Learning Not to Look Away
Posted April 4th, 2022 by Mike Curran
At the beginning of March 2022, Piotr Szyhalski, the artist behind the 'Covid-19: Labor Camp Report,' gave a lecture at the Walker Art Center while, across town, the Russian Ballet Theatre performed 'Swan Lake'
With just ten minutes before the performance was set to begin, the line to enter the State Theatre still stretched down Hennepin Avenue. I stood at the back while Miranda, my partner, went ahead to look for another entrance. She called a minute later and told me to hurry to the front, where theater staff had just opened a second door.
We congratulated ourselves on our good luck until we noticed, under the marquee, three singers gathered in a semicircle, wedged between the two lines. Each had a blue and yellow flag draped over their jackets. Although the crowd that had since queued behind us quickly obscured our view, we could just make out a hashtag sharpied to a cardboard sign that one of the singers held: #NoFlyZone. The trio’s presence was no coincidence, as the marquee above them announced that the Russian Ballet Theatre would be performing Swan Lake inside.
Though Miranda—who has trained in ballet for most of her life—and I had bought tickets a few months prior, when war felt like a far-off possibility, we found ourselves debating whether to boycott the performance in the week leading up to it. For their part, Russian Ballet Theatre has worked to draw distinction between the rich history of Russian ballet they aim to share, and the state with which they are now reluctantly identified. The company’s United States tour launched just a week before the invasion of Ukraine, after which they changed their name to “RBTheatre.”
They’ve also taken to social media to highlight the transnational identities of their cast, including principal dancers Olga Kifyak and Evgeny Svetlitsa, both of whom are Ukrainian. As authorities redraw the world in red lines, RBTheatre’s producers and dancers remind us that regimes rarely represent the people within their borders. Outside the theater, the singing trio’s presence felt like another kind of reminder, pulling us—the thousands of Minnesotans spending their Friday night at a ballet while atrocities unfolded just far enough away—into this endless entanglement, asking us not to avert our attention. And yet, our rush to get in obscured their message.
Left: Outside the State Theatre before the performance. Right: Inside the theater at intermission. Photos by the author.
The performance had already begun once we made it inside, though you might not have known it from observing the audience, who continued to file in through the first act, using their harsh phone flashlights to find their rows. A man carrying a White Claw in each hand cut through the accessible aisle, jumping over a railing and landing atop his seat. Despite these distractions, it seemed like nothing could touch Kifyak, who performed Swan Lake’s leading role—known to be among the most demanding of any ballet—flawlessly.
After the curtain call—during which the loudest applause went to the Jester, the ballet’s comic relief—we filed back onto the street. We half-expected that the trio would still be singing, and wondered whether the audience, no longer in a hurry, would linger like we hadn’t previously. But standing in their place were two workers already changing over the marquee to announce the next show: a lecture by Jordan Peterson.
When we arrived back home, I did as I had every night since the invasion began, clicking from one news outlet to the next. Staying informed is one thing, but I’ve developed an unhealthy habit, scrolling past images of bombed out hospitals and apartment buildings to find small Ukrainian victories: scenes of everyday civilians constructing sandbag barricades to protect sculptures, or a Russian tank regiment destroyed. I recognize the hypocrisy in this—that for every ounce of attention I’ve committed to the invasion of Ukraine, I’ve dedicated a fraction to protracted conflicts happening elsewhere. (My country occupied Afghanistan for the vast majority of my life, so how is it that I know so little of the 5,900 Afghan civilians killed by airstrikes since 2001, and yet I can recognize the precise pitch of air raid sirens in Lviv? If the fall of Kabul was projected as an inevitability, why does the threat to Kyiv feel so unacceptable?)
By the end of the night I felt sick. Not because of the performance, of course, but for the realization that I held more in common with its audience—who could choose when to tune in and out—than the trio under the marquee. Kafyik, her country invaded in the middle of her tour, carried the world’s weight with each fouetté turn. We, the audience, were unworthy of her performance.
Fortunately, I wouldn’t need to consider this quandary for long, because to live in the United States is to always have something else to look at. And so, the next day, I pulled up the Walker Art Center’s Insights Design Lecture Series, where I came across a recording of the lecture that artist Piotr Szyhalski had given earlier that week.
The video fades in as he approaches the podium. Where there typically might be applause, he’s met with silence, and the camera pans out to reveal that the near-400 plush seats of the Walker Cinema are entirely empty. Szyhalski speaks slowly, projecting a series of numbers on the screen behind him: 437,842,762, 80,647,343; 5,978,461, 975,150. Each figure representing the number of Covid-19 cases confirmed worldwide and in the United States to-date, followed by the corresponding number of deaths. “As if this was not a picture dark enough—” he says, choking up before clicking to the next slide, which holds an image of that now familiar blue and yellow flag, “—I am really feeling the weight of history today.”
Szyhalski was invited to discuss his recent Covid-19: Labor Camp Report, a project he took on at the pandemic’s beginning. (The artist defines his “Labor Camp” moniker as the framework for his practice, which he describes as his “ceaseless work of trying to make sense of the world.”) With the Covid-19 Report, he provides the essential labor of re-interpreting what our leaders have termed “unprecedented times.” For 225 consecutive mornings, he made a daily ink drawing based on the dissonant headlines he’d been struggling to make sense of, posting each to his Instagram account in the afternoon. While his initial illustrations represent the uncertainty of the pandemic’s early days—depictions of disinformation, of homes turned inside out—the content builds on itself much as the horrors of 2020 did, with renderings of the uprising for racial justice and the fight for voting rights as spring became summer and summer turned to election season. Leaning into the madness, Szyhalski ended the series on election day—what he called a "point of no return" in his accompanying post.
