Philadelphia Center City walls treated to Piotr Szyhalski’s provocative ‘Covid-19 Labor Camp Reports’

Roberta and Patrick Coue chat via Zoom with Piotr Szyhalski, the artist behind the popular instagram account @laborcamp, which documents the Covid-19 pandemic through 225 politically charged black and white drawings, later turned into posters and wheat-pasted on walls in Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York and Minneapolis. Pop on some headphones for 31 minutes of great conversation!

Piotr Szyhalski on a decorative background.
Piotr Szyhalski. Photo courtesy MCAD. Edited for Artblog Radio.

Roberta and Artblog contributor and advisor Patrick Coue sit down (virtually) with Piotr Szyhalski, artist, educator, and the man behind the popular instagram account @laborcamp. Piotr (pronounced Peter) used instagram to reflect on the Covid-19 pandemic through 225 politically charged black and white ink drawings. The project grew beyond Piotr when he was approached by people in major cities like New York, Baltimore, and… you guessed it, Philadelphia, who wanted to create posters of the work and put them up! In Philadelphia, a group put the posters around Center City in late October. See the locations in this google map. This Artblog Radio episode is 31 minutes of art talk with some laughs sprinkled in. We think you’ll love it!

You can see Piotr’s posters on Instagram, @laborcamp.

Pre-order the Labor Camp book!

Artblog Radio



Roberta Fallon: [00:00:13] Hello, everybody. Welcome to Artblog Radio. I am Roberta Fallon, and I’m going to be your host today. With me is Patrick Coue, who is an Artblog contributor and long time Artblog advisor. Hello, Patrick.

Patrick Coue: [00:00:24] Hey, Roberta.

Roberta Fallon: [00:00:26] Patrick is going to be asking some questions and joining the conversation also. And we’re very excited today to be speaking with Peter. Szyhalski! Welcome, Peter.

Piotr Szyhalski: [00:00:39] Thank you. Excited to be here.

Roberta Fallon: [00:00:40] Yeah, we’re very excited also. Peter’s an artist and educator based in Minneapolis, whose large black and white posters, based on handmade drawings that he made, they started popping up on walls around Philadelphia. Now Peter is based in Minneapolis. So first of all, what’s the mystery of that?

Why are they in Philadelphia? And while some of the posters have- they were wheat pasted on walls- and some have been scraped off the walls are covered up; others are still there! And they broadcast messages. There’s lots of words to read and very graphic images to see. So Peter created this as part of his COVID-19 “Labor Camp” project that started right as we started locking down in March for the pandemic.

It’s very pointed commentary, not for the faint of heart. And the imagery, likewise, not for the faint of heart. And it’s about the pandemics mishandling. Peter, these are posters from apparently the first a hundred days of the lockdown. And he made them daily.
So talk about the germination of the project and, and what’s going on now.

Piotr Szyhalski: [00:01:55] Well, the project actually, at this point is completed. I have stopped making the daily drawings on November 3rd. I, ever since the beginning of the project, the question: when to end it? Or how many of those drawings I’ll be making? That was a, that was a big consideration, initially simply because, in lockdown I only had so much materials. And so that was like a, considered factor. Later, it was, you know, just: how long can I possibly keep doing this? And then, I started thinking about meaningful, events or a sign, if you will, for when this thing might happen, then I realized at some point -it may be a couple of months into the project- that the furthest I was thinking about an ending point was the election.

And, and as the months rolled by, it became more and more apparent that that would be the right moment for the series to, to end. For a number of reasons. But, to put it simply, I felt that, we arrived at a kind of precipice or point of no return and, and. Some big decisions will have to be made. And regardless of the outcome of those, of those decisions, the, the project would have to change dramatically, it’s, its scope direction, tone.

So it felt like the right moment. And, based on the responses online, I feel like, that was really the right moment for the project to end. So it is a complete, uh, set. There are 225 drawings in the series. And, you know, as far as germination and the sort of beginning of the project, as you said, it was, started in the, in the early days of the lockdown. And partly, I would say as a kind of self-defense mechanism. Yeah. Just, wanting to do something with my hands or find a point of focus in other ways is chaotic or diffused reality.

