NEWS MEDLEY & KARTAL ROUNDTABLE THERE IS STRENGTH IN THE COLLECTIVE VOICE, ESPECIALLY THE COLLECTIVE FEMALE VOICE
Inspired by the rich tradition of folk culture, in particular folk singing in Hungary, NEWS MEDLEY is a collaboration between London-based Polish visual artist Alicja Rogalska, curator Katalin Erdődi, folk singer Réka Annus and the Women’s Choir of Kartal, a village near Budapest in eastern Hungary.
NEWS MEDLEY talks about life in the countryside, as experienced by different generations of women. It recounts changes in political systems, lifestyles and the hard work of everyday life, commented on with humour and sharp wit by the choir members. A medley of five songs was chosen from the choir’s repertoire and collectively re-written, bringing together personal stories with collective concerns about community life and the future of the village.
NEWS MEDLEY combines traditional local melodies with contemporary lyrics: it resists the tendency to regard folk songs as fossilised cultural heritage and instead re-introduces the vernacular practice of revising and re-writing songs to talk about the pressing issues and emotions of the current moment.
In times of polemic changes in Hungary’s media landscape and the government’s increasingly centralized information politics, NEWS MEDLEY experiments with folk songs as a form of grassroots ‘community broadcasting’, amplifying a heterogeneity of voices, while also asking what qualifies as news nowadays, which topics warrant media attention, especially with the rise of clickbait journalism.
With its focus on women’s experiences, NEWS MEDLEY not only offers a plurivocal and subjective re-reading of recent history, emphasizing lived realities, it also brings to the fore issues such as the burdens of ‘invisible’ female work, and insists on the publicness of struggles around marriage and family life, which are often relegated to the private realm.
Realized as part of OFF-Biennale Budapest, NEWS MEDLEY was launched in 2020, when the artistic team worked together with the Women’s Choir of Kartal in their home village. Regular meetings were followed by an intensive three-day workshop, where two new video works were created: a music video of the choir performing NEWS MEDLEY* on different locations in Kartal and a documentary video titled KARTAL ROUNDTABLE* about the collaborative process, providing a glimpse into the rehearsals, group discussions and shared moments of community life. These works form part of the exhibition presented at the 2021 edition of OFF-Biennale, accompanied by a publication and live performances of NEWS MEDLEY by the Kartal Women’s Choir, in collaboration with the Budapest-based feminist choir Varsányi Szirének (Sirens of Varsány).
Curated by Katalin Erdődi.
Commissioned by the OFF-Biennale Budapest and ART AT WORK Vienna.
With the support of Adam Mickiewicz Institute, Austrian Cultural Forum Budapest, Austrian Federal Ministry for Arts, Culture, the Civil Service and Sport.
There is a strength in the collective voice, especially the collective female voice
A conversation between Alicja Rogalska, Katalin Erdődi and Réka Annus, the artistic team of NEWS MEDLEY
The circle is one of the central motifs of the NEWS MEDLEY video work, but it has also shaped our collaborative process with the Women’s Choir of Kartal in many different ways that are not directly visible within the video. That is why I thought that it would be exciting to start our conversation by unpacking how the circle has informed our work and how we have also consciously deployed the circular form.
Spatially thinking about the circle, I find it particularly interesting how it connects people in a very egalitarian way, as everyone is in the same position, on eye-level; while at the same time each person’s perspective is singular and different, depending on where they are situated in the circle. This is also politically fascinating, as the circle has a very specific capacity to intertwine individuality and collectivity: it demonstrates the possibility of being together, but seeing things differently.
This was present in our work with the women’s choir in Kartal. In their rehearsal room, the choir members always sit in a circle—a rather irregular one, but a circle nevertheless—and from the first time that we joined their meetings with Réka, we were invited to become a part of this circle. I found this to be very generous, but also disconcerting. We had invited the choir to become part of a collaboration and now they invited us to join their circle; it was clear that this would be a two-way process and we would both have to negotiate our positions in this new, shared formation. Another thing that also became clear from the conversation's outset was the heterogeneity of perspectives coming together in this circle. Our discussions were often anarchic, many issues came up and there was hardly any consensus around them—rather we were confronted by the different views and opinions of the choir members, some contrasting, others complementary. This proved essential for our collaborative process as it enabled us to include an agonistic plurality of voices and experiences in the new lyrics we wrote for the songs that both complicated and challenged stereotypical representations of rural women’s lives. I find that this heterogeneity is something that the circle allows for and can somehow also contain, without being exploded by contradiction.
