The phenomenological maps of…

Paintings, living minerals, sculptures, music scores and performances are some of the formats Monika Dorniak uses to weave an elaborate web of narratives, archetypes and alchemising artworks, coexisting with her ongoing activist and community building vocation based in Berlin. Her multidisciplinary works not only blur the boundaries between mediums but also traverse curious territories within psychology, anthropology, sound and witchcraft. In her exhibition at Hošek Contemporary – ‘the ease with which [a] may be distorted under the action of [b]’, Monika explores natural phenomenons and pressing social shifts, using living and local natural agents to question the current sociodynamics such as displacement and solastalgia. 

Drawing upon her beliefs in the necessity of decolonizing science, folklores and anthropology, combined with a strong academic background and feminist approach, Monika Dorniak invites a dialogue around the cultural biases that shape our understandings of ecosystem exploitation, migration, intergenerational trauma and ancestral knowledge. As part of her mission to build and reimagine communal structures, Monika puts an emphasis on connecting with natural presence within the urban spaces as well as integrating conscious practices to return to our bodies and our environment despite oppressive systems. 

Monika Dorniak, Jena, 2022 (Photo by Anna Perepechai)

Please introduce yourself and your interdisciplinary artistic practice.

As an interdisciplinary artist I aim to challenge the boundaries between choreography, social sciences and fine art through various mediums, such as installations, performances, workshops and collaborative formats. My ongoing practice-based and theoretical research on intergenerational trauma, memory and belonging, plays an important role in the process of creating my works. In my artistic practice I address human’s violent domination over nature and nature’s allies throughout history, and the persistent existence of social, exploitative power structures in our present times. 

Growing up in a working class family with a migration background, and childhood spent between a German village farm and my Polish family’s urban home in Wrocław, has heavily influenced my practice. What connected those two contrasting locations was the caring labour that my father and his friends put into building the concrete houses in Wrocław and the German village with their own hands – a symbolic act of settlement, and yet, I never felt a sense of belonging in either of those places. 

My Eastern grandparents had to both flee from Soviet occupations in the 20th century: my grandmother from West Ukraine, and my grandfather from Belarus. Some decades later my father had to seek refuge in Germany due to the Soviet occupation of Poland. The sensations that come with forced displacements have embedded themselves into my own DNA, and the symptom of ‘not-belonging’ has accompanied me to my adulthood. This eventually led to my auto-biographical research on intergenerational trauma, migration and displacement in 2013, which I have continued through my ongoing collaborations with systemically minoritised groups, as part of socially engaged commissions and projects.

My works form interconnected, phenomenological maps that reflect on the paradoxical conditions of human existence within an era of alienation, uprootedness and hybridity. As a human being I form and am formed by the Anthropocentric era; an estranging state that also leads to the uncomfortable state of Solastalgia – which encompasses the feeling of powerlessness and alienation.

Collaboration plays an important role for me, and I think that the kinship that I have experienced as a child has contributed to my interest in a collective working method. Growing up as a half-orphan with a working class lone mother, I was impelled to seek alternatives to the heteronormative concept of a core-family, and I learned the value of communities from an early age. My community has not merely consisted of human agents, but the surrounding more-than-human agencies: the forests, the fields, the stones, the domestic animals, the sky, and the Unknown. 

For your series ‘Aesthetics Of Knowledge’ (2019-ongoing) you have received the second Hošek Contemporary Prize 2023, and as part of this, your solo exhibition is currently on view at Hošek Contemporary. What can the visitors experience in the exhibition, and what is the background behind your ‘Aesthetics Of Knowledge’ series? 

For my current solo exhibition ‘the ease with which [a] may be distorted under the action of [b]’, I have created a new set of works that were brought into a playful dialogue with unpublished works from 2019-2022. Together with curator Linda Toivio, I planted the installation into the body of Hošek Contemporary – which is in fact situated on a historical boat, named Motor Ship Heimatland (Homeland), that anchors in a historical harbour in Berlin Mitte. 

