Potentials of the Visual. In Conversation with Aleksandra Vajd

by Maya Hristova

author: Miha Colner

For more than twenty years, Aleksandra Vajd has been one of the official protagonists of the art scenes in Slovenia and the Czech Republic, where she mostly lives and works. Vajd studied and graduated Photography at FAMU, the Film and Television School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, going on to travel extensively and work internationally. Her artistic practice has therefore always been marked by the notions of displacement and transition. Between 2005-2015, she predominantly worked in collaboration with Prague-based photographer Hynek Alt. Their work together spanned classical, representational photography of their intimate lives and their relationship, to more profoundly experimental practice where they explored and challenged the boundaries of the photographic medium. Despite leaving the world of classical photography behind, their collective practice was still deeply rooted in the realm of photography, one which touches upon different formal and technical aspects of the medium. After the end of their collaboration, Vajd continued with the ontological exploration of the image, often putting it in relationship with object, space and materiality. She has recently focused on reductive photographic work, which explores the limits of the medium, with particular emphasis on its materiality.

At the time of this interview Vajd, together with ceramicist Jimena Mendoza and graphic designer Adela Svobodová, had just finished working on her new artist's book, whose title takes the form of a concrete poem:

Original title [in Czech]:

This recent book also became the starting point of the following conversation, which revolved around profound questions of photography, visual culture and art, about the role of artists in creative and critical thinking, and the role of education in the process of art making. We only barely managed to touch upon her professorship at the UMPRUM, Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague, despite the fact that her role as an educator has profoundly influenced her creative work as well. Everything around us influences us, as we agreed.

Aleksandra Vajd (together with Jimena Mendoza) JÍM NÁSLEDEK RÁNA DERE NÁS JÍL AKAMNA NÁŠ JÍL. RAMENA. DEKA. JÍL, RAMENA AND SAKÉ JÍL, RAMENA & SAKÉ, (The title–poem is an anagram of the artists’ names), 2020, artist’s book designed by Adela Svobodová, published by UMPRUM, Prague

Your recently published artist's book seems to be dedicated to exploring potential relationships between words and images, or at least I perceive it that way. This is not the first work where you address this issue, and I wondered what about the ambiguity of images and words attracts and preoccupies you as a subject?

My intention was different from what you concluded and interpreted. In my practice, text in a visual book always functions as an appendix or extension, which should not explain or illustrate visual content. But then again, each book has its own moment of conception, and I would be lying if I claimed that I have a set of rules with which I work. The structure usually develops through the process.

This has been demonstrated before, in my earlier artist's books. For instance, when my father passed away, I published a small artist's book Untitled (2003) which accompanied my exhibition at Mala Galerija in Ljubljana. And back then, the text took an autonomous, equally strong stance in relation to the photographs (in the exhibition I even tried to treat it as an image), but later on that changed, or rather, it changes with every new book.

I try to think in non-hierarchical liaisons between text and the image.

Aleksandra Vajd & Hynek Alt, My Left Hand, 2014, artist’s book published by UMPRUM, Prague

Further to this, together with my then-collaborator Hynek Alt and under the patronage of UMPRUM, we published the book My Left Hand (2014) in which we mapped a wide range of works from the end of our studies through to 2014. We took on an experimental approach with this publication, by inviting specific groups of people that provided us with certain logics in this context. Individual things in the book stand wide apart, but they are also substantiated by something else, and through that we tried to disable any simple classification. We were partners in dialogue, or better yet, there was something polemical between us. These discussions ended up on the cover of the book. The dialogue is all about the book which was, at that time, still in the process of development. It was about what we imagined this book to become and what we expected from it. The discussion is interesting, because it shows that even closely connected opinions and ideas are susceptible to being disputed. These discussions were an integral part of our creative process, and proved to us that nobody has the ability of total communication.

The discussion is interesting, because it shows that even closely connected opinions and ideas are susceptible to being disputed. Nobody has the ability of total communication.

Aleksandra Vajd & Jimena Mendoza, djav azodnem, 2018, curated by Edith Jeřabkova / installation view from Drdova Gallery, Prague

I collaborated with Hynek for 15 years, during which time we developed a way of working whereby individual inputs are interwoven until they become indistinguishable. In a collaborative dialogue a third identity – with qualities beyond the sum of two collaborators – emerges. Collaboration itself raises questions of authorship, originality and ego, whilst also allowing for the free flow of ideas and constant critique.

