Art as Energy

Art as Energy

Józef Robakowski from the Workshop of Film Form to Video Performance and Energy Recordings

Michael N. Goddard
Józef Robakowski is a prolific experimental artist who has worked across multiple media including experimental photography, film and video, video installation, video performance, experimental television, artistic documentation, curating and other activities from the 1960s to the present. Recent publications have shed some light on the Polish Workshop of Film Form he was a founding member of but it is still necessary to underline Robakowski’s distinctive contribution to this collective project. Moreover his creative activity has extended well beyond this and has as much to do with the creative use of video, which he pioneered in Poland from the 1970s, in a creative trajectory that calls into question stable distinctions between film, television and video. While his early video work can be characterised as having largely formalist concerns with the nascent medium, its evolution via video performances points to dimensions beyond any mere medium specific formalism. Significantly, across all his work there is an attention to the relations between energy and technical images, that gives both these aspects of his work consistency. This article will present several examples of Robakowski’s works, as well as several of Robakowski’s artistic statements which taken together articulate an approach to artistic practice that is non-illusionary and bio-technical-energetic, drawing on and extending the legacies of avant-garde precursors into the contemporary multi-media digital present.
Józef Robakowski; experimental film and video; video performance; state socialism; biopolitics; workshop of film form; energy recordings


Józef Robakowski is a prolific experimental artist who has worked across multiple media including experimental photography, film and video, video installation, video performance, experimental television, artistic documentation, curating and other activities from the 1960s to the present.1 Thanks to recent publications like The Struggle for Form (2014), the Polish Workshop of Film Form he co-founded with Wojciech Bruszewski, Paweł Kwiek, Antoni Mikołajczyk, Ryszard Waśko and others has become better known internationally, but it is still necessary to underline Robakowski’s distinctive contribution to this collective project. Moreover, his creative activity has extended well beyond this and has as much to do with the creative use of video, which he pioneered in Poland from the 1970s, in a creative trajectory that calls into question stable distinctions between film, television and video as both technologies and apparatuses.

The specific cultural situations of state socialist and post-communist artistic production has meant there has been a limited appreciation of this work in Western contexts. For example, Chris Meigh-Andrews’ History of Video Art (2006), only devoted just over a page to Polish video art. While Robakowski is described as “one of the most important video artists of the time” (2006: 30), there is no sustained engagement with his work in this volume. Similarly Catherine Elwes’ Video Art: A Guided Tour mentions neither Robakowski nor Polish video art, and her more recent volume Installation and the Moving Image (2015) only briefly writes about Robakowski in the context of paracinema mentioning two light-based works (Elwes 2015: 183, 186). The recent Rewind projects that have extensively documented and engaged critically with early video art, with national focuses on the US (2009), UK (2012), and Italy (2015), while invaluable in these contexts, have added little on video art from Eastern Europe which remains outside the frame. One can only hope that future rewind projects will address the still neglected context of Poland and Eastern Europe. The closest there has been to this in Eastern Europe is the East Art Map series of publications and exhibitions, but this only touches on video art tangentially, and only mentions the Polish video artists Krzysztof Wodiczko, Katarzyna Kozyra and Paweł Althamer (see Irwin ed. 2006: 245-251, 440-443). It is only in more specifically Polish focused publications like The Struggle for Form, or Ronduda and Zeyfang’s’s catalogue 1, 2, 3… Avant-Gardes (2007) that there is any sustained treatment of Polish experimental film and video art including Robakowski’s work, other than in publications dedicated to specific artists or works that are only rarely translated into English.

While Robakowski’s video work continues some of the formalist medium specific concerns of the Workshop of Film Form, its evolution via video performances points to dimensions beyond any mere medium specific formalism. Typically Robakowski’s work is seen as divided between a formalist expanded cinema practice, and a more personal experimental film and later video practice, a distinction Robakowski himself has formulated. However across all his work there is an attention to the relations between energy and technical images, that gives both these aspects of his work consistency. This article will present several examples of Robakowski’s works including three which provide keys to understanding his approach to film, video and art in general: Idę… (I’m Going…, 1973) Sztuka to potęga (Art is Power, 1985) and Manifest energetyczny! (“The Energy Manifesto” 2003). These works, as well as several of Robakowski’s artistic statements articulate an approach to artistic practice that is non-illusionary and bio-technical-energetic, drawing on and extending the legacies of avant-garde precursors like Dziga Vertov, who similarly argued for film as a dynamic and energetic rather than an illusionary fiction-based art-form. As has been argued of Vertov’s Kino Eye, (c.f. Zourabichvili, 2000, 146-147), Robakowski’s approach is resonant with contemporary concepts such as biopolitics and the figure of the cyborg, since the mutual co-implication of bodies, technical images and apparatuses is constantly being examined. This is biopolitical since it questions formal arrangements from a bodily energetic perspective, also calling into question the socio-political arrangements they are grounded in. As such they can be seen as a biopolitical response to both socialist and post-socialist regimes of power, in line with Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s formulation of biopolitics as resistance (Hardt and Negri, 2000, 22-27, 210-218), that takes place on the level of the energy of the body, rather than ideologically. If Robakowski’s work is political, it is paradoxically, as we shall see, by dispensing with any explicit reference to politics in favour of an apparent medium formalism: in Robakowski’s own words “the only way to make political art was to exclude politics” (Robakowski cited in Czubak ed. 2012: 5). Nevertheless, in the context of state socialism, the apparent avoidance of politics was itself a political gesture and was increasingly responded to as such by the Polish state.

