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//Projects That Make a Difference// - About What Parkour, History and Art Have in Common Magdalena Mazik talks to Piotr Wysocki

Projects That Make a Difference - About What Parkour, History and Art Have in Common Magdalena Mazik talks to Piotr Wysocki

Magdalena Mazik: You organised the project Run Free in Radom. What had made two artists from Warsaw choose that particular town?

Piotr Wysocki: Elektrownia, the Masuria Cultural and Art Centre, invited both Dominik Jałowiński and me to create a project about Radom.


What inspired you to come up with the format for your workshop?

I have been doing workshops for years, with various social groups. When we got interested in Radom, we came across, mainly via the Internet, all sorts of information about guys throwing stones at football matches or having run-ins with police public order squads. We are talking hardcore mobile phone videos about football hooligans. What first inspired us was the hatred of the police and the authorities, which was palpable in Radom. Then, we discovered a large parkour – or  rather, free run – scene there.


What’s the difference between parkour and free running?

Free running is a continuation of parkour, enriched with acrobatics. You run across the city, jumping over all sorts of urban obstacles: benches, cars, walls. In a way, pirouetting through the air in your acrobatics, you are outside everything. This is flying – literally and metaphorically. You become an Icaresque figure. Parkour is practised mostly by young people, who want to express their individuality and independence; it is in opposition to the traditional forms of sport, at least in Poland it is. Unfortunately, it is viewed very negatively, as part of the social margin or even a pathology. In Radom, it essentially consists of running away from the police. This is why we decided to make a project with those two social groups in an antagonistic relationship with each other.


It was supposed to be a project about Radom as urban space.

Radom is a working-class town, with a strong industrial tradition, which, as a result of administrative reforms in the 1990s, lost its status of a regional capital and became very provincial. June 76 is considered the starting point of that process – referred to as ‘the Radom events’. The people who came out in the streets to protest against price rises at that time were totally brutalised by the police. The authorities used radical propaganda methods to present the situation as a hooligans’ rampage. To this day, there exists in the Polish consciousness the image of the ‘Radom agitator’. As for the town’s inhabitants themselves, they think that the 1976 rebellion was not a good thing, because it worsened the social situation of the town and of the average person living there. A bitter conviction prevails that nothing was gained at that time. We alluded to this history of the town through the space in which we organised the workshop.


What space was it?

We chose a couple of locations. One was the estate, where the young people who took part in our action live. It was precisely in that part of town that, after the police backlash in 1976, the workers carried out their self-criticism – in the football grounds of the Radomiak football club. We conducted the workshop just by the football pitch, in the sports-and-recreation complex, which had remained unfinished for thirty years. The parkour guys meet up and train on that abandoned site – now this is their space.

But we succeeded in organising the most important part of the workshop on the site of the Łucznik Arms Factory, in the very hall from which, in ’76, the first workers went out into the streets. To this day, arms are produced there. From those two concrete and physical spaces, the mental space was born for those two groups, a space, in which the zone of authority is intertwined with the zone of freedom, expressed by youths through free running.


How did you manage to track down the parkour guys?

Over a year earlier, we showed a friend from Radom the amateur films about parkour that we had found on the Internet and he identified the blocks of flats in them. We went there and asked the first kid we met whether there was anybody there who practised parkour.  Instantly, within a few minutes, some twenty people appeared. Together with Dominik Jałowiński, we continued to visit Radom for another few months. We shot some films with the guys on the estate. They kept complaining a lot about the cops and that they had to keep running away from them. It turned out that the grandfather of one of the boys was one of the workers’ leaders, he led them out into the streets from the factory. So, we were working with the grandsons of those who had rebelled thirty years earlier.


What course did the workshops take? How long did they last?

The project was conducted over a period of time, but the most important part of the workshop took three days, with a very tight programme. For a couple of days, we worked in the factory hall and, on the third day, on the parkour site. The first day started with an introduction about the historical context of the meeting, ie June ’76. Next, the policemen did a presentation. They explained what a public order squad is and does; how they move, what formations they make. The same day, the parkour guys also did their presentation – they showed off their technical skills, the acrobatic tricks and so on. For the cops, parkour was something new, they didn’t know the sport, the idea behind it or why people might choose to practise it. For them, parkour practitioners were people who jump over roofs and run dangerously fast, which results in the public ringing them up and demanding intervention, so that they are obliged to come over and try to catch and identify the culprits. The whole idea behind the workshops was that we proposed to both groups that they forget about their accustomed roles. We asked the police to stop acting like cops, and we also asked the parkour guys to stop acting in character.


The opposite of the Zimbardo experiment.

We encouraged both groups to do something together, to leave behind their social roles and the prejudices that go with them, on both sides. The idea was that they should work out a choreographic sequence based on the geometric shapes adopted by the prevention squad in their work. This went down quite well. We suggested the first choreographic routine, leaving the rest to the inventiveness of the cops and the parkour group. The guys managed to break the taboos which the cops represented for them. We showed them that it is possible to kick a policeman’s shield and jump on it, but without aggression. Next, the parkour group invited the cops to the abandoned sports centre to show them how they went about creating parkour in their own space. After that, everybody watched the film made during the workshop.

What makes you decide whether the workshop is a success?

It is successful, if a meeting leads to a multi-level exchange, as it did in this case, between the parkour kids and the cops, but also between Dominic and me. The outlined scenario is always only a pretext for setting in motion certain mechanisms. It is only in action that the real situation emerges. This time, another interesting experience occurred. The policemen were very surprised that they could do something different from their daily routine and that they were collaborating with the parkour guys. And the youths were surprised that it was possible for them to produce a choreographic routine in which they would jump off the policeman’s shield, helmet or even his body, performing a pirouette.

