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Interview with Joanna Raczynska
Independent filmmaker, curator and arts administrator

This interview was recorded by Joanna in November 2009 from emailed questions

Interview with Joanna Raczynska
Part 1: Family History and World Politics


Interview with Joanna Raczynska
Part 2: Film and Media Works


Interview with Joanna Raczynska
Part 3: Professional Life


begin transcript

Part 1: Family History and World Politics

ER: Tell me about the chronology and geography of your childhood.

Joanna Raczynska

Joanna Raczynska

JR: In a nutshell I was born in England in Wimbledon in 1970 to Polish parents who were both US citizens at the time. Still are, really. I was born as I said in in 1970 in a very sort of…my parents lived in a very affluent part of England known as Esher Surrey.  So, my Dad had a really good job with an American company based in England that paid him basically in US dollars when the US dollar was really strong…which we may never see again. Which wouldn’t be necessarily a bad thing. So, my childhood was very privileged and my parents were very loving. I have absolutely no bad memories. I had a great childhood. My sister and I had everything we ever wanted. We went on holidays. We had a top rate education. We had lots of friends. First and foremost, our parents loved us very much. And gave us everything they ever could. Having said that, my sister and I also grew up with stories about WW2. Both of my parents were born before the War. My father in 1929 and my mother in 1930. So when the war broke out in ’39, they were both young children but they were still able to remember their experiences. I’ll go into that a little bit longer. So basically I grew up hearing first hand stories; first person point of view about WW2 which was very intense and is something that shaped my world perspectives. So I think growing up in Europe, period; especially with parents from Central Europe – you can’t help but be well informed. Unless you really totally have morons for parents or block that area out completely, it just seems to me you live in Europe then you probably have very strong connection to history and to war, basically.

ER: Your parents were accomplished professionals in their fields. Tell me about their personal histories.

JR: Their personal histories are very long. I have my version of their personal history they have theirs especially my father’s which is very well polished and have been repeated so much…polished from repetition. My father died in 2004. And as I said earlier he was born in 1929; survived WW2; he was in Warsaw, he was a young boy, 15 years old in 1944 when the Warsaw uprising started and ended he fought in that; he saw many of his friends killed. And then he saw his country, including his father, my grandfather, – and he saw his country taken over by a hostile country, Russia. And basically left Poland because he could. His mother, my grandmother, was born in Buffalo, NY in 1905. Because of this, she had US citizenship. And it just so happened that her parents, who had come in the late 19th century to Buffalo which at the time was a very affluent city, if not the most, one of the top three most affluent cities in the States at the time. They had come in the late 19th century to get away from strife in Poland and they did fairly well in Buffalo, had kids, then took the kids back after WW1 in 1919 or 1920 they returned to Poland. So my grandmother was born in the States and then returned to the Warsaw area where she married my granddad and they had two sons. Long story short is, my dad had US citizenship; he got out of Poland in ’45 after having been a POW; having been arrested and imprisoned by the Germans and having escaped twice and released in ’45; made his way to the States where his mom, my grandmother, his brother were in NYC at the time. I don’t know if I mentioned this but my grandfather was shot and killed by the Germans -by the Nazis- in ’42 I believe. So that’s sort of his story in a nutshell. He came – you know he left Poland – he went through Italy, joined some Polish forces in Italy right immediately after the war and then from that area of the world went through Scotland and England and got in touch with his mother, my grandmother, through the Red Cross and ended up in NYC doing odd jobs. Meanwhile, my mother also – her father had been killed in 1940. He was a Polish officer who was shot by the Russians in one of the Katyn massacres of 1940. It is very well known now there is a great film by Andrzej Wajda all about it. Very interesting in terms of the very fact that it’s been made. The Russians..even Putin now is denying that the Russians were responsible for the Katyn massacres. Even after admitting a decade or two ago that the Russians were the ones that killed these poor people. Anyway these are the stories I grew up with. My Mom stayed in Poland after the war and her mother was imprisoned by the Soviets for her underground activities which is what my father feared that he would go to jail and be executed or just spend the rest of his life in jail or not be able to find a job because he was part of the Uprising which was not tolerated by the Russians. So my maternal grand mother was in jail. My mother decided she needed to make a living and do something and she’d always enjoyed dancing so she actually went to school quite late and became a ballerina eventually becoming Prima Ballerina for about eight or nine years with the Warsaw Ballet Company in Warsaw, Poland. Which is amazing to me not because it wasn’t an achievement in and of itself but because she never joined the Communist Party. And it was almost unheard of for anybody to make it into the corps of the ballet without having been a member of the Communist Party. So she must have been really good. Long story short is my mother’s family my father’s family knew each other. They met at a party through one of my father’s aunts when my father was actually visiting Poland. He was working after he got his degree as a Civil Engineer. He ended up working – ironically enough – for a German company in West Germany and would travel back and forth between the States, Germany and Poland because he had this marvelous facility for language. Her was fluent in five or six languages I think. Five definitely. They certainly were accomplished professionals. My Dad studied to be a Civil Engineer but ended up being sort of a not-practicing Civil Engineer. He ended up being a businessman doing alot of work behind the Iron Curtain for US companies, petroleum companies, in the ’70′s which again, he had great stories from. My mother – world class performer – had a very strong career but a career that was short-lived as all ballet careers are – when your time comes you either teach or retire. And my mother was ready to retire when my father proposed to her so they got married in ’62 and ended up moving to Germany for a little while where my Dad was working and then back to the States where my Dad had his citizenship to D.C. They had my sister in ’65 so my sister was a US citizen by birth. And then my dad got a job in England.

