The word CZUŁOŚĆ means tenderness in my mother tongue, Polish. It’s been following me since I moved to an old house in Kraków (built-in 1907), that sheltered me and the city’s queer community several years ago. The word’s meaning expanded to me by its generous capacity of hospitality, and ghostly radical softness, but also some sort of spice, hotness, disturbance or a trigger. Well, it is a word that derives from the verb to feel – CZUĆ, CZUCIE, yet it also has the suffix- OŚĆ that means a bone, specifically a fishbone. Therefore if you separate the CZUŁ and OŚĆ it stands for ‘he felt fishbone’. Perhaps this short word analysis can bring a better visual and sensual meaning to its essence, and perhaps reveal some queerness. To feel the fishbone in your throat isn’t a particularly fun experience, especially when it is tiny and almost invisible and therefore it spikes into the soft tissue of the throat. Ultimately it can actually cause sudden and unwanted death.
Vala T. Foltyn
I moved to Copenhagen almost four years ago, at the beginning of 2019. I decided to leave Poland for one reason; my life as a queer artist wasn’t safe anymore and I found myself struggling with everyday life. The political climate in Poland shifted into far-right, racist, and homophobic in 2015. The changes implied by the new ruling party Law and Justice caused damage rapidly in social interactions and took over the administrative agencies of power. The culture, art and education shifted its priorities and over time many people were fired and replaced with associates of the ruling party led by Jarosław Kaczyński, a right-wing populist and a national conservative. Many artists, curators, culture makers and NGOs were facing financial cuts, surveillance, censorship and in some cases harassment and discrimination. In 2017 my work was censored by the Polish Institute of Culture in Tel Aviv. I was invited to perform at the annual performance festival, which was supported by the Polish Institute, but as soon as the director of that organization found out about the queer nature of my work I was informed about withdrawing the funds for my stay in Tel Aviv, and therefore the festival was forced to organize their own fund to host my work. Soon after that, many more changes were implemented in the fields of art and culture not only locally but also internationally.
Just to give a more specific context it is important to mention the changes of administration at CSW Zamek in Warsaw, as an example of a far right-wing populist and racist direction in leading an institution of contemporary art that promoted and supported independent visual and performance artists, including dance and performing arts programming. In 2020 the Ministry of Culture and Heritage appointed a new director, a conservative art historian Robert Bernatowicz, who was previously a radio journalist, editor and curator of an institution in Poznań. He recently curated an exhibition Political Art together with Jon Eirik Lundberg and showcased the works of artists such as Kristian von Hornsleth, a Danish artist known for his abusive project in Uganda and Dan Park who was sentenced multiple times for hate speech in Sweden. He’s also been active on social media expressing his concerns about contemporary art being taken over by ‘gender ideology’ and Marxist propaganda. He quickly announced changes in bringing new directions to the museum through his leadership. The changes were made quickly and as I mentioned above it resulted in an exhibition that does not need any more comment from my side.
It is also important to me to bring another case from the Polish context. I would like to give space also to people who resist and risk their personal and emotional life in fighting the changes. This case tackles civil and women’s rights, and Poland became the conservative leader in the European Union in limiting, or rather violating its citizens’ rights. Zofia Nierodzińska, a former Deputy Director at the Arsenal Municipal Gallery in Poznań, is curator and activist, writer and feminist, who brought radical changes in curating art. She curated shows that started a dialogue with social and political realms, called for changes and related to the needs of the community. In October 2020, after the publication of the judgment of the Constitutional Tribunal on banning abortion, Nierodzińska as a protest against the ruling threw three eggs at the door of a church in Poznań. She was then charged with insulting a public place for religious rites. As the case was brought to court she experienced unpleasant hearings, a violent raid of her apartment, being followed by a secret agent and receiving death threats. After a long battle, the case ended with the imposition of a fine and suspended prison sentence. She took the fight to protest the limitation of women’s rights and the increasing influence of the church, shortly: male priests deciding on the rights of Polish women, who no longer have access to legal abortion. She is currently based in Berlin and continues her work as an independent researcher, writer and curator.
