In Conversation: Talking Cultural Records with Vesna Pavlović

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Vesna Pavlovic. Photograph by Karley Sullivan for BURNAWAY Magazine.
Vesna Pavlović with photograph of her images of the Serbian News Archive. Photograph by Karley Sullivan for BURNAWAY Magazine.

“I begin not with a negative, nor with a print, but with a screen.  On the screen can be seen a landscape, a campus it seems, identified by cheerful signage and imposing brutalist buildings.” [George Baker, Photography’s Expanded Field, October, Fall 2005. Pg.121.]


I’ve wanted to talk to Vesna Pavlović since 2010, when I saw her Projected Histories exhibition at The Frist Center for Visual Arts in Nashville, Tennessee.  I’ve followed her career since then, admiring the twists and expansions that she deftly applies to her study of ideologies including investigations into the archive and photographic methods.  We began talking over lengthy (and scattered) email exchanges during a month when we were both traveling.  Our written interchange culminated with a long studio visit recently on the Vanderbilt Campus in Nashville.  This interview is an abbreviation of those meandering conversations.

Karley Sullivan: Years ago, when I saw the Projected Histories exhibition, I was just struck by how many photographic methods you were able to apply to the central idea of “cultural record.”  There were lush large-scale color prints, black and white photo-journalistic images, found slides, and a light installation, each with their own space.   All these separate projects stood alone—even had their own rooms—but were cohesive when taken together. There was a distinct attention to humanity coupled with respect for photographic media. Can you talk about how you approached that exhibit?

Vesna Pavlović: The exhibition at the Frist Center spanned more than a decade of my work. Mark Scala, exhibition curator, and I concentrated on works that expressed a subjective view of history of the former Yugoslavia and of American culture.  As you moved through the show, you entered a space of experiment with the medium. Some of the images began in the late 1990’s when I worked as a photo-journalist in Belgrade, and various assignments had taken me to curious locations that I later returned to.

The shift from taking observatory images in a traditional sense to a strategic challenging of the photographic medium began with my graduate work at Columbia University in 2006-2009.  That’s when I decided to treat my images with a more conceptual approach.  Reexamining them, I found that the images that I had taken as a documentarian possessed markers that went beyond their original intent: They started to talk about photographic index, and the recognition that every photograph is a metaphor. You have to recognize that an image can be representative of everything that was happening [at a certain moment], and that it can truly emanate an atmosphere of the time during which it was made.  Like this image of the hotel Hyatt, which was taken during the NATO bombing of Belgrade…

[Points to exhibition poster from the show.]

I was photographing leisure activity, and noting how the hotel was untouched while the socialist headquarters next door was completely bombed out.  It’s about how the Serbians were living with this idea of fake normality in the presence of war.

Vesna Pavlovic, from the Hotels series, 2000-2002, courtesy the artist.
Vesna Pavlović, from the Hotels series, 2000-2002, courtesy the artist.

Also at the Frist was Display, Desire, which were projected images of American model homes, and addressed issues of taste found in various anthropological settings, as well as the production of public/private space. Finally, Looking for Images was a display of an archive of travel slides that one American family donated to Vanderbilt years ago.  It was a record of their travels around the world between 1960’s-80’s.  That series is an exploration of the photographic archive as a repository of specific cultural histories, and the tourist as both a consumer of places and a producer of images. Overall, I wanted to present several ways of looking at photographs as selective cultural markers.

KS: It was an effective exhibit, and very expansive. You were just in Belgrade, shifting through the Serbian News Archive (Filmske Novosti).  Can you tell us about that project in process?

VP: The Serbian News Archive was established in 1944, following the end of WWII.  It is a visual record of Yugoslav president Josip Broz Tito’s career and his travels around former Yugoslavia and the world.  Its purpose was to record, store, produce and distribute the information about the various aspects of political, social and cultural life of Serbia. What attracted me to this material was the utopian vision in these images and the pictorial representation of the spectacle of the Cold War era. I am interested in investigating several things with this project: the treatment of images in space, theatricality of spectacle, and the relationship of photography to ideology.

These images follow the Presentio, and his movement around the world from 1945-1979.  In 1979, I participated in one of these events. See this photograph here? This is where I was. [Points to image.]

KS: You were in this event? You’re actually in this photograph?

Vesna Pavlović, Youth Day Celebration, Yugoslav National Army Stadium, May 25, 1979. From “Iconography of Spectacle” project, 2013. Courtesy of the Museum of History of Yugoslavia.
Vesna Pavlović, Youth Day Celebration, Yugoslav National Army Stadium, May 25, 1979, from Iconography of Spectacle project, 2013, courtesy of the Museum of History of Yugoslavia.