My installation is interacting with the local environment on various levels. The movement of the gallery intrigued me, and this special condition allowed me to focus on a specific sense: proprioception. This sense is rarely mentioned when talking about human cognition, despite its importance for ‘our body’s ability to sense movement, action, and location’. The gentle rocking movements of the boat inspired me to produce hanging sculptural elements that host the liquid dripping mechanism, which is required for a continuous growth of the crystal structures (which I consider as the main protagonist of the exhibition). The liquid is composed of a variety of substances from human and more-than-human origins: chemical compounds, waters from the surrounding river Spree, bodily fluids, and pigments. 

Having worked with performance since my adolescence, I see an increasing urgency to rethink what performance can, or must, be(come) to respond to our current environmental and social issues. In this exhibition I am defining the stones as my collaborators. I do so by also being self-critical, and reflecting on humans’ contribution in the exploitation of our environment. As cultural workers we often find ourselves in a limbo of being both aware about issues, but still depending on travels and shippings for existential reasons. Through my ongoing research with more-than-human-agencies, I attempt to get into a dialogue with nature (referring here specifically to philosophers such as Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers, and simultaneously people such as my grandparents, who have passed on their knowledge of plants and forests to me).

In my series  ‘Aesthetics Of Knowledge’ I am trying to create a hybrid between performance and exhibition, that allows for a fluid work that breaks with the classic canon of the ‘finished’ artwork and concept of the singular authorship.

While I have created a framework, in the form of a sculptural skeleton, hence choreographed the substance growth, I have no control over the actual outcome of the inner shape. The more-than-human agencies, in this case the fluid and stones, are the ‘unruly’ participants that decide on the inner core of the sculpture. Thereby the work will be experienced differently every day, as in the nature of performances. 

Installation view, Monika Dorniak – the ease with which [a] may be distorted under the action of [b], Hosek Contemporary, 2023, Photographer: Mari Vass
Monika Dorniak – the ease with which [a] may be distorted under the action of [b], Hosek Contemporary, 2023, Installation view (Photo by Mari Vass)

Please elaborate on the concept of more-than-human agencies.

In 2013, during my BA Dance & Choreography studies at HZT in Berlin, a guest tutor introduced me to the Actor-Network-theory by Bruno Latour, which influenced my present work, and translated itself into my critical hybrid technology-human performance, named ‘Emological Symphony’ (2013). Spending more time reading Bruno Latour’s books, such as ‘Politics of nature: how to bring the sciences into democracy‘, I eventually also came across chemist and philosopher Isabelle Stengers, an often unmentioned collaborator of Latour. Together they applied the hypothesis of Gaia, as ‘an entity composed of multiple, reciprocally linked but ungoverned self-advancing processes’, by referring to James Lovelocks et. Al., and continued the research on ‘agency of nature’. 

Having spent most of my childhood and teenage time in the countryside, in close contact with flora and fauna, the philosophical readings by Latour and Stengers provided me with hope. I came across this research shortly after having spent some semesters studying psychology and doing a research-internship in neurology. This experience made me understand that scientific statistics are sometimes also ‘sculpted’ for capitalistic interests. As a scientist and philosopher, Stengers writings reflect critically on the actions of science and suggests that a non-hierarchical research, linking arts, philosophy, science and also animism (I was once told that Stengers actually has worked with witches), would allow for a more-in-depth outcome.

Throughout the past years Latour and Stengers, and many other researchers, have contributed to the

shifted thinking of perceiving nature as an agency (Gaia), rather than a passive force, that has been used by violent forces for capitalistic exploitations. As part of this shifted way of thinking the wording ‘more-than-human-agencies’ has been started to be used to express the grande value of agencies that are not human, but beyond, ‘more-than-human’. 

