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Reactionary Sentimentalism Part 3: Prague

By Louis Armand.

During a 1978 PBS television fundraiser, The Night of the Empty Chairs, organized by Leonard Bernstein in support of Amnesty International, Patti Smith & guitarist Ivan Král performed a modified version of a statement by the imprisoned Czechoslovak underground rock band Plastic People of the Universe, entitled “One Hundred Points Revisited.” The original statement was an absurdist, mock-bureaucratic indictment of Prague’s hardline communist régime, but was transformed by Patti Smith’s pumped-up spoken-word delivery into an emotive rallying cry against political oppression in general:

“They’re afraid of the old for their memory. They’re afraid of the young for their ideas – ideals. They’re afraid of funerals – of flowers – of workers – of churches – of party members – of good times. They’re afraid of art – they’re afraid of art. They’re afraid of language – communication. They’re afraid of theatre. They’re afraid of film – of Pasolini – of Godard – of painters of musicians – of stones & sculptors. They’re afraid. They’re afraid of radio stations. They’re afraid of technology, free floating forms of information. Paris Match – Telex – Guttenburg – Xerox – IBM – wavelengths. They’re afraid of telephones. They’re afraid. They’re afraid to let the people in. They’re afraid to let the people out. They’re afraid of the left. They’re afraid of the right. They’re afraid of the sudden departure of Soviet troops – of change in Moscow – of facing the strange – of spies – of counterspies. They’re afraid. They’re afraid of their own police. They’re afraid of guitar players. They’re afraid of athletes – of Olympics – of the Olympic spirit – of saints – of the innocence of children. They’re afraid. They’re afraid of political prisoners. They’re afraid of prisoners’ families – of conscience – of science. They’re afraid of the future. They’re afraid of tomorrow’s morning. They’re afraid of tomorrow’s evening. They’re afraid of tomorrow. They’re afraid of the future. They’re afraid of Stratocasters – of Telecasters. They’re afraid of rock‘n’roll. What does he mean, even rock bands? Even rock bands? Rock bands more than anybody else suffer from political repression. They’re afraid. They’re afraid of rock‘n’roll of Telecasters – of Stratocasters – of old age – in the streets – behind locked doors. They’re afraid of what they’ve written – of what they’ve said – of fire of water – of wind – of slow – of snow – of love excretion. They’re afraid of noise – of peace – of silence – of grief – of joy – of language – of laughter of pornography – of honest & upright – they’re uptight. They’re afraid of lone & learn & learned people. They’re afraid of human rights & Karl Marx & raw power. They’re afraid of socialism. They’re afraid of rock‘n’roll. They’re afraid of rock‘n’roll. They’re afraid of rock‘n’roll. They’re afraid of rock‘n’roll. AND WHY THE HELL ARE WE AFRAID OF THEM?”

In the February 1977 edition of the International Socialism newspaper “One Hundred Points” was described as “one of the toughest statements yet from the popular opposition in Czechoslovakia,” & the Plastics as “a rock band who have consistently refused to toe the line of official culture & have made enormous sacrifices to continue expressing their own views.” Ironically, the “One Hundred Points” – according to Archie Patterson’s account in Eurock – was performed by the Plastics only after this account appeared in the Trotskyite press. “The ‘Hundred Points…’ was recorded live at the Third Music Festival of the Second Culture on October 1, 1977, & the piece has an interesting history behind it. When the band was first arrested in March 1976, an article appeared in an English left-wing paper quoting some of the Plastic’s lyrics, including a long, heavily political song called the Hundred Points that the Plastics had never done, let alone seen. I was in Prague at the time when I saw the article & I was livid because the communist press had been printing vulgar lyrics the Plastics had never sung to discredit them. Now the left wing press had descended to the same kind of falsehood, though with the best intentions (the ends justify the means), in order to make the Plastics palatable & sympathetic to people who could only hear what the music was saying if the ideology was right. When I showed the article to the band, their reaction astonished me. They said, There is only one thing we can do now, do it! It was a brilliant solution. Rather than going through the rather complicated hassle of denying the Hundred Points, they simply had it translated into Czech & set it to music. Thus, they made the article in the English paper retroactively true.”

The Plastic People of the Universe

Whatever the accuracy of the story, the “One Hundred Points” remained the Plastics’ one overtly political text, while the band themselves took the view that they were “dissident” by circumstance rather than intent – those circumstances being the de facto politicisation of the unofficial music scene as a result of increasingly heavy-handed (& increasingly irrational) efforts by the state at its suppression. Formed in Prague a month after the Warsaw Pact invasion of August 1968, the Plastics attracted the ire of Czechoslovakia’s new Moscow-backed régime intent upon social re-“normalisation” after the short-lived experiment in “socialism with a human face” known as the Prague Spring (a seven-month period of liberalisation in which popular culture flourished), cracking down on anything seemingly pro-Western (like rock music) or merely non-conformist (like males with long hair). At the time, the band performed mostly covers of Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, the Velvet Underground & the Fugs – an attitudinal mix of the eccentric & the fucked-off, that clearly telegraphed the band’s views to the men in grey suits about their efforts at bureaucratising humanity to death. If that wasn’t enough, the band’s name itself (drawn from a track on the Mothers of Invention’s 1967 album Absolutely Free) took a broad swipe at the collaborationist culture being foisted upon Czechoslovak society by the Soviet stooges up in the Castle – where, only 30 years before, Hitler himself had surveyed his most recent conquest. “We are surrounded by a vast / quantity of plastic people,” Zappa’s lyrics went. “Take a day & walk around, / watch the Nazis run your town, / then go home & check yourself. / You think we’re singing / ’bout someone else. / But you’re plastic people.” More open & extreme forms of protest against the Soviet occupation occurred, too, most famously the self-immolation by philosophy student Jan Palach at the foot of the Natural Sciences Museum steps on Wenceslas Square – but it was through the unofficial music culture that opposition was most widely shared as a communal experience, if not as a programme of political action.

