Bodies Defiled, Bodies Allied
I really want to believe that the year 2020 was a turning point in Poland’s thirty years of constitutional democracy. Even though coronavirus transmissions and deaths skyrocketed during fall 2020, the streets of Polish towns and cities were filled with hundreds of thousands of protesters. The fear of contracting the virus and the palpable presence of death did not stop the collective rage, which erupted after the November 22 decision by the Constitutional Tribunal to no longer permit abortion in one of the three circumstances under which it was permissible in Poland—making the procedure almost entirely unavailable to Polish women.
At their peak, the demonstrations swept through over six hundred towns. They were the largest in post-1989 Polish history. However, their significance goes beyond mere numbers. The demonstrations also constituted a radical performative act that questioned the very legitimacy of the present social contract in Poland. In the fall, we participated in a violent break with the theater of legitimacy that had repeatedly played out in the country. In the streets and squares, a new collective political subject appeared and demanded to be recognized.
This subject consisted of bodies whose presence in the public sphere had never enjoyed full legitimacy in Poland: the bodies of women, the bodies of young people (who participated in great numbers), non-heteronormative bodies that are openly persecuted by the government. They revealed their fragility and vulnerability as their basic political condition. Their public, political act was what Judith Butler calls “an appearance.” It laid bare and questioned the prevailing distribution of the privilege of physical, economic, and social safety. These bodies formed an alliance built as much on mutual care as unbridled fury. For the first time in the history of democracy in Poland, a new, allied, heterogeneous subject dared to rupture the conservative-liberal consensus, which until that point had marked the horizon of political possibilities in Poland.
At the center of the new social contract, there is the body: vulnerable, recognizing its interdependence with bodies like it, celebrating its sexuality, and demanding a fundamental right to equality for all bodies. The protests’ main slogan, “GET THE FUCK OUT,” emblazoned on posters and chanted for weeks, was not only addressed to the right-wing government. It was also a forceful command aimed at oppressive systems, demanding that they step back from bodies that are subjected to physical and symbolic violence. It was a performative act that revealed the contingent nature of the biopower that has always presented itself as an unquestionable social order. It was a radical refusal to obey.
The widespread uprising was commensurate with the scale of the violence that the government has inflicted. The puppet Constitutional Tribunal—politicized by the right-wing government, in violation of checks and balances—handed down a decision that forces Polish women to carry their fetus to term even if it is incapable of living outside the womb or will face profound disability after birth. Condemning women to this experience is torture. The decision therefore violates the basic constitutional rights of female Polish citizens, not to mention their inalienable human rights.
Although the tribunal’s decision undermines Poland’s cultural ties to liberal democracies, it is by no means surprising when we consider that democracy in Poland was founded on an unwritten compromise between public officials and the Catholic Church. Even before this arrangement began after 1989, the Church had enjoyed a hegemonic position in Polish culture for centuries. As the feminist cultural critic Agnieszka Graff meticulously demonstrates, this foundational compromise centered on a specific exchange: the Church was given total control over the moral sphere in return for supporting Poland’s effort to join the European Union and transform its economy in a neoliberal direction.
For the Polish Catholic Church, morality is inextricably tied to the strict regulation of sexuality, which takes the form of patriarchal control over the female body, stringent rules around procreation, and the oppression of nonnormative gender and sex. The alliance between the throne and the altar was established first and foremost at the expense of women and their reproductive rights. In 1993, authorities introduced a strict law against abortion that allowed just three exemptions: when the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest, when it would threaten the mother’s life or health, or when the baby would be born with profound and irreversible birth defects. At the time, Parliament disregarded a petition with 1.7 million signatures demanding a referendum on the matter. This was the truly foundational act of Polish “democracy.”
Women paid first. But the aggressive colonization of sexuality soon encompassed the entirety of Polish society. The Polish Catholic Church has sought to replace sex education with “teaching purity,” prohibit contraception, scare children with “the mortal sin of masturbation,” and promote conversion therapies to “cure homosexuality.” Because of the Church’s aggressive presence in the Polish public sphere, sexuality has became a snare that it uses to trap not just its followers, but all of society.
