Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Interview by Rohini Malik Okon

The following is an extract from an interview by Rohini Malik Okon.

• So did you have particular expectations at the outset?

I had quite a lot of expectations of myself. I basically stocked up on tapes and film like mad, and I really felt that when I’m there, and I was there for four weeks, I couldn’t take any time off. First of all when I arrived, it was the family and all of that, and then the next morning I was hooking up my microphones, doing the camera and I started recording because I felt that time was so precious. Also, I didn’t really have a plan, but I knew that I didn’t want it to be a documentary about my mother. I wanted to make it very clear to my mum and to the two women she works with what I was doing, and it was really difficult, and also to my sister because I was staying in the same room with my sister, and my mum slept in the same room where she sewed. It was quite a cramped situation, but I wanted it to be cramped, I didn’t want to stay in a hotel and visit because that wasn’t really the point. So that lack of space was part of the project, to see how far I could go before I cracked! But the crack was important, I wanted to crack!

• How did your mother feel about your making work in her flat around her tailoring business?

She took it on almost like a project manager, which was a bit worrying. She really wanted it to be successful, so like when she knew she had some customers coming she’d be come on Margareta you have to get your gear ready, to a point where it was like okay relax, I’ve got it under control. So negotiating that relationship…you know I’ve never worked with my mother, I’ve actually avoided every possibility to work with her, but I felt that our relationship had grown stronger over the years and that I was able to work with her. So she was more than fine, she was really up for it and really took it on. But I was also wondering, well mothers would take things on for their children and there was a sense that she would do anything for me and I didn’t want to abuse that sense either. It did make me think about how much a mother is willing to sacrifice, and if I’m a mother one day will my sacrifice be as committed as hers and I don’t think so. There are a lot of questions which I can’t even show yet, there are no visuals for them.

• I found it really interesting when at the symposium you spoke about being there as a daughter and as an artist, but also as a stranger, feeling that you didn’t quite belong in a familiar place. It was a very personal journey for you, and I’m sure your thoughts about it are still filtering through and ideas are developing

Oh yes, definitely and that sort of slippage of roles was for me really interesting and challenging. When I started filming I thought do I have the right to exploit the trust that I’ve been given because I’m a daughter, and I had an interesting discussion with my sister who was questioning my intrusion to a certain extent in her life. She didn’t want to be part of it, and then I talked to her and we talked through it and she warmed up to the idea, but she had felt that I was somehow intruding because I was filming this piece of private life and then I was going to show it somewhere else. She was afraid that people are going to laugh at us or that I was going to somehow abuse that relationship. It brought up so many questions because I love working with people and that’s where my practice is going, so these questions are never going to go away and I can only go back to myself and question my motivation. There’s a fine line between feeling responsible for the representation, and I’m not here to say well women in Bosnia are a certain way or present them in a certain light. I definitely knew that my role was not as a sort of spokesperson, but there is that responsibility in the editing room, or when I turn the camera on, when I turn it off, when I take the photograph. I have to take responsibility for the decisions I make.

• Another thing I found really interesting was when you were speaking about these ‘thresholds of vulnerability’, the language of vulnerability as a way of perhaps exploring or articulating some of these questions

I think that’s something I found most challenging, to go to that threshold of vulnerability and what does it mean as well. I’ve got my own ideas about what vulnerability means, I think people can interpret it in lots of different ways, but for me vulnerability means openness and honesty, to actually explore one’s experience without having to have these concrete answers, but to also take responsibility and not to go to this other side of saying oh I don’t know. It’s a fine balance, and I think it was a very different process when I was there to when I’m here looking back on the experience. When I was there the vulnerability was about being open to filming, but I also felt like I wasn’t vulnerable there and that I was more vulnerable when I came back, when I had space to reflect. There I didn’t have the space, physically and emotionally, it was continuous and I wasn’t on my own for a single second. When I came back I realised how lonely our lives are, or how alone our lives are – there’s a fine line between aloneness and loneliness. I love being alone, but I was really lonely the first week because I was suddenly feeling where is everyone. It was really strange, those first two weeks of coming back were just as intense as being on the journey. That’s another really interesting thing, that transition – I love that time when you’re here but you’re somewhere else and then you slowly become here.

