There are no other visitors in the gallery when I arrive. Chairs line a wall. Some are stacked on others or on the radiator. An empty stage stands in the middle of the room. In a corner, one table is placed facedown on another. The walls are painted in rectangles of mint green, soft pink, and white. On them, dark blue drawings made of sentences depict various shapes, like outlines of vaguely architectural forms. Some of the drawings seem technical, while others are whimsically curved. The curator, Wera Bet, turns on the musical accompaniment and shows me around. Gentle piano by composer Wojtek Świeca plays.
The artist Cristina Ferreira-Szwarc, a Portuguese national, currently lives in Poland. Bet and I talk to her over a video call in the gallery. Ferreira-Szwarc explains that the sentences forming the illustrations come from interviews she conducted with Polish migrants in Berlin. They discussed identity and migration, and she asked about their memories of świetlice (singular: świetlica). This Polish term translates to ‘common room.’ Etymologically, the word is related to light; literally, it is a light or sunlit room. Correspondingly, Ferreira-Szwarc’s current exhibition is Świetlica. It’s held at Kunstverein Ost (KVOST). Established in 2018, KVOST features artists from Eastern Europe or those who were shaped by the Eastern Bloc. The current show transforms the gallery itself into a segment of the former East.
In the Polish People’s Republic (PRL), świetlice were used for communal activities. They functioned, for example, as dayrooms in workplaces, recreational facilities, spaces for cultural projects, day cares, or halls where weddings and other celebrations were held. Since at least the interwar period, they existed in the area that is now Poland, but multiplied in the post-war years under the communist regime.1 Some of the spaces disappeared after the end of socialism, but many remain, especially in rural and semi-rural areas. Their use and meaning, however, is now contested, Ferreira-Szwarc tells me. They are a remnant with unclear purpose.2
1 Agnieszka Góra-Stępień, “Świetlice,” Brama Grodzka—Teatr NN, http://teatrnn.pl/leksykon/artykuly/swietlice/, accessed 28 September 2021; and Wyklady.org, “Świetlica,” http://praca-opiekunczo-wychowawcza.wyklady.org/wyklad/108_swietlica.html, accessed 28 September 2021.
2 Conversation with artist Cristina Ferreira-Szwarc and curator Wera Bet, 27 September 2021. All following mentions of statements by Ferreira-Szwarc or Bet are from this conversation. Information on świetlice is from Ferreira-Szwarc unless otherwise specified.
Urban świetlice are often located in adjunct spaces: basements or ground-floor rooms of residential buildings, or small segments of larger cultural centres. In the countryside, they could be independent structures, next to a fire station or church. KVOST is itself on the ground floor of an East German high rise, separated from a row of parked cars by a wall of shop windows: a suitable setting for a świetlica. Historically, this common room was intended as an egalitarian space. It was, however, also regulated. Świetlice were state-funded, rather than private initiatives. Public spaces in the PRL—especially in the first years of the regime—followed a principle of ‘environmental determinism.’ The material environment was designed to manufacture a new self.3 It aimed to be a tool for regulating behaviours and emotions. Beyond spreading ideology, cultural centres provided entertainment, education, and integration.4 They both promoted socially accepted behaviour—such as collective action and avoiding idleness—and offered help: addiction counselling, language classes, and care for the children of working parents. Because of their multifunctionality, these spaces have abundant potential. However, they also need to be activated. Maybe for this reason, the items in the gallery radiate restlessness, despite their immobility. There is a sense that they wait to be rearranged and used.
