anthropologist and culture sociologist, poet. His work “Kultura alternatywna w Polsce 1978–1996. Wyobraźnia, samoorganizacja, komunikacja” [“Alternative culture in Poland 1978–1996. Imagination, self-organisation, communication”] won the NCK competition for the best doctoral dissertation in cultural studies.
His debut poetry book entitled “Skarb Piratów” [“The Pirate Treasure”] was nominated for a “Nike” Literary Award.
“If we do not protest, we do not exist.”
The Self-Creation of Alternative Society
In the curator’s text accompanying the exhibition “I’m No Longer a Dog”, the creative output of “uncompromising outsiders” and “critical artists operating outside of institutional frameworks” has been presented as a continuation of alternative culture, an entity which achieved its greatest extent and intensity in the 1980s. The common denominators joining both phenomena are suggested to be, apart from the radically critical tone of the works, and their creators’ place outside the institutions of the art world, a specific DIY ethos, the need for emancipation, and similar contexts: “Today, the world is once again shaking at its core, and the alternative in the times of postfacts has once again become a battleground in the struggle for freedom and authenticity.” This all well and true, and the proposition of a non-hierarchical exhibition which departs from established canons, conventions, and taxonomy (including abandoning the pejorative categories of “naïve art” or “non-professional art”) opens new perspectives for reflection on art as a social and political phenomenon. However, it is this newly broadened perspective which highlights fundamental differences between the underground of twenty years ago and contemporary outsider artists.
What is pushed aside, relegated to the margins in modern cultures excites fascination; it is believed to possess unusual power, and energy facilitating acts of transgression. This is true not only of objects, but of people as well; whether they are part of mysterious youth subcultures, representatives of the “counterculture of poverty” (a term which sociologists sometimes use to describe symbolic forms of resistance of dominated groups), or “marginalised people” (according to the classic sociological theory formulated by Robert Ezra Park, people living at the edges of a given culture, moving between different cultures, an example of which were the Jews of Europe), common sense as a folk theory (and sometimes as a scientific theory) assigns the figures of outsiders particular qualities, creative potential, and an exceptional social role. It is easy to fall into the trap of exoticism and instrumentalisation, even of unintended objectification of what is excluded and marginalised. Avoiding these errors requires care and transfer of attention from the works themselves to the social conditions in which they were created and by which they were determined. And once this is done, it is necessary to differentiate between the kind of outsiderism which is the result of deprivation and exclusion, and that which is the result of choice, even when it is the result of a very limited choice. This differentiation is especially useful in understanding why rebels and radicals of all stripes, despite striking similarities both in the form and in the message of their operations, do not create a cohesive social unit, but remain apart, while the guiding principle of the participants of alternative culture, that of grass-roots autonomous organisation of an alternative society, has not stood the test of time. To answer these questions, it worthwhile to examine them from the historical perspective, by returning to the very beginnings of alternative culture.
In the beginning, an impulse was necessary. And for many, that impulse was Aldona Jawłowska’s book “Roads of the Counterculture”. Published in 1975 as part of the series + – PIW, this academic essay may seem to be perhaps the least appropriate material for sparking youth rebellion. The sociological discourse which Jawłowska conducts, leaning towards objectification, evidently did not bother in the least the young readers who got their hands on copies of Roads…, for them, the contents were more important. And in terms of contents, this publication had a pioneering character; it was the first serious, in-depth, analytical study of Western counterculture of the 1960s in Poland. Its considered, detailed descriptions of the activism of the Black Panthers, Students for a Democratic Society, the Women’s Lib movement, the Diggers, the Situationists, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Provos, guerrilla theatre, the March 22nd movement 22 Marca, Les Enráges, the Dwarves, the Werewolf Conspiracy, the hippies, countless student committees, anti-war, ecological, and feminist movements, and new political groupings – from ultra-leftists to Leninists and Maoists, the Kommune 1 in Berlin and the Free Commune in San Francisco – would have been enough to incite the imagination of readers. Jawłowska, however, did not limit herself to description, but also made a detailed analysis of the dynamics of the events, axionormative systems and philosophical concepts expressed in texts and actions. She referred back to the tracts of philosopher read by the participants of the counterculture – from Herbert Marcuse to Charles Reich – and to the main ideologues of the movement – from Abbie Hoffman to Guy Debord – and finally to their artistic inspirations, primarily the great works of Dadaism and Surrealism. These ideas, however, were important only to the extent that they were in use, not when they were simply footnotes and quotations in texts. And here lies the heart of the matter: Roads of the Counterculture was a book a book about how by “getting together” (which was an incredibly important category), whether in the form of a student protest or street theatre, or by challenging the traditional framework of family structures, a recognition and understanding arises of the conditions of one’s position and the possibilities and limitations for changing it. In short, it is a book about the political (and politicised) nature of culture, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that only those Utopias which are rooted in action and arise from action have any chance of becoming real, while such action begins where relationships are built between previously alienated parties, submerged in the anomy of modern, industrial society, which is dominated by technology in the service of the nation state and increasingly global capital.
