photo: Łukasz Owczarzak

Joanna Rajkowska’s entry into The Muncipal Gallery bwa in Bydgoszcz

VERNISSAGE 7.07.2022 6 pm

The bwa Municipal Gallery in Bydgoszcz and the Black Dwarf Foundation invite you to the opening of Joanna Rajkowska’s exhibition RHIZOPOLIS. The exhibition is co-organized by Zachęta – National Gallery of Art.

Collaboration on the part of Zacheta: Michal Kubiak

Substantive cooperation: Anna Mituś

Exhibition realization: Black Dwarf Foundation, Radosław Zalewski, Tomasz Zieliński

Text about the exhibition: Joanna Rajkowska

Producer of Rhizopolis installation at The Muncipal Gallery bwa in Bydgoszcz: Marta Filipiak

All materials courtesy of  Zachęta National Gallery of Art

Rhizopolis is a city of roots created, according to Joanna Rajkowska’s idea, under the surface of the forest, by refugees from the Earth’s surface. It is also the setting for a futuristic film that introduces us to the world of a hypothetical human future, after the expected great catastrophe that ends the ongoing Anthropocene era. The scenario outlined by the artist is a proposal of radical interdependence, in which nature, hitherto dominated by man, turns out to be a lifesaver in its unshakeable continuance, providing what is necessary to sustain human life. At the exhibition, we enter the realm of both an art installation and a set for a film in which we ourselves play, and to which we can write our own scenarios.

Driving to logging sites, the artist observed how man is gradually stripping the Earth of its most life-giving layer. The traumatic sight of vast areas covered with the roots of dead trees became the direct impetus for Rhizopolis. Rajkowska’s installation offers a chance to approach – through the experience of the body – the mysterious, silent underground world, the life of tree roots. Entering the space of Rhizopolis, we descend into the “underworld” to rethink the placement of humans and their fundamental interdependence on other species that makes our lives possible. It’s an invitation to a parallel world, about which – despite extensive knowledge – we know very little, that could become a habitat of last resort.

No tree was cut down for Rhizopolis. The carps used in the project were saved from being chipped and burned in kilns.

Urszula Zajączkowska in Conversation with Joanna Rajkowska


  • Joanna Rajkowska: What happens when a forest dies? As you know, I was near Drwalewo recently. The woodcutters in Drwalewo were very active; the violence perpetrated against the forest was indescribable. It hurt me. Why did it hurt? What happens when trees go under the saw?

Urszula Zajączkowska: A tree is not just wood on a trunk, but a definite, complex being, an organism with a life history much longer than ours. It’s hard for us to understand this because of our modest lifespan — the physical limit of our bodies’ endurance, how lamentably tiny it is compared to the lifespan of the trees. On top of everything, it’s hard for us to understand that a tree doesn’t have to kill in order to live. It manufactures sugar in its cells from light, water and air. Its body, despite being woody, hides living cells — very delicate pith cells. When you break off a branch, that is what you are breaking.

I have never accepted — and never will — arguments that since plants don’t have the pain receptors animals have, that means they don’t feel anything. As if that made them less perfect. It’s harmful nonsense. Of course they feel, they just do it differently than we do. A signal about a broken leaf in the rosette of a so-called weed — the thale cress — reverberates through the plant several minutes after it happens, and has been written about by science in detailed, large print.
The death of a forest is the death of more than just the trees. Humans associate forests nearly almost exclusively with trees. We only see them, because they are larger than we are, but we’re blind to everything else. We never notice the most important elements on which the life of the forest and our lives depend — bacteria, fungi, mycetozoa, insects.  The open, sun-burned space of a felled forest, from which water draining away, is the true tragedy of these smallest citizens of the world,  extreme radiotherapy of the forest micro-world. These organisms cannot escape anywhere. Orangutans are not the only ones dying in the bush of Borneo, where room is being made for palm trees and their cheap oil for the oil-thirsty West. There, above all, those without eyes and voices are the ones who perish. In fact, no one really knows them, no one will feel for them or cry for them.
What a sad job I had recently: the task of describing the tissues of trees from the Cerrado forest — when we were rushing to at least be able to name them, photograph them before they were massacred. I worked intensively with these samples, writing about their anatomy. A year later, colleagues from Brazil sent me a colourful atlas of our works, full of photographs of trees and bushes. Colourised portraits of a bygone era.