• Yes, it’s not an immediate thing

I was interested in that period of transition after the journey. There’s so much in it once you start to unravel that threshold of vulnerability. I kind of feel that that’s where I want to go with my work, and my way of thinking about my work and my life, because there’s no separation really.

• Were you already thinking about these ideas before you went, or did the journey suggest them?

Well before I went, I was feeling like I was ready to make a shift in my work. Before that, I was very much looking at immigration, the more social and political issues around immigration and my role within it as a refugee, as an asylum seeker, the identity of a migrant. But I’m starting to feel slightly limited by it because before then I’d always been interested in the poetry of language and the poetry of art, and I write poetry. I always felt that the poetry was so immediate, but I could never get that immediacy with my art and I was starting to really battle with it, how could I get that immediacy? With this project I started to feel that things started to open, that immediacy of expression and exploration.

• Well that really came across. I found your presentation very moving, especially the videos, and that immediacy that you’re talking about really came across, but they were also very subtle

I’m really pleased with it, and for me I got in touch with something and I really want to keep going. When I was filming I was so conscious of the fact that I was holding the camera, and I just followed my gut sense, which was more important than whether the lighting was right or the sound was right. I mean I did try my best to get good lighting and good sound because I don’t want to torture people who are watching it. I loved it, and I really loved editing which I thought I would hate, it was actually quite creative in itself.

• In terms of the expectations you had at the outset, did you feel they were met or did your expectations change?

Well I sort of forgot my expectations once I was there, and I think I actually came with more than I expected.
Well the photographs of the girls, I knew I wanted to photograph them but the idea actually developed when I was in my mum’s flat. I didn’t initially have the idea that I wanted to go to their homes, but as I started to film and talk to my mum I started to think that what I was really interested in was how do these girls live, what are their lives like. It was plain voyeurism and curiosity maybe, but it was also this thing about glamour and these dresses, and what are these girls doing now and I thought I would have more space to find these things out if I actually visited them. So that’s how that developed and it sort of took off in a direction that I was really pleased about. It was a really interesting experience, travelling to their homes, sort of mini journeys within the journey. I had left when I was their age, and I’d never had a graduation ball because the war started, so there were all these parallels and thoughts coming up, and just travelling through the town that’s changed quite a bit and I didn’t know most of the places. So for me it was being in a town that’s familiar but unfamiliar and I was like a stranger/tourist, sitting in the taxi and saying where to go and trying to pretend like I knew where it was so the taxi driver wouldn’t think that I was a tourist. Well there aren’t many tourists, but there are lots of people who left and they come back and visit. It’s a predominantly Serb area, so they might think that you’re a Muslim or a Croat, there are all these tensions, or they might think you’re from abroad and have more money. So those taxi journeys were really interesting in themselves. I felt slightly uncomfortable in my own skin when I was there, especially compared to my sister, but I actually cherish that now, those spaces of discomfort because I don’t think I’d be able to make the work that I make if I had still been living there.

• Going back to the photographs, what is really interesting is the contrast between these very glamorous dresses and the girls’ bedrooms which are still very childlike and the fact that most of them had their mothers there while you were photographing them – it’s this moment of transition

