We should tread lightly

> Małgorzata Miśniakiewicz


‘City – Inflammatory State’ was the motto of this year’s SURVIVAL Art Review, which was held in the recently abandoned Faculty of Pharmacy building – a fascinating labyrinth full of chemical equipment that was no longer used, smells that were difficult to name and mysterious paraphernalia. Exhibiting contemporary art in spaces that are impossible to be classified as neutral background has been the curators’ main challenge since the very beginning. Having little in common with elegant minimalism, the dusty maze of corridors became a player and a playing field where curatorial strategies and artistic tactic clashed.

Kamil Moskowczenko in his Instruction, a typewritten text in a wooden frame that resembled other OHS recommendations and warnings, wrote: “An abandoned Pharmacy building is a rare and beautiful phenomenon while art adaptations in post-spaces are a common occurrence that are not always as beautiful as the space itself. We should act carefully!” By finishing his text saying that “just as well, we could leave the building as it is”, Moskowczenko suggested that the existing space in itself provided enough sensory sensations and meanings that could be distorted by artistic actions. Treating the Faculty of Pharmacy building as an amazing form that was sufficient as it was reversed the logic of the readymade, in which common everyday objects could be endowed with the status of an artwork. Moskowczenko seemed to have wanted to protect the object from art and let it speak for itself.

It was not for the first time, however, that SURVIVAL’s curators Michał Bieniek and Anna Kołodziejczyk successfully – as I think – managed to contrast intriguing spaces with artistic statements. The curators’ consistent construction of the narrative with reference to problems outlined by the ‘borrowed’ buildings makes it possible to trace changes both in the living urban organism and in art that is happening in it. It is worth noting that each venue that hosted SURVIVAL was sooner or later redeveloped or renovated. In the case of this year’s venue, the former university building will be soon transformed into an office building by its new owner.

Right next to the main entrance, a stone plaque was hidden, bearing the inscription A LUMEN EST REI. It was Mira Boczniowicz’s work Threshold is Reality. Perhaps it was the awareness of inevitable change that constituted the basis for the artists and curators to weave their deliberations concerning the inflammatory state. After all, inflammation is a transitory state that leads either to healing or destruction. The curators wrote about “issues referring to bodily functions and states (infection, virus, medicine, anatomy, convalescence, the body and ethics, illness, death) as well as to architecture and urban planning (entropy, ruins, revitalization, conservation).”1 In this context, the Faculty of Pharmacy building could be perceived as a peculiar gate or even an almost tautological space of references. Being a signpost pointing toward the direction of search, it was also an area that the artists had to pass through. Little wonder, then, that the great beauty and uniqueness of the building itself resulted in its important – if not leading – role in many works.

The Pharmacy building actually became an integral part of some of the best installations. Karolina Szymanowska and Damian Maciejewski’s work Water, a peculiar gesamtkunstwerk mounted in the organic chemistry practice room, by means of subtle interventions conjured a post-apocalyptic vision of a world devoid of clean water. The portentous slow dripping of a dark substance from rows of taps was accompanied by the amplified sound of the dripping liquid. In thus outlined picture of a defeated civilization, presence seemed to disappear and let the past destroy the future. The old-fashioned chemical laboratory emerged as both the reason and the effect of poisoning, the beginning and ending of destruction. The motif of dying out and vanishing was present in this year’s edition of SURVIVAL often and in many ways, which could be – although not necessarily – inspired by the deteriorating building itself. Kama Sokolnicka’s work, which was part of the Sound Art Forum curated by Daniel Brożek, investigated the condition of architecture by focusing on the audible. Although it was by no means a novel or radical approach, this two-channel soundtrack eavesdropping on the old and new seats of the Faculty of Pharmacy at the moment of moving turned out to be surprisingly poignant.

