Ania Batko — art historian and critic, curator of exhibitions, doctoral candidate at the Institute of Art of the Polish Academy of Sciences (IS PAN). Curator of such exhibitions as: ‘Dead Meat’ at Karlin Studios/Futura in Prague (2015), ‘Amateur’ and ‘The sparrows are chirping in greek’ at the Razem Pamoja Foundation (2016/2017), and ‘Druga Grupa. We’d Done All That Was To Be Done’ (2017) and ‘Jaremianka. I’m staying in this theatre. I like it here’ at Cricoteka (2018/2019). She was the curator of the sixth edition of the Present Performance Festival organized by the Gdańsk City Gallery, the exhibit ‘Honey, we built Chernobyl or: a cigar-shaped shelter’ organized as part of the Unsound Festival in Krakow (2019), as well as the curatorial project ‘A Dream of the Tropical Sun. Witkacy and Zakopane’ at the Tytus Chałubiński Tatra Museum in Zakopane (2020). She has collaborated with the Bunkier Sztuki Gallery of Contemporary Art, Polish Cultural Institute in London and the Arsenał Gallery in Poznań. She enjoys reading horoscopes, interpreting dreams and thinking of herself as one of many witches. She hopes for a future where she no longer has to fight for women’s rights or wonder when the earth will turn into an overbaked potato.
We speak with Ania Batko about the future, astrology and method to madness, about chatting, which is always utterly modern, and the artist lying in a coffin and accosting passers-by, which is just odd.
KŚ: Once again, we’re sitting and gazing at the sky, the only point of connection between us and the future. We used to think about demolishing the world, slashing reality into pieces. Now, we gravitate towards hedonism like never before. What does the future hold, Ania? What do you see? I don’t see anything anymore.
AB: Of course you do. I see it as well, though not the sky. I haven’t seen the sky for a long time. The future is a nightmare but also an infinite possibility. As opposed to the past, overwrought by historical politics and strongly patriarchal narratives, the future can open up the space of freedom. Naturally, women have always found this freedom tantalizing because they’ve been interested in what’s to come — astrology, esotericism, horoscopes etc. — and not only in times of crisis. Take for instance Leonor Carrington who painted the tarot cards or Emma Kunz drawing mystical diagrams which had the power to annihilate monolithic systems. Joan Jonas was fascinated by the past futures, Paulina Ołowska is keen on astrology. Recently, we’ve entered the Age of the Aquarius, the new astrological age, when we’ll build communities and finally connect with one another, like in this song from the musical Hair: ‘When the moon is in the seventh house/ And Jupiter aligns with Mars/ Then peace will guide the planets/ And love will steer the stars./ This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius.’ Perhaps we will even return to neo-tribal social structures . . . future can take different turns, surely even for the worst. I’m more of a pessimist myself but I’d love to be surprised. By the way, there is a second theory stating that the Age of the Aquarius will come not yet, but in three hundred years and only then will everything change. I like these two options. In my mind, they intertwine perfectly with the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari, who propose the view that in one reality horrible things happened after Caesar crossed the Rubicon, whereas in the other he didn’t and yet different kinds of horrible things happened. If it wasn’t for these horrible things, all the wonderful ones wouldn’t be so wonderful. As you know Deleuze examines this concept of incorporeal transformation in The Fold [The Fold: Leibnitz and the Baroque – editor’s note].
KŚ: What about madness. How does it fit into your curatorial practice? As the Gemini with the ascendant in Virgo, you’re in constant motion, avoiding repetitions, shifting gears and defining new tendencies. Basically you don’t care all that much for the artistic mainstream . . .
