“Perhaps, after all these years that followed 1989 and 2004, and many desperate attempts of becoming “Western” and “European,” now we realize how relevant it is to address regionalism” – says Polish curator Jakub Gawkowski. He is currently a graduate student at the History Department of the Central European University and lives partly in Budapest. He curated The Most Beautiful Catastrophe (2018. Dec.1 – 2019. Jan.4.) project at CCA Kronika in Bytom, Poland in which artportal also participated with a series of articles. Flóra Gadó interviewed Jakub in Budapest.
Flóra Gadó: You work as a curator, often in collaboration with others. Two big projects can be linked to you now, the Skip the Line! (2018. Oct.26-Nov.30.) exhibiting in the framework of Biennale Warsawa with Stanislaw Ruksza as co-curator and just recently The Most Beautiful Catastrophe in Bytom. How would you describe your curatorial approach?
Jakub Gawkowski: To be honest, I’m not really into thematizing myself, saying: I like this curatorial strategy or that. It will never be a purpose of its own. It’s very fashionable now to conceptualize the curatorial approach, but if you want to be open, it is natural that the exhibition can go in many different directions, or even get out of the created frame. I am okay with that. What is obvious for me, but not acknowledged properly nowadays, is that the exhibition is always acollaboration. The approach is one thing, but it’s all about working with a crowd.
There is this pressure in our society, that you have to find your path and invent yourself, either as a professional, an academic or in this case – as a curator. A pressure of finding a specialization, perusing a coherent career and constructing a narrative of your work. I find this very problematic and also untrue for many reasons. Personally, I’m an anxious character and there are loads of things that interest me and I find it hard to concentrate on one constantly. In that sense, you can call my approach neurotic and eclectic.
Your exhibitions have some common features – they are research-based and have a strong theoretical background. What do you think of connecting different methodologies and theoretical frameworks?
The notion of having different kind of methodologies, like scientific methodology and trying to translate it to the field of contemporary art, and exhibition-making, that interests me a lot. In Skip the Line! which I curated together with Stanisław Ruksza – the methodology we used and interpreted art with, was connected to the discourse studies. I had the intention to conceptualize what populism is through linguistic and discursive approach. It was also an experiment: can you do an exhibition about populism without falling in the trap of being a populist? Or should that be the goal? We tried to examine what populism is, together with emotions, dreams and desires it produces, and we translated it to the artistic language. That’s how I like to work, but I also find it problematic, because in this way I distance myself from art. The trap can be, that we are utilizing art for articulating an idea.
You mean that it can be illustrative? It is definitely a trap in an exhibition where there is a very strong concept.
Well, good art will never be illustrative, but utilizing art for particular purpose can take away its autonomy. And I’m trying to be conscious about that, to have this balance between reading, interpreting things and leaving them as they are.
Biennale Warszawa uses the format of the biennale but in a different way: it’s a series of events (exhibitions, talks, conferences), and your exhibition was the first one, right? How was the collaboration with the biennale team?
Yes, Skip the Line! was the first exhibition that they hosted, but they’ve been active in other fields: producing theatre plays, workshops and discursive events. Unlike regular art Biennales, Biennale Warszawa works in two-year cycle, and develops its program gradually as a response to the overwhelming festivalization of culture, and a way to address the question of why we should have another art biennale in the first place. It is a good collaboration, since the way they think about art, as a socially oriented practice that is able to boost social imagination is crucial to me.
What I really liked in Skip the Line!, is that it had a very strong, unusual dramaturgy, taking place on the different levels of the building. Through wandering in the space and following the narrative, you could encounter different aspects and perspectives. Was it intentional to have this strong dramaturgy? Why did you decide to emphasize a strong emotional aspect in the installation and also within the works?
It was a negotiation between the characteristics of the populist language and its possible visual representations. The scenographer Michał Korchowiec radically divided the space, as the populist discourse always creates binary oppositions and the Manichean vision of the world, with good and bad, moral and immoral, us and other etc. That kind of simplistic worldview that nowadays is produced both by politicians and popular culture. The affective and vivid dramaturgy was something that we thought would be a good way to address the issue, meaning that we decided to adopt a populist style too.
It worked well, because it was very understandable and easy to follow yet it was not didactic. Also, I often feel that for a while it was not “popular” to use affectivity, or play on the work’s affective quality, we moved away from feelings in art. In this sense, the exhibition was quite liberating.
Discourse was the starting point, but the affective work of populism became crucial. The process of thinking about the exhibition was interesting, because as the initial idea was to make an exhibition about populism as language, it was meant to be much more conceptual. In the end it became nothing like that, but much more visual, dramatic, and loud.
