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//The Wigry World Hub// - About Working with a Local Community and the Unequal Battle Between Dialogue and an Experiment with the Monumentality of Walls Julita Kwaśniak talks to Agnieszka Tarasiuk

The Wigry World Hub - About Working with a Local Community and the Unequal Battle Between Dialogue and an Experiment with the Monumentality of Walls Julita Kwaśniak talks to Agnieszka Tarasiuk

Julita Kwaśniak: At the end of the 90s, you left Warsaw for the little village Sokole in Podlasie. The move inspired you to take up new artistic and curator-animator challenges.

Agnieszka Tarasiuk: My decision to leave Warsaw was very personal. I wanted to get away from the city whose pulse was beating to the rhythm of overwhelming and frantic capitalist transformations. I needed to find a quiet place, a safe haven, I had fallen in love and started a family. And so, for various reasons, I found myself in Podlasie. But a lot of water flowed under the bridges before I felt a fully-fledged member of the village community. At the beginning, I just took my inspiration from the village, but exhibited my art in Warsaw.

And then, while you were known in Podlasie as ‘the one who films frogs’, you came up with the idea for a competition for the most beautiful traditional farm dwelling…

That’s right,  Froggy Flirting[1], or a video about the ‘sex’ life of frogs, which I shot by the river, but presented at Zachęta in Warsaw. At a certain point I decided to reverse the direction. I wanted my activities to be in tune with the place where I was living. The competition for the most beautiful farm was a way to allow me to enter the homes of local people. I talked them into reminiscing. They pulled out old photos and documents from granny chests. They showed off their craftwork made of tree roots, swans made from tyres or boxes made out of plastic bags.

Having worked with local communities for years, I know now that what people crave is attention. If we take a genuine interest in their work and the place where they live, there is a real chance that a creative encounter will result. Although at the time, I did not refer to the project as artistic, it turned out that that was just how I went about it. The relationships which were struck on the occasion of the social projects – that’s what my art was.

At that time, you discovered the Folk Centre in Sokole, which provided scope for experiments while working with the local community.

Whilst visiting the neighbouring farms, I came upon a dilapidated wooden house from the 1930s, with a modernist ambiance, which breathed the spirit of that time. I was enchanted with the high windows, the simple dividing lines and the large expanse of the walls. I became interested in the history of the place. I listened carefully to the tales of the locals who reminisced that, during the Soviet occupation, a mobile cinema had visited there. Films by, for instance, Sergei Eisenstein, were shown and used as a tool of russification and indoctrination, but, on the other hand, they enabled those living at the back of beyond to encounter contemporary art of the highest order. Fascinated with the ambivalence of the situation, I decided to reproduce the formula from the time of the occupation: cinema and dancing. Together with the village people, we cleaned out the building. I managed to lay my hands on an ancient cinema projector, sheets and some films. After the projection, we would have a dance. The same skinheads who, earlier, had drawn a Star of David hanging from a gallows, were now hugely enjoying the new space and happy to dance to Klezmer music. The Folk Centre became a meeting place and generated the energy required to try further ventures. For example, in Hieronimowo, formerly a village with collective farming, where the ruins of socialist buildings can be found next to the ruins of an 18th century palace, the local girls made ball gowns under the direction of the well-known fashion designer Monika Jakubiak. Thanks to Monika’s connections, the lace and satin arrived all the way from Paris and London. They stiffened the crinolines with the empty bags used for goose feed. Wearing their gowns, they ran around the goose farm, the blocks of flats covered in sprayed graffiti and the abandoned park, left over from the old manor house. We also organised a ball with a string quartet, cakes and tea brewed in a samovar. We decorated the trees with lanterns and garlands. For one night, the muddy undergrowth became an elegant park, and all the village girls – princesses.

In spite of such promising encounters with the local people, you then chose to leave Sokole behind in favour of the Centre for Creative Work in Wigry. Why?

After years of guerrilla fighting in the forest, I decided to settle for a prestigious monastery, because I no longer felt able to struggle. Simply speaking, at last someone had offered me a salaried job and a budget to make my projects reality.

Once you did that, it turned out that working in a state institution brings new problems of its own, a conflict with the Church for one. Which kind of work did you prefer?

The transition from the informal working setup in Sokole to running a large institution in Wigry was an extremely interesting experience. Never before had I worked ‘nine to five’, and suddenly, I became the boss of an almost fifty-strong team. I was besieged by bureaucracy, buried in paperwork and admin problems, but I managed. Today, I appreciate the potential of both kinds of work setup, working in an institution or within an independent framework. Certainly, the less structured form of work provides more freedom and enables you to act fast. On the other hand, an institutional structure allows you to build something durable, including the prestige of art vis á vis other social constructs, such as education or local government.

There we are in 2008. You have just come to Wigry, and then….