If someone rips up the earth and the roots, dragging them into the sun, that tells me that they will soon run rampant there, create their own world, for themselves —  roads, cities, pavements. They will even cleanse the underground.
This is probably an unpleasant truth, but I want to talk about it here: in Polish forests, treated so contemptuously by people today, the roots of old trees always stay in the ground after the forests are felled for our lumber, rotting between seedlings of the new generation, planted or sown naturally. And it happens when we, righteously offended with it all, sit at a wooden table, resting our feet on wooden panels, reading paper books about how horrible humanity is.

  • You don’t think humanity is horrible? Is it only the hypocrisy that hurts? I’ve had terrible, dark thoughts for years now. That it would be better if we were not here. The harmony of the world would not be disturbed.

It’s hard to say what the harmony of the world really is. What temporal perspective do we use to note any cycle of nature, to have the right to use words like harmony or climax? A hundred years or a million? And what level are we looking at things from? Are you asking about the harmony of a lump of dirt surrounding some roots, or about the Amazon? I don’t think that we — humanity — can create any kind of framework, like chapters in a novel, that would lead us to the answer, to some kind of end of the narrative that prevailed in our minds for a moment, bringing us relief.
When a rotten tree falls in a forest, nobody cries for it. From the moment the piece of sky is revealed in the thick of the forest, uncovered by the fall of the corpse of a sick and frail tree, a race starts for twigs to get to the light that was released and reached the forest. Light is good, it lets plants build their bodies, strengthen wood with fibres, lignifying cells, gain strength to be the first ones, or rather before others. The difference is that those who lose do not destroy others, do not twist their lives, do not poison their shoots, do not hold those who were better in contempt. The only thing that happens is that their branches, those that did not get enough light, dry up. That’s all.

  • I think that we disturb the order of things at every level. The universe without homo sapiens — that’s how I imagine harmony. I think it is extremely difficult to visualise our radical dependence on the delicate and complex network of connections between the elements of the biosphere. When I think about that, I see the inhabitants of the Amazon rainforest, standing in front of bulldozers. And yet we must protest because that is what the survival of our species depends on — although even if it all goes to hell, it won’t be a big deal (after all, it’s just one species) — along with a billion other species. Tell me, what do you think should be done to trigger in people a sensitivity and respect for the microprocesses of biology on which we are dependent, to awaken in us the empathy, joy and energy that come from coexisting with other organisms? Without domination, without aggression, without a hierarchy?

I think we need to start with the simplest things: do everything necessary to first notice those others, get to know them — see their eyes and individual leaves, who they belong to. We need to notice them and through that feel that we are not alone in the world, in this incomprehensible tragedy of homo sapiens that we made up, based on the construct of distinctiveness: nature and myself. It’s a great lie we created and then believed, when the only thing in the world is nature. So how can we be good to it if we don’t even know the names of its citizens? We know nothing about it, so if we know nothing — we don’t notice it. Today, people can’t even tell trees apart. I’ve read Stanisław Lem’s letters to Sławomir Mrożek, essays by Czesław Miłosz, stories by Kornel Filipowicz. I’ve talked to seniors. People used to see forests and gardens in a beautiful way, some used Latin. That was only an introduction to their deeper reflection. We don’t even know the names of our neighbours, but we are very eager to use broad words like nature, wilderness and so on. To learn at least the basics of dendrology, you only need a year of focusing on an atlas of plants. Are we really not willing to make this effort for those we supposedly love? If we survive this, perhaps we will get to know birds, mammals, clouds, rivers, the incredibly rich microworld, in order to finally go mad with this edifying love for the world, through these intravenous infusions of knowledge. Humanity is not alone in nature and never has been; awareness of this fact very strongly peels away the layers of the self-proclaimed ruler, its bloated ego. We made it up ourselves. It’s also important that we finally open ourselves up to authentic experiences of encounters with twigs, mud, dirt, to notice those others we’ve already met, to know what they need from the world to life, what their customs are — all of this in order to understand how distant we are from them, on an atomic and a corporeal level. So, I stress here unequivocally, and think in the simplest terms — let us at least make the effort to find out who lives next to us. All we need is a few books and some solid work. It will let us see and feel in a wide spectrum what is beyond our sense of perception — like the fact that plants have their second world underground, away from the light: dirty roots.

