Alicja Rogalska is an interdisciplinary artist currently based between Berlin and London.
She mostly works in specific contexts making situations, performances, videos and installations in collaboration with other people. Her research-led projects are attempts to practise a different political reality in the here and now, create space for many voices to be heard and to co-exist, whilst collectively searching for emancipatory ideas for the future. She is currently a PhD researcher in the Art Department at Goldsmiths College in London.
We sat down with Alicja to talk about her past and current projects and to discuss her life as an artist.
Sylwia Krasoń: What are you working on at the moment?
Alicja Rogalska: A few days ago I came back from Budapest, where I participated in the Budapest Autumn Festival with News Medley – a collaborative project with the Women’s Choir of Kartal, curator Katalin Erdődi, and folk singer Réka Annus. We collectively re-wrote five folk songs, made two videos and a publication, and gave a series of performances in public spaces. The lyrics of the songs comment on gender roles, housework, and the working lives of different generations of women living in Kartal – a small village near Budapest. The broader premise of the project was an attempt to reclaim folk culture which, in Hungary and elsewhere, has been instrumentalised by the right wing, for feminist and emancipatory politics. The project was originally commissioned by the OFF Biennale and we worked on it just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Europe. We only managed to wrap it up now. I missed our exhibition at the OFF Biennale earlier this year, so it was really great to be able to see the final performances and reconnect with my collaborators.
Then I spent two days in Jena – the former East Germany’s Silicon Valley – filming fibre optic cable production at the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Optics and Precision Engineering. I will use the footage for a new video titled Dark Fibres, a continuation of a project I worked on in Georgia in 2015. It is inspired by the story of Hayastan Shakarian – an elderly woman who allegedly cut the internet cable connecting Georgia and Armenia in 2011 whilst looking for scrap metal to sell, depriving 90 percent of internet users in Armenia and many in Georgia of connection for many hours. She famously said she had never heard of the internet.
SK: Currently you are working on your biggest solo exhibition to date: From Ground to Horizon at CCA Temporary Gallery in Cologne. Tell me more about how this project came about and what the audience can expect to see.
AR: I will be showing 16 projects spanning 10 years. Given the collaborative nature of my work, it’s not really a solo show though, but probably the biggest group exhibition at the gallery to date. I’m really excited to be working with the curator and Temporary Gallery director Aneta Rostkowska and the exhibition architecture designer Mateusz Okoński who have contextualised the works in a very special way that sits close to my practice. For instance, we have been conducting interviews with participants of my projects to introduce their views on our collaborations. The gallery space will be transformed using lighting and a specially designed hay-filled floor imitating fields, rolling hills and dunes – an immersive, soft landscape in which both harsh realities and speculative stories can be experienced. Apart from lectures, talks, a guided tour, an action in public space and a LARP session, we will also host a wellness day for Cologne activists in the exhibition space.
SK: Can you elaborate on the artworks/projects that you are most proud of?
AR: This is a rather difficult question as I don’t necessarily have strong personal favourites. Each project is special in its own way and my perception of them also changes over time. For instance, a few weeks ago I participated in What Shall We Build Here festival run by Artsadmin, a performance art organisation in London. They commissioned me to rework Pretend You’ve Got No Money – a piece I made in 2017, but due to limited time and funds never finished in the way I wanted to. It is an undercover, unauthorised, downloadable audio tour of a supermarket with a narrative focusing on the politics of food production and consumption. It was really amazing to revisit the project and breathe new life into it. The piece also gained a completely new life and relevance after the COVID-19 pandemic (not to mention Brexit and the climate crisis) reshaped the way we engage with grocery shopping and affected food supply chains.
I guess I’m most proud of the works that resonate with people from outside the arts, because it means I’ve succeeded in conveying something important without being too opaque or obscure. There are also projects that are used by others – for instance, to support the struggles for migrant workers’ rights, such as The Royals, a video I made with migrant potato workers on the island of Jersey, or to educate social work students, such as The Aliens Act, a collaboration with The Erased in Slovenia (people who lost their citizenship and were deprived of legal existence after the collapse of Yugoslavia). I’m definitely proud of those. I try to design this kind of double life for my works, where they act as tools and operations on reality, not just on the symbolic, and when it happens it’s amazing.
