When Civic Forum emerged as the driving political force of the Velvet Revolution, its views were often relayed to the world by Michal Horacek. Then a 37-year-old journalist and co-founder (with singer Michael Kocab) of the civic initiative Most (Bridge), Horacek was a spokesman for Civic Forum and a key figure in talks with the tottering Communist regime. He would go on to become a successful lyricist, publicist, businessman, and public intellectual.
Horacek was never a darling of the Communist Party. At 22 he was expelled from journalism studies and jailed for forging an exit visa for the United States. Living in mid-70s Czechoslovakia, he says now, was like “living in a forced-labor camp, where one was constantly being discouraged from making a personal dream come true, even discouraging from dreaming itself. Risking a jail sentence then did not – and still doesn’t – strike me as risking so much.“
After his release, Horacek obtained a fake certification of mental illness, which enabled him avoid the unwanted attention from the authorities. In 1977 he started publishing abroad, and he eventually managed to secure a World Press Institute scholarship, which he used to study at Macalester College in Minnesota in 1984. Upon his return he went to work for the magazine Mlady svet (Young World), published articles abroad, and produced albums with the composer Petr Hapka.
Horacek continued making music after the revolution (his latest collaboration with Hapka, the verse opera Kudykam, premiered in October at Prague’s State Opera); a horse-racing enthusiast, he also founded Fortuna, the country’s first legal bookmaking firm. More recently he has entered academia as a teacher and doctoral candidate (in anthropology). In this e-mail interview with TOL contributor Lucie Kavanova, Horacek discussed his memories of 1989 and its impact on his life.
TOL: How did you manage to get your articles published abroad before 1989? What did you write about?
Horacek: I simply wrote them using my typewriter, put the result in an envelope, and mailed it to Australia, U.K., U.S.A. Such envelopes might have been opened by a secret-service officer from time to time – but that was not my problem. My problem was to put a feature together. In fact, all of my articles reached the magazines I was writing for. From the point of view of the Communist regime, they were harmless: I was writing about the history of horse racing and the thoroughbred horse.
How did your studies at the Macalester College change your life? How did you manage to get the Communist Party´s permission to study abroad then?
The Soviet Union and its satellites signed the Helsinki agreement. Therefore they had to observe the mutual visits of the closest kin, provided the sibling or parent lived in the West “legally” (meaning they did not “desert the camp of peace and socialism”). I was simply lucky. My sister got married and was legally living in France. On paper, I was going to visit her. In fact, I went to study in America. Those studies changed my life fundamentally; I got introduced to a world in which truth was observed as something not owned by a central committee of a party, but as an ideal courted and individually sought by anyone who felt like courting and seeking it.
Did you face any problems from the party when writing your columns called “Letters of Love and Hate” for Mlady Svet?
Sure I did. The magazine was being published by the Socialist Youth Union and many a member of its leadership protested against what I was writing. But I got another lucky break: the editor-in-chief was a stubborn, weathered woman capable of defending what she had approved of (my writing).
Where were you when the Berlin Wall fell, in terms of both your life and also literally, when it happened?
I was writing for what was then Czechoslovakia’s most popular weekly magazine, Mladý svět (circulation over 500,000) and also writing song lyrics. Two of my albums co-written with the composer Petr Hapka became best-sellers (selling over 150 000 copies each – something unthinkable today). I was living in three-bedroom apartment in Prague. When the Berlin Wall was being taken down I was busy preparing MOST, the civic initiative looking for providing grounds for eventual dialogue between the Communist Party and its opponents.
What were your thoughts and feelings at the time? What impact did you expect it to have on your country and you personally?
Thoughts were few, feelings many. In a time of such an upheaval the welled-up dreams burst the dam. I expected what I had never been able to truly expect: living in a country respecting the individual, observing the free-market rules, offering anybody a chance to seek and achieve a true knowledge, read whatever I feel like reading, formulating an opinion and freely stat[ing] it . . . and much more. All of that was eventually fully achieved. I do feel lucky.
What do you feel now when looking back at the Most initiative?
