Art & Technology in Poland: From Modernity to Technoculture
#photography & visual arts
small, Krzysztof Wodiczko, Personal Instrument, 1969-1972, photo courtesy of Łódź Art Museum, 01_instrument_osobisty_1969-1972.jpg
The relationship between art, science, and technology has a long and complex tradition in Poland, going back to the experiments of the first avant-garde.
Interest in new technologies on the part of artists has always been an important element of the development of art, but it was only in the 1960s that the creative practices known today as the main reference point for technological art were established. Such new initiatives appeared in the Poland of the 60s, during the Thaw period, when the attitudes towards activities at the interface of art, design, and technological development were much more accepting. This includes, among others, works created at the Polish Radio Experimental Studio, as well as the artistic practices stemming from Mieczysław Porębski's seminars, devoted to the relationship between art, science, and technology (participants included Ryszard Winiarski, Feliks Falk, and Grzegorz Kowalski).1 Other artistic phenomena involving art and technology include some works created at the Workshop of the Film Form, and the later solo works by such Polish artists as Krzysztof Wodiczko or Zbigniew Rybczyński.
In the catalogue for the 1st Exhibition of Modern Art (1948/49), Mieczysław Porębski wrote:
The horizons of contemporary art and technology are shared. … There is a world which is equally a world of the artist and that of the scientist, or the hands-on technician.2
Porębski pondered, in a purely theoretical manner, the possibility of the existence of technological art in communist Poland, understood as an interface between artistic and scientific practice. He saw it as a continuation and transformation of the achievements of the first avant-garde in its different iterations: Constructivism, Futurism, the innovative enterprises in the fields of music, literature, film, photography, etc. In post-war Poland, however, the idea of building bridges between art, science, and technology had a complicated and circuitous career, mostly because of the political and economic situation, which influenced the particular attitude of artists and intellectuals to such experiments, but also the overall societal reluctance towards technological developments. For that reason, the difficult relationship between art, science, and technology in Poland reflects the experience of the two World Wars, the Cold War-era arms race, and the period of martial law, but also ecological catastrophes like the one in Chernobyl. The situation began to change only with the transformation and artists opening up to new technological experiments, and later, with the new creative practices carried out by the generation of digital natives at the beginning of the 21st century.
Technological art in the Thaw period
Following the years of Stalinist terror and the emphasis on methods of mechanisation and improving workers, the era of a return to the “human” and his needs began. One of the most important questions posed by the ruling elites concerned re-establishing and controlling the relationship between humans and technology as the key challenge facing societies in the second half of the 20th century. In light of the revival of cybernetics in Soviet bloc countries and a scientific and technological acceleration, the issue wound up at the core of the revised Marxist ideals. A search for the methods of their social realisation began, creating space for experimentation and the creation of scientific-artistic laboratories.
… in the midst of a “scientific-technological revolution”, the state allowed for experiments in the fields of culture and science to be carried out not only by cyberneticians, psychologists, and ergonomists, but also artists, film makers, architects, and musicians. In the 1960s, galleries, theatres, films, and recording studios were dubbed “laboratories” by their creators, while works of art were referred to as “instruments”. These laboratories, belonging to the “experimental” sphere and using the official rhetoric of progress, were financed by the state and had much more liberty when it came to censorship.3
Porębski's idea, expressed in the late 1940s (and practically unelaborated before), could finally come to fruition in the new scientific-artistic practices, which were indeed carried out for over a decade. This time gave birth to the incredible works by Krzysztof Penderecki and Eugeniusz Rudnik, created among others in the Polish Radio Experimental Studio. In Syncretic Shows, Włodzimierz Borowski stimulated and observed his audience's reactions, experimenting with their visual and sensory capacities. Other important experiments included those carried out by Wojciech Bruszewski, Grzegorz Kowalski, and, at the end of the decade, Krzysztof Wodiczko, Ryszard Winiarski, and Ryszard Waśko, as well as the later electronic antinomies by Jerzy Połom, produced in cooperation with engineers and programmers, or Zbigniew Rybczyński's avant-garde works. An important part of the artistic practices of the 1960s and 70s involved artists reaching for scientific ideas, the language of mathematics, and computer science, as well as early neurology, cognitive psychology, ergonomics,4 and physics. Many of these works had a conceptual, project-based dimension; they were intended as experiments with the audiovisual form and with new ways of registering reality, but also broadening the perceptive spectrum of the audience.
An important area for the combination of art and technology was industrial design. Polish projects were often characterized by their exquisite quality, and frequently exceeded a mere practical dimension, paving the way for new artistic practices. The development of Polish industrial design in the merged fields of art and science was made possible in a large part thanks to the Artistic and Research Workshops (1954-1977), an institution associated with the Faculty of Architecture of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. It was a place open to experiments on the middle ground between art and engineering, headed by, among others, Jerzy Sołtan and Oskar Hansen.
