Monika Szewczyk is a curator, art historian, since 1990 director of the Arsenal Gallery in Bialystok
It is closer from Poznan to Berlin than to Warsaw, so close that while driving, one might think that the boundary between the East and the West is the 40 kph speed limit. From the perspective of Bialystok, the border is a fact. The location of the Arsenal Gallery in Białystok is a point of reference for many exhibitions you organize. Could you tell us what it’s like to work in a city only 50 km away from the border with Belarus?
The difference between Poznań and Białystok does not lie within the distance from the border, it has its roots deeply in the partitions of Poland and the long-established division into Poland A and B. In fact, border’s vicinity has value and can be an opportunity. For years we have been cooperating with Michał Koleczek from Ustiê nad Labem. The beginning of this cooperation was exactly the symmetry of similarities between Białystok and Usti with bordering, post-industrial, somewhat provincial cities. If we can’t change our condition, let’s try to find an asset in it. The Arsenal Gallery, back then known as a BWA cooperated with artists from Belarus. But we really started to take an interest in our eastern neighbours when we no longer had to “brother” and this did not sound like opportunism when the Schengen area was established. Awareness of the proximity of this border has had and continues to have an impact on our agenda.
The majority of exhibitions and events held at the Arsenal Gallery are of a relational nature, building cultural bridges between East and West (Belarus – Poland – EU), North and South (Poland – Ukraine). Bialystok is the easternmost cultural center in Poland, which, apart from multiculturalism, is also famous for its xenophobia and the marches of the All-Polish Youth. Do you treat your curatorial work as a mission? Do you meet with hate because of what you do? Is art curation a dangerous profession?
I don’t think that Bialystok in terms of xenophobia is particularly different from the rest of Poland, it’s a dangerous stereotype that makes you let you guard down. It’s really bad, we’re really terrible, and there’s no point in making yourself feel better with such comparisons. Either way, I don’t Wonder where Rybak comes from, I am ashamed that we are the same species. Once at the Deprivation exhibition one of the artists presented a piece with a video depicting the burning of a Chechen refugees’ car (similar thing happened in our city). I was interested in how he did this work, whether he was in Białystok when it happened and it turned out that he made the video in Warsaw, where also more or less at the same time a Chechen family’s car was burnt down. However, answering the question, I felt uncomfortable many times, perhaps more often as a director of a city gallery rather than as a curator of exhibitions, but I would not associate it with a simple hate, but rather with the use of institutions in the political game. What I felt, above all, as an unfair disproportion. It is difficult to fight someone who bring a gun to a knife fight, and that’s how our chances look when we clash with politicians. Although I think that we’ve learned a lot recently, and, above all else, we know that we are at war.
The third issue of RTV Magazine, in which this interview will be published, is dedicated to art in Belarus. How do you assess the situation of artists/art workers/curators/collectors abroad? Are there any changes in the circulation of art?
The main problem in the East in general, also in Belarus is the lack of progressive art. institutions, the lack of support from the state: artists, curators, theoreticians have be on their own, in a sense. Because the “human material” is wonderful there, they cope in different ways, most often as in Ukraine, through creating communities, discussing and taking the initiative. For example, Belarus does not have a Museum of Contemporary Art, so a collective of artists and theoreticians has been formed, which aims to create such a museum, a virtual one, for the time being. On the continuously updated website www.kalektar.org a compendium of knowledge about contemporary artists is created, a kind of archive and at the same time a starting point for the collection to be made and future exhibitions.
The first exhibition we organized together with Kalektar was called „Zbor” and took place at the Arsenał Gallery in Białystok. Andriej Duriejka who lives in Dusseldorf sent out newsletter with up-to-date information on all exhibitions of Belarusian artists in the world. Andriej is an active artist who archives the achievements of his colleagues voluntarily, because nobody else does that. “Y”, an independent gallery, also known for its rich international contacts, has been active in Minsk for many years. New places, such as the Cultural Center Korpus, OK16, A7V gallery keep on popping up. Others such as XYZ Canteen disappear from the picture. What is very important, progressive places also appear outside the capital, such as the Centre in Brest: www.teatrkh.com. There are festivals such as Minsk Photo Month, „Rabotaj bolsze otdychaj bolsze, or queer festivals such as Dotyk and Meta. The young scene is getting more dynamic. Independent curators do a good job like Lena Prenz, who works abroad.
What kind of artist/activist from Belarus do you particularly appreciate? How can we support them?
Many Belarusian artists are active abroad: a great artist and activist Marina Naprushkina or Aleksander Komarov live in Berlin, Duriejka, Zhanna Grak, Maxim Tyminko in Dusseldorf. In Poland, the most known one is obviously Jana Shostak, but for a few years now Sergey Shabohin lives in Bialystok, which is absolutely fantastic, because he is a great artist, and for the next six months at the residence Gaude Polonia in Arsenal in Bialystok resides Zhanna Gladko. I appreciate the work of Jura Shust, Aleksiej Toustov, Andriej Lenkiewicz, Oksana Gurinowicz, Oleg Yushko, Igor Savchenko, Alexey Lunev, Ales Pushkin, Tamara Sokolova, Segey Kiryuschenko, It’s a long list, and it’s risky to try to create it because you always omit someone. There are many ways in which we can support artists, no matter where they are from. But always the best, non-binding and all-encompassing way is to build a platform for cooperation as broadly as possible, internationally and in the long term if it is possible. This is what we all need most of all: a meeting, an exchange of ideas for mutual participation in projects.
Working for BWA Galleries is difficult in many ways, it also yields some privileges, such as independence from commercial circulation of art and the center, Warsaw. In such a situation we (as employees of local government institutions) can afford to organize more courageous artistic and political events. Would you like to see your work as an element of a wider worldview, political change?
When I started to work, an ideal model of functioning seemed to me to be the model of an author’s gallery. You didn’t feel threatened with commercialization because the art market didn’t exist. The choice was simple: either safe, pretty exhibitions, preferably related to unions, or young, progressive art. t was a choice in the field of art, but it soon turned out that in a country where everything is political, there are no neutral choices. There is no good or bad art without the political context. So whether we want it or not, our work will always be interpreted in this context, there is nothing left for us to do but to do it as best we can. Art is a tool of social change, may it be effective and just.
Is Bialystok art-friendly city? What phenomena / individual attitudes are worth paying attention to?
Bialystok is a city resistant to art, we used to say that Bialystok is a city of theatre culture and years of our efforts have not changed that.
In Białystok we also carefully avoid judging. Over the years we have strongly felt the outflow of young dynamic people, including artists, coming from Białystok, there are plenty of them in Poznań, Warsaw, Wrocław, wherever they studied and where they decided to stay. Although recently I hear more and more often about people coming back to the city, I hope so, because there is stuff you can do here.
Who would you like to be if you didn’t become a curator and director?
Being a director is a consequence and not a goal in itself, while working in the gallery I realized that this is the only way to make myself independent in terms of program and to make exhibitions that I want, so I actually think about myself as a curator. I don’t want to do anything else.