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Interview: Davor Konjikusic

Author: Borko Vukosav

 

Davor Konjikušić is the artist with whom I spent five years at the Academy of Dramatic Art, during which we exchanged many wonderful things and some bad things, but it was all vital for our conversation on the occasion of Davor’s solo exhibition The Highway at Organ Vida – International Photography Festival to be inspirational and unique.

 

The Internet says you are cosmopolitan because of love and your education. How important is formal education for what you are doing, and do you believe it is necessary to have formal training in one’s field of action, in your case art, or is it more important nowadays to acquire different skills and knowledge that are actually unrelated to your field?

When you’re born and grow up in a multi-ethnic environment and then you move to another city, and another, you necessarily become cosmopolitan, as you say. About a week ago, while I was travelling through Bosnia and Herzegovina, a guy asked me where I was from. As I was trying to explain, he interrupted me and responded with a smile: “Oh, from nowhere then.” I liked this nowhere.

Everybody has their own path, but generally you can learn a lot about the author, their knowledge, attitudes, doubts, honesty and worldview through their photography. The same goes for art. Being literate in a broader sense and understanding the world around you is a powerful thing. Equally important is what happens to ourselves, what we consume, what affects and changes us, you can simply feel that and it’s important for your development. What kind of cultural workers are we if we have no imagination? By learning new things we work on ourselves, change our attitudes, and expand our understanding of the world around us.

Having a cosmopolitan tendency in our society, with all the burgeoning nationalisms and fascisms that engulf us on a daily basis, is almost unpopular. What is popular is categorization and grouping, and knowledge has been reduced to having an instant opinion on a topic. Our society is trying to steer education towards training people to become a resource for capitalist production and who will barely be able to write their CV. The imposition of the idea that social sciences are obsolete (and this includes art, of course) is serving the same purpose. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that art no longer receives any support.

I don’t know, I always thought you couldn’t deal with social issues as an artist if you didn’t have a good understanding of these topics. I was never interested in art for art’s sake. Artists who discuss society today, if they do it superficially, they often look ridiculous when copying some theoretical postulates without really understanding the essence of political-economic relations. On the other hand, there are people who deride critically inclined works. The world hadn’t come into existence with our birth, we have to rely on ideas and their historical sequence. Salgado represents ‘old-school’ photography, and I have a problem with war photography as such, but his best work is actually the afforestation of his family farm in Brazil. It’s an excellent story about life, nature and land.

You graduated from the Academy of Dramatic Art, but even before that you had a career as a journalist. How much did that knowledge and experience affect your artistic development during your studies, and how much did your perspective on art change – if at all – afterwards?

I don’t know if you remember, but during our first year of studies I didn’t really talk much about my journalistic work. I just didn’t think there were many links between the two and I didn’t want to conflate them. There is, however, one similarity between journalism and photography: the fact that you have a very good excuse to enter people’s lives, spaces and stories. I started supporting myself financially very early on and that was the reason I started working in journalism. As a result, I got a lot of information, social mobility and ease in communication with people. As for my studies, of course I felt progress, I think we all evolved during our time at the Academy, and, most importantly, the establishment of the department opened up a field outside the Academy. Stylistically, we became clearer. I think we all learned to be more precise aesthetically, and the five-year study gave me security that I never had before. Today I know that we can do the job at any moment, no matter how demanding it may be.

In your earlier works, you primarily used the documentary approach, but you later discarded it, delving deeply into the concept. Why? Do you think that the concept is more important than the documentary approach?

Already in the first year of my studies the professors told me I had a ‘documentary eye’. For years I tried to follow various events, protests, happenings, I did reportages. At one point I became bored with photography, bored with series of photographs that were hung on the wall in a straight line. That’s why I started experimenting and treating photography as a medium that enables me to tell a story. Sadly, I cannot draw, but if I could, I have a feeling that I would also draw. If I could do animation, I would. For me, photography became a medium through which I can express myself. But I don’t think documentary photography is any less important. However, the concept is related to theory, which may be unappealing to some, but engaging to others. The concept is merely an idea, and when Sol LeWitt introduced this term in the late 1960s, it became an essential part of any artwork. But, unlike conceptual artists, I find the realization of an artwork in an aesthetic sense to be very important and I don’t try to eschew aesthetics, which can be used both to engage the audience and endow an idea with a broader concept. I still shoot documentary photographs because I think it’s important to practice your eye and stay in touch with this intuitive part of yourself. That’s why I constantly do photo-diaries or occasionally publish stuff on my photo blog. These works are not well thought out or particularly political, but they allow me to relay, to express myself lyrically, so to speak. Documentary photography has also developed very much and it is no longer that literal and media-related. But the medium of photography itself has changed. The first change was brought about by digital photography, and the second by the rise of the cell phone. I don’t think it’s the same medium as 30 years ago, not to mention it’s definitely not the same medium compared to the time of the invention of photography.