This entity incorporates all compromises and discourses, and this was also what we were most interested in.

Working in a tandem has profoundly influenced my artistic practice but, moreover, it has also been influenced by the fact that I moved from Slovenia to Czech Republic, that I travelled a lot, that I had to learn, and that I speak daily in a few foreign languages.

Aleksandra Vajd (together with Jimena Mendoza) JÍM NÁSLEDEK RÁNA DERE NÁS JÍL AKAMNA NÁŠ JÍL. RAMENA. DEKA. JÍL, RAMENA AND SAKÉ JÍL, RAMENA & SAKÉ, (The title–poem is an anagram of the artists’ names), 2020, artist’s book designed by Adela Svobodová, published by UMPRUM, Prague

The book starts with the text on the cover, but at its core it is very visual. I assume there must be correlation of some sort between the texts and the images. On the other hand, interpretations seem to remain completely open.

The element of collaboration is an extremely important part of this book. I again decided to include several people in the creative process: a writer, a designer and an artist working primarily in ceramics; all of them crucially influenced the final product – the book. The working process was initially based on my collaboration with Jimena Mendoza, with whom I created sculptures by combining photography and ceramics. Each of us produced our own construction elements, Mendoza using clay (ceramics) and myself using paper (photography/photogram). Together we strived to create a combination of these that would establish slightly different thinking. We applied different methods of working for each exhibition that we made – "causalidad/casualidad", "djav azodnem", "espejo espejo", "damy", and one would lead into another. We would either create only one sculpture made out of paper and ceramic, or we would push it further where we each would create the same objects, imitating each other’s work inthe process. Like this, two almost identical sculptures were created. We didn't have pretensions to invent something new, but we maybe managed to create what I like to call ‘human unfriendly’ kinship. The sculptures are mostly unnatural and contradictory combinations, where the hierarchy is out of balance. Photography and ceramics are not equal materials, they have completely different characteristics and affordances. For instance, I decided that I will never modify paper into something that doesn't have the characteristics of paper. I could easily make a sculpture out of paper, but I wanted to maintain the standardised parameters of the chosen material. Similar restrictions were applied by Mendoza to her ceramic objects.

Aleksandra Vajd & Jimena Mendoza, Untitled (casualidad/causalidad), 2016, ceramic, hand dyed photogram on silver gelatin paper

In a continuous process of copying, exchanging, becoming extension, being ‘same-same but different’, we developed a shared yet conflicting practice that emphasizes the sensual, the invisible and the blurring of lines between causality and coincidence, between media, between authorship, between support and supported. In this kind of language, a misunderstanding turns into a potential – a potential that allows things to expand and condense in a similar way that maybe only poetry can.

In this kind of language, a misunderstanding turns into potential – the potential  to expand and condense in a way maybe only poetry can.

All the collaborators involved in the process of making the book were selected purposefully, and I expected them to contribute to it with their own creative visions. That doesn't mean to compromise or negotiate, but rather to accept proposals and ideas with respect. Each collaborator had the option to radically intervene in the content. So I invited Petr Borkovec, a successful poet, writer and translator from Russian to Czech. I briefly described my collaboration with Mendoza; after which he started imitating our working process in text form. I also deliberately presented to him our three-dimensional objects in photographs, i.e. two-dimensional flat surfaces that show only a certain angle of the object. Borkovec adopted this way of thinking and he started inventing words. He also took the doctoral dissertation of a biologist who had conducted research into insects living in gravel pits, and used the text as a foundation for a word game which changes from paragraph to paragraph. He took a scientific text and manipulated it in the same way as Mendoza and I manipulate our materials. He also used a principle whereby he would write a text on a piece of paper, then crumple the paper, finally only writing down the letters that remained visible. From a rational point of view the text does not have a narrative logic, but it makes an impression.

Aleksandra Vajd & Jimena Mendoza, casualidad/causalidad, 2016, curated by Christina Gigliotti, installation view from Ferdinand Baumann Gallery, Prague  

A very important role was also given to the designer Adela Svobodová, who took on the principles of collage. To the book she added all the black backdrops that she derived from my photograms, by creating an additional layer on top of the photographs which frame the images, and thus the entire book. The book can be opened onto two different colour covers. When the viewer gets this pile of paper he or she can choose the language (Czech or English) and the colour of the cover (purple or brown), and only when the viewer makes an act of a fold, the form of a book appears. Despite apparent arbitrariness, the work is profoundly thought-out.

