Kem experiments with formats and strengthens queer, feminist, and anti-racist artistic practices and discourses. In this interview, I was curious about their approach to choreography as means of worldmaking and how they queer the school format in their educational projects.
ArtPortal: Kem was formed in 2016. How has the way you define yourselves and your objectives changed during this time?
Kem: Kem started out as a space in a former ammunition factory in 2016, in the eastern Warsaw district called Praga and it was an artist- studio with an experimental program and DIY attitude. It was co-founded by Alex Baczynski-Jenkins and Marta Ziółek. Between 2017-2019 the factory with the initial studio was torn down to make way for a new development complex and Kem transformed into a collective consisting of Alex Baczynski-Jenkins, Krzysztof Baginski, Ola Knychalska, and Ania Miczko. It was at this time that we received invitations from contemporary art institutions and in this core constellation, through collaborations, we realized the program Kem Care at the Museum of Modern Art Warsaw in 2018; a one-year residency we called Three Springs at the Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art; and we were also nominated for the Spojrzenia art prize at Zacheta Gallery, for which we prepared a collectively written script/performance on a minoritarian language called Dear Reader.
Since its beginning, Kem has been a space for sharing, research, process, residencies, presentations of new performances and choreographies, raves, workshops, and study. Kem is in an ongoing transformation, which brings hybridity and fluidity to its projects. In 2020 we started a collaboration with Krytyka Polityczna and received support from the city of Warsaw, so we decided to set up a collective study program called Kem School.
AP: One of your first projects was a temporary club called Dragana Bar in 2018. It was revived recently, as a platform where people can “dance together against queerphobia, sexism, racism and all other forms of institutionalized oppression.” What brought Dragana bar to life then and now?
Kem: Dragana Bar is Kem’s club night hosting expressions of queer sound and performance. It is a platform for new phenomena in dance music, sound-based art, and smaller-scale performances. We initiated Dragana Bar in 2018 as part of Three Springs. Organizing parties and presenting performances is something we have been involved in from the beginning and so Dragana Bar was a continuation of that. A specially constructed staircase through the window of the Ujazdowski Castle allowed for an autonomous side entrance to the building and for the space to function beyond the usual opening hours of the institution.
Dragana Bar is dedicated to the queer and alternative club community of Warsaw, it is lively and thriving, even though there is a lack of experimental and queer spaces in our gentrifying city. This series of parties provides a safer space for experiencing queer and femme pleasure. Dragana Bar’s program brings together resident DJs, a combination of more established and debuting artists, members of the collective, and invited guests. It is an opportunity to combine sound, performance, and dance with an experimental edge. We reactivated Dragana Bar last fall, as the need for such spaces is real. The main organizers of the return of Dragana Bar are Krzysztof Bagiński, Stefa Gosiewsk, Michał Grzegorzek, and Zoi Michailova.
In the context of the castle, Dragana Bar was a nocturnal take on being on an art residency. We took on all the roles of a club; we worked as night programmers, DJs, bartenders, bouncers, cleaners, etc. Parties are an important part of community building. A thriving community can arise from a joint vernacular choreography of the dance floor, while friendships become an infrastructure of care.
AP: In the last few years, both Hungary and Poland have been portrayed in the Western media as quite dark places in terms of gender equality and queer rights. In the case of Hungary, the picture is much more nuanced. While on the surface we see signs of oppression, there are also a number of underground, experimental, creative initiatives (e.g. conceptual parties, community spaces, creative collectives, electronic music festivals, etc.) that play a pivotal role in the life of the queer community. How do you see this in your country? What is it like to be queer in Poland today?
Kem: To be queer in Poland today, is to live in opposition to a current of discriminatory ideology. It is about forging intersectional alliances. There is a strong sense of polarization. On the one hand, the hostile, queerphobic rhetoric of the nation-state is everpresent, which leads to a sense of fear and precarity. Minorities are faced with daily discrimination and yet this does not stifle political efforts. At the same time, there has been more self-organization, protest, as well as expression of support, visibility, and positive representation of the queer community than ever before. There seems to be a cultural shift happening in terms of the relations of art, activism, socially engaged cultural work, and solidarity movements. We are witnessing a much wider awareness and organization in response to the need for supporting one another and working toward social justice.
AP: One of the important questions you are dealing with is how queer-feminist choreographies become practices of worldmaking. According to the American science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, “[t]o find a world, you have to lose one. Maybe you have to be lost.” What new dimensions do you think can be discovered through (collective) movement?
Kem: Kem is interested in different forms of collectivity and exchange which are present in our activities, for example in Kem school, our intersectional, collective study program. We understand the term choreography not solely in relation to the practice of dance, but as a way of manifesting relations between intimacy, body materialities, sensations, society, and environment. Choreography is also a conscious engagement with movement as marked by regimes of race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability. Using choreographic tools, we would like Kem School to be a platform for rehearsing methods of politically conscious attention, non-normative bodily grammar, and collective responsibility.
Last year, Kem School had two parts: “How to touch movement? Social choreographies, performance and queer-feminist methodologies as worldmaking” and “Choreographies of Alliance”. Choreographies of Alliance were programmed and led by Ola Knychalska. It focused specifically on fostering collaborations with groups working between art and activism. It was the public program of the school and it consisted of a series of workshops and meetings with artists and activist groups that draw from queer-feminist practices, and whose encounters could result in the development of reparative strategies against oppressive, patriarchal, heteronormative, and racist systems of power.
