Agnieszka Szczotka. When I grew up. Archival pigment print, 2017.
Interview

Stories from the City, Stories from the School In Conversation with Agnieszka Szczotka

The Royal Academy of Arts — known for its annual Summer Exhibition and splendid seventeenth-century building in the heart of London — has been teaching new generations of artists since 1769. Its prestigious graduate program RA Schools has the distinction of being completely free for its select group of artists, whose productions benefit from specialist facilities in ceramics, woodwork, sculpture, 3D printmaking, audio-visual, film and video . . .

It is also where Polish artist Agnieszka Szczotka will present her (belated) graduation show in June. Agnieszka’s practices span the moving image, performance, photography and writing. She is also co-founder of Amatorska: an exhibition space and curatorial project based in her flat.

Read what Agnieszka has to say about her journey to this institution, about how she manages within the ‘ecosystem’ of the contemporary art market.

Agnieszka Szczotka, photo: Marcin T. Jozefiak

Agnieszka Szczotka, photo: Marcin T. Jozefiak

What are you working on at the moment?

I have a graduate show coming up in June, so my primary focus is towards building an exhibition and resolving technical issues surrounding that.

To be more specific, I am currently working on a video of a severed head floating within a black void (the severed head seems to be a leitmotif reappearing in my practice). It’s a rather minimal work, so I am trying to ensure the decisions I make appropriately serve the work. The process conjures up a multiplicity of options, at least in my case, so trusting the gut helps. The context of Poland has been important, I think the policies, in what is a fucked up situation, has seeped into my thinking, especially the state violence regarding reproductive and sexual rights.

I’ve also been working on several texts, which might end up in one of my performances, which often play with the idea of an unreliable narrator. My writing usually starts with an impulse to get something out of my system in order to exorcise it: minor traumas, a frustration, an odd line that follows me around, an article about cattle stranded on a ship destined to be ‘destroyed’ after spending months adrift. Anything goes.

The RA is the only free postgraduate program in the UK plus it’s three years long. I knew I would have a lot of figuring out to do, and I really craved that time. Moreover, there’s only around 15 students per year, so there’s a sense of intimacy, and you get to know people pretty well (both students and staff) which at the time felt important.

Can you elaborate on the artworks/projects that you are most proud of?

I don’t think about my work in these terms but I am aware that particular works have stood as markers in my development. A previous body of work connected to my grandparents in Poland was the catalyst for experimenting with moving image (as the primary reason for my visit was to record them), as well as the act of performing directly to camera. I suppose I was attempting to look at how elderly bodies function (or don’t function for that matter) in the public sphere, and consequently the ethics of representation that come with ‘employing’ family members in your work. It’s these questions, along with the themes of family structures, narratives and conditionings that still trouble me today.

Looking back, this collaboration marks an important psychological shift in my practice, it allowed personal experience to take precedence and be a point of departure for further ruminations and searches. During my Fine Art BA I was trying to get away from the personal. (I suspect my insecurities were boiling under the surface; feeling alienated, not rooted in the language nor culture, and not being able to communicate what I wanted to communicate). As a consequence, my work was much more formal in terms of execution.

During my studies at the Royal Academy I allowed myself to think about language as just another material to use, and quite a potent one for that matter. Importantly I’m primarily thinking about English language here: there’s a certain type of freedom that comes with using a language that’s not one’s own. Falling for words because of a seductive quality or aura they possess, embracing the absurdity of idioms, abusing the syntax — there’s pleasure in that. Anyway, as a consequence of writing and needing to bridge how I might present this text, I started doing readings which I really enjoy — the energy shifts when I am in front of a live audience — this is where my fondness currently lies. Needless to say, it hasn’t really happened in the past year.

What were your beginnings like? Do you remember the moment when you knew you wanted t become an artist?

