The winner of “Actions—Reactions” competition discusses how he got into filming protests and what bothers him in today’s climate and environmental issues
Bartek Zalewski is a videographer and a camera operator who shows climatic, social, and political issues through a lens. Bartek has an academic background in chemistry as well as experience in documenting various forms of activism. He graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw with the master’s project As Long as the Canary Sings, We Are Safe („Póki kanarek śpiewa, jesteśmy bezpieczni”). With his thesis, he won the main prize in the 7th Best Media Arts Graduation Projects Competition, “Actions—Reactions”, in WRO Art Center. Bartek created a two-part work where each part stands alone perfectly; however, they become even more convincing together. One part is a video called “Brave New World” that shows the protests organised by a civil disobedience movement Ende Gelände (Here and No Further). The second part of the master’s thesis is “an academic and symmetric” video installation that presents the Planet’s vulnerability caused by anthropogenic climate change.
Anna Shostak: Bartek, I found out that you studied chemistry. Would you consider your deeper understanding of the topic to influence your concern with climate change?
Bartek Zalewski: I studied chemistry at the Gdańsk University of Technology ten years prior to graduating from the Academy of Arts in Warsaw. There I attended various classes that covered environmental change or environmental chemistry. Also, I got an apprenticeship at the third largest power station in Opole (ed.: a Polish city). So, I would consider my experience as an immersion into the topic of environmentalism. After the studies, I continued observing climate change such as draughts or atmospheric temperature fluctuation. Luckily, today’s youths have noticed those changes as well and have taken up eco-activism. By the way, when I reminisce of my teenage years or early twenties, I have an impression that I did understand particular issues that our Planet faced, but I was not that conscious in comparison with that very youths. I did not partake in demonstrations. Perhaps, I did not because people were not that vocal in Gdańsk or locations other than Warsaw. Even if we compare All-Poland Women’s Strike, in Gdańsk, protesters gathered in relatively small groups and less often, unlike in the capital. Indeed, I always knew that time is of the essence or, otherwise, it might be too late to act in a few decades.
At the Academy, I joined a workshop of Tomáš Rafa, who explores similar topics in similar circumstances—political protests, blockades, and other scenes of everyday life. That was when and where I began to work with a video format. Overall, I enjoy it because of the montage, visual aspects, and consciousness I have to practice as a camera operator. One of the first major activists I worked with was the Extinction Rebellion movement; although, it is more developed in other European countries than Poland. Seeing strikes in Berlin (unrelated to Ende Gelände), I noticed that protesters were of different age groups. I also noticed that in Poland we fight for change, whereas in Germany they sometimes perceive the gatherings more as a festivity.
A.Sh.: I read your description of the master’s thesis. In the text, you explain that the initial point of your project was Jem Bendell’s article “Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Change”. Why did you find it important?
B.Z.: The article was published in 2018 while I got acquainted with its abstract in 2019 in News Week. Professor Bendell gathered numerous researches together to show the findings and opinions of scientists who worked on different issues. We always hear and read about particular studies; for example, scientists explain the dangers of CO2 or methane emission in America. However, when there are separate researches, it is difficult to see the big picture. That was what Bendell did: he presented those findings and emphasized people’s almost instinctive denial of environmental problems. That caught my attention. For instance, in Poland, the media and the government rarely informed people about climate change in the past. As for today’s media outlets, they accepted the regulation that obliges them to use precise vocabulary and terms while the government still protects citizens from any “harmful” information. You would not believe this, but, once, the Polish Press Agency published a note stating that 75 per cent of conifers (such as pines or cedars) would be extinct in the nearest decades. And nothing more did they add. It was just a dry, plain piece of information.
As for the negation of climate change, I faced it myself at the Academy. While working on the thesis, I had to prepare an outline of it, so that the committee of the professors would accept it. One of the committee professors doubted whether climate change was an urgent issue. What I learned in academia is that I do not have to share the same opinion but consider scientific studies and use them for any purpose. After all, I do not have to be a scientist myself to create videos about any issues. Although, it is crucial to filter various information in the times when some activists impose ideas that are not scientifically acclaimed.
