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Chapter Two


From Solidarity to Self-Service

For the first time in my life, I felt that my role as an artist served a truly vital social purpose that was being recognized and valued. Following many trials since my exhibition in Santa Monica in 1986 that one critic wrote “offers an opportunity to reflect on the current state of world affairs,” like so many “serious” artists, I found myself up against a system that glorified chrome plated doggy and bunny rabbit balloons. Anyone who follows or is part of the Contemporary Art world will surely understand this seemingly nonsensical commentary. For those who don’t, doggy and bunny rabbit balloons depict the most recognized subject matter of New York artist, Jeff Koons, one of the most “successful” living artists of our time.

Wall Street had helped turn art collecting into a high stakes investment game, its Bible a book listing charts of the yearly value of the works of various, what are called “Blue Chip” (collectable for the sake of investment) artists.

Who in the West could ever have imagined a playwright becoming the head of a country?


The art world had become an insidiously chic artist/art dealer/art collector star-making system and investment game. However, to many Poles living in a repressive totalitarian society, art was a symbol of rebellious courage in the name of free expression. This occurred at a time when restrictions were not only imposed on mass printings of public announcements, but on allowing a maximum of eleven people to congregate at a time at an art exhibition or to watch a movie at the cinema. Their often illegal activities were in direct opposition to non-threatening work that was exhibited in the “official” galleries operated by the communist government, or what today would be the chrome plated doggie balloons of capitalistic excess.

Who in the West could have imagined a playwright becoming the head of a country, as happened in Czechoslovakia, after Vaclav Havel lead the Velvet Revolution? For that matter, who in the West could have imagined the Catholic Church becoming the main alternative support system for exposing underground contemporary art, as was the case in Poland? Says the Polish Institute:

Martial Law proved to be a decisive factor in this period: it forced virtually the entire artistic community to boycott the official exhibition spaces. The only places which found approval among independent artistic and intellectual groups were places of worship, and that was where meetings, shows and exhibitions were held. Just about everyone participated in them, and only a very few steered away from religious themes.

Whereas my journey to Poland was being supported by those who steered away, Ryba helped enable this by taking the clever middle road. Despite directing an art gallery inside of a church basement, he forged an agreement with the head Bishop whereby out of a schedule of twelve annual exhibitions, he only had to present two shows yearly depicting religious themes. Likewise, whereas I consider spirituality to be an essential element of my work, my show held in 1989 in a church in Koszalin, that Ryba had helped organized, had nothing to do with organized religion. Nor could it usually be said of exhibitions held inside of artists’ apartments, which became alternative art exhibition spaces.

When I left Poland after my first visit in 1989, I was committed to awakening the West, with the photos I had taken, to the depressing conditions I had witnessed firsthand. Yet, starting out in Paris, it was already too late, as I ran into one cynical reaction after the next. One Parisian journalist said to me that she was tired of losing opportunities to publish her articles because suddenly there was so much news about Poland. A bourgeois Parisian art collector, who I knew personally, snickered that no one would respect my activities in Poland because it was a poor country. I met with the director of a Parisian photo journalist agency, showed him the photos I took in Poland, and he liked them so much that he offered me a job as a traveling photographer. Nevertheless, he was not interested in publishing them for the same reason: weariness over hearing about a country which had just spearheaded the toppling of communist dictatorships countries throughout Central Europe.

Always in the back of my mind were the heroic figures I came to know like Ryba, Makarewicz, Albin and others living in such difficult conditions. Nor could I forget the young owner of a Gdansk shipyard, who was living like a king by comparison. I stayed in his home and as he became a bit tipsy from vodka consumption, he implored me to do what I possibly could after leaving Poland to enlighten others to his country’s plight. Having taken his plea to heart, the reactions I encountered in the West were deeply disheartening.

I can only conjecture why I discovered such an insensitively dismissive attitude among the French to be so pervasive. Perhaps it says something about a cold-blooded chauvinism that my other story on this site, Caught in the Crossfire, reveals? I had found the art collector’s remark hard to stomach, since France had been rebuilt after WWII with the financial aid of the Marshall Plan, whereas Poland was not so fortunate. It is no coincidence that there is even a Paris Metro station named after Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was a great ally to France during WWII. 

