Interview with Petra Feriancova (Interview)

Daniel Grún. Image courtesy of the author.

Petra Feriancova. Image courtesy of Petra Feriancova.

Petra Feriancova lives and works in Bratislav. She studied at the Accademia delle Belle Arti, Rome, Italy and Academy of Fine Arts and Design, Bratislava. Her work has been exhibited at many venues, including the Secession Museum in Vienna (2010); Eastside Projects, Birmingham (2009); HIT Gallery, Bratislava (2009); and the Musée d’Art Moderne de Saint-Etienne (2008). In 2010 Feriancova was awarded the Oskár ?epan Award (2010).

Daniel Grún: I want to start by asking about the way you work with the modern methods of documentation in the natural sciences, particularly the way you trace the breeds in connection with their biotope, and the way you utilize text to record voice expressions. Is it a coincidence that the title of your work, Natural Selection (2008) is also a key term of evolutionary biology? However, in the cycle Creator, the crux of the work is not the process of documentation, but the role of scientific equipment in the genetic manipulation of pigeons. Do you consider the camera a tool of subjugation, particularly, as an instrument in the process of attaining scientific knowledge?

Petra Feriancova: The photographer determines the composition of the shot in advance, before it is actually captured, by attempting to see the landscape through an objective lens.  An amateur does not visualize the image in advance, and neither do I, for I can not control the limits of the landscape image, nor [can I control] its actual experience.  Despite this limitation, I still find the process absolutely thrilling. I am glad for this perspectival ignorance. The way the camera is constructed limits the photographer, and when we keep in mind these limitations we can excel through the photographic medium. The shot captured distances of the viewer from the original position relative to the landscape. The framing of the camera lens is lost in the resulting photograph, and the photographer’s distance-relative to the surrounding landscape-is only glimpsed through the objective of the lens, thus compounding my distance as the interpreter of the final product.

Recently I decided to forego working with my own material. My work involving the external world had become saturated to such an extent that I decided to focus on material already accumulated. It is based on this, that idea of working with the archives accumulated by my relatives, was born. This change in role is important to my understanding of the original reason for the archive and, for me, it is imperative to maintain this the original motivation for the project. No matter how diverse or aesthetically pleasing an archive is I always attempt to evaluate that each level or category and make sure that it fulfills the original purpose behind its creation. Ornithology and the mapping of East-African fauna, for example, were the focus of my aunt’s archive,  and I had to remain true to this original intention. In addition to replacing the visual material with a textual description of the sounds articulated by each specific type of bird, I also made sure to properly map the breeds in relation to their biotopes and names.  After a period of time has elapsed since the creation of the original collection, under certain conditions the reassembling of the same archive enables one to examine the methods used in its creation. It is important that I reassemble these archives in such a way as to, hopefully, confront the spectator, (which can occur at the exhibition, and may) also allow my family and friends to share my fascination.

DG: In the cycle, A Thing of Mine That May Not Be Mine (2007-2009), you used the popular science magazine, The National Geographic, as a source for images. The selections were made based on the dates of their original publication (May 1977, which is coincidentally both of our birthdates), and the images conforming to the “familial ideal.” These prints are contrasted with the fiction of the family archive, resulting in the breaking of the original familial connections, leaving only a trace of their function as scientific documentation. The emotional relationships emerge through the arrangement of the photographs-one notes an escalation of emotional ties that could not have existed if it weren’t for you. It seems to me that, for you, it is not primarily the object, but everything which moves that object to the central focus of the photograph. As if changing the framing and context, you subvert the original purpose of the shot and give it a totally different meaning. Does this mean that a camera and its product can be altered for the purpose of affectation, literally, a tool used to affect?

PF: In the case of The National Geographic, I wanted to focus the original material, which was very broad and covered a wide range of topics. Also, I wanted to show the way emotions, however individual they appear to be, always become a universal expression. It is difficult to navigate the limits of emotions in a fiction, and subsequently the formal “thematization” is both restrictive,  and misleading. The material can be about different things, but the subject of this work are the various  associations that can be created through the manipulation of a set of images. This process is highly introspective, and so hard for me to verbalize. I cannot define it precisely because it is born from one moment to the next, from one piece to the next, and in each moment it is absolutely unstable. This aspect of the process, however, is the reason why we can discuss and hold discourse on them. It’s as if by using incongruous or differing media this dialogue is achieved.

DG: We previously discussed the archives of your relatives, where the photographs are not just the function  art. The cycle Creator, where you used the pictures of top-crossed pigeons, emphasized the scientific aspects of photographic documentation, in particular, the importance [of photography] in breeding taxonomy.  Each entry in this archive, although respected for its adherence to laws of description and classification, still manages to move beyond a dry documentation of the exhibited objects-the pigeons. In each shot, you can feel the enthusiasm with which the authors treated their subjects. Is it your aim to reconstruct this initial fascination? What process occurs in the movement from the box to the gallery wall? Is it important that the author of the original photograph and the work exhibited are not the same person?

