Karolina Harazim: Professor, I would like to produce a publication which would sum up the recent years of Monika Drożyńska’s work. But I want to make sure that I don’t drown the project...
Jerzy Bralczyk: ... in a flood of words.
KH: ... nor in mega-seriousness, either, as this is not the right tone to adopt. That is why I am approaching you.
JB: Well, ask questions, and I will answer. Let’s stick with this formula.
KH: Professor, as we speak, the first exhibition in a gallery space is taking place of Monika Drożyńska’s work, from the series Winter Activities and Urban Embroidery. This debut is all the more significant as the artist’s origins lie in street art.
JB: This is quite an interesting situation, because we normally consider paper or a screen the natural habitat for an inscription. To write on a wall is a transgression, but it is also a statement. A statement which can be an artistic statement. To remove that from a wall, a mural, and to transfer it to such a sweet little medium as, in fact, embroidery is, is a provocation, and I even quite like it, but even so, it is bound to raise certain doubts.
KH: An earlier phase in Monika’s activities, where it all started – tracking down slogans and embroidering them – was called Winter Activities. At the moment, in Bunkier Sztuki in Kraków, there is an exhibition. As part of it, the artist is producing a sound installation, with the active participation of the audience. A Word Each is an exhibition in process. It will only be shown in its completed form at the finissage.
JB: All this is, of course, playing with conventions, a game which can be accepted as a form of artistic, or else para-artistic, provocation. But it is precisely at this point that a question arises which I find compelling. What is someone else’s creativity in all this, and to what extent has it been taken advantage of?
KH: Here, Monika’s game and her specific provocation in this area look just the same as they did in the activities connected with Winter Activities – that’s to say, something which was entitled Urban Embroidery – Monika documented embroideries in her photographs. It’s precisely those photographs (of individual embroideries) that were shown on big screens in urban spaces.
JB: Quite lovely!
KH: That's right. So, this exhibition is a result of the last four years. Because it all really has grown and grown! But, at a certain point, it all went back to the streets and that's why...
JB: Went back? What went back to the streets?
JB: They are now presented in the streets?
KH: They went back, on big screens. They were projected – in their embroidered form – in Warsaw, Kraków, Wrocław, Legnica and Opole. On big screens, from September 2010 until February 2011. Each embroidery for a month. For example, in September you could see the embroidery which read, 'Stop obsessing!!!', in November, 'Ourliness', in December, 'I've had enough'. That's what Urban Embroidery looked like. But here, I cannot not ask: why people capable of reflections such as, eg, 'I live in a block of flats, I am not alone', 'Stop obsessing!' or 'For the tourists, attractions. For the locals, evictions' – choose to promote them as graffiti, on walls?
JB: Well... at present, we have two ways of reaching audiences. The first is, of course, electronically. You can put anything you want on the Internet. This alone means that people no longer feel unable to express themselves. But the other way remains the same as it has always been, quite an old one, already present in ancient civilisations: the newspapers of big hieroglyphs, in other words, writing on walls. In the countryside, writing on fences. Frequently, this behaviour manifests freedom; that's to say showing that you exist, you sign your name. The signature alone will do. But, of course, often, this stems from the need to express some – hard to say – universal truth? And it’s here that original aphorisms appear, provocations appear, taboo stuff appears. Not only in public space, but also in the private one. Violations of taboos appear. So, it’s a kind of, you could say, freedom movement. Anyway, it’s not incidental that inscriptions on walls have an ideological and political dimension. A lot has been written about this and continues to be written, because it is interesting to note what appears most often. These are statements which go against the grain of dominant opinion, so, antitotalitarian in a totalitarian system, or anticlerical or antireligious in a country or system considered quite religious. Or else, some are simple grotesque and absurd. Sometimes, they take on others, such as the football slogans ‘Wisła rules’ or ‘Cracovia is rubbish’, or announcements of what could be done to fans of Depeche Mode, or to others; I remember finding such slogans quite puzzling. I didn’t understand them at all. Whom do those that write such things detest so much? All this has come about because this need to express oneself is sometimes expressed in a very... original way. Some humour appears, too. Also a joke, even a joke which – by treading on some sacred space – can be quite liberating. There are a lot of profanities, a lot of aggression, which often is not at all real, but merely simulated. Indeed, often the reverse, because demonstrating aggression can put the brakes on. That’s how I’d put it, in a nutshell.
