A paper delivered at the 51st AICA Congress.
The history of performance art in Poland reaches back to the year 1978 when the word was used for the first time on the occasion of the I AM (International Artists Meeting) – a performance art festival at the Remont Gallery in Warsaw. As Łukasz Guzek pointed out, when thinking of this kind of art, art critics use either a diachronic (historical) or synchronic (ahistorical) approach. The first one leads towards depicting performance art as a practice always present in art and immanent in artistic activity. It blurs the specificity of performance art as a genre and its connection to the modernist avant-garde. It also neglects the local circumstances of its birth.  This kind of approach is represented e.g. by Rose LeeGoldberg. The synchronic approach presents performance art as a separate discipline. Its advantage is the recognition of local characteristics, which is important in this case, as it is tightly connected with the political and social environment. In this approach, the key point is the emergence of the word“performance art” as a moment when the discussion about this genre of art begins. For the purpose of this paper, I will take a synchronic approach and will take 1978 as a date when performance art emerged in Polish art history, although many performance artists call their earlier actions “performances” post factum.
Among artists who participated in the first performance art festival in 1978 only Krzysztof Zarębski continued to practice performance art. He started his career as a painter and his performances were very erotic and sensual. He used erotic gadgets such as dildos, artificial nails and lingerie. The artist went to New York in 1981before Martial Law and therefore decided to stay abroad when it was imposed. In his performances he fetishizes mass culture products and media, which distinguishes him from the Western trend of criticism towards mass culture. Another performance artist from the oldest generation was Zbigniew Warpechowski whose background was in poetry. He did his first performances together with TomaszStańko – a jazz musician. Jazz was obviously connected with freedom and improvisation in art and for Warpechowski it was a way of presenting poetry in a non-traditional way. He called his first performances “poetic realities”.
As we can see just based
on those two meaningful examples, despite the conditions of the regime – of
isolation and state control over most aspects of life – or maybe actually
because of that, art was supposed to be pure and free from politics. Artists
had in mind the way art was instrumentally used by the communist regime at the
time of social realism so they did not want to engage directly in politics. Engagement
in politics has been doubtful since Walter Benjamin wrote: “Such is the
aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism replies by
politicizing art.” The other option at that time was to associate
oneself with the Church but for most artists this represented a similar form of
a mental oppression. However, practicing
an anti-institutional art which was functioning outside the official circuit,
the academy and official Artists’ Union were under these conditions – became paradoxically
– a political gesture as Jacques Ranciere would like to see it. The politics of
art here means an interference into the sphere of senses and it shows something
that was unimaginable before. Above all – in the case of performance art – it
changes and questions the language that was used to describe the life of the community
– making it possible for new subjects and new postulates to exist in the
political field. Since performance art has no definition, from now on, art is
not what fulfills the imposed criteria, but what revolutionizes and creates its
own rules. At the same time, art loses all norms that decide what can be or
what cannot be art which goes in accordance with a permanent crossing of its
own borders by art, which is a certain paradox. Among the pioneers of Polish
performance art only Jerzy Bereś – who called his actions “manifestations” or
“holy masses” (e.g. Political Mass,
Romantic Mass, Philosophical Mass, Polish Mass etc.) thought that art is a
moral sphere, hence the political engagement of the artist is his/her moral
duty. But the strong moral stance was characteristic for
performers of that time in general. Zbigniew Warpechowski before one of his
performances wrote a Decalogue for
Performance Art. Also, Władysław Kaźmierczak says that: “To be a
performer is an attitude towards the world and oneself, not towards art. Performance’s
struggle is a silent, heroic fight for the freedom of expressing momentous and
In the USA the birth of performance art is tightly related to the art of protest. LucyLippard indicated that art activism and organizations such as AWC, BlackEmergency Cultural Coalition, Women Artists in Revolution did not come “from the raised fists and red stars of the ‘revolutionary’ left as from the less consciously subversive reactions against the status quo that took place in the mainstream – primarily in minimalism and conceptual art.”The critic then pointed out that they were blunt and blatantly noncommunicative. This statement comes in accordance with what Polish performance artists active in the 70s and 80s say. Kwiekulik (a duo: Zofia Kulik and Przemysław Kwiek) wrote, that in the reality of the regime it was impossible to create conceptual art, hence the success of contextualism formulated by Jan Świdziński. Zofia Kulik said: “We, however, could not be pure conceptualists, because we would have cheated ourselves into believing that were fine, there are no institutional nor existential problems, there are no potboilers etc. How could one then practice conceptual art in Poland? Till now Ican’t comprehend that.”The example of the group is interesting as one could say that their methods such as the project: Art of the Ministry of Culture and Art which was a mail art action – sending letters to theMinistry of Culture and Art – was a proto-activist action. As Klara Kemp-Welchnoted: “the sense of the correspondence with officials steps outside of theproblems raised by it that refer to art, and becomes a fight for human rights,pointing at the pure human aspect of being an artist.”An interesting exception in Polish performance art was the Orange Alternative –a group which organized absurd demonstrations since 1986. Today we could alsocall them pioneers of Polish art activism.
