A Stadium as A Metaphor of Organising the World of Art

> Xawery Stańczyk


In the summer of 2011, in the Museum of Art in Łódź, we could see the first Polish exhibition of the Belgian performer, director and drawer Jan Fabre. Among his works was the four-hour-long recording of his 2008 performance Art Kept Me out of Jail, in which Fabre personated the notorious French thief and kidnapper Jacques Mesrine. During the 1970s, Mesrine used to be dubbed France’s public enemy nr 1 and a man of 100 faces – due to his numerous clever escapes from even the most sophisticated traps and prisons. In Fabre’s performance, one of the prisons is the Louvre museum – the artist wanders around it, hides behind columns, disguises himself, masks, pretends that he is a tourist, an art connoisseur, a member of the maintenance staff, or somebody else. It seems to be a series of jokes or pranks, but in fact, just like in his other performances, it is Fabre’s life that is at stake.

Changing clothes and roles, struggling – in vain – to escape from the Louvre, which housed his individual exhibition at the time, Fabre is trying to communicate two senses: of being a human and an artist. In the first case, it is about much more than merely putting on masks, playing social roles, statuses, assuming various positions in hierarchies or passing on ethical judgements. Although all of them make up an identity, they do not explain it fully, or rather fail to close it shut, because a self-aware person can always run away, hide, manoeuvre, even if it would just mean putting on new masks in a compulsive way; there must always be some flesh, blood, bones, the truth of the naked body. Being an artist, in turn, is an exhausting game whose main prize is being noticed but not pinned down (to use a metaphor from the world of insects, so close to Fabre), presenting artworks in the Louvre without getting trapped in the museum – a foolhardy game and eternal wandering. But there is something more to it, too, a very important possibility of testifying to the primeval human sense. This testifying becomes perceptible precisely due to the solemnity of the prisons of high culture where it takes place. Thanks to that, art keeps out of those literal, not metaphorical, prisons.

Jan Fabre is adopting a strange straddle position, between the criticism of high culture and an apology of it, between cool sociological reflection on the condition of the humanity and lyrical lightness and playfulness, between intransigent hermeneutics of suspicion and a phenomenological insight into the meaning of existence.

The organisers of the 10th jubilee edition of the SURVIVAL Art Review addressed the matter differently, but also in a way similarly. Differently, because instead of discovering capillary vessels of the penal system in art, they likened it to a sports discipline, choosing a motto which is positive due to its egalitarian nature: Up To You. Similarly, since likening art to sport must inevitably lead to reflections on the mechanisms present in the realm of art: those of a game, an agon, artistic competition with artists being not subjects, but just pawns (even if they are convinced that they possess the Demiurge’s power), unable to withdraw themselves.

Numerous artworks testified to games, plays and fouls in art. Some of them were like Jerzy Kosałka’s High Jump, from the series: My Private Championships, 2011, a funny video installation of an artist known from the Luxus group, so fond of ludic forms. In his video, an enthusiastic, emotional voice of a sports commentator is mockingly juxtaposed with a recording of the Roman snail climbing over a small stick on its way. On the other hand, Michał Bieniek, an artist and SURVIVAL’s curator, in his work Up To You ironically undermines the very motto of the Review. Aleksandra Sojak-Borodo in her Benches installation made some minor alterations to the seats of the ‘Oławka’ stadium, where this year’s Review took place, mixing the semantic orders of sport and art, thus revealing the spectacular character of both the worlds which produce alienation in place of fake spontaneity. Piotr Blajerski teaches How to Become a Professional Artist in a video made from fragments of instructional films for beginner artists dreaming of a career, which can be found on the Internet. It is necessary to mention here Agnieszka Popek-Banach and Kamil Banach’s installation Race Rankings: the hurdles in an obstacle race bear the names of the ten most influential people of the Polish art world, according to the yearly ranking of the ‘Obieg’ magazine. In such a joking way the artists suggest that it is enough to simply jump above the most important artists.

