Reflection on the relationship between artistic practices and the quality of democracy illustrated by Political Critique’s activities in Ursus – a post-industrial district of Warsaw, Poland.

This piece by Igor Stokfiszewski was originally published on PoliticalCritique.

This is the second part of Igor Stokfiszewski’s analysis of activities conducted in Ursus – a post-industrial district of Warsaw – by a Polish artist Ja?mina Wójcik in collaboration with Political Critique’s team which are being exercised since year 2011. In the first part of his article author concentrated on reflections inspired by Factory. Ursus 2014 project. A second part – presented below – describes experiences of Let’s Save the Ursus Factory Souvenirs! social campaign performed in a year 2015 and recent developments of artistic activities in Ursus and their influence on a quality of democracy.

I. Saving Ursus Factory Museum Collection Social Campaign

What we learned from Ursus inhabitants in Factory. Ursus 2014 project and what we heard at the neighbourhood dinner table

The exploration phase of Factory. Ursus 2014 project revealed preserving the memory of the factory and the district to be the subject causing the strongest emotional response in among Ursus inhabitants. This came to us as a surprise. We had though that the most urgent issue was re-industrialisation of Ursus and ensuring continued industrial activity in the district. While local entrepreneurs – an important party in the debate about the shape of the district – made a strong case for it, to the local inhabitants this issue was not a priority. This is an important lesson. When listening to those who speak the loudest it is easy to pass over the more numerous but less vocal.
The issue that was the most prominent in the feedback from the inhabitants of Ursus was the need to give their district a new identity, rooted in its historical industrial culture, which was manifested explicitly in the efforts to preserve Ursus History Museum. Since this is the first time I touch upon this topic I am going introduce you to the key facts.
Ursus History Museum is a collection of the factory’s machines and memorabilia, some dating back to the beginning of the twentieth century, that were stored and displayed in various locations around the factory premises over several decades of its existence. The Museum’s collection includes Poland’s first agricultural tractor from 1922, Sokó? 100 motorbike from 1936, consecutive post-war models of Ursus tractors, visitors’ books, factory banners and engine models from as early as the 1920s.
As a result of ownership transformations the exhibits displayed in hall 270 became a property of Polski Holding Obronny (former Bumar) a state-owned a munitions producer operating as a commercial entity. The collection is not officially recognized as a museum. It was the factory’s property and was passed into the ownership of PHO together with the premises. In 2012 PHO put the collection up for sale for 1.2 million zlotys. In 2014 the amount grew beyond 1.5 m zlotys. The company wanted to get rid of the collection of nearly hundred-years-old factory that presented no value to them. Alarmed, former Ursus workers, inhabitants of the district and agricultural industry enthusiasts turned to the local authorities to save the collection. However their appeal to City of Warsaw Office, Ministry of Culture and National Heritage and Museum of Technology and Industry to purchase the collection, fell on deaf ears. Ursus Museum continued to be the property of PHO and the local community’s patience their faith in their local representatives succeeding in saving the collection were wearing thin.

Mourning the factory

The Ursus Museum issue evoked particularly strong emotions among the residents o Ursus because to the local community’s inability to what Jaśmina Wójcik termed ‘mourn the factory’. According to the zoning plan adopted by the Council of Warsaw in June/July 2014, all of its plants, except for seven buildings from the 1920s and 30s (modelling workshop, aluminium foundry, iron foundry, repair workshop, bronze foundry, warehouse and mechanics workshop) located in Traktorzystów and Cierlicka streets, that have been placed on the historic preservation list, are to be pulled down. This means that an important part of the material heritage of Ursus’ industrial culture, inseparably linked to the history of Poland’s twentieth century industry and the birth of communist times democratic opposition is doomed to disappear. The Ursus History Museum collection will shortly become the last accessible to the public material trace of local industrial history. Ursus inhabitants with whom we worked during our time in the district want to preserve Ursus Museum because its collection is a visible reminder of their input in the history of the last half-century, a reminder about to be wiped away together with the material heritage of Ursus factory. It could be felt that a proper commemoration of the experiences of Ursus inhabitants would help them come to terms with the loss that was the closing of Ursus factory and removal of the majority of its workshops and offices. This would enable them to go through ‘proper mourning of Ursus factory’ and focus on the future of their district. Hence, tempers were running high around the sale of the museum collection.
It became obvious that our next step in working with the inhabitants of Ursus should be ensuring the preservation of Ursus History Museum. We embarked on preparations to a social campaign that would ensure achieving this goal. We moved from community-geared artistic practices to city activism drawing inspiration from artistic energy and methodology.

