Agnieszka Bułacik

This interview is part of the series Questioning the Notion of Neutrality.
Click here to read more about the project and to find more interviews.

Agnieszka Bułacik is the co-founder of New Visions. New Visions works with leaders to transform existing narratives into more diverse, equitable and inclusive ones.

Interview – video

in English

Keywords / Overview

lack of female teachers/mentors
(un/)safe environments


speaking in class
performing confidence


invisible (male) norm

ideology vs “neutrality”

what knowledge we are building on

colonial continuities

devaluation of emotional approaches

success in the art world
financial and social capital

responsibility of teachers
historical roots of inequality

equality vs. equity
normalized violence

Interview – transcript

in English

So my name is Agnieszka. I went through art education myself and also studied cultural anthropology, and currently, I’m working in the field of critical education and anti-discrimination education. At the intersection with arts and culture, thinking about how to create spaces that are as free from discrimination as possible.

Would you say the university was a neutral ground for all to learn and grow?

When I started to study, there was one woman I was in touch with – and she was the secretary. Everyone else was a male person. There was an issue with the work you were doing, like what kind of work you proposed, offered and shared, what kind of topics you were interested in. These topics were not necessarily relevant to the [all-male] professors. [Certain ideas] were often also commented on in certain ways. Or it was just made clear that these topics were not interesting or not welcomed in those spaces. There was sometimes also… dangerous fear, I would say. One of the professors was unacceptably sexist, and it was not a safe environment to explore your artistic work or your processes in. I think that in this stage of sharing your creative processes – which is almost the most vulnerable thing a human can do – you didn't have anyone to relate to.

It was definitely very clear that you wanted to satisfy the needs of the professor. So it was never really about exploring your own creative universe, but it was about satisfying the professors, so they would give you good grades. And of course, we can bring into the conversation capitalism etc, but it’s not creating a safe space for people to explore [their creative processes], and it is rewarding a certain kind of personality, which is a very patriarchal kind of personality.

Can you point out some examples and explain them?

A lot of teachers we work with ask about different ways of facilitating speaking in the class – how to actually invite people to have conversations, knowing that – you know – some characters need one millisecond to shout out loud, while other people have a different process of expressing themselves, don’t feel safe, fear sharing their opinion etc. There is a bunch of creative ways to engage people in conversations: in silence, in writing, in smaller groups etc.

Are universities giving everyone the same chances?

I very clearly remember that there would be my female friends doing amazing, beautiful work, and spending hours to do that, and then going to consult with their pictures. And coming to the table to these men who already a thousand times said that the topic wasn’t interesting and being like, “You know, this is what I did, maybe it’s not great, but this is …” – you know, belittling your work from the beginning. And then not having your works recognized, while there would be our male friends – and it’s a real story, with our friend that took a picture on the tram, on the way to our university, and came and made all the performance – being like, [acts out slamming the picture to the table with a grand gesture] “This is my picture. What you see here … “ and then getting into all this over-confident… I mean, seriously, it was really fascinating to see how you’re being listened to because you have a certain expression, and if you don’t, you’re not. And it was also clearly visible with who was succeeding and who was being recognized, who was being invited to exhibitions etc.

Doesn't this also have something to do with the figure of the artist, as a male genius, that has been created and upheld?

Something I’m really, truly, disappointed with is that throughout my studies there was so little reflection on what is being shared and why. It was kind of “This is what we’re supposed to learn, no question about why” and why these certain narratives are being passed further on. I clearly remember the first female photographer I was introduced to in art history, which was Julia Margaret Cameron, and it was like “Wow!” There was a woman, and she was photographing, and she was being recognized.

I’m also thinking about what we even talk about. Like, who is deciding, what the conversation is about? Who is choosing the topics we’re supposed to work on? Who is inspiring us, making our creative routine more fertile or deep, and in which directions they are inviting us?

How can we transform the sexist, patriarchal structures that are repeated throughout art academies?

This patriarchal norm is silently accepted because it’s the norm. So, if I talk to my female friends who started to study at the same university I went to and I ask, “Do you have any female professors? Because when I was a student there, there was no woman in our course lecturing or consulting,” and they are like, “Oh wow, that’s true – I never thought about that,” it clearly shows that there is no reflection about that, that it’s not being talked about. And that this invisibilized norm is very difficult to deconstruct. So we need to get to the moment where we’re just visibilizing the problems that were made invisible for such a long time.

Do you think teachers can or should be neutral, or what do you associate with this concept?

