Magyar | English

Terror(ism) and Aesthetics (2015)

“Bug Collection”: Articulations of Terror in the Hungarian Neo-avant-garde


This paper discusses motifs of terror in Hungarian neo-avant-garde art with special emphasis on (their appearance in) experimental film. The fact that these works of art are virtually unknown in the English speaking world makes this endeavor rather difficult, and therefore, I have two tasks to perform at once. First, I have to project these films verbally (pictura), and secondly, I have to give a detailed explanation of their terroristic nature (sententia). If the verbal projection is not satisfying enough, which may very well be the case, I suggest my readers visit the Archives of Balázs Béla Studio in Kunsthalle, Budapest, where all the films discussed here are made available. As you watch them you have the opportunity to check on the validity of my verbal projection as well as my argumentation.[1] So this is the first absence which has to be supplemented or accomplished in another space and time. The second shift relates to my participation in the panel on “Performance” at the Terror(ism) and Aesthetics conference, where I shared the first version of my paper. While experimental cinema, the subject matter of my lecture, does not seem relevant in discussions about performance in the traditional generic sense, this connection is far from being unjustifiable. In the films I am to write about, there is almost always a central scene or a stage where the working of a performative terror machinery is on display. I am primarily interested in the mediated nature of this terror machinery. I need to point out well in advance that in these films the performative and theatrical terror machinery, in which the characters as subjects are involved, is typically connected to media apparatuses. Therefore, in this paper I do not intend to focus on political terror reflected in art, but rather, on the connection between terror and media, or more accurately, the terror caused by media effects as it is represented in the context of Hungarian neo-avant-garde films.

The subject of terror is reflected in many works of the Hungarian neo-avant-garde authors who were active from the 1960s. These reflections are partly political in nature disguised more or less allegorically. There are (also) direct political references, such as the glorification of the Red Army Fraction and its leader Andreas Baader, who was admired as a counter-culture hero in texts written by Hungarian performance artist, Tibor Hajas; or the demonstrative provocation of a latent, anti-Semitic segment of society by Gergely Molnár with his aggressive Anna Frank adaptation. Along with this thematic or literal tendency we can also detect a figurative use of the motif of terror. The so called terror in avant-garde can only be perceived as an act of counter-terror, a reaction to a previous system-terror. It is familiar to us from the manifestos of the political enemies. In this dialectical system there is no sense in talking about avant-garde terror in itself but only as an answer to a previous terror practiced by a ruling political, media or artistic regime. When one of the most radical performance artists complains about having to adapt to the practices/procedures of artistic institutions, he describes it as a kind of structural terror:

Tibor Hajas: I don’t believe at all that the new art calls for the concepts of the “patent” or the “authorized signature”; if it does it is a temporary state since these concepts don’t belong to the essence of art; the artist can be blamed in so far as he is part of the society that produced these concepts and guards over their existence… These concepts are in antagonism with this art.

Interviewer: Does it mean that this art gives up the authorial vanity or the authorial self-awareness?

T.H.: No, it gives up only the “patent vanity.” Sure, it is a theory; it would be good, for instance, not to be affected personally by this vanity but unfortunately it doesn’t work — and the context which confirms it is responsible for that. Publishers, editorials, galleries, film studios, and private individuals are working on the basis of these concepts, and in this way, even if I had my own idea, because of the terror of the practice I must adhere to my “property,” to my “patents.”[2]

As far as the neo-avant-garde is concerned the most oppressive machinery of the entire symbolic order is language itself which, therefore, has to be undermined. In another metaphor: there is an urgent need to “relocate the discourse,” and henceforth, “to bring about a revolution” in language, as Péter Esterházy suggests in his neo-avant-garde/postmodern work published under the title Introduction to Literature.[3] The proper counter-reaction to the terroristic ideology working in language is relocation or explosion, a kind of textual counter violence executed by the aid of pun or montage.[4] The montage-like relocation or displacement is launched against the manipulative and ideological (use of) everyday language which is a “coffin” for creativity. This “coffin” therefore has to be restructured, or more properly, opened up.[5] The final aim of restructuration lies in getting rid of everyday language as such, together with its metaphorical (ideological) meaning. In order to achieve that aim, the practice of avant-garde concretization seems to be one of the most powerful tools, if not the most powerful one. Concretization deprives the words of their meaning so violently and definitively that in an ideal case there remains no trace of figuration at all. As far as I can see, this is the most important question raised by the avant-garde: how can we go beyond figuration? How could we radically erase all ideological meaning (that is, all meaning), how could we be semantic terrorists in language? How can we be so concrete or terroristic to do more than a simple verbal or theatrical act? From the avant-garde perspective the question of how to be terroristic is a question of figuration and/or concretization. Since any articulation is dependent on the very possibility of a figurative change, which is basically rhetorical in nature, even the most concrete form of art is finally rendered with limited possibilities to erase all traces of figuration; this impossible undertaking can be conceived as the traditional drama or trauma of the avant-garde.

