Bytom. An Interzone. A Trip.

Since 2010 Anna Okrasko has been dealing with the life and working conditions of immigrant Polish workers in the Netherlands. In an installation at Akademie Schloss Solitude, Anna Okrasko combines different media, such as video installations, storyboard-collages, the script for a feature film, a sculpture and an artbook, in order to reflect on the personal stories of the recent economics related migrations within the EU. In an essay, published in the artbook, the Polish curator, art historian, and author Stanisław Ruksza writes about the project.

The artbook is a collaboration with Joanna Bębenek and Justyna Chmielewska. In cooperation with the Centre for Contemporary Art, Kronika, Bytom/Poland.



There are real and imaginary cities. Telluric infernos and earthly Arcadias. Airy cities and stuffy cities. Port cities, marinas, and countrysides. Metropolises, theme parks, and crumbling backwaters. There are many images of cities and many ways of recording them. »Elsewhere is a negative mirror. The traveler recognizes the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and will never have« (Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities). [1] Some images are created in a fever, recording a compulsive fascination, and are later carefully sifted. Others methodically catalog a certain predetermined fragment of life. Ultimately, all are relative and indicate the author’s stream of thoughts rather than creating a coherent image, for »each man bears in his mind a city made only of differences, a city without figures and without form, and the individual cities fill it up.« [2]

The leitmotif of this carefully composed narrative of photographs and collages by Anna Okrasko, Justyna Chmielewska, and Joanna Bębenek is states of movement and stagnation, and the relationships between them. The basic themes of this visual tale are fluctuation and precariousness (précarité), both overarching principles of contemporary life, and a memento of the notion of urbanity. Bytom was an apt and conscious choice for the matrix of this theme. Since its inception, the town has undergone constant transformations, making endless attempts to turn the corner. Located in the heart of industrial Upper Silesia, it has been, like the entire region, the site of many transits and migrations, resulting from the tides of history and the ruthlessness of the capitalist economy.

There can be no talk of getting off lightly. The artists have not handled the town with kid gloves. It does not really look like this. It also has another, brighter side, though presenting this – as in psychotherapy – would not bring in anything of cognitive value. As in every other town in the world, Bytom’s inhabitants are convinced that it is an exceptional place on earth, and just might be ready to defend their opinion. Genius loci. We see no people in the photographs. There is only the skeleton of the town, its dis-use. Yet this is not an example of the popular »ruin porn« strategies, of romanticized photographs naively ennobling past glories. What we see are places of transition and their symptoms: roads, windows, airports, railroad tracks, passageways, but also fences and barriers. Patched walls, aesthetics tailored to capabilities and imagination. Old and new bus schedules. Satellite dishes. So much potential for departure. An interzone. A trip. One of the key words in this tale appears by accident (?) in the window of an abandoned shop: »bar-do.« The word »bar-do« comes from the Tibetan Book of the Dead and refers to an intermediary state between still-alive and no-longer-alive, between relative death and absolute death.

The Polonia Bytom of the title renders the complexity of this place. It contains both the name of the town and the word Polonia, which is applied to Polish communities outside the national borders. Upper Silesia is an accumulation of historical layers, and the identity of Bytom is ambiguous and convoluted. The town has belonged to Poland, Czechia, Germany, and Austria. But why should an unequivocal identity be better? After World War Two, this region, where German, Polish, Jewish, and Czech languages, traditions, and maps overlapped, was enriched by the »ever faithful« (semper fidelis) displaced persons from the former Polish lands, cultivating the myth of the lost Borderlands. During the entire period of industrial expansion, which culminated in the Gierek era, residents of other Polish territories came here to find employment. Moreover, Bytom never really worked through the taboo of the deportation of its German inhabitants.

Another open-ended question is the live issue of the Silesian nationality, which 847,000 people claimed for themselves in the most recent census, 376,000 declaring it to be their sole identity. Some Silesians are still resentful toward Poles for having suppressed their local languages in schools in the People’s Republic era. There were political reasons for the authorities to discourage Silesian culture, and this was decreed by the Warsaw government. Some right-wing politicians still fail to understand the subtle issues of the Silesian identity, branding it as a »covert German faction.« The category of nationality is anachronistic in our day, and is less than conducive to building positive constructs. Paradoxically, however, it can sometimes serve an emancipatory function, helping to break down the hegemony of a monocultural state. And it is possible that the growing numbers of people declaring a Silesian nationality signifies rather an attachment to a neglected local patriotism than any separatist inclinations.

