Interviev with Nancy

5 2002 Rozhovory English
obálka čísla

    Počátkem devadesátých let přijela do Prahy mladá Kanaďanka, umělecká fotografka, aby v rámci programu "Education for democrasy" vyučovala angličtinu. Oblíbila si Československo tak, že tam zůstala tři roky a pořídila spoustu záběrů lidí ze všech koutů republiky. Snímky má archivované a po celou dobu snila o tom, že se tam vrátí a zachytí život těchže lidí po deseti letech. Řekla mi: " Jsem fascinovaná vývojem a změnami, které jsem tam zažila jako svědek dynamické přeměny společnosti, kterou jsem si zamilovala a o které chci vydat svědectví..."
    Nancy Black , vynikající vancouverská umělkyně, vystavovala své fotogfrafie ve Vancouveru před rokem. V následujícím interview bohužel chybí spontánní smích, jímž Nancy často přerušovala své vyprávění.

    Nancy, what made you go to Czechoslovakia in 1990?
    I was in Vancouver having a conversation with my neighbour, and we were talking about the revolution in Czechoslovakia. He knew more about Czechoslovakia than I did, and he told me they were recruiting English teachers to be in Czechoslovakia for some months. I was immediately interested, went to a meeting where John Hasek had formed this program called Education for Democracy. What was important to me was the idea that this revolution happened, and it happened without bloodshed. I was immediately interested in how a massive change could happen in a non-violent way. I wanted to go to Prague while the change was still fresh. I've been witnessing the Berlin wall ever since I was five years old, and I had a fascination with `What is behind the Wall?' I was already interested in things outside of the mainstream, and I wanted to experience what it was like under communism, to see it before it becomes westernized.
    Now, you were not a teacher. What was your first teaching experience?
    First of all it was much more disorganized than I imagined. I left with $800 in my pocket, I was going for six months, I was told I would have a place to live, and a job. When I arrived, I had no place to live in, no job. But they quickly found me a job for one month at a student camp in Jetrichovice. It was my first experience how different high school students were there than here. And I was amazed at the level of literacy, the talent in sports, music, and literature, it was just incredible, and how people were really warm to each other. This was my first taste of what it was like there. I am not trying to idealize socialism, as much as I am trying to compare the differences between teenagers. Here it is the TV that dominates the life of teenagers.
    So, anyway, I finally got my job in Prague. The first day I arrived in the class in this large building in Dejvice, and all the students were men that were my father's age, and my first impression was that they all stood up to attention toward me. And I am like 21 years old, I just landed this job, and I don't come from a history of English teaching, so to say. I wasn't there to teach grammar, I was to have conversation. So the first thing was the question of authority. I didn't quite know what to do with this situation - `wow - O.K.', I thought` they will do anything I ask them to'. So I thought the first thing we have to do is to move all the desks and everything into a big circle so we can have a better conversation. Well, that in itself was a bit of a revolution. They were looking around, saying `Why not, she is the teacher!' So we got rid of all the rows of desks because I didn't want the hierarchy, and we sat in a circle, because I thought `this is going to be about conversation'. I think everybody was expecting some sort of a formal classroom session but that was not what I was there about. I thought `we have to have conversation, everybody had already reached a good level of English, let's just break into conversation' and the first question I had was "Where were you when you found out about the revolution?" And suddenly there was silence in the room, everybody looking at each other, everybody shuffling in their seats, and I'm thinking `did I say something wrong?' Then someone said "O.K., but for this room only," and the stories poured out, one after the other. Because I first shared my experience what I found out about the revolution and why I came there. And then they felt more comfortable ----- you opened up first ----- that's right, it was through example that they thought `O.K., we can share that, it's a personal story'. I was not asking them anything other than a personal experience. It helps people to feel more comfortable when expressing themselves, it was something that they knew about, rather then a hypothetical scenario.
    But, what I didn't know was that I was speaking to the secret division of the military. I remember coming to the class some three weeks later, and nobody would let me through the door, and I said "Well, I am the teacher, I am just trying to get to work", and they were like "Oh, O.K.", and then I said "What is this place, anyway?" , and they said "...Well, this is the secret division of the military."
    What was really fascinating to me then was hearing these stories and hearing what people were going through, what they were thinking, some of them had children that were in the protests and demonstrations even though they were themselves posted in a military position. One student of mine renounced the revolution, he was the Public Relations man. I thought this too incredible to be kept for myself. I was being exposed to a kind of storytelling that was so historical and meaningful, and I wanted to somehow share it. The way I did that was through photography. That was when I had the idea to begin to photograph people and share the stories that were unfolding and being exposed to me. They wanted to share them because they didn't have the opportunity before to do that.
    You know what I find absolutely fascinating, Nancy, is the way you described the contrast between the world of a 21 year old Canadian artist and the military establishment there, it's almost a clash of two universes.
    Oh, yes, definitely. Particularly the rigidity and the sort of self-policing that was going on. And that's what I was trying to break in a subtle way, even if it was just to physically move the chairs, or when it was to begin with my own story.
    Now I have to ask you - when you say these words now, how you had to break the uniformity and all that, did you think consciously about it or had it -- no, no -- come naturally?
    No, it was just an improvisation. I think at that time I didn't know really what I was getting into when I walked in there. I had alternative methods even here, I mean that would be considered alternative - and I had some of that in me already -- that was my question, it was you -- yeah, yeah. I've already been influenced in a way to get more to the heart of the matter, and I wanted to find ways to do that in which people felt comfortable.
