Ztohoven in the Firing Line

The Czech police want to put a controversial guerrilla art group behind bars

The Prague police have always had plenty of work and now, by their own doing, they have even more. Last week, they charged 12 members of the guerrilla art group Ztohoven with damaging someone else's rights. Because of that, the 12 face two years in prison. So what happened?

Last year, the artists altered photos of themselves using a technique called morphing and applied for new ID cards using these fake pictures. Over the course of six months they used the IDs to travel abroad and vote, and one of them even got married. The whole project was presented at a gallery in downtown Prague under the name Občan K. ("Citizen K.") -- a play on the Czech word for ID card as well as the hero of a Franz Kafka novel. It could and should have ended there, but it didn't.

The police have evidently decided to go after Ztohoven, probably because they can't forget the stunt involving a fake nuclear explosion the group pulled three years ago. At that time Ztohoven were charged with scaremongering but the court ultimately ruled that the group had committed only a minor offence and didn't even have to pay a fine.

It's interesting that while the public is only mildly interested in or sympathetic toward the Ztohoven group, the police see red any time they hear about them. Initially, they theatrically arrested one of the group's members in the street, pinning him to the ground. And now the police are accusing Ztohoven of breaching paragraph 181 of the criminal code, a far more serious charge than any they've faced before. The law states that anybody who damages another person's rights by deliberately misleading them faces up to two years in prison or a ban on their work activity. Banning Ztohoven from working as artists is practically impossible, however -- the group usually dissolves when a project is completed anyway. So the main issue is whether or not they face a prison sentence.

But for what? For finding a weakness in a system that allows people to use their own photos when applying for new IDs? For discovering that no identity checks are made when an ID card is issued? For making fun of customs officers, polling station staff and a registrar? For all those things, they deserve to be praised. After all, as a result of Ztohoven's actions, the authorities have now begun photographing people for their ID cards directly on the premises.

Ztohoven's manifestos are frequently unconvincing and unpleasantly sharp. With the Občan K. project, the group hoped to convince their fellow citizens that they can realize their identities more fully by giving them up, which doesn't make much sense. Can we really strengthen our own identity by using a friend's ID for six months? Flawed arguments and an exaggerated self-importance are something we can reproach artists for. But is it really a good enough reason to send them to prison?

Note: Ztohoven is a play on words that means either "out of that" or "a hundred turds." (The two phrases are written differently but pronounced the same way.)

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