Go for broke. Agnieszka Mastalerz

To her, professionalism is not just about proficiency. It involves planning a complex production process, multi-stage research, juggling schedules, planning […]

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To her, professionalism is not just about proficiency. It involves planning a complex production process, multi-stage research, juggling schedules, planning the budgets, team coordination. Completion of the work is not the end, but simply an extension of the creative process. External conditions are not an obstacle, but a mere opportunity. Proof? The exhibition no mental scars, no nursed grudges, which ended in February at the eastcontemporary gallery in Milan.

Author: Piotr Jędrzejowski, Translation: Joanna Muchlińska

Where did the cooperation with Bites studio come from? Quite unusual to choose a brand with focus in the FMCG business.

I found their open call ad for directors. No details, just that they are open to any creative ideas. I saw the lack of specifics as an opportunity for me. Prior education in directing could have been one of their conditions, which I did not have. 

What I had was a specific idea I wanted to bring to life. Earlier I had checked out the studio itself and found out they have a robot that is capable of recording images in lab-like conditions – in slow motion, or in extreme close-ups. It is commercially used to capture details like e.g. a falling drop of coffee.

I thought I would reach out to them with the idea of capturing two girls climbing on top of each other using that robot. As a result, the studio provided a space in which we recorded the material (which took away my work when looking for a location) and the robot itself, the so-called “bolt,” two cameras: close- and wide-angle, and two studio employees to handle the robot and rip the material.

How much did the first idea change after researching of the studio itself?

It was a process. I came with a concrete idea, and the robot became a part of it. When I first saw it in person, I decided to use it not just as a tool to capture the video, but as a character in this work. The final video contains a shot where the robot appears on its own. Isolated, with no other props or characters. Exists in an empty space, performing its preprogrammed choreography. The contrast between its mechanical movement and the natural, organic motions of the girls’ bodies seemed interesting to me.

Agnieszka Mastalerz, NMSNNG, 2022, video still, 00:15:39
<VIDEO> < no mental scars, no nursed grudges (excerpt), courtesy of the artist and the eastcontemporary gallery

It is the “organic” that I wanted to ask you about, as it seems an important category in your work. The series of thermograms of buildings in Warsaw that you submitted to the APH Competition, despite all its technicality and minimalism, was very… physiological. Photos of the ‘white marianna’ marble shards, which you took a few years later for the inauguration of the (Un)common ground, were also extremely carnal. In this work, you collide this corporeality directly, and without understatement, with technology, strongly emphasizing its cool, “surgical” precision… Where does this fascination stem from?

What I wanted to emphasize in this work is the relationship of two bodies. The mutual support they give each other. There is a visible difference in the age of the heroines. The older one supports the younger. In close-ups, I wanted to reflect the discomfort, the pain associated with this support; real, physical, resulting from fatigue and pressure.

Two ideas collided here. First, from 2017, inspired by Kieślowski’s documentary “7 Women of Different Ages”. I recorded a girl doing a girl doing exercises on a horse. Not a pommel horse, a vaulting horse. It was about juxtaposing the girl’s tiny body with something that was supposed to resemble a real horse, about putting delicacy together with something aesthetically heavy. I was determined to make another version, with more girls. There were originally supposed to be three of them, of different age, to highlight not just the relationship between their bodies, but between generations, their experiences, and knowledge. This time, without the horse, to eliminate the tension unnecessary in this particular project. That was the first idea.

Agnieszka Mastalerz, 7 exercises, 2017, video still, 00:01:55
courtesy of the artist and the eastcontemporary gallery

The second one came around at a residence in Brno in 2018. I found a functionalist hotel ‘Avion’, meaning ‘’airplane’’, which was under renovation. I liked this location: an empty hotel, which not only has a temporary character (because you do not live in it permanently), but also has a fitting name. It is a story of a journey, and suspension in time. The renovation only emphasized its temporary nature.

I was on a journey myself back then. I used to look at flight safety instructions a lot, at ways of saving yourself during a crash. I wanted to reference those elements. I asked two friends from Brno to pose as if he were a belt for her, and as if she was a life jacket for him. We did a draft Polaroid session at the hotel, thinking that the photos would fade over time. I did not fully exhaust the subject of “saving,” or “saving yourself.”

The two girls from the video, shown in Milan at the eastcontemporary gallery in January 2022, are therefore the result of inspiration from the hotel in Brno and a girl practicing on a phantom.

Avion Hotel, Brno, source: https://www.gotobrno.cz/ Agnieszka Mastalerz, Polaroids from the shoot at the Avion Hotel in Brno, 2018, courtesy of the artist

Why did you decide to give up on the generational aspect?

I only managed to find two girls that fit the expectations of the project. And yet the difference between them is so clear that the idea comes through.

