"Notes on Karol Radziszewski's Kisieland"

By Tomasz Basiuk, University of Warsaw, American Studies Center

Originally published in Pijarski, Krzysztof (Ed.) The Archive as a Project. Fundacja Archeologia Fotografii, Warsaw, 2011

Karol Radziszewski’s project-in-progress titled Kisieland poses some difficulties, contradictions, and risks. They concern the possibility of misreading the transparencies from Ryszard Kisiel’s collection due to what may be called an entropic tendency of archives – with the passing of time and a new context for these images’ public reception, a quarter-century after they were taken, the meaning which these photographs may have held to the group of men who created them, and whom they also represent, is not easily grasped. But to speak of such difficulty is not to suggest a corrective neg-entropic reading that would re-establish the images’ original sense as a historical given. Rather, I wish to express concern about some possible ways of misreading these images that would be too predictable to merit interest except that such misreadings seem almost guaranteed to take place. Indeed, it is the way in which the images contradict some established narratives about gay life in Poland in the 1980s that presents the risk of their being misread and that simultaneously makes them so interesting.

Joanna Mizielińska and Robert Kulpa have recently co-edited the volume Decentering Western Sexualities (Ashgate 2011). Their purpose was to show that the received, relatively linear narrative of GLBT emancipation in the Western world (primarily in the U.S. and the U.K., though often extrapolated to what is today called the global North), does not describe well the historical developments in Eastern and Central Europe. They suggest instead that post-1989, time has become scrambled in the former Communist bloc, with multiple developments taking place all at once. This has happened in part because some models of social change and political activism were imported from the West as a lump, in a way that made for some unlikely bedfellows. In particular, the West’s chronology marked by two caesuras: the Stonewall riots of 1969 which transformed the homophile movement into a more radical gay and lesbian movement of the 1970s, and the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, which was met with another radicalization of the movement and the emergent of its queer variety, did not make itself evident in Eastern and Central Europe, where the queer movement and the more mainstream LGBT identity politics are often seen as coextensive rather than mutually opposed.

Of course, the linear narrative describing the West has been questioned from within, as a number of writers have shown that there was a queer world and forms of activism before the gay liberation of the 1970s. One of the challenges facing Polish historiography is to mark out analogous queer (or gay) developments before the transition of 1989. Kisiel’s work is an important landmark for this project of recuperation.

Ryszard Kisiel’s work as gay activist also dates back to the mid and late 1980s, when he set up Filo, probably the first gay zine in Eastern and Central Europe. Kisiel, who was a printer by profession, used samizdat techniques (such as a mimeograph) to produce up to a hundred copies of his zine because any publication exceeding that number of copies required pre-approval from official censors. The zine was distributed like the samizdat presses: it was passed from one person to the next rather than through the official channels. The publication was not illegal, and homosexuality was not a crime. (Already in 1932, when the first criminal code was drafted after Poland had regained its independence, the legislators decided not to criminalize homosexuality, though it was met with social disapproval). But, as Kisiel and many other homosexual men knew, between 1985 and 1987 (or 1988) the secret police was actively searching out homosexuals and keeping files on them, ostensibly out of concern about the possible spread of HIV/AIDS, and also to curb crime in the gay milieu, which was organized around cruising. It has been reported that as many as eleven thousand files were created. (1) The secret police campaign, ordered by the infamous General Kiszczak who was then Ministry of the Interior, had been coded “Hiacynth,” a name which betrayed some knowledge of (gay) mythology. In practice, the state’s agents typically attempted to blackmail the men they had uncovered, threatening to expose them and demanding that they inform on other queer men. To publish a gay zine or engage in any form of public activity pointing to one’s homosexuality posed a certain risk, and was also an act of defiance in the face of secret police practice.

