In the past decade Ljubljana-based photographer Jaka Babnik has been one of the most active and acclaimed figures in the field of so called contemporary photography in Slovenia and the region of former Yugoslavia. Since 2009 he completed number of groundbreaking works that gain even wider significance when they are analysed with regard to their continuity. In his artistic practice he commonly explores topical social phenomena that inevitably denote current Zeitgeist, while he has always remained faithful to analysing his immediate surroundings, i.e. the cultural milieu of Eastern Europe and the Balkans where he lives and works. In the controversial series of photographs and photobook entitled We Are Dogs! (2009) he gave an insight into the spaces and participants of infamous dog fights while shedding light primarily to their social condition. Furthermore, he focused on issues of basic structures and purposes of urban spaces. In the work Jebodrom (2014) he documented hidden corners of the public space where people come to have sex. In the Holy Land (2017) series of photographs he documented public spaces that were re-purposed for the visit of the politically engaged pope John Paul II in the 1980s and 1990s. The work Why So Serious? (2017) was all about functions and aesthetic paradoxes of private and public spaces, while he exposed selected fragments of local history that fell into oblivion in the installation Heroes of My Time (2017). In 2019, after two years of intense research work, the project entitled Pygmalion was premiered at Jakopič Gallery, Ljubljana, with which he opened some fundamental questions about human nature. By combining photographs and found objects, he addressed the omnipresent theme of human kind: ongoing quest for happiness and faith in better future. By looking the diverse historical and socio-political aspects of this issue he also pointed out his need for expanding creative methods and means beyond (exclusively) photographic medium. Time Levelling (2020) was a photographic installation addressing phenomenon of historical memory, which is created through efforts to leave behind one’s trace or to make history. The same year he initiated an artistic research looking into the patterns, canons and formulas in visual culture and wider public sphere which resulted in a one-off newspaper Photographs for Illustration Purposes Only (2020), a collective work of number of writers, photographers and artists. In the following interview, Babnik spoke about the backgrounds and intentions of his artistic practice, about his own relationship towards photography, about his questions on the predictability of visual culture, and about his relationship to human sciences, the inevitable companion of his creativity.
Your work and exhibition Pygmalion which was showcased at Jakopič Gallery in Ljubljana is dedicated to the phenomenon of our constant faith in bright future and ongoing quest for happiness. How can you, as a visual creator, address such a complex topic?
The need to address complex social phenomena partially originates from my academic background, as I graduated in history and cultural sociology. On the one hand there was a desire to analyse society, and on the other hand there was awareness of the ambiguity of historical facts. This was also clearly reflected in the political orientation of many of my professors at the university. During my studies I came to realise the immense importance of historiography in the local political and media discourses. Among the guild of historians reliable sources are of great importance, be it in the form of oral testimonies or photography. All history textbooks for primary and secondary schools are conceived and written this way; very commonly there is a photograph, equipped with a text that interprets it. In the series of photographs and exhibition Pygmalion I allowed myself to borrow exactly the same principle of presentation, and at the same time I started asking myself about the role of photography within my practice: is it still adequate medium for such content? Following many deliberations I came to the conclusion that photography could only be one of the available media which became a tool to display the aforementioned topic. It is a display and not a research. I was looking for symbolic objects relating to historical events, political discourses and anthropological milestones which could present my entirely subjective view on the state of affairs. At the same time I tried to convey that every single individual believes in numerous symbolic objects and images that determine him or her, be it a family photo album, i.e. primary socialisation, or groundbreaking events in certain socio-historical milieu, where one was socialised, i.e. secondary socialisation. People have a tendency for banalisation and simplification, and therefore some of the most fundamental existential questions are commonly reduced to symbolic objects – that could be a wedding ring one’s hand or a religious totem around one’s neck. All that is actually extremely banal.
All that is also very visual. The objects and totems that symbolise faith in better future are above all visual; however, they are difficult to understand without additional explanation.