With an increasing underground following, the Plastics turned from covers in English (described by the authorities as “morbid” with a “negative social impact”) to producing original work in Czech even the censors could understand, written mostly by Milan Hlavsa & the former surrealist & banned poet Egon Bondy (who, in a truly Kafkaesque turn, was also a secret police informer) – recording their first album, the psychedelic jazz-rock Egon Bondy’s Lonely Hearts Club Banned, in 1974 (a nod to the Beatles’ longevity as a revolutionising force on the far side of the Iron Curtain). Adding to the fact that only state-sanctioned bands were permitted to actually play in front of an audience (the Plastics’ professional licence had been revoked in January 1970), their performance of a banned writer’s work was bound to attract official displeasure, as it did when police shut down a Plastics’ concert in České Budějovice the same year, beating & arresting members of the largely “long-haired” (máničky) student audience (a nod likewise to the continuing influence of beat poet Allen Ginsberg, crowned “King of May” in Prague in 1965: “longhairs” were considered subversives & in 1966 approximately 4,000 of them were assisted in shaving their heads by the secret police, including Fluxus artist Milan Knížák). On March 17, 1976, the Plastics themselves were arrested along with members of DG 307 & several other groups while performing at the Second Festival of the Second Culture (organised by art historian Ivan “Magor” Jirous) & put on trial six months later for “organized disturbance of the peace” – with four musicians (Jirous, the Plastics’ Vratislav Brabenec, Pavel Zajiček from DG 307 & Svatopluk Karásek), receiving prison sentences of between 8 & 18 months. Jirous had taken the idea of the “second culture” or “parallel polis” from Václav Benda, as a reference to the underground renaissance the Plastics were supposed to be leading. This may have been wishful thinking on Jirous’ part had the trial itself not transformed the Plastics into an international cause célèbre & a catalyst for the opposition movement that eventually went on to ride the “Velvet Revolution” to power & bring about the end of state totalitarianism thirteen years later.

Allen Ginsberg with his translator Jan Zábrana in Prague, 1965, StB secret police photograph

For Benda & others, like Jirous & playwright Václav Havel, the idea of the parallel polis extended the notion of “underground culture” as it’d been understood in the West to encompass all manner of civic actions, from organised protest to the establishment of informal economies, information networks, education & research facilities, publishing operations, political structures, & so on: it was, in effect, not merely a subculture, but a fully-conceived resistance movement – a secret “state” within the State. Its objective, short of actual revolution, was to facilitate an independent society, able to operate outside the oppressive apparatus of the central authorities. In 1977, Jirous – who in 1989 would become the last political prisoner to be freed in Prague – published, in samizdat, “A Report on the Third Musical Revival” (1977), in which he wrote: “One of the highest aims of art has been the creation of unrest. The aim of the underground here in Bohemia is the creation of a second culture, a culture that will not be dependent on the official channels of communication, social recognition, & the hierarchy of values laid down by the establishment.”

The parallel polis, however, was never a formal blueprint, but rather a descriptive system of informal “temporary autonomous zones,” as Hakim Bey called them. Yet, as much as it appealed to an idea of resistance, the parallel polis appealed even more to a kind of opportunistic quietism, of a form that eventually prevailed in wresting power from the Communist Party. In 1976 Havel, who would go on to become Czechoslovakia’s president in December 1989, secretly met with Jirous & became convinced that a showdown between the underground music scene & the authorities was imminent, & that this would provide a suitable opportunity to provoke a political confrontation as well. The occasion was the “Second Festival of the Second Culture,” & it was in response to the arrest & prosecution of the Plastic People of the Universe that Havel wrote an “Open Letter” to the general secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, Gustáv Husák, & mobilised support behind what became the major document of the resistance, Charta 77, published locally in samizdat & in the Western media on January 6, 1977, along with the names of 242 signatories. The charter was a bold effort that landed Havel & many of his fellow signatories in prison, & resulted in the death of the philosopher Jan Patočka after 11 hours of interrogation by the StB (secret police). The document itself, however, was hardly the rallying cry to political freedom that might’ve been expected, but more like a lecture in political morality, chiding the authorities who’d prosecuted the Plastics for not abiding by the Helsinki Accords on human rights that they’d just signed up to.

Václav Havel, “The Power of the Powerless,” samizdat, 1978

By calling the régime on its hypocrisy, rather than denouncing it as such, Havel was playing a subtle game of one-upmanship: in the process, both the Plastics & Charta 77 became focal points of further “resistance” played increasingly to an international audience. In his 1978 essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” Havel wrote: “Everyone understands that an attack of the Czech musical underground was an attack on the most elementary & important thing, something that bound everyone together… The freedom to play rock music was understood as a human freedom & thus as essentially the same as the freedom to engage in philosophy & political reflection, the freedom to write, to express & defend the social & political interests of society.” Written ten months after the implosion of the Sex Pistols following that band’s ruthless vilification in the US & British tabloid press – Havel’s measured gravitas was a long way from how the “antiestablishment” music scene was being viewed by the leaders of the socalled Free World, where “freedom of expression” in music, literature & the arts was just as often a bellwether of broader civic freedoms. What differentiated the two amounted, arguably, to little more than a rhetorical divide & a conflicting attitude towards those opportunities provided by the mass marketing of discontent-turned-to-entertainment. What the West, aided by the likes of Malcolm McLaren, realised in fits & starts at the end of the ’70s, which the East apparently didn’t, was that dissent was worth big dollars – & that dissent channelled into entertainment & lifestyle merch was the most effective form of mass mind-control yet devised. The problem for the Prague underground of Jirous & Havel was its inability to differentiate between the aspiration to this kind of free-market capitalist kitsch & the creation of a genuinely alternative social reality. The resulting transformation of Prague, after 1989 & the end of what Ivan Klíma called “the Empire of Stalinist tyranny,” into a privatised Thatcherite bubble economy, meant that the parallel polis remained a pipe-dream. As the Plastics’ Vráťa Brabenec stated in an interview twenty years after the “Velvet Revolution” (so called because not a shot was fired): “I hate it when people talk about that year as a ‘revolution’ in Czechoslovakia. A revolution is supposed to change things. But what has changed? I don’t consider myself any less subversive now than I was back then. I am no less a dissident in a society of shopping, shopping & shopping than I was in a society of socialism, socialism, socialism. It’s all still shit, only different shit.”

