By Jan Sowa, about the performance Story of A Scared State
POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews
A solitary red billiard ball propelled from a ball serving machine rolls through an empty tennis court. It flies above the net and lands softly on the green carpet of the court. It rolls a bit further and comes to a standstill. A moment later, another ball follows, then yet another one, and more. Half of the court becomes filled with red billiard balls. The denser they become, the more often they hit each other, constantly changing the configuration of red points against the green backdrop. As it gets thicker, each shot brings a new dose of chaos into the already rather disorderly situation. Eventually, there are so many balls that it becomes impossible to predict what kind of new disturbance another one will cause. And yet, the machine rhythmically and systematically spits out one ball after another.
This is what Assaf Gruber’s video installation Matchpoint looks like. Created exactly a decade ago, the work encapsulates in a nutshell the motifs, themes and problems that the artist will later – until the present day – address in his films, performances and installations. The billiard balls hitting each other chaotically and mixing in an ever tighter mass can be seen as a metaphor for globalisation: detached from their traditional identities, symbolically catapulted into the air by the social and cultural transformations ushered in by the processes of global accumulation of capital, we bump with each other, roaming an increasingly chaotic landscape. It might be a literal journey, a journey of migrations which relocate ever greater masses of people between countries, regions and continents, but it might also pertain to virtual travels or encounters: on online forums, social media, dating sites or websites of employment agencies that offer jobs in remote corners of the Earth. In the past, such nomadic individuals were few, akin to the first balls traversing the tennis court: merchants, sailors, travellers and explorers blazed the trails of global itineraries. Yet, this is already very distant past, which was completely different from today’s world of constant globalised movement; the world in which already not only people travel, or not people on their own. Arjun Appadurai, American anthropologist of Indian descent, distinguishes five “-scapes” in which globalisation unfolds today. In his view, it involves the flows of ethnicity, ideas, technology, finance and the media. These processes sometimes establish synergies (such as the media and technology), and sometimes enter into conflict (such as ideas and ethnicities, when religious fundamentalism confronts the idea of rational secular state). Akin to Assaf Gruber’s installation, where chaos of the billiard balls results from the operation of a precisely designed machine, every such movement is underpinned by an orderly deliberate activity. It is only the sum of their encounters that gives rise to chaos, which we cannot tame neither in practical nor cognitive terms. The further it gets, the more complex it becomes: each new migrating individual, each new technology with a global reach, each element of culture roaming to the other side of the planet, each impromptu online encounter adds energy to the chaotic configuration, making it even less predictable and even more difficult to tame.
We ourselves do not fully realise all the consequences entailed by this entirely new manner of global functioning of culture, yet there is at least one sphere that beyond doubt undergoes immense transformations for this reason: our socio-cultural identity. As Edward Said put it two decades ago, “Lastly, no one today is purely one thing. Labels like Indian or Canadian or woman or Muslim or American are no more than starting points which, if followed into actual experience for only a moment, are completely left behind. (...) Just as human beings make their own history, they also make their cultures and ethnic identities.” This diagnosis is a perfect commentary on those works by Assaf Gruber which, such as The Guardroom, The Right or Citizen in the Making, address the problem of identity in the contemporary globalised world, full of surprising links and unexpected contaminations. These works always frame identity as a journey, pursuit, movement or investigation, and never as something constant, finite and given once and for all.
These very questions of national identity and its “natural” descriptors, such as language, accent, surname or skin colour, are also the focus of the project created by Assaf Gruber at POLIN Museum, titled Story of a Scared State. The uncertainty as to who is who, what role he or she plays (and why), as well as what is expected from him or her permeates the entire staging, whose script was penned by the artist alongside Kuba Mikurda. It is difficult to imagine a better moment for such an intervention. Our national identity is currently in a state of peculiar confusion and reinterpretation. The conservative-national formations speak with great reverence about the Polish past and our social-cultural roots. Yet, at the same time, they pay homage to a very specific vision of the cultural essence of Polishness, a vision that has little in common with any historic past or tradition. It is so because, after all, Poland as a homogeneous white square, to put it briefly and graphically, is quite a new creation – a result of brutal and ruthless social engineering of the mid-20th century. Its makers were figures whom Polish patriots regard – and rightly so – as enemies: Hitler and Stalin. The former purged Poland of minorities. Our society was never ethnically uniform. In 1923, the population of Poland comprised merely 69% of Poles, whereas the rest were Ukrainians (14%), Jews (7%), Belarusians (5%) and Germans (3.5%). The fact that today 98.4% of the inhabitants of Poland are Poles is an “achievement” of Hitlerism. Stalin also lent a helping hand in the process of reformatting the Polish state and nation by shifting Poland geographically to the west, cropping its borders and resettling the region’s population in order to form a nationally and ethnically uniform country. Therefore, the Poland that patriots and nationalists adore (it is unfortunately more and more difficult to tell the difference between the two) does not have anything in common with traditional Poland and its historic past. That Poland was ethnically and culturally diverse and open, and as Poles themselves proudly underlined it was a “state without stakes,” where different religions and ways of life co-existed. In no way was it an idyll or an exemplary model of relations between different ethnic groups, because the position assigned in the state to our two largest minorities – Ukrainians and Jews – was heavily subordinated, to put it mildly. Yet, the society was diverse and it did not fear otherness. Today, the other, especially a refugee from the Middle East, is a source of tremendous fear. This is my understanding of the involved play on the title of Jan Karski’s book: there is no secret or mystery (“a secret state” – the underground state from Karski’s book), there is only fear of what is different and alien: a scared state.
I have found a good context for the construction of the postmodern game with identity, on which Gruber’s performative project is based, with one of today’s few micro-minorities within the Polish society: the Vietnamese, or more broadly, Asians. I am using the word “micro-“ because the population of that group is estimated at ca 50 000 people, and therefore less than 0.2% of the total population. Nevertheless, those people have gained a visibility in our country, especially in Warsaw, owing to the so-called Europa Marketplace, the largest marketplace in Europe, which used to operate on the premises of the National Stadium and in its vicinity. The renovation of the building prior to the UEFA Euro 2012 destroyed that unique place, and the Vietnamese community moved outside the city – to Wólka Kosowska – where more than a dozen of considerably-sized warehouses with goods imported from Asia grew during several years. Therefore, Gruber’s gesture reverses the proportions and perspectives, turning the audience, who personify the white majority, into a minority in an ethnically diverse environment.
Revealingly, frequent mistakes, faltering and unexpected figures of identity that abound in Gruber’s less than half hour long staging, are not instantly solved or corrected in the work. Every time one of the characters makes an attempt to explain something in a definite way, leaving no ambiguities, it turns out at least hilarious, and sometimes even pathetic. The contemporary patchwork identity is full of fold, which poststructuralist philosophers enthusiastically discussed, and thus resembles a pleated skirt: an attempt to extract all misunderstandings and inconsistencies that sneaked into its folds – to iron it properly, graphically speaking – is tantamount to its irrevocable destruction. It is an object only art can cope with.