Pasztor, Erika Katalina | media artist
Budapest, Hungary
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animation by Tibor Nádas
published in:
Leonardo Art & Science, MIT Press, Cambridge, (U.S.) 2005, issue: 39:1

After Midnight: spicy little things from Budapest (Hungary)

Although many of my friends look at the changes here with far less optimism, let us be practical: the optimistic version is much shorter. Besides, I had better look at my glass, as it is halfway (or rather only a tenth?) full, than it is empty. This is a mind game, in which pessimism was mainly the winner here for a long time. I will try to draw a rough sketch of some people and activities, which may, I think, influence the peoples’ mind, opening up new perspectives in the interactions between art, science and technology. These are the special spicy little things for me, the standalone civil initiatives, which play the mind game optimistic to grow from the bottom to the top in the coming years. Yet first, I describe briefly the wider local context, where these interactions may occur.


The financing of research activities (in art, science and technology) is a core problem here. It is definitively dependent on the ruling government and its decision makers, as the private sector still takes only a smaller part in sponsoring these fields. Since 1989, in almost every segment of life, the government granted special tax exemptions the affiliates of large international companies’ and privatized the major share of the main industries to them. Resources like sponsorship of global companies are controlled by their global enterprise strategy; therefore, far less of these companies playing significant role in supporting local culture, art and science than might have been expected. The R&D expenditure as a percentage of GDP is about the half in Hungary (~1%) than in the rest of the EU (~2%), where the 55% of the funds are coming from the business sector. In Hungary, the same sector’s contribution to R&D is around 30%[i]. Colouring the picture, during the last 16 years, Hungary has produced its dichotomic political brands, strongly relying on different cultural accents. Overall values and commonplaces like local contra global or traditional contra modern are characterizing the dividing line, but it has far more complicated and sensitive components in daily life, in which the over-simplified political propaganda mediate it as irreconcilable differences to the public. After a decade of discussing it, many people fed up with the polarized mainstream politics now, which leaves by itself more and more room for alternative movements. There is a growing bottom-up (and more or less independent) civil world, which makes our daily life rich in rising initiatives generating new spaces to transform the urban landscape both physically and mentally. By forming, developing and maintaining new communities, these young initiatives use the internet and its related technologies intensively. New communities need new physical environments, so they convert old houses or formal industrial areas into new, usually temporary pubs, galleries, and workshops, or all-in-one cultural institutions.


[Intensive networking] This country with its ten million inhabitants has about 800 thousand micro and small enterprises. It means that almost every twelfth person is self-employed, relatively independent and certainly defenseless. Many of them are artists, researchers, journalists, etc. employed on a project or contract base, with their commissions via personal acquaintances. Physical and virtual public spaces became extremely important to meet and exchange information within this multi-interwoven social network. Everybody knows everyone via just a few other acquaintances in this city. This was the basic concept of a few young guys (Péter Petrovics, Márton Szabó, Zsolt Várady, with backgrounds in information science, sociology and economy) and their artist friends founding the WiW collective in Budapest, 2002[ii]. It started as a hobby with no monies involved, and though it developed into a small enterprise, until today they work on the project without pay. The WiW is an invitation based Who-is-Who database-driven website collecting social connections. Entering the site, you can gather acquaintances, generate a graphical map (graphs) of your social network, form teams and join to projects, find a job or just use WiW to have a party. The average age of the members is about 26, and now, after three years, WiW has more than 100 thousand registered users and near 1.2 million connections. In September 2005, WiW will go international (in other languages) with a new brand name: iWiW.


