An Activist in the Institution

Katarzyna Kasia, image courtesy: Mikołaj Linowski, Enthusiasts project

Katarzyna Kasia Ph.D., a philosopher, author, Theory of Culture Department director, deputy dean of Faculty of Management of Visual Culture at Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, visiting scholar at Princeton University.

Work is an excellent topic for holidays, isn’t it?

Yes, especially since I don’t have holidays. For us scholars, holidays are the time when we are still working because we finally have time to sit down, write, work on things that really matter, and focus on our academic achievement.

Do you, as an author and philosopher, separate your private life from the professional one, or as a lecturer, your work in an institution from the writing and research?

I still have the impression of not keeping up. Academic work is absorbing. On the one hand, I really like it since I always wanted to teach students, on the other hand, I feel constant guilt that I’m neglecting my research. I have been a Theory of Culture Department director and a deputy dean of Faculty of Management of Visual Culture at Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw for four years. It is, by the way, my dream faculty and I had the honour of being involved in its foundation from the very beginning. The only drawback of my duties is endless administrative work. When you have to teach, do the administrative work, and you are expected to be creative and write at the same time, it becomes very hard to manage.

We are now in such a stage that we will have to completely re-profile our degree course, de facto set up a new one. It is a difficult moment since we founded this faculty only eight years ago. Courses we have offered so far were focused on the issues concerning history of art, but from an unusual perspective – we devised a programme of history of socially engaged art. It was very complicated from the very beginning, but thanks to the cooperation with our students, whom we always treated as partners, we managed to achieve our goal. We felt it would be right if they had some considerable influence on the programme of their studies. When we developed something good, something of quality proven by the number of applicants to the faculty, so-called Law 2.0 (Law on Higher Education and Science) was introduced, so the Academy of Fine Arts decided to parametrize only in one field – visual arts and art conservation. Now we have to create a new and more practical course, but we are doing our best to keep the ways of thinking and working we have established so far.

What do you mean exactly when you talk about a more practical aspect of art history? Do you mean shaping of socially engaged attitudes?

We have created studies comprising of three complementary areas. Firstly, there is art history to the full extent. Secondly, there are social sciences where beside sociology, social psychology we also teach philosophy, aesthetics, intro to the copyright law, and into to project development. Thirdly, there is artistic training. We are concerned with our students being able to find employment in various cultural institutions, not necessarily in big central cities. We want to encourage them to come back to their hometowns. We would love to cultivate in them attention to what the dean of Faculty of Management of Visual Culture, prof. Wojciech Włodarczyk, called a “culture of a place”, and it has worked very well so far. Now we have to shift the focus towards the projects, if we want to create studies curatorial in nature.

debate in Stefan Batory Foundation, image courtesy: Rita

… so preparing students for a life in projectariat rather than for finding a job in institutions?

We wouldn’t like to give up anything, that is we would like our students to maintain what they already have – general knowledge that we give them, but also we would like them to learn how to conduct research through art and to think about art in social terms. I would like them to acquire tools allowing them to navigate the field of art on different trajectories. What is also important is to appreciate the stuff of our faculty and let them develop. It is a constant problem in the academia: either we have great stuff (in terms of achievements), or didactics. I would love to have both.

How is it for you, a liberal feminist, to work in a conservative academic environment based on strict hierarchies?

The Academy in Warsaw is a huge one, the biggest one among all of the Polish art colleges. We have nine different faculties and each one of them is a separate entity. I always wanted them to cooperate very closely. I’ve been coordinating theoretical classes, open to all the students at the Academy for years. What I wanted to do was to create a platform where during the theory class a design student could meet a painting student and exchange ideas, realize in what aspects they don’t see eye to eye, and get inspired. This work always seemed more important than what happens somewhat by force of inertia and is related to a patriarchal feudal vision of academia. What also seemed essential and what I could do was to come up with systemic solutions against discrimination: I’m a Equal Treatment and Non-Discrimination Students’ Commission proxy. I also sit on the Senate Ethics Committee. It is a well-known fact that the structure of all the colleges in Poland leaves much to be desired, which has been proven by Katarzyna Kozyra Foundation report “Little Chances to Advances”.

I, too, conducted a statistical research at the university in Poznań, as a part of my doctoral dissertation. In cooperation with Filip Schmidt Ph.D. we compared the proportion of female students to female professors from 1985 to 2014. Over the course of these thirty years they almost haven’t changed at all, there are still few women working in the academia, even though there are more and more female students.

I find it striking that my students are almost exclusively female. There are faculties almost entirely dominated by women, for example Interior Design in Warsaw. I always wondered, where are those girls, where do they “disappear”? I think that what we should do and what I pay attention to while working at university is not only language-based discrimination, but also the fact that it is very hard to be a student and a mother at the same time. It applies also to female researchers. There is no systemic support from the university for them. This is something I really would love to deal with. I wish we could create some real structures of support for pregnant women, mothers and fathers.

"Guide 2.0. From Students to Students", image courtesy: Katarzyna Kasia

"Guide 2.0. From Students to Students", image courtesy: Katarzyna Kasia

The architecture itself can be discriminatory here, by not accommodating the movement of people in wheelchairs or with a pram.

