Peer-reviewed articles The Artists’ Colony in the Former Gdańsk Shipyard

Members of the Artists Colony were participants in the transformation processes, regardless of the functions they performed in such processes, the intensity of contacts with workers at the Gdańsk Shipyard, or the subject of their artistic works. Artists from the Colony identified the area of the former shipyard as a space of their own experience, memory, and history.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 1:2018, pp 4-16
Published on on June 18, 2018

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This article attempts to provide an answer to the question: What was the Artists Colony in the Gdańsk Shipyard area? For over a decade, artists lived and worked within the Gdańsk Shipyard area, a partially still industrialized area. The article is based on ethnographic field studies oriented to understanding the transformation of the Gdańsk Shipyard area, as well as the transformation of Polish historical memory and the Polish contemporary art scene. A description of the situation in the post-shipyard area, with its extraordinary dynamics and symbolism, evolved into a description of the process of change and the flows of groups of “inhabitants”. Members of the Artists Colony were participants in the transformation processes, regardless of the functions they performed in such processes, the intensity of contacts with workers at the Gdańsk Shipyard, or the subject of their artistic works. Artists from the Colony identified the area of the former shipyard as a space of their own experience, memory, and history. In terms of post-colonial theory as well as the theory of revitalization, the artists can be conceived of as a “temporary community” of the post-shipyard areas.

KEY WORDS: Gdańsk Shipyard, contemporary art, Art Colony, gentrification, transformation, post-colonial theory, post-industrial, field of art.

This article attempts to provide an answer to the question: What was the Artists’ Colony? I put this question in the broader context of research, the relations between artists and workers in the area of the former Gdańsk Shipyard, the location of historical events of the Solidarity Movement and the fall of communism in Poland, and places where various contemporary art institutions, clusters, and groups of artists have been operating since 2000.

The place — the Gdańsk Shipyard — is  mythologized in the Polish narration of the process towards democracy and independency. Before the ethnographic study was conducted, the research design included assumptions about the role of the artists in the Gdańsk Shipyard, and the nature of the relationship between artists and shipyard workers. Those assumptions have gradually been subjected to verification and, to a large extent, rejection. During the research it became obvious that the incorporation of the Gdańsk Shipyard into the national myth has led to the disappearance of reality of the place and it’s “inhabitants”, excluding the contemporary space from the public discourse and visibility. Other research questions become more relevant: what we do not know, or hear about, or speak about, and who’s voices are silence.

The reflections will be guided by the words of Pierre Bourdieu:

One can, however, ask what exactly does this way of understanding works of art mean? Is it worth losing their charm to explain the works? […] It seems to me that this realistic view, making the universal, collective enterprise subject to certain laws, brings comfort and is more — so to speak — human than the faith in the wonderful qualities of creative genius and devotion to pure form.1

The roles that artists played in the transformation process of the Gdańsk Shipyard and the effects of their presence in the post-industrial area can be analyzed on many levels and from different perspectives — from the development of contemporary art to participation in gentrification processes.2 Social sciences, referring to the words of Pierre Bourdieu, might not only help to maintain “faith in the wonderful qualities of creative genius”, and might also allow the recognition and verification of the “social power” and the function of artists.

Artists in the area of the Gdańsk Shipyard

Although sociologists, historians, and political scientists have written a lot about the Gdańsk Shipyard, these texts rarely go beyond the subject matter related to the Solidarity movement, and researchers in the field of humanities and social sciences rarely deal with the present situation of the Gdańsk Shipyard or its former area — what happened after 1989 and what is happening there today (except for works related to the anniversary of the Solidarity movement). The dominance of the legacy of Solidarity in symbolic and political debate has been particularly noticeable in recent years — in the abundance of celebrations of the anniversary of the The Independent and Self-Governing Trade Union “Solidarność”, commemorative projects (from conferences to establishing new cultural institutions), and research summarizing the past 25 years of transformation. An analysis of the public debate leads to the conclusion that in the Polish imagination the Gdańsk Shipyard is primarily a space of Solidarity’s history and political disputes (especially the tragic events of 1970, 1980, and 1981, the strikes, the “21 Demands”, and the end of the communist regime in Poland).3

The post-transformation story of the Shipyard is fixed in the past and in a history of individuals — those outstanding and irreplaceable persons at the forefront of historical change who overthrew the system — and the real post-transformation history of the Shipyard after 1990 is absent and has lingered in obscurity.

To a certain extent (and until a certain moment) the task of telling the story of the post-transformation shipyard was assumed by the artists who lived and worked in Gdańsk Shipyard area — starting with a historical and artistic exhibition in 2000 and resided in post-shipyard areas from 2002. Thanks to the artists, at the beginning of the 21st century the Gdańsk Shipyard began to mark its presence also in the reflections of researchers who were interested in contemporary art, theatre, and performance,4 and also in the preservation of heritage and historic architecture.5 My own research is of a similar origin, and at the very beginning was inspired by the Wyspa Progress Foundation (located in the area of the former Gdańsk Shipyard from 2002 to 2016).6 The ethnographic field studies presented here took place from 2008 to 2017 and are mainly based on qualitative interviews, participation in events, and observations of the everyday lives of people living or working in the former Gdańsk Shipyard. The initial goal of the studies was to provide a description of the relations between the artists and the shipyard workers — both of whom were living and working within the same space that held such strong symbolic significance — but new areas soon emerged that needed to be considered, and these corresponded to the different aspects of transformation — the spatial, the social, the economic, and the symbolic. The original description of just the situation as it existed evolved into a description of the processes of change and the flow of groups of “inhabitants”, with the only permanent element being the contour of the area of the former Gdańsk Shipyard as captured on blueprints and maps.