Over the next few years, Jirous’ “parallel polis” would come to seem like a more fitting description of the separations occurring within Prague society on both an economic & cultural level – the outcome on the one hand of a fantastically corrupt voucher privatisation scheme (widely heralded in the West as a new economic miracle), & on the other by the large-scale return of former Czechoslovak émigrés & the rapid increase in the size of the city’s international community. A New York Times article estimated that by 1993 there were 30,000 Americans alone living in the city. A sizeable number of these had aspirations in the emerging “international scene” – as writers, translators, editors, publishers, artists, filmmakers, human rights activists, booksellers, teachers, students, musicians & trust-fund groupies. This loosely-formed community – the new “second culture” – gave rise to a constructed myth of the city which combined a nostalgic Bohemianism, a belated Western hankering after cultural authenticity (the “poetry of witness”), & a type of Wizard of Oz fantasy set in juxtaposition to the 1980s “culture wars” & political bankruptcy of the Reagan/Thatcher era in the US & Britain (which the ’90s did little to ameliorate). All of which could now be got without the need, for US passport holders, of so much as a visa. Prague, too, became the momentary picturesque outpost of a Berlin which, for some, had been deprived of its raison d’être now that the Wall (which had effectively sheltered it from all sides) had come down. Bourgeois bohemians & subcultural proctologists descended on the Czechoslovak capital to take the pulse of the Zeitgeist & add another 15 minutes to their overdraft on celebrity, producing forgettable reams of Praguesploitation. Ginsberg duly put in an appearance. So too Malcolm McLaren. Agonising on behalf of those deliriously caught up in the moment, Wired magazine’s Bruce Sterling wrote in 1993, “this is a very ‘90s city. Even its artistic problems are ‘90s artistic problems: the struggle of a bewildered & put-upon generation to speak authentically in an era whose central directive is to reduce all art & all life to an infinitely replicable commodity, to turn Kafka into a T-shirt & Havel into a carny attraction, to shrink-wrap cultures as pasteurised package-tour exotica, to make art a bogus knickknack & heritage the hottest-selling market segment of the Museum Economy.”

Lukáš Tomin at Café Kandinsky, 1992, by Kevin Blahut

More significantly, thirty years of underground cultural resistance found itself – at the very moment triumph appeared to be at hand – stuck out in the cold. It didn’t have to wait to be gentrified out of existence, it simply woke up the morning after & found it’d been made irrelevant – both by a society desperate to embrace materialist amnesia, & a whole new transient demographic of literary dilettantes who for the most part knew nothing about it, convinced that Prague counterculture meant Allen Ginsberg. As has often been observed, it was as if ’89 was ’68 upsidedown. Brabenec summed it up when he said, “Fucking tourists. Once it was Russian soldiers, now it’s tourists. I can’t decide which is worse.”

Cynical pundits like Sterling entirely missed the point that their authenticity anxiety was as much a cultural import as was the hankering after the next Hemingway & Gary Shteyngart’s endless one-upmanship about the failure of the “Prague Novel” to suddenly materialise out of the overnight efforts of fugitive Berkeley dropouts. “Prague,” wrote Sterling for his American readership, “is very much like Paris in the ‘20s, but it’s also very much unlike Paris in the ‘20s. One main reason is that there is no André Breton here. People do sit & write – stop by The Globe, the crowded émigré bookstore on Janovského 14 in north Prague, & you’ll see a full third of the cappuccino-sipping black-clad Praguelodyte customers scribbling busily in their notebooks. There are many American wannabe writers here – even better, they actually manage to publish sometimes – but there is not a Prague literary movement, no Prague literary-isms. No magisterial literary theorists hold forth here as Breton or Louis Aragon [!?] or Gertrude Stein [?!] did in Paris. There isn’t a Prague technique, or a Prague approach, or a Prague literary philosophy that will set a doubting world afire. There are people here sincerely trying to find a voice, but as yet there is no voice. There may well be a new Hemingway here (as The Prague Post once declared there must be). But if Prague writers want to do a kind of writing that is really as new & powerful as Hemingway’s was in Hemingway’s time, then they will have to teach themselves.”

Presumably Sterling had never heard of Prague Surrealism (Breton himself called Prague “Surrealism’s second city”) or Prague Structuralism (which contemporary -ISM didn’t owe some debt to Jakobson?), not to mention Prague writers like Jáchym Topol, Emil Hakl, or the fleet of older novelists like Bohumil Hrabal & Ludvík Vaculík (both of whom sustain comparisons to Joyce), or even the emerging enfant terrible of the other Prague scene, Lukáš Tomin, the first of whose three novels in English (The Doll, Ashtrays, Kye) was published in 1992 by locally-based Twisted Spoon Press. Tomin, who committed suicide in 1995, is perhaps the best example of why these finger-up-the-rectum opinionisers couldn’t steer their way through a subculture if you gave them a periscope. His work represents what underground really means in post-Communist Prague, where “suppression by omission” took the place of state censorship, abetted by Western cultural narcissism (the “doubting world”) & Czech indifference. Yet despite (or because of) remaining unacknowledged on almost every side, Tomin produced the kind of work that could indeed begin to be measured against a Stein – or, to be a little less antique, a Pierre Guyotat, a Cabrera Infante, a Hubert Fichte, even a Nick Cave.

