Prague’s urban policy raises some artistic questions

Czech Position

A lack of a coherent development plan has artists and others asking what can be done to protect the Czech capital

Prague’s historically beautiful buildings are among the city’s greatest assets. Since 1989, however, concern for the protection and revival of historical spaces has been somewhat lackadaisical.

An exhibition at Karlín Studios is a critical reaction to contemporary architecture and urbanism in Prague. “Whose City is This?” was the brainchild of Futura Projekt owner Alberto di Stefano. He asked curator and artist Milan Mikuláštík to create an exhibition that demonstrate the lack of city planning in Prague.

“There is no plan, no legislation; no one knows how the city is developed,” Mikuláštík told Czech Position. “We want to push the city to do things in a standard way — clear rules for how development should occur. Even under communism there was a plan; now it is worse, there is nothing. Money and development companies build the city.”

Mikuláštík said the exhibition was done “punk style, and with not a lot of money.” He had about a month to put it together, and brought together a variety of participants, including students, young and more-estbalished artists, and citizen activists.

“We asked artists and academics; it is important to bring together different cultural scenes,” he said. “This should act as a bridge between them; that’s what I want to do — bridge the official and alternative scenes.”

Space reflects the concept

For an exhibition focused on poor city planning, Karlín Studios’ industrial atmosphere is a perfect venue. Basically an unfinished warehouse, the floors are wood and cement, the walls are in progress and there is abandoned and broken furniture scattered about. The exhibition is mixed-media, and most of it hangs on the walls.

The back wall showcases three different video projects, while the right side is dominated by Toy-Box’s graphic comics. There’s a glass recycling bin, painted with a Czech Flag and labeled “Kultura.” The middle of the space has a couple of cement mixers, which were running on opening night, adding to the industrial vibe by making the space resemble a construction site. The noise level skyrocketed when members of the Guma Guar art group (who had designed this installation) dumped rocks into the barrels.

Some projects were created for this exhibition and some of the artists supplied existing pieces, but all were recruited by Mikuláštík. After being approached by him, artist Martin Zet says, he finally had an excuse to do a project that had been lurking in the back of his mind.

“I was online one day and saw that a certain street in Prague was under construction,” he said. “It gave the name of the street and I saw that in the past it was called Zetova. I noticed it because [it’s derived from] my name, and it’s an unusual one.”

Zet said that he wanted to find out more about the street and why the name was changed. He adds that people who lived there were helpful, and curious as well and the result of his street investigation is the video showing at the exhibition “Zetova, Praha 12.”

“The video is only part of the results; the project still isn’t finished,” he said. “It has turned into something other than I expected.”

Voice of the people

The concept of this exhibition was very attractive to comic artist Toy-Box. Her large piece, called “Ankete,” is a graphic interpretation of a poll she took of Prague residents, asking them what they disliked most about the city. She drew them, the building or area they disliked the most and added their comments.

“I wanted to be a part of this because you can feel space, it provokes many different feelings,” she said. “I tried to cover different kinds of problems, disappearing green areas, shopping centers, etc.” Her subjects object to buildings such as the Tesco Edenabs Palladium shopping centers and the Don Giovanni Hotel.

“People don’t get to comment on where buildings are built, they can only express themselves when they are finished,” she added.

This lack of voice is why Mikuláštík stressed the importance of civic activism. He invited nonprofit group to participate. Michaela Pixová, part of the NGO as well as a member of the Guma Guar art group, explained the concept behind the new project.

“We made a map with different urban problems, architectural, corruption, social, environmental — the map points out where these problems occur,” she explained. “We are interested in the negative urban experience.”

Begun in June 2010, and funded by the Open Society, each “problem” is pinpointed on the map and described so visitors can find out what’s going on with a particular building or site. monitors the press, you can contact them for information on a specific area, and they cooperate with a law firm for people who may be in need of legal assistance.

The site is up on the wall at the exhibition and visitors can browse the site themselves. Pixová says their goal is to interest people in what is going on in the city and its development.

In conjunction with the art exhibit, “Whose City is This?” offers a interactive program including street performances and discussions, and Praguewatch will be conducting “tours” to some of the problematic locations listed on its website. Participating artists all have a different interpretation of what’s happening in Prague development-wise, but the city obviously means something to each of them.

“Prague is deep in my heart, and sometimes I want to cry when I see some of the buildings in this city,” Toy-Box said.