Dolne Miasto of Changes. Art and the City Non-Festival
“If the container is a sign of change, then artistic activity in neglected or forgotten parts of the city will most frequently come before the approaching gentrification.
LAZNIA, however, has never tried to avoid such dilemmas, consistently working with local communities within the space of the district. Art and animation have always been in its approach midwives who want to help the inhabitants of Dolne Miasto get through spatial and social transformations”.
Text by Aleksandra Litorowicz
”Monitoring again? What’s with the cameras everywhere?,” wondered two passers-by at the boulevard in Dolne Miasto near the Motlawa river. I wonder if they knew that a festival of art in public space was taking place there and that the construction container near the river was one of the pieces. Inside, they saw a security guard in a dark room, staring at numerous screens. No wonder that they associated the art piece with a security booth. Yet, the guard was not watching guarded housing estates or developer investments. On the screens one could see fragments of the Dolne Miasto filmed by local youth who at the same time presented their district for us to see.
The appearance of containers in the city space is usually an announcement of some imminent change. Once you see a similar booth in your neighbourhood, you may be sure that something will happen. Probably you will be faced with some dark forces that are going to force some transformation – you will either be happy about it or not, but most certainly there will be nothing you could do about it. Supposedly, inhabitants of Chlodna street, where the other festival container stood, made anxious phone calls asking about the fate of their back yard – what will be happening here, will there be something built?
Photo Booth by Mariusz Waras appeared suddenly, as if dropped in by a great port crane. The installation was set on a symbolic border of the old and the new district, where on the other side of the Motlawa river the place was already swarming with housing estates and apartment buildings. Its silent and disturbing presence is a signal of many threads specific for Dolne Miasto. This space is not only being modernised, but it is also subject to gentrification, commercialisation and privatisation processes, being shaped and negotiated. This is precisely the moment of change in the character of this district that Waras is asking about. His booth is a metaphor of dilemmas of which the festival organisers and LAZNIA employees must be aware. If the container is a sign of change, then artistic activity in neglected or forgotten parts of the city will most frequently come before the approaching gentrification. LAZNIA, however, has never tried to avoid such dilemmas, consistently working with local communities within the space of the district.
The Non-Festival was not supposed to be a spectacular project that would compete with other summer attractions. Indeed, the atmosphere in Gdansk during the festival days was intimate, almost picnic-like, and the organisers invited the district’s inhabitants and tourists to visit many local spaces, including the social garden and the square located at the Reduta Centre. Works of art that were created were supposed to ”try out” their dialogue with Dolne Miasto and Gdansk for ten days. The pilot edition also adopted the slogan ”My Freedom” which coincided with celebrations of the Year of Freedom and Solidarity that the city was organising on the occasion of the anniversary of 1989. Over twenty invited artists were supposed to tell how they understand freedom – of speech, personal and artistic.
Flowers, boombox and identity
As many as four works referred to the flower motif. Luka Rayski, inspired by the poem Polish Flowers written by Tuwim at the time when he was an immigrant, designed paper for packing flowers. Mirella von Chrupek chose a narrow passage cut off by bars, hidden in the backyard of the Royal Rifle Factory. In spite of ruins and darkness, her great foam flowers blossomed here. Marcin Janusz, inspired by the famous photography of shipyard workers fighting for freedom, presented them in an anonymous manner, devoid of faces. In the foreground of his painting there are flowers, bringing to mind the Gate of Lenin memorial Gdansk Shipyard covered in flowers during strikes in August 1980.
Finally, another ”wandering” work – a painting by Alicja Biala, presenting ZOMO attacking not a crowd, but white roses. Rose is one of the works in the cycle Polska bez obrazy (Poland with No Offence) referring to celebrations of the hundredth anniversary of independence. As a partof this cycle, a few paintings by the artist visited more than two hundred households in Poland, Berlin and Scandinavia. In Gdansk their visits were, however, limited to a few selected locations, such as Inkubator Sasiedzkiej Energii (Incubator of Neighbouring Energy), the apartment of poet Antoni Pawlak and the apartment of artists, Kora Kowalska and Sebastian Szyszko. Such a shame that the painting did not have a chance to spontaneously visit households of the inhabitants of Dolne Miasto with less familiar surnames, which was, after all, the basic assumption of the artist. Thanks to this, maybe we would perhaps be able to know the inhabitants of Dolne Miasto better? This hunger was partially satisfied by two projects: Biography, a continuation of the project completed in cooperation with the Ukrainian Open Group and Yuriy Sokolov, an artist from Lviv, and Arbuz (Watermelon) with Refugees, a mobile recording studio run by Honorata Martin, Piotr Martin, Aurora Lubos and Zosia Martin. The first one consisted in sharing one’s biography, which is subsequently read in the city space, transmitted to the festival container and its closest vicinity and simultaneously recorded on a long white reel, while in Arbuz (derived from art-bus) one could recognise an initiative for supporting refugees and immigrants started nearly two years ago in Italian Calabria.
Another container of Gdania is a casket to be decoded, prepared by artists not involved in Gdansk: Ada Zielinska, Marcin Janusz and Pawel Wlodarski, under the guidance of Marcin Rozyc. They were seeking a new Gdansk identity, appealing to the rich history of the city and looking upon its present. Gdania, richly encrusted in senses and polyphony, seems, however, a little detached from the space of its exposition. This is a gallery concept that, closed in a container, can be watched literally and metaphorically, only ”through a window.” Its strength lies in a simple association according to which Gdansk is the personification of freedom in the title.
A subversive and diagnostic interpretation of the ‘freedom’ slogan with reference to the present was proposed by Filip Ignatowicz.. His installation went outside Dolne Miasto, extending an invitation to the 100cznia club. A store named Fignacy Freedom is located here, selling freedom in designer packages, including Solidarity cereal with a motif of the white eagle wearing a crown, and a drink with the taste of freedom – Freedom Cola. The artist gracefully flirts by means of his shop’s goods with marketing, sales and consumption mechanisms, to which, like everything else, both art and freedom are subject to.
Less consecration of art
The assumption of the Non-Festival consisted in transitory interventions in public space. The only exception was a mural created by Agata Krolak and Piotr Szwabe on a degraded facade of the Reduta Centre seat. Colourful and light, made as a part of an open workshop, it changed the facade of a place important to the local community; however, it is hard to find justification of this gesture in the idea and assumptions of the festival. A continuation of the trend assuming that each event in the public space is clarified by a large-format painting, and a collective work is best made on a wall, seems highly worn-out already.
Non-Festival speaks of freedom in times that are restless and full of geopolitical commotion. The invited artists picked spots for their works themselves and referred to the broadly defined topic in an original manner. Many works would, however, do just fine devoid of the Dolne Miasto context, in any other place in the city or within the walls of an art. institution. I feel that in this particular district and at this particular moment the festival should consecrate art less, and inspect its city and community-forming potential more.
For now, the aim of the festival is not clear to me. Does it serve to animate the local community? Does it want to discuss social and political reality in order to provide a distinctive comment? Does it want to support LAZNIA in search of a new audience? Does it just want to present art outside gallery walls or perhaps create site-specific works? I think it might want a little bit of everything. Maybe the subheading of the event “City and Art” is reasoned, and “Art in Dolne Miasto” not yet. Perhaps it might take a little time for the event to fully use its social and artistic potential in its second edition, and in the first place make a better introduction into relations of the closest contexts. This is what I am looking forward to.