ZSU ZSURÓ COLLECTIVE WORLD-BUILDING PRACTICES: A CONVERSATION WITH HOLLOW
Art historian and curator Zsu Zsuró opens up a conversation with the Hollow collective (Gyula Muskovics, Tamás Páll, and Viktor Szeri) about their artistic work, the ambivalence between East and West, the necessity of physical spaces but also the potential of the digital realm, and their latest performance piece Aura that debuted this spring at Trafó House of Contemporary Arts in Budapest and was recently shown as part of the interdisciplinary event series Montag Modus at radialsystem in Berlin.
The charged energy of community and the presence of cold darkness concurrently linger around the complex artworks of Hollow. Initiated by Gyula Muskovics, Tamás Páll, and Viktor Szeri, the collective aims to create liminal spaces between real life and the digital realm, present and future. They do so by balancing on the threshold of theories of dystopia and utopia. Playfully creative yet sublime performance pieces emerge from an ever-changing dynamic of such dichotomy. Since 2018, Hollow challenges the Budapest-based and, more recently, the Berlin audiences too on perceptions about the world that surrounds us.
In search for a more honest worldview, Hollow tries to find ways of expression by merging the fields of the digital realm, performativity, academic theory and visual arts with visceral senses of perception as well as notions of memory. In the form of the Archive, story-telling and narrative continuation between artworks both characterise their working methods.
Hollow entered the art scene of Hungary with Phoenix in 2018, a multi-faceted performance piece at an abandoned supermarket. Breaking the rigid perceptions on art-making with queer methodologies, this work immediately drew attention to the collective.
Summit, their 2019 project had a great focus on the involvement of audiences and therefore the actual day of performance was preceded by a weeks-long community building with quizzes, chat groups with organisers, and choreography-learning. This way, not only the collective, but several contemporary dancers, and a wider audience could all become part of the experience.
Hollow just debuted their latest performance piece Aura at Trafó House, Budapest. They had the opportunity to further develop the piece during a residency organised in cooperation with Montag Modus at Bergen Kunsthall, Norway. As a result, a new version was shown at the archive of futures II performance exhibition organised by Montag Modus this Summer in Berlin. The event was realised in search for a better (or rather realistic) future with the tools of performance art. Against the backdrop of current Polish and Hungarian social perspectives, artists were invited to imagine subversive, alternative realities in spite of prevailing hostile cultural ideologies. In the case of the artists these perspectives are, however, only the starting point of Hollow’s creative processes. On the occasion of the event, which took place on the 29th of July at radialsystem, art historian and curator Zsu Zsuró had a conversation with Hollow team members about their artistic work, notions of East and West, and Aura in particular.
How did Hollow come to life? How did you find the fusion of performance and the digital realm to be your genre?
This fusion followed naturally from our individual practices. Alongside Hollow, Gyula works as a curator and writer, Viktor as a choreographer and dancer, and Tomi is a media artist with a background in designing experimental games. When we started working together in 2018, we wanted to create a project where the living body and virtual reality could interact in a way. We did not want to thematise the technologies available to us, as many did at the time, but we wanted to use these to create a liminal experience between the two realms. At the same time, we were also very interested in the impact of the digital space on physical reality, and we started to investigate the functioning of gay cruising apps and how they transformed intimacy within the gay community along a capitalistic, capital generating logic.
The outcome was an immersive, ongoing performance titled Phoenix. It took place in an abandoned supermarket near the Trafó House of Contemporary Arts in Budapest and we transformed this venue into a dark room labyrinth. From time to time, smaller performances popped out from different angles of the space, while our friends, Tamás Marquetant (ateuqram) and András Molnár (The Stanley Maneuver) performed a live trance act. The whole event was recorded with an AR game which we live streamed in the space, so the audience could see themselves in the company of virtual characters at a fictional club. The whole thing felt like a rave in the not too distant, dystopian future.
What kind of research process characterises Hollow?
We usually start from personal experiences and later we merge them with topics that for all three of us are important. In 2019, for example, we were on a 3-month residency at MeetFactory in Prague, and the idea of death as well as our personal fears of it came up a lot in our conversations. It was at that time, just a year before the pandemic broke out, when everybody was talking about the climate catastrophe and the apocalypse, i.e. collective versions of death. This inspired many artists to look at the possibilities of healing and how to fix what we have done wrong. This is, according to some, a rather naive idea and it actually comes from the division between nature and humankind, whereby we have gradually destroyed our environment.
