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Where Everyone Was Invited: Art in the Streets and the Humanization of Warsaw

They worked steadfastly in the overcast drizzle. Wielding ancient-looking tools, in the Murinow District near the memorial to the old Warsaw Ghetto, they erected a wall which surrounded a compound and small tower. Painted on the side of one building was their symbol, a garish red Star of David atop the Polish White Eagle, depicted here in the same shade of red. Stopping infrequently to rest and more frequently for camera retakes, these would-be Zionists proceeded to build a settlement in the middle of Warsaw, reclaiming—if only temporarily and only for the cameras—the Jewish heart of the multicultural city that was, and is no more.

Israeli artist Yael Bartana’s “Mur i Wieza” (Wall and Tower) is a film and public art performance. It follows her previous film, “Mary Koszmary” (Nightmares), in which young Polish leftist Slawomir Sierakowski, playing himself, calls upon the 3 million Jews of pre-war Poland to return. Answering his call, Jews move back to Europe en masse and, in a twist on the Zionist ethos, erect settlements in once-Jewish areas.
We caught up with Sierakowski near the movie set during the filming of Muir i Wieza. The picture of a young radical, he wore a pressed white shirt and hip, thin-frame eyeglasses, a second pair dangling from his open collar. He smashed a cigarette on a picnic table as he began to speak in a fiery cadence more reminiscent of an activist than a typical politician. 

“I’m saying to my countrymen – please come and change us, and we will change you.” 

“We are the realization of the dream of Adolf Hitler,” he said of Poland. “One religion. One race. It’s really toxic for a society, that homogeneity.” 

Sierakowski’s call for the return of Polish Jews is, of course, as improbable and purely symbolic as the erection of a Zionist settlement in the Muranow District. The point, he said, is to expose Poland’s ethnic and religious homogeneity for what it is: a lie, and the legacy of a terrible crime. The point is to resist the super-nationalist discourse in Polish society, and to fight against the modern Polish conception of the “other”.

“I wanted to define what it means to be a Pole today.” 

As we finished our conversation, the sky closed overhead and the drizzle turned quickly to rain. “The nationalist Poland is crying!” Sierakowski yelled, laughing as he walked back toward the movie set. “Because something is changing!”

Public art, such as Bartana’s blend of filmmaking and civic performance, can serve many purposes. It can be a form of social or political protest. It can be an attempt to beautify, to vandalize, to indulge the vanity of the artist, or simply to be absurd. In Warsaw, it has been all of these. Taken together, these instances of “street art” since the fall of Communism, to use the imprecise moniker preferred by some, has represented an effort on the part of Warsovian artists to re-culture, re-diversify, re-beautify, and re-humanize. The street artists of Warsaw operate through non-traditional channels, beneath the state and outside the galleries, to reclaim the streets for the people and resist the legacy of war and totalitarianism that is so visible in their city. They build a foundation for human rights in Warsaw by making the city itself humane.  

Poland today does not look like Poland before the Second World War. Once among the most diverse societies in Europe, today it is probably the most homogeneous. The end of the war did not bring an era of peace and liberation, but instead, nearly half a century of state-sponsored political and social oppression under communism.  

The beginning of the end for the traditionally multi-ethnic Polish state came with the Second World War. Although occupation was divided at first, with the Nazis in the West and the Soviets in the East, after 1941 the whole of Poland was under the domination of the Third Reich. The Nazis’ crimes are well known. Poland’s Jews, and some Romani, were herded into 400 sealed Ghettos, the largest of which was Warsaw with over 450,000 inhabitants. By 1944, 90% of Poland’s 3 million Jews had been put to death, eliminating a rich culture that had existed in for centuries. In Poland, once home to the largest Jewish population in Europe, Hitler’s genocide project was a smashing success.

The stresses of war led to other ethnic conflicts between native Poles and Poland’s German, Ukrainian and Belarusian minorities. Meanwhile, the Poles themselves were essentially enslaved: deprived of schooling, their churches closed, and subjected to forced labor and deportation. 

The Nazis directly targeted Polish high culture as well. Museums, libraries, universities and theaters were shut down. A large segment of the Polish intelligentsia was either incarcerated or murdered; 18 percent of Catholic clergy, 45 percent of doctors, 50 percent of engineers and 57 percent of lawyers perished in summary executions or Nazi concentration camps. Under the Nazi occupation, it was forbidden to play the music of Chopin in public.

During the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, thousands of Poles fought to expel their Nazi occupiers in what became the most drawn out and catastrophic example of urban combat in the European occupation. Tens of thousands of combatants and over 200,000 civilians were killed in two months of fighting and mass executions. When the Nazis finally left Warsaw, they gratuitously razed it to the ground. The destruction, estimated at being 85% of the city, was greater than that of either Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Hitler intended that once the Reich’s armies departed, Warsaw be nothing more than “a point on a map” (Lukowski, 2006).  

