“Art is Energy, Art is Power”

“Art is Energy, Art is Power”

An Interview with Józef Robakowski

Michael Goddard
Józef Robakowski is a prolific experimental Polish artist who has worked across multiple media including photography, film, video, experimental television, artistic documentation, and curating. This interview was conducted as research into his multifaceted career and informed the article in Apparatus Nr. 9 on his work that appears in this issue. The interview provides vital historical and political contexts to situate the emergence of Robakowski's various artistic practices, in relation to broader developments of Polish cinema, video and art history.
Józef Robakowski; Katarzyna Kobro; Łódź Film School; Experimental Film and Video, Laibach; constructivism; expanded cinema.
The Exchange Gallery where the interview took place. Photo by Michael Goddard.

This audio interview was conducted in November, 2015 by Michael Goddard, and translated and transcribed by Aneta Jarzębska in Robakowski’s Exchange Gallery and former residence in Łódź-Manhattan. Many thanks to Marika Kuźmicz from Fundacja Arton who facilitated the discussion and also participated in the interview.

MG: I wanted to start a little in the middle of things and just ask you about some phrases that are often repeated in your work like “Art is power”, “Cinema is power”, or, alternatively, “Art is energy”. I wondered if you could say a little bit about what those statements meant to you at the time and what they mean to you now?

JR: This is an effective statement and valid until now. I think that such artistic activities can result in very serious changes and such art can really bring on an effect.

MG: Is that purely in a creative sense or is there also a dark side to these kinds of statements. I am thinking of the work “Art is power” which has the Laibach soundtrack with the Soviet May Day parades. Is it a slightly different idea of power in that context?

JR: Laibach, in the time when they were active, undoubtedly, fulfilled such a role.1 These artists proved that one can attack a system, for instance, a military system, through cynical gestures, which were based on an Eastern European legacy and mainly on Russian art. In the area where they were active [Slovenia in former Yugoslavia] they mostly mocked Germans and undermined this military system very strongly. They succeeded in that, so to speak. But this was in the 1980s and in my case we need to start a little earlier [in Toruń, Poland]. Laibach was something really strong for the 1980s, for the social-political-cultural situation of the 1980s. I am already so old that I began to be preoccupied with this issue much earlier; an issue which they worked with as a group. I started with my friends in the 1960s. I kept demonstrating that art is synonymous with freedom. Free art, independent art. We lived under conditions that Laibach never experienced. They didn’t have a [state] socialist era like we had. They had, in fact, much more freedom. In the 1960s, we started an independent artistic movement. It was a student movement and I belong to the people who built this movement.

MG: Maybe we will step back a little bit and just talk about beginnings. I wonder if you can say something about the importance for your things like earlier avant-garde movements like particularly constructivism and particularly in Poland, such as artists like Katarzyna Kobro?

JR: We just need to clarify one thing first, or we will not understand each other. In Poland there existed, so to speak, a double independent movement. The first one was an ‘entertainment’ movement. At that time young people organised such an ‘entertainment’ life. In this arena, jazz, rock’n’roll, theatre, poetry, literature, too, were realised. The second one originated in Constructivism. It no longer had these humorous energies because its humor was also interesting. It deconstructed, too. It was simply established in advance that art needed to be introduced into such a field which would have attacked a certain system. This movement was rationalist. I belonged to the “Group Zero-61”;it started more or less in 1960.2 We were art history students, so we went deeper into artistic issues, as we were in the professional field. Simply, we were prepared to tackle what would be art history. What was important, [was that] at the university my professors were people from Vilnius who had to leave Vilnius. Total anti-communists. They settled in Toruń and they gave lectures to us. Their attitude is very important. They were Sanacja professors.3 They were an older pre-war generation and had a critical attitude to socialism. They implanted this attitude, or they put it, so to speak, into us, while taking care of us, taking us to exhibitions, inviting us to their houses. They prepared us ideologically to have a critical attitude towards socialism. As a result of this, Group Zero-61 entered a field of ‘art for art’s sake’, pure art, as it was earlier conceptualized as, for instance, in the Art Nouveau period. Now, it is really important that the group did not produce a single work that constituted a direct attack on socialism. Yet it produced work of such a peculiar quality that didn’t fit in, and was not at all useful for this socialism because it was of no public and political utility. It was absurd. As it was useless for socialism, it didn’t have any place where it could have been presented. We had to find these places. We already worked with photography, film, actions and interventions, contemporary music, and we simply produced neo-dadaist situations, often humorous ones, but, indeed, in a neo-dadaist style.

