HOW TO LEARN TO HEAR YOURSELF
Maria Vassileva in conversation with
M.V.: Do you think about the role of the artist in society? Does education provide some instructions in that respect?
N.J.: Many times, at different points in my life, I’ve though, more or less affected by my experiences, that I often perceive myself as an observer rather than a participant. As a person, who synthesizes and constructs a narrative rather than someone, who is motivated by experiences. This maybe gives the seeming idea of remoteness or distance, but for me the position, in which you observe consciously, you behold and you think, creates a peculiar connection with the world and society, in this sense. Even a brave attempt at reducing the many possibilities for development of someone’s artistic practices to a role or a multitude of roles – roles – roles – roles – roles, already creates preconditions for a limited number of options for understanding yourself and the others.
Educational institutions, politicians and legitimated public figures all have their roles. And these roles are of key importance for maintaining the social order. They have a performative nature and their function is to keep up appearances. Artists, however, are driven by a necessity to create or solve puzzles, to fill or empty a hole, be it material or emotional. To follow an intuition, imagination or a thought, often at once and in different proportion, in order to create the world in which their work exists. It’s like looking for something without knowing what it is or what you may find; yet keep looking by intuition and out of necessity.
The historically imputed responsibility of art exists to this day. A responsibility to shift layers, to revolt against structures that define and judge it, against aesthetic norms and existing forms of expression. What we witness today, a time in which postmodern irony is so 2010, is the new structure of feelings. In this climate, to navigate in the information accessible to us and to comprehend our new sensitivity, has become part of the construction of our new narrative, of the work, and therefore, of the way in which this narrative relates to the society it belongs to.
Education, seen as an institution, provides guidance, insofar as it is the physical context (part of a given reality) and the supporting structure. If the specific context engages with practices and activities, which in addition to their informative function presuppose pro-activeness, then an individual may feel inclined to develop a sensitivity and/or necessity that this someone already has. I don’t think that a commitment to someone’s role in society and the world is something that can be studied or imposed externally. Still, it is important that education as a structure continues to function in a way creating a sense of community, possibilities for critical thinking and an alternative form of exchange and expression. These are, in general, things that are not subject to self-education and cannot be found in online tutorials; they are more than a simple exchange of predefined knowledge. My approach to your question about the role has probably been indirectly affected by my understanding of resistance to the tendency of a given society, group of people, or even an institution, to restrict, define or limit. This is yet another thing one can learn in the process of education – what you need to shake off, so that you can become a self-chosen version of yourself. Studying within or outside a structure is linked to the idea of self-comprehension, identity and transformation.
M.V.: How do you perceive yourself – as part of a closed group or as person with a mission on a much larger scale?
N.J.: If I am a part of a closed group, it is probably a one-member group. There, I can be different people. And I’m not talking of a split personality, but of my ability to switch between different subjectivities. It’s like being able to see a situation from different points of view or through someone else’s eyes. But I wouldn’t say I’m part of a closed group. Sometimes this community is decentralized and uses immaterial forms of communication or means of connection. The essential thing, however, is our shared sensitivity, engagement and attitude toward the world we live in.
Art is not separate from life and does not exist independently from it. The responsibility of inclusivity is equally shared by artists, the structures that support them and the audience. The way I see the processes we are part of, my work reflects the idea of presenting a perspective, which is different to the one centered with the human.
M.V.: How do you educate yourself as an artist? What’s the contribution of the school in this respect and what are the other sources you find important and necessary?
N.J.: Something that I’m glad about and which is inherent, not learned, is my curiosity, a certain desire to see more. Because, in the words of Aldous Huxley, the more you know, the more you see. My education is a mixture of sources and situations, which can hardly be put into order, organized or traced back.
