An Active Encounter

A Project in PS2, Belfast 6 February – 1 March 2014

An essay by Ciara Hickey

Czechoslovakia Radio 1968, Courtesy of Tamas St. Turba

The project An Active Encounter proposed an extended consideration of a single piece of art work.   Over a three week period a series of talks, performances, interventions and actions took place at PS2 Belfast in response to Czechoslovakia Radio 1968 by Hungarian actionist and conceptual artist Tamas St.Turba1.

I first encountered this art work in 2011 at Documenta 13. The work itself is no more than a red building brick painted with yellow sulphur paint.  At Documenta it was exhibited on a plinth and accompanied by a short text briefly outlining a real event from 1968, and an unexpected rupture of conceptual art into an historical narrative. The text referred to the Warsaw Pact army’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 during which people were forbidden to listen to radio broadcasts. People resisted this censorship through a range of creative means, including making ‘brick radios’, by attaching antennae and painting dials on to bricks. These fake radios spread amongst the population who pretended to listen to them, and although they were useless as a communication device, they were continuously confiscated by the army.

At Documenta 13 the piece was shown as part of the ‘Brain’, a central chamber and conceptual locus within the vast and sprawling art festival. In this room, clusters of small artefacts, fragments and objects were shown in close proximity.  The provenance and associations of each object overlapped to conjure a series of charged narratives within the room.  In contrast to the densely filled ‘Brain’ space, at PS2 the brick radio was installed centrally on the back wall and remained the only permanent object to inhabit the project space. Over the three weeks all other activity was of a temporary duration, or made off-site. A short text was installed below the brick radio which expanded the title of the work, and recounted its historical context. The text was large enough to be read by those passing by the shop-front windows of the space at any hour of the day or night (the work was spot-lit 24 hours a day during the project). The sparse and solemn hang of the red brick on the back wall of the space and its lone presence in the PS2 space set the stage for encounters with and conversations about the work to take place.

Tamas St. Turba in Conversation at PS2, 6 February, 2014 Image by Michael O'Halloran

It was the combination of both its simplicity and universality that initially attracted me to the Czechoslovakia Radio 1968 piece. The immediacy with which one could identify with the work as a form and as a gesture of political resistance was something that I felt would resonate strongly in a Belfast context.  The assertiveness of the artwork in terms of its robust materiality; the basic man-made form of a red building brick; and also its title, locating the work in a specific time and place and associated historical narrative, offered a straightforward and gratifying understanding of the piece. This literal understanding of the work as a type of symbolic artefact however, is in tension with its mode of production and the prevailing conceptual concern of how an object may transgress its limitations and transform into another; in this case from ‘brick’ into ‘radio’.

Tamas St. Turba made the first Czechoslovakia Radio 1968 in 1969 and has repeatedly re-made the work over the years. In the repetitive action of recreating the piece, the artist has described it as “a non-art art work for and by all”, allowing these ‘fake’ fake radios to shape and be shaped by whatever environment they are brought into.  Alone in PS2, the work teemed with an abundance of narratives and associations, ideological and conceptual concerns. Czechoslovakia Radio 1968 makes explicit the transformative, conceptual and active potential of objects. As a brick it represents a simple structural form that could relate to the urban environment of Belfast.  Red brick characterises much of the city’s architecture, and has been a dominant visual in media images of the conflict. As a radio, it could be understood as a transmitter of ideological resistance, an object that can facilitate, disorientate or evade communication. As a ‘brick radio’, the work moves fluidly between the states of ‘radio’ and ‘brick’.

When I approached artists to respond to this piece, the consideration of the work as an agent for communication, its ability to occupy parallel states and the subversive nature of the work were the main points of departure.  I was interested to see how artists and audiences might respond to the object/concept/non-art artwork in the city.

Czechoslovakia Radio 1968, Installed at PS2, courtesy Jordan Hutchings

The work was made on site on the opening day of the project by Tamas St.Turba. On the same night he engaged in a conversation about his broader practice over the last 40 years. The conversation focused predominantly on his strategy of setting up the International Parallel Union of Telecommunications (IPUT) in 1968.  Through operating as the ‘Superintendent’ of IPUT (he has rejected the title ‘artist’) he has created actions that resist ideologies and propose alternative or parallel possibilities for the way we live2. When discussing his work, he emphasised the importance of acknowledging the endless parallels that simultaneously exist for any object or action. For St. Turba, this offers a potent method of resisting certainty and authority. In the conversation he opened up this idea through the motif of the ‘centaur’3, the idea that no one thing exists definitively, but rather is capable of being many things at once and has the potential to become or transform into another thing at any given moment.

