The Łaźnia Centre for Contemporary Art is one of the leading cultural institutions in Poland and Europe. It received numerous awards and recognition and launched international collaborative projects in the fields of art and science that aimed to disseminate the universal values of contemporary art. Multiple international publications hail Łaźnia as a model example of an institution of culture. It was a meeting with the world-famous art duo Gilbert&George that caused its popularity to skyrocket in Poland. I spoke with Jadwiga Charzyńska, the director of CCA Łaźnia, about the history of the institution.
Julia Gorlewska: Let’s start with the fact that CCA is located in two historic facilities that were former bathhouses. One building is located in Dolne Miasto (Lower City), which is a part of the Gdańsk city centre, the other at Nowy Port (New Port). Both districts have an exceptionally rich and convoluted history, not only from cultural but also urban and industrial perspectives. I suppose managing these two locations must pose quite a challenge. How did you start your tenure at Łaźnia?
Jadwiga Charzyńska: My story at Łaźnia commenced in 2002, and I was appointed its director through a competition process in spring 2004.
As you said, we had only one building at our disposal when we started – the former bathhouse in Dolne Miasto. In 2012, we opened our second location in Nowy Port, where we also run KinoPort, a small independent cinema, and, of course, conduct our artistic and educational activities. Łaźnia 2 is also the seat of the Regional and Local Public Library.
JG: What about the institution’s activities and development? How has it evolved ever since you became its director?
JC: A lot has changed throughout the years. Łaźnia was a fairly recently established, small institution when I took over. Right away, we decided to formulate the artistic programme along with its flagship project, the City of Gdańsk Outdoor Gallery, dedicated to public forms of art. The goal of the project was to launch a series of international recurring competitions to amass the collection of durable works of art in public space, in Dolne Miasto to be exact. Within the framework of the Outdoor Gallery project, we also planned a broad variety of educational campaigns. In 2008, we implemented our inaugural competition project. The LKW Gallery, the art truck stuck under the bridge, was created by Daniela Milohnic and Lex Rijkers with a socially engaged function in mind – as a meeting point, place of integration, and workshops for children. The truck had been open until we weren’t able to run classes due to the pandemic and imposed restrictions. Ever since then, LKW Gallery has become the exhibition platform for young artists. That’s actually how the project Windows. New Phenomena came about. As part of this project, we exhibit pieces by young and talented local artists.
In 2008, we were entrusted with the renovation of the former public bathhouse in Nowy Port, a historic object very similar to our main seat. The refurbishment and adaptation were finished in 2012. Owing to a combination of our own modern vision with the old-time feel of a bathhouse, the building was awarded an honorable mention in the prestigious competition of the Regional Conservator for the Best Well-kept Monument or Site (2013).
Our current programme is based on four main pillars, namely: art in public space, art and science, international collaboration, and education.
In addition to the abovementioned Outdoor Gallery, we have also launched the Cities on the Edge project, which rejects eurocentrism. From the outset, the project was oriented towards discovering fairly obscure countries and regions of the world along with their social issues. Needless to say, the discovery transpired through art.
Whereas our residency programme, which has been operating ever since Łaźnia 2 was established, focuses on the international exchange of artists and curators from various communities, and as such, offers our audience an opportunity to learn more about different cultures and social phenomena.
A significant portion of our activity revolves around publishing. We issue a series of different publications, including the world-renown series Art+Science Meeting, as well as the Ręcznik magazine.
What is more, we are implementing a comprehensive programme of cultural education, also based on the use of new media. A great example could be animation workshops, but we also embrace more conventional techniques of making art and music. On top of that, we organize guided exhibition tours, walks around the districts, and various participatory activities. Accessibility is an important aspect of our educational programme; multiple classes are adapted to the needs of people with disabilities, vision impairment, and deaf or hard of hearing people.
JG: Łaźnia definitely stands out among the rest of the cultural institutions in Poland due to its projects combining art and science. The project Art+Science Meeting has been implemented at the Łaźnia Centre for Contemporary Art since 2011. It is a trailblazing endeavor, offering an interdisciplinary perspective on art. Could you tell us something more about this project?
