Maintaining the Human Scale

Joanna Sokołowska, image: HaWa

Would you say that an exhibition can change a person?

Yes. But I’m not talking about a binary concept of change. These processes can be subtle, internal, and spread over time. These can also be intense emotional stirs taking place in our imagination and feelings, resonating in our conversations and actions.

The Pangea United exhibition is an expansion of the subjects you touched upon in your previous exhibitions “For beyond that horizon lies another horizon” in Oldenburg, and “All men become sisters” in Museum of Art in Łódź. Can this strategy of continuation, breaking with the paradigm of originality and starting afresh, be considered a feminist curating method? Do you identify with such perception of your working style?

I have the impression that I always work on the same exhibition. I started working in this way when I hadn’t had feminist consciousness yet. Over time I was simply more and more interested in a long-term involvement in practice of specific artists and following the ways they process complex and interwoven topics, such as work or ecology. I’m interested in art pieces not only conscious of these issues, but also invoking emotions and intuitions difficult to verbalize, thus requiring time and space. At the same time I’ve become more accepting of the limitations of my energy levels when it comes to learning new things, or stemming from the fact that I live and work in a peripheral place. This acceptance is indeed coincident with the feminist recognition of localization.

As regards interweaving and continuation of various topics in successive exhibitions, this is the result of my belief that modern art helps to connect issues that are rooted in different fields by cognitive traditions and social pragmatics. These exhibitions pose questions about, for example, relations between devaluation of care work, gender and environmental crisis, or about the link between personal psychological crises and toxic conditions of production and reproduction of life. These questions resonate with the key challenges of our times, such as food, health, work, energy, climate. Understanding these challenges requires recognizing their interdependence and complexity, and taking a holistic approach. Of course when I say these words, I am aware of how “big”, abstract or ideologised they are when put next to a single sensual experience. However, it is artists who help to make them concrete and transformed through their personal experiences, processed in their works.

Working on exhibitions such as “Workers leaving the workplace”, “Exercises in Autonomy. Tamás Kaszás. Featuring Anikó Loránt (Ex-artists’ Collective)”, “Assemblages. Angela Melitopoulos and Maurizio Lazzarato”, “All men become sisters”, or “For beyond that horizon lies another horizon” I could see in specific cases the connections that activate the technologically reinforced violence against and exploitation of people, animals, and resources, all treated as “cheap nature”. At the same time, influenced by the artists, I focused on various ways of breaking the paralysis of imagination fixated on reproduction of cheap natures. When working on “Workers leaving the workplace”, I tried to take a close look at the changes in work that I naively perceived in the context of the theory of immaterial labour back then. Only a few years later, on the occasion of the publication of a book and exhibition “All men become sisters”, I thought about the questions of female workers, body, gender, and work, including work offered outside monetary economics. Unsatisfied with the connection between feminist economy and ethics of care with the ecology, I started working on another exhibition.

Tamás Kaszás, "Lost Wisdom (Sci-Fi Agit-Prop)", 2016-2019, courtesy of the artist

… these issues echoed in your latest exhibition, “Pangea United”.

Yes. “Pangea United” helped me to combine thinking about economy, feminism, and ecology by means of the metaphor presenting the Earth as a household. At the same time and in a relation to the subject I explored in the following exhibitions and publications, it is, of course, the artists I work with who are the source of inspiration and the liaisons between the questions I suggest. Here, for example, I’d like to mention Tamás Kaszás, whose holistic work has turned out to be one of the most lively impetus to creating the concept of “Pangea United”. The questions of access to water, social equality, food production, the ways in which we learn, communicate with the animals or take care of the children, are interrelated in his artistic practice as well as his life. On the other hand, while working on both “All men become sisters” and “Pangea United” I collaborated with, among others, Alicja Rogalska, Mona Vătămanu, Florin Tudor, Teresa Murak, and Agnieszka Brzeżańska. The practices of these people have become an inspiration to expand the “pangean” topics from ones that were previously concerning the “sisterhood” exhibition and publication.