The Artists’ Colony was one of the first “clusters” of artists in the post-shipyard area, but it was not the only one nor the most recognizable group. The key moment that initiated the period of an active presence of contemporary art and artists in the Gdańsk Shipyard was the year 2000 and the historic exhibition Road to Freedom, commemorating the establishment of Solidarity in 1980 and curated by Aneta Szyłak and Grzegorz Klaman7 (then the head team of the ŁAŹNIA Centre for Contemporary Art in Gdańsk). At that time, a revitalization project in the Shipyard was started by the new private owner of the post-shipyard area, under which artists were granted the use of buildings no longer used for industrial purposes. The project was called the “Young City”, and the owner was the Polish company Synergia 99,8 which in 1999 acquired part of the land from the Group Gdynia Shipyard S.A.9 From that moment, the history of the area of the former Gdańsk Shipyard is also the history of artists and contemporary art projects. A part of the space made available to artists also served as studios and apartments, and painters, musicians, performers, photographers, actors, directors, sculptors, and various other artists became the new users and the first the first permanent inhabitants of the new Gdańsk Shipyard.

It should also be pointed out here that the purpose of this paper does not consist in the reconstruction of facts, but rather in the attempt to (re)construct the image of the Artists’ Colony functioning within the environments that are associated with it and to present an analysis of the phenomenon of the Artists’ Colony based on anthropological and sociological methodology. All of the analyzed material comes from the three periods of Artists’ Colony “life” — part of the material was collected in 200810 at the specific moment just after the eviction of the Artists’ Colony located in the building of former Telephone Exchange11, and the other part of the material was collected later, when the Artists’ Colony was located in the next building — on the second floor of the former Shipyard’s Management Building (till 2012). Very important observations were also made in particular in 2012 during the exhibition/art-action “Telephone Exchange/The Former Artists’ Colony”.12 In November 2012, during a two-day festival project, the artists once more adapted, settled, and filled with art the abandoned and ruined building number 175A, and they visited, got together, and watched various works and performances. The concept of re-inhabiting the building by its previous residents became an opportunity for artistic expressions of a retrospective and personal relationship with the place, the group, and one’s own creativity. For some artists, the project created an opportunity for closure, while for others it was an occasion for reminiscing or for realizing new ideas.

Throughout the text, I use the past tense to describe the Artists’ Colony because I will be reconstructing the phenomenon associated with the first project referred to as “The Artists’ Colony” in Gdańsk Shipyard. I consider such a depiction important because there exist continuations of the Colony — both within the area of the Gdańsk Shipyard13 and beyond it.14 In the comments of residents of the Colony made at the beginning of the year 2008, we do not find a clear and straightforward answer to the question of the “present”, “past”, or “future” of the Colony. A similar situation occurred in 2012 in relation to the former Shipyard’s Management Building — and the answer still did not seem obvious at all. Some of the artists used the past tense to speak about the Colony, while others preferred to refer to it using the present tense. However, what is characteristic is that while describing their situation in 2008, the vast majority of residents tended to avoid the name “Colony” and spoke of “leaving the Shipyard” or “remaining in the post-shipyard area”. The proper name attributed to this particular phenomenon was “suspended”, so to speak. The post-shipyard area became (perhaps only temporarily) a more adequate term than the name thus far assigned to a single building. At the turn of 2007 and 2008, the fate of the Artists’ Colony was unknown. By 2012 and 2013, many of the goals of the former residents of the Telephone Exchange building had been achieved, the emotions and passions had mostly subsided, and the self-reflection of the group led to the determination of the profits and losses resulting from the Colony’s existence. This study will therefore be an attempt to reconstruct a fragment of the reality of the post-shipyard area in the period between 2002 and 2012.

There is no canonical version of the Artists’ Colony narrative, and it is possible that such a narrative will never be written. Its story is told by many people — with varying intensity — from different periods over the last 16 years (since 2001) and from different perspectives, as the relationships with the Colony were the result of different motivations, circumstances, and interests. However, among the Artists’ Colony’s residents, there is the desire to create a story of the Colony. These efforts to tell the Colony’s story have resulted in TV and radio reports, journalistic texts, interviews, discussions, storytelling-tours and live presentations, and various websites and blogs on the Internet.15

The residents’ responses to the questions of “What was the Artists’ Colony?” and “What was happening there?” were often contrasting and they differed in attributing to particular actors various roles and functions, as well as in the assessment of the social, economic, historical, and cultural processes taking place in the former Gdańsk Shipyard. On the other hand, at its most basic level, the image of the Colony emerging from residents’ comments was coherent: the Artists’ Colony was both a group and a place.

Reconstruction of the group

The Artists’ Colony primarily consisted of a group of people working with contemporary art. Its members, the so-called residents, were mostly young people — students and graduates of the Academy of Fine Arts in Gdańsk — but also artists from the artistic community of the Tri-City who at a given point in time were looking for a new studio. They represented and cultivated various genres of art and artistic styles. In addition to having their studios there, they opened galleries and organized art workshops, festivals, and performances; they photographed, painted, designed, played, and recorded.

The reasons for which the residents found themselves in the Artists’ Colony varied. Usually it was due to economic reasons (an opportunity to find a studio with a small rent) or individual plans (becoming independent of one’s university or parents, or acquiring a separate creative space of one’s own). Occasionally, the motivation was the desire to pursue or follow previously undertaken artistic plans at the Gdańsk Shipyard. What was common among all residents, however, was the mechanism for obtaining information on the possibility of applying for an allocation of a studio. The news regarding the establishment of the Artists’ Colony, and later the information that rooms were being made available, was disseminated in the local social circles. However, this does not mean that the Artists’ Colony was a purely comradely structure limited exclusively to a single environment. Due to the nature of the so-called artistic lifestyle, it was rather a combination of social, professional, and sometimes even a family-like life. “To be from” the Artists’ Colony meant to have a studio there and pay rent for it, and sometimes to live in it or to stay temporarily “as between friends”. To the residents, a valuable effect of the environmental organization of the Artists’ Colony consisted of the establishment of a specific “lifestyle community” — including their openness to one another and their artistic worlds, as well as their commitment to creating and receiving art.