Our collaborations last year saw us producing workshops and public events with collectives touching on issues like queer pleasure in public with Girls to the Front, tackling ableism and the normative body in the theater with Teatr 21 and de-colonialism in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with Dom Kultury Słonecznik. We consider these intersectional encounters and support vital to the well-being of our communities.
AP: How do cultural institutions in Poland respond to the challenges of the queer community today? In the past you were supported by larger institutions. However, in recent years, as we know, there have been a lot of changes in the institutional system, and not for the better.
Kem: Yes, unfortunately, we have seen more and more official bodies and institutions having right-wing directors appointed. Many public institutions are now vessels for propaganda, and the curators have to be careful not to lose their positions. Cultural workers are forced to find new ways of maneuvering and operating with opacity or leaving the institutions and working in in-between spaces, waxes, and wanes, often lacking infrastructural support. This has produced the necessity for re-organizing, and organizing both within and outside of, public institutions. At the same time, the city of Warsaw, which has some autonomy as the city itself is not governed by the right-wing Party PIS, is making efforts to support minorities, which includes the commitment to building an LGBT Museum initiated by Lambda. The city has also developed a funding system for growing and supporting socially engaged NGOs which is how we receive one part of our support with Kem School.
AP: How do you queer the school format in this collective study project? Coming back to Ursula K. Le Guin’s idea of losing a world to find a new one, what is the knowledge that is unlearned, and what do participants experience in return?
Kem: One way we have been queering the school format is by facilitating many directions and forms of knowledge exchange. There are various formats we work with in the study program. These are all modes of rehearsing collective, critical, and embodied knowledge while questioning the very notions of school and education. We interweave different formats to foster the sharing and exchange of practices within the group, facilitated by our co-mentors/mediators Ania Nowak and Alex Baczynski-Jenkins. And there are workshops with invited guests from the fields of activism, dance, performance, visual art, choreography, dramaturgy, theater, curating, and theory during which the participants can gain new knowledge and experiences, develop their practices and deepen familiarity with intersectional discourses and methods. So, in the program, there is movement between the process of the group and input from invited guests. There is also movement between theory and action as well as different practices.
Two of the questions that we ask the participating artists to brainstorm on in the first days of the school are: What can alternative study be? And what are queer feminist methodologies? We use a large paper for creating a mind map for the group’s reflections on these questions, and then it is translated into choreographic scores. Among the elements that have come up in these shared brainstormings on alternative education and queer-feminist methodologies are listening, unlearning as another mode of learning, responsiveness to and awareness of diversity in needs and abilities, going beyond disciplinary boundaries, the continuity between theory and practice, the importance of process, bringing forward multiple types of knowledge (embodied, dispersed, collective, emotional, intuitive, unspoken), fluid hierarchies and leadership in flux, i.e. exchanging the roles between teacher and student, mutual trust and agreements, and that play is also learning. When it comes to unlearning, many of the discursive and performative formats we employ aim to deconstruct the perceived naturalness of categories, question the ideologies and histories contained in the structures, perceptions, and languages we use, and encourage unconventional kinships and modes of being together.
The workshops with invited guests have included Geo Wyeth on performativity, thresholds, and time in “hole theory”; Anka Herbut on her research into manifestations of social choreographies; somatic practices for example with Alicja Czyczel, Katarzyna Szugajew or Ramona Nagabczyńska; PRICE (Mathias Ringgenberg) developed a choreography with the participants; Natalia Sielewicz held a text-based workshop about autofiction; and Karol Radziszewski gave an insight into queer archives, while the participants were producing their own sound archives. There was also a textual and moving image reading group with Tosia Leniarska, who is also part of the team building at the school. Another format we work with, which comes more from activist circles, is the “check-in” and the “check-out” sessions at the beginning and at the end of each week, whether there is space for sharing, feedbacking, collectively digesting, and connecting the different knowledge and experiences.
AP: Do you already know what the themes of this year’s Kem School will be?
Kem: We are just starting to prepare the program for next year’s Kem School. For 2023, we are going to try out a different format and we would also like to have more public events. We will be announcing this year’s program in spring. What is as important as the themes of the school, is the whole supporting infrastructure behind it. Like in many organizations and activist groups, burnout and well-being are incredibly important topics for us to deal with. So our inner focus will be sustainability, accountability, and infrastructure. As a project-based organization, we have both achieved a lot, in terms of growth, grounding, and outreach, but we have faced a lot of challenges, too: financial instability, deadline and production pressure, limited funds for team growth, precarious working conditions, bureaucracy, etc. So, we start this year by reorganizing ourselves structurally. Julia Celejewska, who is responsible for checking in on the financial and general well-being of Kem, will be asking questions like: Do you have the capacity to do that? How may it affect your mental well-being? Do you want to do that? Does it bring you joy? Another plan for 2023 is to look for allies and further collaborations, for the school and our night activities. We are kicking off the year by participating in the Tanztage Festival, organized by Sophieansæle in Berlin, where we are invited to close the festival with Dragana Bar. Come dance with us! 😉