Whilst in Budapest, I was able to indulge my obsession with public bathing, and an exploration of saunas in particular as democratic spaces. I use this term in the Arendtian sense: that is, as spaces that allow individuals to come in to contact with others, providing the opportunity for them to ‘act’.
Kiraly Baths is one of the oldest thermal baths in the city. Floating in the dark, steam decayed, crumbling walls of the thermal bath I saw people bathing alone in the steam, with their significant other / in a small group of friends / sat silently next to an acquaintance. Dipping in and out of thermal pools, we split and re-grouped, before we all squeezed in to a hot (warm) tub in the garden to discuss Hannah Arendt and Leonard Koren’s takes on democracy and soaking. The line between regulars, first timers, residents, visitors weren’t well defined and I didn’t feel like a tourist. I thought there were many parallels to be drawn with the collective model put forward by Off Biennale (please see previous post). The baths too were built to support a cyclical life span, a collective birth, death, re-birth, a supportive vessel of potentiality for people to populate through bathing / talking / sitting together.
Whilst each bather went on their own, embodied journey, the fact that they shared the act of bathing rather than a standardised private experience made it at the same time a collective act of psychological and physical rejuvenation. Maybe that could be considered an act of defiance, too; another kind of civil courage which re-configures the way bodies are usually performed in public.
Drawing comparisons between Kiraly Baths and OFF-Biennale, I was able to understand saunas as both a way to mirror an almost utopian version of the art community, as well as a resource which can help sustain it collectively. A space for people to meet, dipping in and out and sustaining their own practice.
Another return train recommendation came from John Powell Jones (thanks John); since back in Manchester I’ve followed this up, returning to Alan Kaprow’s 1966 ‘How to Make a Happening’. Excuse me for the long quote, but the following seemed applicable (questions aside about happenings and audiences).
If you happen, you can’t be on the outside, peeking in. You’ve got to be involved, physically. Without an audience, you can be off on the move, using all kinds of environments, mixing in the supermarket world, never worrying about what those out there on the seats are thinking. And you can spread your action all over the globe whenever you want. Traditional art is like college education and drugs. It’s fed to people who have to sit on their butts for longer and longer amounts of time to get the point, and the point is there’s lots of action happening somewhere else, which all the smart people prefer to just think about. But Happeners have a plan and go ahead and carry it out. To use an old expression, they don’t merely dig the scene, they make it. 
Here I’ll reflect on a meeting we had with Hajnalka Somogyi, a curator and founder of OFF-Biennale, which helped crystallise some questions that recurred through our extensive tour of Budapest’s art scene, put together by the wonderful Anett Gecov and Jane Lawson:
What is the role of artists in the political landscape?
What do we mean by political art?
What do we even mean by the term political?
After visiting art studios, a theatre and gallery space at Jurányi Ház, we met Hajnalka in a café in District 7. She explained how support for the arts had radically changed in the past few years. The autonomy of institutions such as Budapest Art Hall and the Vigadó Concert Hall for instance were greatly reduced through their forced acquisition by the Hungarian Academy of Arts (MMA), a burgeoning institution which since 2011 / 2012 has had a tight grip on funding and exhibition possibilities in the city. Professors, artists and curators across the city united in protest against the resultant censorship the contemporary art scene was facing. Direct action was taken; buildings were occupied, demonstrations were held for days. The critique generated during this time was important, but we were all familiar with the resultant disappointment felt at the limitations of protest.
Budapest’s cultural actors however were mobilised. In 2014, Hajnalka founded OFF-Biennale, independent of state funds and institutions, and supported through a mix of international grants, donations and a hefty amount of volunteer hours. Nearly 200 programs were hosted, featuring more than 350 artists from 22 countries in more than 100 venues. Exhibitions were held in buildings under renovation / private apartments / public places / an astronomical observatory in the Buda Hills. Favourites we’d visited during our week in Budapest featured in the second iteration of the Biennale:
‘Escape to the Future – Anti-establishment Pedagogy’ at Auróra
‘All or Nothing: Trianon and the Horthy-era at the OFF-Biennale’ at Chimera-Project Gallery
‘Propositions for a Pan-Peripheric Network’ curated by tranzit.hu (Dóra Hegyi, Zsuzsa László, Eszter Szakács)
The biennale model afforded an ambition in scale whilst remaining grass-roots in its organisation – each part of the programme self-organised by the artist / curator / educator / publisher who proposed it, under the wider umbrella of the biennale. Importantly, with two years between each iteration, the programme was manageable and sustainable in terms of volunteer time and energy.
When power is conceived of as something the government holds, it is easy to delineate action in to camps of for or against. This not only draws up polarising barriers but can lead to political in-fighting, as terms of engagement become restricted to the language of upholding or resisting. The question of where art practice fits in to this mix becomes complicated. The Biennale however re-conceptualised power in a way that meant cultural producers could reclaim their individual creative strengths and practices in the production of artworks, exhibitions, publications, events, and education programmes.
…(A)rt is a laboratory for social change; it is bewildering, putting the familiar into new perspectives, interrupting the routines of thought and action. As such, it contributes to new thoughts and ideas, to the dismantling of prejudice, to the discovery of individual and common opportunities previously unnoticed. Thus, the role independent contemporary art plays in a democratic society is essential.
Understood in the terms above, supporting individual and collective creative practice can be taken to be a political act, rejecting the idea that art = political only when made in response to the debates and decision making of institutional organisations. Rather, art as embedded in the everyday is political in the way it influences our thoughts and actions. This is not a new idea, as Hajnalka was keen to emphasise, but OFF-Biennale was an exciting example of a structural alternative which allowed Budapest’s artists, curators, gallerists and collectors to re-establish the Hungarian art scene they wanted.
Hajnalka filled us in on 2017’s edition of OFF-Biennale, titled Gaudiopolis. Translating as The City of Joy, it took its name from a Children’s Republic founded in Budapest in the aftermath of WWII by Lutheran pastor Gábor Sztehlo. Running as an orphanage from 1945–1950, the children of the City of Joy formed their own government, elected their representatives, and adopted laws that applied to all its citizens, including their teachers. Although it did receive some funding, it functioned independently of the state.
This mini-republic of trust, generosity, responsibility, and care serves as inspiration to both the projects and the working method of OFF-Biennale.
Hajnalka described OFF-Biennale as a demonstration of civil courage, explaining that regardless of who gets in to power in the next national elections, OFF-Biennale will continue.
 For an overview of structural changes to the art scene, see http://politicalcritique.org/cee/hungary/2017/hungary-art-protest-culture/
 Update: Viktor Orban was re-elected as Prime Minister for a third term on Sunday 8th April.