I am a total feminist. I couldn't be anything else.

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Mieke Bal, Karolina Bogusławska
Mieke Bal, Karolina Bogusławska

Mike Bal - known and respected culture critic, professor of the KNAW and professor of literature analysis University of Amsterdam. The author of numbers of the book, among them: "Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative" (1997), "The Mottled Screen: Reading Proust Visually" (1997), "Quoting Caravaggio" (1999). Lately was published the anthologhy of her teksts. Recently she had published her teksts anthologhy: "A Mieke Bal Reader". Mike Bal is also video artist. Mieke Bal arrived to Poland to give a lecture in May 2006 in Postgraduate Curatorial Studies in Cracow at Jagiellonian University. At the same time she made two videos as a part of her "Mothers Project".

Karolina Bogusławska: We would like to ask you about your "mothers project", which you have been making here in Poland?
That is a video installation so I am adding things to. These are interviews or conversations realy. Each time a woman who has a child, who left in migration to mostly Western Europe or in America, so mostly to the West; and talking about her experience of that separation, that sacrifice, that loss, that…that's it; and talk to person who is close to her, like a friend, a relative and in laws someone, who can witness to that; to her emotions. There is not a clear message. I am learning the message from what they say. Is realy about what that means for, first of all for the whole culture, that migrants leave behind - because I don't think we understand in the West what that means to leave everything that constitute your life and just go to uncertain future. You must to have a real need to do that and illusions of hopes for better life; so there must be a good reason. But for the mother's that's a more that for the culture as a whole, that's an enormous loss. I am trying to get through this intimate conversation between the mother and someone of her close people. I want to understand what that means and how they can bear it and what they have in compensation and how they can keep in touch with that child that left and all those things. As the way of understanding something that is behind migration and that is not enough talked about. So it's an installation. You want me to talk a little about that?

Ola Jach: How this instalation will be showed?
The idea is to show this each interview as one shot, so I am not editing the shot; it's about thirty minutes, depending on what they say. I am not cutting the shots at all, because of the symbolism of letting the mother to speak everythig she want to say. Each is on the DVD, on the loop and so I am installing it in the living room, where she is seatting; so in the gallery I will put a sofa and armchairs, suitcases and tables and even there in this living room is a DVD player and a monitor and the DVD player is hidden so you only see the monitor, which you see like life portraits; like the photographs, and you hear the voices and every word that beeing said it's translated not an undertitles, subtitles but as surtitles over the image; so that is easier to read and see the face. Because if you have to go from down, to up and you only read and you don't see the face, if you go from the up, it's part of the image; it's much easier to see the face and the set; and at the same time you hear the foreign languages that are all different so you are surounded by foreigners and at the same time by the language you understand and you can access the foreign culture without loosing side of it's foreigness. This is also has bearing on the way you translate – very literally. And the idea is that people will come in and seat and are comfortable as they were visiting with the mothers and then stay in this.

K.B.: What drove your attention to the imigrants questions?
Because I've always been interested in foreign culture, in cultural difference, so I have always had the eyes open for the arrival of the new people, but at some point I became friendly with a neighbour, who was an emigrant and he was at that point illegal. He had no papers. Nobody is illegal, but he was considered illegal. I followed his case and was very involved into helping him as much as I could. It ended very happily. He got married and he got his papers. But at the marriage -I made film about this marriage- at the marriage, his mother could not come, because she didn't get a Visa, which was completely unfair to get on the history of the family and I was so angry about it. After all this violence, all this biurocracy, now they are preventing this woman to attend the wedding of her cherished, younger son, who she hasn't seen for five years, so I go to her. I got interested in the culture that's left behind.

Ewa Łączyńska: Where does she come from - this mother?
From Tunisia. I got interested in, and of course when the events happened recently, war and politic, I got more and more interested, also in Islamic process then I realise that not only emigrants are from islamic background. Now I'm trying to spread it out more.

O.J.: What do you think about the atmosphere in Polish houses, where we've been few days ago, to film those two Polish mothers for your project?
Very nice and welcoming. There was a lot of laughter. They like to laugh and I like that. That's actually in all the cases. I can see that this mothers in spite of the loss of seeing the child leave. …..They have life and they have a good time also, but I thought it was very striking: the similarity between Polish household, where I came to film and the Serbian one, where I was last year. And different from the more remote one in Tunisia. Of course is also the climate, so is much more similarity in climate on this kind of household is also arranged in a way. But I enjoyed it very much.