Let me take a further step to claim that in addition to language as symbolic order, as a figurative and therefore latent terroristic system subverted only by relevant counter terror, the apparatuses of technical media are equally important targets of the avant-garde attack. Since all mediation, be it political or technical or verbal, is based on a replacement of concrete/original/individual by the representative, the latter must be eliminated for the sake of the former, as it appears in avant-garde programs and manifestos. The various means of mediation are instances of interpellation and representation of people through violent medial (visual and verbal) acts, according to avant-garde emancipationist ideology. That is why the basic definition of politics and media is the same since they both represent, or frame, or mediate singularities: detach them from their original context and attach them to other contexts. That is why in many artworks of this period political terror and terror caused by technically reproductive media can hardly be separated from each other: they are targets of the same criticism.

When watching Miklós Erdély’s experimental movie Version, for instance, the spectator participates in two different and at the same time intertwined terror machineries. According to the story, the Jewish teenager Móricz Scharf, who is the central character, is violated in order to give a false testimony against his tribe and his father, and he is finally able to see what he was taught by force.[6] Viewers are also shown the images he sees or more accurately imagines after his violation. Being violated for a false testimony is of course not the same as being a spectator in a cinema, but as far as imagination is concerned the result is not much different. To return to the double coding of the film, on one hand, there is a hundred and twenty years old blood libel allegory partly about the latent anti-Semitism of socialist Hungary, partly about the mechanisms of show trials in the years of communist terror,[7] and this is the non-explicit but well readable political code of the film. On the other hand, there is a media code revealing that imagination can as easily be manipulated by the moving picture, just like the way it used to be altered by violent and terror-like interrogation.

Let me cite here another experimental film, Spring Execution made in 1985 also by Miklós Erdély. The main “character” of the film is a guillotine set up on a busy square in a modern Hungarian city, which serves as an anachronistic execution equipment for certain clerks and as a spectacle for foreign visitors. When after an execution a spectator, a German tourist expresses her personal aversion to public executions the tourist guide tries to calm her down by explaining that in the very site of the guillotine there would be a nice, modern neurological clinic in the near future. In the words of the tourist guide there is a symbolic promise, à la Michel Foucault, for the substitution of the old regime with the new one. The clerk whose day frames the story finally escapes only because the guillotine is out of order on the morning scheduled for the execution. By the way, being out of order is the normal state of the media as represented in this film, be it a guillotine on a square, a digital signal in an archive, or a loudspeaker on the wall. The decapitation of the protagonist that his family accepts as a normal way of death finally does not occur. He stays alive but his fate is mirrored allegorically in the image of a loudspeaker which audibly (heterodiegetically) “speaks” music while it appears “decapitated” visually since it is torn off its original site. First we see it hanging on the wall and broadcasting music, Debussy’s Nocturnes (Fetes), which we hear as a diegetic sound. But later the loudspeaker appears on the bank of the Danube, functioning as a metonymy because it is close beside the protagonist who is also sitting there. The machine is torn off its original site lying like a dead machine incapable of emitting any sound. However, the music continuously sounds, and hence, proves to be non-diegetic. The connection between sound and image in the film manifests its “phantasmatic” nature, as Mary Ann Doane calls it. In other words, the forking of the senses is to be read as an inorganic, anesthetic self-reflection on the medium of the film which almost always pretends to be organic. Montage is a kind of decapitation and recapitation, and when it happens to the loudspeaker, it calls attention to the ever-growing simulacra of the symbiosis between sound and image.[8] Strange or not, but in light of this film the working of terror machines, or rather “editing machines” like the media, results not so much in death but in a second, obviously inorganic life. The effort to present this inorganic nature of film proves to be ambivalent, as Spring Execution illustrates.

Dream Reconstructions is another film by Miklós Erdély. Rendered in four parts, this film is seemingly an innocent and at the same time, heroic endeavor to show how difficult it is to communicate dreams. A group of interviewees try to recall their dreams and stage them with the help of amateur actors performing in a kind of monotonous, repetitive and hopeless manner. Witnessing the phases of narration, reenactment and recording, the viewer becomes aware of what he or she already knew well from his or her own experience. All “original” dreams are continuously overwritten in the process of communication so that we finally have only copies of copies, reconstructions of reconstructions, and the multiplication never ends. This painful process is emphasized by Erdély in the film and reflected in the endless manipulation of his medium: rolling the filmstrip back and forth, stopping, slowing down and speeding up, or obscuring it. As far as I know, this is the only film by Erdély which has been reviewed in English. In 1986 Jim Hoberman (who was a film critic at the Village Voice from the 1970s up to 2012) wrote a short review about Dream Reconstructions.[9] In his review Hoberman recalls the dialogues of the film very accurately and gives his readers useful references in order to guide them through Erdély’s dense network of cultural and theoretical allusions.[10] However, Hoberman’s description of the film as “high-concept if law-tech” is somewhat misleading since, as we have seen, the discernible technical “mistakes” are just consciously performed manipulations with the aim of performing the torturing and notorious process of everyday dream reconstructions. As Hoberman correctly assumes, “[m]any scenes are apparently refilmed off the Movieola screen, with freeze frames or lapses into reverse motion, keyed to phrases spoken by the film’s subjects — thus literalizing the dream work of condensation, displacement, and dramatization.”[11] However, from our perspective Dream Reconstructions is primarily interesting for its representation of the interdependence of political and media terror. In almost every dream reconstructed there is a technical equipment (e.g. radio, electroshock, screen, camera), represented visually or in the narration. These technical media apparatuses have a crucial role in the so-called trial process of the recalling and performing subjects. During this process the trauma is acted out with no recovery as a result, or the result is the subject itself while he or she is called for, interpellated by, and addicted to, the technical environment. This way the protagonists come to a kind of mediated existence. They do not perform anything; rather, they are performed by a technical “support” and also promptly traumatized by it.

