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//Men of Iron// Jaśmina Wójcik

Men of Iron Jaśmina Wójcik

My fascination with the former working class started when I became infatuated with outsized forms, simplicity and pithiness of socialist realist sculptures. I have always been drawn to them, with their unwieldiness, imperfections or even, from the academic or purely aesthetic point of view, flaws. What I saw in them was a dream about power. Pompous gestures, raised heads, weary huge hands. This fascination with form lead me smoothly to the genuine interest in the group of people excluded from today’s society. I became intrigued by those who had been abandoned and deemed useless (just like the art of social realism). I was curious about their lives and their stories. I started looking for them on my own, putting up notices on housing estates in the post-industrial Ursus district in Warsaw. I was met with distrust but also curiosity (the notice read: “An artist is looking for people willing to take part in an art project”). Did my artist status tempt them? Gave hope? Or just intrigued? Oftentimes I was the only person to whom they expressed their regrets and sense of injustice at losing their jobs. As if I was the one responsible for their current situation. But I had expected this – I had known it was going to be like this when I started making efforts to seek them out. Why did I decide to do it anyway? I wanted to give them a voice, hoping (always an idealist) that someone was going to listen, someone would understand and as a result, nothing similar would happen again.

I mostly asked them about their work – when they started, what they did, how they remembered it. At the beginning I had difficulties believing in their stories. I heard about decades spent in one factory, about welfare facilities provided by the employer (day nurseries and kindergartens for workers’ children on site, subsidized holidays, affordable flats on a neighbouring housing estate etc.), about their job satisfaction. The majority was still keeping in touch with colleagues because the atmosphere at work was full of mutual respect. There was high esteem for superiors as well (often foremen with a lot of experience who knew their trade inside out). My interviewees also told me about the clash with today’s reality which has no place for them. They shared their memories with me, asking whether this would change anything. They wanted to know what I was going to do with this material. I organized the Acoustic Walk on the site of the former Ursus Factory, which consisted in walking around the post-industrial site with a loud-speaker (attached to my back) broadcasting the workers’ memories collected earlier. About 200 people turned up. I was immensely satisfied when one of the workers whom I had recorded came up to me and said: “So many people came. So many will find out!”. Little did he know how many – the Acoustic Walk had many unexpected follow-ups, drew in people for whom the Ursus Factory and its former workers became a priority, something that cannot be forgotten and deserves fighting for.

Last year in Białystok (invited by The Words and Things Foundation and The Arsenal Gallery) I carried out a project Jaka praca dziś [What Work(s) Today?] which drew on the experiences of male and female workers once employed in the Cotton Works Fasty in Białystok. I was intrigued by the huge slogan visible over the main gate which said: „Jaka praca dziś, taka Polska jutro” [How you work today determines the future of Poland], which all workers passed every day on their way to the factory. Interestingly, the slogan stretched over two parts of the symmetric façade and the new owner renovated one of them, removing the right-hand side of the slogan altogether. As a result, now the truncated slogan has become a question: How you work today? It turned out to be a very accurate prediction of the situation currently faced by the former Fasty workers – there are no jobs for them in Białystok now, they have to resort to seasonal work (e.g. picking berries, like one of my interviewees) or rely on adult children for support (it is not hard to guess how a person who used to provide a decent living for the whole family feels about it). I tried to gauge to what extent they were influenced by propaganda slogans and how the rest of us interpret them today. For me, a person free from ideological burdens of the former regime, the slogan from the Fasty Works sounds surprisingly relevant to our times. This is why I decided to temporarily transfer it to the centre of Białystok, to the area near the municipal opera. I wanted to revive it, my goal was to bring it back to the attention of the city’s inhabitants, both Fasty former workers and young people. Together with ex-workers, we carried individual letters of the slogan. At the same time, the loudspeaker on my back was broadcasting the stories the Fasty employees had told me about the work they once had there as well as about the slogan. Like most Polish factories, the Fasty Works went bankrupt and the staff were made redundant. What was offered to them? Nothing. They were left to their own devices. I do not agree with such a policy, I am against treating people in this way. Individual stories bring us closer to understanding the broader situation, help us identify with those affected. A few thousand people deprived of work is just an abstract number, whereas Basia, Wanda or Grażyna who lost their jobs is something more personal, something easier to sympathize and identify with.

Cooperating with former workers has taught me to feel empathy with their plight, even though I did not share it. I got closer to their problems and their concerns. I am convinced that art can change reality and artists whom the public trust should listen to stories people confide in them and make socially engaged art. I believe that our actions must have a purpose, we should act for somebody, for a cause we believe in. Of course, former workers make up a very diverse group, but generally they are unpretentious and direct. I have learnt a lot from their determination in fighting to preserve stories that are important to them and to save postindustrial places, which, thanks to them are recognized as a common good (irrespective of their legal status). For me, manual labour constitutes the greatest act of sacrifice, of giving yourself entirely (you give your physicality, your health, you subject yourself to great occupational hazards, you make huge demands on your body), of immersing yourself in stamina, imposing discipline on your body. Is this not what we all strive for? Becoming an exclusively consumer society we cannot force ourselves to undertake even a bare minimum of physical effort, let alone follow a rigorous daily routine.

A factory means hundreds of sweating, muscular bodies working frantically in huge heat, each person focused on their own task. Repetitive activities start dictating the daily rhythm. I still dream about creating A Factory Symphony (so far, I have failed to obtain all the necessary agreements to do it), an audiovisual piece conveying work of hundreds of people, its repetitiveness and its rhythm. This would be an homage to the invisible.

During my art residency in Prague in 2013 I carried out a project entitled Salto mortale, a video documenting my trips to the city’s industrial zones. Initially, I meant to involve the local workers but for reasons beyond my control I did not manage to do what I planned. I failed to reach those people, I was only able to peek at them from afar. The project also included two texts dedicated to the workers from Kolbenova Street and those employed in the Kooh-i-Noor Factory:

“Workers are standing at their workbenches, bent down, focused. Each one does their job, each is a part of a bigger whole. A cog in the machine as important as the next man, as all the rest. Hustle and bustle, lots of noise, buzz of voices. Welding, cutting, drilling, hitting. Bam, bam, bam. Whizz, whizz, whizz. Clop, clop, clop. The lifeless comes to life. Hearts are screwed together, skeletons assembled. Factory blood is pumped into the veins of the immobile. A symphony of taps, a minuet of gestures. The new pulse is heard. Hectically, wearily – all the time something new, faster and faster. With determination, with stamina, eight hours with a break for meaty soup, a glass of milk (to remove toxins). They forged iron hearts so that we could have a new lease of life!”.

“They work, inaccessible, unsurpassable. In clouds of dust that hang around their silhouettes. And I can watch them only from behind the scenes, as if they were wild animals. When they sense my presence, they are scared. But they do not flee – they come closer and ask me angrily what I want, why I came. Distrustful, irritated that I disturb them, thus prolonging their working day. They are full of doubts and this prevents them from believing in the sincerity of my intensions. Experience-led mistrust makes them reject all my propositions. To win their trust with patience and consistency. Perspicacity and ardour in their eyes will not let me forget about my duty. Words are forged here like iron, annealed in the current of fuel thrown into the fire”.

Translation: Dorota Malina