O.J: It's not so important to show this details in houses or specific cultural background, but the most important are mothers and their feelings?
I am very cautious to not making it sort of touristic project. Do not show beautiful, exotic like pictoresque poverty in the Middle East, in the desert. I don't care for it; this National Geographic kind of images. They can be beautiful but I think that they distract from a substate. The visitors to my exchibition want to engage with this people as people as women who had the story to tell. Everything that distract from that is I'm not interested in.

O.J. Do you think that fathers could feel the same way as mothers because of loss of their children?
Of course. Fathers have their own feeling about this. But first of all; the fathers are much more present in the West. Often they have also come to the West, but they can travel more easily. They don't have to stay behind to care for another children. In case of my Tunisian friend, his father had a permanent residency in France. And that's why it was so unfair that this wife couldn't come to the wedding. And they are more literary often. They have more education. Their situation is very different. Of course it's traditional, divisional playrole that mother takes care of the child. And when you take care of the child you also have much more closer relationship to them. It's different. I also think the mothers are the neglected category. They haven't been brought into the pictures. When I say the mothers and the loss of the culture they have litteral and individual function in this project but also a symbolic one. They also represent the fathers and everybody else who suffer from the loss.

K.B.: I want to ask about feminism. Do you feel feminist. Are you engage in feminism?
Absolutly. I am a total feminist. I couldn't be anything else. I don't understand how you can be something else. For me it's natural thing. Of course you have to qualified what that means. For me feminism doesn't mean that I'm only interested in woman. Actually the way this project began, it was a guy, who was the illegal. He was imigrant without the papers in Paris. And I met his father away before I met his mother. It's not that I am only interested in women, but I think that woman remain the most heavily burden and the most invisible group of people in all this. It's still not the case that woman are equal to man, not in salaries, not in labour opportunieties, migration opportunities, responsibilities. The inequalities are still strong.

O.J.: What do you think about feminist art? Do you like it?
I don't know if I do, because I don't think art is a political pamphlet. As much as I am very carefull to not bring exoticism in. I also don't want to come up with my own striven political feminism voice. The woman who speak are not necessary feminists. The feminism is in my engagement with them as women, but not in proclaiming anything. Feminist art sometimes is little to proclamatory for my taste, but not always… It depends of what you consider a feminist art. I'm definitly committed to bringing art made by women, under a public attention. I think that hasn't been enough.

O.J.: Do you like Guerilla Girls?
I think they are great, really great, but this is a kind of activist art, that's very specific and very feminist and what's saves it from, what I just said about feminism art, is that it has humor. The way it works as art, is not by what is says - what they say - but by the humor, by the way that makes people laugh and then taken the message; and in the similar way in this project; I don't want people to commiserate with those poor women. I want them to engage with them. And that's where the feminism comes. Western people man and women engage with women who are never in our circle; we have never talk to. It's depending, sometimes; I mean in this case of polish women of course you know women like that, otherwise we wouldn't be able to do this films. But for Dutch people, they don't know Polish women who had child who left. So feminism is in making in facilitating and engagement that hasn't been facilitated before, not in what is being said or done.

