The starting point for thinking about conceptions and possible strategies of action within this year’s SURVIVAL review was not one subject – especially because the entire festival did not have it – but a few key terms and introductory, consciously accepted frames.
To start with, there was a map/topography/idea of a city known very superficially – confronted with the reality, the perspective of the ground floor, street, pavement; the Four Temples District – a fascinating place, in the city centre, but as if in a slightly different time chronology, maze-like, with its own topography, history, traces of multiculturalism, but at the same time of the ongoing presence and of the problems connected with an unclear future. On the one hand, a classic example of ‘picturesque decay’ – old buildings which have not been renovated for years, stairwells with the paint peeling off the walls, elements of original architecture. Inhabited and abandoned at the same time. After the first, full of appreciation glance of a cultural tourist, there was an insight into a slightly more hidden dimension, with problematic and unwanted, rather unwealthy inhabitants, a community of the Roma people, abandoned flats. Nearby, nightclubs burstling with life at the weekends, making use of free spaces. All this creates an atmosphere of pending, variety, transitional period, informality – always very attractive for big-city searchers of exoticism.
A term which reoccurred many times during discussions with artists about the possible areas and forms of action within the SURVIVAL review was ‘regeneration’ – an ambiguous term, often overused in discussions about cities and contemporary urban planning, used also for manipulation.
For regeneration nowadays often means ‘gentrification’ – ridding ‘worse’ districts of the unwanted social structures – problematic, incompatible with a given model of urban marketing and, among others, unprofitable, and changing them into another fragment of the officially accepted urban structure.
The space was important – experienced in a given territory, in a precisely defined time period of three days. The space was the link between the past, the present and the future and, from the beginning, it was clear that the intervention will have to do with its various dimensions and transitions – accomplished not only through literal changes, regeneration, renewal, trnasformation – but happening constantly with the aid of imagination, expanding in different directions and layers: real, potential, or utterly fantastical. Working with the ‘memory of the place’ seemed less interesting in this case, too close to a nostalgic journey and ‘rediscovering’ the district, with no connection with the present and the approaching, undefined future. It was more inspiring to think about the possibilities of broadening the real, visible space by further dimensions – sound or purely imaginative, setting invisible borders and territories, referring to the past and the present through non-invasive signals which added new potential layers of the city space. Thus, the starting point was an individual, subjective city consisting of partial experiences, memories, but also fantasies, private paths, areas perceived as familiar and those being just discovered.
Artistic day-to-day life, political gestures and changes on the horizon, i.e. on the dangers en route
Examples of artistic action in the public space long ago shattered a naive belief, or rather a cultivated myth, in engaging naturally in a more authentic and direct dialogue with the audience. It is not only about the celebrated ‘moment of surprising the spectator’, ridding of the institutional golden cage of an art gallery, the supremacy of ‘real life’ over the ‘artificial’ territory of the museum. Entering the everyday life, which has already been mythologised in art, is connected with confronting the effects of artistic action on a place, the influence on its inhabitants, often with instrumentalisation on the part of those who have official or unofficial power in a given territory. Frequently, the declarative politicisation of artistic activity is but a ‘radical chic’, to put it bluntly, an attractive (especially for the artistic audience) simulation, turning empty, formal gestures up. As Marius Babias writes, ‘Within the process of globalisation, art was given a new role as embellisher and visual coloniser of everyday life. (…) artists organized exhibitions and projects first criticized the concepts of the ‘city’ and its ‘urbanity’ in the 1990s, only to see them become politically instrumentalised and absorbed by city marketing strategists. They then moved on to the new political spaces of action within a postcolonial conception of cultural globalism that emerged at the beginning of the new millenium. However these new political spaces are deceptive – not least because they are generated by inflationary art biennials in the periphery that often only serve to generate identity differentiation. They can always be made compliant, as an empty gesture of self-assertion, or consumable, as a commodity inside the globalised cultural economy’*.
The awareness of a complex social context, of the presence of the festival in this location and its role in the official policy of the city and in creating the image of Wrocław as, on the one hand, a modern and developing city, on the other – emphasising the role of culture in this process, created a peculiar distance from the actions which were directly connected with the present, which commented or tried to participate in the discussion about the history of the district. Going beyond the temporariness of manipulation-prone gestures, one-time ‘prosocial’ actions, stemmed from the willingness to act in the city layer which is experienced by all, without dividing artists into those who shape or comment on the everyday lives of others, without distinguishing several audiences (festival and local), or even an audience and actors (the inhabitants).
Language samples, i.e. who is afraid of german
Katarzyna Krakowiak in her work ‘Grosrosenloop 192 kbit/s’ used an invisible, but overwhelming sound layer of the city – which is the link between the past and the present. The installation, which worked thanks to the Bluetooth technology and used the audience’s private mobile phones which received messages in the form of sound files – which could be used as polyphonic ringtones – referred to the historic, everyday soundtrack of Breslau. The artist used the German language, the language of the former citizens of this city, but also the language of today’s tourists, which carries numerous associations and is interpreted in many ways. Moreover, there was a dissonance between the title and the content of the work, which consisted of fragments of German fans’ shouts after their triumphant football match with Poland during the EURO 2008 Tournament – overlapping, in turn, during the opening of the festival with the shouts of German viewers who were watching the live broadcast of the German team playing the Spanish. The shouts, because of their fragmentarisation into several-second pieces, were not easily recognisable. Language as the carrier of the image of the past, simultaneously permeated with an ambiguous emotion of unknown people, appeared as a message received individually by the audience. Like in the previous project of the artist, ‘Ashaver 220’, in the former Warsaw ghetto, which also made use of mobile technology, the message or communication signal was somehow distorted, questioned to become slightly anxious-arising spam. The message does not have an informative, esthetic or formal role, but is primarily intended to enhance the feeling of being in a given location, marking an invisible border where the past overlaps with the present more intensively.
