Returning to…
Artist talks with Ina Valentinova and Doireann O’Malley moderated by Agata Pyzik. Friday, 20.ll.2020 16:00

Another lockdown, another level of insecurity about what the future will bring. As Zielona Góra Biennial has to move online, we invite two artists working with gender, bodies and utopias, to join us in two parallel discussions on their work. Ina Valentinova works with some traditional crafts to dismantle gender and nature-environmental perceptions, Doirean O’Malley deals with how language, technology and science influence our perceptions of gender and sexuality, including production of gender dysphoria. How are we cultured to feel in this late capitalist-pandemic horror-world? can we reshape our virtual and physical spaces to transition to something better?

Agata Pyzik is an interdisciplinary writer, writing on arts & politics.

Dorota Jagoda Michalska
Vertigo. A Decolonial Biennial at the Edge of Western Europe
An essay proposing the decolonial persspective on the history of Zielona Góra and The Golden Grape Symposium.

The line of the Elbe River is one of the key geographic and political boundaries on the European continent. It was alongside that river that Germanic tribes arrested the Roman Empire’s expansion in the north-east. This fact, argues the British historian Perry Anderson, had far-reaching consequences for the lands east of the river. Roman legions were defeated in the Teutoburg Forest and forced to withdraw. On the map of the Western world at the time, the territories east of the Elbe remained a white spot: a strange land, terra incognita, an object of the West’s fantasies and projects of colonial expansion in the East.

Late Middle Ages — in the thirteenth century Zielona Góra was a local market town for the villages scattered on the nearby hills. Due to its location at a junction of north-south trading routes, there was a significant German and Flemish population among its residents from early on. Between the hills wound its course the stream Złota Łącza, serving as a source of drinking water and of energy for fulling-mills at dye-works. It was precisely cloth manufacture that the town mainly built its wealth on. In 1314, there is for the first time a mention in local documents of viniculture in the region. During this time, Zielona Góra and the whole area differ little in terms of the economy and social structures from the rest of Western Europe.

1300s–1700s — alongside the whole of Silesia, Zielona Góra becomes a Habsburg domain. On the other side of the Elbe, driven by the double engine of capitalism and colonialism, Western modernity is beginning to take shape. Its prime movers are at first the Catholic South (Spain and Portugal) and then the North (France, the Netherlands, and Great Britain). A process of the West’s economic divergence from the rest of the world begins, laying foundations for its global domination in the following centuries. In Zielona Góra, successive disasters — the Thirty Years’ War and two great fires — lead to an economic collapse. During the same time, Poland’s peripheral status takes shape, based on ever stricter serfdom and the domination of extensive agrarian production.

1663–1665 — witch trials in Zielona Góra. In her book Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici describes the transition from feudalism to capitalism as a process of whereby the West subjugated successive social groups: native populations, women, peasants, vagrants. This is achieved through forced labour, population transfers, witch trials, and extermination. A structure emerges that the Peruvian philosopher Annibal Quijano calls the colonial matrix of power. The holdings of the Lubuskie Region Museum in Zielona Góra include the judicial records of witch trials : “Anna Klich confessed that, riding on her horse to Łysa Góra every year with other witches, she rubbed herself with a witch ointment made by herself with the body of a murdered child or an unbaptized boy.”

1740–1945 — for two centuries, Zielona Góra belongs to the Kingdom of Prussia, the German Empire, and then the Third Reich. The German authorities, particularly in the nineteenth century, implement Germanization policies to socially and culturally assimilate the Polish population. At the same time, the area undergoes a modernization process aimed at implementing the Western model of modernity. It becomes particularly vigorous in the 1800s, with the onset of the industrial revolution. In 1816, the Englishman O’Brien builds the first wool spinning mill in Zielona Góra. Modern weaving machines are installed at Friedrich Förster’s factory. The construction of a road leading from Berlin to Wrocław through Zielona Góra is completed. In 1870, the city gains a rail connection with Wrocław and Szczecin.

1945 — Under the terms of Potsdam Conference, Zielona Góra becomes part of Poland. The German population is forcibly expelled and the city is repopulated by Polish settlers, mainly from the Wielkopolska (Greater Poland) region and from Poland’s pre-war eastern territories.

1945-1989 – The communist period. A Soviet experiment begins, aimed at establishing a different model of modernity, alternative to the capitalist West. The purpose of the experiment is to revert Eastern Europe’s peripheral status. The new model’s cornerstones include land redistribution, radical class restructuring, and accelerated industrialization. Metal-, wool-, electrical equipment-, furniture-, and carpet-making factories are built or rebuilt. In the early 1950s, a memorial to the defeat of illiteracy is unveiled and the first public library opens in the city.