You touched upon the concept of concern, which is a key concept in the exhibition “Pangea United”. What you propose as a curator is a change in thinking about the planet Earth as a reservoir of natural resources to be exploited, to an expanded household which should be managed in a way that will spare the future generations facing the dire consequences. On one hand it is an absolutely accurate concept because it slows down the capitalist exploitation, on the other hand, thinking that the Earth needs our human concern is problematic since it reinforces the idea of people as the privileged inhabitants of the planet, as if everything depended on us.

Of course the concept of concern is very anthropocentric and privileged. As a human being I do not claim the right to take and articulate reliably the post-humanist perspective, regardless of my awareness of the role this discourse plays in the modern curating work. I do not have the proper tools nor the trust in the practice and theory of seriously imitating someone’s agenda and speaking on behalf of those whose real needs I am not familiar with. This is why I suggest taking a step back and focusing on the humbler concepts – care, empathy, curiosity and responsibility. As we speak, the majority of people refuse to take responsibility for a very anthropocentric mass violence and suffering they inflict in animals, and for destroying our common resources. I’d like to propose responsibility for that violence, power, and the role we play in the complex ecosystem of Earth. What I believe would help us take the responsibility is a positive pedagogy based on developing empathy, care, opening up to the Other, and imagining coexistence with what is now unknown. In the exhibition I suggest that our work on expanding the community should be accompanied with awareness of apparently well recognized mechanisms, such as gender-based exploitation.

general view of exhibition "All Men Become Sisters", works in the photograph: Jo Spence and Terry Denettem, from the series "Remodelling Photo History", 1981–1982; and Agnès Varda "Women Reply: Our Bodies, Our Sex", 1975; image courtesy: Piotr Tomczyk, Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź

general view of exhibition "Pangea United"; in the foreground Teresa Murak, from the series "Sculpture for Earth", 1974; image courtesy: Piotr Tomczyk, Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź

What comes to my mind is Alicja Rogalska’s workshop organized as a part of “Pangea United” exhibition, to which the artist invited women of various professions, not necessarily related to art. This women’s meeting was very empowering in nature, i.e. it made the participants realize that difficulties they encounter at work are not related to their individual problems but to an excluding system in which gender is still an evaluative category.

This realisation is a perfect example of different scales of Pangea. A group of women focused on self-development and making their professional lives more satisfying met during the workshop “(Im)personal growth”. They looked at their own struggles through the lens of their own lives, but when they met during the workshop they realized how much they have in common, and that solving their problems should be collaborative. Among the postulates heard during the workshop were e.g.: environmental education for children, obligatory paternity leave, abolishing national borders… Alicja Rogalska’a actions show evidently how considering Earth as a household interweaves what is personal, local, with legal order, gender, labour division, with what is global or ecological. This is a responsible statement on a human scale, stemming from a feminist postulate of a situated knowledge, so the awareness from where one speaks from.

I agree as to the feminist situatedness, which is a concept and a practice very close to my heart. However, I’m still not sure about a certain universalism evident in the “Pangea United” exhibition, which may situate it in an utopian order. Environmental issues are shown here from a large distance, in isolation from economical issues. The problem of big oil companies destroying the environment of the Amazon basin is addressed in Carolina Caycedo’s video “Yuma or the Land of Friends”, but a more local take on the way artists and their works function in an institutional system of art is not discussed here. Lately we have observed a peculiar “turn towards ecology” in art, apart from your exhibition there is also a recently opened “Human-Free Earth” at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw, or “Nature in Art” at Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCAK) in Kraków. Do you see ignoring the commercial aspect in the context of environmentally engaged art as problematic?

