Interview with Anna Daučíková
Asked by Michal Novotný
How do we perceive the critical role of art? In your opinion, what is the relationship between activism and art? How are they different and what, on the other hand, do they have in common?
Now, put impassionedly, the critical role means more to me personally in
the second half of my life than plain visual contemplation. I have a tendency to separate art and activism and keep some space between the two. There is such a thing as activist attitudes realized as art, but that’s because art can be everything, contemporary art takes up a much larger number of media and expression than the classic disciplines of imaging. They might even be political and social processes, various situations like ready-mades, anything. Art is political and always has been. Contemporary art works with the current state of the world, of affairs. It’s a space for processing something that goes beyond that implicit political dimension of art in general. It poses questions in a way that the pragmatic plane of activism can’t afford and isn’t even interested in. It’s somehow more precarious. Activism itself as an activity focused on achieving specific changes is something different. It’s not art, thus neither is it a privileged space for a relatively small number of recipients within a certain discourse. It seems that activism in the true sense of the word is, disconcertingly, vanishing from the political space. It’s as though it were simply ceasing to make sense and have any impact, while dissatisfaction, criticism, and, sometimes (rarely), even subversion have seemingly moved into the realm of art. That’s neither good nor bad – it’s just the way it is. And this kind of art is capable of evoking some pretty remarkable resonations, namely outside its own realm. Take Ai Wei Wei (in his case resonations in both realms – both on the side of power structures as well as within the apparatus of art. Or Pussy Riot, who are artists, yet their actions tend to cause social turbulence, which is, after all, their intention; nonetheless, the realm of art essentially takes no notice of them). In art, there are phenomena on the borders of both of these realms, and that’s alright – art is supposed to overstep its boundaries and belie itself.
Would you agree that the need to create comes more from pain than from joy? Do you think it’s possible to separate the author from his creation?
Pain and joy – that’s tricky. The state in which it’s possible to work is, in my opinion, much more complex, complicated. Sometimes, it is possible to separate the author from his creation (and it should happen), and sometimes it isn’t, and the author as the reverse side of the work is important. It’s like this: when we don’t know the author, or we don’t know him well, we don’t in any way need him in order to perceive his work; however, as soon as we know him, it becomes very hard to separate him from his work. Sometimes the author’s “language” and “grammar” are entirely idiosyncratic, and then this individual background becomes important. And that, in the long run, bears a relation to the end of the great story, including the great narrative of art, doesn’t it?
Why, at the start of the 1980s, did you decide to emigrate east to Moscow and not to the west as was more customary? And how did it take place?
Apparently, I don’t have a well-developed sense of self preservation, so
I didn’t care. But if I’m to be serious – I simply fell in love and there was no other way to handle it.
How dif cult was your emigration and adaptation to the local Moscow envi- ronment and scene?
It was actually pretty smooth because I didn’t integrate into the Soviet envi- ronment at all. When you’re self-employed, lots of things can be, to a large degree, ignored, and my Moscow surroundings were extremely private and hermetically sealed (because of the narks, of course). It was a circle of fantastic people and intellectuals, and we tried, as far as it was possible, to not let the outer world get close to us. As in other social states, the world was more of a precarious, hostile zone than a space in which to live. Integration into the art scene wasn’t really happening either – I had a minimum of contacts and I wasn’t even really trying for them. It was immediately clear to me that my creative opinion (back then it was the minimalism, concept, language of geometrical abstraction) wasn’t going to be accepted (not even by the underground, where I did know a few people) and that I was going to be sticking my work in a drawer, so to speak. So, on the outside, I made only the most necessary of self-preserving compromises and it wasn’t until the end of Perestroika that I showed a little something.
Were you influenced by your work in the medium of video, which you began doing even thematically in the 90s? Did the topics change compared with your previous work in painting and photography?
