Solidarity, our weapon? COVID-19 and the cultural field in Poland

Jonas Vanderschueren

Poland was one of the first countries to impose a strict lockdown in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. This early decision of the Polish government to shut down prevented the situation from spiralling out of control, but it has also proven to be a heavy blow to a cultural field that was already under pressure before the pandemic struck. Has the Polish government prepared a set of measures to support the field, how do young artists experience the ideology behind the government’s cultural policies, and how could the future look like for the arts in Poland?

While the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted life across the world, it looks like the cultural field in Poland was in a particularly precarious position to deal with an additional external shock. For years now, cultural workers in Poland have been structurally underpaid. The average wage of a full-time worker at a cultural institution in the Polish capital of Warsaw is only 3.200 zł (€700), meaning that in a city in which the average rent hovers around 1.900 zł (€410), many of them were already struggling to survive. Important to note, is that if a cultural worker is employed in a smaller city like Cracow, Poznań or Wrocław, the average wage is even lower.

However, the above scenario does not reflect the reality of a significant group of cultural workers, who do not have full-time contracts but instead work on a ‘umowa śmieciowa’, a Polish variant on zero-hour contracts which can be roughly translated as ‘trash contracts’. The various types of contracts that fall under this denominator have in common the fact that the worker does not have basic social rights like paid sick leave, paid holidays, or a state pension, and often the pay these contracts provide is at minimum wage or even lower. Often workers who are employed in this way do not have access to the NFZ, the Polish National Health Service, which is supposed to operate on the principle of free care at the point of need. Most of the cultural workers who are employed in this way are young people in their 20s and 30s who are not fortunate enough to have a full-time work contract, and often these people are working as freelance actors, dramaturgs, curators, choreographers and dancers.

Visibly struggling

One of these workers is Ago Tragarz, a performer who had their debut at the Warsaw-based Teatr Studio, one of the most important cultural institutions in the country. ‘Already before the crisis, the situation was very precarious’, Tragarz says. ‘Within the theatre field everything is centred around big names and big institutions, and it are these names and institutions who get the lion share of funding. If you are not fortunate enough to be one of the ‘chosen ones’, your whole life revolves around trying to become a part of one of these larger projects. Often this means going from underpaid – often even unpaid – project to unpaid project. We are supposed to be grateful for the exposure attached to those projects, and to be ‘creative’ enough to turn that exposure into money. It is difficult to get funding for your own project: without a famous name attached to it, it is almost impossible to get any funding from the Ministry. As a result, the whole field is built around who you befriend and who is in your network: if you manage to become friendly with a more famous artists, director or curator, suddenly you are swamped with work’.

Adrian Grycuk, Teatr Studio w Warszawie, CC BY-SA 3.0 PL

The queer artist Paweł Świerczek describes a similar situation: ‘The city-owned cultural institutions have ever smaller budgets, and the gap between young creators and ‘the masters’ has turned into a chasm. There are a whole bunch host of interesting grassroots and underground art initiatives, but these are almost never picked up by the ‘official’ field.’
Despite the strong homophobia in Poland, which recently had the sad honour to be crowned the least LGBTQ-friendly country in the EU, it is precisely the underground queer art scene that is one of the most lively spaces for experimental artistic practices.

‘In the past few years, the queer art scene has grown exponentially. More spaces and more institutions are opening their doors to queer initiatives and perspectives, and more recently critics have begun taking ‘queer’ seriously as an artistic strategy. However, there is still no official recognition.’ For two years already Świerczek has been one of the driving forces between Śląsk Przegięty (Effeminate Silesia), an interdisciplinaire arts project that combines local Silesian traditions (like the mineworker’s tradition) with drag culture. Currently he is working on a new project, Trust Truth Project, in which he documents his bodily experiences with HIV.

The heavy competition within the institutional art field has resulted in a clear demarcation between haves and have-not’s, more specifically through the defining of who is and isn’t an artist. Świerczek: ‘In Poland, you are officially an artist when you graduate from an art school or pass an artistic exam. Without these forms of recognition, most doors will remain closed. At the same time the whole field is drowning in a sea of ‘open calls’, ‘bursaries’ and ‘competitions’, where you know in advance that the chances of achieving any form of financial support are 0 if you do not know anyone behind the scenes. What makes the situation truly cynical, is the fact that once you do manage to get money, you are suddenly swamped with work. However, this does not mean that you are suddenly swimming in money, because often the financial resources provided are not sufficient compensation for all the work and all the costs incurred. In my mind, cultural institutions function like other types of institution under Capitalism, in which profit accumulation through exploitation is central.’

Already before the pandemic hit, Świerczek had his main source of income somewhere else, performing non-artistic work, which has given him a limited breathing space which most other artists are not fortunate to have. Many of his projects have been put on hold, but thanks to his other work he feels that the pandemic has opened up a host of possibilities he had not seen before: ‘I have stopped thinking that my artistic practice needs to take place in a special place or under special circumstances. It can happen anywhere and break through the boundaries between life and the artistic field.’

Financial wasteland

The tendency to move away from the official artistic field is also present in the growing world of Polish club culture. Aleksander Sobiczewski, graphic artist and DJ within the technocollective piesapol, summarizes the situation: ‘In recent years, club culture has seen a boom in Poland. Even after performing piesapol for over two years, I am still astonished by the fact that we can make our work and survive mostly through social media, without any government subsidy. I have the feeling that a lot of collectives within the music- and club world have similar experiences, so that within their niche they could organize parties nearly every week.’