School, be it an academy or an institute, is an infrastructure providing you with territory where you can learn or unlearn a specific set of knowledge. Education often passes through phases of practice and self-reflection. In this sense, conditions occur for you to take responsibility for your own training. School puts a mirror in front of you, namely the opinion of your teachers and fellow students, which can show you how others see your work. It may be confronting and hard, but school is supposed to be a safe place, with these moments being parts of the process. The rest comprises more standard resources such as the existing facilities, the physical space, groups, in which you research, read and think together with your peers.
I spent many years going to countless exhibitions, lectures, seminars, entirely or partly related to what I’m interested in or curious about. These were not only organized by major institutions, but also included small platforms, experimental events and self-initiated practices. Some of them can surprise you and captivate your mind for days, and others can disappoint you for failing to fulfill their intentions. Still, I don’t believe in negative experience and see this form of (self-) education as social archeology, apart from being FOMO. After all, it is my right to judge to what extent something is relevant for me, if relevant at all.
If we assume that everyone does what they want to and take that premise to a domestic environment, we will discover, maybe contrary to expectations, that at home we have easy access to a large amount of the sources we consider important: internet, books, etc. It’s hard for me to summarize and find a coherent link between the different pieces of information I access online. Sometimes it’s difficult to discern between an information related to a work process and one I view from a purely consumer’s perspective.
What do you watch or look up in the evenings, when you’re on your own?
Sometimes how you educate and what produces knowledge is entirely up to you. I can learn something while walking in the street or during an elevator ride with some strangers. The English word serendipity, inaccurately translated into Bulgarian as случайност (chance), does not denote the romantic idea of incidental happy discoveries, a form of knowledge. Serendipity is about the viewer and their ability to see a potential in something that has been found unintentionally.
In this sense, I don’t see a hierarchy between those different forms of learning. Though of different nature and scope, together they shape my idea of education and the need for education.
M.V.: Was there something along your path so far, which you’d like to share on account of its importance for your transformation from a student to an artist?
N.J.: I’m not sure I know how this transition happens. I have no recollection of ever thinking of my work measuring it through my status as a student. But I had a long period when I felt uncomfortable to say I was an artist, when someone asked what do I do.
Side note: The dependency of studying art and being an artist may be seen through the prism of exclusive spaces, the privileges that go with that, and the attendance of institutes that can be likened to knowledge production farms, all parts of the neoliberal reality.
Maybe that is the period exposed to one of the forms of education, in which you understand that being an artist is a choice made by your own inescapable need. I’ve been criticized a lot about my thought structuring, the way some of my works exist in a given context or the chosen forms of representation. And this is exactly the point in time, where you choose how to use this feedback, when and whether to use it at all. And what is really important for you. You learn to hear yourself.
M.V.: Which are the things that concern you in that particular moment? Do you find inspiration in reality and everyday life or rather in the fields of knowledge or culture?
N.J.: Today is the 28th of March, 2020. It’s already been 15 days (Editor’s note: the interviewee refers to the state of emergency imposed in connection with the COVID-19 virus) of recognition that the vulnerability of man and man-created complex systems and structures is still an immutable part of the way we exist in the world. Recognition of the fact that there are still realms that are not under total control and that exist regardless of whether we are aware of their destructive potential or not.
The actuality of the moment comes from the fact that the majority of people in the world speak and think about the same thing – the virus that distanced us physically and sent us home for an unspecified period of time and with no clear idea as to how our way of living will be affected. Which in turn made us ponder on how we live and what spaces we inhabit, on the speed, with which we as people and things move. It makes us learn on the go, which is inevitable when the time factor is decisive. To me inspiration is rather a trigger. It is not a means of escaping reality, but rather a reason to create parallels with it. It is the desire to render something more visible so that it can become part of the world and its reality, to make it truthful. Inspiration is not an encapsulated concept. Mysteriously, it doesn’t come when is expected and at no specific place. Maybe it’s somewhere in the process often described as research. For me it’s rather digging at random places in a state of acute attention. Books, objects, happenings, information, music, Wikipedia pages, youtube videos, conversations, movies, exhibitions or drawings – there are small pieces somewhere there, which connect and align with some kind of feeling, intention or wish to express a given idea or think in certain direction. What interests and excites me is the human condition in the world, how this notion is being constantly redefined and how it coexists with the rest of it – the nonhuman.
