Artists and Agents.
Performance Art and Secret Services in Eastern Europe

Gessnerallee Zürich / Hartware Kunstverein Dortmund (Spring/Fall 2019)
curated by Sylvia Sasse & Kata Krasznahorkai

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State security and performance art were the two sides of a coin that characterized the bipolarity between the socialist state and artists opposing the state in the era of the Cold War. 2019 will see the 30th anniversary of the dismantling of the Iron Curtain and the end of a fraught, bipolar-world-order. The research exhibition Artists and Agents. Performance Art and Secret Services in Eastern Europe will present on this occasion a unique field of research – performances and happenings as the key indicators for the actions, interactions and reactions between the State and the performance artists, focusing on examples from Hungary, Romania, Czech Republic and the GDR between 1950-1990. The research is focused on state performances that document, prohibit, or radicalize artistic performances. On the one hand, we deal with secret services’ methods of documentation in various Eastern European countries; on the other hand, we also investigate counteractions and performative censorship devices. The presentation of counter-actions of the State against artists, the strategic handling of the theory of happenings and the often crucial influence state surveillance has had on performances is another core point of the project, which will be documented with photographs, films and reflected in a performative space as well.

After 1990, the national secret service archives of many former Eastern Bloc nations were made publicly accessible. The analysis of this material promptly made clear that the secret service records revealed little about those being monitored, but rather far more about the various anxieties and fears of those doing the monitoring. These fears, which can be traced even in the minutae of these records – their narratives, words, shorthand, punctuation, and omissions – are also of relevance to the history of art.
They document, sometimes down to the merest detail, artistic activities; they show the monitoring and “treatment” (“undermining”, “elimination”) of the art scene; and they provide information about the active, operative intervention of the state in artistic production. The agent controllers and police spies had a particular focus on one specific artistic genre: performance art (actions, happenings, performances).

Thus in 2019, in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain, we would like to plan an exhibition based on our research into these former secret service
archives. The exhibition “Artists and Agents. Performance Art and Secret Services in Eastern Europe” should show how this research might alter the writing of the history of art in many Eastern European countries. In doing so, we would like to concentrate on examples from Hungary, Romania, Czech Republic, and the GDR from the years between 1950-1990. Aside from the showing of archive documents (records, photographs, films), the exhibition would also show artistic works. By now, many artists have occupied themselves with their own records; created artistic works from the secret services’ texts, photographs and films; or had already referred to spying in their work during the era of the Eastern Bloc. In order to underscore the currency of the subject, the exhibition would serve as an immersive performative space for the broader public, as a place of discussion and artistic action. We would like to open up the topic in two directions:

1. Debates on topics of art and the secret service beyond Eastern Europe, including, but not limited to, the Fichenaffäre in Switzerland.

2. The topicality of debate – performative censorship in Russia, surveillance and censure in Turkey, and the control of personal data and free speech, among other things.

For the exhibition, we wish to show four aspects of our research, which highlight the interaction between artists and agents:
1. The archive as a place of “documentation” of performance art
2. The archive as documentation of the performative practices of the secret services (performance art of the state)
3. The archive as the site of production of “archive art”
4. Artistic reclamation of the archive

We plan to present this exhibition, which will be accompanied by a publication and a continuous presence on internet-based communication platforms, at the Gessnerallee Zürich (Spring 2019) and at the Hardware Kunstverein Dortmund (Autumn 2019).


Poetry & Performance. The Eastern European Perspective

Winter 2017/2018 New Synagogue, Žilina / Slovakia, opening on December 22
curated by Tomáš Glanc, Daniel Grúň, Sabine Hänsgen

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In the second half of the twentieth century, it was poets and artists in particular who took up the challenge of reflecting on and investigating the instrumentalization of language for politicalideological purposes.
They did so with aesthetic means, thus drawing attention to making the material and media dimension of language and creating performative situations for themselves and their audience within which possibilities of verbal expression could be tested and acted out. Likewise, in poetic performance, the limits of language and speakability are made tangible.
In Eastern Europe, poetry and performance are characterized by a doubled subculturality: They undermine the conventional perception of script and words as neutral means and are thus, against the cultural-political backdrop of real socialism, forced into the unofficial or semi-official cultural scene.
The writing practice of the Samizdat within Eastern European cultures and its relation to the devices of concrete and visual poetry have been treated and presented in a variety of projects already. Until now however, less consideration has been given to the circumstances of performance: in addition to the typescript literature of samizdat, the unofficial cultural milieu attached particular importance to the oral recitation of poems in front of a close-knit audience of friends, poets, artists, theorists and critics.
The interrelation between poetical acts, texts and situations functioned as a trigger for the aesthetics of performances and happenings – a very specific and notably Eastern European characteristic of performance art.
Poetry and performance have produced specific milieus within the diverse cultures of Eastern Europe. In this exhibition, for each of these particular cultures, we wish to recreate such a milieu, or to make accessible, by way of example, an aesthetically motivated topic. The single exhibition spaces (cabinets – niches – corridors) shall be connected with one another in a network structure. The following groups of exhibits are planned: text scores, interactive objects, sound and video recordings, and installations of performance documentation
The condensed forms of poetry and performance take on an exceptional topicality in periods of political crisis, as these succinct and flexible art forms enable the reflection of relations and contexts that remain otherwise undiscussed.

