– Autumn/Winter 2012

Information Crossings: On the Case of Inconnu's 'The Fighting City'

Juliane Debeusscher

‘WM 26’ [author’s alias], Szabadnép, 1987, object, detail. From police records of images destined for the catalogue of ‘The Fighting City’. Courtesy the Historical Archives of the Hungarian State Security (.BTL), Budapest

The material exhibited had been in the criminal record office since noon; at 5pm those who gathered despite disturbing news could only listen to the inauguration speeches altered to fit the new circumstances. Instead of pictures and documents about ’56, it was only words — easy to erase from the memory — that remained, and the occasion.

— Tamás Molnár/Inconnu2

Published in the samizdat journal Hírmondó, these words reported the ‘opening within empty walls’ of the exhibition ‘A harcoló város’ (‘The Fighting City’) in a private apartment in Budapest, on 28 January 1987.1 Organised by the artists’ group Inconnu, it was to display Hungarian and international artists’ tributes to the 1956 Revolution, reaffirming the persistence of the uprising’s spirit not only for its veterans, but also for a younger generation who linked the legacy to present demands addressed to the lengthy regime of socialist leader János Kádár.3 Scheduled for 23 October 1986, for the thirtieth anniversary of the Revolution’s beginning, the exhibition had to be postponed until January because of police harassment of its organisers as well as attempts at sabotage. The Hungarian authorities had in fact been aware of the project since the publication of its first call for participation in the Hungarian independent press and the Western media in the summer of 1986; from then on, Inconnu’s activities were increasingly surveilled and the process of planning ‘The Fighting City’ was conscientiously reported to the national state security by several agents, some of them close acquaintances of group members. Official attempts to dissuade Inconnu from pursuing its goal were unsuccessful, and after half a year of collecting material and elaborating the exhibition’s

  1. The research presented in this essay was realised thanks to a grant from the Centre National des Arts Plastiques (CNAP) of the French Ministry of Culture in 2010. It is based on interviews and archival material kept at the OSA Archivum (Open Society Archives), the Artpool Art Research Centre and the Historical Archives of the Hungarian State Security (.BTL), all in Budapest. The author is indebted to the archivists of the three organisations, who assisted her in the research, as well as to Péter Bokros for agreeing to revisit his experience as a member of Inconnu.

  2. Tamás Molnár/Inconnu, ‘Harcoló város. Megnyitó üres falak között’, Hírmondó [samizdat journal published by ABC Press, Budapest], no.23, January—February 1987. Quoted from the English version of the article, ‘The Fighting City: An Opening Within Empty Walls’, in Demsky Gábor, Gadá György and Kőszeg Ferenc (ed.), Roundtable: Digest of the Independent Hungarian Press, vol.1, no.1 and 2, 1987, pp.29—31.

  3. Beginning on 23 October 1956, the uprising aimed at reintroducing political pluralism in the context of a Communist one-party system. Violently broken up by the Soviet troops intervening on 4 November 1956, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was, along with the Prague Spring of 1968, a symbol of resistance against Soviet oppression supported by national puppet governments and a constant reference for Eastern European dissident movements.

  4. See the Editors, ‘The Fighting City’, The New York Review of Books, 7 May 1987, available at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1987/may/07/the-fighting-city/?pagination=false (last accessed on 15 June 2012).

  5. This exaltation of national symbols has curious resonances in the present, if we consider that in the post-communist period, some members of Inconnu became close to the nationalist Right; rather than a dismissal of their past dissidence, this conversion should illuminate the existing connections between certain forms of anti-communism and post-communist nationalisms.

  6. ABTL 4.1 A—2020, Historical Archives of the Hungarian State Security, Budapest. The dossier includes the photographs and letters received by Inconnu from participating artists. The historian and archivist György Sümegi recently published a study based on documents related to ‘The Fighting City’ kept in the State Security Archives. The essay, in Hungarian, includes a selection of reports and letters, as well as reproductions of the photographs of the artworks. G. Sümegi, ‘Inconnu: A harcol. v.ros/The Fighting City, 1986’, in György Gyarmati (ed.), Allambiztonság és rendszerváltás (The State Security and the Regime),Budapest: L’Harmattan, 2010, pp.169—210.

  7. An interesting case is Inconnu/Arteria’s collaboration with the SZETA. Since its foundation in 1979, among its numerous actions against poverty, the organisation invited artists to donate works for benefit auctions (as in the case of ‘The Fighting City’) and to contribute to publications like the charity anthology of graphic works Feketeben/In Black (1982).

  8. Inconnu’s publications included Hard Giccs Magazin (1979), Ismeretlen Földalatti Vonal-Akcionista folyóirat (Unknown Underground Line-Actionalistic Journal, two issues published by Punknown Press,1982—83) and Inconnu Press (seven issues published by Arteria Press, 1984—87). Arteria Press also published Inconnu’s exhibition catalogues Retrospekt (vol.1 and 2, 1984 and 1985), A harcoló város (The Fighting City, in collaboration with ABC Press, 1987) and 10 éves az Inconnu csoport (10 Years of the Inconnu Group, 1988). Part of this material is available for consultation in the Artpool Art Research Centre, Budapest (Documentation on the Inconnu Group).

  9. See Géza Perneczky, ‘Ungarn/Hungary’, in Kornelia von Berswordt-Wallrabe and László Beke (ed.), Mail Art: Osteuropa im Internationalen Netzwerk, Schwerin: Staatliches Museum Schwerin, 1996, pp.35—55.