Pride. We did bring the two antagonistic parties together for talks, minimizing the very real chance of a bloodshed. And we did shake the monolithic nature of a totalitarian regime which can be totalitarian only when talking in one voice. When Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec did sit at the same table with Vaclav Havel, who had been jailed only months before, that monolith was gone. And, with it, the grip of the Communist Party over our lives.
Had the wall and the regime not fallen, how would your life have been different?
It would be a life of an aging inmate, frustrated at the loss of chances one living in a free world may expect to take. I would never [have achieved] material wealth, never traveled the world, never studied anthropology, never written what I eventually did write. Thank God for the miracle of anno domini 1989.
On 17 November 1989, police in Prague cracked down on a student demonstration, triggering 10 days of mass protest and political action that peacefully brought down Czechoslovakia’s communist regime. To mark the anniversary, all this week TOL features prominent Czechs offering their recollections of the Velvet Revolution. Today: human rights activist and former student leader Simon Panek.
I was completely out of money. I’d just got back from Siberia, traveling overland and rushing to get back in time for the demonstration on 28 October. On the 17th of November I was in South Bohemia earning money. I heard what had happened on Radio Free Europe that night and returned to Prague the next day. Students from the Drama Faculty suggested a strike, and word spread quickly. Sitting in one of the faculties in the middle of the night on Sunday [19 November], we drafted our first statement. After that I went home, put on a warm coat, boots, and stuffed a few pairs of socks into my pockets. My father said to me, “Take enough warm clothes because you might not return for days, once you start.” I left home on Monday morning, and did not come back for three weeks.
On Monday morning we held a meeting outside the faculty. My friends found a rubbish bin, and I climbed up and asked the students if they agreed to a strike, which they did. After that I went to the Drama Faculty, which became our headquarters. On the second day of the strike I was elected co-chairman of the Central Strike Committee. Continue reading …
Even though you couldn’t tell from media coverage in the region and internationally, 20 or so years ago communism collapsed in the former Yugoslavia, too.
The 20th anniversary of the momentous events of 1989 in Eastern Europe has been rightly framed mostly in celebratory terms. But there are very few things to celebrate in this regard in the former Yugoslavia.
The main action of 1989 was indeed elsewhere. The stumbling of the Yugoslav League of Communists in the late 1980s and its definitive end in January 1990 fade into near insignificance when looked upon against the backdrop of the fall of the Berlin Wall or the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia or indeed the overthrow of the Ceausescu regime in Romania.
Yet it would be wrong to say that Yugoslavia was one of those countries that the collapse of communism just happened to. Continue reading …
On 17 November 1989, police in Prague cracked down on a student demonstration, triggering 10 days of mass protest and political action that peacefully brought down Czechoslovakia’s communist regime. To mark the anniversary, all this week TOL features prominent Czechs offering their recollections of the Velvet Revolution. Today: photographer Jaroslav Kucera.
I was living in a little flat near Narodni trida with my partner, Marketa. On 17 November and we were walking nearby when we saw a big demonstration. My partner wanted to go over, but I said, “No, I’ve seen all of this before, I know what it’s like.”
In 1969 I was at a demonstration on the one-year anniversary of the Soviet occupation when I was arrested by the secret police. First they took us to the police station, and then to Pankrac prison. The guards lined both sides of a passage with truncheons, and we were made to run through while they clubbed us. They repeated it five times, and many of the other prisoners broke down mentally or physically. Then they tried to make us name names. Continue reading …
On 17 November 1989, police in Prague cracked down on a student demonstration, triggering 10 days of mass protest and political action that peacefully brought down Czechoslovakia’s communist regime. To mark the anniversary, all this week TOL features prominent Czechs offering their recollections of the Velvet Revolution. Today: novelist Ivan Klima.
There are moments in history when a spirit falls down on the mob, and people are filled with joy and hope. It happens in every revolution. The feeling has no connection to the real world. It was the same in the French Revolution and in the Russian Revolution. There were even many happy Nazis. Continue reading …
On 17 November 1989, police in Prague cracked down on a student demonstration, triggering 10 days of mass protest and political action that peacefully brought down Czechoslovakia’s communist regime. To mark the anniversary, all this week TOL features prominent Czechs offering their recollections of the Velvet Revolution. Today: author, commentator, and Catholic priest Tomas Halik.
