Mira_correspondence

Aneta Stojnic and Jelena Juresa

Subject: Mira_correspondence
Date: Monday, March 3, 2016, 5:06 PM
From: Jelena Juresa
To: Aneta Stojnic

 

Dear Aneta,

Engaging in this kind of correspondence requires me to adopt a dual perspective: to address You, as the direct recipient of the message, but also to bear in mind the future readers of this text. I go back and forth between the now and the forthcoming then, and realize that this allows me to exist even before I have created the narrative of my work in progress.

How do I construct the text to make it intimate and yet interesting to someone who is not You—  this is just one of the questions that emerge and delay the beginning of my writing. It is interrupted by a friend asking for advice: she has received a job offer in Belgium. I am wary of giving a definitive answer about this country, about its people, the weather. Since we moved to Belgium, I have been trying to find time to reread W. G. Sebald: every time I see the Palace of Justice in Brussels, or the Antwerp railway station, I think of Austerlitz. And now, as I am choosing the photographs for the reader, I find the butterfly, “the same” photo shot in Bihać, Jasenovac, on the Sutjeska. However, I became aware of the possible reference to Sebald’s fascination with insects, moths and butterflies in particular, only after I finished working on “Mira”. I have read somewhere that it was not transformation as such that appealed to him, the transfiguration of these animals into winged creatures. Instead, he marvelled at what follows — at their inaudible disappearance.

On Mar 10, 2016, at 0:05 AM, Aneta Stojnic wrote:

 

Dear Jelena,

The duality of our correspondence is indeed twofold: it is both temporal, ranging between the present and the future, and spatial, caught between the private and the public.

This is by no means accidental.

The convergence of past and future, the nonlinear movement through the “achronic” time of the video-installation, but also the tensions between the private and the public, between family life and historical context, between history, historicization and memory, between the impermanent and the indelible, between “nature” and construction (nature is construction?), between the personal and the political… these are the immediate layers of your work which the audience, the viewer and the reader, encounter. It seems that it is precisely from these tensions, breaches and intersections that all further critical questions emerge. The detailed study for a portrait makes an unequivocal, ruthless demand on its recipients: it requires them to position themselves historically and politically.

Who is Mira?

On Mar 15, 2016, at 11:18 PM, Jelena Juresa wrote:

 

Dear Aneta,

Not even this can be answered in straightforward terms. Mira did exist, born out of the breaking point in which her parents’ lives met, at the centre of historical and political upheavals. For this reason, her existence was always fragile, struggling under the weight of a repressed family tragedy: the past she inherits as the daughter of the only surviving member in a family of Bosnian Jews, killed in the Holocaust, is a horrific one. The deaths of the Pereras chart a map, starting with the Sajmište concentration camp, followed by Đakovo and Loborgrad, ending at Jasenovac. On the other hand, Mira’s life can be perceived as a miracle, as a framework that allows us to peer deeper into the period that, incidentally, miraculously coincided with the absence of war and the existence of a country.

On Mar 19, 2016, at 3:20 AM, Aneta Stojnic wrote:

 

Dear Jelena,

Your approach to working with visual material is highly individual, as is the way in which you merge together the language of film and the “storytelling” format in this video-installation. You use archives and historical sources, you play with the meanings of interiors and exteriors, with the interaction of history, culture and nature (which is no less constructed). Nature is never uncorrupted and there is no neutral space or landscape – each is drenched, saturated, fed, parched or sown with multiple layers of history. From a dramaturgical perspective, you allow your audience to put together their own story using the two channels of the video-installation, and as we are watching one of the videos, we remain aware of the presence of the other, like a background voice, like a memory.

The “miracle”, the “miraculousness” you refer to with regard to Mira’s life and the historical period it coincides with sounds almost like a line paraphrased from Brecht’s “Mother Courage”: war is the natural state of mankind, peace is simply a hiatus between wars.

Perhaps now is a good time to raise the following question: what sort of narrative do you offer as an artist through your installation, what is the hegemonic narrative that you engage with? How do you see your position as an artist in the process of historicization? In other words, what politics is generated by the strategies you use to dramatize the exchanges between your visual and textual narratives?

