I will buy my freedom when
Trieste (I), Studio Tommaseo
June ― July 2018
Notes on the performances of Selma(n)
Selma Selman’s work raises more questions than the answers it appears to offer, both because of the scope of issues it tackles and for its multifaceted and open style. Central to her artistic research are the issues that arise from her geographical and ethnic origins (she was born in Bosnia, from a Roma family), from her being a woman in a field still prevalently controlled by males, as well as, more generally, from the problems arising from prejudice towards people who come from economically and culturally disadvantaged backgrounds. Hers, however, is not simply theoretical analysis, based on a previous awareness of an issue, but an all-too-real situation she passionately fights with in the first person, experiencing it and being subjected to it on a daily basis, like wounds that constantly sting because they cannot heal.
Although Selman’s artistic production is quite varied, ranging from painting to video, from drawing to more conceptual work, it could be argued that performance is the medium that can best analyse the form in which cultural differences influence individual and social behaviour, highlighting the intrinsic contradictions and the most hidden fears. You have no idea is a good example of this: the artist, dressed in an evening gown repeats “you have no idea” in a different tone each time, until she loses her voice, in a sort of dialogue with the viewer that cannot even begin. It represents an intimate act of rebellion against the reading that a stranger, the generic viewer, can make of her, or of any other person, be it sociological, anthropological, economic, ethnic or emotional. Selman wants to escape prejudice, the pre-formed ideas one can have before actually meeting and having direct interaction with a person, sharing time and words with them. The artist is not the only one in this predicament: this performance highlights how people and their actions are always given an a-priori interpretation that reinforces preconceptions and stereotypes, reassuring the person that has such preconceived notions and allowing them to avoid the responsibility of making a judgement.
The work Superposition explores the need to protect others and the will not to conform to the expectations of social and economic (super)structures that are built to keep individuals in check, such as community, capitalism, religion, male dominance, or traditional thought. The title of the work refers to the physical principle of Superposition, that states that for all linear systems, the net response caused by two or more stimuli is the sum of the responses that would have been caused by each stimulus individually. Wearing boxing gloves, the artist fights an imaginary enemy, which is at once the other and herself. This enemy never materializes, a ghost in the head or conscience of the artist and the viewers. Breaking up into rounds, like in boxing, Selman dances and punches, shouting “defend your body” like coaches normally would. It’s a very powerful performance, in which the kinetic energy of the movement, the sound of the gloves, the sweat of the dancing and punching body emotionally stir the viewers too. They are spectators, but they are also unconsciously the opponents that throw the punches she had to defend herself from.
In the performance Self Portrait, the artist explores the issues of finding one’s identity in the meanderings of one’s individual story. The artist destroys domestic appliances (mainly vacuum cleaners, washing machines, etc.) shattering them with an axe. If on the one hand this appears to be a luddite and feminist protest against what were considered traditionally feminine tools for housework, on the other hand it also refers with no shame to the fact that the livelihood of her family depends on the recycling of the metal parts of electrical appliances, the use and destruction of the goods that are also the means of control and dominion by the patriarchy and capitalist consumerism. This is almost saying that reality is so complex that human actions are interdependent, even unconsciously and at a distance of thousands of miles, and are beyond any individual’s control. The artist shows us that in our world the opportunist Latin expression mors tua vita mea (your death (is) my life) has a geographical and anthropological relevance perhaps at an unconscious level, and over great distance.
Given your Bosnian Roma origins, I imagine that nearly all the conversations you had in your career have started with the question of your identity. Let’s ignore that for the moment and focus our attention on the very start of your career as an artist. You began working as a figurative painter and later you switched to performance. Why? How does this medium meet your needs?
Art serves me as a form of escapism, but not as an escape from the concrete realities of my identity. I am a painter, but I am also a performer as well as a technologist. However, I started firmly as a painter. As a young artist, I painted everything – it was a beautiful but very difficult period of my life. I was suffering because I could not take pleasure in painting – there would always be something missing. I remember that in 2014, when I graduated from the Academy of Painting in Banja Luka, Professor Veso Sovlj came to me while I was painting a self-portrait called Gypsy Olimpija and said: “Selma, start to paint!”.
He realised you were keeping your distance from painting – that is a practice based on a strong bond built up day after by day…
My professor was a man who would never say a lot, but with his silence and few words, he would dispense advice in a direct but diplomatic manner. I did not shift my focus from painting arbitrarily – I never wanted to be confined to a single medium for the entire duration of my life. I wanted to be able to freely use different media in different ideas. For me, performance art was a personal space in which I could satisfactorily explore the extreme depths of pain, fear, and love.
I’m quite surprised by that. I saw all the video documentation of your performances on the internet and I was personally able to see you perform Superposition at Trieste Contemporanea, and I think the focus of your performance is both a physical and visual rebellion against stereotypes and the expectations of the audience through a quick action, instead of through painting which is much slower. Do you think your performance is based mainly on your own emotions and personal experiences, rather than the language of the body or an attempt to create a relationship with the audience? Don’t you think that performance is a medium based on what happens outside the performer, or at least in the space between her/him and the audience?
