Katarzyna Perlak

3rd Feb - 17th Feb 2020

Niolam Ja Se Kochaneczke, 2016. Video, 10:12.

‘Niolam Ja Se Kochaneczke’ explores potentialities of queer utopias, while looking at the relationship between history, ‘national values’ and power structures. Through this work Perlak revisited Eastern European folk traditions, employing feminist and queer reading to question why queer love has never been preserved and celebrated in the folk history. Perlak reclaims these stories by subverting the narrative of heteronormative love songs to represent queer love stories instead. Her aim was to problematize how history is written and tradition is represented, often only to sustain the power structures that claim it ‘objective’. ‘Niolam Ja Se Kochaneczke’ encourages the viewer to consider and experience history as a discourse made out of multiple, overlapping and contesting narratives rather than a single, fixed entity.


Full Interview

Georgie Brinkman (Curator, The New Flesh): To begin, please could you introduce your work and give us an overview of some of the ideas or research areas that are driving the piece?

Katarzyna Perlak: My work incorporates video, photography, performance, and I also work with sound art, textiles, installation - so a mixture of mediums. ‘Niolam Ja Se Kochaneczke’ was produced in 2016 and in this work I queered stories of love in Polish folklore. I changed the narrative of already existing love songs from ‘straight’ to queer stories. The recordings were done in collaboration with six folk singers. The first recording was done in Polish, and the second recording was done in Lemkov, the language of the Lemkov community, an ethnic minority between Ukraine and Poland. Generally in my practice I talk about migrant, diasporic women and queer narratives, these are the main stories, issues and narratives that appear in my work.

In ‘Niolam Ja Se Kochaneczke’ apart from the obvious subject which was to reclaiming queer love histories, I was trying to challenge the Nationalistic representation of Eastern European history and heritage. So what I was trying to do was include those narratives that usually are excluded in nationalistic representations of heritage, and also relocate the queerness in Eastern Europe geographically in the sense that queerness is often perceived as something that came from Western Europe. In this work I was trying to place it in Eastern European history and tradition.

It’s a film essay and a fictional documentary, which uses both digital and Super 8 film, and through this it’s a dialogue, a form of meta-documentary as well. I was thinking about how the history is written and how stories are represented. By using Super 8 format I wanted to refer to archival qualities of the work, but also I wanted to make it transparent that I’m not trying to this was to claim to an actual archive. It’s an attempt at creating the archive that couldn’t otherwise exist. So for this reason there are certain clues that allow the viewer to understand that the video was made quite recently.

GB: Could you talk a little bit about the use of costume this piece? For example, were they made by you or did you collaborate with a designer? And how much did the costume help to form the content of the work?

KP: In terms of the costume in the work, they were not produced specifically for the video, they were borrowed from a group of folk singers. In the second part of the video they belonged to the singers - they are the costumes in which they usually perform. So in a sense they are not costumes, they are the clothing used in this tradition. I think what makes them more into a costume in the context of this work, is the addition of balaclavas.

GB: I interpret these balaclavas to act as a form of resistance in the film, particularly when learning that most of the singers chose to remain anonymous. Could you speak a little about the choice of the balaclava, and whether it is to signal protection, resistance or both?

KP: The balaclavas that were used in the work were used primarily because the singers didn’t want to reveal their identities, so it was to protect their identity, their anonymity. But at the same time it was a reference to women that have used them in women’s liberation movements for the same reasons, for safety. So it’s like a symbol of revolutionary resistant practices. There was the reference to Zapatista women from Mexico, and also to Pussy Riot, and how they have used balaclavas.

In order to distinguish my work I used an embroidery on the balaclavas, a Slavic cross-stitch embroidery pattern of wolf teeth that in Slavic tradition symbolizes wisdom and power, red color stands for power of love and sexuality. Aside to the balaclavas this symbol reappears in different moments in the work. I used it as I wanted to make this work across different Eastern European countries and locations, and I wanted the symbol to function as a symbol of this fictional, feminist, queer movement that was active across Eastern Europe. So even though singers came from different locations across the Eastern Europe this would always be something that would link them all together.

GB: It would be great to learn a little bit more about the Eastern European folk costume and its perception (or relevance) in contemporary Eastern European society for those of us who aren't very familiar with it?

KP: The folk costumes that are presented in the video are still used in Poland, but only for performances and special occasions. Singers that sing in folk singing companies, they perform and wear them. But sometimes they also perform without wearing them if in less formal setting. Also you can find them in souvenir shops, in Krakow for example, and it is something that is also linked to Polish diaspora abroad in a way. It is like a language in costumes and in folk crafts. Those aesthetics and symbols, they are often used as some sort of representation of Polish identity and history. So for this reason I was also interested in having a conversation with this. Particularly as I have been living outside of Poland for 15 years now, I think now, throughout all these years, I have been thinking more about how my national origins, how my Eastern European identity is represented by Polish Institutions, abroad as well. It was part of the work of trying to reclaim those histories, representations, heritage because often it’s linked to very particular ideas of patriotism. In terms of the folklore they are also heteronormative, so I wanted to queer this tradition, and have a conversation with who does this tradition belong to.

GB: The songs are incredibly powerful and captivating, and they seem to sit between a lamentation and a celebration of love. Could you speak some more about the story they are telling, and how they were developed? Were they referencing any other folk tales?

KP: The songs that were presented in the video were already existing songs, they have not been composed particularly for that work. Because Polish language is gendered, in the first song, when you speak about having a lover, you always have to assign a gender to the person. Also there would be names, and in Polish folklore they often use two names only - for a guy they would use Jacek and for a women they use Kasia, and somehow this is a tradition that they would just use those names mostly.

So the first song is sung by a girl who is singing about her unhappy love that was never fulfilled and there is this element where she is singing “oh I always will love you, even if my man will beat me with a stick”. So that was an interesting element for me, of her saying “I will always love you even though there will be these consequences”. And the way I have changed the genders, it is like a girl is singing this song to another girl.

In the second song that is sung in Lemkov we actually did not change the song at all because in plural, in Lemkov, you cannot tell what gender the narrative signifies, so it could be anyone; two guys, two girls, a guy and a girl - you don’t know. And this song was about hiding the love, so the narrative was about two lovers going to a forest to forage mushrooms or blueberries, but the actual reason they go to the forest is to make love. So it was an interesting history to use, because you can imagine that in these times where it was impossible for anyone to come out, these things could just happen. There could be two girls, or two guys, particularly girls I guess if you are foraging mushrooms in those time. So it was a song that fitted the narratives quite well, and I collaborated with the singers who know a lot of songs, so they suggested to me the songs that we chose.

GB: I found myself trying to locate a time period to ground these anonymous characters in, because I felt (pleasantly!) unnerved by the movement between the traditional and the contemporary (for example with the glittery nail varnish alongside the traditional dress). I came to the conclusion that it is about timeless and endless queer love, so I should stop trying to pin down a time period. I wondered if you considered the work to exist in a certain time?

KP: One of the things that I have considered in this work is how can you rewrite the future, and the present who is rewriting the history. And about taking ownership of this, and the element of self-representation. So I wanted some of the elements to appear as historical; the locations I filmed in were quite old houses, so you wouldn’t have too many signs of a present time (as it appears to many people in urban context anyway). But at the same time, I did want to keep those elements that would make the audience aware that it is at this very moment that we try to reclaim this history, that we try to present those histories that never had a space to exist in their times. And then also imagine what the future could be, even if it appears in an old times way. I think it’s also a question of what the future looks like. Sometimes it may not look like what we think it may look like.

GB: And, for you, what is the difference between costume and clothing - when is someone "in costume" as opposed to simply wearing an outfit? This is something that might be particularly relevant to folk costume.

KP: I guess with costume there is often an assumption of one trying to perform something out of their usual character. If anyone would wear what this person has chosen to wear at the time daily, then for them it wouldn’t be a costume, it’s just how they dress daily. I think this element of intentional performance, of intentional characters of some sort, is something that I would assign to the costume more than clothing. For sure people can wear a costume that could just appear like regular clothing for someone else.

But I guess there is also this playful element to the costume, because you are trying to play with the gaze of how you’re being perceived and what others can read of you. By wearing the costume you can open up different possibilities of that. I think I’m particularly interested in costume generally, and very often I experiment with different masks. In this sense I am also interested in how wearing a mask changes the work from something that can be perceived as assigned to one person, or something that can be seen as subjective, to something that can be perceived as more intersubjective. In a sense that you cannot think of this particular individual and their particular story. It becomes more blurred, who is this person under the mask and what stories are being represented? But I often see masks as the empowering element of the costume that allows you to be not seen, but seen at the same time. It’s an element I have used several times in different works.

GB: Could you give some examples of these works that you used masks in? Or more generally costume?

KP: Another example of a work that I used a costume and mask for, is ‘Happily Ever After’ which started from an artist residency commission by Arts Territory that happened two years ago in Poland. [The residency project] is called ‘Illusion of Return’ and while I was there I made a fictional, queer, lesbian wedding that had a few parts. Some of the work saw two brides walking round in big dresses, which I combined from a lot of different dresses that appeared like wedding dresses from second hand shops. Then I created veils attached to hats, and they were also wearing masks. In this instance they were beauty masks that you wear on your face, cold masks. So they were wearing those costumes and masks, and they were walking around Wrocław town, having wedding photographs taken. So that was the first part, and then we had a whole nightlong wedding party where they were also wearing those costumes. Here again there was this idea of queering Polish tradition, also because same sex marriage is not allowed in Poland, so it the work was an attempt to create this temporary, utopian space.

And as a final work which I recently premiered in Detroit Art Week I presented this work as an installation. A show was taking place in a hotel and I turned the room into a honeymoon suite, a video which was a documentation of this performance combined with the footage of Pride and Anti-Pride protests in Poland was shown on the TV screen. The video shows some quite disturbing footage alongside the happy moments of the fictional wedding, with all wrapped in a shiny, seductive, pink honeymoon room. It was presenting an utopian attempt against dystopian reality that happens on the streets in Poland.

At the moment I’m working in two research areas. One of them is researching contemporary affective notions of utopia. I’m looking at how notions of utopia change from those based in geographical locations and society order to those based in feelings and temporary spaces. I am particularly interested in the image of horizon in relations to those questions. I’m also working on ‘tender crafts’ methodology, looking into how crafts can be revisited and reimagined through contemporary, diasporic, working class and queer perspectives. I incorporate some of those elements into costume making, so there is more research to be done developing them.