Strategies of play in highly imaginatory times

Monika Drożyńska and Tymon Słapak, Creation of the earth, Creation of the earth, 2016

A few hours before the scheduled interview with Monika Drożyńska, we meet at a doctoral seminar at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków where we are both studying – online of course, because there is still a pandemic in the world outside. At the seminar, in a group of a few people, we talk, among other things, about the possible directions of change in the functioning of universities, about a community that could constitute the basis of these changes, about the role of empathy in a didactic work, and about our creative and research plans. We share our concern about our working at the crossroads of art, science, and education. Monika comes up with the term “imaginariat” which accurately illustrates the current pandemic time of online production of content in the field of art and culture. Imaginariat, apart from its ironic and at the same time critical nature of describing reality, has also a bit of a fairy tale quality, which, in its sound and linguistic structure, brings to mind a children’s imaginarium. Of course I identify deeply with this term and I consider myself a part of the broadly understood imaginariat.

Together with my interviewees we attempted to closely examine the worlds: children’s worlds and the more grown-up ones, as well as those we share: the intertwined worlds. A few days after the conversation with Monika Drożyńska, I have an online meeting with with Cecylia Malik to talk about the same issues – interesting and important from the point of view of education, art, development, and science. Both Kraków-based artists took part in the exhibition “Two arts are better than one” which had its opening on 8th of February 2020 in Gallery of Art Zachęta, and constituted a visual and sensory combination of the worlds of the artists and their children.

Monika Drożyńska – son Tymon
Cecylia Malik – daughter Urszula, sons Antoni and Ignacy

Paweł Błęcki: Do you have a childhood memory of a moment when you realized you want to be artists? An event, a person, or a place that made you think: this is the beginning of my creative career?

Monika Drożyńska: I have one such memory, however I’m not sure how early a childhood it was. It was before my school-leaving exam (matura), I could be around 16-17 years old, my mum came to my room saying that she talked to my dad about what I could study and they reached a conclusion that I liked drawing, knitting, and going to art galleries so much that maybe I’d like to become an architect. I replied: “Cool, this is a good idea, I’ll become an architect”. I even started attending drawing classes. After a few weeks, or maybe even months, my mum came to me and said that she talked with some friend of hers and she heard that there was such a thing as interior design and maybe this was what I’d like to study more, since it was not only about buildings, but also interiors, I could create textiles and some pictures. I said OK, this was also a good idea, and I started attending another drawing class, which I liked. Then she came again and said that maybe I’d like to apply to the Academy of Fine Arts. And I replied that this was also a good idea. I thought, starting at that technical university, through interior design, to Academy of Fine Arts, that these were good subjects for me. The truth is that it was my parents who came up with this.

Cecylia Malik: I come from a family of artists. My dad is a professional violinist, as well as a sculptor and a composer, and my mum is a sculptor with a diploma from the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków. When she was pregnant with me, she was working on her diploma, making ceramic relief that were displayed, for example, in an old Kolejowy Hospital in Kraków. The only thing present in our house was art. Dad used to take us to the rehearsals at the opera. Our great-grandfather, one of the first Kraków Nativity scene makers, created Kraków Nativity scenes, that is, he started making them professionally, later also my dad used to make them. When we were children, we also used to make Nativity scenes with my sisters, and then we would even sell them to Germany, to earn some money for skiing, or for an aquarium. We danced, played opera, listened to Mahler in bed, and discovered pop music for the first time only when we were teenagers. When I was very small I wanted to be a ballerina, this was my first dream from kindergarten – I used to imagine the choreography to the symphonies I was listening to. I attended a music school where I took violin classes, but it was too hard. Then, since I wasn’t good at maths, I decided to apply to an art high school, in which maths was easy. I attended that school and I didn’t know exactly what I would want to do since I found everything interesting. I was about 15-16 years old when, during summer holidays, I was painting landscapes and I remember my mum saying: “Cecylia, you should be a painter!”. It made me very happy. I decided to study Painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków.

Tymon Słapak, Sticker titled: The walk, 2016

What are you currently involved in in your creative activity?