Understanding of the exceptional status of Jawłowska’s book requires the application of an analogous perspective; rather than absorb ourselves in studying the text of “Roads of the Counterculture”, abstract meanings conveyed by little black marks imprinted mechanically on a sheet of paper and encased in a cover, we devote no less attention to the social practices of which the book was the object, and to its application in real social relations. These uses often differed from the discreet, systematic, dispassionate reading to which academic essays are usually treated; quite the contrary, it was often emotional, chaotic, feverish. “Roads…” was certainly scrupulously studied in detail at times, but it seems (there are no studies of the public reception of the book) that it was at least equally often thumbed through casually, browsed quickly in search of information on a specific topic, or to gain and overview of its topic. The book was passed from hand to hand, it was borrowed and presented as a gift, it made the rounds of social networks, or else was jealously guarded, an object of exceptional rank which it was better not to hand over to anyone, not to be parted with for longer than absolutely necessary. Its title functioned as a slogan or password for rapidly expanding social circles, thanks to which kindred souls and similar attitudes could be recognised. “So, you’re starting where Jawłowska left off?” I was asked by the leader of one of the punk groups with which I had arranged an interview. The title turned out to be symbolic, and doubly so; Jawłowska’s book indeed marked out new roads in Poland, and became a symbol which was ample enough to encompass all their diversity.
But there were many more such impulses, and “Roads of the Counterculture”, despite its legendary fame, was only one of them. As much as three years earlier, Kazimierz Jankowski had written “Hippies in Search of the Promised Land”, a book shrouded in a similar aura and read no less eagerly. After all, it was not just about books. For some, the impulse was participation in workshops led by Jerzy Grotowski and his troupe, developing the idea of ‘active culture’. For others, such a pivotal experience was provided by participation in the International Festival of Open Theatre, organised in Wrocław from the end of the 1960s by Bogusław Litwiniec, with the participation of the most significant international theatre troupes with a counterculture, protest, or radical nature. Another impulse may have been the concert by the British punk group The Raincoats during the performance art festival International Artists’ Meeting (I AM) at the Warsaw students’ club Riviera-Remont, or the appearance by the Warsaw group Kryzys, Robert Brylewski’s group, at the Pop Session International Music Meeting in Sopot in 1981, or perhaps finally one of thirteen concerts by the UK Subs during their 1983 Polish concert tour during the last months of martial law (the group’s Polish opening act was Republika). An impulse could have been the poems of Piotr Bratkowski and Antoni Kozłowski, poets flirting with a hippy worldview who made their debuts in the 1970s, though it could equally well have been a showing of the film of the musical Hair, directed by Miloš Forman and playing in cinemas in Poland in the early 80s, or a borrowed cassette or album with the songs of Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, the Sex Pistols or Dead Kennedys. The impulse could arise at student festivals, such as FAMA in Świnoujście or the Student Song Festival in Kraków, or even during the student strikes and occupation of campus buildings in the autumn of 1981, especially at art schools. It could have been “The Manifest of Socialist Surrealism”, written by Waldemar Fydrych in 1981 or two years later the manifest of the TriCity Alternative Society Movement, considered the first post-war anarchist organisation in Poland.