On the other hand, Dorota Nieznalska’s Construction of Race (Volksgemeinschaft and Limited Edition Euro 2012 / Survival 10 as well as Sandra Rzeszutek’s START focus on the dark side of sport: racism, fanaticism, violence, hatred of strangers, misogyny, male domination. Nieznalska’s former work was in fact attacked and stolen by local football fans, although the reason for it was not that it depicted fans’ culture in an unflattering light, but rather because it showed ultras of Arka Gdynia, a football club which is deeply hated by fans of Śląsk Wrocław.

I refer to those few chosen artworks because they constitute an interesting example of self-knowledge of the (predominantly young) artists, their awareness of the rules governing the field of art and the allegedly symmetrical field of sport. The elements characterising the world of sport function here as metaphors of set-ups, games of deceits, unfair competition of alienated individuals, unjustified emotions, finally – hatred, brutality, violence and masculinity. Artists see their reflection in such sports activity and find its various features in the rules governing the world of art, which is rarely openly discussed.

Exactly one month before SURVIVAL, on 24 May, the Day Without Art took place – a Poland-wide strike of artists, triggered by a total lack of any social security systems for them. Unlike in Germany – which was frequently quoted as an example – or other European countries, in Poland the majority of artists are not covered by any social or retirement insurance because there are no institutional solutions, neither in the traditional form of social solidarity nor in any other, and only few pay their insurance premium contributions. Add to this the permanent uncertainty of an artist’s existence, who does not usually have a job contract and can only count on his or her creative inspiration, as well as the profiles of art competitions, the programme lines of art institutions, difficulties in cooperation with local governments and NGOs, the capricious volatility of the audience and the unpredictable changes in art market – and it turns out that we have to do with a profession which is in the avant-garde of precarisation – the process of a growing instability of employment, a lack of legal protection forced by the doctrine of ‘flexibility’ and declining salaries1. And the majority of Polish artists, in spite of the popular image of the splendour of the art world, are already poor.

In his text Why Are Artists Poor?, which due to its significance may well be called the Day Without Art manifesto, Kuba Szreder presented a sociological analysis of the fight of the various forms of capital in the field of art. The diagnosis shows a sharp dichotomy between ‘a galaxy of art stars’, ‘a global circuit of visibility’ and ‘the dark matter of art world’, that is ‘a mass of poor artists’, scattered across local art scenes, ignored by global capital flows2. Beyond doubt, there are art stars like Damien Hirst or even Wilhelm Sasnal, whose artworks are sold for colossal amounts of money on the global market, as well as a huge number of artists who are connected with one country or one city during their whole life and who have difficulties making ends meet. In general, Szreder’s conclusions are correct. However, ignoring the social spectrum – true, it is shrinking and under the threat of annihilation, but still real and colourful – between these two extremes, or maybe overlooking the existence of some other poles which would change the segment with two ends into a polygon of many vertices, is not only a theoretical mistake, but also a pragmatic one because it might result in real consequences in perception and action. Blajerski’s above-mentioned work How to Become a Professional Artist proves the existence of a significant group of artists who produce kitsch aimed at the bourgeoisie and the petit bourgeoisie who, on the one hand, will never make it to the renowned galleries or museums, but, on the other hand, are successful enough (at least from their subjective point of view) to seriously advise young artists on the Internet. Therefore, they function in a separate realm, ignored by curators, critics and researchers.

The field of art consists in fact of many subfields, connected by subtle dependencies, relatively independent circuits and complimentary markets. Let us mention here the phenomenon of street art, a current which has undergone rapid popularisation and commercialisation in Poland since 2009, which in turn led to artistic careers (and the resulting financial profits) of a dozen or so leaders of this relatively small milieu. Although many artists have extra income, or sometimes simply support themselves doing other jobs connected with their education or profession, even if the same person earns a living in the so-called creative clusters, when they are street artists, they belong to a separate art circuit system. Another issue is the growing political character of the field of art, which was demonstrated in a chaotic and selective – but precursory – way during the New National Art exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw in the summer of 2012. The increasing ideologisation of the world of art results in a further branching off of the circuit.

The internal differentiation of the field of art, the growth in the significance of local scenes, circuits and markets as soon as the global tendencies towards the concentration of power and capital slow down or slacken, as accurately described by Szreder, are clearly manifested in the growing popularity of the so-called art in public space. This kind of art has a dual nature, aesthetic and political, although at times we may deal with certain cases which have only one of them.

