PUSZCZ IMPERATORY

The UNESCO World Heritage Site Białowieża Primeval Forest — also referred to as „Europe’s last primeval forest“ — stretches from eastern Poland across the border into western Belarus. Today, the population of Białowieża mainly lives from primeval forest tourism, the main attraction of which is the reintroduced European bison. As the animal symbolic to the area, the żubr gives its name to alcohol brands, sports clubs and hotels. Since early modern times, myths, fantasies and desires of various rulers have revolved around the hunt for the bison, which was depicted by Adam Mickiewicz in the Polish national epic Pan Tadeusz (1851) as one of the rulers of the primeval forest (puszcz imperatory). In National Socialist Germany, the passionate hunter „Reichsjagdmeister“ Göring planned a so-called „nature reserve“ there, in which an archaic, Germanic primeval nature was to be resurrected according to the model of Germanic myths. In the bison, he saw the aurochs, which he wanted to „re-cross“ by means of an elaborate breeding program. In 2016, after illegal logging operations in the protected Polish part of the forest, a broad alliance of scientists and activists formed to draw attention to the actions of the Polish forest authorities through petitions and forest occupations — despite a ruling by the European Court of Justice, the logging operations continued in 2022. In 2017, largely unnoticed by the German media, a free-ranging Polish bison („nasz żubr“, our bison) in Lebus on the Oder becomes a political issue after being shot by a German hunter.

In early September 2021, Helen Weber hitchhikes to Białowieża with a hunter’s camera. In search of images of the complex history of the forest between as territory, nation, nature conservation and wilderness(-fiction), she unexpectedly finds herself confronted with contemporary events. As a reaction to EU sanctions, the Belarusian regime is luring refugees — most of whom from Iran, Irak, Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen — with relaxed visa rules into the country. After getting escorted across the Polish border, they were and still are illegally pushed back and detained by Polish authorities without any chance of seeking legal asylum in the EU. As part of today’s EU external border, Puszcza Białowieska becomes the scene of deadly European border policies. On September 2nd, Poland declares a state of emergency. In the protective thicket of the forest, a militarised, restricted area is created. Neither humanitarian aid nor legal advice are permitted to enter, no reports or images are allowed to leak out of the area.

The 7-channel video installation „PUSZCZ IMPERATORY“ documents a fragmented story that seems to write itself based on chance encounters. It revolves around Białowieża and its surroundings at that point in time. The voices of various of those chance encounters (German tourists, local residents, a female soldier and a war-traumatized survival trainer), some of which were recorded covertly, are arranged with the images and sounds of the hunter’s camera, turning them into narrators and protagonists of an unclear moment from each of their own perspectives. The index embedded in the image of the hunter’s camera allows the chronological sequence of the recordings to be traced. The actual event remains hidden in the forest.

Exhibition view: Insight Stuttgart 2022
Exhibition view: University for Applied Arts Vienna, 2022