Local Initiatives On An International Stage Interview with Michał Bieniek, the curator of the European Capital of Culture Visual Arts Programme

Wrocław was considered a favourite among the Polish candidates for the European Capital of Culture 2016, which is why no-one was surprised when the city was selected. Already in 2011, which is when the results were officially announced, Wrocław was a thriving Polish cultural centre. There was an enormous amount of faith in the city’s potential, but the expectations towards the cultural programme for the year 2016 were even bigger. As 2016, a year so full of unforgettable moments and pleasant surprises comes to an end, we decided to ask Michał Bieniek, the curator of the European Capital of Culture Visual Arts Programme, about his experiences and the conclusions he comes to at this point in time.

Michał Bieniek

Michał Bieniek, the curator of the European Capital of Culture Wrocław 2016

Monika Kozub: First of all, I would like to learn something more about the period of preparations for the events being a part of the European Capital of Culture Wrocław 2016. How did you develop the programme of events? Was it your own project, or were you trying to develop your programme on the basis of various proposals you received?

Michał Bieniek: I joined the European Capital of Culture team and became a curator somewhere between late 2013 and early 2014. Because the title of the European Capital of Culture was awarded to Wrocław in 2011, by the time I joined, preparations were at an advanced stage. At the beginning I got a list of projects which included numerous suggested keywords and topics for visual arts, so over all, my task was a bit complicated. I had to fulfil the main tasks laid before me, but, at the same time, I needed to verify and adjust them so that they became an integral part of the program as a whole, a complete concept. One of the results of this complicated process was a project entitled “Stanisław Dróżdż, Ścieżki Tekstu” [Stanisław Dróżdż, Text Paths]. Actually, this example very accurately represents the methods we used in our activities. The name of Stanisław Dróżdż (born 1939, died 2009 in Wrocław; artist, and pioneer of concrete poetry) was mentioned in the context of the year 2016 and its events from the very beginning. At first, it was just an obscure idea of a festival dedicated to this poet, which could be organised in Wrocław. This idea was not clear to me at all, but what I decided to do was to get to its very core (of this idea) and bring it to life in a way which I considered most appropriate and comprehensive. This is why I decided to invite Małgorzata Dawidek-Gryglicka to cooperate with me on this project.

Apart from that, I received numerous proposals – or as we could say, ‘instructions’ – on what these so-called, “grand exhibitions”, these international exhibitions in Wrocław, should look like. Before the year 2016, the city made attempts to follow this specific path, however, in my opinion, this effort did not bring the expected results. One of the attempts I mentioned was the exhibition entitled “Tauromachia”, which turned out as a big scandal.

During the stages of preparation, we became aware of a number of projects not strong enough for this season of exhibitions and so I encouraged people involved in the ECoC project to stop participating in the organization of such exhibitions. Instead, we organized other events, such as  “Eudardo Chillida. Brzmienia” [Eudardo Chillida. The Sounds], “Letnia Rezydencja. Kolekcja Marxa gościnnie we Wrocławiu” [Summer Rental. The Erich Marx Collection in Wrocław] at the Four Domes Pavilion, and “Photography Never Dies”, which is a big international photo exhibition that opened in November 2016.

 KM: Let’s say something more about the basic ideas behind the events programme.

MB: The underlying idea around which the programme was developed, was participation. This came to me quite naturally, because I grew up surrounded by this way of acting and thinking about art. For over ten years I have been working around the question of art in public spaces; therefore, I wanted to create my own constituent part which would be related to art in public spaces, but most of all, to participation. It was supposed to be about long-term participation, which should last for months or even several years, rather than short-term involvement. In my view, it is important for the artistic activities to become a starting point for long-lasting processes and the thorough transformation of societies. This is where the idea for the project, “Wrocław – Entrance from the Backyard” stems from. The project is an extended series of artistic activities in the public spaces of Wrocław which are remote from the city centre; forgotten; locations which have not been revitalized for a long time for various reasons. The concept of the ubiquitous backyard should therefore be understood in a wider context. I wanted to show the city in an unconventional way, different from how it has usually been presented to the public. I wanted the activities to be  based on the perspective of an average person and their everyday life, rather than on the pictures selected in an arbitrary way and shown to tourists.


Photography never dies, 2016.

Photography never dies, 2016.

