free zone / NGO zone

Gdańsk: The Art Laborers

Institute of Reportage

"When I entered the shipyard, I was 22. I left when I was 30. That’s a big chunk of life"- says Sylwester Gałuszka, co-creator of the PGR_ART's Free Studio in Gdańsk, in the article by Katarzyna Lis (Polish School of Reportage).

They call themselves “the art laborers.” Everything started at the Gdańsk Shipyard, a place heavy with immense hulls and history. But later the ship production steadily dropped off, and history moved out elsewhere. The shipyard got emptier with each passing year. And then art took root in the concrete halls.

In 2001, a group of artists got a chance to create a space for independent art in the abandoned buildings of the Gdańsk Shipyard. This was the beginning of the Artists’ Colony, co-created by the young artist named Mikołaj Robert Jurkowski. The artists found not only a new home in the shipyard, they found a place they could showcase their work in. Sylwester Gałuszka was one of them. “When I met Mikołaj for the first time, he told me: »Never forget where you’re from«,” Gałuszka says. Each of the Colony’s artists got a studio in one of the dilapidated shipyard buildings, 175A. It once housed the shipyard telephone switchboards. The artists paid the electric and water bills and in the winter they sprang for heating – a thing almost unheard of back in these days. At the same time they started putting shipyard workers at ease with the presence of artists.

To this day they identify themselves with the place and the people.

“Instead of creating, laborers work,” says the PGR_ART manifesto. “They need not conjure up their own agenda, the party line is provided by the management.” This “planned agendalessness” reveals a certain multi-tendency: towards multiplicity, heteronomy and opposition against objectification of art. PGR_ART is not the judge, it’s a conduit. It’s a place that is supposed to be accessible, an void waiting to be filled with a message, a different one each time. The art laborers discard the modernist model of art and its claims of being the only true one.

A SPACE FOR ART

The Artists’ Colony was only the beginning of full-on colonization. The shipyard grounds became home to the Znak theater, a movie discussion club, the Modelarnia club and the Wyspa Art Institute created by Aneta Szyłak.

Housed in the Colony building, the Mm Gallery hosted the Youths of a Young City project. The goal was to showcase one talented art school student each month. The most recognizable artists of the modern Polish art world, like Anna Reinert, Anna Witkowska and Sebastian Woźniak, all had their debut in the Mm Gallery.

Every exhibition was a big event, often with a political dimension. When in 2003 Poland sent troops to Iraq, the artists staged a massive protest on the shipyard grounds.

Later they organized the Free Tibet Initiative, combining political protest with presentations on Tibetan culture, yoga workshops and live Tibetan music concerts staged on the Colony’s roof . “Dramttaka” was another seemingly normal and yet big event, combining live music with spectacular visualizations. But, every event was supposed to reference the Shipyard’s history or Poland’s political transformations, including their cost, human or otherwise.

The Colony also organized workshops for kids of shipyard workers and ones coming from broken homes. There, they youngsters learned about the mysterious monster called “modern art” and constructed their own installations out of trash strewn across the shipyard grounds.

PGR_ART’s Free Studio was also established around that time. It wasn’t a specific project with a program and artistic preferences, it was a simple space of around 100 square meters, open to whatever the artist’s intentions were. Extreme Art was one of the projects organized in the Free Studio (except of Gałuszka and Jurkowski, it was co-created by Jakub Bielwaski and kis Klosz ART) . The invited artists started by showcasing their current works and in the space of four weeks, influenced by the place and people, they created something new.

It lasted up to 2007. In December, the new owner of the shipyard evicted the artists from Lot 175A. Most of them were offered a new place to coalesce.

“When I entered the shipyard, I was 22. I left when I was 30. That’s a big chunk of life,” says Gałuszka. Even though he loved the inspiring energy of the shipyard, he does not regret the forced exodus. Gałuszka admits that the severance became something of a push towards the rebirth of PGR_ART. “Leaving the shipyard was painful, but now I see it was also necessary. Even though we left the place, the art laborer spirit never left us, and now it is reborn in a new reality,” says Gałuszka.

THE NEW CITY

Sylwester Gałuszka and Mikołaj Robert Jurkowski started wandering around the city. It was something of a rediscovery for both of them. Today, the “Rediscovering Art” workshops are among the most important events organized by PGR_ART.

“We call it ARTour. Once a month, we meet with four groups which we take to see exhibitions and all other must-see stops of the Tricity artistic world. We’re trying to level the playing field for everyone and we use new media to achieve that.”

Sylwester and Mikołaj don’t believe in problematic youth and tough neighborhoods, but they both know how the place you live in can cast a long shadow over life, and they are aware of the reputation of some of Tricity’s less glamorous districts. But both artists claim that their task is to inspire the youths, to sow seeds where no one else wants to.

They take the youngsters to galleries, convincing them look at and interpret art in new ways. They workwith psychologists and educators. The youngest of their proteges was 6 years old.

“Our charges, armed with still and video cameras, create their own subjective image of what they see in modern art galleries,” says Sylwester, adding that “in the first phase of the workshop, we just wander around the city, looking for good shots, topics, means of expression, we engage in various discussions. Later, our kids work with the collected material, making it their own through forms and means of expression. Movies and photographs are the final product of their efforts.”

Backed by the Orange Foundation, Mikołaj and Sylwester are preparing a new round of workshops. They claim that the events will “be something completely new, for us as well. We’re going to make 3D documentaries with the help of cutting-edge technology and the ideas of 40 volunteers. The effect of our combined efforts might be really amazing.”

BICYCLING AFTER ART

PGR_ART is not only focused on education, the group also organizes festivals combining music, multimedia and performance art. Another one of the group’s better known projects is something called DWAtv.

“The reality of the 1990s, when Warsaw shipped itself off by train to Gdańsk to see new exhibitions is gone. But Tricity is full of new spaces, new places and initiatives,” says Gałuszka. He adds: “Last year we decided to participate in literally every event, record and document the Tricity art scene. We went everywhere with a video camera, rode bikes, trams, tried to reach Tricity’s every nook and cranny. The truth is that we decided against recording some events, but most of them we have on film. Our movies often show recorded phenomena true to scale, from beginning to end, without any edits. We want our audience to experience them in their entirety. Right now we’re working on some edited versions for our Internet viewers.” The movies are available at http://dwatv.blogspot.com.

“We’re still not satisfied with Tricity’s artistic offer. There is still much we can and should do”, comments Gałuszka.
 

Katarzyna Lis
Translated by Jan Szelągiewicz

This article (together with the questionnaire) is part of a series of reportages on grassroots cultural/social initiatives in various Polish cities. They were written especially for ECC by students of the Polish School of Reportage established at the Institute of Reportage in Warsaw.