Agnieszka Polska, The Demon’s Brain, 2018 Hamburger Bahnhof, fot. Justyna Ryczek

‘May You Live in Interesting Times’ – we all know this pessimistic Chinese saying that in 2019 became the title of the Venice Art Biennale. Ralph Rugoff – the curator of the event– did not want to curse the whole world, nor the art world in particular. He wanted to achieve quite the opposite – he assumed that art would provide him with tools that could turn the curse into a challenge of making our times “interesting”.1

I went to Venice in September. It was swarming with tourists. Art exhibitions were full of visitors. At the exhibitions, I could see and experience works that addressed modern day problems – environmental issues, climate change, emigration, power, confusion, and digitalization. As a matter of fact, it was nothing new. The works, however, were quite powerful and had to be reflected on. They drew us into their stories. We became their tangible parts and asked questions about our entanglement. Art as a whole also needed to be reflected on. As I viewed the works, I wondered what they were doing there and what they were really about. What was their purpose? I returned to Poland, but the questions remained. What can art do to confront the problems of our time? What is the role of art? What feelings is it expected to evoke? Am I only supposed to take a look at some art work, tell about it to my students, and think about another interesting exhibition…

Venice in November. Acqua alta has broken the annual records and caused a great flood. Photographs show the flooded St. Mark’s Square. Water is pouring out of the canals, and the streets are flooded, the cafes drowned. My friend tells me that it has caused some trouble for the Biennale. Once again, a natural process has been enhanced by human activity. Climate change and the rising of sea level have been discussed for a long time.

I hear about Venice again in March. The restrictions introduced in parts of Italy are clearly visible. Streets that not so long ago were clogged with traffic, are now empty. Water in the canals is stiller and cleaner. As birds can now breed in peace, the number of cormorants and grebes has increased. Nature is slowly taking over its lost territories.

As I watch the empty streets of Venice, first coronavirus infections are reported in Poland. The schools are closed, and more and more restrictions are being imposed. In many articles I read, I find the familiar phrase ‘ May You Live in Interesting Times’. I instinctively wait for even minor references to last year’s Biennale, or to art itself. Unfortunately, nothing like this happens. Serious people that are expected to explain the world to us are not interested in art, nor in message it conveys.

It might be the impact of the images I have seen that makes me start to read Donna Leon’s crime novel based in Venice. In Earthly Remains, the author extensively deals with environmental issues – the industrial pollution of the lagoon, invasive human activity, and the influx of tourists.

“When they arrived at the foot of the Rialto bridge, they looked up at it, horrified. Anthill, termites, wasps. Ignoring these thoughts, they locked arms and started up. (…) Brunetti’s pulse raced and Paola leaned helpless on his arm.

‘I can’t stand it anymore,’ Paola said and pressed her forehead against his shoulder. ‘I want Il Gazzettino to have a headline saying there’s cholera in the city. Plague.’

Brunetti kissed the top of her head. ‘Shall I pray for a tsunami?’ he asked.

He felt the motion of her giggle. She pulled away from him and said in her calmest voice, ‘No, I don’t want anything that would hurt the buildings.’1

Images I can see on the screens show that their wishes have come true.

Restrictions and too many possibilities

Poland’s first case of COVID- 19 infection was announced on 4 March 2020. For a week we were informed about the implementation of appropriate procedures, but no restrictions were introduced. Schools in Poznań closed on 10 March, and the day later they closed in whole Poland. Universities, cultural institutions, and restaurants closed as well. The freedom of movement was also restricted. There were more and more bans. Together with them, came one crucial order – to stay home and to work remotely. The lives of many people were reduce to one dimension – virtual reality.

Despite what I am going to write next, I can obviously see positive aspects of this situation – I can work remotely and I can still earn money. I can also appreciate the possibilities brought by human communication and the declining importance of geographical boundaries – you can be anywhere, penetrate areas that are normally closed, and connect from any place you wish, as long as you bear in mind that you need a bookshelf as a background to your video presence.