M.D.: For now I quitted practising socially engaged art and collective work, after I co-created a play entitled “Flag No. 5”, a staged participation. In this play I used various manipulation techniques towards the audience. Through that directed participation, these techniques were supposed to expose the ways of functioning of different systems in art. I exposed them so much that I’ve been avoiding such projects for a few years. I realized how autocratic was the work I had done with that play.

“Flag No. 5” was organized as part of the “Placówka” [Facility] programme of the Theatre Institute in Warsaw in collaboration with Daniel Chryc, Ana Forma, Mira Marcinów, Karolina Niemiec-Gustkiewicz, Hanka Podraza and Tomasz Węgorzewski.

C.M.: I am involved primarily in organizing socio-artistic campaigns. I’m also a professional painter and educator, I graduated in Pedagogics and I taught art in school. Together with Ania Bargiel we created a Bunkier Sztuki Little Club (at the Bunkier Sztuki Contemporary Art Gallery), so reconciling my creative activity with being an educator and workshop leader was always very close to my heart.

At one moment of my creative life, when I quit painting, I made my first performance: for the first time I climbed a tree and started using various media – photography, performance, social media activities. This was such a time in my life that I became an environmental urban activist and I used a language of art for that.

Tell me about your children. What are their names, how old are they, what are they like, what do they like to do?

M.D.: My son Tymon is 10 years old. He is now interested in football and he’s playing and practising with his friends and his father. He also really likes playing “FIFA” online on PlayStation.

C.M.: My daughter Urszulka is 18 and she’s fulfilling my first dream because she wants to study Choreography. As a small child she was a quicksilver, it was incredible how she danced. She attended different workshops at the Youth Culture Centre, and now with her band she’s taking part in competitions. She’s also attending drawing and painting workshops, but sitting focused and contemplating something is not compatible with her temperament and expression, so she’s mostly fascinated by theatre and body work.

I can tell you an anecdote from her childhood. When Urszulka was 7, one day she really wanted to visit her beloved friend Marysia, but I told her that she couldn’t. She then brought 100 Polish zloty she got from her grandpa and said “Mom, please have it. Now, can I see Marysia?”. She decided to bribe me with all of her money to see her friend – and this is how she is, a woman with a warm heart. And my son Antek is 20 and he’s a hockey player. He’s a very sweet and handsome guy who is talented in both arts and humanities and exact sciences. He completed a maths and science profile in high school and is now studying Automation and Robotics. He is growing plants and recently he’s started painting murals. They are both lovely, they really like and support each other. They love little Ignacy, my youngest son, and I am very grateful for that.

Cecylia Malik and her children: Antek Dziurdzia and Urszulka Dziurdzia, photo Tomasz Gotfryd

Do your children participate in art events? Do you attend exhibitions together?

M.D.: Tymek doesn’t really feel like doing this right now. He used to love going to exhibitions. He spent practically one year and a half in Bunkier Sztuki when I was working on my individual exhibition there. I was taking him there, he was very little back then, not even one year old. He loved Bunkier Sztuki. Now, when he enters Bunkier Sztuki, he wants to see exhibitions first, and only then go to the café, which always makes my mom, who loves going to that café, surprised. Everyone at Bunkier knows Tymon, they tell him how much he grew, give him tickets for free. He even happened to attend some exhibitions on a scooter because everyone there is so forgiving of him.

Monika Drożyńska and Tymon Słapak, 2020

Monika Drożyńska and Tymon Słapak, on the exhibition in ZACHĘTA – National Gallery of Art, 2020, photo Dominika Kucner

C.M.: Yes, though Urszulka and Antek at one point preferred to distance themselves from my activities. Because it is a bit embarrassing, when you’re in middle school, to go anywhere with your parents, and there is nothing worse than forcing your children to do something because this is how you lose them, so I gave up. But two years ago, for the Mother’s Day, they played in Wodna Masa Krytyczna’s [Critical Mass on Water] trailer. They played football on the Vistula, wearing swimming suits, it was extremely nice to me. They were also with us during the campaign in Zakrzówek and today they come because they want to and they like it, but in that middle school developmental stage it might be said that they had a break – with my complete understanding and acceptance.