Does that mean that the project Aura F37 is in fact a compromise in the sense of pushing the limits of traditional documentarism, so that when you are shooting, you are changing the visual subject matter, which results in completely unexpected content? How did this project develop, what happened at the Hungarian-Serbian border?

My editor gave me the green light to do a reportage on refugees, so I went to the border between Serbia and Hungary. The Hungarian police refused my request to follow the police, but with the help of a local activist I went to the border and met two policemen who allowed me to spend the night there. The next day I went back to those policemen with two sandwiches and two cold cans of soda and the story started to unfold overnight. That was before the opening of the so-called refugee route and I will remember those scenes for the rest of my life. I made documentary photographs, families of three generations coming out of the woods exhausted, people going into the river just to escape the police and avoid having their fingerprints taken. Then I saw a man who was drowning, but was rescued at the last moment. That’s the moment when I stopped being a photographer, put down my camera, and came to his aid. That night I also slept in the car, and after the shift came police officers who in addition to the standard equipment had cameras allegedly donated by FRONTEX. The moment they naively handed me a camera I knew that a new work was in the making. Just imagine, in my hands I held a camera worth about 20 000 euros which I never thought would be accessible to me. That little moment of appropriation of police equipment still puts a smile on my face.

How do you look at it from an ethical viewpoint, despite the fact that you helped a man who was drowning?

I am completely ethically at peach with this work because it doesn’t show faces, there is no objectification. The work has a distinctive aesthetics, it’s finalized on LED panels, but I think it has a powerful message. Working with people in migration is a double-edged sword, because ethics and integrity must be paramount. I’ve always been wary of the objectification produced by photography.

How much are you interested in the universal language of communication through concepts? Is this interest the reasons for such a radical cut in your approach to photography and art more generally?

Conceptual art is not just the creation of an artwork, but research and discussion about the medium and the conditions of the creation of that artwork. The concept is an idea. Everything has its idea, and photography is a universal language – what’s important is its context. While reading Walter Benjamin, I came across a great quote: “What we must demand from the photographer is the ability to put such a caption beneath his picture as will rescue it from the ravages of modishness and confer upon it a revolutionary use value”.

In ‘Genogram’ (correct me if I’m wrong), you insert text/play with text and photography. How important is this element for reading the scene and what is the reason for such insertions? Do you consider the scene by itself to be insufficient for interpretation or…?

In addition to knowing how to take photos, I know how to use words, so that’s what I do. There was a text in the archive, so that’s why I decided to use it in the work. The scenes by themselves, the silent photographs of landscapes, did not speak much, while inside me, having spent some time there to take the photos, memories just kept flooding back. The purpose of the text was to say that space as such remembers nothing and that landscape is a purely cultural construct in which we inscribe our meaning. It was precisely that meaning that was added by the text. I liked that, turning landscapes into some vast spaces of memory. For me, for example, Mount Klek near Ogulin is saturated with incredible symbolism, while for someone else it’s just a regular mountain that you can climb. In art there isn’t a more abstract form of representation than language. If I wanted to go a step further, I’d say that the linguistic language itself can be photography.

‘Genogram’ was an extremely important and brave project for me. I exposed my own intimate life and the private life of my parents. That was a breakthrough compared to the previous knowledge, but I still consider that a student work. When I brought 80 photographs to our group exhibition at the Gallery SC, I had no idea what I was doing. It all could have turned out badly, but I don’t think it has. At some point all of us at the Academy started digging through our own past, we turned inwards, which I think was an extremely honest and important thing to do. You shot Dubrovnik, Neven Petrović shot his hometown Požega, and Petra Mrša shot her family; we simply turned the lens towards ourselves. This is something that happens to every generation studying at the Academy.

Do you think it’s a matter of training (in our case, the department), i.e. one form of acquired knowledge through which we all return to our roots and beginnings?

Try and remember the resistance we put up to the photography of our contemporaries. We were very confused because we thought that ‘anyone’ could take that kind of photographs. I think that for years we learned and absorbed other people’s projects, and when we finally decided to do something special, something more, we reached for the most honest thing that was inside us.

In addition to inserting text, you play with family archives as well as graphical elements, which are somewhat more pronounced in your latest highway series. Was the departure from classical photography necessary, or was it merely the logical next step in your approach to photography?

