Standing where the ZOMO used to stand, or art in the cracks between orders

> Stach Szabłowski


In 2006 at Gdańsk Shipyard, Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński gave a speech at a rally of support for the government he was leading. The venue had been carefully selected. By invoking the heritage of the democratic opposition of the People’s Republic of Poland’s period, the government had called on their supporters to come to the birthplace of the Solidarity movement. Thus they wanted to become part of a narrative according to which the workers’ strike at the Shipyard initiated a long sequence of events arranged in a history of the struggle between good and evil: between civil society and a totalitarian regime, the real Poland and the People’s Republic, just arguments and lies, “us” and “them”. The prime minister tried to convince those who turned up at the rally that the great transformation that began in 1980 had never been finished and the Manichaean conflict between light and darkness was still in progress. At one point, in an attempt to build a bridge between the historic strike and the present day, he uttered the following words: “We stand where we always used to stand; they stand where the Zomo used to stand.” In this case, “they” denoted the then opposition who questioned the policies of Kaczyński’s government.

This isn’t the place for describing the political conflict from a decade ago. What interests us is not the dispute but the fact that the prime minister referred to the ZOMO 11 The ZOMO (Zmotoryzowane Odwody Milicji Obywatelskiej, Motorized Reserves of the Citizens’ Militia) were paramilitary police formations during the Communist Era in the People’s Republic of Poland. They were known for their brutal and sometimes lethal actions of riot control and quelling civil rights protests. ↩︎ – or, to be more precise, he symbolically used the ZOMO in discourse. And the reason we are discussing this paramilitary police formation of the People’s Republic of Poland is because during the 13th edition of the SURVIVAL Art Review we happened to stand exactly where the ZOMO used to stand.

Standing where THEY used to stand, were we supposed to feel this peculiar moral anxiety and perverse pleasure which could be experienced when switching the sides and ending up in a place where we shouldn’t be?

Kaczyński quoted the ZOMO as a figure of oppression representing an order that could not be morally justified. Although we could debate about the political arguments of the regime and plot them on a scale of grey, what the ZOMO did was unambiguous: they simply beat people up. As a result, in popular awareness they represent the worst aspect of power – pure violence, which signifies the end of any discourse and the beginning of oppression. The infamous formation was established by the Council of Ministers on Christmas Eve of 1956, in the wake of the anti-government social protests in Poznań in June that year, which have now become mythologised in the history of Polish uprisings. What the authorities discovered then was that the Citizens’ Militia were unprepared to break up mass demonstrations and quell riots. The lesson was learnt. The ZOMO units, which were initially several thousand strong and which toward the end of the People’s Republic of Poland numbered almost 20 thousand people, were specially trained and equipped to clash with the society in the streets and disperse gatherings. Unlike the ordinary militia, the ZOMO were a paramilitary formation: most of its members were conscripts serving their draft and living in barracks, just like the ones where the 13th edition of the SURVIVAL Art Review was held.

SURVIVAL is a nomadic project; each year it materialises in a different part of Wrocław. In the past, the Review was held in diverse venues, including the squares and buildings of the Four Temples District, the former Feature Films Studio, an edifice belonging to the Faculty of Pharmacy of the Medical University, a German air-raid shelter in Plac Strzegomski, or the central railway station. SURVIVAL functions not only as a platform for several dozen artists to show their works, but, more importantly, as a mechanism making certain parts of the city visible – and consequently highlighting these objects and venues to articulate fragments of the urban narrative. SURVIVAL simultaneously displays art against the urban backdrop and uses art as a light beam that illuminates the background and makes it more visible. The artists show more than just their works – they reveal the context where they happen to be so that the city becomes an actor in an art spectacle. The previous editions of SURVIVAL could be arranged to tell a tale about Wrocław, a narrative that unfolds at the intersection of urban topography, the past and the future. The 13th edition at the ZOMO barracks was another part of the tale, which this time referred to the category of “prohibited acts.”

The choice of the venue (to be “illuminated”) where SURVIVAL is held delimits a peculiar symbolic field where artists will make their statements. The structure of this field determines to a large extent not just the leitmotif of each year’s edition of the Review but also provides clues about the works and even the very status of art (which may vary from a luxury “commodity” when presented in a well-known art gallery to vandalism when displayed on a building wall; in the latter case, the artist will not only receive no remuneration for his efforts – he may even end up paying a fine).

