Since my contextual research and studio work are very closely related, I am uploading my essay here to support my studio module.
In this essay I will try to explain the development of my contextual research and studio practice over the last few months. Here, at the very beginning of this assignment, I am encountering a significant problem. Since I started my art education, I feel like I have always leaned towards socially engaged art and the aesthetic of kitsch. However, these two brief terms do not exhaust the subject. Because, how can I name a research regarding a complex, multi layered social phenomena which is at the same time an exploration of my own identity? The research, which despite being about politics has in fact more to do with individual people; which although it regards mainly to one social group of EU migrants in the UK, it simultaneously is about a contemporary human being in general. And finally, aesthetic, that despite being pathetic and shallow is in fact a brilliant illustration of reality that is shared by millions of people around the world. Therefore, I will be explaining the development and complexity of my contextual research and how it feeds into my studio practice. Initially, I will be discussing my interest in social issues linked to the migration and why I think there is a link between them and the aesthetic of kitsch. Finally, I will briefly describe the development of my studio practice and future plans.
It is apparent that the research I have been doing recently has many layers and areas of interests. To summarize them as best as I could, I decided to adopt the notion of orientalism, which was thoroughly explained by Edward W. Said. I am using this term however not in a literal, geographical sense, but in metaphorical one, emphasizing some set of political and social relationships within Europe on both macro and micro level. In my opinion it successfully reflects the contrary nature of my practice. In this, derived term (SAID 1978) orientalism, regards essentially the influences of foreign culture from distant lands related to colonialism but it also regards the unequal, patronizing, nature of relationship between The Occident and the Orient. And the latter, applied to the problem of mass migration from Poland to the UK is the base of my research. Since, it is not simply about people moving from one country to another but also about the differences in the field of economy and social security within Europe, contemporary imperialism, new trends in politics, hardship and injustice. It also concerns the fusion of cultures, aesthetics and behaviors related to migration. For nearly five years, through doing all sorts of jobs and meeting fellow Poles from almost every area of Poland, I had a chance to experience this phenomenon personally. I discovered, that behind tawdry aesthetics ‘made in’ Grajewo often hide dark stories of humiliation and human tragedy. It is still challenging for me in many ways, but I think the biggest challenge was to find my own identity suddenly belonging to a nation of cleaners and decorators from poor, oriental country, which managed to break the European Union just in few years after accessing the Western job market. I have never intended to create art only about migration, however I feel that in my case it was very important to fully understand this phenomenon.
Although there are no official statistics regarding the number of Poles in Aberdeen, Mateusz Lagoda, the chairman of the local Polish Association, who I met for an interview on the 17th March 2017, stated, that the number of Poles in Aberdeenshire oscillates (due to free movement of people) around 26 000. It is believed, that countrywide the Polish minority outnumbers any other minority of people born abroad (BBC News 2016). Therefore, it can be assumed that Aberdeen in these matters is probably no different. Leaving the numbers aside, on this level of my research, it was very important to find the sociological explanation of why there are so many migrants from the former Eastern Bloc. Anne White in her study (2011) on Polish migration begins with analyzing country’s socio-political history after the collapse of communist regime in 1989. She especially emphasizes the importance of shock therapy introduced by the government to reform the economy. Although in the long run the goal had been achieved, this event was followed by many issues which aftermath can be seen by a careful observer even today. Suddenly, whole society found itself in a new, incomprehensible reality of new system. Among the issues, White (2011) lists unemployment (which was steadily rising to reach over 20% nationwide on a day of EU accession in 2004), and recession splitting the society into two classes of wealthy transition winners and absorbed in poverty transition losers. White also discusses the division of a Western, wealthier Poland A, and a much poorer, neglected Poland B located to the East of the river Vistula, which in her opinion concerns unequal distribution of goods. At a glance, communism has left the country immersed in recession, with growing social conflicts and distrust for public institutions. Although seemingly, this part of my research belongs more to the field of sociology than art, it is very important for understanding what underlines the aesthetic I decided to investigate. Since the development of migrant cultures in Poland described by White (2011) is strongly connected to those economic gaps, the luxurious cars parked outside Aberdeen cathedral during the service in Polish are in fact visual manifestation of the hardship and social injustice experienced at home. I was very fascinated to find this colorful, but in a way tragic visual chaos on the streets of Aberdeen.
For the development of my studio practice, I started to collate and analyze the images of Eastern European kitschy, popular culture of rather lower grade. I was looking at fashion, objects of everyday use, popular music, architecture etc. I then started to recreate my aesthetic memory from Polish streets. I find it very difficult to explain the essence of this aesthetic, however the best term I found so far is It was meant to be beautiful aesthetic, which Filip Springer (Kozien, Miskowiec and Pankiewicz 2015) explains as a ‘shout full of despair (…) which means nothing, it just exists, (…) just resonates in immensity’. In his opinion, this visual shout comes partly from the nature of Polish dreary landscape, partly from history which ‘so many times left us in no doubt on how unimportant we are (…) so we are trying to shout, to manifest our presence’ (Kozien, Miskowiec and Pankiewicz 2015). In my opinion it explains very well the ambiguity underlying my visual language. Springer explains later more aspects of this phenomenon, specifically copying Western cultures and nostalgia. He states, that because we never had a direct link to the roots of European civilization, in the end everything must have been copied, recreated. We have been therefore creating some visual remixes of the West- young residents of Grochow district in Warsaw recreate the look of gangsters of Brooklyn, girls at all costs want to resemble British WAGs, our fast food bars are decorated with oriental fake palm trees and plaster tigers. Obviously, since most households could not even cover the basic day to day needs, in order to keep up with foreign trends, some more resourceful individuals used to resort to the strategy of kombinowanie, in other words ‘finding a clever way of getting something done’ (White 2010). Therefore, instead of just dreaming about expensive brands, thousands of market places across the country supplied cheap Turkish trainers or bags with glued brand logos. For Springer, this tendency towards the desperate replication of Western cultures and disregarding the one of their own is strongly linked to a unique kind of nostalgia. Although the notion of nostalgia itself always carries a hint of idealization of the past (Bancroft 2009) unlike the Yugoslavs or Russians, Poles had no times of greatness to refer to. Springer (Kozien, Miskowiec, Pankiewicz 2015) compares Polish nostalgia to self- flagellation and continues that ‘the longer we are searching and replicating, the more painfully we realize that we will find nothing. The feeling of loss is empty, we are longing for something that we have never had’. Therefore, I cannot resist a feeling, that kitsch is one of the darkest aesthetics that has ever existed.
I think, that It was meant to be beautiful along with all its meanings and aspects became a very important element of my practice and identity. Initially, experimentation with this aesthetic was unconsciously derived from my interest in the atmosphere of market places, especially Jarmark Europa in Warsaw. This open-air market located on top of the collapsing 10th Anniversary Stadium, was established in early ‘90s and thrived until 2007. Since it was ran mainly by the groups of ethnic minorities and migrants, it was believed to be the largest multicultural aggregation in Poland. I was intuitively trying to create a unique remix of the visual atmosphere of this place- chaos, ridiculousness, stalls overloaded with kitsch and fakery, humour and ruthless amateur capitalism. I started to look for objects and materials illustrating the ambiguous meanings of this place like tinsel symbolizing bogus luxury and plastic laundry bags- the iconic symbols of Bazaars. I started to look at Jarmark Europa as a metaphor of society and politics which can refer to the current times of multicultural social hybrid, where every individual must find one’s own way to thrive (kombinowanie). Gertrud Huwelmeier (2015) in his study on Central and Eastern European markets states, that ‘bazaars are perfect places to study how diversity and economy mutually impact each other and where the economic and social ties of migrants from former socialist countries may be observed.’ He later continues that ‘they (multi-ethnic bazaars in CEE) form a microcosm of a set of processes and practices that have not yet been sufficiently researched’. He also emphasizes, the diversity of interactions and intersections of people of various backgrounds and interests. Therefore, I have concluded that the eclectic aesthetics of Bazaar successfully communicate my interest in researching particular groups and societies. Besides Jarmark Europa Huwelmeier writes about numerous bazaars in Central and Eastern Europe, for example Bazaars in Budapest, Prague, Wolka Kosowska or Bratislava, which suggests that this type of marketplace is a very important element of visual and social culture of this region of Europe.
The subject of Jarmark Europa and Bazaars drew my attention to the problem of consumerism. The main research method in this field was my observation and experience. As an additional job, I used to be helping fellow Poles here in Aberdeen who struggled with English, for example by filling out various forms, interpreting meetings, phone calls etc. During those interactions with my clients, I observed that, consumerism, the notion of owning certain goods was especially apparent. For example, one family, requiring help with a meeting with their housing officer, after finding themselves in a situation of homelessness, still preferred to not be paying their rent rather than changing their consumerist habits- maintaining an opulent car, using expensive skincare and make up, buying expensive watches, and using sunbeds. I was also coming across cleaners doing their everyday makeup with MAC or Chanel cosmetics and van drivers travelling to work in luxurious Audis and BMWs. I started to wonder, why owning luxurious products is so important to the social group that I am analyzing and what are the roots of these demeanors. Why do so many young people accept the humiliation of doing the lowest respected jobs only to fulfill their dreams of owning brand products? Conrad Lodziak (2002) among many other theories of consumerism mentions two theories, which I found particularly accurate- the theory focusing on the importance of consumerism in creating, constructing one’s identity and the other explaining it in terms of self-liberation. Referring those theories to the observations made by Anne White (2010) who described typical Polish migrant as a young male from a village or small town in Poland B, it is probably another manifestation of the frantic nostalgia mentioned previously. Therefore, this remorseless consumerism can be understood as a desperate attempt to build an alternative, better identity and self-liberate from derogatory meanings. To investigate this issue, I spent hours looking at Facebook profiles and Youtube channels belonging to Polish migrants to the UK, where I observed that again, emphasizing, material status (often inaccurately) was the most popular tool in creating their online identities. And that dissonance, between the imagery, social media identities and the truth became a very inspiring force fuelling my practice.