Even in their childhood, Poles are violently interpellated (to use Althusser’s term) by the Church as “defiled bodies.” In an Althusserian sense, the experience of symbolic sexual trauma is almost universal in Poland, due to the Church’s universal colonization of sexuality and its hegemonic position in wider Polish society. In addition to its harmful control over public life, the Church has also consistently acted to protect perpetrators of sexual violence. This is why the new social contract enacted by the collective body of protestors in the streets last year began with a new politics of the body—an alliance for the freedom, safety, and equality of our bodies.
Both conservative and liberal politicians in Poland calculated that the Church could be used to build democracy (never mind that women and minorities were sacrificed in the bargain), but this has proved to be shortsighted. In the early 2010s, the Polish Catholic Church took a fundamentalist turn. While the Church was still perceived internationally as an ally of EU integration and a silent supporter of the neoliberal agenda, it now embarked on a crusade against “gender ideology and LGBT ideology,” and accused the EU of being “the civilization of death.” Its clergy have called sexual minorities “the rainbow plague,” and it has become a key partner of other rising international fundamentalist organizations.
Due to the Church’s open collaboration with the Polish ruling right, it has become clear that the failure of either partner will bring down the other. In recent years Polish society has learned of the monstrous scale of sexual violence that the clergy has inflicted on Polish children; this violence is systemic in character, with perpetrators enjoying institutional protection. At the same time, it has become clear that John Paul II, the Polish Pope, participated in the cover-up of sexual abuse by clergy members, as revealed by the 2020 McCarrick Report, which focused on the sexual violence perpetrated by a former cardinal in Washington, DC. These revelations have rocked the Polish Catholic Church to its foundations.
A Hanged Statue and a Felled Cross
We can appreciate the depth of the Church’s symbolic power if we notice how rarely contemporary art has publicly critiqued the institution’s violence. Despite the visibility of this violence, the Church has been virtually ignored by contemporary critical art, at least since 1989. Although art has criticized other forms of systemic oppression—capitalism, gender and class inequality, nationalism—the Church has been let of the hook. This is perhaps the clearest proof of the structural censorship the Church exercises over the Polish public sphere.
While isolated controversial artworks have appeared, sometimes accompanied by scandals, their energy has been promptly appropriated by the dominant regimes of visibility. This mechanism of censorship is illustrated by the case of Dorota Nieznalska’s art installation The Passion (2001), which gave rise to the first notable post-1989 art scandal. The work addressed oppressive models of masculinity and the suffering they cause. One part of the installation featured a photograph of male genitalia cut into the shape of a Greek cross. As a result, the artist was tried in court for “offending religious sensibilities,” a serious crime under the Polish penal code. Nieznalska was eventually acquitted after eight years of hearings and appeals. But convicting Nieznalska was less important than simply charging her. The years-long court proceedings fueled the self-censorship of other artists and curators, not to mention the economic censorship of art, which is almost exclusively publicly funded in Poland and thus depends on the favor of politicians and government officials.
For years, nothing disturbed the homeostatic arrangement among political, religious, and economic powers. It was an incredibly efficient system of rationing the visible. Then in 2017, Poland was again shaken by a controversial work of art: director Oliver Frljić’s The Curse, based on a play written in 1899 by Stanisław Wyspiański. Frljić resolved to launch an attack against the violent consensus regulating the public sphere in Poland. His goal was to lay bare the mechanisms of structural censorship and spark a real social conflict: to open an “agonistic” public space, as Chantal Mouffe has termed it. Rather than start a rational debate between the antagonistic parties—which is impossible in Poland—Frljić wanted to show that Polish society is locked in a “clash of communities.”
Frljić divided the audience in two. One half was shown the strongest of stimuli—representations that provoked “iconoclastic jouissance,” or sudden explosions of bliss at the sight of the desecration of the Other’s idols. The other half was shown images of the utmost horror and disgust, while also being aware of the bliss experienced by the “Others” at the sight of extreme cultural transgression. In doing this, Frljić made the divisions in Polish society visible. The affective exchange in the audience, and later also in front of the theater during weeks-long pickets organized by both supporters and opponents of the performance, showed how strongly we as a society are bound by mutual disgust and rage. “Bodies that are disgusted are also bodies that feel a certain rage, a rage that the object has got close enough to sicken, and to be taken over or taken in,” writes Sarah Ahmed. “To be disgusted is after all to be affected by what one has rejected.”
