Joanna Rajkowska talks to Magda Raczyńska
Piktogram #08, talking pictures magazine
In her conversation with Magda Raczyńska, Joanna Rajkowska talks about the Oxygenator, that is, about the space of ‘perhaps’, which makes an alternative present.
Magda Raczyńska: Few artists in Poland decide to work in the public space. There’s little understanding for this kind of work, and it’s hard to sell it, too. And you’ve stubbornly been going out in the open.
Joanna Rajkowska: That’s the consequence of many mistakes and blind alleys. But once you decide to do it, there’s usually no turning back. And you must realise that the public space is a cosmos governed by its own laws, completely different to the ones governing the cosmos of galleries and art institutions. The artist’s role is different, and the discourse surrounding the project has a different structure. Involvement in social and political issues are natural consequences of such a step. But art in the public space and committed art isn’t one thing. The point is not to what extent art should be committed, or whether at all, the issue is far more fundamental — it is the issue of the artist’s private hierarchy of values. Whether it’s my basic existence that really matters — a passive being, succumbing to fate, accidents, disease, all kinds of things — or whether I want to live an active life, participate in the world, limit being in favour of acting. Such fundamental choices immediately situate you with others. I grappled with this for years. And only recently did I arrive at the conclusion that pure being was more important after all. Or rather trying to find some balance in the vacillating between being and acting, based on the ability to analyse moments of passivity, helplessness, and submission. Rather than the constant transforming, planning, polishing of your craft or language, because that narrows everything. The world passes you by like meteorites, you don’t participate in anything, don’t experience anything. You’re so focused on constructing the instruments of transformation that you no longer see what you’re supposed to transform. You’re unable to experience it fully, submit yourself to it. This element of passivity, of being a kind of receiver, a seismograph, without presuppositions, without the already constructed research instrument, is an absolutely fundamental thing. To surrender after all, to try and test reality on yourself, so that it transforms you, runs over you like a tank.
MR: How does this relate to your recent projects?
JR: Both the palm tree (Greetings From Jerusalem Avenue, 2002) and The Oxygenator (2007) have been the result of resignation, were conceived during the moments of my utter ‘standby’ towards reality. The Oxygenator was born at a time when I was really suffering from insomnia, when I turned everything off, tried not to answer the phone, I was simply passing from one day into another. The idea of digging up a hole in the ground, a hollow, dates back to a much earlier period. When I was living in Praga Północ [a neighbourhood in right-bank Warsaw, with many pre-war tenements, run-down, poor, with a bad reputation], there, between Strzelecka, Konopacka, Stalowa, and Środkowa streets there is this huge courtyard, as if some bomb exploded there and wiped out everything around. For many months I toyed with the idea to dig a huge hole there, paying everyone around, the residents, daily rates. It would be a joint project; I’d be digging with them. To express what was going on there in a direct, literal, for me perhaps too literal, way. However, I didn’t want to stop at diagnosis level, because it’s not my language, it’s not the narrative I want to trigger. What really interests me is to produce a vision that causes diagnosis to cease being important at all.
MR: What do you mean by diagnosis?
JR: This is what Santiago Sierra does, for instance. He stops at the threshold. Limits himself to naming the issue, identifying the causes of some problem. He says, ‘This is how things are’. And nothing follows. This is the most painful thing for me in his projects, which I otherwise very much like and respect. You’d like to go further and achieve something. And you can’t. This is perhaps why his projects are so sexy, that this is the peak, suspense, that he halts tension. In any case, my hole digging, much weaker, of course, not as political, not as multifaceted, was but a diagnosis of that situation. Which is why I never did it. But when I moved to Szpitalna Street and the whole palm story took place – this taught me how a project really functions in public space, what it does to people, to me, then all these experiences, plus the idea of the hole in the ground, gave rise to the Oxygenator.
MR: I still don’t understand the connection between your personal submission, surrender, exhaustion, and the intervention into the space of Plac Grzybowski.
