Palm Tree Urban Guerilla
Joanna Rajkowska in Conversation with Sebastian Cichocki
Warsaw, 2012, on the occasion of the Leaf Walk ceremoniously returning the leaves to the Warsaw palm tree, removed by the artist during the Euro 2012 football championship.
Sebastian Cichocki: The palm tree is ten years of age this year. We’ve come to view it a bit like a person. What kind of person is it?
Joanna Rajkowska: I’ve always thought about it as a cheeky girl. She appears out of the blue. No pedigree. Ill born. Who knows where she’s from. Probably from some provincial place. She is insolent and stamps her feet. Demanding attention. Pushing her way through, fighting for her place.
S.C.: Given her age, she’s become politically mature rather quickly…
J.R.: Pulling me along with her. When I was erecting the palm tree in 2002, I didn’t even know what a ‘public project’ was.
S.C.: Few did. We had only fragmentary knowledge about the tradition of art in public space, its potential, or the risks involved for an artist working in the city.
J.R.: For a long time I actually wondered what I should call it. What is it – a sculpture, an installation? And then I made the discovery: “Oh, there is such a thing!” It’s called public art.
S.C.: Well, there wasn’t anything in Poland to relate to. I’m thinking of the scale of this project, its bravado. It’s hard to see the palm tree as being rooted in any specific tradition. What art can achieve in public space is something we started discussing only in the early 2000s, when Paweł Althamer did Bródno 2000 with his neighbours and when the palm tree was erected at De Gaulle roundabout. The debate on Althamer’s project was different. The media assumed that making art outside the gallery was a new form of social work and stopped suspecting ulterior motives on the artist’s part. Real trouble began only with the palm tree. It wasn’t clear whether the artist wanted to do a good deed or simply to satisfy a whim.
J.R.: This is not only a Polish problem. I work a lot in Britain these days. And there it’s also difficult to leave the artistic ‘ghetto of good deeds’. If you do something unobvious in the city, you risk an immediate cancellation of the project. Everyone’s afraid of the consequences. I think the situation in Poland is actually less severe. What saves us is the 19th-century notion of the artist as a special figure, someone vested with magical powers, who lifts curses and removes spells…
S.C.: Equipped with a third eye, the artist sees more than ordinary mortals and can show them the way… A very romantic vision!
J.R.: I’ve come to regard this tradition with great respect because it’s really a loophole for us! People understand it, accept it. It was something I discovered doing Artist for Rent in Berlin. All the jobs I got were highly utilitarian – do this, clean that. Only one guy asked me to do something with a door in his apartment bedroom, a door which had very bad connotations for him. And when I found myself doing the project in Łódź, there it really started. Lifting spells in the four corners of the room, performing exorcisms, casting out bad spirits from suspicious garages. Why not use this faith in the artist in public dialogue? We artists, do something that neither architects, social workers, sociologists nor so-called facilitators do. We are a special task force.
S.C.: This notion of the artist has two sides, of course. On the one hand, this is someone who makes things possible, mends things, and in the process drives away the demons. On the other hand, the artist is an outlaw, someone who can cast a spell on you, or act irresponsibly against their own community.
J.R.: Sometimes it is necessary to unite, at other times to divide. Divide in order to discover where the lines of division run and whether we agree with them. In my projects this comes very clearly to the surface. And these lines of division change in very interesting ways. Good deeds are good deeds, but in practice the boundary is really blurry. Of course I wouldn’t like to do projects that pointlessly explain things in one-syllable words: “Look, this is so.” Unless we use art to set in motion a machine that will go on by itself, I’m not interested in that. When the situation becomes uncertain and unpredictable, I’m fascinated.
S.C.: When you erected the palm tree in the middle Warsaw, local residents, the press, the authorities, everyone started asking themselves questions that had been occupying the minds of Northern American and Western European artists and art critics for the last three decades. Who owns a public work of art? Who is entitled to judge its value? Can the local residents decide they don’t want the given piece and demand its removal? Should decisions about public art be made by experts or by the man in the street? How do you think the media handled that crash course in public-space art?