The popularity of street art in Poland in recent years, as demonstrated, for example, by important festivals in Tricity, Łódź, Warsaw, Katowice and an abundance of public procurement of this type of art, stems especially from its being aesthetic (politicians and local government officials want to have ‘something nice’ as a visual sign of their authority; dozens of fountains built in Polish cities follow the same pattern), associated with openness and the underground which is simultaneously devoid of its subversive, destabilising potential (especially when it is commissioned). On the other hand, many public space artists are in favour of a politicising art; in particular, authors of performances, installations as well as visual artists are among them. It is beyond doubt that works of artists such as Paweł Althamer, Krzysztof Wodicz-ko, Joanna Rajkowska or The Krasnals (the latter present at SURVIVAL), not to mention the artistic output of different formal or informal social and political formations, are strictly political in character.

Political involvement of art in public space is frequently interpreted as a proof of the significance of art as a forum for public debate and artists’ engagement in the common good. However, it is difficult to resist the impression that sometimes it is an ideology justifying the search for a niche in which one might achieve artistic and financial success, or even empty discourse which masks the real struggle for broadening symbolic power in order to gain real power. Art in public space seems to be overestimated as a tool of social change – in fact it is sometimes counterproductive when it stigmatises those it was supposed to empower (the well-known case of ul. Dudziarska in Warsaw). It has been known for a long time that artists’ presence in socially degraded districts, in spite of the purest intentions of helping the inhabitants, usually precedes the process of gentrification. In many cases art in public space is simply unnoticed outside narrow groups of people interested in modern art. Let us now come back now to SURVIVAL, which since its very beginning has been a review of art in public space and this direction was maintained in its tenth edition.

During the debate under the title The Pleasure of Progress or Progressing Pleasure?, which was organised on 23 June by ‘Res Publica Nowa’, Michał Bieniek, the curator of the festival, admitted that out of all the editions of the festival, only a few actions brought about lasting positive effects. It does not change the fact that year by year SURVIVAL has been gaining prestige in Poland. An event with independent origins has become professional, gained numerous partners and patrons, become included in the cultural programme of Wrocław and attracted the attention of the media and the audience. Szreder wrote that‘ (…) the art market operates on the principle: the winner takes it all. Like in sport. The winner – the one who takes the first place – rakes in the whole pot, no matter how long the peloton was’3. The sports edition of SURVIVAL was an opportunity for the organisers to self-reflect. Although they are not in the Premiership yet, they left the amateur league a long time ago and there is no coming back to its ludic spontaneity – if they do not want to be out, they have to run faster all the time. Indeed, art is just like sport, but not because the winner takes it all, but due to the fact that there are three places on the podium, there are leagues, cup tournaments, official national matches and friendly games. The organisers of SURVIVAL seem to have first-hand experience of that, and the artists chosen by them probably understand it, too, as can be inferred from the alreadymentioned works Benches or Race Rankings.

Art, like other spheres of activity, is nowadays being subjected to re-tribalisation. It means disassembling the public sphere as Habermas understood it – as the sphere of unlimited discussion of free and equal citizens about their common matters. Although such sphere has never existed in Poland – there were no places, no rules of communication, no basic agreement on what constitutes public matters – in fact, it may just be wishful thinking of the supporters of deliberation – its image was one of the foundations of liberal democracies. Art in public space, as explained through the discourse of public sphere, in reality reveals the lack of such sphere: instead of intervention, there is interference, instead of common space – struggling for space, instead of dialogue – shouting. In a nutshell, the place of a symbolic community, which has always been absent in the Polish Third Republic, is taken by fights of new tribes for totems which are not even political, but ideological, and most often – fantasmatic, additionally underpinned by socio-economic interests. Michał Bieniek said during our debate that museums and art galleries have become centres of entertainment, analogically to stadiums built for Euro and the substitution of swimming pools by aquaparks and spas. Szreder confirms it in his analysis saying that ‘art has become part of the free-time industry’ and ‘going to galleries has become a form of spending Sunday afternoons’, which obviously involves turning art into easily-consumable commodity4. This entertainment is closer to Debord’s spectacle than to play, which Johann Huizinga described as a source of culture. Modern art has met the same fate as the fixedgear movement, which used to be an obvious signifiant of alternative culture just a couple years ago, and which nowadays is just one of the attributes of big-city youth lifestyle. Art in the fixed-gear will go in vicious circles.