Patrick Coue: [00:03:49] A lot of your Labor Camp posters in Philadelphia have been affixed on USPS, you know, relay boxes and boarded up stores, even dumpsters…
So meaning like the grittier, you know, fixtures of, of an American city. And, I was wondering what is the strategy behind that? And also, you know, more generally using, a city like Philadelphia, but also New York, and Minneapolis, and Baltimore as a support for social and responsible art..

Piotr Szyhalski: [00:04:26] Yeah. I’m not sure if I can really say that there is a strategy.

I think if, if there is something that feels like a strategy is to simply trust the kind of organic dynamic that evolved around a project. When I started making the first drawings, I, well, first of all, I didn’t even think of them as a posters, as posters that notion, came out of the… me thinking about the appropriate visual means of visual communication that somehow reflected the subject matter that I was dealing with, which was this really rich, dense, complex political landscape.

And so the language of poster as a kind of, public space, visual discourse platform became… very obvious. And especially because in the early days of the pandemic, it was framed at least in the us as a kind of war. War on invisible enemy, we were told. And, and so the idea of looking at posters, and intentionally drawing on historical references that bring to mind, the, the vernacular of World War II posters, and on from all over the world, sort of became obvious to a degree. And evident to me as the right kind of combination of, visual means.

So these things ended up looking like posters more and more as the series developed. And for a lot of people online, even though I was photographing my ink drawings- so about as, sort of “classic visual art form” as you can get- people kept referring to them as prints. Because they just looked like printed matter.

And, and so I, I think, somebody online said, you know, we should post these, in, in public space and that sort of caught on. And a lot of people ended up talking about this. And, and so, like I said, a kind of a trusted, trusting, attitude about, allowing the work to take its course led me to, the opportunity to print some of these, images on the larger scale.
This is, you know, my school, MCAD was also unlocked down during the summer. And, fortunately for me, the director of our, sort of print center that we have a service Bureau at, at , MCAD, was making weekly visits to visits to the space, to maintain the equipment. And we got to talking and he said, yeah, I can make some scans and we’ll see if we can get some prints done.

And so that’s how it started. And, And the work was presented in Rochester first on the inside of the gallery. And then, I was approached, by folks out of Baltimore with this idea of putting them in public space. And I immediately loved this concept because– as much of, a kind of a lockdown, interior social media existence as this project had– the idea of, of it becoming a public space experience was very, very attractive to me. And this is a whole separate issue. We can talk about, the sort of appeal or importance of that, but.. But the crew out of Baltimore, we discussed some strategies, I guess. After all, maybe there’s a strategy there.

Um, strategies about, what to post and how! And, so. So my notion was that to sort of flip it upside down a little bit. Typically you have one design and you print it in a large quantity. And those posters sort of, are present everywhere. In my case, it was singular print of each design, but many designs.

So. There is already a different, dynamic at work, as far as that public space and the language of poster and its presence, is concerned. But I like thinking about it as sort of an exhibition, right? Where you have these individual artworks distributed in a given area and, in Baltimore these electrical boxes were like the perfect size for it to handle the two by three foot, posters.

I think there were three by four feet, so exactly kind of a same proportion thing. So that became the, the specific distribution approach. And then, once I started posting pictures from Baltimore, people from other cities reached out and said, you know, we should do this in our city, in our city as well. And, and this is how it happened. This is how, the project continued to evolve. Every aspect of it, whether it’s the postcards or the book or the printed posters, and, Is essentially a kind of volunteer effort that is triggered by, folks who engaged with the work online and felt somehow connected to it.

And I feel there’s a moment where the audience basically takes ownership of that work and, and it plays a different role, I feel. Because the agency of the audiences, that is the, is the factor that really, sort of reroutes the project in a slightly different direction. I’m always on the lookout for those opportunities and, you know, really happy that this project had that kind of dynamic.

Roberta Fallon: [00:09:24] So you could almost call it viral transmission-

Piotr Szyhalski: [00:09:28] Huh! Interesting.

