All That Is Left in Me is Dead Space
Interview by Aurelia Nowak
Magazyn Sztuki, issue 2012/03/September, pp. 36-55, Szczecin
Aurelia Nowak: Having children often means having to leave the art world, suspending for a time one’s professional activities. In your case things appear quite the opposite. How have you managed to combine these two spheres of your life?
Joanna Rajkowska: This is only a matter of choice. Children also have to sleep and rest. The most important thing, however, is how involved you are in the things you do. The projects I am working on now are largely built on analyzing the place I have found myself in at the moment. I am asking questions about what Rosa’s illness really is, the fight against it. What am I doing about it? What is my answer? On one hand, Rosa requires a great deal of time and attention. She has to be washed, the catheter on her chest has to be disinfected, medicines administered, hospitals visited, tests done, but on the other hand this is a strange world, filled with strange things. I had no idea about its existence. I am taking in as much of it as I can. Life like any other.
AN: In the art world, family and children are rarely discussed. Such subjects are rather to be avoided.
JR: I agree. In Poland we have created a certain anti-child and anti-family paradigm. Based on this, we have constructed a notion of what the life of a female artist should be like, how she should behave, where she should draw her energies from. It is very hard to propose something different. Models of being a man or a woman, a male or a female artist are therefore very limited.
AN: It is often the case that both women and men find themselves the other side of fifty and realize they have neither partners nor offspring. The years have simply run away.
JR: Sure. I can imagine how tragic that must feel. But then, I never wanted to have children. And yet when they come, they just come. You can always have an abortion. For me, however, this would be impossible. I definitely could not survive an abortion without destruction of my own identity. This is a part of life, I accept what comes and approach being a mother relatively calmly. For me, this is a lot of fun. I am learning a lot from Rosa.
AN: The invitation you received to take part in this year’s Berlin Biennale coincided with your becoming pregnant. I am interested in why you chose to use such a personal, private experience in your work?
JR: Towards the end of 2010, I visited Berlin, already pregnant. I started with classic research, walking the outskirts of Berlin in my wellies, reading and sniffing things out. When you are pregnant, things can be different. Mine was awesome. Hormones gave me a lot of energy. I felt very well, had more than the usual amount of get up and go. I walked until I could walk no more. In February, I returned for longer, to keep on seeking and snooping. Then I realized that there was nothing more important than the fact that at some point a child would appear. Because nothing can compare with the arrival of life. There was nothing more precious that I could give to Berlin. I was living in the Kunstwerke on a floor with all the other artists who were developing projects for the Biennale. We were eating and sleeping in shared rooms. Talking about our projects openly. Artur Żmijewski was very emotionally involved in all that and we decided that we wouldn’t produce any art projects in the strict sense of the word, but rather have a direct impact on reality. Besides, there were no real facilities in which to do it. The bureaucracy there is terrible. The construction of something big wasn’t going to be possible, there was no budget for that sort of thing. So, I returned in April with a clear plan of simply giving birth in Berlin. This was a responsible, fully thought-out decision – not Warsaw, not London, where we were living at the time, but Berlin. We decided to make a film, which would be a record of the whole journey, from the time of the Channel crossing, building our nest, prenatal tests, to the birth. The shape of the film was a source of many misunderstandings. Artur imagined that it would only show the birth. But that was not what this was about. After all, child can be born anywhere and the birth scene wouldn’t work without that strong Berlin context.
AN: Were you treating Rosa as another project?
JR: Rosa is not an art project, I have never thought about her in this way. Rosa is Rosa. You have to have a very clear notion of the difference. I realized it was a double situation. On one hand, I am just a woman who is pregnant, in whom new life is growing. And on the other, I am watching and recording the phenomena closely. When the camera was turned on, my life would double. The process of documenting was very important. Equally important was the conscious creating of a narrative. This duality was one of the most beautiful things I have ever experienced in life. Rosa was never a project. She is simply a young life and nothing more. I was the courier who delivered her. The film is a document of this situation. This concept has a very simple structure. There is no twist here. At the start of this story, I was afraid of its simplicity. It was enough to press a button and the narrative about giving birth in Berlin would begin. But when I realized what sort of a decision I had made, it turned out it was very difficult for me. Enduring the tension. I understood that I am in a city, which is terribly burdened and closed off. I was trying to get into all those places with my belly and to confront myself with their trauma and their memory. I felt as if demons were surrounding me.
