free zone / NGO zone

Bytom: The Silesian Stalker

Institute of Reportage

“The Grodziec cement works is my own Zone, and the silo is my Room. The average joe has no chance of seeing it” - says Marcin Doś, creator of the Alternatif Turistik initiative in Bytom, in the article by Monika Kokoszyńska (Polish School of Reportage).

How did it all begin? He waves his arms, saying that he won’t even try to explain, that this is just the nature of his work, it either has no beginning or it just does not matter. Ideology sure doesn’t. Asked to write a piece encouraging people to attend an industrial picnic he organized, the Stalker put down: “Take a blanket, some grub, and come.”

“What was I supposed to write? There’s going to be a picnic and we’re going to sit around and look at smokestacks and it’s going to be baller. Later some clouds might roll by or the chimney’s going to spit out some smoke. Action is important, talking is not. I used to prowl around the empty factories. People got interested in that, so I took them with me. Suddenly, some journo labeled me a tour guide and a trailblazer of industrial tourism. That’s all BS. I just like factories.”

fot. Henryk Prond

First Stop – Będzin

The first thing that the Będzin Stalker (a tattoo with the title of Tarkovsky’s film covers most of his forearm) shows us is the panorama of the city, tightly covered with a grey veil of fog and smoke, here and there pierced through by a chimney or an apartment block.

“I won’t ask whether you like factories, but since you tracked me down, I’ll take you where you want to go. But I’d advise against expecting God knows what…”

He comes to the meeting with a duffel bag with about ten golf clubs. He’s wearing jeans, a woodland camouflage jacket, hiking shoes. Currently, he says, he enjoys making impromptu driving ranges out of industrial buildings. But there’s more. The stalker claims that all of his hobbies were born out of satisfying some particular need. With Alternatif Turistik he acts as tour guide, he also runs the Association for Protection of Industrial Relics (APIR) and the bedzinbeat.com website. Many events and initiatives in Silesia are his brainchildren.

“Everything I do is a product of my environment. This place is in my bones,” he says. “Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to the factories, just like gorals are drawn to the mountains.

You can see the Katowice Steelworks in the background. The sunrise looks beautiful behind these stacks.

We organized our first events in these garages over there. That’s the Syberka neighborhood. I lived there when I was a kid. Everything started here, in Będzin.”

The beginning, unimportant according to the Stalker, happened around 1998. “There was a group of us teenagers, and we could either sit on some bench and do nothing or do something more productive with our time. We started going to the factories, we ran around, sometimes in pyjamas, sometimes almost naked. It was this or a future filled with alcohol, no possibilities whatsoever.”

Burning mine dump
fot. Henryk Prond

The photos from factory outings and from events they organized the group put up on the Internet. Later they started adding things that interested them in general. That’s how Będzin Beat came to life.

Bedzinbeat.com – a quasiprovincial magazine, sometimes called a pre-myspace and pre-facebook social network. But it wouldn’t have happened without another local legend, Dominik Cymer. Marcin and Cymer were classmates in grade school. The latter was interested in computers and graphic design, while the former was more active in the real world.

Second Stop – the Zone

“Right now we’re going to the Indunature Reservation. The Reservation, formerly the Grodziec cement works, was established in 1858. The facility produced Portland cement until its closure in 1979. Since then, its walls have mostly collapsed due to intense scrap metal salvage. Trees sprouted from these few roofs that haven’t collapsed. An immense silo withstood the attacks of both time and salvagers. The inside of the silo has wonderful acoustic properties thank to half-meter thick concrete walls.”

Tarkovsky’s Stalker guides people through the Zone – an area cordoned off by the government, inside of which lies the Room that grants wishes.

“I have this story,” Doś tells me while we’re standing inside the silo and his voice reverberates like we’re in some concert hall, “I tell people that the cement works is my own Zone, and the silo is my Room. The average joe has no chance of seeing it.”

But the tour guide business isn’t everything. Marcin decided to write “Indunature” and publish it with the help of the Kronika Center for Contemporary Art in Bytom, one of the more interesting and brave galleries showcasing modern art in Poland.

”Indunature” was supposed to be a recap of Marcin’s activities, but it was also supposed to be the answer to the question of Upper Silesia’s postindustrial characteristics.

“When I started taking people on tours, almost ten years ago, there weren’t that many people who know what a loft was. Back then, the question was: »Does Silesia have any potential left? Or is it just problems from here on forward?« Everyone knew that the area was full of dilapidated factories, and nobody knew what to do with them.”

“Much has changed since then. More and more people are taking an interest in industrial relic, new events keep getting organized. People adapt industrial spaces for domiciles or workshops. But these adapted places can no longer be called factories.”

Marcin took his motto from a sign he saw in one of the halls: “This facility has historic value. Trespassing expressly forbidden.” He admits that he himself hasn’t saved anything in the physical sense, although he has a feeling that his actions had an impact on the social awareness. Marcin used to attend town hall meetings, where he clashed with politicians and conservators but he doesn’t do it anymore. There was just too much indifference. And everytime the authorities broke their own promises and demolished some old industrial facility, he felt sorry.

