Keiko Sei: "Quick review of my days with video in Eastern Europe"

"Media Art in Eastern Europe! How irrelevant a subject it is." this is the comment I received from a friend of mine upon deciding to leave Japan for Eastern Europe (*1) in 1987 to research this particular subject. And it was not the opinion of a minority at the time.

After five years of change in Eastern Europe, this festival seems to bring this question forth again, concentrating on video media. It's curious to me, especially because it is organised and held in the former East Germany. The last event of this kind I witnessed here was the symposium (or talk) between East and West German media artists in Leipzig in 1990. There, to my eyes, the amount of problems faced by the East which had to be discussed was overshadowed by the enthusiasm of the West German artists seemingly intent on institutionalizing media art in their part of Germany. Now that the fever of media institutes as well as the festival in this half of Germany is proceeding despite the recession, I may be able to see if there is more willingness to share the problems, if the whole nature of the debate is being dicussed by the East and West, or if there's some new advantage in the East enabling it to overtake the West by the creation of new community video centres where artists may come and go more casually, to learn, receive information, or simply to hire equipment for lower prices, whereby such places do not yet exist in the West.

East Germany may be a particular case, one may say. It is, as each Eastern European country and city is a particular case. One basically needs to spend hours on end discussing each specific case upon viewing a single video, as the video is the window to the entire society in question.

Here, I write of my personal experiences, mainly on how society has accepted video as an art from which, I believe, the different situations in Eastern Europe may be explained.

After working with video art for seven years in Tokyo the only tapes I'd know from Eastern Europe, except Yugoslavian tapes which had been distributed throughout the world like other Western tapes by 1987, were the ones in "Infermental", the international video magazine started in 1980 by Hungarian film/video maker Gabor BĘdy in collaboration with his colleagues in Poland and Berlin. The idea was to create a network of artists and its most effective media; video. Because it is a package of hundreds of works, it can be brought to any country, via any media, even to there, where the individual tapes may have no place to be presented. It is neither competition nor festival, but an encyclopedia designed to show tendencies in video art for each year.

Later I realized how significant the project was in Eastern Europe, more than I had vaguely expected. In Tokyo, however, I was happy enough just to have a chance to watch the tapes from Eastern Europe. Later I happened to be a co-editer of the "Infermental 8", Tokyo edition, and was then able to see even more; red star, another red star, other symbols, minimalistic performances ....but only from Hungary and Poland.

Hungary was the first country of Eastern Europe I started living in, in 1988, and soon found that there was already an entire infrastructure for media study in relation to art, the sense of people's consciousness and the social circumstances(*2). Then, as all those reform things started sparking I immediately settled down there. It looked to me as if the change was running smoothly along the media track, being driven by the hands of artists and art historians. It had been widely discussed that the changes in Eastern Europe were strongly connected to TV and video media in one way or another.

Its peak was the Romanian revolution, the first TV revolution in history. This event was immediately analyzed in Hungary, both politically and artistically. As a result we could hold an international symposium in Budapest on this subject merely three months after the event whereby we had quite a few Hungarian speakers with diverse points of view, as well as Romanian and Western guests. This is not surprising considering that video art started in Hungary in the early 70s, and that artists have had enough information due to their base in their experimental film tradition as well as thanks to milder cultural restrictions as in the other Eastern European countries enabling them to develope further.

Recently I had a chance to attend a selection of Romanian video installations for the first video event in Romania (EXOL - Ex Orient Lux, scheduled for November 1993), where a great majority of the 23 submissions were Hungarian artists from Transylvania. The juries became somewhat worried that in end, they may actually have very few Romanian works. The information process in Romania had been quite unbalanced, in the sense that Hungarian artists in Transylvania usually had greater access to information through contacts and television broadcasts in neighbouring Hungary and Yugoslavia, giving them perhaps greater confidence and experience, sources which were not always readily available to Romanians.

Despite some sporadic works (which you may see in this festival), there's almost none of this kind of video art in Romania yet and it was a rather courageous challenge for the organizer of this event to jump from this platform to a video installation show...this may also be one of the more interesting aspects of the country.

As far as video installation is concerned, one can phenomenalize the process of it's recent boom in Eastern Europe by examining the following three:

1. Soros Center for Contemporary Arts - After the sucess of the video installation exhibition by the center in Budapest in 1991, which turned out to be bigger than any other video installation show ever held by a single nation in terms of the number of domestic works, other centers, now being established in virtually all the capitals in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, will be organizing the same show one after another in the coming five years (the above-mentioned Romanian video event is one of them).

2. "IMAGO" - a package of Dutch video installations prepared for touring by MONTEVIDEO, the first attempt of it's kind, has been brought also to Eastern Europe (so far in Hungary, Slovakia and Poland).

3. "Video-Skulptur", the biggest international video installation show in history, also inspired artists and historians in this region. Furthermore, the tendency has been recently that video/media installations have been doing quite well in major international art shows such as "Documenta" and the "Venice Biennale" whereas attempts within other (traditional) fine art fields have been found to be somewhat dull, thus further influencing the art community here.

After all, the information on installations is much easier to be submitted by photos rather than tapes, and easier to be defined as fine art (which could be an advantage here for the East European producers).

