Flying with a Millstone Around the Neck
2006, Joanna Rajkowska talks to Kaja Pawełek, curator of Oxygenator

What is the Oxygenator? Have you prepared a script of what is to happen on Plac Grzybowski?

Since the moment I understood and accepted the mechanism of how public projects work, some things have become obvious. It makes no slightest sense to try and force through a single way of thinking about what such a project is and how it should function in public space. That works against the project, against its author and his or her intentions, ruining the potential power that uncontrolled public space possesses. What is most important, I believe, is to set a relationship in motion and hand control over to the people. Every human being has a whole unexplored apparatus in his or her head, and you don’t know what he or she may think, what instruments they possess. They will examine themselves in the given situation like in a mirror. They will see as much as they can and want to see, and it wouldn’t make sense to demand more. People have a very strong sense of whether something belongs to them or not. They instantly feel whether they can do something or not. If they don’t, they go home to watch TV. But if they can – an unlimited scale of possibilities opens up in them. You just have to give them something. Create a context, a place, a situation. And leave it.

I try to build very delicate social relationships on a very basic level. Such as, in the case of the Oxygenator, a temporary community, an opening of public space to community action, even if as simple as realising that we breathe the same air, that we are here and now.

It is in this context that I also think about the social effectiveness of my projects. How people will react in situations so casual, requiring them neither to stand at attention nor to declare themselves in favour or against something, what kind of relationships they will form with each other. And for how long. Even though these situations are so short-lived, I believe every gesture that causes people to gravitate towards each other on completely new terms is good. Perhaps relationships arising besides the official public sphere are more effective. In fact, however, I don’t really know because reality always proves far more powerful than my imagination.

So the whole of what will happen will be, in fact, elusive?

The narrative about a project like this develops for years, in shreds, fragments of situations, snatches of conversations that only someone very determined could collect and write down.

Can you define the moment when you moved from a focus on yourself and an individual, very close relationship with your own body towards more community-oriented, public thinking?

Yes, I can. It was when I was preparing the Satisfaction… exhibition at the Ujazdowski Castle in 2000. I still lived in Cracow at the time, and every two weeks, or even every week, I went to Brzesko, to a can factory, and worked for a couple of months there with a designer team, designing each consecutive can. Working in a team gives you great power – I felt it then. The next phase took place in Warsaw, at the Ujazdowski Castle, when we were completing the project with Stach [Szabłowski, CCA curator]. We were hiring trucks, moving the tens of thousands of cans across Poland, filling them, and at some point we thought that we needed to outside the CCA because the project should function in the space of a supermarket. I did that some time later in Essen, where I put all the Satisfaction cosmetics into a local drugstore. It was quite a powerful impulse, to see the whole personal narrative, the images of my mother, my husband, on the shelf among the ordinary soaps and shampoos. Satisfaction… was a project about the craving for human contact and, among the hundreds of virtually identical products, its impact was unusually powerful.

Besides, I think it’s a very natural process – I was growing mature, grappling with my sexuality, my partners. Finally, I grew tired with myself and decided that it neither amused me, nor pushed things forward, nor helped me to solve my messy relationships. I got a divorce and I suddenly felt – so tiny. I moved to Warsaw, a horrible, drab, eastern metropolis. I moved into a loft in Praga, where the only thing I had was a mattress, I lay on that mattress and I felt the scale of a big city. I cut off all the umbilical cords, I was completely alone, and I suddenly felt that it was my place, my scale, that I suddenly had a backdrop. Without that sense that I was ten centimetre-tall, tiny, the palm tree would have never become reality.

I’m interested in this moment of transition – the correlation between the direct experience of your own physicality, and the experience of yourself in a group..

