Why are those shorts in the courtyard?
Tereza Stejskalová in conversation with the Laundry Collective
The Laundry Collective, common meeting photodocumentation, 2021, Prostor39, Prague, Czech Republic, photo by The Laundry Collective
The Laundry Collective, Video still from How to Make Money on Artists, 2021, courtesy of the authors, photo by Linda
Tereza Stejskalová: Let’s take it from the beginning – how did you meet, and how did you start working together?
Linda (the Laundry Collective): Sometimes I visit the Homelike organization. They got a cafeteria too, and today I worked a three-hour shift there, helping to box things up. These girls used to work at their community center at Florenc – now it’s near Palmovka. I used to wander by there pretty often, and in the end, I started doing some of the temp jobs they offer. That’s when I met Magda. She liked the Homelike project, and she started thinking about doing something similar in a gallery – a place where people could go to relax, eat, do laundry, wash up, and just be together. So we made Magdalena’s Laundry in that gallery [INI Prostor, -TS]. I’ve had experience with different kinds of communities – I was in the nuthouse, the hospital, the Salvation Army. I’ve had mental problems for a long time. I’m gonna be 30 soon. Right now, I’ve been living in a hotel for a year with the other girls. I put in my application for a place to live, and today I got a paper that says I’m on the waiting list for social housing. But we can stay in the hotel for another year. That’s what the town hall decided. I’ll either live in social housing or start squatting.
Tereza: And did you and the other girls meet through Magdalena’s Laundry, or did you know each other beforehand?
Linda: No, we met Magda and the others at Homelike at Florenc. We’ve known each other for three years already. Right now, we’re working on a new project, Laundry Without Power. It’ll be a mobile laundry where we can wash clothes for different folks.
Magda: The Laundry Without Power was a kind of prototype for continuing the project with the INI Gallery. We borrowed a car, and with these old manual washing machines – the kind where you have to spin the laundry by hand – we had an action-filled weekend. With the travelling Laundry project, we want to do all the same activities we did in Magdalena’s Laundry, but in motion. We’re looking for a big enough van, and we want to fix it up and equip it with two washers and two dryers and facilities for group activities. Then, with a water tank and a generator, it could function independently, even where there’s no source of water or electricity, so that our activities can be as inclusive as possible.
Tereza: How do you look back on the Laundry in the gallery? What was it like for you?
Linda: It was really great for everyone. It was winter, and when you left the shelter at, say, six thirty or seven in the morning, everything was still closed until eight. It was really lucky for the girls who knew about the Laundry – for me, definitely. Whenever I left the shelter early in the morning, I already had a place to go. I knew where I was headed and what I’d be doing there. We’d wash dishes, clean, watch movies, someone would pop out to the shop for something. I really liked the atmosphere there. On the weekends, we agreed that anyone who didn’t have a place to go could sleep there. There were about 10 or 15 of us there, and we’d all lay next to each other, sometimes two to a mattress. It was nice.
Monika: We knew each other before, but just a little. Just from Homelike. We’d meet there and chat a bit, but that was all. Like this, we actually lived together and really got to know each other.
Magda: Monika had an important role because she was there all the time.
Linda: We were always bothering her.
Magda: Twenty-four hours a day for three months straight. But Balů and Nina cooked.
Linda: Yeah, one time all of us girls there got sick and threw up. Every last one of us. We drank some spoiled juice or something that’d fermented. Eighteen of us slept there that night. We couldn’t let anyone go home in that state.
Tereza: Did you get the feeling that you’d like to do something else together? To continue somehow?
Magda: We wanted to continue after – to be parasites on some other galleries – it’s just that...
Monika: It’s more that no one wanted us. Who wants a bunch of homeless women coming to their gallery?
Magda: We didn’t get any offers from anyone... Maybe our promotion was bad. It’s hard to say. We even tried open calls, but so far, no luck.
The Laundry Collective, common meeting photodocumentation, 2021, Kampa, Prague, Czech Republic, photo by Balů
Tereza: And was it unpleasant for you when complete strangers showed up there? Did it bother you when they came to the gallery?
Linda: It was alright. We made friends with some of them. Mia always came in, smiled, made something to eat.
Monika: But I have the feeling strangers didn’t go there much. A lot of times they’d come in, take a look around, and then run off.
Linda: That’s true.
Monika: The question is why they ran off. Did they think they were bothering us? Did they leave because they were scared?
Balů: They ran away because the place was a mess.
Monika: Not always.
Balů: Some girls didn’t clean up after themselves much.
Magda: Then again, there were 25 people there. It’s hard to keep things tidy with that many people.
