Following paper was presented during the conference „Baltic Sea Region and Eastern Europe: A new generation on the move” organised by Center for Baltic and East European Studies / Södertörn University in Stockholm
When we employees at the Museum of Art in Lodz, carry out projects in a public space, collaborating with NGOs, activists or the inhabitants on such topics as the revitalization of the city, ecology and biodiversity, it occurs that journalists or someone of the audience criticizes us, meaning we should deal with art.
It reminds me of Raymond Williams’s – „Culture is ordinary”, in which the author referring to his own experience of growing up in a small town, in a working class family, points out that culture is not limited to an area with access for a selected group of people, but it is something most usual. It’s not just entertainment, a sophisticated way of expression and representation, it is also the participation in salient debates about the ways in which our environment is changing.
„Culture is ordinary. Culture means ways of life and significance given to forms. Both ordinary meanings, as well as these sophisticated and individual „.
So where do these critical voices of the museum audience come from? Over the years of educating for viewing modern and contemporary art, I’m sure they got used to the avant-garde aesthetics. It seems to be a great success. However, in the dissemination of the avant-garde heritage, an important message was lost – the memory of the avant-garde postulate to build a new world and a new man. Avant-garde artists wanted art to dissolve in life, to concern everyone, regardless of their origin and capacities. They were not interested in activities in the existing cultural institutions, but transforming them, and above all, the construction of new institutions and the development of artistic practices useful for the society of the future .
Neither we – the employees of the museum – want to turn away from our environment and its needs. This attitude seems to us to be the best solution in the context of Lodz, a city whose social structure has been shaped by industrial heritage. A large part of the population derives from the working class, and belongs not to precarity (people working in services, culture and students). Through activities that are carried out outside the museum buildings, in collaboration with various partners, both institutions and groups of activists, or informal local initiatives, we want to show that artistic practices can support the processes connected with the formation of citizenship and joint creation of the public sphere.
Currently, the situation in Lodz seems to be stabilizing, but in the 90s and 00s, the dismantling of large textile factories lead to high unemployment and the exodus of a great portion of the population, partly even migrating abroad. A big step forward are infrastructural investments, as well as the revitalization plan of the city, in which, after many years of fighting for its shape, the right place is designated to social revitalization. The communication process between the authorities and the inhabitants are supported by tools such as Citizen Budget, which is becoming more and more popular.
To the Museum of Art and our partners the key are interesting ideas for the development of the post-industrial city. Those promoted by Lodz authorities, however, are a negative point of reference. First of all, they rely on the promotion of the city as the capital of creative industries, the desired continuation of the textile tradition, which now would turn into trendy fashion design. The Lodz would attract talented engineers, programmers, managers. Starting with the campaign „Lodz creates” a large part of the inhabitants of Lodz were forgotten, those outside the scope of such creativity who were not going to develop it neither as artists nor as consumers.
Those working in factories, for example. assembling computers, or sometimes in services (BPOs, IT support), are also forgotten in the making of the concept of the New Lodz Centre built nearby the Lodz Fabryczna Station, which is in construction at the moment. The area of 100 ha is to be a model district, inhabited by the creative and the entrepreneurial, provide a contemporary response to the residents of the working class city centre.
The City ecologies programme of the Museum of Art was called forth as a reaction to the ideas for the development of Lodz. It examines the environment of cultural institutions by looking at the visual, audible, performative landscape of the city and initiating cooperation with citizens, and above all with the non-museum audience. In „Ecologies” we brainstorm how the museum can engage in the debate over the development of the city? How to support existing cultural organizations and activists? We invite individuals and institutions with different profiles and modes of activity to collaborate in order to foster attitudes questioning not only the autonomy of knowledge shaped in certain fields, but also those that create new ways of interdisciplinary cooperation.