This is similar to the relationship between the wall paintings in a church and the role of a priest to interpret them. Photographs have the ability to present certain things much more explicitly than the words, but at the same time photographs can’t communicate almost anything on their own. Together with the curator of the Pygmalion exhibition, Tevž Logar, we inevitably decided to include explanations in the form of texts which convey more detailed context. The photographs and objects at the exhibition would be almost impossible to understand without additional explanations, or they could be interpreted in a completely different way without these descriptive texts.
For this exhibition you therefore chose the museological principle of presentation; museum artefacts are usually interpreted in identical manner.
Maybe this is some kind of a critique of the fact that there are right and wrong interpretations in history as well as in museology. Because of that we came to the idea, for instance, to borrow a video interview with late Serbian politician and paramilitary leader Željko Ražnjatović Arkan from the Reuters agency in order to show it at the exhibition. The interview was recorded one day after Yugoslav army managed to shot down so called invisible aircraft F117A during the NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia in 1999. In this footage Arkan uses a piece of that aircraft as an evidence of the event and as a visual aid for conveying the message to the US administration. Both parties involved interpret such event in a diametrically opposite ways.
Do you think such totems are inevitable companions of our lives?
I think (we) people are made this way. We tend to use totems in order to make it easier for us, and because such a principle was imposed on us through socialisation and educational system. This is probably the reason why it is so difficult to have doubts in so many things – because we are indoctrinated in a certain historiography. When I found myself, couple of years ago, in the situation to converse with colleagues from Greece about Macedonia and Macedonian exodus after the second world war, I was faced with a complete denial of the discourses that myself understand as historical facts. That is apparently the consequence of insurmountable difference between Yugoslav and Greek historiography, and that can be very much still sensed today. Similarly absurd situation can be seen in the divided city of Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, where kids go to schools in two shifts, equipped with two different historical textbooks, Croatian and Bosniac. It is very difficult to point at these discrepancies because we are dealing with very sensitive and dogmatic narratives.
In this context Pascal Bruckner’s book Perpetual Euphoria: On Duty to be Happy seems to be very relevant. The author claims that nowadays society forces people into eternal search of happiness which – even if it happens – offers very short-lived satisfaction that always ends up in emptiness and the need for (even) more happiness.
I think that is a good metaphor. It is similar to the phenomenon of modern consumerism where a purchase of a new product causes short-lived happiness or satisfaction that swiftly ends and twists in need to have more; it is simply some sort of addiction which is acquired through socialisation. Today we may be on the verge of a new economic recession but crises are statistically appearing in approximate intervals of every ten years, however, most of the people don’t want to accept that as a fact, as something completely ordinary; instead we strive for some kind of balanced normality which usually means a constant growth of production and consumption. Therefore, despite the fact that the recession is historically and statistically proven fact, we still understand it as a systemic failure even though it more than obviously is not an anomaly but rather an integral part of current economic model. Human nature works in that way that it is almost impossible to admit such things.
Even though your artistic practice originates in photography, you decided to include other visual media in the Pygmalion exhibition, above all ready made objects. Was photography too narrow for this particular conceptual framework?
After some eight months of work on the project I came to conclusion that photography alone is completely inadequate for this context. It also turned out that the decision to use certain object that was then placed under spotlights in a gallery is pretty similar to the act of pushing the button of a camera. One of the critiques of the exhibition was that I use very outdated form of ready made objects. However, in order for something to be photographed, this something has to exist beforehand and that is why photography is always just a ready made. For that reason the photographs were placed side by side with the objects. I think that inclusion of certain symbolic objects in the exhibition was a significant gesture, because it enabled me to present several socio-political circumstances relating to particular time and place, such as, for instance, the model of the town of Velenje [a model socialist town in Slovenia built in the 1950s] or a piece of Berlin Wall. The latter was showcased in a form of insignificant and small fragment of the wall, but more than the object itself, it was the gesture that was significant because I purchased the piece of wall online, as a souvenir that represents a symbol of the beginning of one of the greatest cultural revolutions. Every photograph taken is a consequence of subjective decision, and in a similar way, I took the liberty to subjectively select and put under spotlight certain objects and simply declare what they represent. Therefore one can’t talk only about the problem of viewing photography and about always questionable ability of photography to transfer information; on the other hand I use quite similar editing approach with these objects than I would with photography. Such a derivative from ordinary use of visual means, i.e. photography, was very liberating.
