Field Notes In Conversation
Elise Armani with Piotr Szyhalski
Piotr Szyhalski is a Polish-born, US-based artist. Trained in Poland as a poster designer, Szyhalski has been living in Minneapolis since 1994, where he teaches at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. In 1998, Szyhalski began Labor Camp, an ongoing artistic framework that transcends medium and encapsulates his layered practice of performance, musical scores, printed ephemera, pedagogy, and media art. A self-identified collector of words and images, Szyhalski cites material from a vast network of historical events and their representations. Responding in his work to the instrumentalization of visual and auditory media in war and ideological movements, Szyhalski draws upon the compositions and means of distribution of airborne leaflets, religious pamphlets, frontline military posters, and labor camp orchestras.
On March 24, Szyhalski began the “COVID-19 Labor Camp Reports,” a daily series of hand-drawn posters shared on Labor Camp’s Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/laborcamp/), inspired in name by the 1970s albums The First Annual Report (1975) and The Second Annual Report (1977) by English industrial music pioneers Throbbing Gristle. The posters, which have continued now for nearly 90 days, provide a poignant visual tracker of the pandemic’s progression and the discourse surrounding it. Two months after they began, on May 25, George Floyd was killed by police just miles from Szyhalski’s Minneapolis home, prompting a national uprising in response to the epidemic of police brutality. In the days since, Szyhalski’s reports have responded to this environmental shift, addressing in tandem the continued rash of COVID-19 and police brutality as intertwined manifestations of racialized state-sanctioned violence.
In 2004, Labor Camp published the following declaration:
Labor Camp rejects the notion that cultural contribution is made only through material goods broadly defined as art. Direct and conclusive denotation of cultural worth of any artifact is in truth impossible. An artistic product may address an urgent need, convey messages of import, or provide an insight into an unspoken truth. But all these are fleeting concerns. They are important only now and only to some. Time erases. People forget. Things break down.
However: The forms developed in the process of artistic production do acquire an assessable value, but only inasmuch as they are the evidence of labor undertaken to construct them. The Labor itself is the only unchanging criterion of cultural merit.
Thus: Suspending all ideological banners, we work. Through the labor of our hearts, minds and hands we render useless the endless chatter of moral ambiguity.
Labor Camp celebrates beauty and dignity of labor: We Work All The Time.Labor Camp promotes immateriality: It exists at no particular location, and has no fixed physical form.
Labor Camp encourages all forms of individualism: No man is equal.
Labor Camp belongs to no one, and belongs to all.
I spoke to Piotr Szyhalski at the end of June.
Elise Armani (Rail): When did you become interested in posters?
Szyhalski: I mean posters were really a common thing on the streets in Poland as I was growing up, and Polish posters were…It's a different thing from what you think of as posters here. It's an art form. I think it was at first maybe intriguing, and then fascinating, and then something to aspire to learn how to do.
I have this book, The Workshop of the Frontline Poster, with posters printed with paper stencils literally in the trenches during the war. This book was one of the first that I got on poster design. I think about it a lot as I'm making these drawings because there's something about the whole ethos of it, the idea that there's weaponized visual language involved, and it’s happening literally on the front lines. In the case of the book, an actual war; in our case, some weird notion of war happening.
Rail: Yes, this was something I was talking through with my students in the Art and Medicine class I teach, how in the first months of the American response to COVID-19, the pandemic was framed as something that required not care, but a military approach.
Szyhalski: The war thing is, to a large extent, responsible for me allowing myself the very direct language that a lot of these drawings have. If we had had this conversation before the pandemic, I would say I'm not doing political art. I would say I look at politics the way a landscape painter would be looking at landscape and I'm just responding to what I see. I hated when the notion of political art was put on the table because it flattens everything immediately. But of course, the pandemic happened and suddenly we’re in the midst of what Labor Camp has always been concerned with, extreme historical phenomena. In our case, it falls in this disastrous political landscape. We are where we are with this just insane crisis, and suddenly I'm realizing, “Okay, this is really a world-changing event, and I feel like there's some kind of a shift that needs to happen for me in the way that I'm responding to it.” The framing of it as a war, and the instantaneous perversion of the problem, making it into this weird political battle ground, I had to set my concerns about the political and propagandistic aside and let go of those feelings. That's kind of how the drawings started. It's sort of amazing, because there is something cathartic for me about doing this. I have not worked like this in many years. I haven't worked manually, with this sort of sustained focus or intensity, and certainly not this rhythm of every single day. There's something very Labor Camp-like about it. It's hard work. And I feel like there's a sense of urgency and almost responsibility that drives me through this.
