Explosive prank could spell fine or even prison for members of artistic group

Last June, a group of artists called Ztohoven hijacked a Czech Television programme to broadcast images of a nuclear bomb going off on a peaceful Czech hillside. The mock explosion may have been and gone in a flash, but the fallout has far from disappeared. Last month, Ztohoven won an award from the Czech National Gallery for the work. On Wednesday, State Attorney Dušan Ondráček said that he had brought charges against the group.

Elevator music may seem an unlikely soundtrack to a nuclear explosion – but it was to this tune that hackers broadcast images of an atomic bomb detonating in the Czech hills last June. The images were broadcast on Czech Television’s morning show Panorama, which - as its name would suggest - streams weather news across the bottom of the screen while panning across some of the Czech Republic’s most idyllic spots.

Czech Television was not amused and pressed charges against the group behind the stunt – Ztohoven. On Wednesday, State Attorney Dušan Ondráček said that he had taken up the case:

“The members of this group have been charged with scaremongering and propagating false information, according to paragraph 199 of the penal code.”

But not everyone disliked Ztohoven’s actions. Last month, the group won a prestigious award from the Czech National Gallery for the work – which has been titled Media Reality. The group won 333,000 CZK (18,350 USD) in prize money.

Milan Knížák is the head of the National Gallery. He explains why Ztohoven won the NG 333 prize:

“This piece – alongside all of the art the group Ztohoven is making - is crossing the border from art into something more social. The artists are trying to escape from the cage of art, and into real life. They would like to influence their own lives, and other people’s lives.”

But wasn’t the jury which decided upon the winner in two minds about awarding a group currently undergoing criminal investigation?

“We are an artistic jury, we are not lawyers, we are not policemen. We don’t care. And if the group did something that was maybe against the law then okay, society can punish them. But this has nothing to do with our award. We believe that their intentions were good – and sometimes art crosses the borders of law.”

But back to State Attorney Dušan Ondráček – does he not think that Ztohoven’s work was a clever and funny piece of art? When does art stop being art, and become a crime?

“It’s when an individual’s actions fall into the category of a criminal offence as outlined by this country’s penal code. The police and the state attorney should investigate such actions, regardless of whether they have some artistic value or significance.”

The trial of six members of the Ztohoven group is expected to start in under a month. If they are found guilty, the artists could face up to three years in prison or a hefty fine. We will soon see if that prize money from the National Gallery ends up covering legal costs and damages.