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The German Issue-Or How We Once Again Didn’t Conquer the West
Umělec magazine
Year 2005, 2
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The German Issue-Or How We Once Again Didn’t Conquer the West

Umělec magazine 2005/2


Ivan Mečl | imprints notes | en cs de

This story is a composition of short extracts from the novel The Fiery Valley of Culture in the Rays of the Dawn Sunlight. The excerpts are linked with the history of this ‘German issue’ of Umělec magazine, which the Divus publishing house began preparing at the start of 2004. At the Luxembourg book fair in March 2005 the publication was evaluated as the stupidest publishers’ act in the history of memoirs. It is for this reason that we are presenting this to our readers.

A Politically Correct Introduction to How it All Began

As I am now realizing, our German tale is also a story of one of my loves. Around the same time as the preparation for the edition of Umělec in German came to a close, my love had ended as well. We had met at the opening of the German pavilion at the Venice Biennale shortly before I attempted to attract attention to our magazine. It worked out in the end. After six months of my ranting on about how great it would be to publish Umělec in German I managed to get money from the German embassy in Prague to get started. At that time I felt like that guy in the ancient Roman senate who ended every speech with the sentence: “Carthage must be destroyed.” I understand that it must have been unbearable. That was the beginning of a period of Germanic optimism.
This feeling was reinforced by a grand German outing. A tour took twenty selected people from the contemporary art scene from all over the world around the most important cities of German culture. Locally represented by the Goethe Institute, which selected the candidates, a masterstroke was delivered – creating the most picturesque group of intellectuals in the world: a morose professor from Ankara, the only one who spoke German; a jolly manager of a contemporary art museum in Albania; two confused Korean journalists; a journalist from Taiwan, who had to be on the internet every day because they let her go from work only under the condition that she write an article for the morning edition every day. A curator from an American museum of photography who had probably never been in a bad mood in his life; a director of a Canadian museum, who was really annoyed by this Eastern get-together and seemed to have been asking whether Germans don’t consider Canada a developing country. Artists from Africa, Vietnam and Cambodia; a forever young coordinator of culture from New Zealand.
But there was also Iara Boubnova, who I saw for the first time in a photo in the catalog at the first biennale in Tirana, and I was really looking forward to seeing her. When I met her, I immediately muddled her name. For me she was Lara Croft.
What I enjoyed most was chaperoning Georgina, a Bombay lesbian activist and journalist. I sat at the table and drank cocktails; she was coming on to girls. When, a few hours later, she had enough or was annoyed that “these German girls are too tall and don’t notice at all how she is dancing,” we staggered homewards.
It was all very hasty, all these museums of contemporary art, fairs and galleries. But by covering just a few hundred kilometers of the distance by plane, we managed it all. In the Czech Republic we would have been bumped about on a bus and we wouldn’t have managed to see anything. There were all sorts of hotels with large amounts of food, and once we even had champagne at a buffet. It was clear that it was only a symbolic gesture; everyone was afraid to touch it. But I did, so our whole class got sloshed first thing in the morning. Slowly I found out that most people wouldn’t mind having a drink in the morning, but they didn’t feel free to do so. Maybe they lacked the courage.
Surprisingly, I hadn’t learned – after all this – how not to be afraid on the airplane. I can’t understand how so many people manage to look so content a few thousand meters above the ground.
I managed to get around Frankfurt with the map of Munich. I would have never realized it, if Steffi hadn’t told me. The final night she was driving me round in the car and I was navigating with that map. We found everything. She noticed it only the next day in a cafe. I found out that the museum of modern art in Frankfurt is the best, and I must say I had seen many of them by then. I also fell prey to the illusion that everything in the world is okay because I was being taken good care of. The only solution to the problems of the world is to take good care of everybody.

In the Ruins of the Future.

