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An Outline History Of Polish Video Art

Video art appeared in Poland in the early 1970s within the creative community known as the Warsztat Formy Filmowej / Workshop of Film Form (WFF). 

Content: Beginnings | The 1980s | The 1990s | Conclusion


Video art appeared in Poland in the early 1970s within the creative community known as the Warsztat Formy Filmowej / Workshop of Film Form (WFF). The Workshop's open, multi-disciplinary nature1 and its members' fundamental, shared interest in new media inspired them to adopt video as the primary medium for their activities almost immediately, that is, as soon as the appropriate technology appeared. Workshop members also possessed an analytical stance that compelled them to explore and reveal the inherent qualities of the media they used. Thus, this other art of the moving image (apart from cinema) became the focus of their singular, artistic exploratory interest, an interest they directed toward the structural and expressive qualities of the medium.

In their initial works, group members examined various aspects of television. They explored broadcast television programming and its place in everyday life (Andrzej Rozycki - Seans telewizyjny / Television Screening), analyzed the phenomenon of direct transmission (see the Workshop's group project titled Obiektywna transmisja telewizyjna / An Objective Television Broadcast) and finally focused on the appliance that was the television set, which they perceived as the new mass culture fetish (Paweł Kwiek). All these works, created in 1973 under a broader project titled Akcja warsztat / Operation Workshop mounted at the Muzeum Sztuki (Museum of Art) in Lodz, took the form of installations and marked the advent of video art in Poland. However, the first work to be produced on magnetic tape was Pictures Language, created that same year by Piotr Bernacki and Wojciech Bruszewski who attempted to translate abstract linguistic signs into specific objective images.

In 1974 WFF members Wojciech Bruszewski and Pawel Kwiek produced a number of works that explored spatial relations (Bruszewski: Transmisja przestrzenna / Spatial Transmission; Kwiek: Sytuacja studia / A Studio Situation). Kwiek's projects grew out of his studies of connections between mental and media structures, their interaction and the social consequences thereof (one's knowledge determines one's position within the social hierarchy). In the years immediately following, Kwiek would produce a number of other pieces that would prove very important to the development of Polish video art (e.g. Video C, 1975; Przy pomocy oddechu kieruję jasnością obrazu - Instalacja do medytacji / I Control the Image's Brightness by Breathing - A Meditative Installation, 1978). In these single structures, the artist combined not only a series of different media, but also various ontological aspects of artistic communication. Bruszewski's work, on the other hand, emerged from his reflections on narration, recording and transmission. The Workshop of Film Form established itself as a group of artists making creative use of the video camera. Before long, it expanded to include several new members, among whom were Jolanta Marcolla, Józef Robakowski, Zbigniew Rybczyński, Ryszard Waśko, Janusz Szczerek, Janusz Kołodrubiec, Antoni Mikołajczyk, Andrzej Paruzel, Anna and Romuald Kutera, Piotr Olszanski, Kazimierz Bendkowski, Lech Mrozek and Laboratorium Technik Prezentacyjnych / The Laboratory of Presentational Techniques (Jadwiga and Jacek Singer, Grzegorz Zgraja, Marek Kolaczkowski). As membership expanded, so did the list of issues explored and the types of works created.

Janusz Szczerek began by exploring transmission structures (VII Sytuacji / VII Situations, 1976), while Janusz Kolodrubiec analyzed structures of reflection (mirroring), processes of observation (especially self-observation) and the mechanisms by which these processes are manipulated (Lustro / Mirror; Lustro II / Mirror II, both 1976). With these works, the artists confronted crucial issues like the impact which electronic media had on shaping new perceptions of the world (both at the individual and social levels) and new mental structures.

In their endeavors, WFF artists used video in various creative ways, expanding the range of expressive possibilities of other creative disciplines (alongside cinema). This derived directly from the open, multi-disciplinary attitude taken by Workshop members. Along with projects on magnetic tape, which one assumes they had the greatest affinity for, and video installations (Wojciech Bruszewski, Antoni Mikolajczyk, and Ryszard Wasko were particularly interested in this form), WFF artists just as frequently undertook various activities that assumed the form of video-performances. A similar creative stance, resulting in the production of complex, variegated and analytical works, also characterized the artists associated within the Laboratorium Technik Prezentacyjnych / The Laboratory of Presentational Techniques (founded in December of 1975) as well as Andrzej Paruzel, author of a cycle entitled Sytuacje videofotograficzne / Video-Photographic Situations.

