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Midday, Rynek Trybunalski. I am the only person in the café. I sit on the terrace looking across the main square of the old town. A thickset man with a broken arm sits on a bench in the centre. A child is crossing towards him with an old woman in a head scarf. From a window spills Polish hip-hop, a gentle rhythm in tune with the sh-ch of the language.

A few buildings in the rynek have been renovated. They are in the simple, stately turn-of-the-century style, one painted citrus. The rest are dilapidated. Most have lost their balconies. Faint Russian lettering is visible on one façade. It must be almost one hundred years old – Piotrków Trybunalski was partitioned by Russia until 1919. I realise that all the people in the café on the other side of the rynek are artists from the festival. The old woman reaches the man on the bench and stops to chat. She drops her shopping bag and potatoes spill across the ground. 

I meet up with AñA and we go for a walk. Around the corner is a plaque outside a shoe shop commemorating the Jews who were rounded up and shot here in 1942. We walk down a narrow street and stop at the barrow of some peasants. We buy sandy apples and walk towards the canal. A line of bedraggled washing is hung between trees on the bank. We reach the Great Synagogue on the edge of the old town, one of the most beautifully restored buildings we have seen so far. Two men stripped to the waist are on the roof applying cheap tar. The building is now a library and public archive. 

In the foyer we find little information about the former Jewish community. There are few names though later I will learn that the first ghetto in Poland was in Piotrków Trybunalski. But now I know next to nothing. Light-headed from lack of sleep and blood loss, still on a post-performance high, I am walking through a foreign, beaut­i­ful place whose ruins are largely opaque to me. We head back to the festival offices. So many buildings are empty or in a state of derelict­ion, the footpaths are crumbling, there are few trees. Broken windows, worn steps, crooked doors. We pass a line of pigeon coops tended by a weather-beaten man in overalls. Through another passageway a man with heavily tattooed forearms is smoking a cigarette in a courtyard. We pass a Gypsy couple with a young child. It is a brilliantly sunny day, much warmer than usual for early May. A road leading out of town towards the cemetery is bright with stalls selling flowers and candles. An ochre building with a For Sale sign on it looms. Once grand, it is topped with barbed wire and the windows are boarded up. We later learn that this building was a convent, then a prison, and is now empty. It has been on the market for years.

Piotrków Trybunalski is a town of 86,000 in the province of Łódź, about two hours drive south-west of Warsaw. We have come here to perform at Interakcje, an international action art festival which runs for five days. AñA, Australian born of Polish heritage, has not been to Poland since 1984. She lived here for nine years during commun­ism, martial law, and the rise of Solidarity, but she has never been to Piotrków Trybunalski. I have never been to Poland.

We venture into a passageway, lured by beautiful, depleted murals. On the vaulted ceiling is the face of the sun; a pastoral scene adorns a wall. The courtyard beyond is a weedy expanse with a couple of cars parked against the far wall, then a steep drop. We look up at the filthy apartments. White lace curtains flutter in the windows, there is a glint of furniture. There is still grandeur in the high windows, balustrades and elegant roof-lines. Bullet strafing runs up the corner of the building. 

AñA’s mother’s family were from Wilno in the north-east. Birthplace of poets Adam Mickiewicz and Czesław Miłosz, it is now Vilnius, Lithuania. After the 1863 Uprising against Russia, the Kaczanowskis were sent into exile in Siberia. Some of the family were killed along the way; all their property and possessions were taken. The survivors, on leaving the camp, headed overland through Russia to Vladivostok on the east coast. Across the bay in Nowy Kiosk was a substantial community of Polish refugees, and the Kaczanowskis built themselves up again. In 1908, AñA’s babcia was born in Harbin. She told stories of a field near the family house, a distant wall with figures lined up along it, the sound of shots and figures falling. During the Revolution the family was kicked out of Russia and fled to Shanghai. Unable to get a ship to the USA, they took one to Australia instead. They were among the first Polish immigrants to arrive in Sydney. 

