Stroom Invest interviews / curator Joanna Zielińska

Joanna Zielińska (b. 1976, Poland) is a writer, curator, and researcher with a transdisciplinary approach, examining the intersections between visual art, theatre and literature. She is head of the Performing Arts Department at Ujazdowski Castle Center for Contemporary Art in Warsaw. Over the course of our conversation, she enthusiastically outlined her interest in the transformation of visual arts due to its interference with different kinds of practices from various disciplines, along with the emerging possibilities.

Stroom Invest interviews / curator Joanna Zielińska
Photo by Anna Morgowicz

Could you share with us a project you are currently working on?

Well, I’m currently involved in the production, and curation of an internet TV series, Performance TV. It’s about post-television and new technologies, how new technologies somehow are interfering with our lives and changing them. It began from the urge to explore the medium and its idiom, and how it is impacting contemporary art practices. We are shooting the series now with Polish artist, Zofia Krawiec. She is an Instagrammer and writer and she proposed this project to us.

Stroom Invest interviews / curator Joanna Zielińska
Performance TV (photo by Dominika Olszowy)

Is there a narrative tying the series together?

The TV series is called H8 and it’s about internet violence, hate and trolling and taking revenge. It’s based on Krawiec’s own experience. She has an Instagram account named Neurotic Girl (@zofia.krawiec) and she is referring to this post-feminist concept of the sad girl. She actually experienced a lot of trolling and hate speech because of her activity on the internet so we are shooting this series from the perspective of a new generation of post feminist and girls who are active in the internet but of course they suffer a lot of consequences because of what they say. It’s very brutal. The scale of this violence is incomprehensible. We are working with two more girls who are also public personas.

That sounds quite heavy.

I think we try to balance the seriousness and of course we have to follow a specific narrative and structure. We have to somehow respond to what is possible to create, having a specific budget. TV series are not very long. And it’s really meant to be published online so chapters are very short and it has a very specific form and structure because it is also an artwork. We are using these different conventions that we know from different TV series, and bending them to an extent.

Stroom Invest interviews / curator Joanna Zielińska
Performance SIRKLING by Tori Wrånes together with Laura Marie Rueslåtten, part of Handmade Acoustics exhibition Ujazdowski Castle Center for Contemporary Art Warsaw (photo by Pat Mic)

How would you define your practice?

I’m working very transdisciplinary and using different formats for my work. For me it’s important to create my own methodology which is based on different disciplines. Because I’m working with people from theatre very often, and also with people from the literary world because of the Book Lovers project that I am co-curating with David Maroto. I’m creating my own path and I have my own interests as a curator. Most of what I do is site-specific and also I’m using process based media. I don’t like to stick to the very traditional formats. When I’m curating an exhibition, I would always choose a performative piece over a traditional exhibition with artworks hanging on the walls.

Could you speak a bit about the Book Lovers project?

I started it in 2011 with David Maroto, who I mentioned earlier. We met in New York during our residency at ISCP. David was about to finish his first novel. He had a bunch of works, art pieces related to his book. By then I was very interested as I had never heard of an artist writing novels. I proposed to do research together. We wanted to curate an exhibition but we found there was no research done in this field so we began compiling a bibliography. We were, and are still, very interested in the ways in which novels are part of visual art practices. This interest prompted us to approach some institutions, and spurred a long term collaboration with M HKA in Antwerp. We’re now creating a database based on artist’s novels, projects, and slowly gathering a collection. We are working with very different formats because the artist’s novel is a very complex phenomenon in visual arts. And I would say we are, before anything else, researchers, really exploring this subject. We have some early examples from the 19th century but the concept of artist’s novel, which is a part of a larger art project, is quite new. I think the artist started to use this idea was Guy de Cointet and the first artist we recognized using the novel as part of an art installation was Liam Gillick.

