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Kata Krasznahorkai Cu2t

Half a century ago, the secret services of Soviet Europe trained their spies to infiltrate the small, deeply underground scenes of local performance artists, documenting their supposedly dangerous, decadent and subversive events with bureaucratic fervour. Even before that dark past opened a recent chapter of increased Russian intelligence activity around poets, writers and artists, Kata Krasznahorkai had been researching the painstaking, repressive surveillance of non-conformist expression, resulting in a book and exhibition in collaboration with Sylvia Sasse. More recently, she has become the lead curator at Brandenburgische Gesellschaft für Kultur und Geschichte, a cultural institution in Brandenburg, which has the distinction of being the most right-wing state in the former GDR as well as one of Germany’s most polluted, impoverished and xenophobic.

Interview by Claudia Steinberg 
Portrait courtesy of Kata Krasznahorkai

CLAUDIA STEINBERG Your exhibition Artists & Agents: Performance Art and the Secret Services – about the intensive shadowing and persecution of practitioners of performance art by the KGB, the Stasi and other secret services – opened up a practically unexplored chapter in art history. How did you arrive at the topic? 

KATA KRASZNAHORKAI I was looking for alternative narratives about the transition to the 1990s. What happened to the many subversive artists who emerged in the underground in the 1970s in former Eastern Bloc states, and what happened to art history after 1990? In the historiography at the time, there was almost no further information at all, especially in the very fragile genre of performance art and Happenings – you had to rely almost exclusively on what the artists said, and they tended to celebrate their great subversive acts. My question was: who helped write this art history without having been involved? The stories the artists told about themselves were heroic, and I like to question things like that on principle.

CS Could you describe these heroic performances? 

KK The trigger for the Happening movement in Hungary was an event that still resonates today: a Happening by Tamás Szentjóby and Gábor Altorjay in 1966, literally underground in a basement and performed only to guests – very exclusive. There are different descriptions and opinions as to what actually happened, but in any case it was a violent break with everything that had been understood as art until then, at least in Hungary. It was, so to speak, an atomic bomb that exploded the culture of the time. Though it took place in a cellar under a villa somewhere in Buda, there were already three state security employees among the invited guests – even though the performance genre didn’t even officially exist yet. They just knew that something was going to happen that couldn’t be described as art and was somehow suspicious. After 1990, when the infiltration by state security informants became known, it added to the mythological exaltation of this one act.


Accusations of homosexuality, obscenity and transgression have been used continuously since the 1960s to discredit public figures – and they always work


CS Who knew about these ephemeral art events? Was there an audience or simply other members of the scene? 

KK It’s hard to say. Performance art was discreetly practised in Eastern Bloc countries from the beginning of the 1960s to the 1990s, and was seen as subversive by every country at different times – in Hungary in the 1960s, in the GDR in the 1970s, in Czechoslovakia in the 1980s. The genre was useful for painting the entire art scene as an enemy of the state, used to stoke fear that could certainly not have been widespread because these insular actions could not reach the public, let alone a mass audience. Nevertheless, the state did everything it could to understand what this was supposed to be and how it could be prevented from continuing. There was an absurd fear that this art form, presented by a few 20-year-olds in basements, posed a real political and societal threat.

CS You combed through the extensive and precise material that these agents compiled. They learned an awful lot about this artistic practice but at the same time, you emphasise that spies cannot write official art history. 

KK Since 1990, most archives in the former Eastern Bloc countries have been publicly accessible, at least for research, and so this immense amount of material was erroneously accepted as an art historical source. That is a huge mistake – everything that is written in these files about performance is pure disinformation, because it went through the machinery of the state security apparatus to identify fictitious events and fictitious performers. It is a staging of state security itself.

CS Were the officials making things up, or were they completely misinterpreting events? 

KK Those who produced the lie didn’t know where the lie was either. The people who were actually involved in this scene – either as artist-agents or as observers of the agents – had no idea where these reports would end up or what purpose they might serve. Some artist-agents thought they were smarter than the state security agents and could control these processes from within, believing that with big-name figures like Sascha Anderson they could form a hinge between the underground scene and the state – they all failed. They could never know where these reports would be channelled because they were part of major operational measures. Those measures, in turn, were thought up by officers with tremendous creativity, but they were neither discussed in the research nor in the processing – they somehow got away with it.

CS So on the one hand the secret services were very clever, but at the same time they greatly overestimated the scope and impact of these actions? 

