“Things we do together” at Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw

In 2010, Jacques Rancière gave a scathing pushback towards participatory art in his book Dissensus. He was skeptical for what he saw as a missing criticality – ultimately a lack of estrangement or conflict generated within the work itself. He claimed that participatory (political) artwork often draws attention to a reality we can all agree on – our junk-filled present, hyper-capitalistic supermalls, or immanent ecological disaster. Thus, participatory art by default often is a consensus raising practice that, to put it briefly, does not inspire alternatives, but rather pivots around a homogenous audience of the museum. But today, reality is perhaps strange – and full of incongruencies – without the help of art. It could be that art does not need to give us fiction because our reality is feeling fictional enough.

On November 11th, 2017, 60,000 right-wing neofascists arrived in Warsaw to assert their white supremacy; Trump still refuses to sign the Paris Accord and the United States has fallen behind Syria as the only nation withdrawing from the climate change deal; while just two days later a deadly earthquake killed 530 people in Iraq and Iran. Add to this late season wildfires in California, hurricanes in Puerto Rico, where half the population is still without power, and North Korea’s leadership stating that the “button for nuclear weapons is on [his] table.”  It is beneath these specific political banners – under the bristling red flag of nationalism and fascism – that the exhibition Gotong Royong. Things we do together at the Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw aims to resurrect participatory practices and utilize togetherness to resist the populist and fascist reality in Poland.

Julia Kosterieva and Yuri Kruchak. Fresh Market (linocut workshop).

Organized by curators Marianna Dobkowska and Kris Łukomski, Gotong Royong is a term that signifies a form of collaborative labor situated in Indonesian culture. From a bricolage of wall text organized in diagrammatic form (by Tita Salina and Irwan Ahmett), one understands that this word has had a lengthy evolution through the country’s pre- and post-colonial stages.  In a conversation with Tita Salina, the artist explains how it evolved as a form of nonviolent “disobedience against repressive system” to Dutch colonizers in the forests in Java in the 1840’s. During the Japanese occupation (1942 – 1945), the term signified mutual cooperation among villagers. It later was appropriated as a National slogan under President Sukarno (1945 – 1967) with the struggle for independence, and under President Soeharto (1967 – 1998) to refer to programs such as Humanity Aid Development. Therefore, the idea of gotong royong was born under extreme duress, colonial genocide, and various occupation – as well as served as a tool for resistance.

In its exhibition form, Gotong Royong’s focus on ‘togetherness’ may harken current moments of collective resistance, but, more importantly, it can also be read as a reaction to earlier Polish leftist avant-garde artists who were compelled to make more traditionally controversial works.1 For example, the late Piotr Piotrowski pushed for the idea of the critical museum, while Artur Żmijewski continues to call for a realism that would fictionalize and thus pierce reality, such as in his curatorial statement for the 7th Berlin Biennale, or in his notorious work The Game of Tag (1999) in which participants played tag in an abandoned gas chamber in the Stutthof Concentration Camp. In this work, Żmijewski engages the legacy of the Holocaust in Poland and how the camps now function as tourist attractions. Żmijewski plays with viewers expectations of the site, giving them instead a controversial, jovial spectacle rather than the typical depiction of the Holocaust through the lens of art. However these artistic practices meant to induce cultural, but also institutional critique is not a discourse specific to Poland but can be seen as a larger movement related to “New Institutionalism”, which emerged out of  the Institutional critique of the 1980s and 1990s to reorient the practices of the institution from within. New Institutionalism pushes to account for the structural incongruencies within the museum rather than focus solely on the gender bias or hegemony at work within art itself.  According to Nina Möntmann, the best practices of New Institutionalism occur in non-western contexts because of the necessity for community-organized practices.2

