From the cycle Nowa Huta Observations


“Don’t go to work. It’s Satan who sends those emails. It’s Satan who gives diplomas”

(The Users – Marcin Świetlicki, Nie idź do pracy [Don’t Go To Work])


On Saturday, when work is over, the individual–hence everybody–suddenly finds himself entirely alone, for the truth of the matter is that the only company people have throughout their lives is their work–they have their occupation and nothing else. No human being can be a substitute for another’s work. No one goes to pieces when he loses another human being, not even if he loses the person who matters most, the most important person in his life, the one he loves most; but if he is deprived of his work or occupation it is not long before he lies down and dies.

(Thomas Bernhard, Gathering Evidence: A Memoir)



Work was why Nowa Huta came to be. Work defined its horizons, and constituted its destiny.

To depreciate Nowa Huta was de facto to depreciate the concept of work.

Prospective victors were to be the new idols. In the photo, they proudly present sashes showing the percentage of expected efficiency they have achieved. They seem rather uncertain, far from delighted, but this is pure speculation we are free to be ‘thinking into’ the documentary shot. This is all the access we can gain to the past.

Model workers, hostages – communist workaholics.

The advancing mass of the idea is, however, parallel to today’s model capitalist workers – workaholics, but I will discuss this later in the text, along with Łukasz Surowiec’s Kopia przodownicy pracy [Copy of Female Model Worker].

Work is one of the key issues in every social contract, every system which allocates tasks within a group. Work is also the subject matter of the first known sentence ever written in Polish: “Daj, ać ja pobruszę, a ty poczywaj” (roughly: Let me, I shall grind, and you take a rest) in the Book of Henryków dating back to the twelfth century. For the best part of the history of self-reflective civilisation, work ranked high. Working people were appreciated, by those who never did any work because that meant somebody else had to, and by those advocating moral values ensuing from religious ethos, possibly most strongly in Calvinism.

Work has always been an instrument of control.

In Polish visual arts we also come across apologists for work. Not only those who served the communist system. The newest art showing critical tendencies delves into the matter which seemed to have been abandoned when the Polish People’s Republic ceased to be; Rafał Jakubowicz’s attitude, clarified by his quasi-manifesto Robotnicyzm [Workerism] can serve as an illustration.

And yet work is not the point of work. In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt insisted that creative work had an emancipating value, allowing self-realisation.

French Situationists took a more radical approach, and rejected all work as it preserves the system of slavery in the society of the spectacle. They began by claiming that the “contemporary economic system requires mass production of uneducated students taught not to think.” They then exhorted: “You must never work!” They held work in contempt: “No work ever!”, as it organises our time and captures our bodies within the system. They were not exactly original, this tradition is well-established in Europe, to mention just the Cynics. Because there is “no point in begging for the right to live – it has to be taken.”

In the society of the spectacle the contemporary world displays a form of false consciousness in which the fetishism of consumer goods constitutes the only reality, and all manifestations of life are merely its representations. No matter what system. The communist system was a lot like the capitalist one in this regard, based on performing a spectacle, only the design was different.


Polish history smashed the ethos that made Nowa Huta, as well as other cities of labour. Hopes were dashed, and the figures in the photograph would at best be called simpletons of the transformation time.

Significantly, it was only 25 years after the transformation of political system that reflection on the meaning of labour in Nowa Huta and similar places, as well as its durability in the context of system transformation commenced. Consequences of the change came into focus – social costs and structural poverty. In the same Nowa Huta…

Artistic themes’ lastingness may depend on intellectual trends or social demands. The last 25 years – the days of free market in Poland, offered ample opportunity to take up the question of economically excluded groups – of “wasted” people, to use the term coined by Zygmunt Bauman more than ten years ago. Books exposing the dark sides of neo-liberalism were debated far from anniversary celebrations; and outside the walls of art galleries there are still countless instances of a serious deterioration in the quality of life in Poland. Regrettably, the problem of poverty has long been shifted towards the field of universality, and far from home.

