Identity nowadays is portrayed as either an immutable nationalistic concept, enrooted in powerful historical narratives, or a fluid postmodern notion up to individual’s choice. But, let’s face it: postmodernism has become the biggest cliché of the 21st century. The umbrella concept per excellence, it seems to be used merely as a way to avoid facing current ideological and social clashes by hiding them under a cloud of ambiguity. Postmodernism replaces groups by atomized individuals who do not follow grand narratives, a post-society where causes and consequences fall into oblivion and there is no history, but merely isolated events. This is indeed the case of so-called postmodern, post-structural and post-transformation Poland.
However, in order to make sense of contemporary Polish society, it should not be understood through the lens of postmodernism, but rather as the eye of the hurricane. Contemporary Polish youth stand in between the appeal of oblivious isolation from their surroundings or being swept up by the current of the competing forces of modernity and nationalism. Polish millennials find themselves at the crossroads between globalization and rising patriotism, rebellion and tradition, equality and patriarchy, reality and media, political compromise and apathetic freedom. This in-between state, constantly bombarded with disturbing news yet experiencing no changes in daily life, is what Warsaw-based photographer Weronika explores through her work Girls in Peace Time Want to Dance, focused on the way media and visual representations influence social attitudes in the world of post-truth and fake news.
We spoke to Weronika about her work as a reflection of Polish reality. Make sure you follow her on Instagram for a raw yet revealing snapshot of what it means to be young in contemporary Poland.
Having grown up in post-transformation Poland, Weronika’s work touches upon the topic of tradition and oppression, exploring the place of contemporary Polish identity within traditional Polish values. In her view, “contemporary Polish identity has been hijacked by the far-right groups. Nowadays, Polish patriotism has the face of a young aggressive man in balaclava shouting xenophobic slogans during the march on Poland’s Independence Day. This is one of the most important holidays in Poland, and for several years it has taken the shape of the ‘world’s biggest’ far-right march. Those people chanting “Pure Poland, white Poland!” and “Refugees out!” they are young too, and this is scary. Sometimes we wonder when it happened. For a long time, most people thought that they were just harmless lunatics, yet now the government supports them. So, today it is difficult to define what traditional Polish values are. Tradition is overtaken by a monolithic Catholic viewpoint, and even our history has been falsified. Contemporary Polish patriotism is based on the idea of homogenous nation, centered on the obsession with strength and power. And for those people who don’t share this vision, it can be difficult to identify with Polish-ness.”
Consequently, in her work, Weronika uses the party setting as a means of portraying alienation while also appealing to globalization through Instagram and Tumblr aesthetics. As she explains, “my project mainly refers to the bubble of young, creative people living in a big city. We were born in a free Poland, growing up in the new capitalist reality of the nineties. For a long time, we did not take any sides, we had no one to fight against, nothing to protest about. We looked more towards the economy rather than democracy, worrying if our humanistic university degrees were going to get us jobs. Politically and socially taken aback. Often consciously, giving up our political subjectivity in exchange for independency and ignorance.”
Moreover, within the nationalist identity clash, individuals find themselves in conflict along the fault lines of gender, a feminist struggle that Weronika also explores through her photography. As she explains, “I believe that photography is a key tool when it comes to the deconstruction of patriarchal culture and the way we perceive women, ultimately because this culture was largely constructed by images. In terms of female identity, I believe nationality is not so important, as female oppression is a universal issue. However, recently in Poland, women’s movements are growing in power to fight against attempts by the government to further restrict access to abortion. I hope this will result in a new feminist revolution, and that the problem of violence and oppression towards women will eventually be heard, starting with health care, discrimination or the gender pay gap. For example, at the University of Arts where I am now studying, I do not have practical classes with any female artist. Yet, the biggest problem remains that some people do not see that this is as a problem at all.”
Moreover, this world of individual and social clashes controlled by a post-truth, fake-news and allegedly apolitical landscape is in turn dominated by mass media. In today’s world, media outlets both bring us closer and isolate us from the reality of humanitarian crises and a world possibly on the brink of World War III. In her project Girls in Peace Time Want to Dance, Weronika revisits the notion of war photography through printing the images of articles predicting World War II onto everyday, mundane objects. In her words, “printing those images onto everyday item is a type of objectification of war as a marketing tool, making online articles more “clickable”. Images of war, violence and hate are interlaced increasing their presence on our everyday lives. We certainly have a problem with “overproduction of images”, but we can’t blame the images themselves, and we definitely shouldn’t look away. But in the time of the online media competition for our attention, everything must be the most interesting, the most shocking and the most drastic, and I think that’s the problem. As for war photography, its form has changed a lot, because it partly moved to social media. On the one hand, it is good because there is no monopoly on the truth. We don’t need a white, male photographer to “objectively” tell us about distant conflict. However, it is frightening that we can see pictures of dead Syrian children on Instagram, right next to the party photos.”
Therefore, Weronika uses photography not for solely creative purposes but as an identity-building tool for for social engagement and change, as well as a means to fight for democracy. Looking at the “Black Protests” that took place in defense of women’s rights in Poland this year, there was certainly a rise in political engagement, fuelled by the positive power of media. As Weronika reflects, “a lot of young people were involved in these movements, building our own rhetoric of protest. I think here there is a great opportunity, not only for photography, but for visual culture in general, from Instagram to physical banners and posters. This is a different form of visibility, in the urban and in the virtual space, built on new principles. So a lot has changed, but there is still a lot ahead of us. There are still people who prefer to go for a beer rather than a demonstration, because “it will not change anything”. I understand it in a way, because, myself, I often have enough. Sometimes I have the impression that we would have to protest 24/7 to show disagreement on all the bad things that are happening in Poland and in the world- and that’s depressing”
Overall, images certainly play a huge role in building identity on the face of isolation and divisive nationalism. However, as Weronika reflects, “unfortunately, this is not always a positive one. Also post-truth manipulated photos, or forms of propaganda, can have great power to mobilize people. I think that the role of artists, photographers and people involved in visual culture is that of asking questions, inspiring to contest what we see. As Judith Butler writes in “Frames of War”, we should pay attention not only to the image, but also to the frame in which it is presented and how such forms of presentation affect us.”
Nationalism and media, the imperative forces of our 21st century Leviathan, are double-sided swords of connection and division. Yet, through artists such as Weronika Perłowska, reality can be apprehended and changed not through a corrupted political filter but through the raw lens of an artist and social activist fighting to let Polish youth redefine themselves beyond tradition and oppression.