Essay written by Natalia Domagala.
This is an unedited reproduction from a photo book publication by Paulina Korobkiewicz.
Publication Date: September 2016 London (Edition II).
Poland is not a country for the admirers of the detail – Tomasz Jastrun
The reality used to be dull and grey, exactly like the unified tower blocks constructing the cold, unpleasant image of the post-socialist cities. Now the soulless, identical buildings are just a reminder about the turbulent past, a national monument present all around the country. Walking on the street of any Polish city resembles a showcase of the most peculiar architectural inventions with a DIY twist. The old-fashioned concrete blocks juxtaposed with their latest counterparts, bursting with colour, homemade billboards often located in the most unexpected places, advertising even more surprising content. You are also likely to encounter a great variety of English sounding names, not necessarily spelled correctly. As a generation born in 1990s, growing up surrounded by the kitsch aesthetics and the eclectic attempts to erase the Soviet past of the buildings, we took what we had seen for granted. The recognition of that unique, bizarre aesthetics came only after going abroad for the first time, to realize that there was a different world somewhere there. The picturesque little squares in London, romantic Parisian alleys with elegant beige tenant houses, colourful but neat and charming restaurants along the canal in Copenhagen, idyllic Italian boulevards by the sea... Being so contrast to what we were used to back home, they seduced, inspired and impressed us immediately. Growing up, we became more conscious and perceptive, we slowly started to distinguish the bitter feeling of shame forming in relation to our world. Struggling with the construction of our identity torn between the remains of years of fidelity to Russia and new devotion to America, we got stuck somewhere in between – too east for the West, but to west for the East. When you look at them now, the pseudo American bars and colourful billboards tell the dramatic story about searching for the identity and a desperate need of belonging. Once being a subject of shame and disregard, today they constitute a diary of transition, the path from socialism to free market and the accompanying it personal struggles; the story of complex and acceptation, the account of generational changes, the memory of uncomfortable past and the everlasting hope for a better tomorrow.
In the free market conditions the dictate of the taste of majority leads to the domination of mediocre and tacky objects – Czesław Miłosz
‘Ladies and gentlemen, on 4th June 1989 the era of communism in Poland is over’ announced Joanna Szczepkowska, the actress of Powszechny Theatre in Warsaw, on the evening news on Polish television. Her words introduced the fall of the system and the beginning of the new times in Poland, the first country in Europe to switch from socialism to parliamentary democracy. The groundbreaking changes were introduced after the years of unsuccessful attempts. Finally, it became possible after the negotiations called the 'Round Table Talks' conducted from 6 February to 4 April 1989. Ninety-four sessions of talks gathered the representatives of the government, members of the oppositional trade union Solidarity and observers from the Catholic Church to decide about the future course of action in the country. The final resolutions of the Round Table Talks were a compromise and even though they were not satisfying for all the parties, they managed to inaugurate the major changes in the political system. By 4 April 1989, numerous reforms and freedoms for the opposition were agreed - freedom of speech, political pluralism, independence of the court and organisation of the first semi-free elections. Solidarity, the first trade union that was not controlled by the Party and a major oppositional political force was allowed to participate in the elections. As a result, supported by the majority of Polish citizens Solidarity managed to lead the coalition government and its chairmen Lech Walesa was elected President of Poland.
Since then the life of Poles has changed dramatically. ‘Friendship’ with USSR was no longer a part of the constitution, the name of the country was changed from Polish People’s Republic to Third Polish Republic. Introduction of free-market laws after the years of centrally planned economy fuelled the development of small independent businesses. Previously government-led institutions were privatised. The communist landmarks and street names were immediately renamed or liquidated. The age of censorship was over and the citizens were allowed to travel freely.
Traumatised by the years of greyness, people indulged themselves with the explosion of colour. Eclectic advertisements started to emerge on the streets, promoting the blossoming businesses, filling out the city with the endless posters, boards and painted pieces of fabric. There was no law regulating the presence of tasteless adverts before and soon they were present everywhere, defining the Polish aesthetics. Nowadays, even though the billboards have been claimed to be illegal, due to the protection of the private property law they cannot be removed or damaged without the owner’s permission (Springer,2013:130). The style of the previous era - socialist realism - has still been strongly present in the architecture. Political regime which dominated the country for decades produced the specific, utilitarian type of architecture. Concrete tower-blocks were the most basic and common place for the public housing for Polish citizens. Grey and featureless buildings were too cold in winter and too hot in the summer, lacking of the right isolation systems. In 2000s they started to be insulated with Styrofoam boards and subsequently decorated with bright colours. The lack of experts in the local housing associations resulted in the randomly chosen shades, turning the streets into the vivid collage of pastel rainbow. As Andrzej Stasiuk (2013) concluded, ‘we are the nation of extremists, we are the total revolutionists. The basic matter of communism used to be greyness (...) So when we heroically unleashed, the first impulse was to visit a paint store. And this is how my homeland looks like now: as if the monkey played with the brush’.
Urban planning has been neglected and supplanted by more urgent and significant social problems. As Springer (2013) reports, neither the government, nor the people are bothered with this issue, so the loosely regulated urban planning slowly results in the chaotically arranged space with the most bizarre architectural forms.
