Robert Carrithers is an American photographer and filmmaker who moved to Prague in the early 1990s. He is one of seven voices in our series of monologues on the city of Prague. You can read more here.
12: 15 pm: Robert Carrithers
The first time I arrived in Prague was in 1990. Why did I come? That’s something I’ve asked myself plenty of times. Needless to say it was completely different back in those days. I remember the main train station was painted pink and had these incredibly unsanitary toilets that you could smell a mile away. When I walked to the city center for the first time I could clearly hear people’s voices and footsteps because there was almost no traffic. This is something that is not possible now with all of the congested traffic in the city center. It was an open atmosphere with a feeling that anything could happen and everything was possible. There was an expressive enthusiasm and optimism with all of the musicians playing on the street, dancing, and performing. At the time, there were practically no tourists and not a single fast-food chain. The only thing you could grab quick was chlebícek, which is an open faced sandwich filled with mayonnaise and assorted types of meat. The beer and sandwiches were 5 crowns and the metro was only 2 crowns. It drew people from all over the world, especially an incredible amount of Americans—some forty thousand living here between 1990 and 1993. I would say there were three types: those who were here to follow some sort of business opportunity; those here to create art; and those here for the cheap beer and Czech women. The latter you could identify immediately because they were always drunk day and night.
I came out of curiosity and I stayed in Prague because of my son. But I also feel comfortable here. My heyday was New York in the early eighties at the creative clubs Club 57 and Danceteria, which was an intense, once-in-a-lifetime situation. Of course, New York doesn’t have that spirit anymore now.
To make a very long story short, before I moved to Prague I’d been having a good time in Berlin, but I wanted to see what was happening in a completely post-communist society. I had read The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Kafka and knew about the Prague Spring in ’68, so history and literature were a big draw for me. Back then, it was said that Prague was like Paris in the twenties, with all of the open mic nights and poetry readings that were happening. An especially important one was Beef Stew, where you could get up and read anything you wanted—poetry, an excerpt from a novel, a performance piece, a shopping list . . . Occasionally it was incredibly bad, but there were also some real diamonds. The event was hosted in a place located near I.P. Pavlova called Radost FX, which actually still exists, even though it’s only a place for dancing now. I remember being there for a writer’s conference and seeing a discussion between Václav Havel and Arthur Miller. At the time, Havel was president, and needless to say, the whole experience was surreal. I mean, what head of state would go to a club like that? I was practically standing next to him and there was no problem with security. It was a very relaxed affair. The whole city was incredibly raw. Bunker clubs underneath the blown-up Stalin statue, debauchery . . You never paid to go anywhere. Nobody was in control. Art was everywhere.
That all has changed very quickly. Today, the optimism is gone, and the average Czech person is usually only interested in making as much money as possible, working twelve-hour days enslaved to their companies. It’s sad. However, there’s still a very strong creative and gallery scene. Even in summer, I could go to an opening three or four times a week if I want to, which is uncommon for galleries. You might even say that now there’s more of a genuine underground scene that’s formed in response to the predominant workaholic mentality. Also, compared to the nineties, which was so much about the expat scene, lots of up and coming artists today in Prague are Czech.
I think there’s a strong connection between Prague and Berlin, and it’s more than just a fast train. There was always a big exchange of bands—The Methylated Spirits, Fatal Shore, Once In a Lifetime, Hugo Race . . . I was always trying to connect the two cities, even if they’re two different realities and Berlin has by far the bigger and more intense cultural scene. I would venture to guess that Prague unfortunately has far more corruption. I describe the political situation here as a Kleptocracy. It’s a government of thieves. They’re stealing and it’s totally out in the open. People are somehow powerless against it though. No young people want to go into politics these days. It’s a vicious circle. I hope things change soon, because the corruption here is really out of control.
This text first appeared in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 31 (Fall 2012)
Photo: Luci Lux