JR: Look at how these people sit there. This project reflects a profound disbelief in the possibility of explaining, of finding consensus, of talking things over. And this is the victory of this work. That people don’t talk to each other. This is an inclusive project — no matter who’s there, they’re all together in a way. But there’s no element of consensus there, it’s absolutely unnecessary.
MR: But there’s no element of conflict either, and you wanted to have it there from the very beginning. I remember how many times you talked about how you wanted the Oxygenator to unblock the ritualised conflicts buried in the space of Plac Grzybowski. [The square, which was part of the ghetto during WWII, is today a strange mishmash: Jewish community offices and the Jewish Theatre stand vis-à-vis a Catholic church, in which until last year anti-Semitic books were sold, and dilapidated tenements, the only remnants of the pre-war Jewish quarter, stand next to high-rise apartment blocks from the 1960s and 1970s and modern-era office buildings].
JR: Because conflict has been replaced by a fragment of paradise — the ozone, the water lilies, all that has eliminated conflict. But when we were carrying out the archaeological excavations and digging the hole, it was different. People would come and ask: ‘What are you doing here?’ Excavations, we’d say. ‘And what have you found?’ A bomb, we’d say, or a German helmet. And then their story would unfold, usually about the war period. And those were usually tough stories. The subject of Polish-Jewish relations would instantly pop up. ‘My father saved four Jews, kept them at the mill, and after the war, in the late 1950s, two of those informed on him’. A heavy silence, and then, ‘Jedwabne, what’s Jedwabne, luv. I saw the heads of Jewish children rolling on the cobbles in many places in Poland, see, Jedwabne took place all over the country’. [Jedwabne is a town in north-eastern Poland where, in 1941, the local Poles rounded up their Jewish neighbours under the Germans’ watchful eye and burned them all in a barn]. But there was also a lady who talked about how she sneaked up to Plac Grzybowski for potatoes, that she had Jewish friends in Aleje Jerozolimskie who supported her financially and whom she visited after the war. There were also Israeli groups, because the construction of the pond coincided with the March of the Living. One Saturday, hundreds of young Israelis passed through the square. Walking their usual route, they were so curious that the group started to split up. They surrounded us and it suddenly turned out that someone had a name. Before, you know, they were like a bodyguard-surrounded bolide.
MR: Only the whole ‘coming out’ and unclogging of communication channels focused on you.
JR: Not only on me. On us. Sure, the local residents didn’t get confronted with young Israelis. But because I often had to go to work, other people involved in the project were always at the square — archaeologists, architects, the guys from the CCA Ujazdowski Castle. And the residents came every day and talked to them. The stories eventually branched into polyphony, blurring the division between artist and technical staff. Suddenly everyone became involved.
MR: It sounds a bit utopian. What you are talking about is rather a functional than subjectivating inclusion. Besides, you won’t forbid these people to talk to others.
JR: Of course, but something like this happens only in public space. It doesn’t happen in the gallery. That’s the difference. In a gallery, the division is clear. You’re the author, and there’s the guy who paints the wall for you. In a public space, an outsider comes up who doesn’t know who is who, asks the man standing closest to him, and I don’t interfere. This is a slight shift but an important one.
MR: One of the contemporary art bloggers said it was a pity that your project had entered the city’s public space so smoothly, that it caused no conflict. You yourself define public space as a space of conflict. In the sense that the dynamic of conflict, the real one, not the ritualised one, is what constructs public space. And yet the Oxygenator is one big ‘yes, yes, yes!’
JR: Well, but the monument of the victims of the Volhynia massacres isn’t there. [The descendants of the Poles murdered by the Ukrainians during the Volhynia massacres in 1942-1944 want to erect a controversial, gruesome monument to commemorate the victims at Plac Grzybowski. Polish territory before WWII, Volhynia was occupied by the Soviets pursuant to the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, then by the Germans, and after the war became part of the Ukrainian Socialistic Soviet Republic. During WWII, the Ukrainians fought against the Poles there in a cruel ethnic conflict that claimed tens of thousands of victims on both sides, but chiefly on the Polish side].