AN: For many visitors, the film Born in Berlin, screened in the basement of the Akademie der Künste, and the Żak | Branicka Gallery’s exhibition of your collages A Letter to Rosa are controversial because of the instrumentalization of a child. What is your take on this? Rosa is not only the subject of the work, but something more. Do you think a mother has the right to direct the fate of their child by using her for the purposes of an art project?
JR: In some fundamental way I have altered her biography. Perhaps I shouldn’t have done this. I am certain, however, that Rosa will be able to cope with this. Every mother has to make this sort of decision. She can do it without consideration, meaning simply giving birth wherever she is. But she can also do it consciously. Every one of us, either way, has to, for the rest of our lives, face the fact that we were born in one particular place. I know I will have to talk to Rosa about this. The series of collages shown by Żak | Branicka is a letter to her, a detailed explanation of every step we took.
AN: I am not sure if we are talking about the fact that Rosa was born in Berlin and about the creation of those 120 collages. Perhaps more important is the fact that Rosa became a part of a public presentation, an art project.
JR: Everything becomes a part of my work, I am a parasite on my own life. She is a part of it – whether she likes it or not. I have nothing else.
AN: When pregnant, it is difficult to develop a distance to it and consider different themes or pretexts for a project in Berlin.
JR: Precisely. But I always work in this way. When I was installing the palm tree I was also telling the story of a certain journey. Here, I am using my pregnancy. I bring a group of multiplying cells, which will become a human being. I do not feel I am somehow violating Rosa’s autonomy. I do not enter any areas which she will be unable to cope with. I think everyone has to deal with the fact that they are a part of their parents’ lives, a victim of their situation. Other children go to work with their parents, spending eight hours behind a desk, or sell leggings on some market stall. Either way, we all somehow accompany our parents completely in the lives they live.
AN: You want Rosa to see Berlin as a life-giving beginning. It soon transpires she is ill. This beginning turns out to be very difficult, like the attempt to deal with the history of Berlin.
JR: I think this is the heart of the matter. I will have to tell her what happened in Berlin. I was not shaken by the fact that her illness was not diagnosed in Berlin. These are human mistakes, they happen everywhere. After all, this is a very rare disease. It is not in any of the parenting books. Parents don’t know about it, neither do ordinary paediatricians. The statistics show that only four in a million children have the disease. So, the chances of a child having retinoblastoma – cancer in the eyes – is tiny. The fact that the German paediatrician did not discover the tumours is nothing unusual. He was probably tired when checking the back of the eyes, or simply careless. Tough, such things happen. The hardest thing was the visit after the doctor already knew the diagnosis. When we entered his room, he was sitting, arms folded, behind his desk. We felt the need to say something. We started to pull out documents, showing them and explaining the situation. He decided to check her again. Rosa started to fight, kicking her legs, trying to get free, then she became hysterical and there was nothing we could do. He said that there was no evidence to prove that she had cancer. We were stunned. It was clear the only thing he was concerned about was his own protection from legal liability. He was afraid of being accused of medical negligence, which could have cost Rosa her eyesight, if not her life. The only thing he was interested in was the legal side of things – whether we would take him to court or not. We were faced with an irreversible mistake, the consequence of which was Rosa’s illness – a seriously advanced cancer. On the other side was the legislative machinery, which could either prove it or not. The human dimension of this situation vanished. In such moments, memory is engaged instantly – images from the Nuremberg Trials. I remember wanting to leave Berlin immediately. At the point when Rosa fell ill, Germany had become a trap. We were tired of how reluctant and resistant the health system was, the total bureaucracy, powerlessness. Blood tests could not be arranged. Even with a European medical insurance card. No one was able to tell us how much things would cost, when the results would be available. If you have a child which is undergoing chemotherapy you have to know the results immediately, delays could cost her life. For example if there are too few blood platelets, then a transfusion is essential, because in the case of injury, she could have bled to death. We made it to the end, but it was horrific. No one could help us. In this sense, Berlin had failed to become a “life-giving beginning”, but instead became a place in which it wasn’t easy to protect Rosa’s life. The story closed in a terrible way. We started to wonder – irrationally – if the price of this project was not too high. Is it possible to think in this way? Is there any sort of price? This is a meta-level which we should never have climbed to, probably. Rationally speaking, Rosa has a damaged thirteenth gene and the consequence of this is eye cancer. Statistically, there are more and more cases of cancer amongst Polish children. Children’s wards are filling up. And it has nothing to do with Berlin. Genetic mutations happen regardless of anything external, the age of the parents or conditions in which one lives. It makes no difference whether you swim in a swamp, or work in a factory, or live in Berlin or in Cape Town. It simply happens sometimes. And yet… No one is able to stop the machinery of thought, which starts the moment you have to cope with this kind of situation. I was looking for help in some totally irrational ways. It is easier to tell yourself ‘it’s my fault’ rather than accept that it is blind fate, a complete coincidence or simply bad luck. Above all, I wanted to find the cause. Study my own guilt under a spotlight. I remember how hard this time had been – March and April, just after the diagnosis. I have never been through a worse tragedy. I will have to tell Rosa about this. What she will do with Berlin, with her and my memory about that place, is out of my hands. Artur always laughed that Rosa will go back to that city and feel that she somehow knows it.