How would you describe the way you work together with artists? I also met Adelina Cimochowicz in Warsaw, her video was one of the new commissions for Skip the Line!, and she told me about your first project together How Do you Feel Today in CCA Kronika in Bytom.
I like to work closely with artist on new commissions, but also to recontextualize existing historical works. With Adela we have been collaborating since her first solo show. Her work addresses neurosis and trauma with its roots in psychological and economic instability. For her it’s a very personal and emotional topic, and for me it is more of a political, and social question, as neurosis is the disease of late capitalism. That would be an example of how we work together – we had these two layers on which we worked parallelly.
Can you think about alternative strategies and solutions as a way out of our current crisis? Is it naïve to believe in any kind of hope or coping mechanisms which could lead us from this situation? Can we fight populism, or can these artworks offer a counter-narrative?
One answer is obvious – as populism feeds on exclusion and frustration, we need equality to combat it. Second, I believe that to recognize populism as a language is a step towards reacting to it. Coming from Central Europe, we often associate populism with Kaczyński or Orbán, the right-wing autocrats, right? But if you take a broader picture, you can see that what unites the populists is not being far-right, it’s the way they talk and divide society. What I find really relevant, is whether we can think of “good” populism – not in a sense of dividing the society or harassing minorities but harnessing its emotional potential. Because if it is a language, then we can learn it and say something meaningful instead of exploiting it for the immediate political benefits. And if populism became the lingua franca of our time, then there is no choice but to learn it.
So you suggest that maybe we should appropriate it in a way? Reinvent it? Hack it?
So far, people haven’t really conceptualized any other language which would counter it, so there is no alternative path to take. The language of facts or science – I don’t think that’s actually working as fast as it should be. To appropriate the populist discourse may be a way out, and I think there is a great potential that art can play in it, by moving the progressive language to a new emotional direction.
Let’s move to your other recent project, The Most Beautiful Catastrophe. What do you think about the current relationship between art and ecology, and the way contemporary art often aestheticizes the notion of climate change? Do you think this topic is well-discussed in our region or there was an element that you missed?
These issues have been discussed by regional institutions before. Translocal Institute operated in Hungary for years, and in recent years Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź has done exhibitions directly and indirectly addressing the subject of the Anthropocene. Agosto Foundation in Prague developed a number of projects, with The Frontiers of Solitude as the main example. All of those activities formed a very important context. Yet, the Most Beautiful Catastrophe was different. It was a time- and place-specific project, as it lasted for one month, in parallel to the UN Climate Summit, which was happening nearby.
Art projects often speak about environmental sorrow or climate disaster, but discuss it in a void, with no social or political context. Like that we have an existential problem with the Anthropocene that is overwhelming us, but are unable to connect it to the political dimension, agency of people, class question or the capital behind the process. And to avoid a merely aesthetical approach to environmental issues in contemporary art, or for art to be a fancy “feel-good” gadget, the two layers need to be approached together.
Saying, that environmental problems can’t be separated from other issues, right?
Yes. I am not fan of having “ecological art” as opposed to other kinds of art. As part of The Most Beautiful Catastrophe, artportal.hu published a series of articles devoted to the art and environmental issues in Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Poland. You know its best, as you were one of the authors together with Anna Remešová and Jaś Kapela. The goal was to map the field and identify the artists who are interested in those problems, and it worked very well, those articles serve as a great resource. But maybe the assumption behind it was wrong in the first place, because what is NOT an environmental issue in the end? Labor is environmental issue, human rights, economic equality, homelessness – these are all environmental issues. Hopefully when we will speak in some years, this sub-genre of contemporary art which is now called environmental art will cease to exist, and we will learn to incorporate it in the bigger picture. Not something like “once a year, we can have this exhibition about global warming.” Because this kind of ghettoization is bad in every kind of activity.
How did you select the artworks for the exhibition? Was it important for you, to also have new commissions, works reflecting on very present issues?
Since the beginning the vision was quite concrete. There were works from 1950s and 1970s, that were interesting to look at from the today’s environmental perspective, and pieces by contemporary artists, with some new commissions. I invited artists who are close to this topic but approach it in different ways. Sara Czyż, who comes from Bytom, created a very personal piece about a relative who died of lung cancer, after spending entire life in the polluted city. Diana Lelonek, whose whole practice is reaserch-based and related to the Anthropocene, presented her long-term project to re-invent the Konin lignite basin located in Western Poland, which suffers from decades of mining, and from the lack of post-coal alternatives. Diana proposed to reinvent the region as a “Seaberry basin,” and to develop a line of local food products made of seaberry, one of few plants that can grow on the dry coal slag heaps. It is a socially engaged participatory project, but also a hopeful art, imagining the collective living in the damaged post-industrial landscapes.