This experience has surely revealed new possibilities. It has proven that, from time to time, it is worth to make use of e-tools and create a kind of a hybrid education process, particularly for higher eduation.2

However, from the moment when the amount of time spent on remote work started to increase, the concept of ‘artificial paradises’ created by Wolfgang Welsch began to infect my mind…

Artificial Paradises? Considering the World of Electronic Media – and Other Worlds was published in 1990s. Considering the rapid development of technology, it might seem as it had been published ages ago. However, the question whether I was experiencing a kind of ‘artificial paradise’ was still in my head and brought a growing sense of discomfort. Welsch emphasises the necessity of existence of multiple realities.3 He does not negate electronic influence; he shows correlations and links between the material world and the world of media. From today’s perspective and reflections on media, particularly the Internet, Welsch’s essay can leave one slightly dissatisfied. However, at a time when my life and the lives of others are limited to digital presence and ‘flattened’ experience that can be constantly repeated, I could relate in the following statement: “Amidst the turbulences of a world increasing its electronic potency the uniqueness of an unrepeatable hour of encounter is becoming important to us anew — or the inertia and the joy a touching hand or a pair of eyes. Let’s recall the self-sufficient perfection and autonomy of ordinary activities – walking, eating, watching the landscape, as well as the media-free solitude away from the machinery of communication.”4 I miss the uninterrupted loneliness and uninterrupted physical contact. 

I feel the same in relation to art. The more I get to ‘’experience” its online presence, the stronger is my need for physical contact— for watching, listening, being in the same space and touching – i.e. for satisfying the sensory needs of the body.5

Although I have nothing against joking about art in general, I do not find people recreating famous painting at their homes particularly amusing. I feel the same way about funny quasi-exhibitions prepared by institutions in the time of closing. I do not want to walk through the collections or listen to cliché-ridden guided tours, which I dislike in their regular form, and really hate online. Naturally, in some cases, I do appreciate creativity, but these actions are only imitations, substitutes of real contact. They may catch my attention, but will not replace experiencing art in a real way.6

“The electronic omnipresence and the cosmos of virtual possibilities cause a longing for another presence, for a unique presence here and now, for a single event. In the face of perfect transparency, the complexity is gaining importance once again; in the face of the electronic world of clarity – non-transparency, in the face of the intellect of processors – the independent ignorance of matter.”7

I wonder if those actions are really necessary. Is there anything wrong in just simply staying silent for a while? I get it, it is the so-called “being in action”. Art institutions probably need to do something, so that we wouldn’t forget about them. Two months ago, the whole world of art and culture shrank to the size of a computer screen or a smartphone. When Martin Creed published a blank black picture on his Instagram account, I felt relieved. Among numerous visual incentives, I can remember that one the most. Emptiness and silence. I do not even want to know what the artist really meant. I probably understand it in a wrong way. But in my ignorance, I do not really care. For me, the black picture mean silence, a pause. Things something important for our world, particularly for the art world.

On the margin, but at the centre/ near but about the same thing

At the beginning of March, the famous trendsetter Li Edelkoort talked about ‘’the quarantine of consumption”. For Edelkoort, the epidemic is a chance for creating a new, slower, and better society.8 Unfortunately, I am far less optimistic and I do not believe in people that much. In my opinion, after the temporary standstill, we will eagerly rush to consume everything and everyone without controlling ourselves, and showing no respect for the environment.

On 19 April, a massive fire broke out in The Biebrza National Park. It lasted for a week, and destroyed 5000 hectares of this unique place. The area damaged by the fire is, apart from its natural wealth, home to many species of birds. This event accidentally showed the attitude and distribution of values of Poland’s highest authorities.