There have been three particularly intense periods of migration to Silesia. The first came at the turn of the nineteenth century, when mining took on industrial proportions, and the first steam machines were brought from England to Tarnowskie Góry, not far from Bytom. Goethe left behind the following remark: »Far from the educated peoples, at the edge of the world, who shall help you uncover your treasures and bring them to the light?« In 1816 Bytom counted 2,000 inhabitants, in 1864 it had 12,852 citizens, and by 1905 the number had grown to 60,076. Silesia had become a place of physical labor and an industrial business zone. A special work ethic was also promoted in the name of economy. Another wave of arrivals came after the Second World War and with the geopolitical changes after the Yalta Conference. Finally, the third wave came in the 1970s, when Silesia and the Basin became an El Dorado for miners. The reverse process has been taking place in the past quarter century – big industry began to be eliminated. Only one mine in Bytom has remained active. The workers’ symbols began to be squeezed out as unsuitable.

The popular sociological concept of the »shrinking city« has become the probable outlook for many Upper Silesian towns. In 2015 Al-Jazeera portrayed Bytom as an example of a city that was depopulating with the collapse of industry. »The town is dying, young people are emigrating in search of work,« the commentator states. The image of job-related emigration from Bytom is addressed in the script for Anna Okrasko’s film Patriots, rounding off the exhibition at Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart and at Kronika. Finally, Polonia Bytom is a direct allusion to the name of a once-famous award-winning soccer team. Founded in 1920 as a sign of Polishness in German Bytom, it was disbanded two years later and reactivated in 1945, adopting players and traditions from the Pogoń Lwów club. Some claim that it is the most Polish of teams. Today, although the club plays in the lower leagues, it remains a key element for Bytom’s identity. Given the lack of alternatives, this identification is reinforced by the town. Soccer ensures a primordial battle experience in peacetime and draws from deeply rooted images of community; as its adherents like to write on walls: »If you’re not riding with us, you won’t feel it.« Controlled entertainment for the working class also provides a moment to forget the hardships of life and work. Soccer is a fairly simple game that provides a chance for sensational feats and gives outsiders the chance to be victorious. It also brings an opportunity for momentary success, particularly when this has been sorely lacking.

The city of sleep? The lion on a concrete pedestal from a destroyed monument to German soldiers who fell in the Franco-Prussian war, a symbol of yesteryear’s courage and peace, is asleep. A ghost town. In days past Norwegian artist Krïstïan Skylstad read the name By-tom in Norwegian: BY (city) and TOM (empty). Among other linguistic readings we might also point out the Polish BYT [being] with its powerful existential potential. The photographs by Anna Okrasko and Justyna Chmielewska draw out this nihilistic »excess of reality.« There is also the catastrophic strand, made up of numerous legends and stories. According to one of these, an underwater city was meant to lie under Bytom, one whose old inhabitants lived in excessive prosperity, eating and drinking from golden plates and cups and squandering their days in luxury, for which they were punished by being buried under the ground.

The alleged punishment was a fourteenth-century curse, or a Papal interdict, prohibiting trade with the town’s residents – this was a sentence for the killing of two priests who were gathering tithes from the people of Bytom. A description in the latter half of the century by the Landrat (Prussian senior official), Hugo Solger, also contradicts the myths of the onetime prosperity: »The town has lousy pavement, gloomy lighting, an excess of dirt and dust, and a shortage of street police. A state road cuts through town, its pavement pounded daily by countless wagons loaded with ore and coal. (…) The lighting is generally only sufficient to show how dark a town can be on a winter night. The dirt takes on a special quality in the damp weather. This is not the wet slime that thinly coats the pavement of other towns, it is a sticky mass congealed from dirt of various sorts, in which the foot sinks to the ankle. Every cart with ore or coal that drives along the bumpy pavement tosses a bit of its cargo with every step of the horses. In the sweltering heat, these bits crumble into countless particles of dust, which fill the air and squeeze in everywhere, in all the homes and spaces. In damp weather mud forms in the streets, the pavement just visible underneath (…). The buildings are less than attractive (…). This, paired with the cost of foodstuffs, makes a stop-off here a great hardship.«

In Barbara Sass’s film Sicily of 1957 the narrator ominously states: »There are new tunnels forging in from all sides. As in a besieged fortress. A tragic paradox: Bytom lives from coal, and from coal it will perish. Could it be that both God and men have turned their backs on this place on earth?«

We are presently experiencing a period of the cult of the city. Urbanity has become trendy, it has its gadgets and symbols, layered with theories and new legends. In Poland after 1989 the city once more became the scene of open politics, economics, and debates form various perspectives. This yielded, on the one hand, active civic urban movements, attempting to negotiate all kinds of changes in a grass-roots fashion; on the other, it created a space for a non-regulated marketplace, guided by a vision of profit in which the euphemism of the »free market« became a tool for the monopoly of the large corporations and for competition, with all its visible victors and invisible losers. The regained city swiftly began stratifying into a shared space and fenced-in privatized grounds.

