Festival of Freedom: an insight into Czech national identity

If you happen to be in the historical centre of the city of Prague on 17 November, you will probably come across all kinds of art performances, crowds of celebrating people, omnipresent street vendors offering refreshments and many different cultural events. And no, this is not one of these festivals you are used to seeing in large European cities. 17 November is an important day for the Czech Republic and this year, it will be commemorated by various celebrations within the Festival of Freedom.

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Before describing the festival itself, let us go back into the complicated past of our country that made this date a national holiday and an inseparable part of Czech national identity. 

First, let us go back to 17 November 1989 in the communist Czechoslovakia.  The fall of the Soviet Union seemed inevitable and from 1988 to 1989, several anti-regime demonstrations, which would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier, took place in Czechoslovakia. The date 17 November had already been an important date in Czech history. It commemorated the tragic events of 1939, when the Nazis executed nine Czech students who took part in anti-Nazi demonstrations. In 1941, the date was designated as the International Students’ Day, becoming the only date of international importance with Czech roots.

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On 17 November 1989, in the tense atmosphere created by the ruling communist regime, the independent student organization STUHA held a commemoration service on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the closing down of Czech universities by the Nazis. However, the more radical students wanted to express their opposition to the communist rule on the occasion. The whole service was supposed to take place in the Prague quarter Albertov and its organizers got official permission only under the condition that the commemoration march would not head into the city centre. From the very beginning, people chanted anti-communist slogans and after the official programme ended, a part of the march decided to continue to the centre of Prague. About 10,000 protesters were surrounded by two police cordons on Národní třída and viciously beaten. The next day, news of the brutal police crackdown quickly spread all over the country.

photo: svobodnymonitor.cz

The events of 17 November were key in terms of mobilising the Czech people and finally resulted in the transition to a democratic political system. In the following days, a general strike was declared and mass demonstrations took place all over the country. Everything climaxed on 29 December 1989, when Václav Havel was elected President of Czechoslovakia at Prague Castle, becoming the first non-communist head of state after 41 years.

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This year, the streets of Prague will host the 2016 Festival of Freedom on this important day. The programme, which includes concerts, discussions, marches and other activities, was put together by several civil society groups. Important Czech personalities will also participate in the festival taking place on sites that witnessed the events of November 1989, such as Národní třída, Albertov, Wenceslas Square or the Charles Bridges. 

www.festivalsvobody.cz
photo: www.festivalsvobody.cz

As the name suggests, the Festival of Freedom is a celebration of freedom as one of the basic values of our national identity. Sadly, we have seen our current president repeatedly trampling on fundamental freedoms in the last couple of days. This is also one of the reasons why I believe it is important to value freedom and celebrate it with dignity. So, if you happen to be walking through Prague on 17 November, do not hesitate to light a candle with us on Národní třída and commemorate our struggle for freedom. It is definitely not a celebration exclusively for Czech nationals but for all people from around the world, who consider freedom to be the cornerstone of civil society.

Mánes Exhibition Hall and Pasta Oner presents – Last Day in Paradise

Manes Exhibition Hall
Mánes Exhibition Hall is a traditional part of Prague’s cultural life. It’s dramaturgy includes exhibitions of leading figures in both Czech and international art spheres, it gives opportunities to many young artists and also hosts historical and retrospective exhibitions. The building itself was designed in functionalist style by architect Otakar Novotny and completed in 1930, replacing old Štítovské Mlýny that were torn down. It connects Masaryk’s embankment on the right bank of Vltava River, with the famous Slav Island and borders with historical Štíkovská water tower. The first exhibition that took place there was Hundred Years of Czech art 1830 – 1930 fallowed by many events that helped to establish it’s renown of a prestigious exhibition hall. In the period of 2013 – 2014 the hall went through complete reconstruction and today is used for many other cultural activities – lectures, projections, workshops, auctions, thanks to newly installed modern equipment. Last week it hosted an exhibition of Pasta Oner, one of the most striking names in current Czech art scene.
 