AB: Madness is one of many methods for working and being in the world. Following Hamlet’s doctrine, there’s method to the madness. Still, madness itself can become a method. You’ve mentioned repetition, and I believe it is quintessential. Everything repeats itself but nothing stays the same. I suppose the point is not to care about it all, like the bad reputation of witches. One of my project was dedicated to madness, although to be fair it had more to do with illness despite the fact that this illness wasn’t really an illness. Everything was posing as something else. Back then, I was invited by the Gdańsk City Gallery to curate the sixth edition of the Present Performance Festival [in 2019 – editor’s note] and I proposed hysteria as the main subject, which I dug out from the history of Brzeźno, a district of Gdańsk located right by the seaside and location of the festival. There, Leszek Przyjemski founded the Museum of Hysteria in the early 1970s. This imaginary concept was to subsume all crazy actions of Przyjemski. One of the projects was the Polonia Hotel, which never even existed but came to life in the letters and denunciation orders of a cleaning lady who supposedly used to work there. She never existed either, obviously. I was interested in hysteria as an illness that borrows symptoms from other diseases because it is stripped of its own. And in order to exist, it must be seen. This whole project was quite eerie. It was the first project I engaged in after I left Cricoteka [the Centre for the Documentation and the Art of Tadeusz Kantor in Krakow]. It seems to me that I very much proposed something Kantor-esque in Gdańsk by subverting this conventional framework of the festival along with scheduled performances at certain hours only. We staged a spectacle, a kind of freakshow. I invited six artists to participate in the project who were performing for eight hours straight, from noon to 8.00 pm. Every performer played a specific ‘role’: Justyna Górowska was Ofelia, Piotr Urbaniec played Jack the Ripper, Karolina Jarzębak — ‘the pajama girl’. This performance was dedicated not only to the audience that came to the park specifically for us, but also random tourists, sunbathers and citizens of Brzeźno. Our stage was marked by the post-war remnants of the bunker wall that crossed the park on one side and the beach on the other. As it turned out, our most avid viewer was a gentleman in swimming trunks who was sunbathing on a nearby bench all throughout the performance. He might’ve been the only person who saw the entire show. In retrospect, I believe it was the performance of The Trashman played by Kuba Gliński, who always uses a very trashy aesthetic, that projected dramaturgy. Kuba took the night train right after a party, arrived late, put on the costume made of garbage which he assembled unexpectedly with the help of a security guard, and performed for eight hours by dragging this metal balustrade across the park or going into the water in all his trashy glory. People at the beach were quite confused and tried to rescue him.
Present Performance 6: Hysteria, in a Crab costume sewn by Bartek and Tomasz Zaskórski, Gdańska Galeria Miejska, 2019, photo Bartek Górka
Present Performance 6: Hysteria, from left, Ania Batko, Trash Man (Kuba Gliński), Ophelia (Justyna Górowska)
KŚ: You work in a number of teams which formed out of sheer will instead of necessity.
AB: Like you said, I’m a Gemini and as such I love engaging in discussions, even if just utter small talk. Lech Piwowar, a writer from Krakow whose main activity in life was sitting in coffee shops drinking wine and smoking cigarettes, said once that talking is the most modern thing you could do, and I totally agree. Talking is absolutely modern. All collectives, groups and communities, all concepts and exhibitions originate from conversations, from thoughts and ideas circulating, being articulated, transformed and enriched because someone adds something from themselves and basically erases the notion of authorship. These thoughts no longer belong to anybody. In conversation, you can set yourself loose.
KŚ: Does it mean you adopt a more performative approach?
AB: Yeah, you know how it is. You never stop working if you’re working in the arts. Anything can become your food for thought. And also you forge relations with people. Over time, these relations evolve into friendship while all the projects are just the cherries on top.
KŚ: What are you working on right now?
AB: Now I’m working with the artist Marta Krześlak on the exhibit ‘Ajaaoeho’ at Kamienica Szara in Krakow — not only a kind of wardrobe with a window overlooking Narnia, an attempt at building one’s world anew out of rubbish and waste, explosion of glitter and phosphorescing glow, but also playing with the space which only echoes. In Greek mythology, Echo is an enamored girl for whom repetition is both a punishment and occasionally a sort of subversive fun. At the same time, Krzysztof Gil and I have been preparing another exhibit under the working title ‘Mówią na mnie Cygan choć tak się nie nazywam’ (‘They call me a Gypsy even though that’s not my name’) which is going to occupy two separate spaces of the Gdańsk City Gallery. Revolving around the subject of the Romani studies, the show will be based on the figure of a ’Gypsy’ as well as the phantasms related to the presence of the Roma people in the Polish territories. Krzysztof and I have been looking into family and regular archives, delving deep into the visual culture, listening to pop songs, watching the cartoon Bolek i Lolek and studying the paintings by Henryk Siemiradzki, whose pieces portray Romani women only in theory since it was white women with faces painted black that were posing for him. Our latest discovery is the paintings by Antoni Kozakiewicz from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He made a portrait of a Romani woman crouching and chomping on watermelon in the borderlands, amidst this morose grassland covered in mud . . . to me this subject also seems interesting in the context of the pandemic and the fact that we were all under lockdown at some point. It brings to mind Gunther Grass’ crazy idea from the 1960s to bring the Roma people to Berlin because they loosened rigid borders. It was going to be the solution to the issue of the Berlin Wall, can you imagine?