KK They were unfamiliar with culture, that’s why they needed artist-agents, people who knew the scene and also understood theoretically and ideologically what was going on. The state security apparatus no longer exists as an institution, and the conditions are completely different, but the mechanisms by which artists continue to be vilified as subversive to society are very similar today. Russia is an even more virulent case, as there is still a continuity between the KGB textbooks of the 1970s and today’s officers. Other methods to completely disqualify artists both in their private lives and in their artistic value are being widely used again. Accusations of homosexuality, obscenity and transgression have been used continuously since the 1960s to discredit public figures – and they always work.

CS Homophobia and especially transphobia are also stoked in the US and used very effectively – we have that in common with Putin. On the other hand, Eastern European dictatorships supported and celebrated Angela Davis. How did that happen? 

KK It started with an intelligence report about an action reading called “Freedom for Angela Davis” in Hungary in 1971, during her trial in the US. The underground scene chanted this slogan during its political actions, and it was then taken up by state security. The unofficial agents may have been rather confused to be using a slogan borrowed from the subversive art scene as part of state propaganda, however, “Freedom for Angela Davis” became the slogan for the first truly global solidarity campaign of the then-Eastern Bloc.

CS Was it a way of establishing superiority to the racist West? 

KK Yes, and from the Soviet Union to China, everyone got behind it. Performance artists also staged a solidarity event for Bobby Seale, a re-enactment of his trial in which he was chained to a chair. The GDR’s newly crowned dictator, Erich Honecker, organised its biggest solidarity campaign ever, and as a black female philosopher, Davis was ideally suited as a figurehead for his urgently needed youth movement. As part of the “Million Roses for Angela Davis” solidarity campaign, kindergartens, schools and businesses sent postcards to her in prison, which are now in the Harvard University Archives. The GDR also sent journalists to America, who documented the slums and prisons of major American cities and wrote reports about the misery of the black population. In the GDR, people from that generation still get tears in their eyes when you bring up Angela Davis. Since the Western cultural embargo against Russia there has been a renewed wave of expressions of solidarity for Africa, and there are currently huge exhibitions of African art taking place in Russia – Putin can build on the 1970s and say we are fighting racism, we give black people the recognition that you don’t get from America.


CS Does the persistent racism in East Germany not apply to Africans, only to other foreigners?  

KK Thousands of contract workers from African countries worked under catastrophic conditions in the GDR and were racially discriminated against – the “great solidarity” only focused on Davis, one figure. With the opening of the borders between West and East Germany, this supposedly peaceful revolution became life-threatening for non-white people: right-wing radical forces were unleashed in full force, and no help came from the state. This story hasn’t been told enough.

CS You believe that progressives don’t use culture as effectively as the right in the fight for their goals. 

KK Yes, in relation to Hungary. I was horrified to learn that Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz–KDNP Party Alliance is tripling the cultural budget: they will build new museums, mount large exhibitions and support festivals under the condition that their political ideology is the correct one. The right-wing government has understood what culture can mean for political communication. In liberal democracies, the culture budget is always cut first. It’s a huge mistake to cut funding where it’s needed most. In Germany, the money for political education has been slashed. Hungary is the crystal ball – the state designs history lessons and selects reading material for children and young people. They understand the importance of museums, and people are glad to find these offerings.

CS Your work almost always returns to climate change. At Berlin’s Haus der Brandenburgisch-Preußischen Geschichte, you invited the public into a huge space, empty except for the sounds of crackling, dripping and hissing created by melting Alpine glaciers. What was the response? 

KK The focus on climate impact and the cultural-historical components of climate change came from the fact that Brandenburg, as a region in central Europe, is hit extremely hard and very visibly affected by the consequences of climate change. Every year, its forests now burn so hot that the fires cannot be extinguished. Thanks to the military presence from two World Wars and the Russian occupation, there is so much ammunition in those forests that firefighters can’t get in there. That is how cultural history, climate change and military history come together, and that was the topic of my first exhibition a year-and-a-half ago. I had thought about what people immediately know about Brandenburg – the news images of the forests in flames, the helpless firefighters. Eighty percent of Brandenburg was completely occupied by the military; Wünsdorf, a town of 4,000, had a troop presence of up to 75,000 Soviet soldiers and their families. I wanted to show that climate change and cultural history cannot be separated. The sound installation “Melting Gallery” by Diana Lelonek and Denim Szram was a shock, because the audience was used to historical exhibitions, and then there was nothing in the room. ‘What does this have to do with Brandenburg?’ people asked. Only one link was necessary: that the forests were, and are, burning. ◉