1963 — the 1st edition of the Golden Grape Exhibition and Symposium, an event meant to decentralize artistic life in Poland. At the same time, the authorities are interested, for propaganda purposes, in emphasizing the Polish identity of the Regained Territories by organizing major artistic events there. The Golden Grape name and logo reference the vine-growing and wine-making tradition present in the region since the thirteenth century.

1967 — the 3rd edition of the Golden Grape Exhibition and Symposium Space and Expression. This exhibition — and in particular its third part, devoted to installation art and featuring Henryk Morel, Roman Opałka, Magdalena Więcek, and Marian Bogusz, among other artists — serves as a key point of reference for our Biennial. It was during that edition of Golden Grape that an effort was made to develop a new, decolonial artistic language that would reflect the identity of the city and its surrounding area. Some of the crucial questions of decolonial practice and theory are the following: Where do we speak from? What are our temporal and spatial coordinates? What is our attitude to the dominant models of modernity? On the contemporary map of the world, do we find ourselves among the central economies or the peripheral colonies? How does the colonial matrix of power impact on us? All these questions were then and are still crucial in the Eastern European context. The participants of the symposium and exhibition sought to answer them by outlining a distinct artistic proposition — critical of both the Western and the Soviet versions of modernity. Is there any free space between them? Are we doomed to be in the orbit of either the West or the East? Artists’ answers to these questions were deeply rooted in the history and geopolitical situation of Zielona Góra — a city east of the Elbe, but west of the eastern reality. A multitude of vectors, a resulting sense of vertigo.

As part of the 1967 exhibition, Magdalena Więcek shows a sculpture installation, Florale, the central feature of which is an expressive concrete sculpture of oblong shapes, meant to visualize a rising, upwards movement. Above the sculpture, in a narrow circle, hang photographs of the horizon with clouds and treetops. The work is surrounded by a firmament stretched around it. The idea of thinking and working within your own horizon is a key premise of decolonial philosophy. It is it that defines your coordinates, the place you occupy on the global map of the world-system. Only this way can you fully recognize your situation and the idiomatic nature of the mechanisms that shape your environment. Where are you? Ancient Incas used a system of coordinates called the ceques, which denoted one’s position in both time and place; they defined their location on the basis of the sun’s movement, without any need to formalize the system.

One of the few preserved photographs documenting the exhibition Space and Expression shows an installation produced by Marian Bogusz in collaboration with Artur Brunsz and František Kysztal. On the wall is a large photographic print showing a young woman in a swimsuit. On the floor, the artists placed a late-medieval relief sculpture of Madonna and Child. We are dealing here with an image of a female figure in a perspective of long duration, encompassing a space stretching from the fifteenth century to the present. In Zielona Góra, this perspective leads from a stone Madonna and Child statue, through early-modern witch trials to the late-capitalist image of the woman as an object of consumption and (re)production. The work could also be interpreted as an attempt to outline a visual archaeology of the contemporary that would capture the specificity of the Eastern European reality.

Rajmund Ziemski’s installation is a tall structure consisting of three parts, its central element being a rectangular gauze screen with smudgy black-and-white shapes painted on it. Propped against the wall, large-format photographs of stubble-fields with stooks of freshly cut grain surround the piece, which draws heavily on the region’s geopolitical specificity and its characteristic forms of farming and local production. The images of grain stooks on the hills and fields surrounding Zielona Góra can be seen as a reference to the peripheral status of the region, whose economy during the modern period was based mainly on the export of staple products. In the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries, the same phenomenon became one of the key characteristics of the Polish-Lithuanian state, which had turned into a “biopolitical grain republic” based on an ever stricter system of serfdom and extensive farming production. In his book Historia, zacofanie, rozwój [History, Backwardness, Development], historian Witold Kula compares this system of production to the economy of large agricultural estates and plantations in Latin America, particularly Brazil.

Also in the 1967 show, Henryk Morel and Piotr Perepłyś show the installation Space of Multisensory Perception — a large-scale sculptural environment featuring materials such as textiles, heavy black rubber, or semitransparent plastic foil. Viewers have to squeeze through narrow passages to cross to the other side. Are we inside a whale? There are organs to be seen, the long space of the gullet, taut tendons. There is claustrophobia, a sense of being trapped, of moving around a labyrinth made of bones, tissue, and fat. Passing through the Morel-Perepłyś installation, we not only become acutely aware of the multidimensional sculptural matter surrounding us, but also rediscover our own body and our relationship with a specific place. The work can be interpreted as an attempt to outline a new artistic language, able to express the individual’s entanglement in the reality in which they live and work. According to the Argentine semiotician Walter Migniolo, such a notion of the “entangled individual” is one of the key features of decolonial thinking: you are deeply, physically embedded in the surrounding reality. Any sense of distance is but an illusion.