The early 1960s saw the creation of the Faculty of Industrial Forms at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, the first such unit in Poland. It was headed by Andrzej Pawłowski, who put an emphasis on the creation of interdisciplinary groups as an element of the education of designers. According to Pawłowski, a designer ought to work together with engineers responsible for particular production issues, as well as expand his or her knowledge of sociology, economics, technology of materials, processing technology, automation, and security, but also take full social responsibility for his or her work.5 Pawłowski had a very peculiar attitude to technology and was fully aware of the dangers associated with the technological acceleration of the 20th century:
The dynamics of the development of civilization is causing a dangerous imbalance. … The “growth” and “existence” of the human is threatened by uncontrolled development of the technological-industrial civilization.6
The turn of the 1970s in the US saw the development of conscious artistic-scientific practices which consisted in reclaiming military technologies and systems, in order to use them socially and for communication purposes, or for the sake of a critical reflection on the relationship of nature, humans, and technology. At the same time, interest in the same topics in Poland was in decline. The 1968 government-led anti-semitic campaign was a sign of a new propaganda, and a restriction and expansion of forms of censorship. Once again, tanks appeared on the streets, and the everyday social experience of technology became tainted with negative connotations. The disappointment of artists and scientists, who had hoped for the possibility of establishing relationships between art and technology, came with a loss of belief, on the part of society, in the possibility of changing and redefining elements of the system as promised by the authorities following Stalin's death. This was also true for new experiments in the field of education, or new cultural initiatives. As Joanna Kordjak-Piotrowska writes:
The end of the Gomułka era put an end to the Thaw-period myth of artists designing the new neo-technical reality in close collaboration with engineers, industrial designers, and mathematicians. A space for criticism or irony towards technological progress appeared in the works of artists and opinions of art critics, which showed a conviction about a crisis in the conception of science as a “universal remedy for all of mankind's problems,"7 an idea fundamental for the previous decade.
In the later 1970s, the idea of combining art and science (more in the conceptual and formal dimension than the cybernetic or computer science one) was realized by artists associated with the Workshop of the Film Form in Łódź (1970-1977), including Józef Robakowski, Paweł Kwiek, Wojciech Bruszewski, and Zbigniew Rybczyński. These artists valued the constructivist tradition, the works of Franciszka and Stefan Themerson, but also the ideas of Władysław Strzemiński and Katarzyna Kobro, especially their understanding of abstraction, their approach to research and art, and to form as a medium of depiction. The aversion of these artists to traditional film plots, traditional character construction, and a linear sequence of events pushed them, each in their own way, to the meta-cinema level. Their artistic statements are not so much an attempt to tell a story to the world as a way of describing new ways of perception, new systems and technologies of registering reality. Some members of the WFF circle, like for instance Kwiek and Robakowski, treated art as a trans-disciplinary form. They combined performative and filmic activities, studied the interactions of the body and the registering machines, searched for “inhuman,” non-traditional forms of registering reality, and kept track of the new models of interdependence between human somaticity and its images, generated by technology. Others, like Wojciech Bruszewski, experimented with generativity, recursiveness, and randomness, laying the foundations for the development of Polish developmental art.
The 1980s in Poland can hardly be described as a time of favourable conditions for the development of new experimental artistic phenomena at the interface of art, science, and technology. For that reason (but also because there was no easy access to new technologies in Poland at the time), technological art practically did not develop. Many artists left Poland to continue their careers abroad, including Krzysztof Wodiczko (who left in the late 1970s), Mirosław Rogala, and Zbigniew Rybczyński. Today, they are among the best-known technological artists worldwide, although each of them works with a different medium today and defines the phenomenon differently in his works.
The new strategies of artistic practice in an interdisciplinary dialogue with science and technology, developed in the 1960s and 70s, were sidelined in the following decade, giving place to socially-engaged forms, which were especially important in that period and focused less on the designing process and more on critical activism. In the 1980s, in the public's eye, technology became practically one with the military regime—and that meant not only the presence of tanks and armoured personnel carriers on the streets, but also computer culture in general, whose development was supervised, blocked, and centrally-controlled. While PCs were entering mass commercial markets in Western countries, Poland produced its own line of computers, Odra, made in the Wrocław Elwro factory. Odras, however, were made with primarily industrial and research purposes in mind. In that reality, computers could not be seen as a factor allowing artists to “reclaim” the sphere of technological media for the use of independent communities, as was the case in Western European countries and the United States.8
At the same time, the oppositional and countercultural engagements of many artists consigned them to the economic and political underground. Access to technological developments, or practising meta-art, postulated once by Mieczysław Porębski, was not an option.
While the world was entering the era of conscious, socially-engaged forms of cyberculture, hacking, new media art, and other similar artistic practices, Poland lacked the impulse for the development of a computer culture and technological, democratic art, free from the influence of the controlling authorities. Even if the Polish computer science of those years could boast some incredible inventions (like Jacek Karpiński's AKAT-1 computer, designed in 1959, which won a global technical talent competition organized by UNESCO), these projects were not developed further.
