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//To shred. Social costs versus art in Poland// Stanisław Ruksza

To shred. Social costs versus art in Poland Stanisław Ruksza


The popularity of certain artistic themes sometimes depends on intellectual trends, at other times on societal needs. In the twenty five years of the free market in Poland, there have been many occasions to tackle the issue of the economically excluded, people “to shred”, as Zygmunt Bauman dubbed them ten years ago. Debates on books exposing dark sides of neoliberal ideology took place away from anniversary commemorations
[1] and outside art galleries there are still countless examples of the quality of life having deteriorated radically for a considerable part of the Polish society. Nevertheless, poverty has unfortunately been pushed into the area of universal problems and for a long time removed from our own backyard.

Only relatively recently have the media begun dealing with the issue of victims of the Polish transformation and its consequences. The famous interview given to Gazeta Wyborcza by Marcin Król, who in the 1990s extolled the virtues of neoliberalism, entitled was “We were stupid”. It triggered many polemics and other avowals of mistaken faith in this ideology. Moreover, a record number of suicides in 2013 (according to the Central Statistical Office of Poland , 6097 Poles took their own lives, the majority of whom were unemployed, middle-aged men) made it impossible to avoid the topic of the victims of Poland’s transformation any longer.

In 2014 first exhibitions tackling the logic of competition and social costs of capitalism took place. Amongst them were: The Face of the Day [Oblicze dnia], shown at the 6th ArtBoom Festival as well as Your City Is a Battleground [Twoje miasto to pole walki] shown in the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw as a part of Warsaw Under Construction Festival. Both were curated by the author of this article and enriched the Polish imaginary space with certain images. This article, based on the material gathered during the exhibitions, is the first written attempt at developing periodization of post-1989 artistic performances on economic issues and social costs during the last twenty five years of the transformation and its consequences for visual arts. The issue if of course extremely complex and conditioned by processes happening at different levels of both social and artistic lives. Therefore this text should be seen as an invitation to further research, polemics and new, distinct viewpoints. Due to space constraints only selected but most representative examples are discussed.

Surprisingly, during the period of transformation the issue of social costs incurred as a result of economic changes did not inspire many art works, plays, movies or books. Artists to a large extent trusted in the invisible hand of the market, lured by the illusory notion of success, and ended up in the precariat, as outsiders to the process. Only recently have they started to take up this topic, having realized that it directly affects them as well.

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The 1990s abounded in works with narratives based on cultural but not social liberalism. As three poets stated in 1992 “behind the window no shitty shred of idea” [za oknem ni chuja idei] (Marcin Baran, Marcin Sendecki, Marcin Świetlicki). Critical art that emerges from the works of that time deals with such topics as body, memory and history, leaving economic transformation aside.

One of the first artworks which did take up this subject was Paweł Althamer’s Observer [Obserwator] (1992), preserved as a photographic record. The happening was Althamer’s response to the invitation to the promotional campaign of the liberal daily Obserwator that was entering the market at the time. The artist paid a few homeless people to sit in the centre of Warsaw with the daily’s logo pinned to their chests and “play themselves”, passively observing the changes which did not affect them directly.

In his subsequent happenings Althamer often invited people from the so called social margins to cooperate. One of his recent projects involved the homeless and drug addicts in Bowery Street in New York, where he had his exhibition in the New Museum. There, he presented utopian dreams about spiritual development which surpasses rational logic. This was also the first known work in which the artist invited us to see the world in terms of a movie.

Another important work was Krzysztof Wodiczko’s Public Projection [Projekcja publiczna] on the façade of the Town Hall Tower in Kraków in 1996. In it, the artist used also sound, giving voice to those pushed to the margins of Kraków’s society: victims of domestic violence, drug addicts, the homeless, the disabled. For Polish art, this was the first clear coming out of many long-repressed taboo topics.

Years of free market economy and consumption have brought about not only the division into winners and losers but also a new hierarchy of personal worth or social status, directly linked with economic circumstances. Erich Fromm’s drive to status, significance and success, present in all professional groups, has contributed to the double exclusion of the losers: in economic terms and as subjects in the Polish iconosphere. Sometimes the themes that are of interest here were taken up also by documentary filmmakers e.g. Henryk Dederko in his Welcome to Life [Witajcie w życiu] or Ewa Borzęcka in Arizona (both 1997).

Of course, artists did criticize consumptionism, for example Zbigniew Libera in his Corrective Devices [Urządzenia korekcyjne] but the system as such was not put into question. In the 1990s no other economic narrative was allowed to enter the public discourse, although naturally alternative solutions did appear. Professor Tadeusz Kowalik, for instance, warned against the shock doctrine and transplanting the ideas of the Chicago school into Poland. We have to bear in mind that the economists at the time were unaware of the consequences of rapid transformations and the Balcerowicz plan, which they demonstrated by adopting the neoliberal option. So how could we possibly expect the artists to see the danger? Free market and democracy for many were synonymous and equally important. At the time, neoliberalism was transparent – a well-known leftists feminist chaired a TV show in which the contestants were supposed to eliminate the weakest link, which may be read as a caricature of this collective competition-based thinking…

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A shift took place at the beginning of the 21st century, when alter-globalist movements started to gain importance. The publication of Naomi Klein’s book No Logo in Poland inspired numerous works directed against big corporations and kept in the spirit alterglobalist critique of capitalism. Initially art was critical of brands, with time becoming a gauge of social tensions. It absorbed new meanings and dealt with such issues as unemployment or social blackmail.

