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//Having a voice// – Anka Herbut

Having a voice – Anka Herbut

Anka Herbut (b. 1983) – playwright, theatre critic, radical fairy tale writer and word-former in art naming and copyleft. Member of the Wrocław-based art collective IP Group. Graduate of drama studies, Jagiellonian University, PhD student at the Institute of European Studies at the same university. She is particularly interested in the relationship between politics and art with the body, in performatics, gender and queer studies and new media. She co-operates with ‘Dwutygodnik’, ‘Didaskalia’, ‘Notatnik Teatralny’, ‘Chimera’, etc.

There will probably no longer be art separated from life because life will itself be a style, a form in which it will find its adequate expression.[1]
Lucien Goldmann


1. ‘Does contemporary art have any visible social impact?’ – this question opens Artur Żmijewski’s manifesto published in 2007 in ‘Krytyka Polityczna’ under the tell-tale title Applied Social Arts. His statement that contemporary art was impotent and devoid of causative power raised many controversies in the circles of artists and critics. Żmijewski suggested using art as a tool of knowledge and learning and recommended highlighting its political potential and efficacy. Some people rhymed his vision with the regime-servicing tendencies of pre-1989 art and thus automatically declined to engage. For other, the demand for political awareness and social responsibility of artists helped crystallise a new artistic language, one that offered an alternative to autonomous, self-contemplating and existential art that worked only at the individual level.

2. Five years after the Applied Social Arts, Żmijewski writes in his curatorial introduction to the 7th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art that art should become a political space that is closer to the parliament than to a museum.[2] That the goal of art should be to offer recommendations for the socio-political reality. In his view, artists should do away with the entrenched mantra of asking questions in favour of a mechanism of providing answers.

3. When art adopts social change and efficiency of action as its destination, it may become an active agent that creates not only the artistic but also the socio-political level of reality. By forming alternative cognitive procedures, producing symbolic orders and indicating the lacunas that enable going beyond them, it has a chance of becoming an intrinsic part of life and radically increasing its own efficiency.

To Give Voice to Others

In Poland, socially-involved art is often associated with the positivist penchant for raising awareness, endorsing regimes or, at the very least, for conformism. As such, it is accompanied by a certain aura of shame, repudiated as something instrumentalised, in stark contrast with the unattainable ideal of allegedly neutral art that is its opposite. It seems all the more important therefore to try to present art as a tool of re-negotiating (and not imposing) changes at the socio-political level, proving that art is class-oriented at its very core – both in the context of production and reception – and is one of the factors that define social status.[1]

Even the first pro-freedom social movements (Situationist International, feminist art, post-colonial theory, gender, queer and LGBTQIA studies) managed to question the ostensible transparency and universality of art in an effective way, endowing art with race, class, religion, gender and sexual orientation. As a consequence, art immediately focused on the increasing social inequalities that found their strongest expression in the marginalisation of non-mainstream identities and behaviours and the production of so-called muted groups. Faced with this state of affairs, artists and activists started opposing the current status quo. In his introduction to The Revolution of Everyday Life (1967), situationist Raoul Vaneigem wrote that ‘The world must be remade; all the specialists in reconditioning will not be able to stop it’.[2] In its times, it was the most frequently stolen book, and the writer’s words started appearing on the streets, on city walls and on banners. Especially the concluding words, ‘We have a world of pleasures to win, and nothing to lose but boredom!’. Boredom was all-pervasive in societies that were increasingly crafted according to a matrix of correct behaviours and reactions. Vaneigem put forward a new version of a dream world – one experienced in a spontaneous and creative way. The creative desire was to be translated into self-accomplishment, the desire for love into communication, and the desire for fun was to carry out the project of participation. The phenomena and discourses that had once been excluded were to finally be able to speak in their own voice. Today, almost 50 years later, they can speak a lot more, but their message is still subject to restrictions in terms of time, coverage and format. The newly created, increasingly numerous alternative culture festivals, non-institutional activities, think-tanks, laboratories and actions in the city space take it as their goal – sometimes not even concealing their guerrilla nature – to enable the excluded circles to speak in their own voice. The Queer May in Krakow and the Pomada Festival in Warsaw are the most effective and attractive projects of this type in Poland. In 2013, the Queer May was accompanied by the exhibition Anger. Our Own Voices About Ourselves, in which artists and activists searched for adequate means to express their rejection of the Catholic, consumerist and heteronormative lifestyle. The fourth edition of Pomada was opened by Karol Radziszewski with a provocative quotation from Marina Abramović’s film America Is Not Ready for This: art can be either good or bad, and endowing it with sexual orientation, class or nationality tends to marginalise the quality aspect and distorts the clarity of reception – ‘it does not matter who makes it: a woman, a man, a gay person, a Puerto Rican. The only thing that counts is whether it is good or bad’. Well, is it really the only thing?