When the expatriate American newspaperman Alan Levy two years earlier called Prague – in an often parroted editorial – the “Left Bank of the nineties,” he appealed not to an instant comparison to the milieu of Joyce, Stein, Breton, but to a future history, though mindful of what poet Miroslav Holub wrote about history being “always a failure by definition”: “For some of us,” Levy proposed, “Prague is Second Chance City; for others, a New Frontier where anything goes, everything goes, &, often enough, nothing works. Yesterday is long gone, today is nebulous, & who knows about tomorrow, but somewhere within each of us here, we all know that we are living in a historic place at a historic time. Future historians will chronicle our course – & I have reason to believe that they’re already here – but even they will need to know the nuts & bolts of what it was like & how it felt to live & be in liberated Prague in the last decade of the 20th century.” But the question that remained was what it could mean in such circumstances to live, as Jirous had argued during the volatile ’70s & ’80s, “in truth” – in the belief that art could expose the régime’s falsification of social reality & bring about its collapse, including, it was now necessary to add, the régime of neo-liberal amnesia presently occupying this city of otherwise invisible thresholds (Praha, which was its name before momentarily becoming an American satellite, means exactly that). One was minded of Wim Wenders’ famous line from Im Lauf der Zeit (Kings of the Road; 1976): “The Yanks have colonised our subconscious.” It was like the Second Coming of the Marshall Plan. By 1995, when Radio Free Europe moved its headquarters from Munich to Prague’s former Federal Parliament building, a new period of “normalisation” appeared to be in full swing – directed by a new occupying force – which by the turn of the millennium would be solidified by NATO accession, with the unflinching approval of ex-dissidents like Jirous who, in later years (notably during the second Bush administration) became a vocal, even hysterical, critic of domestic opponents of American foreign policy.

Soviet tanks enter the city, August 1968, the end of the Prague Spring, Josef Koudelka

Just as in August 1968 when the city celebrated the renewal of its “endless friendship” with the Soviet Union (who’d “saved” it from the forces of “counterrevolution”), so too in ’89 Prague embarked on an “endless friendship” with Capitalism-with-a-Human-Face. And if Marxism had been “discredited” by History, so too the spirit of dissent was subjected to a tacit disillusionment: while Jirous was free to get as pissed as he liked & dance naked on tables, his brand of “living in truth” descended into a reactionary sentimentalism. As reactionary & sentimental as the gang of self-proclaimed “orthodox Surrealists” who drank that comic avatar of puerile self-interest, Hrabal, under his chair every night at U zlatého tygra (“you have to get your hands dirty in life” – zamazat se životem – as the sometimes-collaborationist used to say). What gets obscured behind all this is the very real volatility that characterised the years immediately after ’89 & continues to shape the political discourse today. One of the features of Jirous’ “parallel polis” had been a relative homogeneity of purpose: state socialism provided the fulcrum upon which the appearance of a movement could lever itself forward. As one of the signatories of Charta 77, Anna Šabatová, recounted, it “brought the atheists into contact with Christians of all denominations. It united writers & artists with scientists & politicians, as well as labourers & clerks. It also brought together the old & the young. Seventeen-year-old dissidents could rub shoulders with people who had fought against fascist Germany & who served time in Stalinist labour camps.” Yet this “unified front” of solidarity-by-convenience masked often radically contradicting ideological positions, & it is of no surprise that it fell apart in tandem with the collapse of the Communist régime. While the underground itself was for the most part consigned to sudden irrelevance, a minority of dissident figures nevertheless persisted in becoming an ineffectual governing class under whose brief tenure corruption & organised crime ran rampant, before they, too, found themselves supplanted by political careerists such as Václav Klaus (Havel’s Thatcherite prime minister from 1992 & successor as president). Klaus, needless to say, wasn’t the kind of man who had any truck with ideas like appointing Frank Zappa honorary trade representative. Moreover, as the veneer of unified purpose fell away, the dirty reality of xenophobia & domestic fascism came increasingly into view, with brawls between Punks & skinheads occurring regularly on Prague’s streets, along with tacitly police-sanctioned neo-Nazi rallies through the city’s former Jewish quarter, firebombings of Roma tenements, & beatings of homosexuals (with few exceptions, the handful of gay & lesbian clubs that operated throughout the ’90s did so behind locked doors).

The first skinheads appeared in the city between 1986 & ’87, & until 1989 tended to restrict their attacks to members of the anarchist, anti-Fascist & Punk movements, before branching out into race-baiting & so on. Unlike the dissident rock music scene, which managed to produce a number of important recordings under Communism (& went on to comprise the post-Communist status quo side-by-side with unashamed re-treads like Karel Gott, Michal David & Helena Vondráčková – all signatories of the “Anticharta”), the Punk scene released a total of three records before ’89 (one 7” vinyl & two compilation LPs), yet it bore the brunt of the succeeded reactionary militancy from the far right. It was here, arguably, that anything that might properly be called an “underground” persisted after the repatriation of Soviet tanks (& when the average Joes were queuing around the block to get a bite at the first McDonalds to grace Kafkaville). While the first & only “official” performance by a Punk band during Communism took place in September 1987 when the West Berlin group Die Toten Hosen surreally played on the same bill with Michal David at a nuclear disarmament “Friendship” festival in Plzeň (& still managed to provoke a riot) – the indigenous Punk scene (which had emerged on the fringes of underground rock associated with the Plastics, DG 307, & the Prague “Jazz Section”) dates much further back, from the late ’70s, with bands like Extempore, Plexis, Michael’s Uncle, Zikkurat, Energie G, Antitma 16 & Psí vojáci (Charta 77 signatory Filip Topol’s band), who played a mix of Ramones, Stranglers, Sex Pistols, & The Damned (cribbed from recordings smuggled across the German border).