I had come to feel so committed to a new sense of purpose after my long visit to Poland at such a critical moment in history, that I turned down the Paris photo agency’s offer of employment that many photographers would have died for.

Back home in LA, I tried once again to present my photography of Poland’s dire conditions at the end of the totalitarian era but got no further. In the escapist sunny southern California weather, it was as if Poland did not exist. It was true what Poles often said: that Americans cannot find Poland on a map.

Prior to that dramatic day that the Berlin Wall came crashing down, Poland was perceived to have been swallowed up among many other forgotten countries hidden behind The Iron Curtain. Few Americans I had spoken to knew the difference between Central and Eastern Europe and I do not believe that has changed more than 25 years later. Nor do I recall this distinction ever having been brought up in a history or geography class at school.

I exhibited snapshot-sized photos in a pitch black room without any source of illumination.

As discussed in Chapter One, my first opportunity to exhibit the photos turned out to be back in Wrocław, in Zbigniew Makarewicz’s “Galeria X.” The photography essay on view also drew comparisons with other societies that I had visited. This, helped open a few doors, as I repeated the exhibition in 1992 in Liege, Belgium and 1993 in Barcelona. For the Barcelona exhibition, I intentionally reproduced the problematic circumstances under which the Wrocław exhibition had become possible.

Barcelona Candlelight East-West Postcard Exhibition, 1993

Once again I exhibited snapshot-sized photos in a pitch black room, which could only be viewed by holding a candle in one’s hand. Accompanying the show was text explaining how and why the first exhibition occurred in Poland. In Belgium, also in a candlelight setting, I finally presented large format photos accompanied by the following exhibition text:

These photos were taken during the 27 months that I spent in Europe from October 1989 until December 1991. The travel began by an invitation offered by an independent cultural organization in Poland which had protected the freedom of expression during the communist era.

When I arrived, the Solidarity movement had just become part of the government and the Iron Curtain had come down, liberating Central Europe. During the summer of 1991 I traveled to Budapest, Prague and Berlin, as well as to places in Poland where I had taken photos two years before. These images demonstrate the region’s slow and tedious march toward economic, cultural and social freedom after the fall of Communism. I returned to Poland later that autumn at which time my photos were exhibited in the gallery of Zbigniew Makarewicz, president of the Polish Artists Association, an organization which had been suppressed during the decade of Martial Law. In December of that year, my visit to Moscow coincided with the disbanding of the USSR.

Many of my photographs were taken inside of metro stations throughout Europe. They also examine institutions and rites of passage from an anthropological perspective. I compared and contrasted socialist and capitalist influences – for example, there was one shot of a Coca-Cola T-shirt worn by a former neighbor in Barcelona; and then the logo of Społem, the company that symbolized the communist monopoly of Polish industry.

Barcelona 1991 left, Wrocław 1989 right

The spirit of those photographs captured the essence of an era that also came to an end as Communism slowly morphed, both for the better and for worse, into the new age of globalization. From the Polish Institute of Tel Aviv:

Artists were given the opportunity for extensive, free involvement without fear of censorship. On the other hand, however, the political and economic changes at the end of the eighties had a huge impact on the already impoverished artistic milieu. Despite censorship and repression, artists were assured of a minimum level of material security by the communist state. This was lost when the free-market arrived with democracy. 

As a professor of modern art history once said during a lecture I attended in Santa Monica, California, “The invention of the camera liberated artists to starve,” so did the liberation of Poland from the era of Communism. Along with this was the other downside, of mixing art with capitalism. The website of the Polish Institute continues:

The painter’s image has stopped having any of the political resonance it had in the post-1955 political thaw or in the eighties.