This article will therefore examine a range of works and projects across Robakowski’s career, showing how they articulate ideas of film and video as power and energy, and highlighting the artist’s unique contributions to historical and contemporary media art practices and theories. This is not to say that other video artists were not engaged with similar practices at similar times, and in fact this article acknowledges links with British structural film and with US experimental filmmakers like Paul Sharits. However, the context of pursuing such practices in the conditions of state socialism meant that even similar formalist “pure cinema” or video works were conducted in a completely different social and artistic context that this article highlights. In order to do so, it draws upon an extensive interview conducted with Robakowski in November, 2015. This was vital for providing a contextual account of his evolving multi-media practices in the contexts of both state socialism and post-communism transition. However, this background is engaged with critically in the reading of his works, which questions his stated apolitical or anti-communist positions, seeing in the work forms of media practice amenable to materialist or even new materialist interpretation as works of biopolitical resistance and a nascent post-humanism. My methodological approach is both archival and contextual in relation to the original context in which the works were produced, and also media theoretical, seeing his intermedial practice as making significant contributions to contemporary audiovisual media practices and theories.

Robakowski’s Background and Polish Underground Movements

Given Robakowski’s well known aversion to literary narrative in film and art, it may seem to make little sense to offer a detailed personal biography but some salient features are important for understanding the project of the Workshop of Film Form as well as Robakowski’s subsequent work in film and video. Unlike some of the other workshop participants, Robakowski’s creative biography extends back to the beginning of the 1960s, and in fact he made his first films in 1962, including 6, 000, 000 which was compiled from archive film of concentration camps, an especially unwelcome subject matter in this period. However, in the 1960s, Robakowski’s artistic activities largely revolved around photography and a series of avant-garde groups he participated in of which the most important was the “Zero-61” group (1961-1969). At the time Robakowski, who was born in Poznań, was studying art-related subjects in Toruń, and as would be the case subsequently there was a strong relationship between engagement with theory and artistic practice. Robakowski has especially emphasised the anti-communist stance of some of his professors who he described as “Sanacja professors”. They were an older pre-war generation and had a critical attitude to socialism” (Robakowski and Goddard 2015).2 Nevertheless as Robakowski also claimed this did not mean that artists in these groups generated a dissident, anti-socialist artistic practice; rather they produced works that were independent of the dynamics of authoritarianism and resistance through an “art for art’s sake” formalism, which nevertheless stood out as having “a peculiar quality that didn’t fit in, [and] was completely useless for this socialism because it was of no public and political function. It was absurd” (Robakowski and Goddard 2015).

These attitudes towards artistic production in the conditions of state socialism are essential for understanding Robakowski’s unique contributions as a video artist and filmmaker, which are so far to be fully appreciated in most accounts of both Polish cinema and international video art. For example, Robakowski is not even mentioned in works like Polish National Cinema (Haltof 2002) and even fails to fit with more recent revisions of the canon of Polish art cinema such as work on the Polish New Wave (Piwowarska and Ronduda 2005) and Polish Cinema and Surrealism (Mikurda and Wielebska 2010). It is only in work specifically dealing with avant-garde artistic movements such as several exhibition projects of Łukasz Ronduda most notably the 1, 2, 3… Avant-Gardes project (2007),3 or books like The Struggle for Form (2014) that this neglect has begun to be redressed. As already stated this work is equally neglected in accounts of international video art, and outside of exhibition catalogues, is only treated extensively by a few Polish academics such as Ryszard Kluszczyński, who wrote the chapters on the Workshop of Film Form (2014: 117-136) and Polish avant-garde film and video art (2014: 137-142) in The Struggle for Form.

The work of Robakowski and his collaborators was a rejection not only of official art but also and especially of the official dissident cinema both of filmmakers like Andrzej Wajda, and of art ‘new wave’ filmmakers like Walerian Borowczyk, Jerzy Skolimowski or Roman Polański, the older generation choosing or obliged to choose working in exile due to the unacceptable political content or aesthetic form of their works, and their explicit or veiled critique of the socialist regime. Robakowski and his fellow artists chose instead not to engage even in an expressive manner with existing cinematic forms but, following the legacy of Soviet and Polish constructivism, to radically deconstruct the medium and invent new forms via an extreme formalism, no longer even recognised by many of their contemporaries as cinema. In Ronduda’s terms “even at that early stage he was already concentrating not on the creation of completed works, but on the rational construction of techniques and contexts for creating works” (Ronduda 2005: 111). Robakowski’s early interest in found footage works like “6 000 000” at once destabilises auteurist concepts of originality and creates a type of intermedial assemblage, obliging the viewer to confront rather than turn away from a traumatic historical experience. Yet, at the same time, in its formal experimentation, the combination of still photography and moving images, and the intercalation of positive and negative photographic images, draws attention to the inevitable mediation and manipulation of this originary experience which remains unrepresentable; this constitutes a first formulation of the thesis that “art is power” highly resonant with Groys’ recent art historical concept of Art Power (Groys 2008).