Throughout the ’80s, Punk outfits found themselves on proscribed lists (the “régime chart”), while also being targeted by constant police intimidation & a media-channelled propaganda campaign (launched through magazines like Tribuna, in which they were depicted as Public Enemy #2 – after “Longhairs,” who remained PE #1). The threat of police violence was real & death-in-custody not uncommon, the last documented case (of dissident Pavel Wonka) occurring in 1988, two years after Gorbachev’s policy of Glasnost. The difficulty of maintaining any kind of alternative community was compounded by living in a society riddled with informers: few locations in the city could serve as meeting points out of view of the general populace & state security, though places like Kampa & Střelecký Island were safer than most, along with a few pubs like Klamovka & U Zpěváčků, & sometimes Klub 007 (Sedmička) at the Strahov dormitories. In addition, for what was predominantly a “youth culture” (Energie G & Antitma 16 were both made up of high school students), there was the problem of mandatory military service (for men), which was only marginally better than doing time in a Communist prison, if potentially more fatal. The situation was hardly better for early ’80s all-women bands like Plyn (later Dybbuk), whose feminist stance was at odds with a “socialist” ideology that expected women to express their “liberation” at the kitchen sink & was in barefaced denial of the chronic levels of domestic violence that occurred in this Workers’ Paradise. Like the kind of Punk, street art & squatting culture that had developed in places like Berlin, the pursuit of gender equality beyond Party platitudes only became possible in Prague after the end of the régime.

Velvet Revolution, November 1989, Herbert Slavík

17 November – the date on which the “Velvet Revolution” began in 1989, eight days after the fall of the Berlin Wall – was, not uncoincidentally, the date first observed in 1941 for International Students’ Day. This event in turn originated with a funeral procession on 15 November 1939 for the murdered Czech medical student Jan Opletal, who’d been shot during an earlier march (in celebration of the anniversary of Czechoslovak Independence, 28 October 1918), which itself had quickly become a protest against Nazi occupation. Among the retaliatory measures taken by the Nazis had been the forced closure of all Czech universities for the duration of the War, the deportation of 1,200 students to Sachsenhausen, & the execution – on 17 November – of nine student leaders & professors. It was a date, therefore, almost overburdened with symbolic significance. When in 1989 the Socialist Union of Youth & a group of independent student leaders organised a mass rally to mark the 50th anniversary of the Nazi executions & to voice their opposition to what, by that time, was already a moribund régime, it was bound to resonate. According to estimations, about 15,000 students took part in the rally which was eventually broken up by riot police on Národní Street, in front of the National Theatre. The brutality of the crackdown provided a catalyst for the “Velvet Revolution” proper, additionally fuelled by one extremely bizarre event which came to assume almost mythic proportions. This was the supposed police murder of one “Milan Růžička,” apparently a student at the Mining University in Ostrava, whose body was left lying in the street when security forces withdrew after a baton-charge on protestors. Footage of the incident existed & news of the “dead student” quickly circulated. This “dead student” turned out to be a person whose real name was Ludvík Zifčák, a senior officer in Department 2, Section II of the Prague StB directorate. Zifčák had been commissioned to “directly penetrate the ‘enemy’ environment of the opposition & student movements.”

His role as the “dead student” was eventually exposed in January 1990, although the purpose of the stunt has never been clarified. When the Communist Party abandoned power on 28 November 1989, the Party General Secretary, Gustáv Husák (who held on to the presidency until December 10) ended up, in yet another bizarre episode, officiating over the appointment of Havel’s new non-communist government. Husák, architect of post-’68 “normalisation” & “Hero of the Soviet Union,” died barely two years later, virtually forgotten. It wouldn’t be until 1991, however, that the Soviet tanks (stationed in the city since ’68) finally left. And even then (& moreso following the “August Coup” of that same year, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was kidnapped by Party hardliners – the “Gang of Eight”), Prague residents continued to harbour suspicions that Russian tanks would soon be back, leading to an atmosphere in the city of more than usual irreality. Meanwhile, on the night of 23 April 1991, artist David Černý, along with a group of accomplices (the “Neostunners”), launched a guerrilla action against the “Monument to the Soviet Tank Crews” located on Kinský Square, painting the tank pink & erected a large middle finger on its turret. Černý was subsequently arrested under pre-existing “public disturbance” laws & the tank was repainted green.

In response, 15 members of the newly-elected parliament, making use of their immunity from prosecution, took it upon themselves to paint the tank pink again. With the resulting controversy, Černý was released, the monument was stripped of its status &, after being repainted green & then pink several more times by competing groups, the tank was eventually removed to a military museum. When real tanks finally did return to the centre of Prague (in 2001), taking up positions at the top of Wenceslas Square almost identical to those occupied by the Soviets in 1968, they weren’t Russian but part of the Czech Republic’s NATO contingent, put there along with a system of concrete barriers in response to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. As a new American vassal state, the tanks had been sent to defend Radio Free Europe’s headquarters from imminent “terrorist” attack. A leftover from the Cold War, RFE finally relocated out of Prague’s centre only in February 2009, but for the intervening years the tanks & barriers remained in place, as if Prague were once again an occupied city. And in case the comparison had been missed, at 7:30a.m. on the 6th of March 2003, in an echo of the self-immolation of Jan Palach in 1969 near the same spot – & only metres from the RFE barricades – 19-year-old student Zdeněk Adamec poured petrol over his clothes & set himself ablaze in protest against the hijacking of democracy by corrupt politicians & corporations, & in opposition to the US-led war in Iraq. Adamec’s action also corresponded with the inauguration of Václav Klaus as president of the Czech Republic (with the backing of parliamentary members of the unreconstructed Communist Party). The media just called him crazy – as, indeed, the official state media once characterized Palach, whose funeral went on to become a highly politicized event & whose death has since gained national significance. Adamec’s funeral, nobody remembers.

