Akademia Ruchu [Academy of Movement] was founded in 1972 by Wojciech Krukowski (1944–2014) and co-created by Janusz Bałdyga, Jolanta Krukowska, Zbigniew Olkiewicz, Jarosław Żwirblis, Cezary Marczak, Jan Pieniążek and Krzysztof Żwirblis.
Insofar as Krukowski himself referred to Akademia Ruchu’s activity as “theatre,” their work revealed a performative character—the artists, particularly during the 1970s, carried out their actions in public spaces, they used a communication language that could be easily understood by most passers-by, and employed codes and signs originating in everyday life, topical in the specific difficult realm of Poland under communism in the 1970s and 1980s. During the group’s formative period, the term “performance art” was not yet universally used in the artistic discourse; the artists relied on their intuition in search for adequate terms, such as “action art,” “action,” “occurrence” or “happening” among others to define their work.
The essence of the activity of Akademia Ruchu’s members did not consist in an analysis of their own psychophysical condition, in explorations of their inner emotional states or in transposing them into the physical dimension. Instead, they used the body to convey a specific non-verbal message that could be legible to others. Yet, we need to underline that the participant-actors of Akademia Ruchu tapped into different means—“from martial arts to ballet,” and, notably, they were insightful observers of everyday life, its problems and paradoxes, which they were able to synthetically capture within a collection of gestures as building blocks of a given performative situation.
The group’s activity was consistent and permanent—it adopted the form of numerous actions in the public space, which intensified towards the end of the 1970s, when the socio-economic situation in Poland had worsened significantly, while the political realm had grown more oppressive than ever before in the country’s post-war history. The goal behind Akademia Ruchu’s actions was to boost fellow citizens’ sensitivity to symptoms of oppression and to draw their attention to numerous detrimental phenomena in the public space, which had become so widespread that they were now imperceptible. “These banal signs of banal activities and banal situations always have a shade of strangeness to them, however: they transform the ordinary into the extraordinary,” as Konstanty Puzyna wrote. “They compel the viewers, participants, passers-by to suddenly look in a new way at elements of the everyday realm in which they live as if they had never seen them before—and to think about why something suddenly turns out funny or senseless, or quite the reverse: beautifully poetic. Akademia Ruchu’s activities therefore simply consist in filling the prosaic current of street life with constantly different effects of strangeness.”
Europe, Akademia Ruchu, 1976. Courtesy of Janusz Bałdyga, copyright SPAR. Photograph by Jan Pieniążek
Akademia Ruchu initiated a game with passers-by, extracting from the iconosphere of the communist everyday reality minute occurrences, gestures, situations, such as the queues caused by the permanent shortage of goods, the checking of people’s IDs on the street by the civic militia (the country’s communist police), the censorship in public space and the press. The artists cumulated those facts, exaggerated them through multiple repetitions, eliminated their transparency and rendered them visible, while their adopted working method could essentially be used in every socio-political situation, because it relied on universal schemes. As Szczawińska wrote: “Due to the variety of techniques used by Akademia and related to the diversity of movement, the same idiom developed by the artists became adjusted in each case to the needs of a specific topic and spectacle. Their performances, full of everyday activities—walking, standing, sitting on the bench, greetings, jumps, etc.—perform extremely varied functions with regard to the source material.”
The group’s first pieces, such as the action Collage (1973), clearly testified to the participants’ careful preparations to acting, which was demanding and physically exhausting. In Akademia Ruchu’s later works, this aspect loses its importance, yet it remains visible to a careful viewer—the artists were perfectly synchronised with each other, they acted in full harmony, which was of key importance to their concept. Their individual actions—as remarked by all researchers of the group’s activity—were characterised by a selection of very modest means and, at the same time, by a perfect preparation.
The above mentioned “fragments of everyday life,” gestures and facts provided the material for such actions as Kolejka [Queue, 1977], which consisted in forming the eponymous queue, a permanent feature of the Polish communist landscape, which was leaving the shop instead of entering it; in Potknięcie [Stumble, 1977], carried out in several Polish cities—in busy spots with high human traffic, the artists mixed with the crowd and tripped over for no obvious reasons, which compelled the passers-by to be mindful and observant; and finally Gazety [Newspapers, 1977], in which the group members, one after another, bought a newspaper from newsagent’s only to immediately discard it as a clear allusion to the quality of the press in Poland under communism as well as the impact of the censorship and propaganda.
