Artificial Heavens? Zorka Wollny, Participation and Art.

But if we try to obliterate the question at the heart of democracy and fail to think of democracy as a social practice challenging the omnipotence of power through the extension of specific rights, discourses of democracy can also be successfully mobilized to compel acquiescence in new forms of subordination.

R. Deutsche, ‚Art and Public Space: Questions of Democracy’, p. 36.

Is it a mad postulate to demand full democracy for theatre?
Zorka Wollny, Ophelias. Iconography of Madness, Introduction.

The participatory, performative and socially engaged art of Zorka Wollny already has a history, a trajectory and a series of analysis1. This art belongs between the Zachęta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw, the Architecture Biennale in Chicago, museums and festivals in Porto Allegre, Mumbai, Tartu, Graz, Belgrade, Warsaw and Berlin. Formally – it functions predominantly as a challenge to the existing art formats – it confronts and triggers the seemingly stable borders between from performance, opera, sculpture, sound composition and video, just to list some options. Politically, Wollny’s hybrid artwork struggles predominantly with the issue of democracy, which – as Rosalyn Deutsche rightly argues in her books and essays – constitutes the core of socially engaged, public art2. In this essay, I will examine Wollny’s strategies of participation in the wider context of democracy. Following Claire Bishop, I will question the assumption that all the promises of democratic transition end up well3. Bishop’s critical intervention in discussion of participatory art allowed unveiling the oppressive and abusive practices conveniently disguised in the supposedly emancipatory aims or programs of some artistic projects. Her work, as well, as that of Angela MacRobbie, Martha Rosler and Deutsche, permit an understanding of appropriation of the participation and public art by neoliberal creative industries4.

Despite being participatory and public, Wollny’s projects resist easy appropriation by the neoliberal economy. There are several reasons for this resistance. Perhaps the most fundamental is gender equality? An important part of Wollny’s work that makes it rather difficult for creative capitalism to swallow is the dominant presence of women’s voices that introduce into the public spaces all that is culturally attributed to femininity and thus excluded, be it vulnerability, care, madness, sensuality or embodiment. Wollny builds complex assemblages of both: professional and amateur or “ordinary” voices. Thus such questions, as: “who is an artist?” or “what is art?” become pertinent, making the profit oriented neoliberal economy choke on the doubtful premises.
Wollny’s work does not fully belong to the Western context, where the creative industries became main agents of public art and its assimilation with the neoliberal market. Her work belongs to Central Europe, defined by Milan Kundera, as well as Maria Janion, as the „in-between” East and West, as a borderland, with all the conflicted implications of such location5. Wollny, who works in Szczecin, lives in Berlin and often functions as a nomad, is a Central European artist. “Central” expresses the complex, problematic, historically painful relations between German-speaking and Slavic countries, cultures and diasporas. This geopolitical location influences Wollny’s work, transforming it into a version of the “minor literature”, as depicted by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, in her large vocal installations6. The ways culture is made in the last decades, by means of public financing, institutions and the practice of debate, shapes Wollny’s work, which usually is presented in buildings of public institutions, or at large festivals. Zorka Wollny is a feminist artist, consciously exploring equality, exclusion, femininity, gender issues and oppression. This aspect of her work I would definitely like to put forward.

