Reading Performances

Literary Aspects of Conceptual and Performance Art in Eastern Europe

Tomáš Pospiszyl
Zorka Ságlová; Anna Daučíková; Petr Štembera; Vladimír Ambroz; Milan Kozelka; KwieKulik; Jiří Kovanda; Ilya Kabakov; Vito Acconci; Collective Actions; Eastern Europe; Conceptual Art; Performance Art; documentation; secondary audience; album; archive; samizdat; Moscow Conceptualism; art of the book.

One question relating to the art of Eastern Europe in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s has become the subject of countless conferences, exhibitions and publications – the question of the synchronicity of this Eastern European art with Western art. East of the so-called Iron Curtain, we find many artistic expressions that at first glance have connection with Western conceptual art or performance art, but at the same time, they differ from them in other aspects. How can these similarities and differences be balanced and what role do they play in the interpretation of individual works and entire artistic movements? For East European art historians, it was tempting to contextualise local artistic work with the already existing discourse of global post-war art, where the West plays a dominant role. At the same time, for decades, efforts have also been made to revise the traditional art historical hierarchies between centres and peripheries.1

I take the liberty of presenting a broad introduction, variants of which will be familiar to readers, as a reminder of a more general art historical position. From there, I want to look into a more specific, seemingly negligible detail: the possible differences between the outputs of the artists, both from the West and the East, who engaged in performance art. I am going to start with a strong generalisation here as well: while in the West performers exhibited in galleries, published in magazines and books, worked with a wide range of media, including film and video, and relatively soon aroused the interest of the art market, in the East performers produced predominantly black and white photographs and typewritten texts, which had more or less the status of the author’s portfolio intended for reading within a small group of friends. Perhaps we would find exceptions to such a thesis, but I am convinced that it is statistically valid. While it is quite clear how to present the work of Western performers at large overview exhibitions, it seems as if forms of exhibiting were not sufficiently established for the Eastern ones.2 The explanation for the differences seems to be clear. Performance was ideologically uncomfortable in the East, and there was also a lack of technical means to allow experiments with video and similar media. But is such a proposal comprehensive?

In the following deliberation, I would like to offer the following hypothesis: with insufficient institutional background, Eastern European performance art used forms taken from literature or the state bureaucracy and thus departed – from the perspective of the West – from the world of fine arts. These forms, built rather on reading than viewing, were not primarily motivated aesthetically, ideologically or economically, but would instead replace the aforementioned missing art institutions.
For art forms that take place in real time, documentation is a key tool for conveying them to the audience. Depending on the circumstances, documentation may have different forms. In an environment where there are more possibilities of communication, its forms are more varied as well; in places where the work cannot be freely distributed, the form of documentation is limited. In Eastern Europe, performance would often take on a shape of a private or semi-illegal event, with only a small number of visitors being able to attend. In many cases it was carried out only for the needs of photographic documentation and the so-called secondary audiences. These did not become familiar with the documentation at exhibitions, but often through the artists themselves, who showed it to the people interested, or in printed form in samizdat publications. An eventual exhibition presentation sometimes took place without the active participation or even awareness of the artist.3 It was not exceptional when the documentation virtually served only to preserve the private memory of the executed artwork. The events of the Czech artist Zorka Ságlová from the late 1960s and early 1970s were comprehensively photographed and even filmed but with few exceptions were not publicly presented for twenty years. Similarly, the performances of the Slovak artist Anna Daučíková, created during her stay in the former USSR, still remain unpublished as a whole. The reasons for such sparseness were private, but most importantly external. There was often no place – both in physical and institutional sense – to exhibit or publish the performances, whether the artist tried or not. In both cases – an artist actively seeking ways of communication with the viewer, or an artist creating only to satisfy their inner need – the results had a similar format of text records and pictorial documentation. Individual artists then assembled them for their own needs into documentary protocols, archive files, or author books. In some cases, they would come up with methods of aestheticised reading of these materials.

Due to the absence of an art market and limited possibilities of communication, Eastern Europe performers’ works were for many years preserved not as individual works of art, but as unique archives. Examples of preserved artistic archives include the Polish collective Kwiekulik or the Czech artist Jiří Kovanda. Art history and the art market did not show interest in the preserved documentation from the 1970s until after 2000. It was instigated by the acquisition activities of the Viennese collection Kontakt, but also of major world institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Tate Gallery or the Centre Georges Pompidou. In Western art world, what were originally documentary records became increasingly gallery art. At the same time, media used for making records became modes of artistic experimentation, whether in the form of conceptual photography or video art. In Eastern Europe, artists did not care much for a visual record of their performances; such experiments were no advancement for them. They saw photographs and texts depicting their performances mainly as straightforward records of what happened. This later served as a means of communication with the audience. Interesting evidence of such a kind is the fate of a video documentation, unique in the Czech context, which was based on the performances of Petr Štembera, Vladimír Ambroz and Milan Kozelka from 1980. The video tapes have been lost and some of the artists forgot that they had been made. In Czechoslovak conditions there was no place to watch them, therefore the creators lost interest in them.

