Thursday, 7 February 2013

Struggling with and against

Piotr Krzymowski talks to Julia Parks about her participation in last year’s Lecture from behind the screen and her recent studies at Kyoto Seika University in Japan.

Piotr Krzymowski: Welcome back to London Julia. I know you spent last few months doing the student exchange programme at Kyoto Seika University in Japan and I am sure you have many stories to share, but before that I would like to hold our reader's curiosity and ask you about your experience with last summer. You were at your first year of BA Fine Art at Central Saint Martins back then and you joined's Lecture from behind the screen. How did you learn about and what motivated you to participate in the programme?

Julia Parks: I saw an advert in the CSM building and I thought it looked interesting. In fact I was quite disappointed with my first year and I felt that I didn’t get enough out of it and I wanted to find something more challenging that would bring up debates and seminars in larger group situations…

PK: Do you think there was a lack of those learning opportunities at CSM?

JP: Oh, totally! I felt that my first year was quite casual and sporadic. We didn’t really meet that often and one could end up feeling quite lost.

PK: I just remembered that at my last year at CSM in 2012 we formed a student-led seminars, where we would meet on a weekly-basis and invite guests and speakers of our choice. Believe me or not, it took us few months to go through a painful administrative process and to secure some budget for hiring films and inviting guests. Once we set it up though, group’s commitment started gradually disappearing. There was still the enthusiasm, but not so much of a commitment…

JP: I think that’s exactly the problem of collectiveness in big institutions. And’s Summer School proved to be the opposite – it had a strong structure and they knew exactly what they wanted to do with their participants. It was definitely a right decision for me to go on the course.

PK: Did you know Maxa Zoller, Karen Mirza, Brad Butler, James Holcombe and their practice before?

JP: You know what? I actually had not heard of before. I spoke to few people who knew about it and they were all very positive about and they were all recommending it to me. So I rang up and spoke with James about the details of the course…

PK: He is the one who always picks up the phone. (laughs)

JP: Right! And he always has the answers to all the questions too. 

PK: Did you know any of the artists that were included in the programme?

JP: Not at all. Another reason why I joined the Summer School was that I wanted to move from photography into area that is more focused on moving-image practices and actually start thinking about the wider discourse and politics surrounding it.

PK: Do you remember the first day? Entering into the room full of strangers…

JP: I was quite shy. But Maxa came up to me, started chatting and it felt very welcoming. I was very excited in fact…

PK: We both noticed and in fact experienced a lack of the feeling of community at CSM. Community is in fact very central to the ideology and formula of I think that during the Summer School  there was a lot that we received, but there was also a lot that we gave in exchange in terms of collective learning. Did you feel that too?

JP: Totally. On that first day we started with going out to a park, where Brad introduced us to the practise of Brazilian theatre director Augusto Boal and his Theatre of the oppressed. We then practised some of the exercises and moved our bodies around the park and eventually started conversations. There was a lot of solidarity, not only manifested as a concept but in fact in our bodily presence…

PK: You’ve just touched on my second question actually. Theatre of the oppressed is quite central to the practise of Karen and Brad as well as the ideology of Those games and exercises were  a part of every-day programme as you have just described. They were not only a brilliant tool to get to know each other on the first day, but also hold a great critical and conceptual potential. We would always feedback on the experience and always get into great discussions. Do you remember any particular workshop?

JP: I particularly remember the workshop run by Brad in which we were watching Robert Gardner’s Forest of Bliss (1986). The film portrays the every-day life of the city of Benares (Veranasi) in India. There is no oral narrative and the viewer is simply left with what s/he sees and senses. After watching the film we got into groups and considered the ways in which the film was oppressive or unoppresive in relation to a series of anthropological categories. And of course it very much brought the idea of the image as a document of truth. We were then exchanging the thoughts and were allowed to leave our initial group and position our bodies in relation to those drastically changing thoughts. Nothing was fixed.

PK: In particular the bodies… (both laughing)

JP: Those kind of workshops were particularly useful. They just made everything very clear. One learns so much and so quickly within a group in a collaborative process.

PK: On one hand side seminars that, as Maxa once put it, were “touching on the very fresh surface of contemporary theory”, but on the other hand 16mm film workshops and getting to know the structure and process of filmmaking. How can one marry those two? For me it resulted in a beautiful and extremely challenging task. It just made me think of filmmaking not so much in terms of its physicality, but very much in relation to its place in current moving-image practices and politics. I had a feeling that I can’t simply pour sodium carbonate on celluloid without having a reason. That was a good feeling though. 

JP: I saw them as two separate things. We were learning so much theory and were exposed to so many different ideas and approaches to moving-image practices. At times it did become quite daunting to even think about making work. Each week we would have a three hour workshop with James in the film lab. This was a great opportunity to experiment with the physicality of film and remove ourselves from extremely theoretical ideas… I remember that at the beginning of the Summer School I wanted to create something absolutely fantastic! And by week four I had only been thinking and had no strong ideas of what I wanted to make.

PK: It was challenging, but it was completely up to us what we would make out of it. The final presentations included 16mm films, but also proposals for larger scale projects, performances and videos. You managed to shoot a film. I will never forget your passion fruit… no, it was a Jack fruit!  Did you do something with the film after the Summer School?

JP: No, but it’s still at the back of my mind. After the Summer School I went straight to Japan, didn’t really have time…

PK: Speaking about Japan… Why Japan? How did it happen?

JP: I was very much interested in the exchange programme from the start. I was interested in Japan, because I wanted to be in a situation where I would be in a totally alien place for me. I have never been to Kyoto and never learned Japanese… Quite a lot of my work in fact is navigating my identity with identity of others. It was a really amazing experience.

PK: I imagine Kyoto Seika University to be a big institution. Was it at all similar to CSM?

JP: In terms of the number of students – yes. But, it’s set in the mountains, surround by lakes, nature so to speak. Very much different to London.

PK: And the experience of institution? Teaching?

JP: It’s more strict. People would be going to every single lesson. Starting at 9am every day having lessons right till the evening. All sorts of lessons – English, History of Art, printmaking, lectures, etc. At the same time you have your own studio and carry on with your own practice.

PK: Are there any examinations?

JP: Yes, but not for me. 

PK: On your Facebook profile I saw a picture of you standing on a crowded street holding some sort of banner in your hand. Is that one of your works you made in Japan?

JP: Yes. I went to Tokyo on my own for two weeks. I decided that my whole day would be spent taking a tripod, a camera and a shutter release cord. And I just photographed myself everywhere holding a sign that said nothing. It was a white board. I was meant to write something on it, but then in the end it was left blank as I had nothing in particular to say. I just wanted to be in a situation in which I am photographing myself in a completely unknown place. And then I went back to Kyoto, distributed the photographs and asked people to write what they thought the people looking at me in the images saw. I ended up with a really interesting text (translated from Japanese into English) referring to how people saw me, what people were thinking (i.e. narrative construct of characters) and a lot of very interesting lists of words around the idea of being watched from a distance.

PK: Did you have a chance to visit any artists run spaces in Japan similar to

JP: There was this small café in Kyoto ( Very expensive – I spent 18 pounds for buying a ticket for a performance event. It’s run by artists though. (laughs)

PK: Right. I wanted to ask you about something else in relation to the experience of the Summer School at Such initiatives as well as such artists-run and not-for-profit spaces have been very common particularly in the last decade, pretty much worldwide, but with a focus on Western Europe and United States. They are often set up as alternatives to commodified, restricted and industrialized academies. The word “alternative” comes up very often in discussions and debates around them. Do you think it’s a good term? What are these spaces turning away from and what are they turning towards? Wow, this sounds like a one million dollar question. 

JP: I see those spaces as being a part of a larger network. They are not total alternatives, really. is still doing workshops at Tate Modern and Maxa, who used to work as a curator for, taught at the same time at Goldsmiths and Sotheby's Institute of Art. As a student you can’t get away from an education provided by an institution. Then there are those extra kind of spaces, which are run on a non-profit basis. It’s smaller, much more focused on a collaborative learning process… I see them as some kind of alternatives, but I don’t see them as something you could only go to… Learning is a pretty individualized process too, one has to find her own best way for doing that. One finds information and knowledge from so many different places…

PK: And of course now comes the issue of qualifications, which leads us to jobs…

JP: Let’s better not talk about that. (laughs)

PK: I recently listened to the audio recording of the symposium “Alternative to what?" organized in Tate Modern. The symposium gathered people who run spaces similar to and focused partly on challenges that they meet in running those spaces. At some point someone in the audience raised the issue of participants who struggle with finding jobs after they leave such schools. I think it’s not fair to look at those modes of knowledge production like that. What I got from those six weeks at is rather incalculable.

JP: I agree, but I also feel that education is strongly related to society and its established hierarchies and processes. How can you be sustainable otherwise?

PK: Even though I hold a degree I still struggle to find a job you know. Shall we perhaps sum up with saying that those alternatives or however we call them seem to struggle not so much against institutions but together with institutions?

JP: Perhaps. (laughs)

PK: You laugh a lot. I like that.

Image captions:
1. Tokyo Portraits: What is she doing?, courtesy of the artist
2.Tokyo Portraits: What is she doing?, 'Pixel Power' group exhibition at Gallery Parc, courtesy of the artist
3. still from Jack Fruit, 16mm film, courtesy of the artist

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