“For if Chloe likes Olivia and Mary Carmichael knows how to express it she will light a torch in that vast chamber where nobody has yet been. It is all half lights and profound shadows like those serpentine caves where one goes with a candle peering up and down, not knowing where one is stepping.”
Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
“Young women, I would say … [y]ou have never made a discovery of any sort of importance. You have never shaken an empire or lead an army into battle. The plays of Shakespeare are not by you … What is your excuse?”
Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, quoted in: S. Federici, Caliban and the Witch, p. 18
The connection between Rosa Luxemburg and Virginia Woolf has always been particularly important to me. I don’t know where or why I came across this combination, which quickly became an obsession. Perhaps the sense of solitude shared by both these prominent heroines of the early 20th century made me try to tie them together? This connection seems hard to track, and unlike some other meetings that are interesting from a feminist point of view (Emma Goldman and Alexandra Kollontai also met briefly in Kollontai’s office in 1919, as described in Goldman’s Living my Life), this one is a purely phantasmagoric exercise. Luxemburg was mercilessly killed in January 1919, and Woolf died twenty years later; both were opposed to war, both opposed their times. And yet, while Woolf is always portrayed as melancholic or depressive, Luxemburg remains a symbol of vitalism, steadfast commitment and unstoppable energy. They meet in a river – of cultural and political violence, of patriarchy and war – at least this is how feminist psychoanalytic theorist Jacqueline Rose suggests their deaths could be connected, as a result of the patriarchal conditions of their time (Rose, 2015). But isn’t their time ours as well?
If Woolf is an author of slow resignation, perhaps the suggestion of a room of one’s own should be read as one that could lead to solitude and death? For Luxemburg, who was granted several “rooms of her own” throughout her life (on account of her privileged upbringing in Zamość, but also thanks to political decisions to imprison her on multiple occasions in Wronki, Wrocław and Berlin) solitude was a condition she had to live with. She did have a room of her own and some guineas – enough to pursue a doctorate in Zurich, where she wrote her dissertation on the economic development of Poland, the homeland she never forgot. She also wrote about the autonomy of the workers’ movement, mercilessly undermined imperialism and colonialism in the capitalist hegemony, and criticized the work of her social democratic colleagues. She was the one to defend the autonomy of the Russian proletariat against the planned strategy of the German social democrats, proving those in the periphery the right to define their means of struggle against the leaders at its core.
These courageous words sound strikingly accurate today, as another wave of fascism is on the rise. Walter Mignolo rightly argued some years ago that actors on the periphery have almost never spoken for themselves in the colonial struggle (Mignolo, 2002). In debates over world-systems, imperialism and colonization, it is the voice of the colonized that has been most notably absent. It is similar to the condition of women, as we too have been defined by male theorists, depicted by male artists and governed by male lawyers for most of European history.
The eco-feminist, anarchic works of Antje Majewski have been a particularly important contribution to the cultural map, overturning the rule of exploitative, imperialist logic. Her “Apple” project revitalized interest in a largely forgotten Polish avant-garde artist, Paweł Freisler, whose experiments found their unexpected continuation in an art-ecological network established by Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź. The project granted 200 apple trees to the inhabitants of this industrial city (known for its crucial insurrection in the 1905 revolution), which were to be planted in the public space, contributed to and expanded the art history of painting, and encouraged large-scale participation in the exhibition, its workshops, multimedia, and avant-garde shows (see: Majewski, 2015; curators: Joanna Sokołowska and Aleksandra Jach).
That project, but also the current one, have in many ways fulfilled the premises of Bruno Latour’s manifesto “Waiting for Gaia: Composing the Common World through Arts and Politics.” Most importantly, Antje’s project enabled a sense of connection and community at a time when all the links and ties seem to have been dismantled, leaving alienated individuals in a hopeless state of isolation and petrification. Latour writes:
One of the reasons why we feel so powerless when asked to be concerned by ecological crisis, the reason why I, to begin with, feel so powerless, is because of the total disconnect between the range, nature, and scale of the phenomena and the set of emotions, habits of thoughts, and feelings that would be necessary to handle those crises—not even to act in response to them, but simply to give them more than a passing ear. So this essay will largely be about this disconnect and what to do about it. (Latour, 2011)
This sense of powerlessness has already been discussed – by Rosa Luxemburg herself. In the dark times of the First World War and right after it, when the fascist rise to power was just beginning, she was one of the writers and political figures you could think with, learn to fail and fail better. Loralea Michaelis asserts that Luxemburg strategically chose to proliferate failure, to learn to fail, and rise again (Michaelis, 2011). One powerful element of Luxemburg’s correspondence is the imperative not to fall prey to despair and disappointment – to avoid what she calls the “indulgences of the privileged.” Instead, she suggests the oppressed find refuge and hope in the common struggle, because they (we) have no other choice.