Parasitic regeneration, i.e. a city in the whale’s stomach
‘Paracitus Urbanum Revitalis’, a work of Grzegorz Moskała, an architecture graduate of Warsaw University of Technology, was most closely related to the notion of regeneration in urban studies and as perceived when considering the future changes in the material structure of the district. The suggested system of regeneration differed, though, from the traditional practice; it followed the direction of biotechnological speculations and playing with the state of the city tissue, prompting the audience to think about the future of this part of the city rather than putting forward ready-made solutions. Thanks to the visualisations used, which were based on two chosen frames of the city – courtyards and tenements in front of the ‘Kamfora’ festival club and the view from Św. Antoniego Street, the audience could follow the process of literal devouring of buildings by a peculiar parasite. It is impossible not to see a kind of irony in the fact that the parasite spread in the form of systematically growing, from the moment of ‘infection’, white cubes, the archetypical form of architecture – but also of the contemporary art. The animations presented changes over the period of 72 hours – referring to the duration of the festival and depicting a radical change – total regeneration, based on devouring and absorbing the old by the supernew, sterile and shiny. But the original structure of the district was not corroded, did not break apart – as it happens in reality, what we witnessed here before the opening of the festival, when the ceilings of one of the tenements – otherwise a location for works – collapsed. Therefore, it was not regeneration through autodestruction, which is apparently in progress, but gradual, even though in the last stage of the development of the ‘parasite’ complete, covering of old tissue with new one. The question is, why should the unstable form inside, the shaky primeval matter, be left, and can it become the skeleton for a new, healthy tissue of the future? Will literal covering of the sight of a ruin with cubes, suppressing the past image of these houses, cause their noiseless disappearance, or will they become in the future the germ of disintegration from the inside, a hidden hotbed of decay?
‘Landscape after’, i.e. preserving the least durable traces
When walking through a narrow passage between yards, especially in the evening, it was easy not to see or literally step on white, caked drops of Aleksandra Went and Alicja Karska’s ‘Rain’. Three flat stains, resembling the natural shapes of puddles, drew attention through their peculiar colour and material – solid wax. Formal minimalism triggered figurative associations, though questioned by a surrealist message – imagining preserved drops, as if devoid of form in the process of sculpting. The sole gesture of preserving the ephemeral state of the city – a pavement covered with water – as if slows down the biological rhythm of the urban ecosystem, retains the temporary, incorporates nature in the image of an architectural structure created artificially from the very beginning, only to change it into a simulation on the edge of a joke. Simultenously, it evokes other images, like overscaled drops of wax of candles in churches, which burn long enough to flow on the marble floor and freeze. With all the ordinariness and modesty of the installation on grey, concrete ground, in its regularity on the edge of sublime esthetics and pure chance, there was a hidden signal for the audience’s imagination, which transported them back into the past, but also into the sphere of speculation.
‘Circulation’, on the other hand, which resounded with an unsettling murmur of water filling in and leaking out of a ruined swimming pool, emphasised by music, became an inherent part of its location in a narrow courtyard, where it could be watched both from close distance and from the corridors on higher floors. The ceaseless process of flowing, rising and falling, the symmetry of the view among enfeebled architecture introduced an element of inner anxiety, kept within defined limits of safety, but influencing the audience through its unsetlling and irrational pulse.
The common feature of Grzegorz Moskała, Katarzyna Krakowiak’s and Aleksandra Went, Alicja Karska’s projects – with all their individual differentiation – was the lightness of a gesture of momentary action, which could easily escape the attention, a little fragment which can be omitted, but also examined in detail in an individual scale, often very personal, like in the case of mobile messages reaching directly every person.
A community which is coming?
In view of the ongoing, since 1990s, ‘biennialisation’ and ‘festivalisation’ of art through a growing number of large-scale events aimed at tourists2, the necessity of organising new accumulations of artistic actions can be questioned. A peculiar moment which has emerged in recent years in Poland, among the numerous meetings of not only visual art audiences, is worth noticing; a moment of utmost importance due to the involvement of the audiences themselves, their mutual contact in the context of culture and their future social activity. Culture and art have become not only a territory of elite contemplation, but they started to gather spectators in a joint experience – which has, no matter how exaggerated it sounds, the features of a communal experience. We should only hope that it is not a moment on the way to passive consumption of cultural overproduction, but a stage towards self-aware participation.
1.Marius Babias, On the Strategic Use of Politics in the Context of Art, [w:] Art, City and Politics in an Expanding World. Writings from the 9th International Istanbul Biennial, Istanbul 2005, p. 291.
2.Jesko Fezer, Mathias Heyden, The Ambivalence
of Participation and Situational Urbanism,
[w:] Urban/Act. A Handbook for alternative practice, eds. aaa-PEPRAV, Paris 2007, p. 329.