BY Juliet Jacques in Interviews | 08 MAY 24

‘Handling This Material Is a Big Responsibility’: Karol Radziszewski on Poland’s Queer Underground

A show at Auto Italia in London contains an archive of Ryszard Kisiel ‘Filo’, one of the first LGBTQ+ magazines in Central and Eastern Europe

BY Juliet Jacques in Interviews | 08 MAY 24

Juliet Jacques talks to Karol Radziszewski, the artist and founder of the Queer Archives Institute, a non-profit organization focused on preserving queer histories from Central and Eastern Europe. His exhibition ‘Filo’ at London’s Auto Italia presents material from publications of the 1980s and ’90s alongside his paintings of queer Eastern European figures. 

Juliet Jacques How did you first become aware of Filo magazine [1986–89], and why did you decide to archive and exhibit it?

Karol Radziszewski I found there was a lack of queer references for my work when I was studying. I had heard about Andy Warhol and David Wojnarowicz, but there were no local ‘ancestors’, as I would call them. And people kept saying that queer practice was artificially imported from the west. In 2005, I opened ‘Fags’, considered the first openly gay exhibition in Polish history. The same year I also started a magazine called DIK Fagazine [2005–ongoing] and began researching the queer past in the region. Somebody guided me to the guy who began Filo. We had a phone call, and that’s how I met Ryszard Kisiel, in 2009.

Karol Radziszewski
Filo magazine, No. 16, 1989. Courtesy: the Queer Archives Institute and Karol Radziszewski

JJ Kisiel is a key figure in the exhibition as the publisher and editor of Filo. Please tell me more about him.

KR When I began to be interested in archives, my research covered the whole Central and Eastern Europe region. With this show in London, we wanted to make it more like a case study of Filo and Kisiel because it’s a complex and fascinating story in its own right. At the time that he founded the magazine, Kisiel was working in a printing house, but he had been an amateur photographer since the 1970s. In November 1985 Operation Hyacinth started, with police and secret service action against gay men in Poland. Most people in the community were terrified. It was also the beginning of the HIV/AIDS crisis. Kisiel decided to create the magazine in resistance to that discourse, and also to share knowledge about safe sex and HIV/AIDS. The name comes from ancient Greek, meaning a friend or beloved one. He began circulating the magazine, making connections and building up the editorial team.

Karol Radziszewski
Karol Radziszewski, ‘Filo’, 2024, installation view. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Henry Mills

JJ What risks was Kisiel taking by publishing Filo

KR In Poland, homosexual acts have been decriminalized since 1932. Sharing pornography was a crime but otherwise, legally it was okay. It’s a truly unique situation compared to the rest of the Eastern Bloc. Nonetheless, there was a very powerful current of social homophobia, driven by the church, which remains the case until today. It’s the story of our country. Kisiel was investigated twice by the police in connection to Hyacinth action, in 1986 and 1987.

Our work is ensuring that the stories of these individuals and their actions aren’t erased by history.

JJ The magazine survived until 1989, when of course, the communist government fell. Tell me about how the magazine evolved in the 1990s.

KR When communism ended, Piotr Płatkiewicz took over as the main editor. He was willing to go full colour and more into the porn direction, which Kisiel was very opposed to. Many LGBT commercial magazines popped up then because people believed they could make money, which was a fantasy that failed in many cases. Kisiel became more of an activist. He was co-founder of Lambda, the first official LGBTQ association in Poland.

Karol Radziszewski
Ryszard Kisiel, 1985/1986. Courtesy: the Queer Archives Institute and Karol Radziszewski

JJ What happened to him?

KR He’s still alive, and I’m in contact with him. We are very good friends. When I met him, he didn’t consider showing these beautiful colour photographs because the subjects depicted felt ashamed of their content. However, he was excited to collaborate, and we worked closely on his archive. Slowly, through time, I’ve organised more shows, installations or films, trying to work on particular aspects of his story. It’s a collaboration. 

JJ You’ve used the word queer a few times. It is very much queer more than gay content, I think. 

KR For me, it was important from the very beginning to resist a homogenised reading of this material. I work mainly with private archives because they contain those things in between. Many of the inspirations for Kisiel’s photographs came from Parisian cabaret culture. When I mentioned The Rocky Horror Picture Show [1975] to him, he didn’t know it because Polish people couldn’t see it back then. It’s fascinating for me how his influences came from a completely different canon to the kinds of histories we often hear, such as those histories from the US.

I’m also presenting a series of nine painted portraits of individuals from Central and Eastern Europe in this show. For example, the Polish physicist, trade unionist and transgender rights activist Ewa Holuszko [Ewa Holuszko from the ‘Gallery of Portraits’ series, 2020]. She’s from my hometown. She was an important figure in the opposition Solidarity movement, then in the 1990s she was offered a high position in the new democratic government, but she refused, knowing that she was preparing to transition, and it would be the end of her career. For me, she’s an amazing figure. She’s also still alive, and we’re friends. The women and transwomen were so invisible in so many ways that for me, as an artist, it’s even more interesting and challenging to bring this into my art and spotlight these important figures.

Karol Radziszewski
Karol Radziszewski, ‘Filo’, 2024, installation view. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Henry Mills

JJ Can you talk a bit about the context in which you’ve been working on this material? Poland has attracted quite a lot of attention in the last decade for the governing Law and Justice Party taking a very right-wing, conservative and religious position on LGBT issues. 

KR Conservative and right-wing governments worldwide are obsessed with history. They want to write it their own way. I decided to participate in this culture war. I see my Queer Archives Institute like a form of networking, ensuring that the stories of these individuals and their actions aren’t erased by history. It’s a group work, which I think is essential to make a bigger impact.

Karol Radziszewski
Ryszard Kisiel, 1985/1986. Courtesy: the Queer Archives Institute and Karol Radziszewski

JJ How does the selection of material change if you’re exhibiting in Poland or abroad?

KR The archive is huge, and growing. Every time I show it, I try to make the display selection a bit different. Here, it’s more like a full case study of one magazine, to show how and why it was formed, the community around it and the impact it had. But most of the time the audience wants to see a representation of every country, like a map of the region. Then exhibitions are more like a balanced kaleidoscope of archived queer practices from very different contexts. Suppose you have a country like Belarus. There’s a portrait in the show of Eugenij Ruban, the Belarusian chess player whom the authorities caught having gay sex in a public place. The criminalization was so intense at the time that any personal letters or photos could be proof of a crime, so archives almost do not exist. It’s tough to find anything. They were destroyed on purpose. 

Showing and handling this material is a big responsibility, and I have started to say that it’s very individual. It’s not an objective, normative narration. Being a cis gay man, I must be aware that my perspective can limit the material. It helps me to talk more with the people to understand how the display can achieve a balance. I often discover things I would not think about.

Karol Radziszewski’s ‘Filo’ is at Auto Italia, London, until 09 June, after which it will travel to Edinburgh Art Festival from 9–25 August.  

Main image: photo of Ryszard Kisiel’s guidebook from the 1980s. Courtesy: the Queer Archives Institute and Karol Radziszewski

Juliet Jacques is a writer, filmmaker, broadcaster and academic. Her short story collection, Variations, was published by Influx Press in June 2022. She lives in London, UK.