My exit from Poland was preceded by several experiences that led me to an urgent situation and similarly to Nierodzinska, I needed to leave the country. In 2018 I was running a political campaign to become the mayor of the city of Kraków. I registered a committee “VALA” at the local electoral commission with the help of a few fellow artists and activists. I brought to public discourse several urgent themes, such as the safety of LGTBQI+ community members, privatization of public spaces, and rapidly expanding gentrification and also pointed at some cases of nepotism in the art world in Kraków. I gave several interviews in the media and became visible during the election time. These themes were coming from the experience of living in the city where eviction took a toll on me due to development in my neighborhood and I lost a place to live and work. Previously mentioned villa from 1907 was sold to a private investor who was planning to carry out the construction of a hotel on the property. I participated in public debates and presented myself as a nonbinary witch, whose family has a working-class background and whose descendants fled the war in 1943, relocating to West Poland, while another part of the family was sent by the Soviets to forced labor camps in Siberia, known as Gulags. My mother’s side of the family comes from the city Krements (Krzemieniec), now the territory of Ukraine. The narration of my identity played a key role in this political battle because I wanted to expose a figure who is relatable to the voters but layered with a variety of complex and ambiguous meanings. I pulled many triggers in this move; transphobia was first to come, not only in the political scene but also sparked a discussion in the local art scene, raising controversy about my gender identity, and feminist essentialists had a lot to say in my face. As no surprise, my appearance provoked a backlash and intense hate speech on social media and in public space, I was met with violence and harassment.
The situation in Poland with the LGBTQI community was worsening and I had no longer access to an art space that would allow me to continue my work with Lamella’s s activities. I also found myself in a precarious situation and realized that my mental health needs to be given priority as the whole period of the campaign and eviction had a massive influence on my health. At some point, one needs to decide if the fight is worth the struggle. I was in a desperate moment and luckily I understood that my situation there has reached an end. It was time for self-care and healing. I searched for solutions and tried to leave Poland, hoping for some sort of support from art organizations and NGOs. I wrote hundreds of emails reaching out for help in organizing a safer exit and a safer place to reside. Nothing worked out, it left my heart disappointed, as the art world failed in supporting one of its own, the bureaucracy, the labels and the power talks were impaired by my desperate need to leave. I sold my belongings, my enormous collection of clothes, vintage gems and furniture. I used my privilege of being a white European citizen of the EU and with the generous help of a few Copenhagers I left for Denmark.
I started from scratch, waitressing in restaurants, cooking, cleaning houses and occasionally doing some performance gigs. Almost five years later I am doing the same thing, providing service to one of the wealthiest societies in the world. In the meantime, I gained another master’s degree, my primary education is in cultural anthropology and dance. I studied at Malmo Art Academy where I continued my research on the history of the villa and queering the archives. The school had a promising new program in Artistic Research, but sadly it struggled with many obstacles, including the COVID-19 pandemic, and institutional bureaucracy was in the way of actually creating a dialogue with students. I moved fifteen times since I arrived here, and I have developed a moving-related trauma in my body as I am constantly packing-unpacking. At the moment I live in a 22 square meter studio, in a building that offers flats for young professionals and resembles a hotel rather than a home. It is equipped with cold led lights everywhere, an automatic light in the bathroom- a typical neoliberal architecture run by a corporate administration. It is not hygge. I pay a fortune and decided not to have an atelier because I would simply bankrupt or work myself to death in the restaurant.
I am in the moment where I am rethinking my career as an artist, reflecting upon the choices I have made. Without a doubt, I had several very successful moments as a performance artist/choreographer and received overwhelming support from the public, friends and colleagues. I traveled the world, saw amazing and unique places, and met radical and inspiring artists (Anna Halprin). There are many positive sides to being an artist, but the precarity of this status is really killing the joy. The uncertainty, the financial instability and the sinusoids of acceptance and rejections with the funding, open calls are a real nightmare. Unless you are a successful artist, who sells well and is being invited to do shows, rather than applying for grants all year round and producing your own exhibition/performance at a friend’s gallery or project space and most likely fall into debt. I come from a background where performance art or critical art doesn’t aim to be saleable or make a profit. This is a result of the different cultures that I grew up in and also how I shaped my thinking on capitalism and the role of artists in society. In the Nordic context, I was introduced to the idea of an artist as an entrepreneur, who has a clear business plan and produces work to make a profit. I encountered several programs that were educational for young artists to understand that they need to produce to sell rather than resist the norms, question the political and social realms or create alternative platforms for making and showing their work. The idea of individualism, success and career may vary a bit from the East European context, though currently the neoliberal modes of production in art and education are fairly equalized in the European context. I always tried to find other ways of producing the work, and the Lamella collective was the attempt in doing so. Lamella hosted queer events and called for solidarity, not only in social interactions but also as an artistic and political statement. The idea of home and gathering as becoming was at the core of its actions. This time is already gone and the house of Lamella was sold to a private investor. The villa is currently standing abandoned and nature is taking over the property as the investment never came to the realization, at least the ghosts are unbothered and having fun in their empty household. Perhaps the variety of spells, witch powers and the union with the ghosts helped the investment to collapse. A big part of my art practice is looking closer into a variety of aspects of that space and time, tracing the trajectory of violence and exclusion.