AñA’s great-uncles, brothers of her babcia, were both engineers. The elder, Ludwik, returned to Poland to study in the 1930s. He was in Warsaw when the Nazis invaded. He stayed to fight, his brother Zygmunt joining him from Sydney. Zygmunt was caught and sent to Majdanek where he died in 1943. Ludwik was killed on the second day of the Warsaw Uprising at the siege of the main post office. 

AñA’s paternal grandfather, Andrzej, was a Polish army officer. He married Olga, much younger and a Volksdeutsche. Scandalously, Olga divorced Andrzej after giving birth to a son, Włód´zimierz. She then married a Volksdeutsche named Sztele, had another son, and spent the war in Silesia. When the borders changed after the war, Volksdeutsche were forced out of Poland and the Sztele family trekked to Germany. Babcia Olga was very bitter about Poland when AñA visited her in Berlin in the 1970s. 

AñA’s father Włodzimierz was born in Żyrardów, a satellite town of Warsaw, and partly brought up by his aunts after his parents’ divorce. A teenager when war broke out, he was sent to forced labour on a German farm. He made his way to England towards the end of the war and lied about his age in order to join the Polish army in exile. Afterwards, Włodzimierz emigrated to Australia where he changed his name to George and worked on the construction of the Warragamba Dam.

But there are things in these accounts that remain unsure. There are contradictions, and mostly there are ellipses.

A typical Polish story.

We were driven down to Piotrków Trybunalski by Jola, a friend of AñA’s from art school days who now writes television scripts. Jola and Mirek, her film producer husband, live in a large comfortable house on the outskirts of Warsaw in a village called Strzeniowka. Jola and Mirek are generous, hospitable, and the only remotely bourgeois people we will meet for the entire two months we are in Poland. After a forty-hour journey from Australia, a sumptuous meal and wine, the talk flowed, and I learnt my most enduring lessons about Poland. The Jewish question is vexed. The Polish Pope Jan Paweł II is sacrosanct; by extension the current German Pope Benedict XVI is highly regarded. And, as Mirek said, I have gay friends, but I do not want it rubbed in my face. 

The Polish countryside is green and scruffy. There are old farm buildings here and there but most are modern. There are almost no freeways, the main roads running through small villages. On the outskirts of towns rise drab housing estates. AñA notices the jaunty post-communist paint jobs – here a green façade, there a yellow – she also notices advertising, and cars. Traffic. Beyond the housing estates are sheds and garden plots in which flowers and vegetables grow side by side. Every so often, on forest roads leading off the highway, we see another new addition – hookers. Sturdy women in short skirts waiting for trade in the cool green. Mazowian folk music is playing on the car stereo, mournful singing full of duende that reminds me of Bulgarian womens’ choirs. 

On arrival in Piotrków Trybunalski, Jola drops us off at Restauracja Europa, one of the festival venues. When we get out of the car and approach the front door, her jaw drops. A grand three-storey building in the old town, the Europa was once a favourite haunt of party bigwigs. After the collapse of communism it continued to function but two years after Interakcje began it was sold then stripped. The investor who bought it allows the festival to use it each year but nothing has been fixed. 

We take our props up the central staircase. Everything has gone – furniture, light fittings, plumbing, wood panelling. Somebody has stencilled CZESŁAW MIŁOSZ on a wall upstairs. The main room where the performances are to take place was possibly once a ballroom. It has been swept and rows of chairs arranged around a large hole in the floor, marked out with red tape. Traces of previous performances are everywhere. Adjacent to the festival offices, Alastair MacLennan chequered a floor with war photographs. In here, a crucifix of red paint spatters the wall at the back of the room.

The festival crew are mostly young locals and artists from the region. They welcome us and show us around. We receive last year’s catalogue, a handsomely produced volume stuffed with performance photos and artists’ statements in various languages. The festival has been running for eight years and has presented more than a hundred performance artists from around the world. Most of the big names have appeared but there is no hierarchy. Ingenues and octogenarians appear side by side. 

