Conversation with the artist Katarzyna Zolich
On the occasion of Katarzyna Zolich’s solo exhibition titled Places of Powerat the gallery space of Zigutamve-photography association in Vienna, Asija and Eva – two art historians studying and living in Vienna, asked her to perform a kind of a long-distance artist talk. Their conversation took place through written correspondence with the artist and is, therefore, presented herein written form.
The artistic practice of Katarzyna Zolich focuses mostly on photography. Here exhibited photographic series of Invisible Spacesfollows the idea of the medium is the message*. The exhibition reminds the viewer of the use of photography for the purposes of political propaganda. It also displays the potential of this medium to subvert and transgress the political use of photography in a subtle way.
Katarzyna’sphotographs reveal the scenography of contemporary political performance. The photographed sites are mostly semi-public, semi-private offices that belong to different Polish political parties and that are usually not seen by the general public. Even though some of them might seem multi-functional, the spaces are actually meant for very specific purposes. These are the places where ideological aims and focuses of Polish political parties are discussed and agreed upon.
QUESTIONS FOR KATARZYNA
Dear Katarzyna, we would like to discuss your works presented at the exhibition Places of Power. The photographs can be described from so many different angles. They are at the same time documentary, architectural images depicting interiors, and they are still-lives as well. Some of them might remind the viewer of the strict, symmetrical, undynamic images that seem like they strive to be objective – the photographs of sacral interiors one finds, for example, in photo archives that serve as materials for art historical studies. What is your attitude towards objectivity? Do you aim to present your photographs as objective insights or do they somehow expose the impossibility of the impartial, neutral photographic shot when there is a person behind the camera?
I intentionally refer to the tradition of 19th’s century scientific formula of monument documentation. I was trying to maintain the main characteristics of this format: static, epic, distanced from the reality. I even used an analog medium-format camera. But my aim was to re-evaluate the documentary approach. This is why chosen interiors (although theoretically interesting) are banal, unexciting – it allows me to uncover a trace, indication of social and cultural behavior. It’s impossible to create a complete image, especially an image of an idea. But I believe in the preservation of the image, observation, revision, and re-observation. Principally, visual language does manifest itself as neutral and still image helps to uncover its subjectivity. I think it has already become a truism that neutrality does not exist in photography as well as in any other artistic medium. Yet, the creation of truth through photography is still a powerful tool used by politicians and propaganda. Undermining neutrality is maybe nowadays more important than ever.
Do you find any similarities between churches, chapels, and other spaces of religiousness and the semi-public offices of political parties that you photograph?
Do you? At the beginning I have started photographing religious communities, so definitely I associate it but the magnitude of this project overwhelmed me. From hindsight, I think focusing on this would blur the meaning of the whole.
Particularly when looking at the images that have a symmetric composition, shot from a central perspective, one could make a link with church-like interiors. Also, some of them capture a specific place meant for the person who speaks – a lectern or a pulpit of sorts. It is, however, understandable how focusing on these types of links could be a digression in elaboration and interpretation of your work.
In the exhibition Places of Power, alongside the photographs, we can see and browse through the artist book Invisible Spaces. Was the project initially conceived as an artist book? Have you ever exhibited it in Poland? Have the parties, whose spaces you photographed, ever acquired knowledge about it? Could you tell us a bit more about that? The project was indeed funded by the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. What was their reaction to it? Could you perhaps elaborate a bit on the decision to name the book (Invisible Spaces) and the exhibition (Places of Power) separately? Why the differentiation between these two formats of representation?
This project started with the picture that I took in a squat in Krakow. While photographing the inhabitants I was allowed to enter the room occupied by Anarchist Federation. It was later on, when I developed the photos, that I realized how I cannot recall any representations of places producing ideas. And there it was! As simple as it is, the room filled with leaflets, books, homemade banners, a copy machine with sentences and graffiti on the wall and all, other signs of alternative imaginarium. I thought about photographing alternative spaces but then I understood that what is very clear there also exists on some more established places of power, but in a way that pretends neutrality.
