free zone / NGO zone

Warszawa: Saskokępianka

Institute of Reportage

“In Warsaw, elusiveness and temporality is the norm,” says Dorota Piwowarska, from the Saska Association, in the article by Agnieszka Wójcińska (Polish School of Reportage.)

A narrow passage separates the new apartment high-rises on the corner of Zwycięzców and Paryska in a Warsaw neighborhood called Saska Kępa. In the small alley, there are deck chairs and tables with coffee cups. In front of this setup there is a large projection screen, playing documentaries on local communities. Paweł Łoziński, a native of Saska Kępa, directed one of the screened movies. Passersby stop and sit on the chairs. The watch movies, talk. It’s June of 2009 and the event they’re taking part in is called “Reactivating the Sawa.”

– Back in the day, “Sawa” was a legendary cinema – claims Dorota Piwowarska from the Saska Association.
– There was supposed to be an auditorium in the apartment highrise built where “Sawa” once stood, but nothing came out of that.

In 2001, “Sawa” suffered the fate of “Moskwa,” an old movie theater in the Mokotów District torn down a few years before. The only remnant of that cinema are two stone lions, guarding the entrance to the Puławska Financial Center. There’s nothing left of the “Sawa,” outside of some sentiments held by its former patrons. The building “Sawa” was housed in was fitting in nicely with the modernist architecture prevalent in Saska Kępa. The Alliance Square, named after the Entente, where “Sawa” once stood is now occupied by a huge apartment building.

The one-day event was organized by the Saska Association. Back then it was an informal group, they registered it with the authorities a year later.

– The event cost exactly 0 zloty – says Dorota Piwowarska, who founded the Association with a couple of friends from high school. – People let us hook up our gear to their wall outlets, and the local shops gave us the cookies which we served to people who showed up.

We’re all neighbors

The same week, Dorota and her friends, Michał and Magda Jeleń, both members of the Association, began transforming bus stops into impromptu photo booths. This little stunt was called “Stop on a bus stop.” Dorota and the others asked passersby to sit for a while and pose for a photo holding a card indicating their points of departure and destination. The collected pictures and a map documenting the bus passenger traffic within Saska Kępa were later put up as an exhibition in Skaryszewski Park. But an exhibition wasn’t the goal.

– In small towns and villages, the bus stop is the primary meeting spot. In Warsaw, even though we spend a lot of time at bus stops, they form something of a non-social space – explains Dorota.

The cinema and bus campaigns were part of the “Mexico in Saska” project. It consisted of seven more events, like looking for miracles in the neighborhood and the “Memorial”.

– We had people posted at different memorial in Saska Kępa. Our volunteers asked passersby to write down their memories – says Dorota. – We gave them empty pieces of paper, which were also very small, to force a sort of compression of memories linked with a given space. It turned out that scribbling down at our tables we had people who went to school together or whose parents have known each other back in the day.

All these events were based on a simple idea and the participation of people living in Saska Kępa. The goal was also simple: to create an unusual situation in public space, and thus give passersby a reason to stop and spend some time together. They wanted to provoke the regeneration of old and creation of new social networks, and the establishing of neighborhood relations in Saska Kępa. And they succeeded.

Lucky Girl

How can one describe Dorota, the cofounder of the Saska Association and one of the operators of the “Mexico in Saska” projects? She’s a twentysomething native of Warsaw (born and bred), a social and cultural activist, doctoral candidate at the Institute of Polish Culture (her thesis is on public spaces transformed by disaster, particularly the death camp at Auschwitz and Ground Zero in New York), grew up in Saska Kępa. An interdisciplinarian.

– I think that the number of people who don’t want a single-track career is on the rise. I, for one, want to link theory with practice – she says.

Dorota spent two-thirds of her life in Saska Kępa. The low-slung, two story tenements and single family houses, all of it built in the modernist spirit of the interwar period.

The Skaryszewski Park is an integral part of Saska Kępa. Under construction from 1905 to 1922, it was built according to specifications laid out by Franciszek Szanior, a famous landscape architect.

Dorota spent the first nine years of her life in Żoliborz, also a pre-war district, with a distinct character, although the neighborhoods there are not as cozy as they are in Saska Kępa. After those nine years, her parents moved out of their single-bedroom apartment into a bigger one. They chose to live in Saska Kępa. Dorota attended the local high school. Although a public institution, the school placed an emphasis on developing a wide set of skills in the kids and their artistic freedom. The students established a school theater, a choir. Dorota was a scout and with friends she led a troop of cub scouts, fostering a passion for photography, theater, and singing in the little ones.

– I’m very lucky – Dorota says. – When I was a kid, I met some great people who encouraged me to look for my own path, to never stay still.

Today, her parents live in the Warsaw suburbs but Dorota stayed faithful to Saska Kępa. Dorota and her fiancée Paweł Ogrodzki, who is a photographer, culture operator, and a Żoliborz native, decided to settle down in Saska Kępa, too. One of the key considerations for the couple was inner city transit: during spring, summer, and autumn, both move around almost exclusively by bike. – It’s more than a vehicle for us, it’s a lifestyle. Saska is close to downtown. The social aspect of the space we inhabit is very important to us. Pretty buildings and parks aren’t everything. We also have a developed social network, not only on a personal, but also on an organizational level – here we have a handful of institutions and organizations we frequently work with, like the Kępa Café, the Saska Association, the cultural center that’s being built. Saska Kępa is a space filled with meaning and possibilities, to which we want to contribute as best as we can.