I began to discovery the history of the place. To me, it had always had huge energy. There are many layers of ‘proper’ history present there. In the past, there had been a pagan settlement there, a royal manor, a hospital for those with venereal diseases and a Tsarist prison. In the 17th century, there was a monastery compound. The building was a classical example of ‘talking architecture’. At the time of the Camaldolese monks, the monastery symbolised Catholicism, which was superior to reformation and heresy. In 1800, the monastery was closed down, by the end of the 19th century it had practically ceased to exist, all that was left was the church. The walls familiar today represent the after-life of the building; a ‘remake’ by the Ministry of Culture, which, in the 70s, had the Catholic Church sign a lease agreement on the building in exchange for renovation. This means that these are not three-hundred-year old walls permeated with prayer, but thirty-year old walls permeated with vodka and cigarettes. This was because, since the 70s, the Centre for Creative Work had functioned as a select holiday place for VIPs connected with the Ministry of Culture.  Stories still circulate of the legendary romances and splendour of this ‘playing at medieval knights’. In spite of all that, creative work really did take place in Wigry. Andrzej Strumiłło used to organise open-air get-togethers forleading world land artists. Czesław Miłosz, Bronisław Geremek and Jan Nowak-Jeziorański came to visit.

Gradually, the Centre for Creative Work in Wigry transformed itself into a modern cultural institution. In 1999, the-then very young Aukso Orchestry from Tychy came there, conducted by Marek Moś. They played one concert and it was received so enthusiastically that it became the beginning of an excellent festival of classical music. For many years, Tadeusz Słobodzianek produced in Wigry the Art of Dialogue – exceptional workshops for playwrights, directors and actors. The Laboratorium contributed to the professional rise of the radical directors Jan Klata and Maja Kleczewska. Jan Bernad’s Muzyka Kresów Foundation brought so much ethnic musicology to the area, that now, under every hillock someone sings in white voice or dances to traditional fiddle-playing. A few times a year, a folk market took place by the monastery walls, where many local craftspeople and musicians arrived and you could sample delicious slow food cheeses, sausages and infusions. I also managed to add my bit to the story. In until-then unheard-of circumstances, visual artists and contemporary musicians met there.

How did the local people respond to your arrival and the transformation of the profile of the activity of the Centre?

The director in Wigry had always been associated with suits, and I arrived in sneakers. So, straight away, I somewhat deflated the pompousness of the place. Of course, everybody was puzzled why I didn’t organise a banquet for the local governor and the members of the local government. There were even rumours circulating that my presence in Wigry was some kind of swindle. Such an attitude from the local people towards me was not surprising. As a rule, institutions run with public money inspire suspicion and criticism. It’s quite a different story with grass roots organisations. If we create something independently and without profit, then – even in spite of the initial reluctance – in time, usually there develops acceptance for the activities. On the other hand even if an idea is incomprehensible, but it takes place at a small youth club or a similar place, the event is treated as unimportant. But if, for example, a concert of contemporary music takes place in a serious large institution, the event itself is respected, even if the content remains enigmatic for the audience. And that is exactly how the majority of the locals reacted in Wigry.

During your few years there, you invited many local people to participate in artistic projects. How did you manage to persuade them to accept your ideas?

The most difficult but also the most important thing in interpersonal and social relationships is not to lie. The sincerity of intentions and the voluntary basis of participation usually guarantee the success of the venture. So, everyone needs to have some real interest in getting involved. Value added can arise on many levels. What mattered the most for me was the emotional and economic gain of those who took part in the projects organised by the Centre and the artists. The gain can be a moment of joy, making new friends, getting new ideas into your head or simply making some money selling your crochet work at the local market.

Which of the projects produced by the Centre and the invited artists had the greatest social impact?

Each action was firmly grounded in the local community, it is now very difficult to compare them. We produced art together with our neighbours. Hubert Czerepok led a crazy Liberty manifestation for children amongst the spring-time muddy fields. The Suwałki youths made a sensuous, two-and-a-half metre tall Pearl for Maurycy Gomulicki, and, together with Dominik Jałowinski and Piotr Wysocki, organised Black Energy by the church – a trash metal concert decorated with hundreds of little black fans. In this last action, even our dogs took part. The prisoners from the Suwałki prison helped us in many artistic and horticultural ventures which were part of the Flower Power project. They sowed a communal bed made of fragrant scented stock, designed by the Mexican artist Jerónimo Hagerman and they helped Julita Wójcik weave a rainbow made out of artificial flowers which we used to prop up the wall of the monastery. Ela Jabłońska came to Wigry and made friends with the local housewives. She collected seedlings and bulbs from them, and then placed them in specially designed boxes together with tufts of turf. We sent off the assembled sets – some hundred packages – to people who had had something to do with Wigry, to artists and people who have worked with us. We already knew at that point that the days of the Centre were numbered. Perhaps, this was a farewell of sorts… Afterwards, from various corners of the globe, we received photos of plants grown from those seedlings from Wigry.

The Centre for Creative Work did more than just facilitate artistic projects. Some of them also mattered from the financial point of view.