Any attempt to establish a single, primary event is doomed to failure due to the lack of objective criteria for assessment. Something different is essential: the awareness that in the mid- late 70s, especially towards the end, and also at the beginning of the following decade, throughout Poland a new cultural phenomenon began to take shape. Its symptoms were various forms of creativity, literary and theatrical, performance and visual, as well as musical, not to mention protests and student strikes or the appearance of the first anarchist groups, such as the Wrocław New Culture Movement, which several years later evolved into the Orange Alternative, or the previously mentioned Alternative Society Movement. The name of the latter is worthy of a short commentary. First of all, the ‘movement’ was crucial, connoting dynamics, moving, action, motion in a given direction, and simultaneously a significant amount, if not massivity. In later years, many such “movements” arose; the Peace and Freedom movement, the Twe-Twa movement, the I Prefer to Be movement, the hippies, punks, and Rastafarians all spoke of the communities as ‘movements’, Józef Robakowski wrote of the ‘progressive movement’, thus characterising the community of neo-avant garde artists in Łódź who generally worked outside of state institutions, and who were focused on new media while undermining essentialist thinking about art. Secondly, “alternative society” was a term from Western counterculture: the alternative society was the aim towards which young rebels strove in the 60s, by challenging state authority, rejecting a capitalist road to success, career, work, and consumption, while trying to base their lifestyle on values of authenticity and spontaneity. Although in the recollections of the participants in the ASM, attitudes towards Western counterculture do not seem to play the main role, ideas of challenge were a starting point allowing those participants to cut themselves off from Polish national and religious traditions of Romantic inspiration and martyrology, so strongly present in the collective imagination of the Church and Solidarity. An alternative to society, different both from the repressive, prudish, and compromised regime of state socialism, and from the clerical, nationalist, and conservative Solidarity camp, and associated groupings, publications, and artistic circles, was the far horizon towards which young people made their way, themselves describing their position as a third stream or third road. This was akin to driving a wedge between to rival, but in many ways symmetrical, symbolic universes – the state socialist universe and the opposition, Catholic-nationalist universe – or, in other words, undermining the very rules of the game instead of introducing further pieces to it.
The new culture which the members of the New Culture Movement wanted to create between 1980–1981 was meant to be constructed objectively, collectively, actively, being one way of realising the alternative society, already making it alternative culture. Although the term “counterculture” has been used off and on, and is still sometimes used, there are at least two arguments in favour of differentiating these phenomena. The first is of a historical nature. The counterculture was precisely what Jawłowska described, a youth rebellion taking on a range of symbolic forms in countries with developed industrial capitalism and liberal democracy, in a cultural context typical for Western Europe and North America in the 1960s. It was for this reason that Jawłowska separated this phenomenon from mass youth movements taking place in the countries of the Eastern Bloc (for example, the People’s Republic of Poland or Czechoslovakia) or in Latin American countries. The search for a common, global zeitgeist may be tempting and may lead to interesting analogies for example between the Polish March and French May of 1968, but scientific rigour requires us to note fundamental political, social, economic, and cultural differences at the root of these superficially similar events. Although the first Polish hippies and rebels had appeared in the 1960s, and had their own musical groups, unofficial publications, poetry, and parties, it was only in the next decade that a social network formed which was strong and extensive enough that it could be described as the creation of a separate, new culture.
So why, then, not admit that counterculture existed in Poland, simply appearing with a delay characteristic of peripheral regions? The second argument is an answer to this question, a qualitative argument. If we treat counterculture and alternative culture as ideal types, the first would involve first and foremost the total rejection of the dominant culture, the cultivation of norms and values contrary to those in the mainstream, whereas alternative culture would instead be a creative patchwork of elements of differing origins, based on values which are sometimes in opposition to the dominant values, sometimes neutral, and at time identical to those espoused by the majority of society. The counterculture would be constructed against the dominant culture, alternative culture in spite of the dominant culture, apart from and beside it, sometimes in opposition, but at other times within its bounds, if these were to be sufficiently inclusive. A differentiation like this was applied by Jerzy Wertenstein-Żuławski in his book “It’s Only Rock’n’Roll!” from 1990, yet another publication surrounded by an aura of exceptionality. Such a differentiation also emanates from the title of the book “Beyond, or What Percent Babylon?” by Mirosław Makowski and Michał Szymański published in 2012, an unusual collage of archival and contemporary clippings from newspapers, fragments of letters, notes, comments, film and song quotes, concentrated around the first Warsaw punk crew, with Tomasz Lipiński’s group Tilt at the centre. The question of what percent Babylon could be addressed to alternative culture, especially in the case of music; after all, every officially released punk album or cassette in the People’s Republic of the 80s, whether published by Tonpress or the Razem Record Club, was published by the Workers’ Publishing Cooperative “Prasa-Książka-Ruch”, and thus de facto by the United Polish Workers’ Party, which was the owner of the gigantic firm. Within the counterculture, with its hostile stance towards the culture of the hegemony, the question “What percent Babylon?” would not apply at all.
