Czech Republic, Poland

This is the nature of democratic time


Barbora Kleinhamplová and Tereza Stejskalová ask Igor Stokfiszewski about revolutionary moments and the democratic reform of institutions.

BK and TSHow did your collaboration with Artur Żmijewski come about?

Igor Stokfiszewski: Artur is trying to create politically effective artistic interventions. He realised that it would be a good idea to combine forces with activists and political organisations and include them in his artistic activities. This is why he has been working for a long time with Political Critique, which is where we got to know each other. Since 2007 we have collaborated on a number of occasions. Eventually he invited me to join the team preparing the Berlin Biennale.

What was your task in the Biennale?

Among other things I was co-responsible for the cooperation between the Biennale and social movements, especially those from Southern European countries.

How did the collaboration come about?

We wanted to invite various activist and political groups into the Kunstwerke Gallery. That was in 2010. However, shortly afterwards the revolutionary wave of 2011 began. First there was the Arab Spring, then Southern Europe, etc. We felt that all
of this was very important. I travelled to Spain and spoke to the people gathered on the square. We participated in the protest events and helped many different activists, for instance during the march to Brussels. Wherever things were happening we were always present, creating contacts, and this is how our collaboration began.

Why did you want these movements to participate at the Biennale?

We wanted to know whether cultural institutions such as the Berlin Biennale could support social movements seeking political change, and if so, then how. And so we contacted the people from these movements. We said to them: “We have financial resources, a place in Berlin, and some experience of artistic and political activities. How can we help you?” They replied that they would like to operate in the capital of Germany and an important centre of the European Union. They said that if we offered them a base, assistance, and different kinds of support that would up-scale their actions, they’d come. Joanna Warsza flew to the US and spoke with members of the Occupy Wall Street as well as activists with the Occupy Museums initiative, and they also came to Berlin, where we all began organising various different events.

What kind of relationship did the activists have with the gallery and the Biennale itself?

The people protesting in the streets included many artists and cultural workers. When all is said and done, artists are people who work under pretty precarious conditions. Many of the activists had experience communicating with cultural institutions. However, some, especially those from Occupy Museums, felt that we should be more uncompromising regarding the institution of the Biennale. That’s why we tried to transform the Kunstwerke Gallery into a more horizontal structure. We organised meetings participated in by both the employees and the director, etc. It only lasted two weeks. We knew that it wouldn’t affect the operations of Kunstwerke as we would ideally like it to. Even so, certain ideas and proposals put forward during those two weeks were subsequently implemented and the event as a whole had a certain impact.

Was this the impetus behind your current activist intervention in the Ujazdów Castle?

This was a new opportunity. Fabio Cavallucci, director of the castle, invited Paweł Althamer to organise an event involving children based on the ideas of Janusz Korczak, a Polish educationalist and pre-war director of the Warsaw Jewish Orphanage. Paweł agreed and wanted the children to occupy the castle. After the Biennale was over, it occurred to Paweł that it would be interesting to include adults as well as children. So he contacted Artur, who again brought activists and members of social movements to Warsaw. The original aim was the complete transformation of a cultural institution that would be led by children and participated in by the employees. The institution’s operations were to be suspended for two months. People wouldn’t work there and everyone would participate in the transformation. Over the course of last year we created the group Winter Holiday Camp and travelled to the castle. However, we found there was a serious conflict taking place between the director and the employees. Cavallucci possessed slightly monarchist airs and graces. He didn’t respect the curators and other workers and refused to accept any kind of democratic debate. The employees started to look like slaves of the king of the castle. They began to stand up for their rights with the aid of trade unions, and they even appealed to the Ministry of Culture. But this wasn’t very effective. In addition, not many people from outside the castle got to know of the dispute. When we arrived, we began by communicating with the employees and we wanted to bring in the children. We wanted to create the kind of situation we were familiar with from social movements. We wanted to use the methods of direct democracy these movements had pioneered. But it was impossible. The situation was very tense.

How did the conflict reach the attention of the public?