Installation View

So, why bring a concept of Indonesian togetherness to Poland and how can the term gotong royong also further this legacy of New Institutionalism and criticism in Poland? Furthering this line of thought, when asked about his interest in Indonesia particularly, Gotong Royong curator Kris Łukomski explained that it began when Jatiwangi Art Factory began inviting artists from Brazil, United States, Europe, and Japan to be placed alongside rice farmers and tile producers in its area. In a few years, the artists “completely changed the cultural landscape of this village.” This residency program also allowed the local residents to encounter foreignness without an explicitly colonial model. While sitting in the exhibition space, Łukomski details one community event when musical instruments were made together with local residents. In the end, Łukomski emphasizes how 5,000 collaborators came together to play a composition. “These are long term practices that are actually real. They refer to the constitution of self-organized groups, communities, collectives.” Łukomski stresses the fact that these practices were not gathered from afar in Poland but rather by going to these places and conducting years of work in Southeast Asia. In Warsaw, with the years of work (physically) absent in the display, the objects are meant to transport an aura of this “real experience.” Such is the case with Marta Frank’s Sabun Tanah (The Soap of the Earth), 2015–16, a brick of soap infused with mineral rich clay, made in response to the Jatawangi people who asked for a cosmetic and a gadget, according to Dobkowska during a talk with the writer. Or Arie Syarifuddin’s logotype that was printed on flags for the sixteen hamlets of the Jatiwangi art Factory, which now lines the ceilings of the Ujazdowski’s second gallery.  

Basia Majewska.

Co-curator Marianna Dobkowska came to Jatiwangi Art Factory as a type of art mobility expert, having operated the residency “Re-directing: East at the Ujazdowski Castle.”3 Through this program, she sought to bring artists east of Poland rather than engaging the same Western European countries. Yet, when one hears these types of discourses surrounding artistic mobility in order to implement a sort of global culture, it is a struggle to gulp down the bubbling skepticism. It’s not because this type of exchange isn’t of value (of course it has a very literal material wealth), but behind so much art mobility is often the looming figure of power: the looter, the gentrifier, or the ethnographer. When flowing from the opposite side, laborers traveling from Indonesia often fall into a type of neoliberal exploitation, a topic that does not make its way into the Gotong Royong exhibition. In Aihwa Ong’s book Neoliberalism as Exception, her chapter “Biocartography” elaborates on how care labor and household workers from Indonesia have been exploited by being reduced to inhumane conditions in Singapore and Malaysia. Xandra Popescu’s work Domestic Products (2015), though not in the exhibition, provides a good example of how artistic research can reveal these practices in Romania where a loophole in the law makes this exploitative immigration possible. Popescu stages an opera under the guise of a talent competition, through which the audience learns of Ynia Love, a trained engineer from the Philippines who came to the country to work as a nanny, who then had a strange and entangled relationship with her employer and the children she took care of. As Popescu stresses, mobility from Southeast Asia to Eastern Europe, for those outside artistry, often means the renouncing of citizenry by working in contracts that in practice mean a loss of rights and very real personal autonomy. And the female subject, as Ong reminds in her book, is the ideal candidate for this precarious life. These nuances of mobility are often oddly left out within the artworld, where objects themselves travel with more freedom and ease than people themselves.

How then should the object be read in Poland, in Warsaw? Under this banner – which is not the banner of nationhood, but the invisible black hole that mobile bodies often fall into. Though there are many objects that were made in Indonesia on view in Warsaw, their mobile stories have gotten lost in transit. Instead, other transitional stories are emphasized, such as Francis Alÿs’ When Faith Moves Mountains (2002), which filmed 500 volunteers in Peru “moving a mountain” by shoveling sand. Displayed on a black television screen in the third gallery of the Ujazdowski castle, it sits before Tita Salina and Irwan Ahmett’s film Trashball, which shows participants rolling a giant ball of trash through the city of Jakarta. The emphasis here is on the ecological ruin of the city and how togetherness can be a process of artworking. Likewise, artist/activist Vincent Rumahloine’s Family Portrait Project (2015) consists of Xerox papers depicting a family scene in Java. In it, children cluster around the ground and a television is seen in the background. When first made in Indonesia, Łumowski explains how in order to exhibit the photograph, the whole river in Badung, Java had to be cleaned, since many rivers are devastated by waste. Rumahloine then stuck his excel printouts on the stone of the riverbank. These artworks, made under the guise of self-organization, are supposed to resurrect this shared common activity, and in so doing, they perhaps speak of what Judith Butler calls co-dependency that has a performative nature. And yet, it is also true that co-dependency translates to a real hell outside of the utopian space of the art world [and perhaps for some inside as well]. In the end, it only works if everybody renounces power – which in practice in the art world seems wildly naïve.4

Marta Frank. Sabun Tanah: The Soap of the Earth.

