article was published in Gazeta Wyborcza, Duży Format
Six months .It was the time she spent waiting at their door. It took her six months to earn the neighbors' trust.
It was the wintertime, January 2003. Monika Drożyńska spread a city map on a carpet; she closed her eyes and put her finger on the plan. She travelled precisely for nine minutes. It was ulica Zakatek where she stopped.
The street was gloomy ( blocks of flats in that area are so similar that if it wasn't for the numbers on them, their dwellers could make a mistake and choose the wrong one).
Monika: ' I felt like a stranger, but I knew that it would change as soon as I meet people from this estate.'
She picked the block of flats at random. Number eight was identical to number nine. She watched her 'eight 'closely for a while and came back home. In the morning she was busy packing her stuff: two lamps, two cameras with black-and-white and color films and tripods. The shoes she had carefully chosen were light- easy to take them off. She was aware of the fact that entering one's flat with shoes on would make people think she holds respect neither for them nor for their flats.
In her notebook she dissected the entire block of flats into pieces – flats were parts of a greater whole. She was sure it was going to be a piece of cake : people are going to let her in, serve some tea, maybe tell their stories.
Monika: I thought they were going to behave just like me: stay open and accessible. Surely, some would be less responsive, but most of them would understand my reasons for being there. I believed in being disinterested, I trusted.
Number of flats: 60. She believed she would enter all of them.
At first the entry phone.
Better make it up.
She pressed the first button, probably a ground floor flat. No one answered. The second button answered with the voice of a bored woman:
- Good morning. My name is Monika Drożyńska and I am a student of the Graphic Arts Department in Academy of Fine Arts in..
- Thank you, I won't buy a thing. Have all I need.
- Slap. The connection terminated.
- The third button brought the same, the remaining ones repeated the pattern. She always managed to get to 'fine arts'.
A few days passed. The buttons either refused or didn't answer at all. She didn't cross the border of the entry phone.
It was not their refusing but not opening the door that hurt me most. And the quality of our talking? Me trying to say as much and as quickly as possible before they hung up. Yes, I was a complete stranger. It were not they who were talking to me, but a mass of concrete, the block of flats; at least that was my impression.
She wondered how to encourage people to herself, how to convey the idea, how to ensure them she wasn't going to steal, just stay disinterestingly interested...
At the university some did like the project, those backed it up, and the rest kept repeating it wouldn't work: ' You'd better made that block of flats up. Fill it with the people you know – your family, friends, acquaintances. The strangers can be unpredictable, aggressive, inaccessible'.
She was determined. An imaginary block of flats was out of the question. She had her own number eight, ordinary but real.
Professor Zbigniew Łagocki, Monika's thesis' supervisor had an idea: she should write a letter to the people from Zakątek.
Letter number one
Dear Sir or Madame,
My name is Monika Drożyńska and I am a student of the fifth year of the Graphic Arts Department, Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow. My master thesis is entitled 'Block of Flats'. It is a photographic project that I am going to carry out in the block of flats you live in .It is going to consist of three pictures. It is my deep hope that everyone would participate in the project. Hence my big request for co-operation and permission for being captured in my pictures. I would like to visit you in the afternoons, alternatively, we can arrange something individually. When the work is completed, I would like to invite you to my thesis' defense, that is to take place towards the end of the year. In case of any questions I leave my phone number...
What would she say?
At first something about herself: that she used to live in Gorlice, that there were similar blocks of flats that looked like fortresses and still intrigued her. It were the people living within , who were dissimilar. That she moved to Cracow to study graphic design and lived with grandma in the city suburbs. She would also add that she saw such blocks of flats in Cracow, too. Even more overwhelming and anonymous. And that she wanted to dissect one of them, understand it.
