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//Mokotowska Tent City// - Karol Sienkiewicz

Mokotowska Tent City - Karol Sienkiewicz

Setting up tents on Mokotowska was the first attempt to transplantfer the idea of The Outraged movement onto Polish soil. But Mokotowska is not Wall Street.

A few years ago, you could have seen Educators (Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei) in Polish cinemas,  a German film with Daniel Brühl and Julia Jentsch. The three young protagonists take their revenge on the property-owning class, causing mischief to the rich. They break into luxury villas while the owners are out and cause create havoc. One day, they run out of luck. Due to an unfortunate chain of coincidences, they are forced to take hostage a rich, middle-aged man. They lock him up in a mountain chalet. It turns out that the man that they have taken prisoner is a veteran of the 1968 events. However, he has long abandoned fighting for liberty, equality and fraternity; now, he now enjoys a well-paid job and a satisfying family life, and is thea proud owner of a fine house with a garden and a yacht. For a brief moment, he manages to get close to the kidnappers, perhaps he even likes them, not as a case of developing the Stockholm Syndrome but because of an affinity based on experiences in common. In the end, the protagonists manage to avoid confrontation with the law. Ideals don’t get a chance to be justaposedjuxtaposed with prosaic reality. In the final scene of the film, the young people set themselves an even more ambitious goal – they decide to attempt a spectacular act of sabotage. However, the film leaves one with a morose reflection. Perhaps it is true as they say,say that if you are not a leftie when you are young, you will be a bastard in your old age. But even if you won’t turn outbe a bastard,  whowhat will you become?

False epiphany

We all have a more or less openly declared need for pathos and lofty ideals;, a need to take part in events which will shape our identity and morality, something to tell our grandchildren about. We crave a formative experience without which our lives wouldill just not be the same. Such an experience must be savoured communally rather than intimately. It must provide us with a sense of belonging, a sense of community and define our place and role in society. It would be nice if this could be a ‘sweet bird of youth’, because it hardly makes sense to experience a watershed life event thea day before your 100th birthday.

We are familiar with such heroic tales from films, and they have a momentary power to move us. We are also familiar with such events from the stories told by others. For the generation of our parents and grandparents, examples of such events are the Warsaw Rising, the events of 1968, Woodstock, the beginnings of Solidarność… The formative moment comes when we dare to speak with our own voice - w. When we act without conforming to the social rules of engagement, when we stand up to authority, but follow our our hearts. For the LGBT community, such a formative blueprint is the Stonewall riots, and closer to home – the 2005 Equality Parade, which had been banned by the-then President of Warsaw, Lech Kaczyński, and which took place as an act of civil disobedience. It was only when he became the President of Poland that Kaczyński, a professor of law, found out from the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg that he had not acted in accordance with European legislationlaw. Sometimes, we might experience ‘something’, but it transpires that the death of a Pope or President aredeath of a Pope or President is not a life-changing events.

In another acclaimed film, Shortbus by John Cameron  Mitchell (2006), which is shown only rarely shown in Poland, we can see New York after the  9/11. Young people come in great numbers to the city, in spite of the fact that prices are very high there, because the fall of the Twin Towers was ‘the only real thing that has ever happened to them’. This is how the owner of the eponymous Shortbus (where the action takes place) explains the phenomenon. What is ‘real’ in the film is the New York blackout, during which the protagonists undergo a transformation. The lost souls, they meet up in Shortbus, where everyone will find themselves a place for themselves on tin the sexual spectrum. ‘Just like the 60s, but without any big ideas.’ It’s as if in today’s world the need to be ‘real’ has replaced the need to be ‘lofty’.

Watching Shortbus, I recalled the ending of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain: Hans Castorp is released from the sanatorium not thanks to an innovative cure, but due to the outbreak of the First World War. But when the couple of amongst the main protagonists of Shortbus, Jamie and James, go to see a therapist to try and solve the problems of their relationship and one of them thinks that he has achieved a breakthrough, the woman – who is herself non-orgasmic – explains to them, that there is no such thing as a breakthrough, there is only a false epiphany.