In the second part of the film a female protagonist tries to recall her dream. In order to do so, she listens to her earlier dream narration on a cassette recorder, and by continuously rewinding and fast-forwarding the tape she completes and reshapes her own narration. She is not only in conflict with the tape but also with the director-instructor, while she is forced to go on and make the reconstruction more and more perfect. Furthermore, in her dream there is a radio (controlled by her father) which is too loud and makes her voice unintelligible, although she felt that she defended herself better and better in a trial process in her dream.[12] So she is seemingly traumatized both by her dream-reconstruction, i.e. by the permanent and unsuccessful recalling experiments (“I can’t do it, I can’t do it, you torture me in vain” she tells Erdély who as the director of the film appears once on the screen) and by fighting with real and dream equipment. At the end of this sequence the viewer sees a close-up of an ear, and right after that hears radio-tuning sound effect with a few clearly articulated words of a speaker mentioning the Somalian and Czechoslovakian communist parties. That is what supports Hoberman’s warning for the American readers not to underestimate the political implications in Eastern European films. He could have also talked about implications of terror in Eastern European film. Completing Hoberman’s argument we may conclude that in the context of dream reconstruction “political implications” must mean something more, i.e. the terrifying practice of media transmission and the transformation of the individual into a social subject. Sharing dreams in light of this part of the film is not a matter of dialog but of the media events, so this sequence in itself contradicts both mottos at the beginning of Dream Reconstructions.[13] On the one hand, and according to the reconstructing speech, the trauma of the individual is always already linked to a social and technically mediated environment: the friends who are making fun of her and pointing at her accusingly in her dream form a group “as on school photographs,” as she puts it in her instructive simile. On the other hand, the dialogues and conversations “since morning” (after “nightmare”) in the course of the reconstructing process are as terrifying in their mediated nature as the politics of terror. And politics in its narrow sense is presented only as the tip of the iceberg. Anthony Kubiak in his Prelude to “Stages of Terror” cites Ted Koppel’s famous assertion about the fundamental symbiotic relationship between terror and media. At this point it is more important for us what Kubiak concludes: “Terrorism appears first in culture as a media event. The terrorist, consequently, does not exist before the media image, and only exists subsequently as a media image in culture.”[14] Adapting this conclusion to our case in Dream Reconstructions, I would say that the subject appears first in culture (i.e. in dream reconstructions) as terrorized and transformed by a media event.


Summing up the short descriptions above I would like to emphasize that, first, in these works subjects are framed together with their political context saturated with explicit motifs of terror, and second, facing the media and being mediated means to be traumatized and terrorized in some way. Not to mention the fact that the overall diegetic fall of apparatuses (failure in recording and playing, informing, performing, broadcasting, tuning) is parallel to the fall of the subjects (failure in recalling memories and dreams, informing other people, performing certain acts). Thus, the trauma is connected to and caused by the ambivalent relationship between the human being and the apparatus. Following Anthony Kubiak’s Lacan-based analysis, in these cases the origin of trauma is in the visual or audial sensation of being represented through an outer object. Identity is presented, performed or mediated by the violent visual act of detachment and attachment. That is what every medium does, and the vision of that violent act appears to be recurring even in the seemingly most affirmative theories like that of Marshall McLuhan.[15] In some of his writings the metaphors of sickness emphasize the inability of the subject to be independent of his or her extension or “servomechanism.”[16] Think of his discussions on the narcissistic “numbness” caused by the media or the metaphor of amputation (loosing sensation) as a result of mediatization.[17] Somewhat surprisingly it is also him who explains the role of experimental art in the context of violating technology:

At any rate, in experimental art, men are given the exact specifications of coming violence to their own psyches from their own counter-irritants or technology. For those parts of ourselves that we thrust out in the form of new invention are attempts to counter or neutralize collective pressures or irritations. But the counter-irritant usually proves a greater plague than the initial irritant, like a drug habit. And it is here that the artist can show us how to “ride with the punch,” instead of “taking it on the chin.” It can only be repeated that human history is a record of “taking it on the chin.”[18] [My emphasis — A.M.]

