Joanna Warsza Curates Architecture Between East and West

Joanna Warsza Curates Architecture Between East and West
(l-r) Kote Jincharadze's "Where are You, Tbilisi," 2010, (a light installation from "Frozen Moments. Architecture Speaks Back"); Joanna Warsza; a project view of Betlemi Mikro-Raioni, 2009; and the Bouillon Group's Apartment 4 performance.
(Courtesy Joanna Warsza)

Buildings perform a variety of functions: They shelter, illuminate, and obscure surrounding people and landscapes. The fundamentally pragmatic purpose of architecture endows edifices with a wide range of functions, but rarely does architecture speak. Curator Joanna Warsza, however, organizes performances and interventions that implore architecture to speak back. “The architecture of Eurasia is performative,” she writes in her 2013 book, Ministry of Highways: A Guide to the Performative Architecture of Tbilisi. Such architecture, she continues, “speaks back about its environment. It looks for the emancipatory and critical potential—what has been unplanned and later added, filled, modified by the social, political, or economic context.” In the post-Communist countries where Warsza has worked—in Poland, Germany, Georgia, and now Russia—performative architecture is not the architecture of performance; there are no literal theaters involved. Rather, her interventions implore local architecture to “speak back” by revealing embedded hierarchies and creating a setting for their interrogation.

Warsza’s curatorial endeavors in the realm of performative architecture seek to reconfigure narratives of place and genre, in part because her own identity is the product of similar negotiations. Born in Poland and trained in the theater, Warsza curates art and architecture installations in and about the post-Communist sphere—dislocating boundaries between East and West, and theater and architecture, in order to examine the cultures in between. For Warsza, Europe—what it is and where it is—does not amount to a set of concrete geopolitical borders. Rather, Europe is a relative concept, and she examines art and architecture at its easterly fringes to expose the paradox of being both within and outside European borders. Buildings, typically relegated to the condition of backdrops and set pieces, are often evoked as actors in her exhibitions. As curator of the Georgian pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2013 and as the current head of public programs for Manifesta 10, which opened in St. Petersburg on June 28, Warsza explores narratives of place as they are conditioned by architecture, often understood in their relation to the Continent. Such projects reveal that identity, whether local, national, or global, is not a fact but a construction—much like the built environment.

Raised in her native Warsaw, Warsza came of age during the 1990s, a decade of rapid change in the economic, cultural, and geopolitical fortunes of Central Europe, where Communist regimes began collapsing in 1989, giving way to an admixture of nascent capitalist democracies. “Growing up in Poland,” says Warsza, “I was put in the cultural mind-set of being a very Western-centric person.” Like many of the other independent states that toe the historic and physical border between Eastern and Western European identities, Poland sought to shed the Soviet yoke by aspiring to join the latter and distance itself from the former. Russia crystallized into a symbol of oppression and backwardness, whereas the idea of Europe became a beacon of progress, culture, and high living standards. Twenty-five years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Poland has integrated into Europe with more success than almost all its former brethren in the Warsaw Pact. An E.U. member state with a burgeoning, educated middle class and a lively art scene, the country remains entrenched between geopolitical poles; it is still understood to be east of cultural epicenters like New York and London. While some Polish artists and curators of her generation continue to look to the West for inspiration, Warsza instead performs a reflexive gesture: She looks to Poland’s east. 

Performance is the generative force behind Warsza’s curatorial efforts in art and architecture, one “that carries me forward in my research,” she says. She initially studied at the Aleksander Zelwerowicz State Theatre Academy in Warsaw, Poland’s central drama school. After a brief interlude studying performance theory in Paris, Warsza returned to Warsaw to work in the capital’s theater industry. “I tried to question the performative aspect of institutions,” she says of her initial work as a curator for theater. In one short piece from 2005, she invited theater patrons to order a play directly to their homes; those clients who made bookings expected a Shakespearean number. Called “Milk–Take Away Theater,” the entire production was staged inside a client’s home, using marketing tactics as acting methods to sell the spectator commodities. Not only did the piece and others like it reveal the easy manipulation of a society enthralled by the still-recent mass availability of consumer goods, it also fueled Warsza’s interest in the divergence of public and private space.

By the time Warsza began working on a series of shows at Warsaw’s 10th Anniversary Stadium in 2006, once the city’s largest, the 1955 structure had been in disuse for more than 15 years. It was given over to a flea market by municipal authorities, where Vietnamese vendors (Warsaw’s sizable community of Vietnamese immigrants lived nearby virtually unnoticed) set up shop. “Every hundredth Varsovian is a Vietnamese, yet Asians are symbolically absent from the homogeneous city,” she explained. “A Trip to Asia,” the first of Warsza’s seven interventions at the stadium, drew attention to the ignored building and community by sending Polish “tourists” on a self-guided exploration of the site. Complete with an audio recording in Vietnamese and Polish of what a Vietnamese immigrant in Warsaw would hear around the neighborhood, the program was also the beginning of a project to document the stadium before its demolition in 2008. By creating an experience of navigating an altogether foreign place within an otherwise familiar city, Warsza activated the decaying stadium building as a comment on the willful oblivion many Poles felt at the site: The Vietnamese went unrecognized as fellow citizens because they did not fit the country’s Eurocentric sense of itself, and the Communist-era building was slated for demolition as the marker of an undesirable history. Warsza released her first book, Stadium X: The Place That Never Was, in 2009, while the site was being paved over to make room for a brand-new national stadium in anticipation of the Euro 2012 soccer games. 