I was in Poland in the 1980s when we had Martial Law. The military rule took over at midnight on December 13, and all of us were at home: my brother, my parents, and I. Sunday morning my dad woke us up, just ashen white, like he just saw a ghost or something. He shook us and said, "War." He said that one word and I didn't need any more explanation. I understood exactly what he was saying and the gravity of it.
When I was making this poster for April 4 I was thinking about that moment. Of course, in this context, of endless wars, it is so much more perverse and complicated. America is at war constantly. During the entire history of America, the US has not been at war for 17 years. That's incredible, mainly because if you talk to people who maybe aren't that much that interested in history, they would say, “That’s crazy. What are you talking about? There’s no war.”
Our relationship with war and how our country functions in the world is so warped and twisted. Every time the word “war” is introduced into the cultural discourse, you know that it is already corrupted. That's why it’s paired here with “back to normal,” because it's another combination of phrases that stood out…Everybody keeps talking about things getting back to normal. Then the pronouncements that this is a war and we’re fighting an invisible enemy. It just seems so disturbing really because what that means is that we're about to start doing things that are ethically questionable. To me, what was happening is that the pronouncement was made so that anything goes, and there's no culpability, nobody will be held responsible for making any decisions whatsoever because it was war and things had to be done.
Rail: I'm struck by your father saying only "War,” and the meaning of the word being so strong in your memory. The meaning of war has been completely abstracted in the way it is experienced in the US. More disturbing, if I think about how “war” has been used strategically in this context of COVID-19, it doesn’t feel like rhetoric that was raised to be alarmist, but almost to be comforting. That this is a familiar experience. We have a handle on it. We are attacking it like a war. War is our normal.
Szyhalski: Yeah. Which is like profoundly not the way to do it. Yeah, I mean, it’s sick.
Rail: Where did the Labor Camp framework emerge from?
Szyhalski: I've been using that term for many years now and it has changed in many ways for me. As a Pole, I grew up in a cultural landscape saturated with World War II imagery and the concentration camps, and that was such a heavy, constant cultural presence. Even decades after World War II, so much of national identity was built around these concepts. It’s just a very present idea in many ways.
Labor Camp came out of an awareness of—and this is ridiculously grim—how artists really can't stop working. It seems there's no time where I'm not actually somehow pursuing the work. If I'm not doing something with my hands or whatever, then I'm thinking about it and scheming about it…so just thinking about this impossible, endless process of processing reality.
Part of the endless labor is sifting through history, sifting through the past to find things that seem relevant today. The funny thing about history is that you always look back from the luxury of time and you can see these massive events taking place, you can understand the dynamics. We don't have that perspective when we are in it, so my idea of studying history was to remap the past onto the present, so that we might gain insight into what’s happening now.
Rail: How do the “COVID-19: Labor Camp Reports” fit into this framework?
Szyhalski: The COVID-19: Labor Camp Reports is very much a Labor Camp project, because it still feels like a kind of a study of historical phenomena, just not from the luxury or distance of time, but rather from being submerged within it. That's different and the strategies are different as well, as is the idea of really trying to minimize or compress the amount of time that happens between the event that happens, the experience that I might have processing or working on the project, and then allowing somebody else to have an experience with the work. With this project, it happens within a single day and there’s something about this ultra-compression that is interesting to me.
Rail: The political poster is a natural decision for this concept, but I also think there's something that's been particularly effective about the reports as photographs of posters that exist within Instagram posts. In a lot of ways, especially with the constraints of the stay-at-home orders, social media have become a primary means of communication. I can't separate the posters from the digital means through which we’re experiencing them.
Szyhalski: It’s so funny that in the 1990s I was already teaching online, a performance class called Politprop. The reason why I ended up doing it online was because from the get-go, I was looking at the internet as a public space, so it was no different really from working on the street, as far as I was concerned.
Rail: I have to laugh because commented consistently under all of your posts is, “Are you printing these? How can I get a poster?” Have people been printing them and taking them to protests?
Szyhalski: Somebody did do that. They asked me in the messages on Instagram if they could use one and I sent them a better photograph. But I always say it revolves around ideas of exchange or redistribution or engagement. My favorite way of describing what art is for me is that it's a social act and I like that way of thinking about it, because it really is all the things that you just pointed out; in each case, there's some consideration for how the work inserts itself between me and this other person or between other people, how it negotiates that space. That maybe in an ideal scenario, it becomes a dialogical or conversational space.
Rail: I think we all lack a historical distance right now to make sense of this moment. But art can provide us with an abstracted or a historical lens, that gives us distance or a sense of a time bigger than the moment we're in.
