It is a myth that reflection is only possible from the outside
An interview with curator Daniela Amolini (words) and artist Johanna Tagada (visuals) about their collaboration at Exposed Arts Projects, the meaning of artistic research and the importance of daily practice.
1. How did your collaboration started, and what do you value most about it? Can you name one or two things that you’ve learned from each other — that somehow changed your own practice?
Johanna’s poetic spoke to me since the first time I saw her artist magazine at Tate’s shop. I thought that her handbound zine perfectly combined a balanced aesthetic and a daring attitude inherent to independent production. Even if these two characteristics often clash, in Johanna’s were as one. I straight away wanted to meet her and know the person behind these works. Her bubbly personality and wittiness shined through her persona, gestures and speech. I straight away admired her composed manners, kind thoughts and energetic interactions. Through our conversations I learned how her practice constantly evolves via a crescendo of research into different, more sustainable materials, repetition of patterns series or slow, caring productions methods.
Her research is fused with her daily routine, including the people and the environment she interacts with. The everyday-ness of her practice taught me how life and work cannot be two distinct activities but even if they might be compartmental – work time and leisure time – they dialogue with each other. So, the choices you make in your private life somehow interfere on your working life. What you make is a complicated creation that spring from a variety of situations, connections, research findings and personal perspectives which we might or might not control. Kenneth Goldsmith in his latest books argues how for writer copying and pasting from a text to create their own text can be compared to Nam June Paik’s Magnet TV work. Goldsmith attributes to the action of copy and paste the action that Paik did in 1965 when he took control of television images by attaching a magnet on top of the device. By moving the magnet, the artist could distort and change the image. Thus, reversing the traditional one-directional information structure inherent to television by allowing the audience the power of production. In the same fashion, anyone can take something, like a text or an image, that is already made but through editing, experimentation and manipulation processes can create something new and unique. I see this process very vivid in Johanna’s work.
Her documentation process showcased especially through her zines, but also in her books and magazine production, is a self-representation via the editing, manipulation and experimentation with things she founds across her life. She perfectly masters this skill and her compositions very strongly depict found objects on a familiar, homely backgrounds or nature landscapes, sometimes overwriting these with hand-written messages through postproduction processes. The overall aesthetic though looks really natural, positive and simple, yet embedded with profound meanings that tends towards nostalgy of lost treasures or moments. I see this drive also within my curatorial view where I like to juxtapose and put into dialogue historical texts with more current productions. This mind-frame I believe made Blankspace Library a space where Athena Tacha’s 1972 pockets books series in where she documented her aging process with intimate and autobiographical writings, connect with Johanna’s Do Insects Play?. Her 2019 book production that provide an insight into Johanna’s playful and mindful practice in India.
2. What would be your definition of “artistic research”? What is its key difference from the research conducted by other disciplines (i.e. science, humanities) ?
Differently from other discipline most art productions do not follow prefixed standards and parameters of quantitative or qualitative investigations. What I mean is undertaking research in art might not start from a methodological choice of interviewing an agreed number of people or experimenting with tot number of materials under specific conditions and documenting them. Even though, all art stems from research as artists employ methods similar to let’s say scientific or sociological studies (such as searching, archiving, collecting, interpreting and explaining, modelling, experimenting, intervening and petitioning) but also in their motivation, reflection, discussion and formulation of research questions. In Johanna’s work her research method is constructed both through rigid, slow, repetitive experimentations of processes and materials, and the contributions from the community. Her productions are underpinned by regular habits, that can be think of something almost seasonal, a certainty obtained by the constant gestures, thoughts, attentions and canons that Johanna follows. So, her research practice, hence thinking process - merges with performativity creating this beautiful oeuvre which I think is a really unique take that characterises Johanna’s work. In fact, the level of experience she acquires through her reflections and artistic experiences includes a subjective or intersubjective interpretation on a descriptive level and a theoretical analysis and modelling on a meta-level. And as Artega (2010) puts it, “It is a myth that reflection is only possible from the outside”. Artistic experience is a form of reflection.
3. How do you do the research for your projects? What triggers you to begin a new project?
My projects stem from the need to answer a research question. Even though this seems quite straight forward, the question usually manifest itself in the middle of the process. When I start researching Johanna’s practice, my interest pivoted around artist books productions with the focus on their categorisation. I noticed how certain zine where embraced by big museums and sold in their shops. So, I was fascinated by the reason why these institutions would promote hand-made artist books productions and the choices behind the selection process. Alongside it is noticeable how through the last ten year - or even more – capitalistic modes of production have incorporated modes of production which were deemed underground and of low quality. But Johanna’s zine was anything like that. It seems to me a work of fine art with a price of a zine. I started calling these productions Artzines discovering a whole community behind the creation and circulation of these artist-made books. Digging even more, I noticed how artists who embrace artzines or books as medium include a wide range of outputs in their practice that covers painting, sculpture, installations to name a few. But even if they have a heterogeneous oeuvre, their research process is always identical. They approach a zine production in the same way they would do with a painting and this is visible in Johanna’s work. As mentioned before, in the history of making zine there are stories of self-empowering and counter hegemony practices.
4. In our times of increasing uncertainty in the political, economic and spiritual terrains, what gives you power and energy to stay strong and make art? What are your very own practices of self-empowering?
Personal empowerment is about taking control of your own life, and making positive decisions based on what you want. It's closely linked to attributes like self-esteem and self-confidence, but true empowerment comes when you convert intention into action. I can think of female artists in the seventies using zine as a mode to express themselves with the ability to easily circulate these texts. However, to make a positive change is to include in this process all people and the community at large, so everyone can benefit from it. For me, generating these situations through exhibitions, with the hope that they can become catalyst of positive changes or even a safe space for people to reflect or discuss (also through a creation process e.g. the tent space inside blankspace library or workshops), is the reason that keeps me going and nourishes me. I am deeply sad about what is happening in the world right now, but it has become for me a cause not to stop and keep curating, bringing people and different realities together. Unfortunately, in Italy recently – where some of my practice lay – it has become a custom to state that “Non si mangia con la Cultura” [meaning: Culture does not buy you food] which refers to the fact that working in the cultural sector is a really precarious job with very low income. There should be a stronger action to change the state of things in the art sector and fight for more human and decent wages and stop exploitation. Meanwhile, on the other side, scientists have established how for wellbeing a person need not only food but also brain stimulations that arrives only via music, art and culture. So, in these times of uncertainty it is critical to attend our physical and mental wellbeing with even more attention. Taking care of ourself, the others and the environment that surrounds us.
Daniela Amolini curated Johanna Tagada's work for the BlankSpace Library project that settled at Exposed from October to December 2019.
You can find more information about it here.