Born in London to Polish parents who were displaced from their country during the Second World War, Kowalski’s family moved to the USA and lived in many cities and states.
On Wednesday and Saturday mornings, all through high school Kowalski studied sculpture at Munson Williams Proctor Institute in Utica, New York. He ice-skated during the winter and in summer rode his bicycle to keep in shape. He toured alone on his bike to cities like Chicago, Montreal, New Orleans, Miami and Buffalo. In the late 1969, bored with high school, Kowalski started experimenting with super 8 film making and made his first film, The Danger Halls, about rebelling and pot smoking students. He left school to train as a speed skater in Milwaukee Wisconsin but suffered a head concussion after an automobile hit him crossing a highway after skating practice. He returned to his home and several months later arrived in New York City where he attended the School of Visual Arts, with interesting teachers like Vito Acconci and Jud Yalkut. To survive he worked unloading trucks on the west side of Manhattan, repaired bicycles in a bicycle store, worked as a carpenter and as a messenger for Harold Mayer production where he met director cameraman Tom Reichmann who made the film Mingus about Charlie Mingus.
Kowalski learned about cinema and cameras from Reichmann and started to work as Reichmann’s camera assistant. At the same time Harold Mayer Productions was making “Khrushchev Remembers” and Kowalski logged 20th century Russian archive footage and met the assistant editor on the project. As a side project the assistant editor produced porno films that played in 42nd street and offered Kowalski to shoot them if he remodeled the assistant editor’s home in Staten Island. Kowalski agreed and started shooting porno films. He met all the 70’s porno stars and made his first documentary film Sex Stars. At the same time he met Shirley Clarke and assisted her on some of the video happenings she staged on the roof of the Chelsea Hotel. Through her he met many people in the New York art scene and worked for a short time setting up television screens for Nam June Paik. She introduced him to Wall Street business man Walter Guttmann who produced the Beat film “Pull My Daisy”. He was also a film maker and a painter and painted strong circus woman. Kowalski made the short Walter and Cutie with Guttmann, who was in his 70’s, and a young porn actress. After a private screening of this film Kowalski was asked by the mayor of Utica, New York to come and work as cultural director for the city but discovered that much of the job was really to get the mayor re-elected. After six months he returned to New York and the punk scene had started. Kowalski spent time in the punk clubs like CBGB’s. In 1978, through a Polish high-class call girl he met Tom Forcade the editor of the pot magazine High Times. In exchange for re-editing a film called The Smugglers, Tom financed the beginnings of D.O.A. a film Kowalski made while following the Sex Pistols first and only tour of USA. In mid production Forcade committed suicide and Kowalski completed D.O.A. It was released in 1981 and won first prize in the Paris music film festival. He learned about this prize via a telegram but did not have the funds to travel to Paris to pick up the prize. D.O.A. became a cult film. Hip Hop music was just beginning and Kowalski made a short with a break-dance crew from the Bronx called Breakdance Test.
To survive Kowalski made industrial films for some of the biggest corporations in the USA, like AT&T. He continued to live on New York’s lower east side and made Gringo based on what he experienced in the art/drug scene in that neighborhood. Gringo played many festivals around the world including Berlin Film Festival and was released through Troma as Story of a Junky. Kowalski moved for a short time to New Mexico and Mexico City and when he returned to NYC he saw all the homeless people and made Rock Soup about a food kitchen on the Lower East Side of New York, run by homeless people. The black and white film won prize in San Francisco for best documentary, played in Sundance and was released theatrically. Kowalski made Chico and the People a short film about the recording of the music for Rock Soup with jazz musician Chico Freeman and a group of homeless people in Tompkins Square Park in New York. In 1991 Kowalski started shooting a film about Johnny Thunders, the New York musician who died in of a drug overdose in New Orleans. He was not interested in making a typical rock and roll bio film and he was finally pleased with the 14th version of Born To Lose (the last rock and roll movie). Kowalski worked on the films presented at the grand opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio.
