27 August 2020

Taking Back the Streets. In Conversation with a/political and Democracia Collectives

Tytus Szabelski
Democracia, 'Silence', July 2020, Warsaw, photo: Bartosz Górka, courtesy Democracia and a/political
Taking Back the Streets. In Conversation with a/political and Democracia Collectives
Democracia, 'Silence', July 2020, Warsaw, photo: Bartosz Górka, courtesy Democracia and a/political
Tytus Szabelski speaks to Democracia collective and Sylwia Serafinowicz, London-based curator and member of a/political collective, on their recent collaborations in London and Warsaw, art practice and upcoming exhibition at Biennale Warszawa.

Tytus Szabelski: What was the reason you formed Democracia in 2006? Was it some particular political or social event?

Democracia: The formation of Democracia (Democracy) is not related to any particular social or political event, but rather to personal and creative reasons. We came from the previous experience of collective artistic work in the group El Perro, which was founded in the nineties and dissolved in 2006. That same year Democracia was formed. We had reached the end of a cycle and decided to start a new collective project. It was an opportunity to rethink what we wanted to do. Our interest had always been the social and political issues. We decided that the very name of the group would frame our critical concerns and our field of work. It was also a moment to rethink the collective work in a more open way and reflect on collaborations with other artists and social collectives.

And what is a/political? A collective? An organisation? An art institution?

a/political, Sylwia Serafinowicz: We are a collective based between London and France, working closely with artists and activists who provide alternatives to the current state of affairs. Each of our projects is developed as a creative dialogue, therefore, we never fully know where it is going to take us. This method of working allows us to form more horizontal relations and to think differently, more openly and cooperatively about authorship. We also work with a collection of politically engaged art.

Democracia, ‘Order’, 2018, courtesy Democracia and a/politicial

Democracia, how do you work? I mean both together as a collective and with external organisations. Is it hard to maintain this kind of flat, horizontal relations while working with some other entities functioning in the art system?

Democracia: Our way of working could be explained through a diagram of concentric circles, where there would be a hardcore formed by the two of us that maintains the continuous activity of the collective, a second circle of regular collaborators from different disciplines that become part of the group in specific projects and a third circle when we collaborate with communities or social and political groups outside the art world. In this work process, all decisions are taken horizontally, which is why the aesthetics of Democracia depends to a great extent on who we collaborate with.

We also try to maintain this type of relationship with the institutions of the art system that we work with. This occurs more naturally when these institutions engage in the production of a project, then a relationship of complicity is established, as it was the case with a/political. When we have presented a specific work that has already been finalised, in an institution with which there has not been a previous work process, we have encountered occasional censorship problems.

Democracia, ‘Enjoy the Collapse’, June 2020, London, photo: Nick Beard, courtesy Democracia and a/politicial

Sylwia, you mentioned already two different aspects of how a/political functions: producing new works together with artists and collecting. Whats the relationship between those two? Is it similar to museums or private galleries in this respect?

a/p: The two sections go hand in hand. We produce projects with artists and a representation of those projects enters the collection. Our collection, therefore, mirrors our production and becomes the essence of who we are.

Then part of my work as a curator involves revisiting the works in our collection and thinking about how they can help us analyse the current events. That was the case with Democracia and their slogan Enjoy the Collapse, initially featuring in Order, 2018, and in 2020 displayed on the governmental buildings in London to point to the hypocrisy of those in power right now.

What was exactly the image in Silence that you displayed at Warsaw’s Świętokrzyska metro station? What does this gesture refer to?

Democracia: Silence reflects a photograph of a model stylized as a nurse, taken in the 1950s and placed in hospitals across Argentina. It was a famous visualization of institutional power in beautiful packaging. By replacing this image with the image of a riot policeman, we are pointing to the current manifestations of power that are visible on the streets of Poland, the UK and across the US.

Democracia, ‘We Protect You From Yourselves’, 2013, courtesy Democracia and a/political

Please tell me more about this figure of a policeman, that is a recursive motif in many of your works. What it symbolises for you and how you want to use it.

Democracia: It is nothing more than the spectacularized image of the violence that protects the structure of the social system. That violence stops being invisible and is embodied.

You often use advertising media to place you work in – billboards, posters etc. While illegal use of billboards or posters is a well-known guerilla-activists tactic, you seem to use those media in a fully legal way, on the same conditions as real advertisers, like with the Warsaw action or with We Protect You from Yourselves. Why is it so? Is it more surprising or subversive this way? Even one part of the film Order that was shot in the Irish shopping mall looked like it was arranged with full permission from the owners of the shopping mall.

