Katarina Šević interview

Barbara Dudás: How do you see yourself, are you a Serbian or a Hungarian (or simply Eastern European) artist? In what ways do these (national) identity questions / labels matter to you?

Katarina Šević: I don't see myself through such lenses, and that kind of 'dioptre' doesn't suit my views of people. Yes, those labels are attached to me differently in different situations, and they can only serve the purpose of some kind of orientation. What is important is the background content of those labels, and one’s own experience within it. In my case those labels are not clear at all. What matters is how I come to terms to living with that situation, its practical aspects and its private aspects.

BD: How and why did you end up studying in Hungary?

: It was a coincidence of events: due to the months long NATO bombing of Serbia in '99, I couldn't travel to Vienna to attend the entrance examination at the Art Academy there, as I had originally planned. When hearing from a friend about the Art University in Budapest, I managed to send my portfolio there across the border, and later be accepted as a regular student. I moved to Budapest in September '99. I thought this made sense – to stay in the region and expand the perspective from, so to say, 'within'.

BD: In your acceptance speech at the award ceremony you mentioned that you are happy to be honoured with this award as an immigrant in Hungary. The question of immigration and Hungary’s position towards immigrants are very hot topics at the moment in and outside of the country – but how do you see your situation, your story in this light? Was it different when you moved to Hungary in 1999?

: Besides thanking to the founders, the jury and the organisers of the Leopold Bloom Art Award, as well as my collaborators in art, what I mentioned in the speech was actually that I also wanted to thank those people who supported me and helped my integration, both in art and in everyday matters. That is the answer to your question about the 'hot topic' too – the events and circumstances are different now than in '99, but one thing is the same: individual impacts do matter and have sense, even when the overall political situation seems despairing.

BD: You often exhibit, take part in residency programs, workshops, collaborations (with Gergely László and Tehnica Schweiz) all over Europe. From today’s perspective what were the most important / challenging projects you took part in?

: One of the most important and inspiring experiences was probably my several months long stay in Cairo, Egypt (2007/2008), as an artist-in-residency at the CIC - Contemporary Image Collective. The knowledge of the place, the people and the art-scene there affected significantly my own feelings of the internationality in art, politics, history and freedom.

As regarding my own art projects – they are all very challenging for different reasons, the scope of work, the format or the topic.

My piece Social Motions (2007) was a mass performance relaying completely on the volunteer participation. A place and a frame, or, rather, simple instructions were set, but the number and kind of attendances was open and unknown even to me. It was not a staged moment, but a collective moment in which there was no audience – everyone present was participating. It raised questions of the role of the individual, the possibilities of self-organisation and of the experience of 'being-together'.

Katarina Šević: Social Motions, 2007, mass performance, Berlin; stills from the videoKatarina Šević: Social Motions, 2007, mass performance, Berlin; stills from the video

On the other side, the performance project The Heroes of the Shaft (2011), done in collaboration with Tehnica Schweiz, was completely planned and staged. It however was the outcome of a very intense collaborative process of story-telling and story writing turned, first into the drawings, and than in the seres of tableaux-vivants and narration presented live in front of the exhibition audience at the Műcsarnok (Kunsthalle) Budapest.

Katarina Šević - Tehnica Schweiz: The Heroes of the Shaft (drawing from the story-board) 2011, serial of performances; marker on paperKatarina Šević - Tehnica Schweiz: The Heroes of the Shaft (drawing from the story-board) 2011, serial of performances; marker on paper

Katarina Šević - Tehnica Schweiz: The Heroes of the Shaft, 2011, serial of performances; tableau vivantKatarina Šević - Tehnica Schweiz: The Heroes of the Shaft, 2011, serial of performances; tableau vivant

Katarina Šević - Tehnica Schweiz: The Heroes of the Shaft, 2011, serial of performances; installation view, Műcsarnok, BudapestKatarina Šević - Tehnica Schweiz: The Heroes of the Shaft, 2011, serial of performances; installation view, Műcsarnok, Budapest

A different, yet very important approach for me, is linked to my ongoing project entitled News from Nowhere (2009-). These sculptural objects are specific forms chosen from my memory of things and meanings of the highest importance. The objects also play around the idea of the possible future models of certain forms (then out of use), or the possibility of future reconstruction. A point of departure for designing/making these objects revolves around the issue of Craft and its role in the today’s society. I expect that their understanding takes shape through viewers’ own feelings and presumptions.

Katarina Šević: News from Nowhere, 2009-, serial of objectsKatarina Šević: News from Nowhere, 2009-, serial of objects

BD: The project you exhibited at the Leopold Bloom Art Award exhibition is called Alfred Palestra. It is a quite complex project that deals with the 'crisis of the republic and Pataphysics' at the end of the 19th century France, focusing on characters such as Alfred Jarry and Alfred Dreyfus. How did you find this topic and what is the importance of their stories to you?