We started preparing for the canonization of St. Agnes of Prague in 1987, but there was a delay, and so the canonization was in November ’89. When we left Prague for Rome there was already something in the air.
One evening in Rome, I was out walking, although the weather was terrible. Down a little street I ran into [Archbishop of Paris] Cardinal Lustiger, whom I had met once before in Prague. He said, “Try to contact the Holy Father,” so I wrote a letter. I went to dinner with John Paul II on the day before the fall of the Berlin Wall. He had been on the news that day saying, “There will be an end to communism. You will be free.” I said, “Holy Father, I don’t believe it. I think that in five or 10 years, maybe it might happen.” But he insisted that it would come soon. Continue reading …
Hungarian politician and international banker, 1948-
On 11 September 1989, thousands of East Germans began pouring out of Hungary and across Austria, en route to new lives in West Germany. Opening the border was the latest in a series of bold moves that would define, and mark the end of, Hungary’s unique brand of “goulash communism.”
The man most responsible for that event, Miklos Nemeth, had become prime minister at age 40 in November 1988, six months after the doddering Communist Party chief Janos Kadar resigned amid a devastating debt crisis. Nemeth and other “radicals” (such as future prime minister Gyula Horn) were keen to take advantage of Mikhail Gorbachev’s loosening of the reins and accelerate Hungary’s gradual shift away from centralized political and economic control. After visiting Gorbachev to check that the Soviets would not crack down, the reformers began lifting border controls in May 1989.
That summer, many East Germans holidaying at Lake Balaton decided not to go home, and thousands more headed for Hungary. By 25 August, over the heads of the East German leadership, Nemeth had struck a deal with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to welcome any East Germans already in Hungary. The move effectively tore down the Iron Curtain, threw the East German communist chiefs into terminal confusion, and helped galvanize Czechs and Slovaks to launch mass protests of their own a week after the Berlin Wall fell. (As they flew home after the meeting with Kohl, Nemeth recalled in a 1993 interview, one of his advisers mused that the day’s events could lead to redrawing the map of Europe – in five or 10 years.)
Hailing from a small village, Nemeth was little known outside Hungary before being named prime minister. He served only 18 months before sliding back into relative obscurity, taking a job as a vice president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. He made a final foray into politics after leaving the bank in 2000, campaigning for the leadership of the Socialist Party. He lost out to Peter Medgyessy, who had served in Nemeth’s cabinet as finance minister. The Socialists went on to win the 2002 elections and preside over Hungary’s EU entry.
Amid this year’s anniversary celebrations Nemeth has emerged again as an eminence grise of the Cold War’s end. At an event in September commemorating the Hungarian-German accord, former Prime Minister Viktor Orban of the nationalist-conservative Fidesz party – no friend to anyone on the left – praised Nemeth’s “chivalrousness and generosity,” noting in particular his refusal of Kohl’s 1989 offer of financial aid in exchange for opening the border. On 9 November, Nemeth and Lech Walesa toppled the first in a chain of giant dominoes marking the route of the vanished Berlin Wall as dozens of statesmen, many of whom likely didn’t recognize the former Hungarian PM, looked on.
But as Nemeth told the BBC recently, the approval he appreciated most came far from the spotlight of Budapest or Berlin. “After I had resigned as prime minister in 1990, I went back to my home village,” he said. “And my father clapped me on the back and said, ‘Son, well done, I’m still holding my head up high whenever I walk through the gates to my front door.’”
For some prominent film festivals in Central and Eastern Europe, the 20th anniversary of the mostly peaceful revolutions that emancipated the region from the crumbling clutches of communism were an occasion to dust off old documentary reels.
