For several years now, artist Jasmina Wojcik and the staff of Krytyka Polityczna, primarily art critic Igor Stokfiszewski, have been collaborating in the Ursus Project, whose purpose is to use artistic practices to generate change in a district of Warsaw named after a famous tractor factory there.
Once an independent village, Ursus became part of Warsaw in 1979. Its factory, whose history became part of the history of Poland’s industry, was established in the late 19th century. The first Polish vans were made here, and after the Second World War, tractors made in this beacon of socialist Poland’s industry were exported to Europe and the Middle East. Apartment blocks, schools and a cultural centre were built around the plant – the Ursus became a universe in itself.
After 1989, the giga-factory began to decline, and tractor production was terminated in 2012. The plant occupied a third of the district. In the 1990s, the government sold parts of it to entrepreneurs, who surrounded their properties with fences to block public access. In urban development plans for the area, real estate developers will construct apartment blocks here, after everything is demolished here, except for seven buildings under heritage protection.
Jasmina Wojcik’s father was born and raised in Ursus. Fascinated with the ruins of the factory, the artist photographed them in 2011. Seeing the photos, her father recalled the past and told her about the times when there was a flourishing factory where there are ruins today. This inspired Wojcik to start her project: to collect memories of people who used to work in the factory. Her aim was to preserve the world of what the factory and the district had once been.
In 2013, Wojcik organised what she called an Acoustic Walk. Based on several dozen interviews she had recorded, she took visitors on a guided tour of the factory. Much to her surprise, hundreds of people turned up – most of them locals.
It is interesting to take a closer look at what attracted so many people. A feeling of being left without roots certainly seems a significant factor there, points out art critic Igor Stokfiszewski, who joined Jasmina Wojcik’s project after the walk. He considers that people in his generation, who grew up in communism, were forced to reconstruct their personal past and their roots, which is an almost impossible endeavour. Stokfiszewski, for instance, was born in 1979-ben, in Lódz, where it became clear by the year 2000 that the local textile industry’s times were over, and there was no future for young people there. In ten years, some 200,000 people left the town that had once had 900,000 inhabitants. All that has been happening in Ursus seems familiar to Stokfiszewski. He has personal experience of how hard it is to face the consequences of the total demise of an industrial area and of workers’ culture.
Although closed down a long time ago, the tractor factory has remained a symbol of the district’s identity for locals. Ursus is a legend in all of Poland: there was a time when it was the largest tractor factory in Europe. Several propaganda films were made here in the decades of socialism, and the factory’s workers enjoyed high respect. Most of them lived in the district, where an entire housing estate was built for them in the 1960s. Then, after 1989, everything changed. Ursus became a symbol of the collapse of socialist industry and of the working class, and in essence, it came to represent the shame of the past 50 years. The factory was closed down, and the abandoned buildings gave the impression that there had never been anything worthy of mentioning there.
The success of the first acoustic walk, as well as the sentiments, the bitter feelings of the people who used to work in the factory, which were clearly voiced in Wojcik’s interviews, led the artist to continue the project. The aim was to generate changes in the local community with the help of art.
Most of all, they wanted to help local people to formulate and express their expectations and desires concerning a changing Ursus, and also to give them back their self-esteem. Apparently, one of the key problems was that decision makers did not include them in the process of deciding the district’s future. Part of the reason for that was that the local community was rather fragmented – older inhabitants and newcomers had no space, no platform to communicate and find a way to develop into a less divided community.
A team of artists and activists organised the Tractor Parade, with Ursus tractors marching through the centre of Warsaw, and on, all the way to the former Ursus factory. The march revived an old tradition, and also demonstrated to the people who had once worked at Ursus that the tractors they made still work impeccably today.
They curated an exhibition with photos of how the district used to be, organised discussion forums about Ursus’s future, attracting large numbers of people, and they held art workshops for children. Using footage from old newsreels, Wojcik made a film essay, presenting identity-forming elements from the history of Ursus.
They held a three-day collaborative painting session led by artist Pawel Althamer, which proved a significant tool in releasing creative energies, and became a kind of non-verbal dialogue inside the community in Ursus, and also between that community and the outside world. The event served as a tool for integration inside the community. Some of the works made by the participants are still there on the fence of the park in the area. It helped locals learn to express themselves freely, which is indispensable for creating a sound community. Of course, it is also necessary for the members of the community to be open and responsive to others’ needs and desires.
The fact that they got listened to, that somebody was interested in their story, brought them relief in their shame and anxiety. They began to regain faith in their not being worthless, and being part of Poland’s history. At the same time, there was a lot to learn from them too in terms of community building, as they had done highly efficient exercises in that area while Ursus was still functional. Several of their circles and associations still survive today – there is even a Pensioners’ Academy, whose meetings bring together hundreds of people on a weekly basis. Of course, a feeling of offense they all share is also part of their sense of belonging together, and in fact, the emergence of some of the associations is an expression of grief. Meanwhile, as Igor Stokfiszewski points out, the core of the community had already existed when the factory was still running.
One of the team’s key aims was to help these people regain their self-esteem and pride. As Igor Stokfiszewski explains: “People who once used to work in the factory were proud of doing their job well, producing top quality tractors. Then, in the 1990s, not only were they deprived of their pride of belonging to the workers’ class, but also of their sense of achievement. It was a great experience to see how proud they were of how they had overcome technical difficulties in their work, and to listen to their stories for hours on end, recollecting everything to the smallest detail. This has nothing to do with communism. I call it work ethos. A few years ago, a Polish documentary film was made about the textile industry in Lódz. Part of it was an interview with a worker whom the director asked which day of his life he would choose to live again if he could choose before he dies. He said he would like to go back to the factory. Can you imagine a bank employee saying today that they would like to spend that day in the bank? I think this kind of sentiment is out of the question today: people’s view of manual work has changed. The workers’ class is now looked down on.”
The project reached the aim of Ursus’s residents to gain influence on the decisions that affect their district and their lives. A variety of programmes in the project showed that preserving the memory of the factory and constructing a new identity rooted in its past are essential for the people living in the area. The factory had a collection of memorabilia, mostly machines, but also personal records, team diaries and factory documents. Locals asked the municipality in vain to preserve the collection: with the area, the collection also became the property of an investor, who wanted to get it off his hand – of course, for money.
In the second part of the Ursus Project, the artists launched a campaign to buy the collection from its owner, and to establish a centre for culture and education to provide the public with access to it. As another important function, as expected by locals, was for the centre to become a meeting point, a place for community integration.
The campaign was successful in making Ursus’s history part of collective memory again: it convinced Warsaw’s leaders that the city should buy the collection, and a decision was also passed to establish the centre. To achieve these aims, besides artistic practices, the artists had to rely on instruments of activism: a petition was written and signatures were collected. The team had to learn to combine art and activism, switching between the two always as was required in working with the local community.
Translation by Zsolt Kozma