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An Announced Protest Interview the with Rafani groupUmělec magazine 2007/3
Lenka Vítková | interview | en cs de es
Creation—a relentless search for border points, situations—in time traces the space between them, indicating a certain shape. We perceive it in the same way as we finger the shape of a face in darkness. The only difference is that we don’t know which side we are on – inside or on the outside, we cannot tell whether we are touching our own face or someone else’s. We don’t even know if all the members of the group are standing inside, or outside, and whether the difference will withstand. It is possible that each one of us will grab hold of the face from a different side, and in that way more precisely. We don’t know the exact meaning of our behavior, though we think that it is necessary to fully take advantage of the possibility, when what is inside and what is outside is not precisely determined, and the times, when it is possible to be just as well on both sides. (Rafani: Tvar (Shape), text from 2005)
How did your expectations of working as a group and your ambitions transform from when the group was founded to today?
In the beginning we had ambitions to establish ourselves and be successful, while now it’s more about reaching some interesting shape, approach to art, rather than success, necessarily
How did you actually imagine this success?
Well, just typically, that we would be financially independent. Of course we had some naive ideas at the outset, that we’d have lots of money, that we’d be doing what we wanted...
Was there anyone who was your model?
No, not a model, but more like inspiration – people who appeared on stage or who we saw around us. We felt the strength of the group but did not get any inspiration from that. We were older than the other students at the academy, so we had the feeling that everyone who participated in Milan Salák’s exhibits were in, and we just weren’t. So we got together, in order to be able to do it ourselves. We created our own exhibits, because no one would invite us to theirs and also because we wanted to define ourselves against the artists who participate in group exhibitions. We imagined that we would be able to fill up a gallery as a group and really say something with it, this was the key thing for us. From the beginning, these were, honestly, stupid reasons, but what it lead us to, made sense.
How much were you influenced by Irwin and NSK?
Well, we were much more influenced by Laibach than Irwin, but that was rather a question of image. Irwin has no distinctive image. We drew inspiration more from musical than art groups. Visual art groups don’t work with image, and we also broke away from that a bit, after all. Musical groups perform on a podium and that circumstance allows one to play out a production with image, whereas at an exhibit opening, where the person stands in the middle of a crowd and at the end of the performance, or speech, disappears among the people again, there is not enough distance from the audience for the game with image to keep going ad absurdum... The uniform represents the limits of image. Keiko Sei wrote that we actually don’t know why we have uniforms, but in the instant when a person puts a uniform on, he acquires a new role. The content was similar too, in the beginning we wanted to present ourselves as a totalitarian group...
Why totalitarian? That seems like a provocation, or a polemic with the idea of a bohemian artist.
We wanted that too, that’s why we were saying for a while that we wanted to give off the impression of some managerial entity. Everyone here at the time was really chilled out, freethinking, not really wanting to take it seriously…
But that kind of sameness can actually have aesthetic rather than ideological reasons. Uniforms look good…
That went hand in hand, but we didn’t think about it that much, we based a lot of decisions on intuition. The first shot at a text, which explained what we were doing, appeared a year later when we had an exhibit in Olomouc and were asked to give a lecture about our work. Before, we only wrote speeches and press releases, but often the assertions we made there were contradictory…
What is intersting, talking about the founding of the group and distinguishing itself from the community, is your attempt to map the community, to carry out the collections and actually substitute for curators, critics and historians a bit... there is another parallel with NSK and with the East Art Map project.
We didn’t know about these then. We just found a studio in Smichov, and with it a courtyard space. There was nowhere to exhibit, but we really wanted to, so we started with CO14. We documented the exhibits from the beginning, because we wanted to publish some catalogue. Then we moved out of the studio and started lectures, since we wanted to continue but didn’t have the space anymore... But we find it more interesting to find some sort of a format, rather than present a work of a curator.
That’s the permanent principle of your work, to penetrate a group that interests you, based on cooperation. Artists make up a particular community, you also worked with children, with Roma, with refugees. Unfortunately, because you’ve blackened out your website, I was not able to tell exactly what that exhibit was called, Sergej and Vasil?