Maybe she would pompously explain: 'I have always been interested in a man, he was in the center.' Then something about her thesis: she is going to take three photos. The first is a block of flats' portrait, the second – people's portraits and the final would be tiny black-and-white portraits of their faces. Surely, she would add that she is not interested in the artistic edge, but just in capturing the present moment, the reality. Monika enclosed documents to certify her credibility: a copy of her picture, the first page of her credit book, ID and the university certificate confirming that she is a student. The letter was hung in the hall.
It stayed there only for a while.
Monika: ' I wanted to cry. No feedback! Nothing. How come that they are afraid of me? How can they stay so indifferent? I haven't foreseen this.
She came back. Hung the letter once again.
After a few days Family L. from the 7th floor invited her to their flat
'Pan Zenek refused?'
Family L. were just back from work. Both behaved naturally: she had a T-shirt on and tights in the color of her skin; he wore only pants. They were all comfy. They asked:
- Is this an artistic undertaking?
- Why this particular block of flats?
- What makes us so interesting?
The L. Family (both in their 50s) were ordinary and that was what Monika liked best; she in her tights, he in the pants and dinner that had just been finished. That they were busy doing things as usual. Their flat was dark and small. Monika placed the woman and the man on a couch , he was finishing his fag and she sipping her coffee.
The first take wasn't good, but it did not matter. In the end the L. Family asked her to take them a photo with the picture of their granddaughter. Mr. L. wished: ' May you take only beautiful photos'.
Monika: ' Yes, it was a real joy, but a silent and a modest one.
Pan Andrzej opened, made arrangements for Monika's visit, but only after his wife was back.
In her notebook there was this schedule: Flat A. – no one in, need to come over once again, flat K. - made an appointment on Friday, flat G. - they refused.
If they refused she came back. She asked once again, persuaded. Somebody agreed, Monika came and then the person replied: 'Not today. Today is a bad day'.
Mrs. B. after the finished session took her to Mrs. W. A son of one of the women went with Monika to his neighbors, he was to recommend her. Sometimes it worked, the other time the door shut before Monika managed to ask if they had read the letter. After two months she knew precisely who lives where. She met the janitor. There were the days when she spent the whole day in the place; she greeted the people saying 'good morning' and then towards the end of the day 'good evening'. From time to time somebody visited 'her' staircase, carrying a mug of coffee for her or to ask how the work was going and who refused to have photos taken. ( 'Pan Zenek didn't agree? I don't believe'). The flats were filled with discussions:
- This should be forbidden!
- I don't feel like being on billboard.
Her Block of Flats was being completed very slowly.
'I love you.'
Mrs. W. has young, blue eyes and gray hair with a parting, she stooped. She has finished 85, lives alone; her daughter visits her often. Mrs. W. is for Monika Przemek's grandma ( Przemek is a beloved grandson of Mrs.W. whom Monika has never met).
Przemek's grandma used to be a nurse during the War, a scout. She likes repeating that it was then when she started carrying her heart on her palm – ever ready to be taken.. It was Mrs. B. who took Monika to Przemek's grandma, since Przemek's grandma couldn't open the door. Recently her daughter left a piece of paper with a reminder on it : ' remember not to open at once'
Przemek's grandma: ' I always open the door - a habit from the times when people used to trust and didn't hurt one another. It was hard to get out of the habit.
'My little cute angel"
Monika used to stay there longer than in other flats. The old lady told stories about the block of flats, amazed at people's unfriendliness said: ' I quickly make friends, but only with those who want it. I know from the beginning who is willing and who isn't.' Then was the first tea, the second, water with a raspberry juice. Monika came back many times to Przemek's grandma during those six months, always getting water with the juice and sweets ( Przemek's grandma obtains them at the nearby chemist's, fetches some home and places on an elegant glass plate).
Przemek's grandma: ' Do you want to know why I let Monika in? The answer is simple - I like people and she needed help. I can't stay indifferent. Besides...I could talk...and she listened. Sometimes it is hard for me to stop.'
