Performing Revolution: the Orange Alternative

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 “The more our daily life appears standardized, stereotyped, and subject to an accelerated reproduction of objects of consumption, the more art must be injected into it in order to extract from it that little difference which plays simultaneously between other levels of repetition, and even in order to make the two extremes resonate—namely, the habitual series of consumption and the instinctual series of destruction and death”.

Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 293

Can you treat a police officer seriously, when he is asking you: “Why did you participate in an llegal meeting of dwarfs?”

Waldemar Fydrych

“I enjoy, therefore I am”

Manifesto of Socialist Surrealism,  Waldemar Fydrych

On the 13th of December 1981, martial law was declared in Poland as a counter measure to the growing opposition, already politically lucid through the actions of the Solidarity Movement. In an attempt to reverse the uncontested popularity of Solidarity, the government of Wojciech Jaruzelski sought to turn Poland into what could arguably be described as a detention camp, only that it was extended over the territory of a whole country. Martial law elevated the techniques of surveillance and control to a whole new level, from banning public meetings to closing airports, to censoring mail posts and basically infiltrating quotidian life at every level. The law was totalizing, but it was effective. The Solidarity Movement was seemingly crushed and many of its members were arrested. Although the law was lifted in 1983 due to general discontent, the general living conditions in Poland did not change. In fact, they radically deteriorated. Political alternatives were also limited; there was the Church and there was Solidarity, and both were practically allies. Beyond them, there was only the regime.

The Orange Alternative The Orange Alternative Movement would emerge within this context. Self-described as an anarchic surrealist movement, the Orange Alternative saw the light in the halls of the University of Wroclaw. As an art movement, the Orange Alternative took direct inspiration from Surrealism. However, the use of surrealist elements was not only a politico-artistic strategy for the movement; it was the very way through which they conceived the reality of Poland. Absurdity did not need to be projected into everyday life. Everyday life was itself the expression of absurdity. Therefore, the Orange Alternative Movement did nothing but turn this absurdity into deliberate political action. Indeed, the Orange Alternative understood Poland as a work of surrealist art. They then started to draw dwarves on the walls of the city of Wroclaw. Dwarves because for them, there was “no freedom without dwarves”, and because also, dwarves were a production of what they cynically called ‘dialectical painting’.

The ‘dialectical painting’ of dwarves was just a beginning and the Movement aspired to address ‘serious matters’: they endeavored to organize happenings.The movement concealed its political genesis with activities that were made to look harmonious with the regime’s ideological stances, thus eliminating suspicion, leaving the authorities confused on how to deal with a ‘revolution of dwarves’. Maintaining that their work was artistic, the movement created the impression that they were apolitical, or political in the exact manner the regime wanted them to be. In what could potentially be described as childish games, the Orange Alternative invited everyone to play, including apathetic passerbyes and the police. They occasionally declared their love for the police and their affinities with the forces of order and the leaders of the Soviet regime. The paradoxes of their own activities and happenings aimed at ridiculing both the rigid regime and the stifled opposition. They used slogans mimicking those used by both the system, the Church and even Solidarity. One of their slogans featured “Long life to the clergy, undercover agents, angels, cardinals, opposition and militia”.