However, these groups also need to be understood as part of the formation of an independent counterculture, or rather, as Robakowski has stressed, at the confluence between two different forms of counterculture. The first of these could be considered as an “entertainment movement” consisting in activities ranging from jazz and rock and roll music to poetry, theatre and literature. This counterculture was independent in existing outside of the mainstream of official cultural production, but at the same time lacking in formal awareness of its role in any art historical or socio-political sense. The other movement originated with constructivism which had played a key role in Polish art history but never been fully assimilated; here the exposure to art historical knowledge led to a project of wanting to advance existing artistic forms including cinema in a rationalist and modernist manner, that was not yet taking place within either official or subversive Polish cinema. The participants of this movement engaged with film clubs where foreign material could be seen both form Russia and the West; in fact despite the above mentioned anti-communist attitudes, they were especially interested in Soviet avant-garde cinema, especially in its formal experimentation of the medium of cinema itself. But they were also interested in Polish constructivist artists like Katarzyna Kobro, who Robakowski would later make a film documentary on in 1971 and subsequently a work for Polish TV in 1992. All of this led the original protagonists of the Workshop of Film Form to the Łódź international film school where, despite its institutional status as the principle educational formation of Polish filmmakers, this informality and exposure to international influences was able to continue. However, rather than follow in the footsteps of their predecessors like Skolimowski, or Polański who Robakowski claims seemed from the outset to be making films ‘for the West’ rather than local audiences, they decided to create an institution within the institution which became the Workshop for Film Form.

The Workshop of Film Form

The Workshop of Film Form was one of a range of collective experiments in avant-garde film production that were especially common in the 1970s, ranging from politically motivated groups like SLON and the Dziga Vertov group in France and Newsreel in the US, to the Balázs Béla Studio in Hungary and the London Filmmakers Coop in the UK. While having most in common with the structuralist/materialist approach to film of the LFC, there were still significant organisational differences leading to differences in the films that were actually produced, and as Steven Ball and David Curtis have indicated “this difference relates […] to the production context” (Ball and Curtis, 2007, 59).4 In particular, whereas most English structural/materialist filmmakers emerged from an art school background, without a high degree of cinema professionalism, and an attendant DIY attitude to production, in the WFF the filmmakers were highly trained, with access to sophisticated resources, exemplified by the fact that their films were largely made on 35mm, something unheard of in Western avant-garde filmmaking contexts. Paradoxically, however, whereas British structural filmmakers were “very much filmmakers [emphasis in original] dealing with ‘structural/material’ concerns, the WFF doesn’t seem quite so concerned with formal issues about the film and video media as with more relational issues” (Ball and Curtis, 2007, 66). These relational issues involved fundamental concerns with perception and cognition, which was also concerned necessarily with reception, rather than just with the formal properties of the works themselves. This approach led to a very mixed reception to the WFF on the part of critics and filmmakers, according to whether their experiments were seen in cinematic or artistic avant-garde contexts. This has been explored by Tomasz Załuski who argues that the work of the WFF has only been fully appreciated retrospectively from the 1990s (see Załuski, 2017, 287-288).

This is a key point that also reflects distinct Polish influences on the Workshop of Film Form. Not only was it more influenced by legacies of constructivism in both art and film, than Western experimental film practice, but it also inherited Polish pre-war literary avant-garde debates around form, particularly in the work of Witkacy and Gombrowicz, which tended to expand the concept of form from the realm of strictly aesthetic practices into everyday life itself.5 One inheritance of this kind of idea was the concept of “Open Form” developed by Oskar Hansen and his Warsaw Art School students, but it is also apparent in the relational nature of many of the WFF’s seemingly “formalist” productions. In a key text by Robakowski “One Again for ‘Pure’ Film”, he writes:

Being affiliated […] with the Workshop of […] Film Form at the Łódź Film School, I have virtually unlimited possibilities of conducting tests and experiments to investigate the limits of my films’ perception by other people. With such tests, I try to determine the degree to which it is possible at the present moment to challenge literary-type perceptual habits. (Robakowski cited in Ronduda 2012, 67) 6

In the same text Robakowski gives two examples which are worth examining more closely for their relational properties. The first is his non-camera work Test 1 (1971) which in the situation of projection gives the viewer a perceptual after image as holes cut into the film allow for the explosive and direct perception of the full light of the projector. While on the one hand, such treatment of the material of the filmstrip is an eminently materialist exploration of the properties of film, it largely functions as a perceptual experiment, in which the variously positioned and differently sized holes, generate after-images accompanied by sounds, so that the film is made largely in the viewer’s head. As such it has a lot in common with the flicker films of Tony Conrad and similar projects like T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G (1968) by Paul Sharits, a filmmaker Robakowski felt a strong affinity with, dedicating to him the work Uwaga: ŚWIATŁO (Attention: LIGHT, 2004), for which Sharits had come up with the original idea. All these works are investigations not only of the formal properties of film but of cinematic conditions of perception, specifically the stroboscopic properties of film projection, foregrounding the persistence of vision that makes the illusion of cinematic continuity possible. These works were based on similar principles to the ones discussed by Catherine Elwes in terms of paracinema, such as Mirror Performance (1974) [this was an enhanced performance of the film Test 1 using mirrors rather than a separate work] in which “spectators captured in the line of fire between projection beam and screen can experience a work that shoots light at them or that blinds them with strobing light, as a direct assault” (Elwes 2015: 183). It is worth noting that this experimentation with perception already shifts the focus from questions of representation to energy; specifically in terms of the quanta of light energy released by the film and the capacity or incapacity of the human eye to assimilate this energy since it necessarily exceeds normal perception in terms of the explosions of light being both too intense and too rapid to be fully and accurately seen. I would argue that it is more in terms of energy transmission than “violence ascribed to […] technology” (Elwes 2015: 185) that these projects should be understood.