I would like this book to be perceived on an entirely poetic level, on the level of pure abstraction.

Do you think that interpretation can be left completely to the viewer? In art, ambiguous interpretations are usually desirable and, in general, an artist can't prevent the public from interpreting and understanding artworks from their own perspective.

I think it’s not about understanding this book at all, one can only like it or not. Maybe in a sense the book appears very elitist and I admit that I am not interested in the opinion of the viewer per se. Most important for the process was that the book had different collaborators who interfered with each other's work, to the point where we all somewhat resigned over our authorship since we all agreed to manipulate each other. It was important that we all accepted this manipulation to happen.

Aleksandra Vajd, 36 Dramatic Situations, 2019, curated by Vit Havranek / installation view from 9th Triennial of Contemporary Art U3 / Dead and Alive, Moderna galerija, Ljubljana

The visual part of the book is based on images of combinations between photograms and ceramic objects, and there is a double loop: you created spatial situations which are then translated in two-dimensional forms. Are these objects artefacts or were they made only to be photographed for the book?

These objects were being produced continuously, and at first we didn't think of making a book rather we focused on sculptural artefacts, and consequently an exhibition. However, during the working process Mendoza and I were producing side products independent of each other, either as drawings, photographs or photograms. The material was piling up and I felt there was something happening in parallel, having its own presence and potential. The process for me naturally evolved into an idea to create a book, so in a sense the work came from the work.

The sculptures are made from two inseparable elements whereby the photographic paper was glued onto ceramic objects. We forced those two elements to merge while thinking about materiality and exploring the characteristics of the materials. The sculptures are total entities and artefacts that exist and are exhibited. The objects are independent works with which we have had five exhibitions by now.

You use not only paper but photograms. Despite the fact that you left the field of representational photography a long time ago, you continue to work in the field. Why is photography so attractive a phenomenon to work with?

Photography is attractive because it is a medium in ongoing change, constantly directing us towards the future. Today more than ever, it is important to contextualize and make sense of our visual world, to understand how images shape our lives, how we use and make control of their power for good and why they matter to us all.

Emerging global society is visual and we use images not to any more solely remember events, but to talk to one another.

I am also attracted by the fact that I can change the way I work with the medium again and again; today I may do photograms, but tomorrow I may create precise and technically consistent photographic images. I do not want to anchor my artistic practice and this ever-changing medium prevents that from happening. If I make a monochromatic photogram, I do not provide any clear information, but I want the viewer to have sensory experience with the physical presence of the paper and its shifting light — movement and reflection on its glossy surface. The emulsion by default has the potential to create information in that it is sensitive to light. It is more the form which I hope gets conveyed. Here, I have to go back to the piece 36 Dramatic Situations, where I created a (physical) platform for displaying these dramatic situations; I was primarily interested in the complexity of the podium which is filled with images in order to showcase different dramatic situations that can occur or happen between people.

Aleksandra Vajd, 36 Dramatic Situations, 2019, curated by Vit Havranek / installation view from 9th Triennial of Contemporary Art U3 / Dead and Alive, Moderna galerija, Ljubljana

In '36 Dramatic Situations', you focused on a literary reference and you translated word descriptions into images.

In fact, these are not word descriptions but rather an index of dramatic situations. In the 19th century, French writer George Polti put forward a thesis claiming that in human stories and situations we can trace 36 different dramatic situations, no more no less. It was a thorough piece of research, which in fact had already been conducted by Goethe and Schiele. But Polti was the one who published a manual. The manual would be used by writers, screenwriters or theatre directors when creating their stage works, or when they asked themselves basic questions such as: when should it come to rebellion, or what is insanity? What is adultery or what is a crime of love? For me, this was the contextualisation of an abstract image that I expressed with photograms. Nowadays, photography is so popular and so widely used that it inevitably remains an important reference point. I work in a similar way within the academic context. I insist that the Studio for Photography that I run in Prague still functions from the perspective of a medium, as a lens-based art or as a new aesthetic (after James Bridle). Photography is inherent to a modern society which is irrevocably visual. Therefore, I am interested when, and under what circumstances, visual images replace words.

At the U3 Triennial of Contemporary Art in Ljubljana, this work was showcased together with an explanatory text, however the images were not marked or indexed. The public could not know what image represents which situation. Why did you omit the index?