Monika: Some of the girls had simply never lived anywhere before. They were from the streets and just weren’t in the habit of taking a cup and washing it. It wasn’t usual for them. And some just didn’t give a damn. There’ll always been people like that, and always have been.
Magda: Some visitors also just came there, like on a Sunday, without knowing what they were walking into. They hadn’t read anything about it. They were just out shopping and decided to stop by a gallery they knew was open. Suddenly they walked in, and they didn’t understand. We tried to explain it to them. But we did, for example, make friends with the people in the pawn shop across the street.
Monika: Or in the shops, like the spice shop.
Balů: A friend of Magda’s made us a coat rack, where we could hang everything up, like backpacks and bags.
Magda: There wasn’t really any place to put things. With the coat rack, we could hang things up by the ceiling. You’d just put something on the rack and then hoist it up.
Balů: The conditions there were great.
Tereza: Could you describe the feelings you got from it? How did you all feel there then?
Balů: Sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes ok. It’s hard to say. There was a lot of joy there. Sometimes there was sadness. There were different people there too. One time they’d come in one mood, the next time in a different mood. They came in frozen from the street, and they were happy to be somewhere warm, eat something, have a hot coffee. There were all different kinds of feelings. I didn’t live there. I just went to see my friend and help her cook for everyone else. But I felt really good there. It was good with the girls. I was even there on Christmas. But I always left in the evening.
Monika: Mainly they had some certainty.
Linda: That gallery was really open-minded.
Balů: The girls didn’t have anywhere to go. It was freezing out.
Monika: You don’t always get into the shelter. You’ll wait there from seven o’clock till half past eight, and they might not let you in. They’re full. There were two women at Homelike, Dáša and Maruška – complete bundles of nerves – and at the Laundry, they completely blossomed. They suddenly had some certainty. If they couldn’t get into the shelter, they could come to the Laundry. If, God forbid, they’d had some wine, they could still come too [the shelter usually refuses people who are intoxicated, -TS]. They knew they wouldn’t have to freeze outside. Or even when it’s not so cold, it still means a lot. Not walking the streets at night, afraid to lay down anywhere...
Tereza: Would you like to do it again sometime?
Monika, Balů: Definitely.
Balů: That would be totally fantastic.
Monika: And we know more now too. There’s lots of things we’d do different.
Tereza: You meet regularly now, once a week, to work together. What does that mean for you?
Monika: It’s different. Magda approaches it different than the people who work in social organizations. We got our plans for the future, but in a way, she’s got no say in it. She asks us: “Girls, how would you imagine this or that?” And then she listens to us. It’s not her job. She’s putting together something we all came up with. The Laundry is ours, not Magda’s job. She’s the motor, the drive behind it. But it belongs to all the girls.
Balů: That’s really important for us.
Monika: You don’t feel like an idiot.
Tereza: Is it different compared to your relationships with social workers?
Monika: Yeah, it’s not really honest with them. They say, “I’m your friend, be open with me.” But they’re still social workers.
Balů: There’s a distance there.
Monika: Magda accepts us more, and at the same time she’s always telling us that anything we come up with is ours. And that’s a big difference. It doesn’t matter what it’ll be like – if it’ll be a mobile laundry or something else. It’s about the approach. The girls who go there will have a different relationship to it. It’ll be theirs. They’ll be the owners. During our meetings, I get the feeling this is someone who really sees us and also isn’t afraid to tell us if something’s stupid.
Magda: I would never say something is stupid.
Balů: For me, our meetings are a space where we can be free. We think something up, and then it’s exactly how we want it. That’s a big difference.
Tereza: You had plans to travel around to different galleries and set up a laundry or organize different activities...
Magda: We woulda traveled around for a bit and then maybe settled somewhere. We got a grant for our work. But Covid interrupted everything. So then we said we’d do the mobile laundry.
Tereza: And did you continue at all during the lockdown?
Magda: We were meeting once a week.
Linda: Even if we were in quarantine or isolation, we met through the computer.
Balů: Is Tomáš coming today?
Magda: Tomáš Kajánek is the curator of the exhibition at the etc. gallery that we’re taking part in, and Balů has an idea about how to change the whole thing.
Balů: Someone records every meeting on paper. Mostly Linda takes notes with pictures or words. I like writing more than speaking. The questions you sent us before were a lot about feelings. I started writing down the answers. The feelings of homeless people. It’s still not finished. These things Linda makes – how she draws and writes our meetings – I think they deserve to be seen by someone. What we do. What we’re interested in. I think it should be in the exhibition.
Monika: Balů, you really think anyone cares what girls from the street do?
Balů: If we’re already doing it and spending time on it, then why not? Isn’t it better than some film about homeless people?