  • So, knowledge and empathetic curiosity. I imagine you recognise completely different tropes in Rhizopolis, since you know so much more about the life of roots. For me, it was a moment of opportunity to present our human, radical dependence . . .  And then, while I travelled to the logging sites, I realised the scale of destruction, the cascade effect of the catastrophe . . . Now I wonder if perhaps this mourning theme is not more important. Since you believe that knowledge can change the way we look at things and awaken empathy, tell me what roots really do. What are they to a plant, and especially to a tree? What are they to each other?

Roots are knots that don’t care about tidiness, a wild spreading of plants. On the one hand, they have a great task — through their geometry, they hold a lump of earth as if in a fist, preventing the plant from falling over, and on the other hand, there have living, extremely delicate tips, hydrated cells that sense their surroundings like no other part of the plant. It’s as if we peeled the skin off a hand and stuck it underground. Those cells are root hairs. They look like white fuzz. The fuzz of the cells, bare, sitting underground in billions of repetitions. They are the ones that enter into relations with others (we’re only learning how), recognise fungi and bacteria, gravity (and therefore the Earth’s core), they give off ions when water enters them, when the plant drinks it. These ions change the roots’ immediate surroundings. That is how a separate microworld is created. Thanks to the roots, thanks to the fact that they’re alive. I’m talking about a space equal to a cubic millimetre of soil. After all, the soil is the world’s most life-rich ecosystem. This invisible space, often reduced to a brown line in drawings, is where the most vibrant life on our planet can be found! Just imagine, there can be a million beings in one gram of soil. Compared to that, what is a walk in the woods? What is a tree? What are we? How do we place this in the scale of our eyes? That is where knowledge can help. It’s very simple. We do not impose anything, but we tell ourselves, with painful honesty: you will never see the essence of the soil. But you can search for it. You will not have a sense of the time when these cosmic micro-connections of the mineral and organic particles take place in the soil. This pair forms soil aggregates, which last for years. No root can live without them. This marriage of animate and inanimate matter as the essential component of the universe of the roots is so overflowing with meanings that it is surprising that no one is talking about it. A pebble and a pinch of a past life are like a breath in and out, they form the foundation of existence underground. Science talks about it, as well as about the fact that for a root to grow, to not tear itself apart in this subterranean confinement, to not be wounded by the sharp crystals of sand, it formed, over hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, a spot on its tip that commits suicide before this growth. This spot is called the root cap. It’s a horrible image, a group of cells that, already dead, shed and peel off on all those sharp microscopic bits of soil, so the root can grow in the darkness, ever downwards, without pain.

But roots are still not visible. Rhizopolis tries to visualise this, too, putting humans among them in a strong gesture. Look, today to fly into space, use satellites to talk on the phone, but we lack imagination and feeling for the existence of roots. The roots that are under our feet. And the forest and the meadow are of no use because people don’t notice the roots there. They don’t notice the roots because they know nothing about them. I myself am aware of only vague scraps of their life.

  • This reminds me of how my partner, Andrew, chuckled sadly when another probe landed on Mars. He said, ‘That’s great, but it doesn’t change the fact that we still don’t understand bacteria’. Tell me, is there a chance that science (probably in our wildest dreams) will understand the language of plants? I mean their complex messages that contain tons of information.

Science today is not just adding knowledge. We’ve known for a long time that the science that’s worth getting lost in lies on the frontier of capital human fantasy. I am absolutely certain that science will undergo the transformation that humanity itself needs. It’s starting just now, and already at the level of cognition. Most studies of plants are simply a beautiful story of their life and not a specific recipe that would let people dominate the world further. I admit, I can’t stand it when people ask me about practical applications of my studies, like when I take a pot of horsetails (and they’ve been on Earth for 400 million years) to the Aviation Institute to put the horsetail in an aerodynamic tunnel and blow air on it, model the trajectory of the air particles, to see what it is that lets the plant handle these speeding atoms for a long time while I turn my face away from every breeze. They always ask me, what practical things do we get from it, we, humans? Isn’t the burst of imagination enough for them? No. Nature must be used and that is the role of science. So not only artists are prostitutes.