The question of the losers of Polish transformation and its outcomes found its way to the media only recently. Published in  2014 by the daily Gazeta Wyborcza, the conversation with Marcin Król, an ardent supporter of neo-liberalism in the 1990s, titled “Byliśmy głupi” [We Were Foolish], provoked a heated debate as well as numerous confessions of a blind but erroneous faith in the ideology. A extremely high suicide rate for 2013 (according to the Central Statistical Office (GUS), 6,097 Poles committed suicide, mostly unemployed middle-aged men) meant that the issue of the losers of Polish transformation could no longer be swept under the carpet.

The year 2014 saw the first exhibitions devoted to the logics of competitiveness and social costs, e.g. The Face of the Day (part of the Sixth ArtBoom Festival) hosted by the former Światowid cinema in Nowa Huta, or Your City Is a Battleground (part of the Sixth Warsaw Under Construction Festival, Museum of Modern Art), both curated by the author of this article, incorporating these pictures into Polish imaginarium. Some of the observations related to Nowa Huta are based on the material I gathered back then, and constitute the first written attempt at periodising artistic practices after 1989, regarding economic issues and social costs incurred in the last 25 years of transformation and the effects it produced, as represented by the visual arts. This is doubtless a complex question, comprising results of various processes taking place at diverse levels of social and artistic life; as a consequence, this article is chiefly a contribution to a research that needs to be continued, rectified, and interpreted in novel ways. With only a limited space at my disposal, I am going to discuss selected instances which, however, may be considered typical.

Surprisingly, the problem failed to stimulate production of artworks during the transformation process. The same happened in theatre, film, and literature. Most artists placed their trust in the invisible ideology – free market, misled by the phantasm of success; eventually they found themselves part of the precariat, the outsiders of the process. They have recently started to address the problem, having realised it is affecting them directly.


The 1990s abounded with works presenting the liberal narrative in terms of morals, but not socially. As the poets Marcin Baran, Marcin Sendecki and Marcin Świetlicki wrote in 1992: “na mieście ni chuja idei” (no fucking sign of ideology out there). Many pieces created in those days exemplified critical art connected with the question of the body, memory and history, but the impact of changes remained untouched.

One of the first artworks addressing the problem was Observer, 1992, by Paweł Althamer, which can be seen today in documentary photographs.

The artist organised the action in response to the invitation to participate in an advertising campaign of a new liberal daily called Obserwator [Observer]. He paid a few homeless people to “play themselves,” sitting in the centre of Warsaw with the logo of the newspaper attached to their chests, and passively observing the changes which failed to affect them directly.

In his later actions, Althamer repeatedly asked members of so-called underclass to join him (recently, the homeless and drug addicts living in Bowery Street, NYC, for his show in the New Museum), and entertained utopian dreams of spiritual development reaching beyond rational logic. This is also the first of the artist’s popular works that displays reality as film.

Another significant piece was Krzysztof Wodiczko’s Public Projection, screened upon the Town Hall Tower in Kraków in 1996. By introducing sound the artist gave voice to the excluded of Kraków: victims of domestic violence, drug addicts, the homeless, the disabled. The event constituted the first open presentation of the problems which had been tabooed in Polish public sphere.

Exclusion meant a double removal from the field of view, the common imaginarium. Aside from introducing the division into winners and losers, years of free market and consumption determined a new hierarchy of dignity or social status, directly related to economic conditions. Frommesque yearning for significance and success, observable in all professions, doubly ousted the losers – economically and as subjects, in Polish iconosphere as well. The themes in question were partially explored by documentary films, Henryk Dederko’s Welcome to Life (1997) or Ewa Borzęcka’s Arizona (1997).

There were works, of course, which took a critical approach to consumption, created for instance by Zbigniew Libera (first of all Corrective Devices), but the very system was never questioned. In the 1990s, different economic narratives were not allowed in public discourse, although some alternative solutions did appear, e.g. that of Tadeusz Kowalik who warned against the shock doctrine, transplantation of  the ideas promoted by the Chicago school of economics. We must keep in mind that even economists, from the neo-liberal perspective, were unaware of what the effects of a rapid transformation and the real consequences of the Balcerowicz plan would be; how could artists be able to notice the perils? Free market and democracy became synonymous for many. Neo-liberalism was transparent at the time – a well-known left-wing feminist presented a television game show in which the weakest contestant was eliminated, almost a caricature of competitive thinking en bloc…


A breakthrough came in the early 21st century when alterglobal movements began to grow in significance. Anti-corporate works adopting a critical stance towards capitalism mushroomed soon after Naomi Klein’s No Logo was published in Poland. Initially condemning the idea of brand, they acted as litmus paper indicating social tensions, “absorbing” new meanings, addressing the question of unemployment or social blackmail.

