KRAKOW: Gathering in mass to reclaim the Vistula river

People of Krakow get rather emotional on hearing the words “masa krytyczna” [critical mass]. Or, we should say that “emotional” is more of a euphemism here, for some of them are simply pissed off! Every year, the Krakow Critical Mass [Krakowska Masa Krytyczna] – groups of cyclists and bike lovers paralyze Krakow or, as others say, take over Krak’s town to manifest their right to a peaceful coexistence with cars. Things look completely different with the Water Critical Mass [Wodna Masa Krytyczna] everyone fell in love with after its first edition took place at the end of June 2012! Cecylia Malik initiated these group rafting trips on the Vistula river to crown her artistic project “6 rivers".

The Water Critical Mass is not just a manifestation of the people’s love of the Vistula river or a social campaign to reclaim the river for the people. Simply put – it’s sheer fun. You can sail on whatever you want, but a life jacket is a must. The so-far four editions have shown how an unbridled human imagination can flood the river with fairy-tale and astonishing water vehicles. We had an enormous rubber wheelbarrow, a piece of a room with a couch and a lamp, a raft made of mineral water bottles, a whale, a mermaid on a sliver dolphin, a washtub, a floating meadow, and even polystyrene foam shoes in which you could walk on waves! Those without their hand-made boats had a chance to rent a boat or a canoe. Either way – it was fun. Now, after several editions, all the water craziness is accompanied by movie screenings under bridges, water picnics and dragon boat races. This year, a concert of Capella Cracoviensis is planned to take place on a wooden barge.

Who stands behind this initiative? Is it this red hair beauty whom we can see everyday riding on her green bike through vistulan boulevards with her inseparable dog Orsi by her side? Cecylia is, first of all, a Cracovian socially engaged in protecting the remaining wild green and water Krakow areas. She is also a painter, performer, educator and an activist. Her most famous performances include “Koncert u Pana Żula” at Zderzak Gallery, “365 Drzew”, “Warkocze Białki” and “6 rzek”. “Modraszek Kolektyw” – an action to protect the Krakow scenic park Zakrzowek – united Cracovians and heavily influenced decisions of a city council in relation to the protection of green areas. For the implementation of her “365 drzew” [365 trees] project she was awarded the title of “Kulturystka roku” [Culture Woman of the year] in 2010 by Instructors from the Radio Community Center of Polish Radio Three.

When Cecylia meets us, she looks radiant. Her next project – an adaptation of pavilions in Las Wolski [Wolski Forest] into a community center and Krakow artists’ studios is starting to look good.



PURO: Cecylia, aren’t you perhaps a part of the Water Trigon?

Cecylia Malik: Oh! Yes, I am Cancer! I’ve never thought about myself that way.


PURO: Maybe that is why water is so important to you?

CM: It’s been important to me since childhood. Water was a destination. Every time we went somewhere we had to choose some place by the water – a sea, a lake or a beautiful river. Each place was good only as long as it had water nearby – a streamlet would do. We have a few of such places in Krakow, be it Zakrzowek. And the smell… there is always the smell of water and slime telling you the water is somewhere near.


PURO: In your opinion – what does a river mean to a city?

CM: Rivers are souls of cities. Wherever I go I always feel this urge to go to the river. This feeling has become even stronger after all my water projects. When I am on a train or a bus and pass by any river I wonder: What is her name? What are its banks like? Where does it end? Rivers amaze me.


PURO: Your project “6 rivers” – as part of which you sailed down six Krakow rivers on a tiny boat – has made the inhabitants of the city realize how many rivers they actually have.

CM: Several years ago, together with Kazimierz Walasz – the founder and director of the Ornithological Society of Lesser Poland – we took a trip down the Dłubnia river. It was dreadfully littered, waste made it impossible for us to move. Today, there is a canoe track in one of its parts. It’s crazy such changes are happening!



PURO: You made them happen.

CM: I wouldn’t say so. But I will tell you how the rivers got into my mind. Part of my artistic activity focuses on wild green areas of Krakow. I believe them to be necessary for us to be happy. In order to feel good, you need to have a place somewhere in the city where you can step into green as you can step into water. We have quite a few of such places in Krakow but we don’t appreciate them and that’s why – unfortunately – most of them is at the risk of being destroyed by an expanding urban agglomeration. We have to fight and to realize that animals living in the city are attracted to these green areas, where there’s usually some kind of a body of water. That’s how I came by the water. The river, actually. When the idea to take trips on rivers of Krakow popped up I met Gocha Nieciecka, who was broadcasting her radio program “Temat rzeka” in which she discussed topics related to the Vistula river with the focus put on its culture-shaping character and history. One day we were sitting on one of the wild beaches of the Vistula created after a flood and came up with a happening for an inauguration of Gocha’s radio program. We dressed up as mermaids, sat on a riverbank and invited listeners to a picnic on a beach.


