Natalia Sielewicz is one of the most intriguing Polish curators. Born during the communist times in Poland, she witnessed first-hand how the country transformed and embraced the capitalist boom of the 1990s. Sielewicz herself describes her curatorial practice as socially-oriented activity that aims to bring people and the institution together by encouraging an open dialogue. She upholds this principle in the most recent exhibit she curated – “The Thousand-Year Plan” by Agnieszka Polska, which talks about the electrification of Polish countryside in the years following WWII. I met with Natalia Sielewicz to discuss her latest work, current outlook on the role of a curator and art institution, as well as her appointment as a jury member of the Allegro Prize Competition 2021.
Maria Markiewicz: I want to start our conversation with a question about your most recent exhibit that can now be viewed at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. Naturally, I mean “The Thousand-Year Plan” by Agnieszka Polska, which talks about the post-war electrification of Polish countryside. How did you work on the exhibit? What did the process look like?
Natalia Sielewicz: We have worked on Agnieszka Polska’s exhibit for two years. Initially, its opening was scheduled for last June. Although our plans had to change due to the pandemic, we have also gained more space to deal with research, post-production, and reflection on how to embed “The Thousand-Year Plan” in the context of the on-going debates on planetarity and the politics of historical memory. Apart from research on the post-war electrification of Polish countryside, Agnieszka did an enormous artistic work as a director, script writer, creator of animated features, editor, and author of soundtrack. I’m glad I could be a part of this process.
MM: In the interviews, Agnieszka Polska often emphasises her understanding of art as the tool for conjuring situations that evoke a spiritual experience for a viewer, a catharsis if you will. Is this how you perceive art as well? As a bridge between an institution and a viewer that can precipitate a shift in our collective thinking once we cross it?
NS: To a large extent I agree with Agnieszka’s interpretation. Art provides an account of the world, but its greatest merit is the power of imaginary and affective transformation, which can stir up people’s emotions and meanings. This month, we open an exhibit of selected works from the Museum’s collection at the MOSART in Gorzów Wielkopolski. The show will feature artists who blaze new trails toward an imagination of an alternative community grounded in an atlas of emotions, symbols and rituals. What is intimate, steeped in poetry and metaphor, essentially becomes a form of artistic practice and an instrument for pursuing a politics counter to the language of war, populism, and social division.
MM: Who do you work with most often? What aspect of artist collaboration do you find most important?
NS: It is a broad and complicated question without a good answer, really. In general, I would say that my curatorial practice is driven by curiosity in artists who expand our notion of freedom and imagination. I’m interested in how artists view the world and what tools they use to shape reality.
MM: Your exhibitions are always incredibly discursive and interdisciplinary. This year, you organised the Electric Summer School, a symposium attended by leading scholars, such as McKenzie Wark and Benjamin Bratton, which accompanied Agnieszka Polska’s show. You talked about a planetary perspective – what does it mean and how does it relate to the exhibit?
NS: I want to share with our audience an opportunity for participating in the most exciting debates in humanities and social sciences. In my opinion, what Agnieszka’s art practice and my own research/curatorial activity have in common is an artistic take on the discourse and a discursive take on art. There’s no point in illustrating hyped-up subjects if the reorientation of thinking fails to arise from the form and negotiation of a brand-new meaning within a piece of art. In the same vein, I’m fascinated by philosophy that places an enormous emphasis on the form and intertwines theory with methods borrowed from the greatest traditions of the avant-garde – literary montage, hypertext, surrealism, and even lately, autotheory. A planetary perspective is an attempt to take a departure from the regimes of knowledge that have perpetuated anachronistic divide between what’s human and non-human, natural and artificial. In the face of a climate crisis, a global rise of fascism, hyperindividualism and the entanglement of human and non-human beings, a planetary perspective takes into account a multiplicity of actors, voices, and points of view.
MM: The academics often write about art but hardly ever does art reciprocate their interest. What makes the space in-between art and the academia worth exploring?