Kisiel’s purpose in creating his zine seems to have been in part to spread information about HIV/AIDS and safer sex. He included relevant information and even printed slogans calling for safer sex practices, even if those messages were often given in a tongue-in-cheek fashion. Still, the concern which this semi-underground zine showed with the AIDS epidemic makes its intentions co-terminous with the state’s concerns, although the government’s oppressive actions were potentially threatening to Kisiel and ultimately opposed by him. Kisiel’s complex position reflects the state’s unofficial homophobia, evident in its infiltration of the homosexual demimonde (all the while, homosexuality was not a crime and the state was acting in secret). Kisiel’s activism seems to mimic the state’s strategy while reversing its underlying assumptions: his zine was technically legal but factually underground, as was the polic activity, but while Kisiel’s zine Filo sought to contain the spread of HIV/AIDS, as the state’s actions ostensibly did, it condoned homosexuality as a way of life and embraced gay eroticism.

The transparencies which Kisiel presented to Karol Radziszewski, and which are the material around which the project Kisieland is built, carry similar contradictions and a sense of risk which Kisiel and his friends undertook in creating the photos. Unlike Filo, which had a limited distribution, they were intended for the men’s own use but ended up occupying an intermediate position that was neither entirely private nor quite public – in that sense, they were not unlike the zine Filo, which was passed around among friends and the friends of friends. There are other contradictions: some photos look like private snapshots recording moments of intimacy and deploying an impromptu, do-it-yourself aesthetic reminiscent of Nan Goldin’s work from the same period but many use elaborate set-ups in which both costumed and nude bodies are thoughtfully arranged, making those photos similar to the work of James Bidgood, dating from the 1960s and 1970s. The latter comparison is reinforced by the ways that the images stage sexuality rather than mimetically represent it: there is clearly a performative aspect to the poses assumed and the scenes enacted in these photos. In so far as the photos were not meant to be exhibited, they are not self-consciously works of art, but their obvious refinement makes them different from a simple record of gay sex parties with a theme. Moreover, their position halfway between art project and casual photoshoots brings to mind the experimental art scene of the 1980s, which encompassed and exploited sex parties in metropolitan centers of the West, such as New York’s East Village, London’s East End, or Berlin. But this is yet another contradiction, for how did a group of four men, including a professional printer and a construction worker who was the printer’s lover, all of them living relatively closeted lives behind the iron curtain, have any knowledge of what went on in those other locations, much less amongst the artistic and sexual vanguard? And yet, it seems that they did have some access to that distant world, and may have looked to it for inspiration. It is clear that despite an official ban on pornography, erotically explicit material was regularly smuggled into Poland at least as early as in the 1970s. Some gay porn would have been available to those men, as may have been the work of Bidgood and Goldin.

The photos from Kisiel’s collection suggest a level of sophistication and a fairly intimate acquaintance with camp sensibilities, Western gay argot, and the conventions of filmmaking. A number of images are intended as mock main titles for the several thematic series into which the photographs are arranged. The titles, written on a man’s naked body, include campy pseudonyms. Especially striking is the slide with the title “Producers.” Its letters are written on the front of a male body whose limp penis is surrounded by jewelry and three banknotes, mockingly suggesting how the “production” has been paid for. The arrangement brings to mind the term “money shot” (meaning: cum shot), though one wonders if Kisiel and his friends could have known this slang expression. Moreover, one of the three banknotes is a two-dollar bill, whose rarity underlies the logic of the idiomatic expression “queer as a two dollar bill.” Once again, it is unclear if the phrase was known to the men, though it seems likely that anyone possessing a two dollar bill would know of its rarity and possibly know the phrase. Another banknote in the photo is a promissory note which the Polish central bank issued to Poles in exchange for deposits of dollar bills and other hard currency. These notes were used in special stores which sold goods not available in regular trade. The third note is the Polish currency of the day. There is thus an interplay between representations of hard currency and soft currency in the image, and they take part in a fairly complex economic circulation into which the limpid penis metonymically enters because the epithets hard and soft relate to it, too. Similarly, the presence of jewels points to the male genitals by virtue of another pun: the Polish word for jewels is klejnoty, a slang word for testicles. But while the Polish words for hard and soft can refer to currency as well as the male penis, the term “queer” used with reference to a two dollar bill and the term “money shot” do not have corresponding Polish translations. It is unclear whether these meanings are mere coincidences or if they testify to the men’s remarkable versatility with the English language and gay slang. In any case, the appearance of the dollar bill alongside the Polish currency and the bank’s promissory note, as well as the apparently intended play on the concept hard and soft currency mark the cosmopolitan aspirations evident in the photos, while also linking them to the local conditions of their production.

