“NARRACJE was a new experience in Poland”, said Robert Sochacki when looking back on the NARRACJE experience over the last 10 years. He is an artist, curator and academic based in Gdansk. “As an artist and as a citizen, I was very excited to see that people came from all over the Tri-City and even further. It was an extraordinaire phenomenon to see all these people walking around at night – looking for art.” The night-time schedule and the innovative use of technology, the artistic quality and the curatorial choreography created a thrill that attracted hundreds of people in search of art by night. NARRACJE changed the city’s appearance and atmosphere, a large number of people walking in the streets at night looking for art was an unusual urban situation. And it was exciting for the audience as it was to the artists and for us as the project’s team. “It was one of the big surprises of NARRACJE that it was attractive to the art scene and to a lot of other people as well, not only art lovers” _ underlined Robert Sochacki. Since 2009, NARRACJE is part of the city’s annual agenda. It was designed to be an international exhibition format for contemporary art in public space.
From the beginning, NARRACJE was scheduled to be a night-time project. It was programmed to take place at times when museums and galleries are usually closed. The interplay of art and media, of art in dialogue with the city’s history and development, of art reflecting on society were inserted in the curatorial framework. It was thought to be an art-in-public space project, new in town, unique in the country and interesting in international contexts. When put into practice, NARRACJE was established as a display of contemporary art in dialogue with sociocultural contexts. Its core was an exhibition project with an adjoint series of lectures, workshops and roundtables.
I was quite excited when Iwona Bigos, the new director of the GDANSK CITY GALLERIES at that time, asked me to develop a new exhibition format to strengthen the dialogue of contemporary art and public space. We swiftly agreed on parameters that should be covered by the new exhibition format like that it should provide an additional display for contemporary art in Gdansk or that it should become a recurring temporary art-in-context project. New art forms and innovative displays, inventive forms of art mediation and unprecedented formats of audience development gave focus to our early discussions. We intended to facilitate open spaces to target present social issues and societal matters. The project meant to identify and revisit traces of cultural heritage and collective memory to generate new urban narratives. NARRACJE aimed to track and to reflect the impact of contemporary art on the public sphere.
Rooted in a network of local art institutions
Anchor points of the first editions were the art and cultural institutions in and around the city center that were interested to join forces for the new initiative. The budget was mainly provided by the GDANSK CITY GALLERIES and the INSTYTUT KULTURY MIEJSKIEJ (IKM). While the GDANSK CITY GALLERIES were the co-working partners on the curatorial outline, the INSTYTUT KULTURY MIEJSKJ cared for organization and communication, public relations and branding. NARRACJE became part of the program that was built for the European competition for becoming European Capital of Culture 2016. The new format added to the idea of Gdansk as a city moved by art and culture. The Center for Contemporary Art ŁAŹNIA, the Baltic Sea Cultural Center (NCK) and the GDANSK ART ACADEMY were amongst the early partners. They shared discussions, adapted their programs and opening hours and jointly, we provided a great base for the new exhibition project.
Networking, discussing and concept development happened at the same time. Step-by-step we generated a tissue of guiding interests that allowed us to reflect on different threats from collective memory and key traditions, on sociocultural and ecological, sociopolitical and economic aspects. We modelled new spaces for artistic experimentation and transdisciplinary interaction as well as we outlined settings to shape new urban experiences.
In designing NARRACJE, our discussions circled around a dialogic approach to making art and art’s socio-cultural potential. The conceptual development was rooted in collecting and sorting local settings and resources. It was furthered through reflecting on the city’s needs as well as national developments and international urban trends. We created a format that embraces artistic research and practice, art experience and societal encounter, critical thinking and public collectiveness. NARRACJE became a framework to reflect on the environment it is hosted in, what is public space.
We dedicated NARRACJE to a practice of entertaining multiple perspectives and enjoying complexity, of keeping in mind contradictory and incompatible notions and of juggling diverse ways of making sense of the world. Enlivened by a great curiosity and a thoroughly optimistic mood, we were inspired by the city and its possibilities. We felt invited to consider a diversity of alternatives and unusual vantage points and tried to find a way to recognize that reality has become the simultaneous presence of diverse realities.