Ryszard Waśko continued to create video installations (e.g. Róg / Corner; Powiększenie / Enlargement, both 1976), exploring his earlier interest (as embodied in his theoretical work and films) in the methods by which space is shaped by and portrayed in the media. He revealed the relative relationship between real space and its (audio)visual representations, as well as the relative and illusory nature of representations themselves. Antoni Mikołajczyk produced a series of video installations (e.g. Obraz barwny, obraz czarno-biały / Color Picture, Black and White Picture, 1975; Obraz pozorny / Apparent Image, Rzeczywistość - obraz rzeczywistości / Reality - An Image of Reality, both 1976) incorporating photography and complex processes of recording and presentation that involved multiplying images (for example, a recording of a recording presented as an image of reality). He thus revealed how the media provide purely relative information and manipulate the image and status of reality. By contrast, Zapis świetlny / Light Recording (an installation from around the same time which referenced the artist's earlier works in other media) heralded this artist's future focus, namely, light-based artworks created through various means. Mikołajczyk went on to use a variety of tools (e.g. photography, video, lasers, welding machines, electric lamps, etc.) to create virtual, luminous forms that seemed to be intrusions into the world of solid beings and things. In another sense and at a different level, these built on his earlier playful explorations of reality and its illusory, manipulated representations, a kind of play that was evident in his video installations. Treating light at once as a material and tool, Mikolajczyk posited as problematic the border between reality and illusion, creating spaces in which the mind experience both a sense of reality transgressed and the vastness of infinity.

Interest in the medial dimension of video gave an exploratory tone to all three kinds of video art practiced in Poland at the time. It is noteworthy that in many instances analytical video pieces built on experiments and stances pursued earlier in the realm of cinema. This is evident, for instance, in the degree to which Robakowski's and Wasko's many video works drew their roots from these artists' filmic explorations of mechanical and biological interactions.

These studies of video as a new artistic medium were linked to analyses of television, which in spite of being identified with video art at the technical level was simultaneously viewed as something of its opposite. Around this time, Polish artists began to distance themselves from television, establishing a tendency to which they would remain faithful through the end of the 1980s. Their negation of the television mass medium was clearly a political statement. "Video art," wrote Jozef Robakowski in 1976, "is a form of opposition that discounts the use value of this institution [television]; it is a creative movement that uses its inherent independence to expose this mechanism as something that is used to control people." Robakowski provided support for his contentions in subsequent projects, which he produced by filming television broadcasts and then manipulating the recorded footage in various ways (e.g. Hommage dla L. Breżniewa / Homage to L. Breznev, 1982-88; Transmisja z Moskwy / Moscow Broadcast, 1984). Earlier (from the mid 1970s), this artist made videos that provided insightful analysis of television as an electronic medium. He explored television technology's relationship to authors/operators and to audiences, tested the media-conditioned means in which it records reality and the resulting image of the world. Robakowski also used his early projects to study the way in which works of video art reference their presentational contexts.

