congress / reading room

Emergency Room Wrocław: crisis, difference, diagnosis

Michał Bieniek

Emergency Room is a kind of artistic project that is always organized according to strict set of rules. In the case of the Polish edition of ER, these rules were broken and the format itself had to be modified due to circumstances beyond the control of both artists and curators. Despite these difficulties, most media outlets decided it was the best edition to date.

EMERGENCY ROOM is an artistic format, wherein the artists create superfast exhibition, which last only a few hours, and are supposed to be a reaction to modernity, understood as the present moment. The artists participating in EMERGENCY ROOM were tasked with diagnosing modernity and describing its crises – “right now, before it’s too late,” to quote Thierry Geoffroy, the format’s creator. EMERGENCY ROOM involves our need to react and influence reality. The diagnosis is left to the artists, because their heightened sensitivity allows them to perceive the looming danger more quickly, danger which is often unseen by the untrained eye.

EMERGENCY ROOM is an exhibition space with two rooms. The first, round one is the EMERGENCY ROOM proper, where the artists present and discuss their works, sometimes even call them into question (for example as insufficiently current, thus failing the format’s requirements). The second room is the Delay Museum, where the works are placed after being presented for a short time in the EMERGENCY ROOM. There, the pieces become museum exhibits – carefully secured, documented and presented in a very traditional way. The Delay Museum is a museum of past diagnoses and nearly-forgotten events.

The crisis

The Polish edition of EMERGENCY ROOM, prepared especially for the European Culture Congress, was organized by Thierry Geoffroy and Michał Bieniek, the director of the ART TRANSPARENT Modern Art Foundation based in Wrocław, the organization that produced the event. A special pavilion just for that single event was erected right next to the Centennial Hall. The pavilion was designed (except for the portal, designed by Jean de Piépape, an architect that has been working with Thierry Geoffroy from the inception of the format) by Marcin Garbacki and Karolina Tunajek from the Projekt PRAGA bureau.

It was the pavilion, commissioned by the European Culture Congress staff, that became the source of the crisis that led to the change in the rules governing the Wrocław edition of EMERGENCY ROOM. Because of prolonged bidding procedures and insufficient architectural and structural solutions, the pavilion was not prepared on schedule, and its final form was a far cry from Geoffroy’s requirements. Due to these circumstances, on the day the format was supposed to launch, the curators decided to introduce some changes to the EMERGENCY ROOM format. The changes were an expression of the artists’ disappointment with the entire situation and conditions they were expected to work in.

The word “ROOM” was removed from the name, and the entrance to the round, eponymous Emergency Room was closed.

For the first time in the format’s history, the artists that were supposed to present their work during the changes in the exhibitions had to enter the EMERGENCY ROOM from the Delay Museum. As a result of these events, many artists decided that their works would reference the situation and position of modern art confronted with the culture industry and its marketing forces (represented in the artists’ minds by the European Culture Congress).

The artists presented their works (in almost all cases prepared in the course of a few hours) during the so-called passages, i.e. changes in the exhibition that took place twice a day, at 12.00 and 18.00. The hurried preparations often morphed into discussions revolving around all the presented projects. The starting point for these curator-moderated debates, in which the audience took a very active part, were the authors’ introductions to the issues which their works touched upon.

Tomasz Bajer and Rosaria Iazzetta are two artists whose response to the issue of the position and role of art in the modern, marketing- and event-filled “production” of culture was the strongest. With his painted piece, resembling a Google image search page filled with results of the query “European Culture Congress,” Bajer exposed the discrepancy between the reality of art and culture (and reality altogether) and the process of “labeling,” promoting, and selling it. Iazzetta chose a simpler way (maybe one too simple) and presented a tree-like object with 100 PLN banknotes instead of leaves, thus pointing out the transformation of the creative potential of culture into a lucrative business.

With time, works directly referencing the issues revolving around the Wrocław edition of EMERGENCY ROOM and the European Culture Congress started to displace the pieces describing more general events, i.e. social, political, and economic crises, both local (city-, region-, and nation-wide) and global.

One of the pieces, Piotr Kmita’s “ck the government, ck the politicians”, was especially memorable (for both artists and spectators).

The eponymous slogan, written in clear black font, was created when pieces containing the prefix “fu” were torn away from the original piece of paper with “fuck the government, fuck the politicians” written on it. For writing that particular slogan on the side of a school building, an 18-year old student received a 2-year suspended sentence. On the exact day that Kmita created his piece, the sentence was commuted to 48 hours of community service. “Ck the government, ck the politicians” started out as a commentary on current events but became a more general reflection on socialization as a process based on fear.