When Monika completed the project and left the country, on the return home grandma said:
' I love you like my own grandchild'
Letter number two
Dear Sir or Madam. I am very glad that more and more people agree on having their photos taken. Thank you very much. I wish you all every happiness for the coming Easter. See you after the break.
That was a trick. Monika thought that the expression ' more and more' would coax the undecided into having the session.
Mrs. K. wasn't surprised by Monika's visit.
- Finally! We have been waiting for you for so long.
She visited the K. Family when they were entertaining their guests. They celebrated the 31st anniversary. She was seated at the table, given champagne and a piece of cake. A few hours passed. In another flat she watched a football match with the host; he commented on what was going on, she nodded and complained about a ball that was badly passed on or missed shots. The women always gave one condition: first, the hairdresser , then the photo. When posing, they made their eyes look bigger, or the other way round, hid what was in their opinion ugly in their faces.
Monika: 'There was nothing unattractive about them, besides, I wasn't there to judge. The thing I was in reality interested in was their daily bread, the beauty of mundane reality'.
There was also Family O., both in their 50s, at first distrustful but finally opened the door.
Mr. O.: 'Such times, that being suspicious is a rule. We have been deceived once. A man came and convinced us that he lives nearby and collects money for his son's hospitalization. We gave him some money, but it turned out later that he was a complete stranger. It is impossible to know everyone. We know only the closest neighbors from the block of flats.' ( that is those living on the same floor, with whom they meet in the lift; the remaining ones, including those living beneath, are strangers - they get out of the lift too early to have a chat).
Monika showed her documents to the O. Family – her credit book, ID. She was let in.
Mrs. O. wanted to have a really nice picture.
Letter number three
'Dear All, at first I would like to say thank you to those who have helped me so far:
Both Mrs. H
Mrs. A. for the wonderful time spent together
Family B. , especially Mrs. B.
One of the students from the flat no 15
Family M. for their openness
The family renting the flat no 23
Family K. for their sense of humor
Family Sz. for their support and recommendations
Girls from the flat no 33
Family B. for their willingness to share their private photos
Family K. for their patience
Family S. due to their final agreement
Family O. for their idea with the announcement
Mrs. K. for her willingness to meet
Family A. for their warm welcoming
Family S. for their tolerating me for so long in the flat
Family L. for the talk with the neighbors
Family P., and especially M.
The girl renting flat no 57
And the couple having two beautiful girls I ask for forgiveness owing to my frequent visits.
I would like also to direct my sincere request to those who have not agreed so far. I really ask you for help. I need to point out that I am not interested either in taking pictures or watching your flats. The frame I am mostly focused on records a couch in the so-called living room. The thesis I am writing has the artistic character, hence it is a man that becomes the center of attention. The pictures I am taking would build up a block of flats made entirely of people, that is why the most crucial for me remains the truth (..)
For this reason, I dare to visit you once again'.
It was June, 2003. One day Monika met the janitor in the staircase. The woman asked how the work was going. The girl produced the list of flats she had never entered. The janitor wanted to help: together they made a tour round all the flats starting from the ground floor, finishing at floor no 9. They asked for permission once again. Nobody agreed. Monika had entered 34 out of the total number of 60 flats . Surely, she would stay there for another month if it wasn't for the janitor, who said: 'Time to finish your work, my lady. Miracles do happen, but the limit for them is not endless.'
The moment the project was finished Monika left for India and the USA (travelling and working). She grew tired with the Block of Flats. Ironically, when being abroad, she missed it.
A year later, on the 18th of July, Monika had her master thesis' defense. (a few days before she hung an invitation in the block of flats' hall, for all who opened her the door to their flats and for those who refused. She was not sure who was going to come, if anyone. She bought cartons of juices, kilos of cakes, plastic mugs and cutlery.)