Without agreeing with the mystification with which McLuhan handles experimental art and the artist as the best futurologist, I would like to introduce my example of what McLuhan calls “the exact specification of coming violence to men’s own psyches from technology.” This is called Self Fashion Show which is a documentary made by Tibor Hajas in 1976. It is an inventory of men and women crossing Moscow Square in Budapest. In this theatrical or performative documentary we the spectators are shown everyday people who behave like models in front of the camera. First the camera shows crowded Moscow Square and the posing individuals, then the characters are deprived of their lively background and placed alone on an empty stage with a black curtain behind. Needless to say that changing the background changes the character of the figures: they become stereotypes, and the final result is a series of urban types or allegories. The filmmaker renders his own feelings about the result as follows:

They are totally the same. With a slight difference, but that’s not the point. The difference is registered by you who sit there watching the projection in a movie theater. The film takes half an hour [more precisely, fifteen minutes — my addition, A.M.], and that’s enough for you to recognize that it is a woman, it is a child, she is young and he is alone, and the two there — they are together, and there are two old ladies from the market holding bags, and a daddy with his son… And there is a moment in the film, when the voice-over instruction ends, and the film becomes blind and deaf, the vivid background from which they walked out and stood in front of, disappears and a black background is put behind them. The man from the street is totally detached, torn out of context and “put there.” The way God looks at man. All creatures are the same. All noises are shut down, and that part of the film with black background is the longer part. There is blind and deaf terror. And these people are standing there, one of them is trying to smile, the other… Terrific spectacle: collection of bugs. It is an anthropological manual.[19] [My emphases — A.M.]

The way God looks at man is the basic metaphor and mythical tradition of concreteness. On the other hand, what seems violent, “blind and deaf terror,” is in this context no more than staging the usual manner we produce allegory-like signs. Hajas’ repetition of the violent detaching acts of technology does not result in total and irreversible decontextualization, which could lead to total concreteness. On the contrary, the detaching of people in the film of their “original” contexts resembles all types of figural “media” event and appears as a prerequisite to readability. That kind of a montage-procedure is the first and most important condition of readability, that is, of becoming an allegory, or in other words, a readable signifier. Here we can detect the basic difference between the so-called “deathly” art by Hajas and the ordinary or commercial practice of media production of “lively” moving picture. While Hajas deprives urban people of their everyday context, making them participate as “cadavers” in a “funereal pageant,”[20] the usual media practice endeavors to create a so-called “social facilitation” as context in order to compensate the audience for their obligatory distance and the spectral bodies broadcasted.[21]

In the short citation above Hajas describes his film both as a collection of bugs and an anthropological manual, and at the same time he mentions the word terror twice. The bug collection parallel lies in that the human being is pierced in the technical images as bugs are put on the table in the course of biological classification. So terror emerges from deprivation of life and individuality and from making the recorded individuals durable and visible. In the mirror of the bug-metaphor, Hajas’ neo-avant-garde media anthropology establishes its research field as an insectarium: human beings represented by the media are similar to insects killed and arranged in a catalogue in order to be studied.[22] Hajas tended to circumscribe the media with metaphors of violence and terror, which (for him at least) deprive the subject of its lively context and ultimately, of its human nature. For Hajas, the terror-like operation of the technical media is a fundamentally dehumanizing process. Dehumanization by total decontextualization in the “ideal” case is an instance of true concretization, since it basically shows man deprived of the possibility of figural change: in itself, without any meaning. It is important to note here that the police intend to do the same when they arrest the individual in order to separate and control him. The faces of arrested individuals “spread” across threefold snapshots and arranged like a triptych in police catalogues are in fact like bugs pierced and archived with their wings wide open. Therefore, not only psychology, anthropology and other social sciences have their interest in observing the human behavior with the aid of the “arresting” media, but the state apparatuses as well. “While modernist art in France occupied a cultural adversary position, photography, then as now, was everything and everywhere. The smiling communards who posed for the camera would shortly thereafter be executed when the photograph was in other hands.”[23] Motionlessness is essential for the administration, since an arrested image of a subject makes his identification much easier. Yes indeed, the anthropology of the police is based on separation and clear presentation without moving and without the “overabundance of the signifier.”[24] It might not be an accident that Hajas who, at the age of twenty was sentenced for several years in the mid-60s for “political unrest”, made an album of arrested images in moving picture.[25] By displaying the gestural and ironic model-like characteristics of individuals, Self Fashion Show demonstrates the link between the two meanings of the word arrested: preserved and detained (‘to stop, to remain behind, to stay back’, e.g. out of a process).[26] Therefore, Self Fashion Show has two targets at once: first, its main endeavor is to ironically represent the terrifying process of human allegory production through technical media and state apparatuses (appropriation), and secondly, to let every accident happen in this process which can break and finally subvert it. There is a very ambivalent and at the same time characteristically ironic anecdote in this regard about the shooting of the movie, Self Fashion Show. As Hajas recalls, the shooting was secured by the police on the basis of the official order regulating all shootings in the communist regime. It meant a kind of hermetically sealed circle around the action. Theoretically, there was no chance of any accident or “event” coming from the outside except for official intervention (banning). So the shooting was expected to be totally isolated from natural city life and any lively context, and it had its own bare life stripped down and controlled directly and exclusively by the political power. Yet, somebody accidently passes right in front of the camera. Later in the editing room Hajas adds an electric noise to that move to emphasize what he calls mercy. It seems that in his approach the accidental move can be contrasted with the arrested images of people, and the religious concept of mercy can be contrasted with terror-like judgment (cf. “God looks at man”). And here we encounter the same old binary oppositions: durable vs. momentary, arrest vs. move, death vs. life, allegory vs. symbol, technical media vs. casual event, animal vs. human being, figuration vs. concreteness. A whole (political) anthropology is built on the system of these binary oppositions.