AN: I am interested in how different yours and Artur’s visions of the project were. What was your aim?
JR: He wanted a manifesto. Whereas I wanted it to be some kind of story. That is the basic difference. The context of the location, the circumstances surrounding it, notes on the development of the project, my fighting with myself, are just as important as the act of birth itself. I thought that the work and the film should not be just a record of the culminating moment. My own internal resistance was also key. This was the battle over the consequences of my initial decision. It was springtime, it was warm, I felt great. For a while, we played with this situation. In the film there are a lot of euphoric moments. Berlin then seemed to me a place in which you could do a lot. I wanted to use the joy of the moment, which would never return. Take advantage of the situation with all my strength.
AN: In the film we can see a great sense of closeness. It is very important that the film was filmed by your husband, Andrew Dixon.
JR: For a few weeks we had Sławek Bergański with us, a cameraman from Łódź. But we hardly used anything of what he shot. In the end, when we collated and viewed all those hundreds of hours of material, we found that the rough bits were the best – moments captured by Andrew on Super 8. He had always filmed all sorts of stupid things on Super 8, travel stories, situations which were somehow important to him. He had developed a great ‘eye’. The material he shot was far more interesting, precisely because of its intimacy. This closeness was an answer to the high political profile of the whole project. Having watched the whole thing, Artur said to me: “Rayka, use only the Super 8.” He overcame his own dry approach of a documentalist. We had never been in such agreement. We were all glued to the monitor, unable to stop watching. This was the best proof that this was the stuff to use. Regardless of our initial plans.
AN: The form of these projects is not without significance. In Born in Berlin you used Super 8, whereas A Letter to Rosa is similar to postcards in appearance. Why do you use such analogue tools?
JR: For some time now I have been trying to do everything by hand. Analogue photos, sewing, you know, ‘handicraft’. I want to engage the body in these processes. It seems to me that in the process of manual work something really interesting happens. I like the chemistry which is generated in these sorts of processes. It always fills me with huge joy.
AN: Because you chose to shoot on film, the footage took on the feel of family recordings, and your letter, through its collage format, is evocative of notes from a journal.
JR: That was my intention. This is a very domestic tale. Through creating this feel, I wanted to direct attention towards the moments in which you submerge yourself in every day life, experiencing simple, ordinary moments which have always seemed deeply political to me. To me, this is real politics – the politics of everyday existence. If I am confronted with such a clearly defined political context, then it seems to me that the language of my stories should be very intimate. Anyway, all of my projects work in this way. Oxygenator and Greetings from Jerusalem Avenue were in fact the same, if you consider them on a formal level. The palm tree is, after all, a dream of a better life, or a dream of a life we once had, about a country which used to exist there, really exist, though of course it was no palm-lined paradise. This country is gone now and it is never coming back.
AN: How did you feel filming Born in Berlin? Are you ashamed when naked? Or does the shame manifest itself in a different way?
