Welcome to Płock – a city with a population of 130,000 located on the river Vistula in the heart of Poland, a vibrant academic and industrial town, where history co-exists with the present, offering the visitors plenty of opportunities to enjoy the time spent here. The most historic part of the city is the Old Town, whose layout has been almost entirely preserved for over 800 years. The most important sites in the Old Town are: the Tumskie Hill situated above the extensive valley of the Vistula River with its impressive Cathedral and the Old Market Square with numerous bars, cafes and restaurants.
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The Common Room conference, organised each year since 2013 by the Department of English Studies within the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the State University of Applied Sciences in Płock, is part of the Themersons Festival, an annual event held in Płock, which spans over several days to celebrate the life and works of Stefan Themerson – a poet, novelist, composer, avant-garde filmmaker and philosopher born in Płock in 1910, as well as his wife Franciszka – an illustrator, painter, stage designer and filmmaker. They lived and worked creatively together, becoming not only some of the most original personalities in Polish avant-garde art of the 20th century but also the forerunners of many contemporary intellectual and artistic trends. The Gaberbocchus Press publishing house which they founded became famous for its innovations in the field of editing. The title of our cyclical conference refers to the literary salon run by the Themersons in London during the years 1957-1959, which hosted scientists, academics, artists and literary figures and was the site of unique lectures, recitals, presentations, artistic evenings, concerts and discussions. The programme of the festival, whose progressive, interdisciplinary character follows a similar approach, includes exhibitions, theatrical performances, concerts and meetings with artists.
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The 2013 Common Room conference: Muses, Mistresses and Mates – Great Women behind Great Men.
“Muses, mistresses and mates” – female friends, lovers, sometimes also wives – have always been called upon by poets and artists or looked up to by eminent and powerful men. The women supported and inspired some of the most influential men in history. They range from traditional wives to dangerously beautiful femmes fatales: they have been poets’ muses, painters’ models, great men’s wives, scientists’ aides – intriguing, beguiling, tempting, genuinely talented and, more often than not, so self-effacing. The conference focused on some of these fascinating women in history, culture, art and public life and on their vivid personalities, exceptional talent and an expressive imagination that brought them into creative and fruitful partnership with the men who were equally remarkable though sometimes more distinguished. The conference was accompanied by the exhibition “People and Lines – 1950-1960 drawings of Franciszka Themerson”, presenting Franciszka Themerson’s drawings and book illustrations, her sketches for the staging of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, as well as books published by Gaberbocchus Press, where she was an art director.
The 2014 Common Room conference: Art, Ethics and Provocation.
The second edition of the conference was devoted particularly to revolutionary art – rebellious and subversive, aimed at transforming the existing reality. Art, according to Stefan Themerson, constitutes “the sensitive nervous system of the artist” and it is “the first to bring the news that something bad is going on in his or her surroundings.”
For Themerson the artist was like “a seismograph” that reveals to his audience what is happening underneath reality. According to the Themersons, such art should grow organically out of the culture which surrounds it – it should be direct and communicative and, at the same time, unprejudiced. Art also fulfills the important social function of trying to change society for the better by negating the rigid and clichéd forms of thought and creating the foundations for a humanistic approach. Art should therefore be, on the one hand, collective, engaging, provocative and original, and, on the other hand, deeply ethical. Although the Themersons were not moralists, they nevertheless believed in the metaphysical presence of evil, which, in their opinion, could be fought only with the help of wise, socially and politically engaged art, free from conventional assumptions and beliefs as well as moral judgements. Thus, they viewed avant-garde art as the main means of “imposing the universal peace and justice.” The conference covered the whole gamut of topics concerning avant-garde and controversial art, including all types of cultural texts: fine arts proper, film, literature, theatre, music, performances and visual arts.
Antoni Libera, an internationally acclaimed writer, translator and director, famous for his translations and stagings of Samuel Beckett’s dramas, was our special guest of honour. He offered the audience a fascinating insight into the key aspects of his artistic philosophy and ran a theatre workshop for students, which was enthusiastically received by its participants.
The 2015 Common Room conference: The Push and the Pull of Violence.
The topic of the third edition of the conference was violence and aggression in two complementary worlds: the sacrum – defined as the terrain of artistic expression, and the profanum – the realm of our commonplace and material existence. For Stefan Themerson aggression was also an important topic, but he was first and foremost interested in the moral and ethical dimension of violence. In his philosophical essays he claimed rather provocatively that gentleness is an inborn human quality, whereas aggression is a cultural overgrowth. Drawing our inspiration from Themerson’s philosophical and moral reflections, we invited researchers representing a wide cross-section of academic disciplines to contribute to the discourse on the phenomenon of violence/ aggression in the contemporary world in order to explore its complexity and identify the role it plays in shaping our perceptions.
Following the assumption that violence is a ubiquitous element of various aspects of our everyday material and spiritual life, the presentations referred to its presence in different areas of human activity: literature, theatre, cinema, art, popular culture, philosophy, politics, pedagogy, psychology, language and communication. Dr Janusz Lachowski from the National Library of Poland, the honorary patron of the event, presented a paper on new dimensions in research into the Themersons’ oeuvre while Małgorzata Sady talked about the relationship of the Themersons and Bertrand Russell. The conference also hosted a question and answer session with the writer and scholar prof. David Malcolm, a presentation of the BETWEEN.POMIĘDZY festival and publications as well as the discussion groups for students run by the festival’s organisers. As usual, it was accompanied by numerous cultural events taking place during the Themersons Festival in Płock.