It is not easy to get over a contradiction which may be detectable in the writings of an avant-garde artist like Hajas. His critical practice towards technical apparatuses in Self Fashion Show and many other works is based on the ironic appropriation of the decontextualization applied by various terror apparatuses, but his rhetoric in his texts reminds us of his performances targeting the total and heroic (authentic art-like) decontextualization. For instance, in his performances motivated in many cases by a Buddhist “detachment” from the world, he often used magnesium which he burned in order to expose himself for no more than a moment.[27] I borrow one of his myths of origin,[28] which may shed light on the performer’s desire for total decontextualization. “I can vividly recall a scene when I stared without moving into the light of a lamp until it almost hurt; finally I discerned the bright filament and when at the end it detaches from the mass of the light I understood all that had been incomprehensible.”[29] I think that the total detachment, the final aim of this performance art can be paradoxically described as a sort of aesthetic ideology, which at the same time sounds rather terroristic. It seems that in his myth of origin, the violating electric light functions as a kind of terror for visual sensation, and, as an extreme experiment, this artistic birth could have easily resulted in total visual anesthetics, that is to say, in blindness (another mythic story of insight). But what happened was not a total loss of sensation of the performer and the total detachment of the filament (let me call attention to the figural and complementary change between the two), rather, the “comprehension” of a lesson and the fabrication, or bricolage, or mounting of a myth of origin which now serves as a comprehensive context for both electric and human “filaments.” So there is nothing new on the part of experimental art at least in terms of aesthetics: terror as absolute detachment cannot be fulfilled. Instead, we are witnesses to allegorical detachments and the overabundance of the (experimental) signifier.



  • Barna, Róbert. “Interview with Tibor Hajas.” Translated by András Müllner. In Tibor Hajas, Szövegek, edited by Éva F. Almási. Budapest: Enciklopédia, 2005.
  • Barthes, Roland. Criticism and Truth. Translated by Katrine Pilcher Keuneman. London: Continuum, 2005.
  • Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1968.
  • Brecht, Bertolt. “The Threepenny Lawsuit.” In On Film and Radio, edited and translated by Marc Silberman. London: Methuen, 2000.
  • Buchloh, Benjamin H. D. “Beuys: The Twilight of the Idol, Preliminary Notes for a Critique.” In Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry: Essays on European and American Art from 1955 to 1975. Cambridge, MA, and London, UK: The MIT Press, 2000.
  • Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Edited by James T. Boulton. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987.
  • Copjec, Joan. “Flavit et Dissipati Sunt.” October 18 (Fall 1981): 20-40.
  • Derrida, Jacques. “Signature Event Context.” In Margins of Philosophy, translated by Alan Bass.  Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1986.
  • ———. “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” In Writing and Difference, translated by Allan Bass. London: Routledge, 2001.
  • Durham Peters, John. Speaking Into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999.
  • Eötvös, Károly. A nagy per, mely ezer éve folyik, s még sincs vége, Vol. 1-2. Budapest: Szépirodalmi, 1968.
  • Esterházy, Péter. Bevezetés a szépirodalomba. Budapest: Magvető, 1986.
  • Hajas, Tibor. “Commentaries on the Judgement of First Instance.” In Szövegek, edited by Éva F. Almási. Budapest: Enciklopédia, 2005.
  • ———. “The Photograph as Fine-Art Medium.” In Szövegek, edited by Éva F. Almási. Budapest: Enciklopédia, 2005.
  • ———.“[Photograph: Citation from the Reality].” In Szövegek, edited by Éva F. Almási. Budapest: Enciklopédia, 2005.
  • Heraclitus. The Fragment of Heraclitus.
  • Hoberman, Jim. “Welcome to My Nightmare.” Village Voice, 4 February 1986.
  • Hölderlin, Friedrich. Poems of Friedrich Hölderlin: The Fire of the Gods Drives Us to Set Forth by Day and by Night, edited and translated by James Mitchell. San Francisco: Ithuriel’s Spear, 2007.
  • Jameson, Fredric. “Walter Benjamin; or, Nostalgia.” Salmagundi 10-11 (Fall/Winter 1969—1970): 52-68.
  • ———. Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974.
  • Koppel, Ted, et al. “Terrorism and the Media: A Discussion.” The Harper’s Monthly (October 1984): 47-60
  • Krúdy, Gyula. A tiszaeszlári Solymosi Eszter. Budapest: Magvető, 1975.
  • Kubiak, Anthony. “Stages of Terror.” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 4/1 (Fall 1989): 3.
  • McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge, MA, and London, UK: The MIT Press, 1995.
  • Peternák, Miklós, ed. “Filmography.” In Miklós Erdély, A filmről: Filmelméleti írások, forgatókönyvek, filmtervek, kritikák (Válogatott írások II.). Budapest: Balassi, BAE Tartóshullám, Intermedia, 1995.
  • Szentjóby, Tamás. “köti kötéllel a tehenet.” Jelenlét 1-2 (1989): 268-69.
  • Ungváry, Rudolf. “Miközben én még azon tűnődöm, hogy melyik választ várod… Beszélgetés Hajas Tiborral 1980-ban.” In Tibor Hajas, Szövegek, edited by Éva F. Almási. Budapest: Enciklopédia, 2005.


