(PL) Warsaw and Mazovia – Participant Research: Krasnobrodzka 13 – the reconstruction of Paweł Althamer’s strategy of working with the local community
In this essay, I would like to focus on the process of activating the local community by the artist Paweł Althamer. I will describe those of his projects that involved a small group of inhabitants of the block of flats where he lives at Krasnobrodzka 13. That is, I will not refer to his other works, such as the Bródno Sculpture Park or the sculpture mounted at the Targówek District Hall (‘Autoportret’ [‘Self-Portrait’]) because they engage a bigger community from the Bródno district. It also means that I will not review these projects as works of art but I will examine if and how they activate the community.
I would like to reconstruct this working model as an example of the process of empowering a community and raising their sense of responsibility for a place where they live. The process, in which the artist-director-animator invites and gradually engages the community in following his vision, gives them tools as well as encourages them to act and influence reality. In the end, he leaves them with a chance of and responsibility for creating their common space and continuing the common task.
Paweł Althamer’s position in Bródno is unique and favourable owing to various conditions. On the one hand, Althamer is a well-known Polish artist, who has chosen Bródno as the field for launching numerous projects, which change the public space and the image of this district. As a recognizable person, he has a financial support from the City Council, the District Council and the Open Art Projects Foundation. As a showman and a very strong personality, he attracts media attention. On the other hand, Althamer lives in the block of flats at Krasnobrodzka 13, and as a member of a small local community he is able to build trust with the ‘locals’ and recognize their needs and problems.
Bródno is a district forgotten by the rest of Warsaw. It is a huge housing estate from the communist period, considered polluted, noisy and bland. It is called a ‘sleeping district’: its residents work and spend their free time somewhere else.
Paweł Althamer recognized the problem of lack of social bonds between tower block residents. He decided to work with the people from his block to create a real local community that is not forced to live in Bródno but rather proud of living there together.
Introduction – Bródno 2000
The first project, Bródno 2000, was a kind of introduction. The idea was to write the number 2000 on the facade of the block by switching the lights on and off in particular rooms. The project required the participation of about 200 families, who received precise instructions on the sequence in which they should switch the lights on and off. Not only the block residents but also the whole district community was somehow involved in this action. Scouts helped Althamer deliver instructions to people. Politicians and Bródno district officials delivered speeches on the site during the event. In his daily sermon, the local parish priest referred to the divine nature of light. Local cultural activists came up with their own initiatives, such as giving out free meals as well as organizing a folk concert, a fireworks display and a dance party. The action itself lasted approximately twenty minutes and became a large event attended by 3000 people (mostly from the district and its vicinity).
Common Task (2008-to date)
After 8 years, Althamer decided to check if the community would take part in his other project. When the Nottingham Contemporary invited him to make the project for the exhibition titled Star City. The future under communism, he came up with the idea of renovating his staircase in Krasnobrodzka and creating the space from science-fiction movies. However, the project evolved into something different: shared activities and journeys, a quasi-documentary film and a social sculpture, all of which were based on the idea that science–fiction reality is our reality.
Accompanied by members of his local community, the artist embarked on a continuing journey that has taken him from Warsaw to Brasil, Belgium, Mali and England. The Common Task participants wear specially created gold spacesuits adorned with the blue and white logo with the name of Krasnobrodzka Street.
- Brasilia (2009) Althamer and the group of five persons travelled to Brasilia, the capital of Brazil and a utopian architectural project designed in 1956 by the urban planner Lucio Costa and the architect Oscar Niemeyer. They undertook both planned and spontaneous activities (carnival parades and gatherings of a religious group).
- Brussels (June 2009) was connected with the twentieth anniversary of the end of communism in Poland. The National Cultural Centre in Poland financed the journey of 150 people (not only the residents of Krasnobrodzka 13 but also people from the Nowolipie group, seniors, children and journalists). They flew on a special plane painted gold by Althamer. They had a strict schedule and managed to visit Expo 58, the European Parliament and the offices of the European Commission.
- Mali (November 2009) Althamer and five persons travelled to Mali, where they spent several weeks with the Dogon people. The trip to Mali represented Althamer’s personal journey of return. He had been to Africa in 1991. The experience of this journey was a catalyst for reconnecting with his housing estate of Bródno as the focus of his artistic production. Over there, I realized that the very place is here, in the Warsaw neighbourhood of Bródno. Bródno has this intense aura
- Oxford (winter 2009) The exhibition at Modern Art Oxford summarized the project. The artist converted the British institution into an imaginary space station for the Common Task travellers. Visitors were invited to wear one of the Common Task uniforms and join the group in a series of activities, such as following them on a walk through the nearby countryside or sitting with them in an editing room where the footage from the previous trips was being assembled.
Strolls around Bródno in golden uniforms to discover the district from the new, fresh and different perspective were a very important part of this project. ‘Golden people’ took part in other Althamer’s actions, for instance the opening of the Bródno Sculpture Park. They are in the photo of the whole community, which was taken during that opening and later mounted in the church. To Althamer, the activities in Bródno reflect the goal of the whole project, which is: To realize that we are exactly in the centre of the Universe. To realize the most important thing: that everything we need is here, around us.
To understand projects like ‘Common Task’, it is worth stressing two major themes always present in his artistic works. The first one is the continuous exploration of perception. The basic instrument of exploration is the journey, both psychological (introspective) and physical. The second one is Althamer’s key figure of an astronaut, related to the problem of perception since he is a guest in the world, who observes the space around him from a different perspective.
