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denise grollmus: Radek Szlaga’s Freedom Club And The Mapping of American Schizophrenia

On September 19, 1995, The New York Times and The Washington Post, at the behest of the FBI, ran a 35,000-word essay penned by none other than the infamous Unabomber. The essay was originally titled Industrial Society and Its Future by its author, whose identity was still unknown when the “Unabomber Manifesto” was published. It was little more than an anarcho-primitivist rant that called for a worldwide revolution against modernity. Among his many complaints, the author cited the Industrial Revolution as the beginning of man’s downfall and technology as the driving force behind people’s compulsion “to behave in ways that are increasingly remote from the natural pattern of human behavior.”

Throughout the text, the author continually referred to himself as “we” and “FC,” which stood for “Freedom Club,” suggesting that the Unabomber might be part of a larger organization of domestic terrorists hell bent on saving Americans from themselves (and their computers). Still, it wasn’t until a year and a half later that Ted Kaczynski was finally arrested and investigators confirmed that, in fact, there was no “Freedom Club.” Kaczynski, a brilliant mathematician who’d abandoned his career as a professor in 1971 in order to pursue his primitivist ideological beliefs—first by living as a recluse in the Montana wilderness, then by launching a bombing campaign that lasted nearly 20 years—had acted alone in the delivery of 16 homemade bombs to various institutional targets, from universities to airline carriers, killing three people, and injuring 23 more.

Though the idea of “Freedom Club” was entirely quashed by one of the FBI’s most expensive investigations ever, 17 years later Radek Szlaga, a 33-year-old Polish artist, is reviving Kaczynski’s mythology through his solo show, succinctly titled Freedom Club, now open until November 18 at the Center for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw, Poland, where Szlaga lives and works. Freedom Club is an immense exhibit, not only in the space it occupies—five separate rooms boasting everything from monolithic paintings and painstakingly detailed flipbooks to installations constructed on a breathtakingly ambitious scale, replete with charred cars and budding gardens—but also in the conceptual ground that it covers.

Radek Szlaga, Freedom Club, CSW press materials

It would be a mistake to say that the show is about Ted Kaczynski, whose persona operates as a mere entry point for a much larger meditation on both American culture and modernity. At one level, Freedom Club is a play on the Unabomber investigation conducted by the FBI—a massive collection of evidence collected, curated, and/or created by the artist that, instead of focusing in on the psychosis of one man, turns its critical gaze on a culture that proves itself to be as maniacal as Kaczynski himself. Ultimately, Freedom Club is less about imagining what Freedom Club was or could have been and more about who we are now, 16 years after the official book on Kaczynski was closed.

In the show’s explanatory text, we are given a brief biological sketch of Kaczynski, who is now serving a life sentence without parole. Still, it is not his salacious criminal background that greets us on the page, but rather his identity as a Polish-American. It is striking that one of the first facts listed about Kaczynski is that he is “an American of Polish origin.” For an American viewer, Kaczynski’s Polish-Americanness is a detail arresting not only in its primary placement within the text, but in its mundanity, as well. Unlike those details of Kaczynski’s life that allow us to distance ourselves from him—genius, psychopath, murderer, radical, recluse—this particular fact about Kaczynski draws us closer to him. After all, every American lives on such a hyphen. We are African-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Asian-Americans, Polish-Americans. More frequently we are Jewish-Chilean-Americans or Japanese-German-Americans or Mexican-Irish-Americans. We live in the in between of identities, straddling our hyphens, walking them like tightropes back and forth between our ethnic and national senses of self. To be “American” is to always be in a state of flux, negotiating our identities between inconsistent and contradictory elements. This is the very definition of schizophrenia—a disorder with which Kaczynski was formally diagnosed, but vehemently denied.

Szlaga’s „tree house” installation, CSW

In many ways, Freedom Club locates and extends the idea of Kaczynski’s madness to America in general through this idea of the hyphenated self. Szlaga’s images frequently capture this concept through a hyper-Deleuzian comingling of clashing cultural signifiers—an urban American street corner suddenly finds itself riddled with frenetic sketches of Polish peasants; flipbooks dislocate black strippers, dwarves, gangbangers, Polish babcias, butchers, words, signage, pigs, goats, nature, and text, which all collide into a chaotic whole contained between the pages of a primitive booklet that is constantly becoming with the flip of each page. Our cultural schizophrenia is not only made visible, but tangible.

