GSG magazine, Interview with Iva Kovač
Iva Kovač: In your recent work, you have dealt with the atrocities in the Balkan wars of the 1990s. As a migrant from ex-Yugoslavia living in Austria, the war inevitably affected you, but your experience of the war came primarily through media representations. By dealing with the memory of how the war was represented and not with the event itself, you refer to your connection to this history as queer. How was the Bosnian war represented?
Ana Hoffner: I was particularly interested in the video footage made in camp Omarska in 1992 by British reporters Marshall and Williams. It became well known because of its global distribution and especially because it was juxtaposed with images of Nazi concentration camps after the liberation in 1945. The images made in Omarska showed emaciated men behind barbed wire, so it was easy to draw this parallel. Austrian TV was showing archival footage made in 1945 alongside the video made in Omarska on a daily basis.
When I said that my connection to the history of the Bosnian War was queer, what I had in mind was this blurriness of images and historical events that I grew up with. The lack of clear identification of prisoners, locations, etc., constitutes a crucial childhood memory for me, but I would say also for a whole generation of migrants. How to work actively with this blurriness without putting everything (time, history, and especially the events of war) back in chronological order was a task that made me turn to queerness. If queer politics have served as a fruitful strategy of reevaluation of various social stigma, why would they not be an instrument for the rearticulation of time and history?
IK: Can you elaborate on how the photo series The Queer Family Album – Me and My Three Daddies relates the Bosnian war to the visual cannon of World War Two and the Holocaust?
AH: I decided to work artistically, but also discursively, with the childhood memory I just described, and soon came across Marianne Hirsch's concept of postmemory, which describes ways of remembering the past indirectly. Hirsch is referring to those memories that were transferred from one generation to the next, through stories of family members, pictures, or objects. In The Queer Family Album I was trying to put together a set of familial relations, a group of people who have transferred their memories of anti-war activism to me through their work. All the protagonists of my personal family album tell different stories of queer strategies of how to deal with fascism, but what is important is that they are not bound by biological, essentialist relations—they are my queer daddies across time and space.
The most interesting story of war and queerness is maybe that of Fikret Alić, one of the prisoners of the Omarska camp. When I started to work on the images made in Omarska, I found an interview with Fikret Alić in which he told a journalist how he escaped. He said that he was so skinny that he could pass a as woman, so he put on a dress and a headscarf and was taken away from Omarska with a group of women. They were supposed to be taken to another camp. During the journey, he escaped and survived. Since this story is usually overlooked, I decided to make it central to The Queer Family Album. Alić was the starting point for the whole assemblage.
IK: Many nation-building projects take up founding myths based on traumatic events from the distant past. Through many iterations, this narrative both produces and reproduces the dominant social order. The testimonies of the victims whose stories can be heard in your video Transferred Memories—Embodied Documents are far from portraying the canonical victims of war, those whose testimonies are employed in the nation-building project. How do you believe these “nontypical” queer experiences contribute to the narrative of war and/or nation?
AH: In the case of Fikret Alić I would say that the contribution is immense. His strategy of what I named "survival drag" shifts the whole sphere of gender and sexuality in times of war. His interruption of heteronormative divisions, which are at the centre of the destructiveness of war (just think of the rise of masculinity in Serbia and the creation of femininity as exclusively serving this male role model in the 1990s), is striking because it allows us to think about drag as a strategy to survive the most horrible circumstances of human destruction. In queer activism we are confronted with drag as something that puts people in danger, because they become the target of homophobic violence. Here, drag is something that saves life. This is a completely different set of values. If we understand queerness as a historical place of impossibility, even ontological negation, then survival drag turns this history upside down: queerness suddenly becomes something that enables life.
In the case of Nusreta Sivac, a judge and activist who was also in Omarska, the contribution is also immense. Sivac's account brings awareness to the female side of the history of war, which was structurally completely erased from visual representation. The images of Omarska showed only men! But of course, there were women inside the camp, doing the tasks that were assigned to them: invisibilized and gendered work of care and forced sexual labor. Sivac's account is important because it rejects the assigned place of silenced femininity—she and others found a language to represent what was going on in the camp and asked to be heard.
IK: Images of war permeate today’s visual culture; from information industry to creative industry. With both Transferred Memories—Embodied Documents and the The Queer Family Album—Me and my Three Daddies you are focusing on the representations of (a) specific war(s). In Future Anterior you look at a “non-specific war” staged in Steven Meisel’s fashion photography. Do you believe there is potential in this type of imagery to open up the heteronormative, patriarchal, able-bodied and able-minded conception of the subject?