One icon shown during Frljić’s performance was a plaster statue of John Paul II, resembling the thousands of monuments that fill the Polish public space, but with an erect penis attached. Two acts were performed on the statue. First, an actress put a condom on its penis and then passionately fellated the statue. Next, the entire ensemble cast—playing a rural community in Poland—hung a sign on the statue that read “PEDOPHILE PROTECTOR” and tied a noose around its neck, as if preparing to execute it. While these actions have an intense affective charge, their meaning is ambiguous. The statue’s erect penis may represent the Catholic Church’s gendered power structure. It could be the literal visualization of the obvious fact that only if you have a penis can you wield Church power. The fellating of the statue could be interpreted to represent the physical and symbolic violence inflicted on Polish women by the Church and its clergy. It could refer to the boundless adoration and love that many Polish women, whose sexuality has been colonized by the Church, compensatorily direct at the figure of the Polish Pope. From a feminist psychoanalytical perspective, it could portray the daughter’s relationship with her symbolic father, whom she desires to seduce in order to prove her full value as a woman. As for the sign and the noose, which in Poland evoke executions carried out in World War II death camps: these gesture towards the rage felt by those who are oppressed by the Catholic Church and deemed to be “the despicable Other.” With his staging, Frljić enacted the “revenge of the weak” against the Church—a Nietzschean “slave revolt” by those who are denied real power.
Similar dynamics play out in the final scene of the performance. After saying she has had an abortion, a woman wields a chainsaw and cuts down a giant cross that has loomed over the stage since the beginning of the performance. This image of the cross being cut down so radically violated accepted standards of public visibility that it constituted “a critical exception” in Polish symbolic space at the time. It stirred feelings of horror, but also euphoria in those who had been affected by the Church’s violence. It was “a surrogate act” that stood in for the impossible act of removing crosses from public spaces, which is prohibited in Poland. Crosses can be found in public-school classrooms, government offices, local councils, pharmacies, hospitals, and notably, the main chamber of the Polish parliament, where a member of a conservative Christian party secretly hung a cross in 1997—which no member of parliament has dared take down since. These crosses are still up, but the public sphere has undergone a revolutionary transformation.
As its creators intended, The Curse provoked a social performance that lasted for months, even years, testing the limits of freedom of speech and artistic expression in Poland. All of the main forces of the state were involved: the police, the justice system (an investigation into whether The Curse offended “religious sensibilities” is still ongoing, and amounts to harassment of artists and institutions), local and national politicians, as well as the media and all sides of the Polish culture war.
Thinking about The Curse in light the 2020 protests, we might be tempted to say that Frljić’s play was prophetic. It would be more accurate to say that Frljić correctly read an ongoing social process. The performance foreshadowed a revolution—and unfortunately also an impasse in the continuing cultural war.
During the protests, the structural censorship enforced by the Church was transcended. Numerous street performances involved monuments, which became the centerpiece of interventions into public spaces all over Poland.
A particularly impassioned battle of symbols was waged over a statue of John Paul II that was erected in front of the National Museum in Warsaw in the fall of 2020. The museum itself had already been a site of ideological struggle when the new director, appointed by the right-wing minister of culture, began a dramatic process of “nationalizing” the flagship art institution. Among other moves, he closed down the contemporary art gallery as “unnecessary” to a national museum. Even before the closure, works by feminist artists were removed from the gallery for being “demoralizing to the youth.” These works included Natalia LL’s Sztuka konsumpcyjna (Consumer Art, 1972) and Katarzyna Kozyra’s Pojawienie się Lou Salome. In response, the activist art collective Czarne Szmaty organized a large public happening where participants ate bananas, alluding to Natalia LL’s censored work—a public celebration of sexual freedom.