February’s Berlin International Film Festival offered a retrospective look at the years before and after the change, poetically titled “After Winter Comes Spring,” featuring, among other works, Helke Misselwitz’ Adieu Winter, a documentary about women of various walks of life in East Germany in 1988, and Polish documentarian Jozef Robakowski’sFrom My Window, which consists of footage shot from his Lodz flat between 1978 and 2000. “The Velvet Generation Comes of Age” at the Prague edition of the One World festival of human-rights documentaries offered the late Jan Spata’sThe Greatest Wish, which juxtaposes young people’s dreams in 1964 and 1989, and acclaimed surrealist animator Jan Svankmajer’s allegorical short The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia.
Moving eastward, though, the commemorative relay slowed down. Festivals in Sarajevo, Warsaw, Bucharest, Budapest, and Sofia paid scant attention, while the Moscow International Film Festival delved further back for a program marking 70 years since the start of World War II.
This lack of attention to the events of 20 years ago is reflected in the output of filmmakers in the region; films dealing with the anti-communist revolutions of two decades past are a relative rarity.
The reasons, experts say, range from aesthetic to sociopolitical. “The notion that a film’s characters can and should be reduced to mere ciphers for the historical and social changes that happen around them is a Marxist one,” says Andrew Horton, former editor in chief of Kinoeye, a now-defunct website that focused on Central and Eastern European film. “Hardly shocking, then, that directors [in the region] have rejected it so overwhelmingly.”
HOORAY FOR HOLLYWOOD
In throwing off old ideological strictures, many of the region’s filmmakers eagerly embraced mainstream techniques, even in films dealing with 1989, adopting the Western model of history as entertainment where “the political changes are more or less background,” according to John Cunningham, a specialist in Central European cinema at Britain’s Sheffield Hallam University.
With its Velvet Revolution subplot, the Oscar-winning Kolya was the first feature film – and to date the most internationally popular – to deal directly with the events of 1989.
Such was the case with the biggest international hit set in the revolutionary period, Czech director Jan Sverak’s Kolya (1996). With its endearing story of a Russian boy invading the life of an aging roue amid the heavy anti-Soviet mood of late-’89 Prague, the film charmed Western audiences and won the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film, but Czech critics still harbor misgivings about its sugary Hollywood approach.
In a similar vein, Polish director Juliusz Machulski’s How Much Does a Trojan Horse Weigh? (2008) is a whimsical family comedy involving a time warp to and from the last years of communism and conveys the simple message that things are a lot better now than they were then. The film was Poland’s third-biggest hit last year, according to boxoffice.pl, although its 155,000 viewers was half the total for the leader, Tomasz Konecki’s Ladies, a sort of Polish Sex and the City firmly anchored in the country’s capitalist present.
Reflecting on Hungarian cinema, Horton views the Hollywood influence as a positive development.
“Personally, I think most of the films ‘about communism’ have been some of the worst to have been released in the post-1989 period,” he writes in an e-mail. “Many young filmmakers seem to be inspired by the power of American film to reach its audience through easy-to-relate-to characters, an accessible storyline, and a strong setting immersed in popular culture, and this kind of film-making is what they aspire to.
“I don’t see that as necessarily a bad thing, even if this approach to filmmaking seems to be a work in progress for Hungarian directors. At least it’s trying to build a relationship with young Hungarian audiences after decades of declining cinema attendance.”
The internationally recognized Romanian New Wave is the outlier, producing films that have poked and prodded at unwieldy and controversial recent history to wide acclaim. Three of the four Romanian films released in 2006 – Corneliu Porumboiu’s12:08 East of Bucharest, Radu Muntean’s The Paper Will Be Blue, and Catalin Mitulescu’s How I Celebrated the End of the World – offer intimate and wryly funny explorations of the events of December 1989, while Tales from the Golden Age, the new film from Cannes Film Festival prize-winner Christian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days), is an omnibus of seriocomic stories set in the late Ceausescu years.
Porumboiu’s film, which won the Camera d’Or for best first feature at the 2006 Cannes festival, is emblematic of the Romanian approach, tackling the topic with depth, subtlety, and deceptive simplicity. The title refers to the town of Vaslui (where the director is from) and the precise moment Nicolae Ceausescu fled Bucharest in his helicopter – if there were no protests in Vaslui before 12:08 p.m. on 22 December 1989, did the revolution actually happen there? (The movie’s Romanian title translates as, “Was There or Wasn’t There?”) The final scene of a snowy Christmas Eve leaves audiences guessing as to the significance of this question for the ordinary townspeople.