However, similarly to the theatre- and performance world, there are structural problems. Crowdfunding and social media have made it possible to organize concerts and parties without government subsidies, but the limited income this generates is not enough for everyone to live off. This raises the question whether the recent boom in club culture will be able to survive the pandemic.

In the case of Ago Tragarz, they were lucky enough that their debut project, Więcej niż jedno zwięrze (More Than An Animal, made collectively with Robert Wasiwiecz, Vira Hres, Marcin Miętus, Błażej Stencel and Sonia Roszczuk), had its premiere late last year. This has enabled Tragarz to apply for state support from the Ministry of Culture in the form of a one-off grant, because their connection to Teatr Studio has given them official recognition as an artist. This grant is worth 1.800 zł (€400), but over two months after the initial grant application they have still not seen any money.

Yet Tragarz sees themselves as luck compared to most other cultural workers: ‘I make my main income through selling tickets at Teatr Studio, which has enabled me to apply for an additional 2.000 zł (€440) of government support. And because I am still studying at the Warsaw Theatre Academy, I could also apply for social support from the academy itself. Sadly, that support entails only 400 zł (€88), and is provided entirely through voluntary contributions from academic staff and other workers at the academy. If they do not donate, there is no budget for social support.’

The dramaturg Anka Herbut tells a similar story: ‘For years I have been working as a freelance dramaturg both on theatre and dance productions. The dance scene in Poland is more independent than the theatre scene, but this has also meant that it pays less and has less stable work opportunities. To survive I have to constantly run from project to project, while at the same time organizing another project in the background. As the mother of a two-year old child, I have the feeling I am stuck in a vicious cycle, where every possible option will mean a loss of income.’

The pandemic has resulted in a financial wasteland for Herbut: ‘For two months already, my income has been reduced to 500 zł (€110) per month. The payment for two projects I was already working on has been frozen, and the contracts for those projects had not even been signed yet. In general, the situation is difficult, because the child day care facility where my child normally stays has been closed, but I am still receiving bills. It is unclear whether these still have to paid.’

Just like Tragarz and Świerczek, Herbut points towards the structural underfinancing of the cultural field: ‘In Poland we do not have any real dance institutions, only national or city-run theatre institutions.’ She has been less fortunate than Tragarz when it comes to government funding: ‘Because none of my contracts were signed before the pandemic hit, I cannot apply for any state support. As an artist I can apply for a one-off grant [the same one given to Tragarz – 1.800 zł], but this grant has been delayed for months now.’ Similar to the other people interviewed, at the moment of writing [May 18th 2020], Herbut has not heard of anyone actually receiving the promised support onto their bank account.

Field under fire

These problems are not new, as the cultural field in Poland has been a political battlefield for years. Far more than is the case in Western Europe, culture is seen as crucial to the strength of the nation-state, and most political currents in Poland see it is a crucial way to secure Polish national identity. This means that debates on the cultural field and cultural policy are never merely about culture in and of itself, but are instead always (and often quite explicitly) driven by particular stances on what it means to be Polish and what Poland’s future should be.

After the fall of Communism in 1989, the political consensus in Poland has been centred around the ‘Westernization’ of Poland: a neoliberal market economy was introduced, the country joined NATO and the European Union, and its cultural policy would become pluralistic and autonomous. In this way, Polish culture would integrate with Western European culture, and Poland would once again claim its rightful place as an indispensable and crucial partner to the rest of Europe.

These policies of Westernization did not go as smoothly as initially planned or hoped for, and while they have yielded measurable success, they have also caused significant economic, social and political disruption. Perhaps the space in which the transition has progressed the furthest, has been the cultural field, where in the past two decades a network developed of independent arts institutions who made autonomous decisions, collaborated with Western European partners, and slowly but surely began to open up to artists operating in the margins of the official cultural field.

The political support to these developments has, however, not been unconditional. Already in 2013, under the liberal government of Donald Tusk, the arts festival Malta had to cancel the theatre performance Golgota Picnic under heavy political pressure, as the piece was seen as insulting to Roman Catholics. That pressure has only increased since the arrival of the current right-wing conservative government in 2015, which has been trying to instigate real conservative cultural revolution which has the aim to change the parameters in which the field is operating.

The ambition of these new cultural policies has been to propagate a different, more patriotic conception of Polish national identity, in which the Polish nation is strongly interconnected with the Roman Catholic faith. These ambitions are also reflected in the attempt to create a new, far more conservative canon. In practice, these policies translate themselves into attempts to regain direct political control over the cultural field, especially through political appointments at state media and arts institutions like theatres and museums.

Anka Herbut, whose research project Ruchy Oporu (‘Resistance Movements’) has been investigating how choreography can be a form of resistance, has poignantly described the impact of these policies on the field: ‘Before the pandemic hit, there were a whole host of experimental grassroots initiatives within the arts. But because almost all institutional art in Poland depends in one way or another on politics, the situation was gradually becoming worst. And while within city-run arts institutions there has been the development of a progressive movement trying to open up the arts, they have been actively undermined by the Ministry. An example of this is what happened at the Teatr Polski in Wrocław.’ Artistic directions are forced to leave their positions early and are then replaced with explicitly conservative figures, whose political opinions are often more important than their skills and experience within the field.