The place “fermented”, “bustled”, and “was a melting pot” — as we repeatedly hear in the comments made by residents of the Artists’ Colony. “Having an effect on one another”, mutual inspiration, and joint artistic experiments enjoyed increased intensity thanks to the residents’ living and working within the immediate vicinity of each other. Many projects came into being and were materialized because potential partners for artistic activities had been working in the same space over a long period of time. The attractiveness of the Artists’ Colony community also consisted of its interdisciplinarity. Representatives of different currents of art, confronted on a daily basis with each other’s works and projects, had more opportunities to get to know one another and to become involved in different experiments. “There was always someone to talk to” about new ideas, problems in the implementation of works, or personal and everyday matters. Even if particular people did not like each other, they had mutual respect for each other’s work. The agreement and understanding among members of the Artists’ Colony was also concerned with the ways of functioning and organizing Colony life, often going beyond social standards. Everyone was free to work at night, to organize loud concerts, or to paint the walls. After a rehearsal or performance, one could walk down the hallway wearing a strange costume or naked, neither surprising nor disgusting anyone. It was easy to find a “team” to take part in projects, actors to create a film, or musicians for a vernissage. Residents were each other’s creators, recipients, partners, and critics. All of this together meant that the Artists’ Colony gave the artists freedom, a sense of familiarity, and a source of inspiration.

In the memories of the Colony, we find a strongly isolated category “we”, and next to it the category of “they/others”. “We” is used to refer to the residents of the Telephone Exchange building, whereas “they” are a more diversified category. The splitting off of the “they” category indicates the groups in relation to which members of the Artists’ Colony built their identity. Depending on the perspective of the one who is speaking, “they” means other artistic entities operating in the area of the Gdańsk Shipyard, workers of the Gdańsk Shipyard functioning in the same area as the artists, and “outsiders” who do not play a role in the shipyard area on a daily basis.

The first level on which the “we”/”them” dichotomy was built was the relationship of the Artists’ Colony with other artistic and cultural entities in the Shipyard. “They” means both the nearby “Znak/Sign” Theatre and the European Solidarity Centre as well as the most distantly located facility within the Shipyard premises — the Mock-up Room. While the majority of artistic entities were constituted by groups of highly individualized personalities, the relationships between particular people varied significantly — from affinity and smooth cooperation to open aversion or mutual ignorance. Attempts at generalizing the characteristics of the activities of the artists at the shipyard do not appear in the residents’ comments. The generalizations were replaced by comments concerning specific entities or persons and emphasizing one’s “own” perspective as a resident of the Artists’ Colony.

The “we” versus “they/others” formula was also used by residents to describe their relationships with shipyard workers. Although shipyard workers functioned in the same area as the artists, they were seen as a distinctly separate group, and the type of work they performed was perceived as radically different from that of the residents. While for the workers the Shipyard was a workplace, for the artists the Colony had become a place where the traditional division between “work” and “home” had become fluid or suspended. Moreover, the shipyard workers followed a different hourly schedule, i.e., to show a little hyperbole, when the shipyard workers finished the first shift, the inhabitants of the Artists’ Colony would wake up and have breakfast. Thirdly, the workers and artists differed in their appearance. The former wore dirty suits and quilted jackets and wore helmets, whereas the artists did not have uniforms, and instead wore colorful clothes and had “strange hairstyles”. Pierre Bourdieu describes this situation as a “double truth” of work — a situation in which groups with more cultural capital perceive work as an element of self-realization, and not just of earnings.16

The “they/others” category also referred to the inhabitants of the city who were “not from the Shipyard”. This dichotomy, primarily arising from an experience of the space, partially blurs the previous social divisions. In fact, this dichotomy not only indicates the social conditions, but also the closed nature of the Shipyard area. The phrase “people from the outside” refers to the border designated by the Gdańsk Shipyard gates. The “we” category is definitely heterogeneous here and means all those who are authorized to stay on the other “non-shipyard” side of the gate. The Shipyard is not a mysterious, enigmatic territory either to the artists or to the shipyard workers or to those employed in the shipyard bars and shops. To the “outsiders”, however, both the shipyard and post-shipyard spaces mean roughly the same thing because they are both inaccessible to them.

The microcosm of art

In its fundamental meaning, the Artists’ Colony was an environmental occurrence that was recognized and developed by the artistic community. The cultural activities did not involve representatives of the shipyard workers, who in terms of chronology and numbers were “first” in the Shipyard. When asked directly about their relationships with the workers, the residents responded that the contacts were minimal and essentially limited to technical issues related to “shipyard life” — repairs, favors, and passes. Occasionally, the residents mention a picnic organized by the artists to which shipyard workers and their families were invited.

[…] do you know any of the workers?

No, I know some people here who are associated with the company that owns the building, like security guards, management of the company, and the people who stand there at the gates (guards) […].

And did the artists ever come out with the initiative of cooperation?

With the workers themselves? Eee, no. Rather, I integrated with artistic activities, and I used such possibilities to exhibit my works. In other words, for me this four-year stay was more connected with the possibility of opening my art to this place and to people from outside, but not with the workers.

Interview no 5, Woman, 2008

Are the shipbuilders willing to participate in such events […]?

No, they do not come, […] the advertising goes mainly to young people, partly by mailing, partly using the Modelator, which is from the blog […] so the workers do not use it. But even if such an offer was not directly addressed to the workers, it was still an open offer addressed to anyone who simply wanted to participate in cultural events.

Interview no 14, Man, 2009

The interviewees place themselves in the context of art, but they unanimously point at several people from the Artists’ Colony who were involved in projects related to the transformational reality in the Shipyard or who were interested in collaborating with the shipyard workers. These included Iwona Zając — mainly because of the mural “Shipyard” inspired by her talks with shipyard workers,17 Michał Szlaga — who had been creating photographic cycles at the Shipyard even before the founding of the Artists’ Colony (his work involved portraits of shipyard workers and documenting the “disappearance” of the old Shipyard),18 and a duo known under the name PGR_ART — who organized, among other things, regular and free workshops for the children of shipyard workers and exhibitions related to the heritage of the Gdańsk Shipyard.19 The figure who was most often referred to in the context of engaged art at the Shipyard was Grzegorz Klaman from the Wyspa Institute of Art.