Sergej and Dušan. We can add communists to that list. Those groups are always manipulated somehow by the majority – children by adults, Roma by white Czechs and so on. At the same time, these groups are exploited by politicians—children, for example. And that borders on political kitsch. We are interested in being involved in culturally borderline situations. Often, it’s about translating certain things, how they work in other cultures, like for the Roma or the Vietnamese. It’s similar with children, since things that are understood by adults in one way, children understand differently. Or it was interesting that in Romani (language), some words have a different meaning than in Czech, or that on the other hand some words don’t exist in Romany, which posed a question for us, whether those concepts are also missing from Roma’s mentality. But the main reason was that our studio was in Smichov and we came into daily contact with Roma.
At the exhibition of the finalists for the Jindřich Chalupecký award the Roma kids swarmed around your kitchen stand outside...
We were counting on the fact that there is a ghetto nearby, so the Roma kids would definitely come there. They wander around, or actually live there in front of the House of Arts, but don’t go inside, because no one ever invited them in. And of course latent racism kicks in when, the moment they appear there, something seems wrong inside the gallery. We work with circumstances that actually exists, but link it to visual art.
What do you do with Vietnamese people?
That was an exhibit in Jihlava, which was related to the Český les mountains and presented an eclectic view of the Sudetenland territory. As part of the opening, we freed a pair of cockatiels and then read the beginnings verses of a thesis on market places that had been written by a Vietnamese student at the University of West Bohemia in Pilzen. It started, “birds land in a good country...” Those birds all died.
So was it important for you that this group had its own voice, that it could contribute something, or were you rather inter- ested in the process of manipulation, which you nonetheless carried our with your cards on the table?
We let them carry out a certain function and that occasion seemed pious on the outside, but at the same time, thanks to our input, it could work in the opposite way. If it was manipulation, that depends on the point of view of the spectator. Very often it was just a matter of putting it into a different context, which for the visitor, the viewer, the standard white visitor of the gallery ended up seeming like a manipulation, but for the Ukrainian who built the wall for us in the gallery, it was a regular job. We used those gaps in the understanding of manipulation. The kids were crazy about the Obrys (outline) in the coloring book, but the adult viewers thought that we were manipulating them.
And what about cooking. You announced already at your first exhibition that there would be goulash. Feeding people is such a delicate form of manipulation. I usually understand your work best when digested metaphorically.
Well that also refers to a form of populism, but when we were in front of the House of Arts, that was more about hospitality. And at Goja, we were just invited to a gastronomic evening, so we made eastern-Slovak food—something the Roma had brought to the Czech Republic from there.
Isn’t it that, thanks to you, the viewer ends up in a position where they experiences in a controlled environment their own latent racism, xenophobia or a feeling of historical injustice or tendencies to manipulate those who are weaker?
That’s how it actually is, at least for the typical white Czech gallery viewer.
Or suppressed aggressiveness…I remember how I met you at NoD after the protest against Czech Prime Minister Paroubek on Wenceslas Square…
That was rough, that was incredibly powerful.
Could you describe what happened?
When a demonstration is called for a specific place, whoever registers it first, is the one who gets to protest there, so there would be no conflict between groups with opposing opinions. We decided that we would register for a demonstration for a whole year, the year 2006, so we would have the grounds around the horse statue on Wenceslaus Square blocked off, which worked in the end, with some six, seven, well maybe ten exceptions, when someone came earlier. The officials at Prague City Hall knew that we are not doing anything there, so they gave our number to people who wanted to protest instead of us. We got a call from Mr. Šinágl, organizer of the demonstration against Paroubek. We told him that it doesn’t work like that, that it’s an artistic concept, which he didn’t get, so he started to threaten us. Then we heard on the radio that a demonstration against Paroubek was announced. Then, I happened by there, and saw that the area was already full of people. I went to see Šinágl to tell him to stop it, and to move it somewhere else. I told him that I’ll call the police, and then it somehow started growing. Almost a thousand people were screaming that we are swine, and the guys actually got there within a half hour. It was intense and the police didn’t step in, of course, so the protesters said that they will continue the next day too. Next day we came equipped, we had a megaphone, so we would disrupt their protest. We set up on the steps in front of their microphone, but just as we started, the most aggressive demonstrators formed a little squad and started shoving, spitting on us, spraying us…the most absurd thing was that we told the cops in advance to take action, but when we were standing up there, we saw that one of them is a hundred meters away on the right, the other, a hundred meters on the left, so if a fight broke out, they certainly wouldn’t intervene…But finally we pushed them off thirty meters down from the horse, so for the next unregistered demonstration, they paid for a podium and a projection screen over the Palach memorial.