Marcin Doś

fot. M. Śląska

When we were leaving the Zone, Marcin showed me the “Facility of Historic Value” sign painted on one of the walls. He claims that people do that with places they “own.” So maybe someone will also see this one and decide against tearing it down?

The motto of Alternatif Turistik is “Every tour is a last minute tour. The next one might not happen.”

Third Stop – the Eiffel Tower

“The Krystyna shaft is the crown jewel. There are only three shafts like this one left. And of course, the authorities want to tear it down, because it’s dilapidated, even entering it is dangerous. When I take a group to the shaft, everyone signs a special release, waiving any rights to sue in case of an accident. But even with the release, we literally had people lining up to visit the shaft when Alernatif Turistik started taking tours down. It’s a beautiful site, for me it’s the Eiffel Tower of Bytom.”

Let me tell you how Alternatif Turistik was established.

Doś asked his friends from Silesia and other regions to contribute to “Indunature”. Dominik Cymer designed the book and Kronika published it. The gallery and Marcin also prepared a separate event called “Alternatif Turistik – Let’s Put a Smile on All This Destruction,” which consisted of picnic parties, walks, workshops, concerts, off-golf tournaments and exhibits (the event took place from April until May of 2009.) They bought 20 bicycles (with the city’s financial support,) so there were also guided tours on bicycles.

After the event ended, the name “Alternatif Turistik” was infused with a life of its own.
Soon thereafter, “Indunature” won the “Silesian Thing” design contest.

Fourth Stop – Loft

“Take a right here. Przemo Łukasik lives here, he’s got a swell place. A storage shed for lamps used to be here, and there was the corridor leading to the “White Eagle” mining complex and steelworks in Bytom. Przemo took all 200 square meters of it and changed nothing. It’s beautiful. This first loft in Poland was also the last place my grandfather worked at.”

Marcin claims that his life is driven by periodicity.

First there was the tour guide job, later came the events. Now he’s in his directing phase (although he shuns the full “director of photography” label, as he claims to only having majored in production at the film school in Katowice.)

In 2005, Doś traveled the entire city by tram with his friend Piotrek Wilczyński, a.k.a “Kurus.” The whole trip is something like 50 kilometers. It was something new even for Doś. APIR was conceived during that long tram ride.

Doś described APIR in “Indunature”, writing that: “APIR’s primary goal is strengthening our environment. The emotions that industrial evokes in us are crucial, and their preservation through photography, movies and written record is our most important task. We have to salvage any remnants of Silesia’s industrial might. Remember that the “industrial” label does not apply only to dilapidated factories and take a look around...”

APIR was supposed to be a fully legitimate organization, with official stamps, meetings and business cards.

“I got scared that this is going to limit me somehow,” Doś says. The first meeting of potential members turned out to be swarmed with politicians, journalists, somebody stuck a mike in my hand. We haven’t even said a word and I was already supposed to outline formal goals. And the only thing that went through my mind was how am I going to organize a party for 30 people in the silo with this organization on my hands. I won’t stand a chance. That’s why APIR was never formally founded.”

Well then, how does association work?

“We send word to those interested that we’re meeting, for example, tomorrow at some factory at 11 o’clock sharp. The meeting sometimes ends with a concert, sometimes we play golf, some of us go into the woods and the rest stays at the factory, stuff like that...”

Fifth Stop – “Jadwiga” Coking Plant

“We had a show at the coking plant. We set up some amps and one of friends played some guitar. It was Paweł Kluczyński. That guy is really something, he just likes to show up and play music in our industrial relics.”

Paweł Kluczyński's concert

fot. Henryk Prond

When Doś and his crew came to Warsaw to visit the “Friendship” Coking Plant, they were received with a measure of distrust. The employees are used to showing around groups of journalists and students, but who were these people? Who did they represent? The visitors claimed to just enjoy factories. The distrust abated when they started gushing over the mazes of pipes. The employees say that they were the first tourists to ever visit the coking plant.

Doś is used to hearing that he should run a normal travel agency with a website.

“But what am I supposed to do later,” he asks. “Everyone’s going to ask me for my tour guide license, my rates. There are some areas of my life where I don’t separate my private life from my professional life. There is some overlap between the two. Alternatif Turistik belongs in that grey, undefined area. It’s connected directly to my life. I won’t tell you how I make my living because it’s mystery even for me.”

At the end of the interview, he asked me to write his name “Dośśląski,” which is an amalgam of his last name and the Polish adjective “śląski”, meaning “Silesian.” Curiously enough, this request wasn’t motivated by his love for the region but the love for a woman. As life would have it, his girlfriend’s last name is “Śląska.” He calls her “my Silesienne.”

Monika Kokoszyńska
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.