Woman Artist to Woman Artist
Justyna Jakóbowska – Roksana Kularska-Król
Art is a part of me, my perception of the world
RKK: Hi! Today we are meeting in the park with Justyna Jakóbowska, a visual artist from Łódź. The park is our frequent meeting place, so I think it will be a nice, natural conversation.
We are meeting in covid costumes, which are a symbol of our times, of what has happened to us, namely the pandemic. These costumes also refer to a certain situation that we experienced together in Helsinki. We were there at Paweł Althamer’s exhibition. To be able to enter it, you had to put on a uniform.
JJ: (laughter) Hi!
RKK: Can you tell us briefly about yourself, about how we met at the Academy of Fine Arts in Łódź?
JJ: I don’t remember when exactly we met at the Academy, but we did meet. Roxi was in a different, higher year, I started a bit later, but we had the same circle of friends. Actually, the Academy has a very specific atmosphere and these are specific circles. There is a small number of students: 25 people in one year. We were at the Faculty of Visual Education, as it was called at that time. Everyone knew each other there and it was great, because I have been in touch with many people until now.
JJ: What we learned during the classes was one thing, but above all we met great people with whom, after so many years – over ten years – I can still work and do something interesting. This is probably one of the best things that happened to me at the Academy. Also, this kind of understanding. I don’t want to say that people from the Academy are different. But sometimes I feel that a kind of sensitivity or common experience that we have allows us to understand each other on completely different levels than, for example, someone who has different experience and a different way of perceiving the world. It gave me a lot. Also, a feeling that I am among people who react to the world in a similar way. I recall my student days with pleasure.
RKK: Indeed! The Academy is such a meeting platform for people who are already oriented in a certain way of experiencing the world. I think that this is the reason why we can act together. Although I think that what happens here in Łódź is not a standard. It seems to me that this community is quite firmly established, but we also all know each other…
JJ: That’s right!
RKK: It works on the basis of cooperation, collaboration rather than competition. That’s how I see it.
JJ: Not really… I think there are some divisions. Just like in the artistic milieu. Maybe you feel it more strongly later on. Not at the Academy, we didn’t feel it then. Certainly, there are divisions, some groups. But I don’t feel a fierce fight between artists in Łódź either.
RKK: Well, that’s true.
JJ: These are different kinds of collaborations, friendships and circles of one kind or another. So that’s how we met. Then we started to work together in performative situations, with other artists, musicians. We were in Helsinki, as you’ve mentioned. It was our joint trip to the Shelter Suoja festival taking place in a bunker. A very…
RKK: …interesting place (laughter).
JJ: A very interesting place, indeed…
RKK: Which sites in Łódź are the most important to you? Physical sites.
JJ: Physical sites… Actually, physical sites are probably not the most important for me. Some time ago I looked at Łódź from a bit of distance. But let me try to refer to it… I think that urban greenery is one of the most important areas. The parks where our conversation started. And here we are in a park. That’s the nice thing about this city! There are a lot of parks here and it saves a bit of the atmosphere and the climate.
RKK: Well, yeah, for sure… oxygen!
JJ: These are the places I like to visit and watch. I like such typical Łódź landscapes, connected with factories. Even the destroyed ones. But I cannot name a particular site: this or that street, this or that factory. But chimneys, post-industrial areas, these destroyed factories and the renovated ones are something characteristic, something I particularly like. Visually, first of all. I find them photogenic. When I’m away from Łódź and I see this kind of building, an old factory, I have a feeling: “Oh! I feel at home!”
JJ: I guess that’s characteristic of people who come from industrial, post-industrial cities.
RKK: After all, Łódź is said to be such a Polish Detroit…
JJ: Yeah, they say something like that. I’ve heard such opinions (laughter).
Some time ago I talked to an artist from Germany, we met in the Netherlands and she told me that she was from an industrial German city. And that she also had this feeling that wherever she went, when she saw such chimneys, she felt: “Oh! Just like at home! Something I know.”