Rafał Jakubowicz’s Arbeitsdisziplin (2002) serves as a perfect illustration: made up of postcards, a film and a light box displaying a picture of the Volkswagen plant in Antoninek by Poznań, the VW logo on a pylon, and barbed wire fence. The film with no narrative shows a guard in a uniform, walking along the fence topped with barbed wire. The images triggered associations with concentration camps put up by the Nazis. At the time of its production, the piece belonged to the artistic trend that investigated the questions of control and power, corporate critique, and historical links between business concerns and totalitarian systems based on slavery, as well as our understanding formatted by the events of the 20th century (“traumatic after-image” of factories of death). The first screening provoked indignation from the Board of Management at the Volkswagen Group Polska, leading to the imposition of a ban on the piece at the Arsenal Municipal Gallery in Poznań in 2002. This act of censorship revealed another dimension of the work, showing the real power of the Group which managed to blackmail local authorities just by hinting at the number of the residents of Poznań who worked at the plant. The work was eventually presented at the Rozbrat squat in Poznań, constituting the departure point for the artist’s works dedicated to labour and workers’ right.

Emblematic works of the period included Anna Witkowska’s carrier bags Wszystko i gówno [Everything and Shit] and Stonka. Codziennie to samo [Beetle. The Same Things Every Day], 2004; the artist committed an act of design piracy, both imitating and boycotting persuasive strategies employed by corporations in marketing campaigns. In a way, the artist – a former art director in a big corporation, took a hacker-like revenge. Her forgery of plastic bags from popular stores consisted in a simple reversal of advertising slogans; she thus joined the field of analysing the mechanisms of power and irremovable social connections (ideologies/market “speak our language”). Some exhibitions exploring the relations between brands and ideologies, such as, for instance, Signal box/Nastawnia or Inc. (both 2004) were also staged at the time.


Halfway through the first decade of the 21st century, artists began to examine the effects of transformation, the fall of industry, and economic exclusion. Research into the collapse of whole regions was conducted, for instance by Tomasz Rakowski, who published his observations in the book Hunters, Gatherers, and Practitioners of Powerlessness. Local context of declining industry provided programmatic guidelines for some institutions, including the Wyspa Institute of Art in Gdańsk, the Drama Theatre in Wałbrzych, the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, or the Kronika Centre for Contemporary Art in Bytom.

Julita Wójcik’s film Zamiatanie po włókniarkach [Sweeping up after Textile Workers], 2003, documents the sweeping of the premises of a former factory in Łódź, spotlighting the situation of textile workers who were made redundant. Today the work features in the collection of the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, the only art collection in Poland revolving around transformations in labour and related exclusions available to the public. Nowa Huta would surely benefit from an analogous approach and a collection of its own.

In the photographic series Niedokończone domy [Unifnished Houses], 2005, Konrad Pustoła depicted uninhabited buildings, erected in a frenzy of excitement caused by the short-term economic boom, which fell into ruin before they were finished, turning into a token of forlorn hopes, unsuccessful investments, unpaid loans, dispossessions. The artist said: “They are out there, in a field, no road leading to them, no utilities. As if whoever was building them had suddenly gone bankrupt. But what strikes me the most is the fact they are totally unsecured. Like someone abandoned them, wishing to forget. In my photos, I try to show a visual representation of the dark side of turbo-capitalism. The unfinished houses are the quintessence of sadness and failure, experienced by many people.”

The following years brought a great number of works addressing these problems, most notably Alokacje [Allocations] by Robert Rumas (2008), Pocałunek miłości [The Kiss of Love] by Franciszek Orłowski (2008), Tkacze [Weavers] by Anna Molska (2008), Granica [Border] by Piotr Wysocki (2010), Szczęśliwego Nowego Roku [Happy New Year] by Łukasz Surowiec (since 2011), Życie w Bytomiu [Life in Bytom] by Tero Nauha (2012), Bezrobotny [Unemployed] by Rafał Jakubowicz (2012), Czarne diamenty [Black Diamonds] by Łukasz Surowiec (2013), and Krzysztof Gazda va in paradiso by Rafał Jakubowicz (2014).