When in prison, Luxemburg arranged her space. Photographs from her prison cells usually show books, flowers and a typewriter. While it is unlikely that she was always comfortable, her prison conditions were a far cry from those we remember from the trials of Angela Davis or Ulrike Meinhof. Luxemburg could write, and she did – sharing hope and building connections in correspondence with “Sonieczka” Liebknecht, her friends and colleagues. She was strong. Always fighting multiple disabilities, she learned to live with a certain level of pain, and not to indulge in her weakness, but to overcome it. She also understood the necessity of rehearsal, repetition and experimentation. The Rosa with a beautiful smile, large hat or a big bun in her hair, is the same person, who suffered several physical deformations and months of imprisonment. How could she be so lonely (pain is always isolating) and so connected at the same time?
In this project, Antje Majewski invites us to a garden composed of plants Luxemburg collected in her herbarium before and during her prison years. The herbarium was found suddenly in the Archiwum Akt Nowych in Warsaw around 2009 and gained fame mostly for forensic reasons – it was hoped to contain traces of Rosa Luxemburg’s DNA. Eventually, it was decided that nothing forensic could be done with it, and two different editors in Poland and in Germany published it as a book. The Polish version separates Rosa the sentimental plants collector and Rosa the political theorist and activist.
Antje’s project does not repeat this gesture of separation. Working, as she usually does, in the context of objects and networks, her project offers connections, allowing plants, paintings, former prison cells currently used as space for an exhibition on Luther and the avant-garde, its makers, critics and public, to merge again in the politics of the common. The key human figures in this project are women – Rosa Luxemburg, Silvia Federici, Antje Majewski and Ewa Majewska (connected by name, sisterhood, common practice, and perhaps by some Jewish-Polish origins, but without what used to be called “blood ties” and all the atrocity associated with the term), and in this, we work together – as artists, theorists, activists, but also as images and symbolic figures, performing various roles that patriarchal culture once kept separate, but are now are reunited.
In Antje Majewski’s project we merge and combine, telling a story of women’s involvement in politics, art, the economy, culture and history. It is a history that becomes herstory thanks to our participation in its making, but not one that is locked in a room of her own. The room of her own becomes a room for us all: a garden, a brochure, a set of paintings, objects, apples, references, discussions, friendships and disagreement, and more. But it starts elsewhere. A woman holds an apple, not to please believers, or to fulfill a myth of original innocence. She is there with the apple in a discussion that concerns structures of representation. It is a painter’s debate with Cranach, an art historical one. A myth is being dismantled and another one built – a myth without innocence. Like in Sadie Plant’s Zeroes and Ones, we meet a new Eve without hopes of clarity or bright new beginnings.
As Silvia Federici reminded us in Caliban and the Witch, modernity begins without innocence. Structurally, it is a hegemonic operation that establishes the subject of Europe as the subject, as Gayatri Spivak aptly puts it (Spivak, 1999). It is, Federici explains, an operation inscribed in the bodies of Calibans, in the colonized and exploited classes around the world, including the proletariat and women – those “confined to a remote background” in Shakespeare’s Tempest (Federici, 2009, 11). There is an astonishing sentence in Luxemburg’s Accumulation of Capital that says it all: “These god-fearing Dutchmen regarded themselves as the Chosen People and took no small pride in their old-fashioned Puritan morals and their intimate knowledge of the Old Testament; yet, not content with robbing the natives of their land, they built their peasant economy like parasites on the backs of the Negroes, compelling them to do slave-labor for them and corrupting and enervating them deliberately and systematically” (Luxemburg,  1951).
Women are Federici’s central focus, but so are the beginnings of modernity, as the major reference to neoliberal capitalism with its primitive accumulations, prevarication and the reinstallation of feudal forms of power (see: Federici, 2009; Harvey, 2007). Federici’s reconstruction of the exploitative uses of women’s bodies as a mode of capitalist appropriation and accumulation expands the Foucauldian narrative of disciplinary practices of modernity; it also contradicts its supposed gender neutrality. Women’s bodies – our productive and reproductive labor – were the first to be subsumed as the modern economy took shape. Witch-hunts are thus more than simply an exception at the start of capitalism; they are actually symptomatic for the production of the European subject as the universal Subject. Was Rosa Luxemburg a victim of this process? Yes, as a woman, as a politician and as a radical theorist.