From a maybe bit different realm but it’s also “neutrality in the classroom”: Together with my friends and colleagues from PAH 1 we went through all the books and spotted extremely racist “knowledge.” So we prepared flyers that you can somehow put in the book and then reflect. And it was also not too ideological, rather just about reflecting what you see, with questions. No preaching, just asking. And the response was crazy. The response was like… suddenly this is becoming ideology. Suddenly this is becoming ideological, of – I don’t even know what. But there is this very clear idea that if it’s in the book and kids learn from that, this is “neutral,” this is the “normal”. And the moment you start to question that, this is becoming ideology, and you’re becoming political. Because before, apparently, there is the idea that this is just the normal.

Sara Ahmed wrote a book called “Living a feminist life” 2. She is a diversity practitioner who actually decided to leave academia for the reasons of discrimination and oppression. In her book, what she did was, she did not quote a single white man. And of course some people would say it’s crazy radical because you cannot exclude white men from being quoted in the book, and yet – like having a stand: “I’m writing a book. I’m quoting everyone, but not white men. My knowledge is going to be built on the knowledge of other women and men of colour.” So I think this is also about who are we bringing up in the knowledge that we are producing and the work we are doing? What kind of connections and relationships do we build? And what are they nurturing? Am I building myself up on a white supremacist knowledge that was produced, or am I building on something else?

Maybe it's also about opening up the definition of knowledge / what is recognized as academic references?

Different power structures play a role here. Because if we talk about this colonial habit of being – we are all guilty of that, as we sit here [as three white persons]. We are also playing a part in reproducing these colonial norms that we grew up in. What’s the relationship between decoloniality and depatriarchalization of the spaces that we function in? How do we even talk about power structures and discrimination, what kind of language we use? It’s a specific, academic language and I think this is also very visible in academia. How people write in art universities... It’s supposed to sound veeery smart, so when people read it they need to three times to understand what you really mean. Affective perception, emotional perception? My university was all about conceptual work. I come from Poland, it’s a post-Communist country, so of course so many works were politicized – and I do believe that politics are present in every level of our lives – but still, there was no space for affective creation, for emotions. You always had to justify your work. You always had to explain it. You always had to rationalize it. And this is already a deeply colonial way of thinking and being: that you have to prove the worth of [your work]. And of yourself. Constantly. This is also an extremely colonial/capitalist idea: That I’m worthy if I produce value, and then I can feel like I am an efficient, valuable human being.

Who would you say is invited, or expected and thought of when thinking about who would go to an art school, and who is maybe taken less care of?

I’m also thinking about who, from my peers and friends, and the Polish art scene right now, I see as people who succeeded, and who I see as people struggling with their careers. And it’s the people who had enough financial resources to do their artwork because their parents could send them to study in the UK, L.A., etc, and it looks cool when you had an exhibition in L.A. and then you have one in Warsaw. It goes that way. And another one is that people who have families in the cultural/arts circles, so kids of directors, or people who are already in the network of possibilities.

Earlier, you gave the example of some people performing a lot more confidence than others, and that this often has something to do with how people are positioned in society. Do you think any teacher can be neutral in the sense of not being impacted by this kind of performance?

I really think that being a teacher is such a responsible role in any stage of the process [of education]. It is such a crucial leadership position that – from my perspective – none of the professors that I was working with had really well reflected on what it means. What I think would be helpful, and I find it extremely important, is to always know that there are reasons for the shit that is around us. There are certain historical roots of inequality, and I think this mindfulness about the historical roots of the problem is extremely crucial here. Because without this, we’re going to over and over again play the card of here and now, without acknowledging what our ancestors were part of and how our past shapes our present, and acknowledging that people need different things because they come from different contexts and have different experiences.

And do you think it is possible for teachers to be neutral in the sense of really treating everyone equally, detached from their positionality / free of bias?

I somehow struggle a bit with this idea of “equality,” because if we function in an environment where people have very different starting points, giving everyone the same will not equalize the space. And I think that part of getting into feminist narratives or pedagogies is about starting to see the violence that was normalized, starting to notice the symbolic violence that we’re surrounded by. And it’s not a pleasant process, and it’s uncomfortable, but it’s also extremely liberating. I think that the contemporary world also requires from teachers this awareness of the responsibility of their work and how sensitive a process it is. And I would love every teacher to read the work of Freire 3 and reflect on that. And their own position in the classroom. And what it means for the world of tomorrow – because current education is not necessarily creating liberated human beings that are willing to connect to one another.

  1. PAH 

  2. Sarah Ahmed, Living a feminist life 

  3. Paulo Freire