In my work, I am specifically focusing on stones, but also micro-organisms, whose essential role in contributing to life circles, is often overlooked. As Spinoza said in the 17th century, everything that exists, whether an organism or small particle, can exist as an independent mode, yet I am interested in portraying the connectedness of substances, and the way things become greater (for better or for worse) in alliance. 

Throughout the past years, I have observed an increasing interest to cover the subject of more-than-human agencies within the arts. While I believe that it’s positive that people feel more connected to their environment,

me and fellow colleagues are also concerned that it’s merely a trending theme that is subject to an aestheticization, rather than a contribution to an actual shift of thinking. 

Monika Dorniak – The Aesthetics Of Knowledge (2019-ongoing), Photo © P.L.U.R. (2022)

As an artist I feel that it’s essential to investigate the political and societal dimension of this subject before applying it. Within the past years the writings from Silvia Federici have highlighted further the ties between capitalism and the exploitation of  nature, that go along with the killings of people who were allies of nature. In Federici’s case, she has worked closely with indigenous communities, but also an archive of forgotten and erased ‘witches’ in Europe.

As an artist working in our current times in the European context, I feel the importance of taking into account the continuous suffering from indigenous communities, and many others, that are experiencing genocide, erasure and various forms of violence, for protecting the land from exploitation. In my opinion, the work with more-than-human agencies cannot be separated from those thematics, and I think we have a shared responsibility in speaking up for everyone whose voices are trying to be silenced.

What does Solastalgia mean to you on a personal level?

The term ‘Solastalgia’ defines the distress that environmental changes generate, and consequential symptoms are e.g. anxiety and depression. Growing up in the countryside, and having relocated to cities, such as London and Berlin, in my adulthood, I continuously observe the impact of accelerated changes in our environment, and continue to search for ways to address this subject through my artistic practice.

My German grandparents owned a farm and cultivated a forest, both as a self-sustaining and agricultural family business. It was located in the village where I spent most of my childhood and adolescence. It was a given that family members helped in the everyday business of the farm, in order to keep it alive – in practice this meant that after school and on weekends I regularly helped in the seasonal seedings and harvests, the annual silo event – but also daily emergency situations, such as the locating of a rebellious cow or bull, that tried to explore the life beyond the vast, yet fenced monotonous grass fields.

Installation view, Monika Dorniak – the ease with which [a] may be distorted under the action of [b], Hosek Contemporary, 2023, Photographer: Mari Vass
Installation view, Monika Dorniak – the ease with which [a] may be distorted under the action of [b], Hosek Contemporary, 2023, Photographer: Mari Vass

On a personal level, I perceive even a sense of Solastalgia, when being unable to experience a harvest, but being turned into a passive consumer.

In the neoliberal conditions, it has become a privilege to do farming, as most of us are chased from one deadline to the next, by hardly having time to go for a walk in the forest. This condition is leading heavily  to the increase of illnesses, which is very concerning on a humanitarian level. In my artistic projects, I have also addressed this issue within our temporary collective ‘strzyga’ in 2022. Together with other people who have Slavic roots, we reflected on the appropriation of rituals in the commercial sector, and the paradoxical phenomena. Essential rituals, such as fermenting, cost now more than a person from a labour class could actually afford, and the communities of those rituals are hardly ever mentioned, or supported.

In your radio show Warding Off that you host on Refuge Worldwide, you tie together folklore and contemporary music. Please tell us more about your interest in the combination of activism, music and poetry.

As the title may suggest, my show Warding Off serves as a protective space, by intertwining traditional and experimental folkloristic music and poetry and featuring specifically female and non-binary artists.

For each show I am inviting a studio guest to reflect on the subject of resistance through folklore, in the broadest sense, by sharing poetry, folkloristic music, and rituals as a form of resistance, and introducing auditive psychosomatic rituals, poetry, and folkloristic music

Monika Dorniak, Metacognitive Tool, 2016

The idea was born out of the frustrations, fears and angers that the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 brought about.