Tell me about the family participation in the process of creating the work that was shown at “Two arts are better than one”.

M.D.: This work is an effect of an unintended action. Tymon was sick in winter for a very long time. One illness led to another. We got a book about animals for Christmas and we started copying the pictures in it, just so that we could sit together and talk about those animals. We drew on leftover fabrics from one of my exhibitions, it went on for a few weeks. Then, when we had a lot of drawings, I thought I would stitch the small pieces together, and I drew the rest myself.

C.M.: At the exhibition there was a piece of a plait from the campaign “Plaits of Białka”. It was a big campaign, several hundred people in Poland were engaged. We wanted to create a plait as long as the Białka River, that is 6 km long. Urszulka was 12 when we were plaiting. We were inspired by Urszulka’s plaits I first made her when we were on holidays in Romania, specifically in Transylvania, where we met a Roma family. All of the girls there had stripes of cut curtains and tablecloths weaved in their hair – I really liked it. I learned how to plait in this way and I plaited Urszulka’s hair every day to school since then. When I was thinking about how to save the Białka River and create a participatory project, I thought that maybe all girls should have those “Roma” plaits and then we would share them? Then it occurred to me that we should create the longest plait in the world. The idea came to me at breakfast, when I was combing Urszulka’s hair. She then came to Bunkier Sztuki with her friends to help me with plaiting for the project “Rezerwat Miasto” [The Urban Reserve]. From my experience, when you are with children, you are more relaxed and there’s no pressure to do great and perfect things. It makes your brain free and often you come up with better ideas. In 2013 Urszula cut her hair, which for me personally marked the end of a certain period of her childhood.

Cecylia Malik with her daughter Urszula and son Ignacy during the opening of the exhibition Two Arts Are Better than One. Courtesy of ZACHĘTA – National Gallery of Art, photo Dominika Kucner

Art and culture create a space in which you can make mistakes – get lost, build a new value, not follow the path of pragmatic, linear thinking. Do you think that artists are like children, in the world that is rational and stiffened by rules?

M.D.: I can only speak for myself because I have no information about what other people think about it. On the one hand, I feel like a little girl, but on the other hand, I have the experience of being a grown woman – I have such hybrid of experiences. I wanted to set up an exhibition once, I came home and said I would make an embroidery saying “DICK DIK DIC” in different grammars, and the title would be “Dickhead’s exhibition”. My husband then asked, when would I grow up? It made me laugh really hard, so hard my stomach started to hurt.

Now I’m working on a big fabric. I was happy to work on it, the colours were right, but now, after a couple of days, I don’t like it anymore. I thought about fragility, about how fragile a learning it is: the fabric is here, but soon it may fall apart. I came up with the idea of embroidering a biscuit depicting fragility on that fabric I used to like. I think this idea best reflects my maturity. You have to be a grown and mature person to let a biscuit symbolize an experience in a political work.

C.M.: Yes, I think so. We have the luxury to keep the child within ourselves, while other adults pretend it is not there, they smother the child and destroy it. We make a very good use of that child inside us. Honestly, it makes us happy in life because we can be ourselves. The campaigns I organize are nothing but what I used to do in the playground, when I was a child. What I do is a serious and well organized play. “Now what? Shall we pretend we are rivers? Now you choose which river you want to be. But wait! The Oder River is already taken!”. We seriously play like that, and, for example, we went to the Ministry of Marine Economy and Inland Navigation dressed in swimsuits – and we managed to reach the place and talk with the officials. I was very bad at school, I had difficulty learning, I didn’t like school and, what’s more, I had dyslexia and dysgraphia – I couldn’t learn to read. However, I was the queen after school – I ruled on the playground. I used to organize plays that lasted for weeks and included role-play and integrated kids from different neighbourhoods. Now, when I practise activism, I make use of such strategies of play.

Tymons Shop

What do you think about the alternative methods of education? Public schools pass on knowledge, but they also cultivate antagonisms through favouring hierarchical, patriarchal, and class mechanisms. What is your opinion on that? Have you ever considered some alternative form of education for your children?