The participants of alternative culture wished to be beside the mainstream – as in the song “Outsider” by T.Love Alternative from the 1980s, later popularised by Poznań’s Pidżama Porno: “and let’s stay beside, and let’s stay here.” Regardless of the later fates and worldview choices of the leaders of both groups, Zygmunt Staszczyk and Krzysztof “Grabaż” Grabowski, “Outsider” expressed their shared belief in the rationale for stating outside of the main stream of culture, for blazing their own trails far from the cultural and political centre, for placing artistic and personal independence above the benefits of a career on the officially recognised stage. Similar messages can be found in countless songs from the punk, reggae, ska, hardcore and other styles of music comprised the musical landscape of the alternative scene. Declarations of remaining outside have always been, of course, easy to make for dilettante groups, which have also often had a clumsy and primitive approach to strictly musical values and musical expectations. The punks were able to advertise their dedication to the alternative ideal since they had few prospects for a career in show business anyways. Their fans demanded from them a specifically understood and acted out authenticity, not professional musical skills and successes in reviews and rankings. However, declarations of this type were an expression of the desire across the entire alternative culture to create their own spaces, their own scenes, their own stream, their own niche apart from the official, public, formalised, hierarchical, commercial, and conservative mainstream (regardless of whether this was the mainstream of the National Museum or of the Diocesan Museum, or whether the matter concerned commerce in the centrally planned socialist economy, or the free-market capitalist economy).
As varied were the impulses compelling young people to join alternative movements, so was the social status of these people. Of terrific importance was student culture. It was by this name that a formation functioned, established by the state and based on official institutions such as the Polish Socialist Students’ Union (until 1973 and then again from 1982, the League of Polish Students), which had their own clubs, galleries, common rooms, periodicals, parties and festivals. Initially, in the 1950s and 60s, revisionist and reformist moods prevailed in student culture, and enthusiasm for the social accomplishments of the young state were mixed with criticism of the authoritarian and conservative tendencies of its leaders. With time, this criticism became harsher and enthusiasm waned; in the 1970s, student culture took on distinctly alternative features, most visible perhaps in the alternative theatre movement (yet another ‘movement’), which was popular not only with students. Alternative theatres, following Grotowski and the Gardzienice Centre for Theatre Practices, attempted to dig down to the ritual sources of culture or rather reignite relics of village traditions, while remaining sensitive to social problems, without fearing to address political questions such as limitations on the freedom of speech. This “anthropological” trend was not alone in alternative theatre movements; apart from it, there were groups such as Warsaw’s Academy of Movement, making interventions in the public sphere and studying daily human relations, or notably Poznań’s Theatre of the Eighth Day, which strongly criticised Grotowski for cheap mysticism, escapism, and dependence on state authorities. Along with the radicalisation of the mood of young people, alternative theatres, an important pillar of alternative culture for the entire period of its existence, aimed to make themselves independent from the state apparatus (such as municipal and regional staging companies). Student organisations were in this respect a convenient buffer allowing the challenge to authority to be maintained without giving up the minimalistic institutional resources necessary to run a theatre.
In the 1970s, young artists were also radicalised, having had enough of the sanitisation of art of all social influences, as the conservative avant garde associated with the Foksal Gallery had done, as well as of the conservative ethos of artists attached to the Catholic-nationalist mindset, and traditional means of expression such as painting or sculpture. Artists working in the new media explored possibilities presented by technological development, while remaining interested in dealing with social issues, using art as a means to study and demystify social discourse and usage, including habitual convictions about art, maintained by official exhibition institutions. These artists, equipped with cameras, videos, and other gadgets, attempted to unmask the language of propaganda and currently circulating social opinions, doing so with a neo-dadaesque sense of humour, and exploiting such means as provocation, parody, pastiche, and pamphlet. At the end of the decade, in conjunction with increasing difficulties in making a break into the world of public museums, galleries, the press and periodicals, more and more often these artists began to establish their own, private galleries and studios, in which they organised their own exhibitions, meetings, discussions, and shows of works from their own circles, communicating by means of mail art, exchange of films, cassettes, photographs, and independently published magazines. Thus, was formed the artistic underground. Starting at the beginning of the 80s, an essential element of this trend was a new expression, formally returning to painting and sculpture, but more focused on the process of creation as an action or performance than on the work itself, often sarcastic, scornful, and non-conformist. The punk scene was associated with this artistic underground right from the beginning, especially in Warsaw where the student culture environment was strong. It is no exaggeration to state that punk in Poland arose as an artistic performance (an important role in this respect was played by Henryk Gajewski, the director and animator in charge of the Riviera-Remont gallery).