MG: Would you say that this kind of refusing to be political, in a sense, was also in its way a kind of politics because you were deliberately not producing a product, not even a critical product that could be used and exploited in the current regime?

JR: Our perfidy was exactly about that. It was very conscious. It was also very important which of us came from what kind of family. It was important that no one engaged in the party or in the socialist groups which were, for instance, the Socialist Youth Union, or the Polish Youth Union. They were political youth groups which had a political significance. None of us engaged with these kinds of activities. There was also a need for a new style, a new type of activity, so we simply found free spaces. We showed films in canteens, in places during renovation, in courtyards, in a derelict forge and so on. Outside of the BWA (the Art Exhibition Office) - the state galleries, museums, cinemas and so on.It was significant because we could avoid censorship in this way. We were not observed like we would have been, if we had been professionals. We were treated as amateurs, otherwise, the censor would have wanted to watch us and know everything about us. When it was an amateur movement, they didn’t care, it was of no importance for them. Seemingly. And this was also a very cunning trick. In this way, we could express under socialism [exactly] what we wanted. There was no problem. What is interesting about what I was talking about now was that it was done very consciously. What was most important for us then was to form an environment, and therefore, a lot of people who were like-minded. We began to organize film, photography and poetry reviews, and all-Poland festivals. We were masters at it.

MG: Something like counterculture?

JR: Yes, it was a totally independent movement. In that way, the circle expanded and embraced people from different cities. We met the Lachowicz couple there and various people who later accompanied us in ‘more powerful’ situations, but this needed to be born.4 It was a circle of people who created not only with a purpose of having fun but of underground activities. The first independent movement in Poland began to form then. For we were already graduates of art history, so we also had knowledge, therefore it was all done on a high level. They weren’t some frivolous student activities. We learnt in the so-called DKFs (Discussion Film Clubs)- the specialist cinemas in Poland where they showed French, English, American, or Russian avant-garde films. We also used to borrow films from embassies and we showed them in canteens. We got closer to the West by watching films from the embassies. It was a very important trick, very dangerous for the authorities. There we drew our attention to, for example, the Russian avant-garde. It was very interesting as a revolutionary avant-garde, the pure Russian avant-garde after the year 1915.We watched all those avant-garde films. They were accessible, since Russian avant-garde films were even publicly screened. They seemed very interesting to us in the sense of form. Later we, as the whole group of four, moved to Łódż and we found ourselves in a different, now international, situation there. The Film School was a place where, like nowhere else, they made contacts with both the East and the West. The professors were outstanding people, also in the intellectual sense. Various artists cooperated with the School such as, for instance, Mrożek, jazz musicians, visual artists, poets, simply because they worked on scripts for those film etudes [study projects].5 This environment was on a very high level and without the socialist burden. The fact that in this period all people who were forward-thinking, were also critical towards socialism is very important. At that time people didn’t make socialist films anymore. A lot of neo-dadaist films were made. Mrożek proposed such irreverent, critical things. He even used to act in those etudes and often visited the School. I even made a documentary with him in Torun in 1962, when he presented Turkey, or something like that, and we filmed an interview with him.6 He was really interesting for us, as he was a fresh and critical artist. A very strong artist, and irreverent in the spirit of neo-dada. In the School they made films that were very interesting to us, for instance, films of [Roman] Polański, [Witold] Leszczyński, [Jerzy] Skolimowski.7 But they are critical artists, they didn’t praise socialism. They were not useful for socialism. They are a bit like ‘export artists’ for the West, as they made contacts with people in the West and only had the West in mind, not the East. They don’t even send films to the East, which is very interesting. They broke those contacts consciously. Although Kieślowski received a grand prize in Moscow. We could see that we didn’t need this system at all, it was completely uncreative.

AJ: I wonder whether the state actually gave consent to it all?

