I headed over to the RCA in South Kensington on Thursday to catch Controlled Image: The Question of Image Control in Poland in the 70s and 80s. This was funded by the Polish Cultural Institute who in recent years have been running some groovy film programmes all over London, and this particular event was part of a season at various venues including Tate Modern and The Barbican. There was a good crowd, some had stayed on from a packed Dan Graham talk before the screening. I find Graham painful to watch in the flesh because he is so pathetic and unsure of himself, so I didn’t attend that. The Controlled Image screening was a mixed bag put together by students from Jagiellonian University, and the weakest works were shown first. Historical Camera Purchase (1984) was a home movie of Tadbusz Kantor buying a video camera in Spain; basically it’s a series of zooms and pans of Kantor’s friends in a shop plus soundtrack banter about the camera as it is tested. Romuald Kutera and Lesek Mrozek’s Transferring The Camera (1974, reconstructed 1978 & 2009) consists of the artists walking towards each other and then away again, repeatedly, with a camera passed between them; there are lots of loose and boring accidental shots of a park as this goes on.
For me the highlight of the evening came next, a nine and a half minute extract from Piotr Bikont and Leszek Dziumowicz’s Ballad Of A Strike (1988), shot during a strike at the Gdansk shipyard in support of recognition for the Solidarity union, pay rises and the release of political prisoners. In an amazing sequence at the end of the strike, the cameraman is involved in a confrontation with strike breakers at the dockyard gates and the camera is snatched by the militia. The still running camera is taken to the local militia headquarters and while examining it the plods make comments like “Sony”, but can’t work out how to turn it off. The tape ends when the battery goes flat. Pressurised by an angry public, the authorities eventually returned the camera to the dock workers with the tape still inside it. This really is an amazing piece of footage and it would be great to see the entire documentary.
Just over a minute of undated film from Polish television archives and run under the title Materials From Nowa Huta failed to make much impression on me. It was followed by more than 11 minutes of police surveillance footage of illegal currency exchange deals outside the Pewex shop in Krakow from 29 March 1983. This material had not been shot with the intention it should be publicly screened and would have worked better as a gallery installation, particularly if multiple projections had been used. From the perspective of someone from London, the clothes the people captured on camera where wearing made it look more like footage from the early 1970s rather than a decade later; although obviously this simply reflects the uneven development of capitalism in different parts of Europe and the world.
Jadwiga Singer’s Glass Pane (1977-79) featured this artist and Jacek Singer performing to camera and using a glass pane as a prop; the glass is drawn on, sprayed with water and coca-cola and smashed. This worked well both as spectacle and disruption of spectacle. Ibenbusz Haczewski’s Transmitter’s Construction (n.d.), documented his clandestine activities interrupting official TV transmissions and with pirate radio. Igor Krenz’s TV,,S (n.d) was a reconstruction of the illegal broadcast of Solidarity slogans over official TV in September 1985. This was a technically complex action set up by three scientists, and entailed their transmitter being carried high into the atmosphere by hydrogen balloons so that the range of the broadcast was maximised. The slogans deployed were effective because the modes of capitalist exploitation dominant in Poland in the 1980s were still very primitive: “Solidarity, enough of price rises, lies, repression” and “Solidarity, it is our duty to boycott the elections”.
The programme ended with three artist films. Satisfaction (1980) and Luggage (1981) by Zdislaw Sosnowski looked very much like underground artist’s video from the USA and western Europe of the same period. Shots of the artist’s scantily clad wife are mixed with repeated nonsensical actions and a soundtrack in which familiar materials are distorted and cut-up (as was the fashion in the ‘industrial’ subculture of the time). Both films held my attention although they would have benefited from tighter editing; but that said Sosnowski’s very self-conscious deployment of cliche did make me laugh out loud. The screening ended with Ewa Partum’s Drawing On TV (1976), in which lines are drawn over live TV broadcasts.
All in all an interesting selection of material, and one which left me wanting to see all of Ballad Of A Strike plus further work by Jadwiga Singer and Zdislaw Sosnowski. The pieces were obviously put together to raise theoretical questions and were chosen more for their intellectual than their aesthetic coherence; so although I found parts of the programme less than scintillating, I can still understand why it was put together in this way. After the screening there was free sparkling wine but as I don’t like fizzy white I skipped that and made use of an opportunity to catch up with Gustav Metzger who was also in the audience…. Jon Wozencroft numbered among those also present, I hadn’t seen him for years and he didn’t seem to recognise me when I said hello despite the fact I’m always being told I haven’t changed at all! Are those who say I look very young for my age lying in an attempt to flatter me? And there is no need to answer that purely rhetorical question in the comments!
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!