When we entered the barracks and stood where the ZOMO used to stand (as well as sit down, sleep, eat and rest), we entered a particularly fertile symbolic field. However, before we proceed to dig through this semantically rich soil, let us go back for a while to Jarosław Kaczyński and his bon mot. It is worth noticing that the prime minister’s concept was a construct that reversed the order. Those who stood “here” “then” (i.e. on the right, “our” side) represented the society protesting against the regime, citizens who committed “prohibited acts” for higher reasons. Those who stood “there” were encapsulated by the ZOMO, i.e. represented the authorities, the law and the justice system. However, these relations have now become reversed: those who stand on the right side “here” and “now” are not the protesters but the authorities represented by the prime minister, who is in charge of the police. The current opposition who questions the government’s righteousness ended up “there” – in a place where the ZOMO used to rage. It is a paradoxical situation: those in power wish to undermine social order while the society, just like those who used to beat the demonstrators with truncheons, opposes the authorities and defends the order against the prime minister and his police. This reversal, or even confusion, of roles as illustrated by Jarosław Kaczyński’s phrase is a prime exemplification of the dynamics of change (political and especially symbolic), in which we are the participants, subjects and objects all at the same time. The former barracks in Księcia Witolda Street, which delimited the symbolic field of SURVIVAL 13, also served as a tangible sign of these complicated sequences of metamorphoses and shifts.

Working with the urban tissue in Wrocław almost inevitably leads to unveiling a multilayer and hybrid anatomy of the city. The contemporary Wrocław hides a Wrocław of the communist era, which is currently being erased, and underneath it – the destroyed Festung and a phantom of the German Breslau; if we were to drill even deeper, we could reach the semi-mythical settlement of the Piasts and the first Slavs. This discourse clearly resonates with the building in Księcia Witolda Street. For this venue is not just the former ZOMO barracks; in the 1930s, it used to house Hitler’s police, and before that – a customs office functioning here under Emperor Wilhelm II after 1907, when the construction of the building finished. Last but not least, until quite recently, already in the democratic Third Republic of Poland, the edifice was used as the seat of the Riot Police. And although it is abandoned today, the building has already been dragged by the market forces into the postindustrial real estate market. Excelling at privatising former public utility buildings, real estate agents will soon introduce the barracks – an emblem of modernist order – into the postmodern order, in which power is flexible, diffused and willing to use economic arguments rather than regiments with truncheons to discipline the rebels. Kępa Mieszczańska, a river island in the heart of Wrocław where the barracks are situated, is currently being renovated (or gentrified), and the former seat of the ZOMO has already been put on the market. Should it become a loft complex inhabited by the beneficiaries of the current system, or an enclave of some “creative industry” – which seems highly probable, even inevitable – it will provide a telling symbolic statement. Having been abandoned by the guardians of the totalitarian regime and later functionaries of a democratic state, these walls will now welcome the “liquid postmodernity” and the representatives of cognitive capitalism surfing on its waves, who will thus end up “where the ZOMO used to stand.”

For the time being, however, it was the artists taking hold of these premises. What does it mean for art to stand where the ZOMO used to stand? Is SURVIVAL an event signifying that in a postmodern city, in which the creative industry has replaced the heavy industry, art is taking over the position previously occupied by the authorities? If so, what are the rules? Will the artists become representatives of the authorities (police officers) as they seize control of the venue? Or perhaps on the contrary, the entry of art representatives into the police building should be perceived as an invasion of barbarians, the triumph of revolutionary individualism over the uniformed forces of the system?