On Mar 19, 2016, at 9:56 PM, Jelena Juresa wrote:

 

Dear Aneta,

The storytelling level, as it were, relies on the memories and testimonies of people whose lives are entwined with the events outlined in the work, some of which are portrayed in the work itself. I thought it was critical to represent personal histories in the context of national history, of the unique temporal vacuum created during the existence of Yugoslavia. Initially, we might engage with the biography of one woman, one country, with the chronicle of an era. However, this is an illusion, because the geography of time in the work is so distinctive. Even though the photographs and the video material highlight the places the audience revisits as they watch the video-installation, their meaning is complemented by new developments (and histories). The fragility of the moment, the vulnerability of places whose innocence cannot survive – these led me to create a framework in which I can explore my own personal feelings of loss, the void we have been breathing since the collapse of Yugoslavia.

The time frame of the narration begins with 1492. This year is central to tracing the genealogy of the family. In addition, it is the key temporal reference for engaging with the history of migration and genocide. In this year, by the decree of Queen Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, the Sephardic Jews were exiled from Spain. It is also the year when, under the generous patronage of the Spanish crown, Columbus set off on his most important voyage. This is a harrowing historical moment, in which two trajectories clash and merge: the exile and migration of the Spanish Jews, and the long history of persecution and genocide in America.

Regardless of the extent to which an “archive” imposes the perspective of looking back, I believe that it is necessary to rethink the archive in order to understand the present and the power relations that lead to a specific moment which is eventually recognized as historical. The turn of the twentieth century brought an increasing critical questioning of the archive in the humanities and, in turn, the extent of its performative use in artistic practice. The need to “cite” archives seems logical— there is certain comfort to be derived from dwelling in the “known”— the archive seemingly allows us to avoid confronting the present and creates an illusion of critical investment. This approach is of no interest to me, because I believe in critique, which does not have to be obvious in order to be intelligent.

History is indeed a battlefield, insensitive to racism and the absence of female voices. One may ask what constitutes a document, worthy of a place in an archive. Lately, I have developed a growing interest in the work of Rebecca Schneider, who compares the archive to a score, or script, in which photography is the dominant element. From that perspective, we can reread the development of photography as a medium, and explore the performativity of the archive as its central feature. Has the curation of archives made photography redundant, and nowadays even quite dull at times, or has photography always been their integral part? This is the question I am currently trying to get my head around.

It seems important to stress that this work challenges the medium itself as well as its role. My interest in photography is phenomenological. In this respect, playing with the idea of its “veracity” is of great importance to me. The media of photography and film are by no means innocent— they provided a portrait of the twentieth century. Even though they are in fact historically quite distant, events appear close, and we get the impression that we are familiar with them, we have constructed memories of them. Naturally, such mediat(iz)ed memory of the twentieth century marginalizes all Other voices. Since its inception, photography has been intimately linked with colonialism and imperialism, employed as a means of constructing patterns in the nascent disciplines of biological and physical anthropology. Photographs of non-Europeans, along with groupings carefully choreographed around different ethnic backgrounds, were commonplace in the work of explorers and anthropologists. Scientific studies written at the time became the basis for racial theories, whereas photography became part of a show, a carefully staged choreography passing for a chronicle of people and places, spreading the myth of “other races” and their “natural habitat”. To a great extent, photography and film are responsible for the production of forgetting. For this reason, my relationship with these media is highly complex, in essence logical, and the only one possible from my perspective.

In “Mira, Study for a Portrait”, photography is indeed central and may be perceived as a score written alongside the text, where image generates text and vice versa (the Serbian language lacks a word that would encompass the entire range of meanings included in the notion of “image”— the broader and deeper senses of the word). The vast majority of stills in the video show nature, the key places that puncture the narrative. These images were shot mostly in Bosnia, on locations ranging from Bihać and the River Una, to the River Sutjeska, where the scenery is ruthlessly beautiful. I wanted to juxtapose this beauty to the narrative, which is just ruthless. The trajectory of my travels was dictated by the underlying narrative, constructed from collected and opposing memories, the historical events that were the focus of the research, extensive resources on the war and testimonies from the survivors.