Democracia: When we do this type of intervention in the public space, we prefer to use institutional or commercial outlets to interfere and subvert their usual content and create curiosity in the public. People who are used to seeing commercial or institutional messages are stopped in their tracks. Therefore, it is a matter of securing renting such advertising space, which we choose for its spectacular nature. Despite the fact that in such situations, we enter a commercial relationship, contrary to what the “free market” tells us, the content often gets censored and suppressed as it happened in London, where several outlets refused to display “Enjoy the Collapse”.

Regarding the collaboration with the shopping mall, it was possible because the mall had a sponsorship agreement with the Rua Red, an art centre in Dublin, which was involved in the production of the second act of Order, our anti-capitalist opera. However, once the people in charge of the mall read the messages displayed, they asked us to stop filming, Fortunately, we had already documented the whole action.

Democracia, ‘Order’, 2018, courtesy Democracia and a/politicial

Sylwia, the opera in three-acts titled Order, your first collaboration with Democracia, featured the slogans “Enjoy the collapse” or “Consume even anti-consumerism”. Since youre focusing on the engaged art, do you have any strategy to avoid situations in which your projects are just consumed and commodified within the art system?

a/p: a/political was independently established six years ago with the desire to create a space outside of the art market, so as not to have to comply with its rules. This idea was born from an awareness of how limiting the commercial space is for the artists and the work. That’s why we work with artists and projects that otherwise would be very challenging, if not impossible to produce. 

What is the character of your support to artists, your common work with them on new projects?

a/p: We become an extension of their studio, providing an environment where ideas are prioritised and pushed to their limits.

The Foundry Uniforms, photo: Andrei Molodkin, courtesy The Foundry

a/political is generally based in London, but you also run this place located in France, The Foundry. By the way, its very hard to find some more detailed information about it on the internet, theres only a name of the town…

a/p: a/political doesn’t run The Foundry, it’s the brainchild of artist Andrei Molodkin. We work closely with the guys there but essentially, we’re two autonomous entities working in parallel on the same mission. Once you get to Maubourguet you will find it, there’s a street called rue de la Fonderie.

Please tell me something more about this place. What you use it for and whats happening there?

a/p: The site, until a few years ago, was a fully functioning iron foundry, mobilized during the First World War to make armaments for the national defense. Andrei Molodkin would go to that region in France to visit factories crucial for the production of his works and he saw the foundry in a destitute state. He then became the spiritus movens behind renovating it to its current aesthetic, which, as Erik Bulatov noted, is in a state between construction and destruction.

The Foundry functions as a production site, so artists (especially those interested in the spirit of collective work and its specific aesthetic language) can come and spend time there. We don’t operate a residency program, it’s more organic. The Foundry also has its own clothing line of uniforms (designed by Zoe Huiwen Shi) which are produced alongside a/political’s projects.

Do you also use this place when producing some new works at a/political?

a/p: Yes, for example, Erik Bulatov’s FORWARD (2016). Bulatov is a legendary Russian painter based in France. Throughout his long life he has been occupied with the complexity of space. While staying at the Foundry he was able to test his theory by transforming his two-dimensional paintings into the third dimension – realising his first three-dimensional painting: FORWARD. This was subsequently moved to Tate Modern and presented on the South Tank to mark the centenary of the Russian Revolution.

Erik Bulatov, ‘Forward’, 2016, photo: Gleb Kosorukov, courtesy a/political and The Foundry

Did you established some stronger relations to the people living in the town of Maubourguet, where The Foundry is located? The local context is, I suppose, quite important in many of a/political activities.

a/p: Yes, people from the town often come to The Foundry and are sometimes involved in the projects. When Andres Serrano spent the summer there, many residents volunteered to be tortured in front of his camera (Torture, 2015). We also have relationships developed with fellow manufacturers from the region, which allowed for an exchange economy.

Petr Davydtchenko moved to The Foundry and began his three-year project Go and Stop Progress (2016–2019), where he only ate dead animals found on the road. As time went on, more and more of the neighbours would get involved, sending him the location of carcasses via GPS. One of the town’s residents dropped off a dead donkey which fed Petr for 6 months. Other residents would come and check his freezer when their pets went missing.