NARRACJE’s curatorial choices were drawn to settings that are amenable to multiple readings and that are able to handle paradox and contradiction. In our choices of artists, we focused on those who challenged our outlooks and we preferred the ones that liked to intervene with persistent habits and known readings of what is the city. With a site- and context-specific approach, we modelled a nomadic format that can be applied to different parts of town and can adapt to their signature features. By working with a mix of international, national and local artists, we build a conceptual structure that adds to the poly-perspective approach. With art mediation training and audience care, we reached out for viewers of all ages and backgrounds. And still, there is always a bit of luck necessary to find the right moment in time so that everything can fall into place. We were very happy when we saw – with the first edition in place – that it worked out.
Production and technical approach
For the production, the main responsibility was carried by the team of the GDANSK CITY GALLERIES and IKM, supported by further cultural institutions as well as with some local and some international technology companies. As we couldn’t find all the technical knowledge we needed locally, we established a long-term co-operation with the German audio-visual-technology studio “Panirama”. The mix of knowledge, technical and human resources allowed us to put into place most of what was planned. We included technical training, experimentation and artwork development in the preparations to grant access to media technologies that were not easily accessible in Poland at that time. The continuous and productive dialogue between the technical team, the artists and the curators generated a unique quality, visible in the artistic projects realized and throughout the entire exhibition format.
The context-specific approach was key to the success of NARRACJE. When we reviewed the visitors’ feedback from the first edition, we found that the audience was pleasantly surprised by the quality and impact of the new display. “I think it was also very important that NARRACJE allowed discovering the city’s unconventional spots … Even for me as a local, it was often astonishing to see how many of sites I hadn’t seen or appreciated before NARRACJE’s made them spaces of art” _ reflected Robert Sochacki. From 2009 to 2011, more than 70% of the artists worked site- and context-specific. We provided information, images and maps to assist to development or adaption to local sites, some artists came for pre-visits to check on their sites or contexts. Further research, first experimental explorations and critical debates helped to shape ideas into artistic concepts. Despite all the meetings, workshops and tests to prepare for NARRACJE, the production had its own challenges: “Although we had a test before, we encountered a weather condition we didn’t expect. It was super foggy and windy, and that generated additional imagery and different impacts than intended. The fog made the throws of the projectors appear like sculptures over the Motława. And then there was this cold wind … we decided to reset the flow of images to the wind direction every night. It was a big challenge … and we learned a lot”, recollected the Mexican artists Ghiju Díaz de Léon.
“Looking back”, said Detlef Hartung, “many of the works are still part of my active memory, especially the performance of Barbara Buchholz and Pedda Borowski, but also the site-specific works of Hermelinde Hergenhahn and Robert Sochacki, the one from Ghiju Díaz de Léon and of course the one from the Swiss team “Projektil” … there were many site-specific works which I really appreciated”. All early editions of NARRACJE responded to existing sites, to urban settings and to the city’s tissue as a kind of public archive.
One of the examples was the intervention “ACH” by the artists’ collective Hartung | Trenz in the GUENTER GRASS GALLERY. In a multi-channel projection, they developed a composition of German and Polish text around the sound expressing surprise “ACH” _ being the same in German and Polish. To read between letters and lines, the viewers had to step into the projection beams and shut off one or more of the projection layers. This activity that allowed the visitors to see and to read included the viewer as active and subjective ones. At the same time, the artwork was continuously reshaped by the audience.
Another great example, curated by Agnieszka Wołodźko from LAZNIA, was a work by Ahmet Dogan. He realized a site-specific work at Ulica Łąkowa 35/38. He used the façade which was sifted by bullet holes remaining from World War II. He painted them with fluorescent color and rendered them visible by night. What seemed to be a beautiful swarm of fireflies nestling on the facade, turned out to be a memorial of the city’s history.