Nat the turn of the decades, young radical creators representing various disciplines began to meet and cooperate with each other. An accent on interdisciplinarity existed, of course, at an earlier date, for example as the basis of the operations of the Film Form Studio. However, it was only at that moment that it achieved a certain critical social mass allowing the creation of a stable network of representatives of particular disciplines. Beginning with the Łodź Kaliska arts group, established in 1979, various collectives were formed orientated towards activities which exceeded traditional divisions in art. Among the most interesting of these groups were Luxus, Praffdata, Totart, Gallery of Manic Activities, Leeeżeć Community, and Chaos Faza 3. The 1980s were, after all, characterised by group activity, conducted on the basis lasting interpersonal relationships (as in the case of Gruppa), or loose, informal associations (as in the case of Kultura Zrzuty), or on “transitory” models (created by the “transitory formation” Totart), fluid, open, and dynamically adapting to changing situational conditions, while maintaining a relatively stable personnel at its core. From the beginning, artistic activity also blended with activism, the best demonstration of which is the history of the New Culture Movement, and its continuation in the form of the Orange Alternative. The collective, multimedia, interdisciplinary, “transitory”, and committed nature of the artistic underground to a large extent made it possible for it to function independently of public institutions and organisations, while still using the support, spaces, and infrastructure of such institutions largely on their own terms, while maintaining their own autonomy. If the culture of the alternative can be seen as a challenge to the reigning symbolic order (in the meaning given to the term by Dick Hebdige in his book, “Subculture: the meaning of style”), the underground (with its private galleries and artistic studios, garages and cellars where punk groups rehearsed, and hippies and anarchists gathered) as a social network comprised a base for challenge.
Alternative culture was at the beginning mainly created by young artists – students and graduates of art and music schools, etc. – who, seeing no space for themselves in official institutions, and finding no career opportunities which would respect their creative independence and critical attitude to reality, went underground. Student culture, animated by the official students’ unions, attracted thousands of people, and aroused in them musical, literary, theatrical, and artistic passions, while very rarely allowing them to advance to a professional level. A theatre troupe founded by students might shine at a few festivals, but typically was forced to disband after its members graduated, set up families, and began to earn a living in their chosen field. Rock groups operating under the auspices of the factory or municipal cultural centre, might win the approbation of festival jurors, but had little chance of appearing at larger events, let alone of recording an album. This blocking of paths of advancement to people whose artistic ambitions had been excited, resulted in dissatisfaction, often taking the form of challenge. In the late 1970s, this dissatisfaction was great enough that it was able to generate its own communication network, its own stream, its own scene. Access of artists to the underground grew in strength after the imposition of martial law, when creative persons associated with the Solidarity movement announced a boycott of state cultural institutions; at that time, the so-called quasi-church art arose, reintroducing messianic myths and images, exhibiting in diocesan museums and church halls, but completely alien to many young, radical artists – these were the ones who chose alternative culture, equally6+ challenging both church and party propaganda.
