At Pastificio Cerere a Roma, installed in the peculiar venue of Spazio Molini, a space obtained from the recovery of the ancient Pastificio Cerere mill, the multimedia installation Sol Salutis capture visitors into the world of numbers. To talks about the work is its author Jakub Woynarowski, artist, curator, creator of comic books, visual essays, films, and installations who works in between theory and practice.
Elena Giulia Rossi: The project is inspired by the poet Adam Mickiewicz (1798 – 1855), writer and poet of the Polish Romanticism who combined metaphysics and mathematics, but also a prophet as he envisioned technologies of the future such as airplanes, spaceships, and much more. Can you talk more about your encounter with Mickiewicz’s work and its impact on your work?
Jakub Woynarowski: Although Mickiewicz is undoubtedly a multidimensional writer with rich legacy, in my project I decided to refer primarily to his achievements in the field of futurology, slightly tinged with esotericism. I focused my attention primarily on his never-published, monumental work “The History of the Future”, the next seven versions of which were destroyed by the author. For this reason, this novel should be considered a complex, open project of a heterogeneous character, oscillating between a utopian and anti-utopian vision of the future. Although the author began working on his book in the 1820s (many decades ahead of Jules Verne and Herbert George Welles), one can get the impression that today the issues described in it seem to be more current than two centuries ago.
I do not mean only surprisingly accurate descriptions of inventions, such as equipment for recording and transmitting image and sound, optic data transfer network, satellite monitoring system, modular and mobile architecture or vehicles for interplanetary travel. What’s more, in many respects, “The History of the Future” also works as a geopolitical diagnosis. We can find here both descriptions of globalization processes stimulated by the acceleration of communication and the congestion of trade routes, as well as a forecast of the geopolitical rivalry between the West and China. The author also provides for the democratization of societies and the acceleration of emancipation processes. Mickiewicz – sympathizing with the ideas of socialism – appears as a supporter of the republican revolution, aimed at real equality of citizens. Significantly, it foretells the fundamental role women will play in world politics and – full of hope – prophesies the rise of feminism.
Seeing the huge potential in the dynamic development of technology, Mickiewicz remained a realist in terms of typically human conditions and limitations of this process. He anxiously anticipated the growth of consumerism, suppressing the manifestations of individual creativity and all ideological impulses. According to him, an equally important problem was to turn out to be atomization and social insensitivity, transforming into systemic inertia.
Speaking in 1843 to the students of the Collège de France, Mickiewicz affirmed the power of modern science, while warning against the absolutization of technological “specialties” at the expense of holistic ethical reflection. He also understood that even the most advanced tools correlate with the psychological conditions of the user. We understand this relationship even better in the era of dynamic processes taking place inside the structures of global financial markets: what keeps this mathematical system together appears to be an extra-rational element. Whether it is functional may be determined by either blind trust in the power of algorithms, or mass loss of confidence among investors – a “crisis of faith” resulting in a stock market collapse.
In the context of the rational and irrational intertwining, Mickiewicz asked “what kind of spirit will rule the world” – not necessarily the metaphysical “spiritus sanctus”, but rather a strictly human “spiritus movens”. Here he saw the dangers of the regressive use of scientific progress that are so current today: “Arsenals have no opinion of their own, arsenals are for the use of the winner.”
All these threads intertwine into a complex and non-obvious narrative – especially if we take into account our standard ideas about the Romantic era. The tensions that I described earlier find an interesting translation into Mickiewicz’s attitude to numbers – a fundamental component of our digital reality. On the one hand – in the second version of the “History of the Future”, the author announces the end of individualism, associated with the introduction of the numerical system of population registration and the replacement of names with numbers “because these do not express anything and, as such, they can be easily changed.” On the other hand, Mickiewicz himself in his work – mainly in “Forefathers’ Eve” – used an esoterically colored mathematical code. I mean the famous number “44”, the explanation of which many researchers have wondered. One of these interpretations – by Zdzisław Kępiński – became the basis for the installation I prepared.
Inscribed in the circular shape of a large size screen, appears a square divided in smaller squares, each corresponding to a letter (of ancient polish alphabet) and a number. From time to time words, such as Lud (People), Lud Ludów (People of Peoples), Odkupienie (Redemption), all in Polish language, appear on the top of the square. Once a series of lines connect the letters that shape the word, the square disappears leaving place to the correspondent geometry. Do the chosen words have any reference to Adam Mickiewicz?
