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//A City Is Not a Business// - Elżbieta Sala

A City Is Not a Business - Elżbieta Sala

‘A landscape is not a thing – a city is not a business’ reads the slogan of the Krakow social and artistic  Alcon Blue Collective, on its web page. ‘We operate without institutional support, our budget is nil, we have cardboard wings and the burning need to make ourselves heard on the topic of Zakrzówek.’ [1]

Zakrzówek is a green space situated close to Krakow’s city centre. It consists of a reservoir where an open-pit mine used to bein a former quarry, surrounded by meadows. Ecologically, it is exceptional. In its ecosystem live protected species, including the Alcon Blue butterfly, which needs a pure clean environment. Zakrzówek’s location and free access to that semi-wild beauty spot have contributed to its great popularity amongst Cracovians. While the area was public and access unrestrained, everyone could come here to spend pleasant leisure time. In August 2011, this spot which is as beautiful as it is dangerous (this year alone, eight peplepeople have drowned there) was fenced off by the developer who had bought the land from the Municipal City cCouncil. In spite of that, the public still manages to get in and stands united in defence of the unusual spot.

 

A collective ‘No’!

The Alcon Blue Collective was born in the spring of 2011, on the initiative of four artists: Monika Drożyńska, Cecylia Malik, Justyna Koeke and Karolina Kłos, in reaction to the plans of the Municipal Council, which has envisaged that in the future Zakrzówek would be developed by private enterprise. The developer intends to erect a housing estate on the meadow next to the reservoir. There is also a possibility, or rather a danger, that the road to the estate will become a thoroughfare. In order to persuade Cracovians to view his scheme in a positive light, the developer has been tempting them with a promise of creating a reacreationalrecreational park around the acincident-prone reservoir. In real terms, the proposed development sounds a death toll to the delicate eco-system. A solution favoured by the Alcon Blue Collective is to create a recreational space, but withourwithout blocks of flats or a car park, which would be for public use, open to everyone and not only to those who could afford to pay to get in.

The artists highlight the fact that the estate, ‘once built, is there to stay’. The lifespan of a city is not the same as the political lifespan of a one-term politician or even the lifespan of an individual, so it is wrong to make decisions about construction projects based on short-term considerations.  ‘How can we be sure that, after a few decades, the Municipal CouncilCity Council won’t lose control over private land?’, they ask. The Collective urges a rejection of the local government’s logic in decision-making, where the long-term social cost of an investment is overlooked ignored in favour of a short-term gain.

My City, My Business

The Alcon Blue Collective follows firmly in the wake of social projects which set out to increase the involvement of the local community in how their city is governed. Let’s recall, for instance, the Katowice campaign Mend Your City or the Group of Certain People from Łόdź, who carried out a few dozens of actions. Krakow is at the forefront of such activities, especially where actions with artist participation are concerned. In the recent years, many social-cum-artistic projects have kicked off, which aim to transform the city byvia drawing attention to social issues (the City Project, the Project ‘Salt’, the Artistic Group Scab or the Artistic Group Factorial Function).

The women founders of the Alcon Blue Collective, called the Alcon Blue Mothers, are themselves a rare species: artists committed to getting involved on behalf of public space. Karolina Kłos co-founded the Culture Reservoir, which has taken on board the revitalisation of Krakow’s Zabłocie. Monika Drożyńska, with her project Let’s Sew! has helped to save the Cultural Centre in Wola Duchacka. Justyna Koeke and Cecylia Malik were in charge of the Smoleńska Street 22/8 action, which opposed tenant evictions and gentrification.

Those who comment on the Zakrzówek project mostly focus on the green theme (which is probably due to its symbol being a protected species of a butterfly), but only rarely mention its relevance for the city or the role of Cracovians themselves in the development of the area. Another issue – highlighted by the Collective – which flies under the radar is the class aspect of the problem: the fact that Zakrzówek is as popular as it is because, for many, it is the only affordable away-day option. As for the artistic dimension of the action, it never gets mentioned at all.