Yes, at the start of the 90s, I got to Switzerland and there, for the first time,
I saw a video projection, and it was literally revolutionary. Through the camera, I discovered an “event” and an image in motion and I realized that I’d already had a relationship with the medium but had somehow intentionally overlooked it, likely in the name of faith in modernistic principles. So, for me it was something like a second wind, the excitement that comes from visuality, and suddenly it was giving me a large number of topics that I’d originally thought shouldn’t have a place in the visual arts: narration, temporality, art as politics, and, in the end (and in my opinion most importantly), feminism, which, as we know, was opening pathways to autobiographic methods and sexuality as far back as the end of the 1960s. All of this suddenly emerged in front of me at the turn of the 1990s, and I, as an author as it were, woke up in another world. Feministic thinking (and that’s not just a movement but a rich and diverse academic sphere as well as a thrilling practice) became for me a very delicate and precise instrument of criticism of the state of Western civilization, which we were suddenly beginning to become a part of again and in which today we tend to be confounded. I had the opportunity to watch up close the drama of Perestroika in the 1980s in Moscow and then in the wonderful 1990s in Bratislava when postmodernism was coming in. Now, it seems like those were 20 wonderful years of both intellectual and sensual excitement.
In the video Portrait of a woman with an institution - Anna Daučiková and the church (Portrét ženy s institucí - Anna Daučiková a církev) you repeatedly gravitate from the position of the performer to that of the artist and back again. How do you perceive the relationship between the author and the performer?
By changing positions from behind the camera to in front of it, I wanted to emphasize the fact that it was a reenactment, a newly mounted event, much as the police do when they are condemning the accused, but I wanted it to be from the point of view of a witness. It’s an autobiographical work, how- ever, the aim wasn’t at all to provide insight into the intimacy of the life of a couple and sexuality but rather to provide a demonstration – evidence that disciplinary police tactics are not only used in the secular sphere but (covertly) also in the sphere of the church, which hypocritically distances itself from secular power. Ultimately, the inquisition clearly had to have been a big education for the Soviet KGB and its satellites.
What is your relationship to the church like?
How should I put it? More than frigid; single-mindedly critical. After the collapse of the totalitarian model of socialism in Europe, it’s the Christian church that shows how much alike and even technically similar these two seemingly conflicting technologies of power are in their practices and even in their goals.
The work 33 situations (33 situací) illustrates events from your time in Soviet Russia. They’re somewhat banal and violent. What was your motivation to create this work and how did you select the situations from your memory? Was it a matter of intuitive selection? They are, after all, sort of model situations too.
I look at it as working with the memory. During totality, in the absence of freedom of speech, we had the feeling that no one would ever know how we were living our everydayness, that the crimes of intellectual genocide would never become known because the Bolshevik, even if it were to have one day vanished as a species, would certainly not forget to erase its footprints. So, I’m still reconciling this today and with a significant delay I’m zeroing in on it and giving some shape to these events from the banal, reverse side of reality as I encountered it. I created this work gradually over the course of more than ten years. Today, fortunately, the factography of the Soviet reality has become accessible, and in various ways more people are doing this, namely in literature and film. It’s becoming evident that life back then had features of a sort of permanently emergent state. But I wanted to show that it wasn’t all about violence, banality, and absurdity but also about how (as they say in Slovak “vybabrat” (bamboozle your way out of certain situations)) and survive.
In the description of the characters in the series 33 situations, there are explicit yet almost mechanistic enumerations of the activities of the sexual life of the characters. They often come across as nearly obscene, especially in light of the fact that the description is mechanically cold, much like the information about the employment and age of the characters. What was the aim in using this motif?
I’m intentionally emulating a sort of official documentation. I wanted something between a police dossier, a medical history, and a sort of stigmatic script of the individual situations. Such documents always contain inappropriate information that, as is hoped, might play some role in the case. Particularly in the last decade in Russia, there is an ever-growing effort to convince the population that non-normative sexualities are foreign to Russians, are a product of the “rotten West”, Europe, the USA, and that real Russians are and always have been internally “healthy”, heterosexual, clearly and firmly sexually defined and that their mission is to teach this fortune to the rest of the world. But that’s not how it is nor has it ever been. Nowhere in the world, not even in Russia. It’s all a power strategy, a new national ideology and it’s spreading in the name of patriotism, of course. So, in my footage from the 80s, there is an aspect of sexuality, including polymorphic perversion, an important indicator that even in Russia the world was and is “horrifically” polysexual. Few people know that sometime in the 13th century in the Orthodox Church, monks had same-sex partnerships that were official and ritualized. They concluded something like a marriage.