I tried to relate to foregoing problems through working with various media. This semester I was experimenting especially with digital forms of art- video and sound. I felt, that the field of printmaking, which I used to explore before, could not take me any further. I decided therefore to invest my time and effort to explore more challenging media, which required me not only to develop my technical knowledge but also the skill of controlling time, sound and image at the same time. I was also very excited to discover video art as a way to implement the medium of performance into my practice, which turned out to be a perfect tool in simplifying and communicating complicated and ambiguous meaning. Through a performance, I did recently ‘Patriotism classes’ I tried to illustrate wicked, ambiguous relationship between the Poles, especially those who migrated abroad, with their motherland. I observed that on one hand it is full of anger and anguish, on the other fetishizes mad nationalism to an unhealthy extend. I related to my memory of polish education, which emphasized celebrating national values. I feel that through this process we have been conditioned to react emotionally to certain symbols, like the national anthem or image of John Paul II.
In this video performance, my husband and I were squatting while listening to the Polish national anthem. Both of us were wearing masks to intensify the feeling of tiredness and the sound of breathing. In the end, the national anthem was accompanied by heavy breaths of male and female voices, which blended together to create a wicked, sexual context. The fact, that this sound effect was achieved by exhausting physical activity illustrated the process which forced us to show these unhealthy, almost sexual but in a way automatic reactions to the national symbols.
Shifting my focus from printmaking to moving image and sound did not mean giving up on my favorite aesthetics. Quite recently I discovered a performer/ online personality Bella Cwir, a young provincial girl aspiring to become a celebrity. Bella is in fact just an imagery performance identity of a young creative man fed up with his uninteresting life led in small town Elblag in Poland B. He centered is practice around social media- Youtube and Facebook, where he uploads his music videos and performances. I found his works interesting in many aspects. Firstly, naive, crass aesthetics in both layers of sound and image. Secondly, the music, disharmonious and rather unpleasant, which has been made by using stock beats and samples available online (Gora 2017). The artist explains, that the main inspiration for his tracks is popular music of lowest level. He especially emphasizes the importance of disco polo- folksy, provincial dance music (Gora 2017). Monika Borys, in her brilliant article on aesthetic of disco polo (2017) describes it as a ‘provincial therapeutic carnival, celebration of noncommittal amusement in the times of hardship’ Therefore, although being rather cheery and brisk, this music can be perceived as a sad reminder of cruel reality. The visual part of Bella’s Youtube uploads is built like moving collages, carelessly put together in an unrefined editing software. Finally, probably the most interesting thing I found about Bella Cwir is the language, which by being vulgar and abrupt aims to resemble the reality of colorful magazines- chaotic, meaningless, often with grammar errors. Nonetheless, that reality, according to the theory of Polish nostalgia I discussed before, is sadly realized to be a pathetic reality of unreachable dreams shared by everyone of us: ‘It is me who is a fucking amazing girl and you are just a fucking carcass, you better remember that because you messed with the God/ I have a Gucci bag, and a fur from Prada I have, and what do you, bitch, have? Bendy legs as you crap’. (Cwir 2016)
I feel that the research as well as the studio work I have done this semester has set down a new direction for my practice. I think that I could translate my interests in politics and sociology more boldly into the medium of performance and video art. I found it particularly interesting to research and create artworks from the borderlands of the lowest culture, which in my opinion is a brilliant indicator of our condition as a society. I am also planning to focus more on the language as medium, of course without rejecting the aesthetics which I have already worked with to this point. I aim to recreate the oriental, hardcore reality that is the subject of my every day observations. I will also continue to improve my skills in the field of music and visuals, and incorporate those sills into my creative process by developing a sound/ performance project.
To conclude, in this essay I discussed the key points of my research and studio practice. Firstly, the notion of contemporary orientalism and its validity in describing contemporary social reality in terms of migration within the European Union. Secondly, I referred to my interest in the sociology of the migration from former Eastern Bloc, discussing this phenomenon basing on the literature as well as my own experiences and observations. Thirdly, I analyzed the aesthetics, which became the fundamentals of my visual language, namely It was meant to be beautiful and the kitsch of Jarmark Europa and consumerism. Finally, I discussed the media I was working in this semester as well as future plans in relation to my further practice.
BANCROFT, C., 2009. Yugonostalgia: The Pain of the Present. Independent Study Project Collection.