Unseen Polish films of the 1970s & 1980s

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!


Comment by K Mail on 2009-03-28 14:18:27 +0000

That wasn’t Gustav Metzger, that was me disguised as Gustav Metzger! Now where on earth could I have left that flaming steam iron?

Comment by Melody Nelson on 2009-03-28 14:50:31 +0000

Walerian Borowczyk is my favourite Polish director!

Comment by Roman Polanski on 2009-03-28 18:22:13 +0000

Melody, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen my 1958 short “Two Men and a Wardrobe”. So ignore that naughty Serge Gainsbourg and that kitsch Walerian Borowczyk, and instead hop over to my place for a private screening.

Comment by Martha Reeves on 2009-03-28 19:27:44 +0000

Dont’ forget the Vandellas did “More (Than The Greatest Love)”, the theme from “Mondo Cane” which you can find on our “Heatwave” album…. and okay that is an Italian movie but it’s still a groove sensation!

Comment by The Real Tessie on 2009-03-28 20:16:49 +0000

So now I know why you wouldn’t let me out of the cupboard on Thursday. But there must be something you’re not letting on about here. So are you gonna name the bird you were trying to impress by taking her to this rather than shelling out the ackers to see a proper film in a proper cinema? I wouldn’t have wanted to go anyway, sounds like a snore fest to me… zzzzzzzzzzzzz

Comment by Klaus on 2009-03-28 21:27:36 +0000

Baba z wozu, koniom lzej!

Comment by Alfred Korzybski on 2009-03-28 22:20:06 +0000

To get into the different ‘orders of abstraction,’ you really need to go beyond Polish film and get into General Semantics.

Comment by Meat Space on 2009-03-28 22:49:02 +0000

Unseen Polish film? That’s a hot potato!

Comment by K Mail on 2009-03-28 22:54:21 +0000

That wasn’t me leaving the K Mail comment above but a clone, that said it wasn’t at all bad as an imitation, in fact it was better than the real thing!

Comment by Polish Stan on 2009-03-28 22:57:46 +0000

Pierogi (also perogi, perogy, pirohi, piroghi, pirogi, pirogen, pierogy, pirohy, pyrohy), from the Proto-Slavic “pir” (festivity), is the name most commonly used in English speaking areas to refer to a variety of Slavic semicircular (or, in some cuisines, square) boiled dumplings of unleavened dough stuffed with varying ingredients. In English, the word pierogi and its variants are pronounced with a stress on the letter “o”.

Comment by The Fake Stefan Szczelkun on 2009-03-28 23:00:59 +0000

Bigos is an open group of younger generation Anglo-Polish artists, organised by Stefan Szczelkun and Kasia Januszko. It had its first major exhibition in Brixton Art Gallery in August 1986 and was open to any artist with a Polish heritage.
“Advertisements in Artists Newsletter and The Jewish Chronicle to attract artists outside our immediate London circle got a good response and the group grew from 12 to over 30 with more women than men. From then on the group itself became more important than the initial concept of a prestigious exhibition.” (Szczelkun, Collaborations, Working Press, 1987 p.88)
Each artist self-selected work for the Brixton exhibition which was then hung by Andrjej Borkowski helped by Kasia Januszko and Krystyna Borkowska. A video recording was made by Janusz Szczerek. This inclusive and self curating mode continued through our future exhibitions. We toured Poland in 1989 (arranged by Leszek Dabrowski) and in the following few years had a further eight shows around England.
Arts Council funding was awarded for a British tour of made-to-measure shows. Work was chosen to be site specific to each venue and each show was preceded by a site visit. The made-to-measure shows were hosted by the Watermans Art Centre at Brentford (1990); Cartwright Hall in Bradford (1991); The Huddersfield City Art Gallery (1992); and the Polish Cultural Institute in Portland Place, London (1998). These shows were accompanied by performances and workshops which often included an element of contact with local Polish communities.
The self-selection mode was difficult to maintain however. Self-selection contradicts the prevailing ethos of curatorship. Groups are not meant to self-select in British art culture. They usually submit to the eye of the professional curator. However the self-selection process benefits an ethnic artists group because participants can represent their culture on their own terms without mediation.
Collective work also went on in meetings in which we talked, ate Polish food and did creative work together. The work of immigrant, bicultural and subsequent generation artists is a crucial part of the considerations of cultural assimilation which are so necessary to all refugee and immigrant peoples. It is hard to see how else much of this thinking can happen.
In spite of our high profile exhibitions it was difficult to engage a critical discourse that was capable of supporting and validating this work. Interest seemed to be shifting towards artists from marginal cultures being categorised simply as contemporary. Britain still needs the critical channels to support discourse on the cultural needs and development of the many cultures which are marginal to its mainstream definition of the Arts. This lack of response was in my view the main cause of the decline in the group’s activity in the late Nineties.