Do you think that you are dealing with political kitsch?
No no no. That’s just a concept that Czech President Vaclav Klaus invented. No no, I just read about it from Kundera.
So when you use a controversial theme, it’s obvious from the beginning that it will attract attention. It works in advertisement as well as in art.
We are interested in, partially because of our personalities, the excitement that arises, and we know what evokes it. We don’t want to reflect on it in a completely banal way, though. At one point we were interested just in that attribute of controversy, but we gradually stepped away from that. And we never set out to work with it deliberately. Probably, the most important thing is to overcome some strong internal boundaries.
And the moment of coming out into the public is part of overcoming those boundaries?
We decided that we had to somehow get as close to the material as possible, to a point where it’s not comfortable anymore. At the same time, we already came in contact with those themes before the founding of the group, for example with skinheads. When I started listening to music, it was at first punk and then Orlík. I told myself that it’s okay, that they don’t actually mean it, it’s just punk. At my age, everyone was like that, but later some people would smash the disk with a hammer.
Does the fact of where you come from play a role in choosing themes? I’m thinking about Sudetenland…
The trips we take together play a significant role. That way, one sees things as if from the outside.
I have a text here from the speech given at the Hymna event at the Plán exhibit: “The sociability of individual events and the emphasis made on their usefulness can signal the author’s lack of trust in the meaning of art itself, in its social role and wider comprehensibility.” Do you feel mistrust towards art?
We are interested in art most of all, and in the end we show our final results in a galler—art is our field of work. If we wanted to be sociologists or politicians, we would be sociologists or politicians. Maybe we felt like doing that at the time when we were in the Communist party and at the same time used to go to Motol to draw with kids from the oncology ward, which in that environment made sense in itself. Art sort of lags behind, but art always lags behind life, so that’s the question, when will it actually stop being worth it. Up till that time we always counted on the audience and thought about how to present this or that, so it would be legible, but then there was a turning point when, much more than success, we began to be interested in the importance of what we are doing, for ourselves. First of all, we came face to face with exacerbated problems, which started to alter our priorities, and then we actually had that quote, unquote success. We were on television, the way that one imagines it in the beginning. You are on TV, and nothing changes; you’re in the paper, nothing changes, it’s all still the same, it’s just that you’re on TV. We also realized, that we are victims in relation to the media, and there is nothing that can be done about it, or not victims, but we’re just on a different wave length. They have their own interests, their own way of speaking, and it’s impossible to change it or to insert some subliminal message. They need a certain percentage of culture and we are, for them, culture, which edges towards tabloid.
Your joining the Communist party always seemed suspiciously like a work of body art…
When we worked with skinheads before, we would only take on the external features. But this we lived through ourselves and all of us experienced it. It was a logical conclusion – that we’d have to join the communist party, that it was the only way to relate to it…
What was the outcome like?
We organized a regular exhibit. We displayed party membership cards in glass showcases, recycled material… Originally, the instal- lation was supposed to emerge from the communist aesthetic, as a hall of heritage – red banners, Sorel (Socialist Realist) paintings… But after, we were members of the communist party, our goal was more to attain an atmosphere of certain desolation and a feeling of something that is here, but is disappearing at the same time, as if it were not here, but still is, it’s this shadow, an outline. Probably the most symbolic for us was the outline of the five-pointed star, which we made at the NoD gallery in the apse at the top of the auditorium, as if the star hung there for a long time and then someone took it off. We created it based on a book by Thomas Bernhard – the name of the exhibit Příčina (The Cause/org. Die Ursache) actually comes from there – called Obrys jednoho života (Gathering Evidence, 1985), where in the chapter Příčina, Thomas Bernhard’s family is deciding whether to become Austrians or Germans, in other words, whether to accept the blame for fascism.
