An interview with Piotr Szyhalski
by Riah Buchanan

Piotr Szyhalski is an artist who makes installations online and in actual space. Many of these distort or reform the passage of time to make sense of the shortcomings of humanity and hint at its potential. He lives in Minneapolis and teaches at Minneapolis College of Art and Design. As a student of his about a decade ago, I found him to be idealistic and uncompromising. His wry way of speaking had the effect of encouraging precision and experimentation. He seemed supremely competent, the kind of person you would want forming a new republic after the end of the world. I asked him a few questions via email:

1. You have envisioned Labor Camp as an expanding and contracting room. Is it ever constricting? How do you continue to reinvent and remold the terrain?

The Labor Camp framework is continually changing for me. I don't need to reinvent the terrain: I am busy trying to understand what is happening around me as it shifts. This means that my own sense of what Labor Camp means to me changes as well. The idea of it as simultaneously the person, place, and process still holds water at the moment. At times Labor Camp is a place that contains me. Other times I contain the Labor Camp within me. And sometimes it is the struggle of moving between the internal and external delineations: the process itself.

I often connect the idea of history with the physics of sound. I think of our skin as a membrane suspended between, and vulnerable to the torment of the outer and inner worlds. The skin as a transducer perpetually negotiating the pressures from both directions. A drum beaten from outside and inside at the same time. Inescapable.

Some time ago I saw a photograph taken in 1991 in Chinese Laogai Camp depicting a large billboard with three questions written on it:

Who are you?
What is this place?
Why are you here?

I was struck by how universally relatable these questions were. This is the stuff of philosophy with roots buried deep in the heart of our humanity. I think we should all be asking ourselves these questions regularly as a way of cultivating the vibration between the corporeal and intellectual dimensions in our lives. Then, of course this image comes from an actual labor camp. These questions are posted inside many Laogai camps, and the prisoners there are supposed to answer them:

I am a criminal.
This is the labor camp.
I am here to reform through labor.

Points of connection between the reality of our world (like this photograph) and the philosophical depths of the decontextualized reading register as powerful strikes on my skin. Resonating in and through the work. Displacing some ideas, shifting others. Moving.
Piotr Szyhalski Interview by Riah Buchanan
A billboard in a Chinese Laogai Camp reads:
Who are you?
What is this place?
Why are you here?

2. In 1997, downloading each component of your internet project Ding an Sich took 3-5 minutes, according to the New York Times. Today it takes around 2.5 seconds. How has the immediacy and increased density of the internet changed your work over time? Is there a downside?

The short answer to this question is that when I wanted things to move fast, the technology offered excruciatingly slow delivery. Now, when technology moves at mind boggling speeds, I am desperately seeking ways to slow things down. I think my job is to pay attention, and I find it difficult to pay attention fast. The White Star Cluster was all about taking a single event, and expanding it in time, so that we can inhabit it on a molecular level, feel the pressure of spaces between words.

3. Your work seems intentionally impersonal. Or rather, to avoid the confessional. You appear, along with your family, as representatives of larger ideals. How does the inclusion of your wife and children change the work for you, or the making of the work?

My sense is that what you call the "larger ideals" exist in all of us. This is true regarding all ideals: things that we would openly associate ourselves with, and ideas that we would not want to have anything to do with. I think we are dealing with all of them, positioning our ethical profile in relation to them. This is hard work, the results of which manifest themselves in various ways for different people. In my case it becomes artwork. There is a paradoxical dynamic in the realization that in order to connect with these larger ideas, I think we need to dig deeply into the personal space. In a way reaching beyond the specifics of the individual. Working with my family does help me stay focused on this task. There is a level of intimacy and investment that is very organically present in such process that is meaningful and important to me.

4. I want to ask you about the recent Boston Marathon bombing. In the aftermath of this horrible event, the public attempted to participate: identifying possible suspects and listing their names online, conjecturing whether it was a foreign or 'homegrown' enemy, hashing and re-hashing conspiracy theories, collecting images that in some cases proved helpful. How do you view the way that information around this event was disseminated, parsed and re-disseminated?

