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INTERVIEW WITH KATARZYNA PERLAK: "ART ALLOWS YOU TO MOVE FORWARD"

What remains vivid in my memory from the pandemic is the experience of forgetting how to speak. Literally, but also figuratively, given that my love language is physical touch. There's an abundance of articles and scientific papers discussing changes in intimacy during the pandemic, which need to be consumed responsibly due to their highly triggering nature.

 

During this challenging time - as well as before and since - art acted as one of my tools for moving forward. Recently, I had the privilege of speaking with Katarzyna Perlak, a London-based artist from Poland, who recognises this as just one of its potentials. In her diverse artistic practice spanning video, performance, textiles, sculpture, and installation, Perlak seamlessly weaves together personal and political.

 

Her works, such as Broken Hearts Hotel (2021), not only address the challenges of intimacy during the pandemic but also extend beyond it, prompting broader reflections on human relationships and resonating with the writer Sophie K Rosa's assertion in Radical Intimacy that “to remake the world, we must pay attention to connection, care, and community as sites of struggle. Doing so could bring us closer — to ourselves and to each other — in ways that fuel our struggles towards revolutionary horizons.”

 

Broken Hearts Hotei (2021) trailer


Katarzyna, let's start with your background. How did you find yourself in London?

 

I came to London in 2004, just a month or two after Poland joined the EU and the borders opened. It was exciting but also slightly uncertain because, before that, people from Eastern Europe couldn't enter the UK very easily. At the time, I started studying photography at the Academy of Fine Arts in Poland. I wanted to go to London to experience something new. When I came here, I decided to stay and continued studying photography at Camberwell College of Arts and then fine art media at Slade School.

 

What made you want to stay?

 

As far as I remember, it happened on the second day [laughs]. I came in the summer, and I loved it right away. The experience of starting here wasn't easy though, as I had very little money and had to work straight away, through which I ended up in a dodgy, underpaid job. But I was still very enthusiastic about the city and all that was happening. It was the exciting energy of London, even though I didn't know anyone to start with.

 

Before studying photography and fine art, you pursued philosophy. Has this academic journey influenced or informed the themes and approaches in your work?

 

I studied philosophy, and at the same time, I also enrolled part-time at the School of Folk Craft. Both of them had a significant impact on my practice. I grew up on a coal mining estate in Poland, where I didn't have a lot of access to arts and culture, so studying philosophy has opened up and inspired many unknown paths and gave me research tools I have been using since. Many of my projects still start at the libraries. The craft school was crucial because I did something with the arts for the first time. We learned so much, from ceramic sculpture to weaving, embroidery and crochet to painting icons.



Niolam Ja Se Kochaneczke. Film Still

 

That leads me to my next question. You've coined the term 'tender crafts' to describe your approach to exploring crafts from contemporary feminist, queer and diasporic perspectives. Was your interest in textiles inspired by the school?

 

It was the school and also my grandma who embroidered and sewed a lot. The first time crafts were present in my art practice was when I made Niolam Ja Se Kochaneczke (2016), a film with folk singers where I created a fictional archive of queer love in Eastern European folklore. That was because I was very interested in folk heritage myself. From a crafts perspective, but also the heritage of all the songs. There are so many love songs in the folk archives, but they all were ‘straight’. So I was thinking about those histories represented in them and how we could reclaim them and bring queerness into Eastern European history because often, it's perceived as this Western European deviation that came to Eastern Europe, but not something that belongs to us. I wanted to bring it to where it belongs.

 

And then, I thought about craft and its position in contemporary art; there's still this stigma or less regard for these practices. I wanted to attend to it and reimagine it from a modern-day perspective. A part of it is that you want to preserve the heritage, but of course, we all have different stories to tell as time changes. It's interesting to celebrate what we have learned and, in the meantime, for the crafts to resonate with the current events.

 

What does tender mean for you? Why tender?

 

I resonate with tender as it speaks both to what’s soft, caring, with/in love and also sore, uncomfortable and painful. This also applies to archiving and what’s being stitched to remember. There's tenderness in capturing those moments. There’s also tenderness in the time spent on making. Making space for yourself and others through the needle. At the same time, the labour of crafts can be heavy on the body, and if we look at the production of textiles and crafts, there's a lot of hard labour.

 

I’m very interested in your ongoing Bated Breaths series (2020 - ongoing), a collection of embroidered handkerchiefs, which is a part of the methodology. In the series, you explore the intersections of personal histories, collective memory and cultural etiquette through different proverbs or sayings. Can you discuss the process behind selecting them?

 

Usually, they just come to me in a situation or when I hear something on the news or see something happening. There's a mixture of different sayings. It started with proverbs, both English and Polish. Or there's something that happened that could become a saying. Some archive different political or personal moments, while others are phrases said by people close to me or my friends. I see it as a stitched archive; it's an ongoing project I aim to continue.



From left to right: Hands and There is no time like the present from the Bated Breaths series


This relationship between personal and political reminds me of Radical Intimacies, where Sophie K Rosa asserts that “the intimate is political.” This statement brings me to your work Broken Hearts Hotel (2021). Does it resonate with what you were aiming to achieve with the project?

