Who are Ztohoven?

Ztohoven are a collective of artists in the Czech Republic. The group’s name ‘Ztohoven’ translates to both ‘The way out’ and ‘The hundred shits’, aptly communicating the tone that runs throughout their work. Quoting Ztohoven figurehead Roman Tyc, Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times has argued that the group possesses a typical Czech approach to politics and even dissent: “Because of the past, Austria, communism, fascism, someone always stepping on our necks, we have had no choice except to Svejk around” (Kimmelman, 2008). The ‘Svejk’ Roman Tyc speaks of is a folk hero who represents the jocular behaviour of Czechs when confronted with attack or oppression. Ztohoven incorporate humour and satire into all their works, an approach that garners much support.

Commenting on Ztohoven’s piece The Media Reality , Kimmelman observes such a reaction by the public, claiming “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” (Kimmelman, 2008). Ztohoven tread a line between political activism and art that is difficult to distinguish. Individual issues are pursued, similar to past dissents like Charter 77. [1] Peter Zikla, a current member of Ztohoven, summarised the group’s politics as follows: “We do not indicate our point of view (...) we try to pose good questions, to hold up a mirror to society so that there’s the possibility of seeing reality from a different angle and, consequently, having a debate about it.” (Infoshop News, 2013)

By doing this the group share methodological similarities with the approach advocated in Vaclav Havel's The Power of the Powerless (1978). Havel, former Charter 77 dissident and later first President of the Czech Republic, argues for the pursuit of individual issues to draw attention to existing government shortcomings (Havel, 1978). Esther Belvis Pons of Performa Magazine also interprets Ztohoven’s actions as exploiting public spaces and using these to interact with society, a strategy also prominent within contemporary art: “The politics of contemporary art navigates through the spaces that construct the social, and as Ztohoven pointed out, for them these are: the institutional space, the public space and media space. Contemporary artists find in the bordering and unexplored spaces a position from which they can temporarily trigger action; an action that can be politically ambiguous too” (Pons, 2013).

The group use humour in order to both escape and critique problems in society. This echoes the tradition of prominent dissidents like Egon Bondy [2] who used vulgarity or absurdity to satirise the state.

Ztohoven’s practice of ‘culture jamming’, in which they manipulate and change the meaning of objects in the public sphere, also replicates this tradition. Roman Tyc’s traffic light project, in which he changed traffic light bulbs, portraying amusing or satirical images (see Figure 1), is one example of culture jamming used by the group:

Figure 1 Roman Tyc’s traffic lights, 2007

Ztohoven can also be situated within a broader trend of contemporary art, namely it is so-called 'social turn'. The group's focus on inclusive, social and public art makes them an ideal example. This is particularly true when one considers the intention of Ztohoven's pieces - to generate collective interaction and dialogue through art, Claire Bishop (2006) explains this apparent characteristic of contemporary art's social turn, “the creative energy of participatory practices rehumanizes – or at least de-alienates – a society”. Furthermore, the groups valuing of the political alongside the importance of engagement outside galleries and conventional artistic spaces places them within this broader dynamic trend.

This 'social turn' has received intensified attention in recent years. Events such as the 7 th Berlin Bienalle; The Truth Is Concrete marathon symposium in Austria; Disobedient Objects at the Victoria and Albert or on a smaller scale, The Politics of the Social in Contemporary Art event at the Tate Modern are all examples of newly fostered interest regarding art and protest. During the 7 th Berlin Bienalle members of the Occupy movement [3] , amongst others, used the festival to demonstrate protest strategies and techniques with contemporaries.

Equally this self-proclaimed purpose of The Truth is Concrete communicates a consensus with Ztohoven: "Truth is concrete" brought together art that not only represents and documents, but that engages in specific political and social situations – and activism that not only acts for the sake of acting but searches for intelligent, creative means of self-empowerment." (Die Wahrheit Ist Konkret, 2012). Thus, Ztohoven can be located somewhat within a dynamic movement in contemporary art and social practice that intends to challenge and shape political discourse. This is very much why Ztohoven can be considered dissidents for the modern world.

Ztohoven: Modern Dissidents?

Ztohoven's public statements and artistic pieces convey a distinct strategy of appealing towards ‘common sense’ ideals, sharing similarities with the concept of ‘Primitivism’ [4] championed by the Czech musical dissident movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Examples include Ztohoven's Citizen K and Subconsci-ous Raped [5] .