The tension between the somewhat drab, home-made quality of the images and the manner in which they appear to be in conversation with the cosmopolitan West invites a comparison to a contemporary Polish film: Juliusz Machulski’s cult comedy Kingsajz (1987, pronounced “king size”). The film allegorized real socialism at the end of the Polish People’s Republic as a fairy tale-like, anachronistic space of the archive. The film’s conceit is that of a place called Szuflandia (Drawerland), inhabited by dwarfs. Drawerland is in fact an archive stashed away in the cellar of a research institute. Some of the dwarfs learn that Drawerland is not the whole world but merely a limiting, backward place in which they have had the misfortune of being trapped. In a string of hilarious adventures they escape to what they think of as the real world (that is, the world that is “king size” rather than dwarfish). However, the “king size” world in which they finally find themselves was easily recognized by audiences of the day as their own world, that is, the world of real socialism, itself looking westward to its version of a “king size” reality better than the limiting, backward world of Communism. The film’s Chinese box structure allowed it to be understood as an allegory of real socialism, a point which may have been overlooked by censors but was easily grasped by the viewers, and which accounted for the film’s huge popularity no less than its screwball humor and some remarkable acting by Katarzyna Figura and others.

It seems that Kisiel and his companions used an aesthetic strategy similar to the one deployed by Machulski to mark the (potentially comical) tension between the limitations of their local situation and their more worldly aspirations. Moreover, their strategies of cultural resistance are also similar. Machulski did not launch an open critique of the political system, which anyway he would have not been allowed to film, but outmaneuvered the censors by presenting that critique as mis-en-abime. Kisiel and his companions seem to play a similar game with their censors, who were the state agents that could have become interested in the transparencies, had these fallen into their hands. There are no sexual acts documented in the photos; instead, the sex is simulated, and is frequently framed with exotic costumes and settings. The photoshoots were not performance documentation but a performance of documentation (in so far as the sex was simulated), and in that sense they anticipated what the police may have been looking while also withholding that particular content. Still, the risk of exposure was real despite the unreality of the representation, as the photos posed a threat even by virtue of seeming to represent sex. To add yet another paradox, it is clear from Kisiel’s testimony (given to Radziszewski) that there was sexual intimacy among the men before and after the photoshoots, and the handsome young man in the photos, whose name is Waldek, was Kisiel’s long-term lover. These men were thus pretending to have sexual relations for the camera in a manner that simultaneously hid and revealed the fact that these relations were for real.

The private home – the setting of Kisiel’s photoshoots – was generally regarded as (the only) realm of freedom under Communism. In keeping with this logic, Kisiel and his companions used one of the men’s homes as their realm of freedom. In doing so, they also literalized the space of the private home as what is commonly described as the homosexual closet. But the private home, and especially one that served as the perennially semi-public space of freedom defined by the homosexual closet, was always at risk of being exposed. Paradoxically, such exposure does not result in a simple revelation of the closet’s hidden content but instead multiplies questions about that content. Machulski’s film and Kisiel’s photoshoots both exemplify something like the difficulty of reading of a content which was supposed to remain hidden: just as the former dwarves find themselves in a place that is another version of the Drawerland rather than the “king size” world they were hoping to arrive in, Kisiel’s transparencies only seem to yield the content they promise, while in fact withholding it. This may be the quintessential truth about the so-called homosexual closet: breaking out if it is not what it is sometimes made out to be: one does not automatically arrive at some unconditional clarity about one’s sexuality, just as peering into the closet’s secrets will likely perpetuate and multiply those secrets rather than reveal them.