The issue of reality and its relation to its audiovisual representations and to audiences dominated most of the works produced by Workshop artists in video, just as it had dominated their film works. Their projects exposed the relative nature of perception mediated by electronic images, the fluidity of the boundary between reproduction and creation and the resulting possibilities of manipulating reception. The artists effectively confronted ‘electronic reality' against viewers' knowledge of the world, provoking viewers to reflect on the nature of the video medium, the limits and reliability of human perception and on communication possibilities. These concepts reappeared most frequently in the works of Bruszewski (films and installations) and Mikolajczyk (installations). I have already discussed Mikolajczyk's experiments in this area. Bruszewski analyzed these same issues in a series of films titled Dotknięcie video / The Touch of Video, which drew on his own concept of the contradiction he saw between direct experience and experience as mediated by conventions which rule our cognition and serve to organize our knowledge. Paradoxically, the series as a whole seemed to demonstrate that direct perception is possible solely through media (i.e. mechanical and electronic means of communication). Bruszewski designed the individual parts of The Touch of Video to 'trap' what exists in reality, seeking in this manner to reveal the conventions ruling our perception and all knowledge founded therein. His installations like Outside (1976) or Instalacja dla Pana Muybridge'a / Installation for Mr. Muybridge (1977) operated in much the same way.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Bruszewski made a number of pieces in which sound played the central role. In these installations, audio was either linked to an image (e.g. Telewizyjna kura / Television Chicken, 1979, in which changes in on-screen image activated a sensor that relayed a signal to a sound generator producing 'clucking' sounds) or made partially autonomous (e.g. Sternmusik, 1979, in which a sound camera 'reacted' to the turning pages of a copy of "Stern" magazine). The artist also produced works in which he made sound completely autonomous, as in the installation-performances of the Trochę muzyki / A Little Music series (1982). All these experiences combined with Bruszewski's own theories of artistic communication to create the foundations of his radio installation titled The Infinite Talk (1988), which the artist produced for the "Ruine der Kunste Berlin." In this piece, the synthesized voices of two virtual speakers engaged in an infinite discussion over the airwaves, their dialogue consisting of quotations from classical works of philosophy arranged at random by a computer.

It should be noted that in addition to films, performances and numerous installations, the 1970s also witnessed the appearance of video works that were pre-interactive in nature, that is, works that required audience participation. The first of these were produced in 1978-79 by Andrzej Paruzel (Dopełnienie / Supplement, Kąt 90 / Angle 90, both of which were actions performed at the "Dziekanka" Workshop in 1978; see also his work created at the State Higher School of Music in Warsaw - Doświadczenie z określoną grupą osób z wykorzystaniem zapisu video / Experiment with a Specific Group of People and Involving a Video Recording, 1979). In the catalogue for his 1978 exhibition, Paruzel wrote, "At present, my work consists in essence of inventing 'audience' situations in which the creative act is brought to completion through conscious participation, co-creation and comprehension on the part of the audience."

Zespół T / Team T, a group composed of Janusz Kolodrubiec, Tomasz Konart, Andrzej Paruzel, Janusz Szczerek and Piotr Weychert, was formed in 1980. In their program, the artists expressed their desire to address their individual activities primarily to other group members. This was to cause a confrontation between the views of individual group members in the first instance, and subsequently, in a somewhat broader context, to result in a confrontation between the group as a whole and the viewers of any one of their presentations. In the artists' opinion, these activities would grant each group member autonomy within general social structures and result in their liberation from mechanisms of power. Team T's program also implied the artists' vision of society as disintegrating into local groups that would create their own systems of integration (of an axiological, political or other nature). Within this paradigm, art would above all become a strategy for shaping self-awareness.

The 1980s

The political events of the early 1980s, among them the imposition of Martial Law in Poland and the consequences this had for art and art institutions, brought an end to the analytical current in artistic production in Poland. Video art entered a period of deep transformation. Conceptual and analytical stances declined in significance, with traces (of their essence) evident solely in the works of Robakowski (though even this artist's works they ceased to be dominant). A new generation of artists began producing video works, turning the medium into a self-promotion tool and a means of intensifying expression of their convictions, feelings, fears and obsessions. Though varied, the works of Jerzy Truszkowski, Zbigniew Libera and Zygmunt Rytka shared precisely these characteristics. In turn, the projects of Adam Rzepecki and Marek Janiak, as well as the group works of the Łódź Kaliska collective, featured instances of neo-Dadaist provocation and de(con)struction, while simultaneously manifesting these artists' rejection of, and revolt against, diverse conventions (both artistic and social).

The changes described above directed the development of Polish video art of the 1980s along two main lines. The first of these remained rooted in the analytical art tradition and found fullest embodiment in the works of Jozef Robakowski. His projects remained strictly controlled by his programming mind, while their carefully underlined subjective character was oft colored by an irony that revealed the author's distance to the images of himself he included in many of them. In 1988, Robakowski wrote the following: "Throughout the entire lifespan of my art, I have been feeding on the manipulation that blurs all images of my person."

