From the series "Exhibitions," A&B | December 2020
The 12th edition of the WARSAW IN CONSTRUCTION festival organized by the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw continues until January 17, 2021. This year's installment is different from previous ones. Work on the project proceeded parallel to the development of the pandemic situation in Poland and around the world. As part of the festival, an exhibition has been opened in the space of the Museum on the Vistula River, a program of events has been created based on the activities of seven working groups, debates, workshops, guided tours and discussions are also taking place. Much of the program is available online. Everything is carried out under the slogan "Something in common." How the project came to fruition and what the watchword of this year's edition of WARSAW UNDER CONSTRUCTION means are told by curators Natalia Sielewicz and Tomasz Fudala.
Natalia Sielewicz - art historian and curator at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. Graduate of Central Saint Martins College and Courtauld Institute in London. At the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, she curated the exhibitions: "Paint Means Blood. Woman, Affect and Desire in Contemporary Painting" (2019) "Hooligans" (2017), "Ministry of the Interior. Intimacy as Text" (2017), "Bread and Roses. Artists towards class divisions" (2015, together with Lukasz Ronduda), "Privacy Settings. Art after the Internet" (2014). Curator and producer of numerous performances and discursive events.
Tomasz Fudala - art historian, curator at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. Since 2009 he has been organizing and curating the WARSAWA IN CONSTRUCTION festival dedicated to architecture and urban politics. He has published in "Artforum", "Obieg" and "Odra" magazines, among others.
Anna Walewska: Tomek, which one is your "Warsaw under construction"?
Tomasz Fudala:Tenth. Not all of them curated. Round "ten."
Anna: And yours, Natalia?
Natalia Sielewicz: My first one.
Anna: Does your different experience affect how you look at the festival?
Natalia: The festival has always had and continues to have an interventionist character. An exhibition combined with a public program that has a chance to react to a dynamically changing reality in a few months seems to me a particularly valuable format.
Thomas:Previously, the festival dealt with the reconstruction of Warsaw, with buildings, with reprivatization, with the profession of architecture, and this year it deals with something that is very important in the city, in architecture, which is relationships. Relationships fill the city, they fill architecture. We notice in our country during the pandemic a lack of "glue" between people, of community, a longing to be with someone or to share a space when we are faced with confinement, quarantine, loneliness... This is such a radical change. It seems to me - it's a bit provocative to say that in A&B - here, more interesting than the architects' answer is the artists' answer.
Anna: And what does it sound like?
Natalia: The exhibition is not a diagnosis of social problems, but rather a use of form - visual and poetic - that serves to juxtapose different problems, to visualize what perhaps sometimes escapes in journalistic discourse.
Thomas:We want to react to reality somehow. It's not about illustrating it, but we think that artists sometimes have interesting solutions, a better idea of how to look at different things. The festival is not a finished product. It changes, just as the situation changes. Our world, which seemed already recognized, is simply falling apart before our eyes. By the victories of populists in various countries, by events in the neoliberal labor market, by what is happening in the Internet space, and finally by a pandemic that has finally robbed us of the hope that we are in some kind of safe situation. I don't think anyone feels safe now, not people who are in business, not public employees, creatives or precarious people working on a contract or a job. Every activity in the world is just changing. Today we are in the wake of the Constitutional Court ruling, and I was reminded of Barbara Kruger's poster "Your body is a battlefield." Art has the incredible power to sometimes hit the mark with incredible precision. I have a feeling that during this year's festival we got such an interesting answer in many cases.
A view of the exhibition "Something in common" as part of the 12th edition of the WARSAW UNDER CONSTRUCTION festival, Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw
Photo: Sisi Cecylia
Anna:In the current situation, it's hard to imagine that the pandemic will leave anything unaffected. I get the impression that in the case of the festival it had a decisive influence.
Thomas:It might seem that such conservative spaces as museums, which are associated with confinement in white interiors, slippers, are safe. This is not true, because it is the artists, all the creators, who have been hit very hard by the pandemic. They lost their income. Art was suddenly turned off.
Natalia: Tom and I started working on "Warsaw Under Construction" at a time when we didn't know what would happen, there were only dramatic predictions of the crisis that the new situation would bring. Self-isolation, closed borders and a focus on what is local were somehow formative for me. When the future is unclear, you quickly find that you need interlocutors, not just to relieve anxiety and tension, but to speculate about what is to come. That's why this year's edition of "Warsaw Under Construction" is not only an exhibition at the Museum on the Vistula River, but also a public program that is open and discursive: debates, workshops and lectures to which we invited artists, scientists, researchers, activists and educators.
Anna: This is how the "working groups" were formed, right? I'm curious to know how these groups formed, and by what key you selected the various categories ("Mission of the institution," "Blyzkist," "Live together," "Future of data," "Black is Polish," "Linguistic," "Local government").