JR: No, not really. Not really, because we didn’t have any scholarships. No, it was something that was being born just then. As if no one noticed that it was becoming more and more powerful. Anyway, a lot of artists in the Film School collaborated with the authorities, the so-called ‘good sons’. The next generation viewed very critically all what their parents did. Those kids were already critical. The time had come when they didn’t take socialism into consideration at all. Socialism was already in a critical situation. It had happened very early, already in 1956. The first call for a new art, still a socialist one, was in 1957, when a lot of incredibly interesting artists emerged. Yet, it didn't depend on us, as we were too young. But people like [graphic designers and animators] [Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica, musicians, Józef] Patkowski, when he built his Experimental Studio of Polish Radio, and [Jerzy] Grotowski, they already knew that everything had to go to the West.8 Only there could they have any reception, not here. On the other side, it was very interesting, because the authorities, as is the case today, wanted to show off that they had something to offer and they made contacts with the West. Socialism was slippery. They did it, so that the export of this ideal, interesting art could, at the time, constitute another success of socialism. The authorities knew that in order to ‘shine’ in the West, one needed to prepare people to be able to function in the West, as was the case with [Magdalena] Abakanowicz, Borowczyk, Lenica, [Andrzej] Wajda, or [Andrzej] Munk. They invested in them, because those were state situations, whereas no one had ever sent us to the West. It didn’t happen because what we did was something different, meagre, amateur, innocent. Yet, it was solidifying and opposed to the generation that succeeded in socialism. This independent movement, this consciousness was just being born, while in 1957 and 1958 Polish culture blossomed and was very popular in the West. That was the older generation which soon in the years 1968 and 1969 found itself in a critical situation and this generation was not interesting to us at all. This was the official art and cinematography. Polish literature, plastic arts, Polish film, posters, music- they all were triumphing. They won prizes. But at some point we were not interested in it at all, because it was socialist. The situation was not properly set up yet, because socialism still continued and to separate, differentiate ourselves from it, we had to take a completely different path, a path of an amateur, less visible, movement, which was underground, which was not about getting prizes, going abroad, being promoted like Abakanowicz or [Władysław] Hasior.9 They travelled abroad and had big shows there. We didn’t even have enough money to send our work to the West.

MG: Does this then inform the kind of aesthetics of different filmmakers and artists in the Workshop of Film Form? Do you want to talk a little bit about what the aims were of the Workshop, what you were collectively and individually wanting to achieve?

JR: So, when it got pretty good there and the language and the activity method were clarified, The Workshop [of Film Form] stood in a total opposition to cinema, since it used a completely different language, which the cinema people didn’t understand at all. It was a total distance We entered via a different platform, which didn’t fit in with the successes of socialist art. It didn’t fit in, because it was made out of something different. We studied in the meantime, finished second degrees, some even third degrees. Thus, we raised our quality intellectually which helped us later in producing a certain system which could not be understood even by the avant-gardists. It was something completely different. We built on modern art, which Polish cinema had nearly never done before. We built on modern, contemporary art of the present, hence, on conceptual, analytical art. In Poland conceptualism had a very difficult path. Stefan Morawski called it ‘Vistulan conceptualism’ which didn’t interest us much.10 It was conceptualism in plastic arts from Wrocław andWarsaw, very moderate and bringing together the old tradition of fine artists, intelligent ones, of course, who organised symposia in Puławy. They were clever and nice people but they belonged to a traditional art movement, while we were a totally different generation. There was a Polish intellectual movement in fine art and a few Polish conceptualists emerged from this movement. We, however, didn’t take part in it. We built on the tradition of art which interested us. It was, indeed, different and was inspired by [Władysław] Strzeminski and Katarzyna Kobro.11 It was analytical art, brought to Poland from Russia, where it was born in the 1920s. There weren’t many analytical artists, or they were simply not aware of being one. For instance, Witkacy was such an analytical artist who intuitively began to practice such art towards the end of his life.12 Witkacy found recognition for something other than for his analytical works. Here, we had Łódź traditions and an excellent museum. One of us, Janusz Zagrodzki, began working in there and later became a teacher at the Film School.13 In this way we had a great contact with the museum and we started to base our activities on contemporary art rather than on film or theatre traditions. This art was open and looser, it was also intellectually much more interesting than traditional Polish art.

MG: So you were not especially aware of international movements like structuralist-materialist film and filmmakers like Michael Snow and other developments that were happening at more or less the same time?

JR: It’s all about the fact that in the School there was a very powerful university professor, Bolesław Lewicki, who gave lectures. He ran a department which was called the ’anthropology of film’. He and his team of young people were interested in something which was the new situation produced at that time by [Roland] Barthes and Christian Metz. They used to come to conferences organised in Poland. This professor Lewicki imbued us [with these tendencies] during his lectures and used to bring current literature. There were also Alicja Helman and Aleksander Jackiewicz.14 They used to bring us theoretical literature on structuralism and they also participated in it, which was very important. We kept contact and were up-to-date with this world, which filmmakers and fine artists didn’t even touch upon. We also had a university professor who ran seminars about analytical film. We studied the structural analysis of film very thoroughly. Since we were politically exempt, so to say, we had free minds. We were not interested in politics. We started to expand our theoretical knowledge and look for contacts with people who were doing similar things in other countries. In Poland there was a specialist culture magazine Res Facta which was run by professors; Patkowski was involved in it, and the art museum director Stanisławski familiarized us with it and so on15. So we entered the analytical movement. We wanted to know what this art was about, its power, its new construction, new structures, which we wanted to apply to film later on.