In one of the online talks I saw, relating to Democracias works, you mentioned this kind of tension that appears when artists from abroad come to some place to talk about local problems or local context. Its a kind of relation of power, colonising in a way. How are you trying to avoid this in your work, relating to The Foundry and beyond?

a/p: Regarding The Foundry I would say it’s a very successful project. We’re friends with the former owner, local people really appreciated the afterlife of the building and the fact that so much effort was put into the renovation of the local heritage. People can come and spend time at the place, and see it repurposed. In terms of Democracia’s intervention, it’s obviously a little bit more complicated, because the global nature of it does not always allow to work with local communities for prolonged periods of time, like at The Foundry. It’s more challenging and it’s part of my role to make sure that we’re working in collaboration and in solidarity with local communities, instead of just planting the work somewhere.

The boundary here can be quite fragile. I had an important conversation recently about the motivations behind our actions. I spoke with a curator based in New York who said that it would make much sense to have the work Silence presented now in NYC and she asked why we didn’t show it there. I explained that having experienced the complexity of the local context in London, we would need to work with protesters in New York to do it right.

Democracia, ‘Order’, 2018, courtesy Democracia and a/politicial

But you also realised Silence in Warsaw few weeks ago, in cooperation with Biennale Warszawa. It was done in a very specific time and I suppose it wasnt incidental. What was your idea behind doing it during the recent presidential election campaign?

a/p: Together we identified this time as an important moment for Poland, a time to protest against the violation of human rights, that was likely to progress in the aftermath of the elections. Unfortunately, what everyone feared most, a brutal pacification is now happening on the streets. The image of a riot policeman will keep on reappearing across town until the opening of an exhibition at Biennale Warszawa in Warsaw in October, to work as a reminder of the current status quo.

That work also starts to be more and more relevant in the Polish context, where recently activists were detained for putting LGBT+ flags on monuments, including a statue of Christ in front of a church in Warsaw. One of the activists was even put to a pre-trial arrest for two months regarding a different case, and that event mobilised huge resistance that was brutally pacified by police. Regarding your plans to spread this image from Silence in upcoming weeks in the public space in Warsaw, do you have some particular strategy of doing that?

Democracia: We will keep subverting the official channels, as well as the digital space of protest. We published an open-source image of “Silencio” on Biennale Warszawa website with the hope that it might be used in such a context.

a/p: We seem to be at the early stages of addressing issues of surveillance and intrusive policing in Poland. I hope that those interventions, an upcoming exhibition in Warsaw, and the accompanying public programme, will allow broadening the discussion about existing police strategies and possible tactics of resistance.

Democracia, ‘Silence’, 2020

As you mentioned before, apart from Warsaw you were also recently working with Democracia, in London, displaying image from Silence or other slogans in the public space. How do you see the relation between this kind of guerilla tactics, often used by different protest movements, and more “traditional” approach to art, like producing gallery exhibitions, since you do both at a/political? Are they complementary? Or one of them is more suitable for todays changing situation?

a/p: Going out on the streets was a reaction to the current situation. During the pandemic, when we were under lockdown, I heard Priti Patel, the Secretary of State in the UK Home Department, was advancing work on her immigration bill, which introduces a new point system focusing on admitting so-called “skilled” immigrants, as opposed to low-wage occupations, many of which during the pandemic proved to be essential. It became clear to me that the government is taking advantage of the situation, and the impossibility of protest, to meet its political goals. I felt that the streets were taken away from us, that the pandemic has been used as the anti-terrorist laws were used before, to curb civil rights.

Democracia: For us it is something complementary and is an increase in the number of audiences. On the one hand, while the action on the street demands a concrete and striking message, the art space favours more complex approaches. Our position is to use any platform offered to us inside or outside the art institution. We understand art as communicative action, so we will occupy the channels we can.

So what are you planning exactly for this exhibition? I suppose it wont be only this one image of Silence.

a/p: No, Silence is a part of a larger body of work and research by Democracia dedicated to the police, surveillance and protest, which resonates in Warsaw (works such as We Protect You from Yourselves, 2013). The exhibition will offer a space to unpack what is going on around us, triggered by Democracia’s experience and practice, and through a series of public events dedicated to those topics.

Is there some other thing in the local Polish context that you want to emphasize or use in your exhibition at Biennale Warszawa this Autumn?

Democracia: What we hope to do is to conclude the action in the public space and broaden the reflection on the authoritarian and repressive moment that we are living in at a global level through different projects carried out on the police in a variety of contexts.


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