But alternative culture was from the outset powered by amateurs. The amateur movement was another creation of the cultural policy of the People’s Republic – formalised, created in the image of a movement of professionals, it had its own reviews and competitions whose aim was for the jurors to sift out the most talented amateurs, to “pretty them up” with lessons and workshops, and finally to bring them up to the rank of the professionals. The paradox is obvious. Although the official doctrine of the socialist state demanded the democratisation of culture and identified the people as its source, as soon as the people tried their hand at creativity, the critics threw up their arms in despair. For example, in the music magazine “Non Stop”, jurors at a festival for amateurs regularly complained about the quality of performances and took out their frustrations on the performers. The amateur movement in the perspective of the People’s Republic was an unwanted child, forced to perform, then harshly punished for its pathetic quality. Professional artists wanted to have as little as possible to do with amateurs, seeing no advantage in cooperation. Creative individuals with an inclination towards the alternative, for their part, searched out contact with amateurs, seeing in them potential allies against the conservative cultural establishment. The Film Form Studio maintained regular cooperation with Edward Kowalski’s Theatre of Retired Persons and with the self-made poet and performer, Wacław Antczak, because Józef Robakowski’s group was fascinated by the creativity, contrariness, humour, and enthusiasm of the amateurs. Tis fascination may have been based in protectionism, but it led to the formation of friendly relations, even very friendly, between the university educated photographers and filmmakers one the one hand and amateurs following their passions on the other.
No less important is the fact that in the alternative groups and movements, people with no artistic education took part (at least without higher or secondary art education). The Łódź Kaliska art group was co-created by people with varying backgrounds, not necessarily related to art. Similarly, several years later, Totart invited all rebellious young people who wanted to release their frustrations through creativity to join its ranks, regardless of their educational background, or whether they had an education at all. When in the late 80s, spray paints became more widely available in Poland, street graffiti began to appear in the form of stencils. Designs for stencils were offered, among others, by the zine “Paint the Walls”, published by Krzysztof “Zbowid” Kraśnik and “Don’t Get Caught”, created by “Patyczak”, pseudonym for Grzegorz Kmita, a one-man punk cabaret known as Sid’s Dirty Children. Although it sometimes happened that graffiti was made by graduates of art schools, it was often created students of these schools, and even more often by young people who felt that this means of communication was easy, fast, available, and allowed everyone to participate in a discussion conducted on the walls.
A similar situation existed with punk, after all in Poland it arose in the late People’s Republic in the same circles as graffiti. Warsaw punk of 1978–1980 came from the milieu of young photographers, performers, poets, art school and high school students, though the second wave of punk involved more people with blue-collar or small-town backgrounds, students of technical and vocational schools. Besides “intelligentsia” punk, there arose “proletariat” punk, less interested in performance and more in fun, less concerned about the presentation on stage and more about the camaraderie between the group and the “crew”. Simple, blunt, often vulgar, it was labelled with the pejorative epithet “punko-polo” (ironically referring to a then-popular style of simple disco music for dancing), but it was precisely due to such qualities that it became so popular. “We’re all doing penance, because we’re alive” – this simple and on-target expression of the futility and oppressiveness of the lives of young people at the end of the People’s Republic, from the song of the same name, became a punk anthem in Poland. And it became a hit thanks to the group that recorded it, Sedes, one of the first punk groups in Wrocław, from the working-class neighbourhood of Krzyki. When the artistic bohemian intelligentsia drifted off to other more refined forms of music, punk became popular among working class kids. The phrase “trade school punk”, from the song “We, Punks” by the Nowa Huta group Vavel Underground gained currency. Punk indeed became the music and identity of teenagers from working class families, and for many of them it was a bid for emancipation, for a rejection of constricting traditions and roles while maintaining a collective street style. Another anthem of the decade was “Culture” by Zielone Żabki from Jawor, another group derisively labelled as “punko-polo” by the connoisseurs. Recorder in 1989, the song was famed for its chorus: “And there’s supposed to be something like culture, the proof is in our cultural centre, sometimes from its windows we hear jazz, so why is it the way it is, I don’t understand.” If the more artistic varieties of punk were a revolt against the academic, conservative hierarchies and conventions of contemporary art, then proletarian punk was the revolt of young people with no prospects, a jab at the overblown officiality of “literary feasts” and other public cultural events, a rejection of the tawdriness, prudery, boredom, and local connivances of the authorities at workplaces, in working class neighbourhoods and small towns (in the late 80s, punk spread throughout the provinces).
