Thursday, May 17, 2012

Underground-, Sub- and Alternative culture in Pilsen ?!

Lisa Schulze

The last week of April was dedicated to underground- and alternative culture in Pilsen. A first event took place on Saturday, the 21st of April. The former brewery Světovar was revived by a colorful festival of culture. This one-time industrial part of Pilsen can already look back on a long history of conversion. At the beginning of the last century yet another beer of fame was brewed here. After the Second World War the site experienced its first re-usage: tanks and other military appliances were stored here. After ´89 the premises were left to themselves. Plastering began to crumble, windows became opaque, metal started to build a layer of rust, becoming thicker and thicker. This state of looming decay nowadays creates an ambivalent enchantment. Starting in 2013 this terrain will be remodeled to become a new institution of culture; a space for alternative theater, performance art, music as well fine arts. A savor of this future could be indulged in during the festival spodní proudy. The name of the festival, meaning "undercurrents" is very appropriate in a city that is built upon hidden streams. At the same time, the name hints at a culture, not being visible necessarily at first sight, but nevertheless contributing to the dynamics of a progressive society.

In the afternoon elderly gentlemen discussed the miracles of everyday life over a glass of wine while their grandchildren were planting their first salads into old buckets. Another favorite pastime for the little ones was the mini adventure-playground consisting of a heap of sand, pebbles and baskets overflowing with logs of wood. Moreover a group of jugglers showed their artistry and invited everybody to discover the acrobat within themselves with the help of juggling balls and the diabolo. The land art exhibition "Síla ticha" (power of silence) by Jiří Beránek also attracted many visitors. In the afternoon, the former brewery was mainly used as a meeting point, a community center, that seems to be missing in an area that otherwise guarantees a pleasant state of living.

During the evening the composition of the audience altered: the hair became longer, the improvised concert hall filled with blue vapor. I recognized many faces, the alternative scene in Pilsen is not that immense. The line-up of the concert was exclusive in terms of luminaries of the alternative music scene. The audience enjoyed four bands that flow next to the musical mainstream: Burgtheater, Skrytý půvab byrokracie, Pavel Zajíček and DG 307 as well as Urband. The location of Světovar as well as its extraordinary character allow for the site to transform into a hub of community life and advocate the encounter between people of different age groups, social backgrounds and interests.

Yet another center of alternative culture in Pilsen is the cultural heritage site of Jízdní nádraží (train station in the South of the city, affectionately called Jižák). In the beginning of the last century it was used by commuters toiling in Pilsen's countless factories. Due to the industrial change leading to shutting down many factories the train station was also no longer needed. In the year of 2000 the non-profit organization Johan Centrum ventured out to re-use the art nouveau building currently known as „Moving Station“ for cultural purposes. It is easy to succumb to the morbid charms of this lieu of time passed: There is neither light nor electricity, in winter time biting frost dwells in the rooms, that do not allow one to look outside as the window frames do not hold glass but rather chipboards. When birds begin to chirp and the evenings become warmer and fragrant this bearer of yesteryear travellers open up for culture.

On Saturday, the 24th of April this year's Artbuffe was opened with a vernissage. The theme of this year's multigenre event was denominated by the mystic-medieval title "Tělo je pozemská zahrada utrpení" (the body is a garden of earthly agony). Besides the exhibition, displaying the work of young artists, a cinematic program was offered. Every evening the audience could enjoy movies by the Czech surrealist Jan Švankmajer. A duo a actors accompanied those movie nights with a mixture of playful slapstick sketches and profound thoughts of philosophic nature. Artbuffe was organized in the frame of Finale Pilsen, an annual festival of contemporary Czech film. This lead to more attention for the event in the Moving station by the media as well as by the general public. At the same time Artbuffe and Finale Pilsen were competing for the same audience with the result of only some people finding their way to the South of Pilsen.

The creation of cultural and community space is currently being initiated in Světovar and already reality in the Moving Station. The location constitutes a platform for innovative art and young artist. At the same time the organizers of Johan Centrum take the function of preservers of cultural and industrial heritage. Moreover they are part of an international network guaranteeing cultural quality events of European scale and interest. At the same time alternative culture has a difficult stance in Pilsen and encounters numerous challenges. Many committed cultural activists have splendid ideas. But an adequate response by an interested public especially in terms of quantity seems to be not existent yet. The alteration of this constellation should be one of the outcomes of the project Pilsen 2015.The project Pilsen 2015 European Capital of Culture is a chance especially for cultural activists from the alternative scene to make their voice heard. Moreover it is an opportunity to pose questions about the ability, the mission and maybe even the responsibility and duty of culture within and for a progressive, democratic and open society.

