Krystyna Dobrzańska, "Comics from the Centre"

Krystyna Dobrzańska. Participatory Art Interview with Krystyna Dobrzańska, laureate of the 8th edition of the 8th Media Art Best Diploma Competition

The works selected in this year’s edition of the 8th Media Art Best Diploma Competitionare a commentary on the process of building your own identity against the backdrop of social rules. The artists refer to their own personal experience which is a part of a wider social and cultural context. The main prize and the Contemporary Lynx magazine award went to Krystyna Dobrzańska, film maker and film production manager. In her works, she takes up the topic of power relations, xenophobia and intolerance. Krystyna’s artistic works is characterised by immense sensitivity towards minorities, and in her projects she allows groups at risk of social exclusion to speak for themselves. She relies on simple film making methods, using them as an everyday form of communication.

Krystyna Dobrzańska
Krystyna Dobrzańska

 Julia Gorlewska: Let’s start with your diverse interests, both artistic and scientific ones. You not only deal with visual arts but you are also a second-year student of Social Arts at the Institute of Polish Culture of the University of Warsaw. Is your artistic activity a combination of these two passions? 

Krystyna Dobrzańska: In a way – yes, but I wouldn’t call myself a scholar. When I was studying at the Szczecin Art Academy I got interested in participatory and socially engaged art. I decided to develop further in this direction and enrol on a course at the Institute of Polish Culture at the University of Warsaw. The course programme is a combination of, among others, cultural studies, anthropology, and practical classes. These include workshops in reading paintings, singing, as well as classes during which we analyse the accessibility of various cultural institutions. The Faculty provides studios where we prepare art projects in collaboration with various communities: at the moment we are implementing projects at the Komuna Warszawa theatre. We have a very interesting group in our year, composed of people with diverse experience and knowledge. Some students in the group are activists, some graduated from humanities degree courses, and some deal with culture and art on a daily basis. Thanks to the programme I look more critically at my earlier projects, as my perception of certain issues has changed very clearly. Of course, acting intuitively is still very important to me, and I wouldn’t like to lose my creative freedom, but despite all this the knowledge and experience I am gaining allow me to create in a conscious way.

JG: Your competition work, “Body Map” (Mapa ciała), is a story of five pupils of the Jan Korczak Youth Education Centre in Szczecin. Such places usually evoke negative connotations with pathology and social dissonance. Meanwhile, the protagonists of your film are lost, but at the same time very sensitive girls who struggle with the difficult reality of the education centre on a daily basis. Do you think that in the times of social “rush” and ever-present consumerism the role of contemporary art is to make recipients more sensitive and show seemingly obvious situations in a different way – free of stereotypes? Or do you see contemporary art performing a role in different areas?

KD: Most of all, perceiving something as pathology is extremely harmful and offensive, and it usually results from a lack of understanding or fear of the other. The word itself carries the context of some kind of degeneration on a healthy body of society, as a threat, but what it really denotes is exclusion in a very unhealthy society. The initial assumption behind my graduation project was to hold workshops with the girls, without any pressure on making a film. My goal was to meet the pupils from the centre, to give them a camera – a tool and a form of expression – through which they would be able to show their worlds and stories. That’s why it is difficult to talk about a mission here: it is a natural thing for me, something interests me and that is why I decide to talk about it. I don’t know what the role of contemporary artists is, but for me social issues are a priority. What moved me the most in my work on the “Body Map” is how sensitive the girls are; they are fantastic. 

Krystyna Dobrzańska, "Body Map"
Krystyna Dobrzańska, “Body Map”
Krystyna Dobrzańska, "Body Map"
Krystyna Dobrzańska, “Body Map”
Krystyna Dobrzańska, "Body Map"
Krystyna Dobrzańska, “Body Map”

JG: As the film is not publicly available at the moment, can you tell us the story behind the title of the project?

KD: Body map is a type of a form which is completed after the educational centre’s pupils come back from holiday or a short leave, and its purpose is to identify any new injuries, scars or tattoos. The objective is to check if any acts of violence or self-harm have occurred. I think that, given the oppressive character of the examination, the name of the procedure is rather perverse and carries multiple meanings. These days, the notion of “Body Map” evokes rather positive connotations, for example with new age practices, relieving stress, and getting to know yourself and your organism. Meanwhile, its sense is different at the centre. In consequence, the title of the film depicts the strict discipline and hierarchy the girls need to face on a daily basis. The film is not, and will not be, available on the Internet, but anyone who wishes to see it will have a chance in June at the Short Waves Festival in Poznań, and at the end of July in Gdańsk, during the exhibition accompanying the best graduation project competition.

