The following article was published in N-SPHERE September 2010 issue.


Polish performance group SUKA OFF have been producing since the early ’90s an impressive body of work, ranging from video and photography to action and installation, broaching themes such as the body, sexuality and post–humanism. We sat down to discuss with leader Piotr Wegrzynski and Sylvia Lajbig about their artistic practice and the result was nothing short of an exciting exchange of ideas.

You first formed in Poland, in 1995. How would you describe the cultural and subcultural environment that helped shape SUKA OFF?

P: The main starting point for us was the “off” theatre, which was the second generation of independent theatre in Poland. Perhaps that’s why in Poland we are still categorized as “theatre”, although I don’t like this term. At the same time I participated and interacted on a daily basis with various subcultures (skinheads, punks), I tried to observe how the mainstream and the independent culture influence each other. I have always been more interested in the costumes and in playing with conventions rather than in ideology and politics. Very soon each of these subcultures proved to be very limited. They very often suppressed my needs of expressing myself through images. With time we found the body-mod and fetish scene, which have opened the widest field for our experiments.

What artists or theorists have influenced your work throughout the years?

P: Theorists without practitioners wouldn’t have anything to write about. It’s like reading a car manual written by someone who has never ridden a car. Of course that happens too. ;) I have always listened to the practitioners, because they don’t have time for superfluous analysis. Their deductions are simple and practical. Because of my artistic education (I studied painting) I have been interested in artists joining different media and using images instead of words. Jozef Szajna was my main inspiration. Other important for me artists are Dariusz Gorczyca, Gunter Brus, Franko B, Joe Coleman, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Matthew Barney and many photographers and film directors. I don’t have one favorite.

Since usually SUKA OFF produces videos and performances, would you claim that this choice of media was a conscious decision to explore the transformative potential of these specific art forms?

P: We live in the times of image information, so you could as well ask me if I intentionally used electricity or running water. The media I’m using are part of the universal language, the modern form of communication. I’m aware of the impact of media on society. I have noticed certain disability to understand the meanings in the spate of information.
S: The choice of media very often depends on the images we want to create. In live performances many things are impossible. Especially whenever we want to show the process of metamorphosis, mutation, (dis)integration… In video you have the possibility of editing, special effects, 3D animations etc. XYSex was the first performance idea which never made it onto the stage, but became a video art instead. With time we developed our original language and started to do more and more video projects.

Would you consider the harsh imagery you often employ an attempt at inducing a cathartic experience in your viewers? Would you describe your performances as collective rituals aimed at re-fashioning society?

P: I honestly don’t care what the imagery I create induces in the viewers. I think that art, which changes the society, is one that serves the politics, because it based on the assumption that society can be manipulated. For me it’s already propaganda. Our performances are not based on social engineering techniques. I don’t give the viewers any specific instruction, I don’t teach and I don’t have the need to manipulate people. I only simulate a certain event. As an example I give crash tests performed in laboratories. They are also a simulation of a real event. Of course nobody dies in these artificial accidents, however sometimes they use real corpses or meat and the cars after the tests are only suitable for scrap. For me the most important is the cognitive element in our performances. They are artificially created situations differing from the generally accepted standards. Situations which can arouse certain emotions. Everyone participates in these events on his own responsibility. Everyone takes what he sees in his own way and finds (or not) elements connecting the created images with his own reality. This is how in my opinion the sender/receiver relation should look like. It comes from the respect I have for the viewer. I do not tolerate (imposing) the form and content of propaganda.
S: Our performances are never programmed to create a collective experience. I know they can induce all kinds of reactions – from catharsis to rage. For me it’s interesting to see how one performance, depending on the audience (country, type of event) can be considered as dark, violent, romantic, sexy, funny or provoke no reactions at all. It’s an ongoing experiment, far more interesting for me than any attempts of manipulation.

You’ve often performed your pieces at fetish festivals such as Torture Garden. How do you see yourselves in relation to fetish culture and how is this interest perceived in your own country, renowned for its Catholic Puritanism?

P: Clubs like Torture Garden are still quite exotic in Poland. When it comes to sexual awareness and education, we are still at the level of experience of Western Europe in the 70s. Responsible for it is the emerging influence of Catholic Church on the society and politics following the fall of communism. The generation of the 20-year-olds seems to be completely disabled on this field. The culture of fetish clubs is deformed, people try to copy it without understanding its mechanisms and roots. Most people attending fetish events in Poland cannot accept the fact that the first fetish clubs were created by the homosexual community. We have witnessed many attempts of creating the fetish scene in Poland over the last 6 years, tried to support some of them, but I don’t see the point of it anymore. The problem is too deep and I’m not a sexologist or a psychiatrist.
S: We started to perform at fetish events at the time, when we could no longer freely develop our ideas in theatres and galleries in Poland. We needed a place that would allow us to experiment without any limits or censorship. In theatre even costumes made of PVC were considered obscene. In Torture Garden we have presented so far almost 20 different performances. Most of them were premieres; some have been later successfully presented at international theatre festivals (Flesh Camp, Clone Factory). Only Torture Garden allowed us to explore the idea of car crash fetishism as depicted in Ballard’s novel Crash.
So for us the fetish scene is more a laboratory than an inspiration per se.

In her 1974 essay The Body as Language Lea Vergine wrote that “These artists do not take a “long look at life”, and their forms of expression are not genteel. Thy make no a priori exclusions and in most of them suffering is not transformed into mysticism. This is particularly true when they are involved in the investigation of our infirmities and the monstrous organization of the real. It’s a question of facing up to death through life, rummaging around in the under and seamy sides of life, bringing to light the secret and the hidden.” How would you comment this fragment?

P: I will not comment on theorists, who describe the taste of a dish on the basis of the recipe. Also because it is already quite an archaic description. Bacon once said: “My painting is not violent; it’s life that is violent.” Expecting artists who work with their bodies to reveal the universal truth, secret of life and death is naive and in my opinion a little schizophrenic. It suggests that the artist isn’t a conscious creator of certain events, but only a participant, a subject.

S: I think that it is a misunderstanding that body art is always talking about pain, suffering, death etc. Just as nudity isn’t always sexual, piercing and bleeding isn’t always related to pain. In our works there is no real suffering neither is there any mysticism. We are using our bodies as a medium. We can paint it like canvas, we can sculpt it, connect it to other devices or we can project images on it. But as long as it is used as our tool, our true emotions stay hidden. We are neither exhibitionists, nor masochists. And we are definitely not trying to be philosophers. We are not seeking the truth, we are creating images. We leave the interpretation to the viewers.

Many of your works could be read as potential constructions of the “third gender”. How important is this paradigm shift in you larger, post-humanist discourse? Would you claim, as Slavoj Zizek did, that “once sexual difference is abolished, a human being effectively becomes indistinguishable from a machine”?

P: I think that Zizek consciously became an element of pop culture, which is based on repeating all over again the same information. He juggles elements of modernity, impressing those who don’t know the past. Similar philosophical concepts have been already formulated in the XVIII century by Le Mettrie in L’homme machine and later continued by Max Stirner. Zizek didn’t say anything new. We just live in different times and surround ourselves with different technologies, but the morality had changed very little over the last few hundred years and it’s morality that determines progress or its lack. “Third sex” in our work has a symbolical meaning. We use it in a similar way the ancient Greeks did. We mythologize sex and the biological functions connected with it.
S: I have always been fascinated by the myth of Salmakis and Hermaphrodite. The idea, that the only way to truly connect with another person is to become one organism. I think that in a way we are doing it in the cycle tranSfera. We replace the mythical stream of Salmakis with the stream of electronic impulses or the stream of light from the projector. The electric current becomes an additional sense, artificially added to the body with use of needles. It transfers audio/video data about the male and female. Electronic devices derive the data from the bodies, capture it and remix by both reducing and multiplying the income data in order to generate something that you could call the “third gender”. But it is extracted from the physicality of the body, it exists only virtually. We are not interested at all in the phenomenon of trans-sexualism.

The man-machine hybridization is a recurrent theme of your work. How do recent technological advances influence your artistic research?

P: We use them as modern tools. The most irritating element of modern science and technology progress is the previously mentioned concept of morality. Morality based on Christian and Jewish dogma. These values did not evolve at all. The situation is worst on the field of sexuality and forms of its expression. Artists are afraid to objectify sex – putting it inside a machine – because they would be accused of chauvinism, sexism or homophobia. Therefore using technology in the field of sexuality doesn’t go beyond creating a funny looking dildo or an artificial vagina. We are interested in finding new forms of expression in the dialogue between two bodies.

Often your pieces display a dystopian character and are manifestations of a post-industrial aesthetic. Would you consider yourselves as anti-modernists?

P: Modernism is connected with progress and rationalism. We use modern materials and means of expression, rejecting the old, outdated methods and ideas. So how could I be anti-modernist?
The post-industrial aesthetics comes from the place where we work (Upper Silesia) as well as from the experiences of the past dozen or so years on the counter-cultural field.
S: We don’t consider our work as dystopian. We are not trying to depict the dark future of human kind or the “ugly consequences of present-day behavior”. We’re concentrated on some basic human mechanisms, without judging or warning anyone. The aesthetics may be sometimes futuristic, but the subject is always universal.

And one final question, what are SUKA OFF’s other sections and projects and how do you see them develop in the future?

P: Apart from SUKA OFF I also coordinate the video projects: BLACK FLESH VIDEO and INSIDE FLESH. There is also the VHS multimedia project in collaboration with the musician WIRACKI.
At the moment the most important projects for us require precise technical conditions. We want to slow down, test many ideas that arose in clubs, but due to the nature of the space we could not realize them in a precise way. Working in the club increasingly frustrated us. The audience’s interest in more serious subjects disappears. I do not blame anyone for this, but even 4 years ago it was a little different. Of course, if you want to surprise the audience every time, you need adequate resources. And this is where the problems begin. Stage shows became only an addition to the party.
Right now we want to concentrate on developing some project from the last two years, making full use of their potential. Red Dragon will eventually appear in other colors and spatial solutions. We have already a dozen of new ideas for this series. For November we’re preparing the next episode of tranSfera. Next year we hope to continue the project we launched this year, based on Ballard’s novel Crash.
Recently, we appear more and more often in “traditional” spaces such as galleries and theaters, and that’s where I see the next stage of our work. It is a kind of return to the past. The thing that slows us down is the lack of space to work. Working at home for a long time is not the best solution. Equally important for us are the video projects. As Sylvia mentioned, working in front of the camera allows greater precision. It is also an easier way to reach the global audience interested in such aesthetics.

Artwork: Red Dragon, performance at Omissis Festival. By Paolo Tozzi. Courtesy of the artist

questions by Simina Neagu.

answers by Piotr Wegrzynski & Sylvia Lajbig

Full article here.