But it doesn’t bother me that science is ensnared by mathematics. It’s a good tool for the imagination. Harnessing it for coding, you can create something beautiful. Look, I used structure tensor equations, reprogramming the code to react with colour to the total chaos of wounded wood cells of a tree. When there is a wound in a tree, the bodies of the cells knot together in chaos. The wood that was previously like the uniform stream of a river begins to resemble a matted tangle of hair. It’s difficult to extract numbers from this disturbed order. I used colour. In the image, you can see the wood cells of a wounded Douglas fir and the maths that orders its cells using colour. The ones located to the left are green, the ones almost naturally vertical are red, etc. Only the colour matters here, or rather its transformation. I believe that science will soon be open to much more than colours in a picture..

  • Despite all warnings about anthropomorphism, I think that since we can’t empathise with anything other than our bodies, since we have the senses and experiences we have, we should use all these abilities.I know perfectly well that Rhizopolis is a complete fiction, but like you do with your writing, I try to make people aware of the completely fundamental interdependence with other people, like trees, putting them into a certain fictional, somewhat scenographic situation…

Anthropomorphism is on the one hand a human curse — precisely because of what you’re talking about, because we, humans, have no other language and live in the trap of our own semantics. On the other hand, this language can also be the source of our salvation — after all, we don’t have any other./span>

The language of science is mathematics and only mathematics. Of course, it likes to get lost in its own beauty, in the ‘elegant equations’, as Sabine Hossenfelder writes bluntly when she confronts a human being with a thought written in the symbols of differential geometry. Maths is alien to the human and does not reflect any truth. Art can also be alien to people. And that is why Rhizopolis is so phenomenal — we can all get lost in it, mix up our thinking, order and sensitivities, something we have not done for years. You don’t scare people with graphs of increased CO2 emissions, but you open up a space into which people can enter, helpless against the experience of this supposedly hypothetical, yet so very real dependence, through the absolute truth they cannot escape. The construct of Rhizopolis is not a fantasy. It is an organic truth about the interconnectedness of beings, the greatest beneficiary of which is undoubtedly humanity. Humanity, experiencing the drama of loneliness./span>

And now we cannot believe that we, people, and they, plants, animals, lichens, mycetozoa, will never communicate, because we refuse to think that they might have something to say to us. Who are we that they should want to relate to us in any way? This teaches an appreciation for those others that is lost today. For them to simply be. So, when we finally knock ourselves from this throne of anthropocentrism, based on world domination, there might be a chance that we will notice the distinctiveness of nature, that we can live next to the beautifully different, share the space in all respects of our shared distinctiveness, including the fact that a tree might simply not care about us and not notice us through its hundreds of years of life.   And we will never fully feel it or understand it. Wisława Szymborska summed this up with the razor-sharp language of poetry in her ‘Silence of Plants’./span>

This fundamental interdependence you speak of and think of so densely, I think that it is not only the awareness of the existence of others, but also feeling the influence of the physical fields of the world, like light or gravity. There is no light in Rhizopolis, but there is gravity. You explore this very deeply. We know very well how many tonnes of tree carcasses people now have over their heads. What the potential energy is that could be released if not for the supporting structure. So, let people have those roots there for as long as possible; let them feel that if they fall, we all fall. For now, there is no need to die. You can enter the darkness, into the branches of the Rhizopolis subterranean world of trees and linger there in silence, disappear, immerse yourself in the relation of tonnes of dead tree parts with your own, frightened, tender body.