Paradigm shift

Despite these challenges, art remains an important site of protest in Poland. On May 16th, 2020 a group of Polish artists delivered a long open letter to the Sejm, the Polish parliament, with the message ‘Żyć nie, umierać’ (‘Do not live, die’). This re-enactment of Tadeusz Kantor’s legendary 1967 List protest was conducted to criticize the fact that the government was trying to hold presidential elections at the original scheduled date despite the dangers of holding an election at the height of a pandemic. Actions like these are more frequently targeted with repressive measures: almost immediately the participants were given a fine of 10.000 zł (€2.200) per person for ‘reckless behaviour’ and ‘violating the COVID-19 measures’. This even though the protest was entirely legal, took all necessary precautions and was guided by the local police.

The new ideological focus of cultural policy is also reflected in the support measures developed by the Ministry of Culture in the wake of the pandemic. As the above accounts illustrate, there is not only a significant delay between the granting of support and the actual payment, but it also seems like the government is trying to use the crisis to speed up the pace of change within the cultural field. The current Minister of Culture, Piotr Gliński, has decided to increase the amount of support from 20 million zł (€4.3 million) to 80 million zł (€17.5 million), a fourfold increase in financial support for the cultural field.

However, one of the most important mechanisms for distributing this aid is via the ‘Kultura w sieci’ (Culture Online) project, which only provides financing for new online projects. Those which were cancelled due to the pandemic, receive absolutely nothing, which means that a lot of cultural institutions and independent makers are felt to fend for themselves. It also looks like the conditions applied to receive funding and the short time frame in which to prepare applications, have once again benefitted mostly large institutions. It is exactly these places which the Ministry holds most sway over, not only financially, but also programmatically, as opposed to the more autonomous way of working of independent makers.

That these changes are not merely a change in accent, but a paradigm shift, was best expressed by Minister Gliński himself in 2017: ‘something which was built in 26 years, cannot be changed in only a year and a half. […] We are building new institutions. We are making a clear correction.’ That correction is clearly visible when we look at the big winners of ‘Kultura w Sieci’, which benefit mostly high art and institutions that propagate Polish national identity, such as the Cracow Opera, the Świętokrzyska Philharmonic Orchestra, the Gdańsk Museum and the Home Army Museum.

To fill the gaps in official policy, a range of grassroots initiatives have sprung up providing bottom-up solidarity. The most important of these are local Widzialna Ręka (Visible Hand) groups, in which tens of thousands of people have organized themselves via social media to provide each other help, goods and money based on need. At the same time city-run arts institutions like Biennale Warszawa have provided limited financial support for artists in need. While these initiatives provide a ray of hope for a lot of people, they also illustrate the limits of voluntary solidarity: the initiative of Biennale Warszawa could only provide a one-off lump sum of 3.000 zł (€650) to ten artists. Just like the voluntary solidarity at the Warsaw Theatre Academy, it provides a good illustration of the desperate need for a structural approach.

Which future?

The fact that there have been so many grassroots initiatives the past few years, and the fact that they have been able to organize mutual aid in response to the pandemic, makes curator and art critic Dominika Tylcz optimistic about the future: ‘I think that a whole range of new institutional and artistic practices will rise from the ashes of the pandemic. There is a big chance that there will be less government support, but I am trying to see this as an opportunity for grassroots projects to plug institutional gaps and start a process of reform of institutions to more sustainable, community-driven centres.’ However, amongst those interviewed for this article, Tylcz seems to be the only one espousing such optimism: all other interviewees expressed a desire to move abroad, and either have plans to do so or are considering making plans.

This does not mean that young artists in Poland are not organizing. While they do not feel represented by any political party, there is a strong desire to unite and effect radical change within the cultural field. Herbut: ‘One of the most important strategies to move forward is through the manifestation of our presence, to protest as physical bodies – and not only through social media as is currently the case. We have to be more radical. We need to unite different professions in a common act of resistance, because so far, we have been demonstrating in isolation. I strongly believe in the importance of civic protest.’

Świerczek echoes the same idea: ‘I want more cooperation and less competition within the field. People in positions of power need to relinquish it and enable real change, for example by providing a platform for those who are currently invisible. I want equal distribution of wealth within cultural institutions and the creation of real equal opportunities.’

With this cry for radical change and unity, both within the field and outside of it, these young artists are placing themselves, whether it is conscious or not, within a long Polish tradition of resistance against authority and abuse of power. A previous generation fought against an authoritarian Communism under the slogan of Solidarność, naszą bronią – Solidarity, our weapon. It looks like these words are once again forming a battle cry for the many who want to bring about change within the Polish cultural field.

Jonas Vanderschueren is a PhD Candidate at KU Leuven and the Institute of Art of the Polish Academy of Sciences, where he specializes in contemporary Polish theatre. He is the former editor of the literary magazine Kluger Hans and was previously working at Ghent University.

