The Asylum Culture House & The Warholesquian Sensibility
Planning Warhol in Prague: Part I
Rewind memory back to Winter and Spring 1993 and fast forward the mind’s eye across the wintry waves of the Atlantic, the snow covered slopes of the Alps and the viscous chilling pour of the Rhine. Keep right on going until you spot in the distance the brown coal smoke hovering lazily above the gently rolling landscape. A hundred or so miles into the haze the shimmering outlines of a thousand Gothic and Baroque spires emerge slowly into view. Pass above the ankle deep shattered New Year’s champagne glass and spent bottle rockets coating the main square and circle around to make a final sweeping approach from the North, following the twisting, turning banks of the Vltava River and come to rest in the heart of the sodden gray but always Golden City of Prague, capital of the newly established Czech Republic.
There, behind an unassuming black door, a mere stone’s throw away from one of Europe’s oldest bridges, Karluv Most, built by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV in 1357, you will find Asylum, a collectively run squat theater, café and art gallery that arose Phoenix-like from the ashen cinders of a dead totalitarian state betwixt and between the crumbling concrete and brick facings of a long abandoned Salvation Army outpost.
The Asylum of cultural myth, for those who were in Prague and in the sub-cultural know during that winter and spring of 1993, lingers in memory as a crazed Bacchanalian Warholesquian happening, even if, public nipple piercings and simulated urination aside, a generally less explicitly sexual version. One minute you might go into the café, a smallish cave-like hole-in-the-wall we always thought of as the Soul of Asylum, and there would be a bongo, guitar and violin foot-stomping Celtic jam. Ten minutes later there might be a cultural film about Rodin flickering across the wall, and another half hour after that you might find a wanna-Kerouac poet spouting Beat banalities or diamonds across the room and over the cheers or heckles of his temporarily captive audience.
Cross the hall to the art gallery on any given night and you might find unframed paintings and drawings taped to the wall or moody black and white Czech student photography. Head on down the broad steps into the cavernous theatre space with three-quarter concrete balcony and you might encounter anything from the haunting zen koan wailings of a Didjeridoo to a black-panted, white-masked dancer bathing his feet in a pool of rippling, sparkling water, to a nurse sticking his tongue through a condom to teach a Czech/English audience about safe sex.
But, paradoxically, a lot of hard work went into giving people precisely that experience of creative freedom and anything-can-happenness. That kind of controlled chaos doesn’t just happen by accident. Just staying open as long as Asylum did, about half a year, was a huge achievement in and of itself that required not just the constant bobbing and weaving through a Kafkaesquian bureaucratic landscape so bizarre that according to city records our building didn’t even exist, but also demanded the contributions of a multitude of people with competing desires, goals and ambitions and competing ideas and notions of how things should work.
Erica “Rik” Soehngen and I, as Co-Directors of Asylum from two weeks into the project until the end were really just that; we were directing and orchestrating all these different stakeholders, doing our on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown bests to keep the whole whirling dervish of an enterprise from imploding. Those efforts, at times, got us a bit into trouble, because despite our best attempts to generate consensus, there were some who viewed us a bit as dictators.
The list of operating procedures we gave managers is one example of something many didn’t like. To some this list of “rules” seemed antithetical to the experimental vibe we were trying to create. The point was made on more than one occasion that we should just let whatever might happen, happen, let the cards fall where they may, even if that meant getting shut down. I can’t say the people who felt that way didn’t have a point.
At the same time, however, an awful lot of people liked Asylum and wanted it to stay open, and that the hedonistic impulses of a few could have spoiled everything for a lot of people much sooner than turned out to be the case. To this day, I feel bad for the kids at Skola Hrou who had a big Children’s Art exhibit planned for June. “No, I know we promised you we have permission to be here and the Children’s exhibit will definitely happen,” we told the two teachers who were organizing the event, “but it can’t happen after all.” The memory of their disapproving looks still sting to this day. At that moment in their eyes we may as well have been the Grinches who had stolen Christmas.
And if you want to avoid moments like those — and I’d give ten to one that even the most entropically oriented of the Asylumites would have gladly avoided such moments — you can’t, for instance, have people using the street outside as a bathroom. That’s a problem. You’d think that would be common sense, but you’d be awfully surprised how uncommon common sense actually is at times. So, at least until we got a toilet installed, about a month and a half in, we had to make it a policy, for instance, to have managers direct people to a pub one block away or, and I kid you not, at least to the conveniently located construction site at the end of the street.
Or, for example, there were those who viewed Asylum as primarily expat-run and thought, well, since the Czechs aren’t getting involved, we should really cater more just to expats, not understanding that the proverbial “bridging of cultural barriers” was as seminal a mission of the enterprise as providing space to disenfranchised groups, and that, anyway, from a pragmatic standpoint, without Czech support we would be doomed to failure.
It was all pretty exhausting and draining, truth be told, 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and as a consequence of that, Rik and I were actually somewhat relieved when the whole tenuous house of cards the Asylum enterprise was balanced upon came crashing down. The shy side of half a year may not seem like a very long time for a venue to exist, but if you consider the whole of Asylum in some sense as one long staged Happening, then it’s no wonder some of the historical retellings of Asylum have extended the duration of its existence to as long as three years. It feels that long in memory.
In any case, given the psychological, if not the actual, fact of a three year experience compressed into less than half a year, it also ought come as no surprise that while Rik and I were disappointed to be sure, knowing we had given Asylum our best shot, we were not at all beside ourselves at the prospect of moving on to new and different things. We were just kids ourselves then practically and we felt as if we had been playing chess against a far more experienced shadowy Grandmaster coalition opponent comprised of dark Knights and Queens of the old order, a King who kept hiding by handing off his crown to the other pieces, and a legion of pawns cast in our own youthful and enthusiastic, but also collectively clueless and self-destructive, images. In all truth, Asylum was probably in Czechmate from the start and we were just too dumb to know it, but it was a hell of a fun game while it lasted.
I wonder at times: Does the actual Warholesquian myth itself have a similar reality, an underlying intelligent design lurking behind the historical hyperbole of mad chaotic experiment? I can’t say for certain. I wasn’t there, but I can’t say as I’d be surprised if it did. For my part, I can only say I’d love to talk to those people who made it happen in a pragmatic way on a day to day level, if they existed; and I’d love to learn a thing or two from them to understand better just how they played the game and how it is they were able to stay in the game so long.
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