[1] At the Terror(ism) and Aesthetics conference there was a special screening with a selection of footages from Hungarian neo-avant-garde films centered around the subject of terror: Agitátorok (Agitators, 1969, dir. Gábor Bódy), Verzió (Version, 1975, dir. Miklós Erdély), Tavaszi kivégzés (Spring Execution, 1985, dir. Miklós Erdély), Öndivatbemutató (Self Fashion Show, 1976, dir. Tibor Hajas). Let me note here that the expression “dir.” (meaning ‘directed by’ or ‘director’) appears anachronistic when contrasted with the image of (neo)avant-garde filmmakers who intentionally make their films rather than direct them. The difference is based on a binary opposition which goes back to early avant-garde film theories, claiming that the avant-garde artist is an artisan, who is in a practical and personal contact with the material of the film, and who is outside of and stays independent from the institutional hierarchy of film studios and film production.

[2] Róbert Barna, “Interview with Tibor Hajas,” trans. András Müllner, in Tibor Hajas, Szövegek (Texts), ed. Éva F. Almási (Budapest: Enciklopédia, 2005), 419.

[3] The correct citation reads as follows: “to relocate discourse <see this bar> is to bring about a revolution,” see “Daisy,” in Péter Esterházy, Bevezetés a szépirodalomba [Introduction to Literature] (Budapest: Magvető, 1986), 285. — This sentence is a citation from the Hungarian translation of Roland Barthes’s Criticism and Truth, and Esterházy uses a verbal marquetry and bold letter type to help the reader identify the origin of the citation. Barthes: “Nothing is more essential to a society than the classification of its languages. To change this classification, to relocate discourse, is to bring about a revolution,” see Roland Barthes, Criticism and Truth, trans. Katrine Pilcher Keuneman (London: Continuum, 2005), 23.

[4] “When the word blows up that is the action” (Esterházy, Bevezetés, 107).

[5] “…it seems that language is the scheme of life. A scheme, that is, a coffin, which is opened up by the act, by the formative act, and is pervaded by it” (Tamás Szentjóby, “köti kötéllel a tehenet” [binding the cow with rope], Jelenlét 1-2 (1989): 268-69; my translation: A.M.)

[6] Version adapted the ill-famed story of the Jewish blood libel in Tiszaeszlár, Northern Hungary. This historic affair was an anti-Semitic propaganda case at the end of the 19th century, right before the Dreyfus-affair in France. According to historical data, a young girl, Eszter Solymosi disappeared in the summer of 1882 and certain Jewish individuals were accused of her ritual murder. The film was based on a documentary novel written by Gyula Krúdy in 1931 (Gyula Krúdy, A tiszaeszlári Solymosi Eszter [Eszter Solymosi from Tiszaeszlár] (Budapest: Magvető, 1975)), as well as on the memorials of the lawyer of the Jewish defendants (Károly Eötvös, A nagy per, mely ezer éve folyik, s még sincs vége [The great trial which has lasted for thousand years and hasn’t finished yet], Vol. 1-2. (Budapest: Szépirodalmi, 1968)).

[7] Koncepciós per in Hungarian refers to ‘trial based on a fabricated concept.’ It is important to note here that Miklós Erdély was a concept artist and Version as a critical concept film works in order to reveal the terroristic nature of political “conceptualism,” for instance, in a fabricated trial.

