Renewing the City. Beyond Clichés and Schemata

The phrases ordered in three columns by artist Julita Wójcik in reference to three ideological turns in post-war history of Poland: socialism, neoliberalism, and national-catholic conservatism, were supposed to be combined at will so that everyone could create a new historical narration, and a poetic interpretation of the past.i The poem “Anew,” a lithany of expressions related to the constantly redefined change constitutes a conceptual game offering the possibility of composing alternative histories, and in this way various versions of reality fitting the frameworks of specific ideologies. The artist’s intention was to ‘write’ poems with the people of Nowa Huta, inviting conversation or even performative events.ii Wójcik’s work is thus an example of participatory art described by Claire Bishop in the following way:

the artist is conceived less as an individual producer of discrete objects than as a collaborator and producer of situations; the work of art as a finite, portable, commodifiable product is reconceived as an ongoing or long-term project with an unclear beginning and end; while the audience, previously conceived as a ‘viewer’ or ‘beholder’, is now repositioned as a co-producer or participant.iii

This aspect of Wójcik’s practice also points at a rather crucial feature that reappears in transforming concepts of cities – the essence of co-creating the city.

At the opening reception of the exhibition A Sunday Afternoon at the PGS in Sopot viewers were free to arrange their own poems of which several dozens were made, successively attached to the gallery walls. One person even wrote a blog post about the event:

you could create your own poem about newness. Somehow I really dug that. There were truly good phrases for us to use, and though most people wrote rather dull, sad and gloomy poems about newness (which was cool!), I – because of my new school / the film school and my new place – composed something extremely gleeful and reassuring. This little poem of mine really made it for me.iv

The very act of creating a poem triggered an emancipating situation when the diachronic dimension suggested by the artist disappeared. For some the poem provided a chance to reflect on the past, for others it activated the future. Paradoxically, the work aiming at bringing a chronological order to reality via the concept of “newness” caused a situation when the present day as we know it encounters our idea of the past.

Wójcik’s piece provided a pretext for taking a look at Nowa Huta or, generally, at cities in a way that is close to the idea of ethnographic conceptualism.v Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov claims that “as participant observation of what exists, ethnographic conceptualism explicitly constructs the reality that it studies.”vi Thus understood, ethnographic conceptualism of a city, in a way that can never be fully divined, gives rise to what is social, what generates interactions, relations, what establishes connections between various people and environments – similarly to conceptual art, dematerialising and questioning the same framework of the world of art, and non-art.

A new construction, human migrations, confiscation of land, destruction of nature, transformation of the farmer into the labourer, creating new jobs, new and better living conditions. The situation in question is thus that studies on specific cumulated past, the content of Nowa Huta, give way to what is hidden, what comes from the grass roots, and what is taking shape in the future.

i J.Wójcik, Niedzielne popołudnie, exhibition catalogue, Sopot 2018, p.165.

ii Acitivities in collaboration with the artist are planned as part of my workshop Kultura w działaniu (Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology, Jagiellonian University).

iii Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells. Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, London, Verso, 2012, p. 2.


v Ethnographic conceptualism is a term used by Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov for the purposes of an ethnographic experiment. The direct impulse was provided by a provocative exhibition staged by Ssorin-Chaikov together with Olga Sosnina at the Novyi Manezh Hall in the Moscow Kremlin in 2006. For the show titled Gifts to Soviet Leaders they collected almost five hundred objects from all over the world presented to Stalin and other Soviet dignitaries. They included gifts received by Stalin for his 70th birthday, originally exhibited in December 1949; after 1953 they were not displayed. Importantly, Ssorin-Chaikov and Sosnina provided a book for visitors’ comment, which, as they claimed, was treated as one of the exhibits. The exhibition was an artistic and at once scientific project, but also an attempt at posing the question about how its curators perceive the society during the project they have initiated.

vi N. Ssorin-Chaikov, Ethnographic Conceptualism. An Introduction”, Laboratorium, 5 (2), 2013, pp. 5-18.