By Daniella LaGaccia
Polite and welcoming, Suka Off is a collective of two Poland-based artists featuring Sylvia Lajbig and Piotr Wegrzynski that has existed since 1995. Their work is atmospheric with a emphasis on aesthetics, and contains with elements of performance, installation, video art, and music. Common themes found in their work include the blurring of gender codes, sexuality, and communication, all of which has a strong influence from Greek mythology and science fiction films.
This interview took place on September 13th 2017, two days before their performance at Grace Exhibition Space. The pair was busy preparing for the show as we talked about the history of the collective, a major scandal that broke out in the Polish tabloid Fakt in the early 2000’s that threatened the group’s opportunities to perform in Poland, their ongoing project “tranSfera”, their views on the use of the body in performance, and more.
Daniella LaGaccia: Talk a little bit about the origins of Suka Off. Piotr, you started in 1995, and Sylvia, you joined in 2003. What were your beginnings like?
Sylvia Lajbig: Piotr started in high school with his girlfriend. His first performances were more like traditional theatre, and also at that time he began working with an alternative theatre company in Katowice, which was a good place to learn the technical background to theatre, like putting up the lights and how to build a story and so on.
Piotr Wegrzynski: It was like the second-generation after [Jerzy] Grotowski. It was the same techniques, like physical theatre.
S: But also drama, they used words… So this was one part of Piotr’s background, and the other one was he was going to our school, so he has a background in visual arts, sculpture, painting, all the classical visual arts. He always wanted to do performance, but from a visual background.
P: At the beginning it was more connected to classical Happenings like [Tadeusz] Kantor; it was something between performance and theatre. I don’t like this type of classical performance art; for me it was too boring for my aesthetics. Too poor for my aesthetics.
S: And Piotr always wanted to use good lighting and interesting costumes and objects, and traditional performance art was like one guy with no props, simple lights and nothing. It was not enough. Piotr was always interested in more visual rich images. As I said, he started with more traditional performances based on words, and in time, he developed his own visual language. He stopped using words, and at the time he and his girlfriend were making costumes, it was like a whole new universe that they built on stage.
And at that time [late 1990’s] it was very unusual for the Polish scene to do something with a sexual context, and they used PVC costumes, which at that time were tied to fetish theatre.
P: It was tied to the aesthetics of like a cheap sex shop. The PVC for some people was like latex.
S: People didn’t understand the differences. He did use sexual imagery, but science fiction was also a big inspiration, so the costumes were related to sci-fi movies, but people didn’t really see that.
P: So, we started to make performances in this area, because we thought maybe the audience is more open-minded, like the punks…
S: Not like the academy or the theatre, but the punks or people in sub-cultures.
P: And for the punks it was like, “Wow, nice violence, but finally, when we made things more sexual it became a problem because the punks, especially the women…feminists, some people wanted to fight with us. It wasn’t reality, but for some people it was too much.
S: In 2003, Piotr and his girlfriend split, and so it was a very difficult time for Suka Off. He didn’t know if he could still continue, but then he found me! And, it started a new chapter, because he didn’t want to repeat the old performances. Of course the aesthetics stayed the same, but we didn’t want to go into the past.
So, we started to develop new performances, and at the same time, I started to contact some fetish clubs in London and other European countries. Because we felt that finally we could finally do what we want without being criticized for too much sexuality, S&M and so on.
D: What was that response like?
S: At that time, Torture Garden was one of the most famous fetish clubs in the world, and it had a strong connection with the body modification and body arts scene. So, this club was never only about fetish or just a club you go to dance or go to fuck; it was always a place to see real art. That had Franco B, they had Ron Athey, the biggest names in body art history. For us it was a dream come true when we were invited, because for us it was a chance to be a part of this history.
The first two years were amazing, we could do anything we wanted, and the response from the audience was amazing; there were no limits in whatever we required. Whatever ideas we had, we could do everything.
Because we became quite popular and famous in the fetish scene in London, other clubs from other countries started to invite us. So, for a few years we were mainly touring fetish events. And of course we never stopped performing in galleries or theaters, and we understand that there are different audience expectations. We translated fetish performances into more theatrical performances by adding different elements. Like, at the fetish club, you have to do everything quick. It has to be dynamic, fast, narratives. In theatres or galleries you can go slower and add more details because people can have a look and focus on your actions. Like, a 15 minute fetish performance would become a 40 minute long theatre piece.
P: This was like 2005, but in 2006 in Poland, there was a big scandal about us. After that, we changed everything.