Similarly, none of Szlaga’s paintings seem to sit still, either. His lines are hectic, his paintings move. It is movement often fraught with anxiety—a chicken frantically flapping its wings as a butcher holds it by its feet, compulsive doodlings that suggest mania, and texts that are started, but never finished, often interrupted by the space of the page or by other texts and images. It is an overwhelming world, a place where, again, contradictory and inconsistent elements are constantly being negotiated—a world from which Szlaga’s subjects desire escape. His installations, too, from the transportability of his anarcho-primitivist garden to his tree-house-bunker-hideaway, feel hastily assembled and on the verge of collapse. There is no permanence here.

Radek Szlaga, Freedom Club, CSW press materials

Surely, one can read these motifs of displacement, escape and impermanence as emblematic of a domestic terrorist on the run. We can limit ourselves to understanding Szlaga’s installations as little more than representational—an imagined history of Kaczynski in the woods. But the general sense of displacement and impermanence suggested by Freedom Club can also be extended beyond the fugitive bomber and toward the larger landscape of America, where many of us—not just the bomb maker and his imaginary club in the woods—feel that we are always from somewhere else, that America is not our home, but a nationalized refugee camp in which we’ve all assumed an indefinite citizenship. This is reflected in our civic identities, our architecture, and our public spaces, which is reflected back to us through Szlaga’s renderings of a decaying Detroit. We build our cities not to last, but to accommodate us for a time. They are malleable, convertible spaces that do not reflect history in the way that, say, an old city like Krakow or Lhasa might, but they are, rather, beacons of our in-transit status. We do not need to build urban spaces to remind future generations from whence they came, because we do not come from America, we come to it.

But there is something deeper beneath this national desire for escape, as well as the constant climate of impermanence. Ultimately, it is wrought from a compulsion to return. Kaczynski is merely a radical entry point for this concept. After all, no one wants to reach further into the unreachable past than the anarcho-primitivist, who desires a return to pre-history. Though the rest of us might not be longing for a hunting and gathering pre-industrialized existence, most Americans yearn for a desire to, at least, return home, which is almost never in America, but somewhere else. Home exists beyond us. Home is the place from which our ancestors came, sometimes our parents, sometimes, even ourselves. It’s heym, it’s the Old Country, it’s a continent to the east or south of us. It is often in a country or a political regime that no longer exists, but has been absorbed into new boundaries, shrouded in new politics and political economies. It’s also a place that is often lodged in another time. Home is the past, a time and a place we can never really return to, though we try when we make pilgrimages to the lands of our familial heritages—to touch the Blarney Stone, to light candles at Treblinka. Of course, these are performative returns. In America, history is fetish. In America, when someone asks you where your family is from, they seldom mean what city or state in the United States. They usually mean, “what country did your ancestors immigrate from?” Even more, they mean: “what (culture/home/people) have you lost?” Our loss is thusly reflected in language—we are at a loss for words, so we say and ask things we do not mean, but statements that stand in for that which we wish we still had the words to say.

The critic Adam Zachary Newton locates this loss along the hyphens of our identities. He calls the hyphen a “minus sign,” where “cultural difference can be represented by…the hyphen or the minus sign of double consciousness that evinces both a split self and a particularist culture,” a minus sign that also represents “the encompassing cleavage between that cultural margin and the ambient mainstream taxonomizing it as such.”[1] If we see our identities as mathematical equations, we are always an act of subtraction, a lesser than. We are always less than American, less than Polish, less than Jewish, less than African. We are always problems to be solved, a series of simple math equations that Kaczynski learned to solve at an alarmingly young age.

And just as this loss sits at the center of our cultural anxiety, so is it situated in the middle of Freedom Club. In an attempt to trace Kaczynski’s roots back to Poland, Szlaga ultimately stumbles onto the trail back to his own heritage, captured in his imagined village of Ochotnica, which sits at the edge of “Szlagówka,” a place that Szlaga renders with perfect anarcho-primitivist nostalgia—images of people living close to animals, a place where pre-Enlightenment ideals still reign supreme. Directly in the center of the show, one can also find a map of the world and portraits of Szlaga’s parents that burst into an image of the cosmos, onto which Szlaga inscribes his own mythical genealogy.