One material present within the exhibition in the unabashed spirit of New Institutionalism and also gotong royong is its floor. Dobkowska explains how she went into the storage basement of the institution in order to recycle materials that have been collecting dust. This recycling was part of the mindset of the exhibition. The end result is a contemporary exhibition design by Maciej Siuda that has the expression of being slightly makeshift – something undoubtedly intentional and fascinating. This furniture is designed to be movable and house the hefty programming that has engaged viewers such as Alicja Rogalsk’s Protest Song Karaoke or the talk “Rebirth of Global Nationalism” by Imani Jacqueline Brown, Clara Ianni, and Ewa Alicja Majewska. Also enacted on the paneled floor is Dorian Batycka’s instrumental DJ set connected to a Kinetic Coin meant to translate time spent looking at art into real currency. He has invited artists Lara Joy Evans, Ashiq Khondker, choreographer and dancer Kasia Wolińska and Justin Francis Kennedy to present interactive works that focus on creating a hospitable space of cohesive intimacy.  The floor as an institutional remnant acts as a stage, a rendition of Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zone. Yet, the only problem with temporary autonomous togetherness is that it can easily be put back into the basement after the act is completed.

Alicja Rogalsk. Protest Song Karaoke.

“Gotong Royong, Things we do together” should be read against two major drives of criticality in the art world: the aspiration to be mobile and the push back to the local. On one hand, it is a very clear expression to change the Polish art scene in Warsaw by creating a public program that would permutate comfort rather than conflict – but on the other hand, the exhibition, as well as the institution’s desire for foreign artist bodies, accelerates with a pounding speed that surpasses drives to be local. The reason for this is quite obvious: on the streets of Warsaw, many people march for white supremacy, many refuse to speak other languages besides Polish, and a majority are disproportionately xenophobic (though there are still strong leftist circles and long history of intelligentsia).5 The museum is one of the few safe spaces where “being together with the other” does not come under duress. In favor of the safe space, however, the actual institutional critique looms in the shadows. Though a different kind of artistic labor is featured in the front rooms of the Castle cum Museum, the invisible labor of the curator, the networker, and the administrator remains to be integrated. For now, the basement where the floorboards were pulled out is still below us, the offices where the numerous assistants and curators work are still enshrouded in an ivory tower of female silence. After these relations are over, the choreography has been played out, the museum is still a place for art fabrication with its structure spanning vertically.



Images courtesy of Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art. Photos: Bartosz Górka

The author would like to thank the Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw, Magdalena Gorlas and Anna Dąbrowa, for organizing her travel and accommodations from Berlin. She would also like to thank the curators Marianna Dobkowska and Kris Łukomski for long conversations about their ongoing practices. Lastly, Zofia nierodzinska for a crash course in Polish critical thought.

  1.  This includes artists and academics such as Piotr Piotrowski, Izabela Kowalczyk, Ryszard Kluszczynski, Jakub Sienkiewicz, Sztuka krytyczna, Artur Żmijewski, Katarzyna Kozyra, and Paweł Althamer.
  2.  For a longer explanation, see Möntmann’s text “The Rise and Fall of New Institutionalism” (2007).
  3.  In 2016, I wrote about an action choreographed by residents Ehsan Fardjadniya and Dorian Batycka (under the framework of Redirecting East) that also sought to work through the rise of fascism in Poland, frontex, and the commemoration of the Warsaw uprising.
  4.  Side note: If only Jeff Koons would agree to be co-dependent, but instead he keeps gifting his art to Paris under the guise of the “gift economy.”
  5.  See Ben Mauk’s essay “A Land Without Strangers” for a fine journalistic analysis of this scenario.

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