I was familiar with the work of Candida Höfer and I was fascinated by photographs of Taryn Simon – especially fromAn American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar. At the same time, I was following the work of genius polish photographer Wojciech Wilczyk who creates epic bodies of work documenting polish history through architecture. When I started pursuing the subject I felt like it chose me rather than I chose it. I wanted to create a catalog where all kind of ideas will have a place. So, it is relatively objective and it was clear for me from the beginning that it should be a book. A book gives you this unique opportunity to gather a lot of material in one place, it allows you to study details as long as you wish at whatever time you chose. Book makes this moment in history everlasting, while exhibition gives you only a glance and a memory. Maybe the places are temporary, but the cumulation of the same kind of images opens them for deconstruction.
The Catalogue on Invisible Spacesis a book and a catalog that must be read through its political and geographical context. Regime change, history of a particular group, recognition of typical persona on a wall is adding to an interpretation of this series of photographs. An exhibition, on the contrary, elevates images to another level, the level of universal values and aesthetics, this is why it was decided to use a descriptive term.
In the production of the project Invisible Spaces, your primary role was the one of an artist-photographer. But at the same time, you were a researcher, documenter, an archivist, a detective on a case and an intruder. How do you perceive yourself and your role in the project according to this? Would you describe your role as the role of an activist as well?
I would like to consider myself as an activist, but unfortunately, I think I am too slow. I need a lot of time for analysis and observation and somehow photography is for me an act of thinking. Sequencing or editing the photographs would be putting together an argument and the act of public presentation as this kind of “slow” activism. I strongly admire and I am fascinated by different kind of groups working together under the same flag. People who are able to act out ideas. I am fascinated by ideological constructions and their hidden, almost transparent agenda, rules and construction. And this was probably the trigger to start this and many other of my projects.
You have also asked about my personal relation to these spaces. I am very interested in the process of creating and maintaining a group. I believe that every group has something like a separate (from individuals that form the group) consciousness and unconsciousness. Many psychologist and sociologists wrote about it. About the collective unconscious for example. I think that these spaces are indeed an “emanation” of this. Construction of the space is meaningful, it is created to impact the individual and it performs it. At the same time, it is not totally intentional and it is not a closed system. People perform in this space, they are obeying the rules of the space but, at the same time, they make this palimpsest. There are layers of ideology and symbols on top of everyday tasks, temporal goals, marketing materials, and visitors leaving their personal belongings aside. It is a group of believers in a better social order. But they need to gain some real power. They need to believe in power. But power consumes beliefs pretty well.
I decided to start from the beginning, like a scientist: researching dead objects, still life, interiors, and spatial dimensions. I believe that through careful observation we can learn and sense more than through verbal communication. Of course, the image itself is also constructed in a way that leads your eye and lets you concentrate on one thing, and neglect the other.
I believe that a photograph has the ability to transmit to a viewer a specific state of things accessed by a photographer. And this ability is reinforced by the medium of the exhibition, by the size and order of the work.This is probably where my role as quasi-scientist ends and art begins.
Let us also mention the background of the picture making process. One could assume that a political party would be scared and reluctant to open their doors freely to an artist. Being a part of a party-independent art project brings the possibility of being “stripped naked”. Also, it opens up an opportunity for critique. In order to access the rooms belonging to the different political parties, you had to have certain excuses. What was your tactic? As far as we understood, you have not approached them directly and asked for a permission to document their “behind-the-scenes” spaces for the purposes of your art project. You had to come up with a strategy of deception. What was it? What was your mask, so to say? Was it the same for entering all places? Did the strategy of deception successfully secure your independence and censure-free working process?