Mokotowska Street

Let’s move from New York to Warsaw city centre. We are in Mokotowska Street. It’s a warm day in June. At a first glance, Mokotowska looks like any other street, a – a little neglected, its pavements not always straight, cars parked any odd how. But this is no longer the Mokotowska that Jan Lechoń was writing about. Now it’s a must-be place if you want to get to hear the elite Warsaw gossip. In Piotr Najsztub’s restaurant ‘Przegryź’ it’s best to whisper, because walls have ears, and you may even hear some gossip about yourself. Mokotowska is now, above all, trendy boutiques, which the average Joe looks at from behind huge panes set in the facades of neglected buildings. This is where Ania Kuczyńska sells her stuff, and not so long ago ‘la toute Varsovie’/everybody and his dog??? wore shoes from the Warsovian Warsaw Nike. All the wannabies in the capital are drawn to Mokotowska like moths to flames. And it is in Mokotowska that one of the most dynamic Warsaw foundations  has its headquarters – Bęc Zmiana, run by Bogna Świątkowska, nota bene a legend of Polish hip-hop, and known as its mother. You can see a small exhibition here or buy a Warsaw gadget. In fact, the foundation oversees numerous projects run in the city space – exhibitions, seminars, workshops… This year, it will celebrate its 9th anniversary.

In June, in front of the foundation’s headquarters, taking into possession the public pavement, a red tent was set up. It wasn’t anything special, an ordinary tent of which there are plenty in camp sites. We are familiar with the sight of them by the lakes or atin rock festivals. But in the city centre this was an unprecedented sight, which, straight away, brought connotations of something illegal, temporary and surreal. And the context of the place, in front of Bęc Zmiana’s open door, made the tent look cool.

On the red tent outside of Bęc Zmiana was written, ‘Yes, we camp’, a travesty of Barack Obama’s rallying cry, first seen in the spring of 2011 at the Puerta del Sol in Madrid, during a peaceful manifestation. From On the 15 May, young people had kept begun occupying the central square of the Spanish capital and it was from Madrid that the red tent had arrived. It was brought to Mokotowska by the members of the 12 Tribes Collective, who had taken part in the Madrid demonstrations. When on the 12 June the Puerta del Sol tent city folded up, the organisers announced that the event should be transplanted to other locations. The Collective responded to the call. As soon as the 17 June, their tent appeared in Mokotowska. You could see there the photographs which they had brought from Madrid and read the Manifesto of the Movement of the 15 May in Polish translation. The Manifesto takes on board the ‘helplessness of an ordinary citizen’, social inequalities, power accumulated in the hands of a minority – all the weak points of contemporary neo-liberal democracy. The authors of the Manifesto proclaim the necessity ofor an ethical revolution. ‘I am convinced that I can make a change. I am convinced that I can help. I know that – together – we can. Come with us. This is your right’, we read in the Manifesto.

The Poles have also written their own account of their stay in Madrid, where, from one day to the next, the tent city at the Puerta del Sol sprang to life: ‘There is a library, a PA system, a café, a carpentry workshop, an art workshop, an info centre, a theatre, discussion clubs, a meditation centre, a political meeting place, a kitchen, a cinema, two fountains and four exits from the UndergroundMetro, a medical aid point – which mainly distributes sunscreen protection., Tthere is a newspaper kiosk, cleaning teams, reiki, massage and a small tent of the activists who demand autonomy for Western Sahara. And, lurking in the neighbouring streets, there are the police’. The crowd is international: ‘[Jean] felt that he had to be there, so early in the morning he boarded a train and went to Madrid for a few hours, but in the evening he had to go back because he was working the next day, but he would be coming back each weekend. Damian came from New York, Lisa from Portugal, Jan from Prague, Eva from Copenhagen. And we all promise ourselves to learn Spanish at last.’ Only sometimes, pushy tourists cause a nuisance: ‘Most have cameras and smart phones.  It is getting to be a pain: a few people are takeing my picture when I am drinking water, then again some more when I am replacing the bottle top, and then there is is only a German woman left, with her Cannon camera at the ready, waiting for my next move. I light a cigarette, I can hear the clicking of her camera, the German walks away and I inahaleinhale deeply.’ You can always achieve abreaction, ‘in the grip of reflection […] wriote a slogan and hang it up somewhere.’

Orange scarves

This is not the first time that a tent has appeared in Warsaw’s public space. In November and December 2004, after the faked Ukrainian election, the events in the Independence Square (formerly the Square of the October Revolution) in Kiev began to unfold, soon to become known as The Orange Revolution. The day after the results of the voting had been announced, some 200 000 gathered in the Independence Square and an occupation tent city was born. Varsovians showed their solidarity with the Kiev events by wearing something orange. Orange scarves were hung on monuments: of Aleksander Fredro in Poznań, of Taras Shevchenko and Adam Mickiewicz in Warsaw and on the Neptune Fountain in Gdańsk.