I am reflecting on my life and my art career already since I moved to Copenhagen as I found myself estranged and lonely, stripped down from my previous social status and struggling with depression. The art world is exhausting not only because it does not offer stability but because it is a game to be played. And if you ain’t holding good cards you ain’t winning. Not to mention the whole emotional labor; social interactions (often awkward), professional networking, power dynamics and all those things, that remind you of the place where you come from and often do not fit into that elite. Throughout this piece of writing, I was offered a chance to give my views on intersectional feminism, anti-racism and diversity in the Nordic context. Scandinavia isn’t a safe haven, though it might be pictured like that in the East European geo-locality, because the postcolonial and post soviet discourses curved their way to our habits of thinking. Queer aesthetics, radical activism, and performance art often trigger the comfort of white heteronomative classist elites. It is exhausting, but to be honest I can not believe working otherwise. In my view this is the purpose of the arts, it is supposed to be disturbing, not pleasing. It must shake not only the norms of behavior but also the aesthetics and subjectivity. It is meant to push thinking otherwise.
In December 2022 we discussed many things in the frame of Complex Complicites organized by UrbanApa and HAUT in Copenhagen in December 2022, a discussion so needed in the local context. Shortly after our meeting at HAUT I had a studio visit with a famous Danish artist, whom I admired and was looking forward to sharing my practice with. During one hour of conversation, I learnt that my culture has great value in exporting highly qualified physical workers, that help build exhibitions. Perhaps this is still deeply rooted in a postcolonial reference to the influx of Polish migrants in the 19th century to Lolland to boost the agricultural production of Denmark. Later I also heard that my work is too expressive in its queerness and it doesn’t need to be identified as queer. I was advised to decide on one thing as I am fairly new to the art world and haven’t produced enough work to have an opinion of what is a good aesthetic. Ultimately I was told that it was much a bigger success for me to let Polish people chase me away from Poland than actually be applauded for my show in Nuremberg, where I worked on a durational performance with other artists (Wojciech Blecharz, Phyliss Akinyi, Sall Lam Toro) on the site of Former Nazi Party Rally Grounds, knowns as Reichsparteitagsgelände.
I am coming close to my 40ties, and recently I was asked for advice on how to get into an art school, I answered with brutal honesty; “please do reconsider your choice of career this will not only influence your economy but will play with your mental health, stability and relationship dynamics and you might end up spending tons of money on therapy”. My advice wasn’t enlightening as much as the advice for young artists by Marina Abramović, whose instruction cards to reboot your life can be purchased in a kiosk on Sonder Boulevard in Copenhagen.
 The Polish Institutes form a network of 25 branches reporting to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland. Their activities reflect the priorities of Poland’s foreign policy, of which public and cultural diplomacy is an integral part. The aim is to promote culture, history, science, language and national heritage of Poland.
 A larger article about the situation at the CSW Zamek is available online written by Agnieszka Polska, https://www.frieze.com/article/cultural-emergency-warsaw-artist-agnieszka-polska-speaks-out
 Zofia Nierodzińska, website https://znierodzinska.com
 I founded an art collective Lamella with other queer peers in 2016. Lamella aimed for creating a space for queer and feminist artists, but also to have a community space, a loving and supporting environment for radical and avant-garde works. Lamella was a queer and friendship based collective, a group of queer people and allies of various gender and cultural backgrounds. We were interested in developing alternative forms of feminist and queer practices, transnational tools for art and community making as a response to hyper capitalistic notions of exclusion, productivity and labor. It was a nomadic, pop-up project, which on various occasions hijacked/occupied spaces in the city of Kraków and turned them into queer spaces.
This text has been produced as part of BRIDGES, a project designed to strengthen sustainable and long-term Nordic collaboration in the realms of antiracist and intersectionally feminist practices. The project is funded by Nordic Culture Point and produced by UrbanApa arts platform based in Helsinki.