January 2020

Culture Jammers in the (former) Eastern Bloc: A Guidebook for Surviving the Resurgence of Authoritarianism

Re-visiting creative tactics of protest movements active in repressive environments of the Eastern Bloc might then help us understand how to (once again) use the creative genius of avant-garde artists, subvert the increasingly authoritarian contemporary rhetoric, and create a better world.

by Lucie Janotová

It is December 1st, 2018. After months of attacks, the Central European University in Budapest is waiting for a miracle: that an increasingly authoritarian Hungarian government will allow its continuous presence on its territory. If it does not, the forced exile of CEU will be the biggest assault on academic freedoms in Europe since the Oslo University closure by the Nazis in 1943.

As a reaction to this uncertain waiting, a student movement emerges but this is no ordinary protest. Building their own “Free University” (“Szabad Egyetem”) right below the Parliament windows, these students reclaim the very space traditionally belonging to the authoritarian force. In a country where academic subjects are banned, the majority of media captured, and more money is spent on sport stadiums than academia, this movement subverts governmental propaganda through performances, tournaments, lectures and film screenings, helping to revive a dormant civil society. A year later, an exhibition emerges: a silent testimony of their continuous fight. [1]

I was lucky enough to film their journey and witness the impact creative activism can have. This influenced my research more than anything.

Switching Violence for Irony and Wit

In recent years, protesters have been discarding violent attacks, in part because “images of ‘serious’ protesters angrily vandalizing corporate property or yelling at police make excellent press for the state,” and only legitimize further oppression.[2] At the same time, scholars like Solnit argue that traditional forms of non-violent dissent are also becoming old-fashioned, with “the march, the rally, the chants – [being] just bad theatre.”[3] Many activists now opt for colour, creativity, and wit in opposition to dullness and stereotype to win over public support, fight apathy and sustain long-term participation.[4] Spanning across different regions and touching upon a large number of issues, grassroots activists, artists, and ordinary citizens have pioneered creative ways of protest in order to reclaim public spaces, spread hopeful messages, and fight for democratic access to media channels.[5] For contemporary examples, see, for instance, The Yes Men, Mexican Zapatista Movement, The Luther Blissett Project, Raging Grannies, or the BAVO group.

The aim of using creativity is not just to “spice up” demonstrations. Drawing inspiration from medieval carnivalesque activities where “the world was turned upside down” and protests were allowed as long as they were in a form of joking [6]; avant-garde movements, like the Dadaistic “shock art,” Surrealist a-temporal, spatially incongruent visual juxtapositions, Guy Debord and the Situationists International, and Theatre of the Oppressed; socio-political satire; pop and appropriation art; William Burroughs’s cut-up collages; Yippie antics; unconventional music genres; graffiti art and other [7], creative protest performances critique the dominant political and economic regimes through subversion, appropriation and adaptation of discourses and interventions into mainstream culture and politics.[8] They naturally combine art, activism, politics, and performance and were conventionally associated with the creative class.[9] In recent years, they have also been connected to the Global Justice Movement, or the Movement of Movements [10], catching attention of new social movements’ scholars.

Dwarf Graffiti Produced by the Polish Orange Alternative, 1980s. Source: Waldemar Major Fydrych, Lives of the Orange Men: A Biographical History of the Polish Orange Alternative (Minor Composition, 2014), 92.

For a contemporary example, look at The Yes Men group. In 2004, they managed to faithfully duplicate website of Dow Chemicals and got invited by the BBC to comment on the 20th anniversary of the 1984 Bhopal disaster, probably the worst industrial tragedy to date.[11] To the surprise of the interviewer, the “Dow spokesperson” (who was in fact a Yes Men activist), accepted full responsibility for the disaster and promised to compensate the victims and clean-up the plant site. This interview naturally generated a lot of attention, forcing Dow to issue a public statement saying that the spokesperson was fake and that Dow will definitely not compensate anyone, as their responsibility lies with the shareholders. By successfully appropriating the company’s rhetoric and style, The Yes Men thus managed to subvert it and publicly reveal the company’s hypocrisy, bringing the issue of Bhopal tragedy back under the spotlight.[12] This example once again brings us to the 20th century avant-garde, and specifically to the Situationist International, who argued that sometimes the only way “to confront and destroy the power of the spectacle is for people to construct their own alternative, disruptive situations in everyday life that overturn the dominant, media-driven representations of culture and politics.”[13]