    There was another group I taught, they were air traffic controllers, and this was interesting for me because one of the conversations I was having was about what was happening in the city with regards to advertising in a public space. Here I mean billboards. I remember seeing the very first billboard in Prague which was a Benneton ad, and because I was critical of this kind of thing within my culture, I became very acutely aware of how a new kind of ideology was creeping in. My question at that time, and my reason to wanting to go to Prague in the first place, was to find out what aspects of Westernization and what aspects of the previous system would blend and mesh together. Naively, I wondered how the best of that we had to offer and the best what was already there, could coexist or if it would be the opposite - the `worst and the worst'
    I guess it's a mix..
    Of course, but then you got to know that I was 21 years old, and way more idealistic in my thinking, and I was really hoping that it would be the `best and the best'. I guess my little intervention through the classroom was to bring up this kind of social critique in a conversation. So I would ask the students, air traffic controllers, who were in their forties, how they felt about this advertising and I was amazed by the answers, a lot of people said "it brings much color and life to our gray city". I was just amazed, I was actually shocked! --- Something you despised --- yes, something I despised within my own culture. I brought some Adbusters magazines with me and I told the students that I had been trained in the advertising industry to create billboards. But I walked away from it because I couldn't stomach the ideology behind it. It's a control mechanism to urge people to consume. I made a commitment to myself after college that I would only do that kind of work in which I stood for. After being in the fashion industry I realized how harmful an industry could be because it makes people not appreciate their authentic self. It was more like you have become somebody else and somebody better to be accepted. And particularly I think for women it's very harmful, but also for the entire thing, anything from the car industry to clothes, make up, you name it. It was always something attainable through the purchase of things. I was questioning it, how this was being accepted, and that people liked it or not because I couldn't say anything other than that I was fascinated by what they were thinking themselves. When the first McDonald's went up I had mixed feelings but at the same time I wasn't going to be the one to deny anybody that they couldn't go because if I had not grown up with that, I would be just as curious. It wasn't so much of a judgment call as it was an inquiry into why we are drawn into these sort of things. So in the first teaching experience we discussed a lot about the question of advertising in society.
    On the side. I remember how in 1994 after returning from Prague somebody asked me what my impressions were, and I said "Well, I think Philip Morris seems winning over Marlboro on the billboards.
    Speaking of Philip Morris, when we started photographing a few months later, we were given access to places like Chemopetrol, Semtex, a military tank factory in Slovakia, but we were denied access to the Philip Morris factory. Of all the harmful places we visited. We went down a coal mine, 2 km beneath the ground in Ostrava, and spend a day with coal miners. We had all that access to places that were not environmentally friendly, but still they were not hiding anything except Philip Morris because we could potentially bring about a critical exposure. Instead what we did in Kutna Hora was go to the pub across the street from the factory where all the workers go, and there we found people to interview and photograph.
    Now overall - what was your strongest impression at that time?
    There were a few things there. One of them, and I think that was the main thing that kept me there, was a kind of genuine warmth. I guess that was particular for that time. It was the way the social fabric of people's lives were integrated so much with art or culture or music or politics or things that were happening, and it was a kind of --- You mean more participation?--- Yeah, there was much of that ---- I didn't have a telephone for a few years there but I didn't need one. There was so much social activity going on, meeting people, going out, there was so much opportunity to meet people, and people were wide open. They were almost expecting a kind of impossible possibility to unfold. That alerted me to an openness that was happening within society, and especially with young people.
    You know, Nancy, it may have been that people were still so close shortly after the revolution -- I am sure of it ---that they felt the togetherness. --Absolutely. -- When there is a bunch of people in danger or in something really big, they tend to stick together. And that feeling and that bond slowly disappears.
    I agree with that but because at 21 years old I felt it in my whole being that this was a state of being, and that is interesting because later when I left I tried to re-create that in my own community wherever I would go. There have been certain incidents like within Witness or elsewhere, that feeling of, of -- belonging -- a belonging but also of contribution that one could make within [an environment of] diverse thinking. That was so interesting to me then because there were so many different people that I was coming into contact with, people from completely separate walks of life that normally I wouldn't have that opportunity to encounter.
    Do you think that it may be your personality also, pulling people together? --- I don't know. Maybe. But I can't ...- I think it is a strong factor.-- It could be, I .. I don't know if I am objective to that or not.... - - You can not be but I think there is a lot to that. -- It could be. - Because you are always very much yourself. And people subconsciously know that.
    What I learned there was that things were able to change because of a lot of different and diverse people that came together quickly and at the right time - students, artists, politicians, intellectuals and workers, and you name it. When I got back home and looked at the environmental movement here I was wondering "where is everybody"? When I thought about the community of environmentalists that I was involved with, I suddenly wanted to know where were the artists, the intellectuals, the scientists, the politicians, the workers, the moms and dads. Why was the question of ownership of the land dominated by a label known as "environmentalists"? Where were the First nations people and where were the artists and the scientists and the teenagers and the rest of society? That's what I learned from the post-revolution in Prague.