A technical aspect of photographic development played a rather significant part in defining the conditions of production of these images. In order to enjoy them, the men had to have the transparencies developed. Unlike in the case of black-and-white photography, which requires a relatively simple development process, color slides could not be developed at home. They had to be taken to a commercial studio and entrusted to the lab technicians. This presented a risk of discovery and potential embarrassment to Kisiel and his companions. More disturbingly, potential exposure could alert the state agents, who were actively collecting information about homosexuals at the time that the photoshoots took place. The men portrayed in the slides – men who were also responsible for their execution – were thus exposing themselves to the risk of police harassment and possible blackmail in order to complete their project. Although the project involved the production of visible track record of the performances they staged for the camera, it was intended for private use. Still, the risk entailed in having the transparencies processed by a third party was substantial. The lab technician was expected to examine the images and was in a position to pass them to the police rather than ignore their content, as she or he appears to have done. This risk makes the acts engaged in by Kisiel and the other men considerably more daring, and effectively moves the project from a completely private realm to one that was at least potentially public and hence political. The act of private enjoyment was also an act of defiance in the face of political oppression. The project was a manner of claiming personal freedom from fear of police infiltration by blatantly performing one’s sexuality and creating a record that could have led to the men’s being recognized and targeted for investigation and possible blackmail.

Using today’s terminology, it is possible to say that the photoshoots were a queer reaction to and a queer comment on official supervision. The project’s makers used the government agents’ tools: a camera, photographic evidence, and the threat of exposure, which the men paradoxically turned on themselves. Their gesture should be read as a way of battling the panopticon by exposing its ineffectiveness – although this involved the risk of being caught. Further, the project suggests that under the logic of semiofficial persecution by the state, the primary way of being out of the closet was through being blackmailed. The photoshoots were thus a performative action which framed the secret police activity by putting it in a reflexive context.

It is at least somewhat paradoxical that secret police activities under the cryptonym Hiacynth were known to a number of subjects whom they were targeting, apparently because at least some of those who were investigated were not afraid or ashamed to communicate this news to others; not impossibly, some secret police agents were themselves actively homosexual and may have warned others. Such inevitable spilling of the secret suggests that the boundary between the open and the hidden is at least somewhat permeable, as the colloquial expression “open secret” suggests. The difficulty of keeping a secret is another analogy between the men in the photos, who were in the closet but who nevertheless took a risk of self-exposure in a defiant act of claiming however limited a realm of freedom, and the secret police, who were unable to contain their secret even though they had the state’s power apparatus on their side. In other words, the police agents were in a closet of their own, and that closet’s secret was not anymore safe from the eyes of others than the homosexual men’s secret was.

The strange historical convergence of the homosexual closet and the closet of the secret police persists. The files which resulted from the Hiacynth campaign, also known as the Pink Files, remain to this day in the state’s official archive where they are not easily accessed. The men on whom these files were kept are not recognized as victims of Communist persecution, unlike most opposition leaders and underground activists of the day, and so they cannot read their files. Gay activists have recently demanded access to the files, apparently with the intent that incriminating documents should be destroyed to protect those investigated, and also in the name of exposing historical truth about the regime’s persecutory practices. But the activists were denied access on the same logic, and moreover, it appears that the files are not to be easily tracked down within the space of the archive. (2) Under the law, academic historians could gain access to the files for research purposes; however, to this day no one has done so, a situation which reflects the deep running conservatism of Polish historiography and its persistent neglect of sexuality and gender alike. (3) Should the Pink Files be opened, it seems clear that a number of lives would be affected. Some men would be exposed as having had sexual relations with other men and some would be exposed as having informed the police on their lovers and friends. Moreover, some secret state agents would also be compromised for having committed dishonorable acts and for having had a connection to the homosexual milieu, possibly leading to questions about their private lives. There might be political consequences that are difficult to predict, particularly if names of public figures were disclosed among those investigated or among the informers. In short, the closet of the Pink Files persists and the prospect of its being revealed is perhaps no less threatening today than it was twenty some years ago.