  • Ha, I didn’t even think of gravity! Despite all the calculations we did! On the other hand, anthropomorphism is an expression of our helplessness and, paradoxically, our power. We imagine what our body would feel if a hand with its skin peeled off were a root, we close our eyes and observe light through the skin of our eyelids, trying to understand how light penetrates cells with chlorophyll. These imaginings can be scientifically illegitimate (and even wrong), but they bring us closed to plants as other beings. If it is not followed by imagination and empathy, science will never lead us to closeness with other species. In turn, bodily intuition itself, without scientific foundations, quickly degenerates into naive dilettantism.
    We only have this body with a limited number of receptors, we have eyes that only see a certain section of the spectrum, ears that only hear certain frequencies, we only live a few decades. We move through the world quite clumsily, and that defines the limited field of our empathy. And now, finally, I’ve reached the moment when I can say after that overlong introduction, that this frailty of the body and its weakness, and consequently, its dependence, are the most important field of work for me. When I work within this weakness, it seems to me that I am opening doors to the most important regions of sensitivity towards other beings. I try to pass the reality I’m working with through the body and disappear in the process of ‘filtering’. I deeply regret that the whole process of incarnation, which I inherited from Eastern artistic practices, is slowly being pushed out by methods of representation. The tree roots in Rhizopolis had a long way to go to end up above our heads in a simple gesture of elevation — above us. Their root hairs travelled through my synapses, and the stumps through my spinal cord.

I see, hear and feel the most in the laboratory or in the forest, when, in a sense, I get rid of myself. I am not there at all, my body is not there, not my mind, nothing, like when I play Syrinx on the flute, or when I look at a leaf. That’s when I’m completely irrelevant. I lose time then; you could say I am not alive. The deeper I sink into this state, the longer I later see in my mind’s eye those plant phantoms, the micro-movements of the leaf, the death of cells, the strange shadows and all the expressions of the other life of those others that must have taken place at that time, that plant themselves in my imagination to this day. But above all, I don’t remember myself from there at all. That’s why I think the road to empathy and imagination leads through the capacity for sensitive, pure openness based on humility and meekness, on reduction of the ‘self’, grown over the centuries, on making amends with nature (also with people, because why not?), with profound awareness of the distinctiveness of beings and the greatest respect for them, that is, thorough knowledge.

That’s when this looking is in a sense not my looking, it’s from the world, through the world, for the world. That is why I believe that when people immerse themselves in Rhizopolis, they will in a way lose themselves, too, through this alternate reality you created. And it doesn’t matter that in nature, the roots hanging in the air would not survive a week, because they have been ripped out of their confinement in the soil, away from the proximity with the others with whom they formed relation over the years. The ones in the exhibition, chopped up and burned in a power plant, would have been heating radiators in Warsaw long ago. Nobody would think about where the gentle waves of heat in our homes home from. But you dragged them out and you show them to people, creating the scenery of a world that is only seemingly futuristic, since our existence has always been based on them. No one can ever escape it.

fot. Łukasz Owczarzak

Robert Yerachmiel Sniderman

Unitary Gnawing. Seven Considerations for the Constituents of Rhizopolis

Everything counts. Everything is ferment, that works.
Nelly Sachs1

Sanctuarization can only ever be mutua.
Achille Mbembe2

The boundary is in the juxtaposition of this image of another world to that place where it has appeared, primordially alien and newly arrived in this landscape. Where one ends, the other immediately emerges… it is their fate in any total installation to be together forever.
Ilya Kabakov3

How could it be that I’m from this Earth, yet trees are also from this Earth?
Valzhyna Mort4

Organize at your weakest points. Do not retreat into your strengths.
Zeyno Pekünlü5

If I were with you standing in the Zachęta — National Gallery of Art, visiting Rhizopolis, if not for the pandemic, if not for my great-grandmother Sara bat Moshe’s eviction from Warsaw (and because of it), I would squat like you in the darkness, under a shock of roots, writing in the margins of a book — probably Belarusian poet Valzhyna Mort’s Music for the Dead and Resurrected or my very worn copy of Joanna Rajkowska’s Where the Beast is Buried. I would write differently than I will write now, and it is this impossible, unwritten text I would rather you to read. I believe I am more than compromised writing this outside of Rhizopolis. I believe in writing about such an entity within its material presence, as a participator, as one of its many instruments. So allow me to sever the city of Rhizopolis from Rhizopolis and begin to write up against this severance, from within Rhizopolis, where what the writing wanted becomes solely possible as latent matter, pure potentiality in the literal root cellar of the imagination in ecological duress. Now, I find myself with you, broken up and masked. Simply a precious vessel, a stomach with splashes of hunger, a tinge between caresses, the date on a disturbing scripture, I find us orienting our capacities and vulnerabilities, denizens of Rhizopolis, beneath a devastated Warsaw forest détourned.

