Anything Is Possible

24 May 2022

Adam Mazur talks to Tomasz Gutkowski ahead of the 20th Krakow Photomonth Festival.

Adam Mazur: Krakow Photomonth is celebrating an anniversary this year. How would you describe organising it and the event in general?

Tomasz Gutkowski: As a never-ending search.

What are you searching for?
Photography has changed significantly over the last two decades and continues to change. Photomonth closely follows these changes; we strive to examine and report them, and to study contemporary photography. The world has also changed, as have the customs and expectations of our audience.

What does it mean for your audience?
We stopped preparing thematic programmes a few years ago. By forgoing curating the events in this way, we are hoping to create something new, open and wide-reaching. Our broad programme focuses on images and visual culture. This is shown in our international project Why Pictures? (whypictures.net) which explores issues of social or “unhuman” photography, created without human input yet having a major impact on our lives. I think the issue of agency of photos is particularly important, as is their impact on geopolitics and our daily lives. For example, when we share pictures of our private lives on social media, we are feeding algorithms which influence our choices as consumers and even undermine fundamental civic liberties (for example facial recognition systems used by oppressive regimes). These are fascinating processes we want to examine, and we share our findings with the public.

Why Pictures? is a website and a series of events resembling networking. What about exhibitions?

Right now I’m less interested in major monographic exhibitions and more in research and educational projects. Photography gives us an excuse to meet and reflect. It’s less about spectacle and more about supporting grassroots initiatives and experimentation. Let’s just say that the cost of presenting an exhibition of works by an international star could be used to develop many brand-new creative projects by local artists. To us, the answer to the question which of these strategies has a greater cultural potential seems obvious.

So there won’t be any exhibitions?
On the contrary! Of course at Photomonth there’s always space for classical photography and exhibitions. As part of our preparations of Why Pictures?, we are hosting an exhibition – or perhaps a “garden of adventures and experiences” – at the Nowa Huta Museum, prepared by Magdalena Kownacka and Anna Olszewska. There's plenty of attractions in the ShowOFF programme and the relaunched Fringe section. There are also several guest exhibitions at galleries and outdoors organised by partner institutions and visiting collectives. Last but not least, the current venue of Bunkier Sztuki at the Rynek Główny hosts an exhibition about Kraków and its invisible elements, prepared by Stach Ruksza.

So can we expect a scandal?
(laughs) It will be a visual essay about Kraków and about 21st-century Poland in general. A story of the relationship between aspirations and disappointment, tensions between tradition and attempts at modernisation, class and social inequalities, the establishment. Finally, since ours is a visual arts festival, about that which is invisible or overlooked.

Tell us more about your change in attitude to exhibitions.
It’s more about shifting focus and forgoing spectacle in favour of more important activities. We continue to develop the ShowOFF section, which has an exceptionally international profile this year. We are proud that artists who have made their debut at Photomonth are now achieving acclaim on the global scale. We hope that projects created under the guidance of our mentors are ready to head out into the world. Interest in ShowOFF is huge – this year we received almost 500 applications from all over the globe, with the jury selecting six finalists. Interestingly, all the selected projects are created by women, which is another sign of the times.

You mentioned that the Fringe has changed. It used to be something of a bag of odds and ends…
Today, the Fringe is a wide-reaching educational platform mainly aimed at students at art and photography schools, and independent artists and collectives. We wanted to reach out to this community, so last year we launched a central exhibition presenting a review of achievements of leading art schools in Poland: Poznań, Łódź and Szczecin, with Kraków acting as host. The exhibition was titled 8304 – the number of the train which passes through all these cities before finally reaching Kraków. It was incredible – it was the first opportunity for all these students and lecturers to meet and work together. We are planning to bring back the formula to the former University Hospital. Additionally, projects submitted as part of an open call are presented at studios, in attics and courtyards and other independent spaces.
Additionally, since last year the Fringe section has been serving as a platform for collaboration and sharing of experiences among leading art schools in Poland and providing an experimental space for myriad grassroots initiatives presented in the city space.