[Sheds instead of garages] This year two great surprises caused a stir in the local media here. A high school student, Dániel Rátai (19) won several prizes and the category award in Computer Science with his invention at the world competition of Intel ISEF[iii]. The “Leona3Do 3D for All!”, Rátai’s invention converts your personal computer into a fascinating three-dimensional environment, where you are able to draw objects with your digital pen directly onto the screen. The remarkable thing is that he made it all – like tuning in the shed - at his home, using materials worth less than US$ 150. At the same time, he achieved better quality in many different aspects then the most expensive Reachin systems or HMD displays developed by the contribution of serious investments. It is a homemade innovation, like the young architect Áron Losonczi’s global patent of LitraCon[iv], a light-transmitting concrete, which is a combination of optical fibers and fine concrete. This new material won several awards, including the eminent reddot design “the best of the best” in 2005. Probably the editors of London based icon architecture + design magazine best defined its significance in choosing LitraCon (next to IKEA) amongst to the most influential, changing the design landscape of the 21st century. Áron Losonczi studied architecture in Budapest and Stockholm, while he has his workshop in a small town called Csongrád, 160 km south of Budapest. It is a great success, but it is still funny to imagine his small, low-budget manufacture as the birthplace of a completely new building material, entering the global market in autumn 2005.


[Small steps to change the minds] During the five years of its existence, the – the single architectural daily in Hungary - managed to become the relevant resource of local architecture, its related public life and issues, urban development and visual arts. The main goal of this new media initiative was to improve the quality of the local built environment by creating a fresh, independent and high standard cultural environment on the internet. Looking at the deteriorated conditions of public spaces, there was an urgent task to integrate the questions of built environment into the daily common talk of the local society. Later, its interdisciplinary team (media artists, architects, communication and information science specialists) introduced new art and research practices alongside their daily media practice. One of their several initiatives is a travelling video installation, the 15 years transit presents contemporary Hungarian architecture within a special framework. It is actually a qualitative survey of the local designers’ world; an audiovisual sociology (interviews with 27 leading architects and presenting 13 projects) projected on three large spatial video screens. Currently the architectforum team works on a politically provocative internet project, the Public Games investigating the effects on urban development caused by the changing motivations of city politicians.


While from a touristic point of view Budapest has amazing historical sites, fascinating views and a vivid cultural scene, permanent residents are becoming active in civil organizations dealing with environmental issues. The recently noticeable rapid growth of interest in sustainability has turned the public’s attention towards the new technological solutions in several different areas of life, especially in architecture and building construction. In 1996, architect Attila Ertsey, founding and leading the Soft Technology Foundation, built a life-size model of his Autonomous House. His team’s aim was to prove that family houses installed with soft technology can funtion separately from the public utilities; hereby the inhabitants might have been independent from service companies. Since then, he has extended his concept towards the autonomous region and city[v], and by developing detailed strategies of sustainability, he has contributed significantly to the local eco-village and to the currently emerging eco-city movements. In many polarized cultural discourses, especially in association with ecology, the traditional turned against modern, village against city, old against new. Eco-consciousness in the formal Eastern European region is a quite new but rapidly unfolding issue. Designers like Ertsey, with the awareness of technology and having a complex view, help to clear detrimental simplifications slowly away.


From this point of view, the lack of big science, big industry and high-tech definitely has advantages. It enforces creative survival. Of course, it is hell of a job with many difficulties, and the most distressing thing is, that there are everywhere huge obstacles built, of course, by our larger community. Most of us fail in this struggle, give up, or are just partly sucessful. This makes the glass halfway empty. However, these kinds of examples mentioned above, are always inspiring alternatives, emerging from sheer civil courage, outstanding talent and/or from determined critical aspects. Halfway and a bit more, this makes me optimistic here after midnight.


July 29, 2005 Budapest,

Erika Katalina Pásztor

[i] The data comes from different years (EU: 2001-2002, Hungary: 2003). Resources: Hungarian Central Statistical Office (online:; EUROSTAT (online:

[ii] Incidentally, with regard to the WiW and its very up-to-date concept: in the same year when WiW was released in Budapest, the Perseus Books Group (Cambridge, MA) published an international bestseller with the title, Linked: The New Science of Networks” written by a physicist of Hungarian origin, Albert-László Barabási.

[iii]  Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, Phoenix, Arizona

[iv] Some more printed publications: DOMUS (I) November 2004, p. 40-51.; New York Times, June 8, 2005

[v] Attila Ertsey: The Autonomous City. The Expert’s Vision 2004. The research project run between 2002-04 in the Independent Ecology Center in Budapest.


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