I am reminded of the words of Michel de Certeau, which echo like a mantra — Every story is a travel story — a spatial practice[1]). As I write to you, I realize that for me this sentence manages to convey deeper meaning only when I read it in English. What is more – now there’s a coincidence – this is a sentence formulated by the translator. When I transform it into my language, it loses its power of insight, the moment it is uttered or written. In that respect, language is a very strange vehicle indeed.

[1]Tout récit est un récit de voyage, une pratique de l’espace (French).

On Mar 20, 2016, at 3:55 PM, Aneta Stojnic wrote:

 

Dear Jelena,

You say:

>The need to “cite” archives seems logical— there is certain comfort to be derived from dwelling in the “known”— the archive seemingly allows us to avoid confronting the present and creates an illusion of critical investment. This approach is of no interest to me, because I believe in critique, which does not have to be obvious in order to be intelligent.

I believe it is important to understand the relationship between archive and memory, between the different processes and politics of historicization, and the explicit as well as the implicit engagements with the contemporary readings of history.

The archive is by no means a passive container, an objective or neutral repository of history, dealing only with history, concerned only with history – quite the contrary, the archive dictates and controls the way in which history will be read, which means it shapes current political reality. According to Derrida, the process of archivization “produces as much as it records the event”. In this respect, the power over memory is the power exerted over identity, over the fundamental ways in which society seeks to establish what its core values are, where they once lay; in the process, memory becomes the site in which social power is negotiated, where it is confronted, contested or confirmed. The establishment of memory results in the establishment of narratives which have an inevitable ideological dimension in the contemporary context. Precisely for this reason, the space of memory must never cease to be critically reassessed, deconstructed and reconstructed.

Mira’s story is told by you (that is, second-hand), as the narrator, the one who provides a draft, the one who observes, speculates and selects. My impression is that you are perfectly aware of the responsibility that you bear as the one who relates the story. Can the pseudo-personal approach, relying on the individual history of one woman, be understood as a micro-intervention in contemporary public discourse? (Perhaps this is what you mean when you write of critique which does not need to be obvious.)

I would like to know how these engagements change depending on the different contexts in which the work is exhibited?

An important part of the historical narrative that you relate deals with the Second World War, the Holocaust, the anti-fascist People’s Liberation Struggle of the Partisan movement, victory and liberation from the Nazi occupation, and eventually, the foundation of a new state, the SFRJ.

During our first public discussion of “Mira, Study for a Portrait”, held in Graz (Halle für Kunst & Medien, February 2015), we raised the question of Austria’s role in the Second World War, and its subsequent failure to confront its Nazi past even after several decades, which stems from the official position that Austria was “Hitler’s first victim”. The consequences of such politics are reflected in contemporary issues regarding (structural) racism and antisemitism, which is why it was important to raise this issue on that occasion, in this particular local context.

What questions do you expect “Mira” to raise in Belgrade in 2016? What sort of intervention in public discourse is effected through a favourable representation of the Partisan movement in times of historical revisionism?

On Mar 21, 2016, at 9:28 AM, Jelena Juresa wrote:

 

Dear Aneta,

As you say, “the space of memory must never cease to be critically reassessed”. This is why it is essential to reconsider and stay aware of one’s own position, to ask the following: “In engaging with the discourse of memory, do we facilitate forgetting; in other words, which memories are highlighted, and which fade into the background?” Let us take a moment to return to the discussion of the archive and to Rebecca Schneider, who expresses a concern that our critical engagement with memory stems from the nature of the archive and its solidity. I would like to rephrase your earlier question, without the possibility of a straightforward answer: “what hegemonic narrative do I/we engage with, if there is a possibility that we belong to the same (constructed) theatrical arena?”

Much has been written about the present which is steeped in memories — the “memory boom” — ranging from the view that ever since the turn of the century we have been living in a time of commemoration, to the writing of Andreas Huyssen, who suggests that, even though they can be observed globally, discourses of memory are essentially associated with the individual histories of specific nations and states. In his analysis of the present oversaturation with memory, Huyssen calls for a re-evaluation of the juxtaposition between the obsession with memory and the culture of amnesia. He argues that there is no point in contrasting memory with amnesia; instead, one should be understood with regard to the other. In the obsession with memory and the past, he identifies the danger of descending into the destructive dynamics of forgetting. He further suggests that, even though we are living in the post-Auschwitz era, any future engagement with the discourse of memory must look ahead. The future will not blame us for forgetting, but it will judge us because, despite remembering perfectly well, we did not act in accordance with the memory — this idea is clearly illustrated in the present moment. We might raise the issue of the power(lessness) of memory practices after the Holocaust, in this very fragile moment, when fascism is proving its vitality on the European continent.

