Poland – the state of research
For several years, Poland has been facing a growing problem in the arts. At the same time, the problem with photography, and more precisely its ontology, is becoming more and more pronounced in an era of overproduction – and postproduction – of digital images. We could add to this the problem of the status of the modern document and place all these problems within a broader – even total – cognitive crisis that is being experienced by post-modern societies, trapped as they are in information bubbles and inundated with a flood of fake news, post-truths and alternative facts.
At the intersection of the above problems we find the latest project by the Sputnik Photos collective: Poland – the State of Research. The project is still being studied, it is far from finished. At this moment, however, we can get an insight into the issue by looking at post-photographic essays and visual work by six Sputnik artists, shown at three separate, but linked, exhibitions.
Sputnik Photos was created as a collective of photographers from Central Europe; its founders come from Poland, Slovakia, Belarus and Ukraine. As representatives of the former Second World (which, following the drawing of the Iron Curtain, has hovered between advancing to the First and a sliding back into the Third World), they set out to depict a common experience, as well as find images of the space that has emerged from the post-Soviet area as it undergoes economic and social transformation.
Set against the pace at which time has been passing in the 21st century, the thirteen years that elapsed before the founding of Sputnik seems like a whole era. The founders of the collective created Sputnik as documentary photographers: in the meantime, however, both the essence of photography and documentary material have become so disputed that it is no longer possible to use these categories without first redefining them, or – at least – without being aware that their meanings have become fluid and entered a state of flux. The post-photographic age heralded in the 1990s is now our present. Our project, Poland – the State of Research, should be seen in terms of its quest to find answers to the question of what the updated role of the photographer / documentary filmmaker is within the social and political processes of creating, distributing and reading images.
The answers to this question – our work, exhibitions, and projects – are to be found in the context of civic engagement.
Sputnik’s projects – headed by the most famous (and biggest, scale-wise) Lost Territories Archive – have been carefully calculated to aid in the search for a portrait of a condition common to the area of the former Eastern Bloc, nevertheless, research has been conducted primarily in countries that were once to be found within the Soviet empire in its strictest sense. Meanwhile, as the title suggests, this current presentation of the “state of research” is the most Polish of Sputnik’s projects so far, and the first project devoted solely to Poland. What spurred this turn to “domestic affairs,” made by the group’s Polish members? Well, I would venture the thesis that this return is driven by concern in the form of civic engagement. Its subject is, amongst other things, photography itself. Perhaps, however, it wouldn’t be so necessary to worry about this medium – and perhaps it would be enough just to make the issue of its status the subject of calm, academic, and theoretical considerations – were it not for the feeling that right here, and right now, there exists an urgent need to use photography as a means of critical expression in public debates. At stake is not only a concern for photography, but also, and more importantly, for Poland as a social, political, identity-related and geographical project. Emerging from the chaos of post-communist transformation, the form of this project has raised more and more doubts amongst Sputnik’s creators, provoking description, diagnosis and action. This impulse is well reflected in the words of one of the members, Rafał Milach, which he uttered in an interview in 2018: “When I was working in Belarus, despite the geographical proximity, I had the impression that I was somewhere far, far away. Politically, after all, it was a different reality. Then, several years pass, and it turns out that Belarus is not actually that distant. We are close to the point of no return. I’m worried, I feel ill at ease. I walk, I take pictures.”
But where can one go? What should one photograph? And what should be done with the photos?
Rafał Milach goes to demonstrations. He is creating the Public Protest Archive, a platform for his own (and others’) photographic records of acts of civil opposition. Are we talking solely about records here? Photos documenting demonstrations and marches? Well, Milach takes photos from the perspective of an active participant, observing from within, taking a position. The turning point for the PPA was 2016; the beginning of a national-conservative, Eurosceptic pivot as decreed by Poland’s right-wing government. It also marked the beginning of resistance from the liberal section of society, expressing their opposition on the streets. The traditional role of a photographer during protests is that of a photojournalist, but Milach does not take photos as a commentator but as a citizen; his photos not only document protests, but also, and perhaps above all, they themselves become a manifestation of the author’s views, concern and disagreement.
Agnieszka Rayss goes to war. Where is it being waged? In Poland, its frontlines run through the domains of political history, collective imagination, phantasms, and popular culture. She presents scenes that could have come from the tradition of battle art. However, the status of these images is uncertain. They come from firing ranges, the Internet, the news, feature films, from the activities of re-enactment groups that “play” at war and theatricalise events. They do not even have to come from Poland; it is enough that they are circulating in the Polish iconosphere. An armed conflict does not break out, but heroisation, mythologisation and the rehabilitation of war as the highest form of national experience is a real process that becomes the subject of Agnieszka Rayss’ visual musings.
Michał Łuczak goes to the forest – where nature confronts man, where trees meet axes and saws wielded by forestry workers. In Łuczak’s project Poland is a place whose post-natural landscape is emerging from a process of exploitation by people who claim to be Poles. Trees growing in Poland are a mere resource that Poles use. However, are they not also themselves “Poles”? Many of them are marked with colourful symbols that will determine their fate. Others are felled, stripped of their bark, or laid out by lumberjacks at the edge of forests in piles reminiscent of artistic installations or contemporary sculptures. Łuczak photographs these unintentional compositions, documenting the objectification of trees, the transformation of a living substance into a thing, a raw material, a picture, and an object. And also into an artistic artefact, because Łuczak crosses the boundaries of the image, creating objects that depict wood and at the same time are made of it. The transformation of trees into timber, living into dead, useful and aesthetic, becomes both a fertile metaphor for the artistic process as well as processes that are occurring in contemporary Poland, where a new, post-human ecological awareness is growing alongside a neoconservative desire to possess unlimited and total power over nature.