ER: How did your family background influence your decision to pursue a career in the arts? What were your parents’ reactions to this decision?

JR: I didn’t really…I don’t think I consciously decided that I was going to work in the arts. Just through happenstance and connections, personal friends, I ended up getting jobs in the arts. You know I got my first BA from the University of Maryland, College Park, in English Literature and I wanted to be a journalist. I was always interested in documentaries and in nature shows and things like that and having been reared on the BBC – and that’s what I wanted to do – I wanted to pursue Journalism. But I wasn’t interested in doing just the facts kind of Journalism. I’ve always been interested in first person point of view probably primarily because of my parents’ experiences and my strong family history in story telling too. So I was more interested in the subjective – in the subjective recall of past events – memory in other words. And so I took a lot of writing classes and wrote a lot about – I wrote a lot of fiction in my first undergraduate degree. And I also did alot of research into Women’s Studies and Women’s Rights issues and I got really drawn into film from a theoretical and critical standpoint not a production standpoint. Anyway, I graduated and took the first job I possibly could after having worked some retails jobs which were awful. But anyway bottom line is my dad – I remember my father always asking me “How are you going to… you have an English degree, that’s great.” He didn’t really acknowledge the Women’s Studies certificate because he thought that wasn’t that important. He was quite old-fashioned and plus a certificate didn’t really mean much to him. But neither my mother or my dad ever encouraged me to pursue the arts. As a kid I loved to draw. Always drawing and always doodling and painting. My parents liked it but they always thought it was a hobby. And then the English Literature part my parents could understand the journalism desire and maybe that was why I initially wanted to choose journalism because my parents would think of that as a real career. As a young person in late teens early twenties I mean I think that everyone is sort of struggling to figure out – especially then, if not for the rest of your life- you struggle to figure out who you are what you can contribute and why. And so I was not different – you know, I’m still pretty much that way. It just so happened that I got a great job in a museum called the Octagon Museum in D.C. after having lived in NYC working for Harper Collins Publishers – which was an awful job. It was in the Children’s book division and I thought people who worked in children’s books would be really cool to work with. They were like the most barbaric people I ever met – really cut throat and that didn’t last long. Came back from NY and went as an intern initially at the Octagon Museum as I said in D.C. through which I met some wonderful people. The curator was fantastic. That really sparked my interest again in museums. I’d always enjoyed museums as a kid – great museums in England, Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Gallery and all that. So during this time at the Octagon I decided to go for another BA . This time the University of Maryland Baltimore County which is a very small Department of Visual Arts. I went in for a concentration in Design and graduated with my concentration in Film and Video primarily because I got to take some classes with some really great experimental filmmakers. One of whom was Hollie Lavenstein who’s currently teaching in Alabama and the other teacher I really learned a lot from was Mark Street who is a experimental filmmaker now teaching in NYC, living and teaching there. So it was a great experience. As soon as I got to UMBC in 1996, I was able to transfer enough credits so that I could just take electives and get accreditation – you know the second BA which in hindsight maybe I should have done an MFA but I didn’t. And I noticed when I took film related classes whether they were in lighting, writing screen plays, production – that is camerawork, editing – everything behind the camera basically. It sort of just brought everything together – all my interests in journalism or in factual events in real life but also the subjective interpretation of that. So some of the poetry of it some of the experimentation of it – it seemed – it still seems very exciting and really something that gets my blood going, my pulse going. It’s hard to find a job in production. I did get some production assistant positions and so forth in commercial TV but that’s just not what I was meant to do.

