Piotr Krajevski interviewed by Joanne Richardson

>> You founded WRO at the beginning of the 1990s in Wroclaw. Could you describe the social and political context in which you were working directly after 1989?

Actually, we started our activities even earlier. The first WRO festival was organized in the first week of December 1989. This was quite a special time: three weeks after the Berlin Wall fell down and several months after the first free election in Poland. We were witnessing pivotal changes taking place at that very unique moment, although their meaning was not entirely comprehensible for us.

All in all, the euphoria felt around that first WRO event was optimistically taken as a clear sign that there was something new for art, too. That was actually how what we were doing was perceived in Poland - as a sign that culture was renewing itself, as politics was. A minimal budget was sufficient because the post-communist economy allowed setting different activities up without having solid financing.

The biggest part of this pioneering WRO festival was filled with video-art and computer animation shows, which were in the mainstream of new media at those times. These were shown on what seems to have been the only video projector in Poland then, borrowed from the Polish national TV. Along with this we carried out many other things, the Amiga computer animation pieces, the first interactive and multimedia performances, and a bunch of bizarre concerts. We presented all the tapes we were sent without any selection - and there were over 200. This seems hard to believe now but the audience stayed for everything. They booed and whistled at mediocre works but stayed and kept watching. A terrific atmosphere of discovering new worlds accompanied these shows, concerts and exhibitions, and that feeling was shared by several thousand audience members who attended the event.

WRO was not only the first such event in this part of Europe but also, which is remarkable, it was perceived immediately as a big media festival and gained wide recognition. That recognition meant huge audiences, and it attracted press and television reporters, who, despite their not too clear understanding of what was going on, sensed that it was something extraordinary and gave the event very intensive publicity. The event was also an occasion for meeting over 100 artists who came to Wroclaw from the USA, Germany, France, Italy, Holland, Russia (actually, from different countries of the Soviet republic), Hungary, and Czech Republic.

However the most important fact for development of art in Poland was that the festival gathered different generations of Polish artists, including the youngest one - they became known to everyone right then, and they immediately experienced themselves as a new movement, a motor for further changes. It is clear now in retrospect that the event was crucial for them as the place of meeting each other and discovering they weren't doing their things alone and in isolation, which was their common belief due to a complete lack of information. They got to know not only what was happening abroad, but that similar activities were taking place, say, in the next town.

It is obvious that our strength are meetings between West and East, obvious to such extent that we have never found it necessary to state it explicitly. We have written about meeting of artists from "here" and "there", we had the feeling that our activity has a strong and clear relevance for many political aspects, but we wanted to avoid labeling and resorting to a banal political rhetoric. The WRO has become known as an event, a festival. Its first edition was a beginning for us. Later when we understood its significance, we placed our expectations on a very high level and ever since then we have been responsible for coming up to them.

>> When you began, did a tradition of artists founding their own space and association already exist in Poland? And was there already a context for "media art" during this time?

Describing the tradition and general context of our activity must involve some insight into the conditions for culture during the last years of communism. Official culture during this time was actually dying from its own impotence, whereas there was a strong current of unofficial, independent culture. This was very important, but also beginning to showing its constraints as something that remained unofficial and behind the scenes. It seems we acted at the first moment when it became possible for things that were underground or marginalized until then to find themselves in a normal circulation. It became obvious that many people had been waiting for it for a long time.

As far as media art is concerned, what is curious is that many phenomena had already existed, yet without any possibility to introduce or present themselves to the public. The first video realizations had already appeared in the mid 1970ties, however the media artists practicing in Poland were for a long time outside the area of official art supported by the communistic state. There was no room for them in the authorized picture of Polish art, in the galleries. Only a few independent places, closed for those who were not in the know, showed video-art, and even there this was rare. No wonder that the audience, even those interested in contemporary art, had no idea about video-art. The first generation of medialists split into two groups: one abandoned the domain because it was devoid of any possibility to act. The other simply emigrated in order to develop their work abroad - Zbigniew Rybczynski and Krzysztof Wodiczko serve well as examples.

On the one hand the technological underdevelopment and complete lack of possibilities of showing works brought about a situation in which the group of artists working with video or trying to experiment with the computer remained small for years. But, still, they were present as a force, and the continuity with this earlier movement was crucial for the further, accelerated development during the 1990s, when WRO created a forum for meetings and for presentation of these kinds of works.

>> What are some of the projects WRO has made through the years that you consider most important? Is the festival one of these? What has been the impact of the festival - did it arise in the context of an emerging new media scene in Poland, or create this context itself?