Szyhalski: Totally. And in a way, doing precisely what you said, just by making a more or less direct reference to a Mao quote or using Trump's words, but setting them in the way that they sound like something that would come from the Cultural Revolution. It’s offering the glimpse of that weird loop that I was talking about earlier, the remapping of the past onto the present. So that something could be gleaned from this.
I can't tell you how many people said, “I want this to be a book, because I want to be able to in the future sit down with my kid and show them what happened.” It's kind of mind-bending to me that some people can establish that kind of relationship with these images.
Rail: That is a powerful statement, not only that they want a book to have the posters in an object form, but because of what looking at images in a book allows you to do as a social gesture. It provides visual grounding for recalling memories of this experience.
One instance where the posters function succinctly as a report is looking at May 1 with May 31. These two together are so interesting. In each you have hands stretched outward in fists of defiance. Early in the pandemic, I had a recurring thought that essential workers are framed as if labor is at the essence of their lives. Not only are they essential to the function of society, but as if their essential purpose is to be a laborer for some greater good. When I look at the term “essential work” on the May 31 poster, the phrase has a completely different meaning: we've essentially been prioritizing the wrong work.
Szyhalski: That's exactly why this poster happened. This weird concept that we have developed, essential, non-essential work, this arbitrary division of what will matter and what will not matter. It wasn't until I was swept up in the uprising and really asking myself what's happening—there was this amazing video of this silent moment of people with their fists up, thousands of people on their knees, and it was just incredibly moving—I had this realization that this was the essential work, the work that we need to be doing.
Rail: Are there other phrases like “essential work” that have shifted in this way?
Szyhalski: “Before and after” landed in my notes because people kept comparing things as “before the pandemic” and “after the pandemic.” I just loved the idea that there would just be one image that is both before and after. There's a Polish saying I thought about when I drew the May 20 poster and, later, the June 12 “Justice” poster. The saying is “Nie było nas, był las. Nie będzie nas, będzie las.” (We weren't there, but the forest was there. We will no longer be there, but the forest will be there) Our life is just a blink, the forest is the thing that was there to begin with, and it's going to be there…Of course, in the climate disaster context, that is questionable, but there's something about that sentiment that was in the back of my mind. Like the forest, justice is an immutable law of nature, which will outlast all of us.
Rail: I read the series two ways: In one regard, I see the posters in this lineage of weaponized aesthetics as politically effective. But I also see their existence on Instagram as tongue in cheek. The irony of the iPhones throughout the series isn’t lost on me. How are you negotiating Instagram, as a platform of communication, but also something that has its own limitations? When you were describing this 1990s utopian idea of the internet as public space, I was struck by the contrast with how things turned out. In both our physical and digital reality, we have lost the commons. Is Instagram a public space?
Szyhalski: It's a good question. I don't know if I have a good answer for it, the self-awareness of reality versus phone and phone versus reality. There are a lot of phones in the posters. I had to tone it down, I didn't want the whole thing to become about phones. But it’s huge, especially with quarantine. It's us sitting at home glued to our phones, I mean it's just bizarre. Social media had constructed this problem for us in years before, and we kind of learned to live with or within that weird parasitic relationship, but with this it has become something else.
The drawing from April 20, “Everything all the time,” with the three phones: each kind of articulates a very different space that it unlocks, you're inside of the phone, your whole house is inside of the phone, and then a storm erupts… That's kind of how it feels from second to second, one swipe and you're suddenly on fire, another swipe and you're just… Nothing happens and you’re bored to death.
Rail: What do you think about the term “virality,” which feels applicable to this project in many ways. Something going “viral,” so to speak, as some of these posters individually have?
Szyhalski: I will just say that there's something virus-like about social media anyway, in the way that it operates, in the way that it taps into our physiology on a chemical level in our brain. It’s designed to function that way. And combining that kind of functionality with our addiction to or the dominance of visual culture, it's just sort of like a deadly combination. We get addicted and we just consume incredible amounts of visual information every day. That's something to lament maybe, but I do remember having this conversation when I worked at a newspaper as a photographer for a while. I remember talking to one of my friends, a photographer, when the internet happened. The newspaper business was just all in despair that this is the end of print and all this, and I remember and he was like, “Oh no, I'm excited because that just means that people will read less, because the consumption of the news will be dominated by the image,” and he couldn't be more right, I mean it really is like that.