“The idea was to focus on history, personal stories, memories, on the fact that each and every one of us changes history in order to justify his or her own existence,” Porumboiu said.
“I don’t believe in History with a capital ‘H.’ After the revolution there are only two or three heroes and two or three anti-heroes in the history books, but you will never get this other perspective, of normal people and their personal experiences and stories related to that event. So this is what I was after in my movie. It’s built like a kaleidoscope, with lots of personal views and different fragments.”
INTO THE LIGHT
What Porumboiu has elsewhere called “the uncertainty of the grand revolutionary narrative” is another factor inhibiting a regional cinema-of-’89
“Possibly the variations in approach to the theme of 1989 are connected to how the oppositional struggle developed,” Sheffield Hallam’s Cunningham says. “In Hungary there have been a number of films about 1956, probably because of its heroic resonances and its centrality in national mythology, in comparison with 1989, which was a fairly muted affair. Similarly, in Poland there appear to be more films devoted to the period of martial law and the resistance to it than to 1989.”
The whimsical comedy How Much Does a Trojan Horse Weigh? casts a contemporary Polish woman back in time to the eve of regime change.
In tackling history, most filmmakers, particularly those of older generations, stick to themes more firmly rooted in national stories. Witness the most recent works by Andrzej Wajda and Istvan Svabo, respectively Poland’s and Hungary’s most revered living directors: Wajda’s Katyn (2007) re-creates the World War II-era Soviet massacre that still haunts Poland; Relatives (2006) is Svabo’s take on an infamous 1930s corruption scandal.
While their forebears look back, younger filmmakers cast a wary eye on the present. History as such matters little in Czech director Tomas Vorel’s entertainment cinema (2005’s Skritek, 2007’s Gympl) or Hungarian Benedek Fliegauf’s psychedelic social dramas Forest (2003) and Dealer (2004). Social reality as it is, and individual destinies, absurd as they are, make up the world of such films – what Cunningham describes as “the revolt against history and grand narratives and a craving almost for the here and now.”
The echoes of 1989 do reverberate through such films, if only faintly, in their take on the disillusioned social life of the transition. “This is how we Czechs deal with difficult times – we laugh,” says cinematographer Marek Jicha, who regularly works with Vorel. Their latest project, Catch the Billionaire, is a social grotesque about contemporary Czech capitalism in which profiteers and victims alike are left shorn of their dignity.
Far removed in tone, Polish director Krzysztof Krauze’s The Debt (1999) and Savior Square (2006), also function as allegories for the transition years, emotionally claustrophobic narratives about men and women pushed to the edge by unbridled cruelty in their everyday life. Young Bulgarian filmmakers have been engaging in a different kind of allegory: Sofia and Sarajevo festival honorees Mila from Mars (directed by Zornitsa Sophia, 2004) and Lady Zi (Georgy Diulgerov, 2005) center on abandoned girls who stumble out of orphanages and must survive on their own in an inhospitable and absurd environment.
To Jicha, that subtext is the essential story of 1989. Asked how he would interpret the Velvet Revolution on screen, he describes an old Celtic myth about a knight lured deep into the woods and over a precipice by an elusive, shining nymph. “The faster he goes, the faster the light goes, and he falls off the cliff,” Jicha says. “The revolution was that hope, that light, and the poor man is the Czech people.”
Perhaps it takes an outsider to see the light of idealism where Jicha and many of his peers see the flicker of misplaced hopes. American filmmaker Gary Keith Griffin, a Sundance Film Festival award-winner who was studying at Prague’s FAMU film school in the fall of 1989, is currently at work on Listopad (November).