MR: What do you mean?
JR: I don’t know myself how it happened. I can only judge by people’s reactions, including those of the town councillors who participated in the Infokultura 2016 debate, and who spoke with genuine enthusiasm about how fucking great it was that the monument wouldn’t be there, after all. That now they had a pretext to reject it outright. Before the conflict actually occurred, it got solved. I mean, it existed before, unspoken, because people were afraid to talk about it, but it existed — as anxiety. Everyone read in newspapers that a grisly monument would be erected at the square, but no one fought against it except the press.
MR: You have no problem with the fact that you solved the issue without going through the conflict stage?
JR: I don’t, because then things could have gone another way. The way they went with the palm tree. The conflict that project provoked was a great thing, which brought hundreds of issues to the surface. The bad thing is that the decisions that could have solved the issue have never been made. For instance, the fact that the palm tree remains my property because the city is afraid to make any move. Perhaps the project is too ironic after all and they can’t digest it. Because it’s not the mellow Oxygenator that old ladies sit by to breathe fresh air.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Krzysztof Wodiczko. His 1970s projects are brilliant, but the strategy he has pursued in the recent years no longer appeals to me. If something works, it’s usually as a side effect, because something’s eluded him. Instead of fighting the hierarchical structure, he’s in fact emphasising all those hierarchical differences. By giving voice to the excluded, he naturally stresses how excluded they are.
MR: Because the modalities of criticising have changed, and Wodiczko keeps doing the same. Public projects are carried out to address a specific issue, in a specific manner. Artur Żmijewski once put it aptly in a conversation with Iza Kowalczyk (though he seems to have recently changed his mind on that as he tries to pursue rather universalist messages) that ‘art is about participation, about being present here and now.’ And that ‘it is not its job to animate the minds of the future generations.’
JR: Because the language of art has to remain flexible at all times, you must be like a seismograph. But there’s something else that occurs to me when I think of Wodiczko — that this is also diagnosis-making. Whereas I’m interested in subjecting people to a certain vision. A vision in which there’s no hierarchy, in which, in a way, conflicts remain unsolved. After all, the Oxygenator hasn’t solved any controversial issues, they are still there. It’s only that the people are different for a moment. And then they return to their lives. I think they’re left with an after-image. The effect must be subliminal. I work on an instinctive level. I’ve always thought that conflicts can’t be solved. In a way, conflicts are solved when the factor generating them ceases to exist. Not when they’re diagnosed, discussed, talked over, when someone understands something and moves to other positions. This can’t be done. Unless you practice committed art in the lab-room conditions of the gallery. There, you can do everything. Even create the Habermasian perfect public sphere. Only it changes nothing and there’s no increase in our knowledge of the world.
MR: This makes me think of something. During the Documenta as a Fiction workshop, organised recently by the Wyspa Art Institute in Gdańsk, Artur Żmijewski explained in visual form the intention behind his project for this year’s documenta 12, that is, the film Them. He drew a frame around which he placed the group identities identified at the beginning of the workshop: the Jews, the All-Polish Youth [a Polish nationalist youth group], the Catholics, and the lefties. His goal, he said, was to unblock the ritualised conflicts within that frame, and then to play them out in ways that could deterritorialize it. But just as it started inside the frame, so it ended inside it. He defined it himself. He silenced attempts to go beyond it, for instance, by leaving the game. Finally, in the course of an exercise he designed, a transition was made from the four different identities to a binary antagonism — in theory, for and against freedom, in reality it was but a boring façade of that conflict. In this context, it seems to me that the Oxygenator is an opposite of Żmijewski’s project. Instead of defining a frame, you start somewhere in the middle. Instead of focusing all existing narratives in a single place, the Oxygenator suspends them, creating room for new ones. You start exactly where Artur left off, that is, with the unifying impossibility of solving the conflict. Instead of debating it over and over, like in the psychoanalyst’s room, you go out into the open, to fresh air. And this split triggers new, unexpected trajectories of existing elements, throwing them out of their previous channels, tracks.