And then came the Soviets.

With two-fifths of its productive capacity demolished and its political and social elite all but obliterated, by the time the Soviets finally arrived in Poland the country was already the most devastated in Europe. A pre-war population of 35 million was reduced to 24 million, almost all of whom were ethnically Polish – a dramatic departure from its pre-war multi-ethnic mosaic. The ruined city of Warsaw was a visual metaphor for a decimated Polish society. 

As the Soviets began “reconstruction”, they mobilized the population by making a sweeping patriotic appeal for the opportunity to at last return to the supposedly ethnically pure Poland of the past. Mass deportations and relocations decimated the remaining ethnic and national minority populations. 

Today, Poland is overwhelmingly ethnically and religiously homogeneous. Whereas before the Second World War about 10% of the population of Poland was Jewish—one-fifth of the Jewish population of the planet—today is less than one-tenth of one percent of the country. In 1921, just 70% of its population was ethnically Polish, according to the official census taken that year. In 2002, over 96% of respondents claimed Polish ethnicity, with total minorities numbering just 1%. 

The rebuilt cityscape of Warsaw is perhaps the most striking example of the postwar Sovietization of Poland. Massive Eastern-bloc style buildings sit along broad, straight avenues, evoking a sense of a city that is highly rationalized and planned; more scientific and technological than humane. The pedestrian experience in Warsaw today is a testament to the fact that the city was not built with the experience of individual people in mind. Strictly enforced jaywalking laws restrict the crossing of large, heavily trafficked streets to crosswalks on either side of massive city blocks. At the center of Warsaw, looming over the city (though less singularly now, in the age of the skyscraper), is Stalin’s monumental “gift” to Poland. The Palace of Culture, built between 1952 and 1956, embodies the social and cultural centralization that came with the dictatorship of the proletariat. 

The Stalinists also brought a familiar brand of state-sponsored repression. The police force in Poland increased to six-times its pre-war size. Between 1945 and 1956, 2,500 political prisoners were executed. Free expression and natural social interaction became casualties of Stalinist governance. On the other hand, high culture was made widely available to the masses, for whom it had always been out of reach. The Communists heavily subsidized publishing, cinema, theater and music, provided that the sentiments expressed fit squarely within their ideological agenda. 

In this way, Polish high culture under the Communists was co-opted rather than simply suppressed – a policy that proved more insidious. Polish artists (that is, those who chose to conform) were brought into the state’s program of ideological re-education; consequently, when Communism finally ended, the culture of art in Poland was in crisis. Artists who had come to depend on state sponsorship found that little private initiative to collect art existed in Poland during the transition to democracy. Private galleries floundered, and many failed. Polish artists who had formed their professional habits around the Communist state suffered a similar fortune. Whereas art had once been supported based on some state-endorsed definition of merit, it was suddenly assigned value based only on commercial viability. For those artists who did continue making a living, the corrupting influence of making art for the market economy all too often degraded the originality and bold creativity of their work. 

This is the context in which street art in Poland has evolved over the last 20 years. The post-communist state removed itself from the art world, which in turn found itself in a sort of financial and cultural crisis. Fewer buyers and a general decline in the discussion of art in the popular press, along with a sense of confusion as to what the social function of art should be in a post-communist society, led to a general malaise among the art establishment. 

Liberal democracy ushered in a new era of nation-building, which has often excluded those who are not ethnically Polish, as well as those whose sexual or religious practices do not fit the fetishes of the Roman Catholic Church. During this 20 years of transition to liberal democracy in Poland, the political establishment has often shown itself to be intentionally conformist and deliberately in support of the notion of Polish homogeneity. The art establishment, tied for so long to its political counterpart, has been equally ineffective at addressing emerging social needs and exploring the intricacies of a dynamic and changing society. 

Finally, as mainstream Polish society has transitioned into a liberal democracy it has become infiltrated by postmodern decadence and consumerism, just like the rest of the Western world.  As Harvard art historian Dr. Ewa Lajert-Burcharth wrote in 1994, “We are witnessing a change in the cultural needs of Polish society. The somewhat elitist or hermetic tradition of Polish avant-garde art, bound to an officially endorsed idea of social commitment, can no longer fulfill these needs. The allure of easier pleasures offered by an unrestrained access to Hollywood films and other forms of Western mass culture newly imported to Poland hovers over the Center.”

So, the artists took to the streets.
Under communism, subversive public art was “either strictly political or strictly absurd,” says Lukasz Modelski, a Warsovian journalist and part-owner of DDR, a communist-era themed vintage store. 