J.R.: The media did a great job, but it didn’t happen at once. The turning point came around 2005. But the art institutions lagged behind. I remember total lack of understanding. Even from my friends – artists and curators. Everyone thought it was an excess, a desire to make a presence in that space at any cost. The art world was highly reluctant at first. And yet it’s from there that the message comes: “This is important, pay attention to that, this is valuable.” The media had their task made easier…
S.C.: Precisely because the palm tree sends such a simple message, is like an easily recognizable pictogram, pays tribute to kitschy desires. You can hardly say it’s completely unfamiliar, everyone knows what a palm tree is, everyone dreams of exotic travels. The media refused to acknowledge that positive, popular, grass-roots potential. Our side, in turn, couldn’t understand how an artificial tree could be a critique of the authorities or the Church. If it had been against something, it’d have been easier to support.
J.R.: And what was a barrier to people from the art world was an invitation to everyone else.
S.C.: Well, it’s true the palm tree didn’t come pre-packaged in our beloved theoretical discourse. I remember sniffing at it at first: “A palm tree? On the roundabout? Just like that?”
J.R.: The project didn’t have a curator…
S.C.: Well, perhaps that’s better. You started from zero. Then the palm tree started acquiring meanings.
J.R.: Not entirely. I remained fixed on my story: the Second Intifada, a trip to Israel…
S.C.: When I look at the palm tree today, I think of nurses setting up a tent village, of marching miners, the LGBT movement, the African minority. My memory doesn’t go back beyond 2007.
J.R.: And that’s fantastic.
S. C.: But what happened to the project’s original roots? What about your trip to Israel?
J.R.: You know how memory works. The old tissues disappear, overgrown by the new. But there is still the root. It reappears whenever I hear tourist guides talk about the palm tree. It always has to do with the origin of the name Aleje Jerozolimskie.
S.C.: Very well, let’s go back to 2001 then. Tell us how it was.
J.R.: I was in an emotional trap and I felt that I needed to move somewhere else for some time. I became friends with Artur Żmijewski. And Artur said: “Let’s go Israel!” I had just made a lot of money – surprise! – selling canned drinks [Satisfaction Guaranteed, canned soft drink with sample of the artist’s DNA] at an art fair in Sweden. Artur had raised the money for his new film and now decided to waste it on a trip. So everything clicked just fine. We went. Israel came as a shock. I wanted to do nothing but watch, having gone there like a casual holidaymaker, without any kind of plan. And there the IDF was shelling Bethlehem, you could hear the explosions all the time. We were staying at the Faisal, a small dissident hotel in Jerusalem. Mostly pro-Palestinian journalists stayed there. But our political awareness was non-existent at the time. I remember the smell of sweat – the place was terribly dirty – and the fleas biting. There was such tension in the air that I’d cover myself with a blanket in the middle of the night and burst out crying. We spent a long time in Jerusalem but eventually we rented a car and drove around the country. I had a sense that most people visiting Israel probably have – that we have everything in common with the Israelis and at the same time absolutely nothing. On the other hand, I was shocked by the cruelty of the Second Intifada. Buses exploded. A sense of guilt grew. We’d sit on a park bench to drink a beer and after some time a bomb would explode there. We decided the bench must have been jinxed! I also remember the swimming pool. We were staying at a hotel, it must have been in Tiberias. It was low season and the swimming pool was full of muck. I asked Artur to take pictures of me. I undressed and slipped into it. I felt like it was my moment of synchronization with the country. This is it, passing over to the other side – my Israel in 2001. That’s how I felt. I was lying on my stomach in the slime, my skin rubbing against the tiles. For the first time in Israel, I felt well. When I returned to Warsaw, the shock was even greater.
S.C.: Poland was no longer what it used to be?
J.R.: It was like I didn’t return to the same country. Living like before was impossible. It’s empty here. And this emptiness demands a sign. A sign for time to warp around.
S.C.: You imagined a whole row of palm trees standing along a street in Warsaw?