E.Ł.: You're first field was literature. How did you start becoming interested in art history?
In art...it was really strange. All my life I've been unable to look at something that is framed in categories. So my first field was contemporary modern literature, novels and I did a theoritical thing, then some people said: "How do you know that you can generalize this to the other literature". I said: "Good question" . So I picked up another literature. I felt that has to be really remote, so I picked up biblical narrative because I thought that it was really different from the contemporary novels and I studied that. When I was working on the Bible, there were passages that I really didn't understand and all the scholars didn't understand them either and I saw all this hestitation in footnotes. You can see it in the footnotes that people really don't know what they are saying. And than I had almost a visions. I saw it, I saw what happened and it made sense, but the words were just used in a way that were slightly different from the expected. And then I realise that the reason, that I was able to see it, to see what have happened, is because I've seen paintings of those scenes. And then I look at the paintings by Rembrandt in particulary; I thought what a typical scholar we have here. He understands this text better than the scholars.And so I came interested in how visual representation is able to articulate differently what literature articulate in it's own medium. I could see that suplementarity and complementarity between the two and I started to look at paintings, drawings and etchings and it's ways of saying something. But they don't say it... how they do this? Well, they think. They come up with concepts and ideas and some day I became interested in art, and then I've wrote something about art, I wrote "Reading Rembrandt". But there is the one thing and where is the limit. And then I started to write about exchibitions. Somehow putting one painting next to another - changes it. And I saw cases in museums, when I thought: "Wow, you saw this painting somewhere in the book and it was this, now I see it next to this one and suddenly it has different possibility. Is not that it has a different meaning, but it has another possibilities of meaning. And so I became interested in exhibitions. And then I move back to the literature. And I read literature as painting and also photography. And I did this book on Proust, who is one of the great modernist authors, and I thought there's been a lot of literature writen commentaries on this writer because he is such big shoot. He is like yours Gombrowicz. But he is not understood as visual artist and so I wrote a book about literature as visual art. I was back, I made a circle. And then starting to make videos, is another way of saying: Well do I understand enough? What's behind the corner? - It always been my intellectual attitude: What am I not seeing? What am I not understanding, because I am limiting myself to do this field and so every step is a logical step.

E. Ł.:Do you feel more like artist now?
No, but I started to do this ...I do, I'm begining to. I always resist it, because I think it's stupid category I think art is: just art is. It's like: making art. So I don't know if this is an art. Other people have to say if it this art. But at first I said no: "I'm a filmmaker", but that's also stupid category. You know I am not Passolini or Bertolucci, I am just me. I first started to do this as a way of doing research to understand things. For example first films I made, were commentaries about how people looking at art. Because I was very annoyed about experts on television explaining what it means and it has always historical explanations. So I thought I was interested in what people say in front of art work and when you ask them to respond to it. I just ask them. In the beginning I was explaining the painting and I hated it. Very soon I started to stay out of the picture. There was one painting in the Getty Museum: XVII century unknown painter about Jesus and I put a Jew, Protestant Christian and
American black Baptist in front of that painting and I asked: What do you see? What is this mean to you? And they started to talk and because they were talking out loud and to each other, It was amazing what they came up with, really amazing things. So I started to make whole series of those. In one case the taxi driver who tooks us from the airpoirt to the museum and I said: "Would you like to come also and speak about this sculpture?", "Oh sure" and he has many things to say. He said: "In Africa, where I came from, people would do this, but then there is this." and he came up with amazing things, amayzing things to say about this sculpture and that was… for me that was research: what do people really say about art if we give them a chance to say it. It was research about the perception of art. Then, when I did my first film about situation of my friend of my friend in Paris. There was research into the narrative - narrative is my original field - Into the way each person in the film, narrates the story and how the story then, come together and how you get the voice of the film that is not voice over, there is no one director, who said this is the story, but is a sort of the patchwork of different voices so it was theoretical inquiry in voice. I didn't know that when I started to make that film. Yes, It's research but is also something else and then I started this project, and some project I did before with other people. Each time I had theoretical inside that came out of the filmmaking, not a matter in film, but in filmmaking, the whole process. So it is research but it is a research that's also creative, produces something new, but I think, that research should do that. For me art making and doing academic research are now completely blured. They are not this distinguished. We need categories for everything.

K.B.: I want to ask about new book "The Mieke Bal Reader"
It's a little embarrasing. I was very honoured when they ask if I want to do the reader. How you can say no to that, how can you even hesitate for second. Is a book that I didn't need to write and there it is. But is also very confrontational to go back to your earliest work and ask: "Did I do this?"At first I try to supress - not consciously, but I didn't include some of articles that really make my reputation and then one of the reviewers for the press said: "Wait a minute: I know this person because of this article and another reviewer said: Well.. my favourite article of hers, it's not here, is this...". And so from 10 articles it grew to 17, because everybody wanting to include something else. So it's again the multiplicity of voices. It's not quite my choice, but I think it's fabulous to have an opportunity to say: "Ok! You like that article, you put it in". And the way I have divided it, because my work is all over the place, I divided it according to a topics that are not quite disciplined. One is narrative and culture, one is interdisciplinary methodology, and one is postmodern theology which is all about new religion fashion and also some of this biblical work, one is about visual analysis. So is the categories like that. What else you want to know. I'm very happy to it, I'm very proud that they ask me do it. I think the press is fantastic. This is my favourite publisher. They have been so good. They did: "Quoting Carravagio" like that beatifull and great number of my project.