Two more works, situated on the opposite sides of the building, entered into a dialogue between the old and the new. In Piotr Blajerski’s multi-channel installation Church Demolition, we could see the eponymous destruction of churches. Devoid of any commentary, the recordings documented something that we had to fill with meaning, with our emotions and opinions being our only point of reference. Equally enigmatic was Beata Wilczek and Riyo Nemeth’s video Soothing Spaces. This film, accompanied by soft music composed on this occasion by Ana Caprix, was a meditation on architecture and the aesthetics of neo-liberalism. The aestheticisation of commercial and office spaces, which is deliberately made difficult to notice, is supposed to complement an image of the world based on consumerism. The artists observed that capitalism in Poland is still building its visual identity on models taken from the West, which, with reference to Blajerski’s work, accentuates an ongoing transformation and an unfinished process of building a new identity

In Agnieszka Wach’s work Silence! / Emphasis of Absence, the monotonous amplified sound of an old glow tube penetrated the hubbub of voices and highlighted the impending doom among the racket. This tone, which we know well although rarely notice, made us aware of an entire spectrum of sounds that build the identity of any space.
An installation that most deeply penetrated the resonance of the building was Gerard Lebik and Miguel Garcia’s Aseptic Sinus Infection, curated by Daniel Brożek. Using infrasounds that bordered on inaudibility, the artists made the glass and steel walls of the aseptic lab vibrate. The effect simultaneously triggered awe and anxiety, emphasising our ignorance of forces that influence city dwellers, who are surrounded by technology on an everyday basis. Warping the definition of a building – from functional and structural into musical – was performed here by infecting the construction with low-frequency waves. The lab, which used to be aseptic, became a huge instrument, in which the vibrating panes and resonating tins played a tune that immediately precedes disaster, triggering associations with critical inflammatory state just before explosion.

Another installation that made the building shake with vibrations was RSS BOYS’ S000ND WYTH W000ND (again curated by Brożek), although in this case the resonating window panes in the stairwell was probably a side effect. A closed room was filled with smoke and colourful lights, and disorientated those who entered it with deafening noise and the impossibility of making out any outlines of the space. The stupefying impact of excessive stimuli resulted in a state of numbness that the strained senses were unable to cope with. By creating a total and isolated ecosystem, the installation negated the existing architecture and its context.

Perhaps these two opposite strategies, of Moskowczenko and of RSS BOYS, based on affirmation or extreme negation of the existing space, could be perceived as statements on the same topic? After all, Moskowczenko wrote that “an artwork is not about meaning, but about conveying it with senses.” Questions concerning the reliability of senses and recognising the limits of art and the context which creates it seemed to be an important element of this year’s SURVIVAL.

The organisers of the Review invited several external curators to cooperate and create separate artworks as part of the exhibition. Giving ground to other curators and inviting new statements in the already multi-voice spectacle corresponded with the assumed strategy of incessant adding of meanings in the area in question. Szymon Kobylarz’s outstanding work titled Daybreak could be interpreted as a theatrical installation of a psychedelic horror film. Peeping through a small makeshift hole into a room where amateur medical experiments were performed, we could single out elements which, if shown in a different context, would instantly be recognised as autonomous artworks. The painting hanging on the wall did not trigger any major doubts, but the untypical glass objects certainly did. Kobylarz and the artists who cooperated with him invited us to play a guessing-game: art? not art?, which at SURVIVAL becomes a much more perverse pleasure than watching low-budget horror films dripping with blood.

The postulate of blurring the boundaries between art and reality is age-old. Funnily enough, especially in the context of Kobylarz’s work, the first so-called rectified readymade (which used existing paintings) was made in 1914 and importantly titled Pharmacie. How should we interpret, then, the works made at the intersection of creative practice and existing objects, bearing in mind the centennial idea of found objects as crucial in the context of SURVIVAL?