Better examples of the ways in which technology intersects with these ideas are the Arab Spring or the Occupy movement, where the internet aided people in organizing a kind of social/collective consciousness and behavior, while simultaneously undoing/dissolving the mass media manipulations. The hunt for Boston Marathon bombing perpetrators leaves me with a much more complex feelings. I am always a little skeptical of the manhunt dynamics, or circumstances in which it seems perfectly important and justified to "report" on your neighbor. For me, as a child of Stalinism, there is a distinct whiff of police state mixed in with the criminality of the event.

5. You have distributed variations of a poster that states "We Are Working All the Time." In viewing the online archive where people have contributed images of this poster there are many empty studios and calm bedrooms. Very few look like they are working ALL the time.

That is the beautiful thing in seeing these images out there. I think the archive became it's own kind of work, connecting the dispersed lives and spaces into a kind of silent chorus repeating the line. This deceptively simple acknowledgment of the endless work turned out to resonate with a lot of people. Initially I spoke about my own awareness of this ceaseless process, but it seems people of all sorts connect with the sentiment. For one, I know that the process of "making sense of the world" never stops, and that is, in my opinion some of the hardest work there is.

[see archive at]

You have said that your politprop class has developed in such a way as to allow the class itself to function as a work. How do you feel about the spread of your work into other parts of your life?

I never think of my life as artwork, but there is definitely a sense of processing, or awareness that continues without interruption. And that process is not unlike what art does, so one can easily start thinking of echoes or parallels.

Approaching teaching the same way as artwork is a little different though. More about thinking about structure and organization. Constructing experiences, not syllabi. The more I teach, the more I am interested in constructing situations that feel less and less like what people expect to be happening in the classroom. In fact I have recently developed a kind of aversion for the classroom itself. I hate the fact that you always look at this archaic setup with a little army of desks facing one way, and the single desk facing the other. I don't like what that stands for.

Piotr Szyhalski Interview by Riah Buchanan
Classroom after the first day of Piotr's Ideation class

6. The art world is depressing. I think you might understand its limitations. Please advise. 

There are limitations to every world. But I don't think of limitations as something that is depressing. Artists thrive in trouble, because they are able to see things beyond boundaries (real or imagined).

I am tempted to flip your question upside down, and say "the world without art is depressing". And limited. I really believe in the absolute necessity of art in our lives. I understand that this may sound naive, or immature, but at the same time, I am past the stage in my life when I would be concerned with saying the "right thing". If there is no art, there is no culture. No culture: no identity. No identity: no purpose. No purpose? That is depressing.

7. Is there a time when you felt that an image perfectly described reality? Which of your works has come closest to this? How does it relate to your idea of creating a work that is simple but captures a complex thought?

Reality describes itself well enough. The power of the "image" is that it can help us make sense of reality, which rarely involves describing it. In fact it is largely up to us (the "audience") to do the actual work of making sense. So when the "image" appears simple, complexities of interpretation or reading manifest themselves naturally. I think I often strive for "less of me / more of you" situation. "Simple Math" comes to mind when I ask myself about the economy of means in my work. It's a tricky challenge, and it is hard for me to articulate things without somewhat contradictory terms like precise ambiguity, or poetic accuracy... 

How did you begin to make the soundtrack for "Simple Math"? 

"Simple Math" was presented in a number of situations, and depending on the circumstances it included a couple of variable elements. Most notable being air fresheners. When presented in exhibition setting I either deployed automatic air freshener dispensers, or manually emptied multiple canisters of commercial air fresheners, which would add to those installations a subtitle (eg. "Simple Math: Spring Meadow"). The soundtrack was always there though. My goals with the soundtrack were two-fold: on one hand I needed to develop a continuous track that was long enough to not feel too repetitive, yet be sustainable indefinitely. On the other I was interested in constructing a sonic texture that provided a sense of surreal, cinematic quality. While air fresheners we there to overtly introduce the idea of failed attempt to cover something undesirable up, or making something unacceptable palatable, the soundtrack was to function a little more subversively. It made the image, and the idea a little less real, therefore perhaps more manageable, but also, because of the dramatic contrast between the violence of the video and the seemingly upbeat, danceable quality of the tune, highlighting a kind of grotesque dimension to the experience. Finally, I wanted the melody to be, at least to some extent, memorable. Ideally it was to burrow itself in your mind, like an ear worm, and stay there, festering.