This is true: because the buildings are not adjusted for the disabled, they too can be excluding. All the new buildings of Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw satisfy all the equality requirements, and the old ones should be renovated as soon as possible. The problem lies not in lack of good will, but lack of money. When it comes to students with children, sometimes they can take their children to the lecture, but not to the workshop graphic art studio. This is why the idea of creating common infrastructure has been growing in my mind; the Academy of Fine Arts, the National Academy of Dramatic Art and the Fryderyk Chopin University of Music could all collect money and create a space for children together. Such kindergartens or nurseries could be partially financed by the borough and partially by the colleges. I think it would be a good investment.

We obviously need to fight discrimination manifested in language and in the process of selecting new candidates for the job, but we also need more longer-term thinking, that is – what is next, when we finally manage to even up the number of men and women at universities. I have the impression that in the institutions we often fall prey to mere talking, even if it is legitimate talking. I believe we need systemic support.

How would a perfect workplace look like then?

Actually, we had a great privilege, since we set up a new faculty and created it from the bottom up, in a constant dialogue with the students. Everyone is aware of having the potential to continually transform what is going on at the faculty. Every opinion matters here. When I think about a perfect college, it would be most importantly based on a dialogue. However, not the one taking place once a year, at the time of the evaluation, but the one that constitutes a permanent barter, in which we continually share our skills. This is one thing, another is the question of equality. I’m not a fan of an outdated feudal structure in which hierarchical relations, especially between students and professors, still play a vital role. This is a factor that facilitates regress rather than progress. I think we should listen to the young who still have fresh new ideas. It’s not something to be afraid of.

… but in this case it seems that older professors are very much afraid of losing their authority. Do you have any allies at the Academy in introducing such equality-oriented changes?

Yes, of course I do. First of all, among my friends at the faculty, but also among other co-workers and students. I have the impression that the change is taking place already and everything is moving forward, it’s unstoppable.

Katarzyna Kasia PhD, image courtesy: private archive

So you believe that institutions can be changed.

I’m of the opinion that institutions mean people, and the buildings that surround us are less important. The only thing that really worries me is the chaos brought by Law 2.0. We don’t know what is really going to happen now. Not that there was so much stability before – I had to write new syllabuses almost every year – but now there is much more uncertainty.

I’m convinced that institutions should be changed, although it can be terribly difficult sometimes. What I’ve learned is that nothing is ever final. Increased criticism and resistance can make a difference.

What made you, an author and intellectual, tackle such a prosaic issue as work in institution? Aren’t you tired, wouldn’t you prefer to write some books?

I still hope for a moment in my life when I will be able to say to myself that everything at the Academy is well and I can leave that behind. The problem is that it is very hard for me to keep still and just let go of what I do not like. When you voice your opinion on some matter once, you protest, you become the one who always protests. When I started working in the academia nine years ago, while participating in the diploma examinations I used to hear some very inappropriate comments coming from the professors, concerning female students, their clothes, etc., having nothing to do with their work. It always drew my attention and today no one would dare to make such a comment.

You know, I value people who can say that they separate their intellectual and academic work, that they gain points for their publications and that’s enough for them when it comes to keeping in touch with the university. Sometimes I wish I could do the same, especially since my involvement in amending the institution does not always meet with much approval, to say the least. And there are moments, indeed, when I wish I could just write, collect data and focus on what is important to me because it gives me the holy parametric points. But on the other hand, I feel this would be very selfish. I’m not at this stage yet. I have this impression that activism in the institution matters.

It kind of reminds me of my situation, except that I’ve been working in an institution only for two years.

I can tell you that if they scold you now, they will scold you even more. But what is good is that after some time ethical choices become easier. Now when I’m faced with a situation where on the one side there is a pregnant student, and on the other side there are the rules and regulations, I have no doubt what is more important. I just know that I don’t want to make it even more problematic for her. Learning and involvement in the creation of specific legislations also make the choice easier. This is why I’m engaged in tedious work of the Rules and Constitution Committee.

What are you particularly proud of?

Of the guide published by my students for other younger students who are just at the beginning of their studies. There is everything any freshman would like to know, it’s like a practical toolkit for coping with college. There are even recipes inside, for example for a dinner made of leftovers found in the dumpsters. You can find there something about sport, there’s a timetable. The idea of the engaged university is described, right next to a chapter about how to get a scholarship. Different clubs and societies are mentioned and there is a part dedicated to activism and social activities. Then there is a part about the reality of a student who is also a mother.

"Guide 2.0. From Students to Students", image courtesy: Katarzyna Kasia

Was the guide prepared as a part of the MA project?

No, it was prepared at my faculty, in the Mental Structures Studio founded by Łukasz Izert and Kuba Mazurkiewicz. It is a collective work of the students of the Faculty of Management of Visual Culture. Thanks to the donation from the Academy, the guides are distributed for free.

How do you relax?

Sleeping eight hours is the ideal relaxation for me. Family, friends, time to talk with my daughter and reading are all very important. I promise to myself that I will learn how to switch off thinking about “what I haven’t done” and “which deadline I just missed”, and then I will actually rest.


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