Yes that’s what I was really interested to explore. Most of the time, there was a member of family there and I began to incorporate them into the work. I am really fascinated by the mother-daughter relationship, it’s such a strong bond and it can also become a contradiction where the love is so strong it can become a prison. I was interested to look at that, because I’ve had that and I sometimes say that I didn’t escape the war but I escaped my parents and my culture. I felt so liberated when I left Bosnia, I knew I couldn’t grow there as a person. So going to these girls’ homes and just observing the rituals, there was a lot of uncomfortableness in the situation because they didn’t know me, they knew my mother, and I was out of practice with the local small talk. I asked my sister to come to the first few sessions just to do the small talk, which was great because I could just get my camera ready. The girls always thought I knew what I was doing, there was a sense of authority which was interesting and I think I exploited that in a way in the photographs as there’s a sense that they’re looking at me and asking what they should do. There’s an almost erotic quality to these moments where they’re posing but they’re not quite sure why they’re posing, and the dresses are so revealing so there’s that whole sexuality element. And there’s so much flesh; I’ve had so much reaction from women here saying these girls are hardly wearing anything and showing so much flesh. I asked them just to wear the dresses and left it to them about wearing make up, it wasn’t a fashion shoot but just moments in their bedroom or living room. Their bedrooms were interesting, because they represented that transition from childhood. Some of them, their bedding was like from when you’re a kid, and my mum has actually still kept that bedding from when I was a child.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Reflections on Radionica (Work Shop), a Necessary Journeys project

The opportunity to go on a ‘necessary journey’ caught my imagination, as I wanted to spend more time on a research trip that would be differently defined in terms of expectations and content then my regular visit ‘home’.

I spent one month in Bosnia, recording working life at my mother’s one bedroom flat, where she runs an individual tailoring business. I also photographed young women, at their homes, wearing their graduation dresses, made by my mother.

My mother, Anica Glisic, runs a small sewing/tailoring business from her one bedroom flat, in Banja Luka, Bosnia. She has two women working for her. They start at 7am and finish work at 3 pm, although quite often my mother will continue working long into the evening. They often work on Saturdays too. My mother has utilised the small space of her flat, to include an area where the sewing machines are, with a specialist steam iron, an area where the patterns are being either taken (which transforms into a dining table) and there is a space for an L-shaped sofa settee, where numerous Turkish coffee cups are drank and reams of fashion magazines looked through.

I wanted to be in the middle of the whole costume drama and to be completely consumed by it all. I recorded, women and girls, of all ages, coming to her flat, to discuss materials, patterns, what would they look best in given their body shape, whether they have lost weight, or gained weight, any new gossip…I was struck by their relationship to time, on average a customer could easily spend one hour just looking through the fashion magazines, and discussing their ideas with my mother. The amazement about the intimacy and a sense of comfortableness with female bodies safe in this all female environment, I felt when I was there in April, stayed. This time I was there with my camera, slightly anxious about breaking the privacy, even if that privacy was shared amongst several women. I wondered about my role, my status: I wasn’t a stranger, I was Anica’s daughter, and that earned the trust. But, what was the burden that trust placed upon me?

Another fascination was with the way glamour and the world of celebrities pervaded the cloths making business. My mother has become an expert in deconstructing how an outfit was made just simply by looking at a photograph of a dress worn by, for example Beyonce (a very popular choice) and designed by one of the famous designers (Versace label is very popular). A possibility of wearing a dress, designed by high fashion designer, from a perspective of living in London, just seemed to me, well, unimaginable. Was it empowering? Did it offer, if only temporary, a relief from the burden of everyday existence?
The world in my mother’s flat seemed like a capsule, removed from the daily realities of living in Bosnia.

I also photographed young women, who graduated recently from their high school education, at their homes, wearing their graduation dresses. All of them have had a dress made by my mother, and nearly all the dresses were based on a picture of a celebrity or a model wearing a famous designer dress.
Each time I visited a different person, I would always be warmly greeted, offered a coffee, and there would usually be a member of family there, completely curious and fully involved with what was unfolding. The young women would pose either in their own rooms, or in their living rooms. I entered their private spaces, and felt a mixture of feelings, an intruder, stranger, welcomed visitor, sister. They faced me with their innocence, intelligence, beauty and naiveté about what was ahead. I recognised myself, at the same age, filled with the positive energy, and the blindness for the horrifying nature of the unknown. This energy brought me to London, at exactly the same point in life these girls are at. For me, life stopped and then at a hurling speed continued in a completely new direction.
All the girls I visited and spoke to, were continuing their studies. I was curious if they wanted to leave Bosnia, and received a mixture of answers; some of them wanted to leave but couldn’t (visa restrictions lie heavily on Bosnian citizens), and some said that they couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.