My girl promised to show me Germany. After the forced emigration of her parents, she lived in Frankfurt for a long time. But then she ran away from home and joined a punk community in Hamburg. As a person who has run no further than to the parsonage in the next village, the stories she told me had the flavor of a coming-of-age film. At the time we were both over thirty but neither of us has come of age. This gave me the opportunity to investigate the Germany of the remnants of her wild youth among the hard-core avant-garde, and at the same time infiltrate the movers of contemporary German art, while I played adult.
We had a very old Volvo at Divus, borrowed from DJ-BLN. I promised I’d take good care of the car. She had given birth to a second child and the auto didn’t fit into her budget. A disadvantage was that it got poor mileage. But it was so big that one could sleep in it, and so we saved money on accommodation. We heated it with candles.
In Hannover, I saw the ruins of Expo 2000. I hadn’t expected that next to the most orderly German city—one which has recently dissolved its police force—I would find a post-war Sarajevo. I strolled among half-ruined skeletons of the one-time miracles of design, peered into the pavilions occupied by Gastarbeiters or by strange companies. A company dealing with hair dye samples occupies the Czech pavilion; in the Polish one, “Vietnamese pavilion” is written in pen, and inside is the most obscure Vietnamese restaurant in the world; in the Hungarian pavilion, a desperate group of managers is residing, having tried without success to sell it; in the Yemeni pavilion is a European subdivision of Al-Kaida; and the Chinese pavilion is well-occupied.
We were guided through this metaphor of civilization’s futility by Christian Riebe, an artist and a painting teacher from a nearby university that is also succumbing to decay. The school resides in the former shared Expo pavilion and nowadays is giving way to an expanding company that deals with rapid building and demolishing. Christian is following the trend of artistic use of the ruins of the future. We met in the Expo twice over the course of one year. At the second meeting we were afraid of him. He contradicted reality, claiming that some of the scenes happening in the Expo were being staged specially for us. That’s the way it appeared to me, but I had better not speak about that openly.
We managed to obtain a lengthy interview with the Vietnamese owner of the Polish pavilion. She explained that this is just a part of her multi-cultural project. Another one is to build German villages in Vietnam. She brought very elaborate projects and visual representations to show us. The huge Polish pavilion was filled with the remnants of other Asian pavilions and supported by background swing music. It was a film backdrop of Asia built in a station hall. It reminded me of the once luxurious streets of some Parisian quarters that are slowly being engulfed by elements of Arab bazaar and foreign cuisine. I was standing astonished in front of a shop with a design re-created into a Chinese restaurant. Inside, on the huge window screen, water dripped down from the condensing steam coming from huge pots. The name of a now forgotten designer of the first half of 90s was still written on the plaster in cool script. In the place where a few years ago upper-class ladies purchased pricey accessories, today crowds of immigrants eat boiled rice with MSG. It was high time. They look much nicer than any well dressed German.
After ten o’clock everyone in Hannover is asleep. Only the main streets are lit up, other streets are dark. The police were discharged from this city because of its long-time upstanding and passive inhabitants. Except for the Vietnamese vaudeville, the only other place open is a Jewish restaurant in the center. The owner is a Jew left behind by the Israeli representation. He thinks that every foreigner is a Jew and might come to do an inspection in his kitchen. I was taken for a Polish Jew. I’m not even fully red-headed.

