About Power and Powerlessness
2011, Interview by Dorota Grobelna

MOCAK Forum/2011/ nr2, by MOCAK, Kraków, 2011

From lack of faith in projects which have not been realized to belief in visions and utopian possibility

Dorota Grobelna: The discussion about the effects of your public projects whose realization were, for numerous reasons, blocked and which are listed as ‘unrealized’ on your website, was accompanied, it seems to me, by a strong reluctance to talk about any sort of ‘benefits’ from such projects. Is it true that there is nothing to talk about, that these failures do not bring any sort of knowledge with them?

Joanna Rajkowska: There are projects which have left a ‘broad stain’, such as Minaret, and there are also projects which simply faded away. This is nothing to do with the merits or flaws of a project per se, or at least not only. It comes from the work of the curator and the whole team. It depends on who is producing the project, how it is developed and what the chances are of negotiating with decision-makers and others who have a direct interest in its success, or in the location. All this depends on many factors.

Minaret was financed by the Malta Foundation, we had logistic support and for two and a half years we were hopeful about turning it into a reality. And it was not the nature of the project that resulted in us now having an amazing amount of information about Poznań – knowledge about its many aspects, on many levels. This knowledge was generated mostly by a team of sociologists, philosophers, urban planners, etc., who joined forces with us at various stages of the project’s development. I am afraid, however, that this is an expert knowledge. Rather than knowledge that arises out of making a project happen – out of mistakes, out of misunderstandings, out of a certain vision, or afterimage, out of the altering process of memory, out of something we could call ‘the effect of everyday reality’. Because the everyday also changes under the project’s influence, creating strange phenomena and taming the space anew. This is accompanied by the process of getting to know and familiarizing with that particular part of the city again. Processes that we can’t know are then activated within people. This is a completely different kind of knowledge, much richer. It flows from people who are not experts, who simply come across the project along the way, perhaps not in the least interested in it. Because once the project happens the roles are reversed. The public is no longer just a passive receiver. It is us (the authors of the project) who begin to learn from the audience. The source of knowledge doesn’t dry up, because the project lives alongside the city. Its narratives have an infinite number of authors.

DG: I realize that the materialization of the project is crucial for you. However, I disagree with what you said previously, that the knowledge was generated exclusively because of our initiative, by invited experts. Was the knowledge gained during the Minaret project really generated solely because of our initiative, by the experts invited by us? After all, it was someone else who created the first web page dedicated to the Minaret. Before our site, minaret.art.pl, there was already kominaret.pl, a site dedicated to leading a crusade against the making of the Minaret in Poznań.

JR: That’s true. We had come across an active group of individuals who seemed extremely intent on making their protest felt. Hence we could call them not experts, but rather ‘anti-experts’. Their knowledge was about a project which was imaginary.

DG: Oh, yes.

JR: This is a very strange sort of beast. I recently had to prepare a lecture about the imagination produced by fear. And how this very special kind of imagination, built on fear, paralyses the city or a given social group. How it is able to block everything, especially cognition processes.

DG: The vision you introduced, not into actual space but into the public sphere, unleashed this very kind of imagination.

JR: Certainly. Suddenly, it was clear who the Other was. And that we Poles are not unique here, that effectively we are only copying fears of the Geert Wilders kind. Indicating that the Other is taken from an imaginarium of the ‘axis of evil’. He is bearded, he is a Muslim, he is the modern savage, who evidently can shake the ‘cradle of statehood and Christendom’ constructed by right-wing groups in Poznań. We have post-Holocaust anti-Semitism, despite lacking a Jewish community, and we have Islamophobia arising before any sort of real, self-aware Muslim minority exists. Because the handful of Muslims in Poznań, even though numbering over a thousand individuals, is fully assimilated.

On the other hand, is it not that we are battling against the windmill called the Catholic Church? Was Anna Wachowska-Kucharska not right, when she said at the public debate organized by us in July to summarize the history of The Minaret That Wasn’t Built, that the failure of the project should not be laid at the feet of city officials but at steps of the cathedral? The Church is one of the most conservative and anti-democratic forces in Poland today. The way in which it controls, or tries to control, the public space is terrifying, because these are usually underhand machinations. And so we could learn about this, too, through the process of ‘not-realizing’ the project and educational programme. I am afraid, however, that the most important part of the project has stayed in the sphere of the imagination.

DG: Hence your unwillingness to discuss all those unrealized projects, the desire to seek out positives instead, positives in what you consider to be failures?

JR: It’s not even that. Minaret did not leave me in any way resentful, it only left behind a kind of hole – the sense of something missing, unfulfilment, a huge pessary, work halted at the point of culmination. Knowledge of the unquestionable power that the Church, in alliance with the city authorities, has over us, our lives, our cities and our immediate environment, gives bitter food for thought.

DG: Another side-effect of the Minaret project, was the March Backwards1, organized by Hanka Gill-Piątek, “from the doors of the very real cathedral to the as yet non-existent minaret-chimney, to the synagogue-swimming pool” as an act of protest against the rejection of the project.

JR: Hanka’s March Backwards was the brightest point of the project. It indicated that we were moving away from a ‘Republic of Many Nations’ towards some kind of dark ‘Petzoland’2. But also that political divisions are far from simple. For example, they are not generational. Walking with us were people of very advanced age.

It is very hard for me to embrace the knowledge that started to flow to us from very different sources. For example the knowledge generated by the March Backwards, through voices audible during the debates and through the sudden visibility of the Muslim community. Then through the divisions between the city officials, their political games, the moronic arguments they were hiding behind, and the whole chemistry of power which began to ferment around us – the whole dance which Vice-President Hinc performed last year in defence of his little corner of influence, something which once and for all meant the educational programme would not happen. All of that took place. We have a story to tell. The only problem is that the story has a beginning and an end. It is a story which will not reach the public sphere if we don’t write it down right now and publish a book about it. Because, for the time being, the complete story is something that only we know.

