The spectacles of Polish artists included in the programme of this year’s Confrontations under the theme “Autonomy/Institution/Democracy” create a distinctive trend of political theatre that stands up for the subjectivity of artists, enquires about their responsibility towards the audience, advances strong theses about precarity of cultural workers, challenges power relations within the structures of art institutions, and suggests alternative solutions. Their authors interrogate efficacy and force of political theatre today, at the same time battling for the autonomy of their own. They investigate the principles that govern the process of art production – oftentimes with reference to the context of late capitalism, by which it is greatly conditioned. The trend includes the spectacles produced by independent theatre companies and repertory theatres alike. Nearly all of them were created during the 2014/2015 and 2015/2016 seasons, and the majority of them were produced by women. Importantly, the performances being part of this year’s Confrontations by no means exhaust the theme; we could not host all the spectacles in Lublin this year, and yet new ones are in the making. Our ambition, however, is not to create a programme representative of the entire trend, but to point at the phenomenon and initiate a discussion on this subject.

Importantly, all the spectacles within the “Autonomy/Institution/Democracy” theme presented in Lublin are autothematic, although it does not mean that they concern theatre only. On the contrary – through exploration of the conditions and methods of work and relationships within the institution they are testing new, perhaps more effective forms of political theatre, building alternative structures and communities, searching for new ways of communication with the audience and implementing democracy instead of conversing about it. In “Auto-theatre in Times of Post-truth”, published in the Confrontations’ catalogue, Joanna Krakowska makes the first attempt in Poland to name and analyse the new trend. She writes:

Auto-theatre, i.e., theatre whose creators speak from the stage in their own name and under their own surname, not the stage character’s, speak for themselves and about themselves, refer to their own experiences, explore their personal constraints, reveal their weaknesses, problematise their rhetorical context, define and question their identity, reveal the behind-the-scenes theatrical processes, intra-company relations, institutional limitations, economic conditions, ideological anxieties. Auto-theatre is not necessarily a theatrical convention, it is rather a formula for making contact with the viewers based on new principles – honesty, exposure of experience, speaking for oneself, responsibility for one’s words, testing democratic procedure. Auto-theatre is a somewhat desperate attempt at creating a system of reference within the theatre alone, within the company or between the stage and the audience, which is where you may still have an impact on something, instead of – as it has been so far – in the outside world, social life or historical discourse, over which, it seems, we have irrevocably lost influence.

However, a proposal for political theatre oriented like that is burdened with high risk: testing new social solutions, new methods of work, structures of production or community formation is at the core of late capitalism. As a result, these activities may easily serve to reinforce the system rather than undermine it; it may expropriate them and transform them into yet another product, divested of emancipatory and critical potential. It is described by Bojana Kunst in her book Artist at Work, the publication of which, prepared together with The Zbigniew Raszewski Theatre Institute in Warsaw, accompanies the programme of this year’s Confrontations and initiates the activities of the Performative Centre. It is the first edition of Bojana Kunst’s work in Polish – in our opinion a pivotal one to understand how contemporary changes in art are closely related to transformations within late capitalism. We are convinced that paradigmatic changes that have been taking place over the last decades in the methods and modes of work as well as institutional practices within the field of art are closely related to transforming processes and conditions of production within a much broader domain, resulting from the transition of industrial capitalism into cognitive one. The late phase of capitalism and the related post-Fordist methods of production, based on the economy of knowledge, affect, emotion, requiring constant creativity, mobility and flexibility, have blurred the boundaries between the time (and space) of work and privacy, impacting indirectly on the change of working conditions of artists and art producers. The consequences of this situation are discussed by Franco “Bifo” Berardi in his brilliant book The Soul at Work, so far untranslated into Polish – its excerpt is also included in the catalogue.

Bojana Kunst points at the entanglements of contemporary political or critical art which are the effect of these circumstances. The pressures of constant productivity turns many institutions into factories operating at full capacity, acting most hurriedly and with complicated logistics, which is often accompanied by overexploitation of workers. It is a machinery, not a place of artistic work. In a place like that there is no space for explorations, research, honest discussion, testing various directions, taking risk, and, finally, “mistake” or “failed” action – which is all that constitutes artistic process, at the same time being the foundation for independent, autonomous and critical thinking.1 A situation like this does not necessarily need to lead to the commercialisation of the institution. On the contrary: we may deal with a brilliantly programmed, progressive institution that puts the theme of democracy in the centre of its attention, interestingly problematises socio-economic inequalities, and at the same time replicates the schemas of inequality and exploitation within its own company. Hito Steyerl wrote about it: “[institution] might even earnestly try to reconstruct a public sphere within market conditions, for example with the massive temporary spectacles of criticism funded by the German Bundeskulturstiftung (National Foundation for Culture). But under reigning economic conditions, the main effect achieved is to integrate the critics into precarity, into flexibilized working structures within temporary project structures and freelance work within cultural industries.”2

The trap of continuous activity, visible in both numerous contemporary institutions of art and in practices of individual artists, turns into “pseudo-activity”, described by Žižek and brought up by Bojana Kunst: “[a]ct, be active, participate, always be ready for opposition, generate new ideas, pay attention to contexts while constantly reflecting on your methods of production.”3 Futility of such activities and ‚interventions’ is painfully bared in Ahmet Öğüt’s “Things Based on Real-Life Events”4, also published in the catalogue.