Bucking the trend of approaching the anti-communist revolutions at oblique angles, Listopad takes on the history head on, dramatizing the real-life story of three teenage boys who took part in the tumultuous events on the streets of Prague. (It will even climax with an on-site reenactment of the pivotal student march of 17 November 1989, staged on the 20th anniversary of the actual event.) Griffin – who was there, too, 20 years ago, filming all the while – met the principals and heard their stories years later, while shooting a feature in the Czech Republic.
“There are always differing opinions about great political and historical events, but one thing is certain: the truth belongs to those in the front lines,” Griffin says in a director’s statement at the film’s website. “For me, a hero is a person who takes action not because they believe they will succeed, but because they know it is the right thing to do. For me, the people in the front lines of November 17th, 1989, armed with nothing more than their beliefs, are heroes. I believe we should tell their story.”
More than anyone else in modern times, he ruled Bulgaria. For three and a half decades from the mid-1950s until glorious 1989, comrade Todor Zhivkov, secretary general of the Bulgarian Communist Party, decided the fortunes of the country, and he has left his mark on it ever since.
Statue of Todor Zhivkov in Pravets, Bulgaria. Photo by Bruce McDon.
His aides say he collected jokes about himself; even if this is not true, the jokes were countless. They parodied his peasant background and folksy style, but at the end he somehow outsmarted people much better educated than him. Among themselves Bulgarians referred to him by the personal and quasi-respectful “Bai Tosho” or “Tato,” a fond diminutive for father. On 10 November 1989 he was sacked by his party comrades. The political jokes disappeared – and the transition began. Continue reading …
David Hlynsky’s introduction to communist Europe was “a gut-level impression of a change of color.” It was 1986, and the U.S.-born, Canada-based photographer was en route to Krakow, where he’d been invited to exhibit his work. Freshly over the West German border, driving through the Czech city of Plzen, “suddenly I had this feeling of a cinnamon brown and ocher cityscape, which was very unusual.”
“It seems like a minor thing, but it was quite a horrible thing at the time,” Hlynsky recalls 23 years later. “It wasn’t until later that I realized that what I was actually experiencing was a lack of highly saturated primary colors … that were part of Western advertising.”
From this earth-toned first impression grew, indirectly and at times without the artist even being fully aware of it, a fascination with the commercial culture of the communist world. On that trip and three more to the Eastern bloc in its last throes, Hlynsky increasingly focused on shop windows and storefront signs, a deceptively simple urban landscape he recalls now as a “museum of a different kind of materialism.”
The results, which have been the subject of shows in Prague, Berlin, and New York, are a remarkable record of the period just before the wave of consumerism broke over Central and Eastern Europe. Ranging in style and tone from spartan to sweetly decorative, the windows in Hlynsky’s lens both reinforce and belie Cold War-era tropes of grim eastern deprivation, and bring into sharp relief the difference between labeling a product for sale and branding it for mass consumption.
The 62-year-old photographer says the shop-windows series is perhaps the closest to his heart of nearly 40 years of published and exhibited work, and he is shopping a book-length collection. He talked to Transitions Online about the genesis and development of the project by telephone from his home in Toronto.
TOL: What led you to begin traveling to communist Europe in the late 1980s?
David Hlynsky: I’ve been an artist in Toronto. I immigrated to Toronto in 1971 from the U.S., and a Polish immigrant to Canada was organizing an exhibition in Poland and she asked me to be part of it in 1986. So I basically took it as an opportunity to travel to Poland and to exhibit my work.
I grew up in the U.S. during the Cold War, and during that time, anybody with Eastern European heritage was considered kind of a backwoods bumpkin. There were anti-Polack jokes, and the Russians were cheap thugs, and, you know, all of my own ethnic heritage was kind of put into a category of being less sophisticated than most of Western Europe. All of my relatives were from Eastern Europe, Central Europe, and kept on talking about the “old country.” When I had the opportunity to go to Poland, I thought, here was a perfect time to go see what the old country really was. The first trip was about a two-week trip, and it really opened my eyes.
How and why did you begin photographing shop windows, and what drew you to them as a subject?