Let’s say I was artistically inclined as a child. I don’t really know where it came from, perhaps it was the need to occupy myself as I remember spending a lot of time on my own. I liked building things, drawing, I kept diaries. As a teenager, I was eating up anything that had to do with culture, which wasn’t easy given the setting I grew up in (that is Grudziądz in Poland in the 80’s and 90’s). My father used to buy me this magazine — it was called The Great Painters, or perhaps The Grand Painters would be a more appropriate translation in this case — a weekly magazine, always dedicated to one artist. Needless to say, they were predominantly white, male and Western, but it got me hooked on art and its histories. It was perhaps then that I developed a kink for old masters, and dramatic, theatrical aesthetics (although that might have been my early experiences of growing up in a catholic country, the performativity of the mass). Also, I used to consume a lot of movies, and record them on VHS cassettes, I still have them stacked at my parent’s flat. It was mostly arthouse stuff, I was quite a snob actually. When still in high school, I made friends with a couple of actors who resided at our local theatre for a year, putting on plays and running workshops with the local youth. It was right next to my school so I hung out there a lot, they introduced me to stuff they didn’t teach us in school! Then, at some point, I remember seeing The Rite of Spring by Katarzyna Kozyra at the Zachęta National Gallery of Art, and Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency in the Ujazdowski Castle, which were a total revelation.

I came to London in my early 20s’. It was a spontaneous, and rather ill-thought-through decision, with no long-term plan attached. At the time, I lived in South East London, and cycled past the Camberwell College of Arts on my way to work. There was something magnetic about this place. Or perhaps I just fell for the coolness of it all, with the sheer idea of being an art student in London making my imagination go wild. Shortly after I met someone who studied at the Camberwell at the time. She encouraged me to apply, and I did.

Why did you decide to study at the Royal Academy Schools, how did you choose your art academy, did something specific attract you to this academy?

In terms of applying to do my postgraduate, I had come to the conclusion that if I was serious about being an artist I needed to install myself into an environment that will both nurture and challenge me. A decisive moment came during the Merz Barn Residency in the Lake District I had been invited to by my friend Kasia Perlak (an artist and then-student at the Slade Media Department). There was a group of us there — all MA Slade students, and then me — and I thought; well, I can do it too. It just felt like a right moment for me: if one can speak of synchronicity, that was the feeling.

Royal Academy Schools was my only choice, and once I’d made up my mind, I didn’t want to study anywhere else. Crucially the most pragmatic reason one was a financial one:  the RA is the only free postgraduate program in the UK plus it’s three years long. I knew I would have a lot of figuring out to do, and I really craved that time. Moreover there’s only around 15 students per year, so there’s a sense of intimacy, and you get to know people pretty well (both students and staff) which at the time felt important: knowing that you are immersed in an environment in which the people around you can engage you and observe your practice unfold over time. It’s a small community which makes it easier to accommodate certain needs and quirks.

It’s also a very unique place, an enclave right in the centre of the city — it is situated between Piccadilly and Soho, which is actually quite wild — it’s like living in the heart of London.

Oh, and The RA Schools’ Christmas Parties are legendary!

You get to show your work to many incredible artists, like Michelle Williams Gamaker, Lindsay Seers, Alex Da Corte, Simeon Barclay among others, and these are often very precious conversations, fucking-up with your mind.

Did your studies at an art academy prepare you to function well in the art market?

To be perfectly frank I don’t know the answer to this question yet, perhaps ask me again in a few months’ time! What my studies at the RA have prepared me for is to function as an artist in the precarious structures that constitute the art ecosystem.

I don’t want to sound too romantic or even naïve, but the market really wasn’t my focus while studying. I was out of the education system for a while before starting at the RA, so I wanted to commit to the program fully, and the program itself is very intense. When I first started, I wanted to do everything; all the workshops, lectures, talks, study trips, parties . . . You get to show your work to many incredible artists, like Michelle Williams Gamaker, Lindsay Seers, Alex Da Corte, Simeon Barclay among others, and these are often very precious conversations, fucking-up with your mind. You need the right headspace to process all of this information. I wanted to take on all the opportunities that the school was providing, even if they terrified me, so I also did a few teaching placements and facilitated some workshops. Especially now, these encounters with students have helped me to get out of my own inertia. I also learned that I liked hosting events (hahaha).

What is your biggest success?

I’d say — being able to surround myself with good people — that’s a pretty big one for me. Everything else springboards from that.

Do you feel economically secure as an artist?

Absolutely not.

Have you ever had to pause your artistic activity for a while in order to be able to secure financial stability through another job?

Yes, after my BA at Camberwell I stopped making art. At the time, I didn’t know how to navigate my existence as an artist. I did various jobs in order to sustain my living, from bike couriering to working at the Tate bookshops, whilst in between I wrote articles for the Polish magazine Zwykłe Życie. I suppose being an artist is a way of being in the world, and in that sense, perhaps I never really paused.