In what was possibly a reaction to the protesters occupying the museum’s courtyard, the John Paul II statue was erected there several months later, in a decorative pool. Titled Zatrute źródło (The Poisoned Spring) and created by Jerzy Kalina, the former pope is portrayed raising a massive rock over his head, as if preparing to smite a hidden danger lurking within the blood-red water, colored by crimson fabric at the bottom of the pool. The sculpture was also an artistic response to another work: Maurizio Cattelan’s La nona ora (The Ninth Hour), which provoked controversy when it was exhibited in Poland in 1999. Cattelan showed a wax figure of John Paul II crushed under the weight of a meteor. In contrast, the 2020 pope of right-wing fantasy lifts the rock with superhuman power. At whom is the pope hurling the rock? The answer came one day after the Constitutional Tribunal’s decision, when a group of young women jumped into the pool and were photographed striking dramatic poses as they protected their bodies from the pope’s shattering blow. The intervention, full of bravura humor and carnal courage, but also staged with careful dramatism, says a lot about the performative strategies of the new political subject that emerged in the fall of 2020.
In July 2020, before the Constitutional Tribunal’s decision, there was another significant performance involving a monument. It foreshadowed the breakthrough that was to come in the fall. Queer activists from the Stop Bzdurom collective and the SamZamęt Gang put rainbow flags in the hands of several statues of historical figures in Warsaw. They also attached a short manifesto to each statue’s pedestal calling for open resistance against violence and for excluded and stigmatized people to take up space together. It concluded with this statement: “This city belongs to all of us. Fuck you, bigots!” One of the targeted statues was a figure of Jesus Christ in front of the Holy Cross Church in central Warsaw. The police quickly located the activists and apprehended one of them, leading to a street riot. The crowd blocked the police car that was attempting to take the arrested activist, Margot, to a police precinct. The incident was deemed “the Polish Stonewall,” and the slogan chanted by the protesters, “You’ll never walk alone,” later became important in the fall protests.
“THE SUBJECT DISAGREES WITH THE PREDICATE”
This slogan emerged at the very beginning of the fall protests. It is a play on words in the original Polish: the word for “predicate” (orzeczenie) means both a part of speech and a court decision. The slogan points to the “grammatical” error of violating the fundamental norms of democracy and asserts that the nation does not consent to the state’s actions.
At the order of fundamentalist politicians, the puppet Constitutional Tribunal deprived half of the country’s citizens of the basic right to make their own decisions about their bodies and health. In response, a political subject demonstrating its vehement dissent appeared in the streets, ready like never before to speak in a vulgar, aggressive language unfit for public debate. “GET THE FUCK OUT” and “FUCK PiS” (“PiS” is Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, the ruling party in Poland, known in English as the Law and Justice Party)—the slogans that emerged from the protests broke with democratic procedures of negotiation. They established a radical counter-audience. The democratic, agonistic arena, where each side is a legitimate participant in public debate despite the impossibility of achieving consensus, had ceased to exist due to the government’s actions. The protesters expressed their rage by breaching the default communication contract. By using the kind of language they did, they showed that the government had no democratic legitimacy.
In an unprecedented move, protesters also entered churches during Sunday services. The Catholic Church was openly exercising political power, and thus its places of worship ceased to be sacred. These interventions were usually less dramatic than those involving monuments. Often, people silently entered churches with signs reading things like “WE PRAY FOR ACCESS TO SAFE ABORTIONS.” This was still too radical for Polish symbolic space, as protesters were accused of profaning the churches. If we follow Giorgio Agamben’s understanding of the profane act, which, he argues, reclaims what has been separated and excluded from common space as “sacred,” these accusations are accurate. But as Dariusz Kosiński aptly suggested, if any Agambenian profanation occurred, it was to women’s wombs rather than churches. The protesters had no interest in reclaiming Catholic spaces, which would be of no use to them, but the owners of the wombs wanted to reclaim what had been appropriated by the right-wing government and the Church as the sanctified “temple of new life.” This “temple” was becoming a living, breathing female body again, publicly declaring its right to be freed from the obligation to procreate. This inspired numerous signs that cheekily referred to human sexuality. Popular among them was “ALL WE HAVE LEFT IS ANAL” and “MY PUSSY, NOT JARUŚ’S” (“Jaruś” is the diminutive form of “Jarosław,” referring to ruling-party leader Jarosław Kaczyński.)
