Interview with Researchers Lucie Česálková and Kateřina Svatoňová

“Peculiar connections across time“

Lucie Česálková (NFA) and Kateřina Svatoňová (Faculty of Arts, Charles University) share a long-term interest in experimental film and media archaeology. They draw on these positions in their research of Laterna magika which will result in a book and an exhibition. Although these outputs still lie in a rather distant future and the two researchers currently work with a certain degree of abstraction, they talk about the directions their research may take as well as their plans with enthusiasm.

How did you get to Laterna magika?
Kateřina Svatoňová (KS): I have dealt with Laterna magika already in my dissertation thesis and in my book Unbound Images: Archaeology of Czech Virtual Space which discussed the combination of various media, use of space and creation of a specific viewing experience; images unbound from space and creation of a specific, immersively fragmented experience.

Lucie Česálková (LČ): In my research, I have always encountered Laterna magika in relation to experimentation; which, surprisingly, is considered as something that is to be here by the political power, although it is constantly criticized as deviating from the frameworks of art dictated by that power. After its success at Expo 58, Laterna magika, too, ended up in this peculiar clash; as something that is both desired and ideologically problematic. A similarly paradoxical position was assumed by advertisement film which was perceived as a typically capitalist format which must be ideologically and rhetorically integrated in the socialist system. That was the basis of my interest; at the same time, in my research of short film, I have also dealt with the application of these forms at exhibitions, labelled as “scenic film”, i.e. film designed for the stage, immersive methods in film and theatre, as well as polyecran techniques.

What does your research involve in this project?
KS: We represent the research element that will have partial yet most visible outputs within this big project. These include introducing Laterna magika in a book and at an exhibition. Our team is a historical-theoretical one, comprising people whose fields of expertise range from music through dance to theatre so that we can approach the phenomenon of Laterna magika from a whole scale of perspectives that are at hand. At this moment, we have also teamed up with a group of sound designers so new levels and new questions open up. Our work therefore consists in an interdisciplinary dialogue. Together with Lucie, we try to find out how to connect these diverse points of view. Laterna magika is very complex so none of them can be left out. At the same time, however, we do not know which historical documents will be revealed by the research, or what film materials will be preserved. So far we only operate on a virtual level.  For that matter, Laterna magika is very virtual itself; we also work with virtual visualizations. All that makes the project even more virtual.

LČ: Currently we primarily coordinate the collection of data. Their number multiplies with the number of media employed by Laterna magika. We find out where the materials could be and establish communication with the institutions, we organize research. We have also launched an oral history project; in our team, we set up lists of contemporaries who contributed to Laterna magika projects, ranging from production managers and technicians through hosts, dancers, scenographers and choreographers to directors and screenwriters, and put together thematic clusters to be discussed with them by our colleagues Zuzana Černá, Jan Trnka and Jan Černíček.

Can you tell us more about the book and exhibition?
LČ: Besides partial studies, we will make a big book which will introduce not only the historical foundation but primarily a theoretical interpretation of the phenomenon of Laterna magika. The exhibition, too, will go particularly in the latter direction. There, the historical part will rather play the role of a backdrop, an anchor. An interpretation and comparison of how to approach the phenomenon of Laterna magika in the digital era will constitute the core of the exhibition project.

KS: What I find most essential is the fundamental principles of Laterna magika, the theoretical themes related to it and the questions of archaeological nature rather than mapping each and every performance and getting into details. Most of the materials have not been processed yet so we are still working primarily with known sources. Since we do not draw on purely historical positions, we are interested in partial themes and phenomena. At the same time, however, the things we have not seen yet may reveal other questions we could not have come up with up to now.

LČ: The project does not aim at a totally heuristic description of how things were. We will not reconstruct every single performance but rather try to generalize certain theoretical principles as well as the functioning of Laterna magika as a cultural phenomenon in the society, in a political situation; what role it played within the culture as a whole as well as for the individual actors. From there, we will arrive at more general findings.

KS: We will not make a book with chapters corresponding to the individual productions. That is not our goal. The exhibition, too, will be partially distanced from the found material, although it will naturally work with it. We are also interested in the inspiration by Laterna magika and its current manifestations. We want the exhibition to cover artists who employed partial principles of Laterna magika or who revive them in some way. We want to involve artists who work with the transmission of image, light projection, lighting or spatial sound. We will rather go after principles than a classic historical catalogue.

LČ: Besides these direct artistic or creative inspirations, we would also like to reflect on the transmission of styles and techniques among formats; the fact that a certain method appears in an experimental work and is soon conventionalized in a much more common format… I will not reveal particular examples at this moment, however, these inspirations and borrowings are obvious and amusing and we hope that we will discover and use more of them.

What else would you like to achieve within the project?
LČ: We would like to lead a broader debate on the phenomenon of Laterna magika that is so hard to grasp. Therefore we consider organizing a workshop with international participants. In the Czech Republic, Laterna magika is perceived as something unique, however, it had its parallels in other countries as well. We thus want to reflect it as part of a wider global trend and learn about its specifics through comparison. At first glance, it might seem surprising that there is not much international research. It mostly includes case studies dealing with the role of film at world exhibitions in Brussels and Montreal, or those focusing on remarkable authors; however, there is no literally multidisciplinary research. Nevertheless, the existing research can be used as a basis; we can work with the knowledge that while we had Josef Svoboda, there were scenographers who employed methods similar to polyvision and polyecran in Italy, United States and Canada. We would like to map that and place the phenomenon of Laterna magika within a broader context.

KS: When we look abroad in our research, we can see more conceptual questions related to more than just the material at hand we would like to open up during some event. For instance, how to approach new technologies or how to approach old technologies by means of new tools; i.e. the above mentioned archaeological approach for which we both have love and interest in relation to Laterna magika. We would like to organize a conference with an overlap to art which would show how to use old technologies in a new environment. Or vice versa; how to simulate old methods in the new environment. The relationship between old and new media is inspiring for us and was naturally essential for Laterna magika.

Did you have a chance to consult your project with international colleagues?
LČ: We try to slip out of our positions of film studies and film archives in some way, for Laterna magika is not a typical cinematic phenomenon, while we are primarily film experts. If a person who is used to reflecting on film and feels at home in a film archive gets to an archive dedicated to live or performative arts, they will encounter a different perspective and definitely broaden their horizons. We went to Bristol, UK where our colleagues from the Theatre Collection of the University of Bristol created a digital archive of the National Review of Live Arts festival. From the archive perspective, it was a similar work to that of the Laterna magika project. In Bristol, too, they worked with partial productions shown at the festival which had several manifestations and were not unambiguous but rather complex as archive objects. While we are used to working with films in a film archive, there we learned to understand film copies as related to a whole range of other archive objects that compose a historical stage production together. Today, this is very much helped by database systems and standards of metadata description used by our curators. At the same time, we were curious how institutions archiving performative arts present their findings to audiences and what activities they use to introduce older theatrical, performative and cinematic works to viewers, be it live or online.

Could you elaborate on your perspective of the specific phenomenon of Laterna magika?
KS: The first level consists in the birth of Laterna magika in the context of world exhibitions for Expo 58. We generally have a tendency to perceive national pavilions as a unique thing. However, already since the turn of the 20th century, world exhibitions showcased the greatest experiments and sensations. In this context, Expo is yet another possibility of how to use, interconnect and display media. What was introduced by Laterna magika was not unique, it has appeared elsewhere as well as later. What was really extreme in this respect was Expo 67 where the pavilions largely employed most incredible projections and polyecrans.

