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Protest and survive
Mobius stages a dissenting view on the post–September 11 world

The Phoenix calls Milan Kohout at home, but he’s not interested — and makes as if he were about to hang up. No, wait! We want to talk about "Descent/Dissent," the multimedia performance art event he’ll be staging with long-time collaborator Mari Novotny-Jones at the Charlestown Working Theater starting next Thursday! "Oh!" says Kohout, laughing, in a heavy Czech accent. "I thought you were capee-talist edvertiser! You are lucky I no scream, ‘Fuck You!’ "

Lucky also that Kohout was happy to elucidate the political subtexts of the abstract, semi-improvisational piece he and Novotny-Jones started working on soon after September 11. It’s "a reaction to what happened to world politics," he says, and an attempt "to understand the bigger picture, including something which is not so pleasant to be heard: how much we Americans participate, how much hypocrisy is involved, how we’re trying to cover our own eyes and fill our own ears, trying to justify a one-dimensional suffering while not seeing the other side of the picture."

Novotny-Jones explains that the "Descent" of the title refers to the falling of skyscrapers, the plummeting respect for America in the eyes of the world, and the disintegration of our civil liberties. But she says the piece’s stew of vignettes also alludes to the war of cultures that’s currently playing out on the world stage — a drama she and Kohout will enact through poems about terrorism, nightmarish music, crazed "proletariat step dancing," and the two artists positing themselves as archetypes (male and female, Eastern Europe and America) while heaping symbolic abuse on each other like a "postmodern Punch and Judy show." She likens it to "a descent into a medieval hellmouth," with a challenge attached: "As we descend, where is the dissent?"

Both artists know from experience the power art can have when it becomes political. Kohout was in Czechoslovakia in the ’60s, and he saw the modest liberal reforms of the Prague Spring crushed by Soviet tanks. He was integral in the dissident intellectual movement Charter 77, and though his involvement in underground art got him expelled from the country in 1986 (he came to Boston in ’88), his agitation had helped lay the groundwork for the "Velvet Revolution" three years later that saw playwright Václav Havel become president. For her part, Novotny-Jones was heavily involved in the American anti-war movement in the ’60s. "I think about my students [at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts]. Back then, I thought I was starting a legacy of peace, other ways of looking at things, cooperativeness. What kind of world are they left with? What’s the legacy here?"

This spring Kohout will also be teaching a course at Massachusetts College of Art called "Politically Engaged Performance Art: The Czech Model." "We understood art as being ultimately politically charged," he says of his compatriots. "I would say that whenever the social order starts to pursue its own survival by compromising on basic human rights, like freedom of expression and civil liberties, it always leads to a sort of self-destruction of the whole system."

It happened in Prague, and Kohout thinks it’s happening here: quashing of dissent, enforcement of conformity. "When you are trying to suppress the opinion of your own people, sooner or later you will have helped to organize an opposition movement that will be more and more sophisticated, more and more organized." There is, he continues, a "self-preservation instinct of in all society. Like in physics. Push on something, that object will create resistance. . . . Art is one of the most important indicators if something goes wrong within a society. That function should be preserved and should be fought for."

"Descent/Dissent" will be presented January 29 through 31 and February 5 through 7 at 8 p.m. at the Charlestown Working Theater, 442 Bunker Hill Street in Charlestown. Tickets are $15 ($10 students, seniors, and friends of Mobius); call (617) 542-7416.

Issue Date: January 23 - 29, 2004
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