Wednesday, October 17, 2007
Dear friends, family, colleagues, professors, and thesis committees,
This is the second of four reports pertaining to my experience in Poland over the course of 5 months. Although this report is primarily about Minsk, Belarus, it is integral to my experience in Poland, not that I make a clear connection or stretch to outlines its integration. However, I can briefly tell you that I acquired my Byelorussian Visa in Gdansk, Poland at the Byelorussian Consulate in Oliwa, Gdansk. This process would have been nearly impossible if Agata had not been there, as my interpreter/as the evil- woman-behind-the-glass-window-from-belarus’s interpreter (man, she gave Agata a hard time). For the most part, aside from all the hard time giving, I walked in, I filled out an application for a visa, I handed it to the disgruntled woman behind the glass, I commented on why I thought she must be disgruntled -because she works for an oppressed country, on that country’s property, which is smack dab in the middle of a nice area of a ‘free’ country, in a city known for being a location of the solidarity movement that helped to tear down part of the iron curtain in 1989, and that she might not like really cute and young Polish women interpreting between balding/hairy American guys and herself- I went to a Kantor and exchanged 511 pl for 180 usd, I went back to the consulate, paid the disgruntled woman behind the glass, and received my business visa to Belarus. All I can say is that it would not have been that easy if I were a citizen of Poland. Polish citizens were getting numbers that indicated that they were, for example, the 3,546th person in line to get a visa to Belarus.
Also, having been to the former East Germany, Czech Republic, and Poland, all former communist countries, I figured visiting Minsk, Belarus, currently a “communist” country, would be like going back in time, like going to Cuba or something. For the most part, it’s like going to Poland after the EU has a painting party all over the Bloch Complexes. For real, there is little to no graffiti in Minsk. It is so clean it is almost bright. The other places seem to hold onto a bit of their dreary pasts (I have my opinions about this but will keep them to myself). Really though, the major differences for me were the Soviet Stars and the massive monuments celebrating ‘soviet sovereignty’ in Minsk…
Every one should take a trip to Minsk via the Moscow Express from Warszawa, Poland. Maybe you’ll be the only American passenger. Maybe you’ll be the only native English speaker. Maybe you’ll be the only passenger with an American Passport and a Visa acquired at the Polish consulate in Gdansk… You could share a bunk with a 20-year-old Belrausian who likes good beer (dobre piwo), sandwiches, and Dunhill cigarettes. The both of you could share a bunk with a Belarusian business man who chain smokes, drinks tea, and is fluent in Polish, Russian, German, and English. All three of you might even share that same bunk with a guy named Igor. Igor’s a cultural planner “of sorts” he likes interesting music, hip TV, cheap cigarettes, Hugo Chavez, and giving the middle finger to the powers that be in Poland and Belarus by promoting the advancement of culture through rock and roll and free speech. Maybe you’ll be paranoid that one of these guys was planted in your bunk to snoop around and find out why you’re the only American traveling by train from Warszawa to Minsk. Maybe you’ll think Igor’s cocked eye makes him a likely candidate; that he acquired the extra range of vision in some special KGB training camp that was designed to train its cadets on how to sniff out materials and messages, of foreign passengers on the Moscow express, that may alter or disrupt the obedient thought processes of every diligent citizen of Belarus. Then you might find out how wrong you were and how very silly; that Igor’s interest in you is merely because you’re a silly American on the way to Minsk, on a train from Warszawa, to participate at Navinki 2007. And if your anything like me, Igor will just ask if that is why you are on your way to Minsk while the train is undergoing a wheel change at the boarder of Poland and Belarus. He’ll tell you that the tracks are bigger on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain in a dirty joke about the insecurities of Russian men. Three hours later you’ll be back in the bunk listening to his opinion on foreign affairs in Poland, the US, Iran, Belarus, and Venezuela. You’ll take a very quick nap and wake up to the train arriving in Minsk. You’ll notice the barbed wire surrounding the depot and wonder if there is a lot of that sort of wire around the city. And when the train stops and everyone gets onto the platform, Igor might even give you a hand when your contact isn’t sitting right there waiting for you with a sign that says, “Over Here! I am your Byelorussian contact, sent by Dennis Romanovski!”
What a great guy… Igor that is. I would have given him a watermelon at the end of my performance if he had stuck around to see the conclusion. He showed up when everyone was still at lunch; my lunch being a half of a 10 lb watermelon. I looked up, thinking everyone was already back, disappointed that my work had not developed any further than opening up one of 14 melons and devouring it. Maybe I had arranged my melons, sub consciously, to look like a barrage of bombs. Maybe I had wanted more melons and more nature to work with. But when I looked up, Igor’s cocked eye caught my attention, and I knew it was him. I should have gone over and had a chat. My work wasn’t about being in the zone and transcending time or space or some thing. For the first half, it was about that. Or maybe even the first 2/3 rds. I tried too hard to get in “the mode”, or something, and I was totally bumbed out that I had not been able to foresee the significance of buying and transporting the first 11 melons 2 days before the “actual performance”.