The last two years have been difficult for cultural institutions and festivals in particular, but you have prevailed.
It hasn’t been easy, but we have developed a new formula during the pandemic. Financial problems are one thing, travel another, and public safety is another important concern. We are hosting more events such as slide presentations, lectures and seminars online, allowing us to maintain the festival’s international aspect. You don’t have to produce a major exhibition of photos from South Africa or East Asia – all you need to do is invite a specialist from the region who can give an insider’s perspective to what’s most important in the region. We were lucky that our events coincided with relaxed restrictions during the pandemic, so we were able to meet our audiences in person.

How else has the pandemic affected your programme and activities?
We have changed our attitude to projects I’d call “ecology in art”. We are interested in long-term effects. Instead of producing expensive exhibitions and hosting one-off huge events, we are trying to produce things which will premiere in Kraków but which will be continued elsewhere. An excellent example is our collaboration with Marta Bogdańska: we produced her book and exhibition, and they continue to travel – they are currently on display at the Fort Photography Institute in Warsaw and as part of the Circulation(s) festival in Paris.

What function does Photomonth perform in Kraków and in Poland?
We provide a space for critical reflection on images. We strive to share the most current and important elements of the world of photography with the public. Photomonth and its organiser the Visual Arts Foundation sow the seeds by initiating and producing dozens of projects every year.

Sowing the seeds is a great metaphor.
Or you could describe us as an umbrella – we protect and support grassroots initiatives and provide space for expression and experimentation. That’s how we see our role in creating culture and operating in a city. We are no longer concerned with fighting for scale, and even less with competing on a national or international scale. I like to think it shows our maturity (laughs). Although of course we have to deal with daily challenges and choices just like other similar organisations.

Such as..?
There are elementary questions about what culture is for, and mundane issues such as how it should be funded and organised. Finding balance between preparing an ambitious programme and making a profit which would allow us to continue working is incredibly difficult, especially for NGOs. All this forms a part of a wider problem with festivals, creative thinking and the relationship between the first and third sectors – a relationship which I think is far from healthy. In short, financial and creative independence is something we think about every day and something which takes a lot of energy. Something else which doesn’t really get talked about is that it frequently leads to burnout, and brilliant managers and animators abandon the cultural sector for more lucrative fields. 

How do you survive?
We realise these are issues to work through between the cultural sector and municipal authorities. We are aware of the situation faced by these authorities. We are all engaged in a cultural war, and we must support one another. Fortunately collaboration and open discussion are our main tools.

That still doesn’t sound all that optimistic.
Our reality doesn’t exactly inspire optimism. But we are cultivating joy and optimism verging on the incorrigible. Paradoxically, the Visual Arts Foundation is in a very comfortable situation – we can do anything! We could shift to a biennial or triennial format, or devote ourselves entirely to education and promoting the legacy of Polish masters of photography – something we have been doing for several years already. It’s a fascinating perspective!

Would that mean the end?
Not necessarily – it could be invigorating for us and for the city.

Tell us about your collaboration with the Museum of Photography.
The MuFo has recently relaunched, so our relationship is only starting to develop. Our missions and functions complement one another, and we can’t wait for our joint ventures and challenges. We think this is a great opportunity for Kraków. For scheduling reasons, this year the collaboration remains at the level of accompanying events, but in the coming years our aim is to develop a close relationship both during Photomonth and throughout the year.

What would you say is Photomonth’s greatest achievement?
The public and the community. The privilege of bringing together dozens, bah, hundreds of extraordinary artists, curators, volunteers, institutions and collaborators under a single banner. I would like to extend my sincere thanks to them, to you, on our 20th anniversary.

Interview from the 1/2022 issue of the "Kraków Culture" quarterly.

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Tomasz Gutkowski


fot. Bartolomeo Koczenasz

Co-founder of the Krakow Photomonth Festival and director of the Visual Arts Foundation. Cultural manager, academic lecturer, producer of publishing, exhibition and archival projects. Populariser of the achievements of Polish artists such as Zofia Rydet, Wojciech Plewiński, Zygmunt Rytka and Władysław Hasior.

Adam Mazur


photo from the family archive

Critic and theorist of photography, art historian, columnist, university lecturer and founder of the “Blok” magazine (blokmagazine.com). Author of books about early and contemporary photography.

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