I’m Looking for Effective Work…Łukasz Białkowski speaks with Łukasz Surowiec

Posted on Czerwiec 1, 2012

Łukasz Białkowski: You graduated from the sculpture Department of the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow. How does this translate into your present artwork: video, performance, activities in the urban space?

Łukasz Surowiec: Sculpture is based on the phenomenon of touching space, and is a very good point of departure for what I am presently doing. If you just look at the artists who are playing a major role in today’s art, they are chiefly sculpture graduates: Paweł Althamer, Katarzyna Kozyra, Artur Żmijewski, and Mirosław Bałka. The category of “presence” is key here. Sculpture was developed into installation, then performance, the interdisciplinary arts, and ultimately anything that came to mind. In this sense, abandoning sculpture came utterly naturally to me.

Your work – e.g. “Nice to Meet You” – often concerns the issue of physicality. This issue was deeply explored by the “critical art” of the 1990s. The body appeared in a Foucauldian sense: as an object of domestication, the bio-politics which build a social order. Are these themes that interest you?

Not at all. In critical art the body served to manifest freedom and equality. I’m up to something else. We are being brought up in a tradition that assumes a certain transcendence, the spiritual essence of what makes a person. When you reject this tradition you receive the “revelation” that you are biology. You want to grapple with reality then, to somehow make it and yourself. This is why I more address the issue of my private existence, the fact that I am conditioned by my own biology, a strange creature, a body. I search out a universal in this field, using phenomena from the worlds of science, medicine, technology, and inventions.

You are often perceived as continuing Artur Żmijewski’s work. How do you feel about this?

I am convinced by the premise that art can generate things that are otherwise hard to bring to life. I buy what Artur says, but when it comes to his work, I have various doubts. But recently there isn’t much art that really compels me.

Do you see yourself as a political artist?

I think I’m somewhat political. But being political in Polish art is associated with critical art. I don’t want to just make criticism, I want to create conditions and situations that will be a “light” of sorts. I’m looking for effective work, in a very positive understanding of the word. For the Happy New Year project, for example, we want to join Stanisław Ruksza in creating a village for the homeless near Katowice’s Spodek Stadium, in the center of town, which would serve a commercial function. I want passersby to enter an emotional relationship with what they walk past. I want to set positive postulates, though they are often utopias. This means that I often open myself up to criticism

One interference you came up with was the “Everyone’s Space. No One’s Space” workshops in Krakow’s Planty…

In Krakow the Market Square is a public space, but there you have more of a public than a society. The streets and squares are undergoing commercialization and gentrification. In the framework of the ArtBoom Festival I proposed educational workshops, which were meant to inspire responsibility and teach about the public sphere. We proposed an open space for meetings, conversation, and restructuring. I wanted that what people wanted to see to would appear there. The authorities hardly consult the society at all, it is the politicians who shape the city. Meanwhile, a democracy is supposed to be about giving various groups voice, including those who are marginalized. The project was about doing politics, but on a different basis than what the official democratic structures propose – about creating a grassroots movement.

But this was an activity that fit in very well with the city’s promotional strategy – the Krakow authorities gave their consent for the workshops and financed the undertaking. You were an instrument of local politics. What tools did you have to gain the advantage in this situation?

The authorities like to promote themselves as involved. But the condition for organizing the workshops – we had a silent agreement – was that nothing was to remain of them, and everything later went back to normal. The locals and tourists often responded to the situation I created with a certain intolerance. They don’t like it when someone meddles with the composed and familiar city space. In this respect I visually raped these people.

You raped both visually and politically: you wanted to create something “for everyone.” This is a space where both Roman Giertych and Robert Biedroń could rear their heads. Do you really believe in creating a space for everyone, a space no one will want to appropriate?

 Realizing that this was an ephemeral situation, I focused on education. People generally see public space as something ready-made and defined. I wanted the people who came to have a taste of certain possibilities. I wanted to show that we live in a “horizontal” culture, where hierarchies disintegrate and there exist many parallel discourses. The idea was to teach tolerance. This excludes all the marginalized people. There are dozens of them. That is why both education and art have a major role to play. To teach people to live alongside one another and to stop burning with hatred.