Roberta Fallon: [00:09:29] of the project?

Piotr Szyhalski: [00:09:30] Funny,! You know, it’s not the first time somebody said that about this. Because you know, in the context of the work that confronts, a, you know, a pandemic, that is, viral in its essence. Uh, yeah, I, I’m not sure if the work really, you know, truly attained as viral status by like online criteria, but I, I think you’re right in the sense that, people picked it up and… and redistributed it. I mean, it’s really hard not to, talk about spreading, right. (laughter)

Roberta Fallon: [00:10:04] (laughter) But this is such a good spread. It’s like the antidote. Which is great.

Piotr Szyhalski: [00:10:08] Right, right, right, right.

Roberta Fallon: [00:10:11] So I want to talk about Philadelphia, because Philly, has been a hotbed of political activism for years now. Well, going back to 1776, as some people might say. But you’ve been here before. And I think that’s so interesting. You were at Tyler School of Art doing a project that was similarly wordy and printed, although no imagery. And then at Eastern state penitentiary, you had a project that was quite different from this printed, hand drawn, sort of a motif.

So can you talk a little bit about your relationship to Philadelphia? Did you find a particular thing going on here that you could respond to?

Piotr Szyhalski: [00:10:56] Hmm. Yeah, I guess, first of all, I love the city. I’ve, I’ve had a good fortune of visiting several times on a count of the projects you mentioned. And did they find something? Yes! I, I think both, both of those projects were, possible largely because of these amazing institutions that were connected to them. Right?

Let’s see, let me just, uh, briefly address the, the prison piece, which was a collaboration that I did with, my friend Rich Shelton out of LA. And it is a very different- formerly- work, but it was the prison itself that really was the point of attraction. Because it is such an amazing historic, place.

And we both, Rich and I both, love the fact that somehow it became a cultural institution, right? That it ended up housing, these, installation artworks, In the unique cells and both rich and I have kind of a prison past, if you will. Both of my parents worked in prison at one time in their life. And I, I often say this in a cryptic way: “I spent a good amount of time in a prison back in Poland.” When people hear this, they- they’re like, you know, their eyes pop out and they’re like “oh yeah? What happened?” And, I, I spent a good amount of time in prison as a kid. Because my mom was a prison nurse and I, I just hung out with her at work. But that meant that the dynamic of that environment was somehow, always, I don’t know, part of, the building blocks for me.

And, so anyway, when this, uh, when there’s opportunity presented itself, we both, kind of were intrigued and ended up developing a project very much about, the building about the, kind of the poetry embedded within the prison setting. But the reason why I wanted to dwell a little bit on this one is to say that, my practice is very diverse, formally I, and each project for me, part of the task is to understand the unique content that I’m dealing with, and try to find the appropriate language, to address or to, kind of process that content. And so the formal language of the COVID series, like I was mentioning earlier, the idea of arriving at these posters that feel a little bit like war time posters or some kind of propaganda vernacular, et cetera, et cetera, is, the sort of outcome of that, of that questioning: What is the right language to talk about this? And you know, and it’s, a … It was a different situation at Tyler, uh, where I ended up presenting this, massive piece that I called “Them.” And it’s a project that is largely focusing on the economic inequalities in the country and, uh, it was initially written– or the text was written– in response to “occupy wall street” protests.

And it’s a pretty… intense project for me. And, uh, I think a big learning experience also. It’s- I’m not sure how much time we want to devote to this- but I will briefly say that, that work too has an element of my own…. sort of, expression, and my own, focus at processing our reality. And it’s the, the “them” component, the banners that I print and that ended up being walked outside of the gallery into the public space.

So it sort of breaches that art institution space. But it also has this other leg where, people send me requests for the texts of banners to print. I print them and those banners become banners at the protests. And so the project ever since I started doing this in 2015, has this dual life.

On the one hand, I execute my work. But at the same time, the actual printing apparatus, which is this massive thing that… I have thousands and thousands of yards of this material, that’s three feet tall. And so I hand cut these letter forms that I print them one at a time. I must’ve printed thousands of characters at this point. I lost count because, you know, that’s been over five years now of this project and the banners that people requested ended up going to all different cities around the country. A little bit like what happened with the COVID series.