I, on the other hand, couldn’t imagine going back to live in Bosnia. Leaving home, in 1992, at the brink of the civil war, was abrupt, and incredibly insecure experience. But, I never felt a sense of regret, or guilt, only a sense of release, freedom and a wonderful if at times blinding fear of the unknown.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

About Radionica (Before the journey)

Excerpts from the initial proposal, and the background on the reasons behind Radionica.

'I came to the UK in 1992, from the former Yugoslavia, at the start of the civil war. I travelled for 5 days, from Bosnia, through Serbia, Hungary, Croatia and finally reached the UK. This journey at the age of 17 was cataclysmic in every sense of the word. I was leaving behind the familiar, the culture I grew up in, the safety of home. The shifting meaning of the words safety and home never left me, as in those days I was physically safer in London, but felt quite vulnerable and insecure with my new life and surroundings.'

'To jump now to 2005: I have created a new base and a new home here in London. I used to visit the other home, in the Balkans, every two years. It was always too painful, and too intense going more often then that. I felt as though fragile pieces of myself that were sewn together would unravel too fast, if I was to come too close to the Balkans again. When I went home in April this year, I decided to allow the unravelling to start happening. It wasn’t a conscious decision; on the contrary, this decision was made for me the moment I stepped out of the plane and felt a sense of ease come upon me. On some level I decided to allow my country, my people, my family back in…'

'Women and girls, of all ages are coming to her flat, to discuss materials, patterns, what would they look best in given their body shape, whether they have lost weight, or gained weight, any new gossip…Some stories are funny, some trivial, but many stories told are serious, sad, and reflect a life outside this fashion-conscious and somewhat out of place flat. Men’s presence can be felt in this place, even though they are never physically there, and many stories usually revolve around their unfaithfulness.'

'My mother deals with all this traffic through her flat with remarkable patience (and I don’t always remember her as a very patient person!) A complete lack of private space seems to have no effect on my mother, or my sister. People come and go through the flat, and women are taking their clothes off, trying the new clothes on, my mother is fiddling around with needles in her mouth…and in the middle of this all, there is an odd kind of intimacy, and comfortableness with female bodies safe in this all female environment.'

'I was particularly struck by young 17,18 year old girls, who are getting ready for their secondary school graduation ball. They spend a long time looking for the perfect outfit and their parents give a lot of money for the right material. Enormous pressure is put on this one evening of celebration, through this elaborate preparation. My mother would usually be given a picture of Jennifer Lopez or other Hollywood star, or some of the home grown stars (some are from the popular turbo-folk music scene) and my mother would then create a pattern for the dress.'

'I was struck by the contrast between the poverty and certain lack of purpose in today’s Bosnia, and the glamour that pervades clothes worn on the streets.
I couldn’t stop thinking about these young women, who will wear the most glamorous dresses, that are at the same time being worn by Hollywood stars and who will stand in the centre of a small town, in Bosnia, in front of a shopping centre (everybody gathers there to watch), and then what…?'

'This is a very personal journey…it is a physical journey to another country, visiting a particular place. It is also an inner journey, deep travel into my own self, as a woman, as a daughter, as an artist. I feel deeply connected with each woman who walks through my mother’s flat. Their stories are personal stories, and they are as much about patterns and materials, as they are about their lives.'

'My expectations are about discovering the unknown within the familiar, places but also spaces in relationships with family members, and with other women who are my mothers customers, and also long term family friends and neighbours. I hope to be able to translate my experiences there, through the language of vulnerability, and share that which will have left a lasting imprint on who I am and my work as an artist.'