PRAGUE — One Sunday, several months ago, early risers gazing at Czech Television’s CT2 channel saw picturesque panoramas of the Czech countryside, broadcast to the wordless accompaniment of elevator music. It was the usual narcoleptic morning weather show. Then came the nuclear blast.
Across the Krkonose Mountains, or so it appeared, a white flash was followed by the spectacle of a rising mushroom cloud. A Web address at the bottom of the screen said Ztohoven.com.
Ztohoven, to no one’s great surprise, turned out to be a collective of young artists and friends who had previously tinkered with a giant neon sculpture of a heart high atop Prague Castle, and managed (during a single night, no less) to insert announcements for an art opening inside all 750 lighted advertising boxes in the city’s subway system.
Not long ago a film that became a local hit, “Czech Dream,” documented a boondoggle by two young Czech filmmakers, who enlisted advertisers and publicists to devise a marketing scheme for a nonexistent supermarket. The movie’s goal, like Ztohoven’s, was to wag the dog: lampoon media manipulation and public gullibility. In the trailer hundreds of shoppers swarm a weedy field, rushing toward what they believe to be the store, which turns out to be a painted backdrop. The mushroom cloud, in a sense, upped the ante on the supermarket.
To hack into the CT2 broadcast, Ztohoven simply switched cables on an unmanned, remote camera at a limestone quarry in the mountains, which the artists had scouted three years earlier. Then they piped in their video. The name Ztohoven makes a pun in Czech that means both “out of it” and an obscenity. Rightly, the group presumed this would tip off viewers that the explosion was fake, in case they hadn’t already guessed it from the cheesy special effects.
Contrary to what the British press reported, no “War of the Worlds” panic ensued. So far as anyone can tell, not a single sleepy-eyed Czech viewer was frightened by the stunt, their lack of fear, the state attorney said, not being the explanation for the curious charge of “attempted” scaremongering. (The charge is a Czech legal fine point.)
As for exactly who the group’s members are, that remains something of a mystery, which Ztohoven theatrically guards. Even the state prosecutor said over the phone the other day it was private information until the trial. Nevertheless three members of the group — two amiable ringleaders and a quiet, sweet-faced 26-year-old who looked as if he were 12 — agreed to meet at an empty cafe over coffee and Coke. They declined to give their names. But they brought a film crew.
Turns out, Ztohoven includes no women. “That’s the problem of radicalism,” sighed the threesome’s 33-year-old elder statesman, who called himself Roman Tyc. (The pun works in English.) “To get together for pranks is also more difficult now that we’re getting into our 30s.”
His associate, in a pastel crewneck sweater, who gave his name as Zdenek Dostal, and whom the highly voluble Roman had a tendency to talk over, said the action on Czech Television, which Ztohoven titled “Media Reality,” was “not meant to be threatening but to land softly on the public consciousness so that people won’t let themselves be brainwashed.”
The artists just wanted to startle viewers “from their lethargy,” piped in the quietest member of the trio, Mira Slava (punningly, “peace and fame”). All three Ztohovenites recoiled at a description of an art project some years back entailing fake bombs left in a New York subway station, which briefly shut part of the city down.
Nothing really happened at all here, initially, anyway. Ladislav Sticha, the tall spokesman for Czech Television, told me that the show’s audience was “miniature” — presumably he meant small in number. Only a few people, among them perplexed hikers checking the weather before setting out for a Sunday stroll, called or sent e-mail messages to inquire.