JR: No, I did not feel shame. A pregnant woman is constantly exposed. She resembles a half-shut suitcase or a whale (laughs). Birth is a natural consequence of this strange state. Andrew knows me inside out. Sławek entered our lives completely. He was worried about me being able to go to a restaurant the day after the birth. He knew exactly what hurts and where. And that is why, being honest, it is hard to talk about embarrassment regarding those moments and about any kind of shame. When pregnant, a woman feels like a female animal, a courier, a civic birthing machine. You lose your inhibitions. When I see men who, while watching the birth scene, cover their eyes and leave, I want to laugh. That is what birth looks like, unfortunately. I am aware that everything clicked thanks to some unbelievable coincidences. We managed to squeeze the essence out of it. Watching Born in Berlin, I am still pleased with such things like the scene on roof, which happened thanks to our Hausmeister who let us up there, or that we recorded all kinds of silly stuff. We were able to get the camera out during moments when things were getting out of control. These scenes built the narrative of the film.
AN: How did the project affect your relationship with Andrew?
JR: I don’t think it is possible to be any closer (laughs). We work very well together. We know when to push the button and start recording. We learnt a lot about ourselves, about our mutual reactions in certain situations. I was interested if it would be a problem for him to have me running around naked all the time, for example. He had no objections. He has the soul of a rebel. There were no problems, not even when we were exhausted and we still had to get up in the morning and go to some swampy lake. There was tiredness but also fun and a sense of duty. We had to do this, in case something escaped us. I love the moment when a project begins. When I start to work with some kind of material, which changes in my hands. This change also happens within me. It is never that I put a script into action, step by step. It is the magic of the situation which teaches me and modifies the script. The most delightful moment is letting go of a decision which has already been made. You start pursuing your inner voice. That happened as we were sculpting the devil by the Teufelssee. We had sticks, fur and my mother’s gloves. When the sculpture was finished, although it was devilish, as an event it did not work. We had put a plan into action. We got to the lake, spread out the things, began to piece together the figure and it turned out that, damn it, the devil was not in it, that nothing was happening. Only when I went into the bushes, undressed and entered the water, something began to happen. I drowned the sculpture. We had a small underwater camera, and I filmed myself swimming in all that murk. The recording of two hours of sculpting the devil was disappointing, but those few minutes underwater were spot on. That is how it always has been.
AN: Tell me more about your mother’s gloves. What is this story about?
JR: I am not sure myself and don’t want to think about it. In the film there are a lot of trails that I don’t understand. All my life I have been afraid of my mother. All the projects which were conceived for her are in fact expressions of fear regarding her history, illness, psychoses. When we were leaving home, I took the gloves, bits of fabric, fur, glue, some gaffer tape. I thought to myself: “God, what am I doing?” But I took them anyway. As a result, my mother’s gloves became the hands of the devilish figure. Then, after I had dragged the devil into the swamp, the natural thing was for me to try to drown it. The biggest problem was the head, which kept resurfacing, along with the gloves, which refused to drown – disturbing. I could see my mother’s hands in those see-through nylon gloves from the 1960s and shivers ran down my back.
AN: Is your family history a key element of the film?
JR: As I was working, I felt a whole train marching after me – grandpa, grandma, aunties. I would look behind me and there they were. All of them, raising their hands, pulling my skirt. Such things cannot be ignored. I wasn’t exactly comfortable with this. But since they were there, they had to be pacified somehow, so they would go back to wherever they had come from (laughs). These are strange, magical events, I do not understand their nature, but I feel them with all my flesh. As an agnostic, rather sceptically attuned to the world, I have no idea what to think about this. But the strangest thing was my mother, who was definitely ‘not there’, although she was the one I needed the most. Being pregnant, I needed, at all costs, to remind myself about my own childhood. A woman gives birth to something which she has no idea what to do with. It is some kind of unknown species of animal (laughs). I tried to remember what seemed most important back then. A mother is bloody necessary in such moments. Mine completely vanished. I decided to call her, using some magical cinematic tricks. It’s a pity there was no way of including this in the film. It was not essential to the narrative structure. We kept getting children’s clothes from all our friends and I realized that white baby rompers can work very well as a screen. We arranged them in layers and I projected Basia onto them – the film about