Breda Beban in conversation with Mia Jankowicz

Breda Beban: While filming or taking photos, I tend to go blank. Editing becomes a process of trying to make sense out of the material generated. I think that my films become films when, after looking at the footage a pattern emerges and then the meaning is created.

This interview was conducted over two glasses of red wine and some cigarettes. Later, it was transcribed in my flat on Word in a marathon session of coffee and typing. The transcript was then sent to Beban to tidy her answers. It is now my task to summarise it in an informative and authoritative fashion, in some three-way struggle to locate where the meaning lies between the interview itself, its transcription and its editing processes.


Breda Beban has been living in the UK since 1991, when she moved from the former Yugoslavia. She has worked with film and film installation since the 1980s and in addition has curated projects such as
Imagine Art After at Tate Britain (2007-08 ) and the exhibition Imaginary Balkans at Site Gallery (2002). The slide between the depiction of large-scale events and phenomena, and the experience of the specific or the personal, seems to occupy many of her works, operating outwards, until the thematic capture of the work nearly always implicates the viewer.

I had learned that she began working in performance, and I asked her about it. She said she didn’t remember much of it.

BB: I do, however, remember a performance which triggered filmmaking. In the mid 1980s, Hrvoje Horvatic, a young film director, came with a small crew to film one of my performances for a TV programme. As we were going through a brief rehearsal for camera positions, I was openly excited by the fact that whatever I was up to made much more sense when seen on the monitor. The next day Horvatic gave me a call to ask if I would like to make a film. Within a month we produced our first collaborative piece.

Mia Jankowicz: I’m interested in artists like Gail Pickering or Marcia Farquhar, both of whom have recently been making works that tread some line between documentation of performance, performance and filmmaking. That day, what did you recognise in the camera that you realised you might be able to take forward?

BB: It was the way in which the cinematic frame transformed the space. For some, probably unrelated reason a scene from Tarkovsky’s film Nostalgia comes to mind: it’s a very long single shot showing the main character in a rather unfriendly climate as he makes attempts to carry a lighted candle from one end of an empty swimming pool to the other. In essence, it is a performance, however at the same time, it is a very cinematic moment in terms of figure and background relationship, framing, camera movement and distance, and focal depth.

So then a reversal. In Beban’s relation to this most deceptively transparent of media is an understanding of the real as something that still lies under the surface of the footage, waiting to be scratched up and exposed. This seems key to Beban’s relating of histories – the contradiction of the subjective eye being the more effective agent of truth as it rifles through and alters material.

BB: Or, as with The Most Beautiful Woman in Gucha (2006), it shifts from non-edited raw footage to edited footage, when the former is slightly fictionalised. In fictionalising the recorded event, I actually focus on the reality of the moment, if that makes sense. It makes perfect sense to me. [laughs]

In this work (displayed at Tate Britain this winter), the camera follows an incredibly beautiful belly dancer who is working, glazed with boredom and sweat, at a cacophonous Serbian festival. For her own amusement she picks on a handsome but wasted young man sitting almost asleep with his family. There is clearly chemistry and a subtle power dynamic.

BB: I filmed 20 hours of footage. As I was viewing it, I knew that the new film was to be found somewhere in the 19 min recording of a particular event. I could remember the genuine intensity of the moment as I was filming it. However, the recorded footage didn’t really match the memory of the reality as experienced on location. Therefore, I decided to reclaim it through postproduction.

Before this interview, we once had had a conversation during which I had asked Beban about her use of archival television footage in a work called How to Change Your Life in a Day (2004), specifically of a woman mourning publicly in a headscarf.

MJ: Through re-editing the archival footage, the work seems to re-invest these images with some impact again. Otherwise these images are so tired and abstracted to people who are channel-surfing, that they’re almost bland symbols of conflict.

BB: That’s what you do when you’re bombed. You cry.

Maybe it’s because you are on a sofa on the outside of the TV screen – I am one of these women on the other side of the screen. We are a background for the news reporter, like wallpaper. Yes, a war is engineered somewhere, then there’s the TV crew, the newsreader and women grieving in the background. I wanted to engage with this phenomenon in a straightforward way.

