Etude

Tomáš Pospiszyl

Jiří Kovanda, Contact
Jiří Kovanda, Contact, Vodičkova Street in Prague, September 3, 1977
Courtesy of the artist
Czechoslovak Secret Police
Czechoslovak Secret Police, Photos from Operation Alex, 26 April 1980
Courtesy Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, Prague

Several writers have already noticed the similarity between the documentation of performances by Czech artist Jiří Kovanda and the photographs taken by communist secret police of those being followed. In fact, they seem almost identical. The pictures taken by the police using hidden cameras capture the environment of the hard-line communist days of Prague of the 1970s and early 1980s. The secret agent follows an individual who cannot be visibly distinguished from the other citizens. It is only from the records that we learn that this individual, seemingly doing everyday things, is in fact committing acts against the state. Sending letters, meeting with friends in restaurants or picking up visitors from the airport are later viewed as the distribution of subversive materials, gathering for counter-revolutionary reasons or establishing contacts with foreign spies. The photograph serves here to document criminal acts, which are not apparent at first glance. It is important that the photograph capture the environment in which the act takes place, and that it include the other individuals in contact with the person followed. It is therefore necessary that the photograph contain information on the place and time, and to assure that the other people appearing in it are identified. Photography only becomes proof of the crime with the additional interpretation of the captured facts, with an analysis of the entire police record. What is most important for a communist court of law is the real or fabricated intention of the acts of those being followed, and even their class or social affiliation.

Many of Kovanda’s performances took place at roughly the same time and in the same places in Prague — where people were going about their everyday business. Those passing by never even expected that an artistic performance was being played out around them. Kovanda brushed against people, hid on the sidewalks for no apparent reason, or acted according to a predetermined scenario that did not differ from everyday behaviour. All of these performances were documented by a non-professional photographer. Kovanda then glued the photograph on a piece of paper, and beneath it wrote the title of the performance, its physical location, the time it took place, and described the scenario. Only after reading this “record” is it made clear that the activity was indeed an art action. Brushing against people, hiding and walking back and forth have become the work of an artist, and therefore we must perceive and assess them as art.

Two types of hidden scenarios were thus being played out concurrently in Prague’s public spaces: one led by the secret police, the other by unofficial artists. Even though they were based on completely different motivations, their photographs and accompanying texts show a number of similarities. We first have to learn to read the secret police records, just like the language of post-war art. Even though we are familiar with this language, we should be wary of it. Many of those who were being photographed by the secret police knew that they were being followed. They modified their behaviour to prevent being persecuted or to confuse the police in different ways. Kovanda knew that he was being photographed, for he had himself invited his friend to his inconspicuous performances. Nevertheless, he acted as if he were not aware of his friend’s existence.

Admittedly, these similarities and discrepancies are for the most part random. The police record was a collective product; Kovanda’s documentation was part of the artist’s work. Neither were originally available to the public, or if so, only shared with a select group of viewers. Even though Kovanda’s work may not appear so, it was an art piece from the very outset. The possible interpretation of the police record as an artwork comes up against a number of essential limits that shift such an interpretation to the level of mere intellectual tightrope walking. The records of the communist police are still quite combustible in Eastern Europe. They continue to be perceived as evidence of individual guilt. Even though the volumes of records are composed of individual, ostensibly authentic records and reports, few people bring themselves to admit that they are, in their essence, a work of fiction in which those who were the objects of interest were viewed in advance through the deformed lens of political interest. 

Kovanda himself did not derive his 1970s performances from the secret police’s tactics, however. Though from today’s perspective it may even seem hard to believe, he considered them to be apolitical and did not consciously react to the events of the day with them. Today we interpret them as individual artistic expressions that arose from the artist’s inner needs, as well as an effective metaphor of personal resistance against totalitarianism. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that Jiří Kovanda’s work has become so popular.