In the first phase of preparations, we set ourselves a precondition: everything we did would be transparent and we would publish all documents at our disposal. Suddenly we had to act responsibly, to think about what we were saying, to write down what we were signing, etc. The employees were clearly inspired by this and during September and October decided to publish all the documents in their possession that bore witness to the entire situation, a situation that had now been going on a year and a half. It transpired that Cavalluci was struggling to control the budget and put together a programme, and was humiliating the castle employees, i.e. around a hundred people. We decided to release a statement. We wrote an open letter, in which we supported the employees and offered our assistance. We offered democratic tools that we had learned how to use and that could help reform the institution. We began writing articles and holding press conferences, and we tried to raise the media profile of the entire affair.

How did Cavallucci react?

He began arguing with us about whether the Winter Holiday Camp could or could not go ahead in the castle. In the end he decided that we were no longer welcome and that the project would not be realised. We took this as an attempt to exert his power, and so we decided that we would remain and continue to cooperate with the employees, i.e. with those who were interested in cooperation. The problem was that some were afraid they’d lose their jobs and others were simply uninterested. They didn’t regard the castle as being something worth fighting for. However, there was a very active group of employees who cooperated intensively with us and gradually became an integral part of the Winter Holiday Camp. We began to organise joint interventions in the operations of the castle. We created the installation entitled “Institution in Crisis” and we wanted to donate it to the castle collection. This was no easy matter, but in the end we managed it. We invited people to the public opening of an exhibition of the CCA collection of contemporary art. Cavalluci hadn’t wanted there to be a private view because the exhibition was organised quickly in order to help the castle operate without funds for new initiatives: the budget was empty. We wrote an open letter to the Ministry of Culture. Inside the castle we organised meetings with the employees and with people from outside that we had invited. Even Cavallucci attended some of these meetings, because he couldn’t afford to ignore what was going on.

Was there nobody there who absolutely disagreed with you or tried to block you in any way?

No. But this was also because after three years of the system that reigned in the castle, most people were resigned and passive. However, some of the discussions were fantastic. Of course, from time to time someone would say that the whole thing was a trick and that Political Critique wanted simply to acquire some kind of political or symbolic capital from the event. That’s normal.

What happened to the children?

We dropped the idea when it became clear that we would not receive the institution’s approval for the entire project. But I liked the idea. The idea of following the children around appealed to me. Isn’t it a genuinely democratic gesture? It’s easy to follow the activities of employees or trade unions, but a completely different matter to apply this to children. It’s radical. It was Paweł’s idea, and that’s not just because he has children of his own and understands them. You could say that through them he rediscovered his childlike ego at an advanced age. It’s amazing to see how he is inspired by the special logic of children. He’s genuinely capable of acting like a child, of playing and fantasising. It wouldn’t have worked without him. We knew that we could rely on him and that he knew what he was doing. There were two reasons for working with children. On the one hand, it was a radically democratic gesture, as I’ve already said. And on the other, we wanted to find a way of “softening up” the castle. The building itself is not exactly cosy and we felt we had to find a way of bringing it to life.

After your experiences with the castle and the Berlin Biennale, do you still believe that it is possible to introduce elements of direct democracy to cultural institutions? And why exactly to cultural institutions?

I think it’s possible to introduce such elements within all institutions. I myself operate in the cultural sphere, and so I try to make changes here. However, I believe that all institutions should be permeated with the spirit of democracy. We know of cultural institutions that are managed on a horizontal basis. In 2011, several were occupied and their operations were radically transformed. Examples do exist.

For instance?

My favourite is the Teatro Valle in Rome, which has been occupied since 2011. I’ve been there and experienced it. We invited several people from Rome to Warsaw and they met the people from the castle. They offered us some really valuable pieces of advice. But there’s a catch. Teatro Valle was occupied mainly by activists, actors and artists, i.e. people from outside. The employees were in a minority, and this of course makes things easier. The castle has a hundred employees and many of them have been working there for years and years. It’s a completely different situation. I still believe that it is possible to introduce some form of direct democracy. But it’s going to be a long haul. However, I’m not sure whether this is the real aim. The main aim should be to provide subjectivity to the employees, artists and general public.

What does that mean?

People should have the opportunity to reach decisions on the basis of consensus, between themselves, as regards how they should work in the institution, how the institution itself should operate, and what type of art and culture should take place there. At present, the castle is ruled by fear, opportunism and passivity, and this is the consequence of several years of institutional dictatorship.

Who should be present at these meetings? Should they include potential viewers?

Certainly. Who else do cultural institutions belong to? If we know who they are, we should invite all the owners to participate in the decision-making process. The castle is a national gallery open to the public. In a certain sense culture represents public assets and belongs to everyone, it isrepresents the commons. But there exists another type of affiliation. During the course of our events many people from both inside and outside the institution appeared for whom the gallery really meant something. Of course, this included a large number of the employees. In many cases their lives are closely linked with the castle. They identify with it and suffer when they see how it is being harmed. And then there are artists who have cooperated or are cooperating with  the gallery. For many of them this was a key space in the 1990s and they have wonderful memories of it. And then there are the activists and the general public interested in culture and cultural institutions. Finally there’s the Ministry of Culture.

Is there a discussion in Poland regarding cultural institutions, how they should operate ideally, what their function is, etc.?

I believe the situation in the castle provoked that kind of discussion, as did the recent scandal involving the National Theatre in Krakow centered on a play dealing with Polish anti-Semitism. The media takes up these affairs and discussions take place in public places. The rightwing and nationalists cry out that they don’t want public money spent on this kind of thing. Three or four months ago they also intervened in the castle, which put us in a double bind. We were trying to get Cavallucci to leave. But all of a sudden, if he had gone, it could have been interpreted as a concession to nationalists and censorship. Their event was far more popular in the media. They came to the castle and for five days they prayed in front of a video by Jack Markiewicz showing a naked man rubbing himself against a statue of Christ. The rightwing parties used this as a pretext for their fight against culture, art, etc. We didn’t know what to do. This is another reason why Calvallucci remained director for a couple of months after our intervention, even though although it was clear that we had won and that he’d soon be out of his function.

Do you yourself have some idea of what direction things should move in?

Yeah, but that’s not so important. The biggest challenge is to offer other people subjectivity. It’s difficult. It’s frustrating trying to introduce democratic procedures when people don’t have respect for each other, shout at each other, etc. For me the most important thing is to reach decisions regarding the gallery on a joint basis. If we had the possibility of organising meetings that included the employees and the general public for a year, let’s say two meetings a month, and if we could create working groups and deal with various problems arising, I believe that it would be possible to arrive at a certain model of reform. The first step would be to meet with people willing to become active co-facilitators of the entire process.

What would be the role of expert in all of this? There are people who have spent years and years studying art history, production, curatorship, etc. If we introduced a horizontal structure in institutions, suddenly their words would only carry the same weight as everyone else’s. In which case, what would be the point of an expert education?

None. It’s more a matter of arrogance. I know many specialists who aren’t arrogant and are willing to become a productive link  in the entire chain and stop being “specialists”. The events at the Berlin Biennale and the Ujazdow Castle were international. Activists from around the world participated. How well were foreign activists able to understand what are basically local problems?

Basically I think that all European cultural institutions are facing similar problems. It was important for us because in Poland we don’t have the same experience with direct democracy as they have, for instance, in New York. These methods are a very important contribution to the entire process. It’s also a bit provocative. People from the castle, and others as well, asked us: “Why are people coming from New York? After all, it’s the Polish National gallery!” Well, except that the director is Italian, isn’t he…? It was a little strange.

Does the experience of direct democracy you have outlined also influence Political Critique itself and the way it is organised?

Sometimes I feel like an extraterrestrial. My experience of Spain from 2011 might have come from Mars. Suddenly you see that all of these instruments and methods work. Political Critique cooperates with people from Spain and Italy, etc. However, we can see that the revolutionary moment has gone. Instead of 99% against the 1%, here we have 1% fighting against a different 1%, which in turn claims to represent the rest. When I returned from Berlin to our Warsaw office, I was full of enthusiasm and wanted to initiate a democratic revolution. I discovered that the others didn’t exactly see eye to eye with me. They hadn’t experienced what I had and had different ideas. I was frustrated for a while, but then I realised that if I wanted to make the most of the greatest successes enjoyed by these movements, I would have to be capable of providing subjectivity to other people from the organisation. It’s not about launching an off-the-shelf revolution or applying a readymade strategy, but marching shoulder to shoulder with other people on the basis of decisions reached via consensus.

The methods of direct democracy deployed by movements from 2011, the meetings and decisions reached on the basis of consensus, are sometimes criticised for being ineffective, for failing when they come up against a cynical regime. What would you say in response?

It’s difficult to say. We’ve never experienced direct democracy. It sounds wonderful and we’d like to try it. On the other hand, we have doubts. Given ever increasing social tensions and inequality, it seems that the other side is winning, and that it behaves in a more cynical, pragmatic way. Nationalistic tendencies are increasing, etc. Can the drawn-out debates associated with direct democracy be effective in our situation? Perhaps we shouldn’t completely give up the model of representation…

But effective from what perspective?

There’s a well known story about the Zapatistas and the Mexican government. They were sitting around a table. The government representatives put forward their proposals and waited for a response. The Zapatistas took the proposals and wanted to take them home to discuss them at meetings with their peoples. Then they would announce the result. The government representatives were angry and said that they didn’t have the time. However, the Zapatistas retorted that
this was the nature of democratic time. I believe it is mistaken to confront effectiveness and ethics.

What type of effectiveness can be achieved?

It’s not about running on the spot just because everything must be resolved at meetings. You have to know what type of decision is appropriate to assemblies that gather together all those subjects the decision would affect, and what type to individuals. But you always have to act in accordance with a certain code of ethics. My experience from Southern Europe taught me that the more people participate in a certain decision and the fewer of them are given no option but to fall in line, even though the decision may impact significantly on their lives, the better.

I remember the large demonstration on 15 October 2011. Protests took place all over Europe. I was in Brussels and was on one of them, after which a meeting took place in a park. There were maybe 10,000 people there. Anyone who wanted to speak joined a queue. About a thousand people were interested and the queue was really long. They had a microphone and everything was translated into four languages. These were people who had never before had the opportunity to speak in front of such a crowd, who had never been listened to by anyone, perhaps because they weren’t specialists in anything. It was as though they underwent a physical transformation. They didn’t speak for long and nobody prattled on about life and death. Everyone in the queue was very patient. They understood that it had to be this way. This is what I have in mind when I speak of providing subjectivity. People speak and are happy that they are being listened to, that what they are saying is important for the others. They can decide about their own fate and cooperate with other people and join events and then genuinely act on these decisions. That’s amazing. But I’m afraid that it’ll never return.

Never return?

I don’t think so. I’ll say one more thing. In July 2011, there were marches from four different places in Spain on Madrid. Everyone was supposed to meet in Puerta del Sol, the main square in Madrid, at 9pm. I was there with many others and waited impatiently for around half a million people attending the square to arrive. Then I heard the sound of voices, music and drums, and I realised they were arriving. Suddenly the streets leading to Puerta del Sol were filled with people singing and dancing. I was shocked and deeply moved. At the same time I was convinced that it was unlikely I would ever experience anything similar to this again. There are revolutionary momentums and long hard years of grass-roots work afterwards. We are in the process of implementing in social relationships as many democratic procedures invented in the squares during the revolution as possible. It brings joy and satisfaction, but it’s not the same as the Brussels assembly or the Madrid marches.


Written by Barbora Kleinhamplová and Tereza Stejskalová


This interview originally appeared in Who is an Artist? by Barbora Kleinhamplová and Tereza Stejskalová, published by the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague in 2014.