Chuck Cheney and I went down to the open Market outside of Victory Sq. with Mary Novotny-Jones’s empty suitcase. We walked around looking for the best priced watermelons. A couple of hours before, I had found the shape and size of the honey melons quite intriguing. This is a flesh colored melon, much like the cantaloupe, with a similar colored meat. Its seeds sit inside the melon, just like honeydew and cantaloupe, and will slip right out of the meat, just like these melons, upon cleaning a ripe one. And it smells sooo good when it is ripe. I figured the pull towards these melons, initially, was their shape. Some of the watermelons were round and as big as basketballs, but on this particular day, most of them were an oblong shape that reminded me of an egg or a giant mouse turd, just like the honey melon, weighing in at approximately 6 kg and sizing up at approximately 40 cm long with a peak circumference at about 56 cm. So, when I first picked up the honey melon, I cradled it like a baby and imagined myself sitting on it until it was ready to hatch. Of course, unless I am out of my gourd, the melon would never hatch, and I would have sat on it for 3 hours or more, during the duration of my “performance”. But, as I felt its weight and texture, I imagined having a whole nest of them, or somehow attaching them to my body and traversing the outside space that I had claimed for my performance. I decided I needed to go back for more.
After buying a suitcase full of watermelon, communicating quite well with the melon vendor (she was absolutely ecstatic that we were purchasing so many melons at once, hysterically laughing throughout the whole transaction), I started to think of the significance of this transaction. It was beautiful and wrong at the same time. And of course, I realized, the performance had already begun. Then came the realization of how much melon I had bought in kilos. And how much I spent in Bly (approximately 150,000, which is about 75 USD) It was approximately 65 kg of melon which is around 143 lbs, stuffed inside Mary Novotny-Jones’s suitcase. We might have been able to take a cab back to the hotel, but without a native we would most likely have been ripped off. So, we thought we might try and take the train. Once I started to walk, and tested the weight of the suitcase; getting the melons down the stairs, through the metro gate, onto a subway car, off of a subway car, up the stairs, through the metro gate, and up another flight of stairs, seemed a lot more difficult than dragging them 1 ½ km. A fifth of that walk was up hill, and on that ascent, one of the suitcase’s wheels began to fall apart. Luckily, it was only the rubber lining that covered the actual wheel, and after Chuck ripped it off, we were on our way. Not to miss lead you in any way, but Mary insisted on helping me drag the suitcase for a block or so past the National Monument of Jakub Kolas. This is a huge, larger than life representation of the actual poet, sitting in the thinkers position. Roi Vaara, a participant of Nsvinki 2004, polished the boots of this colossal bronze statue. Of course, I let Mary take the suitcase. It was her suitcase, but it was my performance, and I wanted the melons back.
Two days later, we transported the melons over to the Palac Mastacva by car. We were yelled at, then kicked out by the guard, as we entered the gallery space. Apparently, everything in Minsk needs to be cleared with someone, then signed by someone, then stamped by someone, and then filed by someone before someone else is allowed to do anything… maybe I exaggerate, and maybe when you go, things wills be different… actually, I guarantee they will be different. Alenxander Lukashenko consistently tightens his ‘arm bar’ on the citizens of Belarus, making it more difficult to have privacy, freedom, etc… hence the significance of attending Navinki, a festival that legally(?) contradicts Lukashenko’s ever-evolving constitution.
After my performance, I had a conversation with a woman named Lianna (the red headed woman with the blue skirt). She showed me pictures of her students and praised the outcome of my work that day, by bombarding me with “thank you, Richard Lione’s heart” as in lion’s heart. I am not quite sure where ‘lion’s heart’ came from, but I took it as a compliment. I had asked her if she had been to Navinki before. Apparently, she had been attending as a viewer for the past 3 years. At one point in the conversation, she thanked me again and told me “we have no freedom”. At this point, my stereotype had been confirmed. I had heard about Belarus before and had read about it and had my own suspicions of what they consider freedom, etc… and even the artists we met from Belarus kept a pretty tight lip about their socio-political stance, so naturally I wondered if the US is really any different. I mean, how is the current Bush administration any different than Alexander Lukoschenko’s ‘arm bar’? To some people in this world, they are both considered a military dictatorship who’s greatest accomplishment is confirming the state of fear that we questionably live in.