“And then I went to Georgia,” explains the curator, “and I saw that there is another way, a completely different possibility of referring to the past—which is to grow on top of it, or to appropriate it, or to domesticate it.” Commissioned in 2009 by Polish nonprofit ArtZone to curate a public art project in Tbilisi, Warsza found a local alternative to the Western habit of razing old architecture and building anew. In the Georgian architectural tradition, old buildings are not replaced but, rather, expanded upon. Addition has historically been an essential characteristic of vernacular architecture in Georgia, such that the narrative of a building’s genesis is encoded into its form. The practice of building on top of preexisting ruins has been used since the Middle Ages in the region to establish a national architecture that does not monumentalize the past but instead expands in constant conversation with architectural history. 

Many such buildings, constructed according to the historic practice that Warsza calls “palimpsestic architecture,” are located in the medieval Betlemi neighborhood of Tbilisi’s historic center. Instead of preserving such homes in the traditional manner, the municipal government often demolishes them, selling the land off to profit-driven real estate developers. Warsza organized Betlemi Microrayoni, named after both the medieval and the Soviet-era housing neighborhoods, in protest against the desecration of architectural patrimony—a program that included the systematic destruction of a 20th-century apartment in Tbilisi by local performance art collective the Bouillon Group. “They picked a very nice apartment,” says Warsza, arranged the interior to resemble a bourgeois Soviet-era home, and welcomed the public to attack the space until it was reduced to rubble. The performance was “a comment on this self-destruction of the city of Tbilisi,” she says—showing that the sheer energy required to demolish architecture would be better spent on its reconstruction. 

Warsza’s most subversive curatorial project in the realm of Georgian architecture transpired at the 2013 Venice Biennale, where she brought the Biennale’s geopolitical biases to the fore even while celebrating Georgian inventiveness. The Kamikaze Loggia, a pavilion in the form of a makeshift balcony typically attached to the frames of concrete modernist housing blocks in Tbilisi in the post-Soviet years, transported vernacular Georgian architecture to the Italian city. While most small countries without a permanent pavilion rent a warehouse in the Arsenale to house their pavilions, Warsza eschewed the standard procedure for countries outside the coterie of global powers that hold court in the Giardini—the United States, France, and other such Western states—by translating Georgian architecture into the Venetian context. Building on her research for Betlemi Microrayoni and her 2010 exhibition in Tbilisi called “Frozen Moments: Architecture Speaks Back,” Warsza worked with artist-cum-architect Gio Sumbadze to erect a makeshift plywood balcony based on the Tbilisi archetype, attached “parasitically,” she says, to the side of the Arsenale. The loggia type originated in Venice, but the construction of new architecture is prohibited inside the city’s historic center; Warsza, however, was able to circumvent Venice’s strict urban planning laws by asserting that the Kamikaze Loggia was an art installation, not architecture. Filled with performances, talks, and art on the theme of post-Soviet urbanism in Tbilisi, the pavilion and its aggressively modest form flouted the Biennale’s proprietary glamour better than even Warsza had initially hoped. “The Loggia, its representation, the way it was built—it ended up kind of disarming what the Biennale is all about,” she says. 

The Kamikaze Loggia, however, stood out not only for the atypical architecture of its pavilion; the structure succeeded in capturing something fundamental to the character of post-Soviet Georgia, and simultaneously essential to the nation’s historic identity. Even while balconies have been the definitive features of Georgian houses since the Middle Ages, the years of political and economic tumult in communism’s wake gave rise to a balcony form that is also less stable. These informal additions occasionally collapse, but the balcony typology persists. The Kamikaze Loggia, too, still stands in Venice. Yet it took a foreigner, with an empathetic and critical eye, to conceive such a fundamentally Georgian project.

“Georgia helped me understand my position as a Polish person,” explains Warsza. “Because before that, I’d think, ‘Yes, I want to work in London or New York.’ Those were the points of reference. But actually Georgia shifted my perception and also it shifted my understanding of Europe,” she continues. As a Pole, Warsza became a representative of the European West in the Georgian context, all the while remaining “half local,” as she puts it, due to the shared Communist past. Her latest curatorial endeavor brings Warsza back to the post-Communist sphere—to Russia, against which her native Poland so eagerly identifies with Europe. As curator of Public Programs at Manifesta 10—at a moment when Russia is yet again trying to exert control in its former Western territories—Warsza has invited artists from Russia’s former western frontier to respond with time-based commissions in Petersburg. With the arrival of Ukrainian, Lithuanian, and Georgian artists and their Eurocentric kith in the city of European-style palaces, one wonders whether the city’s Italian-designed State Hermitage Museum, where Manifesta is taking place, or the Soviet-era mass housing blocks on its outskirts remind them more of home.

A version of this article appears in the May 2014 issue of Modern Painters magazine.