KŚ: Is there any project you consider a milestone in your curatorial practice, the kind of project you reminisce about while dipping the Proustian madeleines in tea?
AB: I’m still young, whole life is ahead of me. Since I moved to France, I’ve been availing myself of a steady supply of madeleines so I can dip them in tea every day mulling over different life experience each time. I will definitely look back fondly at weird turns of events, such as crazy search queries alongside Ewa Tatar, writing an entire stage play in less than a week, collaborating with the Razem Pamoja Foundation and our trip to Athens with the exhibition ‘Wróble ćwierkają po grecku’ (‘The sparrows are chirping in Greek’ 2016). By the way the show’s title was inspired by Septimus’ mad monologues in the novel by Virginia Woolf. I will never forget trying on traditional Lusatian jewelry, which was thousands years old, and digging among the archeological crusts with Justyna Górowska as part of our preparations for the exhibit ‘Brzeginki’ (‘Water Nymphs’ 2020). In addition, I will also remember sniffing the sweaters of Maria Jarema, searching for sculptures with her son Al in the large chest filled with prepared fish, and licking sugary paintings by Marcin Janusz. They were the most delicious paintings I have ever had.
Lately I often cast my mind back to the space of the exhibit ‘Schron w kształcie cygara’ (‘A cigar-shaped shelter’, 2019) which seems to have been way ahead of its time [https://www.tzvetnik.online/article/honey-we-built-chernobyl – editor’s note]. The entire concept was based on Herbert Rosendorfer’s book The Architect of Ruins, which in turn was inspired by The Decameron by Boccaccio. Together with Alek Celusta, we staged the exhibit on the entire floor of a tenement house in the center of Krakow, the former Szaniawski Palace. A bingo club operated in this building until only a few years ago, so the rooms had green pastel walls, red carpeting and peeling layers of paint typical of 90s décor. However, they were also embellished with the polychromes from the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries. The entire scene was reminiscent of one big ruin, or set design from a movie about the apocalypse. Some artists participating in the exhibit were for instance, Martyna Kielesińska, Bartek Zaskórski and Krzysiek Gil. There was no electricity, so the installation by Krzyś illuminated the entire space. We lit the candles on a magnificent chandelier hanging from the ceiling just above the floor, wax spilling over and transforming into a kind of animate structure. After the opening, we were all siting there eating pizza and drinking wine in the darkness as if we were locked in the shelter, protecting ourselves from the imaginary epidemic, which was yet to come.
KŚ: We are quite close. Our relationship goes beyond a strictly professional one, and it has done for a while. In your company, I feel like the character from Vera Chytilová’s movie Daisies — we deconstruct and demolish reality on the one hand, we seek inspiration on the other. We even create manifestos. How do you come up with the ideas for projects? Have you ever seen any of them in a dream?
AB: I dream about exhibitions all my life. Once I had this dream where we curated the new edition of Young Triennale in Orońsko and turned the nineteenth-century manor of Józef Brandt into a hippie squat. Another time, I was having a horrible argument with Marcin Janusz while we were arranging the exhibit in this beautiful glazed turret at the top floor of a very tall tenement house that never existed. It seems to me that the best ideas emerge when you’re neither fully awake nor sleeping, somewhere in-between, when you’re about to fall asleep. I never write them down and forget about them in the morning . . . that was the case with ‘Sen tropikalnego słońca’ in the Tatra Museum (‘A Dream of the Tropical Sun’, 2020). In a way, it was bound to be a kind of projection from the very beginning due to the pandemic, as well as the diluted aura of Zakopane, which I was stuck in for a couple of months. You come up with projects by collecting interesting facts and tidbits. I visited my grandma some time ago. The character from the movie she happened to be watching was spouting about quantum physics. It occurred to me then that it fit perfectly into the text I was writing, as well as my whole life philosophy. The same happened with Chytilová’s Daisies. I totally love this movie, by the way. Cutting, pasting and making collages of reality is also the working method of mine, yours too. Contemporary art lends itself to borrowing, ‘cutting out’ various elements with scissors and showing them in completely different contexts. Surprise, it works! Coming up with a concept and piling on is another matter altogether. You just can’t add layer after layer forever. Subtracting items seems much harder, at least to me. Sometimes it turns out that something just shines, becomes more interesting in a new context. Another time you carve out this beautiful piece and yet you can’t make it work because it just won’t fit.