Simultaneously, new art institutions and galleries emerged, which had state and/or local government support. While this development paralleled the emergence of a new economy, rebuilding infrastructure and vastly improving communications networks, I found myself living for six years in Barcelona, a city undergoing prolific urban renewal prior to the 1992 Olympics. Numerous projects and events were offered to me, as had previously been the case in Paris, which one-by-one fell by the wayside under the most dubious of circumstances. Finally, an opportunity arose, as a cultural institution paid to ship my two most ambitious stained glass artworks: “Les routes de La Grande Odalisque – The Large Brain,” and “The Routes of the Grand Illusion – Shooting Star Triptik” from LA to Barcelona. These were the center pieces of the exhibition held in 1986 in Santa Monica that prompted my wanderlust. Incredibly, they were lost at sea for a month and arrived with significant damages. By the time they cleared Customs, another month had passed and the show was canceled due to budgetary cutbacks on cultural events as corruption and excessive costs associated with the Barcelona Olympics was crashing the economy.

It was a given that Poland was no place for an artist to even anticipate remuneration for public projects or exhibitions, let alone selling one’s work. What motivated me was not money but creative opportunities that were too interesting and challenging to decline. It was in Poland where I had my first exhibition of a photo essay taken throughout Europe, which began in the Warsaw underground. Most importantly, I was afforded the opportunity to present my musical compositions and film, for the first time, with a 10-piece musical ensemble consisting both of classical and rock musicians. It had long since become clear that the mission of cultural exchange that I had accepted from Ryba was by no means finished.

It was for this reason that in 1996 I ended up living in Wrocław on my own volition, as an artist-in-residence, when I was offered to participate in an international media festival called “WRO Media Art Biennale.” For the first time, I was invited to stage a live performance of the music I had composed for videos of my own creation. Two of them had won festival awards the same year elsewhere in Europe.


The venture was star crossed from the outset. Whereas back then there was no transportation company willing to cross the border with my personal belongings, instead I had them sent to the apartment of a German friend living in Berlin and I flew there the same day. Early in the morning a Pole arrived in his car from Wrocław to pick me up and bring my belongings to his city. When we went inside of the apartment building’s basement where they had been stored for just one day, I was shocked to discover that the boxes of my delicate musical equipment and computer were buried beneath heavy wooden and leather furniture. My luck, of all things, someone living in the building had a party that night and all of their furniture had been temporarily stored below. 

Months before, the festival’s director had made it ominously clear that he wanted nothing whatsoever to do with bringing my personal effects from Spain to Poland and he had advised that I arrange for everything to be sent for commercial purposes, even though the festival was nonprofit. Long before I embarked on this high risk trip, I did exhaustive research, contacted various authorities and was advised that declaring commercial property would have led to an extremely complicated and costly outcome. Not sure what to do, on the Internet I encountered a traveling salesman from Ireland, who often crossed the German/Polish border. His advice was to avoid any possible difficulties with Customs officials by simply stating that I was an English teacher and that I played music as a hobby. He further insisted that I cross one of the less popular borders in the middle of the night. However, the Pole who met me in Berlin with his car refused to follow my instructions. Insisting that he had no time to lose, he drove to the most heavily trafficked border between Germany and Poland. God-only-knows why upon arrival he impulsively grabbed all of the documents in my possession and handed to the Customs official papers implicating the festival. As a result, it was necessary to fill out a separate import document for every significant item of my huge shipment consisted of a computer, stereo amplifier, synthesizer and guitar. Had the driver done what I had asked of him, I would likely be writing an entirely different story today.

Instantly, I walked into a trap. The last thing I would have ever wished to happen became unavoidable, when I was informed that only the festival director could grant me permission to enter Poland with my belongings. Nor could the timing have been worse, for it was a Sunday morning on a frozen-over winter’s day and the festival director was sick in bed with the flu. In order to help me pass through Customs, he had to run to the city’s main post office during heavy snowfall and to send a FAX to the border. He further had to come up with a payment for a temporary commercial shipment of approximately $700, which back then in Poland was a small fortune. I paid him back upon arrival in Wrocław but all went downhill from there. The next morning his assistant berated me for being “completely disorganized” and refused to listen to my story that I am now telling over 20 years later.

Polish hospitality turned into hostility as one unanticipated problem materialized after the next in preparing for my event. It was a rude awakening to the dark side of a society coming out from the Iron Curtain’s shadows, as the first thing I learned was that about a year earlier Jerzy Ryba had died in a car accident and that it went almost unnoticed by the Polish media.