When I was invited to this exhibition, I took a Hasselblad camera with me, thinking I was going to shoot portraits. This camera is really a studio camera, a portrait camera; it’s not the kind of camera you would use on the street at all. But as soon as I got into this landscape, I realized that it was an unusual landscape, and it was the camera that I had, and I started taking photographs of the street. I didn’t know how far I could tempt the system, but my instinct was that the business of the landscape, the business that the people were carrying on, was so banal that if I presented myself as part of that banal landscape, I wouldn’t be in trouble.
My impulse first is to photograph what I thought was representative of people on the street. My technique was to find somebody interesting, move ahead of them, find the background, and then wait for them to enter it. Well, the backgrounds were store windows. And there is a picture, it’s in a folder on my photo website, of a woman walking down the street [in Krakow] with a Marlboro bag. If you look in the background of that picture, it’s a shoe store, and there’s almost nothing in the shoe store. When I got back to Toronto and I started looking at these pictures, I started seeing them in much greater detail. I saw that the woman was dressed a certain way, there was a Marlboro bag in her hand, I wondered where that came from. I saw that she was right in front of a shoe store. I saw that the store was empty. I saw that there was a lottery sign in the window. All of these things start to become like clues to a bigger mystery, and the picture gets more and more interesting and more and more mysterious as you study it. At that point I said, “Wow, that’s an interesting store window.” So the next time I went back, two years later, I said, “Well, I want to shoot a few more store windows.” By the time I made my third trip, the secondary theme was a much stronger theme.
It doesn’t sound like you started out with a documentary intent, to go capture what shop windows are like or what advertising is like in the communist world.
No, I didn’t start out with that intent at all. It became intentional after I started noticing the backgrounds in my street portraits. It wasn’t, philosophically, until later, after I had finished the shoot, that I started to be able to articulate for myself what was interesting about these images. What I had come to realize was that the Cold War was about this vague kind of word, “freedom.” It was kind of tossed around, especially in American media and especially through the American government. Well, you know, the McCarthy era wasn’t very free in the U.S., and the Vietnam era wasn’t very free in the U.S. I saw my friends being clubbed in the streets for protesting the war. So “freedom” was this expression that didn’t really seem like it gelled with this idea of freedom, although I’ve come to realize over the years that we did have considerably more freedom of expression than people in the Eastern bloc. But there were artists over there [whose] artistic expression was quite critical of the government, but it was couched in all kinds of interesting symbols. So freedom of expression was kind of an odd one to wrap your head around. What was this freedom that we were trying to get hold of? What were we protecting?
And then I gradually came to realize that there were all kinds of freedoms – freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and all that – but there was another freedom, and that was free enterprise. That seemed to me more the root of the Cold War than much of what the propaganda was trying to say. At least, it seemed like kind of a hidden agenda. And the Cold War then became for me not only about liberating poor, oppressed people, but also liberating a marketplace. Then I started looking at the store windows, and it was a very interesting kind of museum of a different kind of materialism, and this museum contained all kinds of things. It contained artifacts of a culture. It contained the necessities for daily life. It contained design strategies of the shop owners. It contained advertising strategies of the state-run factories and corporations. And all of these were things that were parallel to what I was seeing in the West.
That’s what became interesting to me. I started to realize one of the differences in the aspects of those two cultures was that in the West, because of free enterprise, capitalist enterprise, all of our products were branded, they were labeled, they had a certain logo, the logo had a certain mystique, they were surrounded by images of sexuality and pleasure. These illusions were part of Western branding. The fundamental difference, I found, was that in the West we branded things, in the East things were labeled. The mystique was removed when a product was displayed. And what that did was it, oddly, made that landscape much more relaxed to me. As I walked down the street, I felt myself exhaling, taking in a deep breath, because I wasn’t being seduced. I was like, “OK, I’m walking down the street and if I need a carrot, there it is. If I need a pedicure, there it is.”
For years or generations, Western eyes were trained to look at that as confirming the stereotypes about this sort of drab world of deprivation behind the Iron Curtain. Was this something you had that got leeched away by immersion, or as an artist were you able to look at it in a very different way than someone who is used to this notion [that] a butcher shop that just has a picture of meat out front is something naïve, or gray and deprived?