Works in the second current denied the primacy of the intellect, drawing instead on emotions and their non-rational sources (though doing so at times in clear, rational ways). Jerzy Truszkowski, one of the current's chief representatives, underlined his own spontaneous and intuitive inspirations and stated that the intellect fulfilled the role of a secondary system of rationalization. This stance clearly places the artist's works in the category of post-conceptual art. Another essential quality of his pieces was a certain absurdity deriving from his blurring of the meaning of conventional lexical elements of culture. Truszkowski created some of his projects (above all his performance art pieces) in collaboration with Jacek Rydecki, Zbigniew Libera and Janusz Kolodrubiec.

"Truszkowski's self-presentation," wrote Jolanta Ciesielska, "is radical (...) His projects are clearly psychological in nature; they are compensatory, hedonistic, cathartic and persuasive. On the one hand they constantly expand the limits of their freedom [I would say: test these limits - Ryszard W. Kluszczynski]; on the other hand, they are a means of overcoming the material and mental alienation characteristic of extremist stances."2 Gestures of violence and the symbolism of (absolute) power were frequent elements of Truszkowski's repertoire of activities, shaping the ideological discourse that characterized his art.

At around the same time, Zbigniew Libera was producing work of a similar nature. Contrary to Truszkowski, Libera limited the power of emotional factors, imparting a contemplative or meditative tone to his projects. Often, however, viewers were required to experience, transcend and overcome the emotional dimension of a work if they wished to penetrate its deeper meanings. This is the case, for example, with Obrzędy intymne / Intimate Rituals (1984-85). In this work, as in many others, the emotional reaction remains the starting point for any interpretation. Death is the central interest in many if not in all of Libera's video projects of the 1980s (e.g. Bojaźń i drżenie. Choroba na wieczność / Anxiety and Trembling. An Illness For All Eternity, 1988). Where it is not the main theme, death remains hidden just alongside, inevitably constituting a thematic extension of any action. In his video works, Libera utilized symbols and discursive structures drawn from different religions and mythologies, thus indicating that viewers should see them as rituals, understand them as a perspective upon things final.

Libera went on to create a number of video installations, including Gra z matką / A Game with Mother and Kaczka / The Duck, Kąpielowicz / The Bather, which contrasted the coolness of electronic technology against the fever of mortal substance. He then abandoned video in favor of creating objects and installations that no longer drew on techniques based on the mass media. In these works he continued to explore issues of power, domination, hierarchical structures and above all the issue of socio-cultural strategies of shaping the human body, mind and imagination (which he perceived as in essence constituting a kind of soft, patient violence).Zygmunt Rytka's video works of the same period were also contemplative in their tone. Carefully organized visual constructs, they expressed the artist's conviction that every human action transpires within the paradigm of infinity, and that this context grants human mortality cosmic proportions and causes all projects to be unrealizable. Rytka's works require viewers to take a meditative stance, to concentrate, to adopt a hermeneutic attitude. Their rational elements simultaneously cause commentators to compare the author of Ciągłość nieskończoności / The Continuity of Infinity to Jozef Robakowski.

The opposition described above (rationalism - irrationalism) does not encompass all of the work produced during the 1980s. Clearly beyond this scope were the neo-Dada works of Adam Rzepecki (who occasionally worked with Grzegorz Zygier), as well as the computer-based projects of Maciej Walczak. The latter worked with Wojciech Lemanski (responsible for music) to create "live" audiovisual concerts which emphasized visible and audible movement.

The 1990s

The 1990s brought more change. The moving image became increasingly dynamic, impetuous and - ever more frequently - aggressive. Works created during this decade were complex in structure, multi-layered and meandering. Music played an increasingly important role. These changes occurred in parallel with another process that I would call 'progressive virtualization.' Under this current, images less and less frequently referred to the world we recognize as our reality, and increasingly assumed the form of simulacra - representations not referencing the real world nor any subjective view thereof. Though they did not in essence manifest qualities of realness, these simulacra ultimately acquired a secondary realness in the perception of viewers. Many works combined both afore-mentioned tendencies (emphasis on music and virtualization). Under this newly forming hierarchy, video art developed both as an autonomous form of artistic expression - above all as films and installations - and as a form entwined within complex spatial arrangements, multimedia and multi-substance audiovisual constructs (e.g. the works of Izabella Gustowska) and video-concerts.