That reminds me of the principles of Nicolas Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics: neo-liberalism has destroyed the relationships between people, the task of art right now is to create a space for people to meet in various circumstances. This overoptimistic concept assumes that art can break down conflicts and inequalities between people. It also reminds us that the context often makes the relationships produced by art momentary and superficial.

True, from that point of view it would be sheer nonsense. It would be hard to look to art to ease conflicts between people. The museum or gallery is always a spatial structure: for the educated elite. That is why, if we are searching for some values in artistic activism we cannot base it on formal solutions. The question of effectiveness comes into play. Activities in the public space by such groups as Yes Men interest me, as they effectively undermine the system, impersonating various people, or Adbusters, who staked out tents on Wall Street and staged symbolic provocations, and began protests that ranged across the whole of the United States. Bum Fights are also interesting, convincing people to tear out all their teeth for five dollars…

A bit like Santiago Sierra…

Exactly. But they are not as well known as Santiago Sierra, who make work for the moneyed elite, and above all, they don’t declare themselves to be art; it all ended in trials.

Santiago Sierra shows that interfering in social life from the standpoint of art leads to hypocrisy: art always objectifies the people it allegedly wants to help, condemns them to mere looking, but the positive effects it can evoke are ephemeral; while works meant to help marginalized groups end up in galleries, sold for large amounts of money.

 Sierra shows how “vile” the public is in looking at his work. He does not try to go beyond this, however. For me this means that Santiago Sierra reached a certain moment in understanding what it means to be an artist – but only a gallery artist [laughs]. I adore such artists as Santiago Sierra, but to the same degree as he is dependent on the institution of the art world, I would like to cut myself off from it.

Is the project with the working title “Jasio one such attempt”?

Some time ago the body of a child was found in Cieszyński Lake. His identity was unknown, and a search was conducted in the whole voivodeship. I was even interrogated in the affair, as I have a son the child’s age. I was interested in the theme of physicality we discussed earlier: the pure, undefined biology of the body found somewhere in the grass. The project concerns an attempt to reconstruct the identity of the boy using police renderings, and to make a hyper-realistic sculpture on their basis. The problem is that the police were unable to establish the identity of the boy based on DNA, as they would have had to compare a vast amount of blood from the blood banks, and there is no money for this. My idea involved entering the world of the art elite and traveling with the work through Europe’s galleries, trying to collect the money needed for the work – according to the police, a few million zlotys. This was another way of making art go beyond the confines of the galleries.

I suppose you had similar ideas in creating “Black Diamonds”?

In this case it was about including people who had survived a mine crisis in Silesia in the undertaking. I will be asking unemployed ex-miners working in the bootleg mines to dig coal and shape it into diamonds. In the holiday season these can be sold as gadgets – tourist souvenirs, Christmas presents – in the shopping centers.

You said earlier that you were interested in effective work. But when you work as an artist, your undertakings are seen as “artistic,” i.e. put aside and ignored. Wouldn’t it be easier to work as a volunteer at a non-governmental organization or a reporter? Why the equipage of art?

 Maybe it’s a question of my education and predisposition. True, it is very hard to find examples of art that has had an immediate effect on social life. As an artist, I am interested in creating a situation from the outside. I made a documentary film about the homeless, and maybe any journalist would have done the same. Maybe it would be good to leave this cocoon of art and work without making reference to it. But art does have something other activities don’t have: activists and reporters plow forward to their goal, art searches for certain energies – metaphorically speaking – resulting from premises adopted. But the question is an honest one, and I will most certainly have to consider it…

Aren’t you afraid that if you go to homeless people, for example, as an artist and not as a specialized social worker, you are giving these people false hopes? You are coming as a person from a “better world” and saying that you want to build houses for them by Katowice’s Spodek Stadium. You propose a utopia, while they need particulars

My aim is to avoid just that. I don’t want to be another specialist on urgent problems. I want these people to be proof of their own existences. Putting them on a pedestal utterly reverses the situation in which the homeless are invisible. I want the homeless issue to be visible not only for the authorities, but above all, for it to force the local society to take action.

The interview was published in a catalogue of Art Boom Festival 3 (2011).