The SURVIVAL Art Review – one of the largest reviews of art in public space in Poland – was held in Wrocław for the 15th time. Few weeks ago we have a pleasure to speak with the exhibition’s curator, Anna Stec.
Dobromila Blaszczyk: First off, could you explain the main idea of your project for our readers?
Anna Stec: Our aim is to present works of contemporary art to an audience outside the institutionalized structures of art galleries and museums. Every year, we select a different ‘Survival’ location, for example desolate public buildings that we wish to reclaim for several days and somehow redeem in the eyes of Wrocław’s local population. In fifteen years of the Review’s history, there have obviously been some exceptions to the rule. Our events have also been held at parks and at the main railway station in Wrocław.
The notion of transience has always been central to our exhibit design, since we are required to restore the venue it to its pre-Survival state after the show. Every work of art disappears. In other words, for a couple of days this venue is subject to an unconventional, artificial and festive intervention. As a result, we, the curators and artists, as well as members of our audience are presented with unlimited possibilities. The awareness of the ephemeral nature of one’s work gives them, on the one hand, freedom to experiment and, on the other, a sense of their efforts’ pointlessness; whereas the audience becomes more sensitive to the potent meaning of art and reactions it triggers.
DB: Usually, international art projects on a massive scale generate more buzz in the media. However, local initiatives can lay solid foundations for dialogue and the sharing of thoughts or experiences between citizens. Their importance with regard to drawing our attention to issues of identity and places of origin cannot be underestimated. These projects connect people and bring culture to local communities. You’ve been uniting people for fifteen years now in a city with an incredibly complicated past. What is your opinion of the establishment, or perhaps revision, of the local identity? Has the dialogue and people’s perception of public space changed in any way after Wrocław was designated as the European Capital of Culture?
AS: Raising citizens’ awareness of public space and building a platform for an exchange of ideas are actually paramount to our work. What’s also worth mentioning is that our audience is particularly diverse due to the review’s formula. We are able to reach not only art and culture enthusiasts, but also viewers outside that circle. Since the very beginning, Survival has always reinterpreted the place it has been held in. Works of art on display have to correspond with surrounding space. They have to bring its past and present to the fore and thus highlight a number of underlying problems of social, architectural and urban natures. We often say that in this case, art serves us as a tool, a lens if you wish, that concentrates our attention on these matters. The visual arts programme of the ECoC 2016 drew on Survival’s back catalogue and achievements. After all, Michał Bieniek, the Review director and chief curator, did occupy the position of the visual arts’ section curator.
Our principals are perfectly illustrated by this year’s edition of the Review held in the modernist building of the Auditorium of the Chemistry Faculty of the Wrocław University, which was designed by Krystyna and Marian Barski in 1964. The auditorium, one of the finest examples of post-war modernism in Poland, has unfortunately been out of use for a decade due to lack of funds for its renovation. Therefore, in order to give emphasis to this issue, we decided to launch the Chemistry is Here project, curated by the Wrocław-based foundation Jednostka Architektury (Marta Mnich, Mikołaj Smoleński and Patryk Kusz). Through crowdfunding, we have managed to raise over PLN 40,000 which were spent on the auditorium’s renovation, including fixing the original illumination on its ceiling, recreating flowerbeds and cleaning its façade. Our interventions restored the building to its former glory and reminded the community of its importance to the history of post-war Wrocław and all the reasons why it has rightly been entered into the Register of Historic Monuments. I believe the confrontation between audience and architecture that prompted the reevaluation of its main functionality, contributed largely to the ongoing debate about the role of post-war modernism in today’s reality.
Furthermore, works of art showcased during Survival encourage you to delve into the ideals of the bygone era of modernism and the way they relate to the present. One example would be Grzegorz Stefański’s haunting and thought-provoking piece entitled “the Films that Watched our Childhoods (closing credits)” – a looped video screened in the cinema, which we converted the auditorium into, that featured only the compilation of the end credits of the epitomes of modernist cinema. According to the artist himself, the closed building of the auditorium is reminiscent of the end credits of modernism as such, since it encapsulates invalid and outdated values. Or does it? This quandary was addressed during our panel debates and other associated events.
In a similar vein, we have been engaging in art production and collaborating with a number of other local art projects with the view of spotlighting the problematic nature of some places and raising awareness among citizens when it comes to Wrocław’s heritage, public spaces and the transformative social power of contemporary art. In my opinion, the local aspect of Survival Art Review seems most noteworthy. Needless to say, the local aspect corresponds to our main focus and priorities, as opposed to the origins of contributing artists, who come from all over the country and even abroad.