There is a plaque by the front door marking the symbolic movement of the centre of the world from Perpignan station, where it was proclaimed by Salvador Dali in the 1920s, to Restauracja Europa in Piotrków Trybunalski in 1998. 

Later that night we get ready in the room adjacent to the old ballroom. From the one functioning power point, extension cords run to the sound and lighting desk next door. The building is packed with townsfolk and media. There is no sewerage, just two rank toilet bowls down the dark corridor beyond our makeshift dressing-room. People pass through, laughing and waving their hands. Everybody is drinking warm beer bought from corner shops, half-litre bottles, which is the smallest size available. The Poles love their beer, most of the advertising is for beer.

Our years of getting ready in the tiny backrooms and toilets of grungy venues has stood us in good stead. We ferret out a lamp and wipe down the wide windowsill with disinfectant. We lay out our sterile grounds and medical equipment. Through the murky window in the late northern dusk I can see kids playing in the dirt across the road. A sweat has broken out on the forehead of Adam, the medic. It is hard to watch him try and fail to tap AñA’s vein. He gets it third time, then it is my turn.

senVoodoo is a performance troupe founded by myself and visual artist AñA Wojak, in Sydney in 1999. Our roots lie in the progressive party culture that flowered in the city throughout the late twentieth century. Mostly queer, yet mixed up in the idiosyncratic Australian way, this culture was a breeding ground for artists to create work that didn’t fit into the conventions of their various genres. 

Parties and fringe cabarets provided uniquely permissive, high-octane environments. The work was wacky, wild and irreverent. The early years were characterised by the death and repression of the AIDS era. Most events were fundraisers. What remains in public consciousness from this time tends to be only Mardi Gras, a bleached and sunny smiling parade. But at the coalface of the underground events, the darkness remained. It wasn’t so much a culture of the body beautiful as the body free, in all its atypical glory. It was a politics of hedonism, a dance with the Devil. 

A variety of performance – some may call it theatre – evolved in this hothouse. The bedrock of dancing, singing, drag and spoken word. Circus genres like trapeze, hula and stilt-walking. Biting social commentary on the straight and gay mainstream, fantasy, the grotesque, and shows that just wanted to have fun. Nothing was proscribed, sexual liberation a constant: extreme body-based performance flowered. One of the performances I remember most clearly took place at a party the night before the Howard government was elected for its second term. A performer called Tristan was lowered to the stage mummified and caged. Freed and stripped to a heavy metal soundtrack, Tristan revealed lips sewn together and a swastika sutured to his chest. He ripped out the swastika and the stitches from his lips. He bled and shook and screamed, and the dance floor ignited. It was easier to cope the next day having experienced this. No middle-class columnist was as eloquent about where our world was going.

AñA was another artist using this genre at that time. Her work tended to the ethereal and ritualistic. My collaboration introduced narrative and satire; a duo opened more possibilities in terms of character and relational dynamics. We worked with other performers as well, producing pieces that ranged from the abject, through the political to the decorative. There are in my experience no contexts more exciting in which to perform than dance parties or cabarets: the audiences are demanding and rewarding in equal measure. You punch high and hard, you tend to the dramatic. But sobriety and silence offer grounds just as fertile, and the halcyon days never last.

As senVoodoo evolved into the twenty-first century, the culture that birthed it faded. Fear and conservatism increased exponentially. Paradoxically then, whilst freedom was one of our original spurs, its lack is now one of the main things that drives us.

We moved to theatre – and gallery – based work. We had some commissions – site specific work, collaborations. We pared down and became more subtle; we began to explore durational performance. A sense of celebration gradually gave way to a sense of mourning. Performance opportunities have always been scarce in Australia but the Howard years shrank them to a drastic shortage. Our bank of ideas was bursting but we couldn’t gain entry to the few available outlets in Australia. A national tour is a rarity for performance artists as few places have enough funding for a production budget. Distances are great, the population small. Other artists were feeling the pinch as well. The art world is fairly institutionalised, performance art in particular favouring work that is theory-based. And many curators and administrators simply baulk at what we do. 

