Ztohoven: Nearly Ten Years of Question Marks

With the coming of the new year 2012-2013, it will be ten years since the Ztohoven group launched its first operation in public space, which transformed a huge rose-colored neon sign into a question mark. The question, one that shakes up the established order, that brings to light what is rotten in the kingdom of this world, is the principle at the basis of all the group’s actions. On the occasion of their most recent thunderclap, which took place in the Chamber of Deputies, we look back on ten years of well thought-out pranks and tricks.

In 2005, the viewers of a morning public television show that usually showed the countryside as filmed by remote-controlled cameras, were amazed to discover that there had been an atomic explosion in the midst of the bucolic landscape. This hacking[1] of Czech television made Ztohoven known outside of the frontiers of their country. Ever since this operation, which was supposed to point out media manipulation, they have continued on their way.

Their most recent thunderclap took place on 5 June [2012], during David Rath’s hearing before Parliament, which was convened to decide whether or not to give immunity to the Social-Democratic deputy, who was suspected of corruption. During that meeting, the deputies received a text message, apparently from their colleagues, praising a campaign for moral reform or issuing a mea culpa about their past behavior. The next day, Ztohoven’s website published a manifesto that called for a moral renewal of the political world. One of the members of the group, someone called Petr Žílka, clarified the objective of this action for us.

“One of the objectives was to show the fragility of telecommunication systems,” he said. “We showed how it was simple to hijack the text-message system, that is to say, the usurpation of text-messaging identities and putting people into difficulties. We showed that we could easily do harm to someone. We want the politicians who have criticized us to recall that this instrument can be used for evil and that we decided to not choose that negative route.”

In any case, the message was received, at least by Prime Minister Petr Nečas, who – if he hasn’t reacted on the basis of moral reform – has glimpsed the tip of the iceberg: the security problem for users [opérateurs]. So has Vice Prime Minister Karolína Peake.

“I took it as a joke,” she said. “And I did not feel endangered. On the other hand, it was extremely surprising to see how easy it is to pirate cellphones.”

In the meantime, only a few people stopped to think about the message behind Ztohoven’s action. In the words of Petr Žílka:

“Obviously we didn’t want to hurt anyone, and this is where the second theme of the action comes in: moral reform. This expressed the opinion of all the members of the group concerning the Czech political situation. We wanted to express our discontent and our fear. During the most recent election, the citizens of the Czech Republic clearly showed that they do not want a politics based upon corruption and pork [clientélisme]. Thus, even if they had voted otherwise, such a change wouldn’t have happened. The politicians haven’t changed; in fact, they continue to act in a shady way.”

The members of Ztohoven affirm that the choice of David Rath’s hearing was accidental, since the project had been in the planning for a long time. But they admit that the case of the politician in question, suspected of stealing public funds, was obviously propitious. . . . If some of the politicians questioned after the exchange of text-messages found the idea rather amusing, at best, while others considered it to be a schoolboy prank, this hasn’t been the case with the group’s other projects.

For the record, the affair of the mushroom cloud led to a complaint by Czech television and then a trial concluded with an acquittal. More recently, for the project Občan K. (Citizen K.), some of the group’s members falsified identification photos and established real false papers, which cost them dearly because the police were tasked with investigating the matter, though it ended up in a civil proceeding.

Meanwhile, almost ten years after Ztohoven’s first action, the text-messaging and moral reform project seems to close the circle: in 2003, the group hid a part of the large, heart-shaped neon-light display – the work of the sculptor Jiří David – constructed on the occasion of the end of Václav Havel’s term in office. The heart became a question mark, which was a way of asking where the country was headed. The “moral reform” of the political world is a principle that the former president and dissident, who died this past December [2011], did not disown. What about the members of Ztohoven, who are children of the Revolution of 1989 and Havel’s heritage? In the words of Oto Horsi, a member of the group:

“It is obviously difficult to speak for all the members of the group,” he said. “But I think that the theme resonates for us, as do the positions taken by Václav Havel. We are certainly children of the generation that came of age at the moment of the Velvet Revolution. I think that it has influenced all of us.”

Guerilla art.[2] Activist artists. A collective of artistic hackers.[3] Behind these definitions, none of which are really applicable, hides another reality: a group of people from different horizons, artists, but also students of the law, tattooists and others, who have as their common point dissatisfaction with society such as it is and who prefer to put into question the things that pose problems. Though the Czechs are often called apathetic, the members of Ztohoven are engaged in society’s debates, even though they deny being political.

“When one speaks of politics,” Petr Žílka says, “one is on slippery terrain. We try to be political though we don’t belong to any party or adhere to any current political philosophy. Within the group, you can find very different points of view concerning politics: people on the Left, people on the Right . . . . Though it isn’t possible for the group to have a single political position. On the other hand, all of our projects are political in the widest sense of the term, because they concern subjects that concern us all. We do not indicate our point of view, nor do we say the way things should be, but 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.”