It’s Professor Nowosielski’s legacy. For five years he came to the studio and told us, ‘try to become the object you are trying to represent’. Instead of trying to become a piece of cloth or an apple, I tried to understand. The Professor suggested that the intensity of the me-object relationship should be translated into the viewer-picture relationship. That stemmed from the icon-painting tradition, the idea of achieving direct contact with God by meditating the icon. A state of mind completely inaccessible for me. I was unable to identify with anything. I was also a hopeless painter. So I tried to put objects together and create, as I called it, situations. I translated every experience into spatial relations and introduced others into those ‘situations’ so that they could feel the same. It was a rather crude western interpretation of the Professor’s theory. The translation of intense, meditative visual relations into simple, direct physical contacts. Only that didn’t happen either. I felt I was touching the wall, felt I was unable to cross a certain threshold of inability. After graduation I went to NY and there I fell ill. Painful, very real experiences. The doctors were applying iodine to my skin. And when I was invited to take part in an exhibition at Sauce Place, a small gallery in Williamsburg, I decided to use iodine. It was a fascinating substance, heavy, red – American iodine is red-coloured – velvety, sexy. I built a cross between a table and a processing tray, it was to an object for the exhibition. And I arrived again at the well-familiar wall. People will not experience iodine just by looking at it. I thought I had to wash everyone with that iodine. After Cracow, New York seemed dirty – sweat and dirt. So there emerged the notion of hopeless, absurd sterilisation – and I like hopeless and absurd things – so everything clicked just fine. But when, during the opening, I started washing people’s hands with the stuff, it turned out that neither the tray nor the idea of sterilisation mattered at all, and that what really mattered was the absolutely sexual act of touching people’s hands through the heavy, blood-like compote. I rolled up my sleeves and washed people’s hands up to the elbows – and I felt elated, felt I existed, felt five times as much as I had ever felt. The wall was gone. The horizon suddenly expanded, I succeeded in translating the abstract me-the city relationship into a concrete relationship with others.

That is also a rather perverse act in the context of the city – you violate a certain cultural convention, the distance that is de rigueur there. If you treated literally the mass of people that constantly surrounds you in a city like New York, such a congestion could cause a hysterical reaction. Hence the way people protect themselves with all kinds of membranes -the MP3 player earphones, and so on, barricading their bodies physically and mentally…


And you, gathering people around the pond, try to dissolve these capsules. Don’t you think this can be dangerous?

No, it’s safe, though a bit perverse, sure. The moment of suspending certain laws, the attempt to provoke people to act in a non-standard way, creates the situation of play. If we manage to organise the workshop [a workshop for young people, planned for the autumn, accompanying the Oxygenator], we may generate a field without quotation marks – even with the workshop convention, it will be far less safe. After Artist For Hire [Berlin, Łódź, Sheffield, 2003-2005], I know how powerful these conventions can be. Only in Artist…, I still existed as a subject, as a person, I was part of the emerging relationships. In these new projects I am no longer present, as a result of which I lose control over everything. The Oxygenator will be created by others, I only prepare the playing field. There, I was still able to say, ‘No, sir, that’s as far as I’ll go’, I could stop everything at the moment someone broke out of convention, had the right to do it. This time I don’t know what people will do, it’s unpredictable. Because it’s others who define the rules.

Exactly – play. So, the situation also contains an element of performativity?

I think of a generated context, of situations that will be almost scenes, and, at the same time, of a huge dose of purely sensual pleasure. At its best, theatre, though I’m no expert in the field, consists in triggering off interactions between people. There is a chance the Oxygenator will work like that. It has a chance to be a kind of theatre. Within the same space of Plac Grzybowski, situations can take place that need no project to happen. But if they occur within the Oxygenator context, they will become different. They will adopt a new dimension, take on new meanings. And it is precisely this slight shift of emphasis that I’m interested in. We’ve already had a taste of that – during the excavations on the square, a man approached me and told me a story about how his father harboured four Jews in a mill and after the war two of them denounced him. Would he have told me that without the sight of that great hole in the ground? In any case, the story took on new meanings in that context. And, basically, everything takes on new meanings: all human gestures, actions, sitting on benches, what people say to each other. I hope that when they feel that they are inside a kind of bubble, they will feel a bit like actors – and actors can do more.

Who is the Oxygenator’s recipient, or, should I say, user?

It’s an accidental passer-by, a local. A someone. Ideally, someone shaken out slightly of the rut of everyday life and chores. People in the city organise themselves into groups of common interest – associations, foundations, groups, and so on, like atoms gravitating together. The purpose of the Oxygenator is to create a new line of gravity that will pull atoms that otherwise have completely different trajectories, that is, people who have no common interests, pursuing different paths, holding different worldviews. Only to make them realise that this place is for them, that a community based on accidental presence is possible. That atoms do not necessarily have to have the same gravity to coexist. It’s good people organise themselves into associations remembering, for instance, the Volhynia massacres, but far more interesting are those who enrol in dancing schools and dance salsa together, not knowing anything about each other, not sharing any common past. They come every Friday to console themselves with the music and their own bodies. The Oxygenator is to work in a similar fashion, but because it comes into existence in a place so traumatised, it is certain to be a flight with a millstone around the neck.