And part of it is that there is that moment of, ownership or agency that, that, that the audience sort of, exercises over the work. And like I said, I look for these opportunities and I encourage them somehow, as much as I can within the work too.

Roberta Fallon: [00:15:21] Hm. Very cool.

Patrick Coue: [00:15:23] I just wanted to go back to, your audience uh, since, you know, again, these series, are in, major, cities, which, you know, again, historically have been the breeding grounds for, you know, social movements against bigotry and for, racial justice. I was wondering, you just mentioned that, you know, part of your work is collaborative. You getting feedback from from some people.

But, so, are you thinking about, you know, the audience, you know, of these big American cities? Which are already, I think, you know, convinced, you know, of the general message of, of these posters? And of course the story is so impactful as I, I’m just.. Wondering, you know, who are you trying to reach besides, you know, convinced audience by exhibiting in major American, cities?

Piotr Szyhalski: [00:16:17] Yeah, that’s a good question. I think somebody also asked me about, or maybe not asked about it, but suggested, Oh, you know, these should go into decidedly different, territory.

And I don’t disagree with that. The likelihood of finding volunteers in those areas to actually distribute to the posters will be a different, different challenge. And, and, you know, again, this is what I meant. I said, there’s no strategy as far as like, Oh, I’m going to deal with this city, this city in this city.

it happened that way because those were the cities that, some folks simply reached out and said, We’ll do it, you know, we want to do it. and it still is happening. There’s a, there’s a, a set right now in Portland where, the posters are being distributed there. So do I think about the audience and ha- who I speak to?

Absolutely. And with this project, it was, if it weren’t for this sort of direct dialogical engagement of the audience, the project wouldn’t have sustained. I wouldn’t be able to sustain for as long as, as I did. And, and it was really, it. Actually, I would say, the amazing discovery of in how many different ways, people were connecting with this work and… I am still not. I mean, I have some theories as to why that might’ve been the case, but it really is a kind of astounding and I, try to save some of the comments or some of the feedback that I was receiving, receiving from the audience, because it was so, I don’t know, in some ways just really beautiful too. Like simple things, but repeated multiple times by different people. Such as, the fact that it’s simply helps people feel sane. Helps people understand that they’re not alone in thinking this way about the situation. That there’s somebody else that speaks to their sort of inner thoughts. Those are the things that are super humbling for an artist to hear, and incredibly motivating too, because I do think, and this is, I’m not sure how to talk about it in any other way, but somewhere along the way, maybe halfway into the project, two, three months into it…

I really started to feel that my relationship to this work had changed. And that it wasn’t just me putting up my work out there. I was tending to it. It was already its own thing. And the work just needed me to kind of tweak it every day, a little bit. Add this new, new thing that would calibrate a recalibrate the work as a whole, a little bit, because you know, new things happened and it needed to acknowledge the new developments in some ways.
So I was sort of a, like a maintenance person in this process as it’s true. I mean, it was, it was very, very clear to me and there is a kind of ebb and flow to that, that dynamic, that relationship, with the work. And I think if there’s one constant element that, that I really felt strongly about is that I…

Every time every day in the, in the morning before I actually started drawing, I had to pause for a moment and, and really ask myself, whether I am being a hundred percent honest about what I am about to put out there. And that sense of like earnestness and, I think an element of vulnerability that comes with that ultimately did translate at least for some people in the work, because that kind of exchange that conversation that ensued felt very true to me.

And I mean, you know, eh, Yeah, I can’t tell you, the amount of time that I put into execute these pieces every day is one thing. But then the amount of time I actually spent talking to people about the work or about the issues that are surrounding it, it was a whole different, a whole different ball game.

And, after the nearly eight months of the, of the project, when I stopped, it was sort of like, I don’t know, like a hole opened up like a void in, in the day, where, I realized just how intensely this, this, uh, this process. Took over my life, you know, it’s it was, it was an incredible, durational, challenge.