In one of her early works, the week-long performance “I live in Ikea”, staged in the Kraków store of the Swedish furniture and interior design giant in 2004, Zorka Wollny lived in an exhibited apartment space for seven days. Curator Piotr Stasiowski focused on the anti-capitalist nature of the performance, discussing the subversion of the neoliberal dream of bourgeois couples in Poland7. But there is another, far more important dimension of this work, i. e. the amazing intrusion into the common division between public and private, which tends to be a feminist kind of intervention, but also something typical for critical art. She lived in an Ikea store, which means that from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day, for an entire week, she was a part of the exhibition of furniture, while during the remaining hours she was subjected to all manner of contemporary surveillance: cameras, as well as technicians and guard’s watching her. She was thus living the life of a contesting subject, a kind of rebel, and at the same time – an object of the capitalist spectacle. I believe that such exposure to the gaze of others and to commodification, must have taught the artist a lot, like subjection to judgment and critique, the permanent exhibition of one’s body and self, the shame of sharing one’s intimate, private space with others for days. In this intense project, the artist experienced what it means to be part of an abusive situation, the discomforts of becoming a part of an exhibition and a surveilled subject.
This is something I thought of during my first encounter with Claire Bishop’s sharp critique of the oppressive dimensions of participatory art in the book Artificial Hells, depicting the (always male) artists who lure their publics into art projects with promises of liberation, emancipation or just a little bit more of democracy, and in fact abusing those, who join. They include Santiago Sierra, Artur Żmijewski and Paweł Althamer. Bishop does not mean to say that all their work is abusive, controversial or in disagreement with the democratic principles of participation, she picks their specific artworks. When I was reading her book for the first time, I was surprised, that gender was not considered as a possible reason for of the problems with the strategies she discussed. With the notable exception of the Marina Abramovic Institute, which in 2014 received media attention searching for unpaid interns to do all kinds of disgraceful jobs8, most women artists who make participatory art somehow escape such traps or just abuse themselves, but not other people participating in their works.
In the opening chapter of her book, Bishop declares: “This book is therefore organised around a definition of participation in which people constitute the central artistic medium and material, in the manner of theatre and performance.”9 She further explains what the problematic aspect of participatory art might be: “To put it simply: the artist is conceived less as an individual producer of discrete objects than as a collaborator and producer of situations; the work of art as a finite, portable, commodifiable product is reconceived as an ongoing or long-term project with an unclear beginning and end; while the audience, previously conceived as a ‘viewer’ or ‘beholder’, is now repositioned as a co-producer or participant. As the chapters that follow will make clear, these shifts are often more powerful as ideals than as actualised realities, but they all aim to place pressure on conventional modes of artistic production and consumption under capitalism”10. I quote her statement in extenso because I believe it captures the main problems of participatory art, and I believe they are situated on the intersection of patriarchy, neoliberalism and the colonial West. I would like to argue that Wollny’s work and her own situatedness make this trio a complex one, and allow a more nuanced perspective and practice than those depicted in the examples chosen by Bishop.

Feminist art, as Linda Nead argues, is often seen as “obscene”, inviting unwanted, excluded and banned topics, voices and bodies to the stage.11 While Nead discusses artworks such, as those by Judy Chicago, that caused scandal by bringing menstrual blood or women’s sexuality on stage, I would like to focus on versions of “obscenity” that are less scandalous and usually not protested against, yet subjected the strongest exclusions in art, culture and history. Wollny allows the women’s madness, powerlessness, and the ordinary, be it woman, voice or body, to appear on stage. She does it without ridiculization or abuse of the excluded and marginalized groups, thus constituting an example of artist contradicting the tendency depicted by Bishop, which I discussed above. Wollny, together with Martha Rosler, as well as Joanna Rajkowska, are artists, whose participatory art cannot be diagnosed as „artificial hell”, thus allowing to name another tendency in this line of art, i.e. that which is empowering and respectful to the participating public.
While women’s madness had been thematized, exoticized and fetishized on many occasions, the ordinary was not. What is more: women’s madness often functions as a culturally enhanced stereotypical attribute of femininity, as well as something very ordinary, very common. Its perception is contradictory, moving between the exceptionality of madness (supposedly owned only by particular, “special” women) and its commonality, allowing the stereotypization of (all) women supposedly being „crazy”. In Wollny’s project Ophelias. Iconography of Madness, this commonality is perhaps best expressed, as the everyday, as daily routine of women’s life. This project is a participatory piece, where eleven actresses of different ages use different acting methods to play the role of Ophelia, one by one, for several hours12. In this piece we, encounter a herstory of rejected femininity, which includes not only several decades of Polish post-war theatre, but also diverse versions of acting and staging methods, the entire herstory of Ophelia and our own love experiences. In this affective memory lane, which we enter as viewers, but also (some of us) as persons socialized as women and thus affiliated with the female gender role, of which being rejected by men is rather a common factor, many interesting experiences and observations can be made. We encounter the madness such experience usually brings, as well as the historical and contemporary ways of staging it, its feminist analysis and critiques, its patriarchal abuses, its violence, persistence and pain. This experience, shared by most women13, suddenly shows the commonality of the supposedly exceptional. We all, or perhaps most of us, someday suffered rejection. Perhaps it did not lead us to jump into to any river. But it did take some of our time and transformation; it might also have been an experience of pain and loss. We are reminded of what kind of voice can never be visible in the liberal, classical public sphere, as well as of what happens, when women try to enter the public with such voices.

