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Rafal Zajko In Conversation with Jonathan Baldock

Jonathan 

As someone that knows your practice well, I wanted to ask you about an aspect of it that I think gets overlooked in discussion, in part (and rather selfishly I guess ;-)), because it is an aspect that interests me in relation to my own practise. Both you and I work in performance and both create costumes. I would describe mine as sculptures; new skins inhabited and activated by the performer, they are vessels to enter the worlds I create, acting as kinds of antennae or prosthetics with which to explore them. Quite often they completely disguise the human body. Yours however are much more utilitarian, and in fact you actually wear them yourself on a day to day basis. They make up part of your identity and I’ve been with you many times when people have commented on them and how much they like them etc. Can you talk more about the role of costume in your work.

Is it important that they are unique and individual pieces? Would you ever collaborate with a fashion designer and work on a line? I’m thinking there is a long history of collaborations between the visual arts and fashion.

Rafal

Costume - or more I would say uniform has featured heavily in my earlier performative work. For me clothe-making was a way of bonding with my Grandmother and a way of producing something that could be desirable but unattainable for others.

I couldn't afford nice stuff when I was a kid  so I’m kind of making up for that now by producing garments that are used in the performances and then worn by me daily. I always thought of them as one-off pieces - but working with a designer could potentially open this up to broader discussion!

 

Nahmad 1 – Rafal Zajko “21 Minutes for 21st Century (Wandering Munoment)” Performance at Nahmad Projects in London 2016

Nahmad 1– Rafal Zajko “21 Minutes for 21st Century (Wandering Munoment)” Performance at Nahmad Projects in London 2016

Jonathan 

It’s interesting then that you consider the costumes you made as uniforms as to me that infers a lack of individuality - set structures, roles and hierarchies. Thinking about that in relation to the times we are living where “individuality” is marketed and branded through clothes as having the potential to set ourselves apart (in a very safe way) from everyone else and make us feel unique. The fashion industry exploits this and is one of the biggest polluters on the planet, which is a really big problem. I really believe in the power of clothes, and I think what you wear can be one of the most political statements you can make as an individual. I also really love beautiful clothes and would love to wear more myself, but it’s hard to ignore the negatives; perhaps we need to revaluate how we appreciate textiles, as before the industrial revolution we really valued them – recycling and repurposing them in any way we could – they were a valuable commodity. What is your feeling on this and what is the appeal for you in creating uniforms?

Rafal 

I have used clothing as a creative outlet and form of self-expression, and this seems far more diverse now than it did when I was growing up. My Grandparents who brought me up actually worked in a textile fabric factory all their lives, so I have a connection to fabrics both as a consumer and the producer. For me it is impossible to think about clothes without considering labour. There are no clothes without labour. They are the product of an industry.

Most of my performance works have been set within galleries and against my work, but I’d be really interested in bringing it out into the public sphere to see how people from outside the art community respond and react to it. On a personal level perhaps that’s why I wear my performance uniforms daily as I’m taking it out of gallery context - into the real world.

In regard to uniforms being linked to a lack of individuality - each factory, each industry has their own code of clothing; by working within that construct I’m creating a uniform for a one-person industry - myself. Like you say “individuality” is just market tool for consumerist fashion, so I don’t really see anything unique about the way people dress now; it’s all rather homogenised.

Your costumes often contain masks or headpieces that constrain the view of the performers faces? Being behind the veil is liberating right?

