Conversation between Damir Avdagic, Moa Alskog and Cecilie Skov, the 19th of October on Skype in the lead-up to the exhibition "Translations", the last one of five in the series 'Sig mig, at tingene taler'.
Damir Avdagic took his MFA at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Art in 2014 and is currently doing a MA at the department of art at UCLA in the interdisciplinary studio area.
Cecilie: You are planning to work with a video performance. Would you like to elaborate on the piece?
Damir: My work in the exhibition will be a performance video, where I take departure point in spoken material from the trial of Slobodan Milosevic, which was happening from 2002 to 2006. During the last three years my work has revolved around, or rather related to the civil war in Bosnia, the after effects of that conflict on my generation and the negotiation of that history which happens today in the form of trials, monument editing, monument building etc. This condition, where history is treated, renegotiated and perhaps slowly falling apart is important to have in the back of the head as the historical background against which my work takes place. My questions are perhaps mostly directed to my own generation, which is marked by this history, what do we need to do? What is our duty in a state of historical disappearance? I guess my material deals with a double conflict; both the mark of history writing on contemporary time and subjects, but also the present rewriting of history and the scars it inscribes in its subjects. I've chosen to work with the uncompleted trial of Slobodan Milosevic (Milosevic died in 2006, while the trial was on going) where I respeak, perform and imitate statements, attitudes, movements and details from the trial which relate to the Bosnian war and it's history.
Moa: It's a very interesting project, but could we leave the "content" part for now and talk a little about your process. You wrote in your text that you already "know" how the piece will look when you start producing.
D: It's true that I picture my work before it's done, but the idea is the first thing. When I get an idea for a project I ask myself the question; what does this relate to? What other disciplines can I use? What can I research? And in what way can I use this research to clarify the conceptual core of the piece. First the work might expand into something bigger and more complicated than I would like, with more "signs" present for the viewer to decipher. When this happens I tend to go into the opposite direction, I'll ask myself; what do I want the work to do? What's my question that I pose to the viewer? And what information currently present in this work is redundant? What can I remove in order to make the work clearer? After working through these questions I usually end up with an idea and an image of what the piece is supposed to be, but to get there I do an elaborate research and thinking process.
C: Do you need the work to be materialised in a physical form to see it as an artwork?
D: No, not really, I feel the work starts when I begin doing my research. The production itself seems secondary, although I have experienced sometimes that the material that ends up being used changes a lot of things, for good or bad. When I reach the stage of the actual production I rarely feel that there is room for change, as everything is planned out and thought about for such a long time in advance. I'm not saying that there's no testing or prototyping before the production. I do make tests and different approaches that I discuss with friends and colleagues, but I guess I see that as part of the research procedure as well.
M: It seems to me that you're not leave anything to chance in your production. Is there a risk that your work becomes too programmatic, or too informative? How do you consider the viewer and their space in viewing the work? Does the space for interpretation ever become too narrow?
D: Well, the work for this exhibition is a little bit different from my previous work, as the material is so explicitly political. I've moved away from the familial sphere, which my work usually operates in and moved closer to political and historical material. I absolutely have doubts about how my work will be received in terms of the political content. Will the viewer have a relationship to this history? How do I structure the narrative so that the viewer can follow it even if (s)he has a limited knowledge about the history being addressed? Will they understand what position I'm speaking from? I usually look for clarity in my project-based practice, and the ideal piece would make the viewer aware of the political, historical and personal questions that are at stake in my work. I guess I'm not interested in this idea of "space for interpretation" because my work addresses a very specific history and effects directly linked to it. And I'm not too worried about the projects being "too informative" because I don't think my work operates solely in a field of knowledge production, solely with fact, but rather in a space between autobiography, social activism and knowledge production.
M: Yes, and the questions you pose are not only relevant to that particular conflict, it opens up a broader set of questions; How "history" is created, who's interpreting this history etc.
C: If I may make a connection to the material - in this trial footage, one could say that history is materializing itself in these court rituals. You seem to have a fascination with material, which already exists, that you don't necessarily produce.