: Tehnica Schweiz (Gergely László, Péter Rákosi) and myself were invited to take part in the 2014 Rennes Biennale (Les Ateliers de Rennes, Contemporary Art Biennale). While researching the place we discovered that a local school (today Lycée Émile Zola) was the site of two important events in cultural history: the second Dreyfus trial was held in the gymnasium of the school shortly after Alfred Jarry graduated from there. The possible meeting of Alfred Jarry and Alfred Dreyfus in this space symbolises the coincidence of the crises of the republic with the birth of the avant-garde. We wondered if it was a mere accident that the creation of Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician, or King Ubu, which are commonly referred to as the forerunners of the avant-garde and precursors of Dada and Surrealism, coincided with the culmination of the Dreyfus Affair in time and space? We used the imagined meeting of the two Alfreds as the starting point for a project that goes beyond these two historical figures and the specifics of one physical location or one historical period. Using the books (the Alfred Palestra Canon) read by Dreyfus in captivity and listed by Jarry in Dr. Faustroll’s library as a way to explore fundamental themes that remain as essential today as they were in the late nineteenth century, including justice, truth, freedom, education, captivity and hope.

Katarina Šević - Tehnica Schweiz: Alfred Palestra, 2014/15, installation view, PLAY TIME/Les Ateliers de Rennes, Frac, BretagneKatarina Šević - Tehnica Schweiz: Alfred Palestra, 2014/15, installation view, PLAY TIME/Les Ateliers de Rennes, Frac, Bretagne

BD: The whole project is manifold; it is based on texts, books, and narratives, it contains workshops and performance (organized first in Rennes and later in Budapest – in the framework of the OFF-Biennale), but it also manifested in the form of physical objects. What is the connection between these elements, could they be interpreted, understood on their own or the whole project needs to be grasped in its interconnectedness?

: Alfred Palestra is indeed a complex project culminating through the performance – the situation where all the aspects of the work are in use. It took shape as a workshop with a group of high school students from the Lycée in Rennes, designed as a procedure to comprehend plural narratives. The workshop aimed to develop skills to interpret this very particular historical constellation. During the workshop, a multitude of written sources, fragments of the Alfred Palestra Canon, collided, than brought together and ordered in reading groups. The books were read with an agenda: to seek meaning in relation to the school’s weighty heritage, but also to be expanded into a wider context. The quotes (preselected by us) were first read out loud and discussed by the students. The pieces of text were assigned keywords and then connected by their shared tags. Threads of linked literary quotes appeared and entirely new texts emerged that resulted from the dialogue within the group. The students were asked to represent single quotations during the performance, to identify with the texts of their choice. When the public attended the performance it became their responsibility to unravel these unique and momentary crystallisations of knowledge. The more time the visitors spent inside the performance, the more conscious they became of their own strategies for dealing with plural narratives.

Katarina Šević - Tehnica Schweiz: Alfred Palestra, 2014, performance, Lycée Émile Zola, RennesKatarina Šević - Tehnica Schweiz: Alfred Palestra, 2014, performance, Lycée Émile Zola, Rennes

Katarina Šević - Tehnica Schweiz: Alfred Palestra, 2015, performance, Alternative Secondary School of Economics (AKG) BudapestKatarina Šević - Tehnica Schweiz: Alfred Palestra, 2015, performance, Alternative Secondary School of Economics (AKG) Budapest

In addition to this highly textual exploration, we designed objects to be used during the performance, and inspired by the illustrations of the Dreyfus Affair, descriptions in Jarry’s novel and sketches from his plays. All of these object are functional, can be worn and/or moved. They evoke the furniture of the nineteenth century and the status symbols of the bourgeoisie, referring therefore to the responsibility of the middle-class, by juxtaposing unusual, symbolic functions with the style. This way the performance was our own version of Jarry’s time machine: one large organism scanning historical time in three-dimensional space. (Alfred Jarry, “How to Construct a Time Machine”)

Katarina Šević - Tehnica Schweiz: Alfred Palestra, 2014/15, objects, Backhead Mask, MonumentKatarina Šević - Tehnica Schweiz: Alfred Palestra, 2014/15, objects, Backhead Mask, Monument

Removed from the historical setting, the Alfred Palestra performance staged at the Alternative Secondary School of Economics (AKG) in April 2015, managed to expand the understanding of the importance of the present-day questions of education, freedom and national identity.

Finally, the project also took shape of a book. The nature of the book limited our means to express the parallel coexistence of narratives, so we decided to assemble our own threads of texts following the rules of our game. The content of the book is the Alfred Palestra canon filtered and ordered through our own unique perspective, and it is, thus, one possible version of it.

Katarina Šević - Tehnica Schweiz: Alfred Palestra BookKatarina Šević - Tehnica Schweiz: Alfred Palestra Book

BD: The exhibition of the Leopold Bloom finalists can be seen at the New Budapest Gallery until 15 November. What is next? Do you have any ideas about where would you organize your international, solo exhibition that is part of the award?

: All I can say at the moment is that the negotiations are in progress, and it is another challenging situation.