Part 2: Film and Media Works

JR: And I started making, in ’96-’97, all of these sort of non-fiction films in 16mm. And I decided, I chose to use my parents as my primary subjects because they were and they still are the most interesting people I ever met. Growing up my family didn’t take home movies – we have no Super 8 or Regular 8mm or early video. None of that. But my dad did one day record audio of my sister and I just sort of mucking around. I think I was around three or four and she would have been seven or eight, just like singing and arguing and being silly and all that. And my dad saved this tape and it’s great to hear him as a young man, as a father, and my mom in the background which is interesting. It was great to hear him interact with me as a little girl and with my sister as a little girl. And it was like basically this tape is a treasure so I was excited by the possibility in school of using this as a sound track and I started building one of my first films, The Essential Chair, around this. I just sort of as I said started synthesizing and uniting all of these aspects and issues I was interested in including Socratic principles and referencing other works of art which seemed really really exciting. My parents never encouraged me in the arts. My mother, especially the ballerina, she never encouraged my sister or me to dance. In fact, she discouraged us saying it was incredibly competitive and incredibly difficult, painful and short-lived. And she really didn’t understand why we would choose to do something like that. Why we would choose a career n the arts when it’s so competitive and really not commercially driven. I mean like any parents my parents were worried about how my sister and I – how we would survive – how we would pay the bills.

ER: We see a lot of references to the past in your video works and curated projects. In your earlier works, this is personal with references to your cultural and family background from Poland. Can you tell me about Signature of Things.

JR: I made Signature of Things I think in 2004. I think I finished it in Buffalo and I think it was after my father died. It was definitely after he got very ill. He had an aneurism that burst in ’98 and left him paraplegic and he survived but for seven years he was very, very ill in a wheelchair. And it was interesting and difficult to say the least. I don’t know what else to say about that except that I made Signature of Things in a way for me to remember him. We didn’t have any family footage when we were growing up or as a family. And so I decided it would be great to shoot some film of him to have personally- moving images of my dad. And some of the 16 mm film of him is in the hospital after his second operation I think . So it’s a memory of him, a memory of his body, a memory of his person. And also of this monumental change in and steady decline of him, of my father. So it was very difficult to make and it took a long time to make and its a very short piece. I spent a lot of time agonizing – well not agonizing it wasn’t that dramatic – wondering and deciding on how to represent instead of just tell, you know, what ..my love for him and my admiration of him. So this desk that was his father’s which survived WW2 and was not only an antique but to me an historic sort of object that survived all this warfare and miraculously got cleaned up and sent to my dad. I decided to use that as a stand in for my father for my grandfather – my father’s lineage, the patriarchy of my family, in a way. And I shot it, I videotaped it and the dust around it, around the same time my parents were moving out of their home they had bought in Bethesda Maryland we’d lived in for about twenty years. They lived in for just about that long. So it was at a very monumental time in my family’s history and so to me Signature of Things is a very personal a very personal document full of symbols that mean something to me and to my family. And I don’t necessarily expect or believe that anybody would – who doesn’t know me or an objective viewer would get anything more out of it than what there is. But to me it’s just really a document, a way to remember.

ER: Tell me about your feelings about Poland during these very different time periods, Pre-War and Post-War.