The situation created by the curators of SURVIVAL 13 was ambiguous (and therefore interesting) because art is capable of both: it can be an efficient tool for representing and sustaining the system, or a dangerous discourse that can undermine it. The long tradition of art seems to tip the scales in favour of the first scenario – historically speaking, art was close to those in power much more often than it contradicted them. Art’s more recent history, however, makes us perceive it as a critical or even rebellious force. What I mean in particular is the heritage of the Dada movement, the revolutionary Surrealism, the Situationist International, the Fluxus, the year 1968, the artistic representation of emancipation movements. SURVIVAL’s curators skillfully updated this situation in the context of the selected venue (the barracks) and introduced several examples of underground and opposition art of the 1980s into the discourse of an exhibition that was mostly made by young contemporary artists. We could see art that conceptualised the dissident discourse of the first Solidarity movement, artistic acts of resistance to the totalitarian power, acts that were prohibited by the then regime. At this point, however, Jarosław Kaczyński’s statement and his tale about the changing of sides returns yet again. Those quoted at SURVIVAL, who used to fight for Solidarity, today are members of the establishment standing on the side of moral (and often practical) victors in the battle for transformation. Meanwhile, the ZOMO, whom they used to fight, capitulated not just morally – it ceased to exist. What it left behind is an abandoned building, which now belongs to “us” (albeit temporarily, because it is about to be reclaimed by “them” – real estate agents and investors). But the edifice is not the only heritage of the ZOMO. They also left several pieces of art for us to see, the most impressive of which was a rather large painting on the wall: an endearingly naïve (self-)portrait of a ZOMO platoon, in full gear, for some reason depicted in a rustic landscape against the background of a dark forest. What is more, somebody (probably in the 1990s) changed the original inscription “militia” on the shields held by the troops to read “police”; the old version, however, was still decipherable. The curators decided to include this trace left by the former lodgers, alongside several others, in the sequence of works making up the exhibition. As it turns out, it was not only the artists who were standing where the ZOMO used to stand – ZOMO art ended up in a place where the artists were displaying their works.

Constructing an exhibition that revolves around the phrase “prohibited acts” is an introduction to problematise some of the notions that are also developed by the police narrative: the question of social norms and legal norms, drawing borders, transgressing them or making sure that they are not transgressed. Many artists, e.g. Jacek Zachodny, Grzegorz Łoznikow and Maks Cieślak, made a direct reference to this issue – their artistic practice became synonymous with committing “prohibited acts,” and their works were intended to document or stage their transgressions against legally binding norms. Other artists employed different aesthetics and strategies for the representation of the forces of law and order, oppressors and the organised, impersonal power of the authorities. A vantage point that seemed particularly interesting in the context of this peculiar genius loci of the police barracks was adopted by Dy Tagowska in her curatorial project Lootland, which was an integral part of the Review. She symbolically returned to the pioneering time of regaining the Regained Territories, of a morally dubious colonisation based on seizing the property (space, real estate, chattel) of one traumatised ethnic group by another, equally traumatised one. Repossession, looting, theft, pillage, plunder – all these notions are embedded in the foundations of order in a city like Wrocław, in which all its dwellers (both the present day ones and the exiled) were simultaneously the victims and the perpetrators of “prohibited acts.” Those who robbed and those who were robbed.

The former police barracks were a venue where the space of order and repression manifested itself as a Kafkaesque labyrinth. Seemingly banal clichés triggering associations with The Trial came to life in this building full of unending corridors, innumerable rooms and cells on several floors. A visitor who was unfamiliar with the layout of this police-bureaucratic microcosm was able to enter it but had difficulty trying to get out. SURVIVAL filled this maze with artists’ statements offering various interpretations of “prohibited acts.” Together they made up a chorus articulating a programmatically incoherent, even self-contradictory, discourse. It could not have been otherwise: while the police are supposed to standardise the norm of what is acceptable and to set limits that cannot be crossed, art’s role is to define the norm from an individual point of view, question it and put the objectively drawn borders to the test. SURVIVAL’s metanarrative posed questions about art as a “prohibited act,” perceived as an infringement on the cognitive order; it proposed a chorus of voices replacing the dominant axiology and bursting the status quo with its cacophony. The exhibition at the former ZOMO barracks was not just a collection of artistic statements but an event in time and space that clearly revealed the nature of art as a discourse that did not necessarily lead to establishing a new order but instead squeezed into the cracks between orders, developed somewhere between totalitarianism and gentrification, spectacle and reflection, discipline and carnival, ideology and capital, the persuasive structure of power and the chaos of the ruins, between the past and the future.


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