The Coming Community
In response to accusations of vulgarity and aggression, the protesters chanted: “SHOULDN’T HAVE PISSED US OFF!” This rage quickly combined with the power of play and subversive parody, leading to an eruption of creativity and sensuality—a celebration of a corporeal being-together in common space. Slogans and banners bore witness to an inexhaustible creativity that freely combining all cultural registers. The oldest known sentence written in Polish, “Day, ut, ia pobrusa a ti pozivai” (Come, let me grind and you take a rest), was transformed into a call to Kaczyński: “Day ut ia pobrusa, a ty wpierdalaj” (Come, let me grind and you get the fuck out). Another popular slogan translates as “Anushka has already poured the oil,” taken from Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita.
The appearance of vivid bodies in public space, marching together in solidarity, cancelled out the celebrations of national memory and military martyrology that had dominated Poland in previous years. In this context, it is instructive to compare the language of the 2020 protests with the language of earlier protests, such as the 2016 demonstrations against Law and Justice’s attempt to pass a more restrictive abortion law. Like the 2020 protests, 2016’s Black Monday demonstration (on November 3) was coordinated by the grassroots social movement Ogólnopolski Strajk Kobiet (The All-Poland Women’s Strike); and like in 2020, hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets. However, as Joanna Sieracka points out, the prevailing strategy then was to feminize the national narrative and the patriotic imaginary. Protesters wore black clothing, referencing a period of national mourning in the nineteenth century when Poland lost its independence and patriotic women displayed grief as a form of resistance. The most popular signs played on slogans and symbols from Poland’s various struggles for independence—the Partitions of Poland, World War II, the Cold War—sometimes humorously, sometimes seriously.
This language emphasized cultural continuity while trying to force its feminist reimagining. The protests centered on the figure of the woman-mother; at stake were her reproductive rights, safety, and freedom. The ideological horizon ended at the right to individual freedom, posited as the foundation of democratic society.
While the 2020 protests certainly drew from the energy of the 2016 protests, they were driven by a different idea of community: a self-organizing network of allies and supporters rather than free, individual subjects with a right to a common national tradition. In other words: the coming community. In the 2020 protests the right to abortion, understood literally and symbolically as the right to a freed body, ceased to be an individual matter (as expressed in the 2016 slogan “I THINK, I FEEL, I DECIDE”), and transformed into a common cause. Self-organization replaced the oppressive state, as declared in the chant “WHEN THE STATE DOES NOT PROTECT ME, MY SISTERS I SHALL DEFEND.”
These words were actualized by an organization called Aborcja Bez Granic (Abortion Without Borders), which helps women travel abroad to have safe abortions or obtain medication to terminate a pregnancy. During the 2020 protests, its telephone number was displayed in apartment windows and on picket signs, spray-painted on sidewalks and church walls. The organization received huge numbers of donations. As a result, between the announcement of the Constitutional Tribunal’s decision and April 2021, it was able to help seventeen thousand people. This example of material solidarity testifies to the possibility of building new social structures that oppose the logic of neoliberal techno-patriarchy. It shows that community can be built on the recognition of interdependence and the strengthening of mutual care. This should be “promiscuous care,” according to the Care Collective, which draws the idea from the care practices of gay communities during the AIDS epidemic. Promiscuous care transcends traditional familial relationships and professional care institutions. It spreads widely, creating transversal connections and demanding new institutions: “It should … inform every scale of social life: not just our families but our communities, markets, states, and our transnational relationships with human and non-human life as well.”
The bodies that filled the streets of Polish towns and cities in the fall of 2020 created these kinds of transversal connections and grassroots institutions. Artists were part of this great creative collective too. In particular, their work supported the communication strategies of the protests. A prime example of this was graphic artist Ola Jasionowska’s red thunderbolt symbol, which was visible everywhere. Artists’ intense presence in the streets, as documented by Magazyn Szum, helped gather together the protesters into one collective artistic subject.
What kind of strategies should progressive art institutions pursue in order to support and continue the 2020 movement in Poland? We need a profound revolution of care today; we need public queer-feminist-antiracist-ecosocialist cultural institutions. Poland’s decentralized system of cultural funding fortunately means that most public art institutions are in the hands of local authorities, who enjoy some independence from the ruling right, at least for now. This is a resource that may prove invaluable for social movements fighting for a new order. For some time now new institutional models have been discusses, and pioneering projects are underway. But the process is too slow. Art must catch up with the street.