Whilst many Western people associate folklore with nostalgic traditions and beliefs, it’s actually an essential form of resistance for people who experience oppressions and colonialism in our present days. My grandmother Irena was born in West Ukraine, and had to resettle in Poland due to Soviet occupations in her adolescence, and I dedicated the first show of Warding Off to her, and the peoples of Ukraine who continue to resist against the imperial forces.
Folklore played an important role as a tool of resistance throughout the history of Eastern Europe. 

My father, Marian, was an activist in the Solidarnosc movement during the Soviet occupations of Poland, and with the declaration of war, it was dangerous for him to return to Poland, as the Soviet army was arresting critical activists. He tried to start a new life in Germany, and organised intercultural exchanges, by inviting established Polish Folklore dance groups to Germany. The Soviet occupants prohibited Folklore groups during the occupation of Poland, hence the dance was a form of resistance against the cultural genocide that was attempted. His activism strongly impacted me, and I researched the Slavic and pagan traditions throughout my life. 

The radio show is an attempt to portray the similarities and differences between Folklore communities around the world.

Whether it is the ongoing Russian attempt to perform a cultural genocide of Ukraine, that also lead to the loss of artworks from the Ukrainian painter Maria Prymachenko, the struggle that Eritrean Refugees are facing in Tigray at present, or the attempt to erase the heritage from Palestinian people, I believe that through intersectional solidarity we can understand the concerning issues of disappearing cultures better.

In parallel to my current solo exhibition, I have dedicated my most recent radio show to the existence of more-than-human agencies. Together with fellow artist Baal & Mortimer we analysed this subject through music, poetry, sound art and scores. The show can be listened to here.

Monika Dorniak, Studio view, 2023, (Photo by Dale Grant)

What are you currently working on and what is next? 

Currently I am in the midst of preparing a collaboration with the Humboldt University excellence cluster ‘Matters Of Activity’ for their project CollActive Matters. In this project I am continuing my practice-based research on

‘breathing as a form of resistance’,

which I began in 2015, during my Master studies at Central Saint Martins in London, with the workshop format ‘Collective Synchronisation’ that I presented at Tate Exchange in Tate Modern and Arts Catalyst. Together with the team from CollActive Materials, we are holding a free workshop on the subject, and presenting the results in the form of an exhibition later this year in Berlin.

For the workshop I am developing two new scores that reflect on breathing as an internal, individual experience, on the one hand, and external, collective experience, on the other hand. The scores will be presented in the exhibition in an audible and written format, and the visitors are invited to activate the scores through their participation. 

Scores are one of my main mediums this year, and I am using this text-based format to transform my research in choreography, anatomy and psychology into poetic instructions.

Thereby I aim to open up the borders of the staged performance and allow for the score to become part of a daily practice which can be applied by every person (hence offering the listener to become a performer). While I previously used wearable sculptures as scores, I find that text-based scores are allowing for easier access, and a more sustainable approach. 

This year I am also developing a set of

new scores in my research project ‘half witch, half orphan’

funded by Fonds Darstellende Künste, which focuses on mourning and grieving as a forgotten practice in the Neoliberal context. My research progress will be presented in Berlin this summer, and later in autumn, as part of the School of Commons in Zurich project that I am part of until 2024.

Last but not least, I am currently continuing my research on intergenerational trauma with Goethe Institut Vilnius, and coincidentally, have a solo exhibition at In The Closet in Vilnius, that is to take place in December. For anyone who is interested, the easiest way to stay updated on my activities is to follow me on Instagram

MONIKA DORNIAK – ‘the ease with which [a] may be distorted under the action of [b]’

on view at Hosek Contemporary, Opening Times on May 28th 7 – 10 pm

Open Thu-Sat 2-6 PM and during the events of the gallery

Header Image Credit: Monika Dorniak, Berlin, 2021 (Photo by Tania Abanina)

Interview by Lora Mateeva