The Thousand-Year PlanCurator: Natalia Sielewicz
Electrical current measures the new time
Agnieszka Polska’s latest work, "The Thousand-Year Plan", will fill the eleven-metre-high exhibition hall of the Museum on the Vistula. Shown on two screens, the film talks about the electrification of Polish countryside in the years following WWII. On the one hand, it is a history of modernization and emancipation, and on the other – a poetic expression of anxieties resulting from the protagonists’ entanglement in a moment of technological breakthrough, in which “electrical current measures the new time.”
The impressive video installation features respected theatre and film actors, including Jaśmina Polak, Bartosz Gelner, Piotr Polak and Julian Świeżewski, and the voice of Antonina Nowacka, voice and sound artist.
The History of electrification
The exhibition consists of a video installation, on show at the Museum on the Vistula until 19 September 2021, and a number of accompanying events taking place both at the Museum and online. Visitors will be able to take part in the Electric Summer School Symposium featuring the sociologist Benjamin Bratton, philosophers Mckenzie Wark, Bogna Konior and Katarzyna Czeczot, and watch “Iskra TV” [Spark TV] — a series of short films created by experts, such as the post-war energy engineer Jacek Szyke or the researcher of electrifciation Rafał Zasuń, introducing the history of electrification and its socio-political contexts.
Nature, time, and technology
Set in the 1950s, Polska’s film introduces four characters from the peasantry on two opposite screens: a couple of engineers working on the electrification of rural areas and two partisans hiding in the surrounding forests. The dialogue reveals a kaleidoscope of emotions: hope for a better tomorrow, faith in progress, but also fear and a sense of loneliness. Although they all imagine the new world differently, they are united by an awareness of living through a turning point in history. Nature, time, and technology –emphasized via digital animations in the symbolic layer of the piece — are the film’s other, equally important heroes.
Agnieszka Polska’s film is an innovative look at the first post-war years. From its inception, electricity aroused both fear and delight. “Illuminating darkness” was seen as a supernatural driving force, or – as socialist electricians would have it – “the secret stolen from lightning.” In the interwar period, just 1 village out of 100 was electrified. It wasn’t until 1950 that universal electrification became an official objective of the central government. By embedding her protagonists in post-war history, Polska poses the most relevant questions: how is access to infrastructure empowering, and in what ways does its lack exclude from modernization? Which social groups and institutions control technology and impose the agenda for collective life?
Magical socialist realism
Referring to the poetics of the exhibition, the curator Natalia Sielewicz proposes the term “magical socialist realism,” because Polska treats technology and modernization as fully fledged heroines of her narratives. She does not separate them from nature, but even strengthens this non-obvious association. The artist employs evocative imagery, powerful soundtrack and poetic narrative to convey the most universal emotions: longing, fear, hope, and the feeling of loss. In this way, she portrays technology as a sensory and spiritual experience adjacent to dream worlds, imaginations, supernatural phenomena and mystical rituals, thanks to which “night turns into day.” Following the philosopher Yuk Hui, the artist suggests looking at technology, the natural environment and human thought as a global, entwined system of interrelated elements and moving away from the linear understanding of progress and divisions between what is modern and traditional, natural and artificial.
The Senior Committee Member Smashes the Kerosene Lamp
The people who built Poland’s power plants and grids after World War II often grew up in homes lit by candles and kerosene lamps. Zbigniew Bicki, an engineer at the power plants in Kozienice and Połaniec, and later CEO of the transmission system operator Polskie Sieci Elektroenergetyczne after the democratic transition, recalls the excitement that accompanied the electrification of his village:
“I grew up without electricity. The light bulb in my parents’ house didn’t flicker on until I was in my last year of elementary school, in the fall of 1960, or maybe the spring of 1961. Before that, there was no power in my hamlet outside the village of Garbów, near Lublin.”
Technological revolution is an inherent aspect of modernization. Ever since the Enlightenment, modernization has been a process in which innovation and affirmation of technology have played an essential role. They were seen as the main factor of progress driving social and economic change. This is also the case today. In this sense, the forces supporting the modernist project have learned nothing from Lenin’s famous assertion: “Communism is Soviet power plus electrification.” They fetishize different variants of the second part, while forgetting the first, key part of the sentence.
The secret stolen from lightning. Magical socialist realism in Agnieszka Polska’s work
Electricity and accompanying inventions such as the magnetic telegraph, daguerreotype, and radio are technologies of immediate, disembodied presence. When the night turned into day, as a result of the mutual attraction between the world of science and esotericism and metaphysics, between the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 20th century, a new order emerged. It interpreted the body, nervous system, and consciousness in dialogue with technology and information systems. Metaphorically and quite literally, a “damp atmosphere” accompanied this romance. While the founder of the concept of magnetism and mesmerism, Franz Anton Mesmer, attempted to restore the balance of vital fluids in patients by moving magnets over their bodies, during spectacular electricity shows, 18th-century scientists would light liquid in a metal cup with a spark from their finger, and physician Anthony Carlisle together with engineer William Nicholson, using a small galvanic battery, would decompose the water into its component parts. A century later, when the wet collodion technique was developed, the photographic image would sharpen in mercury vapour. Physical mediums spurted ectoplasm, an ethereal substance, thanks to which spirits could materialize through their bodies (at least according to them).
The current between us
Supposedly, technology is the magic of our era in the way poetry once was. One could even say that technology has become magic as poetry ceased to be. But what do I actually mean by magic here? A person with magical abilities reigns over a certain energy and — with its help — is able to alter reality, often against the laws of nature. We do not know how they are able to do this; the source of their power remains secret. Obviously then, technology just imitates magic — its origins, rules, and workings are publicly available and anyone who understands its language and obtains the tools can reproduce them. The problem is that because this knowledge is so cutting-edge and human experience of modern technologies is so rapid, that to us, it just seems to be magic. Technology is magic for our skin and eyes, for our senses and experiences. Today, we could ask whether poetry did really have any greater supernatural powers? What was this power, exactly? Perhaps people once reallybelieved in its divine origins, the enchanting abilities and arcane links with fairy tales. In her work, Agnieszka Polska preserves the memory of poetry’s properties and restores its magical potential exactly via technological means. At the same time, reaching for the poetic, the artist deconstructs modern instrumental rationalism, leading the viewer towards not so much enchantment, but a different, and more complex and accessible wisdom.