The 6th Baltic Contemporary Art Biennial Habitat is based on the idea of dialogue with place, which is construed as a culturally structured environment in which meanings are established and actions carried out. In this sense, human habitat is a function of spatial, social, and personal relationships, played out on the intimate level in private, and in the collective sphere in public.

Manifesting itself on the material level, habitat is at the same time strongly idea-intensive, malleable and variable, expressing the needs and anxieties of the community located in it and that co-creates it. Mutual feedbacks and energy exchanges take place between the subjects of this community and the environment in which they function. Habitat’s visual-material structure is not exhausted in passive submissiveness towards the subject; rather, the emancipated ambience becomes a creative and corrective instrument. And its great gravitational power stimulates acts of transgression. The ambivalent nature of these processes – the grid of tensions and interactions between the environment and its users – define the primary area of reference for the exhibition, which refers to the category of private space (oikos) as well as to that of public space (polis), as well as to their mutual relationships.

Oikos, as a system of oppressive relationships, is one of the leading themes in the work of Marko Mäetamm. Private space is a place of perverse violence, evoking bloody phantasms. In A Dream (2004), Mäetamm’s intelligent, self-referential work reveals the vampiric nature of a family whose well-being is inversely proportional to the well-being of its individual members. The film’s protagonist, the artist’s alter ego, experiences a creative block that he blames on his family duties and fantasizes about doing away with his wife and child to save his endangered creativity. The work’s title situates it in the vague space between wishful thinking and dreamwork. Its ironic narrative allows a minor subversion that compensates for the the narrator’s discomfort with his family entanglements and works to abrogate the potential trauma.

In Bleeding Houses (2004), Mäetamm nuances the human relationships more powerfully. He envisions houses in the role of observers, commentators, and even animators of the stories happening inside them. And he reaches for the grimmest cultural clichés and the usual repertoire of pop-culture obscenity – bloodshed and gore, sadistic orgies, zoophiliac excesses. Again, the safety valves here are humor and ironic distance, which, rather than weakening the impact of the works, make us aware of the real presence of the acts of violence and perversion in play with social norms. Mäetamm’s houses have little to do with the nostalgic-sentimental images of family refuge; rather, they are the backdrop for psychotic actions, cathartic rituals, and the expression of repressed phobias.

Standing in counterpoint to Mäetamm’s work is Balázs Kicsiny’s installation Sweet Home (2005), an archetypal and ideogram-filled work that conjures the idea of home as a source of safety and contentment, but one that is ultimately unattainable. The chain-bound wanderer at the center of the piece is literally ‘anchored in reality,’ a faceless ‘everyman’ doomed to live with an un-resolvable conflict of time and place in search of a home that does not exist.

Heavy with symbolism, Kicsiny’s painfully static installation activates complex interpretative tropes. It suggests the potential transgression that could occur on the material plane – that of freeing oneself from the rituals of everyday life (to which the protagonist’s ordinary costume alludes) – or on a spiritual one – as the transgression of all materiality by freeing the mind from stimulation (sensory deprivation achieved here by binding one’s head with chains); and finally on the eschatological one, legitimised by the presence in Kicsiny’s use of anchors – Christian symbols of the hope of salvation. In reality, none of these transgressions actually take place. The fettered, immobilized, and ballast-heavy protagonist is stuck in the cul-de-sac between action and inaction, on the border of consciousness and unconsciousness. He portrays a compulsive, unfulfilled, nomad, personifying the paradox of apparent movement. Kicsiny builds restrained expression on the vectors of opposing forces and in painful ambivalence.

In the installation The West Pomeranian Room. Baltic-Nomadic Version (2005), Jarosław Kozłowski explores a similar theme of nomadic life from the perspective of the distortions of identity that it creates. Using items culled from the National Museum in Szczecin’s collection, the artist frees objects from the semantic ghetto of purely utilitarian interpretation in order to speak about the existential landscape of the postmodern reality from their perspective. Heaped upon mobile tables, the ordinary objects resemble frantically gathered belongings with which could be set off in an indeterminate direction. Kozłowski’s emphatically transient constellations feature objects that are old, worn and fragmented. The hybrid, mobile sets become a visual designate of new models of their participation in the world. In the process, the artist initiates meaningful dialogue with the Museum as a place where memory is stored and identity formed on the basis of the material traces of the past.

While Kozłowski bases his discourse of modernity on a semantic dislocation of objects belonging to the past, the works of the artistic duo son:DA (Metka Golec and Miha Horvat) are situated at the opposite pole. With their technicised image of the present and fatalistic vision of the future, the team’s large-format prints of computer-generated drawings, three-dimensional constallations, and video-objects intelligently comment on the contemporary iconosphere. The organic world surrenders to the invasive power of technology in these works. Living creatures appear in spaces covered with an intricate network of cables and electric sockets, preoccupied with further developing the system of connections using modern gadgetry, including computers, TV remote controls and mobile phones.