Jiří Kovanda, x x x, September 3, 1977, Prague, Václavské náměstí. On an escalator … turning around, I look into the eyes of the person standing behind me, Jiří Kovanda ©

The aforementioned documentary protocols, archive files, or the author books created from traditional materials by East European artists had also additional features. Let us take a look, for example, at the form of the documentations of the aforementioned Jiří Kovanda: Sheets of paper contain brief textual information of what took place, when and where, supplemented by a photograph. The result, reminiscent rather of a police protocol or record of a scientific experiment, fulfilled the tasks that elsewhere could be replaced by art institutions. The artist – not a gallery or art historian – demonstrates in this form that something has taken place and he or she is responsible for it. The series of similar protocols in a file provided by the author, is then a kind of retrospective desk exhibition for the viewer’s perusal. It thus replaces the non-existent gallery infrastructure. In such an environment, pictorial and textual documentation played a primary role as a means of communication; its presentation in the context of public exhibitions was secondary or completely out of the question. This is also confirmed by the story of the lost video documentation of Ambroz, Štembera and Kozelka. If the documentation did not fulfill an institutional function, it lost its sense and got lost whatsoever.

The act of reading or the format of the author book had its place in performance or conceptual art in the practice of Western art as well. We may recall presenting practices in the New York gallery of Seth Siegelaub, where the form of xeroxed documentation, author books or group catalogues prevailed. Likewise, books of documentation through which viewers could freely browse were part of North American exhibitions organised by Lucy Lippard in the late 1960s and early 1970s. These formats, however, were used in the context of the existing gallery system and the world of fine arts. For Eastern European artists, the private reading experience was important as a substitute for the non-existent artistic institutional infrastructure. In 1978, the Czech artist Pavel Büchler similarly described in the samizdat edition of About the Book (O knize) his path from performance to the art of the book. It became for him an ideal way of communicating with friends. It transforms elusive art into a work of art that can be shared: “Photographs form just a project for the book. They are like a file folder. But the book is a statement of a specific content, nothing can be taken from or added to the book without changing its meaning.”4

The audience of experts and art collectors in the West and the audience of friendly readers in the East differ not only in interests but in the physical way of the approach to works of art. The art of the late 20th century has a specialised form, however it is not always easy to see it as art. But everyone has met with a book, no matter how unusual the content. In books and archives are consequently collected only such phenomena which have a certain degree of importance. An artwork, unlike a work of literature, is difficult to distribute by post or to make available for short-term loans.
Artwork is connected with the idea of ​​originality and unrepeatability, while written text can be rewritten and reproduced. Art is expensive and unwieldy, books are inexpensive and space-saving. From the point of view of the art trade, artworks offer more commercial opportunities than books, let alone performances.
An example of the pressure of the Western art world to exhibit performances and turn them into works of art may be the work of the American artist Vito Acconci. Originally a poet, he began to perform his pieces as a completion of his literary experiments. One of his early works, Following Piece (1969), was not originally a performance. Over the course of a month, Acconci followed random passersby until they disappeared into a private place, making the pursuit impossible. Acconci then typed an account of these ‘pursuits’, sending each one to a different member of the art community. A performance was developed from this and that, in turn, was recorded in texts and photographs. Acconci recalls in retrospect that the documentary photographs of the performances were a tool for him to display his work in galleries and enter the world of established art. “Once they were documented, either through words or photographs, they could be shown on the walls of a gallery or museum; but the documents were only souvenirs, after the fact, whose proper place was in the pages of a book or magazine. [...] I wonder if, in the back of my mind, there wasn’t the urge to prove myself as an artist, prove myself a serious artist, make my place in the art world; in order to do this, I had to make a picture, since a picture was what a gallery and museum was meant to hold. [...] These pieces were ways to put my work (put myself) up on the wall, these pieces were ways to push myself against the wall.”5

Works like Following Piece, which we know today mostly only as iconic images, have also their voluminous text format, as was shown, among other things, at the exhibition “Diary of a Body 1969–1973” in 2004 at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery. By contrast, the Acconci retrospective exhibition in 2016 at the P.S.1 became an example of how even in the presentation of Acconci’s historical works the visual component and an effort to work with the gallery space became dominant. In one respect, Vito Acconci resorted to a compromise and entered the world of institutionalised art through the medium of visual documentation. At the same time, he began developing the language of documentation in a creative way. Photography, video and film shifted from being utilitarian instruments for recording reality to being a means of artistic expression.