I think the knowledge we produce and accumulate is part of our reality as we know it in its natural dimensions, but also of the imagined, fictionalized and materialized one. Reality and its outlets such as information and various stimuli are in constant interplay, through which we refract our subjectivity. We see that same reality through the lens of circulating knowledge and culture, as a part of our collective memory and shared digging. Everyone in their chosen direction.
M.V.: Unconventional topics in art also allow for emancipation as regard the choice of media. How is this process happening with you? What has changed in terms of technology and materials?
N.J.: I see my practice as a process of evolution, in which a seemingly new topic has connections with a previous one or is focused onto one of its aspects and develops it further. In my case, maybe the work process is more definitive than the particular set of topics that I’ve turned my attention to. Each new work means a period, in which I learn something new about something new, I confront myself to a new production process or use new materials. My aim is to use materials and processes, which have a generative potential – that is, to say something about the work in front of you, but also for the reality we’re part of. I work with my hands, with machines, software and shared knowledge.
In the beginning, the important things for me were not the particular materials and things that occupy the space, but precisely the way these took space. The limited access and visibility, which were characteristic of the work, as well as its temporary nature. This brought me to the realization that the context and space are the actual material I work with. For a long time the inability to re-localize the work on account of the specific choice of space, the access thereto and the possibilities to mediate this space had been my main concern. I used to overcome the physical limitations by translating a three-dimensional work into two-dimensional images and in doing so I could reach various broader audience online. Different from the internet, where a lot of aspects of human experience is translated into images, in a physical space it is the viewer’s presence that gives meaning to the work. The photographic documentation, the video documentation were not just tools for turning my work into a document. They rather give a new dimension to the work itself. I read somewhere that what discerns documentation from it being an autonomous work is the specific viewpoint, which the viewer cannot have in the actual space.
In this process I started to see my work as contextual installation, a situation in which what matters is not the individual things, but the established connection between them. In this sense, the more important question is what world they’re part of.
I also often thought of the body and the traces of its habitation of space. There are fragments, traces and leftovers, but an actual representation of the body was always missing. This brought forth an entire new concept of the body mediated by technology. In the whole process, the fundamental task was not only to solve the riddle I gave to myself, but also the comprehension of anachronistic sources of information and their translation into artifacts.
M.V.: I’d like to know more of your research into artificial intelligence. What triggered your interest in that field?
N.J.: My main interest is the human and what separates the human being from everything else, using the man as unit measure. Also, under what conditions the human being equates with other things and becomes a thing. We live in a time when we can observe substantial changes to man’s nature, with the change of generations and the rapid replacement of old knowledge with new one. This period, however, is insignificant from an evolutional perspective and measured in cosmological time. The classic definition of the Greek techne denotes knowledge generated by people driven by necessity, whereas today people are concerned with categories like “faster”, “more productive”, “smarter”, even “immortal”, that’s what we strive for. The technologies and the form for gaining power through this new competition are artificially created, yet fully adapted to those of the biological world.
Probably through continuous research and multiple associations, I developed an interest in the possibility of scenarios, in which the point of view is multiplied and taken out of its human center. In this way, I recreate a reverse process, in which the world looks back on us, exemplified by things that are not considered part of the human history – plants, animals and machines. Technology changes our perception of the surrounding things, as well as of ourselves. It transforms the setting we live in into a calculated reality, in which we endow objects and devices with almost spiritual qualities. They become part of a digital environment, which is everywhere – from our homes to the public realm. In this sense, artificial intelligence is part of these life forms that we create and with which we cohabitate in a complex environment of matter, objects, concepts, representations, scale and speculation.
Translation: Kiril Neykov
With the support of Sofia Municipality. Initiative “Solidarity in Culture”