The Orange Alternative

The Orange Alternative, headed by Major Frydrych, a movement, which in the 80s caught the limelight with surreal anti-reégime demonstrations, on that occasion organised a crochet-in, an action to crochet an orange shawl, subsequently taken to Kiev. Huge orange banners were hung on the Palace of Culture. And a tent was pitched near the Ukrainian Embassy in Warsaw, in solidarity with the Ukrainians.

The Ukrainian vote was taken again. The election was won by Victor YJushchenko. The events showed how the Ukrainians’ attitude to the authorities had changed; however, as Bohdan Osadczuk wrote, ‘the revolution (...) did not create any power structures or institutions to implement its postulates. That was its weakness, which the opponents used to their advantage, and YJushchenko turned out to be too weak. He started to distribute awards rewards left, right and centre not for the revolution, but for the contributions to electoral success. That led to the creation of a cabinet of such different forces, that it was unable to function normally. Infighting and petty mischief became the order of the day.’ [1]

In the spring of 2005, we had an entire tent city in Warsaw, which came to be known as ‘the white White city’City’. Opposite the Government building, a picket of nurses lived in army tents pitched on the lawn. This is how the artist Joanna Rajkowska recalled these events, ‘I had never before seen a protest organised with such dignity and imagination. Once an hour, the immaculately turned out nurses formed a parade and marched along the Aleje Ujazdowskie, chanting slogans and banging empty plastic bottles, to the accompaniment of sirens. This was a language which had a rhythm, a structure and a dramatic force. (…) All that Jarosław Kaczyński’s Government could do was to create barriers around the Government buildings, placing hundreds of policemen around them; later, when the nurses, on the President’s invitation spent a few days waiting for a meeting with him in his office, he had their mobile phones blocked. [2]

At that time, Rajkowska was renovating her palm tree at the De Gaulle Roundabout. The leafless trunk of the palm was surrounded with a scaffolding. As a symbol of Varsovians’ solidarity with the protesting nurses, a banner was hung on it, shaped like a nurse’s cap. For a brief moment, the palm tree acquired a specific political message. Today, the palm has come to share the fate of many a work in public space – from having been a positive exexcess it has been ossifying into an oversized gadget and a ‘symbol of the city’.

Escape route via the tent

Whoever needs a tent in the city centre? Probably whoever needs to live in it for a while. That was the function of the tent in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol. In Mokotowska Street, it became a repetition, an abstract gesture. Regardless of the intentions of those who had pitched it, to set up a tent in Warsaw was akin to an artistic gesture.

And this is by no means a limitation. On its own, the tent acquired meanings, also in the artistic arena. For one thing, it was reminiscent of Tracey Emin’s 1995 notorious work Everyone I Have Slept With 1963–1995. On the sides of a tent, the artist had embroidered the names of all the people that she had been sexually intimate with during her entire life. When the tent, which belonged to Charles Saatchi, burned down during a fire in his art warehouse, the artist refused to recreate the work. For Emin, a bed (My Bed, 1998) or a tent are external spaces, marked with intimacy.

Paweł Althamer made a subversive use of a tent during London Frieze Art Fair 2003. In Althamer’s art the idea of a mobile home or of annexing public space (Tree House, 2001) has recurred, along with questioning the boundaries of privacy. At the Frieze, Althamer put up a triangular tent with a flysheet, which concealed an unauthorised entrance to the pavilion – another tent, this time a huge one – in which the prestigious Art Fair was taking place.

The tent pitched up by the 12 Tribes Collective also had the marks of an excess – taking advantage of a public space in order to parade their own views. It posed questions about how relevant the demands of the Movement of the 15 May were in Poland. But, above all, it expressed the desire to experience the Real. Or perhaps, it was just an echo of a false epiphany?


Karol Sienkiewicz - (born 1980)
Historian and art critic, book editor, including (jointly with K. Redzisz) Draught, a compilation of texts by Anda Rottenberg about the art of the 1980s. Contributes to dwutygodnik.com as art critic.


[1] The Revolution Did not Put Everything Right [Jerzy Haszczyński in conversation with Bohdan Osadczuk, 2005], in: Bohdan Osadczuk, The Independent Ukraine. A Selection of articles and conversations (1993-2006), selected and edited by B. Kerski, Borderland, Sejny 2006, p. 413.

[2] J. Rajkowska, As if, so that, is, in: Rajkowska. Political Critique Guide, Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej, Warsaw 2010, p. 60.