J.R.: The row of trees was a joke. We were writing a feature for Aktivist. We made our living at the time by contributing to all kinds of dubious magazines. We lived from hand to mouth. Artur made some pennies designing a newsletter for farmers, and a politically incorrect one at that. We also worked for a soup kitchen. In any case, we decided to describe our trip to Israel. A small flat in a tower block, it was terribly hot. I was pacing around the room like a dog. I couldn’t go on like that and I finally said: “Let’s forget about this feature we’re writing. Let’s write that the conclusion of our trip is that a row of palm trees should be planted along Aleje Jerozolimskie!”
S.C.: And you had a project!
J.R.: I went on the fundraising trail with it. The galleries, first Raster, then Zachęta, then I found my way to Gazeta Wyborcza. At CCA Ujazdowski Castle they told me they had no money but they could support the project in other ways. And indeed, they helped a great deal throughout the first years, it was genuine support. In the end I found my way to the city hall, where the left-wing SLD-UP coalition was already on its way out. There I met this very pleasant gentleman, Ryszard Mikliński, the deputy mayor. Always seated comfortably in a leather chair, listening to jazz music. A nice atmosphere, really. And he says, “Let it be the whole length of Nowy Świat.” And I say: “But I wanted Aleje Jerozolimskie.” So he says: “We’ll see.” It turned out, of course, that they had no funding for the project, but could help me, anyway. They said the project was not a problem at all. And at that point I thought something was wrong, that it was going too easy. And indeed, a moment later the leftist coalition was ousted. But not before they issued all the necessary permits to me.
S.C.: So it looked like the situation couldn’t be reversed, that you had to continue with it. I understand you were already thinking about a single tree?
J.R.: Sure, otherwise I’d probably be planting them to this day [laughs]. We considered other locations, too, such as the entrance to the Centrum underground station. But there, a palm tree would have been more like an amusement-park attraction, with ads, people playing percussion on parts of chairs, and so on. I also visited the public library at ulica Koszykowa and that came as another major shock!
S.C.: What did you learn there?
J.R.: Where the name ‘Jerusalem Avenue’ came from. I learned that there was a neighbourhood called ‘New Jerusalem’ where Aleje Jerozolimskie meets ulica Okopowa and ulica Towarowa.
S.C.: So the knowledge of the name’s origin came only later. Your intuitions had been perfect again.
J.R.: Words hold everything. The collective memory is stored in language. The name ‘Jerusalem Avenue’ couldn’t have been innocent. I remember I got all sweaty reading the story I had unwittingly uncovered. And this is a very Polish story, full of bile. Though this time, fortunately, involving no bloodshed. It’s simple and vivid: a landowner, August Sułkowski, built a settlement for Jews where they could work and trade. They worked hard of course, so the place became very successful. Polish merchants got envious of the success and sued Sułkowski. He lost the case so the village was demolished and the Jews dispersed. Such a petty Polish meanness. When I discovered the story, I knew there was no return. It was now a matter of securing the necessary funding.
S.C.: And how did you manage to secure it?
J.R.: A businessman friend helped, a German guy who knew all the big CEOs in Poland. Anda Rottenberg made her foundation bank account available. The tree was actually funded by the German companies Bayer and TUI, and Norway’s Delecta. Later, of course, everyone was angry because the tree couldn’t be exploited commercially in any way. Most unhappy, I think, was TUI which, as a tour operator, was supposed to advertise its services with something that, as the online pundits wrote, looked like an “upside down toilet brush.” I was even called on the carpet by the big boss and had to listen to many bitter words. And when the tree had finally been installed, the architect called to say he’d forgotten to add the VAT. We couldn’t afford to dismantle it, we were beyond the point of no return!
S.C.: So the palm tree wasn’t supposed to stay there permanently?
J.R.: No, we planned it would stay on the roundabout for just a year. That it’s still there is the result of a series of random events. Otherwise I’d have long dismantled it myself. In fact, we were heavily in debt. Palm tree urban guerilla.