JR: I don’t know how to answer this. All I can really say about that, again the stories I was told by my family by my parents specifically, even though parts of my mother’s family still live in Poland and I am in touch with them thankfully. Apparently between the wars, between WW1 and WW2, Poland was a democratic nation and had its own government and things were going fairly well for Poland in terms of the general population. Now my family is not Jewish, my family is an old Polish family from old Polish stock on both sides. We can trace our family names back to the 14th century. So I can’t speak for other groups in Poland. I don’t know what it was like for them. But for my parent’s families things were pretty great between the wars. That’s what I’ve always heard anyway. And then after WW2 everything went to hell. I have no personal experience with any of this, I never lived in Poland. I’ve only visited and I’ve only heard these stories so again my memory is second hand and my interpretation of those stories is what it is. I mean I don’t want to romanticize the idea of pre-War Poland or even Post-War era. I don’t believe that is helpful to anyone. So in a way, I’d like to – I have in the past- tried to explore these ideas of what homeland is and what one’s country means a little bit more experimentally. Sort of use symbols and signs and sounds that hopefully question this idea of patriotism and of history in general and of objectivity and all that stuff. So the last piece that I made that I’m really proud of is Good Faith Effort which was finished in 2007 or 2008 – I can’t remember but not so long ago. But it was a piece that I shot in Warsaw that has a lot to do with my family history but also with the general sort of memories of young people of the Solidarity movement at a time in the ’80′s when there was Martial law in Poland but there was a lot of upheaval and a lot of political and social strife more so than there had been the decade before. And I thought people always ask elderly – old people get to be asked about the past quite a lot. Young people don’t really get to talk about the past – on camera at least. So I found several different subjects who were about my age who were teenagers or sort of on the cusp, pre-teens, on the cusp of puberty around the time of 1989 though I was a little bit older in ’89 I was 19 years old but these kids were like 12-13 -14-15 – that’s kind of the age in ’89 I was going for. I asked people to reflect on sounds and images or memories that they could recall from those times. And I got some beautiful very poetic just beautiful responses and some of them didn’t make them into the final cut for various reasons. And it was such an exciting project to m only because I’ve always wondered what it would be like if my dad, my Mom hadn’t left Poland and if we had had a chance to live there, going back I also day dream and fantasize about there never having been a WW2 and what that would be like. I probably wouldn’t be here. But you know that kind of speculation which takes into account the very direct – extremely direct- impact of historical events on day-to-day life. Again, in Europe I think it’s different than the States. It s just different in the States. So much warfare so much upheavel has happened in Europe it affects people. Even WW2, even events of the 20th century are now influencing today, our lives and Poland’s future and all that.

ER: What do the people of your parents’ generation feel about the current culture in Poland?

JR: I don’t know what the people of my parent’s generation think. Just this past weekend my mother was tickled to tell me about David Lynch, the US director who is opening up a cultural film center and production in Lodz which is a very well known city in Poland where the Polish Film School is. And it really has been a great city and David Lynch chose it. to start the next phase of his life. So my mom was very excited to tell me about this; very excited to hear good news from my cousins. So I’m sure my dad would be tickled too. She obviously still worries about Russia’s influence on the rest of the world not only Poland. Anyway, who the hell knows what’s going to happen there.

ER: You also explore mass media influences in Wee for a Wii. What prompted you to make that piece?

JR: I basically made it for a Termite TV Program about water. (This camera is sitting on top of my daughter’s high chair because I couldn’t find my tripod. Tells you how long ago I shot anyhting.) So Wee for a Wii was commissioned for an half an hour program about water for Termite TV. Termite TV is a collective of filmmakers based in Buffalo and Philadelphia primarily. Been around for a long, long time and every so often as a collective we produce these half hour programs. They play at festivals and around the world really. And also get broadcast on TV. So I made that piece because I heard the story of that woman who ended up drowning herself for a couple of Justin Timberlake tickets which I thought was so sad.

Part 3: Professional Life

ER: You have created many film/media programs as well as curated media exhibits in your career to date. Tell me a bit about these projects.