Horror in Hamburg

For young people, Hamburg is the most beautiful and freest of German cities. My girlfriend told me that as were headed there. It’s true. I saw some of the best exhibitions there, because of their casual cosmopolitan feel. Casual is an important word. In other places people think that casualness is necessary. In Hamburg it is mainly thanks to the sea, which has always had a considerable influence on the people’s mindset. Nations living in lowlands far from the sea suffer from negativity and lack any sense for the infinite, the sublime. Today, when there are no migrations of peoples, this staying inland is a kind of ethnic suicide. It is still not clear why some people settled in such places like the Czech basin, the Slovak plain, the Hungarian puszta or the Belorusian marshland. It is for sure that these populations are already exhausted in their life in such places and refuse to have children.
In the evening my girlfriend showed me the squats she lived in fifteen years ago. Later we sat down in a dark taproom with wildly spray painted walls in one of them. I liked the scary space very much so I didn’t pay any attention to a woman who was approaching us from the corner. She was going through an unpleasant withdrawal, but in these places it was nothing unusual. She started to gibber something to my girlfriend. Only after a while I noticed that my girlfriend was turning pale. But I thought it was just that kind of a bar inconvenience, and I tried to ease the situation with some funny remark. The skinny woman went back to her corner and my girlfriend only stared blankly and was as silent as the grave. How close I was with this simile.
Suddenly she announced that we should be leaving. I hadn’t finished my beer so I didn’t want to go. But she took my hand and dragged me out of the bar. I, confused, dashed behind her between the parked cars. It started drizzling. Suddenly there was complete darkness. We ran to the prostitutes’ square. Everywhere there were the neon lights of brothels, gambling rooms and other entertainment places. I didn’t understand anything. She was totally destroyed.
I asked her what was going on but she was pale, and she looked around and didn’t say anything. Then she told me that when she was leaving this place she took with her the supply of heroin for the whole squat. That woman recognized her in the darkness and threatened her, saying that today they would finally cut her throat. My adventurous mood evaporated. Suddenly everything seemed so dumb.
That night I slept with a car jack in my hand. We were parked in a derelict port, probably in the worst place. Nothing happened. In the morning, we washed up in the Kunstverein café restroom, and I proceeded to behave like a magazine publisher. We walked up one flight of stairs and met with the director, Yilmaz Dziewor. He showed me a great exhibition of the painter Lukas Duwenhögger, a Turkish German. The next evening, we spent a lot of time trying to find the director of the most famous alternative theater in the area; we missed him. It was raining the whole time. When it rains, everything seems worse somehow; it rains a lot in Germany.

Eastern Alliance

In western countries there are always trends towards particular regions and cultures for a limited time. They say that something is hype at that time. Hype can come about naturally or be brought about artificially—through some subsidized international exchange., hype has the same effect on some individuals and groups as the hero of Huysmans novel Against the Grain on his poor protégé. A rich man takes a liking to a nice pauper, leads him through a higher class of society and surrounds him with wealth for a while. Then he finds another pastime. The pauper falls prey to the illusion that he must be able to manage it himself, but doesn’t understand that the hype is already gone. It all ends up in a suicide or deep disillusion.
Here in the East, hype is much more stable and it is not so much bound to regions. Slavs don’t like their neighbors, not to mention the non-residents. We have a mistrust of them and like to let them know it. At least it is made clear.
Slavs don’t believe in their own history and in their fabricated common origin. Their history is full of lost battles, subjection and other maltreatment. Heroes are often unreliable rebels and cruel robbers. They believe that Hungarians landed in the middle of Europe with a meteorite. If they don’t understand a foreigner, they take it to be a speech disability. It’s no accident that the Slavic name for Germans, “Němec,” translates to mute and dumb. With Slavs you will quickly make friends and quickly get caught up in a conflict. That’s why there are so many wars.
Germans don’t like Slavs because they always arrive late and are unable to express themselves clearly. This is the same in art. Central and Eastern Europe is full of ‘conceptual’ art. The Germans are not moved by broken sticks, heaps of sand or pictures from garbage. They prefer America and Russia.

The Great Germany

To write about German art is like writing about European art. We apologize for this idea. The German media itself has problems in managing this problem, so why should we be able to do that? Germany is too big and some people in Munich think that Dresden is in Poland. We recommend dividing Germany according to the worst prejudices. Maybe then we would be able to grasp its culture, somehow.

