Anna Cieplak and Agnieszka Muras: Cieszyn Is Like Dogville

Krytyka Polityczna & Friends - Central Eastern Europe Meeting 2014

Political Critique cultural centre “On the border” in Cieszyn, Poland

The Cultural Centre “On The Border” in Cieszyn hosts open debates, lectures, seminars, concerts, art shows and exhibitions, and daily meetings for children and youth. It is also a reading room and a bookshop. The chief idea of the Cultural Centre, which has informed its operations since its inception in 2009, is work with children and contributing to building cultural capital.

The originator of the Cultural Centre, Joanna Wowrzeczka, was nominated for the “Wysokie Obcasy” women’s magazine’s Polish Woman of the Year Award in 2009. In 2012, the Political Critique Cultural Centre in Cieszyn was honoured with the “Otwieracz/Opener” award, conferred on organisations acting for openness and for the promotion of open models of creating and publishing knowledge and culture.

Over the five years of its activity the Cultural Centre has organised more than 200 free events (concerts, lectures, discussions, panel debates, workshops, film screenings). Political Critique invited to Cieszyn many renowned guests, including professor Tadeusz Kowalik, president of the Republic of Poland Bronisław Komorowski, journalist Jacek Żakowski, artists Joanna Rajkowska and Anna Baumgart, Hubert Czerepok, professor Grzegorz Klaman, Stanisław Ruksza, professor Jerzy Hausner, professor Magdalena Środa, Henryka Krzywonos, Ludwika Wujec, Tadeusz Sławek and Kazimiera Szczuka.

Late in 2014, the Cultural Centre celebrated its 5th anniversary. On that occasion, a journalist for “Gazeta Codzienna” spoke to Anna Cieplak and Agnieszka Muras.

INTERVIEW: Cieszyn Is Like Dogville

Małgorzata Bryl: It is not long ago that the Political Critique Cultural Centre “On the border” celebrated its fifth anniversary. Nevertheless I would like to go back in time to its beginnings and ask what are some of the positive and negative surprises you have experienced in this town. The question may be a little provocative, as Agnieszka told me it had been difficult, when working on “The Alternative Map of Cieszyn,” to go beyond negative thinking about the town.

Ania Cieplak: Right at the beginning of our work in Cieszyn some positive energy was generated around the Political Critique hype. We were very kindly received by the Zamek Cieszyn – they gave the building of a former customs post [Cieszyn is a border town, where – prior to Poland and Czech Republic’s accession to the Schengen zone – traffic across the border was closely controlled] to NGOs. We were spared long negotiations and pleading, which was a large advantage. There hadn’t been a place like that before, so many students were really impressed that they could do their stuff outside university. And another positive surprise was that our events attracted considerable audiences, that there were quite a few people appearing around the PC.

Agnieszka Muras: That’s right, that’s probably the greatest fun of the whole thing. At the same time we were involved with both circles, thanks to which our activity was diverse.

A.C.: It is definitely to Cieszyn’s credit that it takes you quite some time to discover it. It is a challenge. There are many charismatic figures linked to culture living here, whom we met only after three years of hearing about them from our friends. Here it takes time for you to understand the place’s historical and cultural context.

A.M.: But on the other hand, and that’s what’s really important to me, our interests were reaching further away. We were determined to have guests coming from beyond. We have made a point of stressing that Political Critique’s is a space open to debate on other topics, not only those having to do strictly with Cieszyn or the university.

And did the local community buy that kind of broader dialogue right when you started it?

A.M.: Yes, but back then we hadn’t grown roots in the city yet, and felt more comfortable in topics that were of interest to us. Our actions were addressed to a rather narrow audience, mostly students.

A.C.: Cieszyn is like Dogville. Initially you feel good. But once you’ve started digging into this town, you come across problems, and over time it becomes disagreeable to some. Everything is fine as long as you don’t raise issues that are painful to the local community.

A.M.: Or as long as you’re not perceived as a threat to this community.

A.C.: On the down side, there’s the resistance on the part of some Cieszynians to the idea that we should be related to Political Critique. Many people approve of our activity but never do it in the open. It is difficult for us to understand just why it is so. My impression is that people who are straightforward about things are not socially acceptable. It is more frequent to say things behind others’ backs.

A.M.: I’m also concerned that a good number of initiatives are being nipped in the bud. Activists and residents have initiated really worthy actions. Unfortunately, in recent years many of them were opposed by the local government. The result is that we make a step forward and then three steps backward. Fewer and fewer students consider staying here after graduation.

A.C.: Cieszyn has strong NGOs but it doesn’t make sufficient use of this fact, while municipal institutions are – most of them – weak. This is a town famous for its culture, but not for the culture which is eligible for state support. This is something that we find paradoxical about Cieszyn.

Cieszyn is like Dogville. Initially you feel good. But once you’ve started digging into this town, you come across problems, and over time it becomes disagreeable to some. Everything is fine as long as you don’t raise issues that are painful to the local community.

A.M.: One example may be that of the city theatre, whose director has not introduced innovations to the institution, while holding his post for over 35 years. At the same time, the CST theatre, which did a lot of good, and is our town’s cultural flagship cannot depend on the municipal support.

Does Cieszyn condition you? Does it, to use the expression from one of your projects, make you take up activities, at work and in your private lives, which you don’t feel like doing?

A.C.: As far as work is concerned, we are not dependent on the local government, as we are rarely awarded financial support from the city (this year we received just one grant worth € 1,300, for holiday activities for children). Our subsistence as an institution doesn’t depend on subsidies from the city budget. Which means we are fully independent in shaping the profile of our activities.

Nevertheless it is just this kind of enforcement when we have to constantly demand explanations in matters regarding the city, and to publicise those matters and make this knowledge available to the public on our own, for instance we have to ask for information regarding issues that tend to be swept under the carpet. There is plenty of information that simply does not reach the residents, there is no real consultation of issues with the public. If the services operated properly, we wouldn’t have to do it. We do it because the city fails here.

A.M.: My observation is also that the institutions responsible for education in the city are, communication-wise, not sufficiently well-connected to one another for people to have the sense of a system that really works. Of course, they are in touch with one another, but it’s hard to map out paths for making their respective actions coordinated, and bring their joint efforts to a specific child, should need arise. And Cieszyn is by no means exceptional in this respect.

A.C.: Our lives as residents are conditioned by the problem about which people have recently been ever more vocal: that of poor communication. And what I mean by this is communication as a system of exchanging information, but also transportation. If the mayor is now saying the city has no need for a new press spokesperson, it doesn’t augur well for the communication between the municipality and the residents. We will press the actors of the new political set-up on it really hard, because trust cannot be restored without changes in how communication in the city works.

If we could get more mathematical, what percentage of Cieszynians are active, committed to the life of their town, selflessly acting for the common good?

A.C.: As a rule it remains a very low percentage, although in situations of emergency people can band together and fight for something. Of course these are momentary uprisings, not long-term efforts. When we find ourselves in danger, we react. Other than that few people work voluntarily to prevent such crises.

Referring to your project of “Alternative Map of Cieszyn,” I would like to draw another map, let’s call it “Map of Commitment.” Who gives themselves to Cieszyn and what places would you mark on such a map?

A.C.: An attempt in “mapping social commitment” was establishing the Federation of NGOs and Social Economy Entities. Under the umbrella of the federation associated are organisations which, apart from going about their statutory goals, do things like keeping track of the documents issued by the municipality.

A.M.: But one has to be aware just what kind of commitment we are discussing. If we are talking about the kind of activity associated with, say, city activists in Kraków, there are no such organisations to be found in Cieszyn. Neither do we have watchdogs, whose statutory duties consist in keeping close tabs on the goings-on of the municipal institutions day in day out.

On the other hand, there are plenty of cultural organisations, committed to the preservation of the region’s cultural heritage. There are also organisations engaged, for years now, in the organisation of Cieszyn’s most prominent and recognizable events, such as the “Kino na Granicy / Cinema on the Border” film festival or the Theatre Festival “Bez Granic / No Borders.”

So there would be no point in drawing up a map of city activists, for there would be no one to be marked on it?

A.C.: I don’t know. I have mixed feelings, because in spite of everything, I am aware that there are people in Cieszyn who help the elderly or the handicapped. Those are very socially committed activities, which we cannot see, as some people in the city we just don’t notice, but they are a decent-sized group. The people who do it don’t make a show of themselves, and after work they give themselves fully to their passions. For instance there is a mister Ryszka, who visits schools and gives talks, free of charge, on the topic of multiple sclerosis. Such people are the real silent heroes of this town, whose stories haven’t been written yet.

Does Cieszyn need revolution?

A.M.: I don’t really like the word, because…

A.C.: … it comes with an obligation. Plus it has become a slogan so frequently repeated without taking any responsibility. And the city, in our case Cieszyn, is a common good, and one needs to learn to take responsibility for it. To paraphrase Political Critique’s patron, Stanisław Brzozowski, revolution cannot replace work.

A.M.: Yes. Besides, revolution means changing something in an oppressive manner, which causes a certain group of people to be unhappy. I could accept only its softer version, where the departure point is a popular agreement on what needs to be changed, and then, once the action has begun, sticking to the line delimited in it.

I’m under the impression that here people are talking and talking about the direction of changes and that’s the end of it, because there never is enough enthusiasm or maybe simply enough time to act and fulfil the goals that have been set.

A.C.: Yes, action is essential, but maybe let’s not call it a revolution. There are regions of our town that are having serious difficulties. If we don’t articulate our demands firmly enough, the situation there will exacerbate. But OK, it will still require that we trespass into the domains, which are here protected under the tacit agreement both of us have mentioned. I mean certain fossilized, inflexible situations and arrangements: institutions, places and people in high places, all of which we mentioned earlier. For example, if we say we need a press spokesperson for the city, it doesn’t mean we need someone who will do the job of the former spokesperson but we need to rehash the whole concept of the position and invest the new person with prerogatives different from the former one’s.

A.M.: It is going to be difficult, as we live in a town where everyone knows one another, and is afraid of messing with the status quo. But courage is needed to say that changes are not about destroying someone for personal reasons, but that they are about the common good. And Cieszyn does need changes in order to develop.


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As it happened: Central and Eastern Europe Meeting 2014 in Cieszyn



Krytyka Polityczna
Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique) is the largest Eastern European liberal network of institutions and activists. It consists of the online daily Dziennik Opinii, a quarterly magazine, publishing house, cultural centres in Warsaw, Łódź, Gdańsk and Cieszyn, activist clubs in a dozen cities in Poland (and also in Kiev and Berlin), as well as a research centre: the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw.