Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej w Warszawie / WARSAW UNDER CONSTRUCTION 6

Nightlife Archives
As a part of 6th WARSAW UNDER CONSTRUCTION Festival

Nightlife Archives

That's how artists party. They can wear an old golden dress and a tailcoat from between the world wars, as well as garbage bags, Christmas tree lights or a woven doormat. The exhibition shows how the artistic nightlife looks like.

We can see artists as occasional fashion designers, club performance or concert organisers, or social jokers. The photographs show not only the visual side of the parties - outfits, styles, make-ups - but also artistic transformations of artists' identities and their bodies. Their common theme are fancy dresses that can and should be visually appreciated when we watch their owners without club spleen, alcohol, and partying crowds.

Photos taken at balls or in clubs are an interesting - though unjustly ignored - part of the history of art, showing the diffusion of different artistic scenes, attitudes, and circles - e.g. the cooperation between visual artists, musicians and film-makers. Unfortunately, artists' private nightlife archives remain the deeply hidden, even shameful, part of their artistic output. Such photos remain at the bottoms of their drawers or in the most remote corners of their PC discs. 

For artists, clubs are not fashion catwalks. They don't care how critically other partygoers look at their extravagances. Home-made outfits usually look as if their owners visited a theatrical dressing-room and took with them anything they could find there. Fancy dresses are completed hastily and can serve as an exceptional examples of fashion DIY. Fashion critics describe them as manifestations of trash, queer punk, or simply camp - the kingdom of stylisation and exaggeration. The party fancy dress-ups described by writers on camp have often critical undertones - they are created as a response to boredom with, and predictability or consumerism of the popular partying activities. They also have, as indicated by Przemysław Czapliński, an otherness aspect: "The camp aesthetics invites us to take part in a game where, in our presence, a puzzle of social identity of a man is staged, and then left unresolved." As a result of camp fancy dress-ups, "every social construct based on gender - the orders of power and production - become open for revision" 

The exhibition starts with a series of reporter photographs taken by Tadeusz Rolke at the "Ragmen Ball" in 1957. The event invoked the tradition of parties for graduates, students and sympathisers of artistic schools that over a hundred years ago had started to be organised in the Warsaw Academy of Arts. As the organisers of the 2005 edition of the ragmen ball in the Academy wrote, "Every outfit is allowed: from tailcoats and Roman gladiator loincloths to tin stoves with a little door labelled "Do not open"". Fancy dresses during the political thaw of 1957 were stylised for lumpenproletariat, in contrast to the music - in the wake of the Stalinist era, the time of jazz and modern dance started for good. The weekly "Stolica" reported: "our art students so skilfully and madly danced the rock and roll as if they had done nothing else from their childhood".

In his photos, Erazm Ciołek documented the artistic life in almost all its manifestations: openings of art exhibitions, art-work documentation, ephemeral events (such as Church art of the 1980s), as well as night parties. The last category is represented at the exhibition by a series of photographs showing fancy-dress artistic balls organised in the premises of the Association of Polish Architects by an art historian, Piotr Nowicki.

Every ball had its main theme and title, as well as rich scenographic layout. The ball titled "Dziady” was intended as a confrontation between the tradition of "ragmen balls" and the real anxieties of the 1990s - the times of political transformation with its problems, such as hyperinflation, social inequality, economic and political hopes and disillusionments. Doleful mood of the time, reflected in the guests' outfits and a special shop with rags, stood in contrast with ostentatiously rich table full of meats and fruits. It was not a coincidence that the party was attended by Jacek Kuroń, twice a minister of labour and social policy, along with artists, actors and other people of culture.

Quite a different era of artistic partying is shown in a series of photographs titled "The art of beautiful women-artists" (2003) by Anna Baumgart and Agata Bogacka. They organised photo shoots in clubs - the most popular venues of social nightlife of the time, trying to challenge the stereotypes concerning the artistic activity of women. The series of photos is a response to a satiric article by Łukasz Gorczyca and Michał Kaczyński published in "Machina” magazine . The article titled "The art of beautiful women-artists" maintained that though it's not easy for beautiful women-artists, overshadowed by their older female colleagues, to become popular on the local artistic scene, their "good looks add glamour to the social life of the capital". In response to the text, the series of photos were created where the women-artists shown as stylish and fashionably dressed "beauties" played the roles assigned to them by the Warsaw artistic world. 

Everywhere, going out at nights is an indispensable part of artistic life - clubs and cafes as usual places to meet old and new friends are almost worshiped in the artistic world, and every city has its own places that are most popular among artists. Bogacka and Baumgart try to look critically at the superficiality of nightlife encounters. "The nights are very repetitive", says Anna Baumgart in an interview with Ewa Witkowska. "Dressing, going out to a club, ordering a drink, and waiting for something special to happen. We kind of put ourselves for sale... And after a while, we already know that again nothing special, nothing new will happen. A dose of superficial, banal contacts, moments of boredom (...) and we go home".

The photographs show the women-artists clearly bored, standing as wallflowers in the most popular Warsaw clubbing places of the time. In the 1990s, clubbing became very popular in Warsaw - magazines proudly reported that Warsaw, with its ninety or so nightclubs, was the clubbing capital of Poland.

Clubbing also entered the artistic world. Many clubs in their program and interior design aspired to be artistic, attracting a special type of guests, to only mention exhibitions and performances in Le Madame club, space designs in Między Nami club, GS Rozwój gallery in Praga district, or places created and led by artists, such as Baumgart Cafe and Aurora. In the case of Galeria Off, the very name of the club was intended to make it "more artistic". Thus, the series of photographs document the era of flourishing clubbing life. It can also be seen as an allegoric image of the art world, the domain of self-creation, duplicity, atrophy of social bonds replaced by rivalry, and also often of forlorn hopes.

In 2003 Paulina Ołowska, together with a Scottish artist Lucy McKenzie, opened for one month a lounge-cafe Nova Popularna at Chmielna street in Warsaw, trying to animate the city artistic life. The lounge-cafe was intended to remind of legendary artistic cafes, places of meeting for Bohemians, serving as a space for artistic discussions and diffusion of different circles. The two artists themselves, wearing special dresses and jewellery, became an integral part of the carefully designed interior of the bar and the lounge. The place had special wall-paintings, furniture, as well as carefully selected details such as cut glasses for drinks, posters, and the event programme. As recounts Paulina Ołowska, "The whole Nova Popularna reminded a place from a dream where barmaids, guests and the interior of the place merged into one picture, reminiscent of a post-impressionist painting or a meeting place for avant-garde".

The opening of the ephemeral cafe had not been announced in any way, the news about the new interesting place was spread by city gossip, and invitations to events were passed from man to man. After four weeks, Nova Popularna disappeared as suddenly as it had emerged.

The photographs by Radziszewski from 2008 take us to music clubs, such as Jazzgot, to witness performances connected with queer culture that are so rare in the public space. In his work, Radziszewski uses the camp aesthetics and often refers to popular culture. In his projects - the magazine Dikfagazine and cyclical event, the independent festival Pomada - the artist explores rituals related to parties, promotion and fashion world, balancing between the real world situation and the artistic action, designed, as he says, "in a spectacular, brocade, frenetic and perverse way".

Sławomir Belina, in a series of actions performed in Warsaw clubs (2006–2009), impersonates several absurd figures, questioning the language of popular clubbing ritual: schematic fashion, ritual movements, moral correctness. Some of his actions are inspired by the current media reports, as in the case of Three colours. The club performance was organised in the time of massive media reports concerning senator Krzysztof Piesiewicz, who was accused of possessing drugs (he was later acquitted of the charge). The artist was inspired by this attack from tabloids on the well-known politician and scriptwriter for Krzysztof Kieślowski films, who often used to pronounce his opinions on ethical and religious matters. Three colours was a troupe of actors in costumes who staged their own commedia dell’arte. As a "Ballet Support Group for Senator P.", they performed absurd choreographies, posing for photographs and disrupting the normal course of parties. To the puzzled guests they said, "We defend the right to use stimulants and to dress up, but the outfit the senator was photographed in, leaves a lot to be desired. What an awfully badly-cut dress!”. Many of Belina's ephemeral performances relate to the presence of art in the real world mediated by mass media, moral norms, and phobias of the society in times of transformation.

In the last decade, their own original styles of artistic partying were presented by Anna Baumgart, Zbigniew Libera, Mariola Przyjemska or Paulina Ołowska, and many others. The club Saturator, opened in 2006, has been in recent years one of the more active artistic places. Its co-owners (Marcin Brzózka, Aneta Starowieyska and Mikołaj Biberstein-Starowieyski) played the roles of ringleaders and performers impersonating different figures. The activities were described in „Konteksty” periodical by Jakub Sadowski: "The club Saturator likes to be provocative. Among the regular events are Porno-Valentine's Day, being a parody of mawkishly romantic idea of this global holiday. The club advertises the party as "mega-anti-Valentine's Day". (…) Dressing up is an important part of many events. All guests are encouraged to dress up, but only few do it. Nevertheless, it is an indispensable ritual, (…) being a sign for other participants that normal rules are suspended. Mikołaj is the leading dresser-up (…). One of his outfits looked like this: white sneaker-type shoes, golden trousers, naked breast, with a telling downward arrow pained in the lower part of his back, a kind of harness on his shoulders with big, stiff, vertical peacock feathers in it, a golden fireman helmet on his head, plus a golden Venetian mask on his face. And, of course, makeup and jewellery". Karol Grygoruk, Sandra Roczeń and Łukasz Rusznica are the authors of contemporary club photography, eagerly documenting the visual side of the nightlife.

It is evident that in their night escapades artists try to divert us from simple patterns and accepted identities. Their presence in the life of the city has usually been a commentary to the existing reality, a voice for openness, tolerance, and against ideological struggles with their Orwellian newspeak and violent attitudes. In the wake of the communist era, Warsaw artistic nightlife has become an asylum for pluralism and experiments that probably would not be welcomed in the official art institutions. Clubs and cafes are excellent places for witnessing emancipatory processes, changes in lifestyles, and reactions to the new democracy after 1989 in the Polish society. One of the outcomes of the transformation was dismantling the myths connected with the political change. 

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