The Language of Anger

For four years now, The Queer May has culminated in the national, anti-discriminatory and pro-freedom Equality March. In 2013, the event included film screenings, discussions, lectures (for instance by the Group of Polish LGBTQ Christians Faith and Rainbow!), drag shows, performances, radio dramas, safe sex workshops, and Anger. Our Own Voices About Ourselves. The exhibition was displayed at Bunkier Sztuki and curated by Julie Land and Justyna Struzik. It presented 17 works by artists invited by the gallery and open call activists. The main idea of the project was to search for means of expression for anger that had been intensifying in the LGBTQIA community ever since the political debate on the legalisation of same-gender unions in Poland. Visitors could see Przemysław Bienias’s video Kto nie skacze [If You Don’t Jump], which alluded to the homophobic mantra of ‘if you don’t jump, you’re a fag’. Bienias uses a classic performing strategy of exploring the limits of what the body can take: completely naked, he jumps up and down to the point in which he just falls down on the ground, completely exhausted. Mikołaj Czerwiński and Artur Maciejewski’s project Tulipany [Tulips] was inspired by broken bottles, in Polish commonly referred to as ‘tulips’, used by homophobes as weapons, also during equality marches. The authors of glasses broken in a similar way constructed a bouquet, which symbolically expressed the anger and anti-gratitude towards politicians who ignored and disrespected the rights of sexual minorities. In the exhibition catalogue, they say that ‘violence is the cry of those who have no voice’.[3] The exhibition also included a work by Anna Grodzka, a Polish MP, entitled Co cię złości, przyjacielu? [What Makes You Angry, My Friend?]. Grodzka presented a broken glass from her constituency office, stitched together with Band-Aid. The window was broken in December 2012 right after she flew a rainbow flag outside the building. Grodzka repaired the broken object and displayed it in a gallery, in a symbolic way giving art mandate to shape political reality and the struggle for ‘applying social arts’.

The Pomada Laboratory

The Pomada Festival is a grassroots, non-hierarchical and non-heteronormative initiative animated by Katarzyna Szustow, Agnieszka Weseli/Furja and Karol Radziszewski.[4] It has produced four editions so far, with the first designed as an alternative to the party-oriented theme of Europride. The next two adopted a more eclectic formula, combining various LGBTQIA activities: workshops, discussion panels, art and theatre events, concerts and films. This year, the organisers decided to modify the format of this event, creating a sort of a think tank, freed from any rules or restrictions, no holds barred. The four day event was composed of casual, uncensored performances, oriented towards brainstorming four interconnected ideas: Art, Family, Sexuality and Money. This time, in order to pay homage to the punk-style principle of ‘Equal Rights – Common Fight’, there was no divide between the speakers and the passive audience, which inspired a free and egalitarian circulation of ideas. Sexual orientation was not a factor in the process of admitting to the platform – the selection was based rather on artistic and intellectual DIY, aimed at determining the Polish face of non-heteronormativity. Apart from organisers, the group of hunters included: Małga Kubiak, Justyna Struzik and Julie Land, Rafał Urbacki, Queer Social Centre, Pussy Project, the Wrocław-based Kolektyw Q Alternatywie, Tomek Sikora and Kobas Laksa. They formed a platform for exchanging information, experience and inspirations that the mainstream usually treats in a superficial or marginal manner. What is more, the way in which Pomada, an initiative that on principle refuses any sponsorship and public money, operates on the so-called ‘culture market’, confirms that you can implement and disseminate your own vision of culture, without entangling yourself in mainstream simplifications and compromises.

Narrative Peripheries

Through artistic and activist programmes, outside of the mainstream and the institutional context, we have the chance to create a parallel, independent, alternative narrative, which operates in its own language. Articulating our own convictions, filling out the gaps in the dominating discourses and ‘applying social arts’ can become a tool of change. They help construct autonomous zones of thought and action[5], organised in a guerrilla format and capable of undermining the status quo. Hakim Bey, an American neo-situationist, described them as intensification, excess, potlatch and experience, realised first of all in experiencing life according to one’s own rules, in harmonious co-existence of social individuals and constant attempts at reclaiming freedom. A Temporary Autonomous Zone, having liberated a given zone, be it geographical, mental or imaginary, becomes suspended in order to reappear somewhere or sometime else. In another class, race, place, in another religion and orientation.

[1] Cf. P. Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Harvard University Press, 1984.

[2] Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith, Rebel Press, London, 1983, p. 17.

[3] Anger. Our Own Voices About Ourselves, exh. cat., Bunkier Sztuki, Kraków 2013, p. 38.

[4] Previous organisers: Stefan Ingvarsson, Paweł Kubara, Michał Zygmunt.

[5] Cf. H. Bey, Temporary Autonomous Zone, Autonomedia, New York, 1985.

[1] Quotation after: Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents, ed. Tom McDonough, The MIT Press, Cambridge 2004, p. 88.

[2] Cf. http://www.berlinbiennale.de/blog/en/1st-6thbiennale/7th-berlin-biennale [retrieved: 17.8.2013 ].

[3] Cf. P. Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Harvard University Press, 1984.

[4] Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith, Rebel Press, London, 1983, p. 17.

[5] Anger. Our Own Voices About Ourselves, exh. cat., Bunkier Sztuki, Kraków 2013, p. 38.

[6] Previous organisers: Stefan Ingvarsson, Paweł Kubara, Michał Zygmunt.

[7] Cf. H. Bey, Temporary Autonomous Zone, Autonomedia, New York, 1985.