Questions regarding the relationships with workers caused surprise or irritation in many interviewees. The art they cultivated and the reasons for their presence in the Artists’ Colony did not stem from their interest in the contemporary, economic problems of the Shipyard or the political significance of the Solidarity movement in the recent history of Poland. When trying to understand the dissonance between the researcher’s questions and the artists’ reactions, it is worthwhile to refer to Claire Bishop’s concept, expressed in the article “The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents”.20 She describes the effects of a “social turn” in 20th-century art. On the one hand, there is the addition of an ethical dimension to art criticism, while on the other hand there is the domination of the ethical perspective in art interpretation directed at judging the intentions and methods of artists and their actions and the marginalization of reflection on the esthetic dimension of a work of art. From this metaperspective, the emergence of the question and answers regarding the artists’ collaboration with workers at the Gdańsk Shipyard is perhaps the aftermath of the social turn in art and the ethical turn in art criticism, while at the same time it is a “disenchantment” with the theory of “regaining the phantasmal social bond” through art. Bishop emphasizes how restrictive and falsifying the analysis is in which “artists are increasingly judged by their working process — the degree to which they supply good or bad models of collaboration — and are criticized for any hint of potential exploitation that fails to ‘fully’ represent their subjects (as if that was possible).”21

Without denying Claire Bishop’s assertions, I will return to describing the phenomenon of the Artists’ Colony. The great majority of the residents’ activities were not addressed to the workers but to “people interested in contemporary art”. This outline of the relations with the shipyard workers in the residents’ comments suggests that the Artists’ Colony was an undertaking primarily set in the “field of art”, as understood by the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu’s theory allows one to look at the Colony and the activities of the artists concentrated in it as actors embedded in the social microcosm of art (the field of art), which has its own structures, laws, and creators. In this field, as it is made evident in the comments by the residents of the Artists’ Colony, other players are also present from outside the Shipyard, including the Academy of Fine Arts, perhaps with the strongest “consecrating position” (training artists and awarding the title of an artist, as well as providing an environment for the circulation of information), and CUKT (Central Office of Technical Culture), which, before the founding of the Colony, was run by one of the members of PGR-ART. Another entity that strongly marks its presence in “the field of art” is the “ŁAŹNIA” Center of Contemporary Art, which was run by Aneta Szyłak and Grzegorz Klaman before they started the Wyspa Institute of Art and with which many residents jointly implemented their projects. Other artistic entities operating in the area of the Gdańsk Shipyard included the Znak Theatre and the Aku Club (however, both were no longer active when the Artists’ Colony was established), as well as those that were less significant from the residents’ perspective — The European Solidarity Centre (a municipal institution of culture) and the permanent exhibition entitled Roads to Freedom in two arrangements (both organized by artists currently active at the Gdańsk Shipyard — in the year 2000 the exhibition was prepared by Aneta Szyłak and Grzegorz Klaman in collaboration with people later related with the Colony, and in 2008 the exhibition was expanded by some of the residents of the Artists’ Colony). Another entity with a strong and well-established position in the field of art at the Shipyard was (and still is) the Wyspa Institute of Art and the related Mock-up Room. Following Bourdieu’s theory, while operating in the same field all of these entities assumed certain “positions” in relation to one another, which might be described as a game of dominance, strength, power, and aspiration for a stronger “position”. “The assumption of positions” is not pre-determined and depends on individual choices and creative projects, but at the same time it is limited by the place held by the entity thus far in the artistic microcosm and the scope of “possibilities” the entity has to choose from. “The strategies of artistic entities and institutions involved in those fights […], i.e. assuming of positions (specific, for instance, stylistic, or non-specific, political, ethical) depends on the position that they hold in the field structure […]”22. The Artists’ Colony, holding a weaker position in the field of art as compared with the Wyspa Institute of Art, could choose from the pool of “possibilities”, among others, the strategy of competing with the Institute in terms of methods of acting and the subject matter that is undertaken or a strategy of working out a different formula in order to build its own distinct position. The formula of the Artists’ Colony — which was non-institutionalized (although formalized), was without a coherent artistic profile, was based on fragmentation, allowed for an uncontrolled mixture of styles and subject matters, and operated in the rhythm of short, frequently changing events — indicates the choice of the distinction-based strategy.

The residents built their “position” in the field of art by directing the offer of the Artists’ Colony to the artistic community. The works they produced were not intended for a random, inexperienced viewer (e.g. a shipyard worker or a person living in the vicinity of the Shipyard who was uninformed in the area of contemporary art). On the other hand, the “openness” to new recipients, including those from the Shipyard, rather meant a “lack of aversion” and an expectation expressed in the attitude: “I don’t mind workers being interested in art”.

Invitations and notifications of events were addressed to members of a widely understood “cultural environment” who were prepared to receive the content and form of contemporary art. Posters and leaflets were distributed mainly in places related to the cultural life of Gdańsk rather than at the Shipyard. The success of events in the Artists’ Colony — measured by the recognizability of the place, attendance, and interest in the projects by artists from outside the Colony — was based, among other things, on their regularity and the social form of inviting friends who in turn would bring their own acquaintances. The celebration of the Artists’ Colony’s anniversary or the organization of events related to the end of its operation (a New Year’s Eve party or an exhibition) also constituted events related to the history of the field of art and not to the “shipyard space”.

It should also be stressed that, as Bourdieu argues, a “ subject once-situated must assume a position and distinguish itself, regardless of its aspiration for distinction, and by entering the game it tacitly accepts its limitations and opportunities, which it sees — similarly to all the others who understand the meaning of the game — as things to do, forms to be created, and patterns to be invented — in other words, as opportunities to a greater or lesser extent for claiming the right to existence”.23 The theory contained in this sentence seems particularly important in view of the closure of the Artists’ Colony in the Telephone Exchange building. Indeed, it points to the mechanisms that shaped the further professional trajectories of the former residents. Artists can be seen in 2012 during the return to the Telephone Exchange building as part of the festival “Narrations. Art thou gone, beloved ghost?”. The spaces re-inhabited by artists as part of this cultural and artistic event attracted audiences interested in contemporary art and displayed works by specific artists and groups or other creators connected with the Tri-City’s art scene (and the broader Polish and European art scenes). The artists themselves, often already recognized for their artistic achievements and their standing in the world of art, have slowly begun to occupy stable positions in the field of art, including in academies and in institutions operating in the area of contemporary art. As far as the shipyard workers are concerned, the events held at the Telephone Exchange building were attended by people befriended by the artists and who themselves had an artistic experience and who cooperated with the residents of the Colony or the Wyspa Institute of Art.