It is tempting to write about the blurring of boundaries between art and reality, to discuss whether such a border truly exists, especially when we perceive the framework of the exhibition as a readymade and its space – as a gigantic objet trouvé. However, I have a distinct impression that it would be too easy and pleasant. Moreover, if we consider more than fifty works shown at the ‘City – Inflammatory State’ exhibition, the postulates of doing away with the boundaries between art and reality, which treat art as a tool for changing the reality or a fuse of urban democracy development, seem inappropriate, too. When I was going to the opening, I wondered how many of the works would refer to Maidan Square, whether I would yet again see art as a weapon in the fight for the common good, described in the context of the Review’s main motto as treatment for the lack of contact between the inhabitants of housing estates, as destroying the germ of neo-liberalism, or using dialogue as a therapy for the infected democracy… There was nothing of the kind. Or little.

SURVIVAL made it evident that an artistic narrative that perceived the cityscape as an agora, a place for holding discussions or a fuse to instigate a revolution had come to an end. Here, art was no longer a tool, a banner, a sword or a speaking tube; it seemed that no one wanted to use it to fight for democracy together. At least not in the way that had been suggested so far. In spite of dreams, the squares where social movements were based have not succeeded in devising new methods of democracy that would truly function; on the contrary, the ongoing stream of news about bloodshed in places which we viewed with hope and admiration is deeply disappointing. Dominika Łabądź’s work Polonia symbolically talked about the proximity of dreams and disappointment. The letters of a neon light of the non-existent Polonia cinema were rearranged to form the inscription OPIA, which ambiguously balanced between a utopia and a dystopia.

The uncertainty and stagnation surrounding social mobilisation where accurately captured in Kalina Iwaszko’s film Direct Sound. Internet footages of different joint actions – from folk pastimes to mass uprisings and violent repressions – were put together to form an incoherent and chaotic whole devoid of any narrative, and thus of any chronological purposefulness. The final effect dazzled with emotionallycharged images, which, however, lacked sense or meaning, triggering a feeling of being lost, misunderstanding, and finally – aversion.

Mass protest was also the main subject of Gabukow’s work titled First Aid Kit: City. DIY – Demonstration, which consisted of a protester’s kit placed in a pharmaceutical glass cabinet. A designer box contained materials to make banners, notebooks, cotton handkerchiefs, templates, spray paints, and a set of necessary documents. Although the accompanying text talked about countering the inflammatory state by exercising the constitutional right to organise peaceful demonstrations, it also considered the possibility of launching this well-designed set for sale. I do not know the artist’s opinion, but for me such commoditisation of the aesthetic paraphernalia of manifestations is an equally ironic and sad comment about the purposefulness and sense of social protests. The Kit was unexpectedly used on the opening night: the room in which the cabinet was situated was ‘ornamented’ with spraypainted letters from the templates, which, however, did not add up to form any comprehensive message. The only coherent inscription said “nothing to lose.”

Among the few works that made direct references to the current state of affairs in politics were Aleksandra Polisiewicz’s NEVSEREMOS and Katarzyna Kmita’s EURO 2014, exhibited in close proximity to one another. The latter was a looped video recorded by the artist with her telephone, which showed a group of Russian football fans during Euro 2012 chanting (in Russian) “We’ve come to win.” Kmita emphasised the ambiguity of this phrase in the context of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Polisiewicz presented films made in Maidan Square and reprints of posters and banners displayed there, accompanied by photographs of poems written by Ukrainians fighting in Kiev. The three videos, in which we could hear Ukrainians living and fighting in Maidan, seemed to have been included in the safe environment of the exhibition as if by force. What did it actually mean to show the experience of the Maidan protesters at a contemporary art review? Was it possible in any way to translate their experiences, participate in their feelings? The reprints of poems and slogans brought from Maidan, pasted on the wall without any comment or translation from Ukrainian, seemed to emphasise the impossibility of understanding or grasping these events. The difficulty of answering the question “How should I understand it?” suggested looking for the answers elsewhere.