What is the relationship in 33 situations between the visual component that the camera is shooting and the event as it is described on paper? In some situations outside the “realistic frames” your previous photographs also appear. How did these videos come about and what is the relationship of the written text, the imagery, the characters, and the objects? Why don’t the videos have any audio component?
It’s about bringing the various modes of viewer perception together into one, which is demanding in terms of attentiveness and can only be afforded in video art. The camera works as a sort of scanner, and the viewer must constantly switch between watching (the space behind the window in the present time of the video), reading (the textual notation of the situation), and perception (looking into the photograph capturing the past). An audio component would seem excessive to me here. I approached the autobiographical element of the work from the standpoint of witnesses. Each situation is filmed in the interior spaces of one of my friends, who, without even knowing it, form a group – a collection of people with no current or comprehensible relationship to one another, just like the situations, which in our lives (in this case specifically in my life) keep coming one after the other. Thus, a map was created of 33 situations from the 80s and 33 people and views from windows. It’s one of my greatest, say more complex works.
In the 90s, your videos mainly deal with the subject of desire. How do you work with this subject in the medium of video?
In art, it was especially important in the 80s and 90s. It was a reaction brought about by the crisis in society in the West caused by the AIDS epidemic. Sexuality, together with opportunities to work online, has become a topic for many artists. For me, it was an opportunity for a certain type of coming-out in the realm of art at the end of the 90s, when I was also working in Slovakia as an activist against discrimination of sexual minorities.
What’s your stance on suggestiveness, for example, with respect for the audio component, which was long considered taboo in video art? Video art works with it in a completely different manner than film. Audio is more or less a question of concept.
The question is more about what type of suggestiveness and how to control
it, guessing at the right degree to which a video should be suggestive. It’s a question of the author’s degree of sensitivity and mastery of the craft, and therein lies the difference between kitsch and art. In a moving picture, the question of an audio track to decrease or increase suggestiveness is entirely essential. Of course, video, if it works with music, generally does so for a different reason than film. It has to do with the so-called critical viewer. A film viewer is primarily considered to be uncritical. It is a viewer who spends his time in the cinema primarily in a state of immersion. The viewer of video art, on the contrary, is watchful, critical by nature. He or she mainly wants to keep some distance from the work. We don’t go to galleries to dream, or only dream – we go there to work. In my opinion, music should be present in videos for conceptual reasons and not in order to increase suggestion. But it can be the other way around too. In short, suggestiveness is, in and of itself, ok, but it’s always a conceptual decision even if I want the viewer to become immersed. I use music very, very seldom, and it’s always as a counter point, something that bothers, mocks, or draws attention to something. If you’ve found something in my works to be suggestive, it’s because I was trying to mock the way in which the pornographic image works. Such images always come about with the aim of evoking (suggesting) an effect, a sexual desire.
Is there a relationship here between the topic of desire and the fact that these are domestic scenes and activities?
For me, domestic, home scenery as such is somehow obscene in the sense that it is somewhat out of the “picture.” But private doesn’t immediately mean intimate. Privacy truly is political. Then there are things that are really intimate; we can’t even speak about them. Desire isn’t always one of these things; it doesn’t always have to be there.
Is it, in your opinion, still possible to talk of the division of East and West, for instance, with respect to the topics that you work with?
I don’t think we can talk about division anymore. The East is changing; let us hope that it has more or less un-traumatized itself. And we know that the West isn’t what it used to be. But the sense of cultural misunderstanding that we used to call East-West is still here. It upsets me when, for example, my friends from the West say that they too know of some of our negative phenomena, such as corruption as a standard or the contagiousness of turpitude. I don’t know what they want to say. I hope they’re not trying to say we’re in the same boat, or that we should stop feeling sorry for ourselves already. Because we aren’t feeling sorry for ourselves; we just don’t know what to do with it. But maybe they just want to say that we shouldn’t consider them better. I don’t know. I think about it a lot.
Your work is critical. Do you see in recent history a shift toward better times within the society we live in or in the world in general?
Unfortunately, it is probably for the worse. If 20 years ago someone had told me that religion would be a source of armed conflicts and an important topic at all, I wouldn’t have believed it. And there is much more out there that is hard to believe.