A Trojan Horse for Warsaw’s Castle
by Eliel Jones
After thirty years of field-bending contemporary art programming, Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) in Warsaw lost its most recent director, Małgorzata Ludwisiak, to the newly appointed Piotr Bernatowicz: a decision made by the minister of culture without an open competition, as is usually the case for public positions. That Bernatowicz is renowned for curating dubious exhibitions featuring misogynist and homophobic content and that his vision for CCA will focus on artists whose work champions conservative, patriotic, and pro-family values is a response to the last few years of activities at CCA, which have only established the institution as a safe space for minority communities in Warsaw.
Over eighteen months alone, the resident queer and feminist collective Kem filled the castle— itself a reconstruction, once a palace—with as much nourishment as many art institutions only hope to provide after years of concerted effort. Focusing on expanded choreographic practices, Kem have managed to create an artistic infrastructure that exists alongside institutions and with their financial support. This position of being both inside and outside has allowed the collective to realize projects such as their temporary queer summer Dragana Bar in 2018 at CCA, which they removed a window from the castle’s facade
to build, replacing it with a set of metal doors and a stairway that facilitated autonomous activity during opening times that extended well beyond the castle’s usual public hours.
To see the hundreds of people pour in and out of this parasitic architecture over the summer of Dragana was to bear witness to a resistance to the country’s control over the behavior, aesthetics, and gender-fucking presentation of unruly bodies. For Poland’s governing party Law and Justice (PiS), the very fact of being LGBT+ goes against the idea (by the Catholic church’s moral standing) of a valuable and (re)productive member of Polish society. In asserting a space for self-affirmation, as much as dissent, Kem helped fracture the homogeneity that is at the core of PiS’s project of a unified (singular and same) Poland.
Equally jostling with the new director’s vision was the recent retrospective The Power of Secrets (November 15, 2019–March 29, 2020) by Warsaw-based queer artist Karol Radziszewski, who founded Queer Archives Institute and DIK Fagazine: two world- making projects that render visi- ble the lives and stories of queer persons in Eastern Europe. When it was known that Bernatowicz would be taking over the institution, curator Michał Grzegorzek and others established a new clause in the artist’s contract, stating that any attempt to censor or close the exhibition prior to its planned duration would result in legally binding financial compensation to the artist.
This preemptive effort is but one example of the local and international art community’s myriad attempts to stop the appointment of Bernatowicz, or at least, failing that, to challenge his tenure. But the castle’s fort will only hold for so long. Some of CCA’s key staff have already taken up positions elsewhere. Those that remain fight micro battles daily, such as the censorship of the recent “Anti-fascism for the Unconvinced” program. Kem too have recently forged alliances with Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique), a Pan-European online magazine and activist group who, much like the Trojans, sought substantial funding from the City of Warsaw. Kem are currently developing an experimental queer and feminist education program—the first of its kind in Poland—as part of this initiative, which will be open and free to all as of 2021. Though the castle may have fallen, it seems that this will not be the last chance to rebuild it again.