ZOFIA MARIA CIELĄTKOWSKA: You travel a lot nowadays – you’ve been to Turkey, London, and many other places. Tell me more about those recent ventures.
ZORKA WOLLNY: Well, most notably I produced the so-called “Resonance Assembly – Composition for Factory” in District Berlin in 2014, a project which involved collaborating with ten extraordinary musicians, drummers and experts of small electronics and installation. Together we created a 40-minute piece performed in an empty malt factory. Our instruments included pipes and tubes, ventilation systems, conveyer belts, broken glass – as well as more traditional instruments and vocals. But what was even more thrilling was the chance to spend each day exploring the building and the possibilities on offer in the various rooms and discarded devices.
Furthermore, I produced an abstract adaptation of “The Hearing Trumpet” by Leonora Carrington in Warsaw, to coincide with the “Temporary Autonomous Zone” project initiated by ff, a European-wide artistic feminist group. For our brief performance we worked together with elderly members of the Retro.Art.Bem group, with whom we also held workshops. Our fluid and seamless collaboration resulted in a clearly executed concept. I was particularly interested in the participation of older women, whose voices are so often marginalised both in general and feminist discourse.
Elsewhere I took part in Istanbul’s “Jazz and Experimental Music from Poland” festival. On this particular occasion, some students of Bogaziçi University and I prepared a short vocal performance predominantly addressing the subject of demonstration and the public space. There I worked with dancers of both Polish and Turkish (Taldans) origin. The project was actually a joint experiment which evolved into a series of short choreographic performances all over the city. What is more, at the end of 2014 I received an invitation from the UK not-for-profit organisation Arts Territory to produce a piece with the Maspindzeli Choir at the ICA in London.
ZC: You sure had your hands full last year. All the performances you have mentioned play out in the public space. I would describe them as vibrant site-specific installations dependent on the presence of people and spatial context. Yet it is sound that takes precedence in your work. How do you perceive the individual components of your pieces, namely body, sound and space? Do you bring these components together in any particular manner? Do you view the sound differently?
ZW: The projects always originate in a given space. I initially spend a lot of time there listening, and collecting data and contexts. I let my imagination run wild, fill in the gaps and present them to others.
I add meanings and sounds that should appear in order for the space to finally function fully. Having a tangible presence of performers means a great deal to me. An electronic installation can never be both subtle and volatile. The viewer or listener usually stands in the middle of a room, surrounded by sounds produced by individuals who stay hidden for the majority of the performance. Their invisibility enables audience members to listen more attentively and picture the space they are denied access to as well as the instruments at hand. For instance, during “Composition Factory”, audience members were required to pass through rooms at a pace set by a guide, who was attuned to the pace of the surrounding musicians. Sheet music and blueprints provided the canvasses for mapping out two corresponding choreographic routines – one reflecting the position of the listeners, and the other of the musicians. The listeners either approached the sound’s source or the sound followed them around relentlessly – it rose unexpectedly from nearby corridors, moved overhead, or echoed somewhere below. You got the impression that the entire factory was vibrating and coming to life. However if you had seen the blueprint from above, you would have noticed that the sound in fact travelled along with the audience members, while the rest of the building stayed still and oblivious.
ZC: There is little movement in your work. I can discern some connection with the style of choreography that has been evolving in the last fifty or sixty years. Perhaps this isn’t a significant obversation. Who inspires you in regards to music, spirit, attitude and movement?
