One way of describing the contemporary art world is to present it as an area dialectically affected by opposing gravitational fields. One is the pull of the corruption of artistic practices by the market, capital, the elements of commodification of ideas, the affirmation of inequality and social privilege. The other is enabled by the drive to establish art as a technique for resistance, a tool for emancipation, a language for articulating discourses of rights and human solidarity.
This description proves particularly helpful when reflecting on Zorka Wollny’s work. The second for these fields exerts influences on her practice – and a choice, bearing a distinctly Promethean attitude, is part of the essence of that practice.
Relational aesthetics and social sculpture are among the contemporary theories and artistic traditions useful in discussing Wollny’s work. Yet attempts to classify her oeuvre face certain difficulties. These stem from the fact that although the artist comes from the world of visual arts, she operates with qualities that are not easily institutionalised or reproduced. When interpersonal relations, the experience of participation, and the sense of community are interpreted as artwork, they can’t be seen a literal sense.

Performative actions occupy a privileged place in Wollny’s practice. Sound and voice fill social spaces.
She has composed a number of concertos, oratorios, sonatas and songs. It is no coincidence that the choir is among her favoured elements. Drawing from the worlds of choreography and theatre in many projects, her creative role can be described as director. Still other instruments belong to the poetics of demonstration and protest. Almost all of her projects are site-specific. Yet rather than working in the context of specific spaces, Wollny works with these spaces – understood both as physical places and in their social sense. Thus, if the artist creates a concert, it can be written for a factory or a museum building, and also for selected inhabitants or a specific group.
Wollny draws on the populist waves, born of fear for the future and frustration over the loss of political agency, with which late-Capitalist societies struggle to develop strategies for articulating her response to these crises of democracy. Her actions are part of a discourse that recreates the weakened bonds of human solidarity, enabling individuals to overcoming helplessness and regain a sense of agency by building communities. Her discipline of form and deep aesthetic awareness combine with a readiness to transcend conventional artistic categories, positioning Wollny’s practice in a postartistic perspective.

In his essay titled “Art in the Postartistic Age”,1 Jerzy Ludwiński observed:
“Perhaps, even today, we do not deal with art. We might have overlooked the moment when it transformed itself into something else, something which we cannot yet name. It is certain, however, that what we deal with offers greater possibilities.” Among the most influential theoreticians of the neo-avant-garde in Poland, Ludwiński pointed to the post-artistic era as the next stage in the evolution of the modern concept of art – a phase in which the boundaries between particular disciplines, and between art and theory, become blurred. What is created, he said, is a ‘meta-artistic constellation’ in which reality is absorbed by art – and vice versa.
Ludwiński wrote his essay in 1971, foreseeing the advent of the postartistic era in the near future. Was he wrong in his calculations? A half-century after the publication of “Art in the Postartistic Age”, it appears that he very much missed his mark. At the turn of the 1960s, it might have seemed that such founding notions of art as “authorship”, “originality”, “autonomy of an artwork” or “uniqueness of an artefact as the privileged carrier of value in art” were doomed. However, these values only have strengthened in the decades that followed. Understood as an expansive branch of the culture industry, the autonomous world of art grew to proportions that Ludwiński could not imagine. In spite of his prediction about the dematerialisation of the art object, they have never before reached such dizzying prices.
Like many idealists, Ludwiński, underestimated both the flexibility of the system and the power of tradition and conformity. Therefore, he is wrong and right at the same time. Although the postartist age did not materialise in the form of the “end of history” of the evolution of art, it did arrive. And one may risk a guess that if Ludwiński had the opportunity to become acquainted with Wollny’s oeuvre, he would have recognised it as one testimony of this arrival.


At the beginning of the 2000s, Wollny studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow. But her parallel involvement in the independent Fundacja 36,6 [Foudation 36,6] and the Spółdzielnia Goldex Poldex [Goldex Poldex Cooperative] groups and the circles that formed around them is equally important in shaping her attitude.
Polish culture entered a new order after Communism’s fall, with a powerful independent scene that challenged the reality created by the authoritarian system. Nevertheless, the climate in the first years of transition was not conducive to counterculture as the equating of the free market with civil liberties and democracy prevailed in society. Some countercultural circles emerging from the underground saw no reason to rebel against the new system. Their members were concerned with establishing institutions rather than criticising them. Others were prepared to contest the system. But absent the sharp and unambiguous adversary that was the former regime, they lacked a focal point.
Ironically, Poles perceived entry into market democracy as the access to the welfare state they either had encountered as guest workers in the West during the Cold War, or knew from stories of migrants that did. In reality, they joined a neoliberal, globalised world of deregulated capitalism established by Conservative leaders such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.
Entering the new Millenium, naïve enthusiasm from the period had waned and critical reflection on the social order being built in Poland made its way into public debate. A student in these years, Wollny was involved in the activities of the Fundacja 36,6 and the Spółdzielnia Goldex Poldex. Comprised of artists and culture-makers born in the 1970s, they understood the rules of market-driven production and did not accept them uncritically or unconditionally. They also recognised that in an individualistic, atomised consumer society, activities of a positivist nature – such as building structures independent of both the market and the public sector, or developing alternative educational programmes and networks – were as important as criticising and contesting the system, if not more so. In Poland after 1989, the ideology of market egoism was intensively promoted. Everyone was to be the architect of their own fortune; personally and solely responsible for their social success or failure. And at the same time completely absolved of responsibility for common issues. In this context, the application of cooperative principles to artistic production and social outreach by groups like Fundacja 36,6 or the Spółdzielnia Goldex Poldex were considered as subversive as the works they created.

