Heather Jones: You describe yourself as an independent researcher, curator, and writer. You’ve also worked as a lecturer and editor. How do these different roles interact in your practice?
Zofia Cielatkowska: And philosopher… I believe all these roles are interconnected. I would say that philosophy, as well as art, theatre, dance, etc. is a description of the world, of reality. How we see it or perceive it intellectually, emotionally, socially. How we experience it. Description needs language, and for some reason, the closest to this to me is the language of words, but I wouldn’t like to limit myself only to this. Carolee Schneemann once said that she started to paint before she started to talk, and I could say that I started to write before I started to talk, but it might also be because I’m not a very talkative person… Anyway, the most natural, and effortless, forms I find in poetry, or perhaps in a kind of drama written in a poetic way. I like when the text flows, has its own melody, mood, suspensions and little twists. But this kind of writing I keep for myself. What I usually publish are critical texts that have clear form and structure – that’s what is expected. Research is an essential part of writing, and then editing is another approach to the text – a means of understanding its materiality. It also gives a little bit of distance to your own practice. If you write and research it is quite easy to get stuck in a kind of alienated abstract bubble. Curating or teaching is a way to keep contact with the world outside. I like teaching; I learn a lot from that experience.
“Just theory is not enough. I think curating is just another practical angle of the same description of reality, another lens or tool to look at it. The more tools you have to describe it, the more fascinating and perhaps accurate it is.”
HJ: You have a PhD in philosophy and studied at Jagiellonian University and the University of Warsaw, among others. How did you arrive at your curatorial practice? Was it through your studies in philosophy or were you already engaged in the arts prior to your graduate research?
ZC: Art has always been present in my life – on different levels, with different intensity, but it has always been there. Perhaps this whole story about describing the world outside requires one more thing, a sensitivity to see – in a literal and more metaphorical sense not limited to sight. Art is about seeing; it teaches you how to see. When I started working on my PhD dissertation which combined M. Merleau-Ponty’s and M. Foucault thought with the history of art focused on the body, subjectivity and performance art, I looked at art in a new way. That was the moment I did curatorial studies. Perhaps, if you do too much theory, you just have to give it a go. I became interested in exploring perceptive, corporal relations, and limits in practice. Just theory is not enough. I think curating is just another practical angle of the same description of reality, another lens or tool to look at it. The more tools you have to describe it, the more fascinating and perhaps accurate it is. Then again, probably I feel this more as a writer.
HJ: You’ve mentioned before that you’re most interested in the arts in relation to social and political contexts. Can you describe this interest further? Have you done any research or projects specifically in this vein?
ZC: Everything is political and social even if we don’t want it to admit it. We are living in the world in relations and they exist even if we try to ignore them or simply not pay attention to them. I’m interested in this thin and hard to define border of excluded versus included, how relations of power work in a given situation, place and context. What are the ways to resist them? What are the mechanisms of symbolic power? This kind of research is connected with both the careful observation of symptoms and gestures as well as statistics or analysis of data. But it is more of reading between the lines.
It is a very blurred, unstable and interdisciplinary research area that requires theory from and research into various sources. It combines paradoxical figures; on the one hand, I work on a very specific subject, and on the other hand, I use critical theory to formulate results. To name just a few examples of important thinkers I would evoke, perhaps this includes M. Merleau-Ponty, M. Foucault, P. Bourdieu, T. Adorno, E. Said, A. Davis, b. hooks…. Quite recently I was doing research on African-American photography in the XIX and XX century and I spent a couple of weeks looking at related albums and reading related texts. As we all know it was a time when African-Americans were experiencing violence in various ways. At that time the pictures circulating in the press depicting black people were usually stereotypical at best, if not completely racist. Looking at the photographs taken by black photographers it was fascinating to discover how photography could be used as a conscious tool to fight the dominating violent discourses, how pictures could become a tool of resistance. I’m interested in how racism works – from the last research readings, I really appreciated White Innocence by Gloria Wekker and Reni Eddo-Lodge’s, Why I’m no Longer Talking to White People About Race, about which I wrote texts for a magazine.
I’m also focused on all subjects related to women’s rights. One of the projects I was involved in at the end of 2017 was connected to Cyber Violence Against Woman led by the Helsinki Foundation. I’m also interested in all forms of inequality connected to contemporary precarious conditions of labour (critique of neoliberalism, capitalism etc.)… And finally, when I think of art in a social and political context it doesn’t mean that it has to be something right in your face. It is the opposite actually. I’m rather looking for art or artists who see the world in relation, who listen and have enough courage to respond to the world in an honest way. Sometimes a simple blue painting might be more political than a banner put on a central square of the city. It is more about the attitude to the world than the specific content.
HJ: You will be in Stavanger as a CAS Resident at the end of May. What about Norway and the Stavanger region interests you, and do you have any ideas for a specific focus or goals for your time here?
ZC: I think I would like to keep my mind and emotions open. I was in Norway only once – it was in May last year for the IKT Congress in Oslo and Trømso, but that was enough for me to start learning Norwegian – beautiful language! I loved the atmosphere of Oslo. I think that Norwegian people have very relaxed, positive attitude to life. I think my goal will be to meet and talk with people – of course with artists, but also random people. Conversations with people are the most important, as they are a basis for further research. I know Stavanger only from what I briefly read about it; oil industry and large numbers of engineers are probably some of the things you hear first. I’m not sure if I want to start with that. Maybe. I don’t know yet. But as this interview is going to be on your platform I would welcome any suggestions from readers – it might be an idea or something from literary sources like poetry, drama or fiction connected with Stavanger. Dear reader: if you have a suggestion, please write to me.
“I don’t know yet. But as this interview is going to be on your platform I would welcome any suggestions from readers – it might be an idea or something from literary sources like poetry, drama or fiction connected with Stavanger. Dear reader: if you have a suggestion, please write to me.”
HJ: Can you tell us about any current research of projects that you have coming up?
ZC: I was coordinating, and working on the program of the IKT (IKT International Association of Curators of Contemporary Art) symposium this year (10-13 May) and that is a huge project. I would like to continue with my main research subjects I have mentioned and as usual I regularly collaborate with different magazines, so I have texts to write. For myself, I’m just finishing a drama piece and working on a text about friendship in the time of neoliberalism and depression. I’m thinking of doing further studies in creative writing – why not. I always feel I want to learn more. At the moment I’m in a kind of position in which I’m looking for a new place or inspirations for the future, for a longer period. I’m thinking of Norway among other places. I will see what will comes up. Maybe my visit in Stavanger will be inspirational in that case as well. I’m really looking forward to that!
Zofia Cielatkowska is an independent researcher, philosopher, writer, editor, and curator. Her research and writing focus on social contexts in philosophy and culture with special emphasis on visual and performing arts. Doctor of Humanities in Philosophy (Embodiment of the Subject: Philosophy and Performance within the Context of Contemporary Critique of Culture, 2013), a graduate of Philosophy (2006) and Curatorial Studies (2008). She received a scholarship from The University at Buffalo (Department of Visual Arts, 2010). She is a member of AICA (International Association of Art Critics), and affiliated researcher at The French Civilisation Centre. Zofia regularly collaborates with various magazines; she has published more than 50 texts including academic papers, articles, reviews, and interviews. Find out more about Cielatkowska on her website, here.