Pasta Oner
Pasta oner is a pioneer in graffiti and street art in Czech Republic. His real name is Zdeněk Řanda and he started with graffiti when he was just 13 years old. He used to be know as a leading figure in Prague’s writer scene, but throughout his more than 20 years of working, he began to direct his pieces more and more into galleries and exhibition halls more than on the walls of building and trains. During last years he took part in 30 collective exhibitions and made 3 of his own. He strongly aims towards individualism and being provocative and his personal handwriting is widely recognized as very original and inimitable. Most of his creations are acrylic paintings, hanging paintings and technologically complex spatial objects, plastics and installations, as well as large format paintings in ambitious public spaces.

Mánes Exhibition Hall and Pasta Oner presents - Last Day in Paradise
Last Day in Paradise
Last Day in Paradise puts his traditional topics of reflecting fortune, sex, luxury and other hedonistic pleasures into context of his personal position inside current modern consumer society, growing cybernetism and fast information, which made it even more provocative than usual. He makes fun, but he also acknowledges being part of what he’s mocking. The expositions contained things like giant golden lollypops falling from a tree, Mickey Mouse coming out of an egg or giant cross with flashing neon “Welcome” and “Open”. All the pieces were from this year. The exhibition met large success as Pasta’s name is widely recognized not only among young people today and there will certainly be a new one in not too distant future. We at ThinkPrague will keep you informed, whether it will be one in Manes Exhibition Hall or one by Pasta Oner.

Prague getting open and creative

The Prague municipal authority has recently decided that the abandoned historical town hall building will be used as a centre of education, culture and creativity. The building is located on the Small Square in the very heart of the centre of Prague. The original plan had been to turn it into luxury apartments. The new decision was made by the Prague Municipal Authority, the Prague Institute for Planning and Development and the Charles University in Prague. They have also offered other important institutions to take part in the project, including the National Gallery, Municipal Library of Prague and the Film and TV School of Academy of Performing Arts in Prague FAMU. The main idea is to create a platform for creative people like artists and scholars, which would allow them to cooperate on their projects and organize exhibitions and lectures for the general public. The ThinkPrague team is quite excited about this plan and we consider it an important step in the right direction in terms of making our beautiful city even better. We will now explain why we think this is a great idea.
 
Abandoned buildings in the centre of Prague
The town hall is just one of many similar buildings that have been abandoned and some of them are not under any maintenance whatsoever. Most of them are owned by private owners who do not have any use for them, do not want to invest any money into their reconstruction or simply do not care. Others, like the town hall, are owned by the municipal authority but the decision what to do with them is subject to protracted nightmarish bureaucratic processes, which often lead nowhere. ThinkPrague considers this situation – letting beautiful historical buildings fall apart, empty and without any purpose – as one of Prague’s most regretful failures to do something. Many people have recently expressed their disappointment in this trend and we believe that this project might be one of the first positive results of this “constructive criticism”.

Abandoned buildings in the centre of Prague
Image credits: profimedia
Similar projects in other European cities
The concept itself is nothing new: in other cities including Berlin, Vienna or Budapest, similar projects have been done for years. If you ask anyone involved in them, they will confirm how much they have benefited their cities and the local intellectual and creative public. Another great advantage is that the centres facilitate international cooperation between artists and scholars in these cities, bringing another added value. In this sense, it really is not about being innovative but more like catching up for Prague.


Similar projects in other European cities

 

Tourism versus authenticity
Being a travel agency, ThinkPrague can also see the value of the project from the tourists’ perspective. Despite all the beautiful monuments, Prague is still a kind of a theatre for tourists. Everywhere you go, there are countless souvenir shops, overpriced restaurants and various strategically placed attractions with intended only to make easy money. Although we cannot put all of them into the same bag, these “attractions” in such extreme numbers partially ruin what Prague could be: a more living, connected and authentic city, where your visit would not be reduced simply to sightseeing and going from one monument to another but visitors would take part in the city’s social life and get a chance to get under the surface. From this perspective, the project is a step in the right direction and we wholeheartedly hope that more will follow soon.