Alicja, you often mention in our conversations that you see the circle as a political, spatial and aesthetic tool shaping collective processes. Could you say more about this?
The idea of working with the circle had several origins. Firstly, the women’s circles that existed during communist times in Poland, i.e. the widespread phenomenon of Koło Gospodyń Wiejskich, the Circle of Rural Housewives. These were partly grassroots (based on earlier forms where women gathered to perform certain domestic labour together such as plucking goose feathers or making sauerkraut), partly state-organised initiatives established as a way to cultivate cultural traditions and crafts, but also empowering and educational for women in the countryside as part of the modernising process. Currently, there are also attempts from activist-feminist circles to re-ignite this idea in the form of informal women’s groups who create space to share their life stories, give mutual advice and do things together. These support structures often acknowledge the earlier rural phenomenon in their names. This wasn’t a direct inspiration, but I had it in the back of my mind, as I am interested in women’s self-organising.
The spatial aspect of the circle also has the political connotation of the ‘round table’ in the Polish context, in relation to the Solidarity Movement and the transition from communism. The ‘round table’ physically and symbolically brought people (very women though) from different political standpoints together into a space that facilitated a dialogue on equal footing. This also has to do with the anthropological understanding of the circle as a democratic and non-hierarchical way of communicating and decision-making, which you alluded to.
When we were thinking about how to work with the choir, I immediately wanted to make sure that the collaborative process was also spatially framed, as opposed to having the space divided by square tables, for example. I find the issue of proxemics really important; in all my collaborative projects I pay quite a lot of attention to how space is organised and what that subconsciously says about hierarchies and relationships. It can make a huge difference to the process. So with the gesture of introducing the round table, I wanted to emphasize how we wanted to work together. Obviously, as you mentioned earlier, the choir already had this kind of irregular circle structure in place, but I wanted to make it even more apparent for the project.
There are also practical aspects of working around a round table; you can see everyone, while also enjoying some intimacy with your neighbours. It made us, the artistic team, a part of the process, which also helped with the distribution of power. The circle doesn’t magically remove power structures, they are still there—between us and the choir, and also within the choir—but it makes it more difficult to fall back on default positions and power relations.
There is also something primeval about the circle that is conducive to storytelling as an interaction: it’s almost like that game of throwing a ball of yarn to one another, the form is conducive for structuring and weaving stories and narratives in a spontaneous way; this resonates with your experience of anarchic discussions while working with the women on the lyrics.
The use of the circle in the video was predominantly inspired by the vernacular circle dance of the Kartal choir, which is part of their repertoire and traditionally performed at a specific point within a medley. As we decided to follow this vernacular structure of songs and dances in NEWS MEDLEY, I asked myself how we could structure the video and what it symbolizes in terms of the relationship between the women, but also in terms of folk tradition? This is how I arrived at the circle as an element that binds the songs together in a visual way through camera movement and the general choreography of the video.
I was wondering, Réka, if you could say more about the role of the circular form and also the circle dance in folk tradition? I’m assuming that ways of organising similar to the Circles of Rural Housewives existed across the post-socialist countries—were they also present in Hungary?
The circle as a form is extremely important in Hungarian folk tradition, already present in children’s games and later on in the circle dance of the young girls. It is also connected to how circular time, the idea of cycles, much rather than a linear notion of time, defined peasant culture and the lives of people in the countryside. This goes back to an archaic system of beliefs, in which the circle was present in many different ways, in wreaths and headdresses, in the fortune-telling of love lives where names were hidden in ball-shaped dumplings. The ritual practice of ‘circling’ was also widespread, used as a counter-charm to fend off evil by walking around things in a circle three times.