In 1969, Michel Foucault publishes The Archaeology of Knowledge, a book that in the following decades meets with an enthusiastic reception in Eastern Europe. The title could be seen as an expression of French intellectuals’ arrogance. It should actually read The Archaeology of Western Knowledge. We are not the West.

1976–1977 — As part of the Zielona Góra Sculpture Meetings, Magdalena Więcek produces a concrete monument, The Grape, which is installed by an exit road from the city. The monumental piece shows a large vine grape flanked by two blocks of concrete slightly inclined towards each other. It could be read as a symbolic embodiment of Zielona Góra’s history and identity as a city located between two geopolitical and ideological “blocks”: Western and Eastern Europe, colonialism and modernity. The artwork stands in a pine wood at the city limits; in the following decades, it will gradually become overgrown, vanishing from the map of Zielona Góra and the memory of its residents.

after 1989 — Communism collapses in Eastern Europe. The alternative modernity project comes to an end. The Romanian decolonial philosopher Ovidiu Tichindeleanu describes the 1990s as a moment when a colonial matrix shaped in the fifteenth century and defining the relationship between Eastern and Western Europe comes to life again. Poland returns to its status as a (semi-)periphery of the dominant economies west of the Odra River. The decade sees both a rapid privatization of state assets and a massive de-industrialization. The landscape of transition is marked with post-communist and post-industrial ruins. By 1994, unemployment has risen to an unprecedented 15 percent. In the following two decades, 2.5 million Poles will leave the country in search of better life and work conditions.

1996 — the Hungarian historian Iván Berend publishes the book Central and Eastern Europe 19441993. Detour from the Periphery to the Periphery, where he describes the second half of the twentieth century as a failed attempt by peripheral countries and areas to upturn the entrenched world order.

2004 — Poland joins the European Union. One of the bloc’s development goals is to dismantle the Odra line as a geopolitical divide across the continent. Eastern Europe gains a chance to challenge its (semi-)peripheral status. Rapid modernization is attempted, its bounds defined by the Western modernity model. The adopted measures and strategies prove, however, to be based mainly on direct foreign investment and the export of low-cost labour. A centuries-long model of insular and superficial modernization, typical for peripheral countries, is implemented.

In the background of these questions looms the issue of long duration, with historians and archaeologists continuing to look for evidence that Roman legions reached as far as south-western Poland: ancient coins, parts of armour, remnants of encampments.

Spring 2020 — A Covid-19 virus epidemic breaks out in the Chinese city of Wuhan, turning into a global pandemic within few months. Like with the Black Death in the fourteenth century, it causes fundamental upheavals in the structure of the world-system. Asian countries — China, Taiwan, South Korea — prove relatively most successful in containing the spread of the virus. The US government’s indecision results in 100,000 deaths in the first two months. Europe sees a wave of racism and xenophobia against Asian communities. The decolonial philosopher Zairong Xiang writers that the Western world’s arrogance will lead to its eventual collapse.
After 2050 — the United States loses its superpower status. California gains independence. China occupies Taiwan and seizes control of further areas in South Asia. Europe is in its zone of influence. Zielona Góra is situated on the commercial railway route between the cities of Zhengzhou (China, 15 million people) and Hamburg (Germany, 2 million). The construction of the new Silk Route has been completed. Along its course, multimillion industrial centres spring up, with Chinese managers and low-cost labour from Eastern Europe and Eurasia. This marks a decisive transformation of the previous world-system, which had its roots in the fifteenth century. It is an economic, social, linguistic, technological, and — perhaps most importantly — epistemological change. Our knowledge of the world and the related notions of time, space, subject structure, social bonds are forever and utterly transformed.

The text is published in the catalogue of 2020 Zielona Góra Biennale Returning to The Future, edited by Anna Batko

Boba Group (yulia Drozdek, Vasilisa Nezabarom)
Gęśnik / Goose House
performance documentation

Yulia Drozdek and Vasilisa Nezabarom, the members of Boba Group, moved from Kharkiv to Zielona Góra in the autumn of 2017. One of the things they noticed soon upon arrival was the lack of a river in the city space. After a while, they discovered a small canal called Gęśnik (literally “Goose House”) that runs through the northern outskirts of the city, having a length of 11.11 km and an average depth not exceeding 15 cm. Last year, the mayor of Zielona Góra signed off a project to raise the bed of the underground river, which can radically alter its appearance. Although Gęśnik is not a typical river, Boba Group decided to use it like it is done in other cities, where rivers are spaces of recreation, leisure, and urban life. As part of their performance, they will walk down the entire length of Gęśnik dressed up in goose costumes. This will be streamed live on Instagram @biennalezielonagora and made available to the public via live-location sharing. The project was concluded with an exhibition at the Salony Foundation, featuring artefacts, props, found objects, and video/photographic documentation.