Invade the space!

Spatial intervention / performative action

The spatial intervention Invade the Space! took place in my studio flat located on the 10th floor of a 10-storey, post-socialist, tower block in Warsaw. For the project purpose, I filled the whole available space of 63m³ with over one ton of straw. The transformation of the interior into an inaccessible sculptural space was total.

The work draws out the relationship between the existing characteristics of the building and the evidence of human intervention in its structure by utilising organic and breathing material. The fragile and robust presence of the intervention exerted a strong magnetic pull on nearby communities and visitors from much further afield. This was a very short-lived piece that functioned for twenty-four hours only.

Straw is sticking outside of my windows
The interview was an integral part of 'Distinguishing Features – an exhibition of works by artists born in Poland around 1989' exhibition.
Curator: Piotr Krajewski
 'Distinguishing Features. Conversations' publication
WRO Center for Media Art Foundation, Wroclaw 2015

Piotr Krajewski: Where did you get the idea to fill your apartment with straw?

Anna Jochymek: The idea emerged a year ago and it stemmed mainly from the fact that at the time I used to spend a lot of time in my apartment. My work allowed me to perform some of my duties at home, so the apartment became a point of reference for everything I did, it determined my behaviour.

PK: Do you want to say that you spent a lot of time in your apartment because you liked it? Or because you didn’t like it?

AJ: The apartment appeared suddenly, I just moved in there. Frankly, it still is more of a studio where one sleeps. I am not and never have been a person attached to a particular place, I often changed my address. I think what characterises my generation is that people lose their sense of identity because they often move house. They don’t know whether in a year – or even in a month – they would still be living in the same apartment, or whether it makes sense to buy furniture for it, for in a while they might have to move to a different street or a different city, or even different country. We don't really have anything to go back to, for our old rooms in our family homes have long been adopted by other family members. At certain point, when I way lying in my bed, I thought that this was not worth much, that the only thing I dream about was to fill my flat with straw. Straw is an organic material; it brings to mind warmth (incidentally: During the war, my grandfather and his family slept in the basement of their house on straw mattresses and despite sad circumstances he recalled this event as a positive experience.) I thought this material that serves insulating houses would respond to my struggles with space, with my M1, the 23.7 square metres that defined my place in the world. I don’t identify with this place, but I think it is worth taking a closer look and asking myself why I don’t identify with it. I live in a 10-storey apartment block inhabited by tens, maybe evens hundreds of families. I don't know these people and most of them don’t even recognise me. I’ve been living here for two years and still we somehow never really got to meet. This one small cell somewhere on the side is my place. After a year of thinking about it I finally realised my idea.

PK: And how was straw related to that as a material? Was it important that you used it to fill up concrete, an apartment made from large concrete slabs?

AJ: Yes, I lived in a classic concrete slab apartment block from the 1960s. Straw proved to be a perfect material that was absolutely incongruous with its structure: its brutality, simplicity and ugliness. Straw was a material that all the time allowed for the flow of air, so that the air came into the flat, moved through it and flew out, so that it was breathing continuously. The juxtaposition of straw and matter of the large slab produced an unpleasant clash. Blocks are unnatural and I put nature back into this structure. This organic quality was very important for me.

PK: And how much of the straw was used?

AJ: Around a tone.

PK: Did you bring it in on your own, or did you rent someone to do it for you?

AJ: First I went to the countryside and I chose it. It turns out it is not so simple. Then I found transport.

PK: In what sense did the straw you chose prove to be a good choice?

AJ: In terms of its colour, for instance. I chose slightly lighter tone of straw. The decision to take cubes was a right decision, as well. I was shown some bales, but cubes were better for it was easier for me to count how many of them I should take. I spent a very pleasant day in the countryside, I stood in a stable and I debated which kind of straw would be better for me. What was also great was that the men who advised me were very excited that I wanted to take it to Warsaw and stuff my flat with it. On a set day they brought it near my apartment block and I had two friends with me. One of them brought the straw with me, while another was documenting the action. The neighbours’ reactions were not particularly favorable.

PK: So, neighbours did not spontaneously join in to help you with bringing the straw up to your place?

AJ: Frankly, there was only one situation of this sort. The concierge of my apartment block knew about everything. Her sons, teenage boys, were delighted with what was going on and all evening they helped me with bringing it up and cleaning. Meanwhile, the older generation was absolutely against me. They thought I was blocking and dirtying the common space of the corridor, invading their private space and disturbing the established order. Only those young boys were very open.

PK: What about the older ones who, as you say, were not very enthusiastic. Do you think they understood the nature of your project at all? Or they understood it in a wrong way? Did they want to understand it?

AJ: It is important to bear in mind the conditions of making this project. It was no art festival, or an event supported by a gallery. I was not interested in that. I just thought it was a gesture I had to make. The reasons I did it or my visual connotations were completely different from those that typified my neighbours. When I did this project for my local community, I had to remember that they might not understand it in the same way I or my friends did. For them, those connotations were completely different. Most often, I heard that I had straw sticking out of my shoes, that I was from the countryside, but, above all, that I was causing a fire threat and that I had no right to do so. On several occasions I was accused that I did not tell anyone about it and that the building administration was not informed. They panicked, which, on the other hand, was quite interesting, because it was for the first time that I saw my neighbours trying to form something like a group. People who did not know one another, who exchange only the most basic greetings, suddenly tried to form a group in order to protect themselves from something evil. This was fascinating. I think this is something rare nowadays.