We were more interested in how we could accept this inevitable fact, the process of gradual decay, and how we can immerse ourselves in it. The performance Summit, created at the end of the residency, aimed to ‘facilitate’ this, obviously with some dark humour: in an occult gathering, we invited the audience into a collapsing reality, moving towards an unspecified Future Event that is certain to happen and does not hold any reason for optimism.
However, once the pandemic started and we could actually face the end in different forms this kind of dark humour was no longer adequate. Therefore, in Aura, which we started working on at the end of 2021, from the beginning we were drawn to more utopian ideas such as the creative power of communities as well as the world-building potential of shared imagination.
Where did you find inspiration to create Aura?
When Gyula spent the summer of 2021 in Tbilisi on a research fellowship, several older generation artists told him about a club called Aura, which existed in the mid-90s and was practically (and, of course, unofficially) the first queer venue in the city. This period is also known in Georgia as “the decade of darkness,” referring to the social and economic collapse that followed the South Caucasian country’s break from the Soviet Union. The streets of Tbilisi were chaotic and sometimes dangerous at that time. In such an atmosphere was this club in the middle of the city, located in an underground catacomb, where people organised avant-garde fashion shows, techno parties, and cross-dressing nights just out of fun. This was one of our starting points. We were eager to know more about this place.
Another pull towards this research/project was that we realised that we wanted to spend a bit more time together, like when we got to know each other in 2018. So, in the following year we organised two residencies for ourselves, in Warsaw and Tbilisi, and we also did some research in Budapest, to explore how underground communities function and build parallel realities in these three places. Meanwhile, we were also analysing and trying to redefine our own group, focusing on how the three of us as a micro-community function, make decisions and create shared universes.
Over the past few years, most of us have had personal experiences of the importance in our lives of the communities we are part of, and it was this experience that most inspired the creation of Aura. The title is clearly linked to the above-mentioned club, however during the course of our research we could find very little information about this place due to the lack of documentation. Therefore, we decided to build up Aura from our own imagination. The original club thus only plays a role in the backstory of the piece. As for the research locations, we found it particularly interesting to see how underground communities make their way in the cities of Budapest, Warsaw and Tbilisi, despite the hostile political environment Hungary, Poland, and Georgia are characterised by nowadays as well as in the recent past.
What are your tools in finding new ways of thinking about the future and notions of community?
We do not have concrete tools, but rather intuitions, which we usually rely on when setting up a new project and doing the research that goes with it. Instead of the future, we want to be in the present and to create and be part of as many situations as possible in which others can also experience the power of collective togetherness. In fact, this is the very essence of Aura. The piece is about a journey in which the performers at some point involve the audience, and the journey continues until we arrive together at the portal of this imaginary place. It is not guaranteed that everyone can join us, but we try our best to ensure that as many of our audience members can be part of this experience as possible.
What is your experience in having events in Western cities and in Eastern parts of Europe?
Given that, after 5 years of operation, we already have our own audience in Budapest, it is always easier to perform at home than abroad. At the same time, we have more responsibility towards our audience in Hungary, and the expectations from us are higher, too.
If you compare Eastern Europe and Western Europe, there is not necessarily a difference anymore in the kind of art that attracts people. Of course, certain themes and issues are more relevant in one place and less in another. While making queer art in Berlin is not subversive anymore, it still can be a sharp political statement in Georgia or Hungary. For this reason, we always try to adapt our performances to the specific location. Before the Berlin event, for example, we were on a residency at the Bergen Kunsthall’s Live Studio in Norway and we reworked some parts of the original piece in order to make Aura as suitable as possible for radialsystem and the concept of Montag Modus. We do not necessarily see a difference either in what is considered cool in these places, but of course there might be differences in aesthetics. For example, we often receive feedback that Hungarian art is very dark.
The main reason why East and West are still two separate worlds, in our opinion, are the conditions and the challenges that artists have to adapt to. While in the West there is money for culture, in the East (especially in Hungary) only representative art gets support. Much of the preparation for Aura took place in Tbilisi, where we met a lot of inspiring and cool artists. However, we do not yet know how, when, and where (if at all) we could bring this performance to Georgia. We travel a lot together as well as individually, and it would be really great to build on the networks we develop during these travels and expand our communities further in this way. But the reality is a bit different.
