The Bastard Prompt

The work of Josef Bolf (1971) can be considered one of the purest generational statements made by an artist born in the 1970s. With the media of drawing and painting, Bolf has found a way of comprehensibly articulating and manifesting the atmosphere of childhood and adolescence in Czechoslovakia during Normalization. Today, evocations of the era’s conflicting moods and visual representations of prefab high-rise housing estates are canonical examples of our shared experience of the uniform socialist way of life and of the collectivization that the totalitarian system applied universally across all of society. The motif of children’s helplessness and naiveté, brutally deformed into oppressive and hopeless dreams and nightmares and further shaped by a compensatory imagination, is found in various forms throughout Bolf’s work to this day. The basic foundation for this feeling is a sense of skepticism resulting from something that has been lost forever but that nevertheless emerges every now and then as a reminder of a “golden age” that has irretrievably become a part of the past.
In order to break free from his own prescribed script, one that he himself finds restrictive, and to more freely move about in parallel times and spaces where he can (among other things) explore his own past but above all delve into the world of fiction, Bolf seeks inspiration in reading. In this regard, he has found a kindred spirit in his generational peer, the British author China Miéville – specifically in his short story The Bastard Prompt, in which things begin to diverge from an anticipated script. The plot involves an exacting medical experiment whose main protagonists are a group of actors hired to perform (interpret) the symptoms of an illness as part of a training program during which young medical students learn how to diagnose illnesses by identifying the actors’ symptoms. The job of the actors is to portray “standardized patients.” But the teaching exercise slowly degenerates into a new and unclear situation. The method’s assumptions fail and, taking a dark turn, the exercise spirals out of control. By their repeated actions, the performers – “mechanical interpreters” of known illnesses – begin to exhibit something new and previously unknown. The question hangs in the air: What is going on here?
With his art, Josef Bolf creates above all a space for expressing his generation’s feelings in all their indistinctness and uncertainty. The prototype of the “standardized patient” can be applied to any methodical “internalization” of a painful experience. But familiarity with a problem does not guarantee a fundamental understanding, which requires personal experience – something that is difficult to share and convey directly. Instead, we tend to resort to established linguistic metaphors and turns of phrase that suddenly begin to stutter, falter, and become incomprehensible. Hence the need to stage a repeated experience within new frameworks and place it into new contexts. Only in this way can we see something new differently or something different in a new way. The postmedia situation in which we live is so creative that everything we experience is immediately converted into a movie reference, an advertising slogan, or a linguistic metaphor. Meanings are imprisoned in their staged source material. And that, unfortunately, is how we automatically read them. Quickly, for we are at the mercy of speed. But there often is no other way.
Petr Vaňous
Some (Not All) Futures