Martial Law in Poland in1981 meant the beginning of the so-called Dark Ages of performance art and –any art – in Poland. Artists announced a boycott of official/public galleries. Some events were organized in artist-run-galleries or private studios. The majority of performances were about the state of emergency, oppression, and uneasiness. Even though the context of Martial Law evoked a political interpretation of all actions – artists did not declare openly their engagement in politics. Peter Grzybowski – a member of Awacs group (with MaciejToporowicz) once said that: ‘our performances may be interpreted as political, but we didn’t want to make them this way. We wanted to be as far from politics as possible’. One of their actions was the performance Awacs (KlubPod Ręką, Kraków 23.05.1981) in which a blindfolded Toporowicz led by signals from Grzybowski was supposed to jump on light bulbs lit on the floor. The performance was potentially life-threatening as the action scene was surrounded by an electric wire and Toporowicz had a heart condition. As Łukasz Guzek noticed, artists at that time were not apolitical but non-political. This non-politics had a political reason – it resulted from the lack of faith in that an individual may change anything. Escapism was more and more understandable under the conditions of Martial Law but it was even more difficult to isolate oneself from politics because of it. Focusing on existential problems was, therefore, a form of political stance. It is interesting, as the same structure of the performance, was later used by Grzybowski when he did his solo performance RemoteControl between 2003-2006 – supplementing it by images from capitalist and post 9/11 world reality. Here he was himself jumping on the bulbs and the remote control was operated by another person. So the political and economic system changed but the artist remained oppressed by it.
Even though Poland was isolated, the politics of gender was slowly getting through. Some female artists (Ewa Partum, Teresa Murak, Maria Pinińska-Bereś, Zofia Kulik and Natalia LL) moved proto-feminist topics. The only known proto-queer artist from the 80s was Krzysztof Jung. The postmodernization of art shifted its interest from the form to the context. The democracy that was brought back in 1989 meant that Polish performance artists started to be able to travel freely around the world which is extremely important in the case of art which requires the physical presence of the artist. The date also marks the beginnings of institutional critique and becoming a part of the international circuit. The 90s were a time of transition and so-called critical art which meant criticism towards capitalism, Church, globalism, ecological issues etc. The artists became more and more aware of the global social, economic and political problems. The content became more and more socially engaged, commenting on the surrounding changes in reality, however, the language of expression was still the same as the one developed in the 70s and 80s.
The new generation of artists who started their careers in the conditions of a newborn democracy was more likely to be involved in social activism. In the year 2000, the C.U.K.T group traveled around Polish clubs and alternative spaces with a presidential campaign for a virtual candidate, Victoria Cukt, whose main slogan was “politicians are redundant”. The public was asked to enroll into the political party Victoria CUKT, to sign a petition to the Parliament to make her become an official candidate (in Poland one needs to collect 100 000 signatures in order to register) and to write down their postulates, which automatically became a part of her political program. Nowadays, 18 years later, the scandal of Cambridge Analytica proved that real politicians do use Victoria’s method.
Evenmore so, the crisis of 2008 caused a new wave of art activism in the world. Boris Groys wrote: “A certain intellectual tradition rooted in the writings of Walter Benjamin and Guy Debord states that the aestheticization and spectacularization of politics, including political protest, are bad things because they divert attention away from the practical goals of political protest and towards its aesthetic form. And this means that art cannot be used as a medium of a genuine political protest – because the use of art for political action necessarily aestheticizes this action, turns this action into a spectacle and, thus, neutralizes the practical effect of this action.”But the question is – is this always a spectacle? Stephen Wright in his famous Toward a Lexicon for Usership suggests that participation and usership are a remedy for spectacularizing.As Andrzej Turowski wrote: “If democracy is a means of improving collective life (rather than a political utopia), and politics a means of achieving asocially desired order (rather than political power), then the art of the particular sparks that unrest without which democracy as a form of critical participation in the collective project would be unthinkable.”