Rhizopolis the exhibition is an echo or a source of Rhizopolis the city. We cannot know which. Rhizopolis brings tree roots, from annihilated forests surrounding the city of Warsaw (and so surrounding Rhizopolis), to the people of Rhizopolis. Rhizopolis is a city. A city in the future, dark, nourishing, an urban nest; a sunless refuge for exiles from anthropogenic catastrophe, its mass migrations of human and nonhuman collectives, extreme erratic weather, climate apartheid and climate genocide. Rhizopolis is a city in your imagination. Rhizopolis is a potentiality in your imagination and we should say of your imagination in so far as what we can imagine is highly political and interdependent. There in itself, Rhizopolis as figment, as the political conditions of your imagination, is the fruit of your worry. You worry about yourselves, about your children, about your grandchildren and so on, as do I and everyone I know, because the racist and blood-soaked promise of modernity stalls, because power murders our future in exchange for capital and mass anxiety. In the city of Rhizopolis, the tree roots from the logging fields of Warsaw are alive and constitute the regenerative sustenance of a new homeland; breathing, feeding, changing, speaking, transferring the sun — the sun you might not remember any more but gnaw at and swallow in subarboreal mediation.

Before conceiving Rhizopolis, three years ago, millions of trees were torn up throughout Poland. Rajkowska constructed a wall with 22 tree roots, collected from the logging fields, where dead trees are mounded in immense gestures. Struck into each other, entangled, and pressed into six joined columns, she erected I Shall Not Enter into Your Heaven (2017) in the open air of Lublin, in mourning, contestation, and pessimism. ‘This wall is formed from the organs of plants that usually remain invisible beneath the surface of the earth. However, these were, quite literally, torn out… Many women (having a particular somatic sensitivity) have reported that this felt as if a violent physical act had been committed against them, as if someone had cut off their legs or hit them.’6 Rajkowska’s motivation here emerges from a traumatic historiography of women that Sylvia Federici in particular has narrated through the archives of so-called witch hunts. Federici outlines three centuries of a violent reconstitution of lower class women; a necessary means in constructing the radically different social, domestic, and labour conditions of capitalism. The process centrally targeted their everyday relations to the earth as an intimate, agential being and system of beings. While most institutions and scholars, like the Anna Göldi Museum in Ennenda, Glarus (Switzerland), exclusively situate the legacy of witch hunts in the exceptional result of irrational social forces eventually transformed in the West by enlightened progress — and thereby continue to perpetuate outside it and inside its dark ghettos — Federici evidences a global catastrophe constitutive of modernity, where femicide becomes a primary means of commodifying the nonhuman. Extractive corporations and the World Bank, supported by national militaries and local police, continue to dispense the violent stigmatization and eradication of women who refuse capitalist notions of wealth, of security, and of the future; women all over the global south ‘who refuse[s] to sell the land, who refuse[s] to sell the trees…’.7 I Shall Not Enter into Your Heaven and Rhizopolis witness the perpetuity of this violence in Poland, where the mass destruction of trees breeds pain in the bodies of insomniac women whose ancestors were forced to negate the trajectory of this very relation. After constructing I Shall Not Enter into Your Heaven, Rajkowska continued to photograph and salvage dead tree roots, eventually solely around Warsaw where she lives with her family. In this manner, Rhizopolis and Rhizopolis have come to exist amidst the ongoing mass uprising of women throughout Poland demanding political revolution, bodily autonomy, and a future for the planet. Where I Shall Not Enter into Your Heaven emerged in painful pessimism and a humble gift to all the birds that built nests in it, Rhizopolis transmits these qualities into an imagined remedy for human life