JR: The problem is that Artur got down to something that is a muddle, a mysterious area of a million of small conflicts, and he tries to solve it all, to organise it into a logical whole using scientific categories and in laboratory conditions! This can’t be done, because it threatens to trivialise these conflicts and reduce them all to a single level. Moreover, Żmijewski believes that he gives people remedies that will help them to solve these conflicts. Iza Kowalczyk, the critic, made a telling remark in her blog. Namely, she wasn’t sure whether some of the people shown in the film are real people or actors. Get it? She simply couldn’t believe they were real people with their views. She thought Artur simply told them what to do and how they should react. And that is precisely the consequence of this kind of reduction, the fact that such an idea is conceivable at all. Professor Nowosielski often told us, and I was long unable to understand it, that everything starts when you’re down. I can only guess, but it seems to me that he meant the moment when you surrender, give up, renounce control. That is why I thought that what I needed to do was to create a situation in which conflicts are naturally dissolved, where the vision of a completely different reality is offered that becomes an alternative to all the conflicted parties at once. Instead of showing that you’re partly right here, and you’re partly right there, and therefore perhaps we work out some third way. It doesn’t make sense, these are always rotten compromises. That is why I was interested in generating a momentary vision, a bit like a mirage, where all the reasons lose their validity, where the moments when people err and go astray are no longer important, where the conflict-generating positions become ineffective.
MR: Does it mean that conflict is something bad?
JR: No, it’s very much appropriate. But I’m talking about mirages, flashes, about a zone that you enter and then leave to return to the real world. The point is to realise that you don’t have to hang on tightly to a single vision, a single way of thinking, comprehending, associating. That there exist a zillion other ways of thinking about the given situation. In order to atomise it, to shatter it. And, importantly, not to create a binary playing field that simply restricts conflict. Because conflict is polymorphous as well.
MR: How does this alternative approach, the fact that the Oxygenator doesn’t refer to any of the conflicted narratives, work in terms of unblocking conflict?
JR: Imagine someone who comes to Plac Grzybowski with an image in his head generated by a heavy, often inherited memory, a young Israeli, for instance, and he sees the pond, the old ladies, the goldfish, but also — of course — the ghetto. And suddenly it turns out that what is now is much more powerful than the memory. He enters such a zone of intensity that the other thing — the ghetto — simply fades away. Because it’s so intense, so here-and-now, that it becomes the more powerful experience that imposes itself on memory like a subtle filter. The other thing becomes faded, appears in a different light. I’m interested in creating situations where the moment of disbelief and surprise neutralises people’s long-time arguments, makes them somewhat helpless. Opens them.
MR: On the other hand, although you pretend to be talking about butterflies and birdies, you are well aware in what kind of space they fly. All the texts about the Oxygenator speak precisely about the conflict-heavy reality of Plac Grzybowski. Isn’t this diagnosis?
JR: You know, I stick to the view that all these texts don’t really matter anyway. What matters is the individual who sits there, by the pond, and says nothing. But I ponder on your question and there occurs to me the metaphor of a family situation. Because my intuitions are rooted in the experience of a conflicted family, a home in which people were at each other’s throats all the time. And I see how, at the holiday table, all these conflicts suddenly disappear, and a cake is brought out. For a moment, this cake is more important than anything else. Even though it doesn’t tell you why you are prepared to kill your sister. I don’t know how it works — whether it pushes the conflict away in time and it then explodes with double intensity, or whether it dissolves it even though it doesn’t change anything.
MR: Lyotard coined the concept of the ‘border zone’, where different identities, usually unable to communicate, can be with one another. A typical example is that of a conflict between a father and son that concerns everything belonging to the sphere of everyday life. And suddenly they go to a football match together and they are able to talk. About something completely different, in a different reality. But they talk.