Stroom Invest interviews / curator Joanna Zielińska
Performance SIRKLING by Tori Wrånes together with Laura Marie Rueslåtten, part of Handmade Acoustics exhibition Ujazdowski Castle Center for Contemporary Art Warsaw (photo by Pat Mic)

As a curator, what are the possibilities or limitations in presentation?

We are using very different strategies to present our project. We are organizing seminars, pop up bookstores, we are activating the collection in very different ways. But also we curate exhibition based on this idea. For examples at Cricoteka in Kraków, we have been showing large scale installations exploring parts of this writing process and ideas surrounding of publishing.

Can you talk about the role of accessibility?

Because I am really interested in time based media, this idea of accessibility is very interesting and is also connected to the idea of experience. In the case of artist novels, I think it’s very interesting because we are bringing literary notions into visual arts. This changes a lot, in terms of how did you find an artwork and even art practice because artists are becoming writers, or they use the writing process to create art projects. The novel is a very specific medium. It is a portable object so you can buy it and take it with you. You can take it out of an exhibition space. A lot of artists are playing with this idea that the public can actually take a novel and read at home or in any other condition. For example, Lindsay Seers, she creates these very large installations and introduces a narrative and some images but then she wants the people who visit her show to read a novel to somehow complete the story through their reading. But of course, you can also only go to the exhibition and you don’t have to read the book. So then there are very different levels of understanding an artwork and maybe it depends on you how much you want to dive into the story. You can read a book or you can just enjoy the art piece as it is. Or maybe you will only read the book and never see the artwork. Artists play with this idea quite often. They also use performative practice as a tool to create a narrative piece. Like Benjamin Seror. He was organizing a series of performances and he was using these performances to create a plot for his story. The public took a very active role in the whole process. Normally these projects are divided in different chapters and it depends on the public how much they want to engage. Artist novels bring a sort of deceleration of art experience. It slows down. It is a bit like performance. But performance is a different medium so you have really a time frame for the performance. Here you can really decide on your own how deep you want to dive.

Stroom Invest interviews / curator Joanna Zielińska
Visitor enjoying meal at performative exhibition by Alex Cecchetti, TAMAM SHUD, in 2017 Ujazdowski Castle Center for Contemporary Art Warsaw (photo by Pat Mic)

How important is a structured workday to you and how is it affected by your collaborative process?

I think my days are quire structured because I work for a public institution, The Center for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw. I have office hours, and now my contract is more flexible but I still try to keep structured days because I have a lot of meetings and projects going on. Normally there are multiple projects at once. I travel sometimes. I have to do my research. I need to spend some time reading and writing. So without the structure, I wouldn’t be able to do it. I realize that some curators like to present already existing projects. For example, if they curate group shows, they normally don’t engage with the artists. My tendency is to really engage with artists. I follow what they are doing and I have to plan this collaboration with them in advance. Now that I’m involved in shooting this TV series, we had to create a really professional shooting plan. I am also working during the weekend and during the night. As a performance curator, I work with a group of people. Normally you work with theatre technicians and production staff, not only the artist. When I was working with Tori Wrånes last year, we were with a group of at least ten people working on the exhibition, creating new pieces. We needed to create like a very specific schedule and to tansform the exhibition space into an artist studio. It is very interesting how working with performers, changes your practice as a curator as well. Before I studied art history, I studied gardening. I would say that now what I am doing is something in between gardening and entertaining people.

Are you optimistic about the idea that artwork can affect social/political/cultural change?

Well, I believe that art is very important for critical thinking and also for the creation of empathy in a society. But I think people who really want to change the world should actually choose a different field because I think art is really a long term game. It is based on a very long term changes and engagements and I don’t know if it actually gives the right tools for having a serious impact in political and social spheres. I also observe some artists who are politically and socially engaged and I see how they move on from specific topics and communities and how they are not able to have this long term engagement and I think it’s not good.

What do you consider one of the most underrated qualities in artwork?