In the article mentioned above, Althamer assumes that the exploration of one’s perception, and the journey have the same importance for others and for him: What are astronauts doing in Bródno? It’s pure metaphysics. I thought that if the travel and confrontation with the world of the Dogons – aliens from Africa – were so important to me, this could be an interesting experience to anyone who lived here. It shows the basic feature of his model of working with the local community: in this case, the motivation for the project comes not from people’s needs but from the artist’s dream. Stressing this fact, I would like to examine how he managed to involve the neighbours in this dream and, thus, created the active community. I see the three described projects (Common Task, Bródno People and the Staircase) as three levels of the process of engaging participants.
In Common Task, everything (costumes, plane, goal, companions) is prepared and given to the participants. The project is not negotiated with them. It is an invitation to share and take part in a ‘cosmic’ dream, not to express one’s own. The only influence that the participants can have is to accept or reject it. Not responsible for the project, they are not expected to create or change anything.
On the other hand, the journeys the participants had formed common memories and integrated them. Owing to that experience, the artist turned his vision into part of the common memories and the reference point for the community. The main role of the Common Task was not to activate but integrate neighbours around the ‘cosmic’ idea, which was essential for the whole process.
Bródno People, 2010 (Paweł Althamer with Paweł Buchholz, Marcin Leszczyński, Michał Mioduszewski, Sławomir Mocarski, Julia Petelska and Jędrzej Rogoziński)
The idea and the final form of this sculpture is a clear continuation of Althamer’s vision expressed in ‘Common Task’, the sculpture being based on August Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais (1889). All the figures were stylised to resemble characters from science fiction movies, as the artist wanted to present them as characters from a film in real time.
However, the process of making this piece shows another level of engaging the local community. Each figure is a self-portrait of one of the neighbours (including Althamer himself), executed by them under the artist’s supervision and with his help. Listing the neighbours’ names stresses the shared authorship. The residents participate both in the conceptual process and the realization within the framework of Althamer’s idea. They are not only invited to be part of his dream but also to have an influence on it. In other words, they are no longer ‘receivers’ and guests, but rather ‘givers’ and creators.
The finale of the process and the new beginning: Staircase 2010
After the journeys, the artist finally renovated the devastated staircase in his tower block in collaboration with his neighbours. This action required the approval of the majority of the residents. They created a futuristic interior as a set and fixed point of reference for ‘Common Task’.
Refurbishment itself and its final shape is the next step in the execution of Paweł Althamer’s vision and dream. However, it is its function that I consider the crucial point of his work with the local community. ‘Staircase’ is a truly common task. It is meant to be a social space, much like a local cultural centre. The residents, while giving their approval to renovate it, took responsibility for ‘Staircase’. The future of the place is in their hands. It could be a meeting point where they can discuss and solve their problems together as well as a place where they can develop and show their own works and projects without the necessity of the artist’s custody. Good starting points are the exhibition of pictures of Bródno made by the resident Wiesław Niedźwiecki and the Stairway Independent Cinema held by one of Althamer’s co-workers Michał Mioduszewski, both projects being developed in ‘Staircase’. The realization and the success of Staircase would not have been possible without the whole process. It will be interesting to monitor the development of this place, which will no longer be a monolithic vision of the artist.
- R. Kurzmeyer, A.Szymczyk, S.Cotter, Paweł Althamer, Phaidon 2011
- A. Niżyńska, Paweł Althamer [w:] Street art jako alternatywna forma debaty publicznej w przestrzeni miejskiej, Wydawnictwo TRIO 2011
- K.Sienkiewicz, Szaman bródnowskiego plemienia, Dwutygodnik nr.64/ 2011, http://www.dwutygodnik.com/artykul/2555-szaman-brodnowskiego-plemienia.html
- K.Sienkiewicz, 1989 – Brukselski nalot złotych kombinezonów, Dwutygodnik nr.06/2009, http://www.dwutygodnik.com/artykul/210-1989-brukselski-nalot-zlotych-kombinezonow.html
- S.Szabłowski, Althamer i złoci kosmici zdobyli Brukselę, źródło: dziennik.pl
- S.Szabłowski, Bródno 2000, article on the Polish Culture Congress 2009 website: http://www.kongreskultury.pl/title,Kalendarium,pid,23,oid,21,cid,132.html
- A.Kowalska, Kosmici z Bródna w Brukseli, źródło: gazeta.pl
- P.Althamer, Wybrałem to Bródno, article from the blog of the project „Zrób to w Warszawie”, http://zrobtowwawie.blox.pl/2009/06/Althamer-Wybralem-to-Brodno.html
- A. Kowalczyk, Astronauci z Bródna lecą do Brukseli z dobrą nowiną, źródło: gazeta.pl
Description of the projects by Kasia Redzisz from the Open Art Projects Foundation website: www.openartprojects.org
 Paweł Althamer in conversation with Artur Żmijewski, Warsaw, 3 February 1993, in Artur Żmijewski, „Bródno Nirvana”, Drżące ciała. Rozmowy z artystami, Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej, Warsaw, 2008, p.57, translation by Ewa Dąbrowska.
 P.Althamer, Wybrałem to Bródno, an article from the blog of the project ‘Do it in Warsaw’, http://zrobtowwawie.blox.pl/2009/06/Althamer-Wybralem-to-Brodno.html [translation by I.M]
 P.Althamer, Wybrałem to Bródno, an article from the blog of the project ‘Do it in Warsaw’, http://zrobtowwawie.blox.pl/2009/06/Althamer-Wybralem-to-Brodno.html