David Černý, “Pink Tank,” 1991

When the borders opened after ’89, & with infrastructural chaos reigning in the city, Prague developed a major live music culture, with semi-legal & often short-lived venues appearing on an almost daily basis. While Berlin was embracing techno, Prague became a magnet for post-Punk & Indie rock groups, along with a steady stream of refugees from the war in the Balkans who infused the scene with a radical, post-Cold War impetus. Dozens of squats existed briefly in the city’s suburbs & downtown, adjacent to such well-known landmarks as Charles Bridge (including Asylum, a performance space on Betlémská Street established by the poet Jay Godwin & home to the Electric Circus). Many of the buildings that housed them had been left in legal limbo following the ‘89 revolution & the ensuing restitution laws which sought to return formerly nationalised properties to their pre-1948 owners. Among these was the Art Deco Café Slavia, located opposite the National Theatre, a centre-piece of Prague’s pre-communist literary culture. Slavia was closed for lengthy periods throughout the early ‘90s, under administration by the Academy of Performing Arts. On 8 November 1993, the “Society of the Friends of Café Slavia” (John Bruce Shoemaker, Glen Emery, Marek Gregor, Ladislav Provan) gained access to the building & squatted the café for two weeks – attempting to restore the café’s former ethos – until the authorities had it closed down again on the 20th (it re-opened definitively only in 1997). As the ’90s progressed, an increasing number of bars & clubs opened in neglected buildings across the city. Many of these became well-known, like Roxy (on Dlouhá Street), Klub Stalin (a.k.a. Pod Stalinem, located under the demolished Stalin Monument in Letná, a space now adorned with an enormous metronome), Bunkr (in a former Civil Guard bunker & nuclear shelter, along with Radio 1, at Lodecká 2 in Nové Město), Jo’s Bar & Garáž (opened in 1992 by Canadian Glen Emery a former resident of the ČSSR in the ‘70s & ‘80s on Malostranské náměstí), Repre (briefly located downstairs in the pre-restoration Obecní Dům – co-owned by John Bruce Shoemaker, frequent sponsor of Twisted Spoon Press, Trafika, Optimism & Think magazines), Tam Tam (located on the second floor in Slovanský Dům, now a boutique mall at Na Příkopě 22 – operated by Christoph Brandl), Klub X (first in Palác Metro on Národní, then in the basement of Dětský Dům, across the street from Tam Tam at Na Příkopě 15) & Chapeau Rouge (on Jakubská). The Thirsty Dog (not to be confused with the present Žíznivý Pes), a bar which opened on the western side of Obecní Dům for only 18 months during 1993 & 1994, achieved particular notoriety before being shutdown on 7 June by city health inspectors: Allen Ginsberg read there, Joe Strummer performed there, & Nick Cave wrote a song about it for his album Let Love In.

Through its past connection with the Beats & the Manhattan post-Punk scene (via Ginsberg, Ed Sanders, Ivan Král), Prague in the ’90s – with its decaying façades under layers of brown coal-soot, its subway gloom, its whores all along Národní & Wenceslas Square, its abandoned Trabbis & half-toned Škodas jacked-up on bricks, its dirt-cheap apartments, Monopoly-money economy & sense of free-for-all – seemed to represent an extended riff on the theme of ’70s New York via ’80s Berlin. Along with Cave & Strummer, there were Blixa Bargeld, Diamanda Galás, Brian Eno, as well as long-term habitués like former Khmer Rouge frontman Phil Shoenfelt. Shoenfelt, who toured Prague in 1994, formed Southern Cross with members of Tichá Dohoda there in 1996, & later toured Europe with Nikki Sudden (recording Golden Vanity in Berlin in 1998), before joining the Berlin-based outfit Fatal Shore with Bruno Adams & Chris Hughes (both formerly of Once Upon A Time). Fatal Shore produced four CDs before reforming, after the death of Bruno Adams, as Dim Locator – named after a Rowland S. Howard song on the Birthday Party’s Junkyard LP. Khmer Rouge (Shoenfelt, Barry “Scratchy” Myers (tour DJ for The Clash), Marcia Schofield (later keyboardist with The Fall) & drummer Paul Garisto (Iggy Pop, The Psychedelic Furs)) had been managed in the early ’80s by former-Warhol Factory photographer Nat Finkelstein & produced by Tom Scully, & Shoenfelt brought the ethos of post-Punk, No Wave, Noise & experimental New York music to a scene that was already synthesising Berlin & Balkan influences, with bands like The Ecstasy of St Teresa, Colorfactory, Rány těla, Moimir Papalescu & the Nihilists (later Kill the Dandies!), Liquid Harmony, Ohm Square, Support Lesbiens, Zuby Nehty, & eccentricities like Kollaps, the Pazvuky Noise Project (PNP) & Blaq Mummy (once described as “Einstürzende Neubauten sideswiping the Cramps on a deathride to Sun Ra”).

Vincent Farnsworth, Blaq Mummy concert, 2012, Robert Carrithers

Going by the name Reverend Feedback, former-PNP & Blaq Mummy frontman Vincent Farnsworth was a poet who Tom Clark had referred to as “brute sage of destiny” – & the magazine he managed with Gwendolyn Albert throughout the ’90s, Jejune: america eats its young, was one of dozens of art, lit & otherwise unclassifiable zines & magazines produced during the “Prague Renaissance” & in the wake of samizdat precursors like Revolver Revue – including Divus, Yazzyk, X-Ink, Umělec, Gristle Floss, [unpronounceable symbol], One Eye Open/Jedním Okem, Knee-Deep in Rivers of Rage… Farnsworth, along with Shoenfelt (whose novel, Junkie Love, appeared from Twisted Spoon in 1997) & writers like Lukáš Tomin, Katka Piňosová, Laura Conway, Thor Garcia, Šimon Šafránek, Věra Chase, Vít Kremlička, Pierre Daguin, translators like Alex Zucker, artists & photographers like Markéta Othová, Lucia Nimcová & Veronika Bromová, publishers like Ivan Mečl & Howard Sidenberg, musicians like Dan Kenny & Ken Ganfield, filmmakers like Tally Mulligan, theatre directors like Richard Toth, performers like Curtis Jones & others, comprised a diffuse experimental scene distributed mostly around the downtown, Letná & Žižkov neighbourhoods & drawn to the legacies of Czech New Wave cinema, Jan & Eva Švankmajer’s neo-Surrealism, the photomontage of Prague Dadaists like John Heartfield, & the general influx of ideas from all corners – a broad cross-over between music, art, writing, film & performance, forming a kind of meta-underground to the whole “Left Bank of the ’90s” phenomenon & the remnants of ex-dissident self-mythologising. In 1997 the radical neo-Duchampian group Pode Bal was founded with the intention of re-politicising the art scene in the face of post-’89 tendencies in many areas of society (including the arts) towards introspection & amnesia, circulating slogans like “Pode Bal warns that smoking non-state-owned drugs can damage your freedom” & performing critical interventions like “GEN – Gallery of Established Nomenclature” aimed at exposing “the ever-present totalitarian trends in Czech society,” replete with a video of riverside daubers transposing the view of the Castle into easel paintings of swastikas. In 1998, Bil Brown, Jenny Smith & Jenne Magno founded the Pražská škola poetiky (Prague School of Poetics), in collaboration with the Schule für Dichtung in Vienna & writers/performers Anne Waldman, Jerome Rothenberg, Bernadette Mayer & Lydia Lunch. “There was a feeling at that time,” Magno recounted in a 2010 interview, “that Prague was the vortex.” And while that sense of moment was soon to pass, it did so by absorbing into itself a deeper sense of history no longer defined by post-Wall euphoria or the opportunism that followed it. As Ide Hintz, co-founder of the Schule für Dictung, noted at the time, “Central Europe has always been & always will be a genuine transmitter & translator between cultures & languages (traditional & utopian)… The Velvet Revolution – together with other post-Stalinist revolutions – was prepared mostly by poets, artists & intellectuals.”