ZW: I am an advocate of minimalism and value precision in music. However, I also enjoy the opposite – sudden rhythmic shifts, discontinuous melodies, lapses and distortions that when you listen to you feel as though somebody took a piece of sheet music and crumpled it, erased some parts, put it back together, copied sounds, layered them onto one another four times, and finally played the piece very slowly, or three times faster and yet brilliantly. That was exactly the case with Ophelias (2012). I am not a fan of linear narrative. I like accuracy and grace rooted in regards to the materials you work with, for thorough consideration prior to any gesture, for sublime sense of absurdity. Instead of thinking solely about the end result, which could consequently bring about unexpected or overwhelming results, I respect my audience and myself. If you wish to hear some names, then one example could be Pierre Huyghe – a beautiful mind with a holistic imagination, which doesn’t cause him to separate his mind from his senses. This sort of attitude is also apparent in some of the exhibitions I have enjoyed, for instance in the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (organized by Anselma Franke) in Berlin, the Zachęta Gallery in Warsaw, and the Art Museum in Łódź. I am also a big advocate of minimalism on stage. In my opinion, the highest form of art is the ability to immerse an audience deeply in your piece. Consequently, they are able to notice every single movement and change in a performance. It is a great achievement to be able to focus one’s attention on solely one individual or few people within a vast empty space. Respect for gestures and words is respect for the intimacy of the experience. On the other hand, I enjoy going to extremes. I mean, if you decide to go off the rails, then you must go off the rails completely: embrace your costumes, set design, music, stage size and lighting, adopt an exaggerated and uninhibited baroque style, initiate a carnival! In other words, you either have regard for reality as it is and treat it as yet another component of your work – you are aware of it, work within it, and always conscious that a performance takes place before an audience, on a stage, in a given town and so forth – or you create your own parallel universe. In my mind, the stage is not a place to showcase your emotions, particularly in dance. I believe that only viewers and a director should experience feelings. The rest is sheer form. I like the provocative concept of using theatre as an institution, to contribute and comment on social events, as seen in the work of Milo Rau and Christoph Schlingensief. I also feel an affinity with Jerome Bell, Tino Segal and Santiago Sierra. Still, it occurs to me that the subject of self-awareness has been explored extensively in recent years. The time may have come to seek out an alternative reality and all-encompassing formal concepts.
ZC: On a separate note, do you still work manually and use real materials? I am referring here to your background in painting.
ZW: Not really, but occasionally I participate in vocal, dance, and other strange workshops, so you could say I work with materials that are my own. Seriously speaking, I am glad I studied painting, particularly the universal question of composition. Nevertheless, I wish I studied music at Sound Studies in Berlin. I wish I continued to play drums. I wish I were able to write sheet music differently than in the form of a floor plan with a timeline marking specific activities. I feel jealous when I look at all the graphically sophisticated sheet music out there. When I am at home working on a site-specific project, I often imagine a given space reoccurring in my mind over and over again, instead of working on sketches. I remain mentally inside.
ZC: Site-specific projects are often so ephemeral. What is your view on performance and site-specific artwork?
ZW: Site-specific work might be seen by a hundred people at most. We usually give one concert or stage a play four times or so. The critics, who did not get the chance to see performance want to see its documentation dictated by the market. You record your own work in order to obtain a grant and be capable of undertaking other projects in future with ease. Now I need it for practical reasons. However, neither do I mind if my work exists solely for me and solely in the present. A documentation of an art performance means that the performance belongs to the past and that the moment has already passed. It specifies a time frame, and facilitates answering the question, “Which projects did you work on between 2012-2014?” However, this act of documentation also makes you feel detached from the projects, which are now completed. I hate the editing process, which essentially boils down to a shift in the medium of expression. I am always pleased with the videos of my performances recorded by others. Their videos indicate that they have understood me and are able to represent my work properly. Lately, I have been cooperating with one individual, Małgorzata Mazur. Unfortunately, she can’t travel with me all the time. Nonetheless, I like the idea of a director working with only one camera operator.
ZC: You mentioned a pragmatic or financial aspect of art practice. What sort of project would you undertake if money was not an issue?
ZW: Every time I visit a philharmonic I wonder why the musicians are divided into groups and placed in front of an audience. It is such a waste of the space’s potential. When I listen to music I visualise where the individual instruments should in fact stand so that listeners can immerse themselves to an even greater extent in the music. I wish to reform philharmonic in general. In addition, I would love to parade a singer on a white horse into Zachęta, Warsaw’s National Gallery of Art, whose empty rooms would reverberate with the sound of his voice. It is not a particularly novel idea, I admit. However, on this occasion the music would be out of this world. To be honest, the only thing that I could wish for right now is to have empty spaces to work in, such as factories, train stations, ruins, forests, etc., and to cooperate with musicians; to keep listening, composing and improving. Perhaps, I could also invest in an art collection with the aid of my instinct. I would build a suitable facility for it with the help of an architect – the kind of building that would have plenty of room, and the appropriate conditions and lighting to accommodate an exhibition of works of all shapes and sizes, especially installations and sound-based artworks, which require a proper space. What I have in mind is a sensual experience – a disturbance in your perception of space, time and weight. I could just live there with my collection.
ZC: I am afraid to ask, but what are your plans for the future?
ZW: I would like to be far away from here. I can’t picture my life in ten years, because my attitude is certainly going to change. At times, I believe that my mode of working is ideally suited to establishing a studio or workshop centre when I am fifty with some dancers and musicians I know. I also wish to become luckier in love… [laughs].
Text published in CONTEMPORARY LYNX MAGAZINE, nr 1 (3) 2015