How do you feel on the eve of the project’s launch? Is it already unsticking itself from you, becoming an independent entity? Do you still feel it’s your work or are already looking at it as an outside observer?

No, I’ve already detached myself completely from it, like I did from the palm tree. I put my energy and attention into those projects only up to a point. Then I shiver when I see they arouse indignation or attract someone’s attention for a second. It’s like the relationship with your ex-boyfriend – it’s powerful but somehow no longer yours [laughs].

You’ve lived in different cities, been to different places – and now you return to Warsaw. How does urban space affect you and how do you perceive it, what is the nature of this relationship?

In the early 1990s, I made a series of collages with architecture about the relationship between the body – my body – and buildings of classical architecture. I love buildings – the moment when you stand on the street facing it and you feel it with all your being, every window, every bay, the proportions, the gate in the middle – it’s an organism that you sense very intensely. But I like it when things surpass me, when they are chaotic, incomprehensible, difficult. Because it’s easy to grasp a 19-th century tenement, but try to feel something towards four-storey prefab-concrete apartment blocks. The problem I had with Cracow is that the architecture there was familiar, mine, pretty. The relationship was complete. Cracow didn’t need me because Cracow doesn’t need anyone. Warsaw, in turn, needs you very much because it’s handicapped, chaotic, destroyed, simply ugly. The model example of this Warsaw ugliness is Rondo Daszyńskiego, where the industrial and commercial Wola begins, but somewhere on the corner there stands an old tenement with boarded-up windows, then a vast fallow, some ugly shopping pavilions from the 1970s, some horrible apartment buildings, and in the background the Palace of Culture, defining the whole vista. You feel it’s neglected, deserted, abandoned, screwed up by all that this city has experienced. The thoroughfares have been intersected, producing cul-de-sacs, broken-off streets, artificial streets – all this causes your imagination to try and either complete them or open them, to see a row of buildings that are lacking, to see a city within the city, a city of ghosts. I feel Warsaw with each of my nerves. I filter the structure of the buildings through my own organism – a legacy of the years when I was involved with sculpture and my own body, exercises having to do with physicality give you a lot in your relationships with the city and people And I’ve kept transposing the relationships between me and the city onto group relationships.

Warsaw is a city where it’s hard to drift freely – instead, you have sluices, channels, beaten tracks that you follow. The routes remain severed and there are few inviting, semi-accidental paths encouraging you to walk through the city, to use it. And another thing – we return to the Oxygenator here – that are no specific places either, characteristic spots where you can make a break in your drift and focus. It’s difficult to do it because you just keep moving…

… from A to B…

Yes. And being in those places is really nothing pleasant.
And Warsaw very much craves for such affection. The pleasure principle is important for you – after all, what you do is not austere, heavy, socially-aware work…

Oh no, surely not. What I’m interested in is suspense. Zbyszek Rogalski once said a beautiful thing: ‘The moment of crossing the bridge gives people a real high’. I remember the sentence really impressed me. The one-minute suspense when the streetcar levitates, going across Poniatowskiego bridge, the Vistula, the shrubs on the Praga bank. It’s unaffected, indifferent for some, powerful for others. I love it – the collective state when everyone is still separate, still in their own capsule, because people don’t unite in common delight, but for a moment they feel great because they see the river. This brief interlude helps them to reset completely. I would very much like to do projects that could produce such sensations.

The epilogue, that is, the prologue – Plac Grzybowski, July 11, 2007, the excavator is working

In the context of what we were talking about yesterday, how does this relate to the actual action on the site?

It’s something else, completely, a man comes with a crane and unloads four well casings into a whole in the ground, and we talk about how delicate and sophisticated the thing is. In reality, it’s a brutal intervention. We destroy the lawn, kill the earthworms. The model that you imagine in the first place strangely doesn’t translate into the actual execution. This is with regard to the beginning of our conversation where we say that reality is always more powerful than imagination. Also in terms of material action, of transforming the environment, which is always an act of breaking habits, violating the existing reality.

It’s a thoughtless phase, you only want to get close to the ideal picture you have in your head.

In fact, this project is so simple that even the locals who approach us here don’t want to talk about anything else, don’t ask us why it’s here – because it’s obvious for them why. And that’s a great thing.

10 July, 2007, Szpitalna street, Warsaw, the roofs of downtown Warsaw in the background

Translated by Marcin Wawrzyńczak