"Queering the Archive: When a Personal Act of Collecting Turns Political", Art Practical

By Ela Bittencourt

Originally published in Art Practical, Issue 5.3 / On Collecting on February 6, 2014

Kisieland (2012), a documentary film by the Polish artist Karol Radziszewski, explores the importance and historical context of the personal slide collection of Ryszard Kisiel. Kisiel, his boyfriend, and a small circle of friends shot more than three hundred homoerotic slides (some of them featured in Kisieland) mostly between 1985 and 1986, while Poland was still under a communist government. Kisiel kept the collection secret. Radziszewski’s project, which in addition to the film includes a book that will feature reproductions of all the slides, makes Kisiel’s work available to a wider public for the first time. Kisieland has been recently shown in the United States, at Performa 2013, and has also been extensively screened in Europe, where it has stirred debates on the implications of divulging a private, homoerotic body of work and the contextualization that this requires. When I spoke with Radziszewski about the film, he said he hoped it would draw attention to the way that Poland’s LGBT movement has banished sexuality from its contemporary public discourse, feeding into what Radziszewski sees as a generally sex-phobic climate. (1)

Radziszewski, who has been researching queer art and activism in Europe since 2005, frames Kisiel not only as an activist responding to repression and discrimination but also as a valuable Eastern European counterpart to Western gay-rights activism, thus situating Kisiel’s activity within the context of homoerotic art and the history of LGBT activism in Poland. Radziszewski’s own art projects range from curating the recent exhibition of pornographic images, For Personal Use, at the Eighth Photography Biennial in Poznan, 2013, to publishing a “fagazine,” DIK. On his website, Radziszewski describes DIK, which he’s published since 2005, as a magazine for “anyone who’s interested in art and men.” (2) The magazine’s topics range from the current wave of nationalist-fueled homophobia in Europe to reproductions of contemporary art centered on the male body and on activism. (3) In an attempt to find precursors to his activities, Radziszewski came across FILO, a queer zine that Kisiel had published in Poland in in the 1980s. Radziszewski, whose work had until then referenced mostly Western European and American examples of queer publications, was surprised to find a pioneering gay-themed zine native to his own country that addressed both art and sexuality. (4) His research has shown FILO to be the earliest example of the queer-themed zine in Eastern Europe, providing insights into the gay community in Poland in the ’80s, including openly addressing the AIDS epidemic. (5) Radziszewski has since used some of the visual content of FILO—including stickers that spell AIDS with letters made with Donald Duck figures—as a springboard for his own art projects. (6)

From the start, Radziszewski was fascinated by the fact that Kisiel is not an artist. A longtime employee at a printing company, Kisiel first published FILO as a hobby and a record of his life. Kisiel’s move to the slide format gives the project a visual immediacy that a merely written account would lack. Photographs also allow for fluidity between documentation and fantasy: some of the slides follow Kisiel and his boyfriend as they progress from staged erotic poses to, presumably, actual off-camera sex acts. It’s the evocative power of the images—to provoke an immediate reaction and to encourage contemplation—that has made Kisiel the natural focus of Radziszewski’s efforts to bring Eastern European queer culture to a larger public.

At the same time, Kisiel’s body of work extends the notion of a collection as a carefully culled body of work. Radziszewski defines his role in this project as a preservationist rather than a curator, paying close attention to a limited range of Kisiel’s activities. To this end, Radziszewski makes note of Kisiel’s collecting impulses, describing him as an obsessive recorder of not only the subterranean and the erotic but also the trivial and the ordinary. As we see in the film, Kisiel’s home has become an extension of a larger archival project, with items collected over the decades from back issues of FILO to queer-themed posters and leaflets. Thus Kisiel’s work serves as a vital cultural testimony, his impulse to document and collect motivated by a deep awareness of the silence that was and continues to be imposed on much queer activity.