A.Sh.: How did you approach Ende Gelände? Did the organizers support your filming?
B.Z.: At first, I tried to join the Extinction Rebellion movement explaining to them that I would appreciate it if they let me film their activism. Sure thing, they were against it. So I had to gain their trust to be able to shoot. At last, I documented a few protests but later understood that some of their views were too extreme for me. That is why I sought to contact Ende Gelände. I found out that some protests occurred in Poland; however, the number of participants was so insignificant, and the police always managed to cease their protests before reaching the goal. In Germany, Ende Gelände gather for two or three days to block the work of power plants and quarries. The whole process happens in one area where the brown coal—lignite—is extracted and directly transported to power plants. Disrupting this process results in a temporary shutdown of power plants that produce electricity. It is an urgent matter, as the German government plans to close nuclear power plants, which, by the way, I consider a huge mistake. The activists understand that; thus, they organise the protests as frequently as possible.
To approach this civil disobedience movement was much harder, for they do not want to be exposed. Even though I explained my reasons and intentions, all they shared were press notes for the news outlets. Ende Gelände works cautiously not to spill any information or coordinates. Only up to three people are informed about exact strikes’ locations. I decided to persist and meet the organisers tête-à-tête. My friend from the Academy, Mikołaj Czerwieniec-Walczewski, and a photographer, Monika Bryk, traveled to Berlin with me. Mikołaj and I have been working in tandem since our studies till today. Usually, we back up each other by shooting from opposite angles or perspectives.
In retrospect, I could not imagine finding their exact location. But we found our blessing in disguise—a photo reporter for the Wyborcza newspaper. He revealed the coordinates of the upcoming protests. Also, the night before, I received a message from Ende Gelände telling us to hop on a train at 6 AM the following morning. Nonetheless, it was not enough information, so we spent the whole night forecasting which train station the activists would leave. Finally, on November 30, 2019, we followed a large group of people who did not pay for their train tickets. That was the beginning of their protest. How peculiar that was to observe, for the Germans are known to follow the regulations. Their method was to decentralise and scatter in small groups because they wanted to stay discrete. That day, the police were called from three different regions and even detained some activists. We observed and filmed the actions occurring at the Jaenschwalde-Ost quarry in the Lusatia region. It was cold but sunny, zero degrees Celsius; the sky was blue and clear. It felt bizarre to see neat quarries made by men, and yet it was captivating.
A.Sh.: In your video “Brave New World”, the police punch and push the protesters, use tear gas. Were you scared to be caught and detained?
B.Z.: Usually, the German police does not act in such a manner towards protesters. People know they have a right to protest; that is why they were appalled. That morning police’s behaviour might be compared to what happens in totalitarian countries but not in the country with already consolidated democracy. In the video, there is evidence of the police pushing protesters downhill and in the canal with cold water. Later, they calmed down, probably, because they managed to stop the protesters and put them in lines. At one point, a policeman asked me not to film from an “inconvenient” angle while the protesters stood in a queue to the toilet.
What I felt was a constant rush of adrenaline watching and experiencing the escalation of the protest. It was very polarizing: on the one hand, the police were violent at first; on the other hand, later, they started negotiating with the protesters that they leave the quarries. At last, the activists were seated in the buses and taken to the central railway station without being fined.
A.Sh.: Were the protesters for or against filming? How did they behave in front of the camera?
B.Z.: The protesters masked their faces to stay anonymous, so they were not afraid of the camera. However, something curious was happening: some activists were acting in front of the lens. They wanted to win our attention and sympathy. The activists tried to befriend us by smiling, sharing food, warm compresses, and thermal blankets. To be honest, I was not interested in filming theatrics, for I wanted to show the protests how they were. Evidently, for them, it was uncommon to see someone from outside their movement. While editing the video, I needed to cut out some scenes; otherwise, it felt staged.
A.Sh.: For the video installation “As Long as the Canary Sings, We Are Safe”, you managed to go underground in the mines of Poland. In Germany, they are against people getting closer to mines. How did you gain access?
