The idea of Orange Alternative (Pomarańczowa Alternatywa) was to show the paranoia of the powerful. The game was simple and deeply subtle at the same time: get arrested for funny things, that nobody should get arrested for – like praising the October Revolution, being a Santa Claus, buying a sandwich with ketchup, wearing an orange dwarf hat.
Based on the “Manifest of Surrealist Socialism” by Waldemar Fydrych – a.k.a. Major – and inspired mainly by Western movements like the Dutch Provos or, of course, the French surrealists, young people organised happenings in the streets of Wrocław from 1986. Socialist holidays often provided good stages for the events, as they were full with symbols the happeners could use. On the eve of the anniversary of October Revolution in 1987 they organised a re-enactment of the revolution, in which the police unwillingly overtook the role of the Mensheviks, whereas the orange happeners conquered a local bar, standing in as the Winter Palace. Strategically less complicated actions included the distribution of toilet paper in public places (“Who is afraid of toilet paper?”), handing out flowers to policemen on Police Day (“Every policeman is a piece of art”) and celebrating a huge carnival in the streets of Wrocław in March 1988 (“Small is beautiful”).
With surrealist means the happenings showed the absurdity of socialist reality and its symbols. People learned that the powerful don’t like to laugh. But not only that. Orange Alternative created situations in which people could act freely, creatively and without fear. They encouraged people to do something funny together, to reconquer public space and to transform their discontent into positive action.
After 1989, the happeners started their new lives in the 3rd (some even in the 4th) Republic of Poland, faced with the new possibilities that they acted for on the streets. The so-called transformation required a lot of effort and not everything turned out to be perfect immediately. On the other hand, it was now allowed to wear orange hats in the streets, to give policemen flowers and toilet paper deficits had disappeared. Nevertheless a lot of new discontent appeared that could use some transformation as well.
Major Fydrych, the creative director of Orange Alternative did move on, but also tried to keep the idea of surrealistic action alive. Still organising happenings in Warsaw, he continues deconstructing the humourless world of the Polish politicians. The symbols he attacks now had to be found first, because they changed, of course. It is not about “red”, “Lenin”, Jaruzelski’s sunglasses and the military anymore, but about corruption, hypocrisy and backwardness. Only a few people join these happenings, whereas a lot of people attend his public book presentations or exhibitions about Orange Alternative in the 1980’s. People enjoy looking at black/white pictures with funny slogans, disoriented policemen and crowds of dwarfs. But the need for positive common actions seems to have declined.
Major Fydrych gets much funnier reactions from politicians in Warsaw now, because they are accustomed with this kind of protest already. On the other hand, his colleague was arrested this year, the Polish president has problems with being called a potato and the former “Solidarnosc”-opposition recently called its own history under question – so there is a lot of seriousness left and enough reason for the dwarfs to come out. Does it really need a lack of basic needs – like freedom – for surrealist methods to work? Where are today’s symbols that need deconstruction? Does a theory of Capitalist Surrealism exist? Like “Every CEO is a piece of art”? Or would this just be a poor copy of what happened in the 1980s, of what we read in history books? How much freedom do we have to lack to hand out flowers to policemen again?
Interview with Major Waldemar Fydrych, Warsaw, 11-09-2008
How would you describe “Orange Alternative” in one sentence?
It’s a famous artistic, cultural and social movement.
And what is it for you personally?
For me it’s a certain story.
Was there any special event that can explain your activities?
No, it seems to me that I was always like that.
What bothered you most during communist times?
Definitely the conformism of the intelligentsia. They said one thing, but did another. They spoke negatively about communism, but joined the processions on May 1st.
What were the inspiring and influential moments for the idea of “socialist surrealism”?
Definitely socialist realism, socrealist art, the manifest of the surrealists and the surrounding reality.
Looking back now, how do you see your role in this movement?
Nowadays I don’t think about my role so much, because we live in times of widespread ignorance. I am not an actor who might think about his role. I can think about how to do something better or not at all, but not about a role. I can only say that Poland nowadays is more intellectually backward and corrupt than it was during communism, although there is no censorship anymore. It is more closed – an example can be the recent goings-on in politics.
Where did the idea to make happenings come from?
I had always been interested in it, and then I read the book “Od pop-artu do sztuki konceptualnej” [From Pop-art to conceptual art] by Urszula Czartoryska, which confirmed my strong interest in happenings.
What did you know about other artistic groups or protest in general in the other central European countries?
I knew only about Plastic People in Czech Republic. Around 1978 I brought a tape of Plastic People of the Universe to Poland and disseminated it. Besides, I also heard about the opposition in East Germany, but as I was concerned about the safety of these people, knowing that it was dangerous for them to have foreign contacts, I didn’t really get into that. In Czechoslovakia I knew some people.
Does “Solidarność” in your opinion belong to the “revolution from below” as well?
In the beginning it was a “revolution from below”, later it became an anti-governmental underground movement. After the “Round Table” it was a reform movement governing from above its trade union and political background.
So how do you think about the recent discussion in Poland about the reinterpretation of Solidarność and KOR history?
To me it’s the attempt to appropriate the history of an anti-totalitarian, mainly proletarian mass movement by circles of neo-fascist intelligentsia.
What bothers you most in present-day Poland?
That literature is very poor, that Polish theatre doesn’t have the same importance as it once had, that Polish film is history, political elites are unprogressive and that journalists are wretched.
Are there any symbols or concepts today which are worth acting against using surrealist methods?
There are lots of such things, but I can’t say in how far surrealist methods could be beneficial in this fight.
Do we maybe need a Manifesto of Surrealist Capitalism?
I don’t know.
What do you think about the criticism of you by Polish anarchists, claiming that Orange Alternative nowadays is a product that you are selling?
The anarchists also have shirts with their symbols, which are selling very well. Kropotkin’s books aren’t handed out for free either. But I do understand the worries of the anarchists that they have to take money for Bakunin and Kropotkin.
Do you still believe that everything that surrounds you is a piece of art?
Yes. But not everything is good piece of art though. There are pretty different levels.
Pictures: Fundacja Pomarańczowa Alternatywa, Warszawa