S.C.: You also had other problems, concerning the production of the tree itself.
J.R.: Our technological nightmare began when the leaves weren’t supplied on time. The problem with the leaves is that, basically, they always look bad.
S.C.: The tree was manufactured in the United States. Why there?
J.R.: I chose the company because my grandfather was a gambler, and the company was based in Las Vegas. They ran an assembly plant somewhere near the Mexican border. Two Mexicans working on the tree in a hangar. They did everything great. But they didn’t create the leaves. That’s where the real trouble began. It was a complex project, a different company pulling in at the roundabout every hour for scaffolding, concrete, plastic pipes, trunk and so on – twelve different companies, a very precise schedule. Some things had to be done between 3 and 4 a.m., when the trams don’t run. We’d spend whole nights at the roundabout. Finally, there came the day when the trunk was already standing, the media crews were waiting, but the leaves still weren’t there. It was like acting in a grotesque film. Meanwhile, a huge media machine had been set in motion. The camera crews were hovering, while we were desperately searching for palm tree leaves around the whole world.
S.C.: Whatever happened to the Mexicans?
J.R.: It was weird. The owner of the company was seriously ill. She wrote us in detail what kind of medicine she had been taking, but nothing about the leaves. Her increasingly vague emails drove us crazy. We finally let it go and I found a French manufacturer of beautiful, natural-looking leaves. Those were real palm tree leaves, preserved with glycerine. They looked like the real thing, but were very delicate. And too short! By a metre! That’s why at first the tree was nicknamed ‘parsley’. It looked terrible.
S.C.: So you weren’t faithful to the tree’s genetic purity? The leaves could have been any sort?
J.R.: The palm tree is a mutant. According to the first visualization it is a date palm with the leaves of a coconut palm. Our intention was to create a tree that everyone would instantly recognize as a palm tree. Not any specific genus, but a quintessence of a palm tree. Like a child would draw it. A palm that enchants. And in this, we failed.
S.C.: But you were successful at cobbling together a coalition of people and organizations who took care of the tree.
J.R.: We had no budget for anything. No scaffolding, no forklift, nothing. You have something that is nearly fifteen metres high, but you aren’t able to get to the top of it in order to make repairs. You see how the wind and snow are damaging the tree in front of your very eyes. It was the middle of winter. I was sick with worry. The leaves were falling out. We had to pick them up and take them to the CCA for storage. I kept receiving text messages: “Again, red alert, a leaf under the palm!” I’d cross over from Praga to the roundabout, from there to the Castle with a leaf. And then, all of a sudden, the new leaves arrived from Mexico. They were terrible! Built around reinforcement wire. If the wind bent it, it was bent forever. And if they fell, it was always on policemen. The fun and games were over. The tree was a hazard to human life. We replaced the leaves three times during the first year. We were busy at the roundabout all the time. And then I met Żwirek, who happened to be my next-door neighbour. “Is this you who’s put up this palm tree?” he asked. I said yes, but that it meant a hell of a lot of trouble. Żwirek, who was practising Buddhism at the time, said okay and started working with me. And he still does. In the same anarchistic style.
S.C.: What were your relations at the time with art institutions?
J.R.: To this day I can’t forgive the institutions that they didn’t offer a helping hand, that no one said: “Listen, it looks terrible, let’s do something together. It’s the city centre, after all, millions of people seeing it every day.” But there was no one except Anda, who was helping me as much as she could. But it was constant misery! Around 2005, I decided everyone knew now that there was a palm tree in the middle of de Gaulle roundabout and that they also knew why it was there. So it was time to deconstruct it. Leaving only the trunk. And that’s what we did. We also hung a banner saying: “The palm tree is waiting for a contract”, which disappeared the same night.
S.C.: When did the public perception of your intentions shift?
J.R.: When activists got involved. Kaśka Szustow and others. They called me to say not to worry, that they’d raise money for the tree. They organized a nice beach happening in the middle of winter. Bathing suits on winter coats. And political awareness. I felt relieved. I thought that was what I’d wanted all along. Someone finally understood me.