Piotr Szyhalski Interview by Riah Buchanan
Online and installation versions of Simple Math

[Simple Math is a looped video of a man whose throat is being cut, accompanied by a counter detailing how many times the clip has been viewed. Listen to the soundtrack to Simple Math here:]

8. You played an archival recording of a language lesson between soldiers from one of your 'Arabic songs' at a Walker lecture; I wondered how it could possibly be enriched with additional sound. In first listening to your album, I felt as though you had ruined the archival content by packaging it so neatly. But, the longer I listened, the more it seemed you had transformed the recording into something more insidious, making it easy to listen longer, and oscillate between identifying the content and forgetting it. It also brought about a feeling of detachment toward the spoken words, removed but in tacit support. And so it seemed a success. Can you explain your intentions in re-performing archival dialogue, such as in "Tank" from your Theater of Operations album?

The entire Theater of Operations series was constructed around the idea of reenacting the war play. Without going into the details of the process and genealogy of the piece, my sense about what was happening in Iraq and US was that there was this massive, diffused, dispersed, dramatic play unfolding. A cacophony of voices through which it was difficult, if not impossible to cut through. I noticed that even reading the transcripts of the helmet cam videos opened up a completely different experience of the events. The collective readings, in a way stagings, of the dialogues became as much about making these texts more available/accessible, as it was about a focused processing of them. There is something to be said about this slowing down. Stretching of time that happens when you read, re-read, record, listen, etc. It's a contemplative process that as far from listening to the news, as you can possibly imagine. So, I guess what I am saying is that this was a very meaningful process in terms of making/recording, and my objective with the sonic context was that a similar meaningful experience can be conveyed through the structure of the pieces, instrumentations, arrangements. I should add that the 'Arabic Songs' series was a sort of preparation for the Theater Of Operations series. I was just beginning to experiment with the various approaches to the archival recordings and the musical settings. Theater Of Operations series is where these ideas really came to fruition.  

Is it possible to stretch, alter or focus on the passage of time in your printed design work, such as the leaflets, or is this something that only sound or time-based work can do?

I think this is something that figures more prominently in the time based media. It makes sense that I gravitate towards sound or screen or performative formats when dealing with ideas related to time or history. The properties of the media alone present meaningful insights into these concepts. The We Are Working All the Time posters do, however, activate the time in several ways. I am interested in the methodical dissolving of the uniqueness of the object, not only through repetition of the printing process, but also through the continuous redesign of the piece. Each edition becomes a kind of an echo of the previous one. I enjoy thinking of the fact that hand-cut letterforms seem to highlight the "one-of-a-kind-ness" of the posters, while simultaneously sabotaging that idea with the same, repeated, minimal compositional approach. Editions are also printed on the most utilitarian paper quality available, as if though it were ostentatiously flaunting its own built-in obsolescence. And, as mentioned earlier, the online photo archive of the prints dispersed in space slowly becomes more important than any of the objects considered individually.

Also, here is a thought about history:

9. You are unencumbered by technology. Is this facility with tools something you developed at the Academy of Visual Arts in Poznan? Do you prefer to rely on experts or do it yourself, in producing the technical aspects of your work?

I always want to do everything. I want to understand every process, methodology, medium, operation, in the same way I want to hear every piece of music ever composed or performed. Or see every image produced by mankind, and read every word ever written. I am working on it.


For more on Piotr's work -
An extensive download archive of sound works (Labor Camp Orchestra) is located here:

Here is a YouTube channel documenting various installations and performances, and some stand-alone pieces: