Natalia Romik


Pointing a Finger: Architectural Performance as Resistance

Natalia Romik

Images: Natalia Romik

'What is important in my practice is that architectural resilience cannot be taken into account without also considering elements of resistance, the act of pointing a finger.'

Here I will present my architectural and spatial practice, which deals with the problem of urban emptiness and the architecture of abandonment in the post-Jewish properties of former shtetls in Poland. In my architectural and design performances I observe the emergent resilience already within the fabrication of post-Jewish properties, but I also develop forms of resistance, which focuses attention on a problem. I try to reinvigorate the cultural memory that architecture sustains by intervening in urban processes and engaging with the current inhabitants of current post-Jewish spaces. Shtetl are Jewish towns that used to span throughout Eastern Europe before the Second World War and that are currently inhabited by non-Jewish populations. My designs, and also interventions, facilitate the negotiation between the desire of different audiences and groups of participants to commemorate and a necessity to respect the rights of current inhabitants. In this context I juxtapose the history and the present of post-Jewish properties. First, I explain the main context of my work and the present condition of the shtetl, which is quite crucial then I describe my research and the goals that I employ within it. In Yiddish, Shtetl means a small town, a settlement with a large and compact Jewish population, which differs from the neighbouring population in occupation, language, religion and also architecture. Shtetl existed in Central Eastern Europe before the Second World War in Poland, the Ukraine, Czech Republic and Slovakia. They were large enough to form a basic network of institutional Jewish communal life; hence in every shtetl there was at least one synagogue and a cemetery. Overtime, shtetl became a common name for any small town in Central Eastern Europe with a sizeable Jewish population. An example is Izbica where 92.8% of the inhabitants were Jewish. In the 20s and 30s, the shtetl also played a very important cultural role in the community, hosting small cinemas and political parties. Since WWII, no major research has been carried out on the changing function of these buildings in the process of redevelopment or on the urban voice left by a fading Jewish population.

What is important in my practice is that architectural resilience cannot be taken into account without also considering elements of resistance, the act of 'pointing a finger'. The pointed finger, like those found in religious iconography, in my performance JAD becomes a big machine in the shape of a hand. Covered in a mirrored surface, the hand's interior is made from recycled wood and plastic sheets. The performance targets the current problem of urban management in these areas as I take the decision to present, and direct attention to, the post-Jewish architecture in a post-communist urban reality. The mirrors in the first installation were intended as a magnification or an absorbing of urban erosion. JAD was taken to these particular locations of urban decay and was used there as a vehicle of emergency, trying to grab the attention of passersby through a visual art smoke screen. The installation was set up in various locations in the Silesia, an industrial region in South-Western Poland. We produced a lot of conversation in these towns; everybody talked about the growing anti-Semitism and about complexities related to the restitution of Jewish properties, such as negotiation between property rights of Jewish communities and the rights of their current habitants and users.

My next project was Signboard (2013), a placard placed on the wall of a town hall in Cz stochowa (a city in southern Poland) with a single slogan that read 'Shtetl: a former Polish Jewish town'. The installation looks like an official signboard and attempts to popularise the problems of Cz stochowa's Jewish heritage. Cz stochowa is an important centre of pilgrimage and it is also a post-industrial town, which has suffered a lot with the decline of local industry. Despite the town's financial problems, under the influence of the Catholic Church the local municipality has recently renovated spaces related to Christian pilgrimage, while at the same time, the former Jewish architecture remains untouched. The target audience of Signboard was mainly town hall clerks, but also other visitors. Despite its static form, I see these signboards as part of an urban practice, or a highjacking of urbanism.

The Cloud (2015 – ongoing) is a project based in a converted pre-burial house that is now the Museum of Upper Silesian Jews in Gliwice. The whole design process of the Museum of Upper Silesian Jews negotiates between the need to preserve Jewish history, while constituting a social space for animating this heritage. The town of Gliwice is not technically a shtetl, however the problems associated with architectural adaptation are similar and the repair of this building demonstrates the political and economic discourse always present in post-Jewish property, which are apparent for example in the cultural policies that distribute resources and even in the party politics of any given town. My aim was that The Cloud would exist in a space between the building’s former function and its future use. Part of its history includes the fact that in 1972 the famous architect Max Fleischer built the Jewish cemetery in a neo-gothic style that stands near the pre-burial house. After WWII, the building was used as a pig farm, as well as a place for humans to live. The history of the Upper Silesian Jews is still taboo in museums because they were exposed to a double exclusion; one being related to the German history, the other related to their Jewishness. To expose this, we planned an exhibition about the Silesian Jews while also responding to needs of the local NGOs and community groups by implementing functions related to community organising, like an educational centre for children. The main chamber of the building will have a double function as a lecture theatre and concert hall and is also the site where The Cloud is installed. Previously this was the space where people would keep vigil over the deceased, so it is very emotionally charged.

The Cloud is an installation consisting of hundreds of small cubes, connected to form shape resembling a cloud. I wanted the installation to move between a formal function and a creative use, between (it could be said) a time of life and a time of death. The design of the installation was inspired by the 19th century Essay on the Modification of Clouds by meteorologist Luke Howard, in which he named different categories of clouds from his observations of the London skyline. Part of the installation consists of panels representing information about Jewish religious rites carried out as part of the funeral process (ritualistic washing of a cadaver, vigil, burial). During public meetings the installation can be lifted upwards, to make space while hovering just like a cloud above the people gathered there.

Nomadic Shtetl Archive (2014) took place in the Cz stochowa and was enacted to find and perform places of Jewish inhabitance. The performance developed my interest in the relationship between architecture and social memory, between changing populations and the transformation of culture. In order to emphasise these aspects, I juxtaposed the history of the area with the contemporary style of the neighbourhood by confronting the audience (passersby) with some archival photographs found in the Jewish Cultural Institute, which I have been working with very closely. I hid these photographs inside an invisible box, pulling them out and presenting them during conversation. In order to create a kind of playful and magical atmosphere, I designed the invisible box as a kind of hurdy-gurdy, which I wore adopting the figure of a Jewish busker once popular in the 20s and the 30s, images of which I had found from pictures of Jewish holidays on postcards and magazines. I covered the box in mirrors and installed another mirror inside at an angle to create an illusion of emptiness, yet to the surprise of the audience I would pull the photographs and other ephemera from this seemingly vacant box. In this way the box served a practical function and also acted as storage for memory.

As a final remark, I would like to point to the state of post-Jewish memory in relation to the economic and symbolic value of the properties in question. The Jewish districts in Cz stochowa and B dzin, which are modest, low-value houses inhabited both before and after the war by either Jewish or Polish people living in poverty, remain in a state of neglect. While impressive buildings like the pre-burial house has had attention from public investment, the same cannot be said for these more modest sites. The architectural tools that I have presented such as the Nomadic Shtetl Archive, attempt to resist subject tendencies. It takes account of everyday mundane issues as much as it does with the idea of representing a public body.

Natalia Romik is a Ph.D. candidate at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, UK. Her doctoral project is entitled' Post-Jewish architecture of memory within former Eastern European shtetls'. Natalia Romik holds an MA from the University of Warsaw. She has published several articles on Jewish architecture, including' Nothing is going to change? Adaptation of the Jewish Pre-Burial House in Gliwice in the Journal for Eastern European Jewish Affairs'. Natalia is the author of many performances, installations and exhibitions, such as: Zamenhof Birthday, Shtetl Signboard, Virtual Economic Zone, JAD, Nomadic Shtetl Archive. Together with the Nizio Design, she worked on the design of the core exhibition at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. In 2013, she established 'Senna' architectural collective, in which she works on architectural interventions and museum displays. In 2014, she was awarded scholarship from the London Arts and Humanities Partnership.