Reconstruction of the place

The Artists’ Colony should not be reduced to the characteristics of the community it was formed by. The physical place was also a prominent feature — both the common space of the facilities within the former Telephone Exchange building (building 175A) that housed the studios and the surrounding space, the post-shipyard area in the center of Gdańsk. This space conditioned the existence of the Artists’ Colony as a community, and these were two inseparable and interdependent elements.

Without obtaining rooms for individual studios, located in one building, which were handed over to artists as a place “for living and working”, the dynamics of the development of an artistic environment in the Tri-City would have been completely different. Having their own space facilitated the Colony’s residents’ work and the development of their “own art” and their “own style”. The Telephone Exchange building that was handed over to the artists by the developer had no other “tenants”. This situation enabled the convenient arrangement of the space and its adaptation to the specificity of individual’s work (painting, building of models, organizing music rehearsals and sound tests, etc.), and it also gave the artists the freedom to choose the aesthetics of the interiors of the studios and other rooms in the building.

Among the facilities administered by the developer, the Telephone Exchange building was the most convenient in terms of its quick adaptation. However, in order to be able to operate and sometimes even live in a studio, or in some cases to convert it into a space adapted to events attended by several dozen people, the residents had made numerous investments in the furnishing and arrangement of rooms, as well as the adaptation of corridors and the staircases. In the stories about the Artists’ Colony, a repeated image is that of the individual, physical, and financial effort put in by each “resident”. The anthropological concepts of “domestication” and “familiarity of space” accurately describe the attitude of residents to the building housing the Artists’ Colony.24 Over time, some residents also began to have a sentimental relationship with the building of the Artists’ Colony, based both on the memory of their commitment in creating the space and the quality of the space and the lives of its users.

The particular nature of the Colony was also influenced by its surroundings, i.e. the post-shipyard area. This was interesting because of its different spatial structure (different and separate from the surrounding city), but it was also “interfering” due to its functions and organizational rules (which were specific for a workplace or an industrial production plant). The Telephone Exchange building was located in an area partially excluded from industrial production. However, the use of these areas by the Gdańsk Shipyard Ltd. and private companies performing elements of the shipbuilding process lasted for many years and shaped the surroundings of the Artists’ Colony. The residents were not indifferent to the post-shipyard space, nor was it unequivocal to them. It constituted both a barrier and an advantage, an inspiration and a burden, an opportunity and a limitation to their functioning in the Colony. The hierarchy of these aspects also varied among the residents.

First, the access to the Artists’ Colony was not easy. Walking through the entrance gate to the Gdańsk Shipyard Ltd. required a pass authorizing a person to stay on the premises or to enter through the exhibition Roads to Freedom (during opening hours). On the other hand, the closed nature of the Shipyard space influenced its character — calm and empty — and offered a certain kind of comfort. The isolation and the entry control system increased the sense of security and demarcated an area excluded from the normal rules and pace of social living. In conversations with residents, an exciting topic regarding violation of the imposed prohibitions and restrictions appeared. Among the memories concerning life in the Colony, a significant place is occupied by stories of sneaking into the building of the Telephone Exchange and bypassing the gate, for example, through a hole in a fence, or smuggling in and drinking alcohol, which was prohibited in the employee handbook of the Gdańsk Shipyard Ltd. On the surface, such a perspective might seem trivial, even humorous; however, the fact of its recurrence in the narrative of the Artists’ Colony points to its specific role in building the image of artist life at the Shipyard.

The space in which the Artists’ Colony was located also had an aesthetic and symbolic dimension, which was sometimes reflected in the form or content of the works implemented by its residents. The fascination or inspiration found in the industrial landscape — the structure of the space and the surrounding objects, sounds, rhythms, and colors — reappear in numerous comments. Moreover, at the Shipyard the artists discovered new opportunities involving the available industrial technologies and materials. Simultaneously, they recognized the melancholy of the disintegrating post-industrial space. In the descriptions of life at the Shipyard, the ethos of an artist was also visible as a person who does not need amenities, but rather a space and freedom to act — the values and sense of art are more important than comfort. To the residents, simple, modest conditions were enough to let them develop their artistic projects. At times, opinions have even been expressed that the aesthetics of disorder, disintegration, dirt, and rejection by traditional cultural trends constituted the best nourishment for artistic imagination.

The symbolic dimension — linked to the legacy of the Solidarity movement and the process of political transformation in the economic and social sphere — only inspired the residents of the Artists’ Colony to a small extent and was only of incidental interest. In fact, the historical and political heritage was often perceived as a burden and as a disadvantage of the location of the Artists’ Colony.

And is it that this place is historically marked in some way, what does it mean to you by working here?

Nothing […] There is nothing here to think about or to add to. It is simply so inspiring that you can just enjoy these attractive spaces. So most of the things that I’ve done in my case, which is video production — I’m making the clips and videos — all of the work has been done here, and it’s a bit of laziness because it’s so easy to get it done here. And the beauty of the surroundings is very inspiring. But historical aspects, I would not get involved […] These are not things that interest us.

Interview no 3, Man, 2008

Most of the residents never took up the issues of Solidarity in their art, and only individual persons had any experience with creating historical exhibitions, including Roads to Freedom, exhibitions held in the Work Health and Safety Room, and projects taking part in the competition organized by the European Solidarity Centre. To some, these were important projects due to their relevance for the Shipyard, while to others they were seen only as ancillary activities.

Have you seen the Roads to Freedom?

Only the outside parts of the exhibition. This sphere does not appeal to me personally, so I looked at the photo exhibition, and this satisfied me and it touched my consciousness. But I did not explore this topic, especially not in my art works.

Interview no 4, Woman, 2008

The only art work I made, […] the most direct about the Shipyard, is this sofa called “Gdańsk Shipyard” […] It is about… the transformation of the Shipyard […] about what can happen here […] That is, we will have luxury apartments here […] and only a couch like that will be able to fit in, yes. And just make wallpaper from “Solidarity”, inverted in two directions, empty inside … and that’s all it will be. Simply decor.