As far as the complicated history of Wrocław is concerned, it undoubtedly has and is exerting a profound impact on the artistic practices of many contemporary artists from Wrocław. History is a great source of inspiration. We also tend to allude to the new post-war urban identity while formulating Survival’s programme. The historical perspective on this year’s main theme – post-war modernist architecture in Wrocław – adds another layer of meaning. Subsequent editions of the festival will uncover the mysteries of the city, and prove that it has more surprising stories to tell which will reshape its collective identity again and again.
Nevertheless, Wrocław is not the only city in Poland with an intricate and divisive history. Look at Szczecin, for instance. What separates Wrocław from the remaining cities is, however, the way the resettlement of population after the War created the myth about the ‘new’ generation, which was supposed to be more open and tolerant due to its shared tumultuous past, and its experience of a mixture of people from different cultures brought together. Unfortunately, the reality was quite different.
DB: How do you pick locations? Is your decision based on the history of a place, its potential as an art venue, the scale and current state of a building, or perhaps a local community’s expectations?
AS: Location scouting is a long and complicated process. First of all, we select the places inciting our curiosity, making us, the festival’s organizers, dig deeper into their history and past. Rarely does the exhibition, customized to a given location, include the pieces created prior to the show. The majority of artists make new works of art especially for Survival Art Review and with its unique context in mind. Everything, as you can see, depends on the location and the location only.
Still, our decision can also be swayed by the budget. At times, Survival is organized in technically difficult, almost impossible, conditions. What is more, we have had to change locations in the past due to insufficient funds available to make a particularly derelict property safe for the public.
DB: You often give new life to the buildings you select for Survival Art Review, and the city’s officials and citizens notice their untapped potential. The most spectacular example has to be the Four Domes Pavilion, the seat of the Contemporary Art Museum, a branch of the Wrocław National Museum. Do you engage in the buildings’ further restoration after the festival or do you let nature take its course?
AS: The moment Survival ends, we become silent witnesses to the changes occurring around and to the locations. I find the observation of their unfolding fates very fascinating. We occasionally enjoy a building’s happy end, as it were, occasions like the case with the Pavilion you mentioned, while watching others remain inaccessible to the public and fall into ruin for many years to come.
DB: You choose the artworks presented during the Review from projects submitted online in the first stage of the competition. The proposals are then evaluated further. How do you assess a site-specific art project on a computer screen? What are your selection criteria?
AS: Anyone can enter the competition. There are zero restrictions when it comes to one’s age or level of art education. The selection of winners for a site-specific art project judged only by a digital concept is definitely not easy. For this reason, every final decision is preceded by in-depth discussions with an artist and the festival’s collaborators. In all these years, we have also developed a kind of gut feeling that tells us which project would work in a given space. Sometimes the selection process brings unexpected results. Promising art projects fall short of our expectations, while tiny interventions resonate powerfully with the audience. Survival gives artists room to experiment. No wonder we are caught by surprise. On the other hand, observing viewers’ reaction to unpredictable outcomes seems to me to be the most rewarding aspect of our job.
DB: What sort of qualities should a submitted artwork have? What do you find yourselves drawn to?
AS: As I’ve mentioned before, context is what truly matters. We look for works that utilize the surrounding space, highlight its past and bring formerly obscure elements to the surface. Art projects should explore an edition’s theme and offer an ingenious visual interpretation of a motto. An ostentatious concept by itself is not necessarily the winning strategy. Elaborate art installations may fail to capture space’s real essence, unlike a more subtle intervention such as this year’s project by Grupa Centrala (Simone de Lacobis and Małgorzata Kuciewicz with Aleksandra Kędziorek) that subjected the auditorium to the spolia practice of embedding construction elements into structures. Grupa Centrala has been gathering these pieces (e.g. glass blocks, aluminum profiles and terracotta tiles) from the ruins of demolished modernist buildings since 2009. Consequently, our audience could gain insight into these materials and into the construction of post-war modernist buildings; and notice the details they would perhaps miss otherwise.
DB: Why do you opt for a competitive formula for the artists’ selection process?
AS: Amid a long-standing tradition of Survival Art Review, we are eager to present artworks by young, talented, often debuting artists from all over the country whom we wouldn’t have discovered if it weren’t for the annual competition. To be fair, all of us, meaning the organizers, are deeply involved in the local art community. Nonetheless, it is not our intention to exhibit works created only by artists from Wrocław. This year’s art show featured, among many others, pieces by Grzegorz Stefański, Róża Duda and Michał Soja – artists whose careers you should definitely follow. By means of a competitive format, we keep meeting new people, new collaborators. And that’s certainly something worth cultivating.
Interviewed by Dobromila Blaszczyk
Translated by Karolina Jasińska
Edited by Mannika Mishra
Director of the Review: Michał Bieniek
Curators: Anna Kołodziejczyk, Anna Stec, Michał Bieniek
Sound Art Forum Curator: Daniel Brożek
External Curators: Jednostka Architektury (Marta Mnich, Mikołaj Smoleński, Patryk Kusz), Kamil Moskowczenko