Zuza Golińska in conversation with Romuald Demidenko
The exhibition “Common Ground” by Zuza Golińska @ GGM1, Piwna is accompanied with a publication featuring the documentation of the walks realised by the artist, interviews and texts by the artist, Romuald Demidenko and Anda Rottenberg. We are happy to give an insight in the publication …
Let me ask you about what you are planning to show at the exhibition. You previously mentioned defensive architecture, certain design solutions that discreetly exclude people like homeless persons from unrestrained use of public space. Does the exhibition aim to recapitulate your interest in this topic?
The exhibition serves to summarise a certain stage of my investigations related to this topic, among other issues. Reflection on architecture, public space and elements designed for its purposes, which perform a specific function, was already present in my works before – in Run-up (2015), in a certain way also in Brilliant Blue (2015), and in the set design for the spectacle Schubert. Romantic Composition for Twelve Performers and a String Quartet, directed by Magda Szpecht at the Dramatic Theatre in Wałbrzych (2016). Although each of those works concentrates on different aspects of the way humans function in space, the projects originate from the same core.
In Run-Up, I focussed on elements of public space, such as pavements, curbs, ramps and stairs – their height, width and the frequency with which they occur. I was interested in the way they determined and disciplined our way of moving around, they way they limited or adapted to the potential of the body. A major reference for me were sports halls, especially gym halls; I spent plenty of time at the Academy of Physical Education, where I observed training sessions, mainly those for children. At the same time, I analysed the manners of organising private space, its elements and materials. Given the opposition between the public and the private, as well as the meanings that it entails, I chose to juxtapose solid shapes with the softness of fitted carpets and foam – materials of typically domestic origins.
In Brilliant Blue, which was a site-specific work, I made use of the existing space of a former night club on the top floor of the “Alfa” Department Store in Poznań. My attention immediately turned to the empty stage, and the entire range of symbols that it evoked. My activity consisted in reconstructing its front side and adding a neon sign, which formed a certain border and highlighted the division of the hall into two parts. That element was quite important for me as it directly influenced the dynamics of presence in that place. If you are twenty or thirty centimetres above others, and you look at someone from above, or quite the reverse – when you look at someone higher than yourself – a simple division or a sort of hierarchy emerges, which has an immediate impact on the perception of a given situation.
In my work on the set design in Wałbrzych, I referred to the space of the park, to the act of delineating paths, determining divisions by means of surfaces rather than heights. I was interested in the high level of discipline maintained by the body and space, which accompanied the sphere of seeming relaxation, leisure and carefreeness – bans, orders and certain conventions, which affect us. My major reference point was the space of cemeteries. Many of them function akin to public parks, which offer a setting for leisurely strolls, picnics and relaxation. Situating the audience in the sections between which the actors moved, and thus breaking the typical safe division into the audience and the stage, was a key component of that project. I noticed the similarity between the architecture of cemeteries and statues and sculptural pedestals that can be found in parks. In the context of Schubert, that combination of recreation and death seemed adequate to me.
Can you tell us about your research activities pursued in London?
In May, I carried out field research that focussed on element characteristic of large-scale housing estates and Brutalist architecture. I observed communication tracts and the way the residents moved around the estates, the spaces of recreation inside the complexes and the way nature was composed as part of the entire complex. I am interested in the combination of the construction-related character and certain toughness of architecture with water, which sometimes occurs in common spaces – the way it flows and its elusiveness. What I need to do now is to summarise in an appropriate way that stage of work – strolls and observations made on the example of several housing estates – to gain a genuine understanding. The entire process was rather intuitive, although – in a broader perspective – it came as a consequence of my projects from the last year. It also referred to the basic problems of relations that are important for me – relations between public and private space, and the way both types of space influence discipline, the potential of the body and the way we perceive reality. My goal was also to analyse several specific places as well as elements of defensive architecture, which is present in City, the financial heart of London, among other areas. I visited many places which I had known as my major point of reference already before leaving Warsaw, I reached them on foot. I covered most of my itineraries walking. I treat movement as a form of observation. Even if I am concentrated, when I leave home I try to retain mindfulness and perceive everything that exists around me. I often change my routes. I don’t like to take the same road many times; it is good to shake yourself out of the routine of following well remembered routes. That is when I am more focussed and I receive impulses encountered on my way.
The routes that you mention certainly determine the way in which we move around places and interpret them. It can sometimes happen that we are unable to notice certain details as if they were not there at all.
I think that such kind of mindfulness is present also when we travel. Everything is fresh when you arrive in an unfamiliar place. You suddenly find yourself in a situation that requires a high dose of concentration and you need to figure out how to get from point A to point B; the most rudimentary activities become a challenge. New places provoke a sense of fear and excitement, which results in a more sensual perception of space and attention paid to details. You discover different perspectives of seeing the city. Sometimes, it is enough to walk down the street and look up for a short while to notice that the place is different from what we imagined.
What was the basic premise of your walk?
My goal was to take a walk that would not be constrained by the necessity to check the time and my cell phone. Without a hurry – a walk that would offer me the possibility to get lost, to lose my way and face the new situation with calm. A major sensation that appears during a lengthy walk is physical effort. It causes the release of endorphins, which affect the way you feel. In such situations I get the impression that the activity of the mind goes hand in hand with the activity of the body. I experience space with my body and physical effort affects the way in which I interpret it.
