ANDRE VLTCHEK (AV): You are one of the few artists in the West who is taking direct action against Western imperialism, against unbridled capitalism, and against the religions. How and when did you choose this particular form of art?
MILAN KOHOUT (ML): It is obviously from the days when I was part of the so-called ‘Second Culture’, the Czech Underground; the era that was called by the West a ‘totalitarian system’ or, the Czechoslovak socialist system. ‘Second Culture’ was the movement that shaped our own creativity as well as the meaning of art. In those days we were expelled from the official culture, or from the ‘first culture’. So we rebelled. It was a deeply political movement by definition, and it produced political art.
AV: You often say, very correctly, that those of you who signed “Charter 77”, and those of you who were involved in the underground/opposition movement during the Cold War, were actually socialists, some even Marxists. That includes you. You are definitely a left-wing intellectual. That is a clear paradox: the West was ‘selling you’, promoting you, as a group of anti-Communists. Could you talk about this paradox?
MK: There has been, of course, such a paradox, a great paradox, because most of the people from the underground movement, of the ‘second culture’, were actually deeply supportive of leftist values. Like sharing everything, instead of collecting things. We believed in the common ownership of property and the means of production. But we never thought about it from a theoretical angle – we did not realize that our values were actually leftist, philosophically. So while we were fighting against the so-called Communist government, we were actually true Communists!
Btw, when I say this to my fellow ‘Charter-77’ comrades who have never left this country, they often get very pissed off – they don’t want to admit it.
AV: You actually said that even Vaclav Havel, who at some point fully sold out and began supporting Western imperialism – went to Washington where he gave servile speeches in exchange for standing ovations from the representatives of the regime – that even Havel, when he was member of your movement, actually shared those leftist ideals.
MK: But of course! Some of his philosophical views were actually Marxist!
AV: So what happened? How did people like him actually change?
MK: After the revolution I was very proud of Vaclav Havel, because he proclaimed publicly that he wasn’t going to live in a Presidential mansion. He lived in his modest apartment, drove his own car to his office, everyday… I felt that he had become a marvelous role model…
AV: He even rode his pushbike around the Presidential castle…
MK: Yes… He became something of a true ‘folk hero’, or the ‘people’s President’. Then something changed his mind… Probably part of it was that historically he was from a bourgeois family.
AV: One of the richest in Prague…
MK: Yes, from a very, very rich bourgeois family… And he of course used to say ‘I don’t want to reclaim my property and the social status of my former family’, but something must have changed. I guess that advisors, after he became the President, started to push ideas that if he continued living this sort of ‘leftist lifestyle’, he would interfere with the capitalist direction in which the country was moving. They most likely told him that he would be seen as sabotaging ‘freedom’ and ‘economic growth’… And also, probably, high political position corrupts… And so he began to change, slowly but surely. He actually collected all the former properties of his family, in so-called ‘restitutions’. He began supporting the imperialistic US foreign policy, a fact that I found extremely embarrassing… Then later, something even more bizarre happened: he lost connection with real life: he began living in a greenhouse of the chosen people, or something like that.
AV: Which brings me to the subject that we have already discussed earlier: no matter what problems Czechoslovakia faced in the Soviet-era, the country was decisively on the side of the oppressed people, all over the world. Czech and Slovak engineers, doctors, teachers – they did some incredible work for humanity, for people in Africa, Asia…
MK: As the Cubans have been doing…
AV: Yes. But now, looking back, it appears that a huge percentage of people were, during the Communist era, actually dreaming about joining the West and indirectly or even directly, become part of the global oppressive apparatus. Now when so many former progressive dissidents turned around as Havel did, now when the country got divided and both parts had determinedly joined the Western imperialist and economic structures, it is obvious that the Czech and Slovak republics are doing absolutely nothing positive for the rest of the world, anymore.
Are people happy? Is it what they really wanted?
MK: Even here, people are being exploited by ‘foreign investment’.
I really don’t understand what is going on in the minds of the people here, in the Czech Republic.
Of course, certain ‘selected parts of the society’, those who own something, those who are so-called successful in business, those who have become very rich, they are naturally very happy with the direction. And these people own the media and they are promoting this right-wing system. But I think that the poor people are starting to wake up from their dream, that ‘if they could liberate themselves from the totalitarian system’, they would start to live ‘free lives’, a ‘joyful existence’.
None of the dreams have really come true. For most of people, life now is much more horrible than it was under socialism.
AV: When you say horrible, we have to remember that the Czech Republic is still a very rich country. And it, at least for its own citizens, offers a sort of Social Democratic mattress; a cushion… There is free medical care of a relatively very high quality, free education, subsidized culture and excellent and cheap public transportation all over the country. What changed for worse?