But now I think Rhizopolis, the imagined city, is the echo and Rhizopolis, the exhibition, is the source, for Rajkowska’s labour ultimately begins in witnessing and handling the dead tree roots of Warsaw — indeed they are not alive but dead. She wants us, perhaps foremost, to be in proximity to these tree roots, to be with them. Rajkowska believes something will happen to us when we encounter the roots of these annihilated trees directly, with our bodies, and in this era. And from the effect of this proximity, Rhizopolis appears. Passing from the delta of Rhizopolis to the echoes of Rhizopolis, we are presented with a core tension. The roots’ deadness takes us vicariously into the real polis of Warsaw from which such deadness materially emanates, while the imagined city of Rhizopolis takes us into a future of ecological catastrophe — a future much more inclined to our reality than world powers communicate — by way of a spectral utopia. These poles, a kind of translocal convergence of real wounds, perform a dark beauty, and this is the sensation of our bind. This is the quality of its scenography, as Rajkowska calls it, within which those people in Rhizopolis participate by way of the surveillance footage, their live actions projected into an annexed cinema from cameras installed among the dead roots. In Rhizopolis, the tree roots offer a critique of power — including of local ordinances enforcing the clearing of trees to maintain property value — by asserting the situation we are in, in respect to the planetary collapse that will come, that is coming, if power remains consolidating, coring, precarizing, and exterminating. I write this three weeks after the stock market introduced water as a tradable commodity, a stock market that has exponentially enriched itself to ‘record levels’ during a devastating global pandemic that promises to make the world tremendously poorer, sicker, hungrier, and more distrustful. It has been written of Rajkowska’s previous works that ‘as a woman and a mother, she uses her own body, a biological machine, to sense and understand the conditions of her work where “[d]isease, weakness and malfunction” provide ‘a fertile ground of potentiality rather than failure’.8 I think Rhizopolis is a specific movement of visceral and conceptual exchange, between living bodies, reverting from the weak and sick potentiality of Rajkowska’s body — as one of the many women’s bodies mentioned above in vicarious affliction — into a speculative, urban form. If Rhizopolis is a city, it is, like her body, a biological machine, ‘whose extensive root systems made it possible to create caves where [the] survivors… .breathe and nourish themselves…’.9


Human catastrophe implicates nonhuman refuge. I think of the 50,000 fugitive enslaved Africans and indigenous Americans living on islands deep, deep inside the Great Dismal Swamp over two hundred years, protected by the swamp’s inhospitality to racial capitalism. I think of the US-backed Pinochet dictatorship’s mass disappearance of political dissidents, of their bodies sometimes disposed from airplanes piercing the vast Atacama Desert. I think of the poet Raùl Zurita writing ‘ni pena ni miedo’ (no shame no fear) into the desert earth at such a scale that its words might only be read from the sky. ‘I come from a country and a continent in which there are thousands of people that did not feel any compassion if not for the landscape… That is because they were thrown out of airplanes by the dictatorship.’10 Nelly Richards calls this piece ‘an infinity of representation’,11 and its infinity, I think, is in its translating the desert’s politically incomprehensible service back into the brutal territory of human speech. I think of a story Dori Midnight told Rajkowska and I, when we interviewed her in preparing our project Night Herons (2020); a story which must reverberate with stories many of you or your families, perhaps in secret, know intimately.

A man Dori heard speak, a Polish Jew, survived der Khurbn as a child living inside a birch tree in a forest. Upon returning to Europe, for the first and last time, since he had sought refuge elsewhere, this now grown man only wished to visit this tree which had protected him as a boy — nothing else. These situations are precedent to Rhizopolis. They coat or cut or are its roots in the winter of our dreadful uncertainty, before, during, and after our uprisings. C.L.R. James: ‘These are my ancestors, these are my people. They are yours too if you want them.12

Earlier, I called Rhizopolis ‘a new homeland’, but Rhizopolis is not a homeland. It might be home, but it is not a homeland. Indeed, Rhizopolis, as emergent from what you experience inside Rhizopolis, is one of so, so many that it cannot, I think, be territorialized into any singularity. Its very name disperses its conditions of nourishment, inhabitation, solidarity, and above all of refuge and of mystery. If there is one Rhizopolis, there are many. Standing in Rhizopolis, you might feel the presence of an entire transspecies political system — though it is not constructed or narrated for you in the exhibition — in which the unitary conditions of trust literally gnaw and suck at and tend to the roots of a vast, cosmopolitan set of others; experience, and stories, fears and plans, history and protest transmitted between languages utterly incomprehensible and undoubtedly urgent to one another.