The Happenings Every national anniversary, festivity or commemoration presented possibilities of happenings. During the celebration of the anniversary of the creation of the secret police, the Orange Alternative gathered in Warsaw around the statue of the founder of the secret police and chanted songs about the love of the policeman. Every time dwarves were arrested, they thanked the policemen for ‘ending discrimination against their kind’. The Orange Alternative carefully planned their events and charged them with elements of theatrical performance, humor and mockery. One major happening included members of the Orange Alternative wearing ‘galloping inflation’ t-shirts, while running around in the streets. When arrested by the police, they congratulated the policemen and declared that the state was finally able to stop the ‘galloping inflation’. Another happening involved the distribution of free toilet paper and sanitary pads, which were scarce products then. The action was called ‘who is afraid of toilet paper?’ and Major Waldemar Fedrych, one of the main leaders of the movement, declared that his arrest during this action was more informative about the situation in Poland that any articles or books written by the opposition. A similar event took place in Warsaw when members of the Orange Alternative treated passerbyes to pretzels, calling the event ‘Grande Bouffe’, while Poland was seriously suffering from its worst insufficiency of goods since 1981. When the police intervened against the happenings, they were not resisted, but rather embraced as elements of the spectacle.The intended effect of this embrace was to ridicule the mission of the policemen as restorers of order; when dwarves become a serious danger for any state, then this also exposes the vulnerability of the state. The humoristic intentions of the Orange Alternative as a movement however had at some point to be taken seriously, by sympathizers and by the regime as well. On June 1st 1988, the Orange Alternative organized their biggest happening, a carnival of dwarves staged at the same time the state was seducing citizens with one of its shows, which included martial arts and a display of militia dogs. Thousands of citizens voluntarily abandoned the military show and headed towards a giant dragon leading a march, chanting: “Yaruzelski, the Vavel dragon”. Only this time, things got serious. Many were arrested and the demonstrators were furious with the brutality of the police. The spectacle was intensified.

Beyond the Orange Alternative In a sense, the Orange Alternative resignified the experience of political opposition. They introduced what could be called performative politics, often using carnivalesque techniques, theatrical foolishness and taking back the spectacle into their own hands. The members of the Orange Alternative were not just artists with political objectives, they were also shrewd manipulators.

It is thus important to recognize the play of meanings that was so central to their politics: the deliberate production of paradox. The dwarf as a symbol was an embodiment of this deliberate production of paradox. The dwarf appears innocent. Simultaneously, the dwarf was the very surface upon which the political complicity of the Orange Alternative was displayed. The dwarf was thus the site of both the political innocence and the political guilt of a movement such as the Orange Alternative. But between the former and the latter, it is the inability to grasp a faithful political meaning in the dwarf that is of importance here. Paradoxically, the dwarf was the very mark of faithful political meaning: opposition expressed through an absurd symbol. Along these lines, the dwarf is a passageway to the suspension of meaning. This suspension is terribly relevant because it opens possibilities for political maneuvers. The dwarf was painted as a symbol of opposition, initially perceived as harmless graffiti, and later justified as dialectical painting, redeeming itself as politically innocent. The dwarf was empty of political meaning, yet saturated with it. Therein lies the potential of such politics: “anything can be used” (Debord and Wolman, A User’s Guide to De?tournement, 1956); the Orange Alternative effectively put into practice this Situationist formula. This included everything, from sanitary pads to toilet papers. The strategy of the Orange Alternative extracted alternative possibilities in these strange, almost unthinkable, things and situations. That “we must always wrest from the apparatuses -from all apparatuses the possibility of use that they have captured” (Agmaben, 92, Profanations, 2007) was the political task of the Orange Alternative. Endowing them with other meanings, usually ambiguous and confusing, was an alternative they offered.  Even the policeman was a potential location of these possibilities which betray their original use. In many of their happenings, the police force was recuperated as an element of the performance, which not only discredited the police, but exposed its potential docility to other entities other than the state, radically transforming the actual (original) function of the policeman. In this sense, the antagonistic – almost universal – relation between the protestor and the police was radically transformed, rendering this latter effectively unsubstantiated.  This simultaneous operation of evacuating and injecting meanings in the very elements of the regime not only exposes the frailty of state apparatuses, but recognizes the very ambivalence of these elements.

The Orange Alternative did not really have a political project of their own; they had multiple political projects, which they displayed during their happenings. They did not seek to protest the conditions of everyday life, but to make everyday life itself a form of performative protest, to the point that even the state and its agents become nothing more than members of the acting crew. The impact of the Orange Alternative on the Polish political scene is debatable, but it was not insignificant, especially when this impact is assessed by an inspection of the past through the eyes of the present. The aim here is not an invitation to reproduce the experiences of the Orange Alternative, but it is rather to point to other alternatives and techniques of what is largely referred to as popular struggle, alternative politics or strategies of resistance.

For a current website to the movement, click here.

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One Response to Performing Revolution: the Orange Alternative

  1. Pingback: Ridiculing the Regime: The Orange Alternative in Poland | ESPIONART

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