    You know what? After we return from Prague, we will listen to this tape, and we will make comments because that would be the ten year difference, and your impressions will be markedly different, I think.
    Oh, absolutely. I went back and forth a few times already, and I've noticed a kind of urgency in peoples lives for working hard now, being innovative, being creative, and wanting to "get ahead", because now there is the opportunity to do so. I recognize that it's been always present here, that drive for the economy, for keeping on top of it, there is an competitive edge. Being back there a few times I've seen how people have flourished, they wouldn't have had the opportunity before. But that comes with a price: less time with the family, less time for cultural things that I was talking about previously. People now need to be smart in how they spend their time because it means the very well being and livelihood of their families. I don't know how it changed the essence but I know that people's time is very much consumed now by making money. Not to condemn or judge, but I am taking note that the quality of life -- I'm not going to say that it's "better" or "worse" because there is always something that one has to sacrifice to obtain something else, yes, people are dressing differently, more high fashion, the food is healthier, there is more variety, people have more ----but I am not sure that the actual quality of life is any "better".
    Yes. But if you take the word progress, and you look back, and you ask yourself a question: Has this or that "progress" made people happier? Or are they less happy, or nothing has changed? And I think this is true everywhere and at all times. ---Oh, yeah, absolutely, it's choices that people make. There are more choices to make now. ---Yes, there are but also there are choices that are almost unavoidable to not pursue, because of societal pressure. You don't want billboards but they are there.
    Well, I'm not saying that I don't want them. What I was getting at then, was that even though there was one form of ideology that had crumbled, a new form of ideology was creeping in. And what I wanted to make the students aware of was not to deny the fact that this too is a form of ideology, and one needs to recognize it as such.
    Yes .It is difficult though for someone who is in the middle of the stream to think about it like as an observer which you could afford to do. -- Oh yes, of course. -- Now, tell me about your travels and collection of portraits and stories.
    We didn't necessarily have a preconceived idea where we were going, we would just know that here we're going to look for, say, butchers, we will do a "zabijacka", photograph some butchers, or we were going to photograph Gypsies as a part of a story but I do recall one time we were traveling somewhere in Slovakia. We had a tent, and I remember being up and interviewing people really late and afterwards it was dark, and we were driving around trying to find a place to pitch the tent. And it was Ross's thirtieth birthday the next day. So here we are, we pitched the tent, we got a bunch of snacks and breakfast and things to lay out a picnic for him in the morning. I get up in the morning, and would try to find a nice area to put a picnic, and I realized we were not just in some field but we were actually in some sort of a military base because all around us there were tracks of tanks. Tanks! They must have been practicing there or something, and I sayd "Guys, there is time to wake up!"
    At one time we were photographing "pomlazka", and we met with these young soldiers in the pub. It was their last week as solders, and they said "You know, what we want to do - we want to sneak you into the barracks" --- like, all of you? --- Yeah, -- "because you don't have a place to stay so you can stay with us in the barracks", and we thought "why not? - but I'm the only girl" -- so at night after a few beer we got past the guards to the rooms where these young soldiers were staying, and all of us stayed up to party all night, they had some wine, and at 4:30 in the morning we had to get out, and there were lights going off, and we had to sneak out of that place. So that was one of our adventures. ---And there were no girls in the military then? --- Not that I saw. But of course I was with my whole team of four. --
    What else? - I must think now. Oh, yes, it was the same weekend I was photographing people with "pomlazka", and I was following the boys that were walking around the streets with their whips. I was entering in the houses where they would get their "chlebicky", and a little alcohol, and we get to this one door, and because I was a women, they were like "Hmm, she needs to be whipped", and I got whipped pretty hard, it was not just a tickle.
    O.K., and now we need a commercial ......
    Yes, this is just a prelude leading up to the next visit which will take place this spring, to re-locate 30 people of those original 67 that we photographed and interviewed. We want to re-locate a few of those people and see what they are doing now, and to see how things have changed for them. And the country as well. Do a follow-up that way. That is going to take place this spring, the people will be photographed and interviewed again, and that will be made into a book.
    Published where?
    Published hopefully in Prague, we don't have a publisher yet but we are seeking one out. We've had about five exhibitions so far of the work which took place actually at FAMU, Exposure Gallery in Vancouver, at Xchanges Gallery in Victoria, at the Benham Gallery in Seattle, and the Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver. So the first series was exhibited quite a bit. The next series will be more of an artistic inquiry as well as a social and political inquiry. What I'd like to do is to challenge the notion of cultural representation, to experiment with it a little bit in terms of portrait photography. The portraits themselves are going to be constructed in a very different way as they were first done. The original ones were black and white, square, and environmental. In the next series I'd like to explore a little bit more in terms of opening up the imagination, moving into surrealism.

Vyprávění zaznamenal Miloš Zach

Vydavatelem Českého dialogu je Mezinárodní český klub

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