Then before the 20th century ended he returned to live in Europe and New York. His first major project in Europe was a trilogy called The Fabulous Art of Surviving made in Poland or with Polish themes. The Boot Factory is a story about a group of Polish outsiders heavily influenced by punk rock who make Doc Martin like boots but the footwear is completely handmade. The film played on television and in festivals around the world. It won best creative documentary film in France. He spent three months traveling the oldest East/West highway in Poland that was built by the Nazis. Much of the construction was done by slave labor before the big concentration camps were built. On Hitler’s Highway won the Jury Prize in the Amsterdam film festival (IDFA) as well as best film in Alba film festival in Italy. East of Paradise utilizes a diptych story structure. It is about Kowalski’s mother when she was a Polish prisoner in one of Stalin’s gulags. It’s also his own story living in New York during the punk period. The film won many awards including best documentary in the Venice film festival and best film in the Mexico City film festival.
Five months after the disaster in New York on September 11, 2001 Kowalski made a film in Kabul. Charlie Chaplin in Kabul (Full House in Malalaï) is a story about a cinema tour of Afghanistan to show films to war orphaned children. He also made another short film Camera Gun inspired by the disaster in New York, a story about a white American racist, who became a Muslim while in jail and went to fight against the Russians in Chechnya.
After Dee Dee Ramone (The Ramones) died, Kowalski made Hey Is Dee Dee Home from footage he shot with Dee Dee in 1993. Diary of a Married Man is a short filmed in the USA about a married man in his forties who lives a secret life. The film won best film prize in
After bloody police riots in Paris Kowalski made Police Force Ouvrière, a short film, part of a collective film project called ‘Outrage and Rebellion’ . The story is about two left wing cops who patrol the streets outside of Paris where many foreigners live.
In 2007 France and Italy faced each other in the football world cup. Kowalski organized twenty camera crews, ten in Rome and ten in Italy to film people’s reactions as they watched the game that made Zidane famous for his head butt. Winners and Losers played to 7, 000 people in piazza Grande at the Locarno film festival in Switzerland.
In 2008, Kowalski made Camera War an online film project. Every Monday for one year he posted chapters to build a story about what he experienced in that year. This on line experiment began with the financial crash in New York and then the Obama election and moved back and forth between Europe and the United States. Camera War was is one of the first of its kind of projects ever on the Internet. The French film critic Nicole Brenez named Camera War and On Hitler’s Highway two of the best films of the 21 century and in 2009 Kowalski had his first retrospective in the French Cinémathèque in Paris.
Known for having filmed with underground rock musicians, Kowalski maintains a symbiotic relationship with music. It is therefore natural that the idea of a live event interweaving images, sound and live performance grew.
Together with composer Mimetic, Kowalski created FUCK a live cinema event that merges his images filmed around the world with a live electronic sound track. Images filmed in a variety of formats, broadcast cameras to cell phones, clash against each other as the music is performed live. It ranges from dark industrial electro to the post techno. From the United States to Afghanistan, France to Argentina, Poland to Mexico, it's a chaotic world that emerges.
CUTS made for Arte Creative online platform, was an experimental project filmed and edited non-stop for 30 hours at an art happening in Palais de Tokyo, the largest contemporary art museum in Europe. Scenes were presented on line as the art event occurred.
The End of the World Begins With One Lie was inspired by the BP oil spill in Louisiana. The film is a deconstruction of Louisiana Story made by Robert Flaherty, a film commissioned by an oil company.
Kowalski considers farmers as the new underground. He filmed Holy Field Holy War on farms in Poland, (not as yet released). Drill Baby Drill is about a farmer’s rebellion against the fourth largest energy company in the world. The farmers prevented Chevron from building a shale gas well in their village in eastern Poland. This critically acclaimed film played on television in 2013 in France and Germany. Kowalski has taught at the French film academy La FEMIS and at HEAD school of art in Geneva.