So with almost no prospects in Australia and a new work ready, we had reached a crossroads. When an invitation to perform at Interakcje arrived, we decided to pay our way to Poland. We needed to set up a tour to make it worth our while. In a few weeks we had secured dates for three more live performances, as well as a showing of Part II of Arterial – a video installation. The openness of so many Polish venues to our work was as much a reflection of the interest there in any sort of performance art, as it was a reflection of their openness to extreme work and senVoodoo per se. This is the country that gave us Kantor, King of that non-linear visual theatre that sits so comfortably beside performance art. The allegorical and arcane are white bread to Poles, darkness and pain an everyday thing. Arterial was not made especially for Poland – Part II had already been shown in Sydney and Beijing – but we felt it would sit particularly well within the context of Poland’s bloody history. 

Arterial is a performance about loss and mourning. It is starkly red and white, using a white pathway, white robes, and blood. We are shrouded head to foot and walk slowly towards one another, our hands extended, bleeding from shunts in our wrists. We walk so slowly that our movements are almost imperceptible. There is the drip of blood on paper, there is the smell. The trail created describes a sort of songline. The paper is photographic, with an emulsion that binds the blood so that when it dries it retains its colour and texture. We travelled the country with forty metres of paper and used about ten metres for each show. The path always had a furled scroll at either end, implying the endlessness of the journey, the endlessness of loss and mourning. 

Polish colours, Polish sensibility. Yes, perhaps. ‘Sen’ means dream in Polish.

It is opening night when we perform, and a whole spectrum of people is here. Jesuits, town elders, the Mayor, media, every young person for miles around. We are last on, after a Polish and Quebecan artist; people are tiring and wanting to leave. 

Faintly, I can make out the audience through the gauze of my costume. We take our first steps and begin to bleed. I hear the intake of breath; I feel the room still. Flashes are going off. We filmed Arterial six months before coming – Part II, the video installation, was made first. This is our debut live performance, we are walking perhaps a little too fast. My heart is beating. There is something about performing this piece that always makes me want to cry. The pragmatist all the while is checking every detail. We reach the centre of the path, crumple and lie there until the soundtrack fades. 

Nicóla Frangione, performance poet, rushes backstage and says something in Italian about drama and beauty without words. The medic and his assistant are excited, having now understood why we wanted them to hurt us. Our photo appears on the front page of the local paper the following day. Gordian, one of the curators, is thrilled. Someone remarks on the paper’s shock treatment, but it doesn’t seem that way to us. I can’t imagine the Illawarra Mercury having a two-page spread on an obscure performance art festival.

Robert, the festival translator, tells me Piotrków Trybunalski was the capital of Poland for one day in the fifteenth century. The Teutonic Knights were in power at that time and held their tribunal here. It is one of the oldest towns in Poland, but there is nothing much here to attract tourists. I ask Robert to tell me more about the town’s history but he laughs as though there is nothing to tell.

We are in the festival office, in a state-owned building ten minutes walk from the Europa. People charge in and out, the air is thick with cigarette smoke. One of the volunteers, Huba, has a patch on his shirt that says Polska, Theatre of Tragedy. On the top floor is an old housing co-op, on the middle an insurance office. Here on the ground floor, in run-down rooms, are the offices and several spaces to be used for performance. 

It has been difficult finalising arrangements for the next gig. In the cramped reception of Hotel Trybunalski, on the antediluvian computer, we watch our emails vanish into the ether night after night. While AñA makes a call on the festival phone, holding the wires together, I help Robert with translations. In his mid-thirties, Robert is old enough to have been educated when Russian was compulsory in Polish schools. He also speaks Czech, German, and excellent English. I’m going to take care of the French translations, of which there are many, as besides a troupe from Marseille, this year’s Interakcje features emerging artists from Quebec. Many of the artists’ statements are impossible to untangle in any language. 