I didn’t see it as gray and deprived. Probably before I went there, I became disillusioned with the advertising world. I had a lot of experiences photographing advertising photographs with people who were blatantly dishonest and wanted me to participate in that, so I didn’t see this, when I got there, as a deprived environment. I was already skeptical about Western advertising and what it meant. I saw it as a fascinating environment because the graphic display and the presentation of products was so different.
On my very first trip, on the second day I was in the East bloc, I was in Krakow, and I was introduced to a Polish photographer there who became a good friend. The outside of the building was shabby and rundown and covered in soot. I went inside of his apartment and he had a grand piano in there, and he had a full library, he had this beautiful, beautiful meal laid out that his wife made, and his young son was quite articulate in English and acted as a translator. We talked all night long. He took a book off the shelf, there were books of Western literature, and we talked about it. And I thought, this guy isn’t deprived, he’s clearly quite sophisticated, much more sophisticated than I was led to believe. It didn’t gel with the propaganda pictures of the Cold War of this guy with locked chains wrapped around his head.
Once you finished these pictures and started exhibiting them, were you concerned they would reinforce these notions? This sort of equivalence in people’s minds of communist material culture with bread lines and shortages, and that a visual image of a butcher shop or a bakery with a single piece of meat or a single loaf of bread in the window was going to reinforce that notion?
I think what reinforced that notion more are the words you just spoke. The verbal description of it is a lot more damning than a visual picture. The visual picture is a sort of inadvertent, mundane detail, and we get caught up in that. I look at the hunk of meat and I think, that’s an interesting depiction of meat, isn’t that an interesting curtain in the background, isn’t that interesting to see the fluorescent lights back there? The narrative becomes richer when you look at the photograph.
In any post-communist city, you see how purely utilitarian a lot of the communist-era architecture was. Some of the shop displays seem to be examples of that same kind of utilitarian thinking … this idea that nothing but what is absolutely required to be communicated should be communicated, and communicating anything more is unnecessary and bourgeois.
I kind of wondered too about that, but you do see little snippets of folk art coming through.
You do. You’re certainly struck by these really playful touches. There was a picture of a zipper store in Bulgaria that really showed that.
There was a little fish in the picture. Yeah, I mean, this is the art. The literal descriptions we have of that are quite severe, but in actual fact the borderline of what was [decorative and] what was not was probably a little more blurred.
What kind of response have you gotten in the countries of the former Eastern bloc when you’ve exhibited these photos?
What I’m discovering now is that there is a generation that grew up before the wall came down, and there’s a generation that was born after. I’d put these pictures up at a show that I had in Prague [in 2005], and a mixed age group comes in. The teenagers are looking at these pictures and giggling, like, “What stupid, silly landscape is this?” You know, how naïve, how backward. The older people are looking at it with tears in their eyes and thinking, no, it was a lot more complicated than that. These images are full of representations of our daily lives, and this is how we negotiated material culture, this is how we got around the shortages. I remember where that thing was, I remember that street. Isn’t it bittersweet that it’s gone? Some people were quite vehement about saying that what’s replaced it is vulgar and fast, they can’t keep up with it and all that. These pictures, I think they’ve got very complex readings, because the arguments are so complex.
I think it might have something to do with how you ended up capturing these images on a portrait camera. They really have this quality of “portrait,” the still, stately capturing of something. It’s not like a street scene from Prague in 1986 or 1988. It’s got the quality of a daguerreotype, like when you look at a picture from the 1880s and you see it’s almost formally composed in a way that’s lost, not just the image itself is lost.
I think the camera did do that, and there’s a kind of formality to it. I think the camera slowed me down. It made me frame things in very non-dramatic ways. But that fit entirely into, ultimately, what my agenda was, which was to create a view that wasn’t cloak-and-dagger, that wasn’t McCarthy-ist, that wasn’t sensationalist. It was just totally ordinary. I do believe, and not only in this but in other work, that the real value of photography is not in sensationalism, but the real value is in banality, where a photograph identifies us with a time and place that somehow is real because of the ordinary things in it. And that’s what I wanted.