The Art of Empathy

20 December 2021

Małgorzata Szydłowska talks about the beautiful new location in Nowa Huta filled with ideas.

Justyna Skalska: When I first heard the name of the venue you created, I instantly thought of Thomas More’s essay describing an ideal state and social system, but I also imagined Utopia Home as the perfect refuge for artists, idealists and dreamers… Am I on the right tracks?

Małgorzata Szydłowska: It’s certainly one way of reading this place. Many people imagine a “utopia” to be something impossible, yet – according to More – a utopia is simply a good place, based on justice, solidarity and equality. Utopia Home is based in Nowa Huta, which was built following similar ideas. The historical context was very important for us. During the 1950s, the people brought in to build Nowa Huta were given the chance of having their own homes. Perhaps it wasn’t the perfect location, but for many people it made their dreams come true. And I really think that the key word which drew them here and made them stay was the concept of a “home”.

Is this why your motto is “Home is where you feel. Home is where you think. Home is where you act”?

We think of the home as a specific place; somewhere we start from and where we return. To my mind, it’s mainly a space for building relationships. It’s not just a physical space, but also an emotional one. From the very start of the process of creating Utopia Home, I wanted the people who will spend time there to feel as free and safe as they would in their own homes. This applies in equal measures to the artists, idealists and dreamers you mentioned at the start and to residents of Nowa Huta who will participate in projects at the venue. They will also be able to initiate social and artistic events.

The other part of the name, International Empathy Centre, is just as intriguing. I have a feeling that this is something we’re really missing today. Will Utopia Home teach empathy afresh?

When we started the development of Utopia Home and decided it would also serve as an International Empathy Centre, we had no idea that the pandemic was just around the corner, making empathy one of the most necessary and desirable values around. Is it something we can learn? I think it is, and I think that artists can play an important role in the process.

The idea of empathy and art has accompanied me and Bartosz – my husband and co-founder of the Łaźnia Nowa Theatre and Utopia Home – since the start of our involvement with the arts over 25 years ago. The theatres we founded, first in Kazimierz and later in Nowa Huta, weren’t theatres in the usual meaning of the word. We’ve always thought of them as spaces for culture in its broadest sense and engaging local residents; this gave us the idea of Boulev(Art) which steps beyond theatre walls and hosts events such as concerts, performances, film screenings, literary meetings, workshops and discussions in Nowa Huta. Utopia Home will continue Boulev(Art)’s ideas throughout the year, rather than just in the summer months.

How does this venue recall Nowa Huta’s extensive heritage?

It was formerly the home of the Electrical School Complex No. 2; abandoned due to a demographic low, the building stood empty for many years. We suggested that we could find EU funds for revitalisation so it could serve residents of Nowa Huta. We decided it would be the perfect address for promoting and developing the concept of empathy, as well as utopia itself, which is part of its very identity.

The building comprises four floors, which represent action, thinking, compassion and living. It is home to craft and multimedia workshops, meeting rooms, a gym and living spaces for residents. On the roof there stands the Fountain of the Future – a fluorescent statue of peeing Lenin, notorious in international press when it was first made in 2014. We have also created a community garden looked after by local gardeners.

From the very start, the concept of Utopia Home has been based on cooperation and integration between artists and residents of Nowa Huta, bringing together the local and the global. At first glance, it sounds like a rather… utopian idea!

This utopian idea has accompanied us from the very beginning. We have also strived to engage local residents in artistic enterprises. I remember our first performances at Stara Łaźnia at 28 Paulińska Street, where Sławomir Mrożek and other acclaimed artists sat side by side with our neighbours from our tenement house, many of whom had never been to the theatre before. The atmosphere meant that artists from the “big world” and residents of Kazimierz felt equally at home. The meetings between artists from Łaźnia Nowa and residents of Nowa Huta have resulted in myriad fascinating projects and inspired activists who continue to work in the city space spreading their passion to others.

What initiatives and projects have already been prepared at Utopia Home?

Utopia Home was officially launched in June this year, and we’ve already launched several important projects. I’d like to start with our youngest “offspring”, inspiring participants to look at the world through the prism of theatre. The programme features lectures, workshops, masterclasses and meetings with authors, journalists and historians. The cycle Masters – Inspirations includes meetings with acclaimed artists including Jerzy Trela, Danuta Stenka, Jerzy Stuhr, Jan Peszek and Katarzyna Kalwat. The project is curated by Jacek Wakar, theatre critic and jury member of the Divine Comedy International Theatre Festival, and the leading theme of this year’s programme is shame. Events are running until December, and we’re already planning the next edition.

We are also running the programme Archaeology of the Everyday including the cycle My Eyes Saw, presenting photos from family albums of local residents. The project culminates with exhibitions at Utopia Home and in the Nowa Huta urban space. We have also launched art workshops at our ceramics and sewing workshops, and we are getting ready to unveil further studios. We have also co-organised a conference bringing together six members of the European Union National Institutes for Culture (EUNIC). We publish books about Nowa Huta and other topics… There are plenty of utopian projects and initiatives!

Finally, please tell us what else will be happening at Utopia Home this year and in early 2022.

We have plenty of ideas and dreams, but unfortunately we have budgetary limitations. This year we are planning to launch a programme of Open Workshops, encouraging visitors to attend art classes. We are continuing to equip our ceramics, modelling, printmaking and photography workshops and are hoping to make them fully available to the public soon. Last June, we launched the Good Practice Cooperative supporting local activists and residents by providing them with space, equipment and materials for implementing their projects. I am delighted that this collaboration continues to grow and develop. Next year we will start a residential programme for artists bringing more fascinating projects and activities to Nowa Huta!

Małgorzata Szydłowska – stage designer, deputy director of the Łaźnia Nowa Theatre for theatre productions and director of Utopia Home – International Empathy Centre. Instigator of the innovative concept of the renovation and adaptation of the post-industrial space of school workshops for the Łaźnia Nowa Theatre. Originator and curator of the educational cycle Thinking Hand at the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre in Kraków.

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