Beyond their architecture and interiors, Ferreira-Szwarc wants to know how these spaces were affectively experienced and are remembered. In the interviews she conducted, the memories were tender but also disturbing. The interviewees are mainly younger people and so had very specific experiences with świetlice. For them, it was mostly an after-school space before their parents picked them up. “Świetlica was the place to wait,” says one respondent. This sentiment echoes through the interviews but takes on different connotations. For some, the experience was neutral. Others have positive recollections: waiting was a time to interact and play, eat enjoyable meals, and learn creative tasks. For the last group, the collective atmosphere ranged from being somewhat uncomfortable to overwhelming. These participants remember being shy and unable to fully integrate. One states that it felt like a “non-space.” Another recounts being afraid to leave the common room to go to the bathroom and urinating under a table; they “associate świetlica with boredom, waiting, and peeing.”5
In its construction and designation, the space was part of the utopian socialist ideology—a future-oriented vision. It might also assume this in a past-facing direction. In contrast to the younger people Ferreira-Szwarc interviewed, older generations may have other associations. In a recently published study, historian and sociologist Joanna Wawrzyniak found that a significant part of Polish industrial workers’ memories is nostalgic. Wawrzyniak interviewed 23 factory employees who experienced the post-socialist transition of the 1990s. Those who are nostalgic do not idealise the Marxist-Leninist system itself. Rather, they miss sociability in the workplace, including former communal sites that helped strengthen bonds.6 Likely, the świetlica is part of their recollections.
3 David Crowley, “Warsaw Interiors: The Public Life of Private Spaces, 1949–65,” in Socialist Spaces: Sites of Everyday Life in the Eastern Bloc, eds. David Crowley and Susan E. Reid (Oxford: Berg, 2002), 181–206.
4 Aleksandra Sumorok, “Monday Palaces: Architecture Interiors of Socialist Realist Cultural Centres,” Blok Magazine, 14 September 2021, https://blokmagazine.com/monday-palaces-architecture-interiors-of-socialist-realist-cultural-centres/.
5 A selection of the interviews was provided to me by Ferreira-Szwarc. The interviewees have been anonymised.
6 Joanna Wawrzyniak, “‘Hard Times but Our Own’: Post-Socialist Nostalgia and the Transformation of Industrial Life in Poland,” Zeithistorische Forschungen/Studies in Contemporary History, 18(1) (2021), 73–92.
While the nostalgia of Wawrzyniak’s participants is clear, that of Ferreira-Szwarc’s work is less straightforward. She does not long for the świetlica per se, and neither do most of her interviewees. Ferreira-Szwarc even wonders if the spaces can be viewed nostalgically because they still exist. She stresses, nonetheless, that they strongly connote Poland’s socialist era. Her exhibition is not an exact replica, or a collection of material remains. Rather, it is, in the artist’s words, an echo of the original, or like a drawing from memory. It is a soft and associative reproduction.
The exhibition does not aim to just insinuate the physical space, but also the memories of those who had passed through it. The quotes on the walls capture brief experiences—which are, however, also distanced, with the interviewees speaking about the past from the present, and about Poland from Germany. Time in the exhibition is layered and fragmented, divided and mirrored. Although the visitor may not know the Polish locations, there is also a mood of familiarity: the chairs resemble those used in schools, the drawings something one does as a child. Nostalgia exists in the exhibition’s faint sense of loss, separation, and irreality. This nostalgia does not explicitly suggest romanticism, or yearning.
Uncannily, as I discuss this strangeness with Ferreira-Szwarc and Bet, Świeca’s music in the gallery shifts in tone. From ambient piano it slides into digital eeriness. Bet notices it too. “The music reminds me of Blade Runner,” she says, “it’s like a dystopia.” Ferreira-Szwarc agrees that there is a contrasting utopian and dystopian tension to the space. Utopia, through its ideal of perfection, is impossible; it is a non-place.7 The object of nostalgia, similarly, is something unreal. Literary theorist Svetlana Boym, for example, calls it a longing for a home that no longer exists—or perhaps never existed.8 In the beginning of the twentieth century, nostalgia was also associated with ‘immigrant psychosis’—an affliction arising from spatial and temporal detachment, and the inability to return.9 For some of Ferreira-Szwarc’s interviewees, świetlice float in their remembrances of their places of origin. Yet, even in Poland, its current state likewise hovers on the border between temporal realms.
7 David Crowley and Susan E. Reid, “Socialist Spaces: Sites of Everyday Life in the Eastern Bloc,” in Socialist Spaces, 1–22.
8 Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001), xiii.
9 Otto Boele, Boris Noordenbos, and Ksenia Robbe, “Introduction: The Many Practices of Post-Soviet Nostalgia: Affect, Appropriation, Contestation,” in Post-Soviet Nostalgia: Confronting the Empire’s Legacies, eds. Otto Boele, Boris Noordenbos, and Ksenia Robbe (New York and London: Routledge, 2020), 1–17.
