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From Prague, The Value of Freedom

In conjunction with the Breakthrough exhibition, we present an overview of a public program directed by educator Karina Kottová, at DOX, Centre for Contemporary Art, Prague, Czechoslovakia.

The Value of Freedom: Nothing is Black and White

Education program accompanying the exhibition Tomorrow Starts Yesterday Designed for school groups, families with children and special interest groups

Target age group 12-18 years Offered during Oct 12, 2009 - Feb 2, 2010

DOX, Centre for Contemporary Art Poupětova 1, Praha 7 Czech Republic

Program coordinator: Karina Kottová, M.A.,

At Czech schools, Communism is not taught about very much and in many families it is not mentioned too often. Its history is still fresh and could do harm to somebody or bring to light information which should rather stay swept under the carpet. How to deal with this theme then? What about not viewing it as black and white? The educational program will present our recent past from the point of view of several selected protagonists: a rich émigré, a dissident priest, an anticommunist theatre owner, a secret police agent and a teenager who was put into prison for singing an anticommunist song. Participants to the program review the works of art on display from these standpoints through discussions, as well as dramatic, visual and literary activities. This way they get to the present, and looking back they find out that at the time of the conflict of democracy versus totality people fought their own private battles with ethics, love and honor, which are inherent to everybody at all times.

The program deals with the question of freedom and its value, or the price we are willing to pay for it. This begins with the personal stories of the five protagonists: the émigré pays for political freedom by abandoning her family and friends and escaping from the country just with her little daughter, the secret police agent pays for freedom to study by betraying his values, the teenager pays for his freedom of opinion by his young age and health…) The question is subsequently dealt with in connection with the artworks on display, the relationship between past and present and the opinions of the participants to this program.

Before visiting the gallery

Prior to the program at DOX, the school teacher receives worksheets with profiles of the five protagonists: Jolana Blau, an émigré, Rostislav Valušek, a dissident priest, Petr Rádl, a secret police agent, Miloš Dvořák, an anti-regime theatre owner and Míla Petrovský, a teenage political prisoner. The worksheets are based on true stories of people who lived in the communist era and decided to share their past within a research project called Memory of Nation (

The worksheets contain photographs of the protagonists, basic timeline with important dates of the Czechoslovak communist era in relation to the protagonists’ age at that time (e.g. 1968 Soviet invasion – Jolana Blau was 30 years old), short biography of the protagonist and several quotations about his or her situation. Underneath the inner conflict of the protagonist is depicted (e.g. carefree youth x life in prison), accompanied with several questions for the students.

The class is divided into five groups, while each group deals with one of the protagonists. They learn about his or her life and try to imagine themselves in the same situation. They discuss the related questions within the group. They can also listen to the stories of their protagonist online.



Part I. – Introducing the Protagonists

(lecture hall, 20 minutes)

Each of the five groups presents their protagonist to the rest of the class in basic facts – who am I, in which situation did I find myself, how did I decide? Afterwards they present their point of view on the situation of the protagonist. A discussion is held within the whole class, moderated by the lector.


Lector: How would you decide if you were in Jolana Blau´s place? Would you emigrate?

Student: I wouldn´t, I would stay with my parents.

Another student: I would emigrate, I would think of the little daughter and her future.

Lector: I am sure Jolana Blau also thought of that, because she herself was held in a concentration camp as a child. Perhaps she wanted different childhood for her daughter. But she paid a high price for it. Many other people decided to stay with their families and did not emigrate.


Part II. – Common Past

(dealing with a video depicting a Czechoslovak communist troop review, 10 minutes)

It is May 1, 1954, the early times of Czechoslovak communist era. The students try to identify themselves with their protagonists, while watching a video of a propagandist troop review on the occasion of the International Labor Day. The five protagonists are all children at that time. They do not know that in twenty years one will cooperate with the regime, another will be held in a communist prison, one will escape to New York, one will fight the way for an anti-regime theatre and the last one will return from exile to become a priest and secretly publish forbidden literature. In 1954 they are kids and they watch this megalomaniac show. They might be amazed, fascinated, or even feel threatened by it. Years later they will learn about the communist regime and the major difference between how it presents itself on 1st May and what it really stands for. The students discuss this topic with the lector.


Part III. – The Past in Confrontation with the Present

(mixed political slogans originating in the communist era and in contemporary election campaign, 5 minutes)

The relationship between the past and the present is dealt with through perception of this artwork: the students are asked to pick up the slogans printed on yellow and red boards and stand in a circle, so that everyone can read what the boards say. The lector asks whether the students have heard such words somewhere and what do they stand for. Are they old or contemporary? Together they find out that the slogans on yellow boards come from this year’s election campaign of different Czech political parties, while those on the red boards are propagandist slogans from the communist times. But is there any real difference between those two groups of slogans? Aren’t both the slogans on the red boards and those on the yellow ones manipulating us in a way?