By September 2000, however (after Y2K had failed to bring the about the End of History – just as liberal democracy had failed to do in 1989 & the Cold War had somehow failed to do during any of the preceding forty-odd years), the crowds in Wenceslas Square would be lobbing Molotov cocktails at Czech riot police in protest against rampant global capitalism, in the form of the World Bank & IMF. Unlike in ’89, cobblestones would be ripped from pavements & hurled from barricades, with bands of protestors smashing every McDonald storefront in town. It was the logical conclusion of a critique that formed a parallel polis within the “parallel polis,” & was perhaps most forcefully articulated in the last decade of communist normalisation in Robert Kalivoda’s Emancipation & Utopia (published in German in 1982). The “formulation of the emancipation ideal,” wrote Kalivoda, “must pass into a far more concrete, not easily attainable sphere. At this level it is mostly a matter of life & death… it is no longer just a wish.” During the “Days of Rage” anti-globalisation protests, delegates to the World Bank/IMF summit held at Prague’s communist-era monstrosity, the so-called Palace of Culture in Vyšehrad, needed to be evacuated by police, despite efforts to cordon off the entire district. While the protests descended into running battles between demonstrators & police throughout the centre of Prague, the city itself seemed to author a kind of parallel universe scenario in time-delay of the protest march of 17 November 1989. These events, however much politicians tried to link them to foreign provocateurs, drew from wellsprings of deep social discontent within Prague’s increasingly ostracised “minority” cultures dissatisfied with the “false choice” between globalisation or reactionary nationalism.

Anti-Globalisation Protests in Prague, September 2000, Michael McGuerty

Jakub Polák, a prominent Czech anarchist & campaigner against racism & for Romani rights, was a cofounder of the 1989 strike committee that contributed to the Velvet Revolution & afterwards founded & edited A-Kontra magazine, the central mouthpiece of the Czech anarchist movement. During the ’90s he was particularly active in the fight against the neo-Nazi resurgence in Central Europe & was a founder of Prague’s first post-Revolution squat in 1990 (on Podplukovníka Sochora Street in Holešovice, close to Vltavská metro & to Bubny train station – the central deportation point during WW2 for Prague’s Jewish population, organised into transports by the local collaborationist Council). Unlike in Berlin, the Prague authorities maintained a general hostility to squatters, attracting accusations in the late ’90s of complicity with neo-Nazi groups involved in violent attacks on squats in Prague & elsewhere – a pattern that has repeated itself more recently at “Klinika” in Prague 3. Some squats, like the one coordinated by artists Igor Tchai in the Vršovice district, served as ad hoc artist-run exhibition & performance centres. But though initiatives aimed at promoting public art in neglected “private” spaces were supported by the likes of the Soros Foundation, nothing of the character of “Kunsthaus” Tacheles was ever permitted to develop in Prague. The closest approximations were Ladronka, Zlatá Loď, Buďánka, Sochorka & Villa Milada (a dilapidated pre-war house flanked by communist-era highrise dormitories across the river from the recently re-designated “Franz Kafka” train station, which soon after its occupation on the 1 May 1998 acquired a reputation as a centre of Prague’s second-wave post-’89 counterculture). By June 2009, Villa Milada was the city’s last remaining squat from the ’90s, when council authorities moved in to evict its inhabitants. Three years later, the building (originally slated for demolition, but still standing) was temporarily reoccupied by a group of some 30 squatters before riot police again intervened.

While no visible squatting or street art scenes existed in Prague before the fall of Communism, oppositional art frequently took the form of in situ “Aktionism,” such as the work of Jiří Kovanda, Zorka Ságlová, & Milan Knížák (along with Western Fluxus agents like Jeff Berner, Serge Oldenbourg & Ben Vautier) in the ’60s & ’70s – & later in the form of semi-legal exhibitions like the “Confrontation” series organised by Jiří David & Stanislav Diviš from 1984, representing a new wave of young artists situated between the musical underground & Punk scenes, comparable to the Times Square & New York/New Wave shows of 1980-1 (of which news had slowly filtered through). The one major manifestation of “street art” prior to 1989 was the “Lennon Wall,” at Velkopřevorské náměstí – a graffiti pilgrimage site in the ’80s for dissident “Lennonism” adorned with a frequently-repainted stencil of the face of John Lennon & comparable, in its iconicity, to Keith Haring’s 300-metre Berlin Wall mural (1986) & the “East Side Gallery” in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg. For obvious reasons, street art only began manifesting at the beginning for the ’90s, with artists like Rake, Mascee, Chise, Vladimir 518, & as elsewhere has since become semi-officialised in parts of the city. Unlike Berlin & New York, however, Prague never developed a major commercial art industry into which street art could be readily expropriated, & underground tendencies have continued long after ’89, from expressway flyovers & underpasses, to hole-in-the-wall galleries like Display (now Tranzitdisplay) & the more recent neo-Dadaist anti-gallery “The Solution” (run by former Cabaret Voltaire squatter, Mark Divo), alongside the few large-scale semi-commercial venues like David Černý’s Meet Factory & Petr Hájek’s Chemistry Gallery.