The importance of involvement in these groups in solidifying Wollny’s artistic and political consciousness cannot be understated. Their aspects soon began to intermingle so intensely in her oeuvre that it would become difficult to separate one from the other.

Collaborations among artists from different fields sharing competences was common practice. These experiences were expressed in 2004’s “Concert for High Heels”, a performative work that first brought Wollny to the attention of the art world. Created with composer Anna Szwajgier, the piece featured female performers in high-heeled shoes moving to a precisely choreographed score inside Jagiellonian University’s Collegium Novum building. Their footsteps could be heard in the entrance hall and corridors of the neo-Gothic seat of the rector and administrative authorities. In a sense, the building – aspiring to be the intellectual and scientific heart of Kraków – became the instrument the performers played as they danced.
In patriarchal Poland, where women’s rights after 1989 were on the front line of the culture war between Conservative forces and those of progress and emancipation, the political significance of filling an important power centre with the echo of women’s heels was undeniable. At the same time, “Concert for High Heels” was an alternative proposal to the performance art paradigm dominating the Polish stage.
When Wollny began her studies, the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, like other art academies in Poland, based its didactics on the division of art into traditional disciplines, such as painting, sculpture, and graphic art, that were deeply rooted in history even as they did not necessarily correspond to contemporary realities. The creation of new, interdisciplinary faculties that would accord performance a place in the academy was just beginning.
Whilst not yet a formal discipline, performance had its “canon” and “classics” that emanated from traditions in which performers inflicted pain on themselves or tested their own physical and psychological endurance. Charismatic artists such as Zbigniew Warpechowski, Józef Robakowski or Jarosław Kozłowski. who stood in front of audiences in person and focused attention entirely on t quasi-rituals of symbolic self-sacrifice, exemplified the trend in Communist Poland. Formulated in the 1970s, the aesthetic found a continuation after 1989 among artists fascinated by corporeality. In the 1990s, they repeatedly reached for strategies set out decades earlier by these pioneers..

As the discipline entered the 21st century in Poland, the central figure remained the artist confronting society and the world alone – distinctly heroic and prone to extreme behaviours that often included self-harm. Distance from all forms of theatricality was an integral element of this dominant model, leaving little room for ensemble work. Although alternative points of reference. such as the para-theatrical happenings of Akademia Ruchu, did exist on the national scene, they had yet to be discussed more widely as Wollny’s artistic stance solidified. In fact, she can be seen as a forerunner of the new understanding that found expression in the so-called performative turn, a tendency that was summed up in the exhibition “Other Dances: Performance Turn in Polish Art of the Twenty-First Century”, curated by Agnieszka Sosnowska and Tomasz Plata at the Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art in 2019. That exhibition presented performativity as a negotiated practice within the context of interdisciplinary concepts and phenomena, such as relational aesthetics. “Other Dances” blurred the clearly drawn boundaries that separated choreography, theatre, performance, visual arts, and activism.
Given the trailblazing for anti-heroic performaces across disciplines that shifted emphasis from the artist to the collective at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, Wollny’s omission from the “Other Dances” exhibition might be considered an oversight. However, it does not mean that she was generally ignored by the art world. On the contrary, institutions took notice of her relatively early on. Prior to her 2006 graduation, Wollny realised projects using institutions as the subject and the material for her actions. In 2005 she created “Museum”, an interpretation featuring seven performers at the National Museum in Kraków’s collection. At the invitation of the Westfälischer Kunstverein in Münster, she created the in that same year the “Concert for Landesmuseum” with Szwajgier. In 2006, she used an exhibition at Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź as inspiration for “Polish Walk for the Collection of Art of the XX and XXI Centuries”.