In 2011, the performance of Barbara Buchholz and Pedda Borowski in Gdansk’s St. John’s Church was very memorable due to the intense interplay of both artists and the space. It was one of the last public appearances of Barbara Buchholz who lost her battle against cancer some months later. She was an outstanding musician and mastered a rarely well-played instrument, the Theremin. This early electronic instrument from the 1920s is played by the artist moving around two antennas, of which one is controlling the sound frequencies and the other one the volume. Barbara Buchholz had developed a unique way to play, somewhere between Jazz, New and Improvised Music. And more than others, she choreographed her own performances. Pedda Borowski interacted with her in analogue live visuals generated on several poly-lux projectors from the other end of the St. John’s Church. Marek Radke recalled: ”I was amazed by what I got to see as a visitor. I entered the world of beautiful installations, projections by artists I had never known before: Detlef Hartung and Georg Trenz, Francesco Mariotti, Ryszard Niedzielski, Robert Sochacki or the wonderful concert projection of Barbara Buchholz and Pedda Borowski. I was so fascinated by the artistic qualities and the diversity of expression that I came to see NARRACJE as a visitor in the next two years after my participation in 2010.”
Each edition of NARRACJE was choreographed around a guiding curatorial theme. This had an impact on the choice of sites and the choice of artists. The edition in 2009 explored “Collective Memories” linked to sites that are of importance for the city’s identity. 2010 targeted ignored, neglected, forgotten sites and check on “Lost and Found” of urban narratives. The edition of 2011 was dedicated to “The Nature of the City”. It reflected on the city as a habitat with a specific biocenosis of interacting systems.
Choice of sites
In the first year, we developed a trail around the city’s center. We made use of the GDANSK CITY GALLERIES, the Institute for Urban Culture INSTYTUT KULTURY MIEJSKIEJ and the Baltic Cultural Center NCK. We occupied St. John’s Church, we projected onto the facades of cultural heritage buildings like “Katownia” and “Wyspa Spichrzów”, and Dorota Walentynowicz worked on the “Zieleniak” building, a central high rise in the city’s center. The mix of in- and out-site locations helped the visitors to cope with the harsh weather conditions of the Polish winter.
In the second year, we shortened the exhibitions’ duration and extended the range of the art trail. In our choice of sites, we focused on disregarded environments. We turned empty buildings and fallows, parking and backyards into sites to host the art interventions. Again, we included the partnering institutions and their exhibition spaces, but we stretched the trail across the “Stare Miasto” and the “Główne Miasto”, with first links across the Motława river into “Dolne Miasto”. The choice of inhospitable sites was of great interests for the invited artists and inspired them to memorable works. Grazyna Tomaszewska’s intervention at a construction pit at “Ulica Klecza” was one of the iconic works of this edition. And again, the audience followed the projects’ map with great enthusiasm.
In the third ýear, we moved to “Dolne Miasto”, the “Lower Town”. It was quite challenging to understand that this area hadn’t changed since the end of World War II. The entire quarter suffered from being neglected as urban tissue as much as a sociocultural environment.
Part of this edition was the “NARRACJE Picture Project” which was hosted in the former tram depot. It was a transdisciplinary project encompassing visual, audio and performing aspects. Paola Bonino and Marta Wróblewska were involved as junior curators, Jan Klare und Achim Kämper were the musicians, Ula Zerek und Honorata Martin were the performers. Based on private images collected in the neighborhood, artists and curators developed walk-in imagery reflecting on the interplay of the personal and collective memory of this part of town. I remember very well how happy we were when we realized that people came to see the works. Due to the reputation of the part of town, we were not sure that the audience will find its way _ but they came.
Audience development and art mediation
NARRACJE was designed to be free of admission to allow general access to all audiences and to stay away from any commercializing. “The reaction of the visitors which were very open and often playful in its interaction with the installation, was particularly nice for me”, recalled Detlef Hartung. In the art mediation program, we focused on the personal and collective experience. When talking with the visitors, we draw attention to light as the primordial medium of expression and perception. When walking with the audience, we referred to the site-specific settings. Explaining material and technology aspects, we offered insights on innovative know-how of light and digital media. With regards to all these context-aspects, we generated a background that allowed individual art experiences and collective debates on the artworks and on the sites that were part of the display.
