“jp.co.de”: Cult, Performance, Game, or Prank?

You might have caught the review of The Rude Mechs’ The Method Gun on Culturebot earlier this year (if not, here it is). The piece examines that wavering line between collective and cult through the lens of the Stella Adler Company and experimental theater of the sixties. At this year’s Prague Quadrennial an experiment began anew—this time with Hungarian art group Krétakör and some inspiration from the Fibonacci sequence.

Two women have written a manifesto. They don’t want the “Rudé Právo” building–the gridded, fake-wood-paneled, crumbling site of the former Czech communist propaganda newspaper–to be torn down. It’s not that they don’t understand the pangs of Soviet history. It’s that they’ve developed an emotional attachment to the place. They’ve been living there for the past two weeks.

The women have been participating in a large-scale performing arts experiment, coordinated by Krétakör and run by an 18-year-old Hungarian boy named Balazs. They are part of a group of 12 young people selected from all over the globe to live amongst the ruins of soviet grandeur.

Balazs’ project stems from a sociological theory the artists refer to as “jp.co.de.” It claims to be the sequence by which all communities come into being. “The point is that a community of at least twelve people create a state where the unity of the individuals brings forth a symbolic new person that is the divine manifestation of the community itself,” writes Miklós Hadas, a Hungarian professor and co-founder of the project. “The ultimate goal of the game is to have the internal power relations within the group conform to the Phi Code and so a dynamic/harmonious state of equilibrium based on organic solidarity be reached. This is hierophany–the manifestation of the divine.” Hadas has apparently led similar jp.co.de games all over the world. He could probably get his own reality show.

Speaking of which: yes, the group was filmed, and yes, they were given group tasks. What ensued, however, was not the usual big-brother. The participants were allowed to leave the building: they were allowed not to participate in the tasks assigned to them—and ultimately, they were required to develop their own rules.

I know about the girls’ manifesto because they told it to me. The final product of the community experiment was its presentation to the Prague Quadrennial. This was not some simple tour: it was a two-hour long multi-part event.

People movers at Rude Pravo Building

It starts with people movers. Not the kind in Disneyland with safety-bars, but constantly moving elevators with no doors.Pravo was once the headquarters of the Soviet Czech newspaper: it is a massive series of offices. In order to get to the proper floor, you have to take a quick leap onto a moving platform and hold on tight. No doubt the boxes moved many dutiful workers back in their day, racing between floors of the bustling propaganda center, whisking along the smell of sweat and pickled must.

Getting off on the sixth floor, you find yourself in a grand wood-paneled reception lobby. Surrounding you on all sides a photo exhibition: stunning depictions of middle-class families in tortuous situations, gorgeously lit. The intro explains its exploration of abuse of the psychological nature, the kind that doesn’t leave physical scars. There is free popcorn and juice.

Photo exhibit in Rude Pravo building

This is an effective lead-in to part two. It’s a movie hall, with more fake-wood paneling and green carpeting. Here you see a film, slightly disturbing. It sketches the emotional struggles of an 18-year-old Hungarian boy, haunted by his mother’s psychological issues, wandering alone in a an abandoned building, confronted by pornographic acts and psychological torture. It interviews Hungarian citizens affected by the country’s dire economic straits. It feels long and dark.

It’s followed by a lecture by Hadas, a professor of Sociology. This transition is a bit rough: his English has a unique, halting, cadence, and he discusses everything from religion to math to sociology in an attempt to clarify the theory behind the experiment. The only part that really sinks in is the end, when he steps away from the podium and confesses that the boy in the film is a student of his, and that this entire project is a kind of attempt by this professor/father figure to lead him through the modern-day darkness. The boy is Balazs.

Up again, and back to the people movers. This time you have to leap off at the 1st floor and take the stairs to the basement, where the real grandeur lies. High ceilings, low crumbling floors—where, no doubt, massive machines once sat — and a seemingly endless series of hidden spaces. But your job is not to explore: it is to sit on a mattress and watch yet another film.

printing press floor of Rude Pravo building-- workshop and living quarters for jp.co.de participants

This is the film of the 12 young guinea pigs. You’re introduced to them one by one, students and young professionals from Latvia, Austria, South America. You see a series of their challenges—finding someone on the streets of Prague to join them in the experiment, trying to create an ending to the film you just saw. One theater student from Vienna spends some time alone locked in a dark basement. In the end, the participants depose Balazs, their task-master, and spend the rest of the time creating the presentation you’re witnessing now.

And then there they are. Ladies with manifestos, boys who have turned their bedroom into an exploration of the question “What is your point of no return?” All the bedrooms have been turned into installations, and the kitchen is covered in plaguing questions like “What is the line between fiction and reality?”—the kind of thing you wonder about if you’re enveloped by an artistic project.

Printing press floor of Rude Pravo building-- living quarters and graffiti walls

There’s just one more part of the film (there’s more film? Oh yes). In it, Balazs wakes to find all has been a dream: the project, the psychological torture, and he’s just your usual teenager who grunts at his Dad at the breakfast table. So the whole experiment was meant to be part of his filmic journey– and at this point, it’s impossible to tell where the fictional Balazs begins and the real Hungarian boy who’s hanging out next to you ends. Yeah, he’s right over their with the project participants. It’s a dream? Really? When kids wrote home to their moms, “Hey, don’t worry about me, I’m going to go live in some unknown place in Prague for some unknown reason for two weeks”? The entire event is Part One of what Krétakör calls its Trilogy Crisis. The second part of the trilogy will take place at Munich Opera Festival, and the third part The Priestess in Trafo House of Contemporary Arts in Budapest, both later this year.

There’s a lot left to digest. Even the participants themselves aren’t quite sure what effect the performance has had on them, whether they’ll be returning to their lives somewhat changed or not. You see that recruit number 12 dropped out halfway through the project to go bike to Berlin (“I [felt like I was] totally manipulated after second day. I still don’t know what this experiment is about” he writes in his goodbye note). The project participants are huggy-chummy with each other: they will continue to post on the project blog about how much they miss each other. Ultimately, it feels like you’ve just witnessed a teenagers’ highly intellectualized and grandly orchestrated attempt to make friends.

Farewell note from Participant #12

What jp.co.de does is give a spectacular framework to psychological misfiring. The kind of grievances that seem petty to anyone who’s fighting real starvation or torture, the kind of social ineptitude that feels both ubiquitous and unforgivable. In the end, if any kind of community has been formed, it’s due less to the rules of the code and more to their commitment to work through the weirdness and do something significant. Which is the kind of mentality that sometimes produces great art, and sometimes produces frightening cults.

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