D: Yeah. I'm fascinated with how history becomes an object, or gets some kind of materiality. Speaking of your title; "Sig mig at tingene taler" these historical artefacts really speak a lot. History is to me such a strange expression, because I always think of it as a narrative we all share, which isn't necessarily the case. What I find interesting with objects, monuments, images or filmic material that convey a historical meaning is that it also allows us to look at how this object/image/film is delivered to us. Who made it? Where was it made? When is it made? How is it shown and to whom? By asking these questions we can perhaps start to look at how history is used ideologically to form peoples' understanding of the time we live in through these documents. For example, the material I'm using in my video is found on the webpage of ICTY, which is a section of the courts in The Hague, which deal specifically with cases from the civil war in Ex-Yugoslavia. One of the questions this material raises is what nationalities founded this court? Who are the perpetrators? And what understanding do these legal processes form of the Civil War in Yugoslavia. I'm interested in this material because it gives us an opportunity to question the authorities that shape the narrative of our collective history by using this material in various ways.
C: Is it important for you that you yourself are performing the piece?
D: In all my work I've had a very bodily approach in dealing with the material, be it through performance, speech, enacting etc. In my recent work it's always clear that it's the artist who is speaking or performing this material and that he's directly marked by the violence he talks about. In my earlier projects, which I did with my parents, dealing with the transgenerational transmission of desire, ideology and trauma it was just natural to use myself. In this new piece I'm performing a different kind of material, but it's still clear that it's me who is talking and by performing this history perhaps we can approach an answer to my question which I pose in my work; What does my generation need to do? Because I work against a "common" history or an "official" account by inscribing and using the subjective voice, a possible answer would be that we need to continue to remember, continue to speak in order to prevent this idea of "history" to become just "a narrative we all have in common". I hope that makes sense.
C: Did you escape from Bosnia?
D: I escaped when I was 6 years old.
M: This exhibition series the departure point has been materiality and how young artists relate to that and to history of a material artistic approach. You absolutely relate to history, but a history, which in my opinion doesn't really relate to art history. What are your thoughts on that? Do you relate to art history? Do you think artists should do that?
D: That's a difficult question. When I worked on my piece for "Afgang 2014" Andrea Fraser (who is one of my professors at UCLA) told me that my piece was very much in dialogue with the studio-performance tradition which we see for example in Bruce Nauman's early work. I think an institutional frame is very important when you read an artwork, and I often ask myself when I look at a piece; what other artists or works is this work in dialogue with? But I have to admit that this is something I rarely think about when I'm making my own work. When I do have those considerations, I always get aware of them when the piece is finished. I think the Bruce Nauman reference is very interesting though, seeing how it's a modernist project, where art was supposed to be autonomous and the subjective experience removed. I clearly see that my form is in dialogue with the studio performance tradition, but at the same time we see a quite clear inscription of the subject in my practice, which clearly goes against a modernist stance. But again, these are thoughts that I've had after the project was completed. This way in which I work, where the art historical references become secondary takes me back to what I wrote in my email at the start of this process, about the discursive site which one relates to in one's work. This is a huge part of the dialogue which I'm a part of in my class, Interdisciplinary Studio at UCLA with Mary Kelly. The discursive site is also her term. What group, what area, and what movement are we talking to as artists? What social or political situation does your work address? The discursive site can be an art historical site absolutely, where the work is in dialogue with past art, but my discursive site is a political and social one, which is not necessarily connected to an art historical discourse.
M: Geers mentions something about that in the text we sent (Neo Modern) when he describes why he thinks "Neo Formalism" has arisen: "This embrace of modernist styles is a convergence of several developments. It's, in equal parts, a generational fatigue with theory; a growing split between hand-made artistic production and social practise" - you would be an example of an artist having a "social practice" not relating to art history.
D: Absolutely, but I would say though that my work does tie in with a lot of past art, although this would be work from post modernism and onwards. I guess you can say I work post-medial.