The vision of the city at SURVIVAL was constructed from individual impressions, very private experiences and narratives rather than communal surges of emotion. Instead of “Forget fear!” I heard “Be afraid!” The present and future as outlined in the Pharmacy building was far from bright and full of threats. The city emerged as a poisoned area with conflicts and a struggle for survival. Kamila Szejnoch invited professional survival experts of the Universal Survival school to spend the night in the building and run training sessions. On the opening night, the instructors showed various survival techniques, including distillation of water from chemical reagents. Absurd though these actions were – there was perfectly clean water in the taps nearby – they emphasised the fear that compels us to be prepared for any occurrence, even at the cost of acting against logic.

The artist and the instructors planned to spend the night in the abandoned building, and run workshops on the following day, in which the experts explained how they made their sleeping bags and used other objects that they had found in the building. This one-day artistic action bordered on ridiculousness, but it also became depressing when juxtaposed with Karolina Brzuzan’s work titled Pondus (curated by Antoni Burzyński). It was originally intended for one concrete recipient. When invited to explore the venue before the Review, Brzuzan discovered that a homeless person was living there. Upon the artist’s explicit request, her work, consisting of metal bars that could be sold at a recycling point as scrap metal, was supposed to be left after the Review so that the homeless man could exchange it for money. The man probably temporarily disappeared when the commotion connected with the exhibition started, but various items that later appeared proved that he probably decided to return. Being aware that the Pharmacy building offered shelter to a person who did not have any other home, Szejnoch’s action was most telling with respect to the hermeticity and isolation of a large part (if not the entirety) of the art world when confronted with other people’s problems, which it struggles to define as ‘our’ problems, and people whom it tries to give the floor while simultaneously ignoring their existence.

The crisis of the city, or, more broadly, the crisis of civilization, was diagnosed in numerous works that were based on the dichotomy of urbanisation and nature, and referred to plants. As a result of the interdisciplinary project by artists from Poland and Turkey titled Afiyet Olsun, a catalogue of edible plants that could be found in the city was created. While the Review was in progress, the artists wandered around Wrocław searching for wild edible plants, which they later used to cook a meal together with SURVIVAL’s visitors. Similarly, the issue of starvation and struggle for survival was present in Karolina Brzuzan’s work Hunger Cookbook. The artist used the form of a herbal to present plants that we do not usually perceive as edible, although they are used in many places of the world to prevent death from starvation.

In his work under the title Subsequent Entrances to Find, Paweł Stasiewicz chose a lighter and gentler means to talk about the city as a playground. Kept in the convention of a computer game, the video showed the artist approaching subsequent entrances in blocks of flats and trying to crack the access code by keying in the default code 1234. When it worked, he did not enter but closed the door instead and kept on walking. Reportedly, the 1234 code worked five times out of more than a hundred attempts. In the black and white video, which resembled a CCTV footage, all the blocks of flats became identical, and the only thing that differed them was the access code – a big city dweller’s illusion of safety that makes it possible to fend off intruders.

Piotr Kmita in his work What Can You Hear? forced us to eavesdrop on two people having an argument behind closed doors. Excused by the artistic circumstances, we listened to the argument wondering how little we know about the people who live next door, about a neighbour’s problem or a girl living upstairs who desperately needs help. As the artist later revealed, the dialogues were taken from popular TV tabloid talk shows, in which private disagreements become an element of a media spectacle that treats people’s problems as minor when compared to the generated profits, and the viewers’ interest or even involvement can be precisely measured and translated into money.

A similar thread of interpretation could be applied to works dealing with the pharmaceutical industry, such as Dominika Uczkiewicz’s Rush. A woman’s handbag carelessly thrown on the washbasin revealed its contents, which alongside a lipstick and car keys included an impressive set of pills and sedatives. In this work, the image of a successful woman was based on mysterious medicaments that could potentially ruin our health. The uncertainty and ignorance of what surrounds us and what we swallow in hope of alleviating our ailments was explored by Tomasz Bajer in his installation titled Toxicity. Next to laboratory worktops and sinks, in simple white letters, he pasted ominously sounding names of chemical preservatives contained in food and cosmetics. Another formally beautiful installation that concerned ignorance and the feeling of being lost was Aga Piotrowska’s Dry Leaves, a work that took on the form of a large heap of blister packs shining in the light of a neon sign reading I DON’T KNOW. The title itself prompted us to think about the roots of pharmacology, about the time when treatment was based on natural ingredients.