Children’s games and the circle dance only differ from each other in the way hands are held and the songs that are sung. Traditionally, circle dances were danced by young unmarried women and accompanied by collective a capella singing, which is quite unique in Hungarian folk dance. The choreography is set; however the dynamic, the length and the repetitions of the songs are all decided on by the momentary mood of the participating girls. One could say that the songs are primarily love songs, or rather songs about the complications of human relationships, ranging from love interests in young men to conflicts within the family, with mothers or potential mothers-in-law. The lyrics talk about the emotional lives of young girls, their fears and desires, in terms of changes brought on by married life and how they as girls are still ‘free as birds’.
In the vernacular tradition, women after marriage no longer danced the circle dance together, they only danced with their husbands and visited different dance houses than before. However, there is an interesting tradition, which has been documented in certain regions, particularly in Transylvania; during Carnival time women’s balls were organised, which were attended exclusively by (married) women, giving them a chance—at least on this one day—to ‘release some steam’ and take a break from the everyday. Unfortunately, these all-female gatherings remain largely undocumented, because the participating women didn’t talk about them, whatever happened there was kept secret.
Regarding your question about the Circle of Rural Housewives, I don’t know of such circles in Hungary, but the emergence of folk singing circles might be an interesting parallel. This was sparked off by the Röpülj Páva (Fly, Peacock) folk singing contest, which was first organised in 1969 and broadcast as a television show attracting a record 5 million viewers (about half of the current population in Hungary). Television had a huge public impact at the time and as a result, thousands of Páva-körök (Peacock Circles) were formed across the country, resulting in a massive cultural movement around folk singing and dancing. These circles were mostly self-organised, as people in villages realized that “we can do this as well”, but also promoted by local power structures, such as the cooperative. Several Peacock Circles founded at the time, continue operating today as cultural associations.
However, I would also like to mention a more vernacular form of collective singing, which pre-dates the Peacock movement and is connected to the kaláka. This is a much more organic and—from the folkloric point of view—‘authentic’ practice of self-organising, in which women did work together (sewing, spinning, husking, feather plucking), while singing collectively, in a manner similar to the origins of the Circles of Rural Housewives that you mentioned. In terms of egalitarian and communal forms of self-expression, based on shared cultural practices and values, I believe that this is what we are looking for, even though the Peacock Circles prevailed as a dominant cultural form.
Interesting that you say that, Réka, because I found that these two forms actually co-exist and overlap in the herstory of the Kartal choir. With them, it was also the women working at the local cooperative who started a folk singing circle at the outset of the Peacock movement, participating in the Fly, Peacock television contest as early as 1969. However, the choir members also continued to work in kaláka: a home video that we found on Youtube documents these more vernacular practices, as they pluck feathers and sing together in the early '90s. Another video—shot in the same period, at one of the Carnival balls traditionally organised by the women’s choir in Kartal (but not exclusively for women)—shows us the choir’s ‘wilder side’ with transgressive cross-dressing performances and hilarious, satirical commentaries on the transition times after 1989. So it seems to me that in the every-days vernacular, state socialist and post-socialist cultural practices were much more entangled and intertwined than we might think.
Your description of the circle dance and women’s balls is truly fascinating, as it testifies so clearly to the existence of strong female kinship and what we, through Nancy Fraser, would today call ‘feminist counterpublics’ in rural cultural practices. Even if these balls remained a well-kept secret and the ‘troubles talk’ of the circle dances may not have been understandable to all present—which actually highlights their function as subaltern counterpublics—both hold space for sharing and exchanging women’s experiences and amplifying their voices collectively.
These examples point us to the precarious boundary between public and private, which we also experienced when working on the new lyrics with the choir as we transformed our informal and intimate exchanges into public content. The feminist claim “the personal is political” might resonate with many, but I believe that this is much easier said than done. Our collaborative process involved a lot of negotiation and discussion, since it was crucial for us that the gesture of ‘going public’ could be experienced as something empowering, rather than embarrassing for the choir members. We strived to transgress the personal nature of their stories and stress the collective.