NS: Contrary to what one might think, young people have a great awareness of a plethora of discourses and theories. Discussing them is not restricted to the academic field. Communities of artists and activists engage actively in the collective creation of new languages and challenge ideologies, while critically-oriented content circulates around social media and grassroot reading groups. It seems to me that language has changed and decentralized profoundly under the influence of the Generation Z – I’m watching it happen humbled and vigilant.
MM: Although electricity used to elicit fear rather than excitement, the narrator of Polska’s film tells us that “uncertainty is hope”. Should we be scared of the change, new technology, new processes, or do these changes herald something good?
NS: I wish there were less polarizing voices in the debates about the future, steering the public opinion either towards a mindless techno-optimism or intransigent techno-scepticism. During the abovementioned Electric Summer School, Benjamin Bratton, mentioned that we owe our awareness and cognitive category of the climate crisis to data analysis, which we collect and interpret in an accurate manner. If we were to reformulate our systematic policy about new technology and big data, then we need to re-evaluate their potential benefits for social change and protection of our planet. Techno-scepticism dictated by the moral high ground and rejection of all that is digital is not a solution either. Besides the notion of artificiality itself has already been called into question and can teach us, the people, something important about humanity and solidarity with other species.
MM: Art featured on the exhibitions you curate always seems ultracontemporary. What sort of tendencies do you now notice in Polish and global art?
NS: I don’t see much use in seasonal fashions or floating ideas. I am interested in art that seeks new routes that could stir us away from codified patterns of seeing and feeling, I feel like it’s important to listen carefully to what the young are saying about the society, because it is the young generation that drives social change. Nevertheless, I believe in the intergenerational dialogue and nonlinear approach to history. It’s one of the values we try to reflect in the Museum’s programme and collection.
MM: How did you start working as a curator? What do you value the most in your job?
NS: After grad school, I tried my luck with a couple internships and work placements in the cultural sector. Nine years ago I joined the team at the Museum in Warsaw and have been based here ever since. What I value the most in my job is its social aspect of “being together” – teamwork, interaction with an audience, and primarily, the joint negotiation of meanings and connotations with artists.
MM: I know you are associated closely with the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, where you work. How did you guys survive the pandemic? How is the new seat’s construction coming along?
NS: When one takes into account the obligations that an institution should have towards its employees, I am of course happy and reliefed that there were no layoffs at the Museum. I observed cutbacks at other institutions, especially museums located abroad, governed by the neoliberal model, so I realise how fortunate we all really are.
The question about the creators themselves, about the way in which artists got through the pandemic, is much more difficult. Because of the pandemic, we have oriented our programme towards support initiatives: we established a rapid response grant (that allowed us to purchase a few artworks by women to our collection and contribute to the research of actvists around the action “List” [“Letter”]), commissioned texts and visual micro-interventions for the MSN Home Office blog, and dedicated last year’s edition of Warsaw Under Construction to the subjects that surfaced in our conversations with dozens of art community members. As far as the construction goes, work continues simultaneously at two levels: everything goes according to the schedule from an investment’s point of view, while a team of curators has been preparing the opening exhibit for about a year.
MM: You studied and worked in London for seven years. How would you describe this experience? What do you miss and what can you do without?
NS: It was an amazing and exciting time that opened me to the vast gamut of identities, cultures and forms of artistic expression. As you have mentioned before, I have been working closely with the Museum for nine years now. It is a great privilege to be able to develop and build an institution with such an engaged and dedicated team assembled by Joanna Mytkowska. Her vision, empathy, and courage make us feel like we can always redefine what an institution stands for and revise the onus resting on the Museum to do right by various groups and communities.
MM: You are one of the jury members of Allegro Prize Competition. The submission deadline is looming large on the horizon. What will you pay attention to during jury deliberations? Do you have any advice for artists planning to enter the competition?
NS: I have to say I am quite anxious about it. Not only is it an enormous responsibility, but also a chance to view a vast spectrum of artworks. I am curious how the discussion with other jury members will go. Their fresh outlook, which goes beyond the discursive-curatorial bubble, might introduce me to new interpretations and needs.