It seems you were also very practical when it comes to borrowing and showing artefacts because. It seems you were not able to get all desired objects for the exhibition. Was that the reason that some of the objects were photographed and presented as photographs instead?
We definitely were not able to borrow everything we wanted to showcase, moreover it wasn’t even possible to photograph everything. But I have to admit we were quite successful. I have to point out the fact that I was working on the project in close collaboration with Jakopič Gallery, part of the Museum and Galleries of Ljubljana, from the very beginning. That means I received incredible support in all aspect of work. Without such institutional alliance I wouldn’t be able to access the objects that I wanted to borrow for the show or that I wanted to photograph.
What was the response of the institutions that keep the objects of your interest in their collections? Did any of them have doubts in your intentions, in a sense of incorrect or false interpretation of the artefacts, which would eventually result in rejection?
For instance I wanted to photograph the pistol of Gavrilo Princip, the one that was used in the assassination of archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914. Pistol is today part of the collection of Heeresgeschuchtlische Museum [Museum of Military History] in Vienna. The institution declined the request for photographing a pistol in the museum saying the object is part of the permanent exhibition. Sometimes it is easier to say no, or maybe there were other reasons. In the case of that artefact I came across testimonies of arms collectors claiming that the pistol vanished from a museum in Sarajevo during the siege in the 1990s and that the artefact in Vienna is forgery. But these doubts only emphasize the significance and burden of objects with high symbolic value.
With the Pygmalion project the set-up in the exhibition space was as important as the content itself. In the gallery, the visitor could experience a sensation to be wandering around some kind of museum of doubt.
On a conscious level, we didn’t have the intention to recreate a museum even though it might have looked that way in the end. The concept of the spatial set-up was conditioned with the space itself, which is demanding but also adequate for presentation of such topic. We decided that objects as well as photographs should stand out from the dark and dingy background. That may be the reason why there was this effect of a studio and notion of a museum present. Regarding the doubt I must admit that I always doubt in everything and that this is apparently reflected in my artistic practice. The exhibition was very significant for me also for the reason that I got a chance to answer certain things to myself but at the same time I became even bigger doubter.
You have always remained practising documentary photography, in a way that you have never come to the point where your photographs would be able to convey the messages with visual means only. What is your relationship to the medium of photography?
I started doing photography because of skateboarding. I was part of that scene and I took the role of documenting specific tricks of fellow skaters. I was catching something that was supposed to be extraordinary. A set of various circumstances, such as studying human sciences and being active in the subculture, brought me to photography through different and rather unusual door. I have never gone through the process of formal education in photography, art or visual culture, and therefore I somehow skipped certain inevitable formulas of photography and visual art. However, because of skate photography, and later on engagement in the field of commercial photography, I learned how to use and master the medium in a technical sense which means that I was able to properly apply certain technical approaches to a particular themes. However, that should never be in the foreground. I tend to use photography in accordance with its characteristics, even though I constantly find myself before ever new considerations and thoughts about the expressive limitations of the medium. It is true though, that an image of something, a document, is completely enough for me, and I never have had, for instance, a need or desire to make additional interventions to photographs. If I really wanted to do that, it would probably be better to turn to some other visual medium.
In what way should a consumer of images be educated and critical in order to understand their massage? Or to ask differently; are (we) people visually illiterate?
If I relate that matter to general relationship towards photography and light-heartedness of its everyday use, I could probably say that people are indeed visually illiterate. When I premiered my series Holy Land (2017) I received a comment from a fellow photographer, that I put myself above my viewers, because I expect them to have certain degree of prior knowledge in order to grasp the message of the work. This remark is not so much related to the use of the medium, but rather to some wider demeanour and awareness. If we try to place photography in the field of contemporary art, we can easily conclude that such definition is being imposed by art institutions. That is common problem of photographers who come from other backgrounds and try to enter the world of art, often not being understood, neither by classic documentary photographers nor by experts operating in visual art scene.