In 2011 Cecylia Malik and Modraszek Kolektyw mobilized hundreds of young people who, dressed in blue butterfly wings, protested against developers who intended to build another estate in the last green enclave of Kraków, where a rare butterfly (a blue) resides. The artist is a well-known activist, her recent actions also include the action against tree cutting Polish Mothers at a felling and the Mother River action against the artificial regulating of rivers and building of dams, during which women entered the Vistula river holding signs with other rivers’ names. Paweł Hajncel joined a Corpus Christi procession as a “Butterfly Man” for the first time in 2011, for which he was prosecuted later. He has repeated the action every year in various costumes since 2011 and was arrested for the last time on May 31st, 2018 as offending religious feelings in Poland is prosecuted. Monika Drożyńska is an artist who uses embroidery as a means of expression – however, she turns it into an “embroidery activism” – by organizing a collective called Golden Hands which embroiders slogans weekly and also before manifestations. Anyone can join. The form of embroidery is, of course, a feminist way of expression and, as traditionally associated with beautiful and “feminine” objects, when contrasted with explicit content it became a subversive form of expression in which delicate form meets a radical message.
Political engagement of the new generation of artists who now often become art activists relatively new in Poland, even though performance art has been always connected with social activism since its birth in the 70s. This shift causes conflict between artists in the discussion about the role of art and artists in society, especially in the context of art education which, in its nature, aims at preserving and strengthening the old forms rather than provoking a new way of thinking. Therefore, most interesting cases of perfo-activism in Poland come from artists from different backgrounds than performance art. And this is exactly as it was in the 70s when performance art was a marginal genre for the most radical.
 See: Łukasz Guzek, “Above Art and Politics – Performance art and
Poland,” in Art Action 1958 – 1998,
ed. Richard Martel (Quebec: Intervention, 2001), 254.
 Por. RoseLee Goldberg, Performance Art.
From Futurism to the Present (London-New York: Thames & Hudson, 2010).
 There was
also Janusz Bałdyga, but he participated as the Academia Ruchu Theatre group.
 Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in
the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media,
trans. Rodney Livingstone Edmund Jephcott, Howard Eiland (Cambridge, MA-London:
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008), 42.
 Guzek, “Above Art and Politics – Performance art and Poland,”
 Lucy Lippard, “Trojan Horses: Activist Art and Power,” in Feminism Art Theory: An Anthology 1968 –
2014, ed. Hilary Robinson (Malden, MA-Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2015), 76.
 Tomasz Załuski, “KwieKulik i konceptualizm w uwarunkowaniach PRL-u.
Przyczynek do analizy problemu.,” Sztuka
i Dokumentacja, no. 6 (2012): 79,
 Klara Kemp-Welch, “Sztuka dokumentacji i biurokratyczne życie; Sprawa
Pracowni Działańm Dokumentacji i Upowszechniania,” in KwieKulik. Zofia Kulik & przemysław Kwiek, ed. Łukasz Ronduda
and Georg Schöllhammer (Warszawa: MSN, 2012), 517.
interview recorded on the CD enclosed to the catalogue: Ruchome-nieruchome. Performensy Marii Pinińskiej-Bereś, (Kraków: Bunkier
 Maciej Toporowicz, “AWACS Performance Kraków,” High Performance 17/18 (Spring / Summer
 Łukasz Guzek, Rekonstrukcja sztuki
akcji w Polsce (Warszawa-Toruń: Polski Instytut Studiów nad Sztuką Świata;
Wydawnictwo Tako, 2017), 453-54.
 Boris Groys, “On Art Activism,”
e-flux, no. 56 (2014),
 See: Stephen Wright, Toward a Lexicon of
Usership (Eindhoven: Van Abbemuseum, 2013).
 Andrzej Turowski, Sztuka, która
wznieca niepokój. Manifest artystyczno-polityczny sztuki szczególnej [Art That
Sparks Unrest. The Artistic-Political Manifesto of Particular Art
(Warszawa: Książka i Prasa, 2012), 88.