Several actions by Akademia Ruchu addressed reality by means of contrast—the artists introduced a new quality therein, as it was the case, for instance, in the action Happy Day (1976), during which the participants dressed in colourful attires mixed with the crowd to distribute otherwise unavailable exotic fruit from trays and baskets, and in the action Czerwone i białe [Red and White, 1978], dedicated to the residents of Warsaw crossing the River Vistula on one of the bridges. With the river ice-bound by the freezing winter weather, the members of Akademia Ruchu could use the white ice and snow surface as a backdrop for a varied choreography performed with bands of red fabric, thus infusing life into a monotonous and predictable urban landscape and willing to open up the perception and animate the imagination of the involuntary viewers: the people of Warsaw.
Akademia Ruchu’s performances also sometimes adopted a more dramatic form, such as for instance in Czuwanie [Vigil, 1975] and Czuwanie II [Vigil II, 1977]. During the former action, the artists continuously faced a concrete fence that bore resemblance to a prison wall, with their hands behind their heads as if waiting for an execution. The latter work was set near the beach in Świnoujście, on a parking lot where the participants were lying down in positions evocative of a dramatic occurrence, such as a shooting or explosion. Although blood was nowhere to be seen, it was easy for passers-by to think of a crime or killing scene.
Akademia Ruchu also relied on less legible metaphors, yet even in such cases they were able to create an atmosphere of tension and anxiety, for instance in the often discussed performances Autobus I and Autobus II [Bus I and Bus II, 1975]. The former was a sort of tableau vivant, performed at the Dziekanka in Warsaw. The participants posed as a motionless group of passengers and a driver of the eponymous bus. They remained silent, but the piece unfolded to a soundtrack of recorded noises of the street, factory, passing cars. Such a situation generated a dissonance—the lack of correspondence between the motionlessness of the action and the sound layer—and thus produced the impression as if viewers were encountering an event that was dramatic for unknown reasons. The piece culminated when the lights on the previously illuminated stage went out. In turn, Bus II was an action in the Bieszczady Mountains during the group’s trip. While roaming the mountains, they came across a wrecked bus, which they appropriated as “passengers” and a “driver.” As remarked by Łukasz Ronduda, among other scholars, Akademia Ruchu’s Bus bears reference to Bronisław Linke’s painting bearing the same title (1959–1961), which provides a metaphor for the society’s poor condition. An apocalyptic bus carries passengers, each of whom represents a different national flaw. The work by Akademia Ruchu, in which the bus resembles a phantom vehicle, is an allegory of the social situation at the time and a premonition that it was bound to deteriorate.
Akademia Ruchu also organised actions that relied on co-participation of people from outside the group, such as Dom [House], performed multiple times, first in 1978. The residents of a tenement house in Lublin were invited to work together on painting banners—a characteristic element of reality in Poland under communism and a “prop” used by the authorities during their spectacles. Instead of propaganda slogans, the banners featured phrases used every day by dwellers of the house. The banners, alongside portraits of the residents painted by Akademia Ruchu, were displayed on the facade, thus performing a gesture of a short-term “reclamation” of public space, which in totalitarian regimes does not belong to the citizens, but to the authorities.
The artists also sometimes used peculiar props, as for instance in Piechota [Infantry, 1977], an action during which Akademia Ruchu filled an urban location with life-size grey human figures resembling typical people in communist Poland of the period. Akin to Czerwone i białe [Red and White, 1978] and Potknięcie [Stumble, 1977], the piece was supposed to shake passers-by out of their daily routine. An interesting project was Człowiek i jego rzeczy [Man and his Things, 1978], carried out during the Del Teatro in Piazza Festival in Santarcangelo di Romagna, Italy. One of the group members was exposed half-naked throughout the whole day alongside a collection of items of everyday use lying on the ground. The action marked an attempt to portray the contemporary human being with their possessions, which “complemented” their image, as it were.