As Melucci, one of the leading scholars of the new social movements theories, observed: “In the last thirty years emerging social conflicts in complex societies have not expressed themselves through political action, but rather have raised cultural challenges to the dominant language, to the codes that organize information and shape social practices.”[14] Power does not only lie in material resources but is “primarily exercised by the construction of meaning in the human mind through processes of communication,”[15] where powerful actors adapt and “program” these networks to their interests. It is then up to social movements to challenge and “re-program” them again.[16] This has been done most notably by groups who can be identified as “culture jammers,” i.e. activists who use a range of tactics, such as media pranks, billboard appropriation, street performances and the reclamation of urban spaces in order to critique, subvert, and otherwise “jam” the system. Their aim is to interrupt the flow of the mainstream: “scrambling the signal, injecting the unexpected, jarring audiences, provoking critical thinking, inviting play and public participation.”[17] By successfully deploying humour, irony, play and absurdity to “mine” mainstream culture, they reveal the system’s inherent inequalities, hypocrisies, and incongruities and expose social, political, and economic problems.[18] “At its best, culture jamming is a creative and inventive mode of public engagement: it cultivates critical attitudes toward commercial culture and dominant institutions, and helps foster belief that the world can be different.”[19]

But cultural jamming is not a panacea and has been both celebrated and criticized widely, as some of their tactics were taken over by marketers. Certain authors go even further to claim that nowadays, activism, art, and marketing all share the same grammar and work for the same audiences.[20] However, despite these critiques, culture jamming practices remain popular. What is more, their call to subvert dominant discourses transgresses the boundaries of the consumerist, mass-mediatized Western countries, and can resonate also in closed, authoritarian societies. This becomes obvious if we look at protest movements in the repressive, non-capitalist regimes of the former Eastern Bloc, in which culture jamming practices were widely used already years before Mark Dery coined the term “culture jamming” in 1990.[21] Re-visiting creative tactics of protest movements active in repressive environments of the Eastern Bloc might then help us understand how to (once again) use the creative genius of avant-garde artists, subvert the increasingly authoritarian contemporary rhetoric, and create a better world.

Over-Performing Authoritarianism

Stuck in an environment with severe levels of repression, where media is filled with propaganda and freedoms are limited, protesters in the 1960s-1980s Eastern Bloc came up with new, alternative interventions that were capable of breaking down citizens’ apathy and fear, and renewing their participation in protest movements. We can identify three types of creative protesters in this period. The first type encompasses artists whose work presented a direct opposition to the Soviet discourse, both in its format and depicted topics. For instance, Ion Bârlădeanu’s political collages openly mocked and criticized Ceauşescu’s political power in Romania: the dictatorial couple, the party’s nonsensical requirements and other incongruities of Romanian daily life.[22]

The second type is much less straightforward and is best demonstrated on the example of the Czech photographer Miroslav Tichy. Tichy’s only “rebellion” was to take photographs of women in his hometown, using homemade cameras assembled from cans, children’s spectacle lenses, scotch tape and other junk found on the streets. Although at first sight taking photographs of women might not be seen as an example of political dissent, a deeper look reveals another story. After the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948, rules of the Art Academy were completely altered, with the only “acceptable” art form being paintings and frescoes depicting workers’ lives. Protesting, however subtly, against ideological constraints by choosing a different art format (photography) and a different theme (women), was still considered a dangerous subversion for which Tichy spent eight years in prison and psychiatric wards.[23]

The Hungarian Two-Tailed Dog Party Election Posters, 2017. Source:Ryan McChrystal, “#IndexAwards2017: Hungary’s Two-tailed Dog Party are beyond a joke,” Index: the voice of free expression, 2017, https://www.indexoncensorship.org/2017/03/index-awards-hungary-two-tailed-dog-party/.

Finally, certain creative collectives and individuals in the region pioneered a new type of artistic protest: radical protest performances similar to contemporary culture jamming practices. Drawing inspiration from the 20th century avant-garde movements and medieval carnivalesque festivities, these radical contentious performances were characterized by their legibility-resisting forms: “jamming up” the meaning-making process itself.[24] They operated within the system of hegemonic power, playfully manipulating, visibly appropriating or blatantly mocking rituals, grammar, syntax and vocabulary of the regime.[25] Moreover, the audience was encouraged to actively participate and reflect on issues that became dangerously ordinary, familiar, or naturalized, and perceive an unmarked power relationship and everyday ritual in a new, critical way.[26]

Even though concrete tactics differ, collectives like the Polish Orange Alternative, Slovenian Neue Slowenische Kunst, [27] East German Prenzlauer Berg Scene, [28] and performances of Sergei Kuryokhin from Russia [29], mastered what some call “over-identification,” [30] “subversive affirmation” [31] or “stiob,” and what is now more broadly referred to as culture jamming. As Boyer and Yurchak explain, “stiob” differed from sarcasm, cynicism, or any other form of absurd humour” because it “required such a degree of over-identification with the object, person, or idea at which [it] was directed that it was often impossible to tell whether it was a form of sincere support, subtle ridicule, or a peculiar mixture of the two.”[32] By identifying with the “syndrome,” (i.e. the authoritarian discourse) these groups attempted to disturb citizens’ unconscious attempt at adaptation to it.

It is thus precisely in environments suffering from “cynical reason,” [33] those in which people know that something is fundamentally wrong but decide to act as if it was not, where strategies of over-identification work as forms of protest.[34] Be it either nonsensical festivities and marches, lack of food and hygienic products or highly formalized, repetitive language of the state-run media, if these systematic incongruities and hypocrisies are brought to light through over-performing them, their perceived normalcy and call for adaptation gets challenged and the system’s efficacy suffers. For example, in 1980s Poland, arrests of political dissidents were so common that they basically became “normalized”: if you openly criticized the regime, you were arrested. However, once activists dressed up as dwarves started to be publicly arrested for nothing more than a distribution of hygienic products, the system’s incongruities revealed themselves and the idea of normalcy concerning political arrests became challenged.[35]

Conclusion: Jamming Authoritarians Then and Now

In a world of liberal values where the freedoms of expression and association are protected by law, such performances might seem outdated. But the fate of the Central European University speaks of a different story: even in the centre of the European Union, in a Community based on the rule of law and democratic principles, authoritarian rhetoric and practices managed to find their way back, eventually expelling a university. Countries like Hungary and Poland are currently experiencing a democratic backslide due to an upsurge of power by parties such as Viktor Orbán’s FIDESZ, which promote illiberal “values,” fight against the few remaining islands of freedom like universities, NGOs, independent media, and artists, endorse hateful propaganda against minorities, and call for a return to a “safer,” more predictable world.[36]

Announcement of a Protest by the Serbian Don’t Let Belgrade D(r)own Movement, 2015. Source: Don’t Let Belgrade D(r)own Movement, private archive. Used with permission.

Elsewhere in the world, violent clashes between protesters and the police, fortification of borders and other violent demonstrations of power are becoming the new norm. The increasing resemblance between the authoritarian practices of the former Eastern Bloc and contemporary Western societies can also be seen more subtly on the level of discourse. For example, as Boyer and Yurchak show in their [2010] study of the US media landscape, [37] late-socialist tactics such as the hypernormalization of ideology are already visible. The high degree of monopolization of media production and circulation due to corporate consolidation leading to homogenous and repetitive content; active orchestration of public political discourse by parties and governmental institutions; cementing of liberal-entrepreneurial ideology in political news analysis; and the thematic and stylistic formalization of political performances, all bear similarities to the theatrics of late-socialist political culture. It seems like the “cynical distance,” prevalent in Eastern Europe, has already rooted itself in the Western world where many people often realize that market liberalism and its consumerist society misrecognize social reality, but deem these trends unavoidable and “normal,” rather than working against them.[38]

There might, however, be a way out of this mess. Just as in the 1980s, strategies of over-identification, and culture jamming more broadly, are proving to be some of the most efficient ways of revealing the hypocrisies and inequalities of current political/ideological systems, and of disturbing our cynical desire to adapt to them. Satirical websites and TV programmes (e.g. The Colbert Report and South Park), art groups (e.g. the Yes Men), or social and protest movements (e.g. the Hungarian Two-Tailed Dog Party), are initiatives that make successful use of 20th century avant-garde techniques, and are helping to turn the rigged system against itself. So what would my recommendation be? Read, get inspired and jam the authoritarians up!

Lucie Janotová is a PhD candidate in Political Sociology at Scuola Normale Superiore in Florence, Italy. She holds an MA in Political Science from Central European University in Budapest, and a BA in IRES. Her research lies in the fields of social movements’ and cultural studies, with a specific focus on the use of artistic and humorous performances, and protest visual analysis. She approaches this topic as a researcher, activist and an artist by combining academic research with practice-based and filmmaking practices. When not at the university, she tours her recent documentary film, Szabad Egyetem/ The Free University, at European film festivals.