Polish video art embarked on a path of very rapid development in 1989, many of its manifestations embodying the above-mentioned currents. The transformation of Poland's system of television broadcasting contributed to the development of an advertising market and music videos. Expansion in turn of the poetics of these two realms, the progressive computerization of art and its links to the rock music scene all fueled the development of these tendencies. A series of video art projects by members of the youngest generation of artists were influenced by this context. However, some artists simultaneously adopted a stance deriving from avant-garde tradition that saw artistic independence as lying, among other things, in opposing all reduction of variety to shared parameters, a stance that remained in conflict with the television aesthetic and sought instead to create separate and singular poetics.

The new Polish video art wave first showed its face, I believe, in the late1980s with the projects of the group Yach-Film (Jan Paszkiewicz, Dorota Podlaska, Bombela and Andrzej Kuich, Andrzej Wasik), and in the works of Krzysztof Skarbek. Their distinguishing features included a domination of expression over reflection and of spontaneous creativity bordering on pure play (playfulness seemed an essential feature of this current) over meditation, and an abandonment of all interest in theoretical problems. These artists treated the electronic media much more freely than did their predecessors. Skarbek brought his previous experiences with film to video, combining video forms with musical performances and concerts, while the activities of Paszkiewicz and his group lay at the fringes of performance art, film and video. Paszkiewicz's links to music proved essential, and his subsequent accession to the world of music videos appears in retrospect to have been a consequence of creative choices made earlier.

The playful character of this work does not render it less significant nor make it less authorial in expression. Skarbek's creative space, for instance, was a world of ritualistic, pseudo-magical behaviors, and the lively expressiveness of his works concealed the artist's new attitude toward reality in its various dimensions.

The new wave of Polish video art proved highly varied. As the number of artists, centers of creativity and festivals grew, the variety of artistic stances, interests and modes of manifesting them also increased. This was the first time in the history of Polish video art (a history that by this time had spanned over twenty years) that this art form expressed itself in such a variety of forms and ways. This did not strictly derive from the times, characterized by aesthetic pluralism, but also came about through a freeing of mental faculties, political views and technological resources. The first crystallized (or crystallizing) creative individualities were visible within this variety.

Barbara Konopka began working with video in 1989. Her education and previous exploration of music and performance art made her stance highly typical. At the same time, she imbued her works with a singular sensitivity that combined dramatic expression with lyricism and sensuality, and with her interests in the formal, visual and technical dimensions of video. In her early period, the most impressive feature of Konopka's projects was their dream-like dimension, which was almost natural to the world of images she created. In subsequent years, the artist's continuously developing and deepening interests in parapsychology, astrology, magic and the secret arts distinguished her stance.

In her most recent works, Barbara Konopka has taken on the issue of energy transmission. She treats her video projects as a vehicle of her own energy and the energy she creates, and at the same time, as a stimulating device that causes energy movements within viewers. Her projects are designed to be emotionally moving, to elicit resonance that builds a plane of symbolic interpretation along the path of psycho-physical experience. Ultimately, the artist's interests lead her to experiment with, and explore issues of, the post-biological world.

Maciej Walczak, a musician by education, treated video as a tool for examining structures that are more complex. He produced 'live' audiovisual concerts using computers, sound synthesizers and video projectors, preparing ‘scores' in the form of computer programs and then using these as a basis for 'performances' that were different each time. Walczak's abstract images and musical compositions above all expressed his fascination for the phenomenon of movement (visible and audible), while his chosen mode of presentation opened the door to coincidence and explored its role in the creative process. His presentations simultaneously examined the issue of aleatoric structures and the artist's singular understanding of the interaction between the artist, his work in progress and the public present for this process. Walczak's newest projects inhabit the virtual universe of the Internet and explore simultaneous and joint creation by artists located in different, often very distant places.