Finally, Polish artistic discourse of economic exclusion could not leave out the self-referential topic of artists themselves, or the analysis of art circulation in terms of economy, the position of artists in society, their status as the precariat. Works in this vein were, for instance, displayed at the mobile show Workers Of The Artworld Unite, initiated by the Kronika Centre in Bytom in 2013, but most importantly there were some activities carried out in the public sphere. The foundation of the Civic Forum for Contemporary Art (Obywatelskie Forum Sztuki Współczesnej), and then the symbolic 2012 artists’ strike (A Day Without Art) released a wave of actions such as, for example, the establishment of the first artistic unit with a trade union (Art Workers at Workers’ Initiative), the publication of Czarna księga artystów [Black Book of Artists], or the Fabryka sztuki [Art Factory] research project.

In the long run, effects of the those last activities will surely inspire works allowing a deeper insight into the economic conditioning of their origins.


But back to the picture, to the model workers. This fraction of history has no representation today. It seems disgraced, like working for next to nothing. Still, the phenomenon needs to be present for the picture to become complete.

The missing pendant is found in Tychy. In November 2017, the already mentioned Kraków-based artist Łukasz Surowiec brings to a city as new as Nowa Huta a monument called Murarka [Female Bricklayer], but rather than the social realist Murarka by Stanisław Marcinów, this is Łukasz Surowiec’s Kopia Przodownicy Pracy [Copy of Female Model Worker], a new work which is a ‘cover’ of an old one and assumes completely novel meanings.

In the A Estate in Tychy, just like in Nowa Huta, there are sculptures of model workers which have not been repressed by culture. The artist decided that the best place to present ideas related to work as mission would be the newest part of the city, the Special Economic Zone. And that was where he put his work. Where would he do that in today’s Nowa Huta?

The concept of model worker today is radically different from what it used to be. Contemporary model workers are workaholics. Their reasons are not like the old ones. They work to repay a loan, or to outshine others. Awareness and nature of work are very different today.

Łukasz Surowiec’s piece has a number of aspects. First, it is a ‘cover’ in the way musicians ‘cover’ somebody else’s songs, a piece of appropriation art, taking somebody else’s work as your own.

Surowiec took another artist’s sculpture and put it on display in another place, thus giving it a new context, a new ideological system – transferring it from the socialist order to the capitalist one. Each is an ideological order, each is a totalitarian order, striving to appropriate all spheres of life.

The act of moving Kopia Przodownicy Pracy refers to several orders – on the one hand, it indicates the change of system, on the other – this is a gesture made by one artist for another. Thirdly, the sculpture relates to the transformation of both, system and labour. Labour used to involve manual work, as the sculpture copied by Surowiec suggests, but today we do not need hands to work that much, we are not building a city here, we are – for instance – manufacturing sub-assemblies for other products, other systems. Outcomes of the work performed in the Economic Zone are usually to be found far away from here. The fourth aspect – the city’s history. Similarly to Nowa Huta, Tychy is a relatively young city, and has followed a similar path of development, passing from one order to another as its particular districts change their functions, it is a memento moved to the Economic Zone. Łukasz Surowiec reminds us of the origins of the city, and of the fact that the world keeps changing. And there is the fifth aspect. The monument represent a female bricklayer, not a miner or a steel maker. It was not exclusively men who built both cities. Female workers at the Economic Zone in Tychy, who helped to execute Łukasz Surowiec’s work, have instantly called her Strefianka – pracoholiczka [Zone Worker – Workaholic].

The artist says:

I often wonder how far artists can go in their endeavours to produce an aesthetic model of labour. John Dewey, an American pragmaticist, claimed that in order to be happy, or to enjoy work, workers need the opportunity to rest and admire it. They don’t get it these days; a factory worker has no time to admire the car he’s just painted, to take a picture of it and sent it to his wife, “see, I’ve just made this.” This is exactly what my piece is about, the change in the attitude to labour. As an artist, I’m fortunate to step back and take a look at what I’ve done. But I also see myself as a worker, an art worker, and in this sense I have particular liking for all people who perform hard work just to survive, and this is how this work came to be.

I’m waiting for Łukasz Surowiec’s Copy of Model Worker in Nowa Huta…