S: One guy, who ran a popular club in Poland invited us to perform at his place, but we didn’t know then that he wanted to use our performance as a way to raise a scandal against politicians, the mayor of Warsaw, the right wing party, it was supposed to be a big thing in the media.
P: The owner was really connected to LGBT, and he used us.
S: And he wanted to start a political career, and so he wanted some big events that would make his name more popular in the media, and that would be one of those events that would help his career.
We didn’t know about it, we just did our thing; it wasn’t very scandalous, but he invited some freelance photographers to take pictures, although no one was allowed to take pictures. And the freelance photographers sold the pictures to the shitiest tabloid [Fakt] magazine in Poland, and there was a huge article about our performance, like, we were pissing into each other’s’ mouth, and all the money comes from the government. But, the money that we got as very small, and the pissing never happened, they just manipulated the photo to have some yellow liquid in the pictures to look like piss.
After this, we were really afraid that we became a tool in somebody’s game, and suddenly all festivals and all galleries in Poland stopped inviting us. We couldn’t get grants or bookings, nothing. And, everyone was saying that we did this scandal on purpose to get famous, but why would we want to be famous like that? Everybody knows who you are, but nobody books you, nobody pays you money. Luckily we found opportunities abroad, and that helped us survive those difficult years.
D: I wanted to ask. I have a friend who is an artist from Poland, and I was kind of shocked to hear how conservative politically Poland is as a country. What does it mean to make the kind of work that you make in a politically conservative atmosphere?
S: First of all, people think that whenever you do something sexual, you do it to provoke people or to make some kind of scandal. For us, we never wanted to become famous as a scandalous group. We always wanted to make images that we find beautiful, because we don’t like the reality around us. We want to create an alternative reality which is beautiful. Some images may be violent or disturbing, but still there’s something very beautiful in the images.
P: It’s funny, in a country with a very strong Catholic culture, the violence is not the problem; the blood is not the problem. The problem is the sexuality. For me that’s wrong.
S: It was our decision, our choice to stay out of the theatrical and performance art society. We don’t apply for grants or anything like that. We have our home where we sit and create new work. We have the luck where we can find other places abroad and show our work, but although we live in Poland, we are completely outside of Poland.
D: I saw that you have a project called “tranSfera” that began in 2007. What does this ongoing project entail?
S: It’s an ongoing project that talks about different things. One of the most important pieces in the cycle was inspired by the [Greek] tale of Hermaphroditus and Salmacis. It’s about this woman who falls in love with this beautiful boy. But he’s completely not interested in love and sexuality. So she prays to the gods, ‘please make us one, I want to be with this boy forever.’ The gods answer these prayers, and when the boy enters the tree where she lives, they joined bodies forever. That’s the story of how the first hermaphrodite was created.
In this performance, it’s about a woman and a man who are in a relationship, and they love each other, but there are some elements they will never share or understand about each other.
P: Of course, we don’t want to make some sort of political manifesto of how to be a heterosexual man or woman.
S: No, it’s about people in general, women and men. It’s about two people trying to connect to be one, but there is always something that they cannot share, so they are never really one.
D: A lot of your projects deal with sexuality and gender. On your website you speak about redefining gender and blurring sexual codes. Where does this interest in this subject come from?
P: I think modern heterosexual art is really poor. It’s just about naked bodies and nothing more. It’s a simple image and for me it is empty. It’s repeating these same images like, ‘Oh, I’ll show you my body and it’s something.’ For me it is nothing, it’s just a naked body.
The story for me is, where is this body for me in this time. Why are you naked? I don’t want to read about the concept, I want to see this concept on stage. Modern artists think that they should just read something like a manifesto and that’s it. I don’t want to read this bullshit. I want to see something strong and powerful. A naked body for me is not powerful; it’s just a naked body, it’s ordinary like a tomato.
S: We know people in the performance art scene, and we know people who are very intellectual, but when they see a naked woman on stage, it’s just like ‘Oh, she has nice tits and ass’.
P: It’s important to use the body in a conscious way.
S: On the other hand, it’s one of the best compliments we can receive. Like, ‘Oh, it’s Suka Off, it’s going to be very sexual.’ But, when they see the naked bodies, they’re not sexual objects. They’re bodies in a certain situation, and people can go beyond tits and asses. They see certain emotions, or a certain thought or idea. Sometimes I just want to be a human on the stage. I don’t want to accentuate my sexuality.
P: Of course, it is only a concept. It’s the people on the side who decide who you are.