In 2009, Wollny was nominated for the “Views”, the most important prize in Poland for artists under 36 and awarded jointly by the Zachęta National Gallery of Art and Deutsche Bank. In the exhibition of nominated artists, she presented “Ballad for the Zachęta Gallery”, a sound event co-written with Szwajgier. Inspired by the institution’s history, the piece featured fourteen performers and was received by the audience with closed eyes. Wollny centred her interest on viewers in the institution – the choreography of their movements and behaviour in the galleries; the sounds of their presence; the pressure exerted on this presence by the building’s architecture; by its symbolic authority, and by the political frame imposed both on viewers and on the artefacts in their gaze.
Wollny often uses art institutions as her stage, blurring the distinction between performers and the viewers who play a role, albeit without direction. They meet and mix, , often as not by happenstance, in spaces selected for each event. Some intentionally come to see Wollny’s performance. Others are casual visitors, accidentally becoming viewers of the performance and often without being aware of what they are witnessing.
How, in such a situation, can we distinguish between those who create the event and those who are its recipients? Perhaps there are no recipients – only participants?
Deepened in the development of her practice, these are among the key questions Wollny raises in her works. Some artists refine their style, others increase the momentum and range of their works. For Wollny, development is characterised by a refinement of techniques of artistic expression. Her projects include choreography, singing, staging, and music composition. The artist did not come by these skills during her time at the Academy of Fine Arts; she learned them from her collaborators and developed them. Wollny’s is a process of continuous self-education and with an expanding assortment of tools.

As the value of tools is measured in terms of utility, it is important what use the artist makes of them. Wollny’s practice is diametrically opposed to the model of creative activity oriented on self-expression – with the fact that she most often delegates others to perform an example of this attitude. Like those created by Tino Sehgal, some of her works take the form of living quasi-sculptures. However, inferring such associations leads us astray. Wollny does not bring other people onto the stage to act or speak on her behalf. On the contrary, the artist does not express herself in her projects. She gives voice to the places, processes, people and communities she works with. They determine the content. Wollny takes responsibility for the form. Therefore, the object of delegation is not the discourse but the artist’s competence. Society does not experience a content deficit. There are many alternativesto the dominant narratives; so many minority interests and demands to be articulated; so many voices of protest and dissent that remain inaudible and ignored. However, there is a deficit of form, a lack of effective instruments for action. Art is just such an instrument; it enjoys social prestige, attracts interest, ensures visibility and audibility. As Wollny understands this notion, an artist is not so much someone who attracts attention with the mastery of skill, but someone who distributes and makes available the tools of art outside its field.

Being focused on site-specific art, Wollny is a nomad by nature. She has lived for years in Berlin whilst at the same time teaching at the Academy of Art in Szczecin and undertaking extended residencies from Iran to Kenya. Her art is not created in the studio, but in context. And so the artist travels to where context – people, places and situations – awaits her. If she composes a concert for a closed factory, it includes a story of lost jobs, economic transformations and a particular community entangled in these processes. If for a liquidated school, it addresses changes in educational and social policies and deepening inequalities in access to knowledge. If for a depleted gold mine, it reflects the literal hollowing out of the world by human greed and ambition.
Choral works such as 2011’s “Oratorio for Orchestra and Warsaw Citizens’ Choir” (with Artur Zagajewski and Anna Szwajgier) are composed for ensembles of professional musicians and common people. That work featured, a choir made up of representatives of various non-governmental organisations, including Greenpeace and Amnesty International; local communities and feminists; bicycle activists, and those associated in the Critical Mass group. Participants in the polyphony articulated their views and demands in oratorio. The piece was performed in public spaces, so the composition blended into the soundscape of the metropolis. Along with its inhabitants, the city itself took the floor. In “Song of Resistance”, Wollny in 2015 gave voice to young Istanbul residents that clashed with police two years earlier over a governmerntdecision to remove the city’s Gezi Park.
Music, voice and sound are means of expression that work anytime, anywhere. This is an important quality for an artist such as Wollny, who moves between different contexts. The tools she uses must be universal. Perhaps more important is the participatory potential of musical forms, embodied in the orchestra or choir? It is difficult to combine a hundred painterly gestures into one collective gesture. But a hundred voices create a quality that transcends the efforts of the individuals involved. Collective music-making is akin to participating in a demonstration, during which the bodies of individuals unite into a body politic. The sensual dimension of musical forms also is important. Sound, rhythm, voice, and motion flow through the bodies before they reach the consciousness of the receivers. “My main postulate, concerning both theatre and visual arts, is not to separate sensuality from intellect,” Wollny writes in her statement. “Reflection is a sensual act. This is the principle I try to follow composing site-specific music, making spectacle-collages, or musical pieces with elements of choreography”.2
After moving to Berlin, Wollny formed the Psychodelic Choir, an ensemble of female singer-improvisers. In her native Poland, she is perceived as a visual art artist, even though visuality has never been at the core of her practice and she rarely creates such artefacts. Meanwhile, she is recognised in Berlin as a member of the music community; a perception reinforced by her regular participation in prestigious festivals dedicated to sound art, contemporary music, and interdisciplinary experimentation, such as the Warsaw Autumn Festival and the Berlin CTM. Yet the attempt to classify her practice as limited to creating and performing music is a mistake, The artist’s work cannot be reduced to such categorizations.