However, the role that art plays in the venture is considerable. For years, green activists associated with the Green Zakrzówek organisation haved been battling to save the space, yet it was only after the Alcon Blue women bigged updrew attention to the problem  the problem  that it has entered the public awareness. Even though the artists emphasise that they aim to achieve a clear-cut goal, the project can be interpreted on many levels. The Collective is not only an original civic initiative, but also an artistic performance, which has lasted some months and is still going strong. According to our own predilection, we can perceive it as a project which raises a universal green issue, or as a campaign by a local community to ensure that it is the will of the city’s inhabitants that decides what decisions are made about its infrastructure, and not the making of a quick buck. Analysis of the Alcon Blue Collective generates further questions: to what extent does the very form of a political activity haves an impact on who can join in and on what terms? Whom has this action politicised, and why?

Butterfly people

The Save Zakrzówek campaign has achieved wide recognition, thanks to its humorous and distinct artistic form. Its supporters expressed their views, with blue wings attached to their shoulders. Some, likeas Cecylia Malik, did this day in day out; others, only during get-togethers and demonstrations. The artists brought the action to urban spaces, attaching wings to Krakow’s monuments.

In order to stimulate a public response, Justyna Koeke made short films, to be viewed online, providing information on how to make the necessary props, and how to behave and have fun on a demo. A workshop for making wings was set up. Those who didn’t have the guts to run around with blue wings on their shoulders, were encouraged to show their support in an alternative way, for example by donning blue clothes or carrying cardboard butterflies on a stick. To facilitate daily support for the Alcon Blue, Monika Drożyńska painted the nails of volunteers blue. The action has developed dynamically, aided and abetted by the social media. The Collective supporters have been swapping photos on social networking websites and posted links to relevant blogs. Thanks to its great visual potential, the action soon attracted the attention of mainstream media both in Poland and abroad.

This can’t be serious?

An article about the Collective observed that, ‘at first glance, this project does not seem totally serious’. [2] Can the Alcon Blue Collective be considered a civic intitiativeinitiative with gravitas? Did sticking sky-blue wings on the Wawel dragon serve to popularise the most important issues, or, on the contrary – to ridicule them? Is it possible to express views while painting nails, singing and dancing, and attaching colourful objects to respectable monuments? Is a mere butterfly worthy of the attention of politicians?

What makes the Collective exceptional is not that it raises green or urban issues. Nor is it the artists’ involvement. What stands out is its unique special ingredient – its sense of humour – which we won’t find in other similar initiatives. The Collective seems a particularly interesting phenomenon if we view it as a life-affirming action which takes into consideration not only work, but also reacreationrecreation, fun and creativity. The action acknowledges all that is receptive, childlike, sensitive and entertaining in public space. This an is an appeal to re-consider not only the aims, but also the form, of urban policies.

One of the accusations levied at the Alcon Blue was that the public attended the Collective’s activities in order to join in the fun. However, playing, especially in a social context, matters just as much as work does; it helps one to survive in difficult times and to build a community, it teaches social roles and it allows a sense of detachment from the problems that we may be experiencing. To have a sense of humour is to not be serious – granted; but it is notneither is it to be naïve. It reveals reality without the veneer of pomposity; it enables us to grasp that the way things are at present may not always have been the case. After all, tailored suits are only uniforms, just as much as blue wings may be.

Who does Public public Space space Belong belong to?

It is possible to not like the Alcon Blue Collective, just as one might dislike any other political campaign. Between a butterfly person, who defends all that is childlike and creative and cares about the quality of everyday life, and a be-suited person, with a utilitarian attitude to life,  there is an entire spectrum of notions of what constitutes ‘the good life’. However, it is worthwhile to ask: to what extent do the emotions triggered by the Collective stem from our logo- and androcentricandrocentric ideas about what the political arena should concern?

The Alcon Blue Collective has mobilised and made visible the group interests which are barely noticeable in the political arena. The majority of Alcon activists are women; in their actions there  participate many older people as well as – strikingly so – children. The Collective has also changed the language. There is no mention of the founding fathers; instead, we talk about the four Alcon mothersMothers. The artists themselves have chosen this name.

When the blue-winged women were conquering Krakow’s monuments, suddenly, it became crystal-clear what it is that was missing from the pedestals. There are no women there, no nature, no humour. There is pathos, arms and bronze. All this puts us in conflict with the issue of urban space which, just likeas the monuments, serves someone’s purpose; it is created for a reason. Can a monument perform a similar function for a city’s inhabitants that as Joanna Rajkowska’s [3] Supply of Extra Oxygen did, or does it always have to be a group of marching soldiers? What do we feel about monuments: do we like them,them?  cCan we be intimately attached to them? The organisation of urban infrastructure is a particularly topical issue for Krakow artists.