JG: As you have said yourself, the film touches upon difficult topics. What response did it provoke in recipients?

KD: I am fascinated by the multiple ways in which the film is received. The girls were moved. After watching the film, one of the girls – usually reserved and not too self-confident – observed that she was able to say pretty smart things. One of the pupil’s mother admitted that the “Body Map” helped her in the process of getting to know her daughter anew, after she had left the reformatory. A lot of people were outraged by the hierarchy present at the institution. Personally, I would avoid pointing to any guilty parties. The problem lies in the entire system, not in specific entities. It is greatly valuable and rewarding to see that the film can evoke some reflection and open a space for discussion.

JG: You use simple imaging methods – short takes, uncomplicated shots. Is this economic approach to the means of expression intentional? It is said that the society today is overexposed to stimuli. Do you think that artists will be able to reach their audience more easily if they only use basic means of expression?

KD: The visual language of the film is the result of the girls taking up the role of camera operators. It was great fun and an interesting experience to them because they have a very limited access to all types of electronic devices at the centre. They get their phones only for a limited time on specified days. Because recording with a mobile phone was out of the question, I had to find a tool which is both easy to use – so that we would not be overwhelmed by the technicalities – and allows to record without interfering with interaction or the course of events. An idea came up was to use compact digital cameras. The imaging and film-shooting method can be attributed to the girls’ sensitivity. Their amateur and non-formal approach to working with a camera has given this peculiar context to the project, thanks to which the film has gained a fairly natural and light character, despite the gravity of the situation.

Krystyna Dobrzańska, “All About Going Abroad”
Krystyna Dobrzańska, “All About Going Abroad”

JG: In your works, such as “All About Going Abroad”, you take up the issue of social phobias, intolerance and xenophobia. Would you like your art to encourage your viewers to reflect on their social stance or to change it? What has made you choose such a set of topics? Does this have any specific purpose?

KD: Power relations and violence provide an inherent lens through which I perceive reality. It is difficult to constantly seek domination in human relationships, and perhaps speaking about this through art takes away some of the burden away and allows me to change my perspective. The idea for “All About Going Abroad” was changing and evolving while I was shooting accidental scenes from my window, such as my neighbour’s dog barking or people playing puns I could see in the window opposite mine. In time, during the editing process, I decided to take a closer look at my neighbourhood community and make the film a portrait of the circles I come from; of my family and friends. The project is characterised by a certain duality: it is a compilation of irony, absurd sense of humour, and the difficult subject-matter of stereotypical convictions popular among the middle class. The film is set in the challenging time of the pandemic, limited freedom and overwhelming concern about the future. The film received a very positive feedback among the people close to me, especially from my neighbour whose statements were controversial. He said that “he was talking rubbish”, which is his frequent conclusion, but it did not make watching the film less enjoyable for him. It is also about the fact that it is difficult to always be attentive to what we say, and about how easy it is for us – living in the Polish landscape of widespread prejudice – to reproduce and unintentionally adopt stereotypes. I’ve always had this observer’s gene in me, so it was not the first project of this type. When I was studying at the film school in Katowice, I lived in a flat on the corner of a street where a store with designer drugs was located. I could constantly hear ambulances coming there to rescue poisoned people. In Poland there is a law with a list of illegal psychoactive substances, so manufacturers would slightly change the composition of a given illegal high and market it again. Such new substance is not tested before being sold. It often happens that the new version is much more harmful and dangerous than the previous one. In addition to such occurances, there were also national and religious marches in my street. These views were my daily life, and I had a strong impression that the window somehow places this vital part of Polish society in frames. I filmed all these situations from my window, and left them unedited for long years, not really knowing what to do with them. I think that today I would approach the topic in differently.

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JG: You often refer to social and political matters in Poland. Can you tell me about the “True Patriot” ceramic series – what are its objectives and main assumptions?