I haven’t been to Europe for ten years. Even among Latin language speakers, English is now the lingua franca. Night after night, in the restaurant where we are ticketed to eat, I watch the French, a Spaniard and an Italian struggle to communicate with one another in poor English. I am never asked about my ethnicity so often as in Europe. 

Australia. But your parents? Australia. Your grandparents? And so on. My pedestrian name has become exotic. Where is it from? Scotland. Oh, you are Scottish? Irish, really, but a long time ago. And where did AñA learn to speak Polish? She is Polish-Australian. Polish? 

Well what on earth are you doing in Australia then? This from Richard, the performer/teacher who has curated the Quebecan contingent. We were born there, we live there. Mais t’es perdu là-bas! C’est Protestant, he smacks his lips disapprovingly. C’est ennuyeux. Have you been there? I ask him. Non.

Richard as on every night is belligerently drunk. It isn’t the tone that stings so much as the fact he is right. Australia has returned to its dull, white Protestant roots. Notwithstanding our share of great artists, culturally the country is in a nadir. Howard’s vision of ordinariness has filled the horizon.

You’re lost there.

Of Richard’s students the best is Christian Messier with an anguished piece about heartbreak. He crosses the room slowly whispering a love song. He eats a raw onion off a chair with his hands tied behind his back. He cries, swallows, vomits; he ties himself to the chair then dances an awkward waltz with it. His climax has the audience scrambling out of the way as he swings the chair around in a circle, smashing chunks of plaster from the walls.

The local kids love this sort of thing. The dynamic or absurd performances get them excited. They shuffle forward laughing and poking each other. One of them, bony and pale, with shorn hair and bad teeth, is drunk every night or a bit simple or both. He’s pulled into line with good humour. As the week has gone on, the diversity of the opening night’s audience has been reduced to these kids. We warm to them. They kill the earnestness that can burden performance art events. 

Everybody goes quiet watching Mateusz Felsmann. Small, dark and pretty, he has the sort of natural poise that makes you want to watch him even when he’s doing nothing. He stands at a table and shaves himself until he bleeds, staunches his face with squares of white cloth then staples these to the wall. After printing the wall with his bloody cheeks, he kneels before the display. 

There is an intensely masculine energy to the performances on this night. Excitement spreads through the venue whose destitution lends itself to catharsis. Last on is Grupa Włochy, three men who set to work on a table and bookshelves with hammer, saw and drill. They become increasingly frenzied and violent, a sort of orchestra of chaos, finally laying into a column with a page from Kierkegaard’s Poetry of Fear stuck on it. 

At the end of each night we all troupe down to the restaurant, a dark little cave in a street off the rynek. Festival delegates come in from the heat of the day for lunch, put on their jackets, and leave shivering at the end of their meal. At night with dinner the beer and vodka flow. There is that summer camp festival feel – immediate friendship with like-minded eccentrics – I love your work, I’d love to come to Egypt-Japan-Quebec, We must stay in touch. Nicóla arranges salt shakers to form the four churches – mosque, synagogue, Catholic, Orthodox. Omar Ghayatt says he can’t be a Muslim without believing in Judaism and Christianity. Bad English is shouted drunkenly across the room. Around four hundred years old, this place was once a hunting restaurant. Beneath us is a cellar, freezing cold, decked out with mounted stag and moose heads, nightclub sound and lighting. The restaurant itself is two low vaulted rooms with thick stone walls and kitschly decorated ceilings. The food is abominable. 

The waitress is new and anxiously demands meal tickets before serving us. She doesn’t want to do anything wrong. Work is very hard to come by in Piotrków Trybunalski. We diligently tear off the right tickets for each meal from our sheet, AñA joking it reminds her of rationing. The waitress earns three złoty an hour, or just under AUS$1.50. Pani Aniu! Pani Aniu! she latches onto AñA, one of only two delegates fluent in Polish and English, and has her translate the orders. Wódka. Piwo. 