I needed to quickly find a place to live and by a stroke of luck, a young Pole standing behind me in line at the post office overheard me speaking English and asked if I could be of help as his English tutor. I told him I had just arrived and needed to quickly rent an apartment. He said that there was a furnished apartment directly above the unit where he lived that was abandoned by a neighbor, who visited Canada and never returned because he could not reveal in Wrocław that he was a homosexual. We called him by phone, he gave me permission to sublet his place and I quickly got to work, only for a fuse to blow in the old building’s electrical system which fried my new digital video editing hardware, which had been purchased abroad. Other equipment failed as well, which I suspected was due to damage from the heavy furniture that was placed on top of it in Berlin.

With little time to lose, the artistic director of the media festival arranged for several video editing sessions at the local television station, TV Wrocław, and their top video editor was assigned to the job of finishing a one-hour video to become the backdrop of my live performance. Every hour of the time I was afforded was invaluable and the first session was nearly wasted when no one brought empty Betacam video tape cassettes, which were necessary to capture video clips from my raw footage. Digital editing was at its infancy and I was ahead of the curve in Poland, when my own equipment failed which was among the first digital editing systems avaliable on the market for home video editing.

It was late in the evening and someone from the festival was able to deliver some tapes with most of the time that was slated lost. The editor, Robert Piechnik, and I worked at breakneck speed making raw edits and the next day started piecing them together. Our working chemistry could not have been better and everything seemed to be back on schedule, when out of the blue the festival’s artistic director burst into the studio handed to me a letter inexplicably accusing me of unprofessional conduct. This served as the justification to demand that the final editing session be halted. In a panic, I asked to speak to the woman who had scheduled the sessions, the same one who had failed to have Betacam tapes delivered and who had refused to listen to what happened when I crossed the Polish border.

Dumbfounded I asked, “So if I pay you to perform it doesn’t matter that your reputation will be damaged?”

This elicited the same response: that I was considered to be recklessly unprofessional. She then made a distressingly revealing comment that I was taking up too much editing time that apparently envious Polish artists wanted, the presumption being that I was being afforded special privileges as a foreigner. She further denied that unknown to me at the time, the hours I was offered had been cut in half. More astonishing was that when I explained to the festival director’s assistant that the final un-edited part was about the remarkable transformation of Poland, she said that she didn’t care. It started to appear to be a conspiratorial effort to sabotage my performance, for just prior to this final editing session I had discovered that one of the TV station’s workers had lied to me about critically necessary equipment he claimed did not exist on the premises. I was stunned to find out too late that just what I so badly needed was sitting unused in the room right next to the editing suite.

Thankfully, against the festival art director’s will, Piechnik took me into another room, which had a brand new editing digital suite that as of yet he hardly knew how to operate. In stealth mode, somehow we managed to complete the work with very simple edits because he was unfamiliar with the system’s special editing effects. Having failed to stop me, the festival’s art director nevertheless went ahead and promoted my performance as “a work-in-progress.” This was fine with me, since The Underground Cathedral was designed to be a life-long, constantly evolving and expanding project.


What was not fine with me was to discover that the war against realizing my performance had spread to all fronts. My musical ensemble consisted of ten musicians playing the following instruments: grand piano, three violins, cello, French horn, medieval wooden flutes, two electrical guitars (one played by myself), electric bass and drums. The challenge was to perform in perfect rhythm to a soundtrack of recorded urban sounds and digital musical elements which was synchronized with the editing of the background video.

Despite barely completing the video, the show itself did not go on without further threats to its realization. Had I not, by chance, read Frank Zappa’s autobiography a few months earlier, there is no possibility that it would have seen the light of day. He wrote of his “four greatest stupidities,” which were accepting to perform with classical musicians in Europe, who he had never before worked with. In each case, he encountered acts of extortion and each time he had to cancel his participation in the festivals to which he had been invited. From his book:

After the Holland deal bit the dust, there was another one . . . in Poland . . . actually, two different orchestras in Poland – and always the same result: NO MUSIC – LARGE EXPENSE. 