The need for such documentation was reiterated at the lecture following the Performa screening of Kisieland, in which Kisiel and Radziszewski participated alongside the renowned American activist Avram Finkelstein, one of the founding members of the AIDS advocacy group ACT-UP and a cofounder of the Silence=Death Project. Finkelstein commented on the importance of unearthing individual stories to draw a picture of a communal experience, and he drew similarities between the mediation that Radziszewski’s film provides for the introduction of Kisiel’s collection to the public, via public lectures and debates, and the need for American gay activists to mediate how the LGBT community’s stories are presented. Finkelstein also stressed the need to connect the “academic side of historiography to the human side,” citing Radziszewski’s efforts to give Kisiel’s personal story a larger resonance as one way of enriching the public’s understanding of the LGBT movement. (7)

It’s also important to note the historical context of the production of the slides featured in Kisieland. In 1985, Poland’s communist government’s militia arrested gays in a raid known as Operation Hyacinth (Akcja "Hiacynt"). (8) While officially proclaimed as a way of protecting the Polish gay community, the covert operation was an attempt to collect information (much of which was deposited in the secret police files on gays, known as “the pink files”) and to blackmail gay activists. Kisiel took this repressive action as a call to move beyond fear—a coming out, though not in the literal sense, since he kept his subsequent activities secret. Kisiel even had a professional lab develop his slides, running the risk of his being outed as gay and, potentially, as a pornographer. In an era of widespread repression, Kisiel nevertheless chose to produce permanent documentation of a private, fleeting sexual experience, one that at the same time was an intimate act as a kind of performance, albeit to a very limited audience. This tension between secrecy and performance has been noted by a number of art critics who have commented on Radziszewski’s presentation of Kisiel’s project, most notably Tomasz Basiuk, a Polish researcher on critical studies and queer theory. As Basiuk noted in “Queering the Archive,” a lecture organized by the Archeology of Photography Foundation in Warsaw (and from which this article takes its title), Kisiel’s activity exists somewhere on the border between a private sex party and a performance, “using the gay closet as a space of political activism.” (9)

Stylistically, Kisiel’s slides make ample use of pastiche: references to classical sculpture and mythology are mixed with snapshots filled with costumes and burlesque makeup that recall the tawdry cabarets and peep shows of bygone eras. The simplicity and cheapness of the costumes are an integral part of the camp spectacle, turning the prosaic into the fanciful. Some of the images, in which sexuality is depicted in an overtly cinematic and theatrical manner, recall the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Radziszewski, however, warns against applying fine art references to Kisiel’s work too readily, for whereas critics often bring up Jack Smith and Nan Goldin as Western counterparts, Kisiel himself has claimed not to have been aware of these examples until recently and so, in Radziszewski’s opinion, was not referencing them consciously in his work.

Nan Goldin seems to me a particularly misleading reference in regards to Kisiel’s work. While Goldin employed slides as a presentation format, her images often focus on the more tragic aspects of sexuality—or as she phrased it, “sexual dependency”—and she became a powerful chronicler of close friends she eventually lost to AIDS. Kisiel’s slides, however, are wildly celebratory and bacchanalian. In this sense, his images functioned more as a form of release, a gesture meant to break imposing taboos, even if they circulated within a self-described, intimate group. In comparison to the more educationally oriented FILO, in which some of the sobering rhetoric about safe sex dovetailed with official government discourse on the issue, the slides can be seen as an act of “auto-irony,” as Radziszewski characterizes them, in the sense of representing both idealized and grotesque imagery.10 In one group of slides, for example, Kisiel and his friends dress up as witches in response to the general sex-phobic cultural climate of the time. They’ve drawn penises across their chests and are touching their genitalia while holding signs that say, “Beware of AIDS.” The threat AIDS posed to the very act of sex and the fear it instilled about sexual expression plays out powerfully in these slides. At the same time, the witch costumes playfully critique the demonization of homosexuals as agents of infection. Kisiel and his companions seem to simultaneously be warning their queer brethren to “be careful out there” while also lampooning the larger culture’s worst fears about gay promiscuity and death by cartoonishly embodying them.

