Notes from the Underground

David Crowley of the School of Visual Culture curates an exhibition on underground art and music in Eastern Europe under Communist Rule

Notes from the Underground. Art and Alternative Music in Eastern Europe, 1968-1994 opened at the Akademie der Kunst in Berlin on March 14. Curated by David Crowley, of the School of Visual Culture at NCAD, and Daniel Muzyczuk of the Muzeum Sztuki in Lodz, Poland, this major exhibition is the first to explore the impact of rock and punk on the visual arts in Eastern Europe under communist rule. It features more than 40 film and art works by artists, fashion designs and documents of live performances, many of which are being shown for the first time since they were made. Highlights include the remarkable sonic improvisations of the Hungarian actor and artist, Katalin Ladik; the DIY instruments of Ornament & Verbrecken from the GDR; and the remarkably colourful and vivid paintings and photomontages chronicling the Leningrad Scene in the 1980s by Evgenij ‘EE’ Kozlov.

The exhibition explores the close and often dynamic relationships between visual artists and musicians in Eastern Europe under communist rule. Many were highly critical of the regimes under which they lived, producing darkly ironic or wilfully absurd commentaries on power. Sometimes the authorities reacted with considerable brutality: in Czechoslovakia, underground musicians and artists were treated as enemies of socialism, and musicians were even put on trial in the mid-1970s. Occasionally, the authorities sought to tap the growing popularity and youthful energy of the underground. Musicians and artists from Leningrad became, for instance, were cult figures in the Soviet Union in the early 1980s. In 1988 their lifestyles were celebrated in Assa, a feature film made by the state film studio.

Organised under three themes - Improvising with the Medium, New Primitivism, and The New Moderns - the exhibition sets out to explore what was distinct about the underground scene in the East. Improvisation, for instance, signalled not only the freedom of jazz but the resourcefulness required to make one’s own musical instruments when the supply was controlled by the state. And when censorship prevailed, a photocopied fanzine was more than just an alternative to the pop press: it was also a samizdat publication.

The exhibition runs until mid May and is accompanied by a book published by Walter Koenig and vinyl LP issued on the Zonic label.