On the other hand, the guys from APART took this notion of the postindustrial, toxic and dehumanized area and translated it to something that they know from the Slovak reality. They shot a film in Košovsko-Laskár wetlands located in the Central-Western Slovakia, formed as a by-product of the underground mining.
This video is currently on view at the new Easttopics Space (former Labor) at Képíró street in Budapest and APART also plans to have more screenings. Can you tell me a bit about your interpretation of the film? To me it seemed really poetic and unheimlich at the same time.
It is a beautiful and compelling piece, rooted in the regional Slovak mud and devastation of the environment, which also builds up on the historical context of the former Soviet Bloc. The utopian society depicted on the socialist mosaic in the Bratislava railway station serves as departure point for the contemporary story. Looking at the work of APAPRT, or of Tamás Kaszás, it is interesting to see how they are dashing back to the past to speak about problems in the present, how their imagination and visions for the future emerge out of historical experience and are inspired by the visual language of Central European socialism.
What was the role of Visegrád in the project? Do you see the potential in the regional networks?
Doing an exhibition about environmental crisis, is of course addressing a planetary phenomenon. But it is also something, which makes you really conscious about how you collaborate with people, where are you getting your funding from, and from where you invite the participants. For example, if you are doing a project about environmental justice and sustainability, would you invite someone from Canada or Japan to fly over to Europe and participate? I wouldn’t do that. And I don’t mean to blame individuals for their decisions, but to stay authentic as an engaged project, by sticking to basic principles. On a more conceptual level, the V4 focus was an attempt to think about the importance of regionalism and of Central-Eastern Europe in the context of the climate change.
Getting to know and exploring the industrial regions like Upper Silesia, is also a part of addressing the problem of mining and industrial heritage. Of course, the emissions have to be cut drastically, and the mines have to be closed as soon as possible. However, if we’re about to succeed in this, we need to realize that mining is also a part of the history, culture and identity of many people, who cannot be blamed for this, exoticized or paternalized.
The current debate about environmental issues is either addressed on the local, or global level. There is the discussion about sustainability which includes your local gardener, your local food supplier, and then there is the global, the planetary scale, with the melting glacier, deforestation etc. And in the middle, there is this regional aspect, which is easy to overlook. That is something I think it is important to look into, and to really think of how to build on this concept of the region, to be conscious about what it means to be in a particular place of Europe or of the world.
There are critical voices saying that the Visegrád Four networks are often forced, or only made in order to boost fundraising etc. How do you see the future of these collaborations? Maybe it’s time to reinvent these as well?
East Art Mags is a good example of a valuable regional project. I guess for all of us who participated in it, the authors of Szum, Artalk, and Artportal, it has opened so many doors. In the sense of possibilities of collaboration, and as an experience of participating in the regional community that has its worth and doesn’t need to be compared to other scenes. Perhaps, after all these years that followed 1989 and 2004, and many desperate attempts of becoming “Western” and “European,” now we realize how relevant it is to address regionalism.
I don’t know to what extend EAM was a conscious political project, but I would like to think that it was. For me, it is a part of a bigger attempt to re-appropriate the notion of Visegrád or Central European community. This notion has been corrupted in the last years by political alliances of greedy conservative men – today the Visegrád looks like some kind of terrible alliance of far-right dictators. It would be really empowering to be able to think of it as a different kind of Central Europe: as a forward-looking, equality-driven community, which respects diversity and that is able to connect – due to its historical background – and to think about common values which are not discriminatory and hateful.
Jakub Gawkowski is an art critic and curator. He studied liberal arts and art history at the University of Warsaw and the University of Silesia, currently he is a graduate student at the History Department of the Central European University. His recent projects include Skip the Line! Populism and Contemporary Promises (Biennale Warszawa, 2018), and the Most Beautiful Catastrophe (CCA Kronika, 2018). Among others, his articles have been published in Krytyka Polityczna, Magazyn Szum, Political Critique, Przekrój, Artportal.hu and Artalk.cz.
Cover image: Exhibition view at SKIP THE LINE! Populism and Contemporary Promise, 2018, Biennale Warszawa. Photo: Monika Stolarska / biennalewarszawa.pl
This article was written and published in the frame of East Art Mags programme with the support of Erste Foundation.