That Mushroom Cloud? They’re Just Svejking Around - via NYTIMES

Posted by Lee Wells | Thu Jan 24th 2008 3:46 p.m.

Hi Rhizome.
I just came across this great article in todays Times about a culture jamming collective in the Czech Republic. The live feeds are not always live. Check it out. Would love to know about what some of you think in reference to this type of art.

Cheers,
Lee

<object width="425" height="355"><param name="movie" value="http://www.youtube.com/v/gjsZCyNb7o0&rel=1"></param><param name="wmode" value="transparent"></param><embed src="http://www.youtube.com/v/gjsZCyNb7o0&rel=1" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" wmode="transparent" width="425" height="355"></embed></object>

The New York Times
http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/24/arts/design/24abroad.html?pagewanted=2

January 24, 2008
That Mushroom Cloud? They’re Just Svejking Around
By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN

PRAGUE — One Sunday, several months ago, early risers gazing at Czech Television’s CT2 channel saw picturesque panoramas of the Czech countryside, broadcast to the wordless accompaniment of elevator music. It was the usual narcoleptic morning weather show.

Then came the nuclear blast.

Across the Krkonose Mountains, or so it appeared, a white flash was followed by the spectacle of a rising mushroom cloud. A Web address at the bottom of the screen said Ztohoven.com.

Ztohoven, to no one’s great surprise, turned out to be a collective of young artists and friends who had previously tinkered with a giant neon sculpture of a heart high atop Prague Castle, and managed (during a single night, no less) to insert announcements for an art opening inside all 750 lighted advertising boxes in the city’s subway system.

Now half a dozen members of the group face up to three years in jail or a fine or both, charged with scaremongering and attempted scaremongering. The trial is set for March. Some Czechs expressed outrage over Ztohoven’s action, naturally, but in general it drew a mild, tolerant, even amused public response, in contrast to how terrorism-related pranks, or what might seem like them, have been widely greeted elsewhere. The incident instead has highlighted an old Czech tradition of tomfoolery that is a particular matter of national cultural pride.

Not long ago a film that became a local hit, “Czech Dream,” documented a boondoggle by two young Czech filmmakers, who enlisted advertisers and publicists to devise a marketing scheme for a nonexistent supermarket. The movie’s goal, like Ztohoven’s, was to wag the dog: lampoon media manipulation and public gullibility. In the trailer hundreds of shoppers swarm a weedy field, rushing toward what they believe to be the store, which turns out to be a painted backdrop. The mushroom cloud, in a sense, upped the ante on the supermarket.

To hack into the CT2 broadcast, Ztohoven simply switched cables on an unmanned, remote camera at a limestone quarry in the mountains, which the artists had scouted three years earlier. Then they piped in their video. The name Ztohoven makes a pun in Czech that means both “out of it” and an obscenity. Rightly, the group presumed this would tip off viewers that the explosion was fake, in case they hadn’t already guessed it from the cheesy special effects.

Contrary to what the British press reported, no “War of the Worlds” panic ensued. So far as anyone can tell, not a single sleepy-eyed Czech viewer was frightened by the stunt, their lack of fear, the state attorney said, not being the explanation for the curious charge of “attempted” scaremongering. (The charge is a Czech legal fine point.)

As for exactly who the group’s members are, that remains something of a mystery, which Ztohoven theatrically guards. Even the state prosecutor said over the phone the other day it was private information until the trial. Nevertheless three members of the group — two amiable ringleaders and a quiet, sweet-faced 26-year-old who looked as if he were 12 — agreed to meet at an empty cafe over coffee and Coke. They declined to give their names.

But they brought a film crew.

Turns out, Ztohoven includes no women. “That’s the problem of radicalism,” sighed the threesome’s 33-year-old elder statesman, who called himself Roman Tyc. (The pun works in English.) “To get together for pranks is also more difficult now that we’re getting into our 30s.”

His associate, in a pastel crewneck sweater, who gave his name as Zdenek Dostal, and whom the highly voluble Roman had a tendency to talk over, said the action on Czech Television, which Ztohoven titled “Media Reality,” was “not meant to be threatening but to land softly on the public consciousness so that people won’t let themselves be brainwashed.”