VP: Yes, right there [points to herself in the crowd], so there was this uncanny moment when I’m searching through the archive in Belgrade, and I find this image that I was in. I was a Tito’s Pioneer.  It was a big event—a pageant for the president—and the last one before he died.

Vesna Pavlović. Filmske Novosti, 2013. Courtesy Filmske Novosti, Belgrade.
Vesna Pavlović, Filmske Novosti, 2013, courtesy Filmske Novosti, Belgrade.

KS: It’s strange that you literally found yourself in the archive. These images you’ve shot of the interior of the storage space are incredible—those towers of tins full of images and the over-flowing shelves are such impressive objects to imagine unpacking.  Then, knowing you stumbled upon yourself is such an interesting echo. So, with all of this visual information available, how did you make decisions about what to photograph?

VP: To me, the [Serbian News Archive] was like an archeological site, but with millions of meters of film stock that desperately needed to be digitized. I found the written archival marks found on the film boxes particularly fascinating.  They are very telling of the complexity of Yugoslav’s international position during that time, and Tito’s role in the Cold War. I plan to exhibit these images in a large format so that the viewer is able to see these marks clearly as well.

Vesna Pavlović. Dubl-pozitiv, 2013. Courtesy Filmske Novosti, Belgrade.
Vesna Pavlović, Dubl-pozitiv, 2013, courtesy Filmske Novosti, Belgrade.

I think there is more room now (than there has been before) to look into the historical figures from post WWII-era and consider them from a more distant perspective. As more time passes, we can look back into history through a set of filters, whether nostalgic or more critical. It is easy to misconceive or think in stereotypes about the history of the Balkans due to the recent wars.

As someone who grew up in Socialist Yugoslavia, I am curious to translate this history into visual narratives that can reveal some of the dense political and popular culture movements and events of the time. Unlike a historian, I treat this material as an artist who lived through those times. As a documentarian, I do refer to the narrative, but it is translated through some apparatus that creates distance.

KS: You have some interesting objects here in the studio, particularly the curtain and the screen painted black.  Can you talk about how your photographic investigations have begun to morph into these singular objects?

Vesna Pavlovic. White Projection on Black Screen.  2013, courtesy the artist.
Vesna Pavlović, White Projection on Black Screen, 2013, courtesy the artist.

VP: I have a lot of equipment pieces laying around, and I treat them as material, as something to work with. So, I have an idea, and then I follow the materiality, I follow the possibilities, and ask, what can I do with this, what does it need? As a documentarian and an artist, I have to find ways to distance myself: through the medium of photography, through the objects, through the excavation of the archive, production of nostalgia, and with the choices I make.  With the objects, I use the aesthetic of the time to reference the politics of the era. Like with the curtain, I’m using that material as an object that could be a location for projection, but also as a historical [symbol]. It becomes a representation of the Iron Curtain, the ideological curtain, which stops the gaze of the other. It is a reminder of how Yugoslavia chose not to align itself with the USSR or the USA, but attempted to maintain its own position. As an artwork, it also stands on its own as an indexical object that can produce different responses with different audiences.

Vesna Pavlović. Fototeka, 2013.  Photographic installation “Reflections on Images”, Salon of the Museum of Contemporary Art Belgrade, March 2013. Grey curtain with twenty B&W ink-jet photographs. Courtesy of the Museum of History of Yugoslavia.
Vesna Pavlović, Fototeka, 2013. Photographic installation Reflections on Images, Salon of the Museum of Contemporary Art Belgrade, March 2013. Grey curtain with twenty B&W ink-jet photographs. Courtesy of the Museum of History of Yugoslavia.

By the way, I met the guy who followed Tito, the man who took most of the pictures in the film archive. He’s in his 90’s, an artist, and after he produced this archive he turned to total abstraction. Interesting dichotomy…

Vesna Pavlović.  White Slide.  2010, courtesy the artist.
Vesna Pavlović, White Slide, 2010, courtesy the artist.

KS: Turned to abstraction with its own ideology!

VP:  Yes!

KS: The archive fascinates with its selected and condensed information, and I feel that your practice really exhibits that need or impulse to historicize.

VP: Yes, I am interested in the production of nostalgia, towards the photographic medium, its history, and how photography always seems on the brink of becoming obsolete. With the black screen and its negative WHITE NEGATIVE (is this a title of a work?) image, I was interested in reaching a certain monumentality without a literal use of large-scale. It becomes a step in memorializing the photographic medium, while creating a disruption of the photographic narrative.  It is an object from a photograph, which then became the subject of a photograph again, and that has the endless possibility of becoming another object or image. So the objects are these tactile disruptions in the flow of my work. They provide pause and space within the narrative.