Monika: I really like Linda’s notes too.
Balů: She puts her ideas and feelings into it. It’s good. Someone should see it. I wanna suggest it to Tomáš – maybe he won’t agree – that we put them in the exhibition.
Tereza: Do you also feel, as artists, some kind of creative pressure? That you want to say something to others and that you have something to say?
Balů: If I’m supposed to be an artist, then I’ll be one. If I want to build something or do something, then I’m an artist. Someone should take notice. The work should get some recognition, no matter if the person is homeless or not. With the filming we’re doing now, we’re trying to do a good job.
Magda: But the reactions won’t necessarily always be positive. Some people may not like it.
Balů: I know.
Monika: Just so the girls don’t get let down.
Balů: I’d feel pretty bad about it. This work is important to us. I’d be disappointed.
Monika: It’s scary. People will say, “They’re just some bag ladies. Somebody gave them a chance.” But they won’t take it seriously.
Balů: They can put you down. Then it gives you this weird feeling. I’d be really disappointed.
Monika: I get that feeling all the time.
Balů: Of course not everyone will like it, but if they recognize it and say, “Yeah, they tried to do something,” that’ll be enough for me.
Tereza: I get the feeling that equality is important to you – that others treat you as equals. Both in art and social work. Is that so?
Balů: Yes, definitely. That’s why I like working with Magda.
Tereza: Do you also do it so people will better understand the lives of the homeless?
Monika: You could spend ten years, twenty years, one year on the street – some drink, some do drugs, some are just there – living like that is no joke. When you’re homeless, it’s hard to even do something like go to these meetings once a week. To keep track of the time, come on the right day. You don’t have a watch – maybe a phone, but it could be dead. Even just making the effort – you’re not used to it. It’s new for the girls. They don’t know what it’s like to stick together.
Balů: For example, we filmed something with Magda in the hotel where we were living in the winter – something about some shorts. They were hanging outside on a chair. Magda asked, “Why are those shorts outside?” Well, because we don’t have soap or running water. It’s winter, so we wash our clothes in the snow and dry them outside on a chair in the courtyard. Or if you don’t got a charger, you go look for a charger.
Monika: I always have trouble when I get on the metro or a tram or things like that.
Balů: I’m a person who’s not afraid of anything. Either they’ll let me in, or they won’t. It’s that way with everything.
Tereza: How do you feel in galleries?
Monika: When we went with Magda as a part of the Laundry, they welcomed us with open arms. They knew it was some project or that it was organized somehow. If I tried to go by myself, it’d be the same as anywhere else. People suddenly put their guard up, and it’s just not worth it.
Balů: In the big gallery [Prague City Gallery, -TS], they were really nice to us. And when we were at those boys’ vernissage, that was great.
Magda: Yeah, they were from A.M. 180. We also went to Jelení and then to a party at AVU.
Balů: I really liked that. Those boys from A.M. were terrific. They explained everything to us. I really enjoyed it.
Magda: They gave us a guided tour.
Balů: They also liked our Laundry. I don’t have a problem at galleries.
Monika: I’d really like to go to galleries, but I don’t like the faces people make. We even said something to Magda about it. But it could open us up to new things. We could learn something new.
Tereza: Can you tell me something about your filming?
Linda: We’re filming about how we live and what we do. We’re messing around. We acted like apes. We played at being artists. We turned Magda into a homeless person. She tried begging for change.
Balů: It suited her.
Magda: Well, you didn’t turn me into a homeless person. I was just trying something.
Linda: You earned 147 crowns.
Monika: We shoulda left her there by herself.
Magda: So I could see how awful it really is. It’s different when you have your gang there nearby. They were watching out for the police and other stuff. Like that, you don’t really experience what homeless people have to go through.
Tereza: How was living in the pandemic? What kinds of feelings did you have?
Monika: For people on the street, the pandemic was a huge plus.
Tereza: Because you got somewhere to live?
Monika: Not just that. People were taken care of, even if they were positive, God forbid.
Magda: Most people experienced fear, but the girls experienced joy. At the same time, not much changed for girls from the street. The cinemas, pubs, and so on were closed.
Monika: But we don’t go there anyway.
Magda: All the things that seemed limiting to us didn’t really affect the girls.
Monika: There weren’t so many drunk assholes on the street. That was a good thing. The Covid pandemic was a joy for us. But of course also misery, distress, and a lot of hopelessness for the people who had to stay outside and didn’t get placed in a hotel. It was a source of food, money, shelter. There was nothing on the streets, not even cigarette butts. There were no tourists here. People also started saving food, and there was a lot less of it in the bins.