AH: I think they need to be reworked. Fashion photography per se does not offer any potential for intervention, but it is a fruitful site of investigation regarding the actual "unconscious" productions of the mainstream. And obviously, the introduction of violence, especially staged sexualized violence, into the fashion world is a phenomenon of the present. Why is this happening? I found Meisel’s images amazing because they show the blurring of boundaries between war documents and the highly aestheticized glossy imagery of contemporary looks. But I also found it striking to see the elements of "science-fiction" in the photographs. The question for me was how to make the viewer see this double layer of fashion and war photography which is not obvious at first sight.
IK: On the methodological level, Future Anterior refers to the possibilities opened up by Sanja Iveković’s Gene XX project, created in the late 1990s. Unlike Iveković’s juxtaposition of images of fashion models and the text that introduced partisan heroines, your text is as elusive as the images. Could you elaborate on the differences in the approach? Where—and more importantly, when—is the Future Anterior aiming to take the viewer?
AH: The first thing I did was to cut the images in half (they were magazine spreads in Vogue’s 2013 anniversary issue) and make some space for the "unconscious" images underneath. I wanted the viewer to feel this emptiness of the missing second part, rather than being able to say, "Something is missing in this image". These blank pages became spaces for the short texts that I inserted. What makes the text elusive, as you say, is this visual void, but also the absence of a human protagonist—the main subject is an unidentified web journal. Some unknown publication is claiming that these images show "how it will have been." As unexpected as it might seem, this is a claim for truth. By saying that these images were inevitably connected to war, I wanted to take them out of their context in which they were supposedly innocent (since fashion is mostly deprived of any serious connection to politics). But I also wanted the event of war to appear as something that cannot be belittled. It was my intention to lead the viewer to the very question of existence by means of the philosophical concept "future anterior," which is central to Lacan’s as well as to Derrida’s thinking in the process of becoming a subject.
IK: In parallel to obtaining your PhD, you also underwent psychoanalysis. How did this process influence your practice?
AH: I finished it last year, after six years and seven months! It was indeed very important to me to have a psychoanalytical practice on my own and not to deal with psychoanalytical concepts on a theoretical level without having any experience "on the couch." I never wanted to declare this practice an art practice—on the contrary, I liked having something that differed from art. But psychoanalysis made me more aware of my own desires and hidden wishes, as well as of unwelcome feelings, which definitely facilitated producing art.
IK: In Queerness of Memory you refer to the time of post-socialism as a non-original time, which has to rely for its origin(ality) on the time that is no longer there. How do you relate “the transition” to the “transformation” which occurs in a non-male body after ingesting testosterone in After the Transformation?
AH: A lot has been said about the end of history after 1989, or about post-history. I didn't use these concepts on purpose; I was interested in the gesture of declaring a period of time as over. So I started with the analysis of this "non-time" of the 1990s, a time that is unimaginable without its immediate negative connotation, partly because of the dissolution of socialism and partly because of the wars in ex-Yugoslavia. This is, of course, an embodied question, since the existence of many was eradicated. Questions of negativity and existence made me think about this time in relation to gender, sexuality, desire, and drive. But crucially, in both (the voice training and the video), I was not operating with a desire for a normative gender, but with the desire to stop the process of performing gender itself. Would this refusal become a refusal to perform the so-called transition from socialism to capitalism and thereby the acceptance of the rules that constitute those divisions?—this was my question throughout the whole experiement.
IK: The identity of the post-Yugoslav nation states was built on the consolidation of the national body which had to be heteronormative, patriarchal, able-bodied, able-minded. Which policies did the EU use in order to discipline these new identities?
AH: Right after 2000, my impression was that the body of war from the 1990s had been replaced by the queer body. The pictures of emaciated men behind the barbed wire and stories of raped women were replaced by the images of beaten up queer people—disturbingly, both came from the same region, that of ex-Yugoslavia. Homophobia became a topic not only on a national level because of several attacks on queer events after 2000 in Beograd, Split, Sarajevo, etc., but also (and especially) as part of the European integration process, since the protection of minority rights was and still is a requirement for EU membership. But homophobia was also connected to migrant communities in Austria and Germany: on one hand, this is where the homophobic perpetrator from the East appeared, and on the other, there was the potentially violated victim of homophobic violence. Both had to be saved, cured, or transformed, and both became the target of intervention.
In the present, it is possible to see how the same racist policy is shifting towards stricter border protection. Security and border control form part of the the main agenda for a potential EU enlargement in 2025. The Western Balkans are needed in order to support a closed anti-migration system, which is sadly defining the present-day idea of European unity.