The 2016 Common Room conference: In Exile.
The fourth annual Common Room conference focused on literature, art and thought created by exiles – historic and contemporary writers, artists and intellectuals moving across borders in multiple directions for reasons ranging from fear for their lives to a self-imposed condition. For some emigration acted as a catalyst for their creative powers that were released from the cage of their compatriots’ habits and expectations while for others it was a cause of solitude and an acute sense of alienation. Living in exile implies not only living “someplace else” but also facing the cultural and linguistic challenges of an alien environment, which inevitably alters the artists and their works, as well as affecting the societies and cultures of the host countries. The diaspora experience and the ensuing condition of estrangement promote acute perceptions and more incisive inquiries into the habits and prejudices that form the identity of both the artist’s native country and their new homeland. The concept of exile was discussed also as an existential or psychological condition – even though artists may not be émigrés in the strict sense of the word, they often exist and create in the state of internal exile or in the political or cultural underground. In addition, the conference covered the issues such as bilingualism in literature, the motif of “unbelonging” in visual arts, performing arts and literature, minority art and literature, major critical approaches to the topic of exile as well as political, cultural and social implications of the phenomenon of exile and immigration.
The event’s special guest of honour was Franciszka Themerson’s niece – Ms Jasia Reichardt, an art critic and curator, whose speech opened the second day of the conference. The conference was accompanied by an intriguing artistic happening by Martin Blaszk and Jon McKenna Catching Breath on the Road to Płock, a lecture by a Polish-British graphic artist and a designer of posters prof. Andrzej Klimowski, the Beckett Research Group seminar, a meeting with Żaneta Nalewajk-Turecka (the editor-in-chief of the literary quarterly Tekstualia) and the Experiments – In Exile lecture for high school and university students run by prof. David Malcolm and dr Tomasz Wiśniewski from the University of Gdańsk.
The 2017 Common Room conference: From WORDS to WORLDS.
During the fifth edition of the conference we invited the participants to contribute to the interdisciplinary discussion of a broadly understood relationship between words and worlds in art, culture, language, media, politics, education, religion, social life and others. Words can be perceived as both seductively fascinating and overly threatening. The agency and potency of words allows authors to actualize their creative, artistic intentions by constructing immersive, fictional worlds, exploring the potential of language to express what seems to be inexpressible or inconceivable as well as making us aware of the implications of the constraints inherent in interpersonal communication. However, what raises understandable suspicion is employing words as the tools of social or political manipulation to exert influence or propagate ideologies. The two contradictory perceptions of words permeate S. Themerson’s oeuvre – driven by his sensitivity to the sounds, rhythms and rhymes behind words, he displayed overt resentment towards demagoguery. In his Semantic Poetry Themerson unmasked and demystified words by skinning them of „every associational aureola” imposed by conventions or traditions and referring to their original meanings „supplied by the common dictionary.” The screening of Stefan Themerson and Language by Eric Van Zuylen with an introductory speech by Małgorzata Sady opened the conference. Prof. Kamila Turewicz from the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences of the State University of Applied Sciences in Płock gave the keynote speech titled „Reality – word – reality.” Another keynote speaker was prof. Alan Rice from the University of Central Lancashire. His lecture launched the exhibition of paintings by Lubaina Himid – the Zanzibar-born British artist, who won the prestigious Turner Prize in 2017. The exhibition „Inside the Invisible”, which was part of the conference, was held in the Mazovian Museum in Płock. The 2017 Common Room conference was also accompanied by numerous cultural events taking place during the Themersons Festival.
The 2018 Common Room conference: On the Road.
The sixth edition of the conference was devoted to being on the road and the phenomenon of a journey, perceived as a physical, spiritual or emotional experience. People have been on the move for centuries and their experiences have been reflected in diverse texts of culture from Homer, through Swift and Cervantes, to fantasy novels and road movies. It seems, however, that journey, as an existential experience, acquires a special meaning today when the postmodern mobility and nomadism entail the construction of new identities and patterns of behaviour, which all share one common feature: being constantly “on the road” in search of unattainable postmodern identity. Stefan Themerson in his Adventures of Peddy Bottom, illustrated beautifully by his wife Franciszka, also had his protagonist set off on a journey. Peddy Bottom, who resembles a human being, but also a fish and a dog, searches for his own identity and this search keeps him wandering. The 2018 event gathered speakers directly connected to the Themersons’ oeuvre, many renowned scholars from leading Polish academic centres, freelance researchers, young academics, numerous guests from abroad (Malta, Ege University in Izmir, Turkey, University of Kent, Great Britain, University of Split, Croatia and others) as well as a number of speakers representing the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences of the State University of Applied Sciences in Płock. After a short introduction from the Organizing Committee and Franciszka Themerson’s niece Ms Jasia Reichardt, the conference was opened by the Dean of our college’s Department of Humanities and Social Sciences prof. Michał Nowosielski, who gave the keynote speech entitled The experience of the journey in the memories of Polish settlers in the Western and Northern Territories”. Another keynote speaker was the Head of our Faculty of Humanities – prof. Kamila Turewicz – who presented her lecture “Adventures of Peddy Bottom vis-à-vis the road of/to cognition”. The academic panels were accompanied not only by the events of the annual Themersons Festival but also by the the photography exhibition Walking through the city by prof. Izabela Łapińska (Łódź Film School), preceded by an introductory speech from the author, which was specially organised in the Płock Art and Culture Centre as part of the conference.