CoDa, a new Research Network for Dance Studies

The Institute of Cultural Studies (KU Leuven) is proud to be part of the new Research Network for Dance Studies CoDa | Cultures of Dance

CoDa | Cultures of Dance​ is a newly created research network funded by the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO). By bringing together several research centers with leading expertise in dance scholarship and choreographic practices, CoDa provides a platform for the expansion and anchoring of dance studies in Flanders and Europe.


The aim of CoDa is to build a collective platform that contributes to the development of dance studies as an academic and practice-oriented discipline on both a local and international level. CoDa stands for “Cultures of Dance” in order to acknowledge the variety of choreographic practices, scholarly approaches, and cultural backgrounds that steer the broad scope of the growing field of dance studies. In its current form, CoDa joins the forces of several Belgian partners with a range of international research units from across Europe that are recognized for their excellence in dance scholarship. By facilitating collaboration on various levels, CoDa will foster the mutual exchange of knowledge, competences, and skills between dance researchers and practitioners coming from different backgrounds but with a shared interest into how diverse cultures of dance operate in terms of aesthetics, politics, (inter)disciplinarity, and embodied epistemologies.

The creation of CoDa finds its impetus in the general observation that, apart from some exceptions, research on dance is still highly fragmented. Dance scholarship often takes place at university departments that do not focus specifically on dance, but rather identify themselves with other branches within the humanities, such as (art) history, cultural studies, theater and film studies, philosophy, sociology, or media studies. Even though the interest in building interdisciplinary connections between different research domains is characteristic of dance scholarship, the actual potential of this interdisciplinarity can only be fully realized through a common network that enables dance scholars to bring their different methodological approaches into dialogue with each other.

CoDa consists of a Belgian Core Division and a European Partner Division. With this initiative, the growing community of Belgian dance scholars sets out to connect with a larger network of international partners and peers in Europe. The Belgian team will function as a bridge between all partners who have few opportunities to meet and exchange together, particularly in the European landscape.

The following research units are involved:

Belgian Core Division:

European Partner Division:

Stay tuned for our future activities by subscribing to our newsletter!

Read our first newsletter here!


Transatlantic Modernism, Art and Cultural Mediators between Belgium and Argentina, 1910-1958

Picture1Have you ever thought of arts modernism beyond a Eurocentric perspective? Have you ever imagined modernism can be expressed alternatively? Have you ever known that there was a huge connection between Belgian and Argentine arts?

You’ll find all the answers in the exhibition “Transatlantic Modernisms” in which Cultural Studies Master students Sophie Baert, Anna Laganovska, Joachim Meeusen, Dahai Zhang and Catherine Zubkow participated as part of the course ‘Cultural Policy’. We are a multi-lingual, multi-national group of students from very different backgrounds, each with a unique perspective and strength to bring to the project.

Our project is part of the upcoming exhibition hosted by the Mu.Zee in Ostende that is about the artistic relationships between Belgium and Argentina between 1910 and 1958. “Modernism exists only within western and Eurocentric frameworks of thought”, but by following the connections, influences and exchanges of three key figures from both Argentina and Belgium during this time, the exhibition seeks to explore alternative histories in the trajectory of Modernism on a global scale.

The exhibition is built around three figures: the artist, the critic and the collector, as they are the personifications of the transatlantic relations and serve as the through-line of the exhibition. Victor Delhez was an artist from Antwerp who moved to Argentina at the end of 1925 where he continued to work and paint until his death. The art critic, Julio Payro, was an Argentine who spent his youth in Brussels where he made friendships with influential Belgian artists such as Paul Delvaux, which he maintained even after his return to Argentina. Finally, you have Ignacio Pirovano, an art collector and benefactor who maintained an intense friendship with Georges Vantongerloo, a successful Belgian artist. It was Pirovano who exhibited Vantongerloo’s art in Argentina and thus contributed to the overseas fame of this artist.  Thus, we decided to film a short video to introduce this fascinating relationship between artists from Belgium and Argentina.

The exhibition, which will be held at the Mu.Zee in Ostende, is scheduled to take place from February 20th to June 13th 2021. Please, follow the link to the museum’s website for more information about the exhibition:

Digital D.I.Y. CAFe

According to annual tradition, the cultural policy event of the Cultural Studies program takes place towards the end of the academic year. This year the event is called D.I.Y CAFe and is organized by us: Cathelijne Jennes, Lan Jacobs, Laure Verstreken and Rani De Leener. The name stands for Do It Yourself Cultural Arts Fair event.

In normal circumstances the event would have taken place at STUK in Leuven on April 2nd. On this day the organizers would have provided a fair with multiple stands where the different groups could present their projects to the visitors. This would have happened within a cozy and homely atmosphere with appropriate lighting, plants, seats and of course a bar and buffet. The master students themselves would’ve provided the food for the buffet. Entertainment-wise, a screen printing workshop and a live concert of a band from Leuven, Arrandt, would have made this day complete.  

However, the corona crisis forced everyone in quarantine. As an alternative, the D.I.Y CAFe-team will present its online fair on May 25th. The Master’s students of Cultural Studies are busy creating fun digital presentations to explain the projects they have been working on for the past few months. Some of them will also talk about their experience during the organization of their own project or about the work process. This way, the online presentations will hopefully bring the same vibe of the original event into a digital space.