JR: So you asked me about my career path…. Thanks to you, Ellen, I got to do a lot of curating of gallery exhibitions that as an independent curator I wouldn’t have had a chance to do otherwise. My work as Media Arts Curator at Hallwalls was fantastic but I was programming for a cinema space not for an exhibition space which is very different; it’s a very different animal. So, working at the Carnegie was an eye opener a real learning experience and very rewarding and all of that. One of the main projects that you asked my husband, Will Redman, who is a composer and performer; you asked us to come up with basically an exhibition that didn’t cost anything and was quick and easy and directly produced. And we ended up doing what was called Eyes and Ears which was a collaboration between over two dozen artists. We invited some visual artist – some film and video makers – to produce graphic scores that were silent or near silent that is time based, real time scores, incorporating whatever they wanted visually with little or no sound to be interpreted; that is, played as a score by musicians from the Open Music Ensemble which was a collective of new music performers in Buffalo, NY. So, Eyes and Ears 1 was a huge success. People turned around these videos and then the performers rehearsed them and played live at an opening and live at a closing at the Carnegie. This exhibition was very simple, I think it was six TV’s / monitors with six dvd players. Six disks, each of which had two pieces on it that were looped. Very simple. But I just remember the opening and the closing concerts as being full of such energy and happiness and joy and it was just really eye opening and very rewarding. Everyone did this for free which to me is incredible. So, it was a very exciting time. Eyes and Ears 2 which was sort of an off shoot of this first project was held just a one night with no exhibition component; one night event performance at Hallwalls a couple of years ago and we have a dvd of Eyes and Ears 1 that’s available through Hallwalls’ site but nothing really to show for Eyes and Ears 2 which is a little bit sad.

Another film and media art program that I did at the Carnegie and involved – actually the last one I did- was called Every Day Splendor – use what you got or something like that. It had a lot of different artists from all over the world actually.

ER: In Nonfunctional Seasonal Confessional you admit that your urge to create works has diminished. Do you think this is a result of having a very demanding job.

JR: That video, that little video is.. I wouldn’t take it too seriously. It wasn’t intended as really an insight into my psyche or anything like that. It was an experiment at the Experimental television Center in Owego, NY which is run b Sherry Miller Hocking and her husband Ralph Hocking. They started the Experimental Television Center, years ago, decades ago, and what they basically do, among other things, is have artists residencies with all of this analog but also some digital equipment players and different video effects; monitors and various machines from the dawn of video to today. And you can go there with your source material and just have a ball. It just like a fun do what you want atmosphere with a huge matrix that you… it was an experience that was incredible and i found it fun to be there by myself and record using TV cameras, little TV cameras and remotes, and just mucking around. And the whole idea of the Nonfunctional Seasonal Confessional is just a – you know – just a spoof of the confessional video that was so popular in the late ’80′s and the early ’90′s. So, it’s really just kind of a spoof. The idea of diminishment of wanting to make work – I think everybody always questions why they do something. Anybody who is making video art should and I think , you know, it’s never enough and as just personally i always think I can always do better. So, that’s just my little psychosis.

ER: Tell me about your new position at the National Gallery of Art.

JR: The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. has an amazing film program that was founded and is still led by Peggy Parsons who started it in 1978, I believe. She curates and the gallery shows beautiful films, art films – films about art, also incredible features, shorts, experimental works, etc. in the original format in the way the artist intended. So one of the very few venues ,let alone museums in this area that actually projects 35 mm film, doesn’t project any dvd’s if we can help it, and original format videos. Everything from analog, 3/4″ tape to HD Cam, Blu Ray if we have to, even though that’s a consumer format, and digital files, etc. So, it’s really an amazing place. My job, it’s officially Assistant head to the Department head, or assistant head of the department but I’m also referred to as the Assistant Curator, helping Peggy basically with all the administrative aspects of running a film program at a museum. And also helping with some research and I’ve had the opportunity..she’s given me the opportunity to organize a couple of different film series. There’s one I’m working on now that’s going to be in May of next year to celebrate- I think it’s the 150th anniversary of Chopin’s death or birth – I should have looked that up. Anyway, so I’m doing a series working with the film archive in Warsaw and really the job is all I could have ever hoped for. Every day’s a new day.

ER: Where can we see your work?

JR: I have some video clips on line at jraczynska.com which I have not updated in a very long time. But if anybody would like to see my work, I would be happy to send them a disk. So, let me know.

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