Detested by some members of the artistic community and adulated by others, Ztohoven doesn’t leave anyone indifferent. Wearing masks in the fashion of Zorro, but without being avengers or Robin Hoods, the members of Ztohoven are the spiritual inheritors of Rychlé Šípy (Fast Arrows), the hero of a Czech comic strip created in 1938. In it, a band of young men, united by friendship and brotherhood, have many adventures together. Some members of the [Ztohoven] group have in the past belonged to youth organizations in which they learned to camp, survive in the woods, and live outside of society. Other members have been taggers, spray-painting in their adolescent years. That is one way of knowing life, but also a way of knowing how to throw oneself into an adventure without being caught.

After one comes of age, the games of adolescence are more serious and concern more “serious” subjects, but still have an offbeat appearance. After almost ten years of existence, how does the Ztohoven collective see their decade of projects and battles?

Oto Horsi says, “we see what we have done from a distance. There have been many projects, and so one can compare them and see how certain themes have recurred and tie the projects together.”

Petr Žílka says, “I haven’t been in the group for a long time and I’m the youngest, but, for me, it is interesting to follow the discussions of past projects and to see how the different projects go together, to see that they create a kind of thread that, from start to finish, forms a logical ensemble. The different operations are much more interesting when seen together, rather than separately. Furthermore, we are in the process of redesigning our website in this perspective, to present to the public the entirety of our activities and to inspire reflection and discussion.”

Refuting rumors concerning the departure of the figurehead of the group, the artist Roman Týc, who recently was released from a month-long prison sentence for his makeover of pedestrian street-crossing lights, the members of Ztohoven prefer to state that the ten-year anniversary of the group’s formation will be the occasion for a new project. . . .

(Written in French by Anna Kubišta and published on 19 June 2012 and then at the beginning of 2013 by Radio Prague. Translated by NOT BORED! On 25 January 2013.)

[1] English in original.

[2] English in original.

[3] English in original.

The Controversies Concerning the Political Art at the DOX Gallery in Prague

“The Cartographies of Hope: Change Narratives” is an exhibition of contemporary art at the DOX Gallery in Prague. Through the participation of more than thirty Czech and foreign artists, it explores the problem of social change and presents civic-action projects. Since its opening in November 2012, it has drawn the attention of the media and has caused controversy, especially concerning the installation by the group Ztohoven titled “Moral Reform,” which makes public the telephone numbers of Czech politicians.

Divided into four sections, “The Cartographies of Hope” exhibits the contemporary works of thirty artists. It also includes several installations about the economic, political and moral crises, and opens the door to different political and social alternatives. The objective is to unite a multiplicity of projects, and thus create a platform for discussion for civil society. Jaroslav Anděl is the exhibition’s curator; here he summarizes the principle idea.

“It is an attempt to unite the big events that have taken place since 1989 and thus give them a meaning. We are often submerged in particular versions of reality and lose sight of the whole. The objective is to make a large international show and have 33 artists from around the world participate in it.”

The reviews of this exposition, which offers very diverse works, have often concentrated on the appreciation or criticism of [only] one of its installations. In fact, the attention of the media has been especially concentrated on Ztohoven’s installation, “Moral Reform.” Dominating the final section, which concerns “The Social Imagination,” this work consists of a [large] chart that makes public the telephone numbers of the deputies in the legislature and [other] members of the government, even the President of the Republic. The members of the group have also made available a cell phone that can be used to send text-messages directly from the exhibition space. Jaroslav Anděl tells us more about the idea behind this installation.

“It poses certain fundamental questions about democracy, transparency and the protection of personal information. It is part of a completely legitimate debate that can take different forms. I would say it poses the question of the frustrations of the Czech public, and this is exactly the question posed by the ‘Moral Reform’ installation.”

The criticisms of the installation have centered around the displeasure of the people concerned: the messages sent to them have often been vulgar and their phone lines have been jammed up. Jiří Přibáň, a Czech legal expert and sociologist who teaches at the University of Cardiff in Great Britain, says that it is the anonymity of the political communication that poses the biggest problem.

“The quality of an event or a work of art derives from the quality of its conception,” he says. “If the entire conception is bad, this obviously influences the execution. In this case, the idea is that democracy can be a project of anonymous communication. But democracy in fact requires the opposite: communication must be targeted [ciblée], not only by the citizens, but by the politicians, as well.”

The richness of the installations presented at DOX is also highlighted by the program of events that accompanies the exhibition and develops its different aspects. For example, on 18 February 2013, there will be a marathon 12-hour-long discussion about civic projects in the future. This is an event that previously took place in 2010, and its organizers decided to propose it anew in the framework of this exhibition.

(Written by Lucie Drechselová and published on 22 January 2013 by Radio Prague. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! 26 January 2013.)

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