Wojtek Ziemilski is a theatre director and visual artist based in Poland. His performances have been shown in over twenty countries and received numerous accolades. With an interest in questions of communication, identity, language, and the spectator-spectacle relation, his piece The Grounds, a video exploration of his apartment building and the histories that lie beneath the surface, can be experienced in our upcoming multi-arts production The Memory Place. The performance is a site-specific work centering cultural memory and hidden histories June 1-11. Be sure to grab your tickets here.
This week, Pivot Arts director and co-curator of The Memory Place, Julieanne Ehre, had a conversation with Wojtek about his inspirations and views as an artist.
JULIEANNE EHRE: We met in Warsaw as part of a cultural exchange sponsored by the Center for International Theater Development (CITD), and miraculously realized we had a “small world” connection with a friend of mine from college who is now an anthropologist researching the depiction of Jews in Poland post-Holocaust. You’ve also dealt with themes around the annihilation of Polish Jews and/or cultural memory in your work. Can you talk about how you or Polish theater artists approach sensitive topics like anti-semitism and cultural, historic memory?
WOJTEK ZIEMILSKI: Polish theatre artists thrive on difficult questions. Sometimes it feels like there is a contest on who gets to the wound that hurts the most. The art work that best illustrates this is a small drawing by the performer and visual artist Oskar Dawicki. It’s a framed text written in pencil which says: I HAVE NEVER MADE A PIECE ABOUT THE HOLOCAUST. This brilliant piece is so strong because it functions in a landscape where many, many artists have been doing work about and around the Shoah, about anti-semitism and difficult memory. The field seems saturated. And yet, this piece also works because it was shown as part of the Warszawa Singera Festival of Jewish Culture taking place at one of the last vestiges of the Warsaw Ghetto on Próżna street. I feel this tension every day. I am a “modern” artist often dealing with contemporary issues. I am surrounded by a world both fascinating and terrifying. And yet, the past comes back haunting me in ever so many ways. The past has always been a fundament of Polish identity, much more so than in the US.
JE: You’ve established an international career as a theater director and visual artist exploring the potential of documentary theater. What drew you to this style of storytelling and to the use of tools, such as devising, real-time composition, and various forms of visual arts and media, when creating your pieces? Can you tell us about that creative process and how you find what works for each piece?
WZ: I have always had a problem with fiction as a theatrical genre. The fakeness of it is just so poignant! I found early on that using the stage to experiment with one’s relation to reality is much more satisfying. It is not so much about the document itself, as it is about rethinking how one experiences the world.
I am generally quite messy, so my ideas are all over the place. It can be a video or a text or a performance. Sometimes the commission defines the formal horizon, which is a relief – at least this part is clear. Fortunately (for my sanity!), I also have an obsession with form. I spend a lot of time observing the initial material or even idea, to understand its reality. It’s probably the most difficult part – when lots of possible developments get discarded because they don’t respect what is already there. When it’s a documentary situation, what is there is often a document, or an event, or a memory. It has to be taken care of, so it grows, instead of just transforming into something else. This allows me to build up my material in a dramaturgy which relies less on the “deus ex machina” effect of “great ideas”, which are more often than not a disturbance or distraction.
JE: Your piece, The Grounds, that will be showing in The Memory Place, is a video exploration that tells the story of the apartment you live in. What prompted you to dive into the history of your own home for this project?
WZ: I have been back in Poland for more than ten years now, but before that I moved around a lot, and the feeling of being an outsider stayed with me. So I enjoy looking at my surroundings like I need to reconsider the things that, as a Pole coming from Warsaw, are obvious to me. In a sense, this work has a target audience – people who don’t live here, for whom such an accumulation of histories is unusual. If you live in a place that has never experienced war, the idea that one should inhabit a land soaked in blood may feel strange. As an artist, I find the superposition of so many layers of history fascinating.
JE: You live in Warsaw but you also have spent a lot of time in America and have dual citizenship in both countries. We’ve also both been a part of a cultural exchange that started on Zoom but is now taking place in live spaces as CITD brings groups to festivals in Poland. What struck me on my trip to Warsaw was how experimental the work is and that the theaters are packed. I was also extremely jealous to learn that theaters are largely funded by the Polish government… How would you describe the differences between Polish and American theater?
WZ: Yes, the differences are huge. Actually most Polish theaters are funded by the municipalities, not by the government. Which is very lucky, given the right-wing, nationalist, intolerant and censoring government we have now. Poles are quite engaged politically, and there is a tradition connecting theatre to social and political issues for at least two centuries. The most important Polish writers of the Romantic era – Mickiewicz, Słowacki, wrote a lot for the theatre, and combined artistic ambitions with social or political issues. As Polish history was full of dramatic events and difficult periods, theater remained a space of symbolic (and often quite literal) freedom, where the current world could be criticized and a different one imagined. If you can compare it to something in the US, it would be movies. It’s a space where identity is being negotiated, for better or worse. It has a huge social impact. But of course, the tradition of liberalism and capitalism make the US into a much more diverse place where being American can hardly be negotiated through just one medium. Compared to the US, Poland is fairly homogenous, the overwhelming majority of Poles being white Catholics. Among the few advantages I can see in this is that “public debate” engages a larger proportion of the society. And the symbolic power of theatre is often used as an important part of these debates. On the other hand, this usually means a huge pressure on artists to address these issues. It’s a responsibility, a burden and a limitation.
JE: The Memory Place was very much inspired by my trip to Poland and by conversations with you and other artists about this concept of “cultural memory.” In the United States we are grappling with a political battle right now about whose stories are represented and how history is told. Poland has lived through a totalitarian occupation by the Soviets where the telling of history was tightly controlled. What advice would you have for Americans fighting for historical truth and accuracy? Is that even possible?
WZ: If you hope for a single version of history that everyone will accept, I don’t think that is possible. But I do think that throwing out the ideals and legacy of the Enlightenment altogether because of the ethical entanglements of some of its historical problems is making things worse. For instance, the fact that it’s difficult to find a neutral ground does not mean we cannot attempt it. The ambitions of science to be objective work for us when we drive cars and fly planes. We trust that things work. But suddenly, when we talk about other issues, like history, we should abandon the idea that we can attain any truth whatsoever? Does it matter if Cleopatra was a Black Egyptian or a “white” Greek? What does that even mean, today? Well, if we want to know what her genetic makeup was, how much pigment she had in her skin, there are ways of getting an approximation. Can it be manipulated? Yes, to some extent. But it’s better than the alternative. Because if, on the other hand, we consider cultural memory as a substitute for anything resembling history, it opens up the space for the hell of a rhetorical substitute for reality, like a free-for-all. In Poland, when there are no rules and anything goes, we call this “wolna amerykanka” – “the free American”. The winners are usually the most manipulative ones. Plato knew it and warned us against the sophists, but we, the free Americans, and the free Poles, are still learning the hard way.
Many thanks to Wojtek and Julieanne for this deep dive! Don’t miss your chance to experience Wojtek’s incredible work. Photo above is from Wojtek’s production of REPRESENTATION, a sixteen minute performance for 4 performers — one human and four balloons. You can learn more about Wojtek Ziemilski at https://ziemilski.com/.
The Memory Place runs June 1-11 at the Edge Theater in Chicago. Wojtek Ziemilski’s The Grounds will be shown as part of this experience alongside live performances.