Roberta Fallon: [00:20:32] It was labor! Working all the time. So let’s get into that a little bit.

Piotr Szyhalski: [00:20:39] That’s really funny.

Roberta Fallon: [00:20:41] You run your work under, I don’t want to call it a brand.
Piotr Szyhalski: [00:20:47] Yeah. The, did you almost say that, that you run labor camp? I could hear that. That’s great.

Roberta Fallon: [00:20:56] Well, you do run labor camp, but…

Piotr Szyhalski: [00:20:57] Yeah. Sort of. Or it runs me. I don’t know.

Roberta Fallon: [00:21:00] So talk about it because it’s a very interesting and philosophical rubric under which you are developing all your projects.

Piotr Szyhalski: [00:21:09] Yeah, it’s, uh, it’s, it’s strange, this, I, I use the word framework because it’s wonderfully flexible term. It could mean a lot of different things, but, in a little bit like the, the idea of this, of the Labor Camp that became this umbrella concept that, Initially, I want to say it started as a, a term that was maybe more directly focusing on my sound related work, which, and that focused, largely on, on work surrounding archival historical recordings from all over the world, different periods of history. And I was always intrigued and interested in working about what I would refer to as extreme historical phenomenon and, you know, events that happened sometime ago, but their resonance seems to carry an impact on how we are today. So to, to sort of like give you a nutshell, of the whole, of the whole idea.

And I was, often thinking about the historical impact a little bit, like the way the sound propagates in the air, you know, through the particles in the air, kind of a push push and pull dynamic. And I was thinking about metaphorically maybe about how that happens over time through history as well.

And this process of really digging and researching and trying to piece something together from these, fragments of the past. it was a little bit like, I mean, a little bit it’s… I felt it was work. It was, it was work that needed to be done that there’s something to be learned from that, that there’s a point of value in doing this work and.. Labor Camp as a, as a historical concept, you know, is in and of itself, one of those extreme historical phenomenon.

And, maybe it would like to think about it as a historical phenomenon. Of course, there’s many labor camps, right now in operation, in different places around the, the world. So it’s not like kind of a distant thing. But yeah, but that was actually part of the, my thinking about looking at these historical offense, just to say, they’re not as. Sort of like safely deposited in the abyss of history, as we’d like to think. And, and to, you know, to be honest, the, the situation that we are finding ourselves in this country right now is the best illustration of that. I mean, who would have thought that we would be looking at, the, the political landscape in the United States and to the early 21st century and, and discussing it as almost carbon copy of the European landscape at the beginning of the 20th century? A hundred years later, we are appear to be, you know, rehearsing this, this painful complex, disturbing history from another context. And, I don’t know it’s as if though we haven’t really learned much about, about where that, took us.

So these echoes these repetitions, reverberations resonances there, I’m using intentionally these sort of like a Sonic terminology, because that was a big, big part of that early Labor Camp, work that kind of blurred the distinction between sound and history.
But then, the Labor Camp framework moved, or I realized that it applied to my visual work as well: my printed matter, I print a lot of leaflets. You know, those are like, by default, connected to military and historical context. Everything suddenly seemed like as part of was part of the labor camp. And I, you know, I, my sort of joking responses, I think “it might be running me” in the sense that I, at this point feel that it would be very hard for me to produce new work that one way or the other would not feel like it’s part of that framework.

And, you know, there’s… I think there’s something about maybe the way I’m thinking about the work in general, which is sort of like a network of ideas. Each project is– the Covid project is an excellent example of that because with 225 drawings they’re the internal references, external references, connections to other, artifacts– it is a truly a network of, concepts and ideas.

But I also look at my whole body of work in that way. There are numerous connections within this project that connect to other works, not looking far, the “Them” project that I was talking about earlier, that it was, executed at Tyler. There are direct links to that project within the COVID report projects on, I can think of the top of my head, two, three separate drawings that use almost word for word, phrasing from the “Them” project.
I make these connections, very intentionally so as to expand further that network of ideas. I think maybe it’s some, somehow the…. the idea of thinking of history as, as this massive network of interconnected, connected concepts and ideas that maybe somehow saturated my thinking about the artwork, in that way too.