Belonging is juxtaposed with distance in Ophelias, demonstrating traditional femininity and romantic love as cultural constructs. Along with breaking down the distinction between a theatre piece and a performance, this is another of the project’s avant-garde dimensions. The collective experience of “love’s lost labors”, combined with suddenly collective and public feminine madness, which is usually seen as an individual and thus privatized experience, and the critical distance (after four or five Ophelias we already feel we know the pain), leads to a kind of distancing effect, so central for the method established by Bertolt Brecht in his theory of theatre14. Participating in this piece, with all the Ophelias, with the director/artist and ourselves in the viewing/distancing process, we have a chance to overcome our alienated and marginalized condition, not by means of the Aristotelian catharsis, but by recognizing ourselves as part of a community on the ruins of the exceptionality or our affective state. By means of solidarity, not essentialism, Wollny overcomes the classical opposition of private and public. This is where the common ceases to solely mean “ordinary”, and becomes also “collective” – the power of the many; an experience best depicted by Spinoza, and after him by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, who in The Commonwealth and other texts argue for an alternative to the supposedly insurmountable divide between the private and the public15.

The common – in the sense of the ordinary as well, as in the sense of the collective was central in another Wollny’s artwork, “Vox Populi” that used Nicola Tesla’s coil to transform voices into lightning and sound, thus amplifying expressions of protesting crowd. Communities large and small were invited to articulate their claims and to profit from the opportunity to amplify their voice. They included a refugee family living in Germany, the inhabitants of a gentrified district of Gdańsk, the audience of the London Frieze Art Fair and two professional singers at the CTM Festival in Berlin. Hardt and Negri depict the common as that, which is neither private nor state-owned public. The common is shared – a third version of ownership, and it is composed of the humans, the so called “resources”, including air, water, soil, metals and minerals, the plants and animals, as well as all the culture – languages, art, knowledge, etc. It is thus common also in a sense of popularity and transversal, because it crosses class, geopolitical, gender and other distinctions, making the common somewhat unstoppable, if in revolt.
Used in collaboration with Andrzej Wasilewski and the various communities, the Tesla coil enables the common to appear in its strength and as a post-humanist collective of sound, lightning, voices and demands. According to Bruno Latour, the autonomy of the non-human, as well as the impossibility of separation of the “object” and “subject”, are often neglected in analysis and practice of collectives, particularly within critical theory and art practice16. Latour discusses the issue of scale, central to Wollny’s sound and performance work. In his seminal essay Waiting for Gaia, he asks: “Is there a way to bridge the distance between the scale of the phenomena we hear about and the tiny Umwelt inside which we witness, as if we were a fish inside its bowl, an ocean of catastrophes that are supposed to unfold? How are we to behave sensibly when there is no ground control station anywhere to which we could send the help message, “Houston, we have a problem”?17” In the essay, which establishes ways of “making the common through arts and politics”, nature is given agency, and the powerlessness felt by majority of people in confrontation with the climate crisis is given context. Both have much to do with scale. Confronted with ecological catastrophe, we might feel powerless. Zorka Wollny’s experiments with sound, collectives, technology and environment permit a better understanding of scale and the power of our voices, they also empower the excluded and marginalized. In this they are similar to the “human microphone” – a technique used by the Occupy! movement to transmit messages among large crowds by repeating it in moderate volume by further and further groups disposing of average vocal capacities. Wollny’s works also make perfectly ordinary voices sound loud and exceptional. At a Wall Street protest in 2011, Slavoj Żiżek said the following:

“The only sense in which we’re Communists The only sense in which we’re Communists
is that we care for the commons. is that we care for the commons.

The commons of nature. The commons of nature.

The commons of privatized by intellectual property. The commons of privatized by intellectual property.

The commons of biogenetics. The commons of biogenetics.

For this, and only for this, we should fight. For this, and only for this, we should fight”18.