Methods of work in the „Ecologies” is a kind of anthropology of space. We study the local aesthetic phenomena that disappear in the city modernization process. Visual identification of the programme was based on Lodz typopolo, which is a kind of amateur design, still quite clearly visible in the streets. The authors of such visual messages aim at their effectiveness and low cost of production. Typopolo is a symptom of a DIY culture in which, due to budgetary constraints, there are no experts and the only thing that counts is a skilful processing of cheap, available materials.
In „Ecologies” use all available formats of action, it might be a workshop in the community centre, concert, performance, workshops, movie, walk, sound recordings, and the joint establishment and maintenance of urban gardens. The common denominator of these initiatives is the empathetic attitude to the environment, both human and non-human.
In „Ecologies” important is not only the project’s theme, but also the manner of its implementation in a particular spatial and social environment, observation of possible changes that it may trigger there, as well as negotiations with the participants, who in turn can challenge and change the previously set operating parameters.
This was the case in the context of work on one of the squares in the city centre, where we worked in collaboration with groups of city activists (MiejMiejsce [SpareSpace] and the Foundation for Transformation). This small, neglected public space is located in Stare Polesie, one of the most neglected districts of the city. Stare Polesie’s landscape is shaped by long streets with perpendicular side streets, destroyed or crumbling nineteenth-century tenement houses, overgrown weeds, barren, metal stumps that used to be benches, open garbage containers, wild planted trees, which in other cities are treated as weeds. This district has changed recently, due to investments in the repair of roads and the programme of the city authorities’ “Mia100 kamienic” (A town of (100) townhouses) involving the renovation of municipally owned buildings. However, it seems that in these modernization initiatives the good of current inhabitants of this part of Lodz was lost – who are not so well off and often very poor.
Initially, our plan was to restore the square in Wólczańska Street its primary function of recreation through simple activities like planting flowers there. The area has very little green space and it is usually in disrepair. Our observations showed the square to be not only – as could be expected – a toilet for dogs, but also sometimes a place of recreation. These two features stood out to the fore.
The condition of the square was closely tied with the history of this place, especially its ownership status. Its history is not only a legacy of the problems taking place at the local level – a record of industrial transformations of the city, whose earlier economic status was destroyed with the mechanisms of the free market where a piece of unused land in the centre not only hinders public investment but also gives a signal that access to well-maintained public spaces is a privilege.
The idea of what to make out of the square in Wólczańska Street was born during several weeks of on-site activities. It turned out that being in a particular space and talking with the users of the site is the best kind of public consultation. The knowledge I gained while planting flower, the workshops for adults and children, concerts, performances and a picnic, was invaluable. Its effect is an architectural project for urban furniture designed specifically for this square.
Another project that has just begun is related to wasteland in the city space. In Lodz, this notion causes nervous reactions among local authorities, because years of lack of ideas for the shrinking city, deserted areas, tenement houses falling apart, resulted in a large amount of free space in the city centre. The project „Fruit Lodz,” to which we invited the City Greenery Office, the Foundation for Transformation, Food Cooperative, Lodz Hills Park and the Botanical Garden is referring to the idea of „edible city”. In a series of workshops interested Lodzians were offered to adopt and plant 100 seedlings of old apple varieties in selected public areas. The idea of the fruit trees in the city comes from the observations of the growing popularity of social gardens and a discussion of common goods (not private and public).
“Ecologies” are conceived in opposition to the vision of Lodz as a city of creative industries and to the idea of the New Lodz Centre. They are carried out in areas that are not considered to be representative, and their aesthetics and functioning does not correspond with the vision of a modern city. In Lodz, the fact that the distribution of space has largely a class character, is clearly visible. Public property of a representative character is maintained, while back streets or quarters inhabited by less affluent residents are left without basic care. For those who do not live in Lodz, it is difficult to understand how very visible here is the lack of concern for public space, and how important seems in this perspective, the struggle for even basic infrastructure, such as urban greenery and benches. These problems concern the whole Poland and point out to the fact that discussions about the city should begin with the opening to the various groups, especially those economically most vulnerable thus struggling with a lack of interest in their needs.