We trained mainly art and art history students that already have an understanding of contemporary artistic procedures. In our preparations, we had found that the mediation of contexts of arts and curatorial concepts were not part of academic training or on-going practice. And even when programs’ participants came with former experiences, still they were surprised by our policy of sustaining the audience’s integrity first. The small formation program on contemporary art mediation encompassed curatorial lectures, artists’ visits, technical introductions and basics of communication with visitors. It led to extraordinary teams of art mediators year after year. While preparing the extra effort sometimes seemed to be too demanding, but when we saw the dedication of the young art mediators and the enthusiastic feedback of the spectators, we regained the motivation to do it again in the following years. In the mix with the general communication activities, supported by edgy graphic design concepts, we were able to engender a socio-cultural process based on the experience and the conversation about it. Part of that was great documentation imagery. Especially Jennifer Braun’s photo documentation helped a lot to disseminate what we achieved.
Furthering the local art scene
Part of the curatorial concept of NARRACJE was to foster local and national artists by providing a new display for light- and media-based works in an international scheme. Over the three years 2009 to 2011, 41% of the participating artists were Polish. To include more local artists, we organized a small series of media art workshops introducing large scale architecture projection hard- and software tools. Iwona Bigos and I invited artists from our curatorial networks to learn and to experiment.
All workshop participants were asked to develop a site- or context-specific work for the upcoming edition of NARRACJE. One of the results was the work “Red Corner” by Robert Sochacki. “For me, NARRACJE started in 2010, when I was invited to do a projection in the old city center. Still today, you can find the images online when you check on NARRACJE.”, said Robert Sochacki. And it is true, the “Red Corner” became one of the iconic images of the projects and has been used over the last 10 years repeatedly to communicate on the project. “This experience changed my point of view and my artistic approach for good. I turned from being an underground artist of light/noise and visual experiments for a rather small audience to someone who is visible with his art in the city space”, states Robert Sochacki. Marek Radke confirms a similar experience: “As an artist, NARRACJE was an incentive for new researches and further activities. Because of my participation in NARRACJE, I met international artists, curators and producers. And later, they invited to work in the St. Andreas Church in Hildesheim.de, to the Mark-Rothko-Art-Center in Daugavpils.us and to the Medina in Tunis.tn. NARRACJE was like a jump board for me.“
International meeting point
As an international art project, 59% of the artists from 2009 to 2011 were international guests, for many of them is was the first time of working in Poland. “For me, a presentation in an Eastern European country was new and so I was very excited about Gdansk. I was very pleasantly surprised and still maintain contacts to individual artists and organizers of the festival.”, said Mexican artist Ghiju Díaz de Léon. “And for us”, said Detlef Hartung, participating artist in 2010, “NARRACJE was important. We work with language and for NARRACJE; for the first time, we worked with a language we don’t speak. The use of a foreign language has been further intensified since then and is an important part of our work in international appearances.”
38% of all participants came from Europe and 21% from further parts of the world as North- and Latin-America and Australia. Ghiju Díaz de Léon looked back: “What was great, was the encounter and exchange with local and international artists. Somehow there was always discussion around and we were able to relate our thoughts to our works. I understood that how scarred Polish society was and how that triggered different concepts and esthetics than I had seen elsewhere in Europe. NARRACJE extended my idea of Europe. And I became good friends with Martin Fröhlich from Projektil, we travelled together, another very good memory.”
Across generations and genders
In the curatorial choices, we were not only concerned about the mix of local, national and international artists but as well about a broad range of age. Checking back on that, we found that each edition had a good mix of artists in their twenties, thirties, forties, fifties and sixties. In addition, we cared for the presence of women artists in art projects. Unlike other projects around the world, for NARRACJE 2009 to 2011, 36% of the artists were female, 34% were male and 30% were collectives. Unfortunately, this momentum to overcome structural inequality of women artists was not furthered in the later editions of NARRACJE. In 2018, there were 76% of the participating artist male, 14% were collectives and almost 10% were women artists. In 2018, we really shouldn’t need to reiterate such an obvious principle, but gender inequality is still so prevalent in the contemporary art world, that we may need to keep doing so for some time to come.