Projects that we have completed within the structure of WRO are obviously numerous and very versatile, taking account of the 13 years of WRO's existence. WRO as a festival (which was established as a biennale after first three editions) is of course of the most important part and most of the projects we accomplish are more or less rooted in this event. Therefore the majority of completed projects have been presented during one of the biennale's editions. Their characters is very diverse: recent examples include internet performances with real time feedback, a concert by a group performing with Gameboy consoles, and a project based on the phenomenon of clubbing, called "i-club residents". Exactly one year ago we succeeded in one of our most ambitious undertakings, which was a performance of Jaron Lanier's compositions written specially for WRO - a concert of virtual instruments and chamber orchestra. Some projects are small and require almost no effort, others are huge, involving many people, as well as technologically complicated. The character of what we have become accustomed to call "new media art," or abbreviated, "media art" has changed significantly during WRO's existence, just as everyday life has.

Therefore it is normal that during these years the structure of presentation and the artistic phenomena we present have also changed and evolved. What has remained unchanged is our effort to create a cognitive distance, a sort of critical perspective upon media art. We have attempted to achieve this distance through our choice of the general themes for particular events, through the selection of works and setting a final program for the biennale, as well as through symposiums, which are always present as part of program.

Between 1991 and 1997 very crucial for us was our collaboration with the 2nd National TV Channel, thanks to which the topic of new media art was quite often and quite thoroughly presented on TV. This gave us interesting possibilities to reach audiences that were much wider than our usual, festival audience. Many of our productions were documentaries on artistic events, such as reports on international festivals like Multimediale organized by ZKM, Ars Electronica, and finally WRO itself. However there's something even more important to stress - the fact that Polish Television has commisioned works by Polish artists through WRO as an independent TV co-producer. The professional conditions of each such production and later its national broadcast was very valuable for an artist who didn't have to make compromises that are a feature of each collaboration with any specific TV station, because in this case all the mediation and responsibility were on WRO's side. In most cases neither the television nor the artists could manage such co-production with mutual understanding. We served as an interface, operated as producers and curators working for the sake of projects. This brought remarkable outputs and was very important for Polish video-art. Each year there were several works by different artists, sometimes we managed to complete 5-6 projects. Among the most important video works a significant number, I dare to say even majority of them, came into existence thanks to this relationship with the TV. This was certainly a sort of creative challenge. That collaborative experiment with the TV went even further: several times we organized within WRO festival special events and performances, which were broadcast live, often during a good time, so we reached an audience of a few million. After 1997, the collaboration with television started getting weaker. The situation of art changed, and the TV changed as well, but we still cooperate. Now however, this is limited to 1 or 2 programs per year. Summing up however, our output is quite impressive - it's more than 120 different programs, from several-minutes pieces to ones that are over 1 hour long.

Another kind of project WRO has implemented relates to education. It should be mentioned that Poland has lacked a proper artistic education in the domain of new media. There's nothing comparable to German or Dutch standards. Therefore since 1990 we have traveled with lectures and shows between galleries, art schools, museums and various ephemeral alternative places. This adds up to something like 200 lectures. We find it a great means of communication, exchange of ideas, as we have reached and met various artists, various peripheral environments, and have built up a network of relationships, which was extremely important before the net as we now understand it actually appeared.

>> When we met in Prague, you talked about the WRO archive? What is in this collection - and does it have an open character, in other words, is it open to the public?

The WRO archive cannot be labeled extremely large by international comparisons, but it is the largest of this kind of collection in Poland. We have mainly video tapes (VHS format prevails, but there are also a few hundred of Betacam tapes) as well as CD-ROMs, and publications - constituting a very rich collection of Polish artists' works. A number of these are represented by WRO, so we could also be said to be distributors. The total number of collected works is over 3000. Most of them are available for viewing on the spot for educational and research purposes. The archive is open mainly to students - there are several master's degree papers which included research of our collection. However the conditions of accessing the archive are limited, so I would not call it open to the public.

>> Is WRO also a media lab available for artists who want to use the equipment to produce their own works?

WRO is not a production lab, and as far as video and other production equipment are considered, we don't really have this kind of possibility in our space. When need arises, we organize all that is necessary for a particular project, configure the situation, seek people to cooperate with, search for sources of financing and optimal means of realization. We also don't have an exhibition space. Of course we do have working space, let's call it an "office", with a communication infrastructure, 5-6 computers, the archive, documentation, accountancy and so forth. Thus when organizing a show or exhibition we cooperate with galleries, museums and theaters (generally institutions having their own spaces). We have often looked for "other", more neutral locations. A huge exhibition of installations in December 2000 was assembled in the lofts of a baroque building of Wroclaw University (a space that has never before been attended by the public) and in the university's mathematical tower, which was just restored and opened for visitors for the first time since the 2nd WW. We also set up presentations and exhibitions in an old inactive railway station, large TV studio and National Museum, as well as different historical halls.