  10. See Artpool’s page dedicated to ‘Magyarország a tiéd lehet’ (‘Hungary Can Be Yours’): http://www.artpool.hu/Commonpress51/defaulte.html (last accessed on 15 June 2012). For an overview of the censored exhibition, including Inconnu’s contributions and its subsequent reconstitutions, see Juliane Debeusscher, ‘Interview with Artpool co-founder Julia Klaniczay’, ARTMargins online, 7 June 2011, http://www.artmargins.com/index.php/5-interviews/633-artpool-cofounder-juliaklaniczay (last accessed on 15 June 2012).

  11. Reiterated six months later, in the climate of a collapsing regime, the same initiative happened without incident. Inconnu’s kopjafák were left on site and cohabited with the monument conceived by György Jovánovics, which won the official competition organised after 1989 for a martyr’s memorial. On memorial politics about 1956 during the communist and post-communist phases, including the interventions of Inconnu, see Reuben Fowkes, ‘Public Sculpture and Hungarian Revolution of 1956’, Inferno, vol.7, 2003, pp.39—53.

  12. See Miklós Haraszti, ‘Helsinki Kitsch’, in Istvan B. Gereben (ed.), Defiant Voices: Hungary, 1956—1986, Center Square, PA: Alpha Publications, 1986, pp.92—94. English translation of ‘A Helsinki Giccs’, Beszélő, no.15, 1985.

  13. The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe was held in Helsinki in August 1975 with the participation of 35 countries. In exchange for the recognition of national sovereignty and the inviolability of their borders, the Soviet Union and the European Communist states (except Albania) ratified the contents of the Final Act’s ‘Third Basket’ on human rights.

  14. Reference works on the Hungarian political opposition and its role in the process of democratisation rarely mention artistic production as a parallel vector of critical thought, or do so only superficially. See Barbara J. Falk, The Dilemmas of Dissidence in East-Central Europe: Citizen Intellectuals and Philosopher Kings, Budapest: CEU Press, 2002; Gordon H. Skilling, Samizdat and an Independent Society in Central and Eastern Europe, London: Macmillan Press, 1989; and Rudolf L. Tőkés, Hungary’s Negotiated Revolution: Economic Reform, Social Change, and Political Succession, 1957—1990, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A deeper analysis of the interaction between the Hungarian alternative art scene and other forms of activism — identifying shared spaces and social circles, conceptual references and strategies of communication — would restore some connections helpful in challenging a view of artistic production and political dissidence as self-referential and hermetic fields of practice.

  15. According to Hankiss, ‘the dichotomy of a first versus a second society did not divide Hungarian society into two groups of people in the 1960s, 70s and early 80s. The first society and the second society were not two distinct groups of people; they were only two dimensions of social existence governed by two different sets of organisational principles.’ Elemér Hankiss, East European Alternatives, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990, p.87. See also E. Hankiss, ‘The “Second Society”: Is There an Alternative Social Model Emerging in Contemporary Hungary?’, Social Research, vol.55, no.1—2, 1988, pp.13—42.

  16. Email to the author from Péter Bokros, April 2012.

  17. The Editors, ‘The Fighting City’, The New York Review of Books, 14 August 1986.

  18. Among previous examples of identity disclosure is the letter signed by 34 Hungarian intellectuals in support of the imprisoned members of Chart 77 in Czechoslovakia, in 1977. Closer to Inconnu, the editors of the samizdat journal Beszélő, launched in 1981, took the decision to print their real names and contacts on every issue.

  19. János Sugár, ‘Schrödinger’s Cat in the Art World’, in IRWIN (ed.), East Art Map: Contemporary Art in Eastern Europe, London: Afterall Books, 2006, p.212.

  20. E. Hankiss, East European Alternatives, op. cit., p.92.

  21. In March 1987, the contents of an ultra-confidential report released by the Politburo of the Hungarian Communist Party (dated 1 July 1986) started to circulate in independent and Western media. It revealed the authorities’ concerns about the opposition, and described the measures taken to reinforce the Party’s ideological line. Reporting the event, a journalist of Radio Free Europe mentioned the censoring of ‘The Fighting City’ as an example of the subsequent hardening of the government's line. ‘Secret Politburo Report on Opposition Published’, JR, 22 July 1987. HU OSA 300–8–47, Situation Report, Publications Department. Records of Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty Research Institute, Open Society Archives at Central European University, Budapest.

  22. Gabriella Ujlaki, Retrospekt, vol.2 (exh. cat.), Budapest: Arteria Press, 1985, unpaginated.

  23. Ibid.

  24. Eva Forgacs, ‘How the New Left Invented East-European Art’, Centropa, vol.3, no.2, May 2003, p.101.

  25. Ibid.

  26. P. Bokros, T. Molnár, Robert Pálinkás, Sándor Szilágyi and Jen. Nagy, ‘Announcement’, The New York Review of Books, 4 December 1986, available at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1986/dec/ 04/announcement/ (last accessed on 15 June 2012).

  27. Inconnu, ‘Karácsonyi manifesztum 3 az Uj Szocialista Realizmus’ (‘New Socialist Realism/Manifesto’), Inconnu Press [Budapest: Arteria Press], vol.1, no.2, 5 January 1985, unpaginated.

  28. ‘No “Glasnost” in Hungary’, letter from Inconnu to P.l L.nard (HSWP), 1 February 1987, distributed by the Hungarian October Information Centre (London), Index on Censorship, vol.16, no.6, June 1987, pp.5—6.

  29. ‘Seizure of Private Art Collection Criticised in Hungary’, 12 February 1987, HU OSA 300–40–2, Subject Files in English, Hungarian Unit, Records of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Research Institute, Open Society Archives at Central European University, Budapest.