In the early 1980s, Akademia Ruchu’s works featured direct references to the current political developments in Poland. The decade began with the so-called Solidarity Carnival, when Solidarność—the Solidarity Trade Union, the most serious resistance movement against the country’s communist authorities—gained its legal recognition. The official registration of the union became a significant social and political event, in which the Akademia Ruchu members got involved by taking part in a citizens’ demonstration by the Supreme Court edifice in Warsaw holding a banner with a mirror reflection of the sentence on the facade of the building: “Justice is the stronghold of the power and lasting of the Republic of Poland.” The artists claimed that they thus wanted to enable the court officials to actually read the sentence. Akademia Ruchu had also addressed current political affairs before, as in 1976.
Akademia Ruchu worked as a community and developed their subsequent actions akin to a theatre group. Each participant played a specified role that had a meaning for the whole piece. The group conducted rehearsals and each event was divided into detailed scores; Szczawińska described them as: “Notes that resemble construction ladders; records of changeable structures, potential configurations, modules to be selected.” The literature devoted to the group includes information concerning the inspiration that could impact on Wojciech Krukowski, yet often merely suggests general references, such as John Cage, whose work should rather be indicated as an inspiration for the entire generation of artists active at the turn of the 1970s, as well as Tadeusz Kantor with regard to the Polish artists of the period. Another suggested potential influence is Jerzy Krechowicz’s Teatr Galeria, active in Gdańsk between 1961 and 1967. A students’ theatre, it nevertheless represented a high artistic level and was characterised by a reduction or elimination of the verbal message, replaced by other visual means. Light was an equally important element of their performances and props did not play a secondary role, but functioned as autonomous objects. Yet, it again seems more justified in this case to evoke the broader context of the student theatre milieu in Poland under communism after the October political “thaw” of 1956 as a field of inspiration for Krukowski, who, as an art historian by education, was familiar with the history of the avant-garde theatre. Finally, there was the unquestionable influence of Oskar Hansen, member of the programme board of Akademia Ruchu. We encounter an analogous situation here: as a personality and a pedagogue at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, and founder of the Open Form theory, Hansen exerted an impact impossible to underestimate on the entire Warsaw (and not only) progressive art milieu. Tomasz Plata suggested that the most relevant comparison for Akademia Ruchu would be rather Robert Wilson, Lucinda Childs, or The Wooster Group.
Given those facts, Akademia Ruchu should be seen as a phenomenon that formed part of the developed performance art scene in communist Poland. As Weronika Szczawińska remarked, rather than anticipating processes unfolding in performance art, the group consistently built that scene and, from a certain perspective, became its important part.
After 1989, following the political transformation in Poland, Akademia Ruchu continued to work in a new socio-political realm, addressing hitherto absent problems, such as intolerance, fundamentalism, in Trzy zdania o rewolucji [Three Sentences about Revolution, 2010], the situation of the individual, the potential preserving individual liberty, autonomy in the face of globalisation, and increasingly oppressive media and brutal financial policies, in Środek Europy [Centre of Europe, 2010–2011]. The artists also referred to the local social situation in Poland, for instance the country’s poor readership levels and the loss of jobs due to the entry of international corporations to Poland. Since circa 1986 they limited the amount of their street actions to metaphorical performances. It confirms Plata’s argument, that Akademia Ruchu has never left the field of theatre definitively.
Moreover, Akademia Ruchu played a vital role in propagating the Polish culture abroad by participating in numerous theatre festivals and by inviting theatre groups such as The Living Theatre or Odin Teatret to Poland.
Throughout the entire period of Akademia Ruchu’s work, the direction of its activity was set by Wojciech Krukowski, who, as artist and art historian, was the author of the practice method of the group and as well as of its theoretical base.
Even currently Akademia Ruchu’s activities may and are indeed staged also nowadays, such as certain modules of their actions that are applicable in the new historical context. That was the case, for instance, with the above-discussed action in 1980s Justice Is the Stronghold, which came to life again in the public space of Warsaw (performed by the artists and younger generation members of the cultural circles) during the mass protests against the judicial reform in the summer of 2018. This situation shows that Akademia Ruchu’s legacy is somehow still adequate and can be used in a new political and social context, despite the fact that the group no longer exists.
Marika Kuźmicz, PhD, is lecturer at Academy of Fine Arts, researcher and head of Arton Foundation in Warsaw.