The artists just wanted to startle viewers “from their lethargy,” piped in the quietest member of the trio, Mira Slava (punningly, “peace and fame”). All three Ztohovenites recoiled at a description of an art project some years back entailing fake bombs left in a New York subway station, which briefly shut part of the city down.

Nothing really happened at all here, initially, anyway. Ladislav Sticha, the tall spokesman for Czech Television, told me that the show’s audience was “miniature” — presumably he meant small in number. Only a few people, among them perplexed hikers checking the weather before setting out for a Sunday stroll, called or sent e-mail messages to inquire.

But then Czech Television broadcast Ztohoven’s handiwork hour after hour on its numerous news programs, and the video soon landed on YouTube. By the next day all Europe knew about it.

“It’s not that we would not have supported this kind of art, if they had come to us,” Mr. Sticha added, somewhat abashed that, because Czech Television filed a complaint for breach of property, the affair ended up in court.

Hardly anyone here seems to want Ztohoven to receive more than a legal slap on the wrist, if that. Neither have fellow artists protested the trial in the streets, nor made a freedom of speech issue out of it. A literary weekly even mildly took Ztohoven to task for being a little too hungry for media attention.

On the other hand, the National Gallery in Prague last month awarded the group a prize. Milan Knizak, the National Gallery’s white-haired, pony-tailed director, himself an artist and one-time Czech Actionist, explained that the award was not a statement about the court case but given for the “directness” of “Media Reality.”

Back in the 1960s, Mr. Knizak added, he contrived to send hundreds of packages to a randomly chosen apartment building in Prague: “clothes, furniture, live fish, tickets to the movie theater.”

“No art was present” in that action, he went on. “It meant a change in the everyday life of everyday people. It didn’t take place in a gallery or museum, it just happened. Like love. You don’t reason why. It just is.”

Ztohoven’s work has a larger context, in other words. It belongs to a history of Czech literary and artistic mystification and sly, deadpan humor that is the expression of a small, underdog nation dominated for generations by outsiders, one after another. “The Good Soldier Svejk,” by Jaroslav Hasek, the famous Czech novel that is the masterpiece of this genre, tells of an idiot Candide, a hopeless orderly whose humanity throws into contrast a decaying empire.

“The Czech hero was no longer the nobleman but the poor, simple creature,” Mr. Knizak said about “Svejk,” “not Don Quixote but Sancho Panza.”

The book, it seems, even gave rise to a droll verb: “Because of the past, Austria, communism, fascism, someone always stepping on our necks, we have had no choice except to Svejk around,” Roman Tyc said about the general Czech psyche.

From Svejk’s example derived the fictional Jara da Cimrman, a kind of kitsch anti-Svejk, concocted by a group of writers and actors partly as a protest against authority during the communist era. In a country that claims no towering inventors or explorers, Cimrman became the quintessential Czech hero, a Zelig who trekked to the North Pole but missed it by several yards, who advised Chekhov, but failed to get credit. (“Two sisters?” he asked the Russian. “Isn’t that too few?”)

“It’s the difference between us and the Soviets,” Ladislav Smoljak, one of Cimrman’s creators, said one recent morning in his apartment, where an imitation Vermeer hung on the wall. “The oppression under which we lived was mostly mild so our reaction has been mild too. Mystification is a part of it.”

“Mystification is too strong a word,” Mr. Knizak, the gallery director, responded. “It’s more nebulous: important and unimportant at once, not aggressive, light, distant, not black humored. Czechs don’t start revolutions in the streets. We settle things over beer in pubs.”

Which, as it happened, was where Jiri Rak held forth the other night. A specialist in Czech smallness and a historian of culture, he summed up Ztohoven’s larger meaning in a neighborhood bar. “When people make fun of something, they are making themselves free of it,” he said. “That’s the condition of the small nation. It’s a defense for everyone today in the globalized world.

“I think the goal of Czech mystification is to show us that we live in a world continually mystifying us — the politicians, the advertisers.” He paused over his Pilsner, then raised the glass. “Thank God for Ztohoven.”
Your Reply