Is this your way to discover also other cities, for instance Warsaw?
I don’t know Warsaw so well. During the first two years I was absolutely overwhelmed by its size – the length and width of streets, the distances that one needs to cover everyday. I grew up in Sopot, where all my friends lived in the area of several streets. Life was very local. After moving to Warsaw, I was focussed mostly on dealing with everyday life and fulfilling my academic duties. During the last two or three years, I developed more ease in moving around the city. I suspect that is also because I travelled a lot in the meantime, which taught me to domesticate new places quicker. I am amazed by how many situations can be observed on the road if you stay mindful. I am interested in simple rules “action – reaction” or “problem – solution,” whether people act in a schematic way or no, and what factors influence it. I take fascination in spatial DIY solutions, which are often introduced in Warsaw. I take photos with my camera cell phone, then download them on my computer from time to time, flick through them and recall what I saw.
What turned out to be the most surprising thing during the making of your project?
My research in London began with defensive architecture. The act of spatial exclusion of groups unaccepted by the society from public spaces – those who damage the image of a given place or area and disturb tourists or residents. London abounds in examples of such solutions. It leads to a situation where a confrontation between different social groups is avoided – it seems that problems do not exist if we push them out of sight. I wanted to see the camden bench, which is designed in a way that makes any activities other than sitting impossible. You cannot lie down on it, you cannot hide anything underneath, it makes skateboarding impossible. It is low and has rounded edges. Rubbish bins located next to the benches are designed in an analogous way. Between Tate Modern and Borough Market, near Southwark Bridge, there are a lot of structures of different shapes which restrict the use of public space, such as homeless spikes, whose form is rather self-explanatory. There is a place by the river where a restaurant window reaches the level of the pavement, and the metal forms installed along the window create a sort of wave, which makes it impossible for homeless persons to stay near and make use of hot air emitted from the window. The passers-by and restaurant guests seem not to notice.
I saw many Brutalist buildings and estates, which I have been interested in for a long time. I focus on the composition of their solids which bring to my mind a jigsaw of simple geometrical bricks. This can be observed at the Hayward Gallery and in the vicinity of the neighbouring National Theatre. An important event for me was a guided tour of the Poplar estate, in which I took part. There are many buildings there that are characteristic of the period of Brutalism in the second half of the 1960s. It is a lively area with almost no tourists. Renowned designs by Ernő Goldfinger, such as Balfron Tower and the neighbouring Carradale House stand near an estate named Robin Hood Gardens, designed by Alison and Peter Smithson. The building adopted the floor plan in the shape of hands that are put together in order to shelter the oasis of greenery inside from large streets outside. After many years, the well-designed estate became a site of socially undesired situations. The authorities have currently confirmed that it is earmarked for demolition. A question that often emerges in the context of such projects pertains to the extent in which architecture itself can generate such behaviour. An opposite example is provided by Barbican, which is particularly well looked after, and apartments there are so costly that we can forget about them. It is probably a result of the fashion for such buildings, which has been around in the recent years. New residents move in, rents go up, and the current residents are unable to meet the soaring costs.
It is probably the greatest paradox that those more neglected places gain more popularity because they are cheaper, and later the creative class moves in, and then come the developers.
That’s exactly what I think. We can also add the current aesthetic trends. Something that was distasteful for our parents seems to be cool to us. I can imagine that in the design phase and during the initial years of operation, many estates offered a high standard, but in the course of time, they are abandoned in favour of newer and more up-to-date solutions, and after some time they become a site of gentrification. In London, there are currently many such places.
I also went to a skate park in Southbank. I’m interested in skateboarding and watch many skating films. I think it is a very creative form of using public space. Skate park makes it possible to refer elements of architecture to the potential of the body. Only after some time I realised that my interest was not so far removed from my later projects – they rather complement each other.
London is very often mentioned in the debate on gentrification of cities. Similar mechanisms can be observed in Warsaw. I’m also wondering how your observations can translate into other places. In Gdańsk, there are also many processes that lend space specific characteristics. Architecture and – generally speaking – the atmosphere of the Old Town determines very specific roles of the users.
I was raised in the Tri-City and I remember that I treated the Old Town as an open air museum, maintained above all for and by tourists. As for Gdańsk, I’m emotionally attached to the area of Wrzeszcz, where I spent the first three years of my life, where my father lived for a long time, and previously also my grandfather. For a long time, I saw that district through the prism of tales and stories which I never experienced. Now, the character of the place has changed. Two shopping malls neighbour each other at an absurdly close distance. Facades are new and the atmosphere I felt attached to no longer exists. I lived for some time with my mother in Gdańsk Oliwa, and that was when I was most fascinated by the wave-shaped block. It was mythical to me, it seemed gigantic. The endless sequence of apartments seemed abstract. What was new to me was the rounded form of the building, and the fact that it did not necessarily need to be a cube. At the time, the idea to live in the huge wave seemed attractive.
I am also interested in the relation between this city and water that flows through the centre and seems a little dirty. In Gdańsk, as in other major cities, old and new elements are combined on the basis of opposition. There are frequent encounters between superficial glamour and ugliness, between poverty and wealth. In the space of the city we are confronted with its various sides. When you’re on site, you get a box with everything, with a mess inside.
(The interview with the artist, from the upcoming publication)