I see the relationship between the concept, myself and the audience happening in four stages. The first one is that the concept is a logic that anyone can execute. The second aspect is about when I am performing: I’m not thinking about the audience at all, I’m absolutely focused on the concept or that particular action in general, and how that concept is making my body change or react. The third element is being in my own body, focusing on and executing the concept: it is a public intimacy shared with the audience, and my body is affected by the audience’s reactions. The last factor is the audience, which, after a period of time, can perceive the logic of the concept through my performance: they then individually interpret the concept in terms of emotions. The audience participating is not necessarily just the audience attending. I am constructing work with the idea of a possible audience. An audience may be able to use the logics I am transferring in the performance to affect a future situation.
Don’t you think that your process is too heavily focused on the audience side?
Over years of experimentation, I have realized that performance is not simply an individual approach to art – what I do as an individual is one half of the mechanism. The complex interactions between myself and the audience, the audience and themselves, and the ineffable and intense energies that we share during a particular performance are all crucial for constructing an effective piece of performance art. This is why the audience’s understanding of the logic is important to me – because they may be able to affect a possible future situation. I don’t enjoy every one of my performances during the performance, because sometimes they are very hard or emotional. Sometimes the logics I’m channelling force me to see myself from a new or painful points of view. This is where my personal emotions arise – from enacting logics that force me to change. I feel relief and after the performance every time, and I am sure that my audience feels the same – at least those who are letting themselves be a part of it completely.
What are the concepts and topics you want to deal with in your artistic practice?
I’m challenged every day by the society in which I live and exist. I have no specific topic to deal with. As such, my topic exists everywhere and anywhere. To be precise, I use art to shape and transfer logics that can potentially change an audience that is possible but also actually exists. Art as a tool has many possibilities to serve humanity, to craft and transfer possibilities for personal growth, happiness, spreading information or simply speaking the truth. This is also why I am interested in how wishes and dreams become a reality or a virtual reality. With this in mind, I’m currently working on a project to recreate my mother’s lost childhood using virtual reality technology in order for her to experience her own childhood which she never experienced.
Do you really believe that art is so powerful that it can affect and change the lives of people or make them aware of some previously unknown elements? I’m not referring to the viewers interested in art or culture in general, who are willing to be engaged, but to casual bystanders who are not involved in the languages of contemporary art…
Yes, I believe that art is powerful enough to affect and change the lives of people. In many societies – past, present and future – humans depend upon and exist because of the collective cognitive tools and behaviours that are circulated through culture. Art is like a blacksmith’s forge – it’s a place where one can shape more experimental cognitive tools to be circulated in culture for people to use at their discretion.
Now let’s focus on your origins. I think essentially that an artist is an artist in every part of her/his life, and that their origins can be considered as just a kind of raw material which can be employed or forgotten entirely. Do you think your origins affected the core of your artistic research, such as your attitude, your language or the topics you chose?
I think of myself in layers. My core is an artist, I am a human second, Selma Selman third, Roma fourth, Bosnian fifth, and then finally a part of the wider reality. In that regard, as an artist, I consider the other layers simply as material or tools, or sometimes both simultaneously. Sometimes my identity as Roma is the subject I am working on, and sometimes it is a tool with which I work on larger social issues. Regardless, I am always an artist. The raw material and the tools change and develop, which may include more external layers of identity or sociality – but I am always simply an artist forging tools and materials.
Ethnic identity is a given, derived from family. While you’re proud of being Roma, do you think you’re expected to oppose it as an artist? I’m referring to the traditions, the role of men and women…
Well, I do not think that ethnicity is a given by family conditions, I think it is just geographical fortune. I do not think that it is necessary for people to stake all of their pride on their ethnicity, nationality and country alone. This type of identity-based pride creates nationalism, and nationalism creates hate, and hate creates war. I do believe that people should take the utmost pride in what they accomplish individually, socially, and for the world. My role as an artist is to use art as a tool and to create art and changes from necessity.
A few days ago we discussed the problem of being a woman in our post-industrial capitalist society. We agreed that the body of women is controlled by a soft male power, even through the use of technologies. As a woman and as an artist do you feel engaged with the subjects related to feminism?
First of all, men are the ones who are projecting their assumptions on to women because they don’t know how to control their dicks. I’m a feminist and I’m not only interested in feminism as a discourse. I am more focused on changing the ridiculous assumptions that are imposed upon women, and also providing the tools to help women destroy the false assumptions they impose upon themselves. Regarding the feminist movement over the years, it has changed and it is changing, especially today when the topic of gender is focusing more on functional mechanics. Thus, Donna Harraway’s concept that there is nothing about being a “woman” that defines women as a specific set of fixed qualities or meanings. These idiotic assumptions are imposed and enforced upon women through external systems. These external systems perpetuate situations of absurdity today. In the era of globalization, industrialization and technology, we women still have to fight for the right to wear a skirt above the knee…
Do you have a utopia to share with people?
Yes, of course! Utopia is an important ideal and source of hope to keep us alive through the day-to-day reality. The rich people are actually poor because their hunger is greater than the poor. I am more interested in utopia as a chance within reality, and I am making art from the reality of necessities. My utopian spirit is to never give up, and play the game of art with maximum energy in order to demonstrate that anything is always already possible.