Apart from the works of Maciej Walczak, computer technologies also found notable use in Jacek Szleszynski's animations, whose dynamic, intriguingly varying rhythm and interesting, asymmetrical linkage of image and sound have already drawn the attention of festival organizers and jurors.

Piotr Wyrzykowski does not limit himself to making video films and additionally creates performance art pieces and installations. His aversion to material artifacts led him to produce interactive computer installations and then towards conceiving works intended for subsequent realization in virtual reality. His interactive project There Is No Body was designed for the World Wide Web, while Cyborg's Sex Manual 1.0 was produced on CD-ROM. In highly interesting ways, Wyrzykowski combines inspirations flowing from the Conceptualism of the 1970s with the performance-based work of the 1980s. This mixture - inscribed in a historical context - seems characteristic of the most interesting manifestations of Polish new media art (in spite of all its variety). Both these intertwining spaces - Conceptual and Performance art - assign an especially important role to issues of the body and corporality, and to their material-virtual determinants. Wyrzykowski's concept is that the body, awareness thereof and its frame of reference (i.e. the world) constitute a single whole that simultaneously constitutes information. He underlines both the cult status of the space of art and the manner in which technical culture eradicate the border between art and non-artistic reality. This technical context has for a series of years constituted a very important attribute of his creative work. Since 1994, apart from his individual artistic activities, Wyrzykowski has also participated in the activities of the group known as Centralny Urząd Kultury Technicznej (CUKT) / Central Office Of Technical Culture.

The works of Walczak, Szleszynski and Wyrzykowski constitute the most interesting Polish contributions artistically to the worldwide creative realm composed of the newest in digital, computer-based technologies.

Wojciech Zamiara produces video films, performance art and installations. Contrary to the artists mentioned above, Zamiara follows technological developments to a much lesser extent. The elementary nature of his poetic focuses viewers' attention on art's semantic and emotional aspects, providing audiences with the opportunity to meditate on the fundamental dimensions of existence, an opportunity so rarely offered today in Polish media art.

Marek Wasilewski's video art is focused, subtle and immersed in the world of the artist's emotional experiences. It is simultaneously determined, distinguishing its own environment and field of exploration within the surrounding reality. Wasilewski's world of video examines his immediate environment: his own body, self-image, private spaces. The artist focuses on the intimate realms of everyday reality, finding the substance of his artistic expression within common objects and seemingly insignificant events. Wasilewski's works also reflect the artist's propensity for analyzing the languages of art, the internal structures of his works and the relationship between himself and his medium. Wasilewski (with Wyrzykowski) seems to be one of the few artists of the 1990s to consciously draw on the achievements of Polish analytical art.

Izabella Gustowska's works3 occupy a separate space in recent Polish video art. This artist began working in the medium in the 1980s (creating pieces that grew out of works she produced earlier in other media) and achieved full maturity in her video work in the 1990s. At base, her works expand on the relationship between the virtual world (of images) and reality (physical matter). In some sense, this grows out of the nature of electronic media technologies, which activates references between the two spheres. In Gustowska's projects, these relations are deepened and highlighted, and this is especially true of her most recent work. These relations are evident both in the form and content of her works. At times, her solid, rough iron objects - showing clear, sometimes highlighted welding marks - enclose subtle, fragile imagery. The welds themselves sometimes constitute relatively delicate lines within the crude iron structures, thus amplifying the imagery's effect. The accompanying sharp, penetrating sounds seem to build a bridge between the contrasting visual domains and the domains of material existence they imply. At other times, openwork structures prove incapable of containing rays of light which penetrate their skin, flowing through metal forms and transcending the limits defined for them. In other pieces, clear plexiglas objects betray their secrets, revealing the electronic radiation of images, the metallic forms and electronic physicality of internal components, and the crudeness of picture tubes freed of their casings. What is striking in all these pieces is the artist's insistence on continuously transgressing boundaries. She simultaneously underlines the problematic nature of limits, reverses established orders, breaks down oppositions and intermingles differing and, it would seem, ultimately separate territories.