Your artistic practice usually reflects very fundamental issues, such as society or history. The piece Heroes of My Time (2017) is very characteristic in this sense, because it addresses certain groundbreaking events in Slovenia in the recent history. How did you dissect these historical discourses?
I was primarily interested in inward visualisation. Prior knowledge or awareness of certain events and history can place the viewer in a state of deference or even discomfort. What we don’t know doesn’t hurt, but the question is, who or what is giving us the right not to know something. In the work Heroes of My Time I wanted to emphasize the transience of man and therefore the principal protagonists of the narratives are trees that live significantly longer than human beings and are often (silent) witnesses of historical events. Despite our transience (we) people often behave as if we will live forever, that is why we commonly neglect the past, that is why the historical memory is so terribly short, and that is why individual interests always prevail over the collective ones. With this piece I wanted to showcase the remainders that we constantly observe, though not being able to fully recognise and comprehend them, because our lack of knowledge of history or, better to say, because of our historical amnesia.
What causes collective amnesia which is often the reason that so many significant events and phenomena are simply forgotten? Is it enough to endlessly repeat one and the same interpretation?
Some time ago, one of the local factories of paints and varnishes used a slogan „systemic protection of wood“. That could also be applied to the field of historiography. History is very carefully and systemically released to public sphere. In one of the examples in Heroes of My Time I depict the tree growing on main square in Jurovski Dol, where in 1992 the presidential candidate Ivan Kramberger was assassinated in cold blood. This is certainly one of the most inadequately investigated and explained episodes of recent Slovenian history that, however, is still being discussed. But I also explored much more insignificant and unknown examples that disappeared from the memory for its lack of attractiveness. Therefore, I also always question the role and effectiveness of established systems. Hereby I refer to the book entitled Peter Principle by Laurence J. Peter & Raymond Hull where the authors discuss, how an individual inside the system sooner or later reaches the threshold of his or her own capacity. That means that somebody in some kind of a position inside the system could be an incredible worker or expert, and for his or her incredibility he or she will progress to the next stage where, eventually, he or she will reach the frontier of incapacity. In the systems that we know nowadays, people are rarely moving down the hierarchy.
What about the Holy Land (2017) series where you explored the role of pope John Paul II and the Papal state in the recent histories of Yugoslavia and East Europe? How do you tackle such a profound issue with visual means?
Initially I was fascinated by the use of space that is constantly being repurposed; one can easily play football on a mass grave without knowing it. When I started looking into the dynamic of the pope’s tours, it was directly reflected in several socio-political changes in the 1980s and 1990s, such as the fall of Berlin wall or the civil war in Yugoslavia. I was interested in the political role of the Papal state in the recent history of the East Europe and the Balkans. Vatican, for instance, was one of the first states to recognise the independence of Republic of Slovenia and Croatia which resulted in the Vatican contracts that affect us all to this day. Production of pope’s world tours was an immense political undertaking; however, the places where these spectacles took place are nowadays mostly degraded areas which means they were significant for a very short period of time. In 1988, for instance, pope John Paul II held a rally in Traufsdorf am Wulka in Austria, close to the border with Yugoslavia and Hungary in order to attract people from those two, then still socialist states. This was an obvious political gesture. When we consume the images from the Holy Land series with a prior knowledge of the entire context, we inevitably see them in a different way.
The Holy Land series is predominantly composed of a large-format “aftermath” photographs of these symbolic places. However, you also made a huge collage out of souvenirs from Vatican.
I collected souvenirs which are produced and sold as an official Vatican merchandise. For the occasion of every John Paul II’s international visit Vatican Post released commemorative envelopes and postcards with the most significant images. This artefact has served many purposes, namely explaining the context and showcasing promotional photographic documentation. The collage took the role of the explanatory text which would be otherwise required.
You touched on the questions of organisation and paradoxes of everyday environment in the series Why So Serious? (2017). What does the cultural landscape tell us about the people who build it and inhabit it?
