In an effort to consider the varied impacts of COVID-19—a virus with a global reach—post has interviewed curators and directors from vital museums and galleries around the world about how the pandemic has affected their ideas regarding programming, civic engagement, and the role of the institution. This is an interview with curator Daniel Muzyczuk, Head of the Modern Art Department at the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, Poland.
Inga Lāce: The Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź is one of the oldest museums of modern and contemporary art in the world. Thus, in the history of the institution, one can potentially see traces of its survival and resilience through previous crises. The current global pandemic, however, is unprecedented in its scale and impact, at the same time exposing the inequality and vulnerabilities that exist in the health, education, and cultural sectors. How have you been rethinking the role of the museum within the art system and society throughout COVID-19? What has been your institution’s response?
Daniel Muzyczuk: The Muzeum Sztuki went through World War II under Nazi control and then through Stalinism. During these periods, the museum suffered huge losses in its collection, and the most progressive art was suppressed. It also underwent a transformation in the 1990s that proved economically challenging. It is important to see the history of the institution as one of both continuity and rupture. Some historical moments have been decisive in terms of its future and its ethos. The historical crises, in particular, have influenced the way we understand the museum’s mission and identity. In fact, the work of the “a.r.” group, which is the cornerstone of the collection, is to a certain degree, the fruit of the collapse of the art market in the late 1920s. This side effect of the Great Depression opened up the possibility of reshaping the idea of art and its practice as well as making more communal use of works that could not be sold anyway.
It is hard to predict how the present crisis will alter the way we think about the role of institutions in the long run, but some effects are already clear. When scheduled exhibitions and conferences were postponed, our team was forced to refocus. We had to consider the impact of the current state of affairs on our immediate environment. On a basic level, the effects of the epidemic, lockdown, and social distancing do not differentiate. Any project that requires in-person engagement has been postponed, as have all indoor presentations. Even Hollywood productions are being rescheduled till late 2021. Though some events can afford to be delayed, this is not always the case. The art community is vulnerable to the fluctuations of the global economy, and the crisis has left a lot of people without their source of livelihood.
We implemented a number of initiatives that have redirected funds to artists and researchers. Building online content has provided a way to commission new pieces. We also decided to buy more works by artists living in Poland. The profile of the collection is the international modern art of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Acquiring more work by living Polish artists is changing the balance of our holdings.
Education is the museum’s most pressing mission. Those programs involving participants of different ages have led us to find new tools and ways to make our collection more accessible. Our team wanted to restructure our offerings in order to provide a more mediated experience. The situation has demanded that we try new methods of outreach as well as test new formats that not only shift from the physical to the virtual, but also take advantage of the context of the virtual medium itself.
IL: Many institutions have strengthened their digital presence in reaction to the pandemic, but at the same time, remained acutely aware of how important physical encounters with art—and with one another—are to building strong communities. Also, the idea of “international,” which has been an essential part of the art scene, has been challenged by border closings and travel restrictions. How have you been rethinking the museum’s relationship with different communities—with audiences, artists, workers, and other partners—in relation to the digital context as well as to the idea of the international versus local?
DM: It is interesting to see how film festivals are making use of online distribution. I have not seen attendance numbers, but for me, as someone who does not have the time to participate in an intensive festival schedule, the move toward making films available for a designated period on a paid website has enabled me to actually watch more films. The difference between me and a large part of the festival crowd is that I am an amateur, and as such, do not rely on gathering and meeting with other professionals in the field. By moving online, festivals have become more accessible to and directed toward a nonprofessional audience.
The comparison to the field of visual art is valid only to a certain extent. While making film and video works available online and streaming online shows and talks provide good opportunities to produce new content, they cannot replace the physical experience of an exhibition. New means of spectatorship will be developed, but museums and galleries will still be needed, because art that offers a spatial, sensorial, and immediate experience will continue to be produced—and to warrant exhibition.
Hence, the effect is twofold: on the one hand, net content offers the feeling of being connected, but as with seeing a show online, it is an ersatz for traveling and meeting up in person. This state of affairs enforces more grounded, ecological, and economical models of practice. Indeed, it is a paradox that allows us to be more global, while at the same time, to work within our immediate environment. Producing online content has enabled us to remain in touch with international artists, and to preserve our broader connections. However, it has also led us to work more within the local context and to collaborate more with Łódź-based artists than we have in previous years. In line with this, we have invited an artist-run space from Łódź, Galeria Czynna, to install an exhibition on the ground level of our building. This work is on view from the street through the windows—even while the museum is closed.
IL: Over the course of this conversation, massive protests against the court decision to ban most abortions have grown. What do you think is the role of a museum in terms of civic protest?
DM: Peter Weiss’s novel The Aesthetics of Resistance opens with an image of young socialists in 1937 discussing the fight against National Socialists while looking at the Pergamon frieze. There is no direct relation between the ancient work of art and current events, and yet the narration of the book is built on a familiar tension—how can art teach us resistance?
If we see art as an instrument of emancipation, then a museum becomes a site in which different views of social engagement can be reconfigured and studied in constellations. By necessity, museums should represent diversity and be spaces where differences can meet. Collecting, preserving, and exhibition-making of art of this century and the one before it could be understood as constant care for the memory of dissent, as an inventory of powerful images—such as Legality of Space by Ewa Partum or Consumer Art by Natalia LL . . . these works have already been used as symbols of protest. For example, Natalia LL’s famous 1973 video of a young woman eating a banana was removed from the institution’s permanent collection exhibition by the former director of the National Museum in Warsaw. This decision caused a wave of Polish artists and opposition politicians to post photographs of themselves eating bananas. The works from the past are proof that such struggle is not new, but they also invite a critical distance. Being able to decode visual communication is crucial in times of post-truth. Museums should foster this ability.
On another level, art registers social dissent, and thus building a collection becomes a way to shape collective memory and to express solidarity. Minority struggle is reflected in the resources of the public institution, which should, if necessary, release official statements if the rights of a specific group are under attack. After all, this support can be understood as part of the public mission.
IL: You have done extensive research on the alternative art and underground music scenes and communities in Eastern Europe. Their work manifests creativity under oppressive political regimes, and I wonder if there is something we can learn from it in this moment?
DM: We still don’t know how long the current situation is going to last—or if it will permanently influence how we share and experience art. Indeed, there are examples of past practices that might serve as the basis for what is to come—for example, private art pieces produced for a closed circuit of friends during martial law in Poland. Or mail art networks in which an artist would produce a piece for an audience of one—the addressee (and perhaps also the secret police officers checking the parcel). These practices necessitated different models of distribution because they were undertaken amid political oppression and censorship. The contemporary online culture works in a totally different way. Censorship of the web is not a problem in our hemisphere; however, social media platforms nonetheless create bubbles or groups that do not really intersect. The spread of art content is limited by this framework. In this kind of environment, we can use past models of engagement as references. We are clearly experiencing a form of separation, but it is radically different than it was before the Internet. We cannot travel abroad, yet we remain not so distant.
IL: You are writing a book about the birth of nationalist ideologies mixed with pseudo-religious thinking in Poland and Russia. How did you settle on this extremely timely subject, and what have you concluded in pursuing it?
DM: My book, which is almost finished, looks at a generation of artists who, in the mid-1980s, were responsible for iconoclastic acts of collective creativity undertaken within artist circles in St. Petersburg and Gdańsk. I trace their work over the course of political transformation of Polish and Russian societies. In the early 1990s, these artists became involved with television, which suddenly, when socialist ideology was removed from the public sphere, had a void in programming. Finally, by the mid-1990s, some of them had become active in either radical religious groups or right-wing politics. Their disillusionment with democracy and the transformation of the country led them to extend the scope of their practices beyond art into the social and political. I am tracing the genealogy of this “conservative revolutions” movement and its connections to contemporary politics. My book is an ideological history of the movement, which is rooted in the occult, magic, romanticism, and fascination with the dead body. There are three things that connect this topic to contemporaneity: Current politics in Poland and Russia are built upon that conservative moment and the discord resulting from how the transformation played out. Moreover, there have been clear consequences, such as the rise of [Aleksandr] Dugin as one of the most prominent ideologues of the new right. The methods used by these political groups are in part derived from those used by underground artist circles. There is one more element—the role of irony as first a useful tool of critique of socialist ideology, and then after the transformation, as a more conservative instrument of political relations. My analysis reconnects the political and aesthetic in an unexpected way.
IL: There is a lot of discussion—as well as projects—focused on the future. What is your utopian vision for the museum, the art scene, and the planet?
DM: The utopian ideal seems to be dead. Especially in Eastern Europe, the fall of communism, in combination with neoliberal propaganda, is responsible for the victory of pragmatic thought over a conscious designing of the common future. There is another shadow obscuring the view of what’s to come. How can one imagine any future given that human extinction feels more inevitable than it did in the days when societies lived in fear of nuclear annihilation?
An image made by Simone Forti makes visible how the future and past are interconnected. One side of a sheet of paper bears the word “past,” while the other bears the word “future.” The paper is folded so that both sides are partly visible. This is how we can glimpse the future in the past and see how museums could be useful.
We use the notion of a prototype to speak of this curious type of autonomy of art that Władysław Strzemiński and Katarzyna Kobro had in mind. They were against productivist tendencies. Tatlin’s idea of the direct involvement of artists in the factories rings false. Art should exist within an autonomous sphere, one that allows the artist to work free of bothers from the everyday world. The pieces he or she designs in such a laboratory might become a basis for other solutions, but the transfer is never direct. A museum thus houses an inventory of different instruments that might serve as prototypes for solutions to problems that have not yet appeared. This is not a grand utopian vision, but rather a down-to-earth type of thinking about implementation.