Nations and Stereotypes

New Europe

Magdalena Petryna: The New Europe in your title is a space of powerful stereotyping. Was playing with the images of the region something you originally intended, or was it an attempt at documenting its transformations that provided the starting point?

Łukasz Trzciński: My initial intention was an attempt at mapping the baggage left by the previous system, at summarising the social costs related to the process of transformation in this specific part of the world. Moreover, after the first trials, Europe itself emerged as an image, an effect of civilisational patterns. The visible is built from superimposing cultural clichés and strategies. What proved necessary to break through all of them, to decode them, was a radical diversification of the tools, reaching far further than the realm of representation.
I worked in reference to a specific territory and looked for themes emerging from experiences assigned to specific spaces, specific communities, yet at the same time translatable onto a broader vision of the experience of the entire region, as systemic mechanisms turned out to be the same everywhere.

What countries do you deal with in your works, and what prompted their choice?
I assumed that my work would cover all the countries, and although there are only a few left to “do”, I am not certain whether following the path of clearly drawn backyards is appropriate, although it is certainly a tempting key in reference to the convention of the entire project. A simple subject often appears in various versions beyond successive borders, as with the Russian minority in the Baltic States, for example, where it makes up a third of the population. They are the protagonists of the essay Szare paszporty – Grey Passports, a series of quasi-ID portraits of the youngest generation of the “invaders” born in Estonia after the fall of the USSR, yet still without the right to citizenship in the country. The context also returns to a certain extent in the ready-made objects that I dragged from the gardens surrounding the blocks of flats of the Russian community of the nuclear town of Visaginas, abandoned in the heart of Lithuanian pristine forests by great politics. This work is not to provide a one-to-one illustration of the background from which it emerges but – and this is symptomatic for the entire project – each step conceals narratives that do not have to be visible or legible at the first try. This is what I am also keen on, the opportunity to decode these works in several attempts. Beginning from holding them to the most elusive, superficial visual layer, which is only one of the tools.
Interestingly, and incidentally what I find most fascinating now, when I show the individual works in a more distant place, people practically reject their original provenance, automatically translating them into the experiences of their own country. In One Dollar, a kind of typology of shop shelves shot in the Bulgarian univermags (the Communist counterpart of department stores – transl. note), symbols of a past well-being and the propaganda of the system going bankrupt, the Spanish find their own experience related to the recent crisis, i.e. their own history. When shown the institutional drift of the Bosnian Grey House, Argentinians use their experience of bureaucracy as explanation. That glocality is fascinating. By the time I manage to tell the tale hidden behind a given work somewhere, it has started to work in its own, new contexts. The New Europe in the title seems to be losing any clear geographic connotation.

You use various conventions: from advertising photography, via passport photos to pictures styled as a singles ad. To what degree does this result from the subject, and to what extent do you want to attract attention to the lack of transparency in the medium and sensitise the recipients to the way of looking?
In photography, looking is not limited to “the execution of a shot” by a photographer and its later reception by the viewer. Which is why I select conventions not only for the narrative, but also with the intention to bare the way in which we – the photographer and the recipient alike – format the picture. I test the photographic medium, exploiting its typical features: its synthetic quality and at another time a partiality for redundancy or indexation. Moreover, I try to examine their impacts on perception. I am constantly interested in the analytical position, yet when I now start to play with an image, I usually acknowledge my own role as one of the observed participants in it.

New Europe. Atlas, Estonia – Eliza; Grey Passports series, photography behind glass, 72×93×4 cm © Łukasz Trzciński

For example?
In the Take Me series, I am drawn to the reflection of cultural conventions that my female protagonists enter slavishly, hoping to change their situation in life. I am also interested in the position of a prowling photographer/hunter, who re-appropriates these images to build his own position, and finally in the position of the recipient for whom I am trying to disrupt the safe border of the virtual world, building an illusion of three-dimensionality in snaps found on the Internet recreated with obsessive precision. Interestingly, this border concerns only the viewer. It turned out that by bringing these images to galleries, I deprive the heroines of a sense of security, as paradoxically they consider the Internet to be an intimate area, and an art gallery a public one. Finally, there is the level of the potential final recipient, a collector who purchases a visually attractive image to include it in the collection of his trophies. Thus becoming a victim himself, as having entered into a relationship with an image that with social implications, lured into making a decision by its attractive superficiality or following purely profiteering reasons. He is the last, closing link in the chain of image circulation.
In turn, I commissioned a certain job in the project that I am now working on in Latvia to a professional photographer, with the intention of making use of his way of imaging. Although he make a living, and quite a good one, through photography, he has no education in the field, and to a degree operates outside the environment. Consequently, his work is not directly tinted with the typical tricks of the trade. In turn, he tries to imitate them, disclosing them and in a way serving them up on a tray. His works also perfectly mirror client expectations, his way of trying to catch up with them, the conventions he subscribes to, and the ways he uses to repeat – or, as he believes, improve – these conventions.

Once you said that photography is “an awfully philistine and conformist medium, and allows a highly intensive contact with the image, at the same time guaranteeing to maintain a safe distance”. Is it your intention to knock viewers out from the routine and comfortable approach to the image?
I have long struggled with the photographic document, hoping to “shake” audiences up. Yet some form of a displacement scenario would always take place: a rejection of the message to the viewers, which was made perfectly possible by the physicality of the image and the specialist terminology following in its footsteps. A powerful focus on what is external, including the aesthetic realm, lets photography draw voyeuristic satisfaction from the pornography of somebody else’s reality without the need to assume an active stand, and attempt to change. It builds a semblance of a fully closed form, which finds its perfect fulfilment in the decorative aspect. Which is why I am looking for an approach that will make it possible for the viewers to identify themselves with the image, by translating it into their own experience: whether his perception, being that of a recipient, could have become an element of the puzzle.

New Europe. Atlas, Slovakia – Art of Landscape Architecture series, photography 15×15 cm © Łukasz Trzciński

Which means that you transfer some of the responsibility for the work onto those viewing it. What then is a work? Or in other words, where or when does a work end?
Photography, whether falling back on cultural shortcuts and juggling them in the transmission of a message or holding the most common ambition to represent, is from the outset consigned to a lack of ontological autonomy. And this is by no means a new realisation: certain theories concerning photography have pointed to it for a long time, shifting the border of the final form of the photograph to the moment of reception. The medium is only a tool, and therefore photography exists finally and eventually in a number of versions equal to that of its viewers. The visual abbreviations and codes that we deal with in an image depend on the hand that created it. It is a similar case with perception, which depends on the cultural competencies of the recipients. Therefore, the final work is an individual projection made by every viewer, determined mostly by that person’s associations.
Here we are touching upon questions that are elementary for photography, a medium that originated from technology, for which reason it is especially vulnerable to being pushed into the physical pigeonhole. It is due to force of habit that we lock a photographic image in its physical dimension: an illusion that we are nevertheless happy to follow, especially if it means that we can displace certain images that upset our comfort. Taken out from somebody else’s life, they are not an experience of ours. Not going beyond their physical form, we sever the stage of perception that would force us to take a position, to react.

How then would you define your role?
I see myself as an intermediary in the circulation of images. I collect and distil the essence, and release it into further circulation. They are not mine again.

New Europe. Atlas, Lithuania – Swan, print on advertising banner, 250×292 cm © Łukasz Trzciński

Translated from the Polish by Piotr Krasnowolski