On Feelings, Politics, the Future and Being Hit in the Face by Marko Kovacevic

On Feelings, Politics, the Future and Being Splashed in the Face

Marko Kovacevic, alum 2016

Splash by Marko Kovacevic   In the spring of   2017   I approached Marko to write for our “Alice”   publication  . It was to accompany a video he made for my class. I knew his experience with government red tape would prove insightful. Given the times we live, it is necessary to listen to those affected. When he makes a comparison of lovers and politicians we are given access and can   relate   to a universal need for   compassion  . -Randy West, faculty

Splash by Marko Kovacevic

In the spring of 2017 I approached Marko to write for our “Alice” publication. It was to accompany a video he made for my class. I knew his experience with government red tape would prove insightful. Given the times we live, it is necessary to listen to those affected. When he makes a comparison of lovers and politicians we are given access and can relate to a universal need for compassion. -Randy West, faculty

We live in trying times. Many smart people have tried (and mostly failed) to provide comfort, offer explanations or devise solutions. I wouldn’t dare attempt that. What I can offer are my thoughts in a meandering stream of consciousness.

In April 2015 I made a short video. The piece was fairly straightforward—a quick, rough and impulsive experiment in filmmaking or performance art that happened to hit upon something that was emotionally genuine and true. The short was an unauthorized music video for the song “Station” by a young English musician named Låpsley. If I am to be completely honest, the video owes more than a little of its emotional impact to this hypnotic song, which I was quite obsessed with at the time.

The video was about love. In a departure from my deliberately unemotional approach to making art, I created a very personal piece about how it felt to be in love with someone who didn’t love me back. How long would I keep coming back, enthusiastically craving something that was ultimately disastrous for my wellbeing? The original idea for the piece was to be repeatedly slapped, but the final video is far more nuanced.

And so, on a cold day in early spring, I stood at the open door to my backyard and was splashed in the face with water—some 50 times. The water was warm and steam rose from my body in the cool air. In the background, life goes on through flickers in my neighbors’ window; they are oblivious to the person getting drenched outside.

My eyes hurt from the water. Although I knew the splashes were coming, or perhaps because I knew, the expectation of each new wave was nerve-racking. I laughed uncontrollably—partially because of the ridiculousness of the situation, and partially out of desperation from the repeated water attacks. I showed the video in class and it had an odd effect: Some people found it funny and uplifting, others moving and sad. There may have even been a few tears.

Two years later, I was asked if the video could be featured in “Alice.” I gladly accepted. And there was a further request: I was also asked to submit a short text that addressed my experiences as an immigrant in the current U.S. political climate. Even though the theme of immigration is central to my actual art practice, the idea of such a text accompanying my atypical water-splashing video made me nervous. How did the two relate? Should it even matter? The video was one of only a handful of projects I’ve done that was unrelated to the immigrant experience. Or at least the intention was personal rather than political. There was, however, a very visceral, yet unconscious, connection that later became clear to me.

Like so many, politics have become increasingly personal to me; I read the news and feel anger and sadness in ways that I have rarely experienced outside the most intimate realm. Our current political climate is full of rage and spite, more reminiscent of a quarrel between vengeful lovers than of discourse among political opponents.

The day after the U.S. presidential election of 2016, I watched the euphoria of the previous day melt into scenes of stoic New Yorkers crying on the F train. That evening I met a stranger in a bar and we spent an intense, wild night together. The political insult felt so personal, a slap in the face (pun intended), and it had to be exorcised on an intimate level—to feel wanted and alive.

We (the people) have a peculiar relationship to the future. It does not exist, yet we see it vividly and treat it as something tangible—a precious object we possess. Breaking up with someone important has a strange effect on this vision of the future. A landscape of recognizable markers is replaced by a dizzying chasm. Suddenly, there are interruptions in our cognitive processes—thoughts and ideas cannot find their target. Our perceptions and identity, once anchored to an idea of the future, have become loose ends that dangle in the wind of uncertainty. So, too, does our political reality feel like a dramatic break-up.

Now, not to be the ever-gloomy Eastern European, I will say that this might all be a good thing, a great thing in fact. A vision of a brighter future can be a motivating source of strength; it can also be a crutch. Once free of the distracting protection of a fictitious future, we can truly take on the present. Since November though, both the present and the future seem unrecognizable and scary.

The U.S. has always been a better concept than a reality in my opinion, no matter what the people with the red hats think. But until November 2016 it seemed to be inching slowly and unevenly forward. To an immigrant, the future can often be hazy, conditioned by the next interview, the next visa, and the next status. I made a film about navigating the visa system, but since the election even that seems irrelevant; the immigration system itself is in question. I had been exploring the tedium of bureaucracy but suddenly I was afraid of far more dramatic situations—worried for friends who are asylum seekers or happen to be from the “wrong” country and rushing to a number of hastily arranged weddings at City Hall.