[8] This is a well-known fact to montage-researchers at least from the writings of early German media theorists like Benjamin or Brecht. See e.g. Benjamin’s orchid-metaphor for montage. By this metaphor montage reveals itself as the most beautiful and at the same time most unnatural technique: “[I]n the studio the mechanical equipment has penetrated so deeply into reality that its pure aspect freed from the foreign substance of equipment is the result of a special procedure, namely, the shooting by the specially adjusted camera and the mounting of the shot together with other similar ones. The equipment-free aspect of reality here has become the height of artifice; the sight of immediate reality has become an orchid in the land of technology” (Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), Part XI). And see Bertolt Brecht, “The Threepenny Lawsuit,” in On Film and Radio, trans. and ed. Marc Silberman (London: Methuen, 2000). — In his essay Brecht follows almost the same argument as Benjamin, when discussing the destructive and constructive power of the new media.

[9] Jim Hoberman, “Welcome to My Nightmare,” Village Voice, 4 February 1986, 60. — Hoberman watched Dream Reconstructions probably in 1985 in Millenium Gallery, New York, which was one of a number of screenings in a tour around the United States. See BBS [Béla Balázs Studio] — Budapest. Twenty Years of Hungarian Experimental Film: The American Federation of Arts Film Exhibition (guest curator László Beke); and you may find the digitalized archive flyer of the Department of Film at The Museum of Modern Art here: For further readings, see Miklós Peternák, ed., “Filmography,” in Miklós Erdély, A filmről: Filmelméleti írások, forgatókönyvek, filmtervek, kritikák (Válogatott írások II.) [On Film: Theoretical Writings, Scripts, Sketches, Critiques] (Budapest: Balassi, BAE Tartóshullám, Intermedia, 1995), 307.

[10] Hoberman probably consulted with Erdély’s close comrade and the curator of the actual selection, László Beke, and he perhaps also met Erdély himself, whose very last trip abroad was to New York, in 1985. Hoberman shared the special information that the amateur actor of the last part of Dream Reconstruction was a holocaust-survivor. His starting point in his review is Freud, which is quite adequate to Erdély’s intentions and The Interpretation of Dreams is his central reference; furthermore, he reminds the reader that at the beginning of the 20th century the second capital of psychoanalysis was Budapest; and finally together with Freud he mentions Walter Benjamin, and recalls his concept of “optical unconscious.”

[11] Hoberman, “Welcome to My Nightmare,” 60.

[12] “Somebody accused me […] and I argued better and better in defending myself, but my father turned on the radio […] the others laughed at me louder and louder […] and my father turned up the volume on the radio that I could hardly shout down […] and my father also laughed at me louder and louder, and as I tried to shout to compete the aggressive noises I couldn’t hear my own voice but I had to make an extreme effort to speak and at the end I had no voice at all. And at one point I felt that I lost my strength and as I collapsed there was a feeling of dying” (Dream Reconstructions, dialogue; my translation — A.M.).

[13] “The waking have one common world, but the sleeping turn aside each into a world of his own” (Heraclitus, The Fragment of Heraclitus, DK B89,; “Man has learned much since morning, / for we are a conversation, and we can listen / to one another” (Friedrich Hölderlin, Poems of Friedrich Hölderlin: The Fire of the Gods Drives Us to Set Forth by Day and by Night, ed. and trans. James Mitchell [San Francisco: Ithuriel’s Spear, 2007], 65).

[14] Anthony Kubiak, “Stages of Terror,” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 4/1 (Fall 1989): 3; Ted Koppel et al., “Terrorism and the Media: A Discussion,” The Harper’s Monthly (October 1984): 47-60.

[15] See Derrida’s critique on the ideological nature of McLuhan’s prophecy about the end of writing: Jacques Derrida, “Signature Event Context,” trans. Alan Bass, in Margins of Philosophy (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1986), 329.

[16] To contemplate the term of servomechanism in McLuhanian context see among others the chapter titled “The Gadget Lover: Narcissus and Narcosis” in Understanding Media: “The Greek myth of Narcissus is directly concerned with a fact of human experience, as the word Narcissus indicates. It is from the Greek word narcosis, or numbness. The youth Narcissus mistook his own reflection in the water for another person. This extension of himself by mirror numbed his perception until he became the servomechanism of his own extended or repeated image. The nymph Echo tried to win his love with fragments of his own speech, but in vain. He was numb. He had adapted to his extension of himself and had become a closed system” (Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man [Cambridge, MA, and London, UK: The MIT Press, 1995 (1966)], 41).

[17] See Marshall McLuhan, “The Medium is the Message,” in Understanding Media, 16; and McLuhan, “The Gadget Lover,” ibid. 42.

[18] Marshall McLuhan, “Challenge and Collapse: A Nemesis of Creativity,” in Understanding Media, 66.

[19] Tibor Hajas on Self Fashion Show, see Rudolf Ungváry, “Miközben én még azon tűnődöm, hogy melyik választ várod… Beszélgetés Hajas Tiborral 1980-ban” [While I wonder which answer you are waiting for… Discussion with Tibor Hajas in 1980], in Hajas, Szövegek, 444.