 

In this instance, the political element was at the front of it. The Leslie Lohman Museum of Arts (NYC) and The ONE Archive at the University of Southern California (LA) invited a few artists to create work exploring intimacy during the pandemic. I wanted to make a film that focused on the broken heart – and I was going through the breakup myself, so it didn't feel very political as such.

 

I was also trying to expand on it, not only to have it about the broken heart in the context of a relationship but also different situations in which we can experience love. And, aside from making the film in which I was performing, I created these encounters where I was in a space like a hotel room, and people had around 40-minute slots to share a history of broken hearts or experiences during the pandemic with me.

 

Why did you choose a hotel?

 

I was always drawn to hotel rooms and hotels because they are those places that are supposed to be intimate yet open to anyone. They're also non-spaces because they have this transitory nature; they only belong to people as an intimate space for some time.

 

Do you think the transitory nature of hotels reflects the transitory nature of intimacies and relationships?

 

I think so. Because, sometimes, these places open up that opportunity to be the person you might not be in the regular environment. In this case, it was showing this kind of vulnerable space of being heartbroken and speaking about this through other voices because, in the text present in a movie, there are quotes from Bell Hooks, Roland Barthes and a few others. It was very personal, but often, I try to start with personal experiences, which then expand into these inter-subjective forms. A broken heart is a universal experience. So this was interesting for me because when I create work about Eastern European heritage, I feel like the access point is a bit different.


Broken Hearts Hotel. Film Still. Credit: Hicham Gardaf

 

On that note, what was the experience of inviting the audiences to participate in this work, from sharing personal broken heart histories to engaging in an intimacy quiz to listening to a bedtime love story?

 

It was moving and quite intense, for sure. I didn't know what to expect. And also because people could ask me questions about my experiences if they wanted to. Some people were more apt for just sharing words. Yes. Some people had some stories they needed to share. It was moving for people to trust me. Sometimes, there were surprising elements. I think that's the nature of, you know, just being online. And I wanted to make sure I was present for everyone.

 

Did interacting with those people help you get over your heartbreak?

 

Definitely. The work was like closure for the heartbreak I experienced at the time.

 

Is that what art can do? Help you process those wounds and heal?


I think so. Whatever it is that people are working through – it doesn't have to be a clear-cut line – but I feel like for me and, as far as I know, for many others, it’s a tool to process your feelings and thoughts. Art allows you to move forward.

 

And do you think it's also, in a way, a process of self-affirmation? You mentioned that speaking in an Eastern European accent was also significant to you in the context of this work.

 

I'm interested in the impact of accents on social mobility. I rarely see moving images work with different accents, when it comes to English anyways. Although I modified my voice slightly – I'm speaking through a karaoke microphone with a voice modification – this also creates some distance. And because I also like to use masks, which don't allow you to access someone's identity in a way.

 

 

Happily Ever After. Film Still

 

You did mention in the film that masks have magical functions, which came up for me in your other performance and film Happily Ever After (2019), with two brides wearing masks as they walk through the streets, creating these juxtaposing images of a lesbian wedding and parades against pride and ‘deviants’.

 

I've been working with masks for a very long time, but I always thought of them as tools that enable us to be who we wouldn't be able to be otherwise. Starting with Niolam Ja Se Kochaneczke, most folk singers I worked with only agreed to be in the film with their identities covered. I made the balaclavas, which also explored the aesthetics of resistance. At the same time, it was necessary because they wouldn't take part in the work otherwise.

 

Then, when it came to the wedding in the Happily Ever After performance, where I created this fictional lesbian wedding, the work had a few parts. In the first part, we walked around the town and did what many couples do when they get married – have their wedding photographs taken. Then, I organised this wedding party in collaboration with other people, which started with a private dinner and then moved into the public part. Many people came as if they were coming to a wedding; they brought flowers for the brides, and there were all these elements of a traditional Polish wedding. I tried to create this temporary utopian space.

 

Because same-sex marriage is still not allowed in Poland?

 

Yes. In the end, I made a video that combined this so-called utopian attempt with the dystopian reality of Polish streets with all these [normality] parades. I wanted to show the challenges and, at the same time, the joy people experience during this moment.

 

This sense of queer pride despite all these challenges is what spoke to me the most. It reminded me of the quote by Maggie Nelson in Argonauts, “The moment of queer pride is a refusal to be shamed by witnessing the other as being ashamed of you.” Does art possess the ability to reimagine what the future can be like?

 

There's potential. But also, art is not outside the world – it’s in the world. There are a lot of obstacles in reimagining and rebuilding, and I think most recently, with certain shows being cancelled and funding being cut. This is a brutal example of that. But art does have the potential of bringing new imaginations and creating the environment we strive for.


 

Nastia Svarevska is a London-based curator, editor and writer from Latvia. She holds an MA in Curating Art and Public Programmes from Whitechapel Gallery and London South Bank University and writes for an artist-run magazine, Doris Press. Her poetry has been featured in Ink Sweat & Tears, the Crank and MONO Fiction. You can find her on Instagram @ana11sva and her website anasva.com.

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