The potential effectivity of underground and alternative culture is affected by their position regarding society and its majorities. As high and mass culture can be critical towards society within the frame of norms, paradigms and conventions governing society, they could also just retreat to an affirmative position regarding existing contemporary circumstances. Underground and alternative culture reject this position per definitionem. This sets the frame for their potential as well as their limits.

Underground-culture tends to be anti-systemic, or even stages itself as a-systemic. But, this might as well be a mere gesture as the question has to be posed, whether a position outside the societal system is possible at all. Especially in countries of Eastern and Central Europe it seems to be rather a historic position. When Europe was divided into two ideological blocs, the artist in the "East" could be compared to a state clerk. Generally speaking this meant conforming to the narrowness of Socialist realism regarding form as well as content. (There were exceptions to those harsh conditions: The artist in the People's Republic of Poland as well as artists in ČSSR during Prague Spring enjoyed a relatively high standard of artistic freedom) The one not surrendering to this rigid paradigm had to descend to the artistic underground. Artistic activity was then not only precarious regarding the financial and economic condition of a creative individual, but could also become life-threatening by restrictive measures executed by the secret police. In a society oriented towards freedom and democracy the position of the artistic should not be as problematic. Therefore it is questionable whether the notion of underground-culture is still valid in contemporary European societies. In order to avoid nostalgic fascination transferred to present day reality we would rather prefer to use the concept of subculture as a successor of underground culture in the following.

The position towards mainstream culture is metaphorically included in the name of both underground as well as subculture. Both notions indicate engaging a space below the establishment. If one does not want to presume escapist tendencies, but rather understands art as a politically effective activity, the potential of the respective branches of art is subversion. An alteration of existing conditions is thus being attempted by undermining present reality and by its infiltration.

The method of alternative culture is designed differently. As indicated in the name, this kind of culture offers other, different approaches to society. Accepted norms, conventions and paradigms are being questioned, but not necessarily totally negated. Therefore, the connection to mainstream society formed by majorities is closer as it is the case with underground- and subculture. Communication between majority and minority is more likely to be initiated with the potential result of a progressive change of society through dialogue and mutual understanding. The dynamics of underground-, sub- as well as alternative culture aim against established discourses and practices. Their distinguishing characteristics is their degree of radicalness.

The concert of mainstream culture does indeed comprise of numerous voices. Whether those are truly varying representing manifold discourses and above all contributing to the development of our society regarding progress in the field of humanism, mutual understanding and tolerance can be at times questioned. Moreover mainstream culture seems to be designed to be easily consumed. This could lead to a lethargic society not interested in either culture or politics.

Alternative culture can operate as a corrective in this case. Alternative approaches to art and finally to society offer different and therefore new views at the known. Thus, it can initiate a change from within the existing without having to be radical, destructive and anarchical. But, this kind of art tends to be more difficult to permeate in terms if form as well as content. This does not automatically mean that alternative culture is elitist, but rather that it defies mere and simple consumptability. In order to comprehend a serious examination of reality/realities is necessary. Therefore underground-, sub- and alternative culture can - in the best case - contribute to activating their audience. Thus, they abide by the credo of the classical avant-garde movement of connecting and even interlacing art and life.

A seminal element of Pilsen's application for the title of European capital of culture was the emphasis on participation of the general population. This approach is anti-elitist as well as aiming at dialogue. At the same time the recipient cannot retreat to the position of a passive consumer of culture, but automatically becomes active producer of meaning and content. Sub- and alternative culture in Pilsen can therefore turn into a tool to create society through its active citizens. In order for this vision to become reality, sub- and alternative culture have to become more visible to the general public. This summer at least two extraordinary events could accomplish this task: The „Den Meliny Mercouri", on June 23rd (Day of Melina-Mercouri) and the street festival "živa ulice" (June 23rd to September 9th 2012). Those events in the streets of Pilsen bear the potential to create dialogue and intrigue citizens to become (culturally) active themselves.


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