Troubles with Good Ideas

At the beginning of 2004 I was already skilled in writing project proposals. It went so well that I cut down on self-censorship. I started writing anything that came to my mind—even things bordering on the criminal. Surprisingly, even this passed through. One successful application included, along with other horrors, a description of a planned action entitled “Serbian passports.”
“Selected artists and adventurers, who react to the appeal to take part in the ‘Adventure Östlich Künstler Team’ on the pages of ‘Östlich Künstler’ or in the broadcast by ‘Östlich Allianz TV und Rundfunk,’ would have all their papers, mobile phones and other signifiers of the western form of EU confiscated. All of them will be given Serbian passports and other papers. It is possible that these changes could be done secretly, but in full awareness of the potential consequences of the ‘adventure game.’ Participants will be taken to a Czech border crossing and left at an unknown location; the organizers will inform the police about the existence of suspicious people. The whole action will be watched by ‘Östlich Allianz TV und Rundfunk’ and will be broadcast with commentary to the viewers. It is expected that after a few days of arrest everyone will be deported to Serbia. The return trip to the EU, and Germany, and the re-gaining of human rights will surely be an interesting and adventurous story.”
Upon the “success” of the first Eastern Alliance, we asked for support from our befriended organizations for two more projects. From an economic perspective, applications for support of contemporary art have a thirty percent success rate. In some years one could reach fifty percent, but that’s a record today. To be able to organize any project you have to ask for three times more than the actual budget. If you can get more than that, it is a success and you can pay the artists what they really deserve. If not, the event will take place but with tears and teeth-grinding on the part of all the participants.
It’s the same in most European countries. Exceptions really are exceptions. For this reason similar actions are no longer a joy for the organizers nor for the participants. Most European curators that I meet on my trips are stressed and cheerless people. Artists put up with it better. They suffer with humor. I laugh as well, but somehow strangely. In spite of all this an unknown force compels us again and again to make up new projects on the verge of feasibility and with a still smaller public interest, whose realization costs us our physical and mental health. This force surely is not love for art. It is a desire which you can also find in science or in technical studies. We investigate how much more art can stand. So many times we felt that this threshold has long been crossed. We bend it, mix it with the impossible, destroy it, go over the top with it, and so forth. We are technologists of art.

Psycho in Dresden

I borrowed this title from my favorite video of the German artist Maix Mayer. The whole title is Transarchitecture or Psycho in Dresden (Transarchitektur oder Psycho in Dresden). It is one of the best art videos, capturing the dark soul of this Saxon metropolis under the hills. Dresden for me became the place of the biggest tragedies and various failures.
In Dresden, I twice blew tires of the car that was this time borrowed from my mother. The gilded youth going home from clubs watched with interest how we tried to pump up each tire with foam supposed to plug the holes. The stuff cost 10 Euros; we had carried it everywhere and it didn’t stop up anything. And we bought two bottles of this useless stuff. The second one was used up by local yuppies who interpreted this as street theater. My friends went to Berlin by train and I waited for the first garage to open. As I was leaving the service station, the spare tire in the trunk exploded.
Asked to organize a second Eastern Alliance, in Dresden, we drew up a plan for a thirty-day cabaret with several dozen actors and artists. All were exhilarated about the program, although it was all merely based on political provocation and annoying the locals. A few months later a host organization put me up in a hostel for the night. I got a room to sleep ten people. It was full summer and the city was full of partying youth from all over the world. Soon they found out that there were other ways into the hotel than through the reception area. The clever guests paid for the night and snuck their friends in the back way. In the end the room hosted about sixteen people. I had my girlfriend’s thirteen-year-old son with me, who was so afraid of the snoring and straggling drunkards that when his blanket fell down from the bunk bed he didn’t dare to go down to get it till the morning.
The next day I asked at reception about another hotel, but they offered me a room for two right away. That night we slept four there. I put up my girlfriend and her brother as well. I was learning quickly.
As I was investigating the possibilities of performing under Dresden bridges, Mariana from our Divus studio called me. She had just crashed the car borrowed from DJ BLN when distributing the magazine, and so yet another car was wrecked. Since then, we have had no car at Divus, and we don’t want any. The hotel next to our studio and editorial office took up all the parking places anyway, so what for anyway. We bought big shopping bags on wheels.
After we had finished the details of the Dresden action, the financing began to collapse, mainly from the side of the German funds which had originally promised to support us. Two months before the scheduled start we were down to one third of the budget. One month later we had only a quarter. The unhappy hosts started to insinuate that we should cancel the event. But I still tried it and maybe I will be reproaching myself for this till the day of my death. The action had just started and everyone was frothing at the mouth. As for me, as Nietzsche would say: “That which does not kill me strengthens me.”
A Hole in My Pocket