This relation between the material solidness of her objects and the fleeting, virtual nature of her images is reinforced by yet another significant and important opposition: that between interior and exterior. However, just as the previous opposition, this counterpoint of states and forms seems created solely to be subverted. The opposition of exterior and interior seems to weaken itself, to question its own legitimacy, at times even completely canceling itself out. Gustowska's forms (the structures of her works) are not completely closed (in various ways), causing interiors and exteriors to intermingle incessantly, to engage in a never-ending game that is a dialogue between dimensions and spaces. The flatness of photographs is shattered by the three-dimensionality of their material bases, while static objects find contradiction in dynamic moving images. Neither these images nor the phenomenon of light - which is used not as a vehicle for generating imagery, but in the form of pure energy - allow themselves to be restricted, to be enclosed in a single, defined zone. The result is a dynamic, moving and changeable territory.

The development of a current we might refer to as critical video (part of the broad current of critical art) is perhaps the most characteristic new phenomenon in 1990s video art. This current seems to respond to contemporary challenges most intensely and overtly, and is represented in the work of such artists as Alicja Zebrowska, Artur Zmijewski and - perhaps above all - Anna Baumgart.

In 1997 Anna Baumgart began producing a video series which marked a shift in her interests towards inter-personal relations at their social level. In each of her subsequent works, the artist sought to expose the mechanisms by which individuals succumb to social conventions and to analyze social and cultural perceptions of the different genders, the roles assigned to, and accepted by, women under the patriarchal order, relations between parents and children. She presents the world of men as reflected in the male ego adored by women, and the world of women as seeking affirmation in the male gaze, finding confirmation of its value in male acceptance.

The video Zima 1997 / Winter 1997 is a kind of meditation, an ironic reflection on the world of human social practices, which are juxtaposed with the world of individual desires and dreams. The film illustrates the conflict between values and appearances. A montage of various images drawn from many sources (Baumgart also uses footage broadcast on television), Winter 1997 provides a depressing though detached image of social existence. This method, drawing on photomontage, 'found footage' and 'video scratch,' utilizing the fruits of others' labor for one's own purposes, would soon prove a highly important feature of this artist's work.

Alongside a consistently cultivated heterogeneity and variety of material, in her subsequent works Baumgart introduced active protagonists, another component that would soon prove unusually important to, and distinguishing of, her works. With this innovation, Baumgart's pieces ceased being an ironic meditation on the world of inter-personal relationships, a meditation that unavoidably tended toward monologue despite the variety of materials used to create it. Instead, they became singular, multi-layered dialogues within which female protagonists (sometimes also male protagonists) talk about issues that absorb them and answer the artist's questions. The artist participated in these conversations both directly (at the verbal level) as well as by arranging the situation of contact/conversation and by creating the structure of each piece (shooting, editing, composing shots, etc.).

Baumgart's recent video Matka / Mother is a particularly interesting example of the artist's new attitude. In the film, the artist juxtaposes two situations: her conversation with the film's protagonist, and footage of the protagonist's reactions to the recording of the conversation after it has been processed, edited and supplemented with an inner monologue (the protagonist's reaction ultimately becomes another part of the work, transforming it from the inside). Transformed into artwork, the dialogue between the artist and her subject becomes an activating factor both at the level of creation and at the existential level. For the protagonist (and certainly not only for her), it becomes a source of new understanding of the motives of her behavior and its possible consequences.

Like many of Anna Baumgart's subsequent works, Mother attempts to examine the labyrinths of individual identity, labyrinths that are changeable and never entirely understood by the individuals themselves. Identity is shown as something that is subject to the influence of an environment that is never completely friendly, as something that consists in equal parts of the effects of said influence, of qualities inherited along genetic and cultural (mimetic) lines and of efforts made at shaping one's own life. The labyrinth serves as a model of identity and of our efforts at knowing ourselves. For we are incessantly inserted or insert ourselves in ever-new contexts and thus we constantly test if within them we still recognize ourselves.

For some time now, Anna Baumgart has been working on a project titled Prawdziwe? / Is It Real? This work, first unveiled during an exhibition at the Zacheta National Contemporary Art Gallery in Warsaw, is precisely the artist's attempt at inserting herself in a new context. At the Zacheta Gallery, these new/strange surroundings consisted of the worlds of Mikhail Kalatozov's film The Cranes Are Flying and Stanislaw Bareja's film Miś / Teddy Bear (the artist's yet to be realized plans for this series include an adaptation of Robert Bresson's A Gentle Woman{C}). In this project, the artist used digital tools to insert her own figure in place of selected heroines in excerpts from both films, embarking on a game involving her own identity and the identities of the fictional characters.