Enter the cultural center

Since March of last year, Dorota has been active in an informal collective called “Saska Triangle.” Among the collective’s members there are people from the Saska Association and other organizations, activists, artists, and locals. Anyone can join up. They work together on various ideas, they’re trying to determine what role should the local cultural center play (the building is already standing in the triangle between Wersalska and Brukselska – that’s where the collective’s name comes from). What should it do for the locals?

– We want it to serve our neighborhood – says Dorota. – When we consulted our ideas with the locals, we came up with something we called “the grinder.” It’s about creating a place, where any local can drop by with their idea and bring it to life with the help of professional culture operators. When we submitted that idea to the district authorities, we ran into some resistance. But during subsequent meeting we were able to work something out.

But officials are one thing. The locals are the key element. What can we do to include them in the discussion?

“Enter the cultural center,” “Cultural center = diversity,” “Cultural center = meetings, conversations, fun + edu.” These and similar slogans adorn sheets of paper held by the locals in photographs taken by members of Saska Triangle. Women, men, couples, the younger and older ones, pose in front of a weird cube built out of yellow tape by sculptor Ania Barlik. It’s September of 2010, the second Saska Kępa Feast. The booth belonging to Saska Triangle is standing next to the place where the year before Dorota’s group organized the deck chairs and projection screen. The Triangle people are not only taking photos, they are also editing a short movie – a street poll about the goals of the cultural center that they want to screen in local stores and coffee shops.

The biggest problem? Dorota claims it’s working in the “naïveté zone,” although she immediately corrects herself, replacing “naïveté” with “idealism”.

– We believe that a dedicated group of people filled with ideas and with enough experience under their belt in social and artistic projects should have a shot at doing something with a place like the cultural center. The center needs people like us and we need a place like that. It’s mutually beneficial. That’s why we don’t think about the obstacles we face, the bad experiences we’ve had with places like this but rather focus on the fact that our team might make this place work really well.

They put up one of their own to run for the center’s director. The results of the contest should be made public any day now, but even if they don’t get the top spot, they want to be included in the day-to-day operations of the place. Their plan puts emphasis on the dynamic and experimental nature of the center and its democratic structure (they think the director should be supported by a small group of experts on various subjects).

Balance is key

– Are there any hardships to being a culture operator? Well, I don’t know that many, it’s mostly challenges and ambiguity, but I like both of those. Finding proper balance is hardest for me. When you work within the public space, with volunteers or amateurs, the most important thing is finding balance between your own vision and sensitivity or the ability to listen to people’s needs, to find out what they want, what they dream of, what their lives are like, and what’s important to them.

Also, lack of time when we’re working on projects. Dorota claims that high-intensity work suits her, but she also says that you have to know when to say “stop,” and take a breather.

– This type of work can really interfere with your life – she says. – It’s not like you leave the office and work’s done for the day. Balance is absolutely key for me.

Dorota also admits that Poland lacks good system-wide solutions for cooperation between the local authorities and NGOs.

– I don’t want to say there’s ill will – she claims. But top-down management conducted from some faraway location won’t be able to handle the cultural reality of a place as diverse as Warsaw. On the other hand, operators themselves don’t really know how to reach the authorities with their ideas. Maybe we just lack experience in this kind of cooperation because we’re an upstart when it comes to civil societies?

Don’t fight, create

This year, the Saska Kępa Feast was held in May. The Triangle people didn’t participate in the festivities.

– Frankly, we didn’t want to bother with all the formalities, like securing a place for our booth, just to stand between cotton candy vendors and people selling home-made earrings – says Dorota. – It’s costing us too much energy. But we’re not against the Feast itself. I’ve spoken with people from my parents’ generation and they told me that they want these kinds of events. We decided that it’s better to create something new than to fight against what’s already established.

With a few NGOs and informal associations, the people from Saska Triangle went on to organize an alternative event celebrating the neighborhood. They called it Saska Expo.

The Expo took place on the second Saturday of July and consisted of a day’s worth of meetings, discussions, and small events. The events took place all over Saska Kępa in local coffee shops and bars, like Kępa Café, Francuska 30, Prosta Historia, Uwolnić Matkę, Baobab, galleries, like Milano, Czułość, Dom Funkcjonalny, and bookshops, like Bajbuk and Efka. Unusually for her, Dorota has stayed away from organizing the Expo.

– Ala and Kasia from Kępa Café barred me from any involvement because I’m getting married in a few weeks – claims Dorota, laughing.

Warsaw and the rest of the world

Dorota is sure that Warsaw is her place in the world. Even if she left for some time, she still would’ve liked to come back.

– Warsaw is created not only by the places, but also events – she says. – In Warsaw, elusiveness and temporality is the norm.

October is Warsaw means sixteen festivals. For Dorota, that is one of the amazing things about the city. Although the local cultural initiatives can vary when it comes to artistic quality, but that’s okay. Culture is a democracy, everyone has a right to make their voice heard.

Warsaw isn’t the center of the world, though. – In the summer, Paweł and I want to do a project in the south of Italy, a mixture of anthropological research and reportage – says Dorota. What’s next? – New York. We both want to go there so bad! Everyone in our field should visit that place.

In Poland, she’s almost unreachable. She answers her phone only in the evenings. Constantly on the move – leading workshops, attending meetings, working on projects, writing about theater. Her works defines her, gives her purpose. She’s passionate about every project she works on, an embodiment of the adage, that “you can’t inspire others, if you can’t inspire yourself.”

Agnieszka Wójcińska

The article (and the accompanying 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.