The work which best exemplifies this tendency is Rafał Jakubowicz’s Arbeitsdisziplin (2002). It consists of postcards, a movie and a lightbox showing the Volkswagen manufacturing plant in Antoninek, outside Poznań, together with the logo tower and barbed wire fencing. The movie, without narration, presents a uniformed guard walking along the barbed fence. Jakubowicz’s work evokes associations with Nazi concentration camps. It represents art that deals with the notions of power and control, criticizes big corporations and their past involvements with slave totalitarian regimes, whilst making us aware to what extent our outlook is shaped by the dramatic events of the 20th century (traumatic afterimages of the death factory). The premiere caused outrage of the Volkswagen management in Poland, who prevented it being shown in the Municipal Gallery Arsenał in 2002. However, this act of censorship only uncovered yet another dimension of the work, revealing the real power of the corporations – Volkswagen managed to effectively blackmail the city officials not grant their permission by quoting the number of local citizens the company employed. In the end, Arbeitsdisziplin premiered in Rozbrat Squat in Poznań and it was the first in the series of Jakubowicz’s works tackling the issues of work and worker’s rights.

Amongst the works representative of the time (early 2000s) are also Anna Witkowska’s plastic bags with slogans such as “Everything shit” [“Wszystko i gówno”] and “Potatoe Pest” [“Stonka”][2]. Created in 2004, they are an example of designer piracy, which both imitates and contests persuasive marketing strategies of big corporations. In a way, the artist, which used to work as a creative director in a corporation, turned into an avenging hacker. Fake plastic bags of well-known supermarkets with their parodied slogans constitute an analysis of power mechanisms and inescapable social ties (ideologies and the market speak with “our voice”). The early 2000s also saw a number of works on relationships between brands and ideology, for example Signal Box / Nastawnia or Inc (both 2004).

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Around the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, many artists were inspired by topics such as results of the transformation, the collapse of industry and economic exclusion. Research was conducted into the crisis of whole regions e.g. by Tomasz Rakowski, who published his conclusions in Hunters, gatherers and the practices of powerlessness [Łowcy, zbieracze, praktycy niemocy]. This local dimension of industrial collapse was also on the agenda of such institutions as Wyspa Institute of Art in Gdańsk, Jerzy Szaniawski Drama Theatre in Wałbrzych or Kronika Centre for Contemporary Art in Bytom.

In her 2003 movie Sweeping after Textile Workers [Pozamiatać po włókniarkach] Julita Wójcik records herself sweeping the former factory building in Łódź. By doing this, she wanted to draw attention to the plight of female textile workers after the factory employing them closed down. Today Wójcik’s work is an important piece held in the Museum of Art in Łódź – a part of the only public collection which focuses on labour transformations and social exclusion.

Konrad Pustoła, in a series of photographs entitled Unfinished Houses [Niedokończone domy] from 2005 shows uninhabited houses which as a result of the short economic boom turned into ruins even before they were finished, bearing witness to disappointed hopes, failed investments, unpaid loans and expropriations. Commenting on his work, Pustoła said, “the houses stand in the middle of a field, without access roads, electricity or telephone lines. As if someone was building them and then suddenly went bankrupt. What is most surprising is that they are completely unprotected, like someone abandoned them and wanted to forget about them. In my photographs I try to show the dark side of turbo-capitalism. Those unfinished houses are the epitome of sadness and failure experienced by many”.

In the following years many artists tackled this subject. Among those particularly worth mentioning are Robert Rumas and his Allocation [Alokacja] (2008), Franciszek Orłowski with The Kiss of Love [Pocałunek miłości](2008), Anna Molska with Weavers [Tkacze](2008), Piotr Wysocki with Border [Granica] (2010), Łukasz Surowiec and his Happy New Year [Szczęśliwego Nowego Roku] (from 2011 onwards), Tero Nauhy with his Life in Bytom [Życie w Bytomiu] (2012), Rafał Jakubowicz and his Unemployed [Bezrobotny] (2012), Łukasz Surowiec and his Black Diamonds [Czarne diamenty] (2013) and Rafał Jakubowicz with Krzysztof Gazda va in paradiso (2014).

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The most recent chapter in the history of Polish representations of economic exclusion is autothematic: it is art about artists, their social status and precarious position as well as about economic aspects of art making. Such themes were the inspiration behind works shown at the moving exhibition Workers Of The Artworld Unite initiated in Kronika Centre for Contemporary Art in Bytom in 2013. But, more importantly, they also resulted in numerous art interventions in the public sphere. The creation of the Citizens’ Forum of Contemporary Art and the symbolic strike action of artists which took place in 2012 (Day without Art) triggered a host of other movements and initiatives such as the first trade union for artists (Art Workers which belongs to Workers' Initiative Trade Unions'), the publication of The Black Book of Polish Artists [Czarna księga polskich artystów] or academic research into the art world entitled The Art Factory [Fabryka sztuki].

In the long term such initiatives will probably inspire artworks more conscious of the economic factors that determine them.

Translation: Dorota Malina


[1] In 2014 Poland celebrated the 25th anniversary of the 1989 elections and of “Polish freedom” [translator’s note]
[2] A play on the promotional slogan of a Polish supermarket „Wszystko i tanio” (Everything cheap), and on a name of the popular discount shop “Biedronka” (ladybird) [translator’s note].