The second context to which Laterna magika relates is that of theatre scenography employing film projection. These media links were born out of avant-garde theatre and still continue today. Laterna may be specific for the very fact that it merges these two levels. It was based on the international, spectacular Expo exhibition, however, it did not stop there but rather evolved into the second level, giving birth to a permanent stage which continued presenting performances that were originally designed for exhibition purposes. It is a question whether that is a good thing or whether it just creates a conserved aesthetic which belongs to a world exhibition as a one-time affair. In his essay on Laterna magika, Václav Havel wrote that Laterna magika has always been an intelligent variety show and should have stayed like that. If this type of spectacle tries to pretend to be art, there can be a problem…

However, I think that later, during the times of normalization, a new energy was born and quality productions were made. Laterna magika employed the best Czechoslovak artists who were often not allowed to make their own works and continue the experiment of the 1960s. However, in Laterna magika, they were free to experiment while getting substantial financial support. For instance, Jaroslav Kučera, who made pick-ups for Laterna magika, started working with abstract moving image which gave the performance a new dimension. These very principles when image employs abstraction and scenography employs virtuality to a larger extent is what I am interested in.

What legacies are at your disposal?
KS: What is crucial for us is the archive of Josef Svoboda to which we have access thanks to the helpful approach of Šárka Hejnová and Jakub Hejna. There we have found large quantities of materials, including plans and models Svoboda used to test his stage experiments, period texts, slides and photographs. We also have trial film footage which shows how Josef Svoboda experimented with laser and digitized footage of performances he recorded for his private use. The legacy further includes the texts of his lectures on Laterna magika which are very conceptual and include his reflections on the fundamental principles of this multimedia show.

LČ: We do not have any other legacies (or do not know about them), however, we hope that thanks to the interviews with contemporaries, we will get to some sources, such as photographs from personal archives. Those will provide additional context, as was the case with Pavel Veselý, Laterna magika’s dancer who shared not only his recollections but also interesting personal documents with us. The National Museum houses some sources related to Laterna magika in the legacy of Alfréd Radok, however, it is not a complete archive of an artist through which we could view the phenomenon.

A person that is important to me personally is Ladislav Rychman who also worked at Laterna magika. Besides being renowned as a director of The Hop Pickers musical, he also made commercials and televisions songs; these small fringe formats clearly influenced his work for Laterna magika. Nevertheless, we still do not know anything about his legacy.

What introductory reading or audiovisual sources would you recommend to those interested in the phenomenon of Laterna magika?
KS: When I once wrote about Laterna magika, I was surprised how little sources there were. The good ones include the text by Vít Havránek in the book Laterna Magika; later on, Expo 58 was presented at an exhibition accompanied by a book called The Brussels Dream where Vít Havránek wrote about the multimedia connection. However, paradoxically, the most important source is Laterna Magika – Anthology of Essays from 1968 which defines the general principles and takes a conceptual approach to Laterna magika. To learn about some of the methods of Laterna magika, I would recommend Helena Albertová’s monograph Josef Svoboda – Scenographer. However, it is only a certain segment perceived through the personality of Josef Svoboda. From this perspective, the documentary Theatre Svoboda by Jakub Hejna is also worth seeing.

LČ: On YouTube, you can also find films featuring Expo 58, including the one about the Czechoslovak pavilion which shows that Laterna magika was one of the stages that use film. It is known for a fact that the architecture of the pavilion in the technological part representing Czechoslovak industry also employed projection of industry films. Within the space, they worked as polyvision, although they did not communicate with each other. In this documentary about Expo 58, there are passages capturing the early acts of Laterna magika that were undoubtedly original at their time.

KS: This documentary also shows moments that are different from the two or three famous scenes that are constantly associated with Laterna magika. For instance, it includes folklore performances accompanied by projection, which looks rather bizarre from today’s perspective…

LČ: But it is also very typical; to show the national, the old through modern media. It always merges into a hybrid: We cannot show the new in such a hypermodern way, we must show that one can introduce the old through the new, for instance folklore traditions.

KS: Which precisely copies the methods from the turn of the century. On the one hand, they were showing a complete novelty, Křižík’s lamp; on the other hand, they showed Brožík’s historical canvases. Those are the peculiar connections across time.

The interview was made by Veronika Zýková.