This conversation with Tamas St. Turba was the first of a series of events that occurred in response to Czechoslovakia Radio 1968.

Flyer for the Czechoslovakia Radio 1968 Fan Club Meeting, Image by Ruth Clinton and Niamh Moriarty

Czechoslovakia Radio Fan Club Meeting on Black Mountain, 14 February, 2014, Image by Ciara Hickey

There was a spirit of complicity and conspiracy in how each of the artists approached their response. Ruth Clinton and Niamh Moriarty began by looking at strategies and channels of communication and misdirection relating to the original motivations for making the brick radio in 1968. These disorientating strategies also reflected the playful tenets of the Fluxus movement with which Tamas St. Turba was affiliated in the 1960’s.  Clinton and Moriarty’s research into the brick radio and its history was opened up in a week long radio broadcast that included readings, experimental scores, noise music, storytelling and archival recordings. Their response culminated with a Czechoslovakia Radio 1968 Fan Club Meeting on Black Mountain in Belfast. The artists left lino cut flyers around the city, contacted random people from the Yellow Pages and placed ads in local newspapers to promote the absurd event which promised that the party would be brought to a ‘secret location’ on Valentines Day, 14 February 2014. The members of the Czechoslovakia Radio 1968 Fan Club were picked up by a coach and brought to the car park of the mountain, from where they proceeded through rain and heavy cloud towards the highest point, in order for the ‘Fan Club Meeting’ to commence. Under a protective covering of felt, the artists shared their own interests in the work before inviting others to do the same. Although we were removed from the object itself, over the course of the event it became directly interconnected with the local surroundings. Holding the meeting on this particular location was wholly charged by the fact that Black Mountain is the site of a decommissioned British Army listening post. The listening post, a former arena for ideological communication and interception, in its inactive state, operates in a similar way to the brick radio. It represents an ominous mute agent, currently more active in memory and imagination than in reality. In drawing attention to this local and deeply unsettling parallel, Clinton and Moriarty used the listening post as a conduit to the historical origins of  Czechoslovakia Radio 1968.

Jam Rezistence in A, Performance at PS2, Image by Jordan Hutchings

If Czechoslovakia Radio 1968 represented a brick turned radio, the action of ‘listening’ was referred to in the work of all of the artists. What emerged over the three weeks could be described as a predominantly aural experience, in which sound took a number of forms and fluctuated between the silence of the defunct listening post, a live radio broadcast, the series of talks and discussions, and concluded with a deafening cacophonous performance, where any possible audio communication was deliberately obliterated. Michael O’Halloran developed a public performance in PS2 looking at the creative implications of communication and invention in the face of enforced censorship. For this exercise, he invited four Belfast based guitarists, Matthew Rodger, Chris McCorry, Hornby and Ben Behzadafshar to take part in the improvisational event Jam Rezistence in A.  The musicians entered a blind jam, unable to hear each other, each with pre-prepared solo compositions affiliated only by their shared language - the key of A.  As the performance progressed, O’Halloran began the process of controlling how much or little the musicians could hear of each other as the imposed vacuum in which they had begun started to recede through the headphones they were wearing. The aim was to encourage the musicians to decide whether or not to mutate their individual arrangements to complement the sound of their musical collaborators. The slow and difficult progression at the beginning of the piece was defined by the alienation of the musicians to each other, as they operated in their separate spheres. This slowly gave way to a melody of innovation and cooperation, as they each began to seek visual cues in the body language of the other players, and further developed as the compositions of their neighbours began to infiltrate their headphones.

Colm Clarke, 'OOO', 2014 courtesy of Jordan Hutchings

In Colm Clarke’s response, ‘OOO’ (object oriented ontology), the audience were invited to a performative lecture by the artist on the final day of the project. The artist had indicated that this lecture would open up the fraught process of negotiating and formulating a response to the work. Clarke’s piece began as a proposal to install a light circuit in a broken street lamp off Donegall Street, that would flash morse code of a text over night for the duration of the project. The idea was obstructed by the council and the artist re-routed his plans to working with outside agencies on a number of interventions in the surrounding area of PS2, most of which were left unrealised for a number of unforeseen reasons. A performative lecture at PS2 was scheduled as a means for the public to engage with the artist’s activity over the three weeks.  As the lecture was about to start, the artist instructed me via text message that it would be me who would deliver the lecture. He requested that I interpret his response and communicate it with the audience. Control had been removed from my grasp as the roles of artist and curator were momentarily subverted. I found myself being observed by an invited audience as I attempted to regain control of the event. The situation was not dissimilar to that which faced the musicians in O’Halloran’s piece. I attempted to coerce harmony and stability from the limited information I had to work with and had to decide on whether to participate in this deliberately disrupted event. After my short talk I lead the group, as instructed, to Buoy Park to view a series of sculptural interventions made by the artist, including wreaths, pages of text and lightning rods. Later it became apparent that Clarke had documented and recorded the whole event from a vantage point on Donegall Street.  The material he gathered will be included in a forthcoming publication that will form the final part of his response to the project.