I’m now working on several long-term collaborations focusing on arts co-operatives, solidarity economies, and migrant cultural workers’ rights. These are less project-oriented and more focused on coming up with strategies and formats to create the kind of art world and cultural milieu I would rather be part of.
SK: What were your beginnings like? Do you remember the moment when you knew you wanted to become an artist?
AR: There wasn’t really a single decisive moment but a sequence of events and circumstances that made becoming an artist at first imaginable and then also possible. I grew up on a small farm in Podlasie, in North East Poland. Because of their class, poverty and also the devastating effects of WWII, none of my grandparents or parents had a chance to get higher education, but they were open-minded, creative people in what they did – that is running a farm and an extended family household. In the little spare time they had, they engaged in various creative activities, from reading and photography to experiments in the garden such as splicing tomatoes and potatoes together. My grandmother was an important figure in my early art education. She came from the Kurpie region and cultivated the traditional crafts but with her own twist. For instance, my brothers, sisters and I all wore her hand-knitted sweaters made from recycled yarn with crazy abstract patterns. She also encouraged me to make my own toys or to design clothes that she then sewed together. Because resources were scarce, there was this great ingenuity when it came to using and recycling whatever was at hand. When I was a child I had no idea being an artist was even a career option, though I loved drawing and making things and I really wanted to go to art college at some point. In the end, I decided to do a degree in Cultural Studies, a really amazing, wonderfully eclectic program at the Institute of Polish Culture at the University of Warsaw. I learned about voodoo and candomblé in the anthropology of performance class, analysed filmic language in a weekly cinema session with the best cinema scholars in Poland, conducted ethnographic fieldwork research into folk magic and healing practices in Belarus, participated in a seminar about new religious movements which included talking to Mormons, Scientologists, and the Moon church believers (to name a few), learned about Noh, Kathakali as well as the avant-garde theatre of Grotowski in the history of theatre class, and about the principles of Taoism, Gnosticism or Zoroastrianism as part of the philosophy seminar. I also took part in numerous photography and art workshops. This all on top of receiving solid history of culture and critical humanities education. It wasn’t until I was a student and about 20 years old when I visited a contemporary art gallery for the first time. Considering my background I’m very lucky I could receive a free education and pursue becoming an artist eventually, though I only graduated from an art school when I was 32. My work might be conceptual and research-led, but I’m a contemporary folk artist, really.
SK: Why did you decide to study at an art academy? How did you choose your art academy? Did something specific attract you to it?
AR: I didn’t actually study art at an art academy at first but practiced for a few years as a self-taught artist when I moved to the UK after graduating to learn more about community arts through a placement at Jubilee Arts. I decided to apply for an MFA as soon as I managed to save enough money to cover the fees by working as an artist educator and in various random day jobs, including at a power station, a Toyota factory or teaching Swedish. I decided to do an art degree because it felt like there was only so much I could teach myself without guidance and being part of a peer group and partly because I suffered quite badly from impostor syndrome. I decided to only apply for one course – an MFA in Fine Art at Goldsmiths College in London, known for its political engagement and criticality. I had no prior art education and couldn’t really afford to live in London so it was all a big gamble.
SK: Did your studies at an art academy prepare you to function well in the art market?
AR: I don’t really function in the art market and this was never my priority. I refuse to accept the extension of market logic to all spheres of life and social relations, including art. I think art can and should be much more than a product or a service for sale to entertain and stroke the egos of the rich. It can, for instance, be a site of resistance to the ubiquitous marketisation and capitalist extractivism of all life on the planet, which has led us to the brink of our own extinction. Not engaging with the art market is not an easy path. It’s contingent on existing public funds, one’s ability to make money outside of the art system, at least for a while, other people’s support and often invisible labour, and lots of other things, such as whether you are healthy or have a family to take care of – so a lot of advantages or privileges – but it’s still possible. We have been told there’s no alternative to a lot of things for far too long. I’d rather spend my time and use the privileges I have trying to reimagine how art institutions, practices, and artists can operate in society beyond the capitalist hegemony than try to fit into it.