The evenings are balmy and sometimes we baulk at the idea of going to the claustrophobic restaurant. With Omar, Angel and Gosja we stop at a café bar on the rynek. There is no performance art in Cairo, Omar tells us, a city of twenty million. There was an enormous retrospective of contemporary art in Barcelona, says Angel, but it didn’t include any performance. They don’t take us seriously in Poland, says Gosja. It’s all opera, theatre, and so on. But look at this festival! we enthuse. Interakcje also has satellite events this year, and artists will be bussed south to Bielsko-Biała and Kraków. There are all sorts of events and galleries across central and eastern Europe that cater to perform­ance art. We tell them about Australia’s arts funding crisis: as the mainstream companies are struggling, the invisibility of performance only increases. The language of whingeing artists is international. 

As usual we’re the only people in the café bar. The old town is empty. A waxy yellow moon rises over the cobbled streets. We learn that when Interakcje began eight years ago, the townsfolk were out and about, there was the usual evening stroll. But now that economic depression has hit hard, nobody can afford so much as a beer at the local bar. The restaurant waitress is lucky to have her three złoty an hour. The cellar nightclub has probably not been hired in a long time. 

Our per diem is humbling. There is nothing much to spend it on apart from beer with meals so it’s really an artist’s fee, equivalent to or better than what we would be paid in Australia where everything costs three times as much. We search the shops for fruit, finding it half rotten when we empty the bag later in our room. As the mercury rises, we search for cold drinks. Every shop has their fridge on minimum, everything is warm.

On the third day we go on a tour to the surrounds with Marcin the festival photographer, thereby missing lunch in the restaurant. That night, many are absent. Omar turns up late, shaking his head, hand on his stomach. Two artists from Japan, Seiji Shimoda and Tari Ito, have arrived. Seiji, next to me, hands over his tickets for both lunch and dinner, then proceeds calmly to eat everything. Seiji! shouts Francis, one of the Quebecans whose performance involved dozens of shot glasses of cheap vodka spelling out NA ZDROWIE (cheers!) on the floor. Seiji, he shouts, we warn you but you just eat it all up. There has been an emergency here today! Twenty-three artistes all at l’hôpital, c’est vrai, Seiji! We have to call an ambulance! 

Seiji forks the last of the offending item – kidneys in a pool of fat on buckwheat – into his mouth, and smiles.

Marcin is compiling a book of old photos of the town and wants to take us on a historical tour. I am excited. Well over six foot, rake-thin with icy blue eyes, Marcin is Piotrków-born, of Ukrainian origin. When the Soviets swallowed the eastern territories after the war, Marcin’s family were sent to the town. Before the Holocaust, Piotrków Trybunalski was around a third Jewish. Marcin tells us there is a Jewish group in America protesting the current use of the Great Synagogue. But, he says, There isn’t a single Jew left in the town to worship in it. According to Marcin most of the present-day population is made up of eastern descendants with no connection to the town’s history. Bog-poor peasants, as he calls them. 

Marcin takes us down the main street to the Franciscan church. A new minister for education has just been appointed by the Kaczyński government and there are plans to impose two hours’ compulsory religious instruction each week in all schools. It won’t be ecumenical but Catholic with a capital C. Marcin doesn’t agree with it. He and his wife later complain at length about the political power the Catholic Church now has in Poland. Marcin still genuflects on entering the church. We follow suit. How strange it feels, this atavistic gesture, the body memory of childhood’s rituals.

The church is one of the largest historical buildings in Piotrków. On the edge of the old town, it escaped full devastation, unlike the main cathedral which the Nazis burnt down, along with all the wooden synagogues. Begun around the sixteenth century, it was rebuilt several times after fire and damage from various wars. In its plain interior are the usual icons – the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, Father Maksymilian Kolbe who died in Auschwitz, and, of course, Jan Paweł II.

The monk is a quietly spoken buck-toothed man in his thirties, dressed in the requisite brown cassock with rope belt and sandles. Proud of the monastery, he takes us through virtually every door, down the corridor of plaques commemorating dead citizens, into his dark wood office, floor to ceiling with old books. Into a large schoolroom where poor children come after school for a meal and a quiet place in which to do their homework. The service has been running for a good century and is non-denominational. On the wall is a photograph of the schoolroom full of children before the war. We later see the same picture in the old synagogue museum in Kraków. 

