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Environmental Art

Interview with ALICJA BIAŁA, author of the installation The Totems conducted by DANUTA BARTKOWIAK

photo of The Totems, photo Damian Christidis
The Totems, photo Damian Christidis

Street art in Poznań has just gained something new: a spatial installation of your making, which you have named The Totems. It comprises six totem poles, each centred on a particular challenge that is vital for humanity's survival: collapsing fisheries, overproduction of plastics, deforestation, air pollution, water depletion... Are you trying to educate the public through art?

I believe that art should get people to open up rather than close. Artists should not put on airs and claim superiority over others. Art should not be addressed to a small circle of curators but carry positive emotions seeking to engage people in dialogue.

How did you first arrive at the idea of building such structures?

Iwo [Iwo Borkowicz, co-author of The Totems] and I wanted to allude to historic totems, which were made from wood. I think that at a very subliminal and emotional level, people view totem poles as being primordial, pagan and their own. I wanted the installation to evoke deep feelings. I think that confronted with natural folk patterns painted on wood in bright colours, we all have that emotional response even if we can't put our finger on it. Previously, we have had many cool and interesting ideas with a potential to produce fascinating effects. We tried to use recycled plastic, but then from the get-go, the idea was to harness art to fight climate change and appeal to and educate the general public. We couldn't talk ecology and pollution and then turn around to use plastic made especially for our installation!

Another key aspect of your installation other than the visuals and aesthetics, and perhaps one that is even more important, is environmental protection. Why do you need all those ecological causes? Isn't it enough to make something that is colourful and happy?

I really wanted to strike the right balance. On the one hand, I wanted the piece to carry a clear message. On the other, I was shooting for something somewhat abstract. Before the idea of The Totems came about, I watched a documentary on meat production and was amazed at the clarity of its presentation. Despite having read plenty of articles on the subject, I could never wrap my brain around the huge numbers. The documentary used simple diagrams, showing e.g. how much water is needed to produce so many calories with beef and vegetables. It was all based on comparisons. The film and my realisation that these easy-to-understand visuals brought home to me for the very first time the actual meaning of the big statistics, gave me the idea to present recycling in the same visual manner. The approach is very simple as The Totems use basic data and comparisons to address very important issues. If we wrote this on a poster, nobody would take notice. But as soon as you employ proportions, people really get it. I took the issues very personally and felt I needed to talk about them to make an actual difference or at least get people interested... I think the fact we are now talking about this shows I have achieved some degree of success.

Has Piotr Voelkel, the founder of the Vox Artis Foundation and the Talenty Foundation (which granted you your scholarship) and who invented this space, tried to impose any concepts on you?

Neither he nor Karolina Koziołek, the president of the Foundation, forced me to do anything, for which I am grateful. The freedom they gave me was incredible. An amazing thing about this project was that I was free to pursue any ideas. Of course, I still had to sell the ideas to people and make them like them. The way I was treated was completely new to me in a great way as it made me feel supported. I think they originally imagined I would propose a painting, as in a mural. I immediately realised this was out of the question and submitted scores of ideas, all of them fairly three-dimensional.

It took two years of work in the ul. Marcelińska studio to create The Totems. You used social media to invite the people of Poznań and beyond to contribute. What was the purpose of this?

It was not only about painting something together, but also about the community gathering to discuss issues and aesthetics, before The Totems finally took shape. This seemed crucial to me. We watched films about the issues raised in The Totems project. These were the films I was emotional about as they were the first documentaries that I saw either before the idea crystallised or in the early days of development. The Marcelińska studio has been shut down and we are doing the clean-up there now. We plan to show more films this summer in the Concordia building and invite people over to talk and hear lectures. I have also been approached by schools which want me to teach classes. When there, I talk about how the idea of ​​The Totems came about, why I feel there is a need for change in the way the environment is treated, I discuss the threats of having the Earth smothered with plastic and smog, I mention Greta Thunberg, who is almost the same age as my students, and discuss her school strike. It amazes me that this generation, brought up with mobile devices that give them access to any information, know nothing about these things.

Are you happy with The Totems and everything that is happening around this project?

Given all the thinking we have done and how nerve-racking the experience has been, I still haven't recovered enough to simply enjoy it. It also tires me somewhat to see so many people try to reduce the meaning of The Totems. What they should do is approach them in smaller steps, read about it and discuss it at greater length. This project takes focus. In London, where I study, it is widely admired while here, I feel it only resonates with relatively few people. This surprised me a bit but I guess that is how it is. You tinker away at something cooped up somewhere for a year thinking it will shake the world or at least the artist community and then a reality check proves you wrong.

Any ideas for future installations?

The goal and a personal dream of mine is to see The Totems spring up all around the world. We do not want to stop at six totem poles, as we have gone over lots of other statistics selecting our themes. All we need to do now is to choose the statistic we want to portray visually, and we can take it to any location. This is a ready-made concept developed to go with the Poznań totem idea, and I would love to have it spread. To my surprise, proposals are already coming in, e.g. from Hanover, Germany.

Interview conducted by Danuta Bartkowiak

translation: Krzysztof Kotkowski

Alicja Biała is a native of Poznań, a visual artist and the creator of collages for Marcin Świetlicki's book "Polska" ("Poland"), murals around the world, theatre posters, album covers, and graphic designs for books. A student at the prestigious Royal College of Art in London, she is hardworking and brilliant, has a great sense of humour and is a very "together person". She is 24 years old.

© Wydawnictwo Miejskie Posnania 2019