Propelled by the force of the protesting crowd, which repeated it as it went along, Zizek’s message eventually reached those in the back. This is the kind of amplification that happens within Wollny’s pieces.
One other example of how the ordinary and separated build up as the common in protest, was the large group piece, Oratorio, made in collaboration with Anna Szwajgier, Artur Zagajewski, Warsaw Orchestra and members of 15 social organizations for the 2011 Warsaw Autumn Music Festival. This piece, inspired by the festival’s focus on social activism, brought musicians and activists to Chmielna street in Warsaw’s center. Again, the task was to amplify the messages, demands and needs of those who fight for women’s rights, ecology, tolerance or equality. The piece mixed the professional and the ordinary, giving the social protest and its claims another platform, thus making use of the “right to the city”, as Henri Lefebvre had it, portraying the city as organism, composed of contradicting needs of the inhabitants, in which the rural and metropolitan, nature and culture, human and non-human coexist with permeable borders, co-creating the city as a whole19.
Wollny’s explorations of amplification of voices and women’s experiences are also present in projects such as the Psychedelic Choir, which she initiated in 2019 and co-organizes with an international group of dancers, choreographers and singers based in Berlin. They work with witchcraft, rituals and magic, which – staged as voice and dance pieces, accompanied by minimalist selection of bass and electronics, makes it an experience for the groups of audience, as in the Trafo Gallery in Szczecin or the HKW in Berlin in 2020. There, the voices and moving figures of the dancers inhabit the corporeal space with the audience, inviting it to live and experience together. Some other women’s group, again – combining the interest in women/femininity and the ordinary, performed in Zorka Wollny’s work Hearing Trumpet for the group exhibition organized in 2016 by the fffffff Collective at the Theatre and Gallery Studio in the Warsaw Palace of Culture and Science, the most central building in Poland. For this work, women from the Retro.Art.Bem ensemble of amateur singers staged a monumental version of popular Polish lullabies, somehow alluding to the rituals depicted in the classical magical book by the surrealist artist Leonora Carrington, from which Wollny’s performance took its name. The lullabies sung by eight elderly women in a very serious, yet sweet way in the foyer of the Palace of Culture and science, a socrealist skyscraper built on Joseph Stalin’s order between 1953 and 1955, were a particularly cheerful intervention in the monumental building, in the serious theatre and gallery Studio, which are famous for their avant-garde projects, and in the metropolitan city center. The singing ladies came from Bemowo, which is seen as a periphery of Warsaw. All this, plus the age of the performers, in the part of the building also known for its bar Studio – the hipster central of today’s Poland, and their casual clothes, strikingly clashing with the almost haute couture worn by the usual audience of the Warsaw centre, really constituted an invasion of the normally invisible women’s labour, the elderly women and the peripheral fashion. All these excluded, and yet – common, ordinary, and invisible mothers and grandmothers, care takers and teachers, librarians, nurses, shop assistants and nuns, staged in the roles of almost opera singers, was a lot for the audience to take. The monumental staging and ways of singing performed by the ladies, who actually deeply enjoyed singing those popular lullabies in highly serious way, clashing in contrast with their ordinary jumpers, shoes and skirts or trousers – this was an amazing coup de grace to the assumption, that the old ladies and their usual clothes, as well as their lullabies only belong to the privacy of households, not to the monumental, metropolitan theaters. This is perhaps the most tricky part of Wollny’s artwork, because it works solely on the ordinary, there is no “exceptional”, as in the Ophelias, where the commonality of women’s broken hearts is backed by the exceptionality of madness and suicide. In Hearing Trumpet, there is no such backup – the popular clothes, simple lullabies and amateur singers, as well as the elderly women’s bodies, appear en masse. Opera’s singing formula is immediately undermined by the simplicity of the songs and the singing of the amateur voices. This piece might also be called The Nights of the Lullabies Singers – to honor Jacques Ranciere’s research of the proletarian nights, where the working classes are presented as those working their ways through culture without the guidance, assistance or force of the upper classes20. In Wollny’s work, the ladies learn professional singing methods only to sing those simple songs, like popular lullabies they know so well, not pieces by Mozart, Wagner or Moniuszko. Were it Żmijewski, Althamer or Sierra, the ladies would quite probably become the victims of ridiculisation or abuse, not necessarily by the intention of these artists, but by the lack of care labour in the methods they use. In Wollny’s project the elderly women are empowered, and become special in their ability to detourne everything, from their own social position, to the comfort of the viewers, and – similarly to the trick used in Ophelias – the criticality of this anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchal, anti-ageist piece results not of a flat, idealist pseudo-utopia of supposed union across distinction, but of the empowering experiece of the ordinary suddenly made public, amplified and given the stage. We were all stunned and surprised by the sudden monumentality and beauty of the simple lullabies sung by ordinary women, with their everyday clothes and stylizations. The solidarity came from being in this together, from recognition of the possible common ground of us all, as different as we are, in this rebellion against the social distinction, marginalization and pity. These elderly ladies and their songs, which are also ours, as each of us, who grew in Poland, knows them, made the caring work and affect visible and beautiful.