MK: In your opinion, do such activities reach only local audiences, or do they have the potential to bring a certain topic to the international stage, for example to show an international audience how Wrocław develops, and how it benefits from being chosen to be the European Capital of Culture? What I have in my mind is the project we just talked about – “Wrocław – Entrance from the Backyard”. I totally agree with what you just said,- that the project assumed an approach to art financed by the state which is very interesting and totally new in Poland – art that reaches people not only on certain occasions, but offering them a specifically developed, encompassing programme of events. Do you think that this approach can say something more about Wrocław and go beyond activating local communities?

MB: What comes next remains to be seen. The project “Wrocław – Entrance from the Backyard” was initiated in the summer of 2015 and, since then, it has been implemented by six persons in total. The scale of this project is huge. The project is probably the biggest in Poland when it comes to the scope of artistic intervention in the public space of the city. It is also experimental because it encompasses all the types of social groups or groups of participants. I constantly emphasize the fact that the artist who agrees to take part in such kind of project should always take into account external factors, which can make the original assumption impossible to achieve, and force the artist to develop the project in a different direction, etc. Unfortunately, a lot of artists are unequipped to work in a public space, as they are unable to take as a starting point the readiness to accept the roles of all the actors involved. The artists are not ready to always have them (the public) in mind, and end up putting the work of art in the centre of the project, at the expense of the participants. The artist should not treat the public space or the common backyard as a hermetic art gallery, because these spaces have completely different intrinsic characteristics.

It is also worth emphasizing that apart from the artist’s attitude or the way the artist relates to the inhabitants of the city and the people using the public space, the role of cultural animators and the ways the inhabitants can get involved are of utmost importance. As we were working on the “Wrocław – Entrance from the Backyard” project, we grasped how important consultations are, and how enormous the influence of the characteristic features in a given place are;- a backyard, its size, it social importance, the current condition of the place, the expectations of its inhabitants, etc. There were a lot of experiments on our side, because in some instances we worked in compact and compressed sites, such as a backyard with a surface area of only 5 square meters, in which we would prepare a “Świetlik” [Skylight] installation.  That said,  we also used much larger areas, such as the Kozanów housing estate in the north-western part of the city. The entire project was huge, and encompassed over twenty different activities. Because of their variety and unique character – as well as very individual demands – every time we started an activity, we needed to develop our strategy anew.

Coming back to your question, I think that we would be able to elaborate on the results of this project, sum up its outcomes and describe its effect when more time has passed. I would also like to mention that some of these smaller projects live their own life now, and are being developed in ways we did not anticipate. The Workshop at Komuny Paryskiej 45 is one example of such project. This is a culture centre located in a formerly empty, uninhabited building, in a place with no housing estate authorities, where the inhabitants are just left on their own. Our idea for this place was a project incorporating activation, arts and social issues. However, the project was quickly redesigned, since we had to take the real needs of the local community into account. Numerous artistic activities are still organized there, mostly catering for children, but for some time we have been organizing training sessions devoted to writing formal letters to the officials. It turned out that the locals felt the need to acquire this skill, and the idea was proposed by them. The idea of creating a housing estate council is also being discussed, because there is no such council in the area. As a cultural institution, we faced the need to address the areas related to other spheres of life, which have not been properly taken care so far.

MK: What about the people you invited to work on this project – were they local artists?

MB: For us, it was crucial to invite Polish artists from outside of Wrocław. I wanted them to look at things from a different perspective and present an unbiased outlook, not influenced by the knowledge which every inhabitant of Wrocław has. I wanted fresh ideas and something totally new for our city. All things considered, I think that there will be some continuation on the international scene, but that certainly needs time. For now, we have to conclude the whole project and we have still a few initiatives ahead of us. Conclusions and reflections will come later.

MK: I would like to know how you tried to balance local activities, which were supposed to familiarize the local community, (in this case, the inhabitants of Wrocław), with the idea of Europeanism and cultural exchange, and with activities directed towards other European cities? One can also ask whether such year-long events are an opportunity to promote Wrocław, or Polish culture? Were your activities focused on certain elements of Wrocław’s heritage which were related to history in the broader, national/international sense? It is widely known that the city’s past is very complicated. Maybe Wrocław’s history can be treated as a representation of the history of the whole nation?