KD: The idea for the “True Patriot” series came in response to the police hunt and confiscation of private computers belonging to Elżbieta Podleśna, an artist and activist who created stickers with the image of Rainbow Virgin Mary in 2019. I was intrigued by the essence of patriotic and religious symbols which, on the one hand, are thought to be untouchable and sacred, and, on the other hand, often decorate mugs, caps or other similar gadgets. “True Patriot” is my original version of this type of accessories. I wonder if there is any football team supporter who’d like to buy my ashtray with an eagle. I should find out some time. 

Krystyna Dobrzańska, “True Patriot”
Krystyna Dobrzańska, “True Patriot”

JG: How has your artistic stance changed over the years? Was the social nature of your art shaped by any specific events of phenomena?

KD: Unlike strongly codified contemporary art, which is often difficult to understand, film does not require any expert knowledge or preparation from viewers, so maybe this is why I love this form of expression so much. I learnt a lot studying film production, such as creative process management and group work experience, and I had a chance to take a close look at what good and effective communication could be. I was a person who connected the film director with the outside world, and this allowed me to get to know a lot of wonderful people who selflessly helped us implement our projects and were emotionally engaged in the creation of the film. After I graduated, I knew I didn’t want to work in the film industry – too much logistics, working with matter, and conservative rules at the expense of creativity, innovation, and artistic freedom. But in my activities at the Academy, I wanted to cooperate with people who come from this “outside world”. If you ask me about the purpose of my actions, it can be found in these meeting. The thought that we can learn from one another gives me a sense of hope. When I was studying experimental film, I got increasingly attracted to participatory art. I took part in projects implemented by the Social Film Atelier run by Karolina Breguła, who later became my diploma project supervisor. As I’ve already mentioned, I would like to be a conscious artist, so I decided to expand my knowledge at the University of Warsaw. The entire education process may seem a bit twisted but ultimately it is quite coherent. 

JG: Let’s talk about your work called “Get a Friend” whose concept was included in the publication entitled “Projects. Unfinished Art Stories” issued by the Lotny Dom Wydawniczy publishing house and Fundacja Wschód Sztuki. What did you want to show through this film?

KD: The project itself was not finished, and I only managed to complete the documentation stage. The idea behind “Get a Friend” was to discuss the issue of commodifying human relations in the late capitalism era. In recent years, coaching specialists, who often have qualifications in psychology, have managed to accelerate the growth of this sector. Their services are provided for the market to boost the performance of individuals and maximise business profits. The assumption behind the project was to return coaches’ skills to the society; to human relations. What’s interesting the project was not completed because of the sudden pandemic outbreak: in response to the growing role of relationships in the virtual world, I wanted to organise face-to-face meetings as part of the project. 

Krystyna Dobrzańska, "Comics from the Centre"
Krystyna Dobrzańska, “Comics from the Centre”

JG: Leaving the Academy is an important moment for artists. What are your plans for the coming months? Where do you see yourself as an artist in 10 years? What is your greatest professional dream?

KD: I’d like to continue my creative work and artistic activities, and be able to provide for myself. My disappointment with Poland is growing, so I have an urge to escape, even if just for a while. As for my immediate plans, I am soon going to a student placement at a Culture House in Iceland. I love that place. Before the pandemic I worked there in a catering business and on a farm. Iceland is a special country to me because of the impressive wilderness and the ever-present silence. Speaking of more daily things, I have recently started cooperating with musicians, and I have done visualisations at a concert by LOTTO in Spatif. I will soon create a live visualisation for a solo concert by Raphael Rogiński, which will take place during the opening night of his exhibition. I’d like to continue working with young people in my further artistic activities. At the weekend, I am going to a convention of democratic schools which will be held near Wrocław, where the “Body Map” will be screened. I’m looking forward to this meeting and I’m curious about the new outlook on the world presented in the film. 

8th Media Art Best Diploma Competition

28 April – 12 June 2022

WRO Art Center

Widok 7, Wroclaw, Poland

Organisers: the Eugeniusz Geppert Academy of Art and Design in Wroclaw and the WRO Art Center

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About The Author


Warsaw-based art writer and art advisor with an interest in Post-War & Contemporary Art and the art market. Author of numerous texts on art and interviews with Polish and foreign artists, curators, and art critics. Graduated from Art History at Humboldt University in Berlin. Currently works at DESA Unicum Auction House in Warsaw, where she coordinates projects related to Polish contemporary art.

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