Hungarian Art Rebels

As Hungary's hard-won freedom of speech goes under threat, we went to Budapest to see how creatives are fighting back

Taken from the May Issue of Dazed & Confused:

In 2011, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán amended the country’s constitution to bring in sweeping new laws that allow his ruling party, Fidesz, to shut down media outlets it deems to be biased, without discussion or vote. Last December, ten thousand people took to the streets of Budapest to protest against far-right party Jobbik’s proposed plans to issue a list of “dangerous Jews”. While far-right movements in Greece and Spain have been widely reported on, those in Hungary remain largely overlooked, and yet the situation is perhaps more worrying. Far-right attitudes in Hungary aren’t confined to an angry but essentially immobilised working class, but are being implemented by powerful members of the intelligentsia. 

Like any self-respecting ex-Soviet territory, Budapest greets visitors from its airport with a fanfare of billboards displaying half-naked women and offering directions to fastfood outlets. On the drive from the airport we pass a seemingly infinite array of hulking concrete tower-blocks, broken by the occasional gypsy camp, industrial park or storage container. On entering the centre of town, where war-wounded architecture lines the vast boulevards and doorways strewn with bullets from the 1956 revolution front Venetian-style buildings, things get more complicated.

Among St Paul’s-scale cathedrals and synagogues, purveyors of polyester three-piece suits and newspaper-print micro-dresses cosy up next to sellers of swords, machetes and traditional folk costume (increasingly sought-after commodities since the rise in popularity of traditional Hungarian táncházfolk-dance gatherings). In the side streets that lead to “the 7th” aka Erzsébetváros, the city’s equivalent of Dalston or Williamsburg, abandoned 19th-century apartment blocks centred on courtyards have been adapted into bars or “ruin pubs”. 

One such (albeit not entirely forsaken) building is home to Zsombor Pál and Daniel Beke of successful punk band Kozmosz. They invited me in to talk about their anthemic pop-punk, which soundtracked the protests that took place last year. 

In the dim light of the apartment, singer Pál explains: “The protests had been going on for two weeks in December, when a bunch of kids went to the state radio trying to get five or six points broadcast in the evening news. They half succeeded, and while that was happening, other protestors were waiting at the front of the building playing our song from the loudspeaker in the car.” Bassist Beke laughs, and adds: “Sometimes I think it’s not what the government is doing but how it communicates things. There’s a constant sense of thinking that we are stupid that is really enraging. We know for sure that things are bad, but still it repeats the same things over and over again: success stories, ‘everything is great’!” 

Somewhere between the ruling government’s Orwellian tactics and Jobbik’s Nazi propaganda, the country has arrived at what author Hari Kunzru describes as a “cultural crisis”. The authoritarian imposition of the new media-laws is a grave concern to commentators in Europe, fuelling worry that the continent may be in the throes of a sharp swing to the far right. Switch on the TV in Hungary and news footage is peppered with pixelated faces, known by everyone to be close government allies. Thanks to the new laws, some of the country’s wealthiest and most influential figures are immune from representation press, irrespective of bias. Meanwhile, a string of well loved TV presenters have mysteriously disappeared from screens, replaced by renowned far-right sympathisers.

The country’s worrying approach to freedom of speech is why American poet and activist Lawrence Ferlinghetti last year refused a €50,000 prize from the Hungarian branch of international writers’ club PEN when he learned it was co-sponsored by Orbán’s government; and why Hungarian author Imre Kertész decided to archive his Nobel Prize-winning work – centred in the most part on his experiences at a German prisoner of war camps – in Berlin.The problem with getting to the heart of what’s happening is that people are unwilling to talk. TV presenters, sacked for broadcasting liberal content and pledging allegiance to their leftwing colleagues, refuse to speak. Quite simply, they don’t want the “trouble”, and refuse to expand on what is meant by that to me when asked. Then there’s the case of Klubrádió, one of the country’s few politically independent stations, which has been attempting to renew its long-term frequency rights since 2011 but has been continuously and illegally stonewalled by Orbán’s media council. Last year the council started an investigation into the station when it broadcast a conversation with an anonymous caller who called for the then-president’s “liquidation” and accused a local mayor of being behind a rival politician’s fatal traffic accident. As Pál explains, the station was being proscribed for refusing to operate under a system of “self-censorship”. 

While there are fears that the media laws could lead to Soviet levels of censorship, Hungary is still essentially a free state. What does worry people, however, is the idea that artists, journalists and musicians are editing their own work because they’re afraid. The “trouble” referred to by the television presenters remains an unknown quantity, a silent threat, perpetuated by a general climate of fear. After we finish our chat, Pál, Beke and I head out to meet the rest of the band at a warehouse bar a few streets away, where southern US rapper Waka Flocka Flame is being played on the decks by his Hungarian doppelganger. Among the crowd: a shoe designer, a nurse-slash-dancer-slash-student and a member of the national curling team. The one benefit of living in small country with a deteriorating economy is, it seems, that you can choose to do just about anything you want. 

After two shots and some stilted dancing with the punk rockers, a girl emerges from the weed haze emanating from the DJ booth to tell us that she’s been invited to a nearby Fidesz party. Do we want to come, she asks, and are we prepared to meet with some extreme rightwing and antisemitic attitudes? We agree and are told to keep a low profile and plead ignorant if asked. As we wait with other members of Kozmosz for a cab, she explains that Fidesz began as a liberal group but rebranded itself a conservative Christian organisation, and once in power systematically appointed old fashioned, unqualified heads to the country’s leading artistic institutions. People they believed would tow the party line. 