“On Monday, 23 April, President Andrzej Duda assured that not many birds had died, because the scarce precipitation combined with the scarce snow cover caused fewer of them to nest in the park this year. And that was ‘good news’.”9 Adam Zbyrut from The Polish Society for the Protection of Birds commented the same situation in completely a different way: “The truth is that birds in the Biebrza National Park were affected by the draught. Those that managed to nest at all, were killed by fires. It is as tragedy, not ‘’good news”.”10

The words of the President show the ignorance of our authorities. Fires combined with the coronavirus have revealed the distribution of powers and influences. There has been a lot of coverage about the global warming and the Anthropocene. We know what our government thinks about any ecological, or just simply reasonable restrictions. Findings of scientific research did not result in a controlled freezing of the economy. It was the coronavirus that managed to do it. It will of course have a slight impact on the environment. The carbon trace will decrease, as all flights have been suspended. But when we return to the “new normality”, will there place for caring about the environment?

On the one hand, I would like to believe there will be. On the other hand, I share the fears of environmentalists who say that, after the economy ‘’de-freezes”, we will immediately forget about the environment in search for development, new workplaces, and economic growth. After all, we will have to make up for the time we lost. We will forget about the melting ice caps, regions affected by draught, and endangered species.

Fire that broke out in the Biebrza National Park caused a lot of damage, led to human solidarity, but also, in a very tangible way, exposed human stupidity. The same stupidity that led to illegal grass burning, led to actions that resulted in the the warmest winter ever recorded, and now, in the draught. Let us not forget about human activities. ‘’ How could we forget about the intensive deforestation, great fires, and destruction of ecosystems; about detrimental activity of companies that pollute the environment and destroy biodiversity? How could we forget – now, when incarceration is a part of our lives– about inmates of prisons of this world and, people whose lives fall apart, as they need to face walls and borders in the form of countless check points or on seas, oceans, deserts and, everything in between?”11

Back to art – cohabitation instead of a prognosis

The aim of this text is to make any prognosis. What is going to happen with art and culture after the pandemic? I still do not know, and I am becoming sure that there is no point in prognosing anything. Judging from the debates I listen to, the statements I read, and the texts I analyze, I should probably be more concerned about financial matters, bad job contracts, lack of support by the government, artists left alone, and the ignorance of authorities. However, I am not going to write about any of it. It is not that I find these issues irrelevant, because they are really important. Everybody keeps bringing them up. Bitter words of Katarzyna Górna, who participated in one of the debates I listened to, can summarize the situation perfectly: ”It was bad, it’s tragic now, it’s going to be even worse”.12

Soon, the galleries and museums will reopen. But has the pandemic really taught us anything? Will we draw any lessons from it? Or, on the contrary, will we happily and with great energy return to ‘very important’ exhibitions, smart debates. We will be making up for the time we lost, and art will rise up with its sublime independence. And yet, we could all make use of a conscious pause.

“In the meantime, there is this sudden stagnation, not so much in history, as in something that is still difficult to define. This forced pause is not the result of our will. In many ways, it is both unpredicted and unpredictable. However, we need a voluntary, conscious, and fully accepted break, otherwise we won’t be able to go on much longer. We can only expect an uninterrupted series of unforeseen events.”, wrote the Cameroonian philosopher Achilles Mbembe, whom I already cited.13

A pause like that was necessary for the world of art. Art needed time for reflection, for making conscious decisions, for environmental actions, and for looking for its own place and role. I am not saying that art should take the form of another spectacular participatory project, nor am I referring to leftover art. I am also not advocating to completely cease all forms of artistic activity. What I mean is that we need to change our attitude. It is not enough to address important issues. What really matters, is the ability to see connections to the world that surrounds us, and to take responsibility that results from the very fact of being a part of a network of connections. Donna Haraway has been promoting this for many years. In her book Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene, she clearly shows that interconnections and alliances are essential for survival.