When it comes to this region, one might ask how generations that have no direct experience of the years before the breakup of Yugoslavia will remember the twentieth century. The schizophrenic revisions that have been gaining ground in the new national states after the wars of the nineties would be comical if they weren’t dangerous.

You say

> Mira’s story is told by you (that is, second-hand), as the narrator, the one who provides a draft, the one who observes, speculates and selects. My impression is that you are perfectly aware of the responsibility that you bear as the one who relates the story.

It is true that I work within the limits of the real, without taking an interest in the documentary, and that the space of my artistic practice observes its own laws. I work with people and real events, memories, history and the critique of that history, yet I prefer not to map the precise position from which I create. I leave that to the critics and the curators, for several reasons. They will, second-hand, write about what interests them, first-hand, in my work. Then again, their second-hand testimonies will probably be much more precise, much closer to the truth, than the first-hand ones I can provide now. I am afraid that the exact reasons for engaging with “Mira, Study for a Portrait” remain unknown even to me. I can share certain insights right now — this is the purpose of our dialogue — but I am bound to view things differently in several years: I will understand this moment, myself and my work from a different perspective. Ultimately, what I find absolutely necessary, and identify as my contribution, is the creation of a work of art that provides a space to reflect, to pose questions and to explore multiple interpretations.

This brings us back to the issue of first-hand testimony and narration. How does one even discuss trauma, how can it be introduced into artistic space? Which hand are we talking about, if the witnesses are no longer alive?

Mira’s story is a construct, precisely because it is based on real events. The fact that the recording of every memory and every testimony is transmitted not only through the chosen medium, but also through the person creating the records, means that the testimony is mediated, (dis)possessed, given away in order to be disavowed. This is why I was haunted by the question of responsibility, of approaching and handling the material that was given (away), in all stages of the work, engaging in long discussions with myself. The trust involved in the conversations with my interlocutors, my loved ones, was crucial. At the same time, the present was running its own course, with all of its pre-established dynamics and relations, and for that reason this was, and still is, a singular psychological experience.

At the same time, it was imperative for me to confront my own ghosts. It was necessary to re-evaluate my own memory of Yugoslavia, especially at the time of savage historical revision. This “confrontation” was vital and time-consuming. As I was making my way through the history of Mira’s family, I was also reassessing my own experience; whether my experience of Yugoslavia was lived, or whether it was another construct. Another motive for delving deep into the period of the existence of Yugoslavia was the desire for factual accuracy. Nevertheless, I am the most indebted to the conversations with Mira’s family and her friends, especially Mira’s mother Minka, who preserved the memory of the lost Pereras, as a precious witness of their existence, and whose own experiences before, during and after the war make up a large portion of this work.

By adopting the intimate perspective of the narrator, whose roles change in the course of the work, from third-person narration at the beginning of the work to first-person narration at the end, I wanted to explore different roles assigned to women (the work follows not only Mira’s life, but also the life of her mother), the possibilities for personal choices and decisions, which are not conditioned by political events and our relationship with them. Is it possible to live outside the predefined identity framework and the burden of past suffering, is trauma transmitted to successive generations, was it possible to establish a state free from war trauma, from the wider geopolitical context? — these are some of the questions I wished to raise in this work.

Naturally, I am taking into account the contexts in which the work will be exhibited, because I find that communication with the audience is an important factor to consider in the process of creation. In Graz we discussed the social and political context of the exhibition. Such a context always exists because, historically speaking, no society is innocent of crime. On the other hand, I can hope that there will be a chance to present a work that deals with the silence surrounding the crimes committed during the last war and the breakup of Yugoslavia – in Belgrade.