When I spoke about it with Tomáš Vaňek, he said that he was disappointed that he didn’t find out about your everyday experiences…
…yeah, but that’s the tabloid part… it was funny on the one hand, but on the other hand, sad. We made a questionnaire where we included what we wanted to know. People answered questions about what their best experience in the Communist party was, what they got from it and what they think about the current situation…One could find out from these about the motivations of the party members and see this weird kind of messiness, that it’s not always possible to see these people as culprits, but more like strange victims. And their reasons are often understandable in their situation at the time. There was one member, for example, who joined the Communist party in ’68, in protest against the invasion of the Warsaw Pact troops… We made it very abstract, since we feel that the meaning of art is in abstraction, although it has to be supported by tangible activity, but the output should be abstract. In the sixties, Chytilová said that stories are for idiots, and she has a point there…Stories are shovels and when you do anything in art and frame it within story lines, into some micro-scenes, it’s a move in the wrong direction, for us. We are looking for a certain consensus, some thing, which is common to all of us, so the interpretation of individual stories, experiences and feelings from that communist circle, would be simply subjective perspectives…
In one of your notes on writing texts it says that you try to speak in literary language. It always interested me what a description does with objects. I believe that when one describes something exactly, then things otherwise not apparent emerge, but this exact description is rare.
Well, we thought a lot about language from the beginning. Indeed, an aspect of our speech was declarative and impassionate, and also for there to be this factual description, in the same way that we tried to make a pragmatic graphic presentation. This was the basis…
Similarly pragmatic were the names of your exhibits, from the beginning – simple, abstract, terse…
In that respect it was about distinguishing ourselves from the sophisticated titles and complicated sentences, which often appeared in exhibition names at the time. We were also inspired by Thomas Bernhard. We wanted to be simple and bold. Or when we looked through a book by Stalin, the individual chapters were titled, Method, Strategy and so forth…We wanted to be rigid and concise.
In the beginning of 2007 you stopped using texts. That will be for a year, right?
We don’t know yet
What are you working on now?
Since then, we’ve been doing mostly performances every two weeks. And every two weeks, each member of Rafani colors in one A1-size paper square. At the same time, in different places everyone does the same thing – paint a white area black. The moment of working together is the important thing; wherever you are, on the date, the hour, everyone starts doing the same thing. It’s a bit like the fairy tale of three sticks. We started this on New Year’s, it was the first one of those performances, and then we decided that it was quite good, and that we’ll do it regularly the whole year, it will be like a calendar.
And what are these performances like?
It’s usually simple, it’s hard to talk about it, it’s going on now, but it is really about a certain cycle of things. That’s what accompanies us. Most often, it’s about rotating, covering up, losing, finding, enumerating and counting down, relay passing, breaking, and so on. It has to fulfill the requirement of being comprehensible without text, without any other explanation, so it would be obvious from either a short two-minute video or from photographs and so it wouldn’t refer to any other art works, and that really limits things.
I only saw the performance in front of the Klamovka pavilion where you just had three bricks and you all brought circular saws and…
…you were also at the Sunday outing in masks…
…and in billowing clouds of dust you made quite a racket slicing those bricks apart.
But that was an unusual event, and we speculated a lot about it, because the public was there; they usually aren’t and as soon as the public is there, a person thinks about those things as a performance, so it was more like some noisy concert or a protest. The other events are much more subtle. But we actually used ‘performances’ the whole time, even when many people weren’t doing them.
Before you had any media reaction, people wrote about those events. And you commented on them; they were evaluated and described, while now there is this mythical element that it is present. When you perform something and do not comment on it, you are actually preparing it to be put into narrative – where there is no history, there is myth...
Yep, we thought of that too, but we also have come to believe that texts tend to be over-used, uselessly intellectualized. It was all good in its time, but then we started to feel that this search for references and correlations had become a constraint. We reached a phase when we had it worked out so well, that we couldn’t actually surprise ourselves. At some point, exhibitions became little more than illustrations of something we wanted to say. We were so far gone that we no-longer considered what was more important, our text or our exhibitions. Text is used today with everything as little explanatory crutches, which is also one of the reasons we stopped using texts. An artist without text doesn’t exist. They say that the media age is the age of images, but behind it all are texts.
Artistic success also relies on text. Your group was one of the first in the Czech Republic to have a decent website—an excellent combination of the catalogue of exhibits and your texts. And now, all the words on the site are blackened out or whited-out. Do you realize that it is an act of renouncing your own artistic history?