B.Z.: My alma mater provided me with the letters requesting permission to enter the mines. I was granted access to four of them. Unfortunately, I did not visit any of the working mines that extract coal. Among the mines I attended was Sztygarka, where they trained miners before working in actual mines. I risked going a few levels lower than permitted, which was quite nerve-racking. Luckily, I had a chance to talk to retired miners who work there. One man said that they did understand the impact of the extraction of coal and stand for the change in environmental questions.
A.Sh.: The video installation’s title tells about the bird; although, you give the installation another meaning. What is it?
B.Z.: It is believed that the canary was used as a bioindicator to measure the amount of methane in the mines; nonetheless, it is considered a myth nowadays. In the 17th century, German miners brought the bird to the country, but canary husbandry was a costly business. Also, because miners became attached to canaries, they hunted for less exotic birds on the European continent to use them as bioindicators. Later at the beginning of the 20th century in the UK, canaries, indeed, were used as bioindicators for having been proved to be the only species to sense the gas. Underground, the canary did not sing; it would happen only when the bird was content.
Even though the bird was not frightened or scared during the filming process, we still see it trembling because of its anatomic and biological features. I wanted to show the feeling of worry and anxiety in the emptied, dark underground corridors.
Krystian Grzywacz is a young multimedia artist who relishes in experimentation with new media, movement design and media clash. He typically works with video, animation, VR and sculpture.
A.Sh.: You remember the Ende Gelände protests vividly. Now, let’s contrast it to the mines of Sztygarka. What were your emotions while filming the mines’ tunnels or the canary? They must have made an impression, must not they?
B.Z.: I am perplexed and worried about environmental matters all the time. I spent loads of time analysing and reflecting on these topics. In the video installation, the empty corridors of the coal mines showed that extracting necessary resources for industrial purposes leaves the Earth damaged. Now, it feels overwhelming to watch it. However, during the filming process, it was different. I was highly focused but not so much with the emptied paths of the mines as with a mise-en-scène. The project was complex; overall, it took me eight hours to set up the equipment, take shots at a different speed and pace. Getting back to the feelings I experienced, sure thing, Ende Gelände was much more exciting, as I did not know what to expect. On the contrary, while filming underground, I was in control and wanted the video installation to look decent.
A.Sh.: Do you plan to document other protests in the future?
B.Z.: Yes. I enjoy filming people’s reactions during the gatherings. In everyday life, I shoot commercial projects to sharpen the skills I acquired at the Academy. But I would definitely like to continue documenting and archiving the various forms of activism. Often it is even better to leave some shots and photos for the time being and publish them a few years later. They would be more valuable then.
A.Sh.: What is your opinion on staying unbiased during filming protests? Do personal views interfere with the narration you create in your videos?
B.Z.: I see what you mean. It is a dilemma. But when I work on a montage, I never create a narrative where one party is evil, and the other is righteous. In reality, I showed the vandalism done by the protesters. They entered the quarries illegally and caused losses of hundreds of thousands of euro. They acted for the other party’s disadvantage. However, they were calm and did not behave violently because they know their rights. Am I unbiased? Well, I suppose I cannot be completely unbiased. I would like to be more objective, but I cannot stop narrating from my perspective. I admit I was not only a camera operator but an activist that day. I joined Ende Gelände from the beginning but not the police forces. I have asked myself this question. Perhaps, if I had left my camera static, pushed the recording button, and went with the crowd, then maybe I would be unbiased. Maybe, I would do this someday.
A.Sh.: Do you—whether as a camera operator, an activist, or a citizen of the Planet—believe that activism would bring necessary changes for the common good?
B.Z.: I think we can already observe them. The Polish government has gained some common sense in questions of environmental change and protection influenced by the European Union. In Europe, activism is noticed even more because many people are engaged in it. Nonetheless, I would not impose activism on anyone. For example, my grandparents were born and raised at different times. Once, we agreed on segregating the litter; however, later, my granny admitted she would not segregate, for she could not get used to that. I believe that education can help people foster their views and make them act accordingly.