As a white European and a permanent resident in liberal New York City, my status is similar to that of a U.S. citizen. I am well aware of the privilege this position affords me. But last month on a trip abroad, I imagined the unlikely scenario in which my country, Serbia, caused a diplomatic incident and, after an angry tweet by the president, I end up on some list, suddenly unable to return to the U.S. I knew, too, that I would be relatively fine if this were to happen; for so many others, having to leave would mean disaster.

The person who inspired my “water” video is no longer a part of my life. While making the video I thought about the difference between a good person who, unknowingly, repeatedly hurts others, and a bad person who deliberately does so. I determined that, at some point, the distinction doesn't matter, only actions do. It took a while to understand this and even longer to accept, but after all my attempts and efforts to talk and understand, all the beauty had washed away and all I could see was the ugliness. In the end it was easy to walk away.

I understand people who contemplate leaving the United States. The idea of breaking up with a country that we feel has betrayed everything it’s meant to represent is very tempting. But this line of thinking is reserved for those of privilege—those who have a choice. With that privilege comes a responsibility to those who don’t. There is still hope that I can help things change for the better. I’m staying for another splash.



Cenotaph for My Shadow

images and text by 2014 alum Jean Bettingen, from the 2015 issue of "All the Best, Alice"

Sometimes I get dizzy and feel overwhelmed. There are probably a lot of people in our globalized society burdened with an over-pronounced self-reflexivity, who feel similarly when it comes to defining themselves. I wonder how I would be able to pin down my essence in a world of flux, a world in which everything and everyone is defined as a project of perpetual reinvention.

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Cenotaph for My Shadow is a body of sculptural and photographic work that addresses and visualizes the prevailing sense of disconnection I feel towards my self and the world, my inability to grasp and comprehend the I, and at the same time, my fear of its loss. This project aims, through various strategies and in mixed media, at the depiction and manifestation of my Cartesian self despite the representational dilemmas of lens based media. I explore the need that drove Roland Barthes, amongst others, toward an ontological questioning of the photographic medium: “What Barthes wants is a rescue of his profound self through the solid evidence of photography.” So do I.

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The sculptural installation “Autopoiesis” suggests the nature and the spirit of my investigations: a 4x5" wet-plate collodion is placed between 8x10" two-way mirrors. The peculiarity of this old photographic medium is that it can be used as a negative to print a positive or as a unique positive. When light illuminates the plate, it glows and brings a positive portrait image to life. As viewers walk around the installation, they experience an infinite space in which the portrait image seems to disperse into nothingness.

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My questions of self-visualization in “Autopoiesis” began when I was 11 years old and my mother died. The only tangible thing remaining of my parent was a cardboard box half-filled with family pictures. Discomfort arose in me whenever I looked at them, not solely because of the pain and grief, but also the intrinsic suspicion that the person depicted in the photographs was no longer my mother; and yet there she was, smiling at me. This sense of disconnection made me question what was captured and embedded in those pieces of paper. It certainly was not my mother in person. I had witnessed her burial; at least that was a certainty. Were those photographs just an anchor to whatever was left of her in me?

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I still remember some of the moments shown in the photographs, moments that I spent in the presence of my mother. But the more time that goes by—the more distance accumulated between the depicted and remembered moments—the more I wonder about the chain of causality between memories and images. Do I genuinely remember these moments or were they incepted into my consciousness by these photographs? This uncertainty triggered the destabilization of my self-perception because I couldn’t comprehend the authorship of my self if I considered my past as its foundation. Did I build my history and identity narration not only on my own perception but also on the moments that another person judged important enough to capture? How is it possible to photographically capture the essence of a person? It seems that in every effort to freeze a person in an image, an unwanted distance to life is created.

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This project approaches its goal through various techniques, incorporating old alternative processes, video projection, 3D capture and 3D printing. This allows viewers to experience my represented self in various forms, and they can explore which media offer a deeper perception of my self. Following Barthes’s concept of air, which is somewhat similar to the description of the aura by Walter Benjamin, inherent in the photograph (Belting, 2013: 195 / Barthes, 1981), a lot of the works in this project abstract deliberately from showing facial details. The air, the essence of a person, does not lay in the detailed representation of the human face, but is or is not captured in the image and may or may not be perceivable by the viewer . It is more likely that the viewer will be able to grasp my air if the distraction of my face has already been subtracted from the viewing experience. Another approach is described by Hans Belting (2011) as he defines a picture as an image with a medium, meaning that the image of my self exists already in an intangible or liminal space and needs a manifestation through a medium to be turned into a perceivable picture. A good example of my investigation into these medial manifestations is the juxtaposition of the pieces “5 Hours” and “Negative Dimension”: they are both the same image, me, but diverging medial forms. “5 Hours” is a black box that contains an exposed but undeveloped film sheet containing a self-portrait and “Negative Dimension” is a 3D print generated through another self-portrait—or rather an image of my self?