Three cheers for freedom, three cheers for freedom and liberty. Three cheers for having fun and three cheers for a young girl - Boys
Along with the economic and social changes, the entertainment sector was flourishing and the new music genre called disco polo emerged. Deriving from the pre war street music often referred to as ‘pavement music’, the era of disco polo started unofficially in the 1970s with the records made by the Poles living in the United States. The most popular band Polish Eagles was performing old folk songs with the playful lyrics, often with sexual connotations. The year 1989 and political transformations opened up a new world for the artists. Getting a permission to record an album was no longer a problem and producers were keen on finding the artists eager to make ‘light and pleasant’ music. Inspired by the popular by the time italo disco, a young group called Top One decided to mix well known folk tracks by Polish Eagles with disco. The experiment turned out to be a massive success, initiating the wave of popularity of disco polo music. Numerous new bands emerged, with the majority of them coming from Podlaskie voivodeship in Eastern Poland and Mazowieckie voivodeship, especially from the smaller towns. Being often described as ‘Poland B’ as inferior to more developed for historical reasons ‘Poland A’, the eastern part of the country has been stigmatised since the 18th century. As a result of the Partitions of Poland, eastern territories taken by Russia have been less economically developed in comparison to the western part that used to be under Prussian control. Thus, disco polo was a dream of a better world, symbol of the American Dream and freedom for people in small towns and villages. Newly created bands were usually named with a western-sounding names, such as Boys, Atlantis, Weekend, Focus, Milano, Akcent, Bayer Full. The rough-and-ready bunkhouses were constructed especially in the countryside to serve as the venues for disco polo parties, with the proud, American sounding names - Atlanta in Jeżowo, Miami in Bakałarzewo, Manhattan in Mońki, Paradiso in Horoszcz and Feniks in Suwalki. The clubs used to get filled up with young people every Friday and Saturday night even though some of them resembled a barn made out of corrugated iron more than a party venue. Kitsch typography and often misspelled English symbolize a constant desire to become Americanised and increase the level of economic prosperity. Disco polo songs themselves, usually strongly eroticized and portraying women as trophies and sexual objects waiting to be conquered, also reflect other longings of their listeners, promising success, fortune, beautiful girls, romantic love and freedom.
And that is why I love my country – because it has the courage, the gesture, and strength to get its way. Because no architect will dictate how the life of that country, I mean my the life of my country, is supposed to look like – Andrzej Stasiuk
Dreaming about the prosperous faraway lands and singing along with the playful lyrics presenting life as simple and enjoyable, the people unconsciously made disco polo music an icon of the transitional time in Polish history. At the beginning of 1990s the country was still more east but aspiring to get westernised as soon as possible. That pursuit of the West, a dream to transgress the national boundaries has been visible on the streets, through various billboards and English names. Disco polo, with its cheerful, but often perceived as tacky disco melody conveyed it all, constituting a perfect soundtrack to that reality. The music, architecture and cheaply made advertisements are still an integral part of Polish landscape. However, at the beginning of 2015 the government finally decided to regulate the illegitimate adverts. The controversial ‘landscape act’ is supposed to provide the way to fight with the chaos of urban space. It precisely defines legal advertisements and imposes severe fees for breaking the rules. Despite of the categorical objection of the advertising lobby, the act has been finally ratified and the first effects should be visible soon. So far, some streets are still kitsch and tacky, with the unsuitably coloured concrete blocks, rough-and-ready billboards and bizarre buildings. It’s nothing as elegant and neat as Paris, London, Rome or Stockholm, and it will not be for a long time; but there is also nothing to be ashamed of. That particular landscape is a product of historical conditions that made it extremely hard to create the cities with sophisticated architecture. Instead of constantly looking up to Western Europe, the Poles should rather appreciate the uniqueness of their surroundings and by introducing well thought urban planning now, connect the bitter history with much brighter future ahead of us.
All images courtesy of Paulina Korobkiewicz.
Paulina Korobkiewicz: What inspired the project were the stories told by my relatives about their first experiences going abroad. Their very first encounters with the Western world - culture clash, admiration of architecture and collecting foreign packages because of their bright colourful branding. It was all very desirable and inaccessible then. I especially remember seeing photographs from my family album where someone decided to document a petrol station or a foreign motorcycle. Isolation of Poland for such a long period of time has changed and still keeps influencing our aesthetic preferences and choices.
Natalia Domagala: ‘Disco Polo’ documents the aesthetics of Eastern Poland after 1989. This publication focuses on the mixed influences from East and West, the effects of global capitalism on the Polish landscape dominated by consuming colourful advertising. Lack of experts in local housing associations resulted in randomly chosen shades, turning the streets into a vivid collage of pastel tower blocks. The project presents kitsch of rough-and-ready billboards, suburban nightclubs, and bright-coloured concrete blocks. It explores omnipresent visual chaos in the urban landscape and the search for a ‘better world'.
GeoGrzes (2011) Disco Polo w polskiej przestrzeni [online] Available at:http://geogrzes.blog.onet.pl/2011/02/22/disco-polo-w-polskiej-przestrzeni/ [Accessed 7 May 2015]
Kowalczyk, A. (1997) Krótka historia Disco Polo, ‘Wiedza i Życie’ nr 9/1997.
Portal Samorzadowy [online] Available at: http://www.portalsamorzadowy.pl/ [Accessed 9 May 2015]
Springer, F. (2013) Wanna z kolumnadą, Czarne:Gorlice.
Stasiuk, A. (2013) Badziew z Betonu in Springer, F. (2013) ‘Wanna z kolumnadą’, Czarne: Gorlice.
Boys, Wolność [song]
Available at: http://www.boys.art.pl/pl/dyskografia/video,359,76,boys_wolnoscoficjalny_teledyskavi.html [Accessed 7 May 2015]
Jastun, T. in Springer, F. (2013) Wanna z kolumnadą, Czarne:Gorlice.
Miłosz, C. in Springer, F. (2013) Wanna z kolumnadą, Czarne:Gorlice.
Stasiuk, A. (2013) Badziew z Betonu in Springer, F. (2013) ‘Wanna z kolumnadą’, Czarne: Gorlice.
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