The Purpose of Art

Interview with Artur Żmijewski

Whom should art serve today, and for what purpose? [Should it] engage in political discussion that will always be inadequate when placed against the discourse of philosophers and sociologists?1

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Artur Żmijewski: Democracies, 2009, frame from the video. Camera: Leszek Molski, Rafal Zurek

Yes, it should engage in such discussion. Art will enhance that discussion with its ability to use different strategies, its familiarity with intuition, imagination, and premonition. Unfortunately, art also has severe weaknesses and tends to dismiss its own importance. It has infused its discourse with self-compromising, amnesia, and recurring ignorance. Theoretical subjects in art schools are taught as if they were merely a device for expanding the memory rather than exercises in thinking and discovering the world. There is doubtless some political interest in keeping art weak by forcing it to flounder between ignorance and knowledge. By having it perpetuate seemingly useful clichés regarding beauty and the artsy types who produce it. In the collective circuit of power, art is never ‘charged’ as its ‘inventions’ are not accepted. Arrested on the verge of the rational, it makes its actions out to be nothing more than vivid yet irrational fantasies.2

Artur Żmijewski is a widely known visual artist, born in 1966 in Warsaw. His works make reference to (displaced) individuals and societal trauma. At first glance, his images appear to be strictly documentary photographs and videos, yet the artist’s analytical staging becomes clearly recognizable through the selection of images during the editing process. Żmijewski does not shy away from putting the generally accepted rules of political correctness into question. His works with and on people with mental and physical disabilities have drawn significant public attention. He appears to be an artist always in constant search of the next modality of artistic expression, ever striving to amplify the impact of his art on its subjects, enlarging its territory beyond its conventional borders.3

Artur Żmijewski led a three-day workshop in Budapest, during which he sought to find an issue together with the participants to which all of them could relate. The group worked together on searching various ways to connect with the issue, and gathered possible solutions to solve/articulate  the phenomenon.  The last day of the workshop saw the realization of three team works.

(1) The action realized in the middle of Szabadság Bridge (Liberty Bridge) invited passers-by for a snack and  an informal talk about the issue of “leaving or staying (in a given country).”Although the envisioned big gathering could not be achieved, many people stopped for a small talk, as the issue itself is definitively of public interest.

(2) One of the participants was concerned about being disconnected from her very neighbors, a typical problem of today’s urban life. The group advised her to give her own paintings as presents to the neighbors—an approach that worked pretty well and helped her to get more involved in her own domestic surrounding, and feel less alienated.

(3) The third teamwork was the realization of a short video combining a recent statement of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on the waves of migration that reached Hungary in summer 2015, and one of Andy Warhol’s video in which the Pope of Pop eats hamburger in front of the camera. Viktor Orbán expressed that he respects the Islamic population in Hungary, but does not wish for that population to grow. “We are happy about the kebab places on our boulevards”—he added reportedly. The video appropriates Warhol’s idea and presents the participants eating kebabs in various restaurants in town.

The following interview with Artur Żmijewski was conducted by one of the workshop participants, artist Lilla Szász.

Lilla Szász: Can you outline the main goal and the main steps of the Budapest workshop? How many participants were there? How were the problems defined?

Artur Żmijewski: The main goal was to train with a ” three-step strategy” (1. to define a problem, 2. to propose solution, 3. to execute the solution) and break the feeling of impossibility. In each situation, with each problem I’m able to work, make proposals, and even modifications. There were around 10 participants. The problems were defined during a discussion. Each person was free to define any problems, even if these problems could be understood by the others as relatively small, marginal, or stupid.

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Workshop with Artur Żmijewski at Mayakovsky 102, the open office of tranzit.hu. Photo: Gábor Erlich

LSz: This workshop is based on the activity of a group and on the importance of group work. Why do you find group work important? How and why did you  come up with the  three-step method?

AZ: It seems to be a more productive activity—the group is able to use the potential of the group members and activate the fantasy of all group members. I try to build group situations in which people do not dominate over each other during a collective work. The three-step method seems to be in parallel  with political strategies. Politicians define problems, make proposals, and try to execute proposals. It’s of course a process in which  a lot more actors take part , who negotiate or even block each other. Political strategies are often brutal. In our work, I wanted to accept all possible proposals, opinions. My idea was to reduce, or if possible, remove the element of violence from the process.

LSz: In many of your works you observe interactions among larger groups of people from a range of backgrounds, in order to expose the mechanisms of social conflict and to reveal how social difference is cultivated by hegemonic powers to maintain dominance. Them (2007), presented at Documenta 12, is a film depicting a social experiment involving members of different Polish groups (Socialist activists, Nationalist Polish youth, devout Catholics, and Jewish youth) where you asked them to express their beliefs visually. The video installation Democracies (2009), made of up 20 videos of protest scenes filmed around the world—strikes, demonstrations, but also historical reconstructions and parades celebrating political credos of all kinds. You moved from videos that look at individuals to videos that seem to analyze group dynamics. What do you look for in a group?

AZ: I’m interested in how groups work, how people take decisions there, how they jump into ideologies, and how they follow it. At the moment, it is interesting for me if it’s possible to “remove” violence—verbal, symbolic—from  group communication and from the way how people take decisions.

LSz: Do you think of yourself as an artist interested in politics or in basic human behaviors? How and why have you become interested in group work as an artist?