For example, all three of us are involved as organisers in the Under500 Festival in Budapest, which took place for the fourth time this June. It is a very small grassroots festival that has grown out of the Hungarian contemporary dance scene, partly with the aim of bridging the gap between performing arts, visual arts and experimental electronic music. Another special feature is that it is not a hierarchical, but more horizontal event that brings together well-known artists, who, for instance, have exhibited at the Venice Biennale, and artists who are just starting out or are in a very experimental phase. There are very few examples (if there is any at all) of this in Hungary. Despite this, we received about €2500 in public funding to organise the 2-day event. Therefore, we have our community and we also have our own platform where everybody works for free. It is far from ideal, but we do it to take a stance and to give each other and ourselves the feedback that we often do not get from bigger institutions. However, the chances of inviting foreign artists to this festival are very slim, and this is often the case in other countries in the region.
Aura by Hollow, credit: Montag Modus and Barbara Antal
What is the potential of the digital realm?
Although we have done projects specifically designed for online audiences—such as The Archive, where we unveil background stories related to our projects in a game-like setting—we tend to create events and installations in physical spaces. On the one hand, presence and togetherness are important for all three of us; on the other, we draw a lot from the methodologies of immersive theatre and Live Action Role-play We try to create situations where people can temporarily become fictional characters in another reality (if they want to). So they can not only watch the performance from the outside, but they can also become part of what we are doing. There are, of course, online possibilities for this kind of immersion. We had a project in which the audience was immersed gradually, over a period of weeks, into the world of the performance. Based on an online personality test, we put them in chat groups led by fictional characters. Eventually everyone arrived at the event “prepared”, as part of a specific group, with a mission. During covid, we also created an online project together with Omsk Social Club that was also co-produced by Montag Modus in which 250 people worldwide participated simultaneously during the biggest lock-down, after the premiere had been announced in different time zones. It invited the audience for a walk guided by fictional chatbot characters. So, there is definitely a lot of potential in the digital realm. Over the past few years, however, we have realised that we can have a much bigger impact at a micro level, and we feel a specific responsibility to support, enrich and cultivate our immediate communities.
Aura at archive of futures II at radialsystem was performed by Gyula Muskovics, Tamás Páll and Viktor Szeri with dancers Márcio Kerber Canabarro, Patrik Kelemen and Júlia Vavra and sound artists, Yinna and Thea Soti.
Hollow embodies the shared hallucinations of dancer/choreographer Viktor Szeri, media artist/game designer Tamás Páll, and curator/writer Gyula Muskovics. They have been working collectively since 2018, combining media art and performence with sound and game mechanics to create immersive environments and cross-reality experiences. They merge the methodologies of contemporary dance with poetics, augmented reality, virtual reality, and live action role-play to build world prototypes to question the dominant systems of consensual reality. In the past, Hollow has investigated topics and contexts such as queer cruising, the hyperspace, millennial cults, the radicalization of the gamer subculture, eco-anxiety, nature as a black box, walking as a psychoactive substance, and shared imagination. They have been awarded residencies at Bergen Kunsthall (Bergen, NO), Montag Modus (Berlin, DE), Krytyka Polityczna (Warsaw, PL), and Open Spece (Tbilisi, GE). They have performed and exhibited across Europe in off-sites, theaters, galleries, and festivals including Trafó House of Contemporary Arts (Budapest, HU), House of Arts (Brno, CZ), MeetFactory (Prague, CZ), radialsystem (Berlin, DE), and Donaufestival (Krems, AT).
Zsu Zsuró is an art historian and curator. As a PhD candidate, she is researching socially engaged art practices in the Hungarian diaspora. Zsuro is specialized in modern and contemporary art theory and practice; cultural policy; alternative art institutional strategies; decolonisation in the CEE region. She has created exhibitions such as ‘Resisting Erasure: Queer Art in Hungary’ in Cologne (DE) and ‘Let’s Alter The Narrative’ at Tate Modern, London (UK); was curator of artistic projects like ‘AUDITION’ critically acclaimed by Vogue and Dazed; and created residency programmes such as Project Hu (Ghost Relics) in London (UK). She also has an experience working in major cultural institutions such as the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and the Ludwig Museum – Museum of Contemporary Art in Budapest.