The name of the event is then easily explained. We named our project a CAFe, because we wanted to create the same vibe as a living room or a cafe where students of our age spend their spare time. Now, not only students can experience this living room style. With the digital CAFe everybody can learn about culture in the relaxed setting of their own living room. ​Moreover, we wanted to enhance the fact that the students started from scratch and finished with a complete cultural project. That is why we called our cafe, a D.I.Y CAFe

Our fellow students have put together some creative and original presentations of their projects. These projects varied from an exhibition to a video dialogue.

With this alternative version of the event, the D.I.Y CAFe team wants to reach everyone who is interested in the cultural field. Mark May 25th in your agenda and come over to have a look! We invite you to take a look at the interesting cultural projects of the students!

🕵️‍♂️ European Crime TV: Participants Wanted for Online Survey

Do you like watching crime series on TV or on streaming services? If so, the DETECt project needs you! We want to find out which crime shows you like, which are your favourite detectives, and which elements of crime series keep you glued to the screen. The survey is completely anonymous.

🔍 Click here to fill in the survey.

Thank you for helping our audience research! And please spread the word about the survey among your friends and family.

DETECt investigates the topics of identity and popular culture and aims to show how, from 1989 to the present, the transnational circulation of crime narratives from various European countries has contributed to the formation of a plural, shared European identity.


Enjoying Science Fiction of the Seventies: UFO and Space: 1999

By Fred Truyen

While we are stuck in isolation, online video streaming can offer some ways to pass the time. Recently two very interesting shows from the 1970s were posted on Youtube: UFO and Space: 1999. Both are the brainchild of Sylvia and Gerry Anderson, who also signed for the famous marionette animation series The Thunderbirds.

Working relentlessly on science fiction proposals for broadcasters, UFO was their first successful shot at it, with Sylvia Anderson as the artistic mind, also designing the costumes. This mini-series of two seasons was produced on a relatively low budget, but already included quite some elaborate props and designs, such as a complete Moonbase. While definitely in the Sci-Fi genre, and with the main theme of an invasion by Alien Spacecraft, most of the action took place on earth. We are introduced to SHADO, an undercover organisation protecting humankind from alien invaders (comparable to the Man In Black narrative, but without the humour!). SHADO operates under the cover of a film studio, where its headquarters are based underground.

For a series of the Seventies, the vision on the future was rather bold, situating the action in the distant … 1980s! but the nice thing about UFO is that it remains so very ‘seventies’. One of the things that have always attracted me in the Sci-Fi genre, and specifically in Sci-Fi television series: there is not really time available to develop a complete alternative world view, since much of the script centres on a simple one-hour episode plot – so it offers mostly a raw, unpolished view on how people at the time of the creation of the series viewed their world: their fears, expectations and worries. But it is mostly through the details that you can experience – in this case – the Seventies all over: as there is only a superficial layer of fantasy laid over it, it exposes the deep, unconscious and self-evident habits, gestures, social codes, and attitudes that made up an era.

So, of course, the fears can quite easily be identified by the main ingredients of the Cold War: an existential battle of life and death with the alien invader, the threat to humanity, the fears of totalitarian regimes, the technological race for supremacy, and, also typical for many Sci-Fi series of that time, a very militaristic view on society, with heroes who tend to be undisputed “commanders”. UFO does not go so far as Star Trek, where the whole setup is largely copied from life on a US Navy aircraft carrier, but its first seasons certainly amounted nearly to idolatry of the military lifestyle.

But Sylvia Anderson was a very creative mind and it already shows in UFO. There are some special quirks to this series that make it quite charming. Not only did they invent a few futuristic looking vehicles such as the Interceptor (I happened to own a plastic toy version in my youth) and the Skydiver, a combination of submarine and space shuttle launcher, but they also created dress-styling and costuming that sets the series apart. While on earth, a tendency often found in Sci-Fi – to opt for minimalistic, sober, uniform designs (for real diversity in dress code we had to wait for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in the Nineties) – strangely, the dresses on the Moonbase in UFO were complete fantasy: for some reason all the girls wore a purple wig, and a sexy kind of tight, indoor astronaut suit, and when off duty, they would wear a miniskirt. Undeniably the director and/or the camera operator can be suspected duly of having an obsession with long women’s legs! The interior design of the Moonbase and Main Command base on earth is very consistent, displaying a stylish functionalism.


Michael Billington (Col. Paul Foster), Ed Bishop (Commander Edward Straker) and Gabrielle Drake (Lt. Gay Ellis) on Moonbase. (Image copyright ITC entertainment)

As for the characters, we get a typical setting: a strong, decisive Commander Edward Straker (Ed Bishop), sometimes conflicted with the hard choices he must make, but never wavering and with an absurd sense of duty (even prioritising to fend off an alien attack over trying to save his son’s life in episode 5: A question of Priorities). We see the reliable, wise sidekick in Col. Alec Freeman, performed by George Sewell, and a brave, sporty, testosterone-inflated hero in astronaut Col. Paul Foster, interpreted by Michael Billington. Later on, a woman’s role rose to prominence in the guise of Colonel Virginia Lake, brought to life by Wanda Ventham (the mother of Benedict Cumberbatch). And then there were the sexy girls of the Moonbase, featuring a.o. Lt Gay Ellis (Gabrielle Drake), highlighted in some lengthier, unnecessary stretched scenes off the main script action, such as when she changes dresses in the launch episode (Episode 1: Identified) while a colleague takes a shower.