DG: What in your opinion caused the heated reactions which are part of the as yet unwritten story of The Minaret That Wasn’t Built?

JR: The heated debate was caused by infecting the public sphere with the image of the ‘axis of evil’, a bearded Muslim fundamentalist who rapes everything that moves and murders little children. Ask all those forum users where they got their hate of Islam from, because the vast majority of them have never come into any sort of contact with flesh and blood Muslims. Their imagination is fuelled only through reports such as those Gazeta Wyborcza delivers from Turkey; for example, another father stoning his daughter for meeting a boy in dubious circumstances. And this is a much more complex story. We would also have to ask Geert Wilders3 why he encourages his followers to crusade against Islamic people. Why he works through alliances with the para-Buddhist Diamond Way4, through Ole Nydahl5, who is so active in Poland. Why these people set up foundations such as Stowarzyszenie Europa Przyszłości6, where, in the name of human rights, they run a hate campaign against religious minorities. And why they publish web pages such as kominaret.pl. And yet they are spot on, because this is a gravely important matter. It’s about the future of our continent, not just this country. They want Fortress Europe. While we want to open it up. The Minaret has become a symbol of this struggle.

DG: And so the reaction was caused by the form of the project – a minaret?

JR: Absolutely. This was an object which somehow embodied their fears about Europe. It was almost a physical manifestation of this fear.

DG: I also think that key in this reaction was your style of working on projects in the public space, which always begins with preparation and public presentation of the visuals. Who should be activated by this presentation?

JR: It is meant to illustrate the vision. That is all. It is meant to mobilize the imagination and intellect among all those who are the intended audience.

DG: However, wasn’t Aquarius7 a project whose visual proposal was not made public beforehand? I ask, because I was surprised by the complete lack of debate around the project.

JR: It wasn’t:) Which confirms your theory about the power of the visualization. And in my opinion that is how it works best. Because it is an installation which is due to be fished out again in 10 years’ time. The bishop will be covered in snail shells, tons of toilet paper, all sorts of rubbish, with eels living beneath his robe. Only then will a real debate begin.

DG: But for now the project seems absent – as much from public debate as it is from our sight. It turns out the project does not exist – regardless of whether it was realized or not.

JR: A project which is invisible does not exist. That which can be seen is most important. If that which is visible is missing, although we would like to see it – then, in a sense, thinking is immobile, or even impossible.

DG: How much, then, is visualization an introduction to “that which is visible”?

JR: As far as the public sphere wields power over public space.

DG: During the first panel discussion about the Minaret in 2009, Kaja Pawełek said that we are no longer able to forget the image of what the realized project would look like. It is already real in the minds of Poznań residents, who, staring up at the chimney, see a minaret. A certain vision has already been activated.

JR: The level of difficulty which I am beginning to encounter in trying to realize my projects is pushing me in the direction of fiction. I no longer think about realizing them. I am producing visions and starting to make models. I am more and more interested in impossible situations, or those near-enough impossible to realize, and less those more utilitarian, positivist solutions, half-measures. People do not need prostheses, they need visions.

DG: You said that the Minaret is a story which has its beginning and end. I am starting to wonder if the story really does have an end. Another of your unrealized projects, the Umeå Volcano, is now coming back to life following the announcement that Umeå would be the Cultural Capital of Europe in 2014.

JR: It is a kind of resurrection;) I am slowly starting to believe that the artist’s role is to invent utopias. It does not matter who brings them into actual being. We should have such utopias in our public domain, stripped of copyright or intellectual ownership. Open to be realized by anyone who has strength and believes in their meaning. That is the nature of all political utopias. When Herzl8 was writing about an Israeli state, he did not know he would not live to see it, that others would come and try to make his dream into a reality – although in a way quite different to the way he had imagined it. However, the example of Herzl is a warning against the possibility of distortion of the original utopia. This might be the most important knowledge stemming from the failure of the Minaret project. Belief in the creation of utopias. And fear of their abuse.

1. March Backwards, a happening organized around Minaret by Hanna Gill-Piątek.
2. Petzoland, after Juliusz Paetz or Petz, a Polish bishop of the Catholic Church who served as the archbishop of Poznań (1996-2002), noted for alleged sexual harassment of priests.
3. Geert Wilders (b.1963), founder and leader of Partij voor de Vrijheid – Party of Freedom – the fourth largest political party in the the Netherlands. Known for his hostile stance towards Islam. Wrote and commissioned Fitna, a film that caused him to be banned from entering UK in February 2009 until October 2009, when the ban was overturned.
4. Diamond Way, a lay organization within the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. The first Diamond Way Buddhist centre was founded in 1972. Has 630 centres worldwide.
5. Ole Nydahl (b. 1941), former drug dealer and street boxer, co-founder of Diamond Way. Openly hostile to Islam. In an interview, he said: “Judaism and Christianity are fine. Islam, I warn against. I know the Koran, I know the life story of Mohammad and I think we cannot use that in our society today.” – Willamette Week, 25th November, 2008.
6. Stowarzyszenie Europa Przyszłości (Association of Future Europe), organization that has organized public demonstrations in Warsaw against the building of mosques.
7. Aquarius, 2009, public project, River Wilga, Kraków, Poland.
8. Theodor Herzl, (1860-1904) an Austro-Hungarian journalist and writer. He is the father of modern political Zionism.