Former workers of Poland’s manufacturing giant are asked to reinterpret their labor rituals through dance and music in a visceral body of analytical work from Poland’s finest young artists
WHAT IT’S ABOUT: A diverse team of people, who all share a history of working for Poland’s leading agricultural machinery plant “Ursus”, make their way to their former workplace. Even though the factory’s territory is abandoned and in ruins, the workers, who vary from blacksmiths to managers, pretend that it’s an ordinary day at Ursus, just like it would be before the manufacturing shattered. They proceed to their work zones through the debris and tall grass, assume positions and get to work. Only there are no sledgehammers to use, no typewriters, no furniture or walls even. Instead, the former Ursus employees will perform their labor rituals through experimental vocal and dance routines, imitating the precise rituals they engaged in during the factory’s heyday.
WHO MADE IT: Jasmina Wojcik is a multidisciplinary artist and educator from Poland, who works at the intersection of art and social activism, exploring the functions of memory and the experiences of communities which become othered from the social context. Wojcik is drawn to the working class, the rituals that surround labor, and the socialist realism grandeur of former industries. She has worked on projects covering these issues in Białystok and Prague, before proceeding to work with the former employees of Poland’s Ursus factory Ursus agricultural factory, started in Warsaw in 1893, was once one of the most significant industrial enterprises in the country, and hired as many as 200 thousand employees, with the territory covering 170 hectares and the output measuring at 100 tractors per day. Falling into debt after receiving massive loans from American banks, Ursus has since been sold to private proprietors, and large parts of the factory currently stand unoccupied, and in ruins, as the new owners restructure the company. All the participants in the film are regular people who were at various times employed by Ursus. A team of creative professionals, including Polish theatre director and choreographer Rafał Urbacki and composer and musician Dominik Strycharski, worked on their performance at the center of the film, while Wojcik co-wrote the screenplay with left-wing activist and critic Igor Stokfiszewski. Artist Jakub Wróblewski and cinematographer Kacper Czubak developed the film’s absorbing visual concept and captured its striking mise-en-scenes.
WHY DO WE CARE: The idea behind “Symphony of the Ursus Factory” is brilliant, pure, and sophisticated despite the seeming simplicity. It has people recreate the physical spectacle of their past lives using memory, both corporal and audible, to imitate the circumstances in which they’d existed for a large chunk of their labor lives. Wojcik and her crew carried out months of workshops that helped the participants bring the memories to the surface, from which the dance routine, the musical score, and the libretto were formed. The result is the opposite of othering in labor. It presents a peculiar view of manufacturing that rings very true in our era: everything humanmade has gone to waste, but the humans remain. The film doesn’t depart into its operatic incarnation until much later. The beginning eases us into the factory, as we travel along with the participants, and listen to them recount their stories of employment, recounting the many aspects of factory work with nostalgia. And then, gradually, the drama thickens, and the factory workers’ collective soul emerges from the disrepair to soar, in an overwhelming chorus of self-realization through the means of production that was both made possible and impossible when the factory needed the employees for their productivity, and the employees needed the factory to get ahead in life.
WHY YOU NEED TO WATCH: The manufacturing decay that reverberates across the industrialized countries has been getting enough coverage in media and art lately, but there is nothing quite like “Symphony of the Ursus Factory”. It seems that anyone, wherever they stand on the issues of labor, industrialization, and automation, would be able to enjoy it due to the sheer beauty of the performance that Wojcik and her extensive crew were able to create in the barren space of the decrepit factory. But the sublime qualities of the production are only the bare minimum, beneath which are depths of meaning. The Ursus manufacturing plant once factored highly in the Solidarity movement, with the employees engaging in strikes and collective action. And while this industrial opera is a glorious opus on the vicissitudes of globalization and economic shifts, it also raises many important questions about the place labor occupies in our lives today. Are we as a species merely malleable that allows for the labor to become a part of our selves and shape our perceptions, or do we construct our relationships with labor around our own needs for fulfillment and community? Is there a way to reclaim organized labor’s communion components in the post-secular world while also separating ourselves from capitalism, since automation no longer means that capitalism will be going away anywhere? A work of staggering beauty and a wildly refreshing take on familiar matters, “Symphony of the Ursus Factory,” is an experience to be lived and a deep and involved thought piece on one of the most essential issues of the 21st century.
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