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Each piece in this body of work can be considered an attempt to capture the process of self-reflection, an attempt to secure the feeling of constancy. Though the endeavor is also an interesting dilemma in itself: as Jorge Molder put it, photographing yourself creates a being in the between, a space between the self and someone else. Further, following Barthes’s reasoning, the very act of photographing myself transforms me into the eidos of death. This project does not solely try to capture and display my real essence but also investigates the stability of such and its representation as a visible manifestation of my presence just like my shadow on the ground. Is there a way to escape this mentioned in the between? All imagery in this project is in the en-face perspective: straight on, eyelevel, and limited to the bust. The focus on images of the upper body seems appropriate as I assume that my self is located in my mind. Much of my work is dominated by black—I like to consider black as the anti-photograph or a negative imprint as it is evidence of the absence of the constituting element of a photograph: light.

A History of Violence or: How I Learned to Stop Trusting Photography and Start Seeing

by alum Daniel Johnson, from the 2015 issue of "All the Best, Alice." All images by Daniel Johnson.

We’ve read over and over again about technology changing everything, the end of photography, and how the sky is falling. And it’s mostly true. Things have changed, and they will continue to change. But we have passed the time where you could have a conversation just about cameras and photographs. As photography becomes more and more a part of our daily language, there’s more of a need for us to really begin to question the power of photography.

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With distance no longer a limiting factor in the creation of communities, where an image lives digitally really changes how an image is digested. Context has now become one of the main catalysts in the democratization of content. What’s really changed is the way we look. And that we’re always looking. Yes, photographs are everywhere, but so is everything else. Instagram, for instance, started as a photo-sharing app, and now it’s hard to imagine the service without text posts or videos.

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Our digital lives are rich with content. We have tapped into a persistent rush. I think this makes it especially important to think about what photography is doing for us. The engagement that we have with a photograph is limited to a few seconds before we’re moving on to the next, liking, reblogging, or favoriting. The tricky part isn’t just that photography is constantly in transition, it’s that the platforms are too. The technologies that build contexts are in a constant state of flux with updates and upgrades and OS changes and new hardware, and on top of that most of us are still using outmoded systems to judge photographs like view cameras and 8x10” sheets of film are still relevant to photography today. We’re a part of an image-literate society with a value system that’s about as nuanced as the difference between a grunt and a groan. And somehow we still think it’s OK to rely on photography to relay the extremely delicate and complicated realities of people around the world.

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Let’s talk photography. While mostly recognized as immediate and technological, photography is a process that materializes in steps (especially today’s digital images); the photograph isn’t complete just because the shutter closes. Everything that happens after a photograph is made, the writing and rewriting of data, image manipulation, sequencing, printing and framing is just as important in the creation of the photograph as the technical process that actually made it. This is one of the most important lessons I learned in graduate school that really changed the way I thought about photography. My expectations changed, beauty and truth were decentered, and I became more interested in the why and how of a photograph than the what. Photographs were no longer just photographs but facades supported by systems like culture. They couldn’t be the autonomous images I once thought they were. They were markers of status, indicators of prejudice, manifestations of racism, reflections of narcissism, and symbols of sexism, among other things. Photography had lied to me. And now, I could see the seams, the pixels, the noise, the structures and patterns that held the images in place.

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I believe that there are times when photography, in spite of its failures, still really means something. The photographs coming out of Ferguson, MO, following the shooting of the unarmed teenager Michael Brown, for example, are one instance where a set of photographs was able to capture our attention in a way that really mattered. But even those images were subject to the limitations of photography. The same photographs, once placed into the world, were only a couple words away from portraying looters rather than nonviolent protesters. The narratives built by these images depended heavily on external information, information that could not be communicated through a photograph. The reality that the photograph projected was limited. It could not show the whole story. It did not show every angle. It was specific only in its lack of specificity. The cold war of image that played out on the national news front underlined the violence that is implicit in photography. This is a violence that is about control: a deep historical violence that privileges those in power and others everyone else. The subjects of the photographs are powerless to assert their personhood; they are subjugated. The real violence in these images was not what was shown but what was taken.

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“To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder - a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.” -Susan Sontag