Thomas:They arose from our conversations with people who appeared around us. We set ourselves to create this project slowly and sensitively. It happened that the artists we wanted to work with for this year's edition, because of the current situation, the pandemic, were mentally unable to create art, but they found the strength to work with us in working groups, on the program, on the events. We opened ourselves to the social process, which is ongoing all the time.
Natalia: As Tom mentioned, the themes came from conversations with the people we invited to co-create the festival. We gave all these groups the right to decide on the shape of the public program they are part of.
Anna: We have come to live in incredibly interesting times. The current public mood is very specific, which is reflected in the program we are discussing. The atmosphere is thickening. World events are causing concern, to say the least. I wonder how we can find "something in common" in the current reality?
Natalia: This year there seems to have been an acceleration of many processes of planetary change that have been going on for decades at full speed. I am referring not only to climate change, human interference with nature, including through the dynamic development and technological acceleration of cities, but also to changes in social consciousness: on the one hand, the rise of populism, and on the other, the struggle for human rights that swept through Poland and the world this year. We live in a schizophrenic world. The public health crisis is so intertwined with the shakiness of any mental stability of individuals and social groups that the demand to call for something in common may seem a bit naive at first glance. However, I get the impression that there is nothing left for us to do but to look for areas of common ground, to create coalitions of common interests and fronts, which do not necessarily have to function as separate identity politics, but as a set of values according to which we could act together and talk to each other not only inside the same "bubble." One of today's biggest challenges in working at the intersection of culture, education and activism is: how do I communicate with those who think differently from me?
A view of the exhibition "Something in Common" as part of the 12th edition of the WARSAW UNDER CONSTRUCTION festival, Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw.
Photo: Sisi Cecilia
Anna: So who is the festival addressed to?
Natalia: We may be moving in a limited field, but some very interesting alliances are forming. For me, the big discovery is our Senior Women and Modern Seniors Club, which was established this year at MSN. Its members don't exactly feel like dealing with senior issues or fetishizing what we call "senior identity politics." These are people who want to deal with tree preservation, tenant issues, the emergence of better community centers. This group is a very interesting initiative that brings together, as if through a lens, the various issues raised by urban movements. The Afropolitan group "Black is Polish," which is co-founded by activists with very different interests and professional profiles, is building a whole repertoire of educational tools for Polish schools based on anti-discrimination and hospitality. This is the kind of work that needs to take place, as it were, within a six-degree radius of distance. That is, it's both the one person you're close to, but then that person will transfer knowledge, viral to the next group. We are also constantly talking to our regular audience. Assuming that the traditional profile of an art institution is a liberal-left audience that has some basic competency in activism and art, we think we're also trying to introduce new insights into topics already present, like aid. One of the most prominent themes in the exhibition is the problematization of aid.
Anna: What is the role of institutions in this regard?
Thomas:We've always tried to look at this urban program of ours so that what we do is useful. It's easy to lecture and speak from a privileged position. People then hide within themselves and all sorts of complexes are awakened. We have always tried to look for useful scenarios. For example, we promote senior cohousing. This is such cohousing, which is based on mutual assistance. We have a project called "Data commons," which is about digital space. During the debate with Jan Zygmuntowski, the idea of a new look at data, of which there is a lot, was proposed. Collected by local governments, offices responsible for architecture, for planning, also the Internet create a cloud, which is the place where all these data are deposited. They can also serve something positive, more optimistic scenarios than manipulating elections. Zygmuntowski and his guests offered this, and I feel that in these times our viewers simply deserve positive scenarios. In a way, this is our mission as a public institution, to try to look for small victories in this shattered reality, which is so difficult. Natalia mentioned activists, and we have, for example, such paintings in which you can see a significant problem, that is, if something upsets me in the neighborhood, I react. These are paintings by Dominika Kowynia telling the story of the Chipko Movement. This is the kind of movement that implies action - when something bad happens next to me, I react. This is how various social movements are born. This is a very important motive. It is worth preserving such sensitivity and uniting.
Excerpt from the exhibition "Something Common"
photo: Sisi Cecylia
Anna: And with what thought was the exhibition created?
Thomas:When the pandemic began, the architectural world was flooded with designs for a new world. Various new public spaces, new pandemic-designed squares, fairs, airplanes. Every other newsletter sent up such concepts. A few months passed, we started working and these projects quieted down. Then came summer, a loosening up and actually trying to catch our breath. We saw that perhaps the world would not materially transform so quickly, and certainly capitalism would not allow it. This is a system that maintains various conservative behaviors and habits, trust in various brands and consumption rituals. In contrast, we decided to be sensitive to this, and this exhibition is the kind of space where you don't feel the stress of being in a museum, in such a white cube. You can sit there and breathe safely, pandemically, and look at the works, and at the same time there are not too many of these works. Our perception is overloaded at the moment with zooms and all kinds of incoming content. Many people say that working online they actually have more work to do. That's the feeling they have. We decided to do it carefully. I wouldn't say it was some big plan, but we were kind of careful to just not overload our exhibition, to give a breath to a tired viewer.
