Charlotte comes out of an inquiry into the local context of Lesser Poland, based on meetings with local miners, politicians and inhabitants and on an investigation of the specificities of the region’s mining cities.

Artist: Yan Tomaszewski
Curator: Stanisław Ruksza

The project Charlotte creates the fiction of a hypothetical and generic city in order to raise questions of local identity, cultural patrimony, remembrance and oblivion.

It is rooted in the context of Lesser Poland, and more specifically of this region’s industrial mining infrastructures, which face a potential close down in the near future, due to a more global economical shift from fossil to renewable energies.

The mining cities of Lesser Poland (such as Bukowno, Brzeszcze, Libiąż or Tenczynek) still have an industrial activity, and therefore identity, but they are on the verge of post-industrialism. Some others, such as Siersza, already closed their coal mine. Once the mining factories will all be closed, these cities will have to reinvent themselves either by exploiting the mining culture patrimony, either by adopting a tabula rasa strategy.

This specific historical moment, when one knows that one’s end is coming soon and tries to deal with it, is of particular interest to me. The project echoes the catastrophist ideas of the Polish writer Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, for whom the foreboding of a coming disaster triggers urgent questions related to identity.

The project establishes a situation of temporal displacement, in which the generic city of Charlotte is projecting itself in the future, trying to communicate what this city is today, to someone – be it human or alien – living in 20, 50, 100 or 1000 years, on earth or on another planet.

In that sense, the project relates to the form of the “time capsule”, a set of objects of a given period and place that are put together and most frequently buried in order to be rediscovered after a very long period of time, in another historical moment. A time capsule is a kind of snapshot of a given society. The way it is constituted is not hazardous: the very choice of stressing this or another social aspect is highly significant and tells a lot about the society that is producing the time capsule.

The point of reference for the project, both conceptually and aesthetically, is the most extreme version of such a phenomenon: the time capsules sent in outer space and destined, not anymore to a human civilization of the future, but to a potential extraterrestrial intelligence.

In 1972, the “Pioneer plaque” is placed on board of Pioneer 10 and sent to outer space. It is a pictorial message, placed on the spacecraft in case it is intercepted by extraterrestrial life. The plaque shows various pictorial elements meant to give an idea of what humanity is and of where it comes from, using a universal language, understandable by anyone without any earthly references.

In 1977, the “Voyager Golden Record” is placed aboard Voyager spacecraft and launched in the same year. It contains sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth, and is intended for any intelligent extraterrestrial life form, or for future humans, who may find them.

Both the “Pioneer plaque” and the “Voyager Golden Record” are made of engraved gold-plated copper and use pictograms to translate in a universalist language what Earth, Humanity and the Solar System are.

This attempt at universalizing a very local (from a cosmic point of view: Earth is only a dust in the Universe) context is the point of reference for Charlotte.

Charlotte comes out of an inquiry into the local context of Lesser Poland, based on meetings with local miners, politicians and inhabitants and on an investigation of the specificities of the region’s mining cities. All these cities are going through an identity crisis and in that context, communication and promotion are somehow exacerbated. It is all about shaping, branding and presenting to the exterior world a certain image, in which coal mining culture and patrimony are put forward.

Charlotte is a form of compilation and synthesis of the different narrations that I have gathered during my travels in Lesser Poland. It translates a very local context into a universal language, just as the Pioneer Plaque and the Voyager Golden Record. It is producing a snapshot of a mining industry that is on the verge of post-industrialism, this specific moment when one turns back to look at the past while being terrified by the future.

Charlotte is a kind of remembrance brochure, a series of pictogram-based information sheets presenting to a potential alien audience what the city of Charlotte was, what it is and what it might be. It covers several narrations related to the identity of the city: where it is situated on earth, who lives there, what is the history of the city, etc. Coal mining is obviously an element of tremendous importance in this narration: it is presented as a form of religion, and its most symptomatic element – the slag heap – is worshiped as a sacred mountain.


Yan Tomaszewski