Yes, all the words mentioned in my work come from the literary dictionary of Mickiewicz, including the title phrase “Sol Salutis” (exceptionally written in the universal, although archaic Latin language), which can be found in the poem “Ode to Youth”: „Hail, dawn of liberty, behind thee is the Sun of Salvation!”.
It is worth noting that the metaphysical solar symbolism permeates all of Mickiewicz’s work – it is present both in his literary work and in his scientific activities. An example is his inaugural “Paris lecture” at the Collège de France, during which the author referred to the achievements of Polish researchers of movement and sunlight: Witelon and Copernicus. Juliusz Słowacki – Mickiewicz’s rival — also used solar imagery. He wrote about “two Gods in their opposing suns.” In this context, the launch date of the project in December, the month of Mickiewicz’s birth and the time of winter solstice, celebrated in ancient Rome celebrated as Sol Invictus (Latin: The Invincible Sun).
The structure of the projection itself is based on the concept of the Polish art historian Zdzisław Kępiński, who announced in his book „Hermetic Mickiewicz” that he had broken the “code” by finding its source in the so-called “Solar array” – a magic square connecting numbers with the letters of the Polish alphabet. According to this assumption, individual words and phrases readable on the mathematical table were to be translated into specific sums, which would be a multiple of the number 44. Decoding of the “prophecy” written in this way was possible only in Polish – hence the Polish words present in the projection: these are, among others, concepts from the field of philosophy and religion (eg Spirit, Salvation, Redemption) and proper names (eg Asia, Poland and Lithuania, Mickiewicz). In my work Polish is defamiliarized and becomes a hermetic language, making it possible to encode hidden meanings.
Kępiński attributed this solution directly to Mickiewicz and made him the author of the numerical “solar table”. The logic of the structure is not entirely clear and in some parts it has been corrected by Kępiński – as he said – to “tune” this mathematical instrument. The musical analogies used gave me the idea of treating the “Mickiewicz square” as a musical score and supplementing both languages – alphabetical and numerical – with a third component, which would be a sound composition. In this way, the image displayed on the screen became a starting point for an immersive music piece prepared in cooperation with me by Przemysław Scheller. Thanks to this, what “„makes sense””in “Sol Salutis” found its counterpart in what is “sensual”.
Your work is really eclectic and multifaceted, as an artist as well as a curator. To a first sight, it seems that there is a constant in your methodology and approach, which is pushing perception and everything that comes with it further, in space and time …
If I were to find one word that describes the broadest possible scope of my activities, it would probably be defamiliarization – a strategy that prompts recipients to look at well recognized things from a completely new perspective. This principle works well both in my gonzo curating practices (based on changing the perception of existing objects by creating new narratives around them), in visual narratives devoid of characters and dialogues (where the „background” of reality becomes the “foreground”), and also as part of activities in the field of “avant-garde archeology” – trips to the past, which, however, have nothing to do with nostalgia, but rather intended to find “vantage points” for observing the present day. In this context, I must admit that – against the background of various artistic projects – the most serious experience of defamiliarization that I have experienced in recent years was the outbreak of a pandemic.
How has space, time and vision, changed in these last two years?
The time of the pandemic allows us to observe the process of virtual networking of an individual coupled with its bodily isolation. Functioning under lockdown conditions resembles life in a capsule, in a closed (or slowly closing) ecosystem. What was previously largely transparent takes on visibility. We are anxiously thinking about the insides of our bodies in which processes which we do not understand take place. We carefully observe the spaces between us, divide it into intervals and analyze the composition of the air that surrounds us, which has suddenly become a parameterizable “object”. Growing fatigue with low-quality image and sound transmissions results in an interest in what is tactile. At the same time, we nervously analyze in our memory the trajectories that our fingertips follow, trying to break the endless cycle of virus transmission. The subjectivization of the concept of time is progressing – apart from the classic models (such as the “wheel of time” or “the arrow of time”), we experience individual meandering time, more and more difficult to synchronize at the collective level. Synchronization, on the other hand, occurs at the level of collective emotions, catalyzing – via the Web – eruptions of short-term anger or a slow build-up of conspiracy theories. We think more and more often about utopia, which, according to its Greek etymology, means a “non-place” (Greek: ou – non, topos – place). It seems that the internet today is such a “non- place” – a hypertextual and dynamically changing diagram of human knowledge in which a steady stream of information is constantly being channeled by means of emotional and paranoid narratives.