Paradoxically, the broadening scope of the domination of communication technologies is inversely proportional to the actual communication competences of the figures populating these digitally-rendered drawings. A depressive, dystopian image of the present – the progressive alienation, mechanisation, and stupefaction of subjects dangerously verging on cheap didactics – are evident in son:DA’s works. With their ironic distance, acute sense of observation, and ability to create attractive visual syntheses, the duo endows their pieces with the character of a sarcastic memento.

Human figures function in son:DA’s drawings in flat, non-descript spaces – vast, cold factory rooms, or, for contrast, claustrophobic box-houses. The oppressive nature of space deprived of individual characteristics is one of the main tension-building elements here.

The viewer is confronted with a similar phenomenon in Katarzyna Józefowicz’s Habitat (1992-1996), an installation configured with a huge number of cardboard elements forming a sort of gigantic, cramped human ‘termite mound.’

While playing the role of the exhibition’s flywheel and leitmotif, Józefowicz’s parabolic image of the human habitat refers at the same time to one of its leading aspects – the impact of architecture on the nature and quality of social relationships, individual identity and the limits of freedom. The impetuous accretion of the standardised elements in Habitat mirrors the concrete slabs of cities as they grow and develop in the modern age. Józefowicz’s Habitat reveals the expansive nature of micro-structures, whose uncontrolled growth creates amorphous, uncontrollable entities. Mutating, space grows and emancipates itself, and one can only suspect other decentralist and organic processes are taking place in its ‘entrails.’

Veli Granö alludes to these processes in Tangible Cosmologies (1994-1995), which documents the often-surprising activity of collectors and their collections and, in the process, displays the way objects provide people with a means of defining themselves. Granö photographs his protagonists surrounded by objects, portraying the relationships that develop between people and things, with collections consuming significant amounts of the subjects’ living spaces. The work offers a series of psychological sketches that reveal the temperament, interests, and yearnings of his protagonists. All these works share a nostalgic aura, with the collections made up of objects from the realm of everyday life, worn and discarded by their former owners, that generate bizarre and complex spatial structures in which virtually any material trace of human activity can serve as the base module – from trinkets and toys to old radios and wrecked cars to decommissioned trains.

The scale of the documented collections - varying from those that will fit in a cramped apartment to those requiring open space – is of no fundamental significance. Invariably, the main impulse is the need to remain in constant physical contact with the collection and to organise one’s surroundings through its elements. The results are deeply personal micro-worlds – parallel spaces alienated from the main course of events and made credible in Granö’s photographs. 

Like Granö, Małgorzata Jabłońska affirms and legitimises the banalities of everyday reality in her work cir:cumstance cur:iosity (2001), a cartoon-style story about family life, its modest successes and minor disasters, set in the cozy scenery of a home and its surroundings. Jabłońska builds short, fragmented narratives composed of episodes acted out by simple computer-generated configurations of circles and squares, which form the syntactical components of a language that the artist uses to describe everyday reality in a fresh and tender way. In the graphic series and computer animation The Training (2003) – a collaboration with Piotr Szewczyk – uses the same language to describe the artist’s classroom experiences from the time she worked as a teacher.

Similar to that of son:DA, the Jabłońska/Szewczyk collaboration uses the computer as a tool to generate an expressive and strongly individualised language. Equally, the pair reaches beyond private space and toward the realm of broader social interaction. In son:DA’s case, it is the dehumanised office spaces and server rooms, while in Jabłońska and Szewczyk portray the school as an instrument of socialisation. With their characteristic sympathy, Jabłońska and Szewczyk describe how pupils behave and interact. The pupils’ liveliness and unpredictable behaviour, including an ever-present element of insubordination, seem necessary for a creative equilibrium to be maintained between themselves and the school’s oppressive nature.

For Jabłońska and Szewczyk, to enter public space means to enter the realm of multi-level interpersonal relationships. In Aneta Grzeszykowska and Jan Smaga’s works, the process of the negotiation of collective space is manifested in the ideological functions of public architecture. The starting point for the work The YMCA (2000) was the building in Warsaw once owned by the Young Men’s Christian Association and known since as the ‘Polish YMCA,’ which the authors transform in a way that turns it inside out. The result of their artistic modus operandi is a complex structure whose compatibility with the building’s actual disposition is not very rigorous. The way the photo-object called The YMCA (the final effect of a months-long documentation/creative process) is constructed, articulating its basic functions – the promotion of physical fitness combined with Christian values – refers us to architecture construed as an instrument of social communication and correction of social behaviour. An architecture that is a material designate of ideology, a transmission belt of certain attitudes and models.