Ilya Kabakov, Primakov Sitting in a Closet, 1972. Album, Collection of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. Image source: Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s–1980s, Queens Museum of Art, New York 1999, p. 100.

However, examples of transformation of literary or performative acts into exhibits are also known from the world of East European art. I have in mind the medium of the album, which we know from Moscow Conceptualism. In the 1970s and 1980s, the albums were presented not at exhibitions, but in a form resembling live literature, theatre, or performance. The audience – it could be a single person – was seated before a special stand, onto which the album was fixed, and usually the artist turned its single sheets, or commented on them. The situation resembled the presentation of a text in a special table theatre or collective reading in the home environment. This is how Ilya Kabakov presented his albums in Moscow. However, for the purpose of larger exhibitions in the West in the 1990s, he developed a space installation where the individual adjusted album sheets are available to the viewer as a series of graphics or drawings. This suppressed their original performative dimension, carried by a form taken from literature or theatre. We find a number of other examples of how this artist constantly tackled the relationship between literary and visual forms.

The works going beyond the scope of performance into the field of literature did not only replace the missing presentation opportunities, but dealt with other circumstances as well. In Eastern Europe, the strong tendency of self-interpretation and textual review of artistic activities performed by artists themselves is clearly a reaction to the missing institutional level dealing with art criticism and theory. This text instrument often becomes part of the work itself. It is well-known that the activities of the group Collective Actions did not start and did not end with a performative event – that is, a meeting of people at a designated place carrying out designated activities. They also included the creation of documentation, either pictorial or textual, when the participants received invitations, rules related to given events, confirmation of attendance, or questionnaires which were supposed to review the events in retrospect. Here, performance is the source for written analyses, after a certain period of time summed up in the documentation file. Its aim is not to parody or critically reflect the state bureaucratic apparatus or police work but to confirm the existence of a community around Collective Actions, to write its history, to compile the psychological profiles of the participants and to create its own language, for the outside world only a hardly penetrable para-scientific discourse, whose existence was manifested mainly by generating – and subsequent reading – of texts.

Ilya Kabakov, Five Albums. Second Book, 1998.

So I summarise my belief that performance in Eastern Europe was mostly conveyed through the act of reading, as an individual familiarising process that had nothing to do with the exhibition industry or the world of (non-existent) private galleries. While performances in the gallery world of the West turned into various forms of photographic art, space installations or video art, in the East there remained mainly texts and photographs. The use of literary and bureaucratic forms is, of course, nothing specific to Eastern European art.6 Similar methods have always had their own context in history, which may not always be obvious at first glance. Thus, black and white photographs and typewritten texts do not only testify to the material poverty of Eastern European art, ideological pressure, or clinging to obsolete narrative forms, but show a creative reaction to the situation where artists had nothing left but simple yet very effective means to build their own institutional apparatus.

Tomáš Pospiszyl
Academy of Fine Arts, Prague


1 An example of both of these strategies can be, regarding artistic creation, the project East Art Map of the Slovenian group IRWIN, and in the history of art more or less any work dealing with the relationship between Western and Eastern art.

2 A detailed description of such a search is provided in the book by Ruth Noack dedicated to the work Triangle by the Croatian artist Sanja Iveković', see Ruth Noack, Sanja Iveković: Triangle (Cambridge: Afterall and MIT Press, 2013).

3 This was especially the case of exhibitions abroad, where it was possible to send the selected documentation by post. It was then up to the exhibition organizers how they would handle it.

4 Pavel Büchler, O knize (Prague, 1978).

5 Vito Acconci, “Notes on My Photographs 1968–1970 (1988)”, in: Douglas Fogle (ed.), The Last Picture Show: Artists Using Photography 1960–1982 (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2003) p. 183.

6 Coincidentally, one of the attendees at the conference “Doing Performance Art History” and also editor of Artmargins, Sven Spieker, wrote one of the key books on the topic. See Sven Spieker, The Big Archive; Art from Bureaucracy (Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, 2008).


Since 2016 Tomáš Pospiszyl has been a Chair of the Department of Art Theory and History at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. A selection of his essays titled An Associative Art History was published in 2017 (Zurich: JRP Ringier).

Suggested Citation

Pospiszyl, Tomáš. 2020. “Reading Performances. Literary Aspects of Conceptual and Performance Art in Eastern Europe.” Sandra Frimmel, Tomáš Glanc, Sabine Hänsgen, Katalin Krasznahorkai, Nastasia Louveau, Dorota Sajewska, Sylvia Sasse (eds.). 2020. Doing Performance Art History. Open Apparatus Book I. DOI:


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