I’m not sure if this question/comparison was somewhere in my mind while making performance on the 2nd of September, 2007. But, I know I lined up 11 melons in the courtyard, 8 watermelons and 3 honey melons, then Chuck and I went back to the market to buy 2 more watermelons. Then at I went to buy 2 more watermelons right before lunch. I was interested in reliving the experience I had when buying the suitcase full of melon, but I wasn’t sure how to tangibly present this to my audience. Of course, when we went back to the same vendor, she started to understand that she was an integral part of the work. To put it more accurately, the work that I realized, I was “work-shopping”.
I realized, in Minsk, that I had brought my studio to my performance. Before this, it always seemed that my performances followed me to my studio, but since I have been in Europe, my studio practice has followed me into my living/social world; and in Minsk, even though I was slated on a program to be performing at Navinki 2007, I was stuck in the midst of my studio practice there in the market, on the walk back to the hotel after the first transaction, on the walk back to the Palac after the second transaction, on the walk back to the Palac after the third transaction, and throughout the day in the courtyard. I had thought I figured out what I wanted to do with those melons, I had already done what I was capable of doing with them at that moment in the market, on the way back to the gallery, etc… then it was time to really work in the courtyard, but I felt I had lost something. All I could think about was how I might get rid of the melons, besides giving them away, which I did… sort of.
After that trip from the market, I was dying of thirst, out of breath, and experiencing fatigue in both of my arms. I grabbed a butter knife and a spoon, took off my sweatshirt, sat down and split one of the melons in half, lengthwise. And if you are familiar with my work, I put on my kneepads before doing any of this. Then I sat and ate half the melon. This took a bit longer than I had expected, but then again, I hadn’t work-shopped this idea yet. The idea being that I would attempt to eat all 15 melons. I knew, and everyone else knew that this would be impossible to do before the day was out. One half of the most delicious melon I had ever had, almost completely filled me up. It’s a good thing watermelon isn’t very dense. I was able to shove another half and a few more spoonfuls into the depths of my bowels before I gave up the attempt to eat them all.
For me, the significance of eating the melon was based on a bit of knowledge Dennis had shared with me. The night after the first trip to the market, Dennis had claimed, as all the Byelorussians who commented to me while purchasing these melons, that these melons were most exceptional melons according to taste, region, size, weight, (any characteristic that one would grade a melon). They are grown in the south of Russia and are often used to treat certain ailments that may or may not be connected to the cleanliness of a patient’s kidney(s). In fact, according to Dennis, there is a hospital resort that patients attend at two-week intervals. The patients are instructed to lie around in bed and/ in the bathtub and strictly eat the finest watermelon in the world for two weeks straight. I figured, 15 melons would be about the amount that I would eat in two weeks and I would attempt to eat that amount in less than seven hours. That was one idea that I abandoned as soon as I realized the actual size of my stomach and speed of my metabolism (which was very fast that day). As I progressively lost an appetite for watermelon and ironically an appetite to perform, I slowly retreated into the depths of my thoughts, succumbing to the irony of my distractions/actions. What I mean is, I found the audience, the space, and the pressure to perform quite distracting that day. I also found (after completing my performance) that some audience members viewed this work as being a juxtaposition of mass consumption and weapons of mass destruction. Apparently, the aviator glasses, the tank top/hoody, the knee-pads, and my shorts, illuded to an idea that I was presenting these melons as a metaphor for bombs. Of course, I have no objection; I just would never assign that meaning to what is so obviously 15 melons, not 15 bombs. And, of course, in my costuming (resembling Chief “Gestapo” for some fantastical country's ruling political party unbeknownst by my audience) I would have dropped 15 bombs before handing out 15 melons… and I would have eaten 15 melons, my self, before sharing them with “my” people (but this is, of course, all retro-speculative). Now, ironically, as I was working –not aware of this reading- I found my work to be utterly ineffectual and I began to desperately crave an intervention from the audience.
I had abandoned the consumption of melons and had begun to pull out all the seeds. Previously, as I ate, I had been spitting the seeds out and collecting them in a pile until I emptied my first half of melon. Then I started to collect them in the empty shell of that melon. Now, I was tearing into the meat with my dirty fingers, the palms of my hands covered with fingerless weightlifting gloves that I had actually used to lift weights while I was an undergrad, and pulling out all the black seeds I could find. In this process, I had put the half melon facing up for the collection of seeds in front of me. I put another half shell right next to the other one to collect the seedless meat… And I dug into a freshly split melon with my dirty fingers, ripping chunk after chunk out, and pinching all the black seeds I could find. As I did this action, a man came over. He stood fairly close to my right, and asked “is it so important that you separate the stones?” (stones=seeds in Bly-english…I think) I looked up at him, and down at my melon, and then back up at him. “Yes, I would think so.” I answered… And then he walked away. I resumed my work, wishing that he had asked me why it was so important, why I had so many melons, why I was dressed the way I was, etc… And I would not have been able to answer him… Maybe a conversation would have broken out, or an argument, or something that would make my self-consumed actions more accessible by the audience.