Colm Clarke, 'OOO', 2014, courtesy Jordan Hutchings

In following the trajectory of his proposals, Clarke had arrived at a point where the organisational structures, the fixed parameters around the project, were purposely ruptured. In an early conversation between the artist and myself about the Czechoslovakia Radio 1968 piece the artist noted that the brick could be ‘used to build the courthouse or as a missile to smash it’. On this occasion it seemed the artist had opted to deconstruct or ‘smash’ the format of the project. In terms of a public event, I can only imagine the audience perception of the piece as something thin and uncomfortable. However, in addressing the trickster-ish and conspiratorial nature of Czechoslovakia Radio 1968 it playfully presented a series of disruptive and subversive strategies that resonated with the impulse of the original work.

A series of programmed talks took place to accompany the project which further contextualised the work more explicitly within local narratives. Curator Triona White Hamilton spoke about ‘Everyday Objects Transformed by the Conflict’4, a dialogue with Professor Mia Lerm Hayes looked at an interview with Tamas St.Turba, and a talk was planned by Derry/Londonderry based writer and Social activist Eamonn McCann, who founded Radio Free Derry in 1968- although unfortunately this talk was cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances.

Czechoslovakia Radio 1968 is striking for its immediacy and relevance, and for the total simplicity of the gesture both formally and conceptually. In the formal resolution of the piece, the artistic responses in this project could only ever be ephemeral and transitory, hovering around the work as proposals or animating the work in a series of parallel situations. During the course of An Active Encounter at PS2, the piece was proposed as an art work by the curator, and as a non art-art work by its maker. Over the three weeks the artists and speakers activated the object, unravelled the historical prerogatives of the work, responded to the work via a range of art forms and used it as a framework to conjecture upon alternative local narratives.   The work moved between a mute object, a radio, a transmitter, a symbol, an act of resistance, incited subversion and both facilitated and censored communication. It came to represent a type of ‘centaur’, a parallel alternative for a material object that resided somewhere between radio and brick.  In responding to the piece the artists and speakers expanded this piece of work originally made in 1969, and recharged it through its submersion into a Belfast context.

Programmed Events and Talks:  Colloquium with Professor Christa Maria Lerm Hayes, Talk with ‘Everyday Objects Transformed through the Conflict’ Curator Triona White Hamilton, Talk with Socialist activist and writer Eamonn McCann, Screening of ‘Kentaur’ by Tamas St. Turba at University of Ulster and CCA Derry/ Londonderry.

1   Tamas St. Turba is one of many aliases including Szentjóby, Stjauby, Tamas St. Auby, Emmy / Emily / Grant, St.Aubsky, T. Taub, etc

2   Including ongoing actions that research the idea of the Strike and the proposal for the ‘Subsist.ence Level St.Andrad Project 1984 W’ (SLSP1984W), where every person should receive a subsistence allocation to be subtracted from the defense Budget in order not to have to work unless they want to.

3   Kentaur (1975) was the name of the film that Tamas St.Turba made that was banned in Hungary and resulted in the artist’s exile from his home country. This film was screened at the University of Ulster and CCA Derry/Londonderry as part of the ‘An Active Encounter’ project.

4   Around the same time that I first saw Czechoslovakia Radio 1968 at Documenta, I became aware of an exhibition entitled Everyday Objects Transformed Through the Conflict that was commissioned through the organisation Healing Through Remembering in Belfast. This exhibition opened up a parallel and pertinent local framework in which to consider the Czechoslovkia Radio 1968 piece.  This project brought together a group of loaned objects whose function or symbolism had in some way been altered through the circumstances of the conflict in Northern Ireland. Each object was exhibited alongside a text written by its owner. In this way the work’s ‘authenticity’, the fact that it had belonged to someone and was given its potency through their story, formed the crucial aspect of the exhibition. By contrast Czechoslovakia Radio 1968 does not represent an ‘authentic’ object or artefact of the time.