A number of artworks that made direct references to flora constituted another important trope in the Inflammatory State exhibition. In Dagmara Ankier- Sroka’s installation Take It, dozens of plant pots with thyme were arranged on the attic under a skylight, which resembled a greenhouse. The tempting smell and fragility of the plants brought us back to ancient times, when the therapeutic properties of thyme had not been forgotten yet. Similarly, old shamanic rites were the focal point of Magdalena Popławska’s curatorial project under the title I See it All, who came up with a peculiar therapeutic room. Suspended glass baskets, designed by Agnieszka Bar, seemed to have been made from laboratory pipes and tubes; they simultaneously performed the function of an original flower bed and created an aura of calm and interaction with nature for people who stood below them. Kosmos Project, in turn, recreated the instrumentarium of a witch doctor, emphasising that in folk beliefs it was objects that functioned as intermediaries in conveying the healing powers of folk doctors. In the context of this year’s edition, a question emerged concerning the powers hidden in contemporary objects, both in the domain of art and medicine.

The therapeutic potential of art was one of just a handful of perspectives that offered hope and allayment during the Inflammatory State exhibition. This therapy, however, can only be individual and intimate, concerning single people instead of societies. Joanna Rajkowska’s video titled Basia showed a staged escape of the artist’s mother, which was her biggest dream during her stay in a mental institution. She never managed to fulfil this dream, and Rajkowska’s walk was a means of overcoming the trauma connected with her mother’s illness.

The documentation of Dominik Lejman’s video installation Hospital as a Landscape for Little Spectacles, which is on permanent display in a pediatric hospital, showed the spontaneous reactions of children, who were truly interested in the video. Screened in corridors or on hospital beds, the images of wild creatures stampeding across the ward transformed it into a fascinating tropical landscape, which made it possible to forget about the pain and illness for a brief moment. The ArtBrut gallery’s exhibition of a cycle of works titled Antidote reminded us that artistic creativity should not just be the domain of professional and celebrated artists. Making art by mentally handicapped children is not just a certain kind of therapy or an exercise in expressing oneself, but, most importantly, it is a testimony to their sensitivity and, in spite of marginalisation and exclusion, assures their equal rights to perceive the world in their own way.

When trying to summarise the interweaving threads present at SURVIVAL, one has a distinct impression that in the case of a city, an inflammatory state has more to do with a protracted illness than a temporary emergency. The reflections concerning the urban organism brought to the foreground its inhabitant: lost and confused, full of anxiety and the awareness of being surrounded by various unidentifiable threats. The anxiety stemming from the dominant position of corporations, which can do as they please, was mixed with the fear of unknown side effects and unverifiable impact of technology against the permanent backdrop of impending war and environmental destruction. In a world like this, reality can be shaped by scared individuals to a minimal extent only. They can only operate in the micro scale, doing their best to transform a tiny fragment of the surrounding reality. This perspective on the artists’ actions, who combined art with the available elements of the space, prompts us to venture a thesis on the need of renegotiating the meanings and their sources. The necessity to adopt a new outlook and ways of functioning seems to result from the protracted crisis and awareness of failure of the old strategies. The most important point of reference for SURVIVAL was the human being – with his or her body, acute senses and sensitivities. An individual who needs protection, care and tenderness in a world where it is difficult to believe either in supermen or community. This fear was accompanied by the need to find respite and cure; however, it seems that nobody believes in the existence of universal panacea any more. Perhaps, then, it is art that alleviates the symptoms.

  1. The curators’ text.
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