 

Nahmad 1 – Rafal Zajko “21 Minutes for 21st Century (Wandering Munoment)” Performance at Nahmad Projects in London 2016

 

Jonathan

I think when your sight and your body is restricted from working how it would normally it is forced to explore new ways to perform and communicate, and this allows for so much exciting potential. From this protected space they can become something other much more easily and without inhibition, and I totally agree with you that this can be incredibly liberating. When I first started working in performance in my practice, I never actually performed myself… I was too shy and enjoyed the aspect of “letting go” of my work and handing it to magical people whom I trusted to collaborate with. It was like seeing the work leave home and transform into another beast. But, more recently I have started using my actual body in the performances and I’ve started to get a taste for it. Collaborating with artists like Florence Peake has been really important, and she really encouraged me to get more physically involved in the actual performance. It allowed me to explore this whole other side of my practice, and to really inhabit the realities that I create. This year I had planned to perform a piece within my show at Kunsthall Stavanger operating the life-sized marionettes within the installation, and in fact, the plan was you and I operating them. It’s unfortunate that we couldn’t, but it’s not stopping us, and I am excited for our performance together within my show at La Casa Encendida in July 2021. I realised it will be our first performance together since we did the live stream performance – “Revolver II” at Matts Gallery in 2014! Audiences have gotten quite used to live streamed performances this year, but at that time it was quite unusual. I don’t think it can ever replace the feeling of really being there and experiencing a performance in person though, but it is perhaps interesting to think how film could be used as tool with this medium.

With this in mind I know at the beginning of the lock down, in March, you had planned to perform at the opening of your solo show at Castor Gallery – Resuscitation. In the end the show had to close on the opening night because of lockdown and never officially opened to the public. You decided to make a film of the performance instead in which you sung and blew vape smoke into the sculpture on display. Has this influenced the film you plan to show at your forthcoming show at PUBLIC opening in March 2021?

Rafal.

Yes! One of the main works that I’m building my show around is a film documentation of a collaborative performance that I worked on with drag artist, Joey Joseph. The recording of the piece “Song of Sirens” will be shown alongside some new ceramic light pieces. In the performance we see Joey Joseph lip-syncing to the sound of different alarms and emergency sirens – a bizarre cross-examining of concepts of drag and technology. The concept for this piece was mulling in my head for a while and came to fruition late this summer as a direct response to the current situation of LGBTQ community in Poland. 

 

"The Gatekeepers" with Florence Peake and Chloe Herington performed as part of Facecrime, Camden Arts Centre (2019)

 

Jonathan

Thinking about costume and clothes as an expression of the individual I think that collaborating with a Drag performer is such an interesting diversion from the “uniforms” that we discussed in your earlier performances. I guess drag could be considered a type of uniform – to embody a version of the feminine or masculine that is very connected to queer identity and a rejection of roles. I think at its best and when full of good intention it can be something that is empowering and liberating for performer and audience in questioning our prescribed roles. I’m so excited for this new work. Did you want to divulge any more about why you have chosen to work with a drag performer and how that came about? As I know it’s quite a specific type of drag persona that’s included in the film. Otherworldly and almost alien…

I know it’s probably too early for you to discuss this work in too much detail as its not yet finished, so perhaps you could just give us a little hint of what’s in store and why drag. I’m really looking forward to seeing the entire show at Public in March 2021!

Rafal.

I’m looking forward to sharing these works also. What I was trying to do with this performance is to question the position of drag not within the gender spectrum, but from the perspective of technology. What if the drag artist instead of performing gender instead took the role of machine or other automation, or, in the case of this particular work - a civil defence siren. They become something otherworldly, a hybrid. Just as the mythical sirens that were a cross between species.

In a mythical sense, sirens were creatures that lived on rocky islands and with their voices lured sailors on their boats to their death on the shores. But, when we think about the use of the siren in our modern understanding it is a device to giving warning of something: war, fire, burglary and prevent harm- so there is a certain dichotomy within the meanings associated with it as it’s now associated with something positive.

So I hope my take on drag expands on the regular take on male/female stereotypes used and tries to give it a fresh , empowering take. In “Song of Sirens” the character bares the message, the message of warning and alertness – a big WAKE UP call.

 

Silent Citadel - Jonathan Baldock + Rafal Zajko - Matts Gallery (2014)

"Judder Shudder II" with Florence Peake, Kunsthall Stavanger (2018)