Interview no 9, Woman, 2008

However, some artists from the Colony created works associated with contemporary transformation processes occurring at the Shipyard and their socio-economic dimension. These were mainly the aforementioned works by Iwona Zając and Michał Szlaga and the PGR_ART projects.

In conclusion, apart from a few exceptions, the residents valued the shipyard location for not being “just the Gdańsk Shipyard” with its associated historical baggage and libertarian rhetoric. What was of greater significance was the building handed over to artists “for their use” and the post-industrial character of the surrounding space. The undefined and functionally suspended area also ensured peace and exclusion from the surrounding urban structure and its limitations (including limitations in the social dimension).

“It’s not all that clear”

From the residents’ comments, there is no indication of an idyllic image of the Artists’ Colony. This is due in some instances to personal conflicts occurring within the artist community, but what seems to be much more significant, it results from the ambivalence inscribed in their own presence and function in the post-shipyard area. Such an internally driven artistic community and shared creative space such as the Artists’ Colony would not have existed and operated had it not been for the marketing campaign of the company Synergia 99, which in early 2000 was the owner of the post-industrial areas within the Gdańsk Shipyard. The Artists’ Colony was a developer’s project to introduce artists into former areas of the Gdańsk Shipyard for a specific purpose — to change of the image of the post-shipyard area and to increase its market value.

To developers, the post-shipyard area was a ruined terrain, where “there is nothing”, and which was to be restored to the city. Such a rhetoric fit well with the model of an artist who incorporates avant-garde attitudes and initiates cultural and social changes. In the stories related to the appearance of residents in post-shipyard areas, the following expressions are quite common: “we were pioneers,” “we brought a change”, “it was a wild land”, “discovering of a new place,” and “an exotic dimension”. A later effect of the rhetoric of the “origins” of the Colony is a specific sensitization to the issue of “priority” — the chronology in which actors appeared in the post-shipyard area and participated in the pioneering organization of cultural life in this place — as well as to conflicts related to “legacy” and the right to use the name “Artists’ Colony”.

It is also not possible to ignore the name of the project itself — the Artists’ Colony — and the message that it carries. Although in the narratives and comments on the Artists’ Colony the prevailing perspective is that which emphasizes the advantages of the “settlement” or “basin” of art, it is the motif of “colonization” that is directly inscribed in the phenomenon of the Artists’ Colony. The process of “colonizing by art” covered the former Gdańsk Shipyard area along with its existing users and the residents of adjoining neighborhoods. According to the developer’s plan, the role of the colonists was to be assumed by artists. The seeming contradiction of this situation did not escape the residents’ attention, and it is presented in many comments as an important aspect of reflection on the phenomenon of the Colony, while at the same time this issue remained unnoticed in terms of artistic practices. Also, the use of the term “colonists” to describe themselves collides in conversations with the concurrently used metaphor of a pioneer conquering unknown territories. The problem that lies beneath these contradictions is the fact that being a “colonizer” is never innocent. An example of an extreme ambiguity and unintentional entanglement is the case of the PRG-ART duo, which was one of the few socially engaged entities in the Artists’ Colony and which tried to ensure that their actions also met the needs of the “local community of shipbuilders”. At the same time, in the symbolic sphere, PGR_ART undertook activities that were quite dissimilar, as made visible in the gesture of acceptance of the name “art workers” and the issuance of an identity card as an “art worker of the Gdańsk Shipyard”. The name was intended to indicate the “hard work of a cultural animator” and to maintain a dialogue with the stereotype of the “light” and carefree life of the artist. However, the question about the appropriation of symbolic capital remains – symbolic. Symbolic capital contained in the workers’ ethos and strengthened with the historical and political aspects and gathered by a completely different social group than artists. The contradictions and paradoxes inscribed in the processes of changing the function and structure, as well as the symbolism, of these areas are common to many adaptation projects implemented in urban neighborhoods and spaces. These processes are not confined only to artists, and they often involve representatives of the world of science, researchers, or public authorities.

Certainly a direct and easy transfer of post-colonial categories to the description of changes occurring within a “culturally homogeneous”, western, Polish society is not warranted; however, an attempt to adapt the tools of post-colonial theory brings cognitively significant results. In the case of an analysis of the transformations in the area of the Gdańsk Shipyard, it is possible to identify the socio-economic structure of the transformation processes and the functions fulfilled by the entities involved in these processes. In view of the deliberations on the Artists’ Colony, it is worth considering the issue of the ambiguity of the participants’ position in the processes of the “acquisition of new territories” by the dominant group. Indeed, the involvement of settlers and “kindly disposed travelers in the process of colonization” 25 cannot be ignored, and the question of said involvement should probably also be directed to the researcher who comes to observe and describe an unknown space. Perhaps the example of the Artists’ Colony also shows how important the participants’ awareness of these processes and their emancipatory capacity is — the capacity of a “tool to emancipate” and to adopt in the process of “colonization” the position of an equal entity and to redefine its goals and roles26. However, the nature of these transformations depends on individual experiences and motivations.

It is also worth pointing out that the phenomenon of the Artists’ Colony shows yet another sociological and cultural clash, that between the western, traditional model of an artist and the contemporary concept of a creative class. The vision of the lifestyle of the residents of the Artists’ Colony and the idea of the role and characteristics of art were intertwined with the context of the implementation of a marketing project and the service function of art. To the developer, artists make up a creative class that is extremely useful in investment processes because it is able to “generate” novel, innovative solutions and to move beyond the existing norms. In practice, the residents of the Artists’ Colony combined these two aspects, although their stories about their art did not contain the narratives of “economic development” or “market competitiveness”.


The residents of the Artists’ Colony constitute one of the priceless sources of knowledge on the transformation processes that have taken place at the Gdańsk Shipyard, which in the collective imagination of Poles functions primarily as a mythologized space of critical events in the Solidarity movement. Irrespective of the subject matter taken up in their artistic works, as well as the intensity of their contacts with the workers of the Gdańsk Shipyard — members the Artists’ Colony were participants in the transformation processes regardless of the functions they performed in such processes. It can be said that in the theoretical assumptions of the process of “revitalization” the artists formed a temporary community within the post-shipyard areas. Some of these residents were also observers and active commentators on the social, spatial, and cultural changes taking place at the Shipyard. The portrait of the contemporary Shipyard — both its spaces and its users — conveyed through art reveals the history of economic and social processes that have occurred in the shadow of the heroic narrative of the events connected with the Solidarity movement.