In the introduction to the Pleasure of Progress or Progressing Pleasure? debate we wrote: ‘One of the elements of modern sport was the affirmation of corporeality. The healthy, fit, athletic body was the contestants’ aim and the fans’ object of fascination, and as such represented the common effort of self-improvement. Thus the struggle for perfection in sport was corporeal and physical in character, but also intellectual and social – the soma was the tool of the individual mind belonging to a greater whole of a society, class, nation. A trained and well-toned body represented a widespread belief in the progress of civilisation.’

The body subjected to training, exercised and disciplined in order to fulfil the role attributed to it in a political project, was a perfect product of the disciplinary society, as described by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish. Late modernity clearly walks away from this society: training and the thought of being useful to the society is being substituted by orientation at individual pleasure, self-perfection gives way to relaxation, and physical activity serves primarily entertainment. Foucault’s discipline system evolves into a security system in which it is no longer orders and prohibitions but norms and averages that serve as mechanisms of power, which in turn becomes bio-power, operating at the micro level, through private family life, psychologists’ advice, doctors’ recommendations and the comments of a whole multitude of other experts. Individuals are no longer subjugated by rigorous discipline, but their actions are subject to correcting and forming, so subtle that it is barely visible. The security system seems to be letting things take their own course (following almost literally the Up To You rule), regulating it slightly by setting a certain optimum instead of limits of what is allowed and prohibited. The technologies of the security power focus not on the individual, as discipline did, but on the population as a whole, which is the new object of management and a new political subject at the same time. The apparatuses of security, as Foucault put it, ‘(…) have the constant tendency to expand; they are centrifugal. New elements are constantly being integrated: production, psychology, behavior, the ways of doing things of producers, buyers, consumers, importers, and exporters, and the world market. Security therefore involves organizing, or anyway allowing the development of everwider circuits’.5

Among the elements being integrated and discreetly regulated are also sport and art. Clearly observable departure in the sphere of sport from training to relaxation, from the pleasure of progress to progressing pleasure, is also visible in the world of art, which is becoming intriguing or stylish consumption goods exhibited in centres of entertainment called centres for modern art. The multiplication of circuits, markets, styles, rankings etc. makes it possible to regulate the art world in an even more subtle way while the totems of new art tribes annihilate its postulated public orientation. Neotribalism in art is more easily observable when we compare the target audience of modern art to sport fans: art magazines flutter like football scarves, supporters of leftist and rightist art organise regular ‘fights’ on social portals, and fans following their favourite artists’ exhibitions in other cities are almost as emotional as ultras following their beloved teams. What is more, it is happening among those who are most aware of social and political dependencies governing the field of art, for example the organisers of the Day Without Art who were at the same time urging to discussion and shouting down those who questioned the sense of such form of protest or asked about other solutions to the artists’ truly miserable condition in Poland6.

Situating the tenth edition of SURVIVAL at a sports stadium makes us aware that today’s museums, galleries and centres of modern art are stadiums, not temples or prisons, and the stadium itself is a metaphor of the processes and regulations which Foucault calls ‘governmentality’. Although older mechanisms of the disciplinary system still exist and function, they are already subject to the new rules of security, which are more and more dominating. Jan Fabre’s straddle position reminds us of the existence of disciplinary mechanisms; the artists and curators of SURVIVAL point at the domination of security technologies, partially subordinating themselves to these technologies.


  1. Iwański, M., Kaszel Artysty (Artist’s Cough), [in:] ‘STRAJK!’ (newspaper published on the Day Without Art by Obywatelskie Forum Sztuki Współczesnej).
  2. Szreder, K., Dlaczego artyści są biedni? (Why Are Artists Poor?), [in:] ibid.
  3. Foucault, M., Security, Territory, Population, New York 2009, p. 67.
  4. It is enough to mention the lack of understanding of Józef Robakowski, Maria Anna Potocka or Arek Gruszczyński’s opinions questioning the form of the strike.