JJ: So, it has shaped me in a way. It definitely influences my imagination, my sense of aesthetics. Such an urban atmosphere. But I can’t say that a particular street or factory is my favourite site in Łódź. I don’t see it that way. What I missed the most when I was last away from Łódź, which took about 9 months, when I was abroad, I didn’t have the feeling that I would like to see the Łódź Fabryczna Station or some alley, gate, factory. What I missed most were the people.
JJ: I must say that this is an amazing extra layer of this city. Those who live here know it. It is quite a hooligan city, it used to be dangerous and it still is. In fact, there is a lot of aggression, aggressive behaviour. But in all this there is this human tissue involved in culture. People are sensitive, and despite these unfavourable conditions, even social ones, they have incredible energy and do what is important for them. They are warm-hearted, sensitive and delicate, and, at the same time, I think they have a kind of armour which you need in Łódź, a kind of defence strategy, in order to function at all. It’s an amazing mixture. I admire it and I missed it. Such a specific black humour.
RKK: Well, yes, I also agree that Łódź is exactly the kind of city that pursues its objective. After all, Łódź is the City of Culture, that’s what we say. Łódź Creates.
JJ: That’s what we say…
JJ: That’s how we try…
RKK: To do this, to pursue this objective, you really need to have this armour, this strength inside. It seems to me that people who live here, especially people of culture, act despite difficulties.
JJ: Exactly! That’s how I see it. There are some difficulties here. It’s not a kind of environment where everyone’s smiling, everyone’s nice to each other, where we have beautiful, renovated houses, everything is clean, where a car passes by and doesn’t splash you with mud. Well, it’s not like this. So, if you compare it to other cities the atmosphere is quite different here.
RKK: That’s true.
JJ: But even more so, it’s so astonishing that there are still these people who have amazing energy, do great things.
RKK: Exactly. And so, referring to art, tell me what field is closest to you? As an artist you do different things, you use different tools for expression. But is any of these fields the closest to you?
JJ: Right now, it’s more about the message and what should be said or what I would like to say, collaboration, that kind of feedback. And medium is another thing. Sometimes I adjust the medium or even change it within one project. But at the beginning of my interest in art, painting was the closest to me, it came from my heart. Colour was and probably still is very important in perception of the world. But gradually this began to change. When I was a student, I became very interested in movement and sound. Therefore, video or animation and various interventions, actions with people, social, interactive… At some point, site-specific was a very strong fascination and stimulus. I still find it important, because art is simply created in a context. It is important to me. Even though the work is displayed on a white wall, but it is located in a specific context, environment. I believe that art is not sacred, I like these interactions above all. I’m talking about my stuff now. Even if someone destroys an element I have made and it is in the public space, it is not a negative aspect for me, it is just a sign of something interesting, some kind of information. I don’t know how to describe it briefly. But what is more important to me now is what is connected with movement. And that interests me very much. So, I do a bit more video and various performances, projections. There is often music and sound in it. Maybe it is connected with the fact that I have this perception of the world that often occurs among artists, it is called synesthesia.
JJ: You’ve probably heard of it. Probably quite a few people have heard of it, that kind of combination of the senses. It means that I see a sound, or numbers have certain colours to me, or colours have a taste to me and so on. I think that it can influence my approach to the medium. I’ve always had the feeling that sound affects me so much, so now I also want to express it in what I do. I also like to collaborate with musicians or a theatre. Maybe it’s not strictly art, but in various projects…
RKK: …but regarding this audio zone, have you thought about creating sounds yourself?
JJ: No, I haven’t! (laughter)
RKK: So, this collaboration will be crucial here?
JJ: There are a lot of visual artists who also work with sounds, but for me it’s a kind of the limit. I prefer to collaborate with someone who is well familiar with it. Of course, I can hear something, I perceive stimuli and they evoke visual impressions in me, and I want to tell something about it, for example with the help of a video. But I’m not going to take it up. I don’t think I have such competences. I feel deep respect for musicians and people who are familiar with it. I prefer to leave it in their hands.
JJ: Anyway, this is also very inspiring for me. I don’t have the feeling that I have to do everything myself from start to finish. I love collaboration. It’s nice for me.
RKK: Awesome! And tell me why you actually decide to become an artist, chose to study at the Academy of Fine Arts and are still artistically active?
JJ: A question whether or not you are an artist and how it happened is always very difficult. (laughter)
RKK: Of course.
JJ: I don’t call myself an artist on a day-to-day basis, I don’t see myself in that way. It’s hard to judge yourself. Maybe you need some distance for that. But the fact that I chose this path… You know, Roxi, it’s a bit hard to say. There was no particular moment when I decided to go to the Academy of Fine Arts. Actually, ever since I can remember vision has been very important to me. Even when I was a small child it was just picture, drawing, painting… Of course, all children draw.
RKK: Yes, but they also stop at some point.
JJ: And I didn’t stop and it has just…
RKK: …remained! (laughter)
RKK: It’s obviously very difficult to say whether you’re an artist or not, and how you see yourself. Is it a profession or rather a passion? That is, something you theoretically do after the “real” work.
JJ: In practice, it’s an after-hours activity. In general, I do things connected with visual activities or art, or supporting performances or concerts after hours. I have one more job not connected with art. Of course, it is only a matter of money.
RKK: Well, that’s true.
JJ: You have to make a living from something and you have to earn somehow for that art.
JJ: Sometimes it’s just like that. But art is not a hobby for me or a thing I do out of boredom, because it would be nice to go fishing at the weekend, but maybe I’ll paint a picture. It is really the thing I would like to do all the time. I don’t know if it is my job or my passion. It is just a part of me, my perception of the world. Even if sometimes I am not able to describe myself: “yes, I am an artist”, because I can’t see myself in this way. Maybe I just think that what I do is not so nice. It is not so important. I don’t know. Maybe someone else should look at it. I don’t know if it’s appropriate to call myself an artist at all, but on the other hand I know that this area of life is very important to me. Visual arts, but also art in a broader sense, music, theatre, dance, literature…, the world without this element would be a terrible place for me. Maybe some people don’t need it to live.
How do I perceive myself? I think that my perception of the world often coincides with similar thinking of people who create art. Therefore, I feel perfectly comfortable with such people and I understand them. I go to an exhibition and I feel, even if I don’t talk to the artist because they are long dead, I see their work and I feel as if I am talking to someone who understands me perfectly. But I have the same feeling when I do workshops with children. Their works are… because they are really works of art….
RKK: Yes, you’re right!
JJ: They are also unique. It’s still that sensitivity…
RKK: …this purity.
JJ: Yes, and children have it, too. It’s hard to separate that. I think a lot of viewers have that as well. You don’t have to create this art yourself. It’s a certain way of looking at the world. Maybe it is in everybody, but some people don’t open up to it. But the one who practices it has easy access to this perception of the reality. Artists meet and talk on a completely different level than in other kind of work. Sometimes I perceive myself in this way, too. When I’m in my regular work, let’s call it like that, where I earn my living, I sometimes feel that I’m a bit out of a fable. I even often feel like a creature which has come from another planet and now has to observe these humans a bit. To observe and try to behave like them, because otherwise they will realise that I am an alien and I am doing something wrong. I don’t know where it came from. There are no artists in my family. I didn’t have any such role models at the time either. I don’t know, it’s a strange story, but I also never had any hesitation that maybe I would like a different profession. These studies at the Academy of Fine Arts were my big dream when I was in high school, when I was a young person. It was probably one of the more important things for me at the time.
RKK: Okay, but clearly you just had it inside.
JJ: I did have it inside. I don’t know where it comes from. Sometimes it’s just like that.
RKK: I think it is revealed sooner or later. I had a similar experience. I thought about being an artist since I was a child. And since I was a child, I spoke it out all the time. Although I had some dilemmas…
OK, but tell me what you find easy in this artistic life? In these artistic activities?
JJ: I find it easy to realise projects once I’ve got down to them. So, it is…
RKK: …perfect! (laughter)
JJ: I think so… Of course, there are always some technical dilemmas and problems, but I don’t have anything like my partner, who often says that he has “writer’s block” because he writes more scientific stuff, that he sits for 10 hours at a piece of paper and can’t write anything. I don’t have anything like that. For me, the problem is the lack of time, lack of funds, sometimes some technical issues – you have to buy something and you can’t get it. You know how it is with materials. I don’t think I have such a block. I like to have some problems in front of me, regardless of whether they stem from myself or from a given theme, or external circumstances. And this problem makes me start to take out what I think is important. I start to have an idea of what I want to do. And then it happens itself. Of course, there are different emotions that accompany this. I think the problem is the whole environment, that is, the fact that you have to find money for art, time, organise your life.
RKK: Is it the most difficult?
JJ: Promoting it all, getting grants, cooperating with an institution if that institution doesn’t understand what you want to do – that’s the problem. Or ideas that are rejected. If I could freely do everything that comes to my mind then I don’t have any problem.
RKK: Of course.
JJ: A lot of artists think in this way, we’re limited by different things.
RKK: Tell me if you see any difficulties specific to women, female artists to overcome?
JJ: Women… There is definitely some difference between how we function. Of course. I would love the world to be like that, the ultimate world, where these problems no longer exist. Women can do exactly as much as men and many people in the world aspire to that. But I think that despite this apparent equality, it is not quite like that. In my case, most of the block is in my mind, so it results from the process of my education, growing up and upbringing. I am blocked with a lot of patterns that have been passed on to me. There doesn’t have to be a big prohibition sign in the gallery saying: “a woman cannot enter here and create art here”, but I limit myself and I know it. However, it is also difficult for me to break through and I know that the whole education and the whole culture which I have absorbed, the patterns which I have seen from my earliest childhood tell me from the very beginning: “you have no right to ask for more”.
YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO ASK FOR MORE
JJ: I very often get this feeling. I have no right to ask for something, but I have many responsibilities. It means that I worry about whether I have done something right, whether I have done enough, whether I deserve it. I think men in many environments and also in the arts don’t think about it in that way. It’s more like: “I want to do this, and I deserve it, and let’s just find a way to do it now.” Of course, people are different, everyone has a different character. But I see it among other people. I think this is a broader problem. So, I don’t think we have to deal with something like in the past, that there is clearly an obstacle, very easy to name, a ban: “you can’t go to art school”, or “you can’t practice this profession”, “the gallery doesn’t accept women”, there is no such thing. But I don’t know what conditions a male artist is offered and what conditions I am offered. What remuneration does he get – is it the same? I am not able to check that. Does he have to make the same effort? Let’s say that now a number of women in art is quite high, there is no obstacle.
RKK: But you can’t see it in the academies though.
JJ: Yes, but in real life women don’t have the same scale, the same opportunity to act and they also limit themselves.
RKK: You are a mother; you have a wonderful daughter Milenka. Tel me if motherhood influences the way you create art?
JJ: Maybe it does a little bit, but it certainly doesn’t affect the subjects I take up. It affects me as a person. I’ve become a bit bolder. I also have less time for everything, so I just think less and do more. This is very good! I really think it has had a very positive effect on me. My daughter is a very nice, inspiring person and she draws very well, so I admire that too. It is a great pleasure for me to create with her. She is already such a little artist. However, when it comes to the whole environment surrounding art, organising exhibitions, projects, cooperation with institutions, it is even more difficult if you have a child. This is a limitation that art and cultural institutions do not take into account. Maybe not all, but the ones I have encountered. I faced the situation when I couldn’t do something because my daughter was ill and I really had to be with her. She was small and I was breastfeeding. But this institution had absolutely no offer for me. I was placed in a situation where I had to choose whether I would leave my feverish child, with whom I should stay and go to do a performance, or I would say that I would give up everything I had been working on for a month and “thank you, ladies and gentlemen, I cannot come”. There is no exemption for an artist if they have committed to do something.
RKK: There’s no alternative either…
JJ: …the alternative that just someone can replace me. That we can sometimes postpone something. I think these solutions can be worked out. That situation was finally resolved, I also had a cold then and I came with a fever for the performance which I gave. I was worried the whole time about how my child was doing, how she was coping. Because I was supposed to be breastfeeding her, which meant that basically I couldn’t go anywhere. She also had a fever; she stayed at home. And I was supposed to be two days at the event, but I stayed for one day. Nevertheless, it was accompanied by terrible stress. Constant phone calls to me when I couldn’t pick up and talk. Financial consequences because my contract was changed.
RKK: After the fact.
JJ: My remuneration was cut. Yes, after the fact. It seems to me that these circumstances are beyond my control. As if another artist broke both legs and couldn’t come to their performance…. I don’t know if it’s fair to cut off their remuneration and treat it as if they just didn’t come because they had a match to watch or something. And a lot of stress. I just lost a lot of health then. It’s not pleasant and it’s not a choice. I’m not in a situation where I can choose: “Well, I wanted to paint my nails at that time, so I didn’t come to do my work that I had committed to”. These are life circumstances; deterioration of health is something beyond our control…
RKK: …in a so-called normal job…
JJ: …in a normal job I would go on leave. Of course, I understand that performance is maybe not something you can put off to the next day, but I think there should be some mechanisms. And there probably are in some institutions, but I don’t think it’s common. Or in some artistic productions in a theatre.
RKK: I think that we are touching the problem in general….
JJ: There’s no special treatment here. If you support a performance then you should be there 12 hours a day, no matter what.
RKK: It seems to me that we are confronted here with a problem of social security for artists, which, by the way, is not solved in Poland. In spite of the fact that we have professional titles of the Master of Arts, that is a specific profession written in documents. There are no regulations actually concerning most things.
JJ: Nothing. So, this second job of mine, this “normal job” gave me the opportunity to have a child at all. I wouldn’t decide to get pregnant with a contract of mandate, not having anything to eat, not being able to pay for the doctor, if something goes wrong, not being able to pay for the labour. All these things cost money. And then with a small child I don’t have anything to eat either. So, I have to say that my child is a child of the corporation, because the corporation allowed me to have her. In such reasonable, civilised conditions.
RKK: These are the problems that are actually faced by probably all artists who work in the field of art. From what I remember at the Academy, at least in my year, most people do not create art. They do other things. Sometimes in the field of art they do graphics, they design… it’s still good. But there are people who have completely given up on art and do something completely different.
JJ: Yes, because it requires both self-denial, time and money.
RKK: Total discipline!
JJ: Huge discipline.
RKK: Artist – this is a kind of profession where a male or female artist has to be so disciplined, no one stands over anyone here, no one tells anyone what to do. They have to work it out for themselves. And stick to it…
JJ: …And stick to it. And fit everything else in! So, it’s exactly as you say. I just live with a diary in my hand and a watch on my wrist all the time. Everything has to be done. It’s not perfect, of course, but it can’t be done any other way.
RKK: It can’t be done any other way.
JJ: I just know that I have time designated for work where I make money, for work where I do some visual commissions. For open calls, for competitions. Possibly for organising these projects. So, then it turns out that my own project appears in my life once every 3 years. I can’t do anything about it.
RKK: Especially during the pandemic.
JJ: It is a different story in the pandemic too…
RKK: Slowly winding down now, taking advantage of these natural circumstances here, tell us what influence nature has on your art?
JJ: (laughter) Well, I think it has an important influence. If you go through what I’ve done so far there are often themes related to the natural environment.
JJ: Pro-ecological or connected with what surrounds us. This is an extremely important element for me. From my point of view, it seems very obvious. We are a part of nature. We absolutely cannot function without trees, which produce oxygen that we breathe. And without the whole bio-zone, biodiversity. It’s an extremely complicated mechanism where all the elements are interconnected and interdependent. And it has great psychological significance for me. I simply regenerate very well in a forest or among nature in a park. It means a lot to me and I have been very worried lately about the situation that we have. I know that worrying will not change much. In my practical life decisions, I also try to help nature rather than destroy it. For example, I ride my bike – that kind of decision or practice. We are currently in a difficult moment, and we don’t even know if these joint efforts of mankind are still able to stop this process that has begun, an ecological catastrophe in fact. It is a pity. It’s a pity that not everyone sees it that way.
RKK: Well, that’s true. This is where I think we need a universal uprising.
JJ: And some kind of top-down regulation. This is no joke any more.
RKK: Great, Justyna! Thank you so much for those answers. It was very interesting to listen to what you say. And well, see you in the park!
JJ: See you soon!