Exhibition

Laterna Magika: (De)construction and (Re)invention

Curators: Lucie Česálková and Kateřina Svatoňová

Exhibition Architect: Zbyněk Baladrán

15 May – 28 July 2019 / The Brno House of Arts

“Laterna Magika is an essentially technical theater […] However, rather than being machine-like and mechanical, it leads to an extraordinary release of scenic imagination, a poetry of emotionality.“ Alfréd Radok

“And above all: never lose inventiveness.” Alfréd Radok


This unique exhibition project presents the results of four-year primary research and showcases materials used in specific multimedia productions of Laterna Magika that have not been previously published and presented, including diverse archival documents and film scenes. On the one hand, Laterna Magika is associated with the unprecedented success of Czechoslovakia at the Brussels Expo in 1958 and with many remarkable artists such as Alfréd Radok and Josef Svoboda. On the other hand, Laterna Magika is also linked to a mixture of genres and formats confined in the still-controversial building of the New Stage of the National Theater. It can be seen as a “synthetic dramatic art embracing the unity of specific art disciplines: theater, film, ballet, music, poetry and others, with theater and film, especially Polyekran, constituting its basic components” (to quote Miroslav Klivar); however, Laterna Magika can also be approached as a multifaceted phenomenon: an institution, a political affair, an invention, a (multi)medium, a format, an art discipline, a variety show, and a critical practice. This exhibition intends to focus on the latter by showing the individual facets of Laterna Magika through numerous projections, new media installations and multimedia collages.

The exhibition opens with an annotated collection of found visual materials presenting the history of Laterna Magika from various perspectives.

Laterna Magika is embedded within the context of period cultural and artistic practices and is introduced as a complex mechanism as well as a technological apparatus. Technology not only expanded the repertoire of the means of expression employed in the productions but also transformed the viewing experience—not only that which is seen, but also seeing itself. Interpretations from the perspective of media archeology and theory show that the times, which were dazzled by the possibilities of scientific and technological progress, gave birth to Laterna Magika as an artistic-mechanical phenomenon— as a machine of many media. Thus, Laterna Magika proves to be a place of media translocations, not merely a specific synthesis of theater and film, but also a result of the dialog between exhibition dramaturgy, visual arts, scenography, cinematography and choreography. Laterna Magika is presented as a sophisticated collage, a technical image drifting into space and transcending its own frame, as well as a performative intermedia, interactive, and immersive apparatus. It also proves to be a utopian project born in the context of avant-garde experiments with inter/multimedia, period experiments with new technologies and disruption of the classic image; which were also employed in advertising and documentary film.

Furthermore, Laterna Magika is depicted as a distinctive institution whose operation and creation were influenced by cultural-political decisions from the top (through its integration into Czechoslovak Film, then the State Theater Studio, then the National Theater) and by the vision of a promotional “export miracle”, as well as the collective of creative personalities who often had different motivations for their participation in this politically scrutinized project. While some had artistic ambitions going beyond the local context (Svoboda, Kocáb), others sought an “artistic exile” after they were banned elsewhere (Helge, Schorm, Máša), and yet others had their pragmatic reasons, since the position enabled traveling abroad. It is obvious that Laterna Magika has always been marked by many period, cultural, artistic, personal, ideological, political and technological transformations which showed in its productions in various ways and with varying intensity. The nature of this phenomenon has always been molded by its many dichotomies. Laterna Magika is both fragmentary and complex, distractive and immersive, past and present, reproduced and live, traditional and progressive, ideological and critical towards ideology, popular and elitist, discreet and yet voyeuristic. Each production and each new facet gave rise to new contradictions, complications and paradoxes which could both provoke and inspire.

The exhibition does not aim to provide an exhaustive description of the history of one Czech theater, one institution or media practice. Rather, giving up any attempts at reconstruction, it sets out on the path of deconstruction. Through individual case studies, it looks beyond the image/theater, beyond the compact illusion, thus dismantling the carefully synchronized machine into its individual components. This is the only way to approach the foundations upon which Laterna Magika is built, both the formal ones (such as surrounding the viewers with images, splitting a single screen into fragments, and the tendency towards illusiveness and virtuality), and thematic ones (such as spectacularity and attraction turning into an emptied image), or even, oppositely, searching for a complex dramatic form and a polemic with socialist politics. This exhibition aims to comprehend the essence of the multimedia performance, its possibilities and limits, and to address several issues linked to the experimental stage of the National Theater, such as national promotion, institutional background, the memory of experimentation, the role of artists in the Normalization era etc. It also aims to simulate a multi-sensory experience for the viewers, which is completely different from a theater experience. The curated selection is not based on an imaginary auditorium and a complex performance, but literally goes behind the scenes: to the movable scenery, the projection booth. The exhibition thus presents neither set design models nor live actors; instead it looks “beyond” the individual productions, exploring moving image clips and various “backstage” accompanying materials.

Deconstruction goes hand in hand with reinvention, which is a foundation for the architectonic solution of the individual installations by Zbyněk Baladrán, as well as for the newly created art projects which merge with the archival materials. The installation employs both new and old technologies (using the principle of the Polyekran; creating an immersive environment where the viewers are confronted with the merging visual levels and with spatial sound, which was one of the pioneering elements of Laterna Magika; “reconstructing” a period virtual screen and contrasting it with new VR technologies). Each part was created in collaboration with a technical team, as well as with contemporary artists, to highlight the essential principles of Laterna Magika, to showcase period objects and to introduce contemporary aesthetics while developing all of the exhibits “from within”, so they can lead to other inspirations.

The exhibited items include digitized acts from the original performance designed for Expo 58, tour programs, television principles and documentary films from the Vivisection performance, the powerful dramatic character of The Black Monk, and the visually experimental Odysseus. In their “reactions” to Laterna Magika, contemporary artists work with the audio element (Michal Kindernay), the Polyekran principle as an ideological tool (Zbyněk Baladrán), the critical reading of images (especially of women) in Laterna Magika (Jiří Žák), and the completion of a virtual environment through a new choreography for an original performance (Markéta Kuttnerová and Jozef Mrva). The multimedia outputs are a result of our long-term collaboration with the Institute of Intermedia at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering at the Czech Technical University in Prague under the guidance of Roman Berka.

With its rich array of materials and focus on multimedia, this exposition is designed for the professional as well as the general public and educational institutions. Due to its multimedia nature, it speaks to those interested in diverse art disciplines (theater, film, visual arts, dance, etc.), the history of technology, the history of Czech experimental art and the exhibition practice of the moving image. Thanks to its artistic interventions, it also communicates with the contemporary art scene.

In addition to a broad range of side events including screenings, dance performances, and guided tours, the exhibition will also host a one-day colloquium spanning theory, history, and the artistic and curating practice to reflect on the individual levels of Laterna Magika and on its heritage, as well as its further possibilities and challenges. This colloquium will culminate in a moderated discussion with contemporaries who will recall the theatrical operation of this institution. The side events will also include two reruns of The Garden, a performance marking the 60th anniversary of Laterna Magika. The performances will be held as part of the Dokořán festival at the Music Stage of the Brno City Theater. The exhibition is accompanied by a detailed monograph published in both Czech and English versions, written by the exhibition curators Lucie Česálková and Kateřina Svatoňová The Dictator of Time: (De)contextualizing the Phenomenon of Laterna Magika (National Film Archive, Faculty of Arts at Charles University in Prague). In the fall, the exhibition will continue at MeetFactory in Prague (24 September – 10 November 2019). The exhibiting artists of the newly created projects will include Michael Bielický, Ana Latini, Jakub Nepraš and Amelia Tan.