Early in the hour-long film, “The Judicial Murder of Jakub Mohr,” the central protagonist, a patient in a psychiatric ward, shouts in Czech, “My words are not my own!” [“Moje slova nejsou moje!”]. He is on Kafka-esque trial for saying out loud what is visibly true: a series of wires—“Threads!” rebukes the prosecutor—extend from his back and connect to an ominous box, which is held by a man who in turn dictates in whispers what the patient says. At one point, Mohr lists to the jury in indignation what he has become: a gramophone, a radio, an instrument. He is something between human self and machine, a cyborg, his agency mediated by the state and psychiatric institution.
The video is played on a loop as part of the current show at the International Studio and Curatorial Program in Brooklyn, dedicated to the work of contemporary Czech artist Eva Kot’átková, and subtitled, ERROR. The film is based on a drawing by Mohr, a psychiatric patient in the early 1900s, and much of the work featured in ERROR reaches back either explicitly or implicitly to the conditions of the pre-WWI and interwar period, compelling the visitor to draw some unsettling comparisons with today.
In a large series of collages that lean up against and obstruct each other, one piece refers almost directly to the film running nearby. A boy’s torso is hooked up via a hand-drawn, zig-zagging pipe to a machine that feeds the boy’s speech, represented by six slender arrows protruding from his mouth in different directions. The images in this collage and the others were sourced from old pedagogical books (dedicated to education, the social sciences, psychology, and nature), cut and pasted together with drawn elements in a way that underlies the mechanisms by which children come to internalize and regurgitate what they are taught, suggesting that we are all wired up to our government’s official message from our earliest days.
In the wall text besides Kot’átková’s collages, the pieces are compared to the work of Hannah Höch and John Heartfield, Berlin Dada artists who were strongly critical in their time of the political regimes that brought about the two World Wars. In his book, The Dada Cyborg, Matthew Biro writes of the tendency amongst the Berlin Dada artists to create half-human, half-machine figurations as they sought to articulate without words the horrible violence and emotional trauma of that first war. Part “sign of a fearful response to the destruction brought about by World War I,” he writes, the cyborg (a term of later invention) was also, “a creature on which many Weimar artists and other cultural producers could project their utopian hopes and fantasies.”
In her essay for Critical Inquiry on the representation of post-war trauma in the Dada collages, Brigid Doherty describes the discomfort with which these images were received when exhibited in their own day, noting that “accusations of insanity occasionally took explicitly clinical, diagnostic forms. For example, a psychiatrist from Berlin’s Charité hospital encountered the work of the Dadaists and declared […] that he was familiar from his observations of the mentally ill with artworks like those made by the dadaists.” The majority of works on display in ERROR concern actual psychiatric patients (in particular those at the Bohnice Psychiatric Hospital on the outskirts of Prague), or those “individuals who—for various reasons—are unable to integrate themselves into social structures.”
In Kot’átková’s work, she lays bare various strategies and coping mechanisms by which people relate to the world, or subvert institutional intervention. In one piece titled “Anna,” for instance, a rug is rolled up and a hole cut into it where a mouth might be, and marionette-like arms protrude from the sides. Wrapped up snug becomes a way to interact, buffered from the outside environment. As described in the exhibition text, “through objects, props and devices” the individuals highlighted in Kot’átková’s work “develop alternative means to communicate.”
In the oldest piece in the show, “Structure for looking into people’s windows,” Kot’átková imagines her own body as cyborg. A video camera is affixed to the top of a long metal rod, which is attached to a metal corset and was worn by the artist to “stretch her sight.” This piece again hearkens back to the early twentieth century, when a contemporary of Heartfield and Höch, László Moholy-Nagy, explored the capacity of photography and film to expand the range of our vision. Together with his wife at the time, Lucia Moholy (whose collaboration has been largely overlooked), they wrote a seminal book in the Bauhaus series called Painting Photography Film (1927) in which they declare that, “the modern lens is no longer tied to the narrow limits of our eye.”
Kot’átková’s vision extender underscores the capacity of the camera that the Moholys wrote about–“to make visible existences which cannot be perceived or taken in by our optical instruments, the eye”–and suggests a subversive quality in the camera’s use. In an age in which we’re always being watched, Kot’átková dares the citizen to look back. And, she suggests, to keep an eye on the institutions and regimes that regulate our reality, our mere bodies are not enough. One hundred years after the gruesome, mechanized warfare of World War I, now in the era of drones, smartphones, and GPS anklets that monitor arrested individuals, we are all on our way to becoming cyborgs, mediating realities through electronic devices and submitting to surveillance.
In the video, sculpture, and collage on display at the ISCP, the error, Kot’átková seems to suggest, is the power and hegemony that we grant de facto to the authorial state by failing to give credence to alternate versions of reality. Kot’átková’s message is no less urgent today than that of the Berlin Dada in their time, as we watch borders close across Europe, listen to hateful, xenophobic rhetoric in the current election cycle at home, and observe how what is defined as “illegal” has led to the mass incarceration of citizens of color. Kot’átková rightly points to some of the errors in our current assumptions and modes of living.
Eva Kot’átková: ERROR is on view at the International Studio and Curatorial Program in Brooklyn, NY through April 19, 2016.
Lead image: Eva Koťátková, “The Judicial Murder of Jakob Mohr,” 2015-2016. Courtesy of the ISCP.
Inset images: Eva Kot’átková, “ERROR,” 2015-2016. Courtesy of Ksenia Nouril and the International Studio and Curatorial Program.
Exhibition curator (and wall text author): Kari Conte.