I will start at the end. If I understand the reference to the Polish thread correctly, you probably mean that some of the works exhibited have aesthetic value and can function on the art market. I do not have a problem with that because I do not control the exhibitions’ budget and I do not have the resources that could solve the economic problems of the artists. Working full time, I am not entitled to criticise selling of the works of art that could be beneficial to our most important partners, who are precarised anyway. I’m not entitled also because we do not have a guaranteed income and artists do not receive a fixed salary from the state, but discretionary grants or a small compensation for participation in an exhibition. The institutional criticism in the institution of art changes very little, structural changes take place as a result of collective civil, activist, or political action. I want to make use of my competence and get involved in the issues for which I can take responsibility, that is using the exhibition as a medium of broadening sensitivity, awareness, stimulating imagination, etc. Whereas at the level of working with the ideas, the whole exhibition is a proposal of a different, holistic economy corresponding with the feminist and ecological takes on economy of care, practices of retrieving common goods, or concepts of post-growth, but it is not limited to simply illustrating these ideas. It is a proposal consciously rooted in the limitations and possibilities of the form of exhibition. For example, a juxtaposition of Monika Zawadzki’s works “Boiled Head” and “Nursing Mother” is not a literal criticism of some concern’s actions, but it poses a way deeper questions about the relations between the logic of mass production of animal lives that are going to die, and the commodification of human life.

And what is your opinion of the oil companies, such as PKN Orlen, sponsoring art and financing “Paszporty Polityki” awards that are given to the most outstanding Polish artists every year, or BP oil company supporting the exhibition at Tate Modern in London? Isn’t it a significant impact on art?

Museum of Art in Łódź does not have such a sponsor, but we would face this challenge, if we had to. In theory, I can say that I wouldn’t want sponsorship for “Pangea United”. What I value about this job is that we are trying to discuss the ideas and the source of finances with the team and the director on an ongoing basis. In the context of the present exhibition we discussed, for example, how un-eco-friendly an institution a museum is. A friend working in the Human Resources Department sent us some suggestions of how we could change our way of using office supplies and the museum’s resources in order to save them better. When working on a recycling workshop for the Mea Pulpa audience, Education Department asked the whole team to collect and use the materials. These are all small gestures, but I value them immensely because they are honest and real in effect.

general view of the exhibition "Pangea United", in the foreground Agnieszka Kalinowska, "No one's Bouquet", 2008, "My Home is My Castle", 2006, "Watering Hole", 2016; in the background Christine Ödlund "Stress Call of the Singing Nestle", 2010, untitled, 2013

Monika Zawadzki, "Nursing Mother", 2014, "Towel, sheet. No 1", 2013, image courtesy: Piotr Tomczyk, Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź

…but these gestures related to the functioning of an institution were not articulated on the exhibition. Was this your conscious decision?

Yes. These gestures were not dedicated to the audience, but to individual people and their strength lies in the internal communication and taking action. In think about the medium of the exhibition in terms of complexity and sensuality, rather than unambiguous manifestos, gestures, and agitations whose imagined audience do not care that much about in this field. It is not about a division between what is art and what is not, but about the necessity to maintain in the society the education that is respectful of independent thinking and imagination, and this requires leaving a lot of space to the audience. I believe that – as long as the exhibition does not require the knowledge of specific discourses and is not ideologically closed – the audience will find their own tools to put the statements together, building on the intuitions expressed by the works of art.

But then the exhibition becomes kind of a heterotopia, that is a place with certain rites of entrance and exit, sort of a world parallel to the outside reality. By disconnecting in this way all we can do is to appreciate the works of art from an aesthetic and sensual point of view, but not in respect of the useful or causative aspects.

I think that these boundaries are more porous. If the exhibition “works”, it lives in the minds, conversations, emotions. I do not take the contrastive perspective – sensitivity versus action, inside, outside, this is all complementary, despite the distinction and rites of passage which almost all social organizations have. And if we have to talk about the consequences of aesthetic experiences, I’d say that in the long term of someone’s development they may cross the boundaries of an institutional building and the field of art. I am sure that simply showing, or mediating in any other way, the practices oriented towards usefulness and agency will not create social changes that would be immediate and real in effect. These changes happen more effectively, often anonymously and in an unspectacular way, when resulting from grassroots activities or forceful political and administrative actions for which economy and the structure of the institution of art is unnecessary. On the other hand, I believe that in the context of mass production of the algorithmized goal-oriented mind, and equally simplified populist rationality, art institutions should care about fostering selflessness, doubting, and sensitivity in the first place.