Federici argues that the body is more than just a private matter, but it is not a public one, either. Its becoming a part of the public dismantles the public/private division. This is what feminists did when they said “the personal is political” in the 1960s; this is what Federici does with her analysis; this is what happens in Antje Majewski’s “Apple” project, which, as Joanna Sokołowska succinctly put it, “(…) recalls the horizontal assembling of a diverse collective capable of understanding and assuming joint responsibility for the fruit’s dwindling biodiversity” (Sokołowska, 2016, 55). A similar operation takes place here, with the female body, herstory, women’s solidarity and politics. With Paweł Freisler and his obstinate agency, the apple, the garden of Rosa Luxemburg, the painting, art history, agriculture and farmers, Luther and his apples… Perhaps, once again, we are invited to a transversal assemblage where it is the transformation of the avant-garde and its practice that are at stake – changing from an exclusivist, human, masculine, privileged and alienated practice into a making of the common. Could it be that we are participating in yet another version of the avant-garde, now a transversal one, that works in powerful ways by weakening a traditional set of assumptions about the masculine genius figure, strong authorship and individualist premises of work in which objects are little more than tools?
My understanding of Antje’s work was oppositional at first. I thought of the concept of “genius,” of the separation of the (male) artist and the (female) nude, of the individual vs. the collective, the exceptional vs. the ordinary, the heroic vs. the non-heroic, and the idea of Antje’s work as opposed to these tendencies and divisions. As with other feminist artists, I have always seen in Antje’s projects an emergence of what I tend to call “the weak” – the non-heroic, the common understood not only as “belonging to many,” but also as ordinary (Majewska, 2016). So many human and non-human elements of Antje’s work have been “weak” in this sense of refusing to embrace the strong leadership, individual authorship, and disconnection from the context. This and other projects are not weak in the sense of having little impact, on the contrary – the implications of such an approach are perhaps stronger than expected, both on the level of transformation of artistic practice and the political changes initiated within it. Still, it seems these effects can only come with a weakening of the crucial elements of the historical avant-garde. Hence the designation “weak avant-garde.”
This shift in avant-garde practice has been building up since the avant-garde began. In his essay “Weak Universalism,” Boris Groys argues for understanding the early avant-garde as universalist and democratic art (Groys, 2010), not in spite of its abstract gestures, but because of them. In Antje Majewski’s projects, the practice is one of transversality, not transcendentalism, though the effects are perhaps similar. Guided by the principles of assemblage, her works build the common; they are universalizations as practical abstractions of experience rather than abstract exercises of imagination, but still. All this, combined with the strong conviction that “everyone is an artist,” makes it possible to not only to share authorship of the project with artists (Paweł Freisler) and non-artists (Ewa Majewska, Sabine Strauch), but also open the work to non-human agents (objects in Freisler’s experimentations; the garden, the paintings, other “things”) and to the building, the institution, the Lutheran tradition and the anniversary of its founding, visitors to the exhibition… allowing these to merge into an assembled collective, and to participate in the project. Groys concludes “artistic activity is now something that the artist shares with his or her public on the most common level of everyday experience.” This is why I would call Antje Majewski an artist of the “weak avant-garde,” despite her numerous objections.
Later, I understood that Antje’s work is perhaps one with a transversal quality. Rather than respond to a problem directly, it builds communities, communication, the common, ecology to share and transform. In The Three Ecologies, Felix Guattari writes: “The traditional dualist oppositions that have guided social thought and geopolitical cartographies are over. The conflicts remain, but they engage with multipolar systems incompatible with recruitments under any ideological, Manicheist flag” (Guattari, 1992, 32). I believe this approach (moving beyond basic distinctions without forgetting oppression and need for change) is this project’s greatest asset, but it also reconfigures the avant-garde into one that takes its universalist promises (“everyone is an artist”) seriously. Our project – I’m only just now daring to refer to it that way, now that I have a sense of being part of it – is one of overcoming the avant-garde by realizing its premises while not actually taking care of it. What we’re caring for is Earth. So the room is one of everyone’s own – a place for us all.
Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch, Autonomedia, New York, 2009.
Felix Guattari, The Three Ecologies, transl. I. Pindar and P. Sutton, The Athlone Press, London, 1992.
Boris Groys, The Weak Universalism, e-flux 15/2010.
David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford University Press, 2007.
Bruno Latour, Waiting for Gaia. Composing the Common World through Arts and Politics, lecture given at the French Institute, London, November 2011, available online: http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/124-GAIA-LONDON-SPEAP_0.pdf
Rosa Luxemburg, Herbarium. Zielnik, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, Berlin-Warszawa 2009.
Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital, W. Stark (ed.), London, Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd,  1951.
Ewa Majewska, Peripheries, Housewives and Artists in Revolt: Notes from the “Former East”, in: M. Hlavajova and S. Sheikh (eds) Former West: Art and the Contemporary after 1989, BAK and MIT, Utrecht and London, 2016.
Joanna Sokołowska, The Apples to Come, in: A. Jach et al. (eds), Apple. An Introduction (Over and over and once again), Sternberg Press, Berlin 2016.
Gayatri Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, Harvard University Press, 1999.
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, A Harvest Book, 1981.