Maja Bekan’s exhibition 23 Assemblies at the Zamek Ujazdowski – Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) in Warsaw curated by Anna Ptak invites its visitors to take part in the process of the gallery guards becoming performance artists. Bekan was an artist in residence at the CCA and the exhibition is the result of her work during her residency there. She was born in former Yugoslavia, she lives and works in The Hague. Bekan is a visual artist and author of performances, constructed situations, and installations based on texts, video, audio, and public seminars.
The exhibition consists of ‘5 Essential Environments’: ‘Performance Class’, ‘A Series of Unexpected Incidents’, ‘Golden Party’, ‘Social Room’ and ‘What If…’. The curator states that ‘the exhibition is a somewhat abstract story, or a meeting place for the participants of the previous events and constructed situations.’ When talking about the exhibition with the curator Anna Ptak, she paid particular attention to the section ‘Social Room’. It is a place where one can encounter several guards in a quite small, circular room, all guarding the only object at the exhibition worth the security, the statue Boy Nude (Kazik) by Alfons Karny (1928), on loan from the National Museum in Warsaw. Gallery guarding is a job mostly done by retired people earning a low salary, and this is exactly what Bekan plays with here. Curator Ptak further explains: ‘Mostly this is a side job, performed during retirement, serving to supplement a modest budget with a minimum wage. The presence of a valuable object in the Social Room justifies gallery security gathering in a single room, allows them to focus on learning English and other activities, which they have indicated as important in their work.’ Through providing English classes the institution is able to give back to the security guards. In her curatorial text, Ptak asks: ‘A provocative banner created by Croatian artist Mladen Stilinović in 1994 declared that an artist who could not speak English was no artist at all. Can a gallery security guard who speaks English become an artist?’
I was walking through the exhibition looking for the ‘Social Room’, and I was hoping to interact with the guards, to talk to them and to approach them in Polish. When I finally reached the room, I found the group of elderly ladies sitting in a circle around the statue while the only male in the group was teaching them English. I arrived just in time for their English class! I took a seat among them, excited to listen and to observe their interactions. Almost no other visitor entered the room, probably because the audience did not want to disturb the class, or perhaps because they were not aware that it was the part of the exhibition. There was only one other female visitor who entered the room and sat next to me. When the class was over, I started talking to the guard next to me, while translating everything to the female visitor on my left, as she only spoke English. I became a kind of mediator between the Polish guard and the woman on my left who turned out to be a new artist in residence, Karina Beumer, who was replacing Maja Bekan. It was a coincidence, I was sitting there with the CCA’s new artist in residence at the English class of the security guards in the exhibition of the former artist in residence.
The guard told us that she has been enjoying the classes very much, and that she hopes that for the following two months she will get on well with the other guards. She also expects the atmosphere to stay as good as it is now. I asked her about the statue they are guarding, and she was able to explain its history and its purpose, highlighting its importance and value. However, she was very much aware of them being part of the artistic performance. Karina Beumer was drawing the setting and taking notes to her notebook when the guard grabbed my hand and told me to come with them. I was not sure what was happening, but I thought it was exciting, so I told Karina to come with us. We followed some of the guards who moved to the next room entitled ‘What If…’, where the second part of their performance was taking place at the same exact time every day. One of the guards was holding the textual board that was displayed around the room while the other was reading it out loud to the audience. These boards are textual collages, which are scattered throughout the space like provocative question marks. My new friend, the guard, was reading the second board. After their performance was over, she came to me and told me excitedly that they might eventually read the English texts from the boards. Karina showed them her drawing of their English class and they were guessing who was who. I was also able to listen to the conversation of two of the guards talking about their English class and whether one would be able to help the other with her pronunciation. Karina and I continued talking together and realized how lucky we were that this participatory performance brought us together.
In conclusion, I must say that I was very critical towards art taking place in institutional gallery settings. I used to be very doubtful of any critical and social potential of art within a gallery space. I believed that the participatory character of art taking place at exhibitions is there only for spectacle. But I must admit that what I experienced at the ‘Social Room’ was very different and made me rethink that. The Bekan’s constructed situation at the CCA exhibition not only disposes the participatory interactive room for the gallery visitors, but also employs gallery guards in exciting way, making them feel importance in their work and adding some extra value – English lessons –, so they can fulfil the ‘obligation’ of the current global community where one needs to speak English to be a valid, employable, and ‘global’ citizen. Ptak explains that to speak English is now ‘a general biopolitical obligation that justifies inequalities in the degree we have protection, even for minimal pay and with plenty of enthusiasm.’ I was able to observe the enthusiasm of the guards. They were truly excited for the new skills they were acquiring. Furthermore, this participatory performance even created a link between one of the guards and me through our dialogue, and a link between the new artist in residence and me. We talked and interacted together. This situation created a dialogical space lasting only several minutes but worked on a level of deeply human, honest interaction.
It can be analysed based on the Dialogical Aesthetics theory proposed by art historian Grant Kester when talking about durational community art projects. He stresses the importance of dialogue in collaborative art projects, where ‘a number of contemporary artists and art collectives that have defined their practice precisely around the facilitation of dialogue among diverse communities.’ He is referring here to art projects that aim to construct a model of subjectivity based on communicative interaction. Even though Kester advocates durational projects where artists imagine the possibility of social change and creating an effect and consequence in the given community. I would claim that Bekan’s ‘Social Room’ is a great space where dialogue, whether in Polish or English, can take place and so change is possible. At the end, Karina and I were reflecting on the current political situation of creating more borders between people and stressing differences and strengthening hate rather than hospitality. Karina observed that this is the reason why we need more performances like this one – we need to create a dialogue and share the knowledge and learn about each other.
Bekan’s ‘assemblies’ artwork could be compared to the contextual art as proposed by Jan Świdziński, the Polish performance artist and art theorist, in the 1970s. He said that ‘contextual art makes sense and meaning only in time ‘t’, place ‘p’, situation ‘s’ in relation to concrete people ‘p’. If one of those factors changes – time, place, situation or a person – artwork stops being artwork and becomes its documentation.’ This situation proposed by Bekan creates interactions, new dialogues and relations. However, as an artwork it only works in the space it was designed for, and that is the ‘Social Room’, at the exact time of the day when the gallery is open or when the English class takes place or in the exact few minutes when the performance of the guards readings from the boards in the room ‘What If…’ takes place – so when a certain designed situation takes place and when certain people meet there and interact. All these elements came together precisely when I was there and met Karina and interacted with the guards during their English class and ‘What If…’ performance on Thursday afternoon. But once I left the gallery space all I was left with were the pictures I took, Karina’s drawing, and the text I decided to write about it. All that remained was a documentation of the contextual dialogical art Bekan created for us in participation with the gallery guards.
Photo credit: author of the article
 Kester, Grant. ‘Conversation Pieces’ in Zoya Kucor and Simon Leung, 2005. Theory in Contemporary Art Since 1985, (Blackwell): http://www.usfcam.usf.edu/cam/exhibitions/2008_8_Torolab/Readings/Conversation_PiecesGKester.pdf
 Kester refers here to Jürgen Habermas.
 Torsten Weimarck v Jan Świdziński. Sztuka, Społeczeństwo i Samoświadomość. Centrum Sztuki Wspóleczesnej Zamek Ujazdowski, Warszawa, 2009, p.12