my mother. This film is about a turning point in her life, when she dreamt of escaping from the psychiatric hospital in Świecie. I wanted the clothes to absorb the images, I wanted to physically overlay these two worlds. The scene when the street in Świecie appears was uncanny. People walk, coming closer and yet cannot get near. They were absorbed by those rompers. Suddenly, Berlin had turned into Świecie – East Europe burst into our Berlin home together with the silhouettes of those people. Those moments shook me inside. We brought that place forth somehow. Then there was the scene when my mother, or rather I (because I was playing my mother in the film), enters the water. We dipped all Rosa’s clothes into a current. But, of course, this did not work. My mother still wasn’t there. And all my relatives still stood in line, rudely demanding my attention. I think that the most important thing is the way in which family stories and my memory of them were transposed onto film. Diving into the swamp, I wanted to feel how my grandmother and my father felt after escaping from the Auschwitz transport, when they hid in a swamp. To convert a panicked terror and despair into joy, to change the energy from negative to positive. It was necessary to perform a primitive act and submerge myself in the swamp to feel relief and pleasure. Cast off the spell. Traumatic memories are burdened with fear, with no element of pleasure. If I could ‘translate’ such overwhelming suffering like cold, hunger, exhaustion into cool, appetite and sleepiness, the work on memory can begin, generating a new layer, healing over, so the trauma stops being so naked. Sometimes I think: “how disgustingly positive to think so.” I am from Poland, after all. Poles like to torture themselves. Working in Berlin, I stopped being ashamed of saying that I am sick of all these burdens. I want to change them into one vast stream of life. Especially now, as this misfortune has happened to us.
AN: Do you think you managed to exorcise Berlin?
JR: No, I didn’t. Perhaps on the level of micro-history, something happened. Swimming in the swamp was such an intense experience that it covered over my father and grandmother’s stories once and for all. Imagine, you are a vast fish with a giant belly, submerging yourself in something which is cool, smelling of rotting wood – you swim between logs, studying underwater plants. An amazing experience. But Rosa’s illness has cast a shadow of doubt over all those experiences. Wasn’t this too much for her to cope with?
AN: Is it true that Berlin is not coping with the weight of its own history? Or is it simply our take on it, our perspective which stops us being able to find a place for ourselves there?
JR: For us Poles, it is difficult to come to terms with German history, but for the Germans it is impossible. In spite of the fact that they asked themselves lots of questions in the 1960s, they never asked the fundamental question: how did it happen? How was it possible that such things happened in the east, Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia? How was such bestiality possible? What had to have happened to all those Germans to make them unable to raise any kind of inner protest? They lost any sense of limits. I think Germans have never done that one thing, ask themselves what had happened to them, who they had become, how it was possible. We know, thanks to Hannah Arendt, that evil is banal. What sort of German banality laid a road for them to so blindly follow, something that has forever changed the cultural landscape of Eastern Europe? For me, the answer to this question was the doctor who never once asked how Rosa was doing during our last visit. He only wanted to be left in peace.
AN: It is hard, having to shoulder such a burden. You can see it at every step, the trails of history.
JR: The most overwhelming thing about Berlin is something that has remained in its architecture. Even if you know nothing about the city, it crushes you with an unknown, incomparable sense of mass. This is a very odd feeling. Pre-War Germany managed to charge its architecture with an energy which is tangible even today. There is something about the buildings’ proportions, something in their heaviness, horizontality, the distances between them, in the way the streets are arranged. They dominate. It is difficult to position oneself physically near them and feel comfortable – not only the major, Nazi buildings of the 30s, but also earlier classicist public buildings. Their weight is indescribable. It is hard to breathe standing next to the Reichstag. Perhaps it is easier on that vast, green lawn in front of the entrance because people play football and throw frisbees there. But looking up at the façade, even at Foster’s glass dome, which isn’t able to neutralize anything anyway, one can’t help but feel the violence of hierarchical mass, before which one can only cower. Very odd. I always work with space. That’s what I am most sensitive to. Against Berlin and its architecture I had only my belly, an imperfect, pregnant body, whose proportions had begun to distort. A body that went against the ideal of beauty. It was my only weapon. I walked down Unter den Linden and, whether I wanted to or not, I was approaching the Brandenburg Gate. I could have taken a turning, but either way I knew that I would be thrust through