The Artists’ Colony was one of the constituents of the history of the Gdańsk Shipyard in democratic Poland. In turn, a different group of residents has continued the history of the Colony — both inside and outside the Shipyard area. A small group of residents remained in a building adjacent to the Telephone Exchange until 2012, although the conditions were no longer as convenient nor did they enjoy “full” freedom as was the case before, despite the fact that “being at the Shipyard” had always required more commitment, determination, and work. Now, however, they were no longer its only users and it was no longer a space “handed over to artists”, but was a shared “post-colonial” space where everyone had to make an effort to seek their place. ≈


Note: This article was prepared as a part of research project financed by the Polish National Science Centre (NCN), decision no. 2012/07/N/HS3/04129. This peer-reviewed full-version article is based on a text entitled “The Artists’ Colony – Paradoxes” published in the catalogue “The Artists’ Colony in the Gdańsk Shipyard – 2001–2011”, ed. by J. Woszczenko, Gdańsk.

Key points in the history of the transformation of the post-shipyard

1990              Gdańsk Shipyard im. Lenina transformed into a joint-stock company (from 1996 Gdańsk Shipyard in “bankruptcy”, and since 1998 taken over by the Gdynia Shipyard Group S.A.).

1999              Synergia 99 buys part of the Gdańsk Shipyard area.

2000              Grzegorz Klaman and Anreta Szyłak (as the directors of CSW Łaźnia) prepare the exhibition Roads to Freedom at the BHP and at the Gdańsk Shipyard.

2002              In building 175A (the abandoned building of the telephone exchange) the Artists’ Colony starts to operate (a cluster of studios, galleries and artistic spaces ,adapted and organized by artists from Gdańsk, including students of the Gdańsk Academy of Fine Arts).

2002              Opening of “Modelarnia”. Grzegorz Klaman and Aneta Szyłak, this time as the Wyspa Progress Foundation, start their artistic activity in subsequent post-industrial buildings.

2004              The “Wyspa” Art Institute is established in the building of the former vocational school.

2006              Gdańsk Shipyard S.A. resumes operations with the Ukrainian capital of ISD Polska.

2006              Development plans are adopted by the Gdańsk authorities.

2007              The establishment of the European Center of Solidarity institutions.

2007              Closing of the Artists’ Colony in the Telephone Exchange Building and the opening of the Artists’ Colony in the former Shipyard’s Management Building (2008–2012).

2008              Demolition of the historic villa of the Director of the Imperial Shipyard (19th and 20th centuries), the headquarters, and, among others, Theater “Znak/Sign”.

2008              Division of Synergia 99 into two companies managing the post-industrial area: Drewnica Development and Baltic Property Trust Optima (BPTO).

2010              The “Wyspa” Art Institute creates the international festival project “Alternativa”, connected with the B90 hall building.

2010              Opening of a new historical exhibition of NSZZ Solidarność in “The Health and Safety Hall”.

2012              Closure of the Modelarnia and demolition of the building.

2012              Closing of the Artists’ Colony studios.

2014              Opening of the seat and exhibition of the European Solidarity Center.

2015              Division of the post-industrial area between new owners: some of the land was purchased by Atrium Poland Real Estate Management (located in the Channel Islands). BPTO sold its sites to the Swiss-Danish consortium Partners Group and Northern Horizon Capital.

2016              The “Wyspa” Art Institute closes its “headquarters” in the former Vocational School building.

2017              Division of the area owned by Partners Group, and Northern Horizon Capital resells the area to Belgian developers Re-vive and Alides.



1                    Pierre Bourdieu, Teoria obiektów kulturowych, trans. into Polish by A. Zawadzki, Odkrywanie modernizmu. Przekłady i komentarze, ed. R. Nycz, (Cracow: 2004) 278—280 [title of the original Pour une science des objets [in:] Bourdieu P. Raisons pratiques. Sur la hheorie de l’action, Paris 1994, p.61—80].

2                    See: David Ley, “Artists, Aestheticisation and the Field of Gentrification”, Urban Studies (Sage: 2003); Stuart Cameron & Jon Coaffee, “Art, Gentrification and Regeneration — From Artist as Pioneer to Public Arts”, International Journal of Housing Policy (2005); Japonica Brown-Saracino, The Gentrification Debates: A Reader, (Routledge: 2010); Martha Rosler, The Artistic Mode of Revolution: From Gentrification to Occupation (e-flux: 2012).

3                    See: Jacek Wasilewski, Opowieści o Polsce. Retoryka narracji (Warszawa 2012) [Jacek Wasilewski, Stories about Poland. Rhetoric of the narrative (Warsaw: 2012]).

4                    See for instance: Grzegorz Klaman;,SubiektywnaLiniaAutobusowa,pid,44,oid,38,cid,4,type,2,lang,2.html; or see Alternativa:,

5                    See for instance Michał Szlaga:,

6                    I emphasize this fact because it is of particular importance for the research process, which has also made an attempt to verify the dominant interpretive perspective created by the Wyspa Institute of Art. This perspective was based on a narrative about the social and political involvement of artists from the Gdańsk Shipyard, about the cooperation of the art community with the shipyard industry, and about the conscious and critical voices of artists. In light of the field observations of the artistic environment from the Gdańsk Shipyard and the perspective of the shipyard workers (also heterogeneous), the narrative about the critical role of art and the artists’ sensitivity to the social and symbolic “weight” of the Gdańsk Shipyard turned out to be misleading and often inadequate. However, the events at the Gdańsk Shipyard were among the most important (qualitatively) and led to the most comprehensive transformation of the political, social, and economic system in modern Poland. Therefore, when writing about the Artists Colony, I want to report on the fact that the practices of critical art were not and are not the only ones present on the site of the former Gdańsk Shipyard.