The Block of Flats came for the defense before the noon. There were fifteen people altogether. They brought flowers, chocolates, had put their Sunday suits on. A few minutes later Monika received the information about the delay in her defense; one of the professors was too busy to be interrupted. She stood there and suddenly started to cry.
- I let them down! They rescheduled their meetings or got a day off from their work... all for me. Before she defended in the presence of her professors, she had to pass the 'block of flats' exam'. She spread three enormous charts ( those three portraits) and read out loud her comments on the pictures. She spoke openly about her feelings:
' I am very happy. I 've noticed that whenever I feel blue, I go to the block of flats, to the People. The moments spent with them give me strength and faith. In a Man. In the World. (...) My fascination with the block of flats has existed from the very beginning. Till now when passing blocks of flats I feel similar anxiety, I experience an inexplicable inner drive to visit each and every of them, to become a member of those families for a while, to make that block of flats less anonymous. I want to get rid of that anxiety at least for a moment. Make it more human.
Something completely ordinary.
Professor Piotr Kunce ( The Poster Design Studio, the Graphic Arts Department) wrote in the review of the Monika's thesis: 'Monika Drożyńska (...) inspired me with her enthusiasm, I felt her wondering through the particular flats, the first discussions, encouraging and persuading distrustful people to partake in her project. Her idea had its forefathers in the activities such as taking pictures of people in the Berlin's , New York's and Warsaw's underground by Tomasz Kizny or pictures of various facial expressions presented by Tomek Sikora. Nevertheless, now, when the project entitled just ' The Block of Flats' is completed, I can sense there a real depth. The present reality is the reality of picture culture. We have it on the streets, colored magazines, leaflets, posters, even in the newspapers (...) Being conspicuous by exhibiting plastic beauty, super quality at one hand, and brutality or rape at the other, is something absolutely ordinary. With the time you stop noticing it. That is the moment, when the need for showing something completely ordinary arises (...) The project of the author, apart from the visual result, gave her a chance of meeting a complete strangers, entering their private space. I hope that she has also changed relations between the neighbors, at least those participating in the project (...)'.
Conversation with Monika
In the grandma's house, the one in the city suburbs, Monika spread on the living room's floor the three charts – the block of flats' portraits.
- I don't understand why the people let you finally into their flats.
- At first I thought that they did it to leave them alone. Maybe some of them really wanted to get rid of me. But the rest.... I guess they wanted somebody's attention. Just like that.
- But they kept hesitating for half a year
- Precisely. And that's terrifying. We need more and more time to earn somebody's trust. People trust only TV.
- Maybe they believe that what's on TV is the truth about us?
- No!!! Those people from the Block of Flats thought me that it's not true. They opened the door. The truth about them, about us is that water with a raspberry juice at Przemek's grandma, backaches that are painful only when come back home.
The opening day
10th of October, cold gray Sunday. Monika is in Zakątek 8 since ten in the morning. She puts up frames, she will spread a net on them, there she will attach the three charts ( the Block of Flat's portraits). It is really cold and she has only a T-shirt on. She keeps complaining that the net is to soft and badly fits into the frames. As soon as she is ready, it's about time when people finish eating their dinner. Through the half opened windows one can hear cutlery clinging.
At 3 p.m. the people start getting out of the staircases. They stand and keep staring at themselves in the pictures; are amazed at how they look. Neighbors watch their neighbors, observe their own and the others' flats: couches, armchairs, chairs, walls. They are talking.
- So that's how our block of flats looks like!
- The balconies are so charming. I have never seen mine from this perspective, I live on the top floor, and you can't notice it when you are standing down here.
- And the lady from this picture... where precisely does she live?
- We need to have our staircase painted.
( Monika gets flowers – the last autumn flowers from their allotments. Mrs. B brought a plum cake). The TV has come. A reporter asks a man in the glasses:
-So, Were you willing to support the project from the very beginning?
- Sure. It was no problem. One should help the young.
The reporter asks a few more people. All say the same: ' Nobody made any problems'.