I think it’s a logical continuation. I don’t follow trends, but I like to make things complicated for myself, because that makes it more interesting. I started using cheaper materials that are used in the advertising industry. First it was blueback paper, then plexiglass, posters, LED panels, and now I’m using stone, which I just brought home from the stonemason. The avant-garde started using photography in different ways as its medium a long time ago. In the former Yugoslavia, conceptual art has existed since the last 1960s. It established itself as an alternative to earlier modernist tendencies, and intellectual consideration took centre stage. The space for questioning the work and the position of the artist, but also the society more generally, had opened up. It may appear that conceptual works are prized higher than ‘regular’ photography; if I’m ‘smarter’, then my work will be better. I don’t know, for me the idea is still very important, as well as the aesthetics – which I would like to rid myself of, but haven’t yet succeeded. Photographers often remain trapped in their technique, in the stories about light and camera, like those people who still think Led Zeppelin is the best band in the world. I can respect that, but everything is constantly changing, including photography.

The Zagreb-Belgrade motorway has been the subject of your interest for a long time. What has changed in the space itself, but also in your relationship toward it?

The Highway is a project that’s been very difficult to realize, precisely because I’ve been involved in it for almost seven years. In most cases I work on a specific project for a while and then enlightenment happens, the moment when I know that the solution is good. Most of my projects were created that way – the final solution just flashed before my eyes. I think it’s best to just start working on a project and in time everything will fall into place. The problem with The Highway is that over the years I’ve collected so much material I could prepare an entire thematic exhibition. Initially, my approach was documentary, but in the meantime I ended up somewhere else entirely, and now it’s hard to connect these two things. That’s why for the exhibition at Gallery Šira during the Organ Vida Festival I decided to abandon my original concept and prepare the exhibition from my current position. It’s very difficult to distance myself from a large quantity of archive material, photographs, interviews, objects, but I think it’s necessary. I also found a new archive by the agency Agefoto, whose collaborator was, among others, Milan Pavić. So that’s a new moment.

I ask this because in the “first” images there was a distinct sense of absence and neutrality in the representation of you as an author, or am I mistaken?

As far as space itself is concerned, for me the highway is a symbolic space, one of the largest buildings in Croatia, for reading traces and changes. The highway is a symbol of this society; it changes as the society changes. From concrete slabs produced through voluntary work, to its modernisation, the war, the disappearance of certain companies’ pumps, privatization attempts, it’s all a story about us.

On your website you write a blog that includes mini photo essays which are sometimes accompanied by descriptions. What is your relationship to them? To what extent is it a side project, and to what extent your daily life and subject of interest?

As I already mentioned, those are materials that I photograph, sometimes on a daily basis, sometimes occasionally. What is different is that I started writing for the first time, that is, to supplement photographs not only with descriptions, but to deal with text a bit more ambitiously. I do it casually and spontaneously. Last winter, when I was in Livanjsko polje with my friend, the landscape architect Goran Andlar, to photograph the stars at -25 degrees Celsius, I was the happiest person in the world. It allows me to return to the basics of photography, walking, and intuition.

Do you think the idea would change if you abandoned the form of the diary and turned it into an artwork or a reportage; do you even see any potential for that?

There is no need to conceptualize and inscribe more things into the diary form. It seems to me that people responded really well to my photos from Iran, for example. The idea is to make a photobook – and I do occasionally make DIY books. A lot of people tell me they like it when I put aside my socially engaged approach and work intuitively as a photographer, and I also like this whole mind-set when you are creating differently than your usual artistic practice.

Given that you had been writing before your artistic training, and that later you incorporated writing into photography – the book you’re currently writing seems like a logical continuation of your work. Can you tell us what your first “non-artistic” book is about?

For years I’ve been interested in the social and political role of photography. This book, which I plan to finish by the end of this year, concerns partisan photography and the relation between photography and social movements. I’m interested in the role of photography in the revolutionary struggle, the promotion of the ideas of egalitarianism, gender equality, solidarity, and ultimately propaganda of a party that didn’t stand a chance in the fight against a superior and better organized enemy. Artistically, the Partisan struggle was an incursion through the impossible, which is why this period is particularly intriguing. Aside from trained photographers like Žorž Skrigin, Živko Gatin or Ernst Grgić, amateur photographers were also active within the Partisans. It was a very exciting period, particularly if you consider how a civic activity that was traditionally reserved for the upper classes came into the hands of the masses.

Why is your area of research so “narrow”?

The purpose of this book is to allow for a more detailed research of this topic, which hasn’t been sufficiently explored, which is why it’s so difficult for me to get through the material. The whole period was so full of events, and the biographies of these people are really fantastic. I really hope I’ll be able to open up some interesting questions and get the answers concerning the use of photography and its emancipatory potential. It’s a good start, and I even managed to find some photographs that the wider audience hasn’t seen before. As well as some stories…

 

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