As a book, Polonia Bytom bears some resemblance to a cabinet of curiosities, consciously alluding to a colonial, mannerist tradition of unsystematized, chaotic Wunderkammers, freak shows, and their related categories: subjective decorum, the bizarre, the curiosum, mirabile (the marvelous), horror vacui (fear of the void), and rotti (forms suggesting destruction). The curiosities served here to create a polyphonic iconography of the losers of the system transformation, who for a long time received no attention in the field of art. The 1990s abounded with narratives that were liberal in terms of customs, but not society. The most recent decade has revealed the outcome of the neo-liberal »shock doctrine.«

The city shows its scars. The houses are propped up by supports, patched up to hold together. The region feels the physical effects of the overextraction of coal deposits: the mining damage is a sign of the ruthlessness of capitalism. The machines are left behind as useless parts of a heritage park. If I were to weave my own narrative of industrial Silesia, this would undoubtedly be a tale of machines. In 2008 I joined Sebastian Cichocki in curating an exhibition called The Unnatural History Museum at Kronika; to paraphrase John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, we wanted to create an archive »of machines and men« for Silesian posterity. The protagonists of Steinbeck’s novel were in search of harmony with nature. Silesia’s inhabitants were left to adapt to the industrialized reality, first determined by industry, and then orphaned by it. This tale is marked by abandoned machines and houses, signs of (im)possibility and bitterness, as well as dreams of alternative solutions for adapting reality. Polonia Bytom is a story of fatigue and exhaustion, far from the dominant practices promoting the application of positive illusions.

The founding of a town used to be tied to the constitution of a particular idea, doctrine, or historical identity, which a given society was ready to defend. This was accompanied by a faith in harmonious immortality, order, and development (the myth of Rome), though history tells us of countless downfalls of cities that had no concept of the future, no plan. We probably over-idealize urbanity. For unexpectedly, it is less a sign of the ruin of the concept of the city than the failure of the notion of rationality. In the Western narrative, an absolutist ratio turns a blind eye to its limits and is focused on finding solutions at all costs, on explaining things entirely. It rejects all mysteries and the workings of fate. Nor should we forget its infernal connotations: »Already the Great Khan was leafing through his atlas, over the maps of the cities that menace in nightmares and maledictions: Enoch, Babylon, Yahooland, Butua, Brave New World. He said: ‘It is all useless, if the last landing place can only be the infernal city, and it is here that, in ever-narrowing circles, the current is drawing us.’

And Polo said: ‘The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space’« (Italo Calvino). [3]

Satellite antennae are pointed in an unknown direction. Somewhere towards space. A superior direction? Windows. The traditional image of the Silesian woman waiting in the window and watching reality go by like a film is seldom encountered in our day. The screen has shifted to the imagined world. The geometrical shape gives it a connotation of rationality and pleasure, a longing for structure and order. In a state of bar-do, after experiences occurring at the time of death (the bar-do of the moment of death) and immediately after death (the bar-do of dharmata), comes the state of rising – an instinct driving one to be born again (the bar-do of life). In psychotherapy realizing the fact of failure is a key moment in working through trauma. In opening up once again. In a new life.

Bytom, June 2016


Cut-up – a technique applied by William S. Burroughs, among others, derived from a Dadaist game of randomly assembling parts of text or frames of films.
Cut-up (American English, informal) – someone who enjoys fooling around.
Cut-up (British English) – depressed; unable to pull oneself together.

A collaboration with Joanna Bębenek and Justyna Chmielewska. In cooperation with the Centre for Contemporary Art, Kronika, Bytom/Poland.

  1. Jump Up Trans. William Weaver, Harcourt, Florida 1978, p. 29.
  2. Jump Up Ibid., p. 34.
  3. Jump Up Op. cit., pp. 164–165.