Although episode-based, there is an underlying main plot to the whole story expressing a rather more modern fear about the future: the fear of soulless, computer-like beings ruling the world, where humans are just used and controlled. The pieces of this reality come together in the final episode (Episode 26: The Long Sleep).

Watching this series can be specifically interesting from a cultural studies point of view in the ways gender relations are encoded in the non-action scenes. Attractive women seem to wander across the camera viewpoint at random as a kind of background decor. There is also the rather direct way in which Paul Foster and Alec Freeman start courting women. Social rituals that might be felt today as quite grotesque, were probably perceived on the contrary as subtle innuendos by the contemporary audience. In one episode, Colonel Foster gets drunk in a very typical seventies party with the tunes of the Beatles’ “Get Back”. The relations between the main male characters, the steadfast and ever-serious Commander Straker and the maverick, daring, and intrepid Colonel Paul Foster, are elaborated in depth in two pivotal episodes where both men challenge each other (Episode 2: Exposed and Episode 7: Kill Straker). This classic scene of showing off who’s “the boss” recalls some of David Attenborough’s nature documentaries on competing male animals. A narrative spun over a few episodes highlights how Commander Straker cannot marry his duty with his family life, with tragic consequences (Episode 5: A Question of Priorities). But it would be unjust to accuse Sylvia Anderson for stereotyping, when on the contrary she did add complexity to the characters she developed, which contributed to the success of the series. It is more today’s nearly 50-year distance which lays bare a quite different social society. The end result was very good TV, highly appreciated in its time, and with still quite an active, nostalgic fan base.

Their second endeavour, Space: 1999 was by all criteria a major step up. It was a co-production of ITC Entertainment with the Italian national broadcaster RAI. Not only was there a sizeable budget increase, a choice was made to hire two American actors (Barbara Bain, portraying Dr. Helena Russel, and Martin Landau, taking the role of Alpha Moonbase Commander John Koenig) to be at the centre of the narrative. The lead dynamics between these two main characters defines the series, and their acting talent carries much of the tension. And, as UFO showings proved that the Moonbase episodes were the most popular, the action was completely transposed in Space. Actually the Moonbase became, once the moon broke out of Earth’s orbit due to a nuclear waste disaster, the epicentre of the galaxy and the subsequent journey through space. The leading theme would become the often fruitless quest for a new home planet, never giving up hope and testing the resolve of the about 300 survivors on Moonbase Alpa.


The fanciful dresses of the Moonbase staff in UFO were swapped for Star Trek-style uniforms. For me, it is rather funny to watch since my father actually had similar pyjamas and since his general posture resembled very much that of the Commander Koenig, I cannot escape the feeling of seeing my father in the midst of interstellar action … in his pyjamas! Anyway this series was on all levels a better production, that could easily match Star Trek in quality, but circulated much less in audiences across the world.

To continue the plot, which seems very much visionary: due to the mishandlings of quite incompetent, even evil politicians, a badly controlled nuclear waste dump on the moon exploded, pushing the moon out of orbit, and into an interstellar voyage, in which the cast explores a multitude of new worlds in their quest for a new home. Contact with earth is lost, but it is assumed the fate of the earthlings is dire. From UFO, the series inherits the Moonbase, but introduces a new space shuttle, the Eagle, which also became a much sought-after toy in the late seventies and early eighties! And yes, I confess I owned one. The lead characters are assisted again by a more daring astronaut, Alan Carter, played by Nick Tate, who sometimes challenges Koenig’s authority. Another important role is for Barry Morse, who plays scientific advisor Victor Bergman. This series has more commonality with the original Star Trek series than UFO. It contains much more elaborate philosophical dialogues (often featuring Victor Bergman), and has the same adventurous space discovery theme as Star Trek, rather than the very dark, earth-centered alien invasion theme of UFO.

Unfortunately the show ended after two seasons, due to the marriage of Garry and Sylvia Anderson going sour. Certainly a shame, because this British-Italian TV series really could compete with the best and most popular Sci-Fi series of their time.

Given the volatile nature of videos on Youtube, I will not provide direct URL’s but just search for “UFO tv series” and “Space: 1999”. There are Wikipedia articles on both series, the Andersons, and the different actors about whom you might want to read.


Violence and Comics

By Nicoletta Mandolini


Representing Acts of Violence in Comics

Eds Nina Mickwitz, Ian Horton and Ian Hague

New York: Routledge

ISBN: 978-1-138-48453-5

Hardback: 120.00 £

Ebook: 22.50 £

There was a time, approximately around the beginning of the second half of the Twentieth Century, when comics were considered as a mere tool for entertainment. Back then, the academic debate on the use of violence in comics was mainly focused on the dangers of displaying gruesome acts by means of such a popular medium, accessed by such a young readership. This resulted in the demonization of graphic narratives, which was followed by important acts of censorship (think, for example, at the strict regulations imposed by the Comics Code Authority in the U.S. during the 1950s). Now that comics’ dignity as an art form has been recognised by critics and academics, the debate has switched and scholars have started asking themselves other, equally important, questions. How can comics contribute to the political act of denouncing the horrors of war? When it comes to sexual and gendered violence, how can comics represent the phenomenon without re-victimising the abused? How does the combination of text and images facilitate the reception of narratives aimed at sensibilising the reader on anti-violence stances?