PK: So, while you were carrying this straw you also had to talk to your neighbours, explain yourself to them? 

AJ: It depended on the situation. The process of carrying the straw did not take very long, together with cleaning the staircase it was perhaps three or four hours. Actually, most of the time I could move without being bothered. The moment of climax came when neighbours came out of their flats into corridors and started discussing loudly what was happening. This project did not provoke only negative reactions, though. Some of the neighbours looked at it all smiling, while the younger generation saw through what I was doing and asked: “Is this some sort of performance?”(PK is laughing) Their discussions appeared somewhere in-between and when the staircase was clean they disappeared. The next day, when the apartment was open and the staircase clean, the sun was shining and the discussions appeared again, yet in a completely different context. 

PK: The entire apartment was filled with straw? With all your things and furniture inside?

AJ: Yes, only me and my suitcase with indispensable objects were left, that is clothes to change, cosmetics, and computer. All the rest was left in the flat. All of my books, documents, the bed, the wardrobes, furniture in the kitchen and bathroom, objects of everyday use. Cubes of straw filled, or actually completed this space up to the ceiling.

PK: What happened when you saw that the final cube of straw was inserted?

AJ: I remember there was a moment when I stood in the door and thought that I would not able to finish it. I don’t know why but suddenly I had this moment of doubt. Yet, I knew that I could not just close the door and back away. This straw is everywhere! (laughs) I just couldn’t go back. Of course, I didn’t really want to, but I felt this anxiety inside. At that point the person who was doing the documentation put the camera away and helped me with my work. When I put the last cube of straw I thought that I had a blank space in my mind. It was a wonderful feeling.

PK: When you saw what you did, did you consider this work to be a part of your oeuvre? 

AJ: No, I didn’t think about whether it followed the canon of my previous works or not. This piece was done outside of the rest. It was a gesture I made whose consequences I had to – and wanted to in a way – to put on myself. I didn’t think: “Great, I filled my flat with straw, this is awesome! It will look good in my portfolio and, basically, good job, I just did the craziest thing in my life.” I’m trying to avoid saying that as a matter of fact I was terrified. 

PK: Yet, on the other hand, the project is a part of your portfolio right now…

AJ: This is because I do speak in a more universal way, in a wider context, despite the fact that I work within a local community represented here by the residents of the apartment block. Art is my language. 

PK: And now, when you’re lying in your bed, is it a different kind of experience than before?

AJ: (laughs) I think it is. Even though, of course, nothing has changed, my furniture has not changed, the floor or the ceiling have not changed, even the smell has disappeared. I was struck that suddenly it proved to be a big thing only because this straw was sticking out of the windows and doors. This became a problem because it was visible. No one had asked me before about what I was keeping in my flat. I wondered why people reacted to it so violently. 

PK: You had your windows open…

AJ: I tried to be transparent in my gesture, I didn’t hide what I did for I had nothing to hide.

PK: Your project sprang from completely personal, internal motivations, from your relations with your space. Did this communal aspect that emerged as a test of neighbourly relations change your way of thinking?

AJ: I always try to predict possible outcomes from A to Z, to conceive the most absurd scenarios and consider how I can deal with them so that I can potentially redesign my actions. I did not work without reflecting on the social context. After all that happened I realised that this project was somehow a reflection of social conditions and the way this society functions nowadays. This was a very important experience for me and I hope for them as well.

PK: I really like what you are saying. I have always found this an exceptional project, provoking and brave. How do your neighbours react to you now? 

AJ: Our relations are good. All my neighbours reply to my greetings and there were no unpleasant situations, such as someone piercing my tyres. The concierge still loves me (laughs loudly), which is good. I think that I might still be on their mind. Perhaps they are a little bit afraid I am going to do something strange again. I remember that when I was preparing a model of my flat for an exhibition I bought a straw mat. I had no place for it in my flat, so I went with it outside and worked at the staircase. Fortunately, I met only one neighbour who asked whether I was doing another project. I said it was still the same one, and he said: “Oh, I thought it was something new…” (both laugh) (besides: I still think the main problem was not that I was filling my flat with straw but that I made the staircase dirty). 

PK: And what was the most important thing you said with this project about yourself? 

AJ: (smiles) I guess one more time I realised that no matter what you do you need to take responsibility for it. Rather than run away from it. After all, it was my aim not to annoy my neighbours and entire country. 

PK: Is it not symptomatic that the neighbours informed both the fire brigade and the television? (both laughing) 

AJ: This was a very funny part. I was sitting downstairs by the entrance and I already knew that it was all going to be over soon, the transport would come to take the straw. I was sitting there and then I saw two young men looking around and taking pictures. They came up to the door, looked at the poster and came inside. I thought: “OK, I’ll follow them.” So I went after them and we took the lift together. I pretended I was going the same direction as them. At one point they were full of doubt and they looked at me and said: “Do you know anything about this straw?” And I said: “No, I don’t,” and I opened the door to my flat (loughs out loud). We started talking. – “You know, we are with the TV.” It turned out someone sent them a picture with the question: “What is it?” The material they filmed provoked quite a storm of comments online. Several days later, the fire brigade issued an official statement that nothing bad had happened. I did not break the law. 

PK: This is great because this automatically puts it in a more global context. Someone sent a picture, someone on the other side did take interest. It’s not that we want to live in a society where a project like this would be ignored, do we? 

AJ: Of course not. Probably I will never be able to see how other people would react to it for I don’t intend to do it again (laughs).