S.C.: You also wanted to legalize the tree by simply donating it to the city.
J.R.: Right. In 2003, having realized that we had no money to dismantle the tree, we decided to donate it to Mayor Lech Kaczyński. We wrote a nice-sounding letter that the palm tree had become an inherent feature of Aleje Jerozolimskie. But I don’t think he ever saw the letter. From what I was hearing, he pretty much hated the tree. As there was no reply, we wrote another letter asking for support to dismantle the tree. Not a word. The rest was inertia.
S.C.: New allies turned up…
J.R.: The Palm Defence Committee was founded. Mariusz Szczygieł and Agnieszka Kowalska published a long, beautiful essay, written like a theatre play, in Duży Format. Then I felt I could learn from the journalists, too – that they’d explain to me what the palm tree meant, finally.
S.C.: The palm tree started maturing and consolidating politically.
J.R.: And so did her mother! I think Mayor Kaczyński realized at some point that he’d never win against this tree. The palm was put under the patronage of MPRO, the Municipal Garden Works Company, which proved the stingiest sponsor imaginable. We only managed to buy cheap Chinese-made leaves, reinforce them with glass fibre, and cover them with resin. Still, it was glorious! Power was already on our side. That was 2006. A year later, the Warsaw Stock Exchange became involved, financing a refurbishment to which the palm tree owes its current form. Lengthy negotiations with the city hall began, but this time without scaffolding. All those grass-roots happenings under the tree started at that time, too, from Greenpeace actions to weddings and samba dances. The climax came in 2011 when a keffiyeh was hung on the tree. A new generation has risen that has a perfect political awareness. Ten years earlier, elderly ladies would comment that this was a Jewish street, so the Jews had erected themselves a palm tree. Now a pretty blonde girl was hanging a keffiyeh on the same tree to protest against the Polish prime minister’s visit to Israel – an action from a completely different order of reality, a mega-shift in awareness. A lot had happened in the meantime: to us, to Poland, in terms of the demarcation of political horizons.
S.C.: Are there limits to the palm tree’s symbolic appropriation? Imagine a situation where it is used by a group of people representing views you disagree with, such as xenophobia or racism.
J.R.: This question has always nagged me. But then I think that the conservatives were afraid of the palm tree not because it is a hard-to-pin-down, exotic object, but because it has a sense of humour. And this saves the project.
S.C.: Well, it isn’t even genetically pure! Seriously speaking, though, the palm tree is a handy tool. It can be used like a sling to hurl postulates. It’s recognizable and has a large, devoted circle of supporters from a variety of communities. So let’s reflect on what can be done to prevent this – as you’ve called it yourself – insolent girl from being forced to leave town.
J.R.: Last Sunday’s Leaf Walk was a major step forward. We’ve recast the palm tree in completely different terms. Now we can really start talking about its future! Only a year ago, a city official told me the tree was my private problem. But it’s the shared space, we all use it!
S.C.: So what’s the plan?
J.R.: The tree should not be sold to the city, nor to a private collection. It has to be in the hands of a public institution. It has to have a curator. There is also a group of people who should be paid from time to time for technical maintenance. It’d also be good to have a separate budget for related workshops and actions. The activists who, for years, have maintained the tree for free should be paid for the work they do. I also thought about a pedestrian crossing, so that one could reach the tree by foot safely. Above all, however, the palm tree should be common property. If someone wants to use it, let them. You want to build a speaking platform? Design it, say how long you want to use it. Someone else wants to erect an altar for Corpus Christi? Why not! A ‘Greetings from Jerusalem Avenue’ neon sign? Of course. That’s what culture in the city should mean. It should be growing, like a plant.
S.C.: Have you, living in London now, managed to detach yourself emotionally from the tree at all?
J.R.: No, not at all. But I no longer wake up in the morning worrying what might have happened to it. It’s like caring for a very delicate, very sensitive organism. I felt it today, seeing a small, committed group of people carrying some leaves. All that’s left to us is obstinacy and patience.