K.B. Would you like to tell about your reading of art method?
I'm not hindered by any art historical training so everything I know about art history I have read, because I needed it to do some projects. Every time when I do something I have to do some research that belong to that area. I don't approach art in the terms that are traditional in art history and I am very aware when I say traditional in art history - is almost the caricature, because nobody is really traditional art historian anymore or not many. I mean the periods of art, iconography, attribution, contextual history, patronage... all those question I am not so interested in those question. I don't think that anything is particularly wrong with them, I am just not interested in them. I think that other people do it much better. I am more interested in considering what an art work means for contemporary culture. Wheather this art work is old or not. Like old masters; why do we go and flock to the museum when is Carravaggio exhibition and Rembrandt. Well I'm the first who stand in line to see it. What I take from there? What's exciting about this things for us. I think that I'm more historically aware than most historians about how that is a historical presence in the present. So I'm interested in a history of the present and history in a sense of what in the present comes for us from the past and how we re-write it. So it's really about re-writing.

O.J.: For many people old paintings has only historical value?
Not for me and I don't know what that historical value could have be either and I don't think we can ever know. Why does it matter? One of the question behind this, is intention what does this painting mean, is really: What did the artist want to say? What did he mean to mean? Well, I don't know, that we can ever know that and I'm not sure that it matter to much, because the work is public thing. It's in the public domain. It has meaning only if it has being seen by different people. That's what meaning is, it's sort of common ground. The culture of common ground - that's meaning and so the intention of the artist and ther's no bearing on that meaning. I don't think it's a meaningfull question to ask what did it mean at the time. Of course there is reason to understand how art functions differently in the past, than it functions today. In that sense I respect a lot of work that been on the market the way they turned to work and all of that I respect that work. I think it's important historical work but I don't think it's what I am interested in. I don't think is what matters the most to the cultural value of art. I think the cultural value of art is: what do we have to offer against this simplification that lead to war and that lead to famine. This sort of economic, capitalism ... religious, fanaticism, christians fundamentalism, all together leads to a situation in the world that people die unneccesarely and how can we break through that simplification. I think that what culture is about. that value of it and even value of studying it: try to understand what we can do to break through the simplified world of violence. Simlification needs the violence. How we can reverse that. That's what I destroy...

E. Ł.What do you like in contemporary art? Do you have your favourites artists?
I have incredible lists of favourite works. I don't do a priority list of one to ten. But when I say interested, I really mean something more: affected, very excited, passionate about certain artists who combine political severity seveness with playfullness and humor and who use beauty or sensual appearal to make us think better about certain things. One favourite artists of mine is Dorothy Salcedo, Columbian sculpturer, who takes all sorts of old furnitures like tables and chaires, and does things to it ... very painstaking, very dark in sense, very melancholic as a way of a dressing the violence of civil war in the country without representing it, but this is a not abstract because it's a chair and a table so not abstract. That makes me really fascinated by this opposition: figuration and abstraction and talking about this things as a false opposition because in the space you have not figuration and not abstaraction, you have things and the real things are the art works but a tempered way. I think that fabulous.
Mona Hatoum (Lebanon/ UK) she is also it's a combination of very profund engagement with issueas of separation, and issueas of loss and issues of distorition and fisical violence with a sence of incredible humor and the statement sometimes. This work with the bulks of hairs, that you were coming to gallery and looking around and asking: Where is the art? The same thing with Salcedo. And there are the bulks of hairs and you think, that they forgot to clean the floor and then you go from there and that's how you getting of this thinking of art and I think this is increadible poverfull. I'm just thinking about your early question about my selections of art work and all of that. I selected one man for an exhibition that I'm curating Celio Braga (Brazil). I selected him to raplace a woman I chose first but she wasn' suitable and he is an man amayzing it is a still but a hand held ten minutes of his mothers face after the sister died unexpectablly and it is his griefing mother a week after when she found out that her doughter died and she is just sitting and not saying anything. The work is this face. I thought it was an increadible work because it is so honest. I she is not crying but you see the griefing face but if you don't know it is just a face of woman who is carrying the burden of life and she is not crying she is not saying anything. He is not saying anything to her and it is the most moving thing that I have ever seen. Now the question is: Is this a feminist work? In a sense it is and it isn't. the son filming his mother but it is also the mother that you will never meet, so it is very close to my mothers project and I'm very happy about it. I don't know I can talk for hours about works I'm excited about.