So it was a technical issue?

Not sure if I would call it an issue. This couple was more available, there was a production schedules to follow and deadlines to meet. That’s why when I saw them, I decided to stick to two girls. They seemed really determined. I was out of Warsaw at the time, and they sent over a video with choreography they came up with. After the first viewing I knew that was the duo. This was also my first project in which I had not seen the people I was supposed to work with live before. It was stressful, I’ve only met them in person the day before the fitting.

How did you find them in the first place?

I looked around acrobatic clubs in Poland. While I was in the Subcarpathia Province in Poland between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, I found out there is a training taking place, so I went to see it. The coach there said there might be issues with travelling to Warsaw, but she put me in touch with a club in Warsaw. The coach there confirmed she knows two girls who could have potential. In fact – they were interested, and they also met my requirements, including aesthetic ones. Additionally, they differed in age, so the context got preserved.

Magdalena Wróblewska, Zuzanna Ćwikła, fot. Roman Adaśko (Studio Bites)

You tell a tale of bodies, of touch, of people. Yet you had a robot not only register the connection between bodies, but also interfere with it, change its dynamic. Are you interested in exploring the relationship between the real and the virtual?

No, not at all. I want to display the relationship between bodies.

The robot was a prop to me initially, it became a character later. Programming its movement takes a lot of time, but they remain the same, with 100% accuracy, in every take. Unlike the movement of girls who get tired, they lose accuracy. We also took this into account during the production. At a point I decided that the contrast is interesting in itself. If a shot is blurry or inaccurate, it will tell a tale that these two can never collide. I wanted to show the dissonance between these worlds. The robot’s movements can be programmed very accurately, but it is impossible to program its response to chaos.

How did you come across this open call? Quite unusual that a creative agency or a design studio announces an open call for artists.

I follow creative companies that operate strictly commercially. I believe that you need to use your skills to make money from them. Because there are few funds available, especially for video artists. Especially on tight schedule.

The Society of Authors ZAiKS scholarship is helpful, but it is a set amount for which you can apply. More of a one-time support than a funding source. There is the minister’s scholarship, and the ‘Młoda Polska’ scholarship as well.

My mother always said – ideas cannot be measured. Whether you will get funding depends largely on the people who evaluate the application, the priorities for the year. I could finance my own projects, but I refuse to consent to that. I do not pay for projects with my own money. I always look for external sources. I saw the open call for Bites Studio on Instagram.

Magdalena Wróblewska (top), Zuzanna Ćwikła (bottom), fot. Roman Adaśko (Studio Bites)
Kuba Gryżewski, Michał Raczyński, Magdalena Wróblewska, Agnieszka Mastalerz, Zuzanna Ćwikła, fot. Roman Adaśko (Studio Bites)

So you managed it without connections or previous relations? You saw the ad, you replied, and you got it?

Indeed. I was aware I had to do it on a specific date. And Bites studio had a hall that met my expectations perfectly, and they also had a robot that could interestingly contribute to my work and add new meanings to it.

Especially that they gave you artistic freedom?


Were you not forced to compromise? Considering the size of the studio? A dozen or more people were involved in the project. Two different teams working in production. Working on such extensive projects is always difficult. Logistically, personally…

Frankly, it all went according to plan. Especially because of the time limit. In the meantime, I managed to obtain the Society of Authors ZAiKS scholarship, so I could pay everyone that helped along. I had a crew, and everything started to come together. Could something be done differently, better, for the benefit of the project? I do not know. I do not think about it. All I know is we executed everything that was planned.

Backstage from video shoot of NMSNNG by Agnieszka Mastalerz
Studio Bites, fot. Mirella Panecka

Sounds like you are the dream coordinator… and project manager. Substantive development of the project, budgeting, scheduling, obtaining external sources of financing, crew management and coordination. Where do you find the time for the creative process?

You know, it occurred to me now that even before the material mentioned, these recordings the girl on a horse from 2017, I recorded three other girls who were practicing on a vaulting horse. I wanted to address the very subject of vaulting, not do an exact copy. It was not supposed to be a documentary. So you see: the shoot for the video, which I showed at the exhibition in Milan, took place at the beginning of 2022. It took four years for the idea to come to life.

I submitted this idea to the Minister’s scholarship, but I did not get it. I applied to several other places at the time. I sent it to the Foundation that already has one of my works in their collection, but they were not interested either. I am not saying this open call was a blessing, but the timing was perfect. I knew I had to record another video, as I had agreed with the gallery that I would show a new piece of work at the exhibition. Without the resources, I would have to come up with a different project. You can always record a video with your phone, you can reach out for help somewhere else, scout various places. These four years I was not just focusing on that. The project was in the making, not in the waiting. It looks different now, because, as the exhibition came up, I came back to it, reworked it, and started realizing it. And it worked.