Miasto – Wspólna Sprawa coalition for the preservation of Ursus History Museum

Towards the end of 2014 we started searching for the possibilities to develop and deliver the campaign. Simultaneously, Association of Creative Initiatives “?”, an organization very active in the area of cultural and social animation, received funding for an international project supporting the activities of Warsaw local communities, and invited us to bring our Ursus activities into the project. We accepted their invitation since joining forces also meant expanding the group of people and organizations interested in Ursus. In cooperation with the groups involved in the newly-founded coalition Miasto – Wspólna Sprawa (City – Common Cause) (formed by several Warsaw-based community organizations, including: Otwarty Jazdów, Inicjatywa Osiedle Przyja?? and Inicjatywa Mieszka?ców Kultura na Sielcach) and with the support of local leaders and authorities we embarked on the mission to buy the collection from former Bumar and establish a cultural-educational centre in Ursus that would provide the public with access to the collection. Following the wishes of Ursus community, the centre would also serve as a place for community integration. The main idea behind it was keeping alive a hundred years of Ursus’ industrial history and conducting educational activities about the district and the challenges it currently faces. The centre would also serve as a material manifestation of the on-going process, the district’s transition from its industrial past to communal future. On 20 February 2015 we began collecting signatures under the petition to the President of Warsaw Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, requesting her to support to the efforts for preserving the Ursus History Museum collection and opening the community centre. The campaign launch was accompanied by the first screening of Ursus znaczy niedźwiedź (The film was created for the campaign. It was not intended as a documentation of our activities. Instead, its main purpose was to introduce the public to the situation in Ursus. Its role was to serve the community activities and the community itself). Its first screening in Arsus Culture Centre attracted hundreds viewers: inhabitants of Ursus, local authorities and community leaders. Polski Holding Obronny was also represented (incognito, as they urged o inform us). The campaign Save Ursus Factory Collection started with a bang. For the two following months we collected signatures under the petition. The document was published on-line (in Polish and English), but the off-line campaign was our priority. Acting in league with other organizations in Miasto – Wspólna Sprawa coalition we organized screenings of Ursus znaczy niedźwiedź in various locations in Warsaw and encouraged viewers to sign the petition. We also collected signatures on Warsaw streets, including the historical Castle Square, to draw the attention of Warsaw inhabitants to the Ursus issue. We also deployed an intensive campaign in the mainstream media, encouraging journalists to take interest in Ursus. The topic’s importance and the strong presence of Ursus in the public sphere made our campaign genuinely loud and successful. When we arrived in Warsaw City Office on 20 April 2015 to hand the petition with over 2.5 thousand signatures to Vice President of Warsaw Jarosław Jóźwiak, he was ready to announce officially that Warsaw City Council had already decided to buy the collection and Ursus authorities had decided to found the museum and the culture and integration centre. Ursus community effectively became a political identity with voice and agency in deciding about the district’s future and its material shape. It began creating their own reality.

Art and activism

Since April 2015 our work with and for the local community of Ursus has followed two parallel avenues of social practice and urban activism. We have succeeded in convincing the authorities to include a ‘local centre’ in the Ursus district plans – part of the district that will be transformed to serve for community integration. The centre will be located around Park Hassów, in Nied?wiadek, a workers’ quarter built in the 1960s. We have also monitored the execution of Ursus participation budget and the application of other, similar instruments of social participation. We also succeeded in including Ursus in the celebrations of European Cultural Heritage Days 2015. On the same year we delivered an artistic project Ursus – Spacer w Czasie (Ursus – Walk through Time). This time, remembering Ursus’ history and its present need for more public visibility, we developed an augmented reality application with archival documentary footage abut Ursus and the memories of its inhabitants. Available free of charge, the application serves to build bridges between generations (and classes), between new technology users and older workers of the former Ursus Factory. The initiative is accompanied by a documentary (Ursus – spacer w czasie[1]) presenting the businesses that continue to operate on the premises of the former factory, and with Ursus workers sharing their memories with viewers. We have yet to produce a full-length documentary about Ursus and take other steps to ensure the preservation of possibly the highest number of material traces of the industrial activity on the area of the former factory that is gradually cleared of its remains.
Another project we have delivered in Ursus is Chcemy Usłyszeć Wasze Historie (We Want to Hear Your Stories) Launched in September 2015, it started as a part of workshops for a multi-national group of artists and activists, a collaboration with European Alternatives. Ursus community continues to need support, which is why we asked workshop participants to create a message to former workers of the factory to be written on a banner that we could take to the celebrations od European Cultural Heritage Day. The message, written in seven languages, was exactly that: ‘We Want to Hear Your Stories’ and it was received very well by the local community of Ursus. Since then, each time we talk about our activities in Ursus, we ask the audience to create a message to the inhabitants of Ursus that we then pass to them. This gives them a sense of continued support while also ensuring that we do not forget about the local Ursus community, wherever we are.

II. Summary

Our work in Ursus continues, geared towards strengthening democratic processes and the local community towards becoming a heterogeneous yet integrated political subject with genuine agency, capable of influencing the world around them, changing it to their autonomous will, rather than being an object decisions made by political powers and business. We do so through practicing socially engaged art boosted by civic activism instruments, and the reverse – social activism augmented by practices developed in the cultural domain. To help a community successfully shape their reality, a new approach to artistic practice is needed, preferably one that is aligned with the trend described by Cristina Flesher Fominaya as ‘democratic turn’. To conduct such activities we should learn to go beyond the artistic practices and reach for activist instruments, learn to switch between art and activism; effective delivery of social campaigns and building coalitions geared towards these campaigns, always remembering that the goals are to be determined by the community, and it is the community that is the ultimate judge of our effectiveness and legitimizes our actions (also the artistic practices, therefore rendering them free from the bondage striving for the approval of the artistic community or public authorities). Finally, it should be remembered that it is impossible to be completely independent of the political powers and business. To achieve goals relevant to a given community, we also need to interact with these two stakeholders. However, we should always remember that it is the community that is the main agent and that an artist or activist must always take the side of the community, the common good, work for its benefit and be accountable to it for their actions and words.
[1] Wójcik, J. (2015) Ursus – spacer w czasie, Stowarzyszenie im. Stanis?awa Brzozowskiego, M. st. Warszawa, Instytut Studów Zaawansowanych, Warsaw, available on [as of: 10 May 2016].

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