JR: I am extremely interested in those moments when people’s reasons are suspended. When a family meets and it turns out the things they hate each other for are unimportant. And it’s not only the holiday. It has to be accompanied by powerful physical sensations. They have to be differently dressed or find themselves on the seashore, on the edge of a precipice, in a forest or in moments where other things are more powerful. And, at the same time, they must have a sense of irony, of a distance towards themselves, towards the situation.
MR: When you go to a christening party and meet your five aunts that hate you because your father left their sister, you, a big-city postmodernist, can feel this distance. But do they?
JR: The thing is that a christening party is a ritual situation. The point is to create a situation where people have to invent how to behave. All these ritualised holidays don’t work precisely because we know what is going to happen.
MR: So a surprise, but a pleasant one.
JR: Definitely. As soon as something starts making you uncomfortable, the special mood evaporates. The body has to be subjected to such intense pleasure that you simply forget it exists. And when there’s no body, the thing that’s left is what interests me the most, that is, the question of how to behave. You don’t know what to do; there are no manuals to be consulted. And you’re about to address another person. This is precisely what dissolves conflict. The inconvenience, awkwardness, lack of behaviour codes. Because you have to create some new ritual of addressing the other person, and how that person is going to react you don’t know either. For me, the key to everything is precisely this moment of helplessness in the artist’s position towards the world, which is then repeated in the project’s reception, when people really don’t know what to do. Because unless you surrender yourself, unless you decide that you’re tiny and helpless towards reality, which has a zillion forms, and you remain intent on creating, changing, constructing a positive project with a specific goal, then you start reducing reality. You simply stop seeing.
MR: So saying publicly that you don’t know what to do about an issue isn’t tantamount to exposing yourself to allegations of inconclusiveness or ineffectiveness?
JR: No, it’s the moment when I suspend all the ritual arguments, like the one that those attending mass in the All Saints’ church on Plac Grzybowski don’t like the Israeli groups because they park their buses in front of the church and always leave the engine running, producing noise and exhaust fumes. Imagine this situation: some provocatively dressed girl from the Israeli group and vis-à-vis her — an elderly lady, they sit on these artificial stones by the pond and they don’t really know how to behave. To say something or better to say nothing? So they just sit there and watch the water spray, which serves as a pretext to avoid the sphere of conflict. My argument is that it’s better not to know, not to have reasons, not to work things over, not to try to reach any consensus. The whole idea of a rational debate in which arguments are exchanged is an awful ritual in which the body is but an addition. That’s why the debate model doesn’t work. The situation of awkwardness, that is, of a lack of ritual, generates a kind of basic knowledge about the body. These plastic stones work precisely because they force you to adopt a position that is not the fencing position. They are uncomfortable, your skirt turns up, you sit sideways towards the other person. You feel something’s wrong, that you have a body you don’t know what to do with, whether you should take your hands out of your pockets, or put them in. You’re unable to adopt a pose. Neither a comfortable one nor one that would fit the occasion. And this is the moment when you have to realise that here you are with your body. And that you have to find some position for it in relation to the other body, which, like yourself, doesn’t know how to find itself in the whole situation. And this is precisely why this moment of confusion and awkwardness is a blessing.
MR: So is it supposed to be pleasant or uncomfortable after all?
JR: Marek Goździewski [the curator at the CCA Ujazdowski Castle] wrote once about the strategy of seduction. It is to create a situation of attractive physical pleasure that people will gladly enter. And once they’re there, they shouldn’t know what to do with themselves next. So that the standard relationships are distorted as much as possible, so that they have to reinvent them.
MR: The shopping mall is also about attraction and pleasure.
JR: The strategy is the same, of course. In fact, I usually copy the strategies. Only it’s modified, even though the intro is similar. When you go to a shopping mall, part of the pleasure is that you know precisely well what’s going to happen inside. I produce discomfort in the general sense of pleasure.