Why the title [no mental scars, no nursed grudges]? It sounds pawky, ironic even. Yet you talk about this project with a profound sense of satisfaction and success. No reckoning.

We wondered with the girls running the gallery in Milan whether to mention that this title comes from an essay by Zygmunt Bauman, I do not remember if it finally made it to the description?

It did not.

Exactly. I do not think it necessary to share the whole creative process with the audience, although it is bold, and I assume that quite often it is also interesting and valuable, e.g., for younger artists. I also think that not revealing all the details of reaching the final form of the project, or its background, leaves the recipients more room for their own interpretation or understanding of the work. It seems to me that a golden mean should be found here, neither to treat viewers as people who do not know the given cultural references, nor assume that they do. In one of my videos, I do not provide details of inspiration in the description, because it is evidence of a crime, which I do not want to flaunt. 

The title is a quote from Zygmunt Bauman’s essay “From pilgrim to tourist – or a short history of identity”. It concerns the relationship of two people who play, but their game is a metaphor for their mutual relationship in the moment when one of them loses. My point was that when you fail, it is not necessarily to be experienced and analysed to your disadvantage. One can make conclusions and leave with their head held high. And here, again, a few ideas collided.

I read the essay in Brno. Bauman describes a board game played between a young couple. I transcribed it into gestures. One person tries to grab the other, wrap around them, be their safety belt, or vest, so there will be no scars in this relationship. They are not visible, but there may be internal scars. The key question I posed is how much this potential fall affects us internally. Fortunately, there is increased talk about the fact that mental scars do not heal in the same way as real bruises.

Interesting… I interpreted it in the context of a three-way relationship. With the robot.

No. It was about the body-on-body relationship only at first. In the process, the robot became an important entity, impacting the heroines.

Speaking of the process itself – in 2020 I took part in an exhibition at Galeria Wschód. It was intended for projects that were never started, or never completed. These could have been sketches, installation parts and so forth. I showed these fragments of silk, which I bought as part of research related to parachutes. I read that the parachutes were also made of silk. After the Second World War, parcels of food were dropped on such silk parachutes. The contents of the packages were used, but women additionally sewed parachute material into bedding or wedding dresses. The fact that this delicate silk obtained from the threads of insects is used to save lives, to carry the weight of the body, drew my attention. During this research, I bought scraps of silk online, which allegedly came from these parachutes. Just to attach them to the wall and observe. Think about what can be made from them.

Work of Agnieszka Mastalerz from the ‘Proposals for a show’ exhibition, Galeria Wschód, 2020, fot. Jan Domicz

In Galeria Wschód, I exhibited them side by side. I tried to create an architectural form from them, keeping in mind the functionalism of the hotel in Brno. We called these fragments “costume scraps” with the curator, as if I were going to create costumes from parachute materials for this photoshoot in Brno. Three fragments were put on the wall side by side, with an inscription saying they are from a performance act that never got performed. We called it „no mental scars, no nursed grudges” already at the time.

Additionally, another work was created in the meantime. After my residence in Brno, a friend helped me make a tiny zin, framed in silk. There was a quote from Bauman, and a fragment from Olga Tokarczuk, because I was reading “Bieguni” (Eng. ‘Flights’) at the time, which contained deliberations on time stopping on an airplane flight. And finally, a copy of the Polaroid taken in Brno. It turned out to be a book to myself – a set of inspirations framed in another inspiration – silk.

Zin by Agnieszka Mastalerz, 2019; In the picture: quote from Olga Tokarczuk’s “Bieguni” (Eng. ‘Flights’), and a view of the Avion Hotel in Brno, courtesy of the artist

You said in the beginning that you are not afraid to think about your work in commercial and business terms. Although business involves a different type of working conditions. Sometimes you can be forced into a ‘employer’ – ‘contractor’ dynamic. What is your experience?

I guess I have been lucky so far. I do not remember having to compromise. Projects have often evolved, and with time, new ideas appear. Today, for example, I would change the final way of presenting the “Trajectory of Bodies” project at the APH competition exhibition in 2018 at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. But that was the image, and specific financial and organizational opportunities I had at the time. Each collaboration brings me a step further, I try to draw conclusions from each one. It is not something I am ashamed of, something I would rather leave unsaid. 