Perhaps the case of the Czech Republic is the most relevant example as it seems to be also the most literally dramatic. One sees the metamorphosis of Prague emerging from total silence with strict restrictions to becoming the most visited city in the world with a mass Western emigration seeking and finding a new Bohemian paradise.

Unlike Hungary, where the border to the West was relatively relaxed, and Poland (*3) where I always felt guaranteed to see an interesting art scene including the work of video artists who relied on their harsh and critical attitude against the authorities, the Czechoslovakian artists chose to close themselves off quietly from the outer world with their "passive protest". As a result we had very little information about what was going on in the field of independent film and video in Czechoslovakia. "Original Video Journal", the dissident video magazine started in 1986 with Vaclav and Olga Havel's initiative, was being edited and copied secretly on school equipment. When I showed video tapes I brought in to artists in Prague, we usually had to sneak into video studios used by the athletics department, at night, where we found beautiful multi-standard equipment. (I wish I could have had access to the same sorts of places in East Germany, where they must have been even more beautiful).

A famous animation producer and illustrator Radek Pilar, was making video art tapes from 1987 and gathered a number of artists to form a video group. This "Video Salon" made their first exhibition in the summer of 1989 with numerous screenings and four video installations. The members had access to information on video installation because one of the members, Dr. Vancat, was then working for the National Art Archive where there were photos of works by Paik and Bill Viola. They were planning their second exhibition later that year as the revolution broke. During the revolution, people dashed to watch numerous TV monitors which were installed throughout Prague, displaying (supposedly) true, up-to- date video information about what was going on. Meanwhile there was an artist who was exhibiting his video installation at the French Institute. I could not go to see this piece by Pavel Jasansky, who now runs the multi-media journalistic group, because I couldn't move through the crowds.

The postponed Video Salon exhibition was held right after the New Year in 1990, smaller scale than originally planned, but in an euphoric atmosphere. They showed the document on the revolution, the TV documentary about the "Video Skulptur" produced by German TV (which some members caught and recorded from the broadcast), as well as their previous works. They also declared the birth of Czech video art by reading a manifesto at the post-revolutionary convention of the Union of Artists where formerly thousands of artists had gathered and read manifestos for different groups and genres.

In May 1990, the exhibition of the "history of democracy in Czechoslovakia" opened in the center of Prague occupying an entire street as well as the exhibition hall. The hall had been separated into many sections in each of which was an installation centered around a video monitor showing various documents, such as those of Charter 77 and STV (Czech secret police). They were the most impressive video installations I'd ever seen, and for the more than 200 000 people who visited the exhibition, they not only served as a reminder of the revolution but were also most likely the first video installations they had ever seen.

In 1990, when the Fluxus artist, deconstructivist Milan Knizak, was elected as a dean of the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague all the professors of the old regime were removed. He replaced them, and set up an atelier of video art with Fluxus star Paik's student Michael Bielicky, fulfilling his iconoclasm against the authorities and the hierachy in both politics and art-history. Another provocative, ex-banned performing artist, Tomas Ruler, received a TV studio at the Technical University in Brno after the revolution and now runs an atelier of video art and multimedia performance there. Video was also the most effective media for him. Woody Vasulka, Bielicky, Petr Vrana, Standa Miler, Vaclav Kucera, all started their video careers in the West after having emigrated, although they too are now returning to contribute to their homeland.

The example of Czechoslovakia (now of course, the Czech and Slovak Republics) may give an impression of optimism in the Eastern European media scene to readers, however on the contrary, I'd like to finish with two warnings:

First, we must think about the dangerous situation of TV in Eastern Europe, particularly Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and, of course, the former Yugoslavia. Independent video has always been struggling with TV, being its critic, and acting as an alternative point of view. This position must be maintained in order to remain critical in face of the current, ominous situation.

Second, the former Yugoslavia used to be far more of a video paradise than any other country in Eastern Europe, even compared to Western standards, but that has now changed. Except for the artists of the former Yugoslavia, I hardly know of any artists who talk about the "Ethnic Cleansing" now happening in the middle of Europe. Journalists are doing fine but not politicians and artists. If one is an Eastern European artist wondering what the position of Western artists is on this issue, one can think that they are either merely cowards or have decided to live in the comfortable cemetery. The video community must realize that since we all legitimized Ethnic Cleansing by not reacting against it, thus neglecting the sin, that the war will spread and come back to haunt us in the future.

Keiko Sei

*1 I use the term "Eastern Europe", or "East", here for convenience. It includes the former East bloc except the former Soviet Union. Yugoslavia is included here only as a matter of opportunity.

*2 Since 1987, Hungary has also had a regular TV programm on video/media art of a kind which one doesn't see normally anywhere in Europe entitled "Video World" produced by Judit Kopper from Hungarian TV. BBS - Bela Balazs Studio - is also a unique place for experimental film since 1961 (video since '70), where many artists have been producing work. There is also now a brand new place, the Inter Media Dept. at the Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest, run by top figures of the country's media art community such as LaszlĘ Beke, MiklĘs Peternak and Janos Sugar.

*3 The history of video art in Poland had already begun in the mid 1970's with the explosion of the experimental film movement in and around Lodz (please refer to Ryszard Kluszczynski's text for more information on the Polish video situation).