Another example referred to in the same text, and one of Robakowski’s most famous works is Rynek (The Market, 1970). In this work, the technique of which was later copied by other filmmakers, Robakowski captured a day in the life of a Łódź market via the technical procedure of shooting two frames of film every five seconds. This had the effect of compressing time so that an entire day of activity at the market could be presented in the five-minute duration of the final film. This work again has one aspect that is purely formal and related to the film medium—the extreme speeding up of time drawing attention to the artificial construction of time in all films based on the recording and projection of film at 24 frames per second—while at the same time presenting a social phenomenon in an entirely novel way. For Ball and Curtis the film is almost humanist and invites identification “despite its ‘distant’ view [since] it also documents a social phenomenon and inspires empathy” (Ball and Curtis 2004: 60). Identification in the British structural film context was complete anathema so this combination of formal experiment and social phenomenon surprises these authors; yet it is not quite accurate to say what is generated here is empathy or identification. The speed and artifice of the movement, coupled with the distance of the camera precludes any conventional mode of cinematic identification, which is usually predicated on both recognisable figures in close-up, on-screen looks and “normal” duration. It is simply impossible for the viewer to project themselves into the image in the way they might when watching a narrative film. What the film does present, however, is the human dynamism of the marketplace, which is less the object of any possible identification than a source of energy. The rushing and stationary figures and the dramas they enact in the frame, are abstracted from everyday life and standard experiences of duration, but by this procedure both analytical and affective responses are provoked. The viewer comes to understand in an otherwise impossible analytical sense how the market works over the course of a day, while at the same time being affected by the movements of its participants. However there is nothing purely natural or human here, just as there is no pure abstraction, but rather the natural and artificial, the human and the non-human are precisely articulated in combination and crucially at the level of energy. It is this kind of procedure that Robakowski would continue to develop throughout his work in film and video in the form of what he termed ‘energy recordings’ that he developed according to the following futurist-like precept: “entrust yourself to the magical mechanism of MACHINES that allow you to exceed the limits of the human imagination” (cited in Grzonka 2007, 37).

Energy Recordings and Bio-Mechanical Images

An emblematic early example of Robakowski’s bio-mechanical and performative practice from the WFF era is the short film Idę… (I’m Going… 1973).

Screenshot from Józef Robakowski, “Idę…” (“I’m Going… 1973)

Typically, this film began from a very simple premise, which nevertheless enabled the generation of a fascinating and complex work. In this film, Robakowski climbs the 200 steps of a Łódź parachute tower while counting each step aloud and filming the process with a 35mm camera in a single take. This film is literally biomechanical in that it contrasts the mechanical recording of the camera, with the biological effort required to carry it up the steps of the tower, which are expressed through the increased levels of exhaustion audible in the operator’s voice as he ascends the tower. Added to this, due to the physical nature of this feat of filmmaking it was impossible to be looking through the viewfinder but rather the camera had to be carried at waist level, thereby circumventing any guiding operation of the human eye. In Robakowski’s words “the camera ceases to control what we can see and is just attached to the body. The camera sees an uncontrolled image” (Robakowski and Goddard, 2015). This uncontrolled image goes beyond Vertov’s ideal of the camera-eye which, as in Man with a Movie Camera (1929) may exceed human perception but ultimately remains a prosthesis for the eye; when the operator climbs a tower in Vertov’s film this is in the service of this technological exceeding of the limits of human sense organs but in a heroic and seemingly effortless way. In Robakowski’s film there is the same effort to go beyond the limits of human perception, but one the one hand it goes further by freeing the camera from the control of the eye, while on the other reintroduces these limits through a direct presentation of the effort and exhaustion of the operator: “I am carrying a camera and tape recorder at the same time. I am recording sound which is recording my biological behaviour in the context of this quite objective image” (Robakowski and Goddard, 2015). Ronduda describes this as an “iconoclastic representation of the body, initiating a situation where the materiality of the film dialogues with the materiality of the human body […] The subject becomes another ‘thing among things’, a living fragment of matter” (Ronduda, 2012, 77). While the non-anthropocentric “headless” nature of this operation is clear, it is possible to go further and see in this biological-mechanical film performance the enactment of a cyborg figure, at once biological body and machine, literally joined at the hip. This is only one of many examples connecting Robakowski’s “theoretico-practical” work with and beyond the WFF, with contemporary debates and technological developments from cyborg post-humanism to the quantified self. Robakowski’s machinic assemblage of human organism and machine can be seen as the distant precursor of wearable self-tracking devices adopted by contemporary consumers for a variety of fitness and health reasons (see Moore 2018: 19-20). Such “energy recordings” permeate Robakowski’s work, taking several different forms and distinguishing it from the work of other members of the WFF:

I was interested in biological-mechanical recordings, in everything that would have constituted a physiological reception of art through body, through the eyes, through the senses. In order to bring it up, I needed to use light and sound. These sensations needed to be induced. (Robakowski and Goddard 2015).