I did not index the images because that would be pure speculation, arbitrary and replaceable. I do not have final definitions, and this is not the point of the work. I was interested in creating an atmosphere, a platform that tried to mimic the idea of a complex environment, a stage filled with images and signs that stand for every dramatic situation, suggesting how by seeing something as a whole we understand it instantly and intuitively.

I did not want to determine what sign stands for what situation. The dramatic situations do not function this way, because there are always some undiscovered nuances.

Aleksandra Vajd, 36 Dramatic Situations, 2019

All of the images on the podium had very correct shapes, they look fundamentally basic: circles, squares and rectangles. Why did you choose such modernist shapes?

My starting point was to play with the basic principles that occur when I put together a composition made of two or more photograms. In some cases, I exposed ten papers of particular composition at the same time, whose preparation lasted at least an hour. I have never encountered this before in photography – the black parts of the photograms represent a potential image that cannot be seen because it is overexposed. The projection of an image could have happened there but we cannot see it. The work therefore exists in the theoretical boundary of potentiality; the projection did not happen and I did not really expose these parts but I could have done it. Similar abstraction takes place in Walid Raad’s work, in his 6 big blue pigmented inkjet prints, where we do (not) see portraits of men and women “who had drowned, died, or were found dead in the Mediterranean between 1975 and 1991”. These seemingly formalist works are freighted with an emotional weight that reflects history without documenting it, and the fiction is complete only through the intercession of the wall text.

36 Dramatic Situations, exhibited at the 9th Triennial of Contemporary Art U3 (2019) in Moderna Galerija in Ljubljana, was also the product of a dialogue, in this case with the curator Vit Havranek. He suggested I create all 36 situations in one single spatial installation, so that it appears as a complete work of art. In photography, it is difficult to get such results, even though photographers often think about seriality which is, however, usually very arbitrary. It is different in this case though: there must be 36 units, no more no less. The work has to be perceived from the perspective of the medium itself. Why is this in colour? Why is there black and white photography that looks like colour photography? How does that happen? How is colour being integrated? In what way is the colour applied to the surface? There are several elements that I assume have not yet been presented in such a way. I do not want to emphasize my own uniqueness, but the fact is that I came to that result myself, through research and experimentation.

Aleksandra Vajd, Friends of Friends are Friends, 2016 / installation view from Drdova Gallery, Prague

According to what you have said, and given the process of how you came to these images, it seems that the path to the result is as important as the result itself?

Absolutely. The process is much more interesting. 36 Dramatic Situations is a work with many different appearances. It was first showcased at the exhibition entitled Friends of Friends are Friends (2016) at Drdova Gallery in Prague. But back then I was not interested in the potential totality of the work. Out of 36 dramatic situations I depicted only 16 units, in accordance with the installation in space. I was interested in the sculptural potential and materiality of the medium, and I wanted to test how photography functions as an object. I thought of the pedestal and wondered if it could be a part of the photograph and what would be its form, shape, materiality etc.

Photography has to prove itself constantly. And then it so happened that a photograph is not necessarily framed any more, and that it no longer wants to be a two-dimensional object representing some event or situation. This is a side effect of the digital age. This is also why the retreat to the darkroom happened, because I was saturated with JPGs suffering the present deprivation of quality in digital information.

I think that photography is in constant struggle with itself, it has a historic inferiority complex, and therefore it again and again imitates all other old artistic practices.

Aleksandra Vajd & Hynek Alt, Two Sides of One Story, 2009, 2 photographs, digital c – print, 100 x 150 cm 

One of the basic premises of your creative work is to collaborate with others. For ten years you worked in tandem with the artist Hynek Alt. How did your practice change when you started to work in tandem? How did it change after you started to work individually again but often in collaboration with different people?

I look for collaborators among people either artists, curators, architects, writers, musicians, film-makers who, above all, interact on an intellectual level. I am interested in how somebody may subvert or bend my idea, how somebody may have doubts about my work. My intention is mostly mental not physical; I want to be engaged in intellectual provocations while I react to it on a material level. Needless to say, it is not always necessary that the idea results into an artefact, physical output or into material work.

My collaboration with Mendoza lasted for four years, but it has been taking place parallel to our individual practices. Our collective works have many different appearances, from illustration to light installations.