M.D.: I consider some alternative every six months on average. We were thinking about a Waldorf school, or one with an artistic profile. We didn’t go for it because public school is the most democratic – it is a place where you can experience diversity. Besides, I didn’t learn much in school, I hope that Tymek won’t learn much there too.

C.M.: In an alternative space we learn much more than in a school. Urszula and Antek went to a music school at the elementary school level. It was an ambitious school, conservative, putting the students through the wringer. If there is a war, they will have the skills to make a living. What doesn’t kill them, makes them stronger.  I had this attitude that school is not a place where you can learn a lot, it’s more about a reality check. I was against wrapping children in cotton wool, creating a perfect world. You start learning in other places. School is about experiencing reality, this imperfect world in which we live. Urszulka learnt the most in the Youth Culture Centre, so not in school. But school is also a place where you can meet a wonderful teacher who will help you in life. This is what happened to Antek. When in the senior year he said he wanted to drop out of school to devote himself to his passion, hockey, his teacher told him he would teach him maths every day after school, for free – and he did. It might be the worst school in the worst place and if there is a good person there, they can give you a lot.

Urszula and Plaits of Białka, photo Cecylia Malik

Monika Drożyńska, artist's studio, 2017, photo Grażyna Makara

In the state schools there are not enough art classes. In this respect Poland ranks at the bottom among the European countries. In middle and secondary schools art and culture are practically non-existent. Can you see any solutions to this situation? Do you have any advice for people whose children would love to have such activities in school?

M.D.: Oh boy, this is an extremely difficult subject. It seems that art education has become a class education. Culture is available for the selected few. Museums and galleries have a gigantic educational offer, but this is not a space where everyone will feel good, for various reasons. I can see that both from the perspective of a mother and a person who leads such workshops. In my son’s school there is practically no basic art education. There was an option in the additional offer to come to school at 8 AM, but we chose sleeping until 9:30 AM instead of attending art classes. It seems to me that this has to be solved systemically. I don’t have much hope for that, unfortunately. I don’t know if the Ministry of Education sees much potential in culture, art, or music for kids.

C.M.: I encourage everyone to go to the culture centres. I taught art in schools for a few years and I didn’t like it. School is a terrible and a very bad place. I mean, I really liked children and I was amazed by how talented they were. I didn’t like school because there was no studio there. I had 45 minutes for the class and the desks were supposed to be clean by the end of it. There was only one hour of art in a week, then it was merged with music class and the art teacher was no longer needed since the music teacher taught everything. There was no space for any creation. There were rooms for IT, biology, and so on, but there was no room for art classes, where kids could, for example, leave their painting materials. Unfortunately, art is completely unimportant in schools. This is noticeable later, in adult life – people are scared of singing, of painting. I see it when I organize campaigns: some people can’t hold the brush or use the scissors. Not everyone has to understand art – this is about deficiencies on an absolutely basic manual level. It’s a shame that this is so. I hope this will change when our friends come to power: the young left, the Green, and then we will convince them to change the system.

Monika Drożyńska and Tymon Słapak, Creation of the earth, Creation of the earth, 2016, photo Studio Luma

Do you think that young people, children, are treated seriously? The problem of adultism is not uncommon. Young people in the eyes of the adults often are not granted the right to speak their minds autonomously – one such example can be Greta Thunberg. What is your opinion?

M.D.: It is not part of my experience because my parents were always sensitive to my and my sister’s opinions. They asked about many things and let us decide on our own. I live like that with my son too, in an arrangement of honest communication. Tymon tells me about many things. The biggest satisfaction for me as a mother is that he comes to me with many issues and it’s amazing that he can tell me such things.