After this, I noticed a couple of young women had been slowly approaching my set up. A few minutes after I noticed this they were right next to me on my left, crouched down, trying to get my attention. At this point they had my attention. However, for some reason, I had not acknowledged them. A third woman came over and began to take bits of watermelon that I had previously de-seeded and put on display with the other empty halves. I found this peculiar, she had seen me digging in with my filthy hands. I was digging while she took the bits of melon, and while she ate them.
The other two women asked if they could have some as well, so I took an un-tainted half, put a spoon in it and handed it to the three of them. My wish had come true.
We started talking. They apologized for ruining my performance. I told them that they had just made it what it should have been whole time.
As we acquainted ourselves, more members of the audience came over to see what the three women had discovered. I figured a performance had just ended inside the gallery.
Now they all wanted some melon, and there was definitely more than enough. I began cutting slices for everyone that wanted. And this was the only part of the performance that I had intended. Of course it was a variation of my original intention to hand out melons to seemingly random members of the audience: which, I did as well.
For a moment, there was a real frenzy around the melons as I cut/broke and served. I was only using a butter knife, so I passed out chunks of melon as if I were an Orthodox priest passing out chunks of bread to my dutiful parishioners. No body kissed me on the hand. Then the red-haired women, Lianna, made me aware of her presence by singing a beautiful folk song. She commented about the Catholic Church behind the courtyard (maybe you would have seen its steeple from where we sat). Then I realized we were all equals, no difference between performer and audience. We all came to the festival to commune as individuals and as a group of people interested in art. Lianna asked me to sing a traditional American song. Having been put on the spot, I couldn’t think of anything that should be sung or that I could remember the words to. So she had us all stand up. She proceeded to persuade some other members of the audience to teach me some Byelorussian folk dances. And we danced. I danced as if I had 3 left feet and a coat hanger pointing out of my eye sockets. And we danced some more, and she sang some more, and then she asked me to teach them a traditional American Folk dance…
So, I taught them the “hokey pokey”
And we put our left foot in… and our right foot in… and our left hand in… and our right hand in…
and then I told them we could put a ton of other things in but it gets really silly, and we did the hokey pokey, and we turned our selves around, and that is what it was all about.
After the “hokey pokey” I ran to the bathroom. My bladder was about to burst. In fact, I think I pulled a muscle holding my pee for so long. When I came back, another piece had begun and I decided that my work could be finished. I returned to the courtyard and found a note that Lianna and the other women left for me.At the end of the day, we all went back out and ate more melon. Still not finishing the pile, Chuck and I gave melons away to the staff that ran the Palac Mastacva, I gave one to Lianna, I gave one to a young boy in the audience, Chuck gave one to some random kid who had come in on a long journey, he tried to give one to the evil guard that yelled at us that morning, I gave another one away to someone that I can not remember, and I took 2 with me for later consumption...
Everyone should take a trip back from Minsk via the Warszawa Express. Maybe you’ll be the only American passenger. Maybe you’ll be the only native English speaker. Maybe you’ll be the only passenger with an American Passport and a Visa acquired at the Polish consulate in Gdansk. Maybe you’ll be on the same train and in the same car as Piotr Gajda and Gordian Piec. Maybe Piotr and Gordian will ask the controller, in Russian, if you can switch to their bunk because they are the only two passengers occupying it and there is room for four. Maybe the three of you will have just performed at Navinki 2XXX and know some of the same artists from the USA, UK, Poland, and Sweden. Maybe they’ll ask you if you might be interested in performing with young artists from Poland in Piotrków Trybunalski at the gallery space they run. Maybe you’ll stay up for half the night fantasizing about a possible performance you might do for an audience in Piotrków, while listening to “the Bad Plus” over and over again on your iPod. You would probably recap all the fantastic performances you had seen over the weekend. You might even smile when you think about how nice and welcoming Dennis Romanovski and Victor Petrov are, how fabulous the other participants are as well. You’ll think about the significance of organizing performance events. The importance of Navinki and what it means to have been a part of it. The magnitude of communing with students, educators, artists, and regular-old-real-people from around the world. Maybe you will have just spent three months learning/preparing/traveling/living/performing in Poland and will feel at ease that you accomplish more than you had expected to, that joining your friends and colleagues from back home and performing at Navinki together is a story to tell for a life time. You’ll keep in mind that it should not end here with this unique experience, that there will be more to come because being a performance artist is integral to being part of an international community. You might even fall asleep smiling, after the boarder checks and the wheel changes and not wake up until the controller comes to let you know your stop is coming up. And then upon arrving at Warszawa Centralna, maybe, Gordian and Piotr will help you get back to Lódz, if that is where you are going at 6:30am on a Tuesday morning in early September.
check out the following sites for more pictures and information on Navinki:
Take care everyone.