Auto*Mat and Images from Prague

In Czech, the word Automat means a machine, maybe even an automobile.

If, however, you split it in two halves, and write it like “Auto*Mat”, it actually means “Check-mate for automobiles”.

This explanation alone would be over-simplified. We like to split the word in many other different ways and give it a whole variety of meanings.

Auto*Mat is an organisation and a movie. The movie is about the organisation, which is based in the city of Prague, Czech Republic. It also discusses the love for the automobile and the thinking of people in early 21st century Europe. The organisation is the movie. The two are inseparable. We make the movie, we watch the movie and we live the movie.
Czech newspapers have recently reported that the number of cars in our admired historical capital will soon outnumber people. Prague, with its narrow and curvy old town streets, poetic tinkering gas lamps and excellent public transport, has more cars per head than any other European capital.

Much as a consequence, Czech people generally dislike the city. What we call the “weekend peak-hour” happens every Saturday when masses of people leave the town for their countryside cottages. There are too many cars and they are everywhere: parked on streets, on pavements, in the reflection of gothic church windows, in frames on the walls in homes, and in people’s heads.

In Auto*Mat, we believe in the importance of images. A pianist appears out of nowhere in the middle of a busy highway in the town centre and facing the halted traffic, on a grand piano and accompanied by a full orchestra that materialises on the pavement, he starts to play a song. The song is about a circle that’s closing itself. Then he disappears and the traffic starts flowing again.

Another day, beautiful white angels wearing mouth screens appear all across the city. Some of them are helping people to cross the street. You see them smiling about something hidden in the middle of an ugly and busy intersection and you wonder, what does it all mean. Then you get home, turn on the TV and you see them again in the evening news leading a group of several thousand happy cyclists, apparently celebrating something in a city where hardly anybody cycles. The camera is rolling as they drive on a highway bridge that the communists had once tested with rows of heavy military tanks. And you wonder even more.

When we draw Auto*Mat on pictures, we playfully think of it as a machine which runs through the city streets, auto*matically eating the automobiles, the dirt and the banality of the space, while leaving behind trees, cycling children, high quality public spaces, outdoor cafés and places to meet. We sell these images on T-shirts to people and we also sell them to politicians and journalists.

It is a well-known story in Prague that the man who started assembling this machine died a few years ago when out on his bicycle. He had complained to the city about this particular intersection many times before, saying it was potentially deadly to cyclists and pedestrians. Did he suspect back then that he would be evidence to prove it?

The crossroad didn’t change much even after this sad accident except for the reminiscent white bicycle and occasional candles. We still lobby to fix it. But there are other things that did change. There are visibly more cyclists in the streets nowadays, and under our pressure the city has finally started to systematically create provisions for bicycles. Some big projects for sustainable transportation have been undertaken to make the streets more friendly to people. Our current battle is about Magistrala – an expressway built right through the heart of the city by the communists 40 years ago, cutting important squares and whole neighbourhoods in half. The city wants to keep it, but we want to turn it into a city boulevard. The fate of this construction is now in the process of being decided.

But we continue to ask – what really matters? There is yet another meaning behind the way the word Auto*Mat is split in two by an asterisk, which is more subtle and not so obvious. If you think about it, automatism is the opposite of creativity. When some engineers think of traffic, they automatically think of highways. Or when we think of a street, we might automatically think of heaps of cars and ugliness. It’s the asterisk in the middle of the word that breaks it into pieces. It’s the pianist in the middle of the highway or the angel in the dirty intersection which undermines the whole essence of automatisms.

Article by Hynek Hanke

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