MG: I think maybe we could talk about your own work from this period and this question of formalism because I think on the surface it can look like it is formalist and that it is looking at the properties of light, of the medium, of film.

JR: Yes, we wanted to take it to the most extreme formalism. We wanted to be total formalists. We were not interested in humanitarian, or socialist activities, as the latter had this, mostly false, foundation. We were not interested in experiences or human fate. We wanted to create a totally pure cinema, an absolute cinema. In this way we differentiated ourselves from Polish cinema, as they needed a different cinema, a political one. We differentiated ourselves completely and they didn’t understand our cinema at all. We began showing this cinema, often, at classic film festivals, where phenomenal discussions and rows took place. We founded an intervention group and used to, on purpose, impersonate protestors so that it got louder and more powerful and so on. At all cost, we wanted to differentiate ourselves from our fellow-students in the School- the artisans. In that way, a kind of second school emerged from within the Film School, when we started a discussion group. The rule was that all students could run a discussion group. We began to organize symposia, prepare master dissertations on the subject, and attract various specialists, in order to be able to defend the movement, just in case. [Richard] Demarco who was an expert from Edinburgh came here and then invited us to come to Scotland where we found our first fans.16 We felt like it was worthy of something when people like [Nam] June Paik, or Joseph Beuys were interested in our works. We knew those names. It was interesting to them and to artists who were invited by Stanisławski especially to watch these films in the School. It all made an impression. We also managed to win over Polish artists. We simply needed to show it to them, as at the beginning they didn’t want to watch it at all. It turned out that we had fans amongst intellectuals, prominent artists from the world and we also started to function on a European level. By then we didn’t have doubts anymore that we were doing it in a void, because at the beginning some accused us of being derivative and copying the American underground which was laughable, as we had never seen these American films and there was nothing to copy. We started to firmly build a new philosophy of film based on the tradition of Eastern constructivism which we knew very well, we used to travel to Moscow, we knew the Russian language and had this tradition strongly transmitted through Strzemiński and Kobro. We also had here the Themersons whose films we discovered in the Film School.17 We made contacts, started to write to them, visited them and they also came here. We also discovered the Polish interwar film tradition. The Themersons introduced the idea of ‘art film’- a film made by artists rather than filmmakers. We wanted to be artists while in the School there was a tendency such that if Kieślowski was asked who he was, he would have replied “I am an artisan”. We would have replied that we wanted to be artists. That’s something completely different, a different aim.

MG: One of the things that shows a different context is again this question of energy, because even your most abstract films they are very striking, even if it is made by cutting holes in the frames or something like by the energy of light, of the apparatus, of even abstract shapes like squares and angles and so forth.

JR: Each of us was, basically, intellectually so well equipped that we started to have our own paths in this formalism. The general premise was that it had to be pure cinema but everyone took their own route. I was interested in biological-mechanical recordings, in everything what would have constituted a physiological reception of art through the body, through the eyes, through the senses. In order to bring it about, I needed to use light and sound. These sensations needed to be induced. Everyone was interested in something different and since we were all individualistic something really interesting began to emerge, a certain group, which was very well equipped and interesting through the multiplicity of structures, which we created. We understood it as ‘expanded cinema’. The awareness that Polish cinema was up till now a romantic art received through the senses, so-called subjective art, was very important. It was based, as happens in poetry, on reception through sensations. Differently to Polish poetic cinema, we started to be interested in the camera as a perfect tool for looking closer at reality and a real situation. Polish cinema was understood in the way [Kazimierz] Karabasz, or [Wojciech] Has, or even [Andrzej] Wajda, created it- they were kind of screen poets.18 In contrast to them, we were interested in the camera as a magnifying glass through which we could look closer at real situations. Films like Rynek (1970) were made and constituted as a mechanical view on reality. Using a mechanical method we examined something more thoroughly. When I climbed the tower [ in the film Idę… ( I’m Going… 1973), I made a very similar gesture, examining how human body will behave in the context of walking. Polish film hadn’t had this questioning, (research attitude before. Polish film was designed to provide pleasure, just like, for instance, Chopin’s music was. We were an experiential group, a workshop. We refrained from being an experimental group. We had a completely different opinion in this matter. Experiments are made in order to apply them somewhere in the future, basically, to apply them to a great work of art. We were not interested in that at all. We were interested in it as an experience, as a theoretical-practice. Basically, we wanted to test certain theoretical premises in practice. An experiment needs to be later applied somewhere. People experiment in order to create a model, which can then serve its use. Here, this usability aspect was missing.