The monk takes us upstairs, past sour-smelling monks’ cells, most of which are now guest rooms. He takes us into the refectory where a table is set for lunch; we protest that we don’t want to interrupt them. A wild-haired monk in a flanelette shirt enters waving his arms. Proszę! Proszę! So it’s for us they have set places. We sit down to thick barley soup and pancakes, while unbeknownst to us rancid kidneys are being served in the festival restaurant. 

I’ve known these guys for years, Marcin laughs, and it’s the first time I’ve ever been invited for lunch.

Outside we wait to be picked up by Marcin’s wife. Beside the church is a monument to locals killed in the Katyn massacre. The monument wouldn’t have been built until 1990 at the earliest, when Russia finally admitted to the shooting of 20,000 Polish army officers in 1940, when the Soviets counter-invaded Poland. For decades the crime was blamed on the Nazis. Moscow still won’t acknowledge it was politically or racially motivated. The names on the monument are carved into stone, embossed with gold. I think again of the tiny plaque to the massacred Jews put up by someone from the American diaspora. I ask about their names. Nobody can tell me. Marcin points out that there were Jews in the Polish army – up to one in ten were Jews – many also perishing in Katyn. But that isn’t the point. I’m tormenting people with questions they can’t answer. They have seen this before – the confusion and distress of the first-timer in Poland. I am haunted by all those unwritten names, like a long thread wrapping around the planet.

I am disappointed that our historical tour starts and ends with the Franciscan Church. AñA and I speculate that Piotrków Trybunalski had money during the ninteenth century as a satellite town of the booming industrial Łódź. Later research tells me the Jews were here since the early Middle Ages and the population by 1939 was 15,000. It was a diverse community, secular and Orthodox, with three weekly newspapers. Many worked in the town’s factories that produced textiles, wood and glass products. Does Marcin gloss over this because he thinks it’s so obvious it doesn’t need elucidating? Or because that same obviousness is too hard to bear? Or does he think it has nothing to do with him? The same questions will be my constant companions for the next two months, all through Poland. 

Marcin is a superb photographer. He rushes into the office with prints of our performance the morning after. They are lush, dramatic, beautifully framed. He treats us with a sort of reverence. By the end of the week, he will have asked every young female performance artist to pose for him naked, but we are spared this special opportunity. No doubt we are too old. And on this day of touring the surrounds of Piotrków, we see only a charming, kind, family man. 

We drive out of town squashed into the small car with Marcin, his wife and young daughter. It is another hot day, wildflowers are blooming along the embankments. We pass an abandoned factory built of red brick in the solid, handsome ninteenth-century style. It manufactured glass until the fall of komuna. We pass a shady riverbed and Marcin tells us that when he was a child, a Gypsy family lived here and plied their boats up and down the river. Resettled by the communists in the early 70s, the Gypsies disappeared. We pass Zamek Królewski, a small castle just like a chess piece, the same red brick as the factory.

Our destination is a twelfth-century monastery, most of which has lain in ruins since the Swedes invaded 350 years ago. In the oldest section a few low walls crumble into the lush green. Some high archways remain on the ridge of the hill. Marcin is telling AñA about another wing of the ruins. I ask her for a translation and she waves her hand, Oh, the Tartars had a go at it too. We stand between the archways looking across the flowering meadows, the small farms, the gentle line of hills.

The restaurant beside the ruin is huge but apart from a small party of Polish tourists we are the only visitors. There is something on my mind, a topic you hear almost nothing about in Poland. I ask Marcin and his wife why Poland, which has been so traumatised by war throughout its history, which is newly independent and has such a legacy of defiant patriotism, has followed the US into Iraq. 

The Nazis and Soviets shot all the patriots, Marcin shrugs…And the rest went to America.