It was important for us to support the small, local craft industry, to preserve the cultural potential of the region. Local craftsmen worked together with professional designers. These encounters resulted in new objects which combined tradition with a contemporary touch. We also initiated a slow food action, so that local farmers could advertise their products. In the restaurant by the monastery, we offered regional organic specialities. We published an Alternative Guide to Suwałki. It helps one to sightsee the region trekking in the footsteps of local craftsmen, traditional story-tellers and organic farmers. At every farm, you can buy something: cheese, dumplings, organic vegetables, paper flowers or wooden birds. In spite of the demise of the Centre, the system still works. Recently, students from  a school of fashion design in Berlin set off around the region following our Guide. In this way, I succeeded in achieving the aim which I had set myself soon after arriving in Wigry. I wanted people who participated in our projects to experience a palpable change, a change in the economics of the place.

The Centre for Creative Work in Wigry no  longer exists. It seems that it was not so much the last few years, but the year 1999 that was the kiss of death.

In 1999, Pope John Paul II visited Wigry and spent a couple of days there. For the occasion, a beautiful apartment was furnished, the place was re-rendered and an imposing staircase was built. Today, pilgrims arrive by the coach load to view the bed, in which he slept. The region has been covered in tourist routes named after him: for walkers, kayakers, cyclists. You can buy his favourite cream cakes, yellow badges and customised baseball hats. I would have never been able to guess that for a while, what was to dominate my life in Wigry was the Pope. From the moment that John Paul II visited the monastery, the Church authorities initiated steps towards repossessing the entire building. I proposed dividing it into church and non-religious sections. Such a juxtaposition of contemporary art and traditional religious ritual appeared very inspiring to me. I spent many months working on Papal themes in contemporary art. Unfortunately, such co-existence turned out to be too difficult for both parties. The Ministry handed the building back to the Church and the Centre was closed. We didn’t even have the chance to finalise the exhibition Open Throne. Contemporary Art vis à vis the John Paul II Phenomenon. As a result, we made the album Exhibition in a Box.

Does the way that your work in Wigry came to an end prove anything?

What became clear is that, in Poland, any co-existence of the Church and a secular institution is impossible. What won was the total need to master the message; a large monastery in the middle of a lake must function unambiguously as someone’s prestige booster. This can be either the Ministry, ie a secular power, or the religious authorities, ie the Catholic Church. Dialogue and experimentation are not sufficiently valued per se to be able to resist the monumentality of the old walls. As a result what we have now is yet another pilgrimage destination for the cult of John Paul II, functioning smoothly in tandem with a commercial hotel.

Without a doubt, the Centre of Creative Work in Wigry was unique. What made it so?

It was a utopia, a specific relic of communism: a gigantic structure with galleries, a hotel and a restaurant, with kayaks and sailing boats for hire. And all that was meant to serve art, and not profit. Thanks to subsidies from the Ministry, rather than weddings, slow food workshops took place in the restaurant, which might be followed by a lecture by Julita Wójcik about Strzemiński’s applied theory of perception, a session about the organisation of public swimming pools or a discussion about the ‘vitality of minimalist aesthetics’ or ‘the potential of microtone tuning in experimental music’. Wigry was a global nucleus where those that normally existed separately came together. Pilgrims encountered the milieu of contemporary art as well as other tourists or farmers promoting organic food. This is something you don’t easily come across. Sure, new places keep springing up, but they are defined in a more one-sided way.

Wigry took part in a number of different debates: on right wing ideas, local religion, sophisticated art, run-of-the-mill tourism… Wigry was non-specific, but now, everything has gone back to the median. I carry out artistic projects in Warsaw, which is comprehensible and expected. The priest acts in Podlasie, pilgrims arrive and nothing disturbs their equilibrium. There is no slow food in the restaurant, just the usual pork chops and potatoes. It’s supposed to be preferable, because it’s non-conflictual. And yet – this is a failure of modernism.

Art is a catalyst for change. How did the Centre for Creative Work transform Wigry, and how did it affect you?

I often talk to artists about this. About what is most important in social participative art, and, by the same token, in the work of the Centre. Transformations worked by art are usually non-specific, barely perceptible. In reality, it’s politics or the economy that wreaks the real transformations. Art can change perception, move about some notions in your head. It can trigger disquiet or curiosity, it can interfere with the routine and it can make the invisible – visible, albeit just for a moment. It can point to deep-hidden problems. And this is already an awful lot.

The Centre for Creative Work in Wigry was seminal. But you cannot measure its success by the number of people who have achieved salvation on behalf of art… Today, many organisations and associations operate in Wigry and, I hope, they will continue to work for the local community. As for me…  in Wigry, I discovered that I am tough. And, I also hope, independent. Apart from dreaming about freedom, I have no dominant idea to which I subjugate my actions. I aim at art itself, conceived as broadly as possible.


Agnieszka Tarasiuk – (born 1971)

Artist, curator, 1996–2006 associated with the Arsenał Gallery and the Białystok region. Co-founder of the WIDOK Cultural Education Association, 2008–2010 Director of the Centre for Creative Work in Wigry, from 2011 curator of the Xawery Dunikowski Sculpture Museum at Królikarnia, a branch of the National Museum in Warsaw.


1. Froggy Flirting – a video shown at Zachęta in 1998, made at the Siemianówka reservoir, showed  frogs’ spring mating rituals.