Representing Acts of Violence in Comics (Routledge 2019), edited by Nina Mickwitz, Ian Horton and Ian Hague, is one of the first scholarly books to address these issues. Paired with its companion volume, Contexts of Violence in Comics (Routledge 2019), the publication stems from a conference organised on the topic of graphic narratives and violence by the Comics UK Forum in 2014 ( If Contexts of Violence in Comics focuses on critical points such as the issues of history and memory, war and peace, urban conflict, law, justice and censorship, by giving relevance to specific historical and geo-cultural contexts (the Spanish civil war, the Second World War as seen through the lens of French comics, the Lebanese civil war, the Swedish comics market and the Second World War, the use of comics by the American defence industry), Representing Acts of Violence in Comics aims at analysing the narratological and stylistic techniques employed for depicting abuse in graphic narratives.

The editors’ decision to divide the volume in four different sections testifies of the interest in prioritising a medium specific and thematic approach. The first section, entitled Depiction because of the authors’ declared interest in the formal characteristics of the texts, includes contributions on graphic narratives such as Keiji Nakazawa’s manga Barefoot Gen (John Miers), the underground comix anthology magazine Slow Death (Laurike un t’ Veld) and on the representation of biblical violence in Robert Crumb’s The Book of Genesis, Siku’s Manga Bible and the series The Goddamned (Zonne Domoney-Lyttle). The second part, Embodiment, gathers two chapters that look at the body (considered both object of the representation and subject engaged in the physical act of reading) as a crucial component in the representation of violence: Laura A. Pearson’s analysis of Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas’ Red: A Haida Manga and Ester Szép’s reading of Joe Sacco’s The Great War. The third unit, Humor, looks at irony as a strategy used to portray different kinds of abuse in the British comics Beano (Christopher J. Thompson) and in graphic memoirs centred on episodes of sexual or domestic violence (Nicola Streeten). This last essay functions as a trait d’union with the last and most conspicuous section of the book, dedicated to Gendered and Sexual Violence, with chapters by Maggie Gray on Alan Moore’s The Ballad of Halo Jones, Joseph Willis on The Last Man and The Walking Dead, Jamie Brassett and Richard Raynold on the figure of Marvel’s supervillain Killgrave/The Purple Man.

As this brief summary shows, the analysis is conducted through a close reading that, in some cases, leads to important reflections on graphic narrative’s ability to overcome the problems of representability of abuse and its traumas. Szép’s affective investigation of Joe Sacco’s work, for example, identifies in the performative and, together, material dimension of the reading experience imposed by The Great War’s giant publishing format the possibility to reduce at a minimum the risks of approaching images of violence as a remote spectacle. Another valuable contribution is given by Gray on the ethically controversial matter of representing gendered violence. Supported by her analysis of Moore’s comics strips, she states the imperative, for feminist portrayals interested in describing gender hierarchies without confirming stereotypes or dichotomies, of showing “the dystopian reality of what is, while sketching utopian possibilities of what could be” (155). Graphic narratives, according to Gray, can be considered a powerful tool for such an enterprise.

The table of contents also demonstrates the editors’ effort to diversify the analysis by including studies on different types of violence (direct and indirect abuse, war violence, colonial violence, environmental violence, sexual and gender violence) as they are represented in different typologies of graphic narratives (graphic novels, mainstream comics, independent comics and even research-based comics). Notwithstanding this visible effort, Representing Acts of Violence in Comics mainly focuses on Anglophone texts (the only exception being the Japanese manga Barfoot Gen). This decision, which contradicts Contexts of Violence in Comics’ attempt to follow a global perspective, deprives the volume of a crucial aspect and risks to corrupt the work’s integrity. In presenting their book as a general investigation on violence and comics, without specifying the Anglophone-centric perspective from which the analysis of most contributors clearly stems, the editors somehow confirm the problematic tendency to impose the analysis of cultural products published in English (the language that, not by coincidence, is culturally hegemonic at present) as universal. Far from being a marginal issue, the awareness of power relationships (even in the realm of languages and culture) is an imperative when it comes to every discussion on violence and its representations.comics-4056840_960_720






Christian Milovanoff, Still from Travail dramaturgique autour du livre Bureaux, 2017

IN / BETWEEN PLACES brings together artists and poets/writers who contributed to PLACE, an online magazine that promotes encounters between various artistic practices and theoretical writings. For the first time, the exhibition reunites these artists within a specific physical setting in order to create a dialogue between the virtual space of the magazine and the real space of the gallery. The latter can be understood as the material counterpart of the digital platform, inviting thus the visitor to travel between these spaces – the virtual and the real – of which the frontiers become increasingly porous in our contemporary media society. If most of the displayed artworks may refer to different kinds of places, the exhibition’s particular focus concerns the question of how the digital place of the Internet and the physical environment of the gallery provide specific forms of displaying art that, rather than being confined to their proper spheres, might be conceived as distinct but communicating and interacting contexts that create places situated in/between the virtual and the real.