The drawings have since been widely exhibited at a number of venues, including at the Minneapolis Institute of Art last year. In these installations, the prints function collectively as a visual encyclopedia. But in his Insights lecture, Szyhalski explains the painstaking process behind every individual entry. He’d begin by assembling “news shrapnel”—lists of words and phrases that arose from consuming the news. That shrapnel became cards that he’d shuffle around and connect with visuals collected from both contemporary media imagery and historical propaganda aesthetics. Next came pencil sketches that would evolve into full ink drawings.
Picturing Szyhalski descending to his basement every morning before sunrise might conjure the image of an obsessive artist absorbed in his work. But in reality, he made the Covid-19 Report for us. (“We do not operate in a vacuum. We do not work for ourselves only. What we do is a social act,” he states at the presentation’s opening—the “we” referring to artists and designers.) He looks back with amazement about the ways the project was embraced by the public, who shared the drawings widely on social media, giving the illustrations legs that stretched beyond the exact dates they emerged from his basement; a section of the project’s accompanying book is further devoted to those who printed and wheatpasted copies onto utility boxes and underpasses in their own cities. With its wide embrace, Szyhalski has found himself not as the series’ sole creator, but as the steward of an “autonomous entity”—“as somebody who tends to this organism, who tends to a garden.”
Left: Szyhalski’s April 20th, 2020, entry to his Covid-19: Labor Camp Report. Right: A recent illustration the artist shared on his Instagram account.
The lecture concludes in a Q&A. Rather than stumble through questions sent in through the Zoom chat, Szyhalski instead tasks the audience with asking questions amongst themselves. “If you’re not alone, then ask each other. And if you’re alone, ask yourself.” For the next twelve minutes, he stands at the podium in silence. I have the urge to skip ahead, to close the tab. But I realize that, much like the Covid-19 Report itself, this too is a lesson in attention. And so I sit alone in my apartment and listen to this strange stillness—to the exhalations that Szyhalski’s microphone picks up, and to the humming sound of the radiator next to me. The recording was made days ago, but surely we’re breathing the same air.
“I’m afraid we’ve run out of time for questions,” Szyhalski finally says, breaking the silence. After thanking the virtual audience, he straps on his mask and walks off stage, leaving us with one final image: that of Ukraine’s flag projected in an empty theater. As he exits, I remember a video I saw earlier in the week, where the crew of TV Rain—Russia’s last independent news channel, which was shuttered after referring to the war as a “war”—walks off set following their final broadcast. The crew departs, and the station switches to a recording of Swan Lake, referencing the history of Soviet state media playing the ballet during times of turmoil, like during the failed 1991 coup attempt, when the same recording played on a loop for hours. Here again is another lesson in repetition, in accumulation: that no trouble is new, but the way we speak about it can be.
Left: A final frame in Szyhalski’s lecture. Right: A screenshot from TV Rain’s final broadcast, as the staff walked off.
As Szyhalski and TV Rain’s crew stepped offstage in their respective corners of the world, they stepped into uncertainty—the crew into a new atmosphere of intensified censorship, and the artist back into his endless labor of trying to make sense of the world. In the time since, Szyhalski has returned to his ink pens and created new drawings responding to the invasion, focusing repeatedly on refugees crossing the border into Poland, where he grew up. These recent illustrations feel like a continuation of the Covid-19 Report; while his early pandemic routine has been interrupted, Szyhalski remains an artist who refuses to operate in a vacuum, whose work never stops.
From my bystander perspective, it also seems the war is digging into a new, uncertain phase. Though the images pouring out of Ukraine are no less horrifying, the initial shock of invasion has churned into a grinding thing around which I can sense my own attention beginning to flag. And yet Szyhalski's drawings demand that we hold onto these words, these images, these moments, even when the theater empties and the marquee changes over. ◼︎
To witness a recording of Piotr Szyhalski’s Insights lecture, visit this link. To view the full Covid-19: Labor Camp Report chronologically, as well as his recent drawings responding to the invasion of Ukraine, visit Szyhalski on Instagram. Additionally, more copies of the series’ accompanying book will soon be printed, with details to come on IG.
If you feel compelled to support Ukrainian peoples' continued resistance to Russia's occupation, there are many places to donate. Here are just a few:
• The Kyiv Independent is continuing to provide independent journalism throughout the country. Follow them on Twitter and support their fundraising efforts here.
• Razom for Ukraine is a pro-democracy organization working to provide critical medical assistance across the country.
• The Switzerland-based International Committee of the Red Cross has been working in Ukraine since 2014, and is now providing urgent humanitarian aid to civilian victims of the war.
• We also suggest following photographer Yevgenia Belorusets' daily dispatches from Kyiv that the artist has been writing for Artforum International since the invasion's onset.
Banner image: A scene from the recording of Szyhalski’s Insights Design Lecture Series at the Walker Art Center.
Szyhalski is also a participating artist in our 2021 Sketchbook Project, has a work on display currently at Gamut Gallery's Sketchbook Project Exhibition, and will participate in the Artist Talk Exhibit Finale on April 9th.