But I, one more thing I will say about this labor camp, cause this is going to go on for a long time, but I will say that, when people ask me this, question, Partly because, I think that we liked, again, we like to think about this as a kind of a distant concept and I bring up examples of Facebook, for example, and, and say, you know: We literally are working for Facebook nonstop.

There’s 24/7 new content that is being generated by the users of this platform. And ultimately, we’re doing this work for free. Uh, We’re doing this work that inflates the value of the, of that platform. I did it too! The entire COVID project was present in, on Facebook and Instagram. Right? It’s the same company that essentially created that space, that we are all occupying, working.

And, you know, when they would say, “Oh, it’s just me, you know, tapping on the phone.” I mean, that’s true, but that’s the difference between the 20th and 21st century that the, what constitutes labor, labor that produces value that then enriches the, the ruling class is very different. I love this term, “cognitiariat” which is like a 21st century
“proletariat.” Right? So yes, it may seem as if though it’s just fun and sharing pictures with our friends, but, to me, that’s, that’s really, uh, easily the kind of situation that could be compared to a kind of a labor camp dynamic. You know.

Patrick Coue: [00:27:50] That was, I was just thinking of that because, there’s so much of artists’ career life, whatever is mediated nowadays by, you know, Facebook and Instagram. And, but you, you, you, you just, talked about your ambivolence about, you know, using… these platforms. And so it’s been very much, you know, on your mind that, you know… And these are the companies which are, you know, highly criticized nowadays for creating also political, milieu we, we are dealing with,

Piotr Szyhalski: [00:28:25] Yeah, it’s, it’s super complicated.
And, and, you know, if, if we had the conversation two years ago and you would say, “Oh, you know, you’re actually going to be working on this massive project for months every day. And it’ll be essentially an Instagram project.” I would laugh because it’s just seems, it just seems totally preposterous, but pandemic changed all of that and, and. I mean, it almost seems trite to say it right. It’s uh, eh, the world had been altered by this, by this event, but it is true. I mean, I, I think that… as far as extreme historical phenomenon go, this is about as, as big as it gets. I mean, we, we, we’re still in the midst of massive global tragedy.

And, again, one of the things that this, that, that… was clear about this project to me, is that people connected with it because, we understood on some level, a lot of these issues, very, very, deeply without even, you know, speaking of these, of these things out loud. So, and this, it goes all the way from sort of the transparency of the political and social ugliness of it all the way to, the sort of foundational, ideas or concepts of us collectively confronting our mortality, for example. Right?

And so, I think that the project also had this, uh, real dynamic range moments where it was very harsh and directly critical of the, the political space. But also, reflecting on, on, I don’t know the, the fact that spring had come, and we are all locked up and the trees are blooming and the death is in the air and, and being able to talk quietly about this as well.

And so that’s the, in a way, a luxury of working, uh, on the work that has 225 components. I can afford to spend time lingering on something simple and quiet, and I can also, find a time to. Scream about something that we all feel completely enraged by.

Roberta Fallon: [00:30:35] Wow. I think we should let it go at that. Those were wonderful words to end on screaming in the dark, while making gentle messages. I love it.

Thank you so much, Peter. This is, Peter S zyhalski that we’ve been talking to about his COVID-19 Labor Camp project. Thanks so much. We are looking forward to seeing the book in print. There’s a book coming! Uh, we’ll have links in Artblog when we publish this to where you can find the book, where you can find out more about you, and your work, your Labor Camp work.

Patrick, thank you for being here. Thank you both.

Peter. It’s been such a pleasure. Thank you so much.

Piotr Szyhalski: [00:31:17] Thank you both for having me. I really appreciate the opportunity to talk to you and, shout outs to Anna and all the cohorts in Philadelphia that, made it possible.

Roberta Fallon: [00:31:26] Indeed. Thank you, Philadelphia. Okay, bye everyone. You’ve been listening to art blog radio. Thank you.