I have approached them directly! I couldn’t tell them my intentions because I myself did not know them at the time, but I asked for a permission to document their office spaces. I never expanded about the project and I was avoiding any conversations regarding political views. It was particularly difficult with far-right organizations because they were pushing me to make a stand and, in many cases, I had to hold back while I listened to offending comments. Most people interpret silence as reaffirmation. Once I met with an aged Captain – a veteran who was convinced that being a girl meant I was looking for a husband. He invited me to his radical far-right meetings he was hosting with his wife. I gained some contacts that helped me later on. Once they also called me to serve as a waitress during their private party. I was considering coming and recording with a hidden camera but did not have so much courage. What I heard was the language of “pure” hatred coming from a 90-year-old man that is leading dozens of teenagers every week during these unofficial meetings.Far-left organizations were very different. However, I kept thinking – why are they letting me do this if they believe in the power/oppression of an image and representation.
With established parties, I was trying to persuade them by saying they are the only ones that would not open their doors and that I have the representation of all the 81 other registered parties confirmed. It worked!
Also, at the end of the day, the act of entering these spaces was not so subversive as I expected it to be. Sometimes the absurd of the relation between history, slogan, and what is left made the whole story: for example, Camp of Great Polandis located in a tiny garage in the suburbs.
Depicted interiors are empty but full of the traces of past actions and actions that are yet to happen. The absence of bodies makes us thoroughly investigate the objects, settings, and symbols that appear on the photographs and suddenly we discover them as very intimate and fragile places.
If you had a chance, would you photograph the same spaces once when they are filled with people who usually use them? Are you interested in the particular political processes, rituals, and performances that these spaces host?
People on photographs draw the attention away from the objects. Their faces, their appearance “humanize” the subject. Interiors become scenography. In this particular research, I was trying to concentrate on the invisible. And by invisible I understand the status of this places as well as this specific scenography which seems transparent most of the time. I wanted to put it in the foreground. Rituals, processes are also dependent on this space but the space itself is often forgotten.
The project has been done between 2012 and 2014 and certainly, a lot of things have changed in the last four years in the political and social life of Poland. Would you consider re-photographing the same places today?
I think photographing at that time was much easier. Society has yet not been so polarized and interest in this subject was perceived as a rare hobby. When in 2015’s elections Law and Justice– the right-wing Christian conservative party gained the majority, everything became political. I think everything was political before but now, more than ever, this is clear, articulated, and everyone is somehow required to take sides. The current government is trying to and succeeding at changing the basics of the democratic system. A fight for the national symbols is fiercer than ever, and these ornaments are not easily skipped or ignored, especially because their system is based on a strong connection to the Christian church. I was considering re-photographing the scene because now there seem to be other players in the game. That what was underground five years ago now became mainstream. But the visual language of politics of the performance and its backstage did not change.
How important for you is the format of an art exhibition and are you satisfied with presenting these series of works in gallery spaces? Do you prefer to present them in a form of an artist book as an easily transportable and therefore available presentation medium? Have you tried or thought about some more directly public ways of displaying the works? For example, printing the photographs in magazines, newspapers, or on billboards? Do you think that can bring another valuable dimension to the meaning of your work and a broader visibility of the invisible places of power?
I think we are silently agreeing that the aim of the project was to reverse the invisibility. This is maybe suggested by the title but I am not sure that this was the main goal initially. Every publication method has its limitations. I was afraid that publication in a newspaper will maybe expand the audience but limit the interpretation possibilities. Alongside with the news regarding the same fractions, it will become an ornament. At the same time exhibition gives a mental space to analyze but to a very limited number of viewers.
I agree that exhibiting it in the public space would elevate the project to another dimension and I would be very interested in the public reactions if I had an opportunity to accomplish that.