Experience. The sensation that artwork can create. I think performance art has changed a lot in the art experience. Performance became a different kind of artistic practice. It’s not a medium anymore. So, I think experience which related more to the theatre field, would be something interesting in the context of visual art as well. And also empathy and identification, which I understand as qualities of a more literary notion. But for people from the literary world, or theatre, these notions are not very interesting anymore. Bringing them to visual arts is worthwhile to me.

Stroom Invest interviews / curator Joanna Zielińska
Installation view of exhibition The Book Lovers Project Cricoteka, the Centre for the Documentation of the Art of Tadeusz Kantor (photo by Jan Smaga)

Can you recall a memorable reaction towards a past project?

Because I am working for public institutions, sometimes I get emails from the public who want to share their experience. I think the last time I got very interesting impact was when I was working with Tori Wrånes from Norway. We did an exhibition together at CCA Ujazdowski Castle, and Tori is a very charismatic artist. She has this appearance of a stage artist. So when she is singing, people are crying and her way of working is quite distinct because the way she creates her artworks is closer to theatre production. The exhibition was something in between set design and performance. It was activated once with a performance of almost forty performers in troll suits, playing music and singing. I think it was really an amazing experience. The space transformed into something else. People were really moved and crying. I would say this exhibition created an unusual sensation because it was affecting your body, you were a part of a strange world created by the artist.

How do you deal with documentation, especially concerning the sensations you just described?

I don’t think documentation was an important part of this project. I think you really have to experience it. Of course, I am always taking photos and videos but normally it’s only for the archive. This particular exhibition went really viral. A lot of people posted about it on social media. But it’s also important to me not to limit it, the access to this kind of practice. Because when you are going to the theatre, you can’t take photos, you can’t film. But when you are doing this in an art center, you can use your camera more freely, and it can create a second life. For example, when I was working with Alex Cecchetti on a project called Tamam Shud, we had this performative exhibition and part of this exhibition was a dinner. You could book a table in the exhibition space and enjoy a special menu created by the artist. In the menu you found only poems. After choosing a poem, instead of receiving the poem, you received a real dish. So when you have this kind of project, based on the experience and contact between performers and audience, then you don’t really think about documentation. It’s just something you have to experience in person. You can’t really document this kind of art.

Stroom Invest interviews / curator Joanna Zielińska
Performance Decide Your Destiny based on the novel The Wheel of Fortune by David Maroto was an exhibition trailer staged in January 2014 (photo by Studio FilmLOVE)

What do you hope to experience during your time in The Hague?

Well I look forward to meet artists and to exchange conversations with them. I‘m connected with the Dutch art scene because David, who I work on The Book Lovers with, lives in Rotterdam. So I visit Rotterdam. I have a lot of friends in The Netherlands and connections with the Dutch art scene. At the same time, I never have enough time to really engage with and explore the art scene so I’m always very grateful for any opportunity to do more specific research and speak with more artists.

Stroom Invest interviews / curator Joanna Zielińska
Artist David Bernstein performing based on the reading of excerpts from the artist's novels THE BOOK LOVERS. Everyone Has a Book Inside Them. A Reading Room (Gdanska City Gallery) om 2017 (Photo by Krzysztof Chaos Olechnowicz)


In a collaboration between Jegens & Tevens and Stroom Den Haag a series of interviews will be published with (inter)national curators, artists and critics participating in Stroom’s Invest Week 2019.

The Invest Week is an annual 4-day program for artists who were granted the PRO Invest subsidy. This subsidy supports young artists based in The Hague in the development of their artistic practice and is aimed to keep artists and graduates of the art academy in the city of The Hague. In order to give the artists an extra incentive, Stroom organizes this week that consists of a public evening of talks, a program of studio visits, presentations and a number of informal meetings. The intent is to broaden the visibility of artists from The Hague through future exhibitions, presentations and exchange programs. The Invest Week 2019 will take place from 17 to 21 June.