The special phobia which the specter of homosexuality continues to arouse was made evident in the 2003 shutting down of Le Madame, an alternative cultural space in Warsaw. Le Madame was a large bar which served as a venue for artistic and political events (it was home to the nascent Green movement in Poland and the venue for dozens of theatrical projects). Le Madame had a backroom in the basement which was used as a darkroom in which men could have sex with other men. According to the former manager of Le Madame, the municipal official who communicated the city’s intention to terminate the lease had an album of photographs taken at Le Madame and documenting what was considered to be unacceptably sexual behavior in a public space owned by the city. While I do not have access to this photographic collection, which the manager of Le Madame was only allowed to glimpse at, the incident appears to confirm that photographic images that may or may not have represented actual sex between men, but which were read as documentation of such sexual acts taking place, continue to have deeply disturbing effects.

Gay activists demanding access to the Pink Files may be unprepared for the epistemological, moral, and legal complications likely to arise should their content be disclosed, but the point remains hypothetical. On the other hand, LGBT activists did approach Kisiel, who is in fact somewhat of a celebrity today for having founded Filo. Kisiel holds a private collection of documents and artifacts which are of great interest to the LGBT community but which cannot easily find a place outside his home. By his own account (given to Radziszewski), Kisiel is contemplating donating his collection to the Schwules Museum in Berlin, which has an appropriate archival facility. There is no comparable institution in Poland, and it is unclear if any state-sponsored archival institutions would be interested in receiving the collection, or what would happen to it once it is there. Like some other similar collections, Kisiel’s collection remains inaccessible to the public and is in danger of eventually being dispersed, transferred out of the country, or locked up in some Drawerland coffer. At this time, it is not clear what LGBT activists may do to prevent such scenarios and to make the collection available to the community. Kisiel is also a valuable source for oral history projects and, to the extent that his political work of producing the zine Filo is celebrated today, his testimony is heeded and his achievements celebrated. However, the more sexually explicit aspects of the past that he could help bring back are rarely the focus of interest. For example, LGBT activists are typically uninterested in documenting the histories of specific cruising areas where public anonymous sex took place. The images used to promote sexual minorities’ rights are usually very a-sexual. Kisiel’s decision to reveal the erotically explicit transparencies to Radziszewski came only after a number of meetings between them, apparently when he became convinced that Radziszewski was not some contemporary sex police. (4)

The difficulty of including sexualized images in official self-representations of the LGBT movement, even if these images are more playful than literally erotic, may reflect the general difficulty of giving an account of one’s emotions as a part of one’s activism. This difficulty has been discussed by Douglas Crimp in Melancholia and Moralism, where he discusses resistance to thinking about public mourning as a form of activism, and extends the concept mourning to a sexual culture now lost as a result of AIDS. In a manner which also directly addresses some difficulties of speaking publicly of one’s intimate experience, Ann Cvetkovich in An Archive of Feelings attempts to explain why lesbians’ participation in ACT UP New York has not been satisfactorily documented. A number of lesbians whom Cvetkovich quotes speak about their embarrassment over memories of intimate relations that helped motivate them to work with ACT UP. For many of the women, feelings of shame about their sexual lives seems to have prevented them from taking more decisive steps to document their own political involvement. An intention to overcome a similar difficulty seems to be at stake in Kisiel’s decision to entrust his transparencies to Radziszewski with the intention that they would emerge from their protected closet and see the light of day.