I know for a fact that the realization of the ERGO Hestia Annual Report, as part of the same APH competition, was already more complicated. First of all, there is no equivalent in Poland, so there is no point of reference. Secondly, it is a multi-stage process considering the cooperation of artists with the corporate structure – not only with the APH Foundation, but with the active participation of communication and marketing departments, the president… Artistic vision does not always go hand in hand with brand needs and expectations. That was the case here: your idea of a dream-book was changed due to possible image crises…

In the end, it was for the better. Or put it this way: I am incredibly happy with the result, because it seems much more interesting to see these specific dreams taken apart into fragments. You do not reveal it whole. You cannot read it whole; you do not know the author either. That was also the way it was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw – the texts were inaccessible, impossible to read, and hung high above the viewers’ heads. It was more interesting than just reading it. And why would you access other people’s dreams? I read them myself for the project, but at some point, you must respect the privacy of people who agreed to speak their mind. A vivisection of corporate employees was not the goal here.

„Poznanie,” ERGO Hestia Annual Report 2017, by Agnieszka Mastalerz

This situation was reversed when working with (Un)common Ground. We came to you with a specific idea, which you… torpedoed it may be too strong of a word (laughs), but you turned it into something completely different. Something that ultimately turned out to be a better and more interesting project for us. How do you decide when it is worth adjusting the project to the client’s needs, and when it is worth saying “it makes no sense, let’s do it differently”?

You wanted me to recreate the thermograms from my previous project. I had that specific idea in mind at that time, with a clear vision of photographing different institutions. Repeating the same concept with Hotel Europejski in Warsaw felt forced. I would have to find a reason within myself to go back to that technique. What did Hotel Europejski have in common with the Parliament or the Constitutional Court buildings? I did not want to do it all over again, I would much rather create something new. Something that would be more interesting to the viewers, something that will embrace the respect due to the building.

The final design is overall similar to the thermograms. It also required learning the history of Hotel Europejski. I enjoyed meeting with Igor Bloch, who told me of the ‘white marianna’ marble. It so happened that this project was realized in the autumn. And in May, I went to Międzygórze to hike in the mountains and stay in the open air. It was the beginning of the pandemic. I knew Marianna Oriańska was born in these parts. I wanted to know her story, and the place she used to live in and own. I even took a camera with me, but I did not take a single photo. And then you reached out to me and organized a meet up with Igor. He spoke the Duchess’ name, and it all came back.

Agnieszka Mastalerz, white marianna, 2020, pack shot series,
pigment print on Moab Entrada Natural Rag 190gsm paper,
Dibond canvas, 30 x 15x19cm
Projekt "Sztuka, która (nie) przemija" - projekt opakowania: Dmowski&Co.
“Art that does (not) pass away” project – packaging design: Dmowski&Co.
Projekt "Sztuka, która (nie) przemija" - projekt opakowania: Dmowski&Co.
Projekt "Sztuka, która (nie) przemija" - projekt opakowania: Dmowski&Co.

I treated this offer as a regular job. One from which I can profit and finance my next project. But if I am to be the author, I want to be satisfied with it, to be able to identify with it. I realize in Sopot I was working you for, but you gave me that chance. When I discovered I had received a special award, i.e., the implementation of the artistic concept of the Annual Report for ERGO Hestia, I did not know what to think. But now, I treat is just as any other job – I must do my best and get proper compensation. And I am incredibly happy about that, because not only will I have the opportunity to create something, but I will also earn money from doing it. And not from sales of the final product, for a preset compensation for every step of the production – physical and intellectual work, my time, travels, meetings.

There was a point in my life when I gave up on regular employment. I put all the eggs in one basket: I want to be able to support myself from creativity, from my work. I am aware I need to constantly be looking for opportunities to be able to realize any project and accept a lot of them will be turned down. I assume that if someone is not interested, or is not able to cooperate, then maybe they will get back to me someday. I am serious about my work. I care about being able to do what I want, to focus on it, not do

things I do not want to do, or I do not agree with ideologically.

„no mental scars, no nursed grudges” video was realized with and thanks to:

– 3-channel video: Marcin Gołąb: director of photography; Kuba Gryżewski: assistant director; Zuzanna Ćwikła, Magdalena Wróblewska: performance artists; Bartłomiej Ptasznik: focus puller; Olaf Jurdyga: gaffer; Anna Słowińska: make-up, hair; Mirella Panecka: backstage; Bites Studio: studio, crew (Michał Raczyński: robot operator, Łukasz Mergner: video, Roman Adasko: backstage), bolt, cameras; Black Photon: post-processing (Alicja Karbowska: post-production coordinator, Monika Greczkowska: conforming, Hanna Rudkiewicz: color correction, Maciej Mika: special effects); Fast Media: optics

– a series of analogue photos – Agnieszka Kryst: performer; Ewa Ledóchowicz: owner of the location; Painting Studio, Jerzy Łapiński: scanning; banda printshop: scanning.

The exhibition was created with the support of the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in Milan, the Polish Institute in Rome, and the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Warsaw