JC: Art+Science Meeting was complementary to all our pursuits. We managed to bring lots of pioneers of this genre to the Polish audience’s attention. In the ten years that have passed since the project’s launch, we have succeeded in solidifying our position as the leader in presenting this type of art. Furthermore, we are now developing our art & science and new media archives. After all, these premises have the same underlying foundation – to educate and thus build a socially aware community that cultivates local values while staying open to what’s new and unfamiliar.
JG: How did it all start? How is the project implemented and what are its main goals?
JC: As I have mentioned before, I have always found the act of seeking brand-new phenomena and creative possibilities incredibly fascinating as a person with an educational background in the arts. The need for communication between representatives of the humanities and science has been the subject of a long-standing debate. The most famous piece on this topic is The Two Cultures, a lecture delivered by Charles Percy Snow at the University of Cambridge in 1959.
Art+Science Meeting kicked off at Łaźnia in 2011, preceded by a series of lectures by artists and scientists, such as Monika Fleischmann, Eduardo Kac, Christa Sommerer, and Ryszard W. Kluszczyński (who then helped us develop the project’s topical framework). The first exhibits held as part of the project were Performing Data by Monika Fleischmann and Wolfgang Strauss, as well as the historic exposition titled Pleasure of Light, which told the story of Frank Malina and Györgym Kepes, prepared by the Ludwig Museum in Budapest. A significant focal point of the first edition of the project was the science conference on the intersection of art and science, entitled Towards the Third Culture. Ever since then, we have regularly hosted exhibitions, discussions, and talks by artists and scientists. This project is constantly changing and evolving, and so is contemporary art.
It has already been a decade since we decided to take on this issue, and we have managed to gather some acclaim in the country and abroad. Noteworthy is also our impressive series of publications from this series, as well as a collaboration with great art centers, such as the Arts Electronica Festival.
JG: For instance, works by Paweł Błęcki and Anna Orbaczewska – contemporary artists who both graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Gdańsk – are currently on display in Łaźnia. Is the local art scene and giving a platform to artists born in Gdańsk an important part of the mission statement of Łaźnia?
JC: Naturally, we have been following this principle since the very beginning. Even prior to the establishment of the Gdańsk City Gallery (GGM) in response to the need expressed by the community, we had already been organizing a series of exhibitions called Incubator dedicated to showcasing the works of local emerging artists. We continued to exhibit young art in a variety of formats in Gdańsk and abroad. Our artist-in-residence programme, initiated in 2012, opened up a wealth of new opportunities. We often engage in international programmes and stay open to new phenomena. We want our artists to be able to hone their craft outside of Poland and to create conditions for collaboration between local and international artists who participate in our exchange programmes or open calls. In this manner, we present art and educate audiences, teaching openness and tolerance through showing diversity.Hungry for more?
JG: The artistic and educational activity of Łaźnia dynamically oscillates around a variety of communication disciplines within the artist vs. audience axiom. The epitomes of this approach are, for instance, Artcast, a series of podcasts about contemporary art by CCA Łaźnia, the abovementioned Art+Science Meeting, or GAPS – Gdańsk Artyści Przestrzeń Sztuka (Gdańsk Artists Space Art), which stands for a digital collection and database that allows the viewer to gain a deeper insight into art in their immediate surroundings. Which of these projects propelled the growth of the institution the most?
JC: Allow me to tell you something more about them first. GAPS, our latest project on art in public space corresponding with the urban development strategy, involves making an inventory of all public art pieces in Gdańsk. This year, the effects of our work were made available to the public in the form of an online database at www.gaps.gda.pl. It features over 300 objects, and it’s only the first stage of our work-in-progress. One of the project’s advantages is the fact that citizens themselves can submit objects that are missing from the catalogue, thus facilitating a more organized archiving. Clearly, the city landscape is constantly being transformed and developed. The tools available on the website allow one to broaden their knowledge of the local works of art, to plan a city tour and thematic routes for walks. In principle, it serves as an artistic compendium of knowledge on public art in Gdańsk.