MR: But who decodes this discomfort? Everyone’s delighted.
JR: Because it’s a delicate element. People by the Oxygenator are not exhibited in any bizarre poses. If it were so, they wouldn’t go there, I’d ridicule them. What occurs are almost imperceptible confrontations and indiscretions. I witnessed a dialogue that is the work’s quintessence. A gentleman leans over another gentleman, who is sitting, and asks him, ‘Can you give up the seat now?’ ‘No!’ says the other guy. ‘But you’ve been sitting here for forty-five minutes!’ So the guy had to stand there for almost an hour and look – imagine! They don’t have to know and understand what is happening with their bodies. They feel it anyway. My goal is rather to ironically ridicule the world around. To put it in brackets.
MR: But is this clear? I wonder whether the enthusiastic reception the Oxygenator has received isn’t the symptom of a change in the thinking about public space in Poland, similar to what happened in the West at the turn of the 70s and 80s. Following the phase of ‘art-in-public places’, dominated by incomprehensible and often unpopular modernist abstractions, there came the phase of ‘art-as-public-space’, connecting, in both functional and aesthetic terms, artistic practices with architecture, and often resulting in the instrumentalisation of art and a neutralisation of its critical potential. The charge has been made that the Oxygenator is functional art rather than an artistic project. You talk about the artistic ‘bracket’ because you’re aware of it. But who else is besides the narrow art world? This bracket is made present by the CCA technician in the trailer, the catalogue stand, the TV camera teams. Only all this will soon disappear, and the project may remain in place for longer.
JR: But it is not them who create the bracket. It is created by the people who sit there and say nothing.
MR: Because they treat the whole thing in a purely utilitarian manner. You’ve refreshed the air for them, so they use it. This is the culture of health resorts like Konstancin or Ciechocinek, of salt towers and brine baths. These people know how to take advantage of it.
JR: The palm tree is treated in the same utilitarian manner by 90 percent of the viewers.
MR: The palm tree is surreal. Even if you have no cultural competence whatsoever, you’re not going to tell me it’s a natural element in this city. The palm doesn’t blend in with Warsaw’s visual landscape. It’s not from here, that’s how you defined it with your original gesture and the fact strongly influences its reception. That people take photos of themselves in front of it or use it as a meeting point doesn’t mean it’s a neutral element. To the contrary, it’s the people who have adapted it for their own purposes spatially and temporally — because when you take wedding photos in front of it, you simply emphasise an important moment in your personal narrative — and the fact only underlines the tree’s uniqueness and separateness.
JR: The Oxygenator maintains the holiday status all the time. Some ladies dress up specially for the purpose of visiting it. And this is precisely it. They enter a zone inside which they want to be dressed in their Sunday best. Even when you put into brackets something as simple and natural as breathing, it seems to me it’s absolutely enough for the bracket to be produced.
MR: But how does this relate to your recent discovery of the importance of being? Because you don’t provide these people with everyday existence but rather with a rainbow. And yet you say this ordinariness, this helplessness, is more important than acting. Where’s this interface of utopia and daily life that you operate at?
JR: The Oxygenator enters their everyday life in a powerful way. It becomes an item on the daily agenda. To go to a museum or a gallery is a decision, a kind of special occasion in itself. And the Oxygenator is something else. It is something you do between the first vacuuming and the second one, and these activities convey the sense that vacuuming is of equal status, that it isn’t less important at all.
MR: I’m thinking about the role of looking that you mentioned a moment ago. Because what you’ve created there is a space of visibility, whereas before people were hidden in holes with all their aversions and conflicts. I think about the Oxygenator as about a stage where something can happen.
JR: Happening it would be if some other group started appropriating the place by saying that it’s ‘our Oxygenator, not yours’.
MR: But this category of ‘ourness’ has already emerged, didn’t you notice? The ladies watch over the place. There’s no smoking. No shouting. No dogs allowed by the water. No winos.