The Hearing Trumpet project gives the opportunity of experiencing what it could be like to have these older ladies – grandmothers, aunties, teachers and care givers in the public sphere on daily basis. As it sometimes happens in anti-war demonstrations, where some older women have banners saying things like “Grandmas against war”, or – as it is really needed now in Poland – “Polish Grandmas against homophobia”, and everybody says it warms our hearts, lets imagine, what would happen, if elderly ladies came in politics, and had place for their kindness and care? Wollny’s performative piece for eight amateur, elderly women singers made it possible for some time, but allowed to imagine it as permanent, and it felt good. The architecture of the Warsaw Palace of Culture also played the role of an amplifier – just as the hearing trumped depicted by Leonora Carrington in the first page of her book: „The aesthetic presence of this object was not its only quality, the hearing trumpet magnified sound to such a degree that ordinary conversation became quite audible even to my ears”21. Thus, the non-human agency of the Palace of Culture should be counted in the factors responsible for Wollny’s projects success in producing a counterpublics of dissident voices of the excluded old ladies and their ordinary songs. What as our daily childhood experience remains a quiet lullaby, in this project became a monumental, opera song, dismantling our blindness to the care and affective labour we tend not to see as formative experience of our lives, although we should see it that way.
What seems particularly interesting is that, differently from many other feminist artists, who – as for example Yoko Ono – show the pain and effort of the women offering their time and labor for free to those around them in caring agency, Zorka Wollny decided to work with cheerfulness and humor. In Cut Piece, the monumental performance by Ono, staged since 1964, and in its later version directly dedicated to women’s invisible labor, the artist is exposed to the crowd, who cuts pieces of her clothes, sometimes with care and respect, but sometimes – also with brutality or violence. In Zorka Wollny’s piece the pain and possible brutality are absent, we commemorate the hours of singing many of us were offered in a pleasurable, perhaps a bit cheerful atmosphere.
There is also – and this will be the summary of my discussion of Zorka Wollny’s participatory art projects, the issue of “public art” and the notion of “public”, as in “public sphere”. I discussed it in my earlier text for the Ophelias project, where I wrote about the counterpublics created by the excluded – women and the affect22. Here I would like to suggest that in Wollny’s art, the “public” and “neoliberal” are in sharp contradiction, we could even say, paraphrasing Margaret Thatcher, that “there is no such thing as the neoliberal public”. Such profit oriented, neoliberal public, preoccupied with immediate effectivity and productivity, only allows to see direct profits and benefits, and excludes the long perspective. The state operated public on the other hand is usually sponsored by public money, paid in taxes by citizens of a country, and thus remains subjected to various forms of institutional, as well as of grassroots censorship. Wollny’s artwork follows the third way – the common, and thus it is subjected to criteria opposing neoliberal economy, including: long term goals and perspective, care and education. It is participatory in a non-violent, empowering way, openly accessible and comprehensible as well, as critical and allowing democratization. It helps undermining the grounds on which the public/private divide is founded, which is the core principle of public art, as was argued by Deutsche and Mouffe, but it does not stop at that, thus expanding the scope of such cultural production23. Wollny’s art projects involve the non-human, as in the projects depicted above, and they amplify the marginalized and silenced voices of the excluded and the weak, they also create solidarity based on the opportunity of being together without the usual hierarchies organizing our social experience.
Wollny’s projects tend to be public art pieces given their ability to distance the viewer from the status quo, in the tremendous work of introducing the excluded voices, bodies and stories on the stage – and thus to make them visible on the stage, and cease to be “obscene”. Never merely decorative, Wollny’s works always generate some form of discomfort, allowing both the public and the participants to see social divisions anew, thus introducing a new partage du sensible, “partition of the sensible”, as Ranciere would have it. They also demand that we look at the public/private division, and critically address its contemporary limitations, as to the marginalized voices and people involved in the works, their voices – be it those of the social organizations, refugee families, the inhabitants of endangered districts, elderly women, women’s ordinary affects and madness – all these and other groups and individuals can work for their emancipatory goals. Zorka Wollny’s projects sometimes emphasize their pain or claims, sometimes the repetitive nature of their agency, by presenting their problems as the problems of the society as whole. In my favorite version these artworks reclaim the position usually inaccessible for the marginalized and powerless.

Ewa Majewska, November 2022