Zappa, a world-renowned musician, could afford to back out of a bad deal. I lacked the luxury to be so cavalier, given that for me, this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to stage a dream project and that I had already risked so much to prepare for the event while staying in Poland as an artist-in-residence. With his orchestral horror stories ever present in the back of my mind, just in case, I devised a fail-safe back-up plan. Should any of the musicians attempt such trickery, I would add my own pre-recorded parts to the final sound mix. After all, many musicians perform solo inside of metro undergrounds, while accompanied by recorded music. If I ended up the only one on stage performing live, so be it.

Just like clockwork, right out of Zappa’s playbook, one of the violinists pulled such a stunt. He was a young musician who had been educated at the Wrocław Music Academy, had performed with an orchestra in Japan and was a current member of Wrocław’s most important orchestra. Both he and a young student pianist, Magdalena Żuk, had met with me during a brief visit to Wrocław, before I decided to come to move there for several months to prepare for this show, at which time they offered to perform for free and to help me find other musicians. Once I was living there fighting nonstop technical obstacles, the help to find other musicians never materialized and I began to panic. Thankfully, I was introduced to Anna Dorota Władczyka, artistic director of the Polish chapter of the International Society for Contemporary Music, who helped me find the remaining musicians. A few days before the show, he arrived late for a rehearsal and was completely incapable of playing a simple staccato piece that I had assigned to him, while all of the other young musicians, most of them also students of the Wrocław Music Academy, had no trouble playing their parts in unison, after having practiced alone with scores I had given to them beforehand.

The next evening, only 3 days prior to the show, he called me by phone and made an incredible confession: “I told you that I wanted to play for you for free,” he said, “because I thought that it would be a lot of fun. However, I must tell you that I was shocked by the terrible musicianship of the others in the group and it is no longer fun because I fear that if I go on stage with them it will be damaging to my professional reputation. So how much will you pay for me to play?”

Dumbfounded I asked, “So if I pay you to perform it doesn’t matter that your reputation will be damaged?”

When he then actually had the audacity to say that it didn’t, I hung up the phone and immediately called my young pianist, whose reaction was even more incredulous:

“He can’t do that!” she exclaimed. Expecting her to say that she would speak to him, instead she made an even more remarkable confession: “We are in solidarity!” she said. “I only agreed to perform in your show if he does!” Suddenly, only 3 days before the festival commenced, after having spent half of a year in Wrocław preparing for it under dire conditions, Zappa’s nightmares had become my own.

I said to Żuk, “I have no possibility of replacing you at the 11th hour and if you do, I will have no choice but to record your part and go on stage without a pianist!” to which she yelled, “You can’t do this!” and hung up the phone on me!

This was not exactly the sort of “solidarity” I had anticipated upon deciding to take up Jerzy Ryba’s invitation to accept the hazards of touring Poland on my own at the time of its nonviolent revolution.

So, back to plan B that I devised after reading Zappa’s autobiography, I decided to add to the final mix of the video the recorded parts of the piano and one violin that were separate tracks of the recordings I myself had played on a digital synthesizer that had the capacity to emulate all individual instrumental sounds of a full orchestra. Despairingly, in order to do so, I once again had to endure a nightmarish battle with the media festival’s directors to be allowed extra editing time at the TV station. Surely by then Zappa was rolling in his grave, for once again vital equipment was not delivered on time when I arrived for the editing session. At that point I was told to forget it, but I refused to relent and the next day I called together several people of prominence in the artistic scene who had supported my prior visits to Poland, including Anna Dorota Władczyka, as well as a journalist of the local newspaper, at which time I was allowed one last opportunity to complete the sound editing.

As if I needed any more surprises, the night before the show, Magdalena Żuk called me on the phone and said, “I’m ready!” Astonished, I told her that I had had no choice but to include the digital piano parts that I had recorded in the final mix. She retorted that she had learned to play her part perfectly in sync with a cassette copy I had previously given to her of the recording of the one composition in the show that was piano based. I decided to let her perform that one piece if it worked during a rehearsal the day of the show. At that moment, I told the sound engineer to turn down the recorded musical parts as she went to work on a grand piano. Marcin’s violin part was lost but never had I heard my music played with such magnificent sensitivity! Here are a few brief moments from the performance:

The show was so successful that immediately afterward Władczyka invited me to repeat it for the annual international “Audio Art Festival” that she organized at the prestigious Contemporary Art institution in Warsaw known as The Centre for Contemporary Art. A 40-minute TV documentary of the show was later broadcast on Polish TV.

Between then and the show in Warsaw slated for half a year later, I did everything I could possibly think of in advance to protect myself from a similar nightmare. By then, one of my musicians had quit and I had to try out new candidates to replace her. Two female musicians agreed to perform, then suddenly both strangely backed out without explanation. Upon finally finding a replacement, I took a trip to Warsaw over a month in advance of the show to confirm that all required equipment would be available, which was agreed to and arranged.

“Do you realize what you have signed?” he exclaimed. “This is not a tax document! It is a contract!”

As if I were the Lionel character in the comic strip, Peanuts, about to kick a football being held by Lucy, who always pulled the ball away just as his foot was about to make contact, a few of my musicians threatened to pull out at the eleventh-hour, as promised equipment was not delivered on the day of the performance. No one stopped it from being used at the same time in another part of the building. The art center had to scramble to find other equipment inside of the institutions’ basement, where all that they found were relics of the communist era, including a large projection screen consisting of several pieces of material that were sewn together like a patched quilt. In the end, what saved the performance was that I simply invited the musicians to lunch. A warm paid-for meal on my behalf was all that was needed to change their spirits.

Afterward, the institution profusely apologized and offered to me use of a large exhibition space two years later for a show of my choosing. This was a far cry from the behavior of the festival director in Wrocław, who seemingly had it out for me ever since the fiasco of crossing the German-Polish border. Offering no such apology, instead, he paid me last among all participants.

I was invited to his office where he was prepared with a small brown paper bag stuffed with bills of Polish złoties, which looked like a small fortune. I did not realize that it amounted to only 1/3 of what was stipulated in our agreement, which didn’t even fully cover the transportation costs of shipping my belongings and flying from Barcelona to Berlin. Blunder number two, he then asked of me to sign a document, in Polish language, that he said was for tax purposes, hence, I had no thought to ask to have it translated. When I later showed it to a Polish businessman friend named Michał, he became hysterical. “Do you realize what you have signed?” he exclaimed. “This is not a tax document! It is a contract! It says that you have signed over to the festival the copyright to all of your artwork!”

Michał had left Poland with his wife and two children during the 1980s to escape from the purgatory of Marshall Law. They settled in Australia, where he made good money as a building contractor. Many years later, they returned to Poland with idealistic notions about Poland’s new free enterprise system and democratic institutions, which in no time were dashed. Having recently filed a complaint of his own at the local prosecutor’s office, he insisted that I do the same as he went back to his home and proceeded to draw it up for me. In so doing, he showed me a clause from a book of Polish legal codes stating that it is unlawful to deceive someone in a business transaction.

That was great to know, but a lawyer at the US Embassy in Warsaw told me that there was no way I could win, because I am American. Oh well, the complaint had already been filed and there was no way of turning back. Of course, the lawyer proved to be right, except for one saving grace: the festival director claimed to the prosecutor that the festival usurped the copyright to my work only for the duration of the festival.

Far more serious was reputation damage. One day I received a phone call from Władczyka, who invited me to her home to tell me some “terrible news.” She offered me the obligatory cup of herbata and said, “Be brave! What I have to tell you concerns what people are saying about you as a persona non grata.”

Whaddaya know? A new definition of Polish hospitality! “Have I been accused of selling Polish girls in Barcelona?” I asked jokingly.

“Yes!” she affirmed passionately, as if I had just won a TV game show quiz. “But not in Barcelona.”

So this must have been why the female musicians suddenly disappeared without any explanation, I said to myself, but who was out to smear me and why?

Eastern European female slave trade was by no means a joke either. Aside from the fact that they were frequently transported across Poland to the west from Eastern Europe, recreational prostitution was so commonplace that it was often not easy to know whether someone was a working girl or not. The cover below of the popular Polish news magazine, Wprost, told the story. The headline says: “Thousands of Polish Women Moonlight in the Summer. SEXPORT in Spain, Portugal and France.”

I myself was fooled more than once but it had never dawned on me that some people apparently had trouble imagining that artists live and work in Spain too.

I pondered who spread this evil rumor. Might it have been the festival director, who had it out for me since I became trapped by Polish Customs? Why, it couldn’t possibly have been Marcin, the violinist, who attempted an act of extortion. After all, he surely had to explain to many people why he failed to perform in a show of such terrible musicians that was so highly successful, particularly because his name was listed on posters around the city, in newspaper advertisements, in a published review, in the festival catalog and among the credits of the broadcast TV documentary.

It had been my dream to perfect the first two shows and take it onto the road throughout Europe and eventually back to the US, but I never performed the live multimedia musical experience of The Underground Cathedral again. The one thing above all else that I requested of the festival in Wrocław before deciding to spend months in Poland preparing for the first performance was to receive a professional quality video documentation of the event, but even that was never furnished. Exhausted from never-ending senseless battles, I lost the will, as the saying goes, to go on with the show.

Magdalena Żuk left Poland as soon as she graduated, went to Paris to continue her post-graduate studies and is still residing there today as a world-traveling concert pianist. I should have run for my life then, but being a glutton for punishment, I decided to give it one more shot, this time as a solo performer. No longer was I willing to risk relying on a large group of musicians and technical support from people who I did not know. Still, I continued to tell myself that destiny had led me to this point in my life, for better or for worse, and that my mission was not completed.

That was the last of my stupidities, or so I thought, for there was no way of performing without still having to depend on someone.

This was my lesson in Krakow, when I was invited to perform for a student operated gallery, where the former boyfriend of a young gallery director was driven by irrational jealousy. I had preplanned the performance with specific digitized sounds that were assigned to each key of my synthesizer. When I started playing, I was shocked to discover that the notes and sounds that I had programmed into each key had been scrambled. Meanwhile, the director’s ex-boyfriend made bizarre wailing sounds in the back of the audience, while I did my best to accompany him with uncontrollable, nonsensical improvisation. Thoroughly humiliated, that night I wandered alone into the streets of Krakow, not wishing to return until late, to the room I was offered in a large apartment, where the director, her ex-boyfriend and a few others lived. The next morning, I was thanked for my performance, which I had done voluntarily, by being thrown into the street.

Once again I was taught that uncontrollable jealousy was the flip side of Polish hospitality. Yet, there were still angels in my midst. One of them was Anna Dorota Władczyka. With her help, I worked things out with the directors of the Warsaw Centre for Contemporary Art, resulting in the installation that I presented in 1999.

The show won Grand Prize of the 1999 festival. That same year, the film projected during the live performances (with all musical parts recorded) won Grand Prize at the Videoformes Festival in Clermont-Ferrand, France.

He said, “I don’t think any Pole would be able to have recognized what you have as an outsider. I hate the message but it works.”

Despite the film awards received in Western Europe, it was only shown twice in Poland, both times at Galeria Entropia in Wrocław. Director, Mariusz Jodko, was one of the people, along with his wife Alicja and co-director, Andrzej Rerak, who reflected an appreciation and respect that I had known during my first visit to Poland a decade earlier. For many years they had been regularly exhibiting interesting experimental artwork and have often invited guest artists from abroad. In fact, Galeria Entropia had first been run by Jerzy Ryba.

When I privately showed “Samoobsługa” to Mariusz, he said, “I don’t think any Pole would be able to have recognized what you have as an outsider. I hate the message, but it works.”

My little art-logo project inadvertently turned into an alliteration game, for “Samoobsługa” (Self-Service, in English), also starts with the letter “S.” Just like Solidarność and Społem, the word was posted as a large sign in public places throughout Poland, particularly on the walls of cafeterias. For me, this symbolized the new spirit I had encountered, of the American Wild West-styled “freedom,” that many Poles idealized: the joys of sink-or-swim survival in a dog-eat-dog society. Hence, I converted the notion of self-reliance into Poland’s famous logo of unity and togetherness. 

Here is the film, presented for the first time since its few rare screenings more than 15 years ago, including film festivals in Czech Republic, France and Portugal:

Click here for Chapter Three: Odyssey of Cultural Exchange