KH: So, do I, in admiring the slogan,’We’ll avenge The Man’, which in Kraków especially, is a result of horrific events...
JB: That’s right, because ‘The Man’ was the nickname of...yes.
KH: Yes. So, do I, admiring this slogan and its universal message, exaggerate? Or, do I...
JB: Well, obviously, it’s often the case that something can have different meanings on a local and universal scales. And it’s even pointless to talk here about making a mistake. This often is the case with a work of art which, from something allusory, becomes universal. Let’s stop dwelling on what the polemicist meant and let’s admire – the structure of the polemic, or the truths expressed on that occasion. That’s how it’s been for ages. You ask, can one admire this? A large part of the work of art is in the recipient. The very fact that we receive a very short, concise message, releases in us certain receptive mechanisms. If, walking along the street, we were suddenly to find a large slogan... whatever, I happen to be looking at a chair, so, let’s say, ‘chair’. This, of itself, would move us to reflect. Because, why should it say ‘chair’ on a wall somewhere, or on a bridge? This type of perceptive activity, which is produced in us by seeing an inscription out of its natural entourage is also an element of the artist’s activity. In our very perception of graffiti, we are artists probably to a greater degree, than in our perception of other things. It is known that that’s how, for example, advertising works. But adverts are designed for uniform reception. It is clear what they are for. Besides, they are commercialised. Political or ideological slogans, placed in public spaces, have a clear aim. The very fact that such productions may appear to have no specific aim can, in some way, appeal to us. They show what we long for – art for art’s sake. The modernist definition of art as everything that an artist spits out, also applies here, in a way. Everything an artist writes, or draws, as in the case of a big line, for example, or just writes a single letter – the letter acquires a life of its own. If I write it on a piece of paper, I then have to do something with it, for it to come into existence. One noun used here – let’s imagine I am walking along the road and I see this inscription, ‘Mother’ With an exclamation mark. I won’t pass it by indifferently! That’s what has come to mind, but, equally well, it could be... I don’t know... say, ‘emancipation’, or ‘radiator’, or something else, even more absurd. Because that’s what it’s all about – everything acquires such meaning that we put into those inscriptions.
KH: At this point, I would like to go back to the theme of embroidery. In the first instance, the works of Monika Drożyńska appeared in public space as part of Urban Embroidery, which is to say, reproductions of embroidered slogans on big screens. My question here is: does this formula – employing hand stitching to process the inscriptions – change anything?
JB: Let’s start by commenting that the word combination ‘urban stitching’ will evoke quite different connotations for most people1 So, we’ll be looking for ‘urban stitching’* near low-life bars, won’t we? Places where someone, or someone’s stomach, couldn’t take it any more. The fact that the words ‘stitch’ or ‘stitching’ have these two, so very different, meanings is very funny.
KH: This pun was an important consideration in coming up with the title.
JB: Well, of course! I could have guessed. Because, on the one hand, we have the culture... folksy-bourgeois. Embroidered napkins, hemstitches, Richelieu and so on. On the one hand, they smack of European refinement, hailing from Brabantia and so on, and so forth. On the other hand, they evoke peasant folklore. So, two tracks: folklore and great art, the latter which also started off as folk art, but later came to be used by the bourgeoisie, landed gentry and aristocracy... all this creates the impression that embroidery is, on the one hand, supposedly easy – after all, young girls learnt to embroider. ‘Under their needles flowers grow’, you remember that well-known aria from The Haunted Manor by Moniuszko. The custom of stitching inscriptions is quite old. I have been to many village homes, in my own village, and in others, where they would embroider tea towels.
KH: My greatgrandmother made them.