Throughout the workshop, a debate went on. For the first time ever, the guys could tell the cops what they really thought of them, without holding anything back, as well as explain what obstacles they encountered in practising their sport. The tone of the exchanges was quite sharp.


What other groups have you worked with?

Together with Dominik Jałowiński, we did, for example, a project called Black Energy – a workshop run at a monastery in Wigry, which housed a Centre for Creative Work as well as a church. We invited a heavy metal gang from Suwałki to take part. All dressed in black, we arranged ourselves into the shape of a cross. An appearance of the local group Trash M added a touch of entertainment to this hour-long, open-air happening. In Zakrzewie, I did the Energy project with a group of the disabled. Now, in Warsaw, I am preparing a workshop in a centre for asylum seekers from Chechnya. I have already done something similar together with Marek Glinkowski, by invitation of the Kronika Centre of Contemporary Art in Bytom. We ran the action called Kamanda with children of asylum seekers from Chechnya, Georgia and Russia, living in a home. We brought them, roughly, a thousand cardboard boxes which looked like bricks and suggested that they build something, create something of their own. During the workshop, we made five short films, which document the process of building, but also of destruction – a reflection of the war trauma undergone.


Documentary film has a special role in your work.

The image is the end result of every project, also of any workshop. What form it takes depends on the particular situation. Most often, it’s a film, but it could also be an audiovisual installation. I display these productions in various spaces, providing them with new contexts.


You run group workshops, but you also make projects which revolve round a single individual. What makes you decide to work with a particular person?


Usually, I work with an artist. The majority are people from the provinces whose work has limited reach – it exists outside the structure of art world. For example, I did an installation called Close Up with Irena Zielińska, a poet from Międzyrzecz. She is someone who lives poetry. Irena lives in a small town and she writes about her own life, which is conditioned by illness and loneliness. Irena’s inspirational personality and her beautiful poems provided the stimulus to create film installations. I showed Close Up in a number of closed cinemas all over Poland. For instance, for the duration of a fortnight, I managed to open the Relax cinema in Warsaw and the Venus in Zielona Góra. Irena’s poetry could be heard in the main cinema hall and on other floors of the building.


One of those that you have made a film with is Aldona – a transsexual. Recently you have made a second film with her. What had happened in the meantime that made you want to go back to the same topic?

I am interested in Aldona, because she lives in the provinces, so, in a way, she is doubly excluded. We have known each other for six years and all this time I have watched her try to secure acceptance by society. The first part of the film tells about her love for her partner, with whom Aldona moved in and who gave her shelter. From the very beginning, it was Aldona’s dream to have the sex-change operation. The second part of the film is about that change. Transsexuals in Poland exist on the margin of society and their rights are not respected. It takes a great effort to change your gender identity in your passport: you have to take your parents to court, attend a number of hearings, submit yourself to psychological examination, and so on. These very expensive operations are not in any way refunded. As a result, these people become very unhappy. My acquaintance with Aldona has been accompanied by this unhappiness. When I got invited to the Looking exhibition, run by Zachęta, I knew straight away that I would earmark the budget for producing the project for Aldona’s operation. To a large extent, the operation was financed by Zachęta.


That is what the latest film talks about...

So much has changed in Aldona’s life, that it seemed dishonest to ‘trap’ the protagonist in the first film, made in 2006. That film had already played its part. The latest film shows that everything is much more complicated. This is a film about the transcending of boundaries, there is a lot of ‘otherness’ to accept in it. But this ‘otherness’ is not really the main topic; rather, this is a film about pursuing happiness, regardless of whether other people accept this or not.


Do you believe in the power of art?

I believe that art must make sense and that the artist’s role is to become involved in social life. This is, of course, my personal opinion. There are excellent artists who don’t act like that and we need them, as well. However, if my projects can change one or two people, that matters a lot to me.


I very much appreciate the intervention aspect of your works, where art reacts to life. Don’t you ever get tired of the consequences of such a stance, this necessity to be vigilant?

I’d rather be tired than empty. I get very much involved in each production. To enter the personal space of another person requires a considerable ability to listen and to observe. Afterwards, these projects stay with me, I couldn’t possibly free myself of them, even if I tried. I enjoy the company of the majority of the protagonists, simply as friends and interesting people. I am just as fascinated by parkour as I am by Irena’s poetry or Aldona’s stance, her opposition to the social norm. I don’t show people in minute detail. You won’t find our how old the person is or where they live. My creations are inspired by the best that we have to offer each other. Often, people cannot see their own potential. Together, we work on bringing their potential to the surface and displaying it. For example, each one of Irena’s poems involved us jointly selecting the work and designing the backdrop for filming. As for the film about Aldona, this is not merely film ‘about’ Aldona, but a film made with Aldona. You may not realise this at a first glance, you might just allow yourself to be carried by the story. But the stories are made into a storyline, the documentary aspect is intertwined with a narrative. This is not just chasing after someone with a camera in your hand so as to catch an interesting moment. These are very strong structures, based on observation.

Piotr Wysocki – (born 1976)

Visual artist, graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. Produces installations, documentary films, performance and painting. Organises actions in public space and artistic workshops. Has participated in numerous exhibitions. Recipient of numerous awards and a stipend from the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage and the Polish Institute of Film Art.