What then is the value that Wollny seeks to create through her practices?
To grasp this value one ought to give up seeking closed and finite “art products” in her oeuvre, for example, musical works intended to be played over and over again or autonomous artworks abstracted from their context,) i. Wollny’s output consists of building projects in collaboration with various groups of participants, located in various places in the world, and in various political and social situations. These include trained, professional performers, as well as people who had no experience in this field before encountering the artist. Members of local communities from gentrified neighbourhoods, workers from closed down factories, activists, members of NGOs – these and many others participated in her projects; motivated by reasons that may have little in common with art. For them it’s more important to articulate issues, views, presence and rights. In these works, Wollny occupies the clear position of an artist, i.e., a person with artistry. However, she is not the “author” in the traditional sense. Perhaps, she is a leader, uniting the group and coordinating its actions? Or a trainer, sharing her skills with the participants and helping to trigger their potential? Vocal pedagogy is the best example of a resource that almost everyone has at their disposal. But not all have experience in extracting and handling their instrument with precision.
Artists adopting Wollny’s chosen strategy must be sensitive and attentive listeners, as well as keen observers. Identification of what is needed, what participants can do and what is beyond their reach, recognition of the proper means – to sing or whisper at a given time– are crucial elements of artistic proficiency. “A big part of my work is encouraging people, emboldening them,” says the artist. “It’s working on their movement, working on their voice. Not everyone is bold enough to shout, not at once; maybe never? For some, the very act of taking part in the project is a new and brave one. The first thing you need to do is respect that. Sometimes – that’s a very hard thing – you must accept that your own ambitions won’t get fully realized.”3
Art has great potential to intimidate, alienate and exclude. It is a world that may seem closed and elitist; demanding high cultural and social skills, and essential self-sufficiency. This impression is simultaneously right and wrong because art has an equally great emancipatory and empowering potential. Which of these two possibilities prevails depends on the direction given the power of art’s social prestige and authority. This choice is an ethical issue; it is impossible to separate aesthetics from ethics in Wollny’s practices.
If the artist gives up a significant part of her creative autonomy to others, one may ask what she gets in return? The short answer is: everything. More precisely, she gets the reality to which the path leads through thethanks to the post-artistic dimension of her oeuvre. Wollny’s projects are not representations. They neither imitate realty, nor do they represent it reality. They are reality —– formally and aesthetically framed; as unique as other real events. Whilst it is therefore impossible to consume them, one can participate in them. Even when the artist uses gallery formats, objects or installations, she proposes that audience members quit the role of viewer and become participants. Iin the exhibition “Środowisko. Retrospektywa na przyszłość” [“Environment. A Retrospective for the Future”] at the Trafostacja Sztuki in Szczecin, the artist effected this proposition by scattereing glass, aggregate and gravel that echoed the steps of gallery visitors. She set up microphones so that their voices could be heard in the institution.4 She put a drum kit at their disposal, allowing them to fill the exhibition with rhythm. She designed and constructed this instrument together with employees of the Szczecin shipyard, using debris and fragments of machines from a once-mighty industrial complex that today is a shadow of its former self. Szczecin was among the places afflicted by the wave of deindustrialisation that swept through post-Communist economies during their political transformation, washing away jobs and social structures.

Wollny’s collaboration with shipyard workers included large steel cradles made of scrap. Lined with soundproofing foam, they welcomed people to lie down in them and, instead of lullabies, they heard “Lullabies To Wake Up”“Przebudzanki” [Awakenings] – — a series of voices recorded by the artist that uttered questions of the kind that keep people awake at night: Are we furious? Are we resigned? Is the world unfair by nature? Or has someone made it that way? Can we change it?
Perhaps Wollny’s oeuvre, dissected into successive projects, works and events, can be seen as a search for an answer to these questions? Following the proposal of philosopher Alva Noë, Sebastian Cichocki and Kuba Szreder, curators of the exhibition on contemporary post-art practices “Robiąc użytek” [“Making Use”],5 following the proposal of the philosopher Alva Noë, called post-artistic works “strange tools”, instruments that “help us to cut niches, tunnels, shelters in reality”6. Szreder wrote of these instruments: “The strange tools offered by art have to be set in motion, otherwise the imagination turns into a spectacle. The only way to learn to do this is to take matters into one’s own hands and learn how to use these tools by trial-and-error, through practically oriented thinking-action”7. The category of strange tools also seems helpful when discussing Wollny’s practice. The instruments that the artist constructs and activates in her projects take their form from the worlds of art, music and theatre, but they work in reality. Rather than answering the question about the possibility of changing the world, Wollny provides tools for change.

Stach Szabłowski, February 2023