JB: Well, exactly. ‘A wife good at cooking is all the more good-looking!’ and so on, and so forth. There were various aphorisms, which usually promoted very traditional values. The classical pattern involved a blue stitch against white background, only very occasionally enriched with other colours. Red was much rarer. But there were different traditions in different regions. So, to sum up, embroidery could symbolise something extremely bourgeois, or very traditional. A culture promoting very traditional family values. If we relate the technique of embroidery to what is considered the avant-garde, or at least the artistically independent, then the second meaning that we discussed a moment ago comes to mind. And that results in quite a unique entity. Because, in reality, embroidery is just the medium for the message. As McLuhan put it, ‘the medium is the message’. Embroidery became the message. Of course, the message is the passing on of a certain traditional culture. So, it makes a contribution. On the other hand, we can see that the embroidery functions in a different way – as if someone had placed some shocking content in a traditional medium. This is as though the tabloids had suddenly started publishing profound, philosophical essays. So, we experience here heterology. Homology is a phenomenon where the form is relevant to the content. This functions on different levels. If Italk about culture in a cultured way, my statement is homo-logical. However, once, when walking along Szpitalna Street in Kraków, I heard a conversation. Some people were walking in front of me... total dregs of society, judging by their unambiguous look and smell. Because I had to go past them, I heard a snippet of what they were talking about. Their conversation was about culture and the need for culture. And it doesn’t matter in what sort of language they were expressing themselves, all the same, Ifelt that this dissonance does something for me. And that’s why this contrast, this heterology, where the form doesn’t fit the message, creates an even greater feeling of provocation. We know that there are books and publications that show such sgraffiti. In fact, that’s how you used to pronounce this: ‘sgraffito’, rather than ‘graffito’, but I come across this term less and less frequently, now we don’t write it or say it like this. But publications about and research on graffiti continue. The theme of text as such brings me to the question: is it OK on the legal level that the artist uses someone else’s texts? Even though those texts don’t have authors known by their name and surname, but, appearing as they do in a certain entourage, it could be that whoever produced them does feel entitled not only to their form but also to their content. In this case, we are dealing with the appropriation of a text which had appeared on a wall. Can a text taken out of its context be used in this manner? Perhaps in the concept of its creator – anonymous as he was – the text was to have quite a different purpose? Anyway, not all graffiti authors are anonymous. There are some who sign their names. Don’t those inscriptions – intended by their author to mean something – when ripped out of that content, mean something quite different? I can imagine a situation where a text written to illustrate a particular thesis is taken out of context and, elsewhere, produces quite a different message. Antoni Słonimski* before World War II, wrote an essay in which he protested against certain manifestations of Jewish culture, ideology and politics. That was a protest against actual, existing ideology. But in 1968, he was forced to re-publish that text, during the anti-Semitic campaign. So, a text written in a completely different situation, from a completely different premise, was supposed to express something completely at odds with the original message. And such things do happen quite frequently! For example, when using a poem. In my generation, in the 80s, we used to sing a poem called ‘Walls’ *** fall, will fall, will fall...’ – but the impact was quite different from what we were actually singing! The text was about the crowds annihilating the lone singer, but we sang it as an enthusiastic, heroic hymn! These are literary examples, but they are applicable here, too... You can take a text out of its context and place it in another as a joke, but you thereby trivialise it. It’s like saying, ‘Let’s do this as an embroidery, let’s put it on a tea towel or a napkin and you will then see how much is left of your protest!’ Nothing will be left! But, the reverse could also transpire: that in a completely heterological environment, the original message will be enhanced. This is a complex matter, because another aspect is the legal side of being entitled to process a text which is already artistic and I cannot give an opinion about this as I am not a legal expert, although I have certain objections to doingsuch a thing. I think that, for example, you should... but, well, if it is impossible to contact the authors... Perhaps the ideal situation would be if the artist herself were to write on walls and then, after a while, process those inscriptions as embroidery on napkins. Then we would be dealing with an integrated situation.
KH: Absolutely pure.
JB: That’s right, pure. A pure action. This would also be interesting because you would then be able to see how the message functions in different contexts. By the way, Iwould recommend such a course of action for creative expression. It should be possible to construct something interesting in this way.
KH: I’d love to know how Monika would react to this idea! Certainly, her project does very much involve the audience, or even quite casual viewers, in the artist’s activities. So, using other people’s activity comes quite naturally here. Time for another question: is the restoration of these inscriptions in the now-legal form, as sugary, sweet embroideries, in collaboration with the company that owns the big screens used for commercial projections in urban space a distortion of the intentions of the authors, or does this serve to highlight their messages?
JB: Hard to say. The situation is made even more complex by the fact that we are dealing with quotations and paraphrases. For example, ‘Big blah’ is an allusion to ‘Big Blue’, this is a paraphrase which is intended to affect us. ‘Ourliness’ is the name of an organisation, from Poznań, if I recall correctly. These are texts or words made up and used, at times, even in extenso. So what we are dealing here with is quoting quotations, this is meta-level squared. On top of that, as far as I can see, the whole thing is enriched by the receptive process. For example, you could show on the big screen someone who is looking at the works. Or, someone taking photographs of them... And so on, and so forth. By the way, I’d be quite interested to see this as a picture.