Contributing artists: Alexander Apóstol, Jan Baetens, Paul Bogaert, Vincent Broqua, Thierry De Cordier, Michel Delville, Denis Deprez, Peter Downsbrough, Mark Geffriaud, Kenneth Goldsmith, Suzanne Lafont, Pascal Leclercq, Christian Milovanoff, Sinna Bryce Nasseri, Jan Peeters, Michael Punt, Narmine Sadeg, Alexander Schellow/ARG, Agnès Thurnauer, Elisabeth Waltregny

Curators: Alexander Schellow (ERG) and Alexander Streitberger (UCLouvain)

Opening: 12 March 2020, 7 pm
With an online talk – Kenneth Goldsmith with Laurence Rassel / Gabriel Franjou, live streamed on ergTV 8 pm.

Public event: 13 March, 2 pm – 5 pm
Introduction PLACE by Narmine Sadeg / Jan Baetens,
Artist talk moderated by Alexander Streitberger / Alexander Schellow
Lectures by Michael Punt and ARG (AnimationResearchGroup)
Performance by Mark Geffriaud 13 March, 10 pm, starting at ERG – main entrance, rue du Page 87

Exhibition display: William Reidiboym, Giuliana Diada, Dorian Timmermans

In cooperation with ergTV

L’Ecole de Recherche Graphique (l’ERG) in Brussels
12 – 19 March 2020
From Monday to Friday, 10 am – 6 pm
Free admission
Rue du Page 87, 1050 Brussels, Belgium
Phone : +32 2 538 98 29

Look What You Made Us Do. An Examination of Precarity in the Arts

We often equate the life of an independent artist with one of glamor and embellishment, spending their euros from sales on tubes of paint or a brick-walled studio with big windows and natural light. Rarely do we consider the invisible hours strained over meticulously budgeting and submitting and networking and documenting.

What began as one look into a performance summoning culture spectators and enthusiasts to show support-in-numbers by way of attendance and capital, quickly became an appeal to artists to share their stories.

On March 18, at The Poetics of Precarity. Literature, Art and the Precarious Condition held in the Faculty of the Arts, we will premier our video dialogue with artists about these strains and struggles and the hidden mental gymnastics required to maintain a life as an artist. These culture creators – essential for community, beauty, and discourse – have shared their testimonies with us for our Look What You Made Us Do awareness campaign.

Look what you made us do

The conference is a four-day program exploring the foundation of the precarious lifestyle:

“The conference ‘The Poetics of Precarity’ focuses on the intellectual and cultural imaginations of precarity from a historical point of view. Since the 1980s, sociological precarity theories have provided an influential and productive discursive model to describe the work and life conditions in post-Fordist and global capitalism. Precarity and acquainted notions like ‘precarisation’ capture various aspects and effects of the socio-economic processes that gradually push more and more sections of the population in an intensified state of uncertainty and contingency. These structural developments have generated a new ‘dangerous’ class, the ‘precariat’, that manifests itself in protest movements such as the ‘Mayday Movement’ or, most recently, the ‘Yellow Vests’. These narratives, concepts and phenomena not only have poetical and theatrical dimensions of their own; they have inspired cultural and artistic production as well. By way of aesthetic experiments, artists and writers have tried to mediate and shape the imagination and perception of precarious realities. New poetic tools and writing strategies have been developed to represent, explore, transmit, legitimize or criticize the many faces of precarity. Up to now, these trends and their imaginative and aesthetic foundations have solely been examined by focusing on the novelty of the contemporary precarious condition. Whereas precarity has always been a part of capitalism and modernity, exactly this aspect has been neglected. The conference will explore the historical origins of the intellectual traditions and aesthetic reflections of the imagination of precarity from a variety of angles; its goal is to engage upon a critical dialogue between sociologists, political theorists and literary scholars, but also with writers and artists themselves.”

The testimonies illuminate the tedium and stress endured behind the scenes. Look What You Made Us Do was conceived in the wake of the Flemish Cultural Minister’s proposed budget cuts for the arts by 60%. The policy, which has since been enacted, envisaged cutting subsidies given to cultural institutions to cover their operating funds and specific projects. Many artists shared their thoughts and we are humbled to present them to a broader audience in the coming months. Stay tuned!

For more info:

“Creating a Digital Cultural Heritage community”: Enroll now!

By Fred Truyen and Ana Schultze

Do you want to know what happens behind the scenes of museums, archives and libraries? Have you ever wondered what these organisations do to share their collections with audiences? Would you like to learn how to build a strong digital community for cultural heritage?

If your answer is yes, then the MOOC “Creating a Digital Cultural Heritage Community” is for you! In this MOOC, professionals and volunteers in cultural heritage institutions, as well as teachers, students and amateurs, can learn how to create user engagement with digital cultural heritage. Professors and staff members from the KU Leuven master’s program in Cultural Studies will dive deeper into both theory and practice of digital curation, annotation and many other topics.

What you’ll learn

  • How to create and reflect on user engagement with online collections
  • How to curate and annotate digital cultural heritage
  • What strategies can be used to educate audiences
  • How to access and use digital repositories and platforms
  • How to creatively engage with photography and dance content.

Have you ever wondered how to use digital collections to create new ways of engaging and inspiring audiences? Enroll now and take this course for free!

This MOOC is developed by the Fifties in Europe – Kaleidoscope and CultureMoves projects, which are co-financed by the Connecting Europe Facility of the European Union.