In respect thereof, we would like include in this exhibition and
the accompanying program several selected current positions.

Reading Performance / Moscow Conceptualism
(Prigov, Rubinštejn, Monastyrski, Nekrasov, Inspection Medical

Current Positions / Accompanying Program: TRANSLIT — Laboratory of
Poetic Actionism (St. Petersburg)

Audio-Visual Experiments / Liberec Studio
Ladislav Novák, Jiří Valoch, Josef Hiršal, Bohumila Grögrová, Gerhard Rühm

Current Positions / Accompanying Program: Pavel Novotný / Jaromír Typlt

Everyday Intervention / Bratislava
Bratislava: Julius Koller, Alex Mylnárčik, Stano Filko

Cinemato/graphic Poetry / GDR

Carlfriedrich Claus, Super8: Gabriele Stötzer, Matthias Baader Holst, Gino Hahnemann

Accompanying Program: Michael Lentz, Waleri Scherstjanoj lesen Carlfriedrich Claus

Emergence of the Happening from Poetry / Budapest
Tamás St.Auby, Tibor Hajas, Katalin Ladik u.a.

Private Practices / Polen
Miron Białoszewski, Ewa Partum, Andrzej Partum

Language Games / Beograd, Zagreb, Ljubljana

Bosch und Bosch (Attila Csernik, Slavko Matković, Balinth Szombathy, Katalin
Ladik), Vlado Martek, Mladen Stilinović, OHO etc.

Catalog / Accompanying booklet in English

The introductory article:
Concept and Overview
Introductory texts for the sections
Documentation of the works Artists‘ texts

On a USB stick: Audio and video examples (fragments)


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Václav Havel: Generation of August, 21, 1968


Texts, Pictures, Objects, Performances in Art Practices from the 1960s to the 1990s
16th June to 30th October 2016
Exhibition venue: The Museum of Czech Literature (MCL), Star Summer Palace, Prague
Curators: Sabine Hänsgen, Tomáš Glanc, Petr Kotyk (MCL)

The intention of the exhibition is to introduce, for the first time in Bohemia, the artistic personality of Dmitry Prigov, by means of comparing his work with Havel’s Anticodes
and examples of Czech experimental poetics.

In different cultural areas, whether in terms of conceptual art or performance, we are currently witnessing the re-discovering of connections of which, until recently, there was very limited awareness. In various parts of Eastern Europe, there were parallels developing between movements and approaches that were separated not only by the Iron Curtain from the developments in the West, but also, paradoxically, by impenetrable barriers between those Eastern European cultures themselves.

This aspect is of particular importance in the work of Dmitry Prigov, who, from the 1970s onwards, developed a unique version of experimental poetics, that deals with text and graphics, or with the sound realization of words and verses. He specialized, amongst other things, on poetic performance, which comprises an essential part of his work.

In the five points of the Star Summer Palace, the basic forms of Prigov’s work and the ways in which they relate to Havel’s Anticodes’ and Czech experimental poetry will be presented.


Virtuosi of Deception. An insight into the universe of the group Collective Actions. At “The Third Belgrade”.

Belgrade, Serbia, October – November 2011
curated by Sabine Hänsgen (D) & Mirjana Peitler-Selakov (A/SRB)

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The installation „Virtuosi of deception“ in “3. Beograd” (October 2011) consisted of a photo- and text-documentation, 2 video projections (Russian World / 1985; The tenth notebook / 1994)) and an arrangement of definition texts (the terms of the „Collective Actions“) from the “Dictionary of Moscow conceptualism” shown on the windows of the exhibition hall.



Photo credits
Courtesy Galerie Sandmann, Berlin
Összefoglaló jelentés: Összefoglaló jelentés és intézkedési terv a magyarországi happeningekről ( Summary Report and Operation Plan on the Hungarian Happenings), ÁBTL, V-156455, S. 103.
© Dmitry Prigov Foundation
© Knihovna Václava Havla, Praha