Interviewed by Alessandra Ferrini

This month I had the chance to interview the artists behind the exhibition A Tourist in Other People’s Reality currently on show at the Vestry House Museum (London). Within the exhibition catalogue, we are publishing a conversation that aims at excavating the work produced for the exhibition, while here, the focus is on Joanna Rajkowska’s practice in general – her working methodology, her approach to the Vestry House Museum collection as well as to ideas of memory and ‘the archive‘.

Joanna Rajkowska, Architecture of Labour, 2013, glass, wood, light bulb, dimensions variable

Joanna Rajkowska, Architecture of Labour, 2013, glass, wood, light bulb, dimensions variable

AF: In the exhibition A Tourist in Other People’s Reality you have collaborated with two other artists, Sława Harasymowicz and Cecilia Bonilla. Together, you have explored the Vestry House Museum, and, in particular, its archive, producing an exhibition inspired by the venue. Could you tell me how it all started?

JR: I was invited by Sława, who was already collaborating with Cecilia. I joined in and went to visit the Vestry House Museum with Rosa, my 2-year-old daughter. The presence of a child really renders the way you look at things, the way you behave and move through the building. At one time I had a dog, Butelka, who was doing great research for public projects, now I have a crazy little girl. So it wasn’t a profound research, I need to be honest about it, I didn’t spend hours in the archive like Sława did. It was an almost physical response to the aura of this building. Sława helped me a lot. Sometimes I would call her and ask her for certain details and references and she would always send them to me.

AF: For the exhibition, you have produced three works, Song from the Workhouse, Clogs and Architecture of Labour. I am interested in the process that led you to these works. What was your initial reaction to the collection and the site?

JR: When I entered the space my first feeling was very claustrophobic. If you keep in your mind the number of people that were squashed in there, you cannot avoid thinking that there had to be a crowd of people who were bumping into each other and that had no privacy whatsoever. I felt that bodies were squeezed in between the walls. I felt people sweating, stinking, mumbling and dozing over the oakum after hours of work. The walls being saturated with all these vapours. The energy of boredom. The circling of their bodies and thoughts always inside the same structure must have created a toxic relation between them and the building. Imagine how they must have slept nestling close to the walls. Or imagine a cross-section: bodies-wall-air. Everything in that building limits your physical presence and your movement.

So I focused on this aspect, which is closely connected to my practice. I am totally concentrated on physicality, not only of the human body, but also the physicality of architecture and of language. Shortly after my initial visit to the Vestry Museum, a young art student, sent me her thesis on my work. She drew a line linking my early projects from the nineties with the series of public projects from the noughties like Greetings from Jerusalem (2002 to present). She set up two coordinates for her analysis: body and architecture. Probably now I am talking her language, but in the Vestry House that happened again. I worked along these two coordinates: I felt bodies squeezed into the tiny rooms.

Now, when I am thinking about this workhouse, it seems that the obvious thing to do would be to “replace” the bodies of people that occupied this house in 1745 by inviting their living “equivalents”: “3 men aged between 33 to 60, 12 women aged between 27 to 82, 5 boys aged between 1 to 11 and 12 girls aged between 4 to 14”. This is 22 people in total – plus the staff. Imagine….

AF: In Architecture of Labour you deal directly with this issue, you specifically look at the interaction and relation between the paupers and the building.

JR: Yes, Architecture of Labour has been a point of translation. I attempted to re-enact the situation of the workhouse through drawings. Since we found a lantern projector amongst the Vestry Museum’s old pieces of equipment, with sets of glass slides, I simply created another set. I wanted to get to the essence of what was happening through a very schematic way of representing this claustrophobic architecture with bits of writing squashed into it.

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AF: Apart from the relation between architecture and body, your attention was drawn by a particular object. A pair of clogs.

JR: A pair of clogs was the only object I could find in the workhouse. This was such a poor find, such a catastrophic lack of evidence. It led me to think that the history, the archives, the physical remains belong to the owners. Not to the bodies, not to someone who is actually deprived of the right to possess. Rather, history actually belongs to those who have the right to own objects, because objects talk when you die.

So I focused on what I had. I saw that they had a metal frame – like a horseshoe – on their sole. I thought that perhaps I could recreate or re-enact the sound of the clogs. I tried to put the clogs on my feet but they were too small. So I had to crawl with them on my hands and I did it many times, experimenting with different patterns of walking, trying to imagine how the women would walk to the church. According to the archive, every Sunday they walked to the church before the villagers and they sat in a designated area. After the end of the service they would wait until the last person left. Only then they were allowed to leave the church.

AF: The body of work you produced for A Tourist in Other People’s Reality strives to document the presence of the paupers while offering them a way to revolt against the rules and constraints of the workhouse. I would like to go deeper into this.

JR: From my first, immediate idea – Clogs – I felt that I needed a more invisible, but deeply felt, presence, something that would ‘shake’ the building, as no one really rebelled against the situation. If they didn’t revolt, I thought, I had an obligation to do it. It’s there that the Song from the Workhouse came into place. The piece wasn’t a ‘evidence’, a ‘testimony’ or a ‘reference’, it was a body in revolt! An invisible body in revolt! Of course Aleksandra, the performer, had to be invisible because the paupers’ bodies were not there either. The sound was enough to understand the dynamics and trauma going on.

AF: In Song from the Workhouse the performer, Polish artist Aleksandra Kozioł who you have just mentioned, uses the archaic technique of the ‘white voice’, a tradition of Central and Eastern Europe. How did this work come together and what drew you to choose this particular technique?