At one point a former tutor of mine recommended me for a job as a studio assistant to artist Toby Ziegler. I mostly worked on sculptures, but I also helped with installing exhibitions and other tasks, including drinking endless cups of tea. It was quite a special environment, full of characters. I learnt more about the art world (and British culture for that matter), than I did in my three years on the BA. Around the same time I started running Amatorska — a space in my flat in south London where I hosted exhibitions and events, which gave me a platform to start exhibiting my own work again. It’s hard to imagine this in the current context, the thought of inviting a bunch of strangers into your house . . .

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?

Being in the state of crisis is my natural state of being!

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But in all seriousness, this is a complex question, or rather many questions that can be interpreted in multitude of ways, as the word ‘crisis’ itself is extremely loaded. One can say that there’s a crisis of loneliness, a crisis of touch, a crisis of nationalisms, of brexit (the effects of which it feels have been clouded by the pandemic)… The crisis of this pandemic — let’s just focus on this for the sake of specificity — affected everyone, but mostly these who were living and working precariously prior to it regardless of occupation, as any type of crisis of this kind only magnifies already existing disparities.

The art world itself is not a monolith, so I would like to avoid sweeping generalisations here. Many artists were enormously affected, with cancelled jobs, exhibitions, performances, and the whole infrastructures surrounding these — the devastation is clear. And then, there’s the psychological impact of it all: the uncertainty of waiting, and the impossibility of locking anything in time and space, even one which is far-away.

When the first lockdown started in the UK, I was in the midst of preparations for my degree show. It felt like going from one extreme to the furthest reaches of the other, from being in constant movement to almost total standstill, which is less of a pleasant position to find oneself in. In the end everyone at the RA has been granted an extra year, so that we didn’t have to graduate in the midst of the pandemic. Needless to say, it was a rather unsettling year, with two more lockdowns on the way, and many ups and lows, but it felt important to be supported by the institution during that time. Of course, I have fears, because the repercussions of the pandemic and brexit will be felt for a long time.

I guess this might be a time to re-examine old structures and as the filmmaker Maya Deren once said ‘find another order capable of sustaining life’. Recent protests in Poland, potentially the largest since the fall of Communism, were initiated by the grass root feminist organisation, Strajk Kobiet (Women’s Strike) with the support of LGBTQ+ communities among others, and ignited acts of civil disobedience across various sectors of society. I am remaining hopeful that change is possible, but we have to start with our immediate environments first.

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Have you ever received funds, grants or scholarships?

While studying at the RA, every student gets a bursary to help out with their work. When I first started at the RA, I got some support from a Polish organisation based in London, but unfortunately, now this grant ceases to exist.

If you could collaborate with any artist, living or deceased, who would it be?

The list is long! I have a desire for someone to make costumes for me, so in this moment in time — Leigh Bowery.

What three tips would you give to someone who wants to become an artist?

I would say this one is about particular needs and the type of person that you are, so I can only say what’s valuable to me.

Have your people . . . people you can trust, your support nest.

Integrity is probably a good one too, especially if you’re in it for the long game.

Have an outlet of release that is outside of art.

If not an artist, what would be your dream job?

In the past I often had this unrealistic desire to only do one thing and do it to perfection. I say unrealistic — because, despite this ideal, it doesn’t really suit my temperament. A tutor of mine Brian Griffiths once spoke about the promiscuous nature of my practice that had to do with the vastness of the interests that I have. My areas of research may vary from the gut — brain axis to the Domesday Book, witch-hunts to ‘chewing the cud’; I suppose throughout the body remains central.

It can be a little frustrating, as I get excited easily, but can lose the interest in a blink of an eye so at times there’s this nagging feeling of sliding on the surface of things and not really getting anywhere. Then again, being an artist, I can embrace this multiplicity and take on and embody various roles or personas, allowing these different interests to come together in an idiosyncratic way. But to come back to your question, the answer would change depending on my menstrual cycle.

In the follicular phase I could be a musical theatre star.

During ovulation — something to do with brain, hormones and gut: a scientist of some sorts, or psychotherapist perhaps.

In the luteal phase I would appreciate the loneliness of a long-distance runner.

And during my menstruation — I would have no job at all.

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About The Author

Sylwia
Krasoń

Founder of Contemporary Lynx (2013). Editor-in-chief of the Contemporary Lynx in print and online. The art historian with a Master of Arts degree in Arts Policy & Management (the University of London, Birkbeck College) and Master of Arts in History of Art (Jagiellonian University in Cracow).

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