Comment by Michael Roth on 2009-03-29 05:50:46 +0000

Ballad of a Strike sounds interesting.
Uh… I got nothing else …

Comment by Marie Lloyd on 2009-03-29 09:03:13 +0000

I’ve always believed in supporting strikers, so the “Ballad Of A Strike” sounds like the best piece to me here too. Of course I was able to do most during the 1907 Music Hall Strike which had its first meeting at my Hampstead house. As I said at the time: “We (the stars) can dictate our own terms. We are fighting not for ourselves, but for the poorer members of the profession, earning thirty shillings to £3 a week. For this they have to do double turns, and now matinées have been added as well. These poor things have been compelled to submit to unfair terms of employment, and I mean to back up the federation in whatever steps are taken.” I performed on picket lines throughout the strike, and in a fund raising performance at the Scala Theatre. During one picket I saw singer was Belle Elmore trying to scab her way into a show and shouted, “Let her through girls, she’ll close the music hall faster than we can.” Later, Belle Elmore was murdered by her husband, Dr. Crippen.

Comment by Fred The Shred on 2009-03-29 10:36:42 +0000

Show me the money!

Comment by an unknown worker on 2009-03-29 12:40:27 +0000

Great to see the Metzger is still in effect – wot do u think of the latest art strike regs?

Comment by Sam Wade on 2009-03-29 12:43:22 +0000

Fellow Workers,
To mark International Workers Day the Cambridge Industrial Workers of the World will be hosting a celebratory gig at the Man on the Moon pub,
Norfolk st, Cambridge. 7:30pm £3/£5 on the door.
DJs, bands, speakers, performers, everyone welcome to join us on the stage or floor as comrades and fellow workers this Mayday !!!!
Please email iwwcambridge @ lists.aktivix.org if u wanna come up/ play
We will be joining our fellow workers around the world in celebrating our
successful struggles, remembering our fallen martyrs and demonstrating our continued our continuing intent to create a better world.
Any profits made from this gig will be going to the North Carolina
Truckers fund: http://www.iww.org/en/node/4565
Cambridge Anarcho-punk band Dehumanise and East London industrial dance crew Inqalab are playing.
We welcome suggestions of other Bands/Acts who
would be willing to play.
We would invite Fellow Workers attending the Mayday celebrations in london to attend.
Accommodation is available if needed.
Open to all!
Bring banners!
Yours in solidarity,
Acting Communications Secretary
IWW Cambridge GMB

Comment by K Mail on 2009-03-29 13:54:33 +0000

Not only were both of those last K Mails fake, but I’m fake too. Clicking on my link will reveal an image that appears to be a tribute to Michael K’s 2000 ‘Double Yellow Boots’ walk on the double yellow lines of UK cities (as the overture to his anti-Mobil mobilisation) but actually it’s now a promo for the 13th year of Gimpo’s annual ‘revolutionary’ M25 Spin in which a bunch of fat fifty something KLF bootliggers tag along with the bloke who filmed Drummond and Cauty burning their coke-money and circle the M25 in a bunch of white vans for 23 hours while taking drugs and thinking that filming it all might be….erm…fuck knows.

Comment by Michael K on 2009-03-29 15:21:33 +0000

I saw these movies on Channel 4 on night although admittedly not recently and admittedly while channel surfing with a total eyettime of 0.45 seconds

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