintilie and Nae’s juxtaposition of various performance practices paints a nuanced picture of strategies which renegotiate the relation between different public spheres.

While avoiding dichotomous categories, Andrea Bátorová captures the tight entanglements of different public spheres in Czechoslovakia, which complicates the realm of agency for performance artists. She distinguishes three stages of critique in Czechoslovakian performance art: subversive affirming, disturbing and disrupting the public norms. Artists gradually challenged society’s constant pseudo-identification with the system by taking on double roles. This was the case, for example when artist Alex Mlynárčik partially transformed an official wedding into a critical performance art piece in Eva’s Marriage (1972). After the ceremony, Mlynárčik organized a procession in public. While the formation walked through the city, state officials guarded the supposedly festive wedding guests and thus became complicit in enabling his performance.

Kata Krasznahorkai presents the case of Hungarian artist Tamás Szentjóby who pushed the entanglement between state officials and artists even further. Szentjóby and Gábor Altorjay organized the first happening in Hungary, The Lunch (1966), and declared the happening as an unpredictable art form. In order to efficiently censor the artist’s activities, secret agents aimed to learn how to identify the characteristics of this new event-based art. Krasznahorkai examines the reports of the secret agents and reveals how they infiltrated the artist’s inner circle. The agents recruited Szentjóby’s friends to track and report possible threats to the political establishment. Thus the secret activities of artists and agents played out in the same sphere, instead of staying contained in separated spaces.

The editors dedicate the book’s third section to feminist and queer issues in late socialist European societies. Female performance artists found it complicated to formulate feminist positions because of the ideological contradictions between egalitarian socialism and patriarchal power structures. Amy Bryzgel refers to Polish artist Natalia LL who had an ambivalent attitude towards the North American women’s liberation movement and its feminist declarations. The socialist state had already provided equal access to work, childcare and equal pay. Thus, women performance artists in socialist states often did not identify with the demands for equality coming from North American feminist movement. However, Eastern European women still experienced injustices based on gender hierarchies such as a male majority in positions of power. Therefore, female performance artists did feel the urge to deal with issues such as representations of women, female sexuality, or the gendered relation between the public and private realm.

Jasmina Tumbas dedicates her article to Sanja Iveković whose performance Triangle (1979) tackled in a provocative way all of the topics mentioned above. During an official visit of President Tito to Zagreb, and while he was driving past her apartment building, Iveković sat on her balcony where she supposedly masturbated while reading a book. With this disobedient behavior she provoked the attention of state security agents who intervened to stop her. Feminist and queer performances in Eastern Europe often resorted to subversive methods because they had to reckon with the possibility that their claims could be regarded as being unjustified, since the socialist system had officially established gender equality.

Performance Art in the Second Public Sphere: Event-Based Art in Late Socialist Europe successfully creates a more precise understanding of the public socialist realm and the second public sphere as socio-political specific conditions for performance art. Whereas the idea of the second public sphere is more or less coherent across the different perspectives represented in the book, the concept of performance or event-based art remains more open. On occasion more descriptive and formal analyses would have helped readers to capture the significance and relevance of the artistic material discussed. However, this cannot deflect from the fact that the contributors’ many different approaches provide a transdisciplinary perspective on a crucial issue.