The difference

The modified edition of EMERGENCY ROOM exposed the significant difference between artists from Poland and from abroad in their approach to the notion of “crisis” and modus operandi. The approach of the foreign artists, often experienced in working with formats, could best be described as almost “journalistic,” blurring the line between activism and art, while the Poles were characterized by vigilance and sense of irony, they pointed out the ambiguity of the discussed issues and undermined the aptness of their own opinions. These differences seem to expose the biggest problem in running formats:

if art is supposed to diagnose current crises, which, despite their urgency, don’t really fall under public scrutiny, the format itself should not turn into simple journalism, and the artists should not become mere activists.

Their task is a different one – they are supposed to describe that, which escapes us in the din of everyday life, while simultaneously shaping modernity. If we’re to stay true to the format framework, the artists are “detectives,” codebreakers dealing with ciphers embedded in language (especially in visual language). If we deprive them of that role, the format will lose its meaning – instead of building pavilions where we could discuss the dangers of climate change, nuclear energy or the spread of anorexia due to pervasive photoshopping of models on the covers of magazines, we could just join a group of activists who try to use real and concrete means to influence the status quo.

The diagnosis

Nadia Plesner, a Danish artist, was one of the few foreign artists who strayed in their work from the general exhortations, instead focusing on investigating linguistic and visual codes that influence the state of the modern world. Two of her pieces were especially memorable, both dealing with the disturbing phenomenon of building national identity (even cultural identity) of youths through presenting them with a “mortal enemy” (or rather a mortal threat), whose destruction is the ultimate goal, even worth sacrificing a life for.

Plesner visualized the phenomenon using a miniature IKEA table covered with American coloring books for kids, telling a story of “brave American soldiers” fighting the Arab threat.

In these books, all Arabs looked like Osama bin Laden and all the women wore burqas. In another piece (co-created with Christian Costa), Plesner screened an authentic Palestinian movie, in which puppets explained to the kids how glorious it is to sacrifice one’s life in the name of annihilating the Israeli enemy...

Two of the pieces presented in Wrocław at the modified edition of EMERGENCY ROOM were turning most heads – the first subverted the rules of the format while slavishly adhering to them, and the other used the format itself and its creator to reflect on oppression, power, and crime. The former was “Melting Clocks” by Rafał Jakubowicz and Wojciech Duda. This 15-minute film was the only piece the duo presented during the Wrocław edition of EMERGENCY ROOM. They were working on it for almost four days (it wasn’t created in the round EMERGENCY ROOM on the day it was supposed to be presented). But the film’s subject matter –

Jakubowicz and Duda documented the state of one of Wrocław’s poorhouses and the hardships endured by its inhabitants

– described a current crisis and therefore fulfilled all of the format’s requirements. In addition it was a crisis happening in Wrocław’s own backyard (while still invisible to the media), thus it was possible for the audience to exert some real influence over it in the future.

The second of the aforementioned works was a piece by Dorota Nieznalska inspired by the upcoming anniversary of the World Trade Center attakcs (the piece was presented in the EMERGENCY ROOM on September 11, 2011) which was a response to the horrific events that recently struck Norway.

Quoting Breivik, the perpetrator of the attacks, Nieznalska declared that “mass crime does not require massive structures,” thus pointing out that extreme ideas and ideologies can have powerful and disastrous effects even if they are not eventually transformed into a political system.

The artist also created an appendix to that piece – she prepared (and later put up on a wall) a small printout, using the distinctive font associated with the format, in which she swapped the word “EMERGENCY” for “THIERROR.” Thus, Nieznalska summed up the distinct oppression of the artists (and curators) working within the rigid framework of the format, with the creator being its only legislator and judge. Simultaneously, the piece was a more general reflection on power, submission, and oppression, without which no social order would survive its earliest days.

After the conclusion of EMEGENCY ROOM, which coincided with the end of ECC, the pieces created during these four days were placed in the Delay Museum as a permanent exhibition. The exhibition was supposed to end on September 25, 2011, but had to be dismantled a few days earlier due to the poor structural condition of the ER pavilion.

Despite all the difficulties hurled at them, the determination of the EMERGENCY ROOM staff made it possible for the format to take place in Wrocław, although in modified form. Many media outlets called the Wrocław edition the best to date, pointing out that this might just be thanks to all the difficulties surrounding the event. If the difficulties really added value, we should remember that this was not the only takeaway of the event, after the conclusion of EMERGENCY ROOM we should still discuss the current issues that the artists brought to our attention and if possible, devise solutions to these problems.