A similar interest in architecture as an instrument of communication can be found in the works of Måns Wrange and his OMBUD Institute for Improving Society (Compromise House, 2000-2005). OMBUD’s main declared goal is improving the quality of everyday life. As a promoter of the idea of artistic involvement in social dialogue, OMBUD encourages the use of mediation and social-stimulation tactics in implementing alternative social solutions. Exploring new strategies for social change, OMBUD situates itself at the borderline between art and science. The statistical analysis and marketing methods it uses legitimise and objectivise the alternative channels of social dialogue – empathy training sessions, corrections of public institutions’ functioning on the basis of the views of the statistically defined average citizen, the reshaping of attitudes among conflicted communities.

In the Good Rumour Project (2005), initiated and carried out in the border region of San Diego/Tijuana, Wrange’s aim was to reduce the mutual prejudice. The project involved monitoring the directions in which the artificially generated rumours spread, as well as their socio-therapeutic effects.

Another artist operating in the broad cultural landscape is Thomas Martius who explores the theme of authenticity and artiface in the video essay LAS VENICE (2004-2005). Working in collaboration with Andrzej Wirth, Martius examines the parallel worlds of the city of Venice and the Venetian Hotel and Casino, a copy based on the city that is located in Las Vegas. In the work, each local dictates the scenes taking place in it. Venice as a visual icon shapes people’s behaviour, casting them as actors in a quasi-theatrical event. Public space – polis – becomes a stage that evolves towards a dynamic artistic installation. The camera’s eye recording the movement of human masses is accompanied by Wirth’s meta-theatrical reflection, fragments of interviews, and more or less staged scenes. The way the film is edited, allowing the viewer to move freely between its different sequences, resembles the structure of hypertext. The work’s meaning is fluid, depending on the viewer’s individual decisions and preferences.

The dynamic contrast between the urbanised space of the metropolis and the landscape of desolate suburbia is also the conceptual and compositional axis of Dorota Podlaska’s painting installation There and Back (2004-2005). Far from imposing a social mission upon itself, Podlaska’s work operates in the realm of interpersonal relationships and emotions. There and Back is a sequence of scenes and details composed into a narrated installation presented in the form of quasi-diary of the artist’s period of residency in Finland and her return to Warsaw. Like the artist’s other works, There and Back is based on creative imagination, humour, and observations that are applied to everyday life. On the example of Warsaw, Podlaska has managed to capture the essence of big city life, casting the desolate Finnish interior in the role of its visual pendant. In characteristic small-format paintings configured into a complex composition, the artist creates a visual dialogue between two radically different habitats. Podlaska’s Finnish impressions introduce into the space of the exhibition the image of nature – viewed from a distance and largely reduced to decoration – that is otherwise absent but nonetheless important. 

In Natalia Pershina Yakimanskaya’s video installation Light Breath (Exercise no. 1 for Girls) (2005), a forest clearing creates a therapeutic space. The arrangement of the screen, on which we see the figures of girls falling into fluffy snow, in a kitschy living room with overalls hanging on nails suggests that the scenes the viewer is watching are a projection of the protagonists’ unspoken needs. Somewhere between dream, illusion and reality, the women have dumped the drab overalls in the claustrophobic room and now find themselves in a light, open space. In Yakimanskaya’s works, including Found Clothes Factory (DATE), her joint project with Olga Yegorova, the traces of human existence and individual histories left on old, worn pieces of clothing play a central role. These imaginary signs are amplified and articulated through inscriptions, photographic images and embroideries placed directly on the fabric.

In Light Breath, too, the women appear in dresses, or costumes, that make them unique, and the mantric ritual of falling into snow is like a psychodrama where the moment of touching the ground serves as a catharsis of quasi-death.  A punchline for the exhibition, Light Breath also looped it. Private space revealed here its non-autonomous nature, a function of the many variables organising public discourse.

The habitat project explores the ways in which space, construed as the field of interpersonal relationships, is negotiated. The artistic and discursive values of the interacting works create the exhibition’s dynamic tissue. This publication documents its shape while offering a series of critical essays that set the works presented in the exhibition in the broader context of the participating artists’ creative praxis.

 Magdalena Lewoc

Translated from Polish into English by Marcin Wawrzyńczak.

Proof read by Rick Butler.

Text originally published in Habitat – the 6th Baltic Contemporary Art Biennial in Szczecin, Szczecin, 2003, ed. by Marlena Chybowska-Butler and Magdalena Lewoc, published by the National Museum in Szczecin.