7                    Read more about Grzegorz Klaman: ;

8                    Synergia 99 Sp. z o.o. started its activities in the first half of 1999 as a land developer of industrial real estate acquired from the Gdańsk Shipyard — Grupa Stocznia Gdynia S.A. The priority of Synergia 99 Sp. z o.o. in close cooperation with the City of Gdańsk and the Gdańsk University of Technology was to work on the preparation of sites in technical, legal, planning, and marketing terms for a proposed commercial and administrative center. Two projects, Young City and Nowa Wałowa, were created for implementation. The scope of the company’s activity also included rental and lease of warehouses and production areas as well as wharfs and piers. The years 2006 and 2008 were a time of significant changes in the structure of Synergia 99 Sp. z o.o. In 2006, the first division of the company followed the adoption by the City of Gdańsk of two spatial development plans, “Solidarity Square Shipyard” and “North”. At that time, two new companies — “Workers’ Colony” and “Imperial Shipyard” — were established. In 2008, as a result of the second reorganization, Drewnica Development was separated. These companies took over ownership and management functions of the areas designated for the investments of the City of Gdańsk (accessed 14.X.2017,

9                    See also the article of Roman Sebastianski, former marketing director of Synergia ’99:…/download.

10                  The aforementioned field studies concerning the relationship between workers and artists in the area of the Gdańsk Shipyard after the year 2000 were conducted in 2008 by a research group consisting of the following: Ewa Chomicka, Agnieszka Kozik, Tadeusz Iwański, and Piotr Morawski. The studies were continued by the author of this text as part of a doctoral project in the years 2009—2011 (ISNS UW) and were continued in the years 2012—2017 within the implementation of a grant from the Polish National Centre of Science.

11                  In 2008, the Colony was placed at the center of attention, particularly in the artistic circles connected with the area of the former Gdańsk Shipyard; however, it is important to note that the transformations occurring in the post-industrial area were also a matter of interest for many of the shipyard workers. Although by that time the decisions had already made among the residents of the Artists Colony regarding who would stay and who would leave the Shipyard, the emotions had not yet subsided. It was one of the last opportunities to hear from members of the Artists Colony about the “life” experiences gained in the Telephone Exchange building, and at the same time was an opportunity to record the beginnings of the construction of a narrative about the Artists Colony and attempts to express subjective experiences through an objectified story.

12                  An auteur project of curator Jolanta Woszczenko (and one of the former residents of the Artists Colony) was realised as part of the annual “Narrations” festival of Gdańsk on November 16—17, 2012. It encompassed a two-day (two-night) program of artistic activities implemented in building 175A by former residents of the Artists Colony. For a description of the project’s intentions, see:

13                  Some of the artists remained in the post-shipyard area having been assigned studios in the neighboring building (the so-called Director’s Villa). The activity of those studios ended in 2013 when the developer once more refused to extend the contracts with the residents. At present (2017), the Director’s Villa still hosts the studio of a photographer, Michał Szlaga, one of the members of the “first” Artists Colony.

14                  What I have in mind is mainly the activity of the PGR-ART collective, which for its later works also assumed the name of the “Artists Colony” and in 2010 registered the Artists Colony Foundation. Information regarding cultural and artistic undertakings, archive materials, and information on current projects are to be found in the following websites: and .

15                  Among other : Agnieszka Szydłowska’s reportage Radiowy Dom Kultury z Kolonii Artystów, Polish Radio Three, 2006; television reportage by Agnieszka Adamek and Malwina Toczek A co teraz?, Telewizja EiA, 2008; press reportage by Krzysztof Miękus, photo by Michał Szlaga Stoczniowcy, MaleMan no. 6, 2009.; the monograph created on the initiative and under the editorship of Jolanta Woszczenko: Kolonia Artystów w Stoczni Gdańskiej 2001—2011, Gdańsk 2011.

16                  Pierre Bourdieu, Méditations pascaliennes (1997) [in Polish: Medytacje pascaliańskie, transl. K. Wakar (Warsaw:2006)].

17                  See Iwona Zając:; For documentation of the “Shipyard” mural and its closure, see:

18                  See Michał Szlaga:;

19                  PGR_ART, see: ; .

20                  Claire Bishop, “The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents,” Artforum (2006); “Zwrot społeczny: współpraca jako źródło cierpień” in Stadion X. Miejsce którego nie było. Reader, ed. J. Warsza (Warsaw-Cracow: 2009), 48—58.

21                  Ibid, 49.

22                  Pierre Bourdieu, ”Teoria obiektów kulturowych”, p. 270 [title of the original Pour une science des objets [in:] Bourdieu P. Raisons pratiques. Sur la hheorie de l’action, Paris 1994, p.61—80].

23                  Ibid, 271.

24                  A greater problem would be in the use of the concept of “being rooted” both due to the specificity of the process of the adaptation of the Telephone Exchange building in the former Shipyard and the dialectic of the category of a “change” in the so-called artistic lifestyle, as referred to in the residents’ comments.

25                  Mirosława Buchholtz and Grzegorz Konieczniak, ”Postkolonie jako miejsca spotkań, czyli wokół postkolonialnej terminologii,” in Studia postkolonialne w literaturoznawstwie i kulturoznawstwie anglojęzycznym, ed. M. Buchholtz (Toruń: 2009), 38.

26                  It should also be stressed that the questions formulated on the basis of the post-colonial theory in the context of transformations of the Gdańsk Shipyard are not only relevant in the context of an analysis of the “Artists Colony” development project. An example might also be the parallel discourse on cultural and symbolic heritage analyzed from the perspective of post-imperial western history. This can be illustrated, for instance, by the critical studies conducted by Polish anthropologist Ewa Klekot. When addressing the issue of legacy and the dangers inherent in David Lownethal’s theory, the researcher poses an extreme and controversial question: “Is it then true that the rhetoric of legacy constitutes a part of the language of new colonisation?” See Ewa Klekot, ”Zabytki dziedzictwa narodowego a problem stosunku do przeszłości”, Konteksty. Polska sztuka ludowa, no. 3—4 (2004), 206.

  • by Agneiszka Kozik

    PhD candidate, Institute of Applied Social Sciences, Warsaw University. Main areas of research: social and visual anthropology, ethnography, art critique.

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