Looking at this piece from a temporal distance, I realised that its quality lies especially in the fact that I showcased that such paradoxes are inevitably present in our immediate surroundings, and that this is not a question of so called second or third world. It is behind the corner. I was following the need of humans to lift themselves above their surroundings, while referring to the concept of Hyperart that was introduced by Japanese artist Akasegawa Genpei. In his words, Hyperart is an object that cannot serve any other purpose, that doesn’t have a function, and can therefore only be defined as a work of art. I was interested in this phenomenon in particular on a conceptual level. What bring us to a desire to achieve complete functionality or to go after excessive decoration? I was interested in changing of cultural landscape, and how these changes work differently in different geographic areas. Being completely integrated in my own environment inevitably defines my way of observing and perceiving organisation and structure of any environment or cultural landscape. Of course, I often ask myself why so many buildings in Slovenia don’t have an access for disabled and why the bicyclists have to use such dangerous cycling tracks in the cities. However, the impulse for the series was in principle of aesthetic nature, but on the other hand, it was also about questioning the medium. In Why So Serious? I applied principles of street photography despite the fact that I used medium digital format and a tripod; moreover, the series was then published in deliberately oversized book [the dimension of an open book was 88x66cm].The idea was, that if I photograph paradoxes, I also have to present them in a paradoxical way.
In your recent projects you took on questioning photography and visual culture, namely Photographs for Illustration Purposes Only (2020) and Exercises in Style (2021). The former was released in the form of free newspaper where you were only the initiator of the collective endeavour in which several writers and visual creators took part. Why do you have the need to question the medium?
The Photographs for Illustration Purposes Only project was all about deliberation on photography and visual culture. This may sound banal and trivial but there are so many disciplines that have rarely, if ever, been questioned, such as, for instance, historiography, constitutional law or economy. On the other hand the initiative may reflect my own intimate doubts in the things I do. It is about self-awareness that I have to, in order to make money and survive, stick to equations and formulas that enable the production of images; therefore, I willingly take part in a repetition of certain established visual codes and thus in keeping the status quo. The newspaper happened because proper discussion is only possible in written (or spoken) word. And also, it fitted in the current situation when, due to to the pandemic and lockdown, people were not able to go to exhibitions or attend live events. Instead, they received newspaper in their mailboxes.
The case studies of the project were your own photographs, some of them purposely made for that occasion. It seems you don’t exempt yourself from that issue?
I am primarily interested in verbal or written interaction which usually happens as a consequence of questions asked. I am horrified of any absolute claims but I am constantly confronted by them. I guess our opinions are commonly shaped and framed by socialisation that produces formulas and patterns that make things, tastes or decisions very predictable. Nowadays, the world is ever more visual – more and more is attributed to an image but there is less and less knowledge to reason an image. It is an absurd situation of ever greater flow of information but decreasing ability to embrace them which consequently leads to simplifications. In this aspect visual communication is a very slippery ground. In the piece Exercises in Style, which is still in the process, I am looking for traces of human interventions in the space, which is most commonly manifested as architecture. Architecture can merge number of elements that originate from art theory which is a certain kind of formula per se. The photographs from this series do not convey anything at all; what you see is what you get. However, they can cause a reflex relating to apophinia – a disorder that causes tendency to search for meaningful relationships between things where there are no relationships. As people are used to find hidden meanings in art works, public may get confused by my gesture. But if these photographs are viewed from the point of view of art theory, they can make perfect sense.
Do you find the ambiguity of an image that you present to the viewer positive characteristic? To what extent do you want, as an artist, to control the interpretation of your works?
When a photograph (or any other work of art) enters an art institution this usually narrows its reach, because the audience in there is very specific and elitist. Every discussion in the relation to the work that was being publicly presented is certainly positive, and I don’t expect the audience to understand the work in exactly the same way as I do. I certainly do not have pretensions to change anybody or anything with my works (apart from maybe myself), but still I would like to experience more dialogue. The problem is that the dialogue and exchanges of opinions rarely happen. If all visitors of an exhibition agree with works exhibited, there is something terribly wrong with the exhibition (or with the audience); I understand congratulating and flattering at exhibition openings as a lost opportunity for discussion. Personally I am interested in audience that is capable of telling me something sincere and critical. Doubt is necessary, always and everywhere.