C: Why have you chosen art as a form? I assume that you're exhibiting in gallery spaces and that you're very aware of the viewer and what you would like to put out there. Why the gallery space? Could you for example show work in a cinema?
D: I choose to work with art because it can relate to every other discipline. Formally my work is a hybrid between performance, video and text, which makes it incompatible with the format of a cinema. Personally I don't give the gallery space that much thought. What I do think is interesting is that there seems to be an agreement on what art should look like in a gallery space. This summer I curated the New Wight Biennial in Los Angeles with my colleague Abigail Collins. In context to this exhibition I had several walkthroughs with various people. For the show we got in touch with artists working with social and political crisis in our world today. One of the questions we got was why we wanted to present this material in a gallery space, because it "made it look like art" I've also heard this being said about my own work. When that question was raised, I thought that maybe there's a general attitude that needs to change. Why shouldn't political art or art that deals with social questions "look like art"? Why can't this type of work operate in this space with the same authority as everything else?
M: But when they say that it looks like art, do you think they mean that you are using a visual language, which is established by other artists?
D: By getting that question I thought more about whether people have an idea about how art in the gallery should look like, or should be. Our exhibition represented artists who explicitly worked with on going conflicts in the world and my impression was that there was an idea that this art didn't belong in the gallery space.
M: I can't help but think that when something is shown in a museum or gallery space it automatically refers back to art history, we seek to categorize it.
D: I'm thinking also that it's dependent on the type of gallery. The comments I'm commenting on now are from Los Angeles, which has an art community which I experience as very market based, and where we see more of certain kinds of art. Perhaps there's a clash between the political agenda of the piece and the political agenda of the gallery?
M: There's also another side of that coin; that those who work very formal end up making interior design. Their intentions with their work get overwritten when it end up on a market and are seen as commodities only. Perhaps showing political work in the context of a commercial gallery is seen as hypocritical?
D: I think you're right.
M: At the same time, it's not a critique of capitalism, your work moves outside that discussion.
D: Yeah. I don't think that people working within this field should have to justify why they want to be part of the art milieu. I'm not working with a critique of capitalism, but I do think a lot about the functioning of the exhibition platform and how that affects the work placed in it.
M: So you don't think about the gallery space when you create? But you do prefer to be there?
D: Not necessarily. My works are mainly video works and can't be seen in cinemas for example because of formatting, projection on top of materials etc. In this way the gallery space is an ideal space because it allows for hybrid visual forms. I don't think my work needs to be in a gallery space. I try to consider the room in which I know I will be showing work, but I do prefer it to be places where it makes sense for my work to be shown, ideologically and politically. I don't mind exhibiting in a white cube, work looks great in a space like that and I think it can really be approached in a good way, I guess it all depends on the context of the space or gallery which we're talking about.
C: So the gallery or museum space is actually necessary as a frame for your work.
D: Now that I'm finished with The Academy in Denmark is it perhaps necessary to exhibit in these spaces, just to give ones production authority and for it to be taken seriously. I think it's necessary as a frame for sure, but as I mentioned, all gallery spaces have a profile and its maybe there that one must make the differentiations.
M: Yes. Art has during the latest decades become a broad field. Up until the 60s painting and sculpture was defined as art, now there aren't really any limits concerning material. For example performance and video that operates interdisciplinary make the galleries and museums even more important to actually define what's art today.
D: Yeah. A similar discussion happened in the 90s in connection to institutional critique and appropriation. Many artists worked with critique of institutions and wanted to explode the institutional frame in which art was operating. They attempted in other words to operate outside the institution. But the institution devoured this work anyway, because it was still defined as art.
Andrea Fraser writes so beautifully about this in "Museum Highlights" where she points to an "Institutional critique" operating inside the institutional frame, instead of a "critique of institutions" trying to operate outside it. I think this relates to this idea of giving one's work authority, because if you make art and want it to criticize the institution, there's no better place for that than from within, where the work and it's goal gets the authority it needs to be taken seriously.