The cab takes us along Rákóczi út, the city’s equivalent of Oxford Street, full of derelict hotels left to crumble with only plastic tape cordoning off the pavement below as a warning. After entering a more suburban part of town, we pull into a car park. As we cross the gravel to the marquee on the far side, where the party is being held, Pál tells me that this area had been a stronghold for gypsies, but was undergoing a renovation that had seen them driven out. “Because all they do is cause trouble,” adds an eavesdropping partygoer stood behind us in the queue.I pass through security, keeping quiet and flashing a borrowed Hungarian passport, before making my way through the Fidesz fanbase gathered inside, ignoring stares directed at my get-up of waterproof jacket and jeans. Either this or my bemused expression says that I’m English, attracting the attention of two English expats. The men use the excuse of buying me a drink to tell me just how much they enjoy sleeping with Hungarian women. “That’s why we moved here,” explains the taller one. “And why are you here?” asks his short friend. 

My explanation is greeted with laughter. “What you liberals don’t understand,” says the tall one, “is that coloured people, gypsies and Jews are what cause the trouble here,” before introducing me to a female Hungarian friend, a culture correspondent for a rightwing publication. Fired up, she’s eager to defend changes made to the management of Budapest’s New Theatre, which has received huge amounts of funding since famed extremist (and former voice of Bruce Willis and Eddie Murphy in dubbed films) György Dörner was appointed director. She cites Dörner’s “beautiful vision”, a nationalistic agenda that sees him commissioning plays such as his proposed production of The Sixth Coffin, which he was forced to abandon after protests from critics who dubbed it “antisemitic agitprop”. The girl’s impassioned speech is delivered to a backdrop of nationalists fist-pumping the air to Lady Gaga and the Black Eyed Peas in every direction, and things fall into something of a haze as friends of hers and countless more Fidesz zealots join in to deliver heartfelt speeches on the good work being done by the party. 

Later, flicking through the country’s main TV channels, I see György Fekete, a wizened figure with a white bowlcut, appear time and time again, delivering speeches to various councils. The 80-yearold has recently been appointed head of the Hungarian Art Academy (MMA). “This man is truly crazy,” asserts Patricia Piringer, head of communications for the Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art, the following day. The gallery is in the unique position of receiving money from the state while showing works chosen by an independent committee. But that system is breaking down, and the country’s culture secretary has announced that the museum’s new director will not be elected by consensus.

It follows the November resignation of Gábor Gulyás, the director of Budapest’s other major modern-art gallery, the Kunsthalle. “György Fekete started giving interviews,” Piringer says, “making clear his extreme, far-right views on Hungarian culture, which made (Gulyás) quit.”

Two streets away stands a decrepit building, reclaimed as a rehearsal space by Krétakör, a troupe of directors and actors who have lost their jobs in the theatre. Climbing the dusty, tileclad stairs, I speak to the company’s manager, Márton Gulyás, about the controversy around the New Theatre. “Of course it’s bad,” he says, tossing his head as he proudly gives a tour of the premises, including a room inexplicably spraypainted with infantile stickmen figures. “The New Theatre is one of the highly subsided theatres in Budapest.”

In another room, members of the company gather to discuss ways of reaching the public with a clear message of how the government are patrolling the arts. “The biggest problem in the long run is how this changes our path to achieving a scene like you have elsewhere in Europe. The old director of the New Theatre (Istvan Marta), who was not very interesting, is being remembered as a progressive just because his ideas were based on democratic values.” 

Which, in 2013, should be a given. It’s not historical revisionism to the extent of burning or rewriting books, but it’s a subtle way of shifting the goalposts for those still trying to shake off the Soviet-era hangover and cultivate a contemporary arts scene. Heading back across town, I make my way to the recently abandoned state television building to meet the country’s foremost war correspondent and democratic commentator, Balint Szlanko. Comically grand, the building overlooks an empty square lined with benches. Szlanko sits, pensive, looking up at the shadowy ruin with its obsolete sign.

“The government is recreating the climate of the 20s and 30s,” he says, his voice low and grave. “It is erecting statues and naming streets after some of our old fascist leaders.” Leaving the square and crossing the Danube, climbing the hill to the old palace with its view over Buda, the western half of the city, he continues: “Györg Fekete is a lunatic, there’s no question about that, and the government is refusing to publish anyone whose work is not far-right leaning. Take (centre-right political philosopher) János Kis, for instance. His publisher approached the ministry to get funding for a new book and they just said, ‘Don’t provoke us, don’t even apply.’ In their eyes, even he is a loony lefty.”

Looking out over the city, you can see the history of Hungary in the eclectic jumble of buildings, all in different styles and from different eras, stretching out into the horizon. Interference from surrounding nations over the years has seen this inland nation’s borders and politics shift continuously. The result? A generation struggling to find its voice against a set of paranoid elders desperate to preserve a national identity through whatever means possible. “We know things will get better for us eventually,” Daniel Beke says, back at Kozmosz HQ. “This just means that it will take a bit longer, and that we have to speak louder, but we won’t stop believing that things will improve, and we will not stop being creative.”