By opposing conformism and consumerism with intelligent humour, the Orange Alternative (Pomaranczowa Alternatywa) movement achieved a considerable artistic victory over the Communist regime. Their continuing influence upon Polish political protest is noticeable to this day.
With roots in Dada and Surrealism, the Orange Alternative’s underground campaign was meant to ridicule the social and political absurdity of the Eastern European situation in the 80s and 90s. Even The New York Times wrote in the late 80s:
Solzhenitsyn destroyed Communism morally, Kołakowski philosophically and the Orange Alternative aesthetically.
Fairy Tale or Street Art?
Led by founder Waldemar Fydrych (then commonly known as Major), members of the Orange Alternative resorted to graffiti, happenings and samizdat, all of which became a subject of study for researchers from sociology, anthropology, art history, as well as political science throughout the movement’s active years.
The group initially started painting dwarves on walls that had been freshly painted to cover up anti-government slogans. Waldemar 'Major' Fydrych and Wiesław Cupała painted the first dwarf in 1982, on one of the residential buildings in the Biskupin neighborhood of Wrocław. The action soon sparked interest and resulted in more than a thousand dwarf graffiti throughout major Polish cities, eventually leading to the arrest of several members.
The Orange Happenings
The Orange Alternative organised a series of over sixty happenings between 1985 through 1990 in different Polish cities, including Wrocław, Warsaw, Łódź, and Lublin.
Their so-called 'open street formula' allowed all individuals, including random pedestrians, to participate in these happenings. Thanks to this inclusiveness, the happenings could gather thousands of participants in a very short amount of time. The Orange gathering organised on 1 June 1988, also known as the Revolution of Dwarfs, attracted over ten thousand people who marched through the city centre in Wrocław, wearing orange dwarf hats. Their slogans read: there is no freedom without dwarfs.
The Orange Alternative’s surrealist forms of political activism and the open structure of their happenings recalled Tadeusz Kantor’s revolutionary performances in the 1960s.
Manifesto of Socialist Surrealism
Can you treat a police officer seriously when he is asking you why you participated in an illegal dwarf meeting?
In spite of their sense of humor, Waldemar 'Major' Fydrych and the Orange members were dead serious in their endeavours to present Polish citizens with a way of protesting peacefully.
Waldemar 'Major' Fydrych, in his major text, Manifesto of Socialist Surrealism/Manifest Surrealizmu Socialistycznego, stated:
…Pure Rationalism failed to dominate toilets. Surrealism was kept alive in toilets thanks to the politicians…The politicians have always been great surrealists.
Most recently in 2013, Fydrych’s name was listed among the world’s 50 most important Surrealists alongside Picasso, Duchamp, Buñuel, Dali and others, in the book, Surrealism - 50 Works of Art You Should Know (2013).
Suing the City of Wrocław
Fydrych’s name gained media attention recently because of a copyright infringement case involving his original Orange dwarf and the commercial dwarf recently used by the city of Wrocław for promotional purposes.
In April 2014, the court ruled in favour of Fydrych, who originally argued that the dwarf used by the city was copied from his original drawings, and that the city must stop using the image, as well as file an apology due to copyright infringement.
Even though Wrocław had to withdraw its commercial use of the dwarf wearing an orange shirt and holding a flower, the city is still surrounded by 292 iconic dwarf sculptures, which do not contain any direct reference to the Orange Alternative movement.
Many critics argued that the Orange happenings displayed Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the 'therapeutic force of laughter.' Through various elements of street theatre and absurd street painting bordering carnivalesque features, the Orange Alternative can be regarded among the pioneers of guerrilla communication and “carnival resistance” as commonly practiced in contemporary political protest.
The book Lives of the Orange Men – A Biographical History of the Polish Orange Alternative Movement (2014) is an autobiography by Waldemar 'Major' Fydrych himself. It shines light on the movement’s lead figures and keeps a historical account of their carnivalesque oeuvre. The foreword was written by the Yes Men of the United States – creative activists who perform nonviolent resistance by misleading American mainstream media, as well as pulling pranks on major corporations.
The Orange Alternative is commonly considered as more leftist and less mainstream than the Solidarity movement, but it too contributed to the fall of the Communist government in Poland.
Poland’s ‘Orange Alternative,’ a colour distinct from both socialist red and Papal yellow, engaged in an extended communal party deploying street theatre and iconic acts such as banner drops. Orange Alternative became a focal point of conversation across Poland. (Complexity and Social Movements, Chesters & Welsh, p.144).
Contemporary actions by imaginative, aesthetic and self-organising activist groups such as the Yes Men, Tactical Frivolity, the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination, or even individual forms of protest, such as the Duran Adam (Standing Man) of Gezi Park protests can be understood in the context of globalisation taking over anarchist movements at large, but also in the historical lineage of street actions carried out in the form of mass happenings.
With their absurdist yet highly complex social acts, the Polish art-activist Orange Alternative seems to be the best bridge across something like the Ukrainian Orange Revolution (2004-2005) and the most recent Pastafarian Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM).
The Orange Alternative’s influence on contemporary forms of political protest is undeniable, while their socialist surrealism remains a remarkably artistic form of nonconformist philosophy
Author: Elcin Marasli, Winter 2015
Sources: Monoskop, Majorfrydrychart, Orange Alternative Museum, 50 Works of Art You Should Know, Lives of the Orange Men