LOCIS IN TORUŃ : A STUDY IN (IN)VISIBILITY AND AN EXPERIMENT WITH OPENNESS
– Natalia Cieślak
Toruń is a town with a dynamic and changing identity. Until recently it was almost exclusively associated with the catchphrase ‘get gothic’, but today it no longer wishes to be seen from a single perspective, even though it preserves the memory of the great astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, who was born here. In the making of the contemporary image of Toruń as an open-minded and modern town, the institutions devoted to culture and the exchange of ideas play an increasingly important role. One such institution is the Centre of Contemporary Art ‘Znaki Czasu’ (CoCA) built only a few years ago and located in its characteristic building of brick, glass and metal, which is well suited to the landscape of the Old Town and in keeping with the state-of-the-art standards of contemporary architecture for galleries and museums. CoCA, however, as a space contributing to the portrait of Toruń of today, is not merely a building with exhibition galleries and relevant infrastructure; most of all, it is a centre which, in preparing its programme, aims and philosophy, takes into account the context in which it is placed. On the one hand, it is receptive and responsive to the needs of the local community and the expectations of town dwellers, while on the other it is determined and strives to secure and maintain its position on the map of Polish institutions presenting contemporary art.
CoCA will be seen and experienced in different ways by tourists, by frequent visitors who come to see current exhibitions, or by contemporary flâneurs, who ramble around the town in search for attractions. Also, artists who step into these spaces with their own visions, ideas and creative imaginations experience the space in their own way. It is right here, in CoCA, where ten artists, divided into two distinct and independent groups, took part in the two editions of the Locis artist-in-residence programme.
When I was asked to write a short essay to discuss their work, I realized that I looked at these two groups from entirely different perspectives. I observed the results of the first edition in 2013 as an ordinary visitor to the exhibition: my contact with the resident artists was limited to the reception of their work. In 2014, I had the opportunity to become more involved in the work of the group. As one of the co-ordinators, I worked more closely with the artists and could follow their process as well as their preparations to present the outcomes of their collaboration. The shift in my point of view was therefore significant and undoubtedly influenced my experience of the two editions presented at CoCA.
EXPOSING THE INVISIBLE
The first year of the residency programme seemed to me to primarily engage in a dialogue with the institutional profile of CoCA, the context of its role as an exhibition space, but also as a place for interaction between various artistic objects as well as between the artworks and the public. The artists in residence formulated a collaborative expression in the form of an exhibition concept that was more focused on facing the challenge of the immense and daunting exhibition space at their disposal rather than on merging their work with the
official framework programme of CoCA. The result of these efforts became the exhibition entitled Please Call Stella, presented on the second floor of the building and including works by the artists Maja Hammarén, Patrycja Orzechowska, Arek Pasożyt and Cathal Roche, all of whom worked under the leadership of Jonas Nobel.
As the members of the group declared in the introduction to the exhibition, it dealt with the relationship between material objects and the ‘black void’ between them. This void, which gave much room to organize the space but also caused various problems, presented itself as a phenomenon that is not semantically neutral. The empty spaces were not meant to be synonymous with a lack, absence or shortage, but were used as a legitimate artistic matter which pervaded CoCA’s space.
The works situated in this meaningful void, as well as the architecture of the exhibition, revealed a number of interesting, but often marginalized aspects of CoCA’s everyday life. One of these aspects was portrayed by leaving a plain partition wall from the previous exhibition (with clear signs of its earlier use); it pointed directly and emphatically to the ‘construction’ aspect of an exhibition set-up and indirectly to the work of technicians without whom no presentation could come into being: an exhibition is not merely an artistic concept, it also requires a physical effort to put it in place. Another element of the arrangement (or perhaps it should be seen as a distinct artistic work) emphasized the role of the cleaners who keep the space well-ordered and cared for: it was a polished pathway which imitated a shimmering clean floor. Even the storage spaces of CoCA played an interesting part owing to Jonas Nobel who made an installation, in a dynamic ‘choreographic’ setting, made of various plinths and supports that are normally kept in the basement, hidden from the sight of visitors.
OPENNESS OF THE INSTITUTIONS
My observation of the second Locis group was influenced by an entirely different context than the exhibition Please Call Stella which was primarily based on exposing the invisible. The group that gathered in the summer of 2014 were the artists Phoebe Dick, Emma Houlihan, Liliana Piskorska and Dagmara Pochyła under the leadership of Seamus Nolan. In my position I could follow the artists’ processes closely, as if from backstage. I organized workshops, meetings with people that the artists wanted to talk to or brought them to places they wanted to visit. Their wide array of interests encompassed the issue of locality and the idiosyncrasies of the place where they met. The context of local architecture, as well as its history and ideology and their strong resonances, which influence the social views of space, become powerfully apparent in their work. Among the most inspiring places, in my view, was the jail Okrąglak Areszt Śledczy w Toruniu, a panopticon-type building, and the main railway station Toruń Główny with its modernist interior decoration.
One could sense that this group intended to initiate a lively dialogue between art and society, as they involved people and places and created actions that combined artistic practices and social activism. It seems that in their work the artists were influenced by their earlier individual experiences with public awareness campaigns concerning ecology, sexual minorities or other issues that had to do with the current social and cultural situation. These experiences largely contributed to directing their combined efforts into practices that engaged both themselves and the public.
The relationship between the guest and the host served as the starting point of the exhibition developed by the artists and entitled Enter Quickly as I Am Afraid of My Happiness that opened in CoCA early in November 2014. In their work, they addressed various aspects
of openness and hospitality conceived as an ability to receive the ‘Other’ and put oneself in his or her shoes, which is a phenomenon discussed by a number of contemporary thinkers, including Jacques Derrida whose work On Hospitality served as a source of inspiration, as well as providing the quotation that became the title of the exhibition.
The artists direct our attention to this intricate, elusive and heavily nuanced relationship between the guest and the host and its particular bearing on social life. As it may be observed, various aspects of contemporary social life reflect the ambivalent approach of various institutions to their hospitality rules: on the one hand they try (or pretend) to be open, while on the other, especially in the face of a crisis, they shrink their borders and the ‘liberty of conduct’ and remind their guests, saying: ‘make yourselves at home, but remember that it is we who make the rules’.1
The exhibition and accompanying events consisted of actions or performances (Phoebe Dick), documention of prior artistic undertakings (Seamus Nolan), interactions with the viewer and providing space for their activities (Liliana Piskorska, Dagmara Pochyła) or
reminding us of the historical context of the local artistic landscape (Emma Houlihan). The exploits by the group, which trace their origins to situations, objects, places or events that were particularly meaningful to the artists, all contributed to the conceptual framework whereby the gallery becomes, most of all, a space for action and engagement.
Locis is a project run by three institutions located in Poland, Ireland and Sweden, which are all situated beyond the commonly understood centres of cultural life and artistic production in their countries. The peripheries, as we can see in the results of this residency programme, are indeed capable of focusing the artists’ attention and can stir up their emotions and intellect. The Locis programme, with its pronounced emphasis on the local context, provided the environment for interactions between the creative individuals and unfamiliar spaces as well as between each other. These common experiences brought various results, for there were some that were firmly placed in the usual framework activities of CoCA, as well as others that went beyond the institutional walls: both in the physical sense and in the sense of its conventional activities
Natalia Cieślak is a project coordinator at the Centre of Contemporary Art “Znaki Czasu” in Toruń (CoCA)