Natalia: It seems to me that within the exhibition we have gathered a catalog of sincere attitudes and ethos of action. It is an attempt to transcend this barrier that reality creates for us.
Anna: You mentioned the importance of dialogue with new potential audiences. How does the festival open itself to diverse audiences, how does it engage in this dialogue?
Natalia: Some of our working groups do not have an academic-discursive profile at all. These are not debates embedded in the latest sociological theories or trendy books discussed at doctoral programs. Many of them are based on people's real-life experiences. Like the debates that have taken place so far on cohousing, where the panelists, at the same time participants in this working group, professional journalists, have conducted dozens of interviews with people around the world precisely on the experiences of real people. The panel on the intergenerational experience of Afropoles and Afropolitans also dealt with the everyday experiences of real people, rather than academic discourses. With the festival's online presence, the outreach extends beyond the audience we would have gathered for a debate at the museum's headquarters.
Anna: What do you mean by that?
Natalia: It's important to create outreach in a conscious and meaningful way, and not just for the number of likes and rating systems that social media has accustomed us to. It's a question about the public activities of the institution and how to cross the usual paths and language patterns. How to reach out, how to invite, but also without expecting someone to simply come, "because they should or should."
Excerpt from the "Something in Common" exhibition display
photo: Sisi Cecilia
Anna: Can the festival be a tool to try to create this formula of hospitality?
Natalia: One could say that.
Thomas:Yes, because some of these groups, such as the Ukrainian group Blyzkist, are expanding the Museum to include a circle of people who are migrants. Perhaps they wouldn't be interested in culture, because this Warsaw culture somehow doesn't reach them, because, for example, they are new Varsovians from Ukraine. They live here, they pay taxes. What is it like to live here and look at institutions from their perspective? Some of these people have been working with us for a long time, Maria Beburia or Taras Gembik. They too are co-creating a new institution, a new field in which we operate. I think this is great. We are really changing under the influence of these reflections. We think we need to be open and we care about being in relationship with the audience. This Museum is not just about consumption. This is a Museum that wants to be relationship-based.
Anna: This seems very difficult in the current situation. How to combine the appeal for community as an antidote, with a top-down imposed situation that forces more and more separation
Natalia: This is indeed an important issue. We ourselves see a disconnect between the increasing alienation in both urban and digital spaces and the appeal of something communal. Only this title isn't "let's do something in common" or "we have something in common" it's not some pseudo-affirmative, beauty pageant title in homage to the great global village, after all, the world is full of inequality. In a way, the title of this year's edition seems rather perverse to me.
Thomas:The title "Something Common" was thought up by the artist Pawel Zhukovsky, one of the participants in the "Letter" campaign. He said that it is already such a weak title that more is not possible. [Laughs] Let's have something in common when we seem to have so little in common.
Anna: It seems to me that there is a perversity inherent in the whole festival activity. The work that opens the exhibition, the mural "Poles unite" by Rafal Dominik....
Natalia: Rafal Dominik's work is a bit of a tragicomic statement about the state of the community. We are dealing with a culture war. Perhaps these divisions will never disappear.
Anna: What will the next edition of the festival be about?
Natalia: It will be prepared entirely by our education department.
Thomas:It will be about the superimposition of art on the city and maybe vice versa. Such a "common museum".
Anna: And in what reality will the festival take place next year?
Tomasz:A continuation of the pandemic in my opinion. Since thirty percent of the population declares that they will not be vaccinated....
Natalia: I, for one, think there is nothing to augur.
Thomas:We'll ask artists and artists. They have better intuition.
The festival by not focusing on one thing like "city planning," but by touching on different topics better describes where we are. It's difficult to talk about today's cities in pandemonium. For many years it has been said that the city will no longer exist, everything will move online. This is not quite the case. Of course, we can work remotely, but it's also difficult to get away from the city when we need a hospital. At the time of the emergency, we appreciate the urban infrastructure that is public, developed over the years, for example, sewers, hospitals, public transportation and all the things that allow millions of people to live reasonably comfortably. I think that because of the pandemic and the sense of "change" it is not worth giving up these achievements of the city. Our achievements, which are democratic gains, must not be surrendered.
Anna: Thank you for the interview.
interviewed: Anna WALEWSKA
Illustrations provided courtesy of the festival organizers.