The Orange Alternative was the most visible source of absurdist graffiti and street performance in communist Poland. Beginning in 1982, the student group based in Wroclaw began painting dwarves over the spots created where the police had covered over anti-communist graffiti. Eventually moving on to incorporate other symbols, slogans and forms of public protest which satirized both the regime and the anti-communist movement, the essential absurdist impulse of the Orange Alternative remained. By satirizing everyone they sought to overthrow the discourse itself, dominated as it was by ideology and bureaucracy on both sides, and to promote the liberated intellect of the individual. 
“This was the thing that undermined the system, the thing that was so hard to survive, that it was so fucking serious,” says Maciek Zakowski, a professor of culture and marketing at the Higher School of Social Psychology. “You just had to laugh.”

The Orange Alternative’s absurdist satire anticipated one of the central features to emerge in street art in the last 10 years, exemplified most prominently by the pseudo-anonymous British artist Banksy, arguably the international chief of the contemporary street art movement. Bansky’s art is, if nothing else, irreverent and unquestionably absurd. The Queen Mother depicted, just after her Golden Jubilee, as a chimpanzee. Winston Churchill sporting a Mohawk. Two British police officers, kissing, in sweet embrace. Bansky’s use of cultural icons to poke fun at his own society, to goad and tease and undermine the seriousness of it all, has become a staple of street art around the world.

In Warsaw, for example, a stencil piece has recently appeared that depicts two Tinky Winkys (the Teletubby from the popular children’s show that American religious icon Rev. Jerry Falwell infamously declared to be a homosexual) skipping along and holding hands. Above the picture reads, “Jest Nas Wielu” or “There Are Many of Us.” Falwell’s attack on Tinky Winky was a not-so-veiled attack on homosexuals, but by using the symbol for his own purposes the anonymous artist/activist ridicules Falwell and makes a restrained but powerful statement asserting the humanity of homosexuals.

In a 2009 Warsaw street art festival, a team of actors roamed the streets of Old Town one afternoon, each carrying a large sculpture of a body part (a hand, a nose, two eyes and two ears). They led a crowd of several hundred, including a rotating cast of street musicians, in a procession of fun, and fundamentally senseless, revelry. Another troupe, a group of men dressed as old women, led a similar procession the next day. Such manifestations as these serve to liven up the streets, to make them playful and fun – essentially, to humanize them.

The most striking piece of street art in Warsaw is undoubtedly the palm tree at the intersection of Nowy Swiat and Al. Jerozolimskie. Joanna Rajkowska’s piece titled “Greetings From Jerusalem Avenue”, intended at first to be a temporary installation, is now a permanent fixture on the streets of the city.  First installed in 2002, the Warsaw palm (now a fake, weather resistant mock-canary palm) sparked intense debate about the value of the project. In 2004, the palm was nearly lost forever, when right-wing Warsaw mayor Lech Kaczynski refused to acknowledge overtures to donate the tree, then in dire need of renovation, to the city. 

As the artist herself said, “The palm became political because it is a deeply contextual project. Palm’s time is the time of right-wing groups’ governance in Poland, who attempt to cleanse the country from any culturally alien content. And I conceived the project exactly as a social experiment testing how far Polish society is ready to accept in every respect such an alien element.”

The palm was an overt challenge to Polish monoculture and right-wing nationalism. In perfect street art style, the people responded where the state would not. On December 12th, 2004, on a cold winter day, supporters gathered at the palm wearing sunglasses and bathing suits and collected money to salvage the project. At this event, the protestors read aloud from an open letter to Mayor Kaczynski, which argued that the palm had, “managed to accustom the inhabitants of Warsaw to the charming irrationality of its existence. It teaches us what contemporary art can be - a play, a bit of fun. The palm introduces a ray of joy, positive feelings, to the often dark and grim reality of the capitol city. We believe that, thanks to such projects Warsaw becomes a friendlier place for its inhabitants.” 

As of June 2009, the Warsaw palm stood proudly and incongruously at the center of the Polish capitol. It has become a symbol of the foreign, the inconsistent, the diverse, and the struggle to introduce new elements to Warsaw’s streets, and, ultimately, Polish society.

“It’s a huge paradox, this palm in the middle of Warsaw,” said Modelski, the journalist and vintage store owner. “For me, Warsaw is a city of paradox. Everyday we are marching on the bones. The energy of this city is the energy of the dead,” he said, evoking the ever-present memory of Warsaw’s tragic past. “On the other hand, a floor above the bones you have a dynamic city, young people living here.”

“Every era left something that cannot be in accordance with others,” he continued. “I mean you’ve got the Palace of Culture in the middle of the city and they try to make a business center next to it. It doesn’t go together. It will never match. So. Why not palm?”

“The city is state-controlled and ordered,” said Zakowski, the university professor. “The system itself does not permit any outside content. The palm tree does what art is supposed to do. It’s really what I think of as street art, the whole struggle for the palm.”