I have already discussed some manifestations of these energy recordings in terms of harnessing and deploying the power of projected light as well as the mechanical manipulation of time; as Robakowski’s work developed, the relations between these formal aspects of film and later video media, are increasingly mediated through the body via performative practices. This performative intervention was in a sense there from the beginning since alongside making films, Robakowski and his like-minded friends engaged in a number of often absurd performative actions such as staging a cut price furniture sale in a city square presided over by their associate and tailor/outsider artist Wacław Antczak, a ‘lumpen-proletariat’ figure of central importance for Robakowski. On the death of a distant aunt of Robakowski, “two trucks took all her stuff from her big flat to Czerwony Rynek Marketplace [and] Antczak sold the stuff to people at ridiculously low prices […] it was a really weird public event […] and to this day no one knows this was an artistic action” (See Robakowski and Obrist 2012, 19). Crucial in this and other actions was the de-emphasising of the figure of the artist which was in stark contrast to the Polish avant-garde tradition of figures like Tadeusz Kantor whose “happenings” always identified their creator’s artistic sensibility, to the extent where he would always appear on stage with his creations as their conductor. In this case, the artists remained in the background as Antczak’s assistants, merely moving the furniture around, and drawing no attention to the fact that this was an artistic action. In retrospect Robakowski saw this as a quite intuitively situationist gesture, even if there was no question of influence. Such absurd actions may seem far removed from Robakowski’s cinematic work, especially in its most formalist varieties but nevertheless these performative gestures, the idea that art not merely “is” something but “does” something, were crucial to his development as an artist. In other words, the idea that art essentially involves energy exchange rather than the fabrication of stable objects, pervades both actions like this and his increasingly performative work in film and video.

In the 1980s, Robakowski would take these ideas in a different intermedial direction filming images directly off the television screen and thereby engaging with a much more politically informed investigation into mediated images. The context of these works was that of Martial Law that curtailed the activities of the WFF project and indeed Robakowski’s involvement with the Film School since his position there became untenable and he would not work there again until the mid-1990s. In these circumstances, experimental work became necessarily more personal and private, being denied both public spaces of production and reception. This also meant a turn towards video rather than film production as the former was in the 1980s considerably cheaper and easier to work with, given the severing of connections with the Film School.

Hommage a Breżniew (Homage to Brezhnev, 1982) and Sztuka to potęga! (Art is Power!, 1985) are both intermedial works based on filming off the television screen, thereby emphasising the textural differences between the two media. While the former is based on the televised state funeral of the Soviet leader, the latter is comprised of edited footage of a May Day military parade, designed to show off Soviet military power. It is the audiovisual strategies of the latter that are more revealing, however, of Robakowski’s artistic development in the 1980s. Both films invoke the specific viewing context of post Martial law television, emphasised via the staged mise-en-scène of state socialist power. In the latter film a VHS recording of the original television broadcast is manipulated—paused, slowed down, reframed, emphasising the combination of military hardware and militarised gestures, another version of the merging of human beings with technology, with clear political analogies to the situation of Martial Law in Poland. This is emphasised by the disjunction with the sound track which is composed for two tracks from Laibach’s Opus Dei album (1987); “Leben heißt Leben” (1987) and “Geburt einer Nation” (1987).7 While the tracks just seem to play randomly, there is a marked change in the film between the two sections corresponding to each track from the highly manipulated opening with an analytical slowing down of the image, and reframing to capture individual gestures and movements to the much less remediated second half which presents the footage more or less as it would have appeared on TV. While both these tracks sonically have military treatments, and are based on similar ideas of martial reworkings seemingly harmless pop songs to bring out their fascistic tendencies, there is a distinct difference in tone between them. The first track is a cover of Opus’ “Life is Life” slowed down and given a martial atmosphere through the incorporation of operatic backing vocals, a horn section, and military drumming, while the second based on Queen’s “One Vision”(1985) begins more as bombastic funk before becoming more traditional and anthemic. Whereas “Life is Life” is barely recognisable in Laibach’s version due to the drastic reworking of its light Euro pop into an anthem of self-sacrifice to fusion with the collective whole, “One Vision” is already highly bombastic and needs little in the way of reworking to bring out its disturbing undertones. The accompanying televisual images begin in a corresponding way with a more analytical approach, destabilising spatio-temporal logics in order to bring out the ways they call forth a militarised subject, whereas the second half presents this ritual of military power with minimal manipulation as if the viewer has already been included in its military diagram of power. However, it is here that the title of the work “Art is Power” needs to be recalled, in all its ambiguity. While one reading of the title could be as the aestheticisation of politics, in the military mise-en-scène presented on the screen or the art of power, there is another side that points to the power of the artist to intervene in this reality.