PF: I am the designer of Creator. I nailed the image to the wall, and what is on the wall is a manifesto. The author of the original archive is my grandfather, and it was he who had collected the original photographs for the purpose of publishing a piece about the new breeds of pigeons. However, he is not the one who stands behind the photographic lens. Each photograph has a different origin, just as the creatures depicted are the result of many ambitious breeders. Some of the pictures are even retouched in order to meet the strict criteria of their breeders, the creators of these variation in the external appearance of each pigeon. It must be my love for order, or for patterns that emerge in the constantly evolving rules, that forces me to work “in the moment.” There is also a feeling of safety in the repetitive actions, usually suggesting a sense of progress.  marking the flow of time. The memory, then, is defined as a collection, and its subsequent renewal, as a reissue.

DG: The motif of landscape commonly appears in your works. In Could? you create certain patterns in the exhibition space by utilizing appropriated slides. When you worked with the record of African fauna and flora, I noticed your interest in the images of conventions and clichés. Could you please talk about the problems that can arise during post-production of the photographic records? You also have many photographs of various monuments from ancient Greece, would you mind explaining the resulting impression of “archaeological tourism”? What was your aim?

PF: The landscape is the only subject that I will openly thematise, and it is present in my work from the beginning of my career. It has actually become, a sort of formal instrument for me. “The landscape” is a tool, a template, a base, an A4 format; and in this program the landscape symbolizes the horizontal, while the portrait symbolizes the vertical. I actually don’t have a single picture that is vertical. The horizontal perspective is somehow innate to me, and I am not the alone in this. Film, the shot and the screen, are both horizontal and subsequently so are the landscapes. To reach the vertical format I would have to turn the camera, which can cause me to miss the moment I wanted to capture. For me, the vertical represents the word, the book-not the photograph.

I used a camera for the first time in the year 2000, when I was working with the landscape as a genre. I travelled throughout the whole of Italy with a disposable camera and just took pictures of just about everything, like a tourist. From this, the series Grand Tour was born. The pictures themselves, when enlarged to great dimensions, only showed my lack of skill. It was the pictures themselves that were precious, which is something everyone has experienced. The result of this assortment was a selection thematised as “bel paese,” otherwise known as ”the ideal country.” This was at a time when I had an intense sensation that I was naturalizing, and that my vision was changing. Therefore, I renewed my vision through Stendhal’s, Goethe’s, and Byron’s visions of the country.

From there, I was not far from the tourism that you mention. A series of slides-a sphinx, an obelisk, a pyramid from each angle-are images which you can find in households and photo albums around the world, had become a revelation for me. To me, these photographs represent a mediated picture, a reflection of something that I was either familiar with, or was completely strange to me. I shared the photographer’s fascination, regardless of what he depicted,  because it is the firsthand experience that remains withheld.

DG: Some critics of art have been talking about archive fever for quite some time. Several projects connected to the reconstruction of the socialist “iconosphere,” and to the mapping of the socialist public spaces, were beingcreated. It seems to me that your way of handling the memory is quite different. It is more individualized and more concentrated on different modes of photographic record. Are your works somehow connected to these larger issues, or were your intentions in archiving separate?

PF: It is important for me to remain the figure that binds these works, so I become personally invested in them. I probably wouldn’t be able to work with material that did not arouse my personal interest,  that is, if it did not fulfill the criteria of functionality for both the viewer, and myself. I think that individuality, not conformity, is necessary to my work. If it did not exist, the art would not be authentic. However, no matter how personal, my work is not apolitical. The cusp of my interest remains more abstract with regards to this tendency [towards politics], because this way I am able to confront the individual and his or her motives. I can hardly embrace the concept of a generalization, especially if it is the case of one’s relationship to the past. I think it is that specificity of incident, which lies within the sphere of the unconscious and  remains very personal and unique-this changes every second in both,  my mind and my work. It is this that leads to discourse. The only assurance of the present, even my own, is that it will soon come to an end, and that is what interests me. Yesterday, I caught myself telling my students about what you probably call “the archive fever.” The cause of this fever might have been our apprehension and our inability to evaluate the present, which is not as easily grasped as the present of the older generations.

Daniel Grún. Image courtesy of the author.Daniel Grún (1977) is an art historian, curator, writer and art critic. He studied art history at Trnava University (Slovak Republic). In 2009 he completed his Ph.D. thesis and published a book titled Archeology of Art Criticism. Slovak Art of the 1960s and its Interpretations. Currently he works as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Theory and History of Art, Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava, and as a researcher of the Július Koller Society. In 2010 he won the Igor Zabel Award for Culture and Theory.