My work is also much closer to research and knowledge production anyway. For instance, I’m currently developing a new body of work as part of my residency at the Faculty of Social Sciences at Essex University which will be exhibited at the Art Exchange and Focal Point Gallery next year. I’m collaborating with researchers on a series of videos that use utopia as a method to investigate how social sciences can engage with the climate crisis and aid the societal changes needed to overcome it.
SK: What is your biggest success?
AR: Surviving all the failures and still being around making work. Artists rarely talk about the struggles in their practice and you won’t see all the rejected applications, failed projects, creative blocks, mental health issues, burnouts, or collaborations that turned sour on their CVs, not to mention family and care-responsibilities.
SK: Do you feel economically secure as an artist?
AR: No, even though I’ve been recently very lucky with grants and fellowships, such as the DAAD artists-in-Berlin programme. I’ve always had to work hard to make ends meet, juggling many different jobs, projects, and teaching.
SK: Have you ever had to pause your artistic activity for a while in order to be able to secure financial stability through another job?
AR: Until very recently I’d always had other, non-art related sources of income alongside my artistic practice, for instance working as an interpreter for the NHS or a video editor for American Movie Company. I also worked for 10 years as an artist educator in a myriad of contexts from Tate to schools, youth centres, and mental health institutions across the UK and internationally. When you don’t sell work, it’s difficult to survive from commissions, exhibition, and residency fees or stipends alone – these are often symbolic and way below the minimum wage. I’m currently pursuing a PhD and I really enjoy teaching so I’m hoping this will become my stable job in the future – if any stable jobs in academia still even exist when I graduate.
SK: The word ‘crisis’ — not only in relation to the current pandemic — has been on everybody’s mind for years. Do you personally feel any of its repercussions? Do you think it has affected artists more than other professions?
AR: We live in a world of constant crisis: of economy, democracy, values, and the biggest of them all – the climate crisis. Of course I have felt the repercussions of the various crises throughout my career. I started my art degree just after the financial crash of 2008 and subsequent cuts to art education funding meant I lost my main source of income just when I needed it most. Most recently, I had to interrupt my PhD because the COVID-19 pandemic made my research impossible. This is nothing though compared to what other people have been experiencing for many years and what is yet to come because of the climate catastrophe. I think we all need to be prepared for a complete and urgent restructuring of the way we live and work, whether we like it or not. It’s not a matter of survival as an artist anymore, but survival in general terms.
Regarding the COVID-19 pandemic – I wouldn’t generalise and say artists were affected more than others. For instance, Damien Hirst apparently received a £15 million loan from the UK government’s emergency COVID-19 fund only to lay off over 60 of his employees – many of them also artists. So if you’re a millionaire, an artist or not, you are probably fine, and if you are in a precarious work situation, an artist or not, you are probably struggling. It’s the nature of the current system. The pandemic has changed the ways in which we work, disrupted the regime of hyper mobility in the arts, for instance, and brought care work and wellbeing into focus, but I still don’t see the structural changes we were all hoping to see.
SK: Have you ever received funds, grants, or scholarships?
AR: Yes, quite a few through the years. I’m super grateful for every penny of support I’ve ever had – it’s the only reason I’m still a practising artist.
SK: What three tips would you give to someone who wants to become an artist?
AR: Don’t give up and don’t follow fashions, only work with people you trust and like, make art that feels urgent, take care of your integrity. Also, the work is important but so are other people and the wider community – don’t sacrifice one for the other. Make sure you give back and support others whenever you can.
SK: If not an artist, what would be your dream job?
AR: I guess I would be a farmer, an activist, or a researcher. I think partly my decision to become an artist was dictated by my fear of specialising and a rather wide range of interests. I wanted to be able to, to quote Marx, “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic”. (Maybe without the hunting bit, though…). As an artist I get to reinvent what I do every day, research different subjects, and meet a wide range of people, from quantum mathematics professors, to manual labourers. There is of course an inevitable level of specialisation, but still, the freedom that comes with it is incredible, though at the price of extreme precarity. On the other hand we are living in a world where stability is less and less possible and we will all need to find alternative ways of living together and surviving rather soon. This is something I’m currently obsessed with and trying to focus on in my future works.