The 1990s and the new millennium
With the change in political systems and the processes of democratisation, Poland entered a new cultural reality. The most significant phenomenon in Polish art of the 1990s was, without a doubt, critical art, offering live commentary on the capitalist transformation. However, once digital technologies became more accessible, art using technology in a creative manner gained popularity. As early as 1989, the WRO electronic arts festival started, first under the name Festiwal Wizualnych Realizacji Okołomuzycznych (Festival of Visual Music-Related Projects), to transform later into Biennale WRO, only to finally become Centrum Sztuki WRO (WRO Art Center), an intensively working institution which focuses on the broad popularisation of the new art practices in their different iterations and medial forms. The beginning of the new millennium brought a consciousness of technological tools and an interest on the part of artists in experiments and other creative practices. Artists reached out more frequently for scientific concepts in order to broaden the scope of their explorations. The independent technological culture came to be shaped by, among others, the maker movement. First media labs appeared, as well as new festivals and new artistic-scientific-engineer collectives, opening the possibilities of work at the interface of of different creative disciplines and theoretical discourses. Art practitioners began employing such phenomena as live-coding, creative coding, software art, or generative art (here it is important to note, among others, the projects of Paweł Janicki). New forms of designing, testing diversified strategies of interaction with the audience, are gaining significance—to mention but a few, the works of the panGenerator collective (Piotr Barszczewski, Krzysztof Cybulski, Krzysztof Goliński, Jakub Koźniewski), or the projects indebted heavily in the scientific discourse (the art&science tendency) such as those by Przemysław Jasielski. The creative search associated with transhumanism and artificial intelligence is visible in the work of Robert B. Lisek; forms referring to bio art and posthumanism are used by Michał Brzeziński and Elvin Flamingo (the artistic pseudonym of Jarosław Czarnecki).
Contemporary works in the field of tactical media, bio and nano art, the broadly-understood hacktivism culture, net art, and many other developing phenomena come out of a need to redefine advanced knowledge and disseminate it publicly. Art, responsibly reaching out for technology and scientific strategies of perception, transforms them and enters into a dialogue with them. This way, it gains particular significance today, becoming a sphere of mediation and negotiation between the post-modern society, the scientific flow of data, and the technologically-developed reality. By the same token, as an artistic and social practice, it examines ethical problems and asks questions about the social responsibility associated with the technological and biological openness of the contemporary human.
Agnieszka Jelewska, Michał Krawczak, September 2015, transl. KR, October 2015
Based on Agnieszka Jelewska, ed., Sztuka i technologia w Polsce. Od cyberkomunizmu do kultury makerów [Art and technology in Poland. From cybercommunism to the maker culture], (Poznań: Wydawnictwo Naukowe UAM, 2014).
1. See Joanna Kordjak-Piotrowska, "Sztuka i cybernetyka w długich latach sześćdziesiątych” [Art and Cybernetics in the Long Sixties] in Kosmos wzywa. Sztuka i nauka w długich latach sześćdziesiątych [Cosmos Calling! Art and Science in the Long Sixties], ed. by Joanna Kordjak-Piotrowska, Stanisław Welbel (Warszawa: Zachęta – Narodowa Galeria Sztuki, 2014), 52.
2. Mieczysław Porębski, "Wstęp do katalogu i wystawy sztuki nowoczesnej"[Introduction to the Catalogue and Exhibition of Modern Art], in I Wystawa Sztuki Nowoczesnej pięćdziesiąt lat później [1st Exhibition of Modern Art, Fifty Years Later], ed. by M. Świca, J. Chrobak (Kraków: Galeria Starmach, 1998), quoted in Kosmos wzywa…, 53.
3. David Crowley, Układ nerwowy: maszyny i nowe ciała w sztuce i filmie w Polsce po odwilży [Nervous Systems: New Machines and Bodies in Polish Art and Film after the Thaw], in Kosmos wzywa…, 20.
4. Ergonomics (including anthropometric studies) was among the most dynamically developing disciplines of the study of humans in Poland in the 1950s and '60s. The resulting (often simplified) cognitive models were criticized by, among others, Krzysztof Wodiczko in his project Personal Instrument (1969).
5. Andrzej Szczerski, Projektować projektantów – wzornictwo przemysłowe w Akademii Sztuk Pięknych [Designing Designers – Industrial Design at the Academy of Fine Arts], in Kosmos wzywa…, 159-160.
6. Andrzej Pawłowski, Inicjacje. O sztuce, projektowaniu i kształceniu projektantów [Initiations. On Art, Designing, and the Education of Designers], selections and ed. by J. Krupiński (Warszawa: IWP, 1987), 45-46.
7. Joanna Kordjak-Piotrowska, "Sztuka i cybernetyka…,” 54.
8. See Agnieszka Jelewska, Ekotopie. Ekspansja technokultury [Ecotopias. Expansion of Technoculture] (Poznań: Wydawnictwo Naukowe UAM, 2013), 79-111; 157-187.