KS: I want to touch on the idea of the echo, and the ability of the artist/documentarian to distance his/herself in order for those reverberations to happen.

VP:  I like that idea of the echo, and I am experimenting with sound as well! I have many ideas and images that I consult, but they do always bounce back to the archive itself.  It’s about looking into the photograph, and visualizing how that image can manifest in space.  How can a photograph become an object?  How can a photograph become a three dimensional space?

KS: Who are some of the artists and texts that have influenced your thinking and practice?

VP:  I’ve always admired Robert Frank, and come back to him again and again. Of course that book, The American’s, was seminal, but also how his documentary work transcends the aesthetic of documentation and becomes something more fleeting, more of a snapshot aesthetic. His work taught me the imperfect image, the photo-essay, and the traditional use of photography, but also how to break through that convention by using the medium, the grain, and appreciating the tactile photograph.

In 1997, I saw Jeff Wall’s images for the first time, the large-scale lightboxes with the underpasses, the spilt milk, and the cleaners; those images really struck me as something different. There was a strong referent to the history of art; and he takes said referent and conceptualized it to produce this huge screen, this thing that we have to position ourselves in relation to.

KS: I’m reading a Michael Fried book with an unwieldy title right now, Why Photography Matters As Art As Never BeforeIt touches on how photographs have the ability to function as paintings used to, and how photography is now carrying some of the tradition of theatricality in visual art; theatrical in the sense of being self-conscious, and producing that sensation in the viewer, for better or worse.

VP: Exactly!  [Laughing, points to that book on her shelf.]

I worked with Liam Gillick during my graduate years, and though I don’t consider myself a sculptor, there is a definite interest in the application of surface and object-ness that continues to develop in my work. In terms of essays, there are couple writings from October that have stuck with me….George Baker’s Photography’s Expanded Field from the Fall 2005 issue, and Hal Foster’s An Archival Impulse from Fall 2004.  I also find myself returning Lucy Lippard’s writings. In general, my interests relate to the need of photography to connect with film and sculpture, and the acknowledgement that there are forces within the photographic field that keep it alive.  I see photography expanding on its moment as something that doesn’t have to be the decisive moment, but can be something a little indecisive. It becomes an indeterminate that then stretches into something that can again become decisive of its own accord.

KS: You’re obviously interested in ideologies—utopian visions and photography itself—which is a medium that does lend itself to manipulating perceptions and reinforcing visions.  Can you talk about how the study of ideologies plays into your work?

VP: My main narrative is photography in relation to ideology, and everything stems from that narrative.  There are different manifestations of that interest, whether it’s the use of the Serbian historical archive, modernist architecture in Brazil, or American tourists traveling in the 1960’s.  But, as a whole, my work functions as visual representations of certain political groups.

Kirsten Stolle's Only You Can Prevent A Forest on view at Halsey Institute through Dec 10, 2022

For example, in the series Hotels, the images of the interior designs of local socialist modernist hotels was representative of the political elite of the Socialist Yugoslavia.

Another example would be my ongoing series of works in Brazil, which consider the situation in Brazil in the 1950’s through the photographic representation of Marcel Gautherot’s black and white photographs. Those beautiful images utilized extensive darkroom techniques and filters to create a monumental vision of the possibility of a new state. He was using photographic techniques to elaborate on a utopian vision, and I find that fascinating. The aesthetics of ideology have often been tied to the work of social documentarism; from the famous FSA photographs of Dorothea Lange, to the current works of Luc Delahaye and Sebatião Salgado.  My work steps in to examine that tradition, to participate in it, and to commemorate it in some way.

KS:  Can you speak to the effects of new technologies on the photographic medium?

VP: We have become faster photographers, better photographers.  The question now becomes how do you slow that down, and consider what’s below or beyond that image? When I worked with slides and negatives there was an excitement of waiting for the development, the anticipation of the result, but now the colors are fading and the slides are deteriorating.  That’s what the White Slide image is about; it signifies that loss of memory, of travel, of picture, and of the medium itself.  Something is lost in the faster technologies—not only the nostalgia, or the attachment to the singular—it’s something larger.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy my camera phone and quickly sharing images, and I embrace the new technologies if they are applicable to my process.  But, that loss is definitely present.

Vesna Pavlovic.  From the “Watching” series. 2002-2005.  Found on the United States Belgrade Embassy Page.
Vesna Pavlovic, from the Watching series. 2002-2005. Found on the United States Belgrade Embassy Page.



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