AIM Wrocław, Politics of collaboration
(text: Anna Tomaszewska, based on Aleksandra Smolińska’s notes)
Poland has a long tradition of grassroots initiatives, although most of them are characterised by ephemerality. Artists increasingly complain about the lack of financial support, conservative cultural policies, an overwhelming dominance of public institutions, and lack of media interest. Is it possible to improve this situation? We addressed this question, alongside many others, during the three-days of ‘Politics of Collaboration’ – the last of AIM's meetings series. We invited representatives of artists' initiatives from across Poland, local activists, and students of the Wrocław Academy of Fine Arts. Events were held at Barbara, Wykwit and Entropia Wrocław.
The collective character of the meeting was reflected in the exhibition 'Abracadabra – Politics of Collaboration', as well as in the preparatory phase and the selection of subjects for discussion. We focused on specific aspects of collaboration at different levels: international, national, local, and within artist initiatives. It was essential for us to concentrate on the aspect of ‘empowerment’ in the context of the current political situations in both Europe and on global scale: the rise of isolationist tendencies in different countries, diminishing budgets for independent, experimental and critical practice, dominance of public institutions and commercial galleries, putting the material interests of individuals before the collective interest (mainly in the context of competitiveness within the art world), low status and poor visibility of independent galleries, and the lack of bargaining power in negotiations with the local authorities, institutions, etc. We did our best to look at the flipside of these issues and focus on what can be done, how and why it can be achieved, by learning from each other, providing inspiration, arguing, and supporting one another.
For three days Wrocław hosted a total of thirty-one artists and curators from ten countries (1646 gallery from the Netherlands, LTMK from Lithuania, the Danish initiative TYS, St Marc from Spain, Supermarket from Sweden, Totaldobze from Estonia, MUU from Finland, Microwesten from Germany, Watertower Art Fest from Bulgaria), a number of organisations from Poland: the Miłość gallery from Toruń, F.A.I.T. from Cracow, the Wschodnia gallery from Łódź, the Szara gallery from Katowice (previously based in Cieszyn), STROBOSKOP from Warsaw, the Salony Foundation from Zielona Góra, Wrocław-based organisations: Wykwit, Entropia and U galleries, the Art Transparent Foundation, and students from the Academy of Fine Arts, Wroclaw who also represented the MD-S gallery. The agenda for the meetings and seminars was supervised by Anna Tomaszewska, a curator and lecturer. The production of the project was overseen by Katarzyna Zielińska and Marta Kołodziejska of the European Capital of Culture Wrocław 2016 Festival Office, while the exhibition accompanying the event was curated by Andreas Ribbung from Supermarket.
The guests were presented with a detailed agenda and assigned to international working groups, whose moderated discussions focused on the current problems, limitations and challenges faced by artist-run initiatives. The jointly agreed items to be discussed concerned both abstract and very concrete matters including:
- cooperation of galleries with similar profiles in different countries;
- cooperation at the local level;
- local experiences versus the international (global) context; the significance of cooperation of independent initiatives in order to strengthen their position and prestige in the art world;
- the importance of creating spaces for experimenting and stimulating critical thinking;
- collaboration policies in the context of growing nationalistic tendencies in Europe;
- issues connected with equal rights of artists invited to exhibit and ways of running galleries;
- financing the activity;
- ways of functioning without a budget;
- issues connected with selling works or intentionally resigning from commercial activity;
- ways of combining artistic practice with other forms of earning a living.
Mindaugas Gapševičius, Anita Welter and Karolina Włodek at the meeting workshop during AIM Wrocław 2016 ‘Politics of collaboration’, Culture centre Barbara, European Capital of Culture Wrocław 2016. Photo: Alicja Kielan
An important aspect of the meeting was the local context which became the pretext for reflecting on the long tradition of self-organisation in Wrocław. The visiting artists and curators had the opportunity to talk with the representatives of local independent initiatives and visit their spaces. At Entropia, one of the oldest galleries in Wrocław, Dominika Łabądź, co-founder of the U Gallery, presented the history and programme of the initiative that used to be in a rented tenement building on Jedności Narodowej Street. The building, which had been renovated and adapted through the efforts of Dominika Łabądź, Marysia Orzeszyna-Kułakowska and Małgorzata Sawicka, operated for five years as an autonomous platform for artistic work. In 2015 the owner demolished the building, and new apartments are being erected on the site. Despite not having a physical space U Gallery is still active in what the artist described as ‘symbolic’ space, being involved in local, often controversial, issues connected with the municipal cultural policies.
Alicja and Mariusz Jodko, the curators of the Entropia Gallery, which has been operating since 1988, familiarised the guests with the reality of self-organisation in the difficult period of transformation in the 1980s, when two artistic currents were simultaneously developing in Poland – an official and an underground one. At that time, a gallery was one of the few acceptable forms of counterculture – a ‘quasi’ or ‘extra’ institution providing an alternative to the existing institutions (also in the social, environmental and countercultural sense), that operated parallel to the officially sanctioned art scene of the communist era. This is how the ‘independence’ of the galleries being set up in Poland in the 1980s should be understood, although most of them paradoxically depended organisationally, administratively or financially on the local councils or larger institutions, such as cultural centres and universities. The Entropia Gallery was no exception – operating under the auspices of the municipal council of Wrocław. Although as an institution it is controlled by the local administration, it was set up as a grassroots initiative by its founders, and from the very beginning it has functioned as an individual and original project.
Discussions about the history of Entropia Gallery, which is firmly rooted in the collective conscience of Wrocław residents, and the story of the tenement building at 93 Jedności Narodowej Street, was continued in a new venue for art, an old house at 21 Jana Kochanowskiego Street where the basement had been converted to an exhibition venue. There was an opportunity to explore the house, which dates back to around 1900 when Wrocław was the German city of Breslau. In an informal atmosphere of a picnic in the garden, the founders of the Wykwit gallery answered questions about running the house. Wykwit is a space where art and private life permeate each other, without any predefined programme or common ideological denominator. Since the artists who run the gallery also live in the building, supporting it depends on collective efforts. The founders emphasised that their artistic-curatorial practice is completely independent of external institutions and curators.
The discussions initiated on the first day were continued during the summary meetings and semi-open seminar held on the following day and moderated by Anna Tomaszewska. In keeping with the title of the programme the conversations revolved around the importance of artists’ self-organisation and the specific contextual aspects of collaboration (within a gallery, locally, nationally, and internationally). An important facet of the discussion was the local context of the meeting. For this reason participants were invited to analyse the history of artists’ self-organisation in Wrocław and the reception of their activities by the local audience. Among other challenges addressed on this day were the issues of selling works by initiatives that are non-commercial, the justification of creating residency programmes dedicated to artists running their own spaces, e.g. research sojourns in different cities in Poland and elsewhere, and inviting artists connected with independent spaces to Wrocław.
Apart from the shared subjects, each of the five international groups focused on one specific aspect of running self-organised initiatives. Group one (moderated by Signe Vad from TYS Exhibition Space (Copenhagen) and comprising Marcos Vidal Font from St Marc (Mallorca), Alicja Jodko and Mariusz Jodko from Entropia (Wrocław), Anna Stec from SURVIVAL (Wrocław), and Iwona Ogrodzka from the Academy of Fine Arts (Wrocław)) discussed issues connected with the limits of artistic freedom. The group’s starting point was the notion of censorship, considering self-organised initiatives in the context of a counterculture functioning in parallel to an officially endorsed art. Understood in this way, grassroots initiatives are treated as a basis for the democratisation of art, which can be practiced and curated virtually by anyone, and thus blurs the distinction between those who are artists and those who are not, between what is acceptable as artistic expression and what is stifled or regarded as taboo. As the moderator observed, the discussion on the limits of artistic expression quickly turned into a wider conversation about the changing political and social contexts in which the art scene functions; among the addressed topics was the positive example of Entropia Gallery which began in the 1990s to incorporate new technologies and mobile apps in its activities to avoid being stuck in one schema. The general reflection pointed toward a conclusion that an open art market, and increasing competitiveness of the official and non-official spaces for art, inevitably leads to certain concessions to the ruling ‘system,’ because in order to increase visibility and reach the audience, even ‘the most independent’ initiatives must think about communications strategies and maintaining visibility.
The second group (led by Nico Feragnoli and comprising Mathias Roth from Microwesten (Berlin), Lina Rukeviciute Sodų 4, (Vilnius), Norbert Delman from STROBOSKOP (Warsaw), Joanna Rzepka-Dziedzic and Łukasz Dziedzic from Galeria Szara (Katowice), and Jagoda Dobecka from Academy of Fine Arts (Wrocław)) considered the advantages and limitations of grassroots initiatives and their more institutionalised equivalents. Although the discussion was very animated the group admitted that they did not arrive at clear conclusions as both ways of approaching artistic actions seem to be more or less functional depending on the local political, social and financial contexts. The participants did agree that establishing new spaces for art in environments where official cultural-artistic institutions already exist stems from the natural need to take up initiative and create a field for individual expression, free from organisational profiles and budgets. Against this backdrop founders of independent galleries fulfil the role of activists, unlike curators who are always separated from the audience by certain impassable distance. However, the group members highlighted that grassroots initiatives undertaken by these artists-activists are not in opposition to the mainstream arts scene; instead they supplement it by providing a critical or simply alternative options for managing art and culture.
Group three (moderated by Andreas Ribbung from Candyland and Supermarket (Stockholm) with participants Mindaugas Gapsevicius (Germany/Lithuania), Piotr Lisowski and Natalia Wiśniewska from Miłość (Toruń), Adam Martyniak from Wykwit (Wrocław), Karolina Włodek and Anita Welter from the Academy of Fine Arts (Wrocław)) dealt with the challenges faced by artist collectives and focused on issues such as group potential versus individualism, ‘victimless’ activities, and the effective use of a group’s potential. The participants drew on their personal experience and different practices used in collective work. Everybody agreed that private initiatives are also subject to structuring, and the members involved in them must be responsible for acquiring funds, negotiating with partners, and organising exhibitions. Even initiatives verging on the principle of a ‘non-ideological commune’ such as Wykwit, whose members live and work in a shared space, need to adhere to a set of rules. Here, collective work includes a number of activities – from minor house repairs, through thinking about the house as a venue for creative interventions, to exceeding the limits of their ‘own backyard’ and inviting people from the outside to co-create the gallery. It was observed that the best guarantor of a group’s smooth, ‘victimless’ functioning is basing it on the individual resources of each of its members, using their talents and predispositions. The group also attempted to define the notion of ‘collaboration’ and concluded that it is based on potential exchange, direct contact with each other and with the audience, and an open dialogue rather than a mentorship model.
Group four (chaired by Kaspars Lielgalvis from Totaldobze (Riga) with Timo Soppela from MUU gallery (Helsinki ), Gaweł Kownacki from f.a.i.t. (Kraków), Karolina Bieniek from SURVIVAL (Wrocław) and Ewa Służyńska from A-I-R Wro (Wrocław)) examined the purposefulness of independent organisations by posing questions about the reasons for their establishment, their programme offer, and the ways of providing access to art that is alternative to the main stream. Despite considerable differences (the participants came from initiatives of varying structures and sizes), the group members began by giving the reasons for doing what they do, and concluded that the existing system of curating and managing art failed to provide them with a feeling of security, both financial and ideological. Disappointed with the official art scene, they set out to create their unique versions of it, following their own priorities and original artistic programmes. They considered their overarching value to be in retaining their independence and ensuring contact with live art, not just as artists, but also as mediators and organisers of events, exhibitions and creative activities. The participants also agreed that the main driving force behind their actions is not solely the effect of their work but the process itself, while the idea they try to follow is ‘life as art.
The fifth and last group (moderated by Anna Tomaszewska (Warsaw/Stockholm) and comprising Nia Puskarova from Watertower Arts Fest (Sofia), Kim Dotty Hachmann from Microwesten (Berlin), Marta Gendera from Fundacja Salony (Zielona Góra), Ewelina Chmielewska from Wschodnia Gallery (Łódź), and Michał Mejnartowicz and Karolina Balcer from Wykwit (Wrocław)) considered the notion of space in which artists operate. The discussion concerned the overlapping of private and professional life, and including artistic activities in everyday life due to working in a space that simultaneously fulfils the roles of a flat, office and gallery. The conversation began from examples of good practices, represented by the aforementioned U Gallery and Wykwit, as well as by the apartment-gallery in Wschodnia Street in Łódź. As reported by Ewelina Chmielewska, who represented the Wschodnia Gallery, the overlapping of everyday life and professional duties is a natural function of the gallery that was set up under the communist regime as a way of relocating suppressed artistic expressions into a private space. At that time it was a venue for theatre rehearsals and free jazz sessions as well as a site of clandestine political activity. Although it was a highly inspiring situation, where a constant inflow of new artistic ideas led to an open attitude, and the informal meetings often assumed the character of artistic interventions, operating in a private residence unavoidably means coming up with ways of communicating and cooperating with neighbours. This working group devoted a lot of time and attention to the notion of equal rights in the context of the make-up and programme of artist-run galleries. As it turned out, even initiatives like these rarely analyse their functioning from the point of view of selecting exhibitors and dividing the duties within the gallery.
The issue of residency programmes for artists running their own spaces was discussed extensively during the seminar. It was unanimously concluded that the idea of international meetings and exchanges offers the possibility of being exposed to a multitude of specifically local cultural and social attitudes, which translates tangibly into activeness based on collaboration and bridge-building between organisations operating outside of the official art scenes. Such residency programmes are offered by the Dutch project space ‘1646’, which hosts independent artists and curators for a period of up to two months. The Wschodnia and Wykwit galleries also offer similar programmes.
In the context of Poland the lack of, and the need for, creating a forum for discussions, presentations and meetings is very real. Resembling Supermarket - Stockholm Independent Art Fair (Sweden) such a platform could raise the status of domestic initiatives and the whole independent art scene: the idea of creating such a platform in Katowice (with the Szara gallery) emerged.
Following the group discussions a more in depth presentation of the initiatives comprising AIM and those participating in the Supermarket Independent Art Fair took place (Polish initiatives have been taking part in Supermarket since 2008).The participants in the meeting also exchanged ideas about ways of funding operational activities, e.g. using crowd funding platforms, adopting a multi-level system of membership fees, the possibility of donating 1% of tax to non-governmental organisations (which is particularly popular in Poland), or incorporating commercial events in the functioning of artist-run spaces (for example auctions and events). There were also more alternative ideas such as the 'action-vernissage' mentioned by the representatives of Wykwit who documented the process of producing cider that was then sold to visitors.
The final element of the meeting was the opening of the exhibition: Abracadabra - Politics of Collaboration. Curated by Andreas Ribbung, it featured works by artists belonging to the AIM network. The show was the result of many years of collaboration in the form of meetings, presentations, debates and conferences. It also featured video works by Polish artists connected with the galleries invited to Wrocław, and Karolina Szymanowska’s urban installation titled Re: CYKLING, curated by Mariusz Jodko.
During the closed meeting of the AIM network members’ plans for future functioning were discussed, including the possibility of inviting initiatives from other countries (also from Poland) to join the network. Most of the participants agreed that working in small groups was a positive aspect of the Wrocław meeting, which made it possible to learn about and compare the specificity of artist-run organisations in Poland and abroad, and it also established more intimate and ‘real’ contact between their representatives. Another advantage of the discussions in small groups was the varied background of the participants, which enabled them to acquaint themselves with the particular contexts of different organisations. The students felt the event to be extremely inspiring. Due to the limitations of time it was not possible to discuss all the subjects on the agenda as extensively as would have been desirable.