AZ: It was a natural process—the continuity of my work with small groups of people who were performing actions in my movies. I’m rather interested in politics in which human behavior is visible. I’m interested in how  a group can be united by a “good”  cause, and how such a group can be transformed into a nomenclature, a group of interest  that appropriates our common space, institutions of the country, and so on.

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The Book of Problems. Workshop with Artur Żmijewski at Mayakovsky 102, the open office of tranzit.hu. Photo: Gábor Erlich

LSz: You started the workshop by defining a  map/a book of problems. What is/what was your opinion about the problems outlined by the group? Are they similar or different to the ones you have seen in other countries?

AZ: It was the second workshop focused on fulfilling just  three steps from the beginning of the process to the end–from the initial talk until the conclusion. I liked the problems presented by the group. They were able to focus on problems  that could be fixed within a short time. So, they focused on local problems. For example: “I do not know my neighbors.”

LSz: If you had to outline and create a book of problems in Poland, what would it be about? What paragraphs would the book have? What would be your possible solutions, proposals to each paragraph?

AZ: I would say that one of the problems could be defined as in Budapest: there is a bad culture of personal communication; people have the tendency to blame each other and  use symbolic violence against other people. One of the solutions could be  group work: when people are confronted with the opinions of  others, and when they have to respect others’ opinions. Even follow them. It was a part of the process during the workshop in Budapest—people were making proposals and there was a discussion about them . Only a few proposals were accepted by the group.

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Artur Żmijewski: Them, 2007, frame from the video. Camera: Leszek Molski, Rafal Zurek

LSz: Based on what criteria were the proposals accepted?

AZ: For example time. We had a short time to execute proposals. We were not able to wait until the next week. The way of executing the proposal  needed to be simple; we had to have access to the resources necessary to transform a proposal into reality. It  had to be an interesting proposal in which more people would like to invest their time and effort. And, of course, the acceptance of the group was an important factor.

LSz: During the workshop you mentioned an example for problem solving from Pulp Fiction Could you tell  us about it?

AZ: There is a character in the movie who “fixes problems.” When  the gangsters accidentally kill someone, and they need to  solve this problem, the guy who fixes problems appears. His proposal is very simple—let’s clean the blood, take a shower, and change clothes. Maybe the example is horrible, but it comes from fiction. What I like in it is the idea how they fix the problem: it is so simple and ordinary—even if, as a viewer, I expect something brutal, strange, or exotic.

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Artur Żmijewski: Democracies, 2009, frame from the video. Camera: Leszek Molski, Rafal Zurek

LSz: You asked that the second group of problems  be private ones. Could you mention some problems that occupy you now?

AZ: In this case “private problems” meant “local problems,” relatively small  ones. The problem  I’d like to fix is “ the permission to use violence” in social relations. In private life and in institutions.

LSz: What does a problem mean to you? How  has it related to your work as an artist? Is there a project you are working on that you can tell us about—how it began and how it is evolving?

AZ: When I define a problem, I can open the process. So, from an artistic point of view, it’s very productive. I usually try to create a situation that is a symbolic answer or a reaction to the defined problem. So, as an artist, I can make and show a report from the process of ”fixing the problem,” There is a project that is a continuation of working with institutions. There was a group of artists and activists who were working with the team of the Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw Ujazdowski Castle to try to change the situation in the institution. We were interested in how the institution treats employees, how people feel working there, and how we can modify this situation as artists—and as a result—what makes a cultural institution more interesting for artists and viewers, as well as how art itself could be modified. I want to continue that kind of work with a  bit different group and  in  another institutions.

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Still from Kebab Manifesto by Csaba Nemes, Gábor Erlich and Lilla Szász. The video was realized in the frame of the workshop.

LSz: Are you happy with the outcome of the workshop in Budapest?

AZ: I’m happy that participants of the workshop made all the three steps: they defined problems, proposed solutions, and finally executed their proposals. I saw that they were a little bit afraid of doing public actions, ask people on the streets, but they did it. My idea was to be active and act in situations in which people feel that they cannot do anything. My idea was to break this psychological barrier.

LSz: Do you consider the works made by the group as pieces of art?

AZ: Not really. The group was busy with social problems using semi-political methods.  Art today is mostly focused on the production of objects.

LSz: What would be your proposals to the group for the future?

AZ: To continue if possible this three-step strategy.

LSz: What are the next steps in the three-step strategy?

AZ: This strategy is a training. How we can act using the fantasy of the group and how we can activate when it seems to be very difficult. How  we can open a process and make the first step. The next step is to use this strategy outside the field of art.

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Winter Holiday Camp. Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw Ujazdowski Castle project. Photo: Gabriella Csoszó

 

The interview was conducted and first published on tranzitblog.hu in Hungarian in January 2016.

 

About the author

Lilla Szász is a Budapest-based artist and photographer whose works explores the life of closed communities and mostly social issues that are invisible for the society at large. szaszlilla.hu

 

Notes

 

  1.  D. Jarecka. “To już fanaberia Jabłońskiej” (“A Bee in Jabłońska’s Bonnet”), Gazeta Wyborcza, April 7, 2006.
  2.  Artur Żmijewski. “Applied Social Arts.” Krytyka Polityczna 11-12 (2007). http://www.krytykapolityczna.pl/English/Applied-Social-Arts/menu-id-113.html
  3.  Source: http://culture.pl/en/artist/artur-zmijewski

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