Through all the changing political systems my father repeated to me one quotation: “It was a small village. Its inhabitants lived by preying on each other.” I realized that it is in fact the vision of the European Union.
The Swiss are proud that everything is so expensive in their country. They like to watch foreigners having to restrain themselves. A meal in a dirty pub in Zurich costs more than a dinner in a luxury restaurant in the rest of Europe. At home they grind their teeth about never going out for dinner, have problems paying their mortgages and their personal banker keeps calling about their low credit. The white race is dying out because members of the community like to rob each other. Pricing is a strange thing. It never considers the real price of the thing but how much you are able to pay for it at the moment.
Try to buy the same thing in Berlin and in Kiev. The same product of the same make. The experiment looks childish and every economist will find many logical sounding reasons why there must be such a huge difference between the prices. But the fact that you are reading Umělec, is possible thanks to its being published in the Czech Republic, where the expenses for production, and intellectual resources are half the prices in West Europe. When we in the Czech Republic reach the standard of living in Germany which we often hold up as an example, Umělec will cease to exist, or will move to Albania. At that time the situation there will not be much worse than in the Czech Republic of the 90s. It will still be better than to close shop because of the supermarket craze.
The willingness to bend to the price dictate is surprising in Western Europe especially in the middle classes. It is often hidden under the notions of quality products and professional service. A good school for me was the organizing of exhibitions on the grounds of some institution or corporation. If you need to borrow a ladder, first they offer you a mobile platform for 500 Euros, if you need a mop and a bucket they send you a cleaning crew which wants another 500, and then you find out that the German colleague who is giving you this advice hasn’t got the money to pay for the coffee. Many interesting projects in the institutional or business sectors never happen only because they are used to using extremely over-expensive services which you cannot afford. Lately, public life in Germany has managed to tie itself up in an unbelievable amount of laws, regulations, limits, property entanglements and administrative relations. As a citizen of a country that has entered the European Union and which is starting to introduce similar order, I must say that many of them must have been made up by an enemy of humanity and cultural development. But we all are starting to follow them and we are resigning to the fact that we can do less and less.
For example, in Germany you have to pay for distribution beforehand. There are no distributors who have their own transportation, but instead a company that brings the magazines to the sellers. In this way only the publisher takes a risk, because they pay for it all. If you are a German then the fact that you are holding this volume in your hand cost us 3,000 Euros. This is much more than you would imagine in the Czech Republic. For that money, we can pay six editors of Umělec for a month’s work. Believe me, in other countries you don’t pay for distribution; the companies take only a percentage from the copies sold. If the situation doesn’t change, interesting but poorer magazines will never find their German reader. But what could also happen is that the monopoly of Eastern distributors could get hold of this clever strategy and make publishers’ lives hell.

Confession of Crimes and Mistakes

The story about what we had managed and what we had been lucky in is not a nice read and that is why I won’t talk about it here. On the other hand, it is true that our effort complicated many people’s lives, but culture has always been here to mislead, confuse and befuddle humankind. The world is being cleaned up and rationalized by wars, and we are miserable soldiers.
Some good materials won’t be available in this magazine, although they were planned. An interview with a taxi-driver about culture and present-day Berlin culture couldn’t be realized because he tried to take our editor to some isolated place and have sex with her.
We didn’t manage to get some articles out of people. There are many reasons but those who have worked in culture for some time will know what I am speaking about.
Some of our enthusiastic ideas proved to be stupid, some unrealizable. But these ideas are still sleeping in us. For example Spejbl and Hurvínkem fighting Nazism, new German Sudeten comics or Ferda the Ant as a victim of present day German animation.
I have to confess that I don’t have a driver’s license, and that instead of that, I took advantage of the kindness of the German embassy, which gave me a piece of paper saying, “Be of help to the holder of this paper.” The fact is that I don’t want to drive and I would prefer going by train or by plane, but we had to save money. Sometimes we would drive with a paper registration number. I owe 80 Euros to the German police for speeding, but I really wanted to make it to some exhibition. 80 Euros is a lot of money, and I still didn’t manage to save that much from my salary, because it hardly pays our Berlin office.
And that’s not all. Suddenly I got scared from enumerating all this. I have a feeling that they might ban me from Germany for at least five years. But they say admission of guilt lessens the penalty.



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