An important criterion in the selection of the works for the exhibition is your intuition. You even referred to it in one of the interviews as a “magnetism of the hearts” you feel together with the artists you work with. For the “Pangea United” exhibition you decided to select works of people who deal professionally with the artistic production. I wonder if this magnetism of the hearts could be as strong when working with amateur artists?

I believe that this is a great responsibility, when it comes to something more than just a sign of inclusion, for which I do not care. I haven’t managed so far to create a comfortable environment for people from outside the field of art to publicly exhibit their works. What I am thinking of is the environment that would be equitable and understandable for everyone involved. I work with people who I know are aware of the rules and conditions of the field of art. At the museum people not related professionally to art are nevertheless engaged in the workshops as well as the exhibition space, mainly thanks to our Education Department. These are employees who are remarkably competent at working with people from a wide social spectrum. These are skills I probably haven’t mastered yet. They cooperate not only with a regular audiences at museums and schools, but also with foreigners at the accommodation centres, with youth education centre, day care centres. They also train teachers in increasing their cultural competences.

Could you, on the basis of your experience of cooperation with artists invited to work on the “Pangea United” exhibition, define the working style of an environmentally engaged artist? How does it differ from other methods of artistic production?

To me, what is essential is cohesion and a humble work on reducing the gap between the public activity, representation, and the production of works and life practice. I do not expect heroism or ideological purity from anyone. Ecological artistic practice is a holistic approach to relations with others, with oneself, respect for others’ and one’s own resources and limitations, mindfulness, and attention to all work stages, even those less prestigious. How does it differ from other methods? In saying no to violence, exploitation and furthering one’s own goals, and saying yes to art. Among the artists I worked with, Tamás Kaszás is one of the most advanced in eco-friendly lifestyle. Tamás lives with his family on an island near Budapest in a small summer house converted into a regular house, where together they cultivate a permacultural garden, trying to limit consumption and get as close to self-sufficiency as possible. Tamás participates in an international circulation of art, but his mobility and communicational availability are consciously limited since he is trying to build his career in a very modest and balanced way, not giving up relations with his family and time for gardening and taking care of animals. On a professional level he pays attention to all phases of production, not delegating such tasks as hard physical work to others, and seeking help only when working on bigger projects.

Tamás Kaszás, "Lost Wisdom (Sci-Fi Agit-Prop)", 2016-2019, on the exhibition "Pangea United", image courtesy: Piotr Tomczyk, Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź

… and when it comes to your work, how does the care postulate manifest itself in it?

… this is, of course, an awkward question, and I don’t know if care is the right word, but not to evade the question, I will try to specify what I care for, what I’m trying to achieve. I put a lot of energy and attention into communication with artists, to explain the concept behind the exhibition and discuss the ideas concerning exposition or production with them. Whenever possible, I’m trying to provide the best financial conditions for everyone engaged in the exhibition or publication. Faced with a conflict or financial problems, such as sudden budget cuts, I try to negotiate the conditions for participation and the scope of work transparently. I care about partnership relations between the artists and the institution. I try to speak to all departments of the museum in advance, to discuss the exhibitions and minimize stress in our cooperation. I’d love to organize exhibitions that would be complex, yet accessible to people with different cultural competences. I still can’t, but I’m slowly learning how to communicate in a more straightforward way.

The exhibition is created not only as a result of the cooperation of the artists, but also of many people whose work often goes unnoticed, such as technicians, producers, cleaners, people controlling exposition, administration clerks. In the field of art there’s probably still no way of symbolically appreciating their contribution in the creation of the given work, installation, or exhibition. Only the names of the curators and artists remain in the audience’s consciousness. Perhaps the ideal solution would be to treat visual art events as film production, in which everyone’s contribution is mentioned at the end of a work?

Yes, that would be indeed a better way of appreciating their contribution to the collective work. At the Museum of Art we are probably still halfway to doing it properly, including only some people we cooperate with the most intensely in the information materials about the exhibition or publication. But really, not only symbolic, but also financial appreciation would be essential in this situation. People working in the cultural institutions should earn more.


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