As a result, inspecting the conditions of art production is no longer sufficient: all the activities geared towards their development and emancipation are immediately expropriated by the post-Fordist mechanism of production. As a consequence art loses its critical and political potential, and above all – risks the loss of autonomy. Critical activities easily fall into the trap set up by the economic and social system in force, at the same time becoming its product and relief valve. For they begin to function as market tools: the area of art often allows one to initiate new solutions, test new methods of work, non-hierarchical management, new models of community, which then become instantly engulfed by the late-capitalist mechanism of production. Thus both artists and art producers lose their critical position and become simultaneously a tool and a product of contemporary economic system. Festivals are equally trapped – how can they fulfill their critical role if they themselves are a product of late capitalism? Created and managed by (more or less) qualified experts-curators, deftly navigating the contemporary art market, they unceasingly risk the loss of political power and critical credibility.

According to Bojana Kunst, this situation could be overcome if we re-examine the artist’s work process and conditions of art production, situating it within the context of post-Fordist modes of production; in the context of the system that has cleverly expropriated and disarmed the crtitical potential of the existing ways of making political art. Within the theme “Autonomy/Institution/Democracy” this perspective appears in the Microtheatre project, in the works of, inter alia, Weronika Szczawińska, Agnieszka Jakimiak, Anna Smolar, Agata Siniarska, or in Kantor Downtown, a performance prepared by Jolanta Janiczak, Joanna Krakowska, Magda Mosiewicz, and Wiktor Rubin.

Auto-theatre” is interestingly situated within the context of questions posed by contemporary performing artists in Europe. Investigation of methods, principle and mechanisms of theatre production as well as questions about the relationship with the audience have all been in the centre of attention of such artists as Xavier Le Roy, Jérôme Bel, Eszter Salamon, Ana Vujanović, Ivana Müller, Everybody’s Collective, Mårten Spångberg and many more. Their choreographic and theatrical practices are conspicuously political, but, in contrast to Polish examples, they are predominantly realised outside the repertory theatre. At the same time, “auto-theatre” in Poland functions alongside the debate on the working conditions of artists and art producers that has been going on for years now in Polish visual arts. Alongside numerous texts and artistic interventions, projects distinctively thematising the institution (such as, for example, “Winter Holiday Camp” at Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw or “Towards a Critical Institution” at Arsenal Gallery in Poznań) and the question of politicality of art (e.g. the cycle “Effectiveness of Art” at the Museum of Art in Łódź), publications exploring the mechanisms of production in art as well as working conditions of artists and art workers have also appeared (among others, The Black Book of Polish Artists, The ABC of Projectariat). It is discussed by Agnieszka Jakimiak in her text “Nothing to be Ashamed of” at „Dwutygodnik”; in the festival catalogue we also publish an excerpt from the “The Art Factory” report, drawn by Michał Kozłowski, Jan Sowa, and Kuba Szreder, analysing socio-economic status of contemporary artists and producers in the visual arts.

Meanwhile, current political scene, radically cross-cut by divisions which seem increasingly less likely to be overcome, considerably hinders the debate around theatre. Joanna Krakowska claims that “auto-theatre” is also an attempt at “renewal of communication that has been disrupted in theatre due to too hermetic artistic quests, and in public life – due to radical political divisions and ideological polarity, precluding any discussion.”

This seems even more important in a situation when raising controversial subjects that might turn out to be a bone of contention in theatrical milieu and lead to new divisions is highly unwelcome. It concerns, inter alia, the question of payroll, internal relations within the company, subjectivity of creators and co-creators of spectacles – putting them forward them places one at risk of community ostracism, contempt, ridicule. Because it is so autothematic and dull, because why get involved. Because suddenly the space for opposition ceases to be obvious, the adversary clearly defined and, with relief, placed at the opposite end of the political scene. Because why talk about it, there are other and more important problems. Meanwhile there are no questions that are more crucial. And the new Polish theatre puts them forward, for instance by directing the debate around theatre towards the most basic topic regarding working conditions. I am convinced that nowadays one cannot practice political or critical theatre without discussing the methods and modes of production and the subsequent consequences for workers – always with reference to the context of late capitalism and its mechanisms, within which we operate. Otherwise, democratic slogans, most aptly theoretised and thematised, will remain painfully empty.


1 I discussed it in detail in the manifesto written for the conference “The Political Aspect of Art Institutions. What Comes After the Critical Institution?” that took place at the Teatr Polski in Bydgoszcz in 2015

2 Hito Steyerl, Institution of Critique, in: Art And Contemporary Critical Practice. Reinventing Institutional Critique, ed. Gerald Raunig, Gene Ray, London 2009, pp. 13–20.

3 Bojana Kunst, Artist at Work: Proximity of Art and Capitalism, Zero Books, 2015.

4 Ahmet Öğüt, Things Based on Real-Life Events, „e-flux journal 56th Venice Biennale”, (access: 20th August 2016); Polish translation available in the catalogue of 21st Theatre Confrontations Festival.