The art theorist Boris Groys has applied similar ideas to the broader context of contemporary art claiming that “if life is no longer understood as a natural event, […], but rather as time artificially produced and fashioned, then life is automatically politicized” (Groys 2008: 57). Contemporary art practices therefore “develop strategies of resisting […] which make it possible to transform the artificial into something living and the repetitive into something unique” (Groys 2008: 65). The manipulations of the image presented the first part of the film are just such a transformation of the aesthetics of power, precisely by intensifying them via similar strategies of over-identification employed by Laibach. Neither Laibach nor Robakowski present power in an uncritical manner but neither do they operate by easily co-opted subversive strategies of parody or dissident critique. Rather by emphasising and exaggerating the militarisation of aesthetics, they destabilise them via over-identification. This was a strategy already used by Robakowski and his colleagues in the 1960s, but played out very effectively by Laibach, especially in demonstrating the continuity between socialist and fascist, and later liberal democratic aesthetic regimes. Robakowski’s admiration for Laibach is made clear by his superimposition via analog video effects of the caped face of the Laibach vocalist over the military parade, in a further gesture of over-identification: “Laibach, in the time when they were [most] active, undoubtedly, fulfilled such a role. These artists proved that one can attack the system, for instance, a military system, through cynical gestures” (Robakowski and Goddard, 2015). However, for Robakowski, this was something he had been involved with since the 1960s, namely the idea that art was not only concerned with energy but was also a powerful source of freedom, that in short art “is power”, and more exactly the power to manipulate perception, the same power also used in politics but in an opposing way.

My Own Cinema: On Fingers, Self Portraits and Windows

Robakowski included these works in what he called “Kino Własne”, or “My Own Cinema” to distinguish it both from official cinema and the more formal experiments he undertook in the context of the Workshop of Film Form. This not only reflected the breakdown of the institutional and social basis of collective work of the WFF but also a different approach to both film and video which took on distinctly ‘personal’ and performative aspects without becoming autobiographical or narrative in any conventional sense. As Bożena Czubak has indicated (2012: 101), the ‘my’ referred to in the titles of several Robakowski’s works is less an unmediated biographical self than an interface of the body and technology, as can be seen in numerous works from the 1980s onwards. One example of this are the various works Robakowski devoted to his fingers in film, video and even live television broadcast. In the video version, ‘O Palcach’ (About Fingers, 1982), the humorous narration of the various characteristics and misadventures of his digits, also seen on the screen, mock autobiographical modes of cinema, especially artist documentaries, while at the same time providing a kind of autobiography of the body.

Screenshot from Józef Robakowski, O Palcach (About Fingers, 1982)

In this short video each of the fingers on Robakowski’s right hand are introduced, with both their individual histories and unique characteristics. The thumb is presented as the leader, the index finger is the most active, while the middle finger does hardly anything and is liked by nobody etc. However, this is more than a group biography since the fingers actually enact their typical actions form pointing and playful gestures to forming a fist. As such this is a relatively early example of video performance, or what Robakowski would call “video theatre” in which the real-time intimacy of video recording enabled a highly personal, while at the same time non-expressive, artistic practice. The ironic humour employed here is typical, as is the multiplying of possible levels of interpretation; can one really take this story of fingers seriously and if so do they reveal anything essential about the body they are part of? Is the narrator of the fingers’ misadventures identical to Robakowski himself and a reliable narrator? Are the fingers merely biological parts of Robakowski’s body or are they video entities, whose characteristics are only produced in the interface his body and video technology, and therefore another instance of mediated cyborg identities, however minimal and “poor” their mediation.

This again relates to the inheritance of Gombrowicz, and especially his practice in his Diary that famously begins: “Monday: Me/Tuesday: Me, Wednesday: Me, Thursday: Me, Friday…” (Gombrowicz 1988: 3). For Gombrowicz the self is both an absolutely essential material and in a sense the only literary subject; while at the same time being produced almost randomly via chance encounters and external forces. In Robakowski, the self is an interface between the body and technologies of vision, recording and projection, hence My Film (1974), From My Window (1978/85), My Video Masochisms 2 (1990), I’m Going (1973). I am Electric (1996/2005), Józef’s Touch (1989) and numerous other video self-portraits even when not specifically indicated by their titles. The phrase ‘Kino Własne’ (‘My Own Cinema’) that Robakowski applied to many of these more intimate video works, was of such significance that it was used for the title of his retrospective at the CCA art museum. As curator Bożena Czubak puts it: “In these often self-ironic games with his own image, joining a long tradition of jester-artists, Robakowski mocks artistic myths and seriously contests the modernist tradition of artistic vision” (Czubak 2012: 115). Robakowski’s specific contribution to this tradition being the design of works that at once demonstrate something about technology and something about the self in the interface between both. For example, in Bliżej-Dalej (Closer-Further, 1985) the failures of the zoom on an analog video camera to deal with drastic shifts in light intensity are used to conceal and reveal a portrait of Robakowski as camera operator in a mirror placed against a brightly illuminated window.

Screenshot from Józef Robakowski, Bliżej-Dalej (Closer-Further, 1985)

More famously, Robakowski shot out of a similar window over a period of years, beginning on film and finishing on video to construct the work Z Mojego okna 1978-1999 (From My Window 1978-1999, 2000), that records the passage from the late 1970s to post-communism, passing through the period of Martial Law, as affecting the small car park visible from Robakowski’s apartment window, in his words “the hero of this story, along with his neighbours”. Once again this is a work that can be read on a number of levels, whether literally as a microcosm of social and historical change, or as a formal constraint replicating both the voyeurism and fabulation of narrative cinema, and specifically works like Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954). Once again there is an ironic and humorous narration that while largely taken to be an authentic series of diary like observations, in fact was generated after the fact and in many instances made up; nevertheless, this act of fabulation, or in a sense fiction, is presented in conjunction with the actual transformations of the car park, its life in a series of seasons and historical periods, through to its disappearance due to the construction of a high rise hotel. In this context the stories are less important than the place itself, as a small piece of Polish modernity, as seen from the specific position of the filmmaker’s own window, which functions like a camera lens as one more technology of vision.