In this context, art can surely find its place. Artists are the ones who create. Everyone, including those who divide money, people, and the world, should keep their heads open. I would like to believe that the pandemic will teach us something, though I have no illusions that a brief pause will bring about any change. “If the coronavirus spectacularly expresses the impasse of the whole mankind, the solution can be nothing less than restoring Earth to its habitable state. It is the Earth that offers everyone life in which we all have a chance to breathe. The our renewal from the sources of the world will allow us to forge new worlds. Humanity and the biosphere are connected. One has no future without another. Will we be able to rediscover our belonging to the same species, our inseparable bond with all living beings? That, perhaps, is the question.”14

But in order not to end this text in such a pessimistic manner, let me ask one more question – what competences can we expect from art and culture? A few years ago, Roman Pawłowski asked the same question to Monika Kostera, the professor of humanistic management, who replied: “This could be attentiveness, this could be the identity that the Scandinavians want, but it could also be what I’m doing, the imagination. Organizational imagination and sociological imagination in general. It is necessary in all areas of life, it is a part of us. Incidentally, this area of human activity has been almost completely tabooed in recent decades. Imagination must not be talked about, everything must be discussed in rational terms. Imagination has become a synonym for something dangerous, something very suspicious, something that has to be examined, regulated, taken with a pinch of salt; it is absolutely forbidden to deal with it, and certainly not in management. Meanwhile, imagination is more important today than ever before. If we want to find a more interesting future than what we have, we must have imagination. Without imagination, we will give up the fight.”15

After all, imagination is the domain of artists. But then, who will want to open up to its unpredictable nature… Personally, I just hope I will be able to go back to Venice next year.

  1. D. Leon, Earthly Remains, , 2017, []
  2. As a parent, I have some reflections about primary schools, but I shall not share them here. []
  3. Leaving aside the important question of ontology of those realities, and the reference to Baudelaire’s artificial paradises created by drugs. []
  4. W. Welsch, Sztuczne raje? Rozważania o świecie mediów elektronicznych i o innych światach, przeł. J. Gilewicz, „Studia kulturoznawcze – Problemy ponowoczesnej pluralizacji kultury. Wokół koncepcji Wolfganga Welscha” red. A. Zeidler-Janiszewska, s. 186 []
  5. I decided not to omit this interesting concept of the importance of the body, addressed by Welsch and frequently referred to in contemporary, as it gains a new meaning in the context of the coronavirus. []
  6. I was surprised to discover a similar statement by Karol Sienkiewicz in his text Replacement Goods,, [date of access: 5 May 2020] []
  7. W. Welsch, op. cit., s. 184 []
  8. [date of access: 24 April 2020] []
  9. R. Jurszo, Minister środowiska ogłosił: „Dobre wieści, pożar Biebrzańskiego Parku Narodowego ugaszony”, – [date of access: 10.05.20]. []
  10. Tamże. []
  11. A. Mbembe, The Universal Right to Breathe. This text was translated into Polish by O. Byrska and published on the blog of The Museuem of Contemporary Art in Warsaw [date of access: 08 May 2020]). When we talk about deforestation, it is worth to remember about a work by Agnieszka Polskiej The Demon’s Brain and its catalogue, that featured articles related to this problem, Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin 2018/2019. []
  12. Production or survival, a debate held at the Musuem of Contemporary Art in Warsaw on 29 April 2020 [date of access: 01 May 2020] []
  13. A. Mbembe, op. cit. []
  14. Tamże. []
  15. R. Pawłowski, #przyszłość. Bitwa o kulturę, „Założymy kłączowe organizacje” a conversation with M. Kostera, Warszawa 2015, s. 117. It is a good idea to juxtapose her words with modern theories of art, e.g. with Stephen Wright’s theory of use-value. []

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Justyna Ryczek

Justyna Ryczek, academic lecturer, graduated in philosophy at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, assistant professor at the University of Arts in Poznań. The author of book 'Piękno w kulturze ponowoczesnej' and numerous scientific and criticla texts. Her research interests focus on: contemporary art in relations with public space, ethics, popular culture and new media. Editior in chief of 'Zeszyty Artystyczne'.