Red board: Build your country, you will reinforce peace.

Yellow board: Give peace a chance.


Part IV. – Propaganda versus Advertising

(fictive logotypes, 5 minutes)

The students discover how close the political propaganda can be to advertising. The artwork displays logotypes and slogans for different fictive companies. The slogans often deal with important historical events (e.g. “we only have bare hands” is what Czech students yelled together before being cruelly beaten up by the communist police in the beginning of the 1989 revolution; here the slogan is added to a financial consultancy firm logo). The students discuss this relation also in conjunction with the previous artworks.

Part V. – The Value of Freedom Today and Yesterday

(TGM Chicken, 10 minutes)

The artwork by a Czech political art group has two parts. There are photographs taken from magazines published in communism, depicting people holding different extraordinary objects, mostly from nature – a large mushroom, pumpkin etc. They might be handymen, collectors. But we do not know anything about their background, we don´t know who might be a collaborator of the regime or who could be a secret literature publisher. In the communist times, people often escaped to the country, to their cottages, where they sought for freedom: they were away from the society, nobody could observe them. Nowadays we do not have to seek for personal freedom away from the established order. But there are other levels to the question. The second part of the artwork depicts four young girls all wearing a t-shirt with – at the first glance – a KFC logo. But when we look at it closely, it says TGM instead of KFC and depicts a portrait of the first president of democratic Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk – a symbol of freedom for the nation. In the times of communism, the western brands also stood for symbols of freedom – colorful bubble gums from Germany and KFC and McDonald’s from the USA. But nowadays the question becomes much more complex: the chains and brands can also lead to unification. We all eat, drink, dress and perhaps even think the same. Does the “KFC freedom” lead us to become unique or is it a totality in a way? The students discuss the meaning and value of freedom in communism and in democracy.


Part VI. – Am I Free?

(The Czech Dream video, 10 minutes)

The students watch a video called “The Czech Dream”. This is a documentary initiated by two young Czech filmmakers, who ordered a major advertising campaign for a non-existing supermarket called The Czech Dream. On the day of the ceremonial opening, about two thousand Czechs gather to shop in the supermarket. They ran towards it only to find out that it was a huge mystification: there was no supermarket, just a massive billboard. This draws us back to the beginning – the communist propaganda video. The people can be manipulated on such a large scale, regardless of whether the initiator is a (totalitarian) government, an advertising agent or the media. Perhaps we should trust our own opinion the most.


After viewing this video, the students receive a simple questionnaire, asking:

1. Are you free? 2. What are you thinking of right now?

Examples of given answers: (RESPONDENTS’ AGE 12-13)

Are you free?

Yes, I am.

What are you thinking of right now?

What have the communists gained by acting as they did.

Are you free?

From one point of view yes, from another I am not.

What are you thinking of right now?

I am amazed that the people who lived in the communist era even survived it. I don´t think I would survive back then. But on the other hand they didn´t have another option.

Are you free?

Yes, everything is available now and we can do what we want. But just to a certain extent. We couldn’t travel in communism, now we can. We have more options.

What are you thinking of right now?

How did the people who lived in communism feel, for instance the secret police agent. Or a common man, a communist.

Are you free?

Yes and no. We have a vast freedom in a sense. We don´t have to stand in a queue for oranges as people in communism did. But it is difficult in this world to differentiate oneself from the others. There are questions of different sexual orientation etc.

What are you thinking of right now?

What would it be like to live in communism. It is a big question. I hope this exhibition will partly answer it for me. I have so many questions, but it is not the same to imagine how it could have been and how it really was.

Part VII. – Poster Workshop

(lecture hall, 30 minutes)

The program ends with a workshop, during which the students, inspired by the artworks on display as well as by the discussions within the program, create their own (political) poster. They can use some of the slogans they dealt with during the visit of the exhibition or come up with their own ones. They can also work with logotypes of different fast-food brands (McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Dunkin Donuts…) and with pictures of several Czech notable personalities, including politicians, actors and singers.

In the end of the workshop each student presents his artwork to the rest of the group. A final reflection of the program is held.

POSTER WORKSHOP (slogans – from upper left: “Live your life fully, you never know when it ends”; “This is our president – Lisbon”; “Who doesn´t work shall not eat”)

Aim of the Program

The aim of this program is to teach the students about the Czech communist and post-communist era through different activities: perception of artworks, interpretation, discussion, and literary, dramatic and creative activities. The main goal is to make the students realize that our past was not black and white, that we can perceive it from different points of view. What is most important is not to forget about the totalitarian past, to value our freedom and not to let it be threatened by different systems of power.


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