That’s exactly what seemed interesting to us, that we are regularly making art, every fourteen days, but then the result is a slideshow of incomprehensible pictures that don’t say anything to anyone; it would be quite hard for it to mean anything to anybody.
In my opinion the content of your ‘performances’ is now somewhere between emptiness, even though in relation to art it is rather a negative quality in the European tradition, between poetry and a reason to meet, they are impressive for their obvious incomprehensibility. What meaning does incomprehensibility carry for you in art?
We try to balance on the very edge of emptiness. Or to phrase it better, we do that which has meaning for us, but we provide for the viewer just this empty series. So the importance of incomprehensibility thus grows for us. We also began realizing that art is above all miscomprehension, which we simply try to reproduce on stage.
What were you trying to get at in your last text-less exhibit at the NoD gallery? How important was the way that you came upon the individual parts of the installation?
The approach was important. We did not want to make these things, but didn’t matter if we stole it from somewhere or bought it. Most important was the directness of this intention.
And what kind of an environment did you want to create? For me, it was an atmosphere of the past, those door knockers and curb stones, looking just as rusty and crumbly as I remember from childhood. Did this deviate from your other exhibits.
It didn’t deviate; it can be linked to the communist exhibit, and before that we were interested in the Sudetenland region. I’d rather not describe it like that, though, because most important for us was the modernist divisions into series, reference to pre-fab neighborhoods (sídliště), wearing-down or artificial wearing down of object, like in the case of the pedestrian crossing, minimalist shapes, which work in public space. Of course the division of the exhibit with black dots was important for us, a kind of punctuation.
It seemed interesting for me in the beginning that the charisma of the group contradicted the way that each of you came off individually. This characteristic and, of course, the small diversions from the original plans always seemed appealing to me.
We were very unhappy with the small diversions, at least in the beginning, and with not being able to fulfill the plan – that frustrated us most. We wanted to be obscure and have an image worked out, which we more or less did; but there was no podium at exhibition openings, it wasn’t like at a concert, where you can flaunt yourself for two hours and then disappear behind the curtain, here we flaunted for two minutes on the same level as those people and then we dispersed among them and started to smirk...
Why did you not carry on as a musical group?
Actually we’ve just bought instruments and equipment! But we don’t have a musical ear, that’s the problem with our musical career, well Luděk does.
How did you come to call yourself Rafani?
That’s worn out.
So, out with it.
Luděk suggested that we should be Radical Art Finance, I was pushing though for us to have some Czech name, like Houska (bread roll), or Raoul… we had these ambitions that we’d travel around the countryside and give cultural lectures, so Raoul said: “Rough guys (Rafani) came to the village, and panic fell over the hen-roost.” So it came about somehow like that. And for a while we were...well, I was quite embarrassed, when we would go somewhere and say that we are Rafani, like the “ant troop” boy scouts... We were waiting until it would become more abstract infused with new meaning. Now anyone of can easily introduce himself as Luděk Rathouský from the Rafani art group, when calling someone after a long time, and, oh, yeah yeah…it’s not weird anymore. As such, it’s always a shot below the belt when we go abroad, and they translate it. That is really terrible, we arrive there as Biegleboys or Bissige Hunde or Los Rafieros.
The art group Rafani was founded in the year 2000 by four students from the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. In the seven years of their existence, Rafani realized some fifty exhibitions and events in the Czech Republic and abroad. From the beginning they were received with substantial media attention and interest of the professional community. In the years 2002-2003 Rafani showed their work in their studio in Smíchov and the adjoining courtyard of the CO14 gallery, where every two weeks a one-day exhibit was held. In the years 2004-2005 the CO14 project continued with regular lectures in an auditorium at the Philosophical Faculty of Charles University, where Rafani invited contemporary Czech and Slovak artists. Rafani were nominated twice for the Jindřich Chalupecký award in 2004 and 2006. For the first six years they carefully recorded their activities on the website www.rafani.cz. After they stopped using text in their artistic works, they began anonymously placing short records from performances on the Youtube server and leaving white or black circles as signatures. Current Rafani are Jiří Franta, Marek Meduna, Petr Motejzlík, aka Raoul, and Luděk Rathouský.