On Mar 28, 2016, at 4:42 PM, Aneta Stojnic wrote:

 

Dear Jelena,

Speaking from a local perspective, one of the reasons “Mira” strikes me as relevant is the fact that it defies both historical revisionism, on the one hand, and the hipster nostalgia contained in the neoliberal consumerism of post-socialist symbols and instant “memory”, on the other. In other words, even though you refrain from auto-interpretation, you do not fall into the trap of depolitization.

In researching the media of photography and film, along with the phenomenological approach you mention, you develop a distinctive method of constructing your own cinematic and artistic language. The focus on detail emerges as one of its central features. For instance, the way you “descend” from the panoramic view into the grass, revealing the messy complexity of the unknown which remains in the details, reveals what the work is trying to accomplish: to render the invisible visible. On the other hand, the focus, the drawing in and zooming in, converge and result in interesting shifts between two forever conflicting positions, the observer and the observed. Moreover, the one who observes zooms in to such a close-up that she becomes the one who offers a view from the inside. It is from this very ambivalence, from the volatility and unreliability of image, that your poetics emerges and serves as the basis for your political position. In other words, we can, to borrow Guattari’s term, speak of ethico-aesthetics and wonder: “What perspectives on collective subjectivity are available in this ‘Study for a Portrait?’”

This question arises from the interplay of language and image, detail and whole, but also from the dramaturgical choices regarding pronoun use: in playing with the narrator’s position, in the transition from the (neutral) third person to the second (through direct address): “You knew he would be waiting for you when the school bell rang, your timetable in his hand”, and the first person (who is the first person?):

Towards the end, the ambivalence of the pronouns “you”, “I”, “we” becomes particularly prominent:

Its purpose is to create the impression of plurality and polyphony, to de-individualize individual stories without claiming universality – quite the contrary, by staying sensitive to the echoes of potential collectivity of experience, on the one hand, and to the echoes of history constructed out of the plurality of many “partial subjectivities”, on the other.

As I was watching the work again, after a long time, I realized that my own memory had made an interesting distortion. I could clearly remember the shifting position of the narrator mentioned earlier, but I had completely forgotten that the narrator’s voice was male. You say:

> I wanted to explore different roles assigned to women (the work follows not only Mira’s life, but also the life of her mother), the possibilities for personal choices and decisions, which are not conditioned by political events and our relationship with them.

You speak from a feminist position, and you contribute to “women’s” writing, so the decision to use a male narrator cannot be unintentional. How did you arrive at this choice?

On Mar 28, 2016, at 8:43 PM, Jelena Juresa wrote:

 

Dear Aneta,

Your observation is very astute, there is a clear reason for choosing a male narrator, and this brings us to the beginning of our correspondence: this kind of work is not a biography, but a construct. It would certainly be easy to use the framework of media to express my own affective reactions as I was uncovering the history of the family and Mira’s life. In that case, however, what would be missing is the additional “perspective” that uses the seemingly biographical narrative to explore and write multiple levels of meaning into the work, leaving space for reflection. Namely, in the first video, the third person narrator introduces the audience to the history of Mira’s family and the events that precede her birth. He does this in a rather traditional way, unequivocally male, which is also the most intelligible, because this is how we learn to “read” the media, and we do not question the content of the utterance. On the other hand, the remove from which the narrator approaches the events, especially the part of the narrative which deals with the atrocities, is contrasted with images that introduce another level of interpretation and provoke unease.

At the beginning of the second video, the narrator addresses Mira, speaking in the second person, without giving in to empathy. It is precisely in this play, in the shifting of roles and the (un)clarities that stem from this relationship, that Mira’s (in)ability to adapt to her various roles is explored. Above all, the focus is on Mira as a child, the second generation, who had to deal with the aftermath of the war as one of the descendants of the survivors. As I write, I remember a book titled “Why They Said Nothing: Mother and Daughter on One and the Same War”, by Nevena Simin. Reflecting on her own life and the life of her parents, especially her mother’s, the author raises the question of the applicability of statutory limitations on war crimes, as well as the impact of the Holocaust on the generations after.