Rail: There was an opinion piece in the New York Times a few weeks ago by Sarah Lewis, an art historian at Harvard, called "Where Are the Photos of People Dying of Covid?" We use infographics and numbers and have seen photographs from other countries, but we lack any local visual representation of death and dying, which perhaps is re-doubled by the inability to commune and have funerals. This prophetic notion that your friend at the newspaper had about images taking over makes this absence of COVID-19 imagery even more glaring.
Szyhalski: I think in this country we have sanitized our relationship with death profoundly for a long time. I recall reading something about newspapers having a kind of internal agreements about not publishing pictures of dead bodies, period, whether in America or anywhere else in the world. I remember paying attention to this. It really is true that very rarely you will see a photograph of a dead body in the printed newspaper. It reminds me, for example, of the absence of the flag-draped coffins that come when soldiers return from war. Because we're taught to think about COVID-19 as a kind of war, maybe it makes sense to really think about that. When I was working on my piece, Theater of Operations (2009), I realized that you wouldn’t see the coffins. Soldiers from Iraq were coming back in these flag draped coffins regularly, but you wouldn’t see it on TV. It turned out that there's a ban on those images in the media, which was put in place during the Gulf War. On CNN, Bush was giving some speech talking about how great we were doing or whatever, and at the same time, there was a fresh shipment of the dead soldiers. They did one of those split screens that they often do when two events are happening live. There: he was talking, and there: people were seeing the tens and tens of these coffins coming in. That was it, they said, “Okay, we will not allow this being present in the media.” I think that ban is still in effect.
It's like this idiotic quote from Trump, “Well, you know, if we stop testing right now, we’d have very few cases, if any..” If you don't see the picture of the dead body, there's no dead body. It's the reason why if I teach a foundation class, I always show the students this famous Stan Brakhage film, The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes (1971). It’s a half hour silent film of multiple autopsies. We have this extended conversation about just how completely absent images of our bodies like that are from our cultural experience.
Rail :The existence of such a ban is an acknowledgement by the government of the power of images. I think about the way that you speak of frontline posters, the proposition being that they could be as lethal as weapons of war. I also wanted to bring up the major exception to your comment regarding a lack of familiarity with images of dead bodies in the media. That is, images of dead Black bodies, recurring footage of predominantly Black men being killed by the police, that has become common to the point of desensitization. I wonder how that fits with this absence.
Szyhalski: I'll tell you. Because those are the images that people wanted to see. They were widely distributed; you could buy postcards of lynched men and women because people wanted to celebrate that. There is a completely different attitude at work. One could say they're doing the work of the same ideology, but in opposite directions. It would be hard to talk about a history of photography in this country and not talk about lynching photographs.
Rail: When I read this article that Dr. Lewis wrote in the New York Times regarding the absence of images, I thought of both the self-publication of death by men dying of AIDS, who pushed into the media their own bodies and those of their partners as they experienced death, and of Mamie Till choosing to circulate the photograph of her son Emmett Till’s body. I think that that is the flip side of the perverse, consumptive circulation. That the existence of the photograph also makes the violence impossible to deny.
I want to ask you about the poster from May 27, “I CAN’T BREATHE,” made two days after the murder of George Floyd. I noticed that the aesthetics of this one feel more contemporary and pared down. Even though it's so specific to this moment, the way it's drawn also has this universal quality to it. It could be any moment on any street corner.
Szyhalski: That is the intersection. That is Cup Foods on the left. This was a struggle for me, honestly, because I knew I had to make a piece about what happened, but also, I think I needed to acknowledge the fact that I was going to do the work, to do a piece that was strictly about this particular event. I'm not sure exactly how I arrived, but I realized that the inability to breathe was a visceral connection. And once I realized this, then the text became very obvious quickly. I went on Street View and to that corner and it occurred to me that it really should be the place when there's nobody there. Everybody is gone, but that is the place where it happened. It seemed appropriate for two reasons: One, everybody is gone because it is the pandemic and you are told to stay home, and two, it is that place where the murder just happened. In both ways it was the idea of erasure. The way I drew it also was very, very reduced, like an approximation. The awning over the Cup Foods is there, the trash can, the streetlamps are the way they are, there's the Speedway sign on the right, and the bus stop across the street. All drawn in a very tentative way, just enough so that you can understand that that's the place.
Rail: Is there a visual equivalent of the phrase, “the silence is deafening”? The absence in the image is so accosting.
Szyhalski: The one following this, May 28, there is a body, but it's drawn within these nested silhouettes. That was the moment where we crossed 100,000 deaths, and so the relationship between one death and 100,000 deaths is there.
Rail: One plague, one way of dying that is being counted every day, but another that is happening all the time…
Szyhalski: …And not counted.