Nevertheless, in many respects this film is an atypical one, less in its play with modes of address, than in its shift away from questions of energy, light and power towards more conventional concerns with story-telling and even, in its own way, with historical representation. Other works are more direct, as in the video Robakowski shot of the punk band Moskwa. Robakowski was one of several Polish contemporary artists to become fascinated with Polish punk, shooting footage of pogoing punks at the Jarocin rock festival, a key site for Polish punk. The Video of Moskwa entitled Kapela Moskwa i moje oko: Zapis energetyczny (Moskwa and my Eye: Energy Recording, 1985), is neither a music video in any conventional sense nor the recording of a live performance in that no audience is present and nor are the songs performed as finished products. This is appropriate for Polish punk in the 1980s since they were largely denied any opportunity to record music, or for it to be disseminated anywhere beyond limited live performances, perhaps recorded in an amateur fashion and circulated on cassette. In this half hour video, Robakowski films Moskwa playing/rehearsing in the Cytryna movie theatre, in a set up arranged by Robakowski himself. There is none of the usual visual grammar of documenting live music, no cuts to close-ups of the singer or of virtuoso playing of instruments; rather Robakowski’s mobile camera emulates the energy of the music, capturing the group’s energetic performance intuitively, in a single take, frequently filming directly into white light. As the title suggests it is an energy recording, rather than a representation of any finished product, and as such a relational document of the interaction between Robakowski as visual artist and the group, as an energetic process.

Screenshot from Józef Robakowski, Manifest Energetyczny! (The Energy Manifesto, 2003)

This focus on energy, can be finally summed up in Robakowski’s short 2003 video Manifest Energetyczny! (The Energy Manifesto, 2003), which can be seen as related to earlier works where Robakowski probed his own face with various objects (My Videomasochisms 2), played an electronic keyboard with his head (Concerto for a Head, 2009) and even submitted his body to sufficient electric current to power two lightbulbs (I am Electric, 1996/2005). In The Energy Manifesto, however, the energy is more elemental, deriving from the ocean, albeit mediated visually and sonically by the powers of video editing. From a slowed down presentation of the artist’s face emerging and submerging below the surface of the water, a series of explosive emergences of the artist’s whole body with outstretched arms from the water are staged in extreme slow motion, together with an intensified and reprocessed soundtrack of liquid sound effects. Interspersed with these acts of emergence are the titles, presented as individual words both aurally (in Polish) and as visual titles in English: “I want to tell you all that art is energy”. Once again an artificial situation is generated, however natural its surroundings, designed to support the seemingly simple idea that art is energy. But on closer inspection this act is not so simple, involving as it does several layers of redundancy from the visual titles and voice, to the performed action. Since it is not only the statement that art is energy but its enunciation that is emphasised “I want to tell you all”, an impression is generated that this is what the audiovisual elements are also telling or demonstrating as a literal example of a work of art involving the manipulation of images and sounds to produce an experience of pure energy. As such what this short work presents, as a manifesto, is an idea that pervades all of Robakowski’s work that images and sounds are always the capture and reprocessing of energy, that images are energy, are light, prior to communicating any representational meaning. This statement therefore presents the core ethos of Robakowski’s work across film, video, and installation, and indeed his approach to curatorial practice via the Exchange Gallery, which Tomasz Załuski has also presented as another ‘machine’ for facilitating energy exchange: “The exchange gallery, construed as a social-communication medium, and all the artistic objects and documentations in its collection, are such [an energy] ‘device’ or ‘machine’ ” (See Załuski 2013: 78) As in Robakowski’s energy recordings, the Exchange Gallery as machine has agency and makes it possible to “create a non-discursive message going beyond language and beyond concepts” (ibid.: 78).

Conclusion: The Biopolitics of Energetic Images

This article has presented the cinematic work of Robakowski from before and during the Workshop of Film Form, as well as its subsequent development in video as essentially concerned with relations: between biological and technological bodies, between images and sounds, between energy and meaning, and between the role of the artist and that of the perceiver. While this work has taken many different forms over the last half Century, specifically ranging from the abstract medium specific formalism of the WFF films to much more personal explorations of video, there is a remarkable consistency in the search for analytical procedures resulting in works that reveal something about media and technologies, and something about bodies and subjects, or rather reveal both via their multiple interfaces. Robakowski was already using non-anthropocentric cyborg terms like “bio-mechanical” or “energetic images”, long before contemporary discussions of cyborg identities and post-humanism which he clearly and insightfully anticipated in the often difficult situation of being a film and video artist in the conditions of state socialism. This artistic trajectory while deliberately apolitical from the beginning and throughout both the socialist and transition periods, can nevertheless be seen as so many gestures of artistic and biopolitical resistance; the refusal of both official socialist and post-socialist narratives and institutions and their sanctioned oppositions, in favour of a creative act of exodus and desertion. Hardt and Negri discuss the role of exodus in the fall of the Berlin Wall, arguing that “In the desertion from ‘socialist discipline’ […] the mass exodus of highly trained workers from Eastern Europe played a key role in provoking the collapse of the Wall” (Hardt and Negri 2000, 214). Further on in the same text they indicate the importance of the fable of the cyborg that resides at “the ambiguous boundary between human, animal and machine” (2000, 218) in new forms of biopolitical resistance taking place in the “plastic and fluid terrain of the new communicative, biological, and mechanical technologies” (2000, 218). Contrary to Robakowski’s self-presentation of his work as being at once an apolitical formalism and informed by anti-communism, at the level of materiality and relations between bodies and technologies it is radically materialist in its address of energetic sounds and images prior to their encoding as representational meanings, and surprisingly resonant with the post-humanist “cyborg communism” of Hardt and Negri. Such a concept of biopolitical creative resistance seems especially applicable to Robakowski’s film and video practice, located as it is at the borders of human and machinic bodies, selves and energetic images, and rigorously investigating their multifarious relations and interfaces.