Karolina Gembara returns to Poland’s “Regained Territories”. In social psychology, as well as in epigenetics, the phenomenon of the second generation of Holocaust Survivors has been described in great detail. This is a generation that did not experience trauma itself, but inherited it from its forebears. But how are the second or third generation of “Displaced Persons” experiencing their legacy – as the descendants of settlers, repatriates, and refugees who, after 1945, arrived in areas newly abandoned by expelled Germans? How can one describe – and how can one present – a picture of their experiences in areas that are still a borderland of Polishness, nowadays not so much in the political or even ethnic sense, but in terms of identity and its definition?
Jan Brykczyński heads for the outskirts of the city, to service-industry zones, out of the reach of urban planners and their ideas. Money, rampant entreprise, market chaos, lack of aesthetic inhibitions, and chance – these are the “designers” of these spaces, shaped by their motley signboards, the ubiquity of dividing walls, fences, gates, warehouses, bins, thriving weeds and mercilessly yet carefully arranged paving blocks. Such places, whose form is born of a marriage of neglect and economic hyperactivity, are usually dubbed “ugly”. More importantly, however, it would seem that they are not actually intended for viewing. As a result, they become invisible – in a symbolic sense. Thus, it becomes all the more worth showing and seeing them. Contemporary Poland consists, to a large extent (perhaps even to an overwhelming extent), of such places, bereft of a consciously given form, but rich in social content.
Adam Pańczuk goes to youth cultural centres, small libraries, and local photographic clubs to work with the children who attend these places. In this project, the photographer refrains from taking pictures and even from producing any images at all. He delegates this task to the children there, while he himself focuses on creating a mechanism to present the results of their work – the answers to such basic questions as: Who are you? What is important? What do you want?
In defining the post-photographic condition, artist and theoretician Joan Fontcuberta identifies as one of its distinguishing features a significant shift taking place in the activities of those involved in image production. It relates to transferring focus from producing images to trying to give images meanings. This is an important – even crucial – task when faced with a glut of the visual, something which seems to go hand in hand with a deficit of meaning and discourse. Our creators at Sputnik are outstanding photographers – including in the traditional, studio sense. And yet, in their latest projects, they do not necessarily use their skills to click the shutter at the “decisive moment” or take a great photo. In the post-photographic perspective, the role of the photographer moves freely between the positions of “person with a camera”, collector, curator, archivist, and interpreter. The means used by Sputnik’s artists – building visual essays, using found images, creating objects, installations, video films, fragmenting authorship – take them away from the domain of traditional, studio photography and bring them closer to the poetics of multidisciplinary visual arts with their tactics of conceptualizing, and problematising, that which can be seen. The series of exhibitions and projects that make up Poland – the State of Research, naturally, do not lack photos, but what is really and deeply “photographic” in this endeavour is not so much the photographs themselves as the attitudes of the photographers: the creators were focused on observing reality, striving to capture it, “crop” it, consolidate it, and show it to others in a joint effort to tease out the meaning in that which we see.
Regardless of the means employed, this project is based on facts. The facts are that during the first two decades of transformation, Poland was not subjected to particularly intense artistic reflection. Polishness seemed to be a transparent category, through which a more universal European (Western European) identity could already be discerned. However, this transparency turned out to be a mere illusion, a story which (contrary to the promises of the 1990s) did not end with a liberal, happy ending. Instead of revealing a global horizon, Polishness began to hide it. Previously repressed problems returned with a vengeance, and national identity began to intertwine with trends that – in the context of concerns for democracy, human rights and tolerance – were bound to raise disquiet amongst civic-minded citizens. Against this backdrop, art has been conducting some lively research on Polishness in recent years. Better late than never, one could say. And this Sputnik project is yet another example of this interest. Polishness, as a political category and framing device for an imagined community, is in the middle of multi-faceted negotiations between those promoting various, often antagonistic visions of the nation’s social, economic, ethical and aesthetic future. But what is the subject of these negotiations actually like? What do we know about it? Have we seen it? Is it possible to create an image of it? Well, the research is ongoing; it concerns both Poland and photography in our post-photographic world. In this light, Sputnik’s project can be seen as a series of experiments aimed at exploring how post-photographic practices can be established and sustained as a cognitive tool, a critical instrument, and a platform for taking a civic-minded stance. In other words, behind Poland – the State of Research lies not the question of how to take a good photo, but how to do something good with the aid of photography (or post-photography).
Translation: Alasdair Cullen
1 J. Ruszczyk, Przystawić lusterko do systemu. Rozmowa z Rafałem Milachem (“Turning a Mirror to the System: a Conversation with Rafał Milach”), “Magazyn Szum”, https://magazynszum.pl/przystawic-lusterko-do-systemu-rozmowa-z-rafalem-milachem/.