that gate. Together with my belly. I read 700 pages of Albert Speer’s memoirs, to understand what I was dealing with. This was one of the best books I have ever come across. A vivisection of the apparatus of power, a detailed description of its demoralization. In his memoirs, he described, with incredible precision, how the mechanism of domination looked and functioned. I kept choosing places in Berlin which were the most burdened, for example, the Olympic Stadium constructed for the games in 1936. The towers that surround the stadium still represent the individual Germanic tribes. Bavarians, Franconians, Swabians, Frisians, Saxons and Prussians are embedded in pillars cut from Franconian Muschelkalk. The whole of the “Germany united through National Socialism” ideology has been captured in the stone architecture of this stadium. Their dreams of power. There are monumental running tracks and monstrous grandstands at Maifeld, built with the intention to use them for mass party rallies. Everything has been scaled up. One of the most curious places I discovered was the bell tower, Glockenturm, which houses a bell with the inscription: “I call the youth of the world – Olympic Games 1936.”… Clearly, here the idea of physicality had been militarized to the highest degree, so that sport became a preparation for war. I was fascinated by the way in which horror and trauma are coded in the material, tangible objects, in remains, in architecture. How has this been translated into the language of matter, what images were generated, what means of expression were used? In the Olympic Stadium was a place that was a source of endless experiments for us – an open-air swimming pool with stone seating on either side. Built in a depression, with a separate diving pool, its proportions really were impressive. This was the swimming pool where Leni Riefenstahl filmed Olympic divers in 1936. We waited a long time for permission to film there, but we never did get it. And so we filmed illegally. I got undressed underwater. It was cold, cloudy, raining. I managed to climb up to the highest diving board, with the honest intention of jumping into the water. But already climbing the steps, I felt I could not do it, that it was too high and too dangerous. A jump from a height of 10 metres…. Shivering with fear, I backed away from the edge, holding on to the guardrail with trembling hands. I thought that it is perhaps in this weakness that strength resides. The whole project was based on simple juxtapositions: power – powerlessness, courage – trembling legs. Nothing had to be set up, everything was happening by itself. The more I was losing control, the better I felt. The only worry I had was whether I would be able to compile/edit/cut this material into one consistent narrative.
AN: You mentioned that Rosa was meant to be a sort of sacrifice offered to Berlin. You shot the film, Rosa came into the world, then it transpired that she is ill. How does this fit into the history of Berlin? There is something terribly nasty in the way fate has turned.
JR: I don’t want to go back there again. All that’s left in me is dead space. It reminds me of a spot on the skin which is disconnected from the nervous system. All the neurons are cut. When I visit Berlin, I feel nothing. As if someone had hit me on the head. The operation was definitely not a success. But perhaps Rosa will be of a different opinion. I remember the city from the 1990s. It was wonderful then. Happening. Now Berlin is completely gentrified. Berliners have reached a high level of fear and iciness. During a public debate, I asked Gereon Sievernich (the director of the Martin-Gropius-Bau), after he removed Artur Żmijewski’s film, Berek, from the exhibition Door to Door. Poland-Germany. 1000 Years of Art and History, what he was scared of. Sievernich did not answer my question. I cannot understand this. Why do Germans fear talking, writing, introducing certain topics into the public debate, why difficult subjects are not discussed, only passed over? These questions were equally important, just as important as our own experiences of Rosa’s illness and the German health service.
AN: OK, but in your film there are positive threads, too. You bury the placenta in front of the Reichstag, beautiful grass later grows on the spot. Such fragments send out a different message.
JR: Yes, but this was still August (laughs). We learnt about her cancer five months later. To bury the placenta, we went for a family picnic, took some beers and cheese in a plastic bag, to make sure it wasn’t too bourgeois. It was sunny, we were happy, Rosa was very comfortable there, kicking her legs, lying on a blanket.
AN: Why did you bury the placenta in front of the Reichstag?
JR: For her not to feel what I feel, for her to be free of my burdens. So she can feel at home there. I think she will have a direct link with that place. ‘Placenta’ in German is Mutterkuchen. Both her and my traces are there. Of course, now converted into grass, but they are there! For me these kinds of gestures have no metaphysical meaning. Quite the opposite, they have literal, very physical meaning. A part of Rosa and me are buried there, in the ground, full stop. I don’t want to produce any other contexts. This was one of those small, domestic rituals.
AN: Is there a chance that Rosa will one day see your film and your letters?