Thus, the Prawdziwe? / Is It Real? series continues and develops three themes that have appeared previously in Baumgart's works. The first focuses on identity. Who is this person I call myself? Who will appear once the mask of cultural conventions is removed? The second theme centers on the problem of leading 'surrogate' lives, adopting roles created or propagated by the cultural industry. The third raises the issue of absent, socially marginalized voices. Baumgart's works are conduits for the voices of women who have no way to express themselves in their everyday lives, most remaining silent not out of choice but out of necessity. In her pieces, they speak in their own voices. The first theme explores the concept of identity most overtly, yet all three touch upon this issue, revealing it as residing in the conflict between individual existence and the cultural paradigm.


New tendencies, new stances and new aesthetics developed in the 1990s and extended into the new century, yet the links between contemporary times and the past were not broken. Alongside numerous innovations, Polish video art is characterized by a certain continuity maintained by lasting phenomena. Jozef Robakowski is the fundamental guarantor of this continuity and is currently enjoying a very interesting and lively period in his career. Elsewhere I have described5 the enduring qualities of his work and the transitions it has undergone. I will limit myself here to restating that his work is characterized by a certain pattern of features (transgression-media-subjectivity-play-energy) that has been present throughout his entire creative career of nearly forty years, transforming only inwardly. His art's influence on the community (i.e. younger artists) only reinforces its value as a stabilizing force and builds a bridge between history and the present.

Robakowski's activities are important to maintaining a bond between new and 'old' video art in Poland, but are certainly not this bond's sole determining factor. Many individual works by various artists manifest this link. Notable examples include the activities of Wspólnota Leeeżeć / The Lieee Dooown Collective (which references the erstwhile activities of the Łódź Kaliska group), as well as the recent works of Zygmunt Rytka.

In concluding this historical outline on video art in Poland, it is only proper to mention a handful of artists who live beyond the country's borders but play an active part on the Polish art scene. Zbigniew Rybczynski has been popularizing Polish media art (film and video) since the early 1970s. Although he has not produced any significant new work in a decade, he is invariably considered one of the country's most intriguing media artists. Miroslaw Rogala, who has lived in the United States since 1979, created a series of films and video installations in the 1980s and 1990s; he currently focuses on interactive art and is considered one of the world's most important artists in this domain.6 Jaroslaw Kapuscinski, who also spends most of his time in the U.S., is a musician and composer who produced a number of computer-based works combining image and sound in the 1990s. Last but not least, there is Kinga Araya. Currently living in Canada, she creates video films, video installations and video performances that are a part of the current of critical art and explore such issues as the nomadic life, transgression and estrangement.7 The works of these artists constitute an excellent complement to contemporary Polish video art, which is clearly in the process of transforming ever more evidently into multi-media art.

Author: Ryszard W. Kluszczyński.


1. Ryszard W. Kluszczynski, "Warsztat Formy Filmowej 1970-1977", Warszawa, CSW, 2000
2. Jolanta Ciesielska, "Videoperformance", "Oko i Ucho" 1989, nr 1
3. Wojciech Makowiecki i Marianna Michalowska [red.], "Izabella Gustowska - wzgledne cechy podobienstwa", Poznan, Arsenal, 2000
4. Ryszard W. Kluszczynski [red.], "Izabella Gustowska: Passions and Other Cases", Warszawa, CSW, 2001
5. Ryszard W. Kluszczynski, "The Identity of Art - the Identity of the Artist. About the Work of Józef Robakowski", "Magazyn Sztuki", 1996, nr 3 (11)
6. Ryszard W. Kluszczynski [red.], "Miroslaw Rogala - Gestures of Freedom. Works 1975-2000", Warszawa, CSW, 2001
7. Ryszard W. Kluszczynski [red.], "Kinga Araya - Grounded", Warszawa, CSW, 2000

Photography & Visual Arts
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