Dutch activist Jef Helmer's 1982 photo of seven unknown Czech dissidents sent British-born multimedia artist Taf Hassam on an artistic journey that eventually took him to the MeetFactory and a three-month residency.

Nurturing international art

MeetFactory’s artist-in-residency program brings the world to Prague

The studio resembles a large dorm room inhabited by a wired, well-to-do but slovenly university student. In its center stands a black electric guitar and amplifier. On several tables and desks around the room are arrayed two Apple MacBook Pro laptops, a large printer, a video screen, books, heaps of documents and papers, a digital camera and several oddly shaped beer glasses, while clothes spill out of an open suitcase in a corner.

The one incongruity is a large, unframed black-and-white photograph of seven young men and women in front of a large country house that hangs on a wall behind an old brown sofa. Judging from the scruffy, long-haired appearance of the subjects and the quality of the print, the photo was taken some time ago and looks out of place amid the hi-tech gear.

“That photo is what brought me to Prague,” says Taf Hassam, a British-born multimedia artist and lecturer, and currently an artist-in-residence at Prague’s MeetFactory.

Dutch activist Jef Helmer’s 1982 photo of seven unknown Czech dissidents sent British-born multimedia artist Taf Hassam on an artistic journey that eventually took him to the MeetFactory and a three-month residency.

The 32-year-old Hassam explains that he’d gone to research and lecture on protest music at the Wyspa Institute of Art in the Polish city of Gdańsk in 2011 when he became interested in dissident culture. That led him to become acquainted with the work of the Dutch sociologist Jef Helmer, who’d traveled back and forth between the Netherlands and Czechoslovakia in the ’70s and ’80s. In Helmer’s archive at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, Hassam came across this photograph in a samizdat publication.

“The heading of the photograph is ‘Czech Dissidents Gathering Somewhere in Bohemia 1982,’ ” he says. “I thought it was a very odd title, very mysterious, and it got me wondering: Who are these people? What was that culture like?”

Hassam hopes the three-month residency at MeetFactory, a large, unattractive former factory situated on the wrong side of the tracks in the wilds of Smíchov, will help him learn more about the context of the photograph, which was taken by Helmer, and to identify and perhaps even meet some of the people in it. Eventually, he and American video artist Kirby Mages, who is also a MeetFactory artist-in-residence, plan to produce a video and texts based on their findings.

“We were initially planning to do a big show with musicians,” Hassam says, with a nod at the guitar, “but to do that in a month’s time is too soon. The aim is to present the work here, to show it and see people’s reactions. We will use the show to bring people together.”

Hassam said that meeting the people in the photograph would be thrilling but was of secondary importance. “The photograph opened up a world to us. That journey is the most important thing.”

Mages, a 26-year-old native of Chicago, had never been to Prague before Hassam invited her to join him in the project.

“It’s incredible that I’ve been given this chance,” she says. “And it’s incredible to be given the time to do the research and to know that there’ll be a final outcome in a short period of time.”

Of the MeetFactory ambience, she says, “This is a really supportive community. It’s great that they provide you with an exhibition at the end of your residency.”

In the case of Hassam and Mages, the MeetFactory also provided a translator to help them understand the material in the Czech archives they are sifting through. The translator happened to be the boyfriend of Zuzana Jakalová, the curator of the MeetFactory’s artist-in-residency (AIR) program.

“We get about 25 residents a year, and they usually stay for three months,” Jakalová says. “At present [late April], we have five residents, but five more are expected to come next month.”

The program is partially supported by a subsidy from the city of Prague of 6.5 million Kč ($330,000) spread over four years, she says. There is also support from the Culture Ministry and the institutions that sponsor the artists, such as the French Institute and Goethe Institute of Prague, the Visegrad Fund, the Mondriaan Fund of the Netherlands, which supported Hassam’s residency, and the U.S. Embassy, which sponsored Ohio-born artist Tracy Featherstone.

Several walls of Featherstone’s large well-lit studio are hung with drawings and collages, which she says form the inspirational launching pad for sculptures she is currently exhibiting at the MeetFactory.

“The idea is based on translating one fact into another,” Featherstone says. “This will involve the translation of the collages into sculptures.”

A few of the sculptures, made from various materials, were displayed in the center of the studio. Her art is wildly dynamic; she has, for example, designed objects to be worn and which required human models to be exhibited.

“It’s not possible in one exhibition to see all the craziness,” she admits.

Featherstone – who is associate professor of art at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio – says what she especially likes about the MeetFactory residency is that “this is life. There’s music here, and we all discover the city together. I took in Prague. The city is part of the work.”

She, Hassam and Mages share an apartment in Prague 2 that is one of two flats owned by the MeetFactory and used to house some of the residents. The others live in their studios.

“I love Prague,” Featherstone says. “I would live here. There’s a good vibe for art here and big spaces for art.”

The MeetFactory – which also offers music and theater programs and houses three galleries – was founded in 2001 by Czech artist David Černý. It was flooded out of its original Holešovice home in 2002 and resettled in its present site three years later.

The residency program is managed by the MeetFactory’s art council, which currently consists of Černý, art theoretician Tomáš Pospiszyl, MeetFactory curator Karina Kottová and art critic Jan Vitvar. The art council, in cooperation with a representative of the supporting organization, ultimately decides which artists will be offered a residency.

According to Jakalová, it took long negotiations to finally have Featherstone come to Prague as a resident. The show of the works she produced during her residency opened in the MeetFactory’s Kostka Gallery May 6 and will run until May 31.

In addition to the exhibitions, the MeetFactory also makes its artists in residence available to the public with monthly open houses (weekly during the summer months).

“We open up the studios to the public and let them talk to the residents and explore the process of their work,” Jakalová says. “We like to think we are contributing to Prague’s cultural diversity. We not only show people international art exhibitions, we not only show the works of art, but we also show them how these artists make the works.”

The next open studio is scheduled for June 6, when visitors will have a chance to speak with (among others) Joaquín Segura, a 32-year-old visual artist from Mexico City whose work investigates, he says, “radical ideologies, from far left to far right, guerilla movements, the nature of power and institutional crisis in contemporary life – because coming from Mexico, failure is something you have to face every day.”

One example of his work is a video titled The Anarchists and the Bombs, in which a sign language expert translates a seminal text that originally appeared in the early-20th-century anarchist journal Tierra y Libertad (Earth and Freedom).

“I’m interested in the dynamics of power,” Segura says, “especially how power plays on the international art circuit. So I investigate the global context of power and its effects on art.”

He says he is just doing research in Prague, to eventually produce short videos, sculpture and photographs. “My process is quite slow,” Segura admits. “When I have enough, I make connections between the materials.”

The MeetFactory residency is his first opportunity to see Prague. He says he first heard about MeetFactory seven years ago when he met a Czech editor visiting Mexico City.

“I love the laid-back attitude they have here,” Segura says. “I have the space and freedom to do what I want. And it’s a rich environment for focusing on work.”

Jakalová says that this is precisely the aim of the AIR program.

“The residents come from far away, and they need a lot of comfort and good conditions for work,” she says. “Some of the artists do research; others need materials and tools. They all have different expectations. Some want to network and explore the scene; others are keen on working on projects. We are their enablers.”

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