MB: What you just said is, indeed, true. The history of Wrocław is so complicated that when you speak about it, you are actually telling the story of the whole country. The first step in telling this history was preparing the exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 2015. This exhibition was, on one hand, an introduction to the events of the coming year when Wrocław would be the European Capital of Culture.  On the other hand, it was supposed to present this very city and its characteristic features. The story we were trying to tell quickly grew with no effort on our side. This way, it became the story of Poland and our part of Europe. We became aware of the fact that we would not be able to present it accurately without artists from outside of Poland. This is why, taking into account the events from our history, we invited artists from Ukraine and Germany to cooperate. Our starting points were the painful events from the city’s past, namely the relocation of nearly 100% of Wrocław’s inhabitants, and settling the city with a new population, mainly relocated from the east. Quite unexpectedly and quickly, the past became interconnected with current events which took – and are still – taking place in Europe. Already at that time, heartbreaking pictures of refuges fleeing to Europe could be seen in the news more and more frequently. Our exhibition presented the stories told by artists representing three nations. We can even say that it was about four nations, because Manaf Halbouni who represented Germany is a Syrian emigrant who has lived in Germany for a few years and whose past experience is really dramatic. The combined effect was the universal story which made us aware of the fact that, generally speaking, all of us are refugees. We started from the local story, the history of Wrocław and its identity, and we eventually managed to create a fairly universal narration. I think this is a characteristic feature of mixed identities – they can be used as examples to describe various processes which are taking place in our times.

 MK: Now the question is how is it possible to comprehensively present a selected problem related to the functioning of the city within the context of the European culture in just a year? We should also remember that there are always two Capitals of Culture. In 2016, besides Wrocław it was San Sebastian. Is the coexistence of two Capitals of Culture imposed or is it rather an opportunity to build international cooperation?

MB: We did not have any influence on the decision regarding who will be selected as the second Capital of Culture. Nevertheless, I have to admit that the experience was really inspiring. Obviously, there were many interesting ideas proposed during the process of developing the programme, but unfortunately, some of them were not implemented. We organized several artistic residency programmes in both cities, and we also prepared an exhibition of artworks by Eduardo Chillida “The Sounds” in cooperation with his descendants. Before this exhibition, I heard objections and claims that this event would not be suitable, and that the choice of artist was not the best one. People claimed that Chillida’s works were abstract and his name was not commonly known in Poland, which is why nobody would be willing to visit the exhibition. Contrary to these opinions, the event turned out to be a box office hit. It was extremely popular and got fantastic reviews.  Also, it is worth mentioning – although I did not work in this field – that cinema worked quite successfully as a common ground between Wrocław and San Sebastian.

Photography never dies, 2016.

Photography never dies, 2016.

MK: What about the people who visited Wrocław during this year? How did tourists engage in the events organized in Wrocław within the European Capital of Culture programme? Were there any events intended specifically for visitors? Was their participation only the matter of their willingness and choices or did you prompt them to get involved, for example, by carefully selecting venues where events would be organized?

MB: When it comes to the venues, their selection can be viewed as an attempt to boost participation. What I have in mind are initiatives in publicly accessible places, outside of art galleries, which of course, also hosted a great number of events and projects. We wanted to reach our audience by organising projects at the airport or the central railway station. Although sometimes they were controversial, it turned out they positively influenced the audience. Such places can be considered as an entrance gate or an embassy. People interact with artworks practically, by getting immersed in them.

One of the first projects, which we opened in May 2015, was “Invasion” by Jerzy Kosałka. The installation featured oversized flying storks ridden by dwarfs [laughs]. The dwarfs represented eight fields of art which altogether made the programme of the European Capital of Culture. The storks landed in the airport hall and were directed by another dwarf with the ECoC badge. This dwarf was actually female – the creature wearing high-heeled shoes, but also a beard. The installation was truly controversial and it could not remain in the airport hall for as long as we expected it to be there. Despite that, it turned many heads and was appreciated by visitors arriving to the city. Crowds of people took pictures with the storks and the project was widely discussed in the media. I just needed to explain that Kosałka decided to use these two symbolic characters because a stork is an informal symbol of Poland, whereas a dwarf is unofficially treated as Wrocław leitmotif. There were much less emotions accompanying subsequent exhibitions. At the airport we showcased two works by Kuba Jasiukiewicz and Kuba Bąkowski. Until recently, an interactive work by the Belgian group LAb[au] was presented there. Unfortunately, it needed to be removed due to unfavourable weather conditions which made it impossible to display the work in front of the airport building. When it comes to the railway station, there was a series of exhibitions presented in the newly opened gallery Art Main Station by mia. Just recently the exhibition “Przypływ. Młoda polska sztuka współczesna” [TIDE – Young Polish Contemporary Art] was closed, but our audience can visit the exhibition “Photography Never Dies”. We also opened a new exhibition space on the first floor of the main railway station, which has a surface area of about 2000 m2. This way, a new place for cultural and artistic activities was created.