PURO: How did the Water Critical Mass come to life?

CM: I was planning an opening exhibition of my “6 rivers” project works but I didn’t want it to be in a closed space of a gallery. I wanted different decorations – I wanted nature. The idea came up to have an exhibition on the river and that’s how the Water Critical Mass came to life (at that time it was also a part of Art BOOM Festival about the art in an urban space). I wanted people of Krakow to sit in rafts, boats and canoes and sail together down the Vistula. We were joined by Aneta Rostkowska, the curator from Bunkier Sztuki and, sitting on the already mentioned beach, drafted the first plan of our event. We wanted to encourage inhabitants to take part in the Mass, willing to show them that the Vistula river was safe and friendly. 40 people took part in the first edition, but there were many others who came to accompany us and walked by the river from start to finish. Crowds gathered on bridges and kept greeting our colorful water mass. We were bursting with joy.


PURO: Did you jump in the river?

CM: Yes, we did! This is a famous photograph of us drifting in flowery life-buoys near Wawel, holding champagne glasses filled with river water. We didn’t drink it but just wanted to show it was transparent. One of us got so excited that she did have a gulp, but eventually survived. (laugh) We also planned to have a shower right after we came out of the river, but none of us had it. And we were all fine.



PURO: What the second edition of the Mass was like?

CM: First of all, we were joined by other artists such as Ewa Ciepielewska, who paints water maps of the Vistula river, swims the length of the Vistula every year and organizes Pływający Festiwal Sztuk [Floating Festival of Arts], and Bartolomeo Konczenasz – a photographer, artist and performer. He even had a surfboard and was dressed in a wetsuit! Besides, the second edition attracted more people and wonderful water vehicles were created. That’s because – interestingly – water law is different from traffic law. It may not be that obvious that the river is an urban public space and everyone can use it. You need no documents, qualifications or permissions to swim on the Vistula river. What’s more – you can swim on whatever you like! It’s crucial that you have a life jacket on you and your vehicle is not too big. The police will have no right to throw you out. Now, when there are a lot of water maniacs like us, we’ve decided to organize the Mass annually in June.


PURO: Do you help in constructing water vehicles?

CM: Bartolomeo and Kuba Wesołowski teach people via Facebook how to built rafts. Then, this exciting moment comes when you need to check whether this thing you’ve constructed will keep you afloat or fall to pieces. I wish artists would build their own boats and join us. Last year, Marta Sala made polystyrene foam shoes, in which you could walk on water. She walked the entire distance and never fell. That was beautiful!


PURO: How is this year’s edition different from the past ones?

CM: This year, the Mass will be held on Saturday and not on Sunday, because now it’s become a part of a program of Wianki (an annual cultural event organized by the city of Krakow and the Krakow Festival Office to celebrate Midsummer Day). What’s also unique are the two real, water concerts. Angela Gaber Trio will swim on a barge while Capella Cracoviensis will welcome the participants with baroque fanfares and later be taken to the barge of Józef Ratajczak – the organizer of raft trips on the Vistula river (the barge will swim to us from Oświęcim) – to perform the last song under Grunwaldzki Bridge [Most Grunwaldzki]. A real concert for the river! We also made a brave decision to have the distance longer during the Mass: we start at a point where the Rudawa river enters the Vistula – it’s a charming place, next to St. Norbert’s Convent, underestimated by people of Krakow – and swim to the estuary of the Wilga river. Before we board the boats we will have a picnic on the former city beach where you still can walk into the Vistula ankle-deep and feel the sand under your feet.


PURO: What does the Mass give to people?

CM: A lot of joy and great fun. And a change of the view  – you always look at the Vistula river from the ground, but here you suddenly find yourself on the river looking at everything from another perspective. You see bridges from the underside…and you don’t get to do that often when you live in the city. The river is a part of the city – it improves the quality of our lives and makes us happy.

This year’s Water Critical Mass in Krakow will take place on June 25. You're welcome!




photo: Agata Jabłońska, Andrzej Wójcik, Bartolomeo Koczenasz, Mateusz Torbus





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