Radek Szlaga, Freedom Club, CSW press materials

In the context of Szlaga’s Freedom Club, the anarcho-primitivist return proves itself a failure. Just as it attempts to return to the utopia of “before,” it finds itself unable to escape the decay of now, expressed in the violence of the show’s final installation, a morose display of charred, littered cars, immobilized into a landscape of industrial ruinenwert that will not allow for escape. Surely, we can establish new bunkers, plant new gardens, but they will always grow from the decay of our post-industrialized world, a new sort of past. Always, in Szlaga’s world, images of slaughtering livestock or growing gardens appear against this backdrop of decay.

Ultimately, Freedom Club is not a map that propels us towards a primitivist utopia, but a schizophrenic apocalypse. Still, Freedom Club is very much a map. One of the first images to greet the viewer at Szlaga’s show is, in fact, an organizational chart entitled “Major Bombings and Isolated Acts of Sabotage.” With its broken lines, warped lettering, and eraser smudges, the chart is sloppy, yet earnest, the sort of legend you could imagine a young boy diligently tracing onto a map of an imagined territory. The table’s lines were obviously drawn with the help of a ruler that was a tad too short, the letters painstakingly traced onto the canvas with the help of a stencil that probably moved while the artist worked his way from left to right. The attempt at precision is as tangible as its absence.

Radek Szlaga, Freedom Club

The painting functions as a sort of symbol key for the repeated images used throughout the show. All but four of the table’s 32 cells contain a unique icon, among them a duck’s head, a goat, a pig, a stripper, a machine gun, a five-pointed star, the Paramount Pictures logo, a “Kiss Me I’m Polish” t-shirt. Each icon is accompanied by a didactic two to three word definition written in English, sometimes accompanied by a word in Polish. We are told that a rooster’s head symbolizes “guerilla poultry farming,” and that the “Kiss Me I’m Polish t-shirt” represents “guerilla knowledge distribution.” None of the images seem to represent any specific events of “Major Bombings” or “Isolated Acts of Sabotage,” but instead each represents an activity germane to anarcho-primitivist ideology, from livestock farming to money laundering and firearm trade. The icons are rendered in various mediums—sometimes pencil, sometimes paint, though the use of each medium doesn’t seem purposeful, but accidental, as though the artist had to make due with whatever he could find. Of course, whatever amateurish madness is imbedded into the key is absolutely deliberate on Szlaga’s part. But the question remains: is it mimetic of Kaczynski’s obsession with perfecting an imperfect world? The FBI’s obsession with tracking Kaczynski? Or is it representational of our own cultural obsession with attempting to organize what is inorganizable?

If we step away from Freedom Club and attempt to understand itas its own microcosm, it’s a messy, insane place, compulsively composed of displaced signifiers whose meanings slip and slide from image to image. It offers us hideouts and escape routes that simply reinject us back into its madness. Still, upon our entry, Szlaga dares us to organize this world, to taxonomize it, to empiricize it. And so, we try, which is, in some ways, what makes us most like Kaczynski. After all, the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again, expecting different results each time. And is that not the condition of our Enlightened times? Is it not crazy to ceaselessly try and make sense of the senseless, always failing, but always returning to such a task?

  • ^ Adam Zachary Newton, “Incognito Ergo Sum: ‘Ex’ Marks the Spot in Cahan, Johnson, Larsen, and Yezierska,” Race and the Modern Artist, ed. Heather Hathaway et al, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 140-183. Newton remarks that his ideas regarding the hyphenated self are born out of W.E.B. DuBois’s concepts of “twoness” and “how it feels to be a problem.” These terms were coined, Newton points out, “to define racial difference specifically,” though Newton sees “it is fair, I think, to apply the modernist burden they assert to minority cultures more broadly conceived,” which is exactly what I’m doing here.


    Denise Grollmus is a writer and scholar whose work has previously appeared in The Village VoiceSalonThe RumpusGood Magazine, and The 2006 Best American Crime Writing. She is currently living in Warsaw as a Fulbright Scholar in Creative Writing, researching Jewish Revivalism in Poland. In 2012, she received her MFA in Creative Writing from Penn State University, where she is now a doctoral candidate, interested in extending the critical work of Queer, Trauma, and Identity Theory to memoirs of addiction/alcoholism and recovery. 

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