Further Reading

[1] For more information about the fate of Central European University and the students who tried to resist, see: Claire August, “A Demonstration, An Occupation, A Study Abroad Semester: Thoughts from Central European University,“ Die Bärliner: The Bard College Berlin Student Blog, https://blog.berlin.bard.edu/a-demonstration-an-occupation-a-study-abroad-semester-thoughts-from-central-european-university/. Accessed December 28, 2019;
Sean Coughlan, “University ‘forced out’ from Budapest,“ BBC News, https://www.bbc.com/news/education-46427810. Accessed December 28, 2019; “Students rally for academic freedom on the eve of the final call for Central European University to stay in Hungary,“ GlobalVoices, https://globalvoices.org/2018/11/25/students-rally-for-academic-freedom-on-the-eve-of-the-final-call-for-soros-funded-central-european-university-to-stay-in-hungary/. Accessed December 28, 2019.

[2] Michael Lane Bruner, “Carnivalesque Protest and the Humorless State,” Text and Performance Quarterly 25 (2005), 149.

[3] David Solnit quoted in Stephen Duncombe, Dream: Re-imagining progressive politics in an age of fantasy (New York: New, 2007), 24.

[4] L., M. Bogad, “Tactical Carnival: Social movements, demonstrations, and dialogical performance,” in: J. Cruz Cohen and M. Schutzman (eds.), A Boal Companion (New York: Routledge, 2006), 52.

[5] Marilyn DeLaure and Moritz Fink, “Introduction,” in: Marilyn DeLaure and Moritz Fink, Culture Jamming: Activism and the Art of Cultural Resistance (New York: New York University Press, 2017), 18.

[6] Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin, Rabelais and his World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984).

[7] Ibid, 19.

[8] Leah Lievrouw, Alternative and Activist New Media: Digital Media and Society Series (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011), 30.

[9] Begüm Özden Firat and Aylin Kuryel, Cultural Activism: Practices, Dilemmas, and Possibilities (Thamyris/Intersecting: Place, Sex and Race No. 21, 2010), 12.

[10] Ibid, 11.

[11] For more information about the Bhopal tragedy, see for instance: Adam Withnall, “Bhopal gas leak: 30 years later and after nearly 600,000 were poisoned, victims still wait for justice,” The Independent, 2019, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/bhopal-gas-leak-anniversary-poison-deaths-compensation-union-carbide-dow-chemical-a8780126.html. Accessed January 5, 2020;

Emily Goddard, “Bhopal disaster victims may never get compensation following Dow-DuPont merger, fears UN official,” The Independent, 2017, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/bhopal-disaster-victims-dow-dupont-merger-un-india-official-gas-leak-chemical-industrial-a7946346.html. Accessed January 5, 2020;

Apoorva Mandavilli, “The World’s Worst Industrial Disaster Is Still Unfolding,” The Atlantic, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/07/the-worlds-worst-industrial-disaster-is-still-unfolding/560726/. Accessed January 5, 2020.

[12] To read The Yes Men’s statement about the issue, see: Keil, “Dow Does the Right Thing,” The Yes Men, 2004, https://theyesmen.org/tags/bhopal. Accessed January 5, 2020.

[13] Ibid, 35.

[14] Alberto Melucci, Challenging codes: Collective action in the information age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 8.

[15] Manuel Castells, Communication power (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 414.

[16] Leah Lievrouw, Alternative and Activist New Media: Digital Media and Society Series (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011), 57.

[17] Marilyn DeLaure and Moritz Fink, “Introduction,” in: Marilyn DeLaure and Moritz Fink, Culture Jamming: Activism and the Art of Cultural Resistance (New York: New York University Press, 2017), 18.

[18] Ibid, 84.

[19] Marilyn DeLaure and Moritz Fink, “Introduction,” in: Marilyn DeLaure and Moritz Fink, Culture Jamming: Activism and the Art of Cultural Resistance (New York: New York University Press, 2017), 30.

[20] Matteo Pasquinelli, “An Assault on Neurospace (Misguided Directions for): Mind the Map! History is Not Given,” in: Marina Grzinic and Gunter Heeg (Frankfurt am Main: Revolver, 2006), 234.

[21] Marilyn DeLaure and Moritz Fink, “Introduction,” in: Marilyn DeLaure and Moritz Fink, Culture Jamming: Activism and the Art of Cultural Resistance (New York: New York University Press, 2017), 19.

