Streets, parks, squares, public transport, public buildings, and other urban spaces are not mere set pieces for audiovisual artists – they often become distinctive sources of inspiration for and the subject matter of audiovisual works. Artists cast doubt on established social rules in the city, reflecting its architectural or urbanist character or capturing the historical memory of sites and events.
All these aspects come together in a film titled Underground, made by the photographer and filmmaker Jan Ságl in 1972. The film uses a single static shot to capture an infinite line of passengers disembarking from the first moving staircase in the country. The crowd of travellers is carried forward by a seemingly unstoppable force, without the possibility of stepping out of the mainstream – a symbolic image of the beginnings of normalisation in 1970s Czechoslovakia. Artist Irena Gosmanová a.k.a. Pigi also confronted viewers with the reality of normalisation in her film Pohádka pro šílence [A Fairy-Tale for Madmen], which takes place in 1980s Prague. Society is likened to animals locked up in zoos – a solitary wolf escapes the zoo and wanders through the city, entirely oblivious to official social developments.
The ideological conditioning of behaviour in urban spaces was tested in Grátis punč [Punch Gratis] by artists Eva Jiřička and Katharina Cibulka, who offered free hot drinks at the Christmas market in Vienna. Despite the kind demeanour of both artists, the other stallholders were displeased by their activity, as the artists were bringing down their sales. The commercialisation of the urban environment also appears as one of the motifs in Oskar Helcel’s It’s Buildable, whose protagonist is Zaha Hadid, an architect of worldwide renown. The artist creates a digital identity for the deceased artist, inviting us to reflect upon the realisation, currently in the planning stages, of her controversial development project in the centre of Prague.
Jan Ságl: Underground
21 min, 1972
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Underground is one of the few films made by Jan Ságl outside his documentation of the underground scene. In a single static shot, it captures the endless disembarking of passengers of the first mobile staircase in Czechoslovakia, at the Můstek metro station in Prague. In addition to the clear context of the structural film (a fixed composition in several planes of movement), however, Ságl also exposes a social theme. The crowd of passengers is carried forward by a seemingly unstoppable force without the option of stepping out of the mainstream – an image of the early 1970s, the beginnings of the normalisation era. The film was also repeatedly screened as a visual accompaniment to concerts by The Plastic People of the Universe.
Pigi: Pohádka pro šílence [A Fairy-Tale for Madmen]
23 min, 1985
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Pohádka pro šílence [A Fairy-Tale for Madmen] begins like a fable. The protagonist, the Wolf, first escapes from an imaginary animal republic at the Prague Zoo. He moves through the city in human form, disguised as a clown, in an animal mask, and later as a decadent young woman. He is confronted with the reality of late socialism: he visits the Spartakiad mass gymnastics event, an amusement park, and the dance hall at the Výstaviště exhibition ground. At the end of the film, he takes on the form of a bird and voluntarily dies under the pressure of hopelessness. The film authentically reflects the desperate atmosphere of the timeless late ’80s, combining documentary approaches with stylised scenes. It uses these means to capture the romantic conflict between free individuality and a resigned society. The film was made in a manner typical of Pigi – inserting a fictional character into the authentic context of the period.
Martin Ježek: Dům daleko [Faraway House]
25 min, 2003
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Dům daleko [Faraway House] is a cinematic interpretation of an eponymous work of experimental prose by Věra Linhartová made by the filmmaker Martin Ježek and camera operator Jakub Halousek. The cinematic language and experimental form of the original text stand next to each other in autonomous positions. The filmmakers selected the northern-Bohemian city of Most as their filming location, symbolic for its mining history. The defining criteria were the duration of the film and the length of film material: the film was shot on Super8 and the camera moved in a spiral that coiled around the city. The starting point was a surface mine, now an artificial lake. An indelible part of the filming process was a performative reading of the literary foundation directly on site. The structure of the text thus directly influences the structure of the cinematic material collected. In the case of Dům daleko, every hundred steps corresponded to one paragraph. In the following phase of the process, before any qualitative selection of shots or dramaturgical intervention could take place, the material was reshot in 16 mm format.
Eva Jiřička: Grátis punč [Punch Gratis]
6 min, 2006
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The event Grátis punč [Punch Gratis] took place on December 18th, 2005 at the Christmas market in Vienna. Artists Eva Jiřička and Katharina Cibulka, whom Jiřička met during her studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, decided to distribute a traditional Christmas hot drink for free at the market. Their aim was to test the limits of the advent atmosphere in society. Jiřička and Cibulka arrived intentionally dressed in light fur hats and coats with the aim of behaving as pleasantly as possible. The other stallholders, however, aggressively rejected their behaviour, as the artists were hurting their sales. In other events, Eva Jiřička also explored the stereotypes of urban behaviour and communication, e.g. Merkmale, 2007; Projížďka po Bahnhofstrasse [A Ride Along Bahnhofstrasse], 2008; Zasedací pořádek [Seating Plan], 2008, ao.), but Grátis punč remains the tensest in regards to the responses of random participants.
Oskar Helcel: It’s Buildable
8 min, 2021
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The audiovisual work It’s Buildable was created as Oskar Helcel’s diploma thesis at the Department of Photography of the Film and TV Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. The protagonist of Helcel’s film is Zaha Hadid, an architect known around the world, whom the artist lets roam (through deepfake technology) through an overgrown patch in the centre of Prague, where her proposed architectural project is to be built. The title of the work refers to Hadid’s statement in relation to one of her problematic projects, inviting us to reflect on the proposed realisation of this controversial development project through a digital appropriation of the identity of the deceased architect.