KŚ: Your motto?
AB: I’ll think about it tomorrow, in other words Scarlett O’Hara level of an absolute procrastination. But also denial. Anyway, I try not to worry too much because what’s terrible today might be terribly funny tomorrow.
KŚ: What’s your worst and best collaboration?
AB: From my point of view, every collaboration was part a blessing, part a total nightmare. I remember at some point I was left to my own devices while assembling the exhibit in Athens. Marcin Janusz, one of the artists, helped me out. We hammered nails into brick walls while trying to communicate with the lady running the cultural center who was speaking only in Greek. Then, Bartek Ołowski arrived not long before the opening and started rearranging things from scratch. The nails fell out and I burst into tears. I reigned it in only after Bartek said ‘Don’t be silly darling. Stop crying.’ And I stopped. Well, at the end he was totally right. There was no point in being conservative. I worked with Kamil Kuitkowski on this exhibit in Athens. Later we joined forces to found the collective Prekariat in order to stage another show titled ‘Co to będzie?’ (‘What’s next?’, 2018). The pieces on display were all works and artifacts that the artists or curators gave us as presents and remuneration. It was a sort of ironic and critical reflection on working in the cultural sector, dark matter and precariat labor relations. We were at each other’s throats all the time. Finally Kamil said that he had had enough and that he was leaving. He did leave, but the exhibit was held in his own apartment, so you know . . . there were a lot of similar incidents. I believe they all have meaning even if it’s just to force us to look at something from a different angle, from within or from the outside. Sometimes you have to go out.
KŚ:. . . . sometimes things don’t go smoothly. . . if you manage to turn a conflict into something positive, then the conflict becomes essential for creating something interesting.
AB: As I’ve mentioned before, I adore discussions. I also love arguing and fighting for stuff. When someone is raving about something to me for instance, I contradict them straight away. After I finally convince this person that I am in fact right, then I change my own mind. I can change my mind a couple of times in a single day. I don’t believe in binary absolutes. If you asked me the same question on two different days, I would give you two different answers. On the other hand, one should bear in mind that arguments are very much like fire — at some point you need to put out the fires instead of lighting them up, one after another.
KŚ: What would you change in the contemporary art world? What are the downsides?
AB: Ewa Cieplewska has said recently that the art world reminds her of this weird empty shell we made for ourselves, and I completely agree with it. The art world works a bit like an elite cult. We are all vegan liberals interested in nature and ecology . . . yet completely out of touch with ordinary people. It seems to us that everybody wants to be us, while nobody knows who we are. We are all fucking lunatics.
KŚ: What’s the role of an artist in society?
AB: There is no single role an artist has to play in society. An artist doesn’t have to do anything at all. We live here and now, so we’re naturally affected by various social issues. Although we drained the potential out of critical art, these concerns and contemporaneity must surface somewhere. Like Masłowska remarked, society is mean, so artists need to grapple with it a little bit, I guess. Perhaps artists should follow in the footsteps of Przemek Branas doing his performance in the Hasior Gallery in Zakopane — be the person lying in the coffin and forcing the audience to tug at them, nudge and spill water. Przemek’s slapstick performance culminated in him hiding in the cardboard coffin. The fact that he didn’t come out triggered this odd impulse among the viewers to interact, peak inside and tickle him . . . someone even played Chopin’s funeral march on the piano standing in the gallery.
KŚ: I also believe that an artist should taunt society somehow. But is this type of interaction always good and necessary?
AB: Of course not. Besides, the so-called socially engaged projects often precariously verge on acts of symbolic violence or even worse, hackneyed commentary. Still, it’s fun to ruffle society’s feathers from time to time.
Interviewed by Kola Śliwińska