As leftovers of the socialist period, świetlice can be considered ‘hauntological phenomena.’10 They do not just exist in the now, they haunt it. Hauntology—a portmanteau of haunting and ontology—was coined by Jacques Derrida in Spectres of Marx. In it, Derrida writes that “the subject that haunts is not identifiable, one cannot see, localize, fix any form, one cannot decide between hallucination and perception, there are only displacements.”11 As an already liminal space that haunts the present, the świetlica can take on even more transparency. It can be anything, and it is also not quite of this time.
If hauntology can be connected to nostalgia, then this perhaps aligns best with what anthropologist Serguei Oushakine calls ‘second-hand nostalgia’: “a condition of historical disconnect from originary contexts, which made possible the objects of current nostalgic fascination in the first place.”12 Oushakine mentions museums collecting everyday items used during socialist times. He describes these items with the Russian word trukhliashechka—“a material thing in a state of its (playful) afterlife. Despite losing its physical integrity, it continues to reverberate in those who handle it.”13 Some visitors to these museums had no original experience of socialism. However, being presented with a material collection of loss, they feel a mediated relation to a personal past. In the museums discussed by Oushakine, the items are often unlabelled and decontextualised. The museums are also full, spilling over with remnants. Ferreira-Szwarc’s exhibition is minimalist by comparison. By recreating the świetlica in Berlin in 2021, however, she likewise decontextualises her object spatially and temporally. The visitor experiences a sense of past, but not their own—a kind of second-hand recollection.
When I first entered the exhibition, Bet told me that, although Polish, she did not originally like the idea of the świetlica. What made her come around was connecting it to a scene from Bela Tarr’s black and white film, Werckmeister Harmonies (2000). At the start of the film, the protagonist is in a room drinking with other men. Set in communist Hungary, the space may very well be a Hungarian version of a common room. The protagonist explains the solar system to the men he’s with and has them enact the circular motions of planets.14 In this moment, there is a sense of melancholy community. The quotations on the KVOST’s walls also enact a circular motion. Strings of sentences run in a circle. You can start reading any sentence, and always return to the beginning. These memories spin, repeating themselves and a moment of the past, capturing temporariness, temporarily.
10 Marek Jeziński, “A Book Review of Duchologia polska. Rzeczy i ludzie w latach transformacji by Olga Drenda,” Avant: The Journal of the Philosophical-Interdisciplinary Vanguard 8(2) (2017), 229–35.
11 Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx: The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York: Routledge Classics, 2006), 169–70.
12 Serguei Alex. Oushakine, “Second-Hand Nostalgia: On Charms and Spells of the Soviet Trukhliashechka,” in Post-Soviet Nostalgia, 38.
13 Oushakine, “Second-Hand Nostalgia,” 40.
14 The opening scene is available here: Aldimitris, “Werckmeister Harmonies (Opening Scene—GR-EN sub),” YouTube video, 10:12, 25 January 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_d5X2t_s9g8&ab_channel=Aldimitris.
Natasha Klimenko is an editor and a writer. She also researches Soviet visual, material, and literary history, and the flow of concepts and cultural products between Eastern and Western Europe. Currently, she's completing an MA in global history at the Freie Universität.
|cookielawinfo-checkbox-analytics||11 months||This cookie is set by GDPR Cookie Consent plugin. The cookie is used to store the user consent for the cookies in the category "Analytics".|
|cookielawinfo-checkbox-functional||11 months||The cookie is set by GDPR cookie consent to record the user consent for the cookies in the category "Functional".|
|cookielawinfo-checkbox-necessary||11 months||This cookie is set by GDPR Cookie Consent plugin. The cookies is used to store the user consent for the cookies in the category "Necessary".|
|cookielawinfo-checkbox-others||11 months||This cookie is set by GDPR Cookie Consent plugin. The cookie is used to store the user consent for the cookies in the category "Other.|
|cookielawinfo-checkbox-performance||11 months||This cookie is set by GDPR Cookie Consent plugin. The cookie is used to store the user consent for the cookies in the category "Performance".|