JR: Perhaps the Singer Festival will change it. Imagine: ‘Excuse me, ladies, but a theatre from Israel will now perform and it needs space here’.
MR: So there’s the possibility that a delegation from the nearby blocks will come and say they don’t want it?
JR: Exactly! What to do then?
MR: Let me return for a moment to the way the explosion of the awareness of public space in the 1980s coincided with neo-conservative thinking. Reagan, Thatcher, privatisation, cuts in culture subsidies, gentrification. All that was made possible by, among other things, the skilful appropriation of the argument of ‘ourness’, based on the rights discourse, the right to space. The narratives referring to it were mobilised and redirected towards conservative goals. That is, introducing public park closing hours, fencing off housing estates, pushing unwanted residents out to the suburbs. How susceptible is your project to similar instrumentalisation?
JR: Very much. And I have a problem with it. If I have any say in the competition for the development of Plac Grzybowski which is to be announced soon and which takes the Oxygenator into account, I’ll be able to say that if they fence it off, then I’ll bulldoze the pond and poison the fish. It’s completely against the project’s idea! The question is, however, to what degree I should interfere. Let’s imagine hypothetically that the people with the Singer Festival enter into a dispute with the old ladies. And what then, am I supposed to go there and say: ‘Hey, ladies, make room because there’s going to be a performance’? After all, such a conflict would become part of the project! This is in fact part of the dispute between me and Żmijewski. All these situations, the public projects that I create, I not so much leave without commentary — because I offer the commentary, strong and clear, at the very beginning — as I allow them to be blurred with time by the facts, narratives, appropriations, and usages created by other people. And I stick to the view that this is what matters, that the project’s meaning is created above all by all those things that happen around it. And not the original intention. Żmijewski, in turn, believes you have to stick to your view and defend it against distorting interpretations and usages.
MR: The reverse side of the process of the appropriation of the codes activated by public art is the left’s tendency to decide what kind of critical strategies are legitimate in the public sphere and to refuse legitimacy to everything that doesn’t fit the current point of view, by stating, for instance, that the only legitimate dimension of social antagonism, determining all other divisions, is the economy, or that only confrontation matters. Artists in Poland have been reprimanded in the recent years for practicing critical art instead of committed art. For moving away from radicalism and serious projects and turning instead towards ironic, confusing, non-diagnosing strategies. It seems to me that the vision of the radical left that dominates the critical thinking in Poland today, strongly, though instrumentally, oriented towards culture and art, doesn’t accept this kind of criticality. It is considered too particular, too local, diluting antagonisms and weakening effectiveness. And whereas with the palm everything is clear, as it entered public space very radically, fitting perfectly well the politics of antagonism, I wonder how the Oxygenator, which clearly avoids being radical or confrontational, situates itself in all this. And how you situate yourself towards art’s obligations so defined?
JR: There are a number of smart answers to this question, but it’s better not to use them. Like, for instance, something I’ve heard myself, that the Oxygenator is the only critical art project that awoke the spirit of civic society in the Radio Maryja listeners signing petitions in its defence. [Radio Maryja is supported chiefly by poorly educated, low-income elderly women, and is considered to be the voice of the xenophobic, anti-Semitic, and pro-Vatican part of the Polish Catholic church]. That could be some kind of introduction, but the left would surely want much more. But, in terms of the politics of antagonism, there isn’t much more here. Conflicts remain unsolved, and even not fully revealed. No battlefield is defined, there’s no anger, not even the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ division. The anti-Semites appear ridiculous in that place — I myself heard ladies there making fun of other ladies who listen to Radio Maryja and refuse to visit the Oxygenator because of its close proximity to the synagogue. Militant Jews would be ridiculous as well. The monument of the Volhynia victims has also become ridiculous. What has been revealed is an immense craving for an alternative to the familiar lines of division, a sense of weariness with conflict, a need for other strategies. Everything has been dissolved. What remains is a mirage.
Translated by Marcin Wawrzyńczak