JR: ‘White voice’ is a technique of scream-singing, it is a completely different articulation which sets up the human body for a different scale of empathy, a different resonance. I feel that British culture rarely expresses itself in a dramatic, profound way – I don’t mean something overtly, emotionally exaggerated but rather a non-analytical, primal language, something beyond cold analysis, something that is rough, raw, and naked and which belongs to the body. The body and the suffering of the body, are the things that are closest to me. This led me to this ancient way of singing. Combining the history of a workhouse, with its typical, British, silent cruelty with the unconstrained, Eastern European lament was for me a key experience, opening a field of empathy and memory.

At the time when I was preparing the work for the exhibition, I met Aleksandra Kozioł, who was a student at a workshop that I led. I found out that she was singing using exactly the ‘white voice’ technique. When she started to scream, as this is actually a form of screaming, shivers ran down my spine. Her face and her whole body changed while performing. I thought, ‘this is fantastic, I have to work with her’. When I came back and I entered the Vestry House Museum, I immediately saw (or heard) her there. I wanted her to be in the basement, but there was no basement, not even an adjacent room, so I decided to hide her behind a wall partition. I would have loved the sound to have come from beneath, from the ground.

A day before the actual performance, we started to work on texts from the archive. Language really matters in this project. The ‘white voice’ technique is all about the structure of your mouth and throat and the work of your diaphragm. It is suited for Eastern European soft pronunciation and strong physicality, if you like, or strong body engagement. English was a really alien element in Aleksandra’s performance. When I observe how people talk English, I see how they distance their bodies from the sounds. I wanted Aleksandra to do something exactly opposite. And she indeed was able to charge the sounds with her extreme body power, and literally throw these foreign sentences and syllables out of herself. She became a medium, a sort of messenger. I kept recording her and reducing the text. It was better to minimize the trauma in the text and to keep it to her performance. So we decided to use only two texts – the list of reasons for admission to the workhouse and the number of people that were at Vestry House at a specific point in its history.

AF: In Song from the Workhouse, as in some of your previous works like Greetings From Jerusalem Avenue, you have recurred to the insertion of an ‘alien’ element to symbolise the absence of a group of people in a given space and by doing so, you have reinstated their presence.

JR: Yes, when I look back it seems that this is an unchanging element in my practice: to introduce an unfamiliar object, situation or language to a site. Sometimes this is quite subtle, sometimes almost brutal. In the case of Greetings From Jerusalem Avenue, which consists of a huge palm tree placed at the beginning of a very wide avenue, the palm had to be really prominent because the disappearance of European Jewry is a fundamental problem for this part of Europe and especially catastrophic for Polish culture. Also, it had to fit in with the proportions of the buildings around it as well as those of the huge Communist avenue. To deal with such scale I had to juxtapose something gigantic.

Using these unfamiliar props, I usually create situations that work like a 24-hour scenography for an ongoing city spectacle, rendering everything within their reach. I witnessed many political rallies and demonstrations around the palm tree. In one instance, the miners were marching along Jerusalem Avenue toward the parliament, wearing their distinctive uniforms and plumed hats. Suddenly, they looked completely ridiculous with the palm tree in the background. It transformed the demonstration into a surrealist theatre play. I found that it is very hard to deal with the ironic and deeply deconstructive power of this work. Whatever doesn’t fall in sync with it simply fails.

The best example of how the strategy of unfamiliarity works is the Peterborough project (The Peterborough Child, 2012). The object that was to be installed in the city became an image of too painful a taboo. It visualized a multilayered problem that this community didn’t want to tackle – the high rate of infant mortality. I built a fake archaeological excavation site, where you could see scattered bones of a baby. This was a Bronze Age burial site, which I recreated precisely, very much like one found in the area a few years ago. The project was fiercely opposed by community “leaders”, without even seeing the project. The Neighbourhoods Manager withdrew the licence to install it, skipping any democratic procedures. The pit got locked in a municipal warehouse and was never shown to anyone living there.

So, this strategy can bring a refreshing reset of a particular part of the city or, at times, it can bring a political conflict. And this is actually the moment where real negotiation and participation should start. Instead the Peterborough authorities silenced the project. I must have touched a painful spot.

AF: Going back to the Vestry House project, I would like to know how the work you produced for this exhibition relates to archival art practices in general.

JR: There are basically two ways of dealing with the archive. The first is the fully instinctive: full impact. You take it on, confront your body with it and then you let your body process it. And the other one is the profound, more time consuming slow digestion of the archive. Then at the end you spit out the project, but you need to be there everyday, reading and working in a more conscious way. Both ways are right, you just have to choose. This time I went for the first approach, as I wanted to make something brutal, rather than trying to meticulously reconstruct the full picture.

AF: Do you think that ideas of memory and remembering are necessarily bound to material objects?

JR: For me, memory is encoded in every cell of your body. I mean, you are memory, physically, it is in your DNA, in every single cell and in everything around you. It can be compared to the understanding of a language and its primal task. If you think about Benjamin and his pre-Marxist phase – when he was thinking about language as a means of connecting to the universe and God – everything actually talks and everything remembers. Language is a primal expression of things and is encoded in them, simply it’s the universe, and also a universe of memory.

So, whatever I do somehow deals with memory. But also, there is something about Eastern European culture that is extremely focused on history, sometimes limited by it without any possibility of moving forward. I am very much a product of this culture, of this obsession of memory and fear of oblivion.

To find out more about the artist, visit Joanna Rajkowska’s website.