Surrounding Poland around the clock: a tiny pocket of Russia, then Lithuania, Belarus, the Ukraine. To the south are Slovakia then the Czech Republic, and all along the western border lies Germany. The Baltic Sea is in the north, a boat ride from Scandinavia. Little wonder then that throughout its entire history this land has been, to quote Eva Hoffmann, ‘perennially subject to invasion, colonisation, great-power bargaining, partitioning, and sheer conquest’.

The girls on work experience at Hotel Trybunalski have dyed their hair black. They linger around reception, grinning shyly at the artists. They teeter through the dining room cleaning up breakfast, uncomfort­able in their stilettos and cheap suits bought from the market. Slav beauties with wide faces, high cheekbones, slanted eyes. At the end of the workday they loosen their long hair and change into low-slung jeans and boots. They tramp outside, goth girls off to see the evening’s performances. They attach themselves to us, praising our work shyly. They crowd around the Marseille boys, Tintin, tiny, mischievous, with a long ponytail, and Thierry, big, sexy, with a shaved head. We are waiting outside the Europa for the next performance. Thierry is poking his foot into a large hole in the footpath. Aiie, tu m’avales! O Diable! I am going to Hell!

We will see Maya Urbanowicz from Boston paint herself red into a small room. We will see Nicóla fulfill his polemic of poetry as sensory experience. Surrounded by slide projections and music, he ducks and weaves, shouting in rhythmic Italian, showering us with feathers and ping-pong balls tailed by little lines of text. We will see Tari Ito’s heartbreaking butoh-esque performance about Comfort Women in WWII.

We will see performances from afternoon until late at night. The merely gestural and banal, the abstruse, the moving and entertaining. They spill out of venues into the streets, seemingly spontaneous manifestations that take the public by surprise. Four festival volunteers stand on the corners of a park, two more in the centre, back to back. The corner four walk slowly inwards, threading themselves into a tight circle as the couple in the centre turn to embrace one another. This on the main street, fifty metres from Piotrków Trybunalski’s largest monument, two towering metal triangles symbolising Soviet-Polish ‘friendship’. A mesh has been erected over the sculpture. It is buckled and rusty, a parched vine struggling to climb it. In front of the whole monstrosity is a generically ugly statue of Jan Paweł II. 

Les Férmières Obsédées, a trio from Quebec, knew how to handle Marcin. In their trademark wigs, crooked lipstick and short skirts, they posed before the statue of the dead Pope in various states of slavering prostration. An excellent addition to their portfolio. Gordian is furious with Marcin for jeopardising Interakcje’s position with this public display of gross irreverence.

The girls from Hotel Trybunalski surround me chattering as we walk to the Europa. Piękna, piękna, beautiful, beautiful! they gesture to my jeans, found on the street near my Bondi flat. They ask me about Australia. Kanguru, kanguru! And, inevitably, What do you think of Poland? I have been here barely a fortnight. I can’t say more than ten words in Polish. I am tired, overwhelmed, disturbed, elated. A hole, like grief, is forming inside me. Piękna, I give their word back to them. And…I put my hand on my heart and make sad eyes.

Yes, they nod eagerly. Tak.

On the last day of the festival we sit in the office talking to Gordian. Castles of the Imagination, a festival that took place in the north-east of Poland, has just closed down. One of the biggest and longest running performance art festivals in Europe, its demise has sent shockwaves through the international arts community. The reasons are murky, but the catalyst was an inquiry by the Kaczyński government into the management of funds. Elected less than a year ago on a platform of family values and anti-corruption, Kaczyński’s Law and Justice Party (PiS) was also behind the closure of Warsaw’s queer-friendly venue Le Madame.

Interakcje is funded by the local council, where Gordian and his co-curator, Piotr, a huge fan of Patrick White, both work. The Mayor of Piotrków Trybunalski has been accused of taking bribes, his case is still pending. When I ask Gordian what the future holds for Interakcje, he smiles enigmatically. 

The future, he says, is always uncertain.

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