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From a Lack of Faith in the Power of Unrealised Projects to Faith in Visions and the Power of Utopia Dorota Grobelna talks to Joanna Rajkowska

From a Lack of Faith in the Power of Unrealised Projects to Faith in Visions and the Power of Utopia Dorota Grobelna talks to Joanna Rajkowska

Dorota Grobelna: Many of your public projects have brought tangible results. Some, for a variety of reasons, has been blocked. These appear on your web page marked ‘unrealised’. Is it at all possible, in their case, to talk about any ‘benefit’? Do these failures entail gaining any knowledge?

Joanna Rajkowska:

There are projects, which have made big waves, such as the Minaret, and there are others, which have simply evaporated. This is not down to, or a fault of, the project as such, or at least, not exclusively so. This is the result of the work of the curator and the entire team. It also all depends on who is realising these projects, how they are managed and what opportunities I have of negotiating them with the people who make decisions about their implementation, as well as with the people, who are directly interested in making sure these projects become reality, or who are, at the very least, interested in the location of the given project. Everything depends on quite a few variables.

The Minaret [1] was financed by the Malta Foundation, we had logistical support and we were being led on by the hope of making the project reality for two and a half years. And it’s not the character of the project which accounted for the fact that now we are incredibly knowledgeable about Poznań and its many different aspects. This knowledge was acquired, above all, by a team of academics, who joined our projects at various stages of the creation of the project. However, I am afraid that this is expert knowledge. This is not the sort of insight that you gain while you are actually producing a project – thanks to your own mistakes, because of alterations, because of having a vision, the hindsight, because of setting your memory in motion in a strange way, due to – let’s call it – the ‘everyday working process’. Because everyday reality suddenly changes under the influence of the project, it produces strange phenomena and it tames the place anew. This is accompanied by the process of identifying and internalising a fragment of the city. This releases processes in people that we would have never dreamt of. This is quite an exceptional kind of knowledge. Knowledge which flows from people who are not experts, who are not academics, but who simply, in some way, come across the project and, perhaps, aren’t even at all interested in it. This is a very rich knowledge. The audience ceases then to be exclusively on the receiving end. Because, when the project is being created, the roles get reversed. It is we, the authors of the project, who begin to learn from the audience. The flow of knowledge does not dry up, because the project lives with the city. The number of the authors of the narration is infinite.

Is it really the case that, during the creation of the Minaret, we really gained knowledge thanks to our initiative, thanks to the invited experts? Because we weren’t, after all, the authors of the first web page about the Minaret. Before the page minaret.art.pl appeared, there had been another web page, kominaret.pl, where a campaign was being run against the building of a minaret in Poznań.

That’s true. We ran into a pressure group that was exceptionally active in its protest. So, in fact, that was not a group of experts, but, at best, a group of anti-experts. So, we are talking about knowledge about an imaginary project – a very peculiar animal…

Recently, I have prepared a lecture about the imagination of fear. And about how this particular kind of imagination, which is based on fear, can paralyse a city, and its community. And put a stop to everything, and especially, to the cognitive process.

The vision, which you introduced not into actual space, but into public domain, has brought to light precisely that imagination of fear.

Absolutely. Suddenly, it became clear who The Other is. And we have found out that we are not original, but merely successful in copying fears propagated by Geert Wilders. The Other belongs to the same stable as the idea of the Axis of Evil. He has a beard, he is a Muslim, he is the modern savage, capable of shaking to the core the cradle of the State and Christianity which the right wing in Poznań is dedicated to protecting. Following the Holocaust, we have anti-Semitism, in spite of not having a Jewish community. Now, we also have an Islamophobia, being born before a real, aware Muslim minority has had a chance to come into being. Because the handful of Muslims in Poznań, even if it might be over a thousand people, is totally assimilated.

On the other hand, is it not the case that we are trying to kick the horse called the Catholic Church? Wasn’t Anna Wachowska-Kucharska right in saying – at the public debate which we organised in July – that, to get closure on the history of the minaret which had never materialised, we ought to look for the reasons of the failure of the Minaret not amongst the members of the City Council, but in the vicinity of the Cathedral?

The Church is today one of the most conservative and anti-democratic forces in Poland. The way in which it manages, or tries to manage, public space, is frightening, because we are talking mostly about very murky dealings. Even Sławomir Hinc (the Deputy Mayor of Poznań, in charge of culture, education and sport) when he was trying to convince us of the importance of introducing an educational programme into the local schools on the topic of the Minaret, enumerated scandalous cases of the authorities of Poznań being terrorised by the Catholic Church.Unfortunately, he himself joined the forces on the other side of the barricade. And we had a chance to learn about all this on the occasion of the non-realisation of both the project and the educational programme.

I am afraid, however, that the most important part of the project has remained in the imagination.

We are talking about the effect that the Minaret had on others, but what effect did all this have on you?

The Minaret did not leave me feeling bitter, but I experienced a vacuum – a sense of a great loss, unfulfilment, a project stopped at a critical point.

The acquisition of direct knowledge about the question of power, exercised over our lives, our city and our immediate environment by the alliance of the Church and the city authorities – this is a difficult lesson to accept.

Another outcome of the Minaret project was Marching Backwards, initiated by Hanka Gill-Piątek, ‘from the very real Cathedral, passing by the still non-existent chimney-minaret, to the synagogue-swimming pool’, as an act of protest against the opposition to the project.

Hanka’s Marching Backwards was the brightest spot in the entire project. It demonstrated the direction in which we are proceeding: we are moving away from the Republic of Many Nations in the direction of some dark Pedoland. But it also demonstrated that the division lines are not clear-cut. For example, they are not generational. Quite elderly people also marched along with us.