In this sense, I would relate our re-writing process to the feminist practice of ‘re-authoring’, as we invited the choir to speak out about their lived realities and concerns, and re-author their own experience. This resulted in foregrounding issues such as invisible housework and care work, and struggles around marriage and family life that are often suppressed or missing from public discourse, as though they were too private, or not of shared societal concern. We, the artistic team also contributed to this exchange with our own impulses, including a collective reading of the Wages for Housework manifesto, for example, or borrowing slogans from the feminist strike movement in Spain (“If we stop, the world stops”). Such a re-authoring is an extremely affective process, as it offers everyone involved other ways of seeing, relating to and identifying with personal experiences, creating new attachments that can be quite liberating and emotional—through the form of folk songs which are devised to mobilise and express feelings.
For those who are not familiar with the traditional songs we worked with, it might be interesting to know that we also considered their original themes and genres in the re-writing. We transformed land workers’ songs to talk about women’s work, and a recruiting song to share the self-organising and recruiting strategies of the choir. I have to say that I was quite surprised to find that while folk songs deeply engage with the hardships of everyday working life, housework and care work are rarely mentioned in these accounts, despite their centrality to women’s lives.
Responding to your thoughts on re-authoring, I believe that taking one person's individual experiences and having many women perform them also reinforces that singular voice. I am not sure if I would use the term ‘re-authoring’, but this reminds me of the feminist practice of amplification—i.e. repeating what another woman has said, in order to reinforce and make it heard, reflecting also on the reality that women are not listened to. There is something empowering in the process of gathering these individual stories and turning them into songs that are then performed collectively—there is a strength in the collective voice, especially the collective female voice. The experiences are not only articulated, but also performed; there is an intended publicness to it, but also a power that comes from the group that is performing. It is also much easier to hide behind the group, so on the one hand, it's about the reinforcement of personal stories, on the other, it allows for a certain anonymity.
There is a scene in the NEWS MEDLEY video—which was inspired by a scene from Béla Tarr’s Satan’s Tango—where the camera pans the faces of the women standing in a circle. It’s the only scene where they are not singing (you only hear the singing), so it’s striking, and it also helps detach the very personal content of the song, with references to domestic violence and arranged marriage, from a specific person so that it becomes more about the universal experience of women in general.
In this scene, I found it interesting to focus on the individuals—on their faces and on the gazes that are returned, because it can get slightly uncomfortable for people watching. I am concerned with this idea of returning the gaze, because, at least on the surface we have this quite ethnographic-looking material, so we had to deal with the ethnographic gaze. I am interested in how people who have often been positioned as ‘objects of study’ can articulate their own opinions and views, whilst returning the gaze.
The women really ‘owning the lyrics’ in NEWS MEDLEY breaks with the illusion of an objective point of view. As a viewer, you are put in the position of the camera, so that you are not looking from behind someone’s shoulder or observing from afar, but you are actually confronted by the women, not necessarily in a confrontational way, though you are very much implicated. Breaking the fourth wall creates intimacy and maybe also a certain discomfort that comes with this intimacy.
Going back to the question of re-authoring, the main concept of the project is rooted in re-authoring as it exists in the folk tradition—adding lyrics, changing a line or tune, then passing it on. This vernacular practice doesn’t negate the notion of authorship, but is very much collaborative—even if not directly, but across time and space. This is also interesting to consider in our case, as we created new lyrics for the traditional melodies, so that in a way we also became part of this process.
You don’t discard what came before, but build on it and acknowledge different experiences. In this sense it is reminiscent of collage or bricolage as a vernacular practice, as in anthropologist Claude Lévi Strauss' idea of culture as a bricolage of influences, interpretations, experiences, objects and cultural texts. Bricolage also as a mode of creating culture. As you said before, we were respectful of certain conventions, while also breaking quite a few.