Private and intensely affective records, testimonies and other archival traces may be prevented from occupying a more public place for reasons of someone’s refusal to disclose them, as well as the public’s reluctance to acknowledge them. A central issue here is the difficulty of establishing with a degree of clarity the meaning of such records, testimonies and traces. In other words, what may be missing is a condition for their legibility in the public sphere. Kisieland is an attempt to make publicly legible a set of erotic images produced in the mid-1980s with the use of an aesthetic that was cosmopolitan and yet local in its inspirations, and that stemmed from a politically motivated, yet intensely private impulse. Radziszewski’s project-in-progress risks some interpretive difficulties that are like the risks undertaken by the creators of the original photoshoots. The difficulty of reading the images is compounded by historical distance and by the received narratives about homosexuality and the past. Some of it can be overcome by supplying the relevant context, such as information about the Hiacynth campaign which involved by the state’s police, and pointing out that the primary meaning that risk had to Kisiel and his companions was to do with police infiltration rather than just the threat of HIV/AIDS. But other reasons for the incomplete legibility of the photos persist to this day. In particular, the deployment of the private space of the homosexual closet – staying within the four walls of a private apartment, attempting to ensure, in so far as it was possible to do so, that the performance of sexuality and its photographic representations are kept out of circulation except in a controlled way – can only with difficulty be comprehended as a form of political action. And yet, the defiant stance which Kisiel and his friends took vis-à-vis the threat posed by the secret police, risking exposure with the decision to have the slides developed, is made clear in the historical context, even if the photoshoots must be understood as having more than a political motivation. In today’s post-emancipatory climate, in respect of democratic rights in general and LGBT rights in particular, to exercise one’s freedom inside the homosexual closet seems a-political. But this precisely is misleading. The reluctance of today’s LGBT activists to embrace the more candidly sexual aspects of identity claims, even in relatively tame and playful forms, bears witness to the limits of political Őffentlichkeit and illustrates how much remains inside the closet. The particular difficulty which this persistence of the closet presents cannot be done away with in a declarative way but requires a particular aesthetic – a performative gesture that can determine the conditions of legibility for that which it brings forth into the public’s eye.

For Kisieland, this means that the original slides’ performative engagement with conditions determining the project’s legibility – which were precisely the conditions determining the homosexual closet as it was locally constructed at the time – needs to be repeated as another performative act by the artist Karol Radziszewski, with the expectation that an aesthetic particular to the project Kisieland will determine a new regime of visibility for the content of the closet that are brought out into the open. This, however, does not mean that the closet disappears entirely, or that its content is fully determined by the particular access offered by its artistic presentation. The closet, like the archive, has more than one mode of access, and no particular enactment of access exhausts its content.


(1) Krzysztof Tomasik, „Wokół akcji Hiacynt. Co zrobić z ‘różowymi kartotekami’”? Inna strona (no date). http://www.innastrona.pl/bq_hiacynt.phtml. Tomasik suggests that the campaign may have been merely an intensification of regular infiltration activity, and quotes Paweł Kurpios to suggest that in 1959 such secret police activity may have driven Michel Foucault out of Poland, where he served as director of the French Centre at the University of Warsaw.
(2) More than eighty percent of the Polish secret police files were destroyed when the Communist regime was failing, so that the political difficulty of opening the archive up is compounded by its severe incompleteness. The archive is controlled by a group of rather right-wing historians whose appointment was politically motivated. The most typical use made of what remains of the former secret police archive is to have incriminating evidence dug up, perhaps even concocted, by official state investigators servile to their political sponsors. One of many examples of such mud-slinging is a recent publication presenting Lech Wałęsa as a probable informant to the Communist secret police; absurdly, this accusatory logic is substantiated by the archive’s incompleteness, which makes it impossible to disprove the thesis. Problematic access to the Pink Files and these documents’ enigmatic location within the archive also exemplify the persistent connection between the archive and the state, even though the state which created the archive is officially defunct.
(3) See Sylwia Kuźma-Markowska, „Why Is There No Gender History in Poland?” Gender and Sexuality, ed. by Tomasz Basiuk. Dialogue and Universalism XX.5-6 (2010): 9-18.
(4) The sex police today are to be found both on the right and on the left. Polish LGBT campaigns are extremely reticent when it comes to sexuality, whose representations are suppressed. Intimacy is represented by holding hands, embracing, or at most, a chaste peck on the cheek. In the 2004 gay pride in Warsaw drag queens were disinvited from participating because the previous year’s reporting of gay pride, a daily paper ran a photograph of four drag queens against the background of the Polish parliament on the front cover of its magazine. This cover was in fact a breakthrough because the drag queens’ photo was the first ever to be printed in the Polish press, which up to this point offered only scant reports without pictures or, at best, printed photos of marches in the West, which were more attractive for the camera. The drag queens turned out to be attractive enough to actually break through a barrier of invisibility but, in an uncanny repetition of the Stonewall Inn riots and their early commemorations, from which drag queens were also ruled out, the Polish organizers preferred to put forth a more somber image.