Radziszewski is not a professional filmmaker, and so Kisieland, while adhering closely to the talking-head format of most contemporary documentary films (with much of the narrative taken up by Kisiel’s first-person reminiscences), was nevertheless conceived as outside of the documentary genre altogether. Radziszewski’s initial desire to preserve and disseminate Kisiel’s private images as part of the larger historic record also tapped into Kisiel’s original aim with the slides: to play. Early in the film, Radziszewski invites Kisiel to his studio in Warsaw, where the two recreate some of the conditions in which Kisiel originally worked, restaging some of the slides in the process. The male model chosen for the recreated shoot bears a strong resemblance to Kisiel’s former lover; Kisiel attempts to recreate the original costuming while adding new poses. There is a tension in this attempt to recapitulate the original experience—which can never be fully relived—that runs through the film as a whole.

As an expression of the loss of an irretrievable act, this scene, and Kisieland more generally, comments on the passing of time. Yet for Kisiel, this revisiting is neither a sentimental journey nor an attempt to legitimate his modest endeavors under the label of art. Rather, Kisiel’s collaboration with Radziszewski presents an opportunity to restage an eroticized space of fantasy and desire, even if the same deep sexual and emotional attachments that enriched Kisiel’s original production are not recoverable. Kisiel’s slides—with their playful staging of taboos, their unsettling carnality and erotic abandon—reverse the commonly accepted notion that there was no room for individual expression, least of all same-sex eroticism, in communist Eastern Europe. At the same time, their secretive circulation reminds us of the very real dangers that surrounded such expression. It’s not surprising that the title of Radziszewski’s documentary evokes Disneyland, a place synonymous with fantasy and make-believe. Kisiel and Radziszewski’s aim, however, is not escapism but the creation of an autonomous zone of expression, one not subject to official discourse. As an act of fantasy and provocation, Kisieland also underscores the power of art to redefine personal experience in relation to history: first, for Kisiel, whose private actions transformed the political activism of FILO into something more subversive, and second, for Radziszewski, whose efforts to properly situate Kisiel’s work within the broader context of the European LGBT movement and its history have allowed him to trace and record a kind of queer genealogy for his own practice.


(1) From the author’s interview with Karol Radziszewski, November 29, 2013.

(2) Karol Radziszewski, “DIK Fagazine (2005–ongoing),” http://www.karolradziszewski.com/index.php?/projects/dik-fagazine/.

(3) One example of art featured in DIK is by Paweł Althamer, a Polish installation artist known for community activism, who was also featured in the Performa 2013 “Pavilion Without Walls: Poland.”

(4) In an interview with Radziszewski for DIK, no. 8 (2011), Kisiel lists some of the queer publications from the United States, Canada, and Western Europe that influenced FILO: “Despite limited contacts between the socialist and capitalist world, gay magazines did reach us, starting from the ’60s, maybe the ’70s. They were brought to Poland by gays who traveled to the West as tourists. In the cities close to the Baltic Sea, there were many gays among sailors, and as some of them were my friends, I had access to these magazines and knew what they looked like, how they were published…[like] Blue Boy, an American or Canadian magazine…It used to be—especially in the Francophone countries—that the color blue signified gayness. You would say “blue stuff” or even “the blue international” about gays who traveled abroad a lot. I also remember some European magazines, especially the German ones: Du und Ich, a very mainstream magazine, HIM—Homosexuelle International Magazin, also German, I don’t think it exists anymore…I can’t remember all of the titles. But I was familiar with them, I knew what they looked like and the topics they handled.”

(5) From the author’s interview with Karol Radziszewski, November 29, 2013.

(6) For example, Radziszewski produced screenprints, which were presented at the Rosa Arbeit auf goldender Strasse group exhibition at Exhibit Gallery in Vienna in 2012 and in a recent solo exhibition, LOVE, at the Raster Gallery in Poland: http://en.rastergallery.com/prace/aids/?kontekst=edycje.

(7) From the author’s personal audio recording of the post-film discussion.

(8) For more background on Operation Hyacinth, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Hyacinth.

(9) Archeologia Fotografii, “Karol Radziszewski, Tomasz Basiuk, ‘Kisieland—Queering the Archive’” debate video (in Polish with simultaneous translation in English), http://vimeo.com/25840352.

(10) From the author’s interview with Karol Radziszewski, November 29, 2013.