This mix of professionals and amateurs, the cooperation and friendship between them within the framework of alternative culture, facilitated the adoption of an ideology that was antihierarchical, horizontal, collective, collaborative, and which questioned canons and conventions. The underground neither identified with the increasingly compromised (especially after martial law) official, socialist doctrine in its Leninist guise, or with the conservative and nationalist ambitions of the clergy, Solidarity, and second stream opposition groupings. The desire to maintain the progressive spirit while simultaneously challenging state socialism led to the adoption of neo-anarchist attitudes, again borrowed from Western counterculture. In the 1970s, members of the Theatre of the Eighth Day were taken by a fascination with the Red Army Fraction and other radical left-wing groups; 20 years later, the anarcho-punk group Guernica y Luno from Słupsk would pay homage to the RAF. Anarchistic tendencies were also shown by the Warsaw group Dezerter, who added ecological and animal-rights messages to their lyrics in the late 80s.
A distinct anti-intellectual and anti-elite attitude was presented by the Alternative Society Movement; these TriCity anarchists criticised the intelligentsia for their air of superiority, their manipulative relations with the working class, their submissive and sweet-talking posture towards the clergy, their conservative and double-dealing policy of “self-censoring” the revolution, and their tendency to hold back and objectify the revolutionary proletarian masses. Viewpoints of this type can be found on the pages of “Homek”, the ASM’s main publication in the 80s. It is no accident that one of the most important activists of the movement, Zbigniew Stybel, founded the Freedom Federated Trade Union at the end of the decade, a workers’ organisation with an anarcho-syndicalist profile which was meant to focus on working conditions in alternative public service but which rapidly expanded its activities. The anarchists developed and radicalised the postulates of workers’ self-government, formulated earlier by the Free Trade Unions and the Solidarity Trade Union from the times of the “Self-Governing Republic”, complementing them with ideas drawn from western European and North American protest movements, including the ecology, animal rights, antimilitary, antifascist, multicultural, and later feminist and sexual minority rights movements. This concentration on global, not national, problems, the aggressive attitude, sarcastic tone, and nonchalance borrowed from third stream fanzines shaped the exceptional style of the anarchist and radical leftist press of the early days of the Polish Third Republic (“Mać Pariadka”, “Rewolta”, „Parada Krytyczna”, “Atak”, “Podaj Dalej”, “Inny Świat”), reflecting the pusillanimous atmosphere, and the belief that their own utopia could become a reality in the times when socialism had collapsed and the new Solidarity elite had not yet been compromised.
Considering that alternative culture was highly inclusive, horizontal, and promoted freedom, was receptive to outsiders and rebels from all social groups and classes, and revolution seemed to hang in the air, it begs the question why the autonomous organisation of alternative society gradually lost momentum, why ties within the communication network were broken, and why movements, collectives, and individuals which had previously collaborated found themselves scattered. Typical reasons cited for these developments are the socially painful effects of the economic transformation, which hit the lower classes especially hard, technological changes due to which spray paint, typewriters, copy machines, and cassette players became obsolete, the bewitching of the young generation with the illusion of an open world after 1989, and the blitzkrieg attack of global pop culture in the mass media. However much these may have been the causes of the end of the self-creation (to use the category of the sociologist Alain Touraine) of alternative society, the barrier lay in culture itself, resulting from those features which had previously given it momentum. We’re not talking here simply of the naïveté of revolutionary fantasies (for example, of a “home-made atom bomb” as a response to the brutality of wild capitalism in a song by the punk group Alians, or the disastrous attempt to transform the energy of happenings into a political mandate by “Major” Fydrych); it was not in these that the greatest weakness of the alternative movements lay.
First and foremost, alternative culture, even at its zenith, never became a mas phenomenon, circulating as it did mainly among youth from large urban areas, and only sporadically reaching people older than 35, or people from small towns and villages. This was partly a result of the radical chic adopted by alternative creators, a utopian blend of avant-garde aesthetics and politics which appealed only to a minority even of urban youth, seeming odd, alien, unknown, or even threatening to the rest (which is why Stybel distanced himself from the alternative style of the ASM when founding the Freedom Trade Union). The creators of the underground devoted an enormous part of their time to issues relating to their own groups and surroundings: doctrinal disputes, clashes of ambition, arguments based on social or personal conflicts, entrenchment in their own convictions and disavowal of the convictions of others. The energy which could have been directed towards outside aims was instead direct inwards. It turned out that cultivating the interests of one’s own group was more important than expanding operations. In this there was a dose of escapism, visible especially in the case of the new settlement model communities founded in the 80s in the Lublin area, the Mazurian Lakes, or the Izerskie Mountains; they lived for years among the locals, but integration of the two groups rarely exceeded the bare minimum of mutual courtesy and aid in crisis situations.