JR: Yes. Rosa can see, although no one is able to say how this is happening, as the foveae in her eyes are completely destroyed. She is too small to say what she sees, but there is no doubt she can see. Her eyesight has been tested, both eyes are functioning. The right eyeball is almost completely filled with the tumour. It is shrinking, but it is massive, and has destroyed a large area of her retina. The left has a smaller but more aggressive tumour. It can destroy her only chance – a tiny bit of fovea tissue thanks to which the baby probably can still see. If there is a relapse, she will lose her sight. I am hopeful, however.
AN: I am interested in how you see this project in the context of previous works. You have been working with the body for some time now. However, also of great importance are your projects which change the way we think about cities. Does Born in Berlin somehow combine these two areas?
JR: Yes, it brings together many projects. In it are Basia, Ravine, Comstar, Minaret and A Walk which are my obsessions with the city, architecture and its relations with memory and body.
AN: The second film screened in the basements of the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin is Final Fantasies. Can you say a bit more about this project?
JR: This was a big disappointment. We began the project in November. We worked for seven months, looking for people who were dying and who would want to work with us. The question I wanted to ask was simple: “How do you want to die? In what circumstances?” I was expecting them to tell me what they wanted to see, where they wanted to be and whether they would want to go with us to those places. Of course, I did not tell them that at the back of my head I could hear Marek Edelman saying how important is our choice of how we die. Such was the demonic background to Final Fantasies.
AN: How many people did you help realize those dreams?
JR: Only one man. There was also a woman, who said she wanted to see Berlin one more time. She wanted to be driven round in a car and see the city through the windows. We were never allowed to meet with her directly. There was another woman who wanted to see her son’s house. I don’t know what her reason was, as we never got to talk, never were allowed access to any of these people. Evidently the hospices’ management and the families had to give us permission. Legal liability, bureaucracy and a ridiculous number of middlemen meant that it was impossible to just make simple, human moves. This was worrying. It was possible to sit at home, drink beer and eat sausage, but working within the public sphere was totally unthinkable. We knew those people were dying, but we could do nothing for them. This was sad. When Rosa was born, I wanted to take her to the Stasi prison in the infamous Hohenschönhausen district1 and sleep in a bunk. That place is a black hole. I would cradle my little one, wrap her in nappies smelling of soap, because it stinks of piss in there – prisoners stuck in those cells for years. I imagined that if we could sleep there something would happen. I asked for permission to do so. A young man rang me, a press officer, and said he could not see any connection between my gesture and the character of the place. This difference is exactly what my project is based on, I answered. It was hard for me to talk to him. There was the language barrier. We had developed ways and strategies of talking about trauma in the 1990s, when Poland was starting to open up. All those painful aspects – war, Holocaust, Polish guilt and suffering – were slowly being tackled, artists were dealing with them. For better or worse, but it was our generation which was trying to do something about that. I have the impression that in Germany memory has become completely institutionalized. There are memorials, archives, documents, data, glass cases, things to study, to read, beautifully printed photographs. These are the German ways of working with memory. You see that, and then you get your café latte and apfelstrudel. What the fuck could happen there?
AN: Sumpfstadt is the final part of your Berlin project, a brilliant closing and completion of the film Born in Berlin, the cycle Letter to Rosa and Final Fantasies. All of them touch upon memory, cities, life and death. Can you tell us something more about this project?
JR: Sumpfstadt is an attempt to return to the times of innocence, when there was no history, no language, no guilt – there was only the swamp. Because Berlin is built on marshland.
AN: Studying the large photographic wallpaper and photos in frames, the viewer is not certain if they are dealing with historical images of the centre of Berlin or with manipulated photographs. We do not know if the project is related to the future or the past.
JR: And that was my intention. We have one and the other. It is a pity that no one will get to vote on this in the Bundestag. Can you imagine such a debate? This would be wonderful. If German politicians could begin to consider whether instead of rebuilding the Prussian palace, which is one of the biggest political mistakes of this decade, it wouldn’t be better to return things to their primeval state and turn this area into a swamp…. A real Germanic, Berliner swamp. A swamp where a real political meeting could take place. ‘Berl‘ is a Slavonic word, and it means ‘swamp’. I always check the etymology of names. 1. Hohenschönhausen district, 1951-1989, a district with a concentration of offices, interrogation and prison facilities run by the Stasi occupying a large area of Hohenschönhausen in former East Berlin.