In an interview with Marta Kudelska on occasion of the exhibition at Fondazione Memmo in 2017, you said that you had «the impression that today we are living in a much calmer and rational surroundings and the time we live in is rather stable in comparison with the wild Middle Ages». Is this feeling changed since then?
The above-mentioned quote was an ironic comment on the subject of “carnival immunity” enabling transgressive artistic and para-artistic practices, both nowadays and in the Middle Ages (I mean, among others, holy masses celebrated by animals or flash mobs where participants throw food at each other). In this way, I wanted to undermine the conservative image of the “harmonious” culture of the Middle Ages, invoked as a context for assessing “degenerated” current art. In this context, paradoxically, contemporary culture seemed to me much more prudish and in this sense – stable and rational. By the way, the medieval era also provides us with many other reasons for inspiring comparisons – to mention, for example, the issue of artistic anonymity and the proliferation of copyright transgressions.
If, however – keeping all the proportions – we want to compare the living conditions now and a thousand years ago, the main difference would probably concern the relationship between sensory perception (including the degree of exposure to direct violence) and the dominant worldview, which could have both a stabilizing and destabilizing function. To put it simply: it would be about the relation between what is material and what is virtual. It can be speculated that in the case of a man living in the Middle Ages, bodily discomforts could have been compensated for by a stable – though perhaps erroneous – all-encompassing narrative about the universe. Currently, with the relative stabilization of our bodily status, we are experiencing a galloping decomposition of the image of the world we live in, stimulated by the informational “defeat of fertility” happening in the virtual sphere.
By the way, in the mediaeval theological language, there existed the concept of ‘virtualis’ in the context of the concept of ‘vis’ (might, power): an entity that consisted of active forces was ‘virtual’, so was any potential entity the existence of which was not accessible to all. The present, technological ‘virtuality’ remains in close connection with the reality accessible to the senses; the invention of the Internet seems to have done away with the traditional dichotomy of real vs virtual.
The installation’s title Sol Salutis (The Sun of Salvation) refers to the Archimedean mirrors, reflecting the ‘fiery signs’ of solar writing. What or whom is the object of salvation?
In the first version of “The History of the Future”, the Archimedean mirrors that make up the system of optical relays play the role of artificial suns, making it possible to merge the world through the information network. On the other hand, in the seventh, last version of the novel, Mickiewicz describes a civilization cut off from the sources of cosmic light – internally networked, but at the same time isolated from reality as a whole. There we will find a description of the city covered with a roof like a house and parqueted like a flat, heated and lit, free from the influence of natural elements. This image can be considered a dystopian version of designs like the closed ecosystem “Biosphere 2” or Buckminster Fuller’s architectural concepts to cover Manhattan with a geodesic dome. Although the boundary between the inside and the outside is blurred within the structure described by Mickiewicz, at the same time it becomes a closed system, cut off from cosmic spaces. The shell of Mickiewicz’s metropolis makes it impossible to observe celestial bodies, depriving humanity not only of a specific area of aesthetic experiences, but also – in a philosophical sense – contact with the idea of infinity. In this context, the image of the stars and the brightest of them, the Sun, appears as a metaphor for a transgressive impulse that would save humanity from degeneration. The Sun – a representation of an abstract idea – could represent for all people a symbolic “salvation” from the omnipresent entropy which consumes a hermetically closed circuit, devoid of external stimulation.
In the case of the installation “Sol Salutis”, the configurations of letters and numbers appearing on the screen form more or less abstract concepts – potential regulative ideas, “salutary” impulses, enabling the integration of empirical events into a larger whole. We participate here in the Pythagorean mystery: based on simple sequences of numbers, letters and sounds as well as elementary geometric figures – circle, square and triangle – a complex semantic structure arises which requires our interpretation. At the same time, we may be afraid that we are dealing here only with the phenomenon of apophenia, with a mirage, with magic, filling the gap created by uncertainty. The attempt to search for the hidden order in the solar square is in fact reminiscent of the arbitrary process of dividing cosmic space into stellar constellations in which we recognize terrestrial shapes.
The exhibition is organised by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in collaboration with the Polish Institute in Rome, in partnership with the Pastificio Cerere Foundation and co-financed with funds from the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage of the Republic of Poland.
images: (cover 1) J.. Woynarowski, portrait, ph: Justyna_Gryglewicz (2-8) Jakub Woynarowski, «Sol Salutis, the Language of Numbers», 2021, Pastificio Cerere, installation view, ph credits Carlo Romano