[20] This is how Fredric Jameson calls the German mourning play, full of allegories, when he reviews the first selection of writings of Walter Benjamin in 1969. See Fredric Jameson, “Walter Benjamin; or, Nostalgia,” Salmagundi 10-11 (Fall/Winter 1969—1970), 52-68; see Jameson, Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), 71. — Here I mention that in one of his essays Hajas calls the photograph as the “death cult of the 20th century” (Tibor Hajas, “The Photograph as Fine-Art Medium,” in Szövegek, 292.) Here I have no place to sum up all the texts where he examines the radical nature of the photograph as it “burns the contexts.” But from my point of view it is important that he connects Walter Benjamin’s concept of catastrophe with the medium of the photograph: “Making the actual conditions suspicious helps the true revealing of the conditions, that is, of the catastrophe” (Hajas, “[Photograph: Citation from the Reality],” in Szövegek, 294).

[21] John Durham Peters cites from Psychology of Radio by Cantril and Allport (1935): “’No crowd can exist, especially no radio crowd, unless the members have a “lively impression of universality.” Each individual must believe that others are thinking as he thinks and are sharing his emotions.’ A ‘consciousness of kind’ had to be raised via ‘social facilitation’, such as the sound of laughter, applause, interaction, coughing, ahems, hackling, or other audible signs of a live assembly. Tapping into the older contrast between crowds and publics, and anticipating the more recent notion of imagined communities, they argued that radio were distinctly ‘consociate’ rather than ‘congregate’ assemblies: united in imagination, not in location” (John Durham Peters, Speaking Into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication [Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999], 216-17).

[22] The system and the institution of art do the same as the media according to Hajas, even if he just affirms the interviewer’s congenial assertions: “Rudolf Ungváry: […] I will write something from our discussion, and by that writing you as a mounted animal will be nailed to somewhere. Hajas: Yes. Ungváry: And if somebody looks at you as an artist then you become a mounted animal in a phantasmal collection put into public. Hajas: Yes” (Hajas, Szövegek, 447). — Notice the etymological connection between “mount” and “montage,” a rather telling association in our context.

[23] Joan Copjec, “Flavit et Dissipati Sunt,” October 18 (Fall 1981): 106.

[24] The expression of “overabundance of the signifier” coined by Lévi-Strauss and emphasized by Jacques Derrida is the consequence of the possibility of any signifying practice. The overabundance of the signifier is fundamentally based on the absence of original context, the lack of which generates more and more signifiers to fill the gap, of course, in vain. As a kind of writing montage is one of the realizations of the overabundance — montage is a name for the overabundance in technical media. “The overabundance of the signifier, its supplementary character, is thus the result of a finitude, that is to say, the result of a lack, which must be supplemented” (Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” in Writing and Difference, trans. Allan Bass (London: Routledge, 2001), 367).

[25] “A man is as worthy as he is in the given moment. Since this moment could bring an absolute change beyond where you cannot refer back to your story, to your context, to your relationships… to all which is around you and which could explain something of you. Two guys enter and they say: We bring you to Kamchatka. And then in Kamchatka what will you try to explain? To whom? Until when?” (Hajas, Szövegek, 444). — The “they come for you” or the “bell-fright” motif is returning in his texts due to his prison memories. He was the member of the so called City Gang in Budapest and wrote ironic poems about the communist regime, and that was the reason for his imprisonment. See Tibor Hajas, “Commentaries on the Judgement of First Instance,” in Szövegek, 48-51.

[26] “If the phonetic alphabet was a technical means of severing the spoken word from its aspects of sound and gesture, the photograph and its development to the movie restored gesture to the human technology of recording experience. In fact, the snapshot of arrested human postures by photography has become the age of gesture and mime and dance, as no other age has ever been. Freud and Jung built their observations on the interpretations of languages of both individual and collective postures and gestures with respect to dreams and to the ordinary acts of everyday life. The physical and psychic gestalts, or ‘still’ shots with which they worked were much owing to posture world revealed by photograph” (Marshall McLuhan, “The Photograph: The Brothel-without-Walls,” in Understanding Media, 193).

[27] “With regard to light, to make it a cause capable of producing the sublime, it must be attended with some circumstances, besides its bare faculty of showing other objects. Mere light is too common a thing to make a strong impression on the mind, and without a strong impression nothing can be sublime. But such a light as that of the sun, immediately exerted on the eye, as it overpowers the sense, is a very great idea. Light of an inferior strength to this, if it moves with great celerity, has the same power; for lightning is certainly productive of grandeur, which it owes chiefly to the extreme velocity of its motion. A quick transition of light to darkness, or from darkness to light, has yet a greater effect” (Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, ed. James T. Boulton (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987 [1958]), 80, Section XIV).

[28] Benjamin Buchloh refers to birth narratives created by artists as myths of origin. See Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Beuys: The Twilight of the Idol, Preliminary Notes for a Critique,” in Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry: Essays on European and American Art from 1955 to 1975 (Cambridge, MA, and London, UK: The MIT Press, 2000), 45.

[29] Hajas, Szövegek, 422.