MK: Before the so-called ‘Velvet Revolution’, people complained about not having access to certain types of information, or certain cultural products, including certain films. They were not allowed to travel abroad, whenever they wanted, etcetera. But they didn’t realize that their dignity of life was much, much better then, than it is nowadays. They didn’t realize that when capitalism enters, they would start to feel anxieties, very deep existential anxieties… They would start being terrified that they would lose jobs.
They are now forced to trade their human dignity for keeping their jobs.
Now they have to kiss the backsides of their bosses much more than they would have had to, under Communism.
It is all very interesting, as people used to have certain advantages, which were of course created, built and established by socialist movements throughout history. And they sort of forgot, having those values and advantages, that…
AV: They took things for granted?
MK: They did take things for granted. They did not even realize that they had some great things, that they had great lives. Suddenly, when they began losing them, they realized that something was going terribly wrong. Some people are now very disappointed.
I spent a year in Moravia with my wife. It has the highest unemployment rate in the country, and you can hear big complaints there.
It is very interesting: this shift from a socialist system to a capitalist one. Under socialism, Czechoslovakia produced everything, literally from needles to locomotives.
AV: Nuclear reactors, airplanes, big riverboats…
MK: Yes! Everything… From nuclear reactors to clothing: everything was produced here. Food was produced here. It was a self-sustaining country.
Now everything has changed! All the national industries have gone. Sold or stolen by those…
AV: …or downgraded. The airplane industry is gone; factories that used to export locomotives all over the world were bought by Western multi-nationals and are now producing railroad cars…
MK: Yes… Everything is sort of gone, and as it was privatized, production moved east, and so-called Western ‘investment’ moved into the country, building those ‘slave-labor’, huge production halls, where people work like in those Charlie Chaplin films, like in “Modern Times”.
So it is a real pity that people totally misunderstood the word ‘freedom’.
AV: Do you suggest that there was more freedom here, some 30 years ago than there is now?
MK: Depends for whom. But I used to say to my students at Tufts University in Boston, when I was asked ‘when I felt most free’… I always told them: “During the ‘totalitarian system’ in Czechoslovakia!”
AV: Or more precisely, during the so-called totalitarian system…
We see the same thing in China, right now. You performed in China, and my work too, is often shown there.
In many ways, artists are more free there, than in the West. In Beijing, artists address much more important issues, and make an enormous impact on society, than those who are working in London or in New York.
MK: Yes, I know that from my own experience. I curated a big festival of performing arts, in Beijing, about 4 years ago. I was very surprised by how deeply critical some of their work was there. While I read in the Western propaganda media, that Communist China censors, sends people to jail because of their critical voices, etcetera. It was all quite different from what I witnessed there.
AV: Also, from our own experience in Czechoslovakia… I am trying to connect these dots… In Czechoslovakia, as you pointed out earlier, people complained that some types of information were not readily available. But also, at the same time, information in Communist Czechoslovakia, mattered. In the present-day, in the pro-Western and capitalist Czech Republic, information means very little, and people can actually change very little, even if they do have access to information.
MK: Under the socialist, of what the West called a ‘totalitarian system’, people complained… We complained… But we always found a way to get the information that we were looking for. And we were very proactive in getting hold of information. And then we valued what we got; we really studied that information, we really processed it. And we had plenty of time. We had the real luxury of time, under the socialist system. So you could enjoy reading books, listening to music, watching films…
AV: Sometimes even at the workplace, because it seems that nobody really worked too hard.
MK: Well, the meaning of life is not some sort of slave labor, is it? In theory, it was actually part of that socialist or communist system – to increase the quality of life. So, it was all about a quality of life, but not necessarily the quantity of things consumed.
On the other hand, the capitalist economic system is based on ‘markets’. Its ideologues say that such a system provides many more goods. ‘Stuff’, you know… Yes, but the price is that the quality of life gets dramatically reduced.
AV: You then have 3 cars, 5 phones, but you don’t really need them.
MK: You don’t need them, and you don’t have time to live. You are permanently terrified of losing your job, or of many other things.
AV: So you fight all this, and you use your art, your performances to attack the stupidity of life under capitalism. You are also attacking religious dogmas, which are very closely connected to all this – to power, exploitation, oppression… And you are attacking imperialism. What responses do you get from all over the world, because you do not just perform here, but also in the United States, all over Europe, in China, Israel and in many other places. Are you filling the gap? Do you feel that people are longing for such art, such political and engaged performances?
MK: I think so. I have gotten very positive responses, a fact that actually keeps me going. Sometimes people just approach me on the street and say: “Your art is great. It increases our awareness about this and that stupidity!” I don’t even know how many people are affected by my pieces…
My performances, my art –is also the result of the so-called ‘second culture’. It is an art form, which does not require much funding. It does not require permanent spaces, like theatres, where it can be performed. It is an art form, which uses mainly your own body, and you have your body at your disposal, always. It is performed in the context of life itself: on the streets or at railway stations. So, you are part of this life, and you create situations, raise awareness about something, criticize something… and then real people begin to react… people around you turn into participants… from the audience, they change into participants… While in real theatre, there is the actor and there is the audience, and there is that ‘fifth wall’ as they call it. During my performances, there is no wall. It’s a direct art. It’s like a fusion of art and life.