We attempted to uses spaces that corresponded actively to the concept. For instance, Lanier's concert took place in one of the city's most beautiful baroque halls, usually reserved for events of the high culture. Stelarc's performance on the other hand took place in the black room of the Laboratory theater, where in the 70ties Grotowski and his actors experimented with overcoming the limits of the expression of the body in the theater - place that is a shrine for all who know anything about the contemporary theater.

>> What is the role of the SCCA in Poland - both in terms of promoting media culture and in terms of funding opportunities for artists and organization - and what is your relation to them?

The role of Soros Foundation in Poland, as far as the new media issue is considered, cannot be compared to other Eastern European countries, where the origination of different SCCAs had a much more crucial, initiating value for emerging new environments and phenomena. This case is completely different in Poland. Certainly Stefan Batory Foundation (even its Polish name is different) is a powerful and rich organization with very wide spectrum of activities, carrying out many important social projects, but its activity is not focused on new media. Several times we obtained grants for the WRO Biennale from the foundation's Cultural Link program, or individually, we obtained money for travel and fellowships like Arts Link. This is very precious, but in Poland Soros hasn't facilitated a faster development of the new media domain. In our case all this simply means that as an independent institution we are completely devoid of a steady and constant subsidy from any budget sources. All we have done was based on our efforts to obtain grants for particular projects, and some small amounts we managed to work out on our own.

>> What does being an "independent" institution mean to you? In-dependence is a negative characterization, something that is not dependent? Not dependent on what? State institutions, funding bodies? Does financial independence also have negative aspects?

Although I have stressed the positive aspects of WRO's existence, there is another side, and there are some things we won't ever realize without a more solid financial base. Despite existing for so many years, WRO has never had a longer period of stabilization. In countries like Holland, Germany or Austria almost everything that appears as "independent" (if only it seems to be solid enough) usually connects somehow to the system or softly gets institutionalized or gains some form of stable subsidy. In Poland the system is much more resistant. The problem is twofold: first - poverty (the state's expenses for culture is barely 0.5% of its budget); second - the system firmly sticks to the traditional view of culture, so such institutionalizations are very rare and even if they occur, they're limited to other (read traditional) initiatives in culture. We have tried several times to establish an institution offering wider possibilities for functioning, but without money to sustain this it will remain only an idea. Recently, last fall, our project concerning the establishment of a large municipal cultural center focused on media in a wide context, from art to education and social activities with local society - was rejected. Our proposal was to convert the abandoned building of an old industrial bakery into a place suitable for such a center. We have worked on this project for quite a long time, even cooperating with the city's authorities. It seemed to have good chances to succeed but finally it encountered strong internal resistance of the authorities. It simply ceased. All this happened despite the fact that WRO is one of the most widely recognized cultural events in Wroclaw, each time gathering a public of several thousand people, despite being widely commented on in the press and public media, and despite being mentioned in various cultural or sociological research papers as one of the most important cultural events that Poland is known for.

>> Is WRO an organization? A community? What kind of relationship exists between the different members?

Many times I used the word "we" to refer to WRO and that is because I strongly believe that all the best comes from the fact that we work as a team. And "we" means Violetta Kutlubasis-Krajewska, who graduated from Wroclaw university theory of culture dept. and the film school in Lodz, and Zbyszek Kupisz, who studied political science and managed underground and experimental rock bands. Together with a few other people we set up in 1988, using different legal ploys, "Open Studio Cooperative" - probably the first Polish independent cultural institution that had legal status. During the end period of communism we tried many strategies for operating but to be able to exist legally and to be able to really function were two completely different things. After a year of experiments and failures only the three of us remained and we set up WRO as a festival and later as the center, which for a couple of years has had the legal status of a foundation.

Aside from the 3 members who have remained steady through the years, we have also always been lucky to meet great collaborators. They are mainly students who have looked for possibilities of doing interesting things. Some of them worked on one or two projects, others stayed for a few years, gradually becoming self-sufficient curators and organizers. This dimension of collaborative work, a sort of community that works together and enjoys the successes of projects is our greatest experience.

December, 2001

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