 MK: Could you tell us whether there is any chance for initiating international cooperation after the European Capital of Culture year ends?

MB: There are lots of opportunities because we established relationships with numerous entities. I already mentioned Venice Biennale and the exhibition we organized there, which became really successful. I also need to mention another exhibition, entitled “Wild fields. The history of avant-garde Wrocław”, which was presented in several European countries. The exhibition contained really valuable material, although it may have been difficult to comprehend for the average visitor, because it presented historical topics in detail, and the exhibits mostly included documentation.

We also opened an exhibition titled “The Germans Did Not Come” in Dresden, which was possible thanks to our extremely friendly cooperation with Kunsthaus Dresden. The exhibition tells our visitors about the cultural policy in the post-war Wrocław, which shaped the new identity of our city as it was rebuilt from ruins. On the one hand, the policy aimed to rebuild what was lost during the war, but on the other, it made minor shifts towards making the city a Polish one. I also know that artistic residency programmes will be organized on a continuous basis.

MK: That is a really good news!

MB: It is indeed, although I still do not know how often it will be organized and how many people will take part. We also plan to continue our cooperation with Ukraine, but there are no firm details agreed so far, so it is difficult to judge what potential it has.

MK: What comes to my mind at this point is the “festivalisation” of culture. Here came a year when we had the opportunity to organize numerous cultural events and it was impossible for an average person interested in culture to “digest” them all. Then the following year will come and, suddenly, there will be a very limited cultural events programme and a significant amount of time will need to be devoted to summing up the previous 12 months. In your opinion, what can potentially become successful in Poland, as well as on international scale when it comes to such cultural festivals? Did your perception of success factors change during the year? Is there any difference between the time you started working on the programme, and now?

MB: Two things come to my mind. One is about the activities in the public spaces, which we talked about. My attitude towards, and perception of, such activities changed significantly. Before, I organized the Survival cultural festival. I had a lot of experiences in my professional life, but they were much different from what I experienced recently. I put greater emphasis on consultations, which I already mentioned. I became aware how important constant experiments are, how we should find sensible solutions, conduct broad consultations and organize appropriate artistic activities, which take into account what is happening in the public space. Before, all of that was only a childish fantasy to me. I thought a lot about social transformation which resulted from artistic activities; I read about it, but I had never experienced this phenomenon myself. Now, thanks to the “Wrocław — Entrance from the Backyard” project, I think that I am slowly realizing that such processes can really take place. This is the most important thing which I learned and which influenced me. In a broader context, when we think about the festivalisation which you mentioned, I learned that it is worth taking a challenge of organizing such event, otherwise you are not able to fully understand how such huge machine functions. It is a really valuable experience, especially in terms of broadening your knowledge about financing, and changing your way of thinking about culture. It is indispensable if you want to engage in non-stationary, non-institutionalized activities. Now when I am planning activities for the upcoming year I am more aware that I cannot rely solely on our local structure, whether nationwide or centralized, any longer. International cooperation, relationships with numerous institutions, receiving European funding, projects implemented outside of Poland — these are all factors which can assure your independence in thinking and, therefore, I want them to be an indispensable part of my activity. Isolation can do no good.

MK: I think this sentence sums up our conversation perfectly. Thank you.


Interviewd by Monika Kozub

Translated by Joanna Pietrak

Edited by Aleksander Cellmer

Wild fields. The history of avant-garde Wrocław, Nicolas Grospierre, Wroclaw 2006.

Wild fields. The history of avant-garde Wrocław, Nicolas Grospierre, Wroclaw 2006.

Miłosz Wnukowski, Night Thief, 2015, site-specific, SURVIVAL, photo Bartek Holoszkiewicz

Miłosz Wnukowski, Night Thief, 2015, site-specific, SURVIVAL, photo Bartek Holoszkiewicz

Photography never dies, 2016.

Photography never dies, 2016.

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