Class conflicts were more often hidden and downplayed in alternative culture than overcome. Action in the underground for young artists could represent a kind of trailblazing, the first step in an artistic career, the creation of their own style. After this first stage, they could with the right approach and luck advance their career, abandoning the typical youthful bohemian lifestyle and engaging in other types of creativity, more “serious” and “mature”, all the while exploiting the street cred earned in the alternative scene. For outsiders who had torn themselves out of their working class, small-town, rural, and provincial communities, participation in alternative culture was something totally different. It represented the promise of a real alternative to falling into the endless cycle of hard and relentless work, a chance to free themselves from stereotypical roles handed down from generation to generation but devoid of satisfaction and self-realisation other than medallions for exemplary workers or a relatively successful family life. This promise was not always fulfilled, and many punks sooner or later signed up for factory or construction work, for jobs behind a bar counter or in a security agency. Alternative newspapers and magazines were full of jokes about the green, aspiring newbies of the alternative scene, who committed gaffe after gaffe in their attempt to fit into the rules of a system that was new for them. The long-since rejected hierarchies were replaced by new ones, valuing length of service, accomplishments, and sacrifices for the group, or simply charisma, which supposedly had nothing to do with social class. It seems that at least until the end of the first decade of the 21st century, members of alternative collectives and movements did not realise the existence of these implicit and informal hierarchies, which vaulted some individuals to the status of leader or frontman, while others were left to play inferior, behind-the-scenes roles.
Participation in alternative culture involved a constant drive to distinguish oneself; there was always something more offbeat, more radical, more spectacular, and in competitions of creativity those with lesser resources of cultural capital and self-confidence lost. New fashions which arose (such as hardcore, straight edge, and hard line), though impertinent and rebellious, were an excellent fit in the system of capitalist goods fetishism, they were bought and sold, monetised. This phenomenon incited considerable controversy in the alternative scene of the 90s, an example of which can be found in the discussions conducted on the pages of fanzines, but its opponents were not able to provide a model for establishing their independence within the predatory capitalist system so as to avoid the infiltration of capitalist mechanisms and the colonisation of everyday life, culture, and the world of ideas. Finally, alternative culture was deeply androcentric, shot through with sexism, sometimes even macho and homophobic, and its declared commitment to freedom was in fact the freedom of strong, authoritarian men to use the bodies of women – music fans, poet girlfriends, artistic muses, and activists filling the ranks of supporters standing behind the leaders of the movement. Polish anarchism had a problem with feminism (here it’s worth mentioning the “Poznań incident” involving the Rozbrat squat), and many activists were in fact closer to libertarianism with a slight conservative-nationalist tinge than to freedom seeking socialism or stateless communism.
All this helps to explain why it is the collaboration of two massive institutions with high authority and prestige, the Muzeum Śląskie in Katowice and the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, though it may seem on the one hand strange and on the other understandable, has led to the juxtaposition of the work of outsiders cast out of the bounds of art and culture, and deprived of access to the institutional framework of contemporary art, with the work of underground artists, representing various trends and visions mixed in the melting pot of alternative culture. Despite many similarities in the attitudes and imagination of both groups, and a superficial similarity in their status, they have always been separated by an anthropologically fundamental difference between choice and necessity. While the second group can afford to give up institutional privilege and take on the sheen of the underground, the first group was forced to create in isolation, on the margins, with no chance of breaking through into official spheres or unaware of how to do so. While the second group lived in squats or rural alternative communities, thus manifesting their critical posture towards urban, industrial civilisation, the first group was forced to live in poverty and difficult conditions in the provinces, at best dreaming of an advance to city life. This museum exposition will not restore lost chances for an alliance between these two fractions, rebels by choice and outcasts by necessity, but it may however allow us to understand why that alliance did not come into being when the circumstances seemed more favourable than at any time in history. Ultimately, the radicalism of outsiders may be shocking, but more shocking is the passive and persistent vegetation of the vast mass of society in the oppressive norms, disciplines, and schemes of capitalist exploitation and patriarchal pressure regulated and supervised by neoliberal authoritarianism. “If we do not protest, we do not exist,” shouted the members of Guernica y Luno in yet another song with the perhaps not coincidental title of “Responsibility”.