DIALOG: PRAHA/LOS ANGELES VISUAL ARCHIVE
An Idea: circa 1985-88
Dialog: Prague/Los Angeles began as an idea between two women: Barbara Benish (USA) and Zdenka Gabalova (CZ).
They had a vision to start a conversation through art that would bridge the two countries- in the years before the Velvet Revolution was even imagined.
Benish was searching for ways to expand traditional exhibition practices as an artist, which in California in the 1980's had hit a market high. She bonded with the artists in Prague and Brno working in the parallel structures and showing their art in the hops fields and dvoreks of Prague.
In Czechoslovakia the parallel systems' art scene was thriving; presenting a cultural phenomenon in the otherwise repressive totalitarian regime that had kept the borders closed to the west for nearly 40 years.
The exchange took nearly three years of planning, smuggled letters and coded messages, fundraising, maxed out credit cards, and diplomatic negotiations in order to make the vision a reality.
More than just an exhibition; it would be a cultural exchange, an experiment in soft diplomacy, and a challenge to the suffocating regimes in the Soviet Bloc.
Without financial backing from either government, the two women solidified the framework for an art exchange between Czech and American artists to take place in Prague, Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1989.
When the U.S. artists first arrived in Czechoslovakia, a country none of them would have imagined entering prior- they reveled in the beautiful countryside. They visited the studio of Ales Vesely and each American artist stayed with a different Czech artist. They had access to their studios and shared their dwellings.
In this interaction came collaborations, and the sharing of the two cultures. One of the many dialogues that this project created.
Participating artists from Czechoslovakia:
Participating Artists from California:
The Czech and American artists exhibited together at three different locations in Prague; Galerie Mladych, Lidovy Dum, and Gong Galerie .
The exhibitions proceeded the fall of the Berlin wall by three months. During this tumultuous time, secret service surrounded the opening at Lidovy Dum in Praha and Gong Gallery where a symposium was held.
To document this monumental cultural event. STB cameras filmed all artists and the 1000 people that streamed into Prague from villages across the country to see the show.
This gathering of the Czechoslovak public and the 27 artists joined together to support and defy the regime. It was a small turning point in a summer of many.
Many weeks later, the Berlin wall came down, finally opening the borders to the west. And in November of 1989, the Czechoslovaks turned over the communist regime.
Vaclav Havel- a writer, and dissident, became the president of Czechoslovakia.
By 1990, the world knew where Prague was as the "Velvet Revolution" had become popular in the international press for the peaceful political changes and the eloquent president who was able to translate the meaning of freedom into inspiring words.
With the support of president Vaclav Havel, Jane Fonda, Jan Urban, Ivan Gabal, Madeline Albright, Max Protetch, Karel Babicek, Otis/Parsons Art Institute, the New School in New York City, and several galleries in Los Angeles, and after a fundraising show at Barnsdall theater in L.A., the 12 Czechoslovak artists were brought to Los Angeles in 1990 to show and fulfill the dream of a true exchange.
The phenomenal success of the exchange not only solidified life-long friendships since the artists stayed in one another's homes, ate and drank together, made art and music and danced, but set a standard for what cultural exchange means in the new millennium.
The arrival of Californians to the grey and intimidating Communist Czechoslovakia at that time was a milestone, but perhaps even more phenomenal was the arrival of the Czechoslovaks to Los Angeles international airport in the summer of 1990, many of them having passports for the first time.
While in LA the artists exhibited at Otis Parsons gallery, the Santa Monica Museum of Art, and Arroyo arts collective.
They also exhibited their monotype prints from a workshop with David Wells at the Idyllwild school of music and art.
While the art itself was a visual catalyst to exchange goods ie. culture, it was the respective political and social environment that was truly changed. In what we today call "social practice", the artists were immersed in one another's lives, each living for two weeks with their assigned home-artist, creating pseudo art families that immersed themselves in the other's culture over the two year period. Besides the lasting friendships that grew, the art itself came to understand and express what freedom is.
The euphoria of that first summer was palpable, as the defiant artists stood their ground against the regime.
The experience the Americans brought back with them from Prague was indeed about community and transformation of the polis via the arts. How to install land art in a hops field, DIY openings in barns before the police closed it down, hand-printed invitations that circulated in a tightly run parallel structure subversive to dominant authorities–all this informed how those artists would approach their own cultural production in the future and back home.
And for the Czechs and Moravians who swam in the Pacific ocean for the first time, many were able to sell their art and afford things unknown until then. Others went on to have more international recognition showing at P.s.1 Museum in New York where Gabalova went on to be curator after the changes. In 1992, Benish was awarded a Fulbright professorship and moved to Prague, teaching at the Academy of Applied Arts in the sculpture studio of Kurt Gebaur. She stayed, and eventually the current NGO, Artdialog was officially established in Prague in 2004, a year that marked the 15-year anniversary of the original project.