When the narrator starts speaking to Mira in the first person, more directly and more intimately, what becomes almost tangibly felt is the fact that he, despite adopting the role of Mira’s son, does not refrain from criticizing her, and that in narrating the sketches of personal memories he questions Mira’s decisions, portrayed as leading up to her tragic end. However, the seeming harshness of first-person testimony is juxtaposed with the pain caused by the absence of the narrator’s addressee. In this tension, the viewer (un)wittingly takes Mira’s side, and this allows them to question the connections between the multi-layered narratives which at times intersect in the work, be it the wider historical context, the gaze directed at the dynamics of family relations, or individual dilemmas.

On Apr 4, 2016, at 3:52 AM, Aneta Stojnic wrote:

 

Dear Jelena,

It could be said that the voice of the male narrator introduces a measure of alienation, of almost Brechtian estrangement, which establishes a direct relationship between the work and the audience. The relationship does not rely merely on empathy; on the contrary, it encourages the audience to reflect and understand. If the audience “take Mira’s side”, it is not because they identify with her, but because they understand the position she symbolically occupies and the complexity of the socio-political (and personal is political, as we have already “established”) relations that the said (hi)story represents.

To bring our correspondence to a conclusion, I think we ought to mention another element of your work which has been unjustly, although perhaps understandably,[1] underrepresented in discussions and critical analyses: the book. Namely, “Mira, Study for a Portrait” works on three media levels: there is a two-channel video installation, a series of photographs and a book. Or perhaps these should be listed in reverse order, where the book comes first, as the format that predates the developments in the other two media (although this chronology would be a construct as well, just like any other). What is particularly noteworthy about the book is the manner in which you construct the relationship between photography and language, between the visual and the written text. You provide ample (or sufficient) empty space around the photographs. The space creates a certain kind of tense silence in the rhythmical structure of the book. A sort of punctuation, or accent… perhaps restraint from speech?

It is no coincidence that a literary medium was included in a work which revolves around the issue of historicization. Through these three formats – book, video, photography – you seem to play with the notion of the ephemeral in memory, which has to be reinforced and reinterpreted by establishing intertextual ties between different sources of content, different voices. The source of this polyphony is Mira – not as an individual, but as a subject, the one that leads us into the space of collective memory. A subject that invokes and invites plurality, without factual relativization.

Writing about the narrator from the beginning of the first video, you say:

> He does this in a rather traditional way, unequivocally male, which is also the most intelligible, because this is how we learn to “read” the media, and we do not question the content of the utterance.

It seems to me that the book has a similar intention of “not questioning”. We are used to thinking of the book as a “finite”, “traditional” form, unlike the video, which we still tend to perceive as more ephemeral. By manipulating these “standards”, you give us a book which provides both a sketch and a summary of the entire work. On the other hand, your title allows for incompleteness… almost modestly… referring to this complex medley of different media, images, texts, archive materials, oral narratives, written documents, myths, facts and collective memories as – a “study for a portrait”.

You wrote earlier:

> Mira’s story is a construct, precisely because it is based on real events.

I wonder whose portrait is this study for? Is it for the period which comes under its direct assessment, or for the forthcoming period, the one which begins where Mira ends?

All the best,

Aneta

 

[1]Because the video is the dominant element, both in visual and interpretative terms.

References:

  • Brecht, Bertolt. Mother Courage and Her Children, trans. Eric Bentley, Grove Press, New York, 1991.
  • Brecht, Bertolt.Dijalektika u teatru, Nolit, Beograd, 1966.
  • De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1984.
  • Derrida, Jacques. Archive fever: A Freudian impression. University of Chicago Press, 1996.
  • Guattari, Félix. Chaosmosis: an ethico-aesthetic paradigm. Indiana University Press, 1995.
  • Huyssen, Andreas. Twilight memories: Marking time in a culture of amnesia. Routledge, 2012.
  • Schneider, Rebecca. Performing remains: Art and war in times of theatrical reenactment. Taylor & Francis, 2011.
  • Simin, Nevena. Magda Simin. Zašto su ćutale? – ili majka i ćerka o istom ratu. Futura publikacije, Novi Sad 2007 [Simin, Nevena, Magda Bosan-Simin. Why They Said Nothing: Mother and Daughter on One and the Same War, trans. Rajka Marinkovic, Novi Sad, Media Art Content Ltd, 2015].
  • Sebald, W. G. Austerlitz, trans. Anthea Bell, New York, Random House, 2001.