C.M.: This is such a deep and philosophical question that it’s hard for me to talk about it. Last year, together with Ania Grajewska, we represented Matki Polki na Wyrębie [Polish Mothers on a Tree Felling] on a conference “The Art of Organizing Hope” in Ghent to which almost 300 activists were invited. The speakers were mostly women, single mothers, activists from the countries that underwent transformation. “The Art of Organizing Hope” is also a title of a book written by dr Ana Cecilie Dinerstein, in which she makes it clear that if someone is going to save this world, it will be women. At the final gala in a beautiful theatre in Ghent a 12-year-old girl gave a speech at the very end – it was very symbolic. I have such a reflection that we, as a humanity, stopped to hear what is important. For example, the fact that half of fish species will die out is not a problem for us. Neither is the fact that we will fell several-hundred-year old trees. Our culture is based on treating every weak person or being like a slave. It is the same with children, we don’t hear their voice, and this is the fault of the patriarchy we are used to, that is white, heterosexual men. I was raised in a Catholic family. When I saw Greta Thunberg I thought that if God were to speak in modern times – as He used to, through the mouths of prophets and saints – He would speak through the mouth of a girl, for example Greta’s. But hard patriarchy is blind to that, because acknowledging this voice would shake and ruin the familiar world.  The manner of governing has to change – it can no longer be the patriarchal one that has been prevalent until now. Obviously, the ruling groups are very much against it. There is a push to maintain the world order that led us to the climate crisis and to what is happening now.

Modraszek Collective, 2018, photo Piotr Dziurdzia

How are you doing during the quarantine?

M.D.: We got terribly close. I say it aware of the meaning of “terrible”. We were alone for a long time, sleeping in one bed. Attending online classes. I even think it was too much because we’ve begun sharing the areas that used to be separate. Tymon is very rebellious against school. Schoolwork was always an unpleasant addition to his play with friends. He really can’t get past the fact that it is only schoolwork that is left from his life now. This is very hard for him. Sometimes I relieve him of his responsibilities because I feel that quarantine education is taken out of the context in which it appears. Tymon would need a support from and contact with his teacher, her presence – and we don’t have it, we only get tasks to complete in Word documents. Education could be based on support, so that we could cope somehow in these circumstances when we are all like zombies – without energy, with lots of time, but without the possibility of occupying it. I have the impression that the substance of this education is torn away from the circumstances in which it takes place. But I also notice the advantages of this situation. We listen to a lot of music while we do the homework. We combine different issues with different music. Recently we were learning about the rushes and we listened to a Maleńczuk’s song “Szuwary” [Rushes]. When we were working on “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, we listened to “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane. I make his education more diverse because it wasn’t possible before to combine music with areas such as literature or nature.

C.M.: Thanks to the quarantine, I had my first vacation in five years. I don’t work at a  university, I’m a freelance artist and I work with institutions, but these are temporary relations – they are here today, they may be gone tomorrow. Because of that, so far I haven’t had the luxury of saying no. Even when I had a week of vacation, someone was always writing to me or calling me. I was under a lot of pressure because you always have to do something amazing and creative, and besides that I have a family, three children, I cook and I take care of the office work myself. It was really hard for me, I had high levels of stress and I was sleep-deprived. Now I’m losing jobs, I’m not earning money, but I have time and peace to finish the painting I started to work on during holidays. We also have time for ourselves, for family. We almost never spend time together, as a one big family. Everyone has visitors, we live as if in separate teams. Now we spend more time together and it’s really nice, we like each other and feel good together. This greater peace is cool. However, it is an unpleasant experience to see how our country is functioning, and to know there isn’t much hope it will get better. Moreover, Biebrza National Park is on fire, and I experience financial insecurity. In the small life, here and now, no one fell sick or suffered a misfortune, so it’s OK. I also have this reflection that we are now taking part in an exceptional overproduction of culture. It would be nice to do less but better.

Cecylia Malik – a painter, performer, educator, environmentalist, and urban activist. a graduate of Painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków, and postgraduate curatorial studies at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. She is organizing protests together with experts and organizations, taking care of their purpose and efficiency, at the same time creating them as happenings and works of art in the public space.

Monika Drożyńska – born in Nowy Sącz, raised in Gorlice, a graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków where she now is a PhD student. An embroiderer, activist, visual arts artist. She is interested in non-normative recording techniques, studied using hand embroidery on a fabric, treated as a form of writing, rewriting, recording.

Paweł Błęcki – born in Gdańsk, a PhD student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków, a graduate of the Faculty of Media Art at the University of Fine Arts in Poznań, a would-be archaeologist. A photographer, author of objects and installations through which he tells stories of the human and non-human worlds.


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