What’s the link between a dead mobile phone, cooking in the open air, and a mystical experience? Karol Radziszewski talks to Ewa Ciepielewska and Agnieszka Brzeżańska about a floating art workshop.
The Polish word galar sounds somewhat magical; it makes you think about imagined worlds from the books of Tolkien. What does it mean? It refers to a type of boat (similar to a scow) that has carried cargo for centuries – grains and other crops, salt, lime, less often wood and coal – to Gdańsk. Galars, devoid of propulsion, travelled with the flow of the water, steered by large oars called drygawka. The galar called ‘Solny’ was built in 2013 in Wieluń based on traditional design. Two years later, the boat, aided by an engine, travelled 3000 kilometres from Kraków to Orléans. Every year for the last 13 years, in May, it goes from Oświęcim to Gdańsk under the flag of the Royal Vistula Rafting, then changes direction and goes against the flow under the flag of the Earth as the art residency FLOW/Przepływ.
According to the initiators and creators of the whole initiative, artists Agnieszka Brzeżańska and Ewa Ciepielewska: “The river has become a starting point for various creative activities: visual, literary, culinary, ethnobotanical, vocal, as well as performative.”
I arranged to meet with Agnieszka in her garden. Ewa is to join us via Skype from Kraków.
Karol Radziszewski: When you invited me to participate in the FLOW cruise, I had a lot of concerns. But you told me then, Agnieszka, that all artists see it like that and that it is also part of the project – to confront your own discomfort. Some people love this kind of life, being on the water, travelling with a backpack. But when I saw the artists who took part in the cruise – and I know most of them – I had the feeling that they were all uprooted from their everyday lives. This is not your typical residency or art workshop. There are questions that you feel embarrassed to ask, such as: “Where do you go to the toilet?”, “Are there facilities to have a wash?”, “What will we eat?”, “Will we need to cook?”, “How?”
Agnieszka Brzeżańska: Of course there is apprehension related to physiology. Many people have never slept in a tent. This is topped with social fears, concerns about the pressure of the group, worry that you will need to obey.
That the law of the river will come into play?
AB: Yes. That is why, from the very beginning, both Ewa and I have been telling everybody that no adult can tell another adult what to do. That everything we do is done on a voluntary basis. Apart from life-threatening situations and shared activities, like cleaning. We organize an art workshop and we invite people who are workaholics. As a result, we are creating pretty much all the time in order to do something interesting together – not necessarily collectively, but in parallel. Something linked to art, but also something that is good for the world. Nowadays, artists are deeply immersed in the virtual world and it is unique for them to have such a bagful of sensory experiences; of being in contact with sky, water, earth, animals, stars, space and other people. Here, nobody is in a rush, we find time for normal conversations that can go on for several days. This very rarely happens in our everyday lives.
We work at a level deeper than activism. We don’t have a ready-made package of guidance and aims. It’s about the biggest possible group of people regenerating their connections to the living earth.
And that happens?
AB: Yes. It’s because we have no power, and all smartphones die a natural death within a day. Until their batteries and powerbanks run out, guests sit there, glued to their screens.
Ewa Ciepielewska: I think that in exceptional circumstances, giving up those gadgets comes quite easily. A conscious and deliberate renunciation of the blessings and constraints of civilization is very important. On the river, nobody can manipulate you. Also nothing that is attractive on land happens there. All this sophistication is based on the perfect Taoist simplicity of being in the here and now. The journey imposes a certain discipline. You think, What will happen if it rains and everything gets flooded? And that moment comes, everything gets soaked. And then we start a bonfire, things dry out and we find that it is OK.
AB: We help each other. There is discipline, but, like now, in the face of the real threat from the coronavirus, nobody needs to be coerced into taking sensible actions. Everybody reacts naturally.
How do you put together groups of artists for subsequent cruises?
AB: We are both Taoists and we think that the spirit of the galar, or of the FLOW, helps us immensely. We also learn how not to be overprotective; how to help the participants learn group self-organization and getting along.
What’s the dynamic like?
AB: Chaos! People come late, some never arrive, we can’t reach our destination on time because, obviously, time flows differently on the water. And neither of us is a master of organization. But it’s about group self-organization, which then mutates in a natural way. Two years ago, we had 40 visual artists, not to mention musicians, curators, friends, guests and relatives who visited us on the boat. It is not a uniform collective, the dynamics can change quite substantially.
EC: Those who join us put a lot of invention into it. My favourite, Kuba Falkowski, is a great example. He can catch up with the boat in pretty much any circumstances. Sometimes you need to drive a kilometre away from the road, through a village where you’ve never been, treating it like a great adventure. For me this is part of the FLOW – to do something outside of your creative practice, which, in that moment, becomes part of a new activity, some kind of art happening.
Most art circles are so polarized that we are not able to come together and collaborate, even when it comes to the simplest of issues, like fighting for our rights, our security, our pensions, etc. Do we need extreme circumstances to start working together?
AB: If we are hungry, we need to eat something and reach an agreement, but this is not an artistic issue. We do not force people to work together. As a group of professionals, we are no different to other groups in society. Some people are better at certain things than others. Some people try to pass the work over to others, some pretend to be working. But we do get along.
I wonder if FLOW could be a kind of laboratory for future collaborative actions? Those experiences, do they stay with the artists? Do they get translated into their later work and lives?
AB: That was our intention – to have visible effects also later, on land. What we go through on the water verges on mysticism, we enter deep states related to immersing ourselves in the environment. Sometimes when I come back from the boat and walk through the city, I feel as if I have taken some drug. The sensory difference is so incredible that the mind enters into a strange state. It’s very interesting for an artist, very inspiring.
EC: I think that, unconsciously, we are ready for those states, but we must free ourselves of the control of various media that affect us in the city. Here the air seems to be dense, filled with information, while on the Vistula it is thin, transparent – and I don’t just mean electronic gadgets. When I am back on the streets, I can still see the Vistula. It’s a bit like having two tapes overlaid. There would be no FLOW as it is, if not for the fact that the Vistula is still largely a natural river, which allows us to experience its wilds. This journey would be completely different on canals or regulated rivers flowing through towns where the river is mainly subjected to the needs of humans. We want the artists who experience this to become the guardians of the river.
AB: At the same time, we are very reluctant when it comes to outreach activities, because we don’t want populist tourism focused on generating income.
EC: And we don’t want to accept responsibility for the damage that stems from that kind of tourism. You go down the river and you see rubbish.
AB: Monstrous amounts of rubbish! We don’t want guests like that.
Do you think FLOW will happen this year?
AB: Of course.
EC: The boat is having some work done now, but it will be ready for summer.
AB: And we intend to continue till our natural deaths.
The river is a living being. It is dynamic and self-managing
It does nothing, but leaves nothing undone
Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
A visual artist, painter, photographer, video artist. She studied at the Fine Art Academies in Gdańsk and Warsaw, as well as at the National University of Fine Arts and Music in Tokyo. She was born in 1972.
A visual artist, painter, happening artist, co-founder of the LUXUS group. She graduated from the Painting Department of the Fine Art Academy in Wrocław. She was born in 1960.
An artist, mainly focusing on photography. She studied at the Fine Art Academies in Kraków and Vienna. She was born in 1985.
Translated from the Polish by Anna Błasiak