Even though the photographed places belong to public bodies, they are most commonly not visible to the public and are indeed most of the time hidden from the public eye. Through the actions of photographing, publishing and exhibiting you made these places of power visible. There is something very attractive in this play between the private and public and how this play develops in different exhibition contexts. It is interesting to think about the relationship between the photographed places and places in which they are exhibited and to think about the contrast of power executions and power relations between the offices of political parties and gallery offices. Exhibiting these images in a Viennese gallery creates distance from the reality of the photographed places of power. Would you say that this distance opens up a possibility of resonating and critiquing the exhibited places of power and certain political bodies behind them? If you have exhibited the project in Poland too, what were the reactions of the public?
Because I have been concerned about showing this body of work in a book format I only discovered later on that exhibiting it in a gallery, especially abroad gives the photographs another dimension of resonating with oppositions of public/private, visible/invisible and also viewer/intruder, familiar/stranger. I never thought about it before, but making it visible is gaining control over the situation and it is an act of symbolic inversion of power. But we can go even further and ask if the institution of a gallery is not a place of power where we fight for the cultural capital (after Pierre Bourdieu) and where a serious critique of political bodies is impossible and annihilated. So, the gesture of taking away becomes purely aesthetic.
Exhibited on the gallery walls or published in a book, these empty interiors could be regarded as imaginary, set-up spaces. However, it is important to mention that they were not set-up and that you photographed them exactly as they were in the moment of your entering. Still, the vague title of the exhibition Places of Power, in which the origin of the power is not that obvious at first, creates a possibility for viewers to create new narratives about these places and messages they convey. Have you made the title intentionally vague?
I totally agree and I would add this bold observation to the previous question/answer about two titles of one body of work.
And finally, it would be a mistake not to mention that you already have a well-developed career as a photographer and artist, and you are currently a PhD student at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Krakow. Could you let us know what is the main focus of your doctoral research? Which events, developments, or experiences would you designate as the most important, key points for your artistic and professional development?
My main area of research in my PhD oscillates around the notion of “correction” or “revision”. I research existing and past alternative communities (intentional communities) and try to draw a picture of an imaginary community of the future. I have divided my work into theoretical research about utopia and visual history of the collective unconscious – this research is based on archives, amateur archives, and an art project with the assumption of working with a specific community using nonexistent rituals and unconventional techniques to visualize hidden dynamics of the system.
I was always sensitive to issues of symbolic violence and visual language of a dominant narrative but my current interests were shaped by a month I have spent at Open Society Archivesin Budapest where I have been examining censored, amateur photo-archive from the times of Regime change in Hungary. I created a narrative body of work – a set of three publications based only on private photographs. I am still influenced by the visual style of this photographs taken by hundreds of people and the potential of telling so many different stories using only the tools of sequencing and selection. I would name storytelling my main formal interest.
The other experience was living in Spain for half a year as a total outsider. I started visiting people living illegally in the caves inside the city of Granada. Their way of living between the legal and illegal, between nature and the city, their failed attempts to create a community was very inspiring for re-thinking idea of the community as a project, as a rational construction. They were on the margins but at the same time, they were the real insiders: literally – living in the ground and figuratively – knowing every meter of the city, its hidden flow of food, drugs, and people. This was the first time I started thinking about a community as a subject and as a project to pursue, mixing reality with fiction.
* phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan
Eva Kovač, born in 1989, is an art historian based in Vienna, where she is completing her master’s degree at the Department of History of Art, University of Vienna. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Art History from the Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana. Her field of interest covers contemporary art production, exhibitions, performance art, nationalism, and anti-nationalism, predominantly in connection with Central and Southeastern European contexts. Eva is one of the founding and active members of frustracиja. art collective established in summer 2015.
Asija Ismailovski, born in 1991, is a gallery worker and an aspiring art historian based in Vienna, where she is completing her master’s degree at the Department of History of Art, University of Vienna. She holds a bachelor degree in Art History and Turkish Language and Literature from the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Sarajevo. Her interests develop around the notions of performance and performativity in the context of the Southeastern European art scene. She is too one of the founding and active members of frustracиja. art collective established in summer 2015.