A.J. Maybe you would like to tell us about exhibitions that you did? I
n the past I did one. It was a really intersting when I think back. My husband was working at the museum where was a XVII Century Judith painting unknow painter at the time and said: Oh my wife is studing Judith so maybe she have something to say about the painting, and I said this and this and I talked fifteen minutes about Judith and he said: "Wow can you go to my collegues to museum and talk about this?" and I went into museum and I said about this and the painting was in the workshop for restauration and I have to go and see it with the storer and a curator and he said: Would you please present this paiting to the public because you have so much to say about it. So it become bigger and bigger and in the end I did exhibition in two rooms which was a presentation of that painting and it was like exploding it because I made so much of aspects I exhibited around it. The first thing which I saw in this, was a portrait, not really a historical painting but it's a portrait and so I did a whole of portraits of woman, because it was about woman and then I thought but is really also a historical painting so on other wall I put a history paintings, the same schools, same period that were already there, and I thought it is really weir but the woman at the portrait and the servant look so the same, it is weird, can he paint only one face? And I found a selfportrait of him with the same face so then I did the whole thing around selfportraiture and I found a portrait of his brother, that he had there, and that he looked like whole of funnier there. And he is put his brother in whole of set his brother was more famous that even he, and s I did the whole thing about ambition. Then in the painting, there was a little curtain and I did another paintings with curtains and there was another still lifes in all it is elements. The curator thought it was totally horrible, and I thought it was funny it was a decomposition of the construction of the painting as a chart, as a particular chart.
And everything you don't see and you presuming you know it and this is a Judith, ok let's move on, but what in you not see and you take it and you do it as you were not in stead of thinking.

E. Ł: Do have some new idea for your projects? Yes this projects is something that will take a year and a half and because it is also going to involve in catalog and that in .. and in academic discussion and a travelling exihibition and the after or at the same time I'm also going to work with masks project, the idea of the mask as a cutural thing, not like an african mask and dancing with it and everything that is standing between the individual mind and this what can not be seen that includes the migrant shop, that we look only in the front and see that is a migrant without looking him in the face, little headdresses that is all mask that makes all individuals invisible and a gender things.That's the next project and this is for two, and a half of the year and in the mean time other things come up, so I'm busy. A.J.:What do you think of the idea of curatorial studies?
The function of a program of study is to stimulate critical thinking and the development of creative ideas. The benefit of a study program is the collective process. Each person alone, supposedly, can become a good curator; otherwise, they would not be accepted in the program. But discussing ideas together and engaging with different perspectives has a surplus value. The value is not so much in reading and acquiring knowledge - although it is easier to do this when it is "assigned" than to do it on your own - but to get to know how others perceive the same readings, the same lectures. This is a pretty general way of saying that a study program is useful. In the case of curatorial studies, it is additionally very useful, indeed, necessary, to have such discussions in additiona to, or even outside of, the practical, financial, logistical considerations that tend to take over artistic organization. A second additional value of such a program is to take some distance from traditional art historical approaches such as monographic, chronological, and other limiting ways of showing art to the public.

Karolina Bogusławska, Ola Jach, Ewa Łączyńska,
Jestem feministką totalną. Dla mnie to rzecz naturalna.
Rozmowa z Mieke Bal

Małgorzata Freindorf, frame films/klatki z filmu
Małgorzata Freindorf, frame films/klatki z filmu

Ewa Grałek, , frame films
Ewa Grałek, frame films