I find it extremely difficult to get on top of all this knowledge, which suddenly started to flow along many very different channels. It was being created by Marching Backwards, by the voices heard during public debates, by the sudden discovery of a Muslim community, by the division arising before our own eyes amongst the city officials, by their political games, by the way in which they hid behind idiotic arguments; all this chemistry of power, which suddenly started going sour in front of us; the mating dance, which the Deputy Mayor Hinc performed last year in defence of his cushy post, which once and for all annihilated the idea of the educational project. All this did happen. We have a story to tell. But the problem is that this story has a beginning and an end. This is a story which will not exist in the public domain, unless we write it down straight away and publish a book about ‘The Minaret That Never Was’. Because this knowledge is solely in our possession.

What, in your opinion, triggered the lively reactions which combine into the unwritten story of ‘The Minaret That Never Was’?

The heated debate was started by the poisoning of the public consciousness with the image of the Axis of Evil; a bearded Islamic fundamentalist, who violates everything that moves and murders children. Ask all those Internet posters where they got their hatred of Islam from, because the prevailing majority of them have never had any contact with a Muslim. Their concepts are shaped by the only kind of information that Gazeta Wyborcza provides, for example from Turkey, about yet another father stoning his daughter because she has met up with a boy in unexplained circumstances. But, really, this is a somewhat more complicated story.

We would also have to ask Geert Wilders, why he keeps sending people to fight Islam on all fronts. Why does he work via connections with the para-Buddhists of the Diamond Path, for example through Ole Nydahl, who is very active in Poland? Why do these people set up foundations such as the Future of Europe Association, which instigates hatred based on religion, in the name of human rights? And why do they set up web pages such as kominaret.pl?

And it is a real issue, because these are very important matters. What is at stake is the future of not just this country, but of the continent. They are in favour of Fortress Europe. But we want to open Europe up. The Minaret has become a symbol of that disagreement.

So the reaction was provoked by the form of the project: a minaret.

Of course. This was an object which was the incarnation of their fears about Europe. It was the very shape of that fear.

I think that what was also instrumental in provoking the reaction was your method of work in preparing public projects, which always start with making public the visualisation of the project. Whom should such a visualisation mobilise, and to do what exactly?

It is meant to make visions tangible. That’s all. It is meant to mobilise the imagination and intellect of all those, who will be the recipients of the project.

But, wasn’t the Aquarius [2] a project the visualisaion of which had not been made public? I am asking, because I am intrigued by the complete lack of debate around that project.

It wasn’t made public, which confirms your thesis about the power of visualisation. And, to my mind, it’s better like that… This is a project with a ten-year timescale. The bishop will then be fished out of the river, covered in slime and snails, a ton of toilet paper and sewage, with eels living under his cassock. It is only then that the debate will begin.

However, for the time being, the project is, essentially, non-existent – both in terms of debate, and its actual visibility. It turns out that the project isn’t there – regardless of whether it has been carried out, or not.

A project that you cannot see does not exist. The most important is what you are looking at. When what you are looking at and what you would like to see is not there, this in a sense immobilises thought processes, makes them impossible.

To an extent, however, isn’t intervention into visualisation a way of introducing the ‘what you are looking at’?

In so far as the public domain has power over public space.

At the first ‘Minaret’ meeting in 2009, Kaja Pawełek said that we were no longer able to forget the image of the Minaret. It was already functioning in the imagination of the Poznanians, who were seeing a minaret, when they looked at the chimney. A certain vision had been made real.

The level of difficulties which at the moment is beginning to accompany the implementation of my projects is pushing me towards fiction. I am abandoning the idea of implementation. I produce visions and I am making models. I am more and more drawn to situations which are impossible or extremely difficult to make real. I am less and less interested in utilitarian, positivist solutions, half-measures. People don’t need prosthetics, people need visions.

You said that The Minaret is a story which has a beginning and an end. I wonder, does this story really have an end? Another of your unrealised projects, the Umeå Volcano [3] (following the nomination of Umeå as the cultural capital of Europe in 2014) – is only just becoming live again.

This is a resurrection. I am slowly beginning to believe that the role of the artist is to produce. These should be utopias which are in the public domain, without copyright, political utopias. When Herzl was writing about the Jewish state, he didn’t know that he was not going to live to see his vision, that others would follow who would go on to realise his vision – and in fact one completely different from how he had imagined the state of Israel. The example of Herzl’s vision is, as it happens, a warning against the possibility of warping the original vision.

This is, perhaps, the most important knowledge which stems from the failure of our Minaret: faith in creating utopia and fear of abusing it.


Joanna Rajkowska - (born 1968)

Art historian, graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow. Completed a semester’s study programme at the State University of New York. Author of public projects in Poland and abroad, as well as video, photography, drawings and paintings.
A member of the Political Critique team. Awarded the Passport by Polityka (2007) and the prestigious Award of the Great Cultural Foundation (2010).


[1] The Minaret (2009) - Joanna Rajkowska intended to turn the chimney of of an old, unused papermill in Poznań into a minaret, but the project was blocked by the City Council.

[2] Aquarius (2009) - a project carried out as part ot the Art Boom Festival, involved the complete immersion in the Wilga river in Krakow of a concrete statue of a bishop. The statue, which is not visible under the water, has been gradually covered in debris and dirt.

[3] Umeå Volcano (2006) – the project was based on constructing a 15 m high artificial volcano close to the town of Umeå in Sweden, inside which people could meet socially.