Can a radical space still operate within an oppresive system? David Cerny is a sculptor, activist and artist. Initially famous for painting a Soviet tank pink after the fall of communism in Czechia, Cerny’s work litters Prague. Most apparent on arrival are giant steel babies that climb along the television tower, the highest structure in the city, and crawl outside art museums.
Just over 7 years ago, Cerny founded Meet Factory, a performance venue, gallery, bike shop and artist residency in a semi remote space in Prague. It takes me about a 2 hour walk from my air bnb in Zizkov but there is also a train that lets you off ~ 800 meters from the entrance. Immediately off the train station, there are markers painted on the sidewalk leading the way.
On my way to Meet Factory, I pass a vehicle junkyard with old circus wagons, I am reminded of Wagon Planet, only this is in Prauge, and no one lives in them. Prauge has been particularly – how do I describe it – sterile.
Theres a giant fancy tour van up to my left and just past it I get my first view of the Meet Factory building with train tracks running parallel on the right.
As you make your way further into the space, you notice two art galleries, a bike shop, a cafe and a theater for performances.
There is also a concert venue that is very well equiped and a full professional bar in the concert space.
This space is a vast departure from the diy spaces I have become accoustomed to. For one, everything is clean. There is even a large flat screen tv next to the bar with a rotating calendar of events. Also, no one working in the space is even remotely approachable. There is a clear delineation between those working in the space and those visiting. This is not new, for example Wagon Planet was quite distant from first timers, however, unlike Wagon Planet, the people in this space are not in their home, this not their communtiy. They are hired workers serving food or running a sound check.
I walk around and then head back towards the entrance to smoke a bit. As I am packing a bowl a man comes out from the alley and begins taking long rectangular boxes out of a large black Mercedes van and bringing them through a gate to the alley. I get up and go over to see if I can help. He has just closed the gate when he turns around and asks in a very friendly almost Butler manner, “are you coming in?” I hesitate which is unlike me but this space has made me feel unwelcome. He asks, “are you an artist here” I say no. Immediately he slams the gate shut and takes on a completely shut tone. I ask him if he is an artist and he says sort of, he works in the space. I ask if I can come in and help/ask him about the space and he says no he is too busy for that – I can ask the girls at the bar if I have any questions.
Having already tried talking to them I know they will only side eye me and impatiently ask if I want to buy anything else, so I go to sit down at one of the tables in front of the venue.
There is a good wifi connection so I settle in and lose myself in writing. After a while I look up and the place has slowly begun to fill with people.
A couple sit down to my right, speaking Czech. We start talking somehow and the husband agrees with and has a theory about my “refined” feeling of Prague. They have lived in Prauge their entire lives and have two teenage daughters. The father believes that since communism only fell around 20 years ago, Prauge is still relatively new to capitalism. He believes that the first generation after communism prioritized making a lot of money and having fancy things. Only recently, in the past few years, has he seen a shift in prioritizing other things, like having fun. This is why he believes there aren’t a lot of political spaces – Prague is now in a consciousness of “having fun.”
However, the husband points out to me that spaces like these may not be inherently political but do provide space for political conversations to happen.
After speaking with the lovely couple from prague, who answer all my questions and reccommend additional spaces, they head in for the concert and I am greeted by another couple to my left. It’s a middle aged couple and their 19 year old son. The parents seem more like the partiers. They are at the Meet Factory for the first time to see the band that their son apparently follows closely. Their son has been in boarding school his whole life so the father and son have a strange friend/drinking buddies relationship.
The mother works for a company that outsources HR and so they’ve traveled all over Europe for her job. She explains that labor is cheaper here in central Europe, thats why they’re in Prague. It appears that the husband is a trophy husband. He’s beautiful and dominates the conversation in a comfortable, light hearted manner. Somehow we begin to discuss colonization and gentrification. Well first we talk about muslims. The father seems to want to say that Isis cannot be explained away, as I was trying to do, with understanding the senseless wars that have been waged against their people for profit and to gain natural resources. He believes there is something inherent about Islam that is violent. So I bring up the crusades and go into an explanation of colonization. I go further and begin to compare colonization with gentrification. He stops me and says that first of all gentrification is not colonization, unlike prior colonization, we are currently bringing good things to the areas we enter like jobs and better housing. My mouth is now visibly gaping. I’m sure that’s exactly what a colonizer said, “we are making the Indians lives better – giving them jobs, better housing and access to eternal salvation through jests christ. Who cares if we are enslaving and depriving them of culture.”
He then tries to substantiate his point by explaining that most jobs we create here in Prague are eventually taken over by locals. All this despite his wife having earlier explained that her company has her managing people here because then they can pay them less – making sure that I knew that her salary was on par with western europe. I begin to discuss Barcelona and how the are heavily resisting tourism because tourists are driving up rents and depleting the city of its culture. He says, “oh yeah, their economy is not so good so they look for scapegoats.” I’m shocked, completely unprepared for what drivel is about to come out of his mouth, but then he says it – “and besides, how weak is your culture if tourists can take over?” I’m breathless, KO’d if you will. I met him. I met a real live cancer specimen ladies and gentlemen. And he bought me prosecco. Or his wife did. And now he’s heading into see a pop girl band with his 19 year old son.
I stay outside, catch my breath a bit. What is this place? I head in and the guy in front of me tells me a name to say on the list to get in for free. The band is a female fronted indie pop feel.
The lead singer does not appeal to me so I explore a bit and then head home.
What I learned
- Even if a space is not outwardly political and still plays by the rules of capitalism, art gallery elitism, it can still offer a platform for political conversations, varied at that.
- Met a real, true present day colonist. Worst part – he was really nice and attractive.
- This space is on paper what i was trying to make upstate. Even if something on paper seems perfect, in practice it can still not be quite right. Still learning, always growing.