The title How to Change Your Life in a Day is taken from the self-help book Change Your Life in 7 Days by the popular hypnotist Paul McKenna, and which topped the bestseller charts in the UK at the time. The piece is set to the sound of a hypnotic voice, which supposedly has the power to induce one’s connection with the perfect self and consequently transform one’s life. The images show the domestic setting of a covered window, overlooking a residential area in London, interjected by newsreel archive footage of grieving women. The window is covered by a blind that moves with the wind in tandem with the voice and appears to obey its instruction, occasionally revealing the outside view.

My intention was to set a popular quest for the ideal self in the so-called developed part of the world alongside the devastating outcomes of contemporary world politics.

As commodified as it seems to be in the hands of someone like Paul McKenna, healing still seems to be a part of the process for Beban. In 2002 she was invited by Site Gallery to curate a show of art from the Balkans which ended up being
Imaginary Balkans, and in 2007 the process of Imagine Art After – in which artists based in postcolonial countries correspond with diasporic artists from the same origin – came to fruition in an exhibition at Tate Britain.

MJ: Both of the projects you have been invited to curate seem to stem from the premise that art has a role to play in healing.

BB: Both projects come from a necessity for telling stories that the official narratives and histories are often unable to tell. Based on a kind of ‘big’ (i.e. fucked up) life I’ve had, I am driven by the need to highlight unexpected facts and fictions and hopefully to introduce some form of change. It would be good to know that some form of healing could be achieved in the process.

Funnily enough, the title of one of the pieces I’m currently working on is Heal Me. Yes, there is definitely something in the word ‘healing’ that I am attracted to. I also like the concept of white magic. It’s easy to be bad, whatever that means… I find life much more interesting when the word healing comes into play.

MJ: Does that mean there’s a moral bent to your work?

BB: ‘Moral’ is confusing, ‘healing’ is not. I’m certainly slightly wary of certain moral issues inherent in the European tradition of philosophy which I’ve been exposed to while growing up. To start with, it’s predominantly a male territory.

I was nervous to ask the next question and phrased it badly. What I really meant to ask her was whether she had ever been aware of certain exoticising gaze from the economic and artistic ‘West’, and if she ever thought artists internalised it; it leading to an anticipatory form of art making that, by providing something to rub up against, allows the West to perform the assuaging of its colonial guilt while re-embedding certain ethnic tropes. In explicit or implicit terms, but that’s the box that certain artists are allowed to prosper within. I had been reading Radical Chic by Tom Wolfe at the time. But she somehow got what I meant.

BB: Whenever I have to talk about ethnic aspects of art in general without referring to individual works, I feel like talking about pornography where the mechanics are revealed, but everything else is hidden.

I make different kinds of works, but the work that is based on where I come from tends to come across well. Does this say something about me or about the audience’s expectations? I certainly am not in charge of this game. I’m willing to ask myself whether I’m better, whether what I do communicates better when based on the part of the world where I come from. But then where am I from? Marked by the process of Gypsyfication, I feel rather liberated by the absence of desire to belong to a place.

Maybe there is a valid reason why these issues are relevant over here. When The Most Beautiful Woman in Gucha was recently exhibited in Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, the audiences seem to have enjoyed it without questioning the ethnic aspect of the film.

Aside from anything else, it’s a sexy piece. I was reminded of her mention of pornography, defined here as the pure display of mechanics but somehow missing the essence of what happened, all the same. I had been intrigued by the romance of the story of how another work, Beautiful Exile (2003), got made. It’s a five-channel installation piece, where each screen displays a head and shoulder shot of a woman prior to, and then reaching, orgasm.

BB: An essential part of Beautiful Exile is the subject of surrender. It had to be filmed with close friends and a cinematographer like Robby Muller, who is women’s accomplice. While we were filming in Duino, there was a strong sense of bonding. It seemed like a long moment where all other points of reference have disappeared. We had each other, the beautiful bay, the sea, a commitment to the project and plenty of wine. Some of the women involved claim that they were deeply changed by the experience of filming.

And the exile thing has to do with the impossibility of finding a clear-cut notion of identity. One is much more aware of this as a migrant – identity becomes such a big, heavy question, you become so tired of its inadequacy; all you want to do is to escape.

It works on a psychological level as well. At the moment when one begins to think that a singular definition for a particular understanding of a point in life has been reached, this is exactly the moment when one begins to dissolve into hundreds of combinations. When it comes to definitions, I like the fallings apart.

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