Thirteen years ago, when Rajkowska dug a pond in Grzybowski Square and filled it with lovely fish and oxygen-spewing spouts at the tumour-ridden edge of the former Jewish ghetto, a journalist from Gazeta Wyborcza asked her bluntly, ‘Warsaw is full of traumatic places. Should we set up ponds in all of them?’ Rajkowska averted the literal question and explained that the ‘blocks’ of the city should be ‘cut through to make corridors and open the old routes . . . [to] make it possible to feel the organism of the city, because the city is a bloodstream.’ Where Oxygenator (2007) digs into the lived-upon burial ground of a hyperlocal catastrophe — the genocide of a population, the destruction of a city — and gives to it prosthetic breath, Rhizopolis brings impending planetary catastrophe underground into a potential urbanism, this time also in prosthetic form, because unlike the former, this project is impossible and unreal. Its potential is anticipatory. Though, Oxygenator too, became impossible, temporary, replaced by gentrifiers’ benign appropriation of the structure. ‘And do you think this is a monument?’ —  Rajkowska walked around asking the elderly Varsovians, punks, and school kids resting at the pond. ‘Madame, this might be a sacred place, but a monument . . . [a] monument is permanent…’, one responded.13

Where Oxygenator appears to open up, and Rhizopolis appears to bury, the former actually encloses its residents (again), so as to heal and expand a new will inside the ghetto. This re-enclosure is a mere model, an intervention, for opening up Warsaw’s bloodstream, averting the explicit language of memory for collective rest and horizontal advocacy. Yet Rhizopolis propels us out, centrifugally, from the solitary political conditions of each alienated imagination to the real arboreal forces in Warsaw. Both projects collect us from our catastrophic arc. And yet, standing in Rhizopolis or Rhizopolis, under universal annihilation, we have to ask a different question.

Robert Yerachmiel Sniderman (b. 1986, Philadelphia) is a poet, artist, and dramatist whose recent works include the durational site contemplation Lost in Jüdischer Friedhof Weißensee (2018) and its resultant intervention series Counter-Ruin (2018), the marionette film Night Herons (2020) co-authored with Polish artist Joanna Rajkowska, and a listening procession بيان الصعود إلى السماء Flight Manifesto (in-progress) with Palestinian sound artist Dirar Kalash. He is an editor at the Jewish arts and politics journal Protocols and a PhD student at the School for the Contemporary Arts in Vancouver.

przeł. Joanna Figiel


[1]Cf. Paul Celan. Memory Rose into Threshold Speech: The Collected Earlier Poetry, trans. Pierre Joris, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020.
[2]Achille Mbembe, Necropolitics, trans. Steve Corcoran, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2019.
[3]Ilya Kabakov, On the ‘Total’ Installation, Berlin: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 1995.
[4]Valyzhyna Mort, Music for the Dead and Resurrected, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2020.
[5]See, accessed: 10 February 2021.
[6]See, accessed: 10 February 2021.
[7]Silvia Federici, ‘Violence Against Women and the New Forms of Capitalist Accumulation’, International Cultural Studies Program, University of Hawaii at Manoa, 13 March 2017, lecture. .
[8]See, dostęp: 10.02.2021.
[9]See, accessed: 10 February 2021.
[10]See, accessed: 10 February 2021.
[11]Nelly Richard, The Insubordination of Signs: Political Change, Cultural Transformation, and Poetics of the Crisis, Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.
[12]My understanding of C.L.R James’ statement derives from Houria Bouteldja’s book, Whites, Jews, and Us: Toward a Politics of Revolutionary Love (Semiotext(e) 2017), discussed here as well:, accessed: 10 February 2021.
[13]Conversation at the Pond, 2007, Obieg, no. 1/2 (81/82), 2010, accompanying the exhibition: Joanna Rajkowska Oxygenator, Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw, curator: Kaja Pawełek.

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