Whereas the pandemic galvanized us into the creation of a series of podcasts, including Artcast. It is a series of conversations about art and culture broadcast on Radio Kapitał and available on our official website (www.laznia.pl). In my opinion, our projects create a coherent programme, expressing the goals and mission of the institution. For this reason, I would rather not assign the most importance to either of them. Because each project reflects the curators’ interests in one way or another, which in turn influences on the state and development of the whole institution.
JG: In the case of the CCA Łaźnia, education seems to carry the same weight as art presentation. What role does education play in contemporary art centres and galleries?
JC: Nowadays, the vast majority of cultural institutions run some kind of education activity. In Łaźnia, we place a special emphasis on education because we realize that contemporary art can be complicated. Additionally, we want to meet the needs of local communities – children, young people, adults, and seniors. We are trying to formulate an educational programme that would have something interesting for many different audiences. Our programme is also tailored to the needs of people with disabilities, vision impairment, deaf or hard of hearing people. We organize workshops for schools and groups, guided exhibition tours, thematic workshops on topics such as furniture renovation, ceramics, painting, and animation, and city walks and a very extensive series of classes and tours during summer and winter breaks. Of course, the pandemic turned the world upside down. When we couldn’t use our workshop studios, we published audiobooks for children, among other things. This initiative was appreciated during the annual event Giełda Projektów organized by the National Centre for Culture in Poland.
In conclusion, education – alongside art in public spaces, art and science, and international collaboration – is one of the pillars of Łaźnia’s programme.
JG: Behind every institution of culture stand the people and human relations. Though challenging, working in the cultural sector is often amazing. Can you recall any event in Łaźnia that brings a smile to your face when you think about it?
JC: Of course, there are many such events. Like I said before, we run a number of educational programmes in the city districts where our seats are located. A few years ago, a group of kids hung the paintings they made during workshops on the building of the electrical station. They stayed there for a good couple of years until one politician decided to plaster their election posters all over the walls, effectively covering up their pieces. The next morning, the posters were taken down. I was very impressed with the young people’s reaction to the way their exhibition was treated.
Another nice adventure is related to my picture of Gilbert and George. A mural dedicated to the art duo appeared one day on a building on Fournier Street in London, so I asked them if I could photograph them against the painting’s backdrop. This spontaneous photograph turned out so alluring that it came to promote the stay of Gilbert and George in Gdańsk. Also, I will never forget meeting these two incredible artists in their studio and walking around the neighborhood together.
I can recall a number of events attended by Paweł Adamowicz, the former Mayor of Gdańsk who passed away. One of these events took place in 2008, when we bestowed our LKW Gallery art truck upon the local community. The Mayor told me that the project had sounded not only crazy, but also a bit ridiculous when I had explained it to him a few years back, but that he did not regret this decision because one must have faith in life, and “the director and her team have great spirit.”
JG: CCA Łaźnia is constantly changing and evolving. Where do you see it in five or ten years?
JC: It is a very difficult question. I hope we will continue to showcase innovative and enthralling phenomena, maintaining the openness towards the new and unknown, and a fresh perspective when it comes to our programme. I hope we will continue to educate, exchange information, and confront our viewpoints with the world. By way of educating through art, we contribute in a way to the emergence of social awareness among people who become immune to the manipulation methods of populists. We want to promote tolerance and mutual respect. I hope we will stay on this path because it is currently one of the greatest challenges facing our world and contemporary art. Social egalitarianism in art is clearly a beautiful utopian vision – the vision that the institutions such as Łaźnia must attempt to bring to life. Because we believe that we can make the world a better place.
Sensory Orders, photo by Paweł Jóźwiak, courtesy of the Łaźnia Centre for Contemporary Art
Studiolo Oksiuta, photo by J. Charzynska, courtesy of the Łaźnia Centre for Contemporary Art
Victoria Vesna, Noise Aquarium, exhibition, photo by Adam Bogdan, courtesy of the Łaźnia Centre for Contemporary Art
Fluorescent Chrysantemum Remembered, photo by P. Jóźwiak, courtesy of the Łaźnia Centre for Contemporary Art