The task of humanizing Warsaw means taking back the streets for humans, which involves more than mere absurdity or silliness. For some, reclaiming the city means injecting new life into sections of it that have been lost.  Fundacji Ja Wisla (Foundation Me Vistula) is a Warsaw group dedicated to raising awareness about the problems facing the Vistula river, while at the same time celebrating its value. Whereas Warzovians once bathed in the river and spent leisurely afternoons on its beaches, by the 1980s it had become too toxic for recreational use. Recognizing that rivers have historically been at the center of the social life of cities, Fundacji Ja Wisla seeks to raise appreciation for the Vistula through performance art, such as singing on a floating stage or lighting candles at the river at night, and organizing social events, like art exhibitions, at the river’s edge.

“Those guys are very brave,” said Zakowski. “The way they changed the discourse of the river, that will be their legacy. They made it a subject again, while it was totally forgotten. They don’t do anything for real. They don’t have any money. It’s mostly about changing people’s minds. But something is going to happen. Something is going to change.”

Malwina Konopacka’s project BYOS, or “Bring Your Own Story,” is among the most interesting street art initiatives in recent memory. With the explicit purpose of humanizing the city streets, BYOS gathers the simple, commonplace memories that Warsovians have about places around the city, and erects humble plaques telling their stories. For example, “For forty years every day, I used to buy here a newspaper,” or “On this bench I've been kissing for the first time when I was sixteen.” 

In the words of the artist, “We love Warsaw and we despise it at the same time. We write books and poems about it, we sing songs. We make films. We seek for its real legend. The city tragically wounded in a war has lost its original private identity. During the fifty years of communism everything what was private became common property, what eventually meant nobody's.  As a result people suffered of deprivation of private intimate connection with the city.” 
Interestingly, Konopacka eventually received official sanction for her project, giving her plaques the same rights as traffic signs to be placed throughout the city. Endorsement of her project by the state bodes well for future efforts to re-diversify and re-humanize this phoenix city. The stated goals are to build relationships between the city and its citizens, to strengthen relationships between citizens, and to democratize public space. “An old lady here had an accident, and somebody fell in love here, and somebody found a small cat and took it home,” said Zarakowski, who has assisted with the project. “The message is, this city is about people. Not about fucking buildings. This is our city, the people’s city. This is what it says.”
We have intentionally left for the end the inevitable question of what, exactly, street art is. It is fundamentally a contradiction in terms, a semantically created cognitive dissonance. “Art” evokes order, social power, the institution, high culture, and the upper classes. “Street” brings to mind chaos, anarchy, raw democracy, and working-class vulgarity. The term tries and fails to corral what is an intentionally dynamic and ill-defined phenomenon. Street art is not just the art of the streets, and it is not just where the streets employ art. It is the ever-shifting nexus of social power and state power, in which the individual publicly expresses some facet of her relationship to larger society, and uses the streets, the most public space of all, to do so. 

Confronted with a Warsaw that physically mirrors the inhumanity of its recent history, Warsovian street artists have begun to reclaim their city for the humans living within it. Through absurdism, they mock that which is inhumane in their cityscape, and intentionally introduce inconsistent elements designed to prod the city into shedding its conformism and comfort with its own homogeneity. They humanize Warsaw by introducing human elements, like memories, into the fabric of the city itself. 

Right now, somewhere in Warsaw, an artist is out in the streets or plotting in his studio, on the front lines of the resistance against homogeneity and conformist nationalism, laying the foundation for human rights in Poland by making its capital city more humane.

“Imagine a city where graffiti wasn’t illegal, a city where everybody could draw wherever they liked,” Banksy once wrote. “Where the street was awash with a million colors and little phrases… A city that felt like a party where everyone was invited….”



Jerzy Lukowski and Hubert Zawadzki, Concise History of Poland (Cambridge: Cambridge 
University Press, 2001).


Collins, Lauren. “Banksy Was Here: The invisible man of graffiti art.” The New Yorker, May 14,

Lajer-Burcharth, Ewa. “Warsaw Diary: How the Collapse of Communism Affected Art in  
Poland.” Art in America, Feb. 1994.


Rajkowska, Joanna. “Greetings from Jerusalem Avenue”. 

Konopacka, Malwina. “BYOStory” http://byostory.com/glowna_files/BYOStory%20eng.pdf

The Orange Alternative. “Orange Alternative: the Story.” 


Sierakowski, Slawomir. Leftist politician/intellectual. Warsaw, Poland. June 23, 2009.

Zakowski, Maciek. University professor, street art scholar. Warsaw, Poland. June 29, 2009.

Bartana, Yael. Artist. Warsaw, Poland. June 27, 2009.

Modelski, Lukasz. Journalist. Warsaw, Poland. June 26, 2009.

Fugila, Michal. Photographer, guerrilla artist. Warsaw, Poland.  June 28, 2009.
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