It is true that re-authoring in folk tradition can be seen as a collaboration across time and space, but it is also interesting to note that in the past, vernacular variations were actually quite minimal, both in terms of lyrics and melody. The simplest intervention was, for example, changing the name in the song to your name, or to those of other people you wanted to implicate, and the farthest most people went was changing a line, or perhaps half a line, to insert something that was most pressing for them. This had to do with the fact that more extensive re-writing is a complex, rather poetic task, while we also have to keep in mind that at the time people had an incredibly rich and varied knowledge of folk songs, so they could always choose one that suited their momentary mood best from their repertoire and adjust it through small personal variations.
We know of a few examples of more extensive re-writing from socialist times, thanks to a collection of songs that was shared with us by the choir leader of the Kartal women’s choir, Domonkos Volter. These were recorded in the early 1970s in Galgahévíz, a village near Kartal, and include a conversation with local choir members, who talk about writing songs for the different occasions and celebrations they were invited to, but also for their own pleasure and amusement. The new lyrics playfully engage with the social and political changes of the time, ranging from local gossip to songs greeting the cooperative directors, or teasing songs that make fun of local hierarchies. The informants, who share the songs, appear to be the authors themselves and often have trouble remembering the lyrics they invented, if they forgot to write them down. The conversation reveals the incredible attention they paid to the smallest details of everyday village life, such as the appearance of garlic granulate in the local store, which they also jokingly inserted into one of the songs.
I was also thinking about the strength of the collective female voice that you mentioned, Alicja, in practical terms, regarding the Kartal choir and other women’s choirs that I know. Most choir members are not soloists; they come together for the joy of collective singing and for the community, and always perform in a group. Domonkos has told us that the choir in Kartal does not do public performances if too many members are missing, as they also need the strength and support of this collectivity.
The phenomenon of women’s choirs is quite a generational one in Hungary, choir members are usually elderly locals, who join the choir around retirement age. Therefore the question of sustainability is one of the greatest challenges for this form of community life and organizing currently, for as most choirs do not have any younger members, there is no new generation. In this sense, the choir in Kartal is quite exceptional, as there are several girls participating, either through family ties or due to an interest in folk culture. This makes a sharing of knowledge across generations possible, similarly to how it was done in vernacular peasant culture.
Sharing knowledge and learning from one another played a central role in our collaboration with the choir, both between us and the choir members, and within the choir itself. One of the younger members told us that they learned more about each other through our conversations during the re-writing process, and spent more time together than they usually would, which she felt, strengthened ties also within their community. I would say that what we mutually learned is manifest in the new lyrics, which were born from this exchange and would not have been possible without such an intense encounter between our different perspectives and ways of relating.
With the live performances of NEWS MEDLEY in Budapest we plan to take a further step in this regard and ‘expand’ our collaboration with the Kartal choir to include the feminist choir Varsányi Szirének (Sirens of Varsány) and thus initiate a dialogue not only between different generations of women, but also across rural and urban experience, folk and pop cultures. The multi-faceted response of the Varsányi Szirének to the issue of invisible female work that was raised by the women of Kartal, shows how generative these personal stories and perspectives can be, and how other women can connect to them and multiply them through accounts of their own experiences, similar to the practice of amplification that you mentioned, Alicja.
By performing, sharing and expanding NEWS MEDLEY in different, experimental and transgressive ways, I believe that our collectively written medley can act as a feminist counterpublic that sprouts through each encounter with other publics, opening up new possibilities for sustainability—just as the Kartal choir opened their circle to receive us.
Edited by Katalin Erdődi
Originally published in the publication We Are Not Made of Sugar, We Are Made of Concrete (OnCurating Zurich, 2021), accompanying the eponymous exhibition as part of OFF-Biennale Budapest.
Cover image: Alicja Rogalska with Katalin Erdődi, Réka Annus and the Women’s Choir of Kartal, NEWS MEDLEY, 2020, video, 9’16”. Video still © Árpád Horváth
Exhibition images: We Are Not Made of Sugar, We Are from Concrete (installation view), Alicja Rogalska with Katalin Erdődi, Réka Annus and the Women’s Choir of Kartal, as part of the OFF-Biennale Budapest. Photo © Simon Zsuzsanna
Publication images: We Are Not Made of Sugar, We Are from Concrete (publication), edited by Katalin Erdődi. Photo © Simon Zsuzsanna