Gustáv Husák street art, 2006

The forces of capital, being by several orders less expansive (though no less prevalent) in Prague than in Berlin & New York, have accordingly yet to discover a compelling need to disinter the remnants of the city’s “second culture” from the margins of its Faustian credit economy. Left thus to pursue a troglodyte programme of subsistence-subversion in that savage zone between touristed dreck & institutional inertia, the fate of this “parallel polis” is doubtless more desirable than those outright expropriations by global entertainment & real-estate cartels that have elsewhere so comprehensively asset-stripped Western Culture down to the very last “rampart of bad faith, senility & cowardice” as Breton 80 years ago predicted – such that commodification itself is made to appear as the only remaining “revolutionary” path available. Beneath a skein of postmodern corporatism, an other Prague indeed still exists, the last underground perhaps: an underground of more fugitive than temporary autonomous zones, of sub-subcultural alienation, of elective affinities with a “movement” whose bastions elsewhere have all but been industrially cleansed-out-of-existence, but whose forms nevertheless persist, whose lingering “poetic genius” still disturbs the drift of millennial fallout like a wounded vengeful spirit trailing noise across the cosmic TV screen, jamming the signal, desynchronising the image, refusing to be bored into submission by the self-evangelising spectacle of those-who-own & those-who-must-be-obeyed.

References

1. Archie Patterson, Eurock: European Rock & the Second Culture (Fresno: Eurock, 2002).
2. Ivan Klíma, Introduction, Description of a Struggle (London: Picador, 1994) xix.
3. Ed Vulliamy, “1989 & All That: Plastic People of the Universe & the Velvet Revolution,” Guardian newspaper (6 September 2009).
4. “Y(oung) A(mericans in) P(rague),” The New York Times (December 12, 1993).
5. The height of this phenomenon came with the US cable television pilot for a resident sitcom to be called “Prague 1,” produced by screenwriter Eric Stunzi in May 1993.
6. Bruce Sterling, “Triumph of the Plastic People,” Wired 3.01 (1993).
7. Alan Levy, Editorial, The Prague Post (1 October, 1991).
8. Anna Šabatová, “From 1968 to Charter 77 to 1989 & Beyond,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (May 31, 2005).
9. Filip Fuchs, “The History of Czechoslovak Punk,” DIY Conspiracy (January 11, 2016).
10. See Michaela Pixová, “Alternative Culture in a Socialist City: Punkers & Long-haired People in Prague in the 1980s,” Český Lid 100.3 (2013).
11. The Return of Král Majáles: Prague’s International Literary Renaissance, 1990-2010, ed. Louis Armand (Prague: Litteraria Pragensia, 2010).
12. See Robert Kalivoda, “Emancipation und Utopie,” Utopieforschung. Interdisziplinäre Studien zur neuzeitliche Utopie (Stuttgart: Vosskamp, 1982) 307.
13. See Michaela Pixová & Arnošt Novák, “Prague Post-1989: Boom, Decline & Renaissance,” Baltic Worlds (June 23, 2016).

*“Reactionary Sentimentalism” is excerpted from the Introduction to City Primeval: New York, Berlin, Prague, an anthology of underground writing, film, photography & art, curated by Robert Carrithers & Louis Armand, published by Litteraria Pragensia this October, with contributions by Bruno Adams, Penny Arcade, Dale Ashmun, J.Jackie Baier, Markéta Baňková, Varhan Orchestrovič Bauer, Lina Bertucci, Gaby Bíla-Günther, Mykel Board, Victor Bockris, Christoph Brandl, Gary Ray Bugarcic, David Černý, Roman Černý, Michal Cihlář, Antonio Cossa, William Coupon, Max Dax, Christoph Dreher, Sara Driver, Glen Emery, Vincent Farnsworth, Nat Finkelstein, Roxanne Fontana, Thor Garcia, Susanne Glück, Carola Goellner, Anthony Haden Guest, Carl Haber, Jere Harshman, Henry Hills, Nhoah Hoena, Michael Holman, John Hood, Chris Hughes, Jolana Izbická, Timo Jacobs, Bethany Eden Jacobson, Tobiáš Jirous, Bettina Köster, Julius Klein, Hubert Ketzschmar, Jaromír Lelek, Lydia Lunch, Rinat Magsumov, Peter Milne, Steve Morell, Mona Mur, Julia Murakami, Shalom Neuman, Paul Pacey, Puma Perl, Rudolf Piper, Rudi Protrudi, Mark Reeder, Marcia Resnik, Ingrid Rudefors, Ilse Ruppert, Šimon Šafránek, Honza Sakař, Oliver Schütz, Marcia Schofield, Tom Scully, Semra Sevin, Phil Shoenfelt, Peter Smith, Azalea So Sweet, Mark Steiner, Kenton Turk, Andre Werner, Ian Wright, Nick Zedd, Dave Zijlstra, Richard & Winter Zoli, Miron Zownir.

Read Part One here.
Read Part Two here.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Louis Armand is the author of eight novels, including The Combinations (2016), Cairo (2014), and Breakfast at Midnight (2012). In addition, he has published ten collections of poetry – most recently, East Broadway Rundown (2015) & The Rube Goldberg Variations (2015) – & is the author of Videology (2015) & The Organ-Grinder’s Monkey: Culture after the Avantgarde (2013). He lives in Prague.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, September 30th, 2017.