Joanna Rajkowska in Conversation with Dagny Kurdwanowska

What does the city mean to you?

The city, the urban space, is an area that should belong to people, an area of which everyone can say, 'this is my space, I can shape it any way I want, I can make it active'. A free space of expression, of intersecting narratives and identities, a space of play - this is a vision of the city I'd like to live in. Corporations, advertising companies should by no means be allowed to monopolise the urban space because by doing so, they take it away from people. A city so monopolised becomes a dead place, a place of commercial and political games, formatted for the purposes of marketing campaigns. We don't even realise how profoundly this influences our behaviour, how it slowly transforms ourselves.

How do you feel in the city?

Depends in which one (smiles). The way I'd like to feel is to be able to go for the morning paper in my pyjamas. To be able to eat my breakfast in a small, non-network, unpretentious café. I want for its inhabitants to stop gaping at every weirdo and at myself. In Warsaw, I sometimes feel overwhelmed with powerlessness. I want the city officials don't want to meet me, that for another year I'll be fighting for another public project to happen - and most likely to no avail again.

When does the city become interesting?

When it's open and belongs to people. Open also in the sense of its readiness to accept diverse meanings, diverse identities. The city also has to be flexible, able to adapt itself to the diverse and changing needs of its inhabitants - those who have lived in it for a long time and those who migrate to it. We need a swimming pool - we build one, we don't want cars - we close the roads and build cycling paths, more and more Vietnamese are settling - we ask them what is their vision of the city. And - obviously - the city hates nationalists, chauvinists, horizon-lacking fundamentalists of all hues, it hates people who are frightened, who don't know the world and don't want to learn about it, and also those stuck upon their vision of the world. They all want to monopolise the vision of a fluid, living community and create a dead homogeneous mass instead. Put shortly, the city is interesting when it's diverse, when people of all possible colours and cultures create their own versions of it. The city lives when the authorities don't try to control and repress culture, and people have a sense of community and power in the good sense.

When is it inspiring?

As above, when it is unpredictable and people feel they have power.

When can the city be hated?

Well, it depends on the people. I have a vision of the perfect city, of an utopian society, and the more distant it is, the more it hurts me. I guess you can really start hating a city when the people inhabiting it are unable to establish direct contact. When they merge with their social function, grow into their role, forget they are above all 'towards' others - they are ordinary people. I visit a shop, a gallery, an institution and everywhere I encounter behaviour that reflects fear of direct, unprejudiced, unprogrammed contact. This hurts and discourages me. Because, before you are an official or a curator, you are an ordinary, unshaped, unfinished human being. When people lose this freshness, the city becomes a place to hate. A lot depends also on the way the city space is designed. Does it provoke controlled, fearful, self-censored behaviour or does it loosen you up, make you smile, get people closer and promote conversations and exchange? This is very important. Physical space and human behaviour can be shaped, 'sculpted'. People are able to forget about their rigid social 'costumes' because the context that the environment offers simply invalidates that costume.

I leave the political aspect for the end because it is the most obvious one - the city can be hated when it's closed and controlled by totalitarian power. For me, after the closure of Le Madame, Warsaw has become a different city, in the symbolic dimension, of course. Le Madame was very much a Place - a living, open cell of the urban organism where different social and cultural visions were able to coexist.

What do you miss in Polish cities?

I think the above provides the answer.

What do Warsaw, Łódź or Wrocław have that other cities in the world don't? What can we be proud of?

We can be proud of unspecific places, of what is referred to as non-sites. Warsaw in particular is full of such very ugly but lovely non-places. Those are places that are undefined, between, neglected, terrible. Spaces where everything can happen, and, in a way, prepared for it. I love such places. They give me a sense of power and possibility. I'm now in a small town in the north of Sweden and, by a great effort, I managed to locate a couple of such non-sites. But it's not the same...

How do you think the Palm has influenced the way people of Warsaw think and behave? At first, everyone complained, frowned, and when the Palm was to be dismantled, it suddenly turned out everyone loved it.

The Palm is a sign that our social space is already prepared to accept very diverse meanings. As long as it remains in place, which is probably a couple of months more, it'll remain a kind of energy centre, in the sense of its ability to open up possibilities, a container for otherness. I guess people sense this potency, this readiness, dream, utopia, which is why they eventually came to like it. And that is why those currently in power dislike it so much. Because the Palm goes in precisely the opposite direction than the PiS's ideology.

Do you think such ideas help people open up? Help them look at their city anew? Become friends with it?

I think so. Because the Palm is a very simple message, a bit disarming, helping you relax and (to paraphrase Kinga Dunin) to 'shift towards the other' in the bus or tram or other common space. Because the Palm says that there is room for everyone here and for everything, that Warsaw is huge and cool (smiles).

Are there any ideas for invigorating a city that caught your attention (in Poland or abroad)?

Yes, here in the small town in the north of Sweden they use a very simple architectural feature that works just great. In the middle of the central square, opposite the town hall, there is a concrete, heated (which is important because it can be cold and snowy here!) platform accessible via a couple of steps. There is a simple lectern in the middle of it - a small stand with a microphone handle. It works great because it results in direct, very democratic behaviour that gives people a sense of having a say. When someone has something to say, they can stand behind the lectern and speak. Others will listen or not, but the forum is open. Decisions are made. And the whole thing, for whatever reason, is called Monkey Mountain.

You are in Sweden now. Do Swedes have a different approach to urban space than Poles do?

As above.

The Palm or the Oxygenator, are they also intended as means to make the city a warmer, friendlier, 'softer' place to be? Interestingly, I talked to a friend yesterday and she told me she had just been to Plac Grzybowski, which is very user-unfriendly, all tangled-up, she went there looking for the offices of STOEN, the power provider, the building's very smartly hidden, and at that moment, she told me, she dreamed of something like the Oxygenator, a place where you could stop for a moment and release at least some of your anger with the city.

Well, yes, very much so, this is what the Palm and the Oxygenator are for too. You used the word 'soft' - like soft technology (software). This is how these projects should work - they are operating systems on the hard ground of the urban tissue (the hardware). They are intended to enable us to use the city, change it, shape it.

The Oxygenator has become something of a utopian project... Please, exert pressure on the city authorities to look more kindly at it and perhaps, after a two years' struggle, it'll finally become reality.

How did you choose the locations for the Palm and the Oxygenator?

It is locations that choose their projects (smiles). The Palm stands in Aleje Jerozolimskie [Jerusalem Avenue], and history is hidden in the name of the street like in a capsule, you simply had to bring it out. The Oxygenator - Plac Grzybowski is the Patriotic Bookstore where you can suffocate with the concentration of anti-Semitic and nationalistic toxins in the air, and right next to it the synagogue and the Jewish Theatre building. A toxic dullness of space, the toxic behaviour of the groups of young Israelis surrounded by security officers. I look at them and I'd like to go and have a beer with them, but no, they are in a different dimension, a war dimension. I wanted to breathe some fresh air into all that.