KH: How do you identify the messages: are these the voices of individuals, or do they express a social mood?
JB: Depends on the mood. Writing on walls is an expression of social mood, based on individuals wanting to express themselves. [laughs] The will of numerous individuals to express themselves is a social phenomenon of itself. These things are not an either-or. When it comes to artistic activities, we assume individualism, but it is also the case that, in the activities of graffiti producers, we are dealing with two tendencies which don’t conform to the postulate of individualism. The first one of those is anonymity. True graffiti are a mass product. So, it’s standardised, and, on the other hand, anonymous. And this anonymity would presume a greater originality. Sometimes, this is also apparent. Standardisation takes for granted copying something in various locations. To remove the stamp of a signature or indentifying tag also matters, clearly. Here, there are also some other texts which exist in public space. I don’t quite know to what extent they have been taken from graffiti, or maybe directly from banners or, for example, from chants at football matches. If such a football chant first exists in the phonic form and only later is transcribed – this changes its character. To present it in the form of an embroidery further alters the message. By the time it is projected on a large screen we have many further complications...
KH: ...and later, it is presented in a gallery, which is yet another form of display.
JB: ... yes, by then it’s all completely contorted.
KH: What is interesting – and which I find very perplexing – that the person who has such reflections decides to write them on a wall and then, in a sense, abandon them. The inscriptions are left, orphaned.
JB: They throw them at us!
KH: Yes! That’s it!
JB: As I have said, this is a work of art which is to live in us, as the audience.
KH: That’s right, this is the intended effect. However, we – in a sense applying our own personal measure – want to respect their being different. And yet, on the other hand, they are just vandals!
JB: The space in which they work does usually belong to someone. Appropriation of such space is a significant act. Perhaps not anarchic, but it does show that a foreign entity can function in that space. Someone has invaded it from outside. But, for example, to shout out loud is a different type of gesture? It enters my space via my ear, this is my personal space, let’s say, my semiosis. And suddenly, someone yells. Now we can hear music and conversation. They are also foreign elements, but even so, there are certain standards in operation which ensure that nobody is going to yell round here. And just as well, there is no need to. But, one of the factors that prevent such behaviour is a certain type of relationship...
JB: The shouting of football fans on their way back from a match is transient, but incredibly invasive.
KH: Sometimes, it can affect long-term behaviour, can’t it?
JB: Of course, it can. A written text is more durable, but more discreet, because we don’t have to look at it.
KH: What I find interesting is... I don’t know whether Professor would agree with me...
JB: I don’t know, either, whether I would. Perhaps I wouldn’t?
KH: Let’s see, then.
KH: I have treated Monika’s activity as a kind of war, in which needle and cotton are her weapons of choice.
JB: But, a war against whom? Against graffiti artists? Or, together with them, against...
KH: Probably together with them, not against them. However, the very fact of transferring those texts into a different space, because in a gallery, the same texts do function in a different way...
JB: This gives rise to various possibilities. For instance, we can imagine slogans which would sound ideologically very bourgeois or traditional. And we can imagine that, for example, out of a concern to ensure homologisation, it will be such traditional slogans that will be presented on such embroideries. However, if I were to see such traditional slogans with, I don’t know, say quotations from John Paul II on napkins in a gallery, I would suspect a multi-level provocation.
KH: The exhibition has only just started. I am curious to watch the audience’s reactions to the works. For example, when they look at I Live in a Block of Flats, I Am Not Alone, they say,’Oh, that’s about me!’, or ‘That’s very interesting!’
KH: We would probably never notice such an inscription on a wall when we are walking down the street, because we assume in advance that anything written on walls is rude...
JB: Art is renewing itself. We are already somewhat immunised against graffiti art and, indeed, we notice it less. Personally, I find it far more offensive that my personal space is invaded by advertising than by graffiti. In my little home town, there are many advertisements, which ruins its beauty.
KH: Thank you very much!
Warsaw, 25 October 2011
*In Polish slang, ‘stitching’ means ‘vomiting’ (vulg.).
**A. Słonimski (1895–1976) – a prominent Polish poet, journalist, playwright and writer.
***J. Kaczmarski (1957–2004) – a Polish singer, songwriter, poet and author. Kaczmarski’s song ‘Walls’ became the unofficial hymn of the Solidarity trade union movement in 1980s Poland.