1 For a detailed account of Robakowski's curatorial activities and especially the significance of his Exchange Gallery, see Tomasz Załuski 2013: 48-93.

2 This was an interview with Robakowski conducted by the author with translation and some additional questions from Aneta Jerzebska, who also transcribed the interview in English. The interview was facilitated by Marika Kuźmicz and took place in Robakowski’s “Exchange Gallery” in his former apartment in Łódź, in November, 2015.

3 See especially the 1, 2, 3 Avant-Gardes exhibition at the CCA Ujazdowskie Castle Art Museum, 2006-2007, that was exceptionally significant as an archaeology of the Polish neo-avant-garde in general. Bożena Czubak also curated the important exhibition Józef Robakowski: My Own Cinema at CCA in 2012. Publications related to both exhibitions have been crucial for the research of this article.

4 This is from a short text included in Ronduda and Zeyfang’s 1, 2, 3 … Avant-Gardes catalogue. This is a rare acknowledgement of the importance of Polish video art based on Ball and Curtis’s international contacts with Workshop of Film Form members from the 1970s.

5 In 1980 Robakowski made a short film for television on Witkacy and according to Ryszard Kluszczyński, Gombrowicz’s books could be seen prominently in Robakowski’s apartment/gallery. On these inter war literary modernist debates around form between Witkacy, Gombrowicz and Bruno Schulz, see Goddard 2010, 11-31.

6 Ryszard Kluszczyński cites almost the same passage of this text, albeit with a divergent translation in The Struggle for Form.

7 Given that the stated release date of the video was 1985, and Laibach would only officially release these tracks as part of the Opus Dei album in 1987, this would seem to imply that Robakowski had obtained the tracks in advance of their official release due to personal contacts with the group. More plausibly, the music may have been added later, or Robakowski may have confused the dates unintentionally.


Michael N. Goddard is Reader and course leader of the Film, Television and Moving Image MA at the University of Westminster. He has published on Polish, international cinema and audiovisual culture as well as cultural and media theory. Among his publications are Impossible Cartographies (2013) on the cinema of Raúl Ruiz. He has organized several international conferences on The Fall, Subcultures and Lifestyles in Eastern Europe, Polish Cinema, and Noise. M. Goddard was a founding member of the Network for European Cinema and Media Studies (NECS) and served for three years on the publications committee working towards the establishment of the NECSUS journal. From 2014-2016 he held the CAPES/Science without Borders Special Visiting Researcher Fellowship, for a project with researchers from UNISINOS, Brazil on Cites, Creative Industries and Popular Music Scenes. Michael Goddard has also been a Visiting Professor at the University of Łódź, Poland (2004-2007) and before that held numerous positions including Lecturer in Television at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS) and Lecteur d’anglais at the Charles V Institute, of the University of Paris 7. His most recent book was published by AUP under the title Guerrilla Networks: An Anarchaeology of 1970s Radical Media Ecologies.


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Robakowski, Józef. 1971. Test 1. Łódź :Workshop of Film Form. 35mm, 5’.

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Robakowski, Józef. 1982. O Palcach (“About Fingers”). Video, 10’.

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Robakowski, Józef. 1985. Bliżej-Dalej (Closer-Further). Video, 4’.

Robakowski, Józef. 1985. Kapela Moskwa i moje oko: Zapis energetyczny (Moskwa and my Eye: Energy Recording”. Video, 30’.

Robakowski, Józef. 1990. Moje Videomasochizmy 2 (My Video Masochisms 2). Video, 4’.

Robakowski, Józef. 2000. Z Mojego Okna 1978-1999 (From My Window 1978-1999). Film/Video, 19’.

Robakowski, Józef. 2003. Manifest Energetyczny! (The Energy Manifesto). With Izabela Robakowska. Video, 2’.

Robakowski, Józef. 2004. Uwaga: ŚWIATŁO (Attention: LIGHT). With Paul Sharits and Wiesław Michalak. Video, 2’.

Robakowski, Józef. 2005. Jestem elektryczny (I Am Electric). Video, 13’.

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Suggested Citation

Goddard, Michael N. 2019. “Art as Energy: Józef Robakowski from the Workshop of Film Form to Video Performance and Energy Recordings”. Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 9. DOI:


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