One of the artistic events around this theme which took place in Krakow was Kiss, an action generated by Aneta Rostkowska, Julia Heuer and the Umschichten group, led by the architect Łukasz Lendziński, as well as Justyna Grylewicz. Cracovians, donning wedding dresses or suits, made previously at a specially organised workshop, were lifted off the ground by a cherry-picker so that they could reach up to kiss the statue of Wyspiański. Monika Drożyńska’s project which involved the unpopular statue of Adam Mickiewicz in Nowy Sącz also referred to the issue of individual relationship with public space. Under the inscription ‘To Adam Mickiewicz from the Sądecki Region’, the artist arranged another inscription, made with flowers, which read, ‘ To‘To Adam Mickiewicz from Monika Drożyńska’.

What function does art have here? The greatest obstacle in transforming reality is the inability to envisage change; a lack of space in which the question could be asked: do we have to continue living like this? Human creativity, which stimulates contact with art, makes it possible to tackle this problem differently, stepping outside of the accustomed paradigm, in this case – neo-liberal logic – which is focused on the profit principle and insensitive to the social or life needs of the inhabitants.

Means or aims?

The aArtists who step out into the political arena, may try to make a point, to re-define or ridicule an issue or to expose the rules of engagement, but what they cannot do is to annihilate the political game itself. This means that they will be judged by whether their actions have been justified, how effective they have been and what consequences they have had. What must be taken into account when evaluating a political action is not only the professed aim and the degree to which it has been achieved (which is not always entirely under the artist’s control) but also the means and the form of the action itself, in which the unarticulated motives are expressed.

In the demonstration which took place last June, a few hundred of butterfly people took part. The Councillors of the MunicipalityCity Councillors were invited to meet at a blue table. At the meeting in Zakrzówek between the Collective and the politicians, the City’s Deputy Mayor said that no decisions had been made and that she would aim to satisfy the demands of the Collective. The politician displayed her solidarity with the action by wearing a blue dress. Quite apart from the fate of Zakrzówek, the very fact that the Collective’s political style has penetrated into mainstream politics is noteworthy. The new quality which  the Alcon Blue had introduced – a form of expression which facilitated a detachment and a change of political gear – was noticed and accepted.

Currently, the land has been fenced off and closed to the public, after a series of drownings, but it does not seem that safety was the primary reason for such a response. There have been accidents at the unguarded bathing area for quite a while. The real reason can be interpreted as follows: the Alcon Blue publicised the issue of Zakrzówek, so the media started to take more notice of it the Collective and so the danger of swimming in the reservoir came back to public attention.

The Alcon Blue Collective’s response to the closure of Zakrzówek indicates a change of direction. Tutorials for the public on how to enter the area illegally no logerlonger have the same humorous lightness of touch; rather, they point toindicate an escalation of the conflict. The aim remains the same, but the strategy of the Collective has changed.

At the meeting of Cracovians with the representatives of the Municipal CouncilCity Council at the beginning of September, the plan for the spatial development of Zakrzówek was presented. Modifications and limitations of the developer’s activity hadve been introduced which the Collective considered a compromise. It transpired that a section of the meadow was to be left free of any constructions and the remaining land was to have low-rise buildings. The investor has concluded that this proposal would significantly reduce his profit so he has announced that he would pull out of the project and sue the authorities. What the ultimate result will be of the Collective’s activity and how it will develop – time will tell.

 

Elżbieta Sala – (born 1984)

Graduate of philosophy at the Jagiellonian University and politics at the University of Rzeszow, PhD student at the Faculty of Philosophy of the JU. At MOCAK, oversees the Education Section.



[1] http://modraszekkolektyw.blogspot.com

[2] S. Jelska, Let’s Save the Alcon Blue, http://www.wrozka.com. pl/archiwum/2011/6304-ratujmy-modraszki

[3] Supply of Extra Oxygen (2007) – Joanna Rajkowska’s project involved creating a pond in the Grzybowski Square in Warsaw. In a part of the city with a charged and fragmented history, the artist created a serene new place where strangers could meet.