I always say: in the theatre, the actor pretends that he is in pain, while a performer like me actually really experiences pain.
Performance art is really wonderful. It has been here since the onset of the human race.
MK: Oh yes, many times! I had been arrested many times. I have even had to face court, when I did that famous piece in Boston, at the beginning of the mortgage loan scandal. When the banks were selling those loans to poor people and those people could not afford to pay the mortgages and then ended up committing suicide. So I decided to do a performance in front of the headquarters of the Bank of America, which was one of the most horrible, disgusting institutions at that time; cheating the people… So I placed a set of nooses in front of the bank, and I had a sign there: ‘nooses on sale’. My message was: If you come here to apply for a loan, also buy a noose’.
AV: Just in case…
MK: Just in case! But the police came, they arrested me; they took it deadly seriously… The city filed criminal charges against me, and I had to attend court hearings for several months. The case was: ‘City of Boston vs. Milan Kohout’. And they came up with some 150 year-old law, which stated that you couldn’t sell the stuff in front of a bank house. That law has apparently only been applied once, during those 150 years. But it was clear that they were trying to find something against me… In the end I was acquitted. My case generated enormous media attention, including from the National Public Radio.
AV: Milan, both of us are travelling intensively all over the world. You clearly see the danger coming from Western imperialism. Do you take the threat seriously? Do you agree that Western imperialism is increasingly in control of the planet; a fact that could lead to extremely tragic consequences?
MK: Absolutely! I have lived in the US for 26 years, so I have witnessed the period of time when the US power became very aggressive. And I realized that it was very logical and connected to the decomposition of the Eastern Block. After the Communist block collapsed, the West suddenly had no opposition. There was suddenly a great vacuum with no opposition, and they filled it immediately, with their aggressive business interests, because it is clear that at the ‘top of the pyramid’ is an economic dictatorship. It was suddenly a tremendous opportunity to enslave hundreds and hundreds of millions of people. And they did it!
AV: And this country – Czech Republic – from where we are discussing the world right now, is suddenly part of this Western regime… It is collaborating again.
MK: But of course…
AV: It is not a victim, anymore, as it wanted to be seen in the past… It is part of the oppressor’s club. Do people realize this? Is there any discussion, any debate regarding this issue?
MK: I am pleased to say that some people, including those in academia, are beginning to realize it. But it is a very recent development. In the meantime, this aggressive capitalist regime has taken over almost all the means of production, as well as the mass media. And they are brainwashing adults, as well as young children. They are permanently terrifying them with twisted lies about the Communist times, and those young brains of course believe what they are told, because that’s the information that is given to them. And they are so, so brainwashed, those young kids, that it is almost unbelievable! The propaganda has created some Orwellian dogmas like, that, ‘in Communist days people all wore gray clothes and walked slowly down the streets like zombies’… Complete nonsense! It was not at all like that! Because many aspects of life under Communism were much freer than they are now!
AV: And much more fun…
MK: Much more fun! The quality of life, as we mentioned, was much higher, especially compared to this capitalist slavery!
AV: But there is now a global opposition; a coalition of countries that are resisting the diktats of the West: there is Latin America, Russia, China, South Africa, Iran, even some small countries like Eritrea. And this opposition is becoming very powerful, because it counters with great brains, and with an increasingly powerful media. Both of us belong to that opposition. Do people here, in the Czech Republic, but also in Poland where you often teach, realize that they have ended up on the wrong side of history, by joining the West?
MK: Some people probably do, already, but not yet the majority.
But back to the arts: its great duty is the task of artists to create such awareness. Artists have to teach people. Fuck all that aesthetic, cognitive and the conceptional profile of the artwork! And let’s get back to engaged, political art, because there is an incredible need for it, nowadays. There is still hope that this disaster that has been taking place for the last 30 years can be reversed. For us to fight now is to fight for the very survival on this Earth!
Andre Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. The result is his latest book: “Fighting Against Western Imperialism”. ‘Pluto’ published his discussion with Noam Chomsky: On Western Terrorism. His critically acclaimed political novel Point of No Return is re-edited and available. Oceania is his book on Western imperialism in the South Pacific. His provocative book about post-Suharto Indonesia and the market-fundamentalist model is called “Indonesia – The Archipelago of Fear”. His feature documentary, “Rwanda Gambit” is about Rwandan history and the plunder of DR Congo. After living for many years in Latin America and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides and works in East Asia and Africa. He can be reached through his website or his Twitter.