Furthermore, Ztohoven's actions can be interpreted as tackling the same issues dissidents have often sought out. This largely pertains to the control of information. Ztohoven attempt to satirise the prevailing ideology of the status quo and by doing so, highlight its disingenuous nature. Jiri Rak, a prominent Czech historian, describes Ztohoven’s impact and methodology thus: “When people make fun of something, they are making themselves free of it”. He continued: “[t]hat’s the condition of the small nation. It’s a defence 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 […] Thank God for Ztohoven.” (Kimmelman, 2008).

Thus, in the eyes of Rak one can see the group's cause to “demystify” modern Czech life is very much the same aim of any dissident group - to communicate a different reality to the current order and through this produce critical dialogue.

Ztohoven's combination of humour and protest shares much with previous peaceful protests of the Czech people. Specifically, it shares similarities with the actions of unarmed protesters presenting flowers to police officers prior to the 1989 revolution, and, perhaps more acutely, the protest of students running up and down Politických vězňů [6] in a row, intending to cause nothing more than a situation of disorder for the Communist authorities. Ztohoven’s The Media Reality [7] reflects this act of non-violently challenging the status quo to provoke debate or to simply shake people “from their lethargy”. (Kimmelman, 2008)

Despite the hugely different political circumstances, the issues of a citizenry trapped by political inertia combined with a widely perceived moral and democratic deficit amongst the economic and political powers-that-be are still at the centre of Czech life. In this sense Ztohoven can be viewed as the dissident by-product of the modern Czech Republic which, although critiquing a new form of authority, fulfils the role of past Czech dissidents in a new era. Contemporary parallels to Ztohoven elsewhere can be identified in the Yes Men and the Critical Art Ensemble, conveying how this development is not unique to the Czech Republic. The Yes Men disguise themselves as figures of the establishment (called “identity correction”), a form of culture-jamming, and use this to satirise governments and figures of authority.

The core aim of these actions, similar to Ztohoven, is to highlight their role in dehumanising the public and provoke greater critical judgement towards governments. Equally, the Critical Art Ensemble focuses around the use of technology to provide visceral illustrations of how government actions have harmed people all over the world. This emphasis on criticising government actions, whilst focusing on technology and primarily media to communicate these injustices is also a key aspect of Ztohoven's works, which quite possibly drew inspiration from the Critical Art Ensemble.

These other instances of dissenting art collectives convey how Ztohoven are a Czech embodiment of a more widespread movement. This strengthens the claim that Ztohoven are modern dissidents, acting within a wider trend in art to engage with current political phenomena. Czech dissidents of the past also had counterparts across Communist Europe such as the Orange Alternative movement in Poland who also used art, inspired by Dadaism and Surrealism, to challenge Government authorities. (Pomaranczowa Alternatywa, 2004). With these points in mind the works of Ztohoven can now be analysed to further illustrate their similarities with dissidents of previous decades.

The Moral Reform

Ztohoven’s most recent piece, The Moral Reform has a distinct resonance with the Czech tradition of dissent and likewise shares an undeniably humorous and ingenious method. The group impersonated members of the Czech parliament via text messages, sending them to various politicians during the hearing of a Czech politician being indicted for corruption. The messages advocate a reintroduction of morals back in to politics and an end to corruption: “Let's separate politics from business.”; “Somebody must step out of the circle of corruption and say: ENOUGH!” (Ztohoven, N. D.).

These messages aimed to contrast the political elite’s own accepted principles with their actions, a tactic used by Czech dissidents in Charter 77. [8] Vaclav Havel in The Power of the Powerless (1978) also argued that by appealing to laws and principles the state claims to advocate one can turn the state against itself, achieving incremental if minor victories. Clearly this piece was hoping to create a discourse between Czech politicians and the general public: “The installation at the DOX published the telephone numbers of Czech government officials, including the President, alongside a cell phone that allowed members of the public to send text messages directly from the exhibition space.” (Infoshop News, 2013). This was also attempted by dissidents with Charter 77 and the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted [9] . In both cases these actions served to bring the legitimacy of their respective governments in to question, namely because the addressed politicians resisted opening a meaningful dialogue. This shows an important similarity in both Ztohoven's and past dissident's aims and outcomes, primarily to question the validity of authority when it behaves contrary to its self-proclaimed principles.

The Media Reality

In this earlier action Ztohoven distorted the accuracy of mainstream news by hacking an aerial in the Krkonose Mountains on June 17, 2007 and superimposing a nuclear mushroom cloud over the usual image of the mountains: