Let’s organise our future!
Biennale Warszawa was created in the autumn of 2017, on the basis of a small receiving theatre house, operating since the 1970s in a post-industrial space of the Norblin Factory, which, after numerous ownership changes and the takeover of the property by a private developer, was deprived of its stage and even its own office space. Biennale is a cultural institution financed from the Warsaw municipal budget. About two years ago it transformed into an interdisciplinary hub working in a continuous manner at the intersection of various disciplines, with a distinct socio-political profile, while also collaborating with other cultural institutions, non-governmental organisations and social initiatives, and preparing an “interdisciplinary event in the form of a biennale.”
The decision of the Warsaw local authority to transform the existing institution into an interdisciplinary centre can be regarded as extraordinarily progressive, considering the previous practices of local authorities in Poland. It opened up the opportunity to bring to life a different institutional model going beyond the models of public cultural institutions applied thus far. It allowed an institution to be created that combines artistic ideas with research, discursive and publishing activity, in accordance with a practice well-known and established in the art world. Primarily, however, it enabled the creation of a new type of institution that operates in parallel in the artistic and political areas, while attempting to reclaim influence not only through public debate, but also social and political life.
The first activity undertaken by the newly formed team – composed of creators, curators of performance and visual arts, researchers and social activists – was to change the previous name of the institution. The shared sentiment was that using the old name, closely tied to the former institutional model would be incomprehensible. We decided to refer to the known and, to be honest, disputable biennale format, but to apply it in a specific and slightly cynical way. Thanks to the adoption of the new name, Biennale Warszawa gained immediate recognisability and visibility, standing out against the range of various local artistic initiatives, organisations and festivals. At the same time, in order to avoid associations with or direct comparisons to large events from the area of visual or performance arts – which Biennale Warszawa would never be, not least due to its limited financial and production capacities – the main emphasis was placed on the ongoing programme of the institution, executed between subsequent editions of the festival. Therefore, “Biennale Warszawa” is, first and foremost, the name of a public institution of culture. Secondly, it encompasses two-year-long cycles of ongoing artistic, research and socio-political activities conducted collectively by the curatorial team. Finally, it designates the biennale itself, which in this instance is a complement, extension and summary of the programming carried out over two years, rather than a separate event, entered into the calendar of great exhibitions or festivals entrusted to eminent curators.
Using the biennale as a tool, and the critical approach to the biennale format, although it is entirely understandable in the context of the debate on the usefulness of organising large festivals, events and exhibitions, very often causes confusion. Difficulties in understanding the special model of Biennale Warszawa, which at the same parasitizes and challenges the biennale format, stem partly from the lack of a reference point in a country without any large event of a similar nature. They result partly from the habit of thinking about culture in terms of established and politically neutral categories, in a sense, formats. However, the institutional model of Biennale Warszawa becomes much clearer when we remark on the programming guidelines of the institution, whose major point of reference is current politics, which incites social conflicts, increases economic inequalities and reconstructs authoritarian forms of rule. If the institutional model of Biennale Warszawa, and the programme it follows, is considered as a kind of political counterproject, it should become easier to understand what connects people from various background who decided to abandon their narrowly outlined disciplines, their artistic and academic niches, in favour of starting collaborative and active work on a programme drafting a perspective of different politics.
It would be easiest to conclude that the involvement of the institution is caused primarily by the situation in Poland, and that it constitutes a direct reaction to the rule of the Law and Justice party, including the ultra-right wing policy of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage that (in summary) consists of reinforcing the right-wing hegemony in the area of culture and preserving national and nationalist identity narratives – by way of the overtaken or newly created institutions. A direct reaction to the right-wing cultural policy can undoubtedly be noted in the actions of the liberal Warsaw authorities that, when specifying the tasks for the new institution, inscribed in its statute the following statement: “the idea of the Biennale is based on the premise that culture and art play a vital role in building a modern, tolerant, critical society, operating with respect for democracy and civic liberties, diversity of beliefs, religions, sexual orientations and origins.” The idea of establishing a new institution with a socio-political profile, openly and overtly working for other than right-wing values, can easily be regarded as a political gesture of the opposition and a response to the attempt by the conservative right to dominate the area of culture.
From the point of view of the institution and its curatorial team, the issue is more complicated. Right-wing politics – employing populist slogans, drifting towards authoritarianism, imposing ultraconservative legal solutions in the sphere of the worldview and perpetuating identity conflicts – is a significant, but not the sole factor we have taken into account when creating the programme of the new institution. Equally important are: a belief in capitalism as a modernisation tool – constantly present in the public debate, in Polish political and social life, as well as the Polish political imagination, which did not disappear in the wake of the global financial crisis – and the accompanying idolatrous, dogmatic approach of Polish liberal elites to the achievements of the last three decades, to the political model created within that period. In Poland, a country whose political scene for the last 30 years has been dominated by various factions of the right, where political debate focuses on identity-related and historical obsessions, and the economic debate is governed by the free market obsession, there is currently no issue more important than working out solutions that could constitute an alternative to the oppressive identity policies on the one hand, and economic policies on the other.
This is the reason why the programming guidelines of Biennale Warszawa devote so much space to the future, to reclaiming political imagination that would enable us to rethink and then build a new political framework. The first two-year-long cycle of activities, inaugurated in the autumn of 2017 and concluded in June 2019, was to a large extent devoted to the topics of self-organisation, self-governance, autonomy, direct democracy, cooperativism, municipalism, political projects that could constitute an alternative to the current political model. These issues were discussed both in the historical context: in the play Solidarity. The New Project we were evoking the idea of a self-governing society from the programme declaration of the 1st Solidarity Convention in 1981; and the contemporary context: through Jan Sowa’s series Solidarity 2.0, or democracy as a form of life we presented initiatives, organisations, institutions built on the ideas of autonomy and direct democracy in various places worldwide. Topics related to self-organisation and autonomy were developed at a local level in the programme Let’s organise our future! – in the first Biennale edition – the Polish Social Forum, a three-day meeting of activists, debating on the projects of changes in the area of environmentalism, minorities’ rights, women’s rights, urban policy and employee rights, as well as a simultaneously prepared block of artistic and research activities: Taking over the stage. A polyphonic manifesto for the future by Zorka Wollna, whose objective is to create a collective voice through a democratic micro-community in the form of a hundred-person choir, Gośka Isphording’s and Karol Nepelski’s Variations on a Global Crowd, a musical piece set in the context of assemblies and occupations of public spaces in the recent years, and a piece by Núria Güell, whose starting points are self-organised protests for the liberalisation of reproductive rights in Poland.
Propositions of alternative, democratic solutions in the area of politics, society and economy have been accompanied since the beginning by activities initiating and creating new mechanisms of international, translocal cooperation and solidarity. Political issues were first set in a translocal perspective during the two-month interdisciplinary programme The Atlas of Planetary Violence, it was also present in the plays Global Civil War and Modern Slavery, as well as in the populist-themed exhibition Skip the Line! Almost straight away, the Biennale team decided that what needs to be juxtaposed with the peripheral character of Polish politics, fed by the messianic myth about the unique historical experience of Poles and neo-Sarmatian expectations towards the public sphere, which subject politics, education, science and culture to narrow, local, egoistic goals, while removing from the field of vision the broader international social and political context, is a project of different politics, based on international solidarity. In the face of phenomena with a planetary reach, the domination of global oligopolies, citizen migrations, the crisis of representative democracy, right-wing populism, authoritarian tendencies, climate change and environmental pollution, rebuilding and creating grass-root networks of cooperation and international connections is a political necessity. And it is in this spirit that we should interpret the presence of the following items in the Biennale programme: the East European – North African – Middle East Forum, whose goal is to reflect on the reconstruction of relations that Poland and Eastern Europe had with the Middle East and North Africa region, which were virtually broken off after 1989; Convention of Women Farmers, curated by Marwa Arsanios, who invites to Warsaw representatives of ecofeminist collectives; and Jonas Staal’s Transunions, an assembly of representatives from organisations and institutions working in the international sphere outside of the framework of national states. The topic of translocal solidarity is also raised in the discursive, visual and performance projects: a lecture by Susan Buck-Morss; a conference Avantgarde Decentered: (Semi)peripheries of Capitalism and Universal History; Exhibition of foreign artists living in Poland, curated by Janek Simon; Katarzyna Kawat’s Staff only, Katarzyna Szyngiera’s Women Refugees and Dima Levitsky’s Kijowska, projects stemming from the experience of migrants living in Warsaw; as well as the play Orestes in Mosul, directed by Milo Rau and produced by NTGent, a Belgian theatre whose manifesto emphasises the need to develop translocal relations.
The programming guidelines of Biennale Warszawa were never about the creation of a new artistic institution with a critical and political profile, which from its own clearly stated position would be able to boldly and convincingly react to negative phenomena, related, for example, to the emergence of populist or post-fascist ideologies. Biennale Warszawa was created as an institution working for positive changes in the area of culture, education, and social issues, so naturally neither the critical aspect, nor the artistic activity, despite being a constant presence, have a decisive role in its programming. Biennale Warszawa was created as an interdisciplinary institution integrating various disciplines and operating in multiple fields. While interdisciplinarity is understood here in quite a specific way, not only as a possibility for the exchange of knowledge and experiences between disciplines, using interdisciplinary tools to describe complex issues of the contemporary world, or eliminating the distance between culture, art and reality, or combatting the alienation of culture and art by granting them a “utilitarian” aspect. Biennale Warszawa treats interdisciplinarity as a chance to go beyond disciplines, as an activist practice uniting people from various areas, establishing partnerships and creating multilateral alliances focused around progressive policies.
Interdisciplinarity (perhaps the term ‘transdisciplinarity’ would be more appropriate here) is also an action strategy used to preserve the minimum of agency in the public sphere in a situation where culture has lost its agency. Contrary to the opinions of many members of the Polish artistic world who still see in culture a tool of social change, culture in Poland (and also worldwide) has rather become one of the sectors of the economy, a promotional branch of the state, a branding support for cities. As a result of the depoliticization processes of cultural policies that peaked in Poland in the years 2007-2015, as well as the deinstitutionalization of culture since the early 1990s leading to economic polarization and the permanent separation of creators from institutions, culture has maintained some ability to influence the so-called public debate, but its impact on social, political or economic processes is quite small. To make matters worse, culture has lost its progressive character as well; in recent years, it has actually become a tool for the state to execute a regressive historical policy, and a field on which ultra-right mythologies are created and religious obscurantism is promoted. The entanglement of culture (as well as other disciplines of the broadly understood humanities) in market-and-media relations, in supporting reactionary and conservative ideological projects, cannot be overcome on the field of culture alone. Culture will not become another Baron Munchhausen and cannot pull itself out of the mire by its own hair.
The Biennale Warszawa programme can, therefore, be read as an attempt to expand the field, acting at the intersection of various disciplines, or even going beyond those disciplines, to enable the inclusion of a variety of people and social groups, organisations and institutions (that have never worked together before) in designing the future and in building multilateral partnerships. This is precisely why the list of Biennale’s partners include research entities, such as the Institute of Polish Culture, EUROREG UW, the Faculty of Management of Visual Culture ASP; social and activist organisations and initiatives, like Camp for the Forest, Syrena Squat and Free Kurdistan Initiative; cultural institutions, like the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, the Ujazdowski Centre for Contemporary Art and TR Warszawa. This is why equality and special significance in the practice of Biennale Warszawa is assigned to transdisciplinary projects such as the performance and discursive programme devoted to local government (Solidarity. New project, Solidarity 2.0), The Atlas of Planetary Violence, the research and activist project New Metropolitan Mainstream, a series of social and artistic activities devoted to new education RePrezentacje, a six-month-long pilot activity of the Centre of Inclusive Art Downtown.
Transdisciplinarity also constitutes an important level of the programme Let’s organise our future! Events of an interdisciplinary nature include primarily assemblies, congresses and conferences. The Polish Social Forum initiated by Jan Sowa and Piotr Grzymisławski, Jonas Staal’s Transunions, Marwa Arsanios’ Convention of Women Farmers, the East European – North African – Middle East Forum curated by Anna Galas-Kosil and Bartosz Frąckowiak are all attempts at establishing relations between social, political and artistic organisations from Poland and abroad, including activists, creators, curators, researchers and the public in creating new political and social configurations. Artistic and social activities and programming blocks are also transdisciplinary in nature: Agata Siwak’s Endless Space, an interdisciplinary exhibition devoted to visions for new education, new pedagogy, created with the input of experts, researchers, activists, creators and children; Reclaiming the stage. A polyphonic manifesto for the future, which intertwines the areas of artistic action, social action, activism and research in action, or Nabil Ahmed’s 1307/7150, an artistic project resulting from his research on archival materials.
The specific organisational model of Biennale Warszawa, which helps combine art, political activism and academic and theoretical activities, was designed exactly with the special mission of this institution in mind. It differs from both the model of a public cultural institution and a non-governmental organisation, the most wide-spread organisational models in Poland. It can offer stable employment, secure the long duration of the developed projects, and at the same time enable activities on multiple fields, with the use of various formats. It has the ability to add a political dimension to the organisational model and action programme, which in the case of Polish cultural institutions and NGOs is often considered crossing an unacceptable line in a depoliticised field of culture, and usually constitutes quite a challenge for both authorities and the audience.
Creating a new institutional model, and in fact forming a brand new institution, stems from the conviction that changes in the public sphere can be made only through new types of institutions; that the fundamental objectives of the Biennale are possible to achieve only within the new and permanent organisational formula created as a result of challenging the organisational status quo (creating an effective institution or organisation, capable of making changes in the public sphere and withstanding multiple political shifts is still possible, which has been proven in recent years by the Polish conservative and radical right wing, exercising in its traditionalism much more organisational imagination than progressive circles). Thus, Biennale Warszawa has relied on the principles of organisational art (which at the centre of its interests places designing institutions and organisations), drawing conclusions from problematic experiences of participatory art, from the failures of social mobilizations and spontaneously formed initiatives; it also applied these aspects of the theory of management that refer to the ideas of public service and common good.
This is precisely why the debate about the future and political, social, economic, cultural and educational alternatives, which Biennale Warszawa has been holding for almost two years, was deliberately fed into the discussion about new institutional models. It started from lectures and seminars about the collectivisation of cultural institutions, participatory art, and perspectives of organisational art. Lectures given by Kuba Szreder and Stephen Wright about making an artistic institution collective; by Georg Blokus about the need to move from participatory to organisational art; by Monika Kostera about organisational models other than those based on the systems of control; a meeting devoted to Public Art Munich 2018, the East Europe Biennale Alliance conference presenting alternative models of biennale and their survival strategies in the face of political pressure, and sometimes even physical aggression – they all presented diverse approaches to building new organisations, also with respect to the current political context in Eastern Europe.
This year’s edition of Biennale Warszawa, entitled Let’s organise our future!, goes further, shifts the centre of gravity towards practical actions, co-creating new socio-political, economic, educational, and artistic institutions and organisations. Concluding the series Humanities of the future, in the debate A different university, Michał Kuziak initiates work on a new shape of academia. Agata Siwiak, over a two-year-long series RePrezentacje, worked on the educational model and, together with Maciej Siuda, Agata Kiedrowicz and children from Warsaw, designs a new, democratic school. During the workshop The Art of the Cooperative, Kuba Szreder and invited guests create a new artistic organisation founded on cooperative principles. Maja Demska presents and develops the model of an alternative cultural institution – Groszowe sprawy [For Next to Nothing], a gallery set in the space of the market on Namysłowska Street. By organising in Warsaw a congress of eco-feminist collectives from all over the world, Marwa Arsanios designs an international environmental network, and through internationalisation she attempts to reinforce its political agenda. The Eastern European – North African – Middle-East Forum is the bud of a new organisation, connecting Poland with countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Jonas Staal’s Transunions, by questioning the framework of a national state, speculates about the possibility of creating a new forum for international cooperation.
Organisations established as part of the Biennale activities will have the chance to survive, becoming a space for manufacturing democratic and progressive political, social, educational and cultural solutions. However, there is always the risk that, due to political and economic reasons, these projects will be limited to one-time actions, or that they will remain just interesting artistic prototypes. Wishing to avoid disappointments, typical for all initiatives launched in recent years, Biennale Warszawa has adopted a different assumption: a principle evoked by Marina Garcés, Spanish philosopher, in her lecture given in January 2019 in Warsaw. She proposed that, instead of creating large, utopian, and thus elusive and rather unrealistic ideas, we should adopt a formula in transition, tested by urban movements, and consisting of the gradual introduction of changes. Based on that principle, calculated according to its own capabilities, which does not go far into the field of speculation, not expecting the creation of attractive prototypes, but pushing the cause of progress, day by day and step by step, work on the organisational and institutional projects of Biennale will continue. We should not expect too much of a wow effect, there will be no miracles. Organisations and institutions will emerge that will have to be constantly supported and developed. It is not a task for a single small institution and one small team. This is why the programme’s motto Let’s organise our future! is also an encouragement and invitation to collaborative action.