In the book Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal (2012) Jack Halberstam –one of today’s the most recognized queer studies theorists – tells a humorous anecdote about his partner’s two children whom they bring up together. The resolute girl and boy have always been interested in Halberstam identity, and specifically whether he is a woman or a man. Halberstam, who identifies as transgender and refuses to be defined by binary categories, coined the very useful term “boygirl” in order to answer their recurring, inquisitive questions about his gender. The children seemed pleased with this and fully normalized the term, using it to describe Halberstam to their peers. Over time, however, they began to demand that Halberstam tell them more about himself, his body, and biological sex. For several weeks, the theorist prepared himself for the inevitable lecture on gender theory for primary school kids – one that would clearly explain the complex models of desire, sexuality, and gender. Finally, while picking up the kids from school one day, Halberstam began his deliberations. The boy, bored and impatient, interrupted the carefully prepared talk and casually asked, “Jack, is it true that all turtles can swim?” This event led Halberstam to conclude – and it would be hard to disagree – that change is the air that children breathe. Kids have an amazing ability to adapt and are completely indifferent to the cause-and-effect logic of the rigid cultural norms created and cherished by adults.
The son of Monika Drożyńska, often referred to as “Poland’s leading embroiderer” is a great example of this. Now 11 years old, the boy showed great interest in art from an early age. Alongside his mother, he took part in several projects exhibited at the Zachęta National Gallery of Art (2020) and Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art (2017). He enjoyed this immensely and even received, form Drożyńska, remuneration for his work. Last year, amid the wave of pandemic boredom and yearning for interaction with his peers, he wrote a science-fiction short story, OKruszynka 2021. It was loosely inspired by Stanisław Lem’s The Three Electroknights, from his cult Fables For Robots short story collection. Embroidered by his mother on white canvas, the 11-year-old’s story has formed the basis of an artistic project that also includes a video by Jan Moszumański and images of the embroidery shown on posters and digital billboards.
Before I turn to the description and analysis of the short story and the video, I should mention the circumstances that reveal, on the one hand, the accelerated process of growing up, that for every mother can be difficult to accept and on the other, the non-normative nuances of growing up, which to a large extent are determined by rapid processes of change. A few weeks ago, Drożyńska’s 11-year-old announced that he was “done with art” and no longer interested in either collaborating on new projects, or even completing the work based on his short story. Instead, the boy continued, he intends to devote himself entirely to his greatest passion, football, and pointed out that he fully identifies as a footballer, rather than an artist. When his mother inquired about the reasons for such abrupt change, the boy replied that she brought him up not to feel obliged to explain himself nor provide specific reasons for his decisions. He simply quit the project he initiated. Devastated, Drożyńska took his principled stance of distancing himself from her world as a clear manifestation of adolescence, which thus entered into the stormy but inevitable phase of renouncing the interests and disciplines represented by one’s parents. Eventually, the boy agreed to participate – for the last time – in his mother’s project and read his shorty story in the video.
Drożyńska’s son behaviour not only proves that, change is for children simply an element of everyday life, but also confirms Kathryn Bond Stockton’s notion that “every child is queer” (in the original meaning of this word). It is worth examining both the story of OKruszynka and the video based on it with this in mind. Starting from the etymology of the verb “to grow”, Stockton writes that in Old English the word was exclusively used to refer to plants, and only later did it gradually appear to take on other meanings. In reference to humans, it first referred to “material growth”, i.e., height and size. It was therefore closely related to constant growth, energy, and successive changes. Because of this, Stockton believes that “growing up” – a popular phrase in contemporary English – seems to diverge from the original meaning of the word: it assumes the end of the process, a moment when desired level is finally reached (in this case, maturity, and the end of childhood).