“Let me highlight”, said Detlef Hartung, “I found the atmosphere and the many conversations with the participating artists in the daily get-together extremely positive.” Behind the scenes, the NARRACJE team cared for shared meals of artists, curators, art mediators, producers and technicians and for opportunities for night-long lounging. The extra financial and organizational effort paved the way for encounters and discussions that allowed critical reflection and sparked furthering ideas. “During this festival, I had the opportunity to meet many people who were dedicated to this project as Bettina Pelz, Iwona Bigos, Tom Groll, and many others with whom I got involved in joint projects. NARRACJE opened new perspectives on art in the public space of Gdansk, for me in person and as well as for the inhabitants of the Tri-City. It engendered great contacts and discussions in an international community of artists and curators, all working with light. And it opened the doors to new friendships …”, Marek Radke described his NARRACJE experience. Ghiju Díaz de Léon stated as well how the project’s community was a lasting inspiration: “We all met only for 10 days, may-be for two weeks, but with good framework like the NARRACJE one, we all get super enthusiastic. … It is now 10 years ago, that I met Detlef Hartung, he is a real warm-hearted and open-minded person. And I admire his work with Georg as Hartung | Trenz. At that time, they were working with analogue slide projectors only. Typography, repetitions, layers … and with their trained minds and eyes they generated visual poetry that was breath-taking for me. Five years later, I met him again and although they had changed the technology they use, they kept the same mix of conceptual and aesthetic depth. What an inspiration …”.
The NARRACJE context after 2011
In 2013, I was invited to join the conference “Artline” which took place at NCK. On the agenda were ongoing art-in-public-space projects. We reviewed new artistic approaches and their sociocultural impact. We reflected on temporary co-operation and limited duration, variable set of partners and adaptable curatorial focus, art mediation and audience development. We found that exhibition projects like NARRACJE respond to the need for open spaces away from the institutional conventions to accommodate innovative artistic approaches, to intervene in public space as a forum of democratic culture and the reflect on cultural heritage. Personally, it was as well a great occasion to meet Steven Matijcio and Rob Garrett, the curators of the last 4th and 5th editions of NARRACJE, a very unique opportunity that I am still thankful for. I followed their editions in the last years and saw how they coped with the city, a very inspiring experience.
With some of the Polish artists that I met during NARRACJE, I am still working. The spirit of sharing and developing together paved many paths that led to exhibition projects around Europe and Africa, among them are Dominik Lejman and Marek Radke. Since 2018, I am working with Wera Morawiec and Robert Sochacki on a project hosted by the GDANSK ART ACADEMY with focus on “Light as Creative Tool”. It links lectures and debates, experimental workshops and small residencies, an exhibition and a publication in a research project on light in fine arts and aims to foster academic research and publication on light in fine arts.
In 2009, in the same year as NARRACJE was founded, the BELLA SKYWAY FESTIVAL in Torun started and in 2011, the LIGHT MOVE FETSTIVAL in Łódź followed. All three Polish formats became sustainable and are known by 2018 as programs that attract large audiences. Unlike the other Polish festival formats that stretch from art to stage to entertainment, NARRACJE is still dedicated to contemporary art. That is a great success for the INSTYTUT KULTURY MIEJSKIEJ (IKM) which has made NARRACJE a sustainable project.
Fingers crossed for the future
Following all these activities keep the good memories of the NARRACJE years vivid. If a curator can be called an alchemist, I would like to quote the artist Anselm Kiefer to summarize my NARRACJE experience: “Alchemy is not to make gold, the real alchemist is not interested in material things but in transubstantiation, in transforming the spirit. It’s a spiritual thing more than a material thing. An alchemist puts the phenomena of the world in another context”_1. Let me end with a warm “thank you” to everybody that made NARRACJE happen and keeps it going. Despite all the success, the circumstances do not seem to get easier than when we started in 2009. And still, NARRACJE is a great reason to meet in Gdansk.
Interview with Robert Sochacki on November 13, 2018.
Interview with Marek Radke on November 17, 2018.
Interview with Ghiju Díaz de Léon on December 2, 2018.
Interview with Detlef Hartung on December 18, 2018.
1 _ Jackie Wullschlager: Interview with Anselm Kiefer, ahead of his Royal Academy show. On: Financial Times Online. Published on September 19, 2014. URL https://www.ft.com/content/4ad87118-3f42-11e4-a861-00144feabdc0 as seen on December 30, 2018.
Supported by Bradford Catler and deepl.com