[22] Marina Alina Asavei, “A Theoretical Excursus on the Concept of Political Art in Communism and its Aftermath,” Studia Politica. Romanian Political Science Review 4 (2011).

[23] Ibid, 653-655.

[24] Tony Perucci, “The Poetics of Ruptural Performance,” in: Marilyn DeLaure and Moritz Fink, Culture Jamming: Activism and the Art of Cultural Resistance (New York: New York University Press, 2017), 212.

[25] Michael Shane Boyle, “Play with Authority: Radical Performance and Peeformative Irony,” in: Begüm Özden Firat and Aylin Kuryel, Cultural Activism: Practices, Dilemmas, and Possibilities (Thamyris/Intersecting: Place, Sex and Race No. 21, 2010), 206.

[26] L., M. Bogad, “Tactical Carnival: Social movements, demonstrations, and dialogical performance,” in: J. Cruz Cohen and M. Schutzman (eds.), A Boal Companion (New York: Routledge. 2006), 9.

[[27]] For more information about the Slovenian Neue Slowenische Kunst, see: Slavoj Žižek, “Why are Laibach and NSK not Fascists?,” (2003), in: Inke Arns, Irwin: Retroprincip (Frankfurt am Main: Revolver: 2003); Stevphen Shukaitis, “Fascists as much as painters: imagination, overidentification, and strategies of intervention,” The Sociological Review 59 (3, 2011); and others.

[28] For more information about the East German Prenzlauer Berg Scene, see: Dominic C. Boyer, “Foucault in the Bush: The Social Life of Post-Structuralist Theory in East Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg,” Ethnos 66 (2, 2001).

[29] For more information about the work of Russian artist Sergei Kuryokhin, see, for instance: Dominic Boyer and Alexei Yurchak, “AMERICAN STIOB: Or, What Late-Socialist Aesthetics of Parody Reveal about Contemporary Political Culture in the West,“ Cultural Anthropology 25 (2, 2010), 183.

[30] If you want to know more about theories of over-identification, I suggest to look through texts by Slavoj Žižek.

[31] For more information about principles of subversive affirmation, see texts by Inke Arns.

[32] Alexei Yurchak, Everything Was Forever until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006); see also Alexei Yurchak, “Gagarin and the Rave Kids: Transforming power, Identity, and Aesthetics in the Post-Soviet Night Life,“ in: A. Barker, Consuming Russia: Popular Culture, Sex, and Society since Gorbachev (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999), 84.

[33] Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988).

[34] Slavoj Žižek, “Why are Laibach and NSK not Fascists?,” (2003), in: Inke Arns, Irwin: Retroprincip (Frankfurt am Main: Revolver: 2003).

[35] Juliusz Tyszka, “Orange Alternative: street happenings as social performance in Poland under Martial Law,” New Theatre Quarterly 14 (56, 1998), 311-323; Elżbieta Beszlej, Through the Absurd in search for Alternative Normality – a case study of Orange Alternative’s happenings (Diploma thesis, Goldsmiths College, University of London, 2009).

[36] For more information about democratic backsliding in Hungary, see: Freedom in the World, “Hungary,” Freedom House, 2019, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2019/hungary. Accessed May 14, 2019;

Edit Zgut, “Orbán’s Next Victim: the Hungarian Science Academy,” Visegrad Insight, 2019, https://visegradinsight.eu/orbans-next-victim-the-hungarian-science-academy/ Accessed March 21, 2019;

János Kornai, “Hungary’s U-Turn: Retreating from Democracy,” Journal of Democracy 26 (3, 2015), 34-48;

Miklós Bánkuti, Gábor Halmai and Kim Lane Scheppele, “Disabling the Constitution,” Journal of Democracy 23 (3, 2012), 138-146.

[37] Dominic Boyer and Alexei Yurchak, “AMERICAN STIOB: Or, What Late-Socialist Aesthetics of Parody Reveal about Contemporary Political Culture in the West,“ Cultural Anthropology 25 (2, 2010), 183.

[38] Alexei Yurchak, Everything Was Forever until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006); Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989).

2 comments on “Culture Jammers in the (former) Eastern Bloc: A Guidebook for Surviving the Resurgence of Authoritarianism

  1. ALawlessLog

    Thanks Lucie, an inspiring and energising piece of scholarly writing about an inspiring and energising activism

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ALawlessLog

    Reblogged this on Digital learning PD Dr Ann Lawless and commented:
    Resisting the mindless minions of orthodoxy!!

    Like

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