Aleksandra Vajd & Hynek Alt, Man Woman Unfinished, 2005 - ongoing

One of the first large projects of the Hynek Alt and Aleksandra Vajd duo was 'Man Woman Unfinished' (2005). The work does not introduce a linear narrative but is still rooted in a traditional documentary manner. Later on, your practice became oriented towards much more abstract expressions, similar to what you are currently exploring. What was the process of transition from classical photography to this theory-based artistic research approach for you?

We were one of the last generations of students that experienced the transition from analogue to digital photography. This transition was part of a very lively discourse at the time, which fostered a lot of thinking. We had to accept a changed state of affairs in photography, and to come to terms with the fact that the constant change is part of the identity of this medium. It is constantly changing and it is constantly being overwhelmed by its own total proliferation. Nowadays, photography has become the most basic communication tool and we had to react to that somehow. That is why in this project we focused on classic portraiture, a genre that everybody understands.

Aleksandra Vajd & Hynek Alt, Man Woman Unfinished, 2005 - ongoing 

We then applied all kinds of post-conceptual and radical solutions to our portraits. We were also questioning authorship: Who is actually the author of a portrait? Are we both authors or only the one who pressed the button? What are the roles of the photographer and of the one being photographed? How do these roles impact the image? These dialogues were possible because we were both photographers and models at the same time. We then used the portraits in various ways of presentation, such as slide projection, web page, video, book or gallery prints in frames. It was an exercise to show the variety of ways possible when presenting a portrait. This practice was modified in the following years, and eventually transitioned into abstract forms. In Two Sides of One Story (2009), for instance, we cut through a stack of about 200 photographic prints, and then we photographed the object. Just recently Hynek and myself got invited to exhibit at Prague House in Brussels, which means we will collaborate again. We accepted the invitation and decided that we will open our storage, review many of our old works and make something new out of this material. However, we shall make entirely new works as well.

Aleksandra Vajd & Hynek Alt, Untitled (Studio Lights), 2012 / installation view from Blind Spot, House of Art, České Budějovice, CZ

What is your relationship with your early works in general? Do you still showcase works from twenty or fifteen years ago?

There is no such thing as not looking back any more. I am always very happy and challenged when I can present works from twenty years ago. I think it is a similar case in my most recent book. There are always so many decisions and solutions possible, and in this process I try to consider almost every detail as an important element. I am interested in what paper to use, what print to choose, what colour will the canvas and cover be, what binding shall I use? Consistency and sensibleness are an integral part of the book. The public will never know how much time the graphic designer and I needed to select the appropriate seam to bind the book, but I sincerely hope that it could be felt in the work at least a little bit.

I cannot afford to have impulsive decisions anymore because my ideas are embedded in the form.

But to answer your question, yes, I like to show old works anew as if they were just made. I challenge myself every time to show them differently, or the same in a new context, tracing common narratives and methods that occur in the media, formats and visual language.

Since photography can be presented in many ways, often conditioned through new ways of technology, it is great to test old ideas through new forms and techniques. In December 2020 in Brussels, we will show the majority of our common work and we want to play with the idea of a retrospective by giving the works new looks, ways of installation and interplay, by looking into the methods, approaches and obsessions that are shared across the works, to thereby provide a composite overview of our practice.

You mentioned already that, parallel to your artistic practice, you hold a teaching position at an art academy. How does the educational element of your work impact your artistic practice?

That is such a wide topic that it would probably require a separate interview...

I rather meant to say that the possibility of contact and collaboration with the students must be a huge privilege, insofar as education entails the mutual transfer of knowledge.

That is a pure privilege. I am more and more aware of that. At the same time, I would be curious to know what my artistic development would have been like have I not had the opportunity to teach. I am always surprised to see how many students are focused on classical disciplines and media. I want to understand new generations of artists, but they often want to imitate older generations. This may be related to the comfort of image making; however, a new need for materiality appeared in the digital age.

Young artists want to work manually, they want to touch things, they want to knead and shape. That is a new element which enables photography to open up, to become spatial installation.

Students want to manually interfere with the process of work, and it doesn't matter if the photograph is only a trace or insignificant element of a final product. That could be a metal construction covered in textile but the reference point could still be photography. In the educational process, content is translated through diverse mental concepts: visual image can be translated to text, text can be translated to drawing, drawing can be translated to matter and mass, and mass can be translated to a photograph. The most important thing is a working process, much more than the final product; however, the final product is also important, as it is a litmus paper of all previous processes.


Aleksandra Vajd, Friends of Friends are Friends, 2016 / installation view from Drdova Gallery, Prague

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