Instead, Stockton proposes the use of the term “growing sideways”: “a spectrum of personal experiences or ideas, motifs and on-going energy exchanges that could occur at any age, bringing <<adults>> and <<children>> closer together in unexpected ways. Simultaneously, Stockton proposes to move away from the traditionally understood figure of the child and processes of growing up, not only by negating the, but rather suggesting instated to see them as a continuous process of growing up that does not end at a certain age. Thus, “growing up sideways” means “something linked to the desire of death, but not limited to it, something that locates energy, vitality, pleasure and emotions in a web of mutual, reciprocal dependencies that are not reproductive.” Growing up sideways breaks with the image of a child as an innocent and naïve being that needs to protected and instead grants them the right to full autonomy, simultaneously pointing to the continually changing, often inexplicable processes related to puberty.
Following Lem’s typical science-fiction convention breaking with the established rules of logical, rational thinking, and instead proposing visions of worlds governed by their own, often alogical rules, The Three Electroknights seems to be perfectly tailored to a child’s imagination. The action takes place on a distant, frozen planet Cryoni, whose inhabitants – the Crynoids – are themselves carved from ice. The planet’s precious gems are famous in the entire galaxy. One by one, three invaders attempt to plunder the riches: the Electroknights Brass, Iron, and Quartz. All three, deluded by their pride and greed, fail spectacularly and die. Taking on a clearly moralizing tone, Lem describes the pursuit of illusory ideas and cautions against greed that often advises the most stupid, wrong solutions.
Meanwhile, Drożyńska’s son story ignores Lem’s moralizing tone. The action takes place on Eton, a mysterious planet formed from bits, whose one side is “gloomy and foggy, and the other, made from algorithms, is created from ones and zeros.” There, Cybernic Electroknight fights the planet’s inhabitants and galactic forces to win the heart of OKruszynka [In Lem’s original story – Migdet-widget]. Although at one point the tribes of “bitniks” manage to capture Electroknight and throw him into a chamber made of titanium, suddenly and “many, many bits later” the world comes to an end. Electroknight and OKruszynka are the sole survivors and from then on rule the universe with love, which leads to its rebirth. Unlike in Lem’s story the Electroknight and the childlike ideals of great romantic love are triumphant. What seems most interesting – among the aforementioned alogical perspective, strange childish associations and the stream of consciousness that form the dramaturgy of the world described in “OKruszynka” – is the abrupt and unexpected ending, mocking both the principles of cause-effect logic, the moralizing nature of Lem’s original story, and the habits of adult readers, who always demand a rational explanation and clearly arranged sequences of events. We will not find these in Drożyńska’s son’ story – the world ends just like that, suddenly and abruptly, and just as abruptly the Electroknight becomes the master of the new order. In this dramatic puzzle, the alogical conventions of science fiction, transposed as they are by the imagination of an 11-year-old boy, are fully realized.
In the animated video created by Jan Moszumański, Drożyńska’s embroidered letters and words – which reference DIY aesthetics and children’s art and craft projects – come to life. Their movement resembles an eccentric, joyful kindergarten dance, unfettered by the rules of the adult world. The fully shown, embroidered ending of the story – an unexpected happy end presented in the form of a joke delivered by its 11-year-old author – complements the frenetic choreography illustrating the unfathomable world of children’s imaginations. The artist’s son, occasionally accompanied by his mother, reads the text of OKruszynka in a hesitant voice of a child who is still getting used to reading. It seems that this formula perfectly captures the spirit of an anarchist narrative that mocks the logic of cause-and-effect. But most importantly, it offers the readers and viewers the childlike joy and fun stemming from building new worlds and universes, in spite of and against the logic preferred by adults (after all, the dancing letters seemingly do not add up to a coherent whole). It is a pity that since Drożyńska’s son quit making art, the fate of Electroknight and OKruszynka are for now suspended in the bit vacuum of his creation. Perhaps with time – and not unlike their maker – they will too grow up sideways.
The project was created as part of the Year of Lem in Kraków, 2021.
The project is co-financed by the City of Kraków.
Organizer: Exhibition Bureau / Polish Modern Art Foundation.