Interview / Milota Havránková and Igor Marko: HOW TO MOVE THINGS FORWARD IN SUBTLETIES
From a curb to memory, from the communication breakdown to the role of empathy. we were jointly hopping from one issue to another in the interview with Milota Havránková and Igor Marko.
Fedor Blaščák and Ľubica Hustá
We met on Štúrova street, which is around half a kilometre long, but it had been left ripped up for three years until it finally got finished. The result is about six kinds of pavement and yet another urbanist naught. During these three years, Bratislava hosted many different conferences where architects were showing different best practices. Igor, you too gave a speech at such a conference (WhatCity – it took place at the end of January 2016 in the Old Market Hall). What crosses your mind when you come here from London, listen to all these talks about the best practices and then when you come out to the street, you see this?
Igor Marko: Well, I sense the absurdity of it all. When I hear about all the models from different countries and I see people talk about successful projects that should supposedly help us or what, I feel powerless, as I realise their uselessness. There is a huge disproportion between what we listen to or want to listen to and the way how we can put it into practice. The reality is, as you’ve said, destructive. We lack continuity. We patched a piece of the street with something we already know won’t work. But not everybody knows it.
You have your own experience with the Old Bridge when you were a part of the team working on it. It looked very hopeful for a moment, but it turned out like always. What happened?
I.M.: A communication breakdown. Communication doesn’t work here. We couldn’t find a common language on the elementary professional level. It seemed like we were all using completely different languages. Often, when I talk very openly and enthusiastically about the things I find standard and normal when it comes to values, I have a feeling that it’s perceived with zero understanding: “We don’t want this, this is impossible…”
What is it all about?
I.M.: It’s not that I am the good one and they are the evil ones. Look, there are standard procedures we can normally evaluate based on rating, based on technocratic norms, or qualitative tables. For example: you walk on the street and you hardly see a curb that would be longer than five metres. Somebody could even film this never-ending diversity. It’s also the example of this banal curb that makes one realise there is no continuity. There is a curb, then something else and then something completely different stuck to it, or broken, or even damaged. You can extrapolate the cause of this curb and realise that we perpetually experience the trauma of discontinuity.
Either there is continuity, or not. You can’t start building continuity, you can only take it up again.
I.M.: Exactly. To start always anew is part of our historical development, our evolution. We understand why it is so, but at the same time we can‘t put these things together and do something which would be continual and logical. It’s a classic chicken-egg situation: a Pandora‘s box of huge problems is opened and we are sitting at a conference saying to ourselves: right, we know about it… But what to begin with? With this square, or this curb? Or with participation? Should we start tackling the planning or politics? What is the first thing to do? People are thus in the situation where they bicker, because there is no system, no rules. It usually results in individuals creating their own rules based on their subjective observation, their own value system, which is naturally different for everybody.
Right, let‘s take the discontinuity as a mechanism and move elsewhere: so, the question is what to begin with. Milota, in your opinion, wasn’t this a crucial factor which affected the birth of the Slovak conceptual art in the 1960s or the emergence of the Slovak new wave in photography in the 1980s? That is, wasn‘t it precisely the absence of tradition that was behind the great art manifestos we refer to even today?
Milota Havránková: Naturally, forty years behind the bars had to lead to some disruption. The people who were smart with something in their heads couldn‘t do anything else but think freely and create different illusions and ideas. When there is no physical or social continuity, one creates an illusory one made up from ideals. And the scope of ideals is such that it gives courage to people and enables to do great things. A human is not bound by anything and this is where solitary things may arise, even though they can be contradictory. At the same time, I guess, it’s true that having a common enemy makes us more free.
Who was you common enemy when you were studying in Prague in the sixties?
M.H.: I’d say it was a political situation in general, but the fact we were locked up caused that our ideals were even greater and forced us think freely.
What changed after august 1968?
M.H.: I realised that the only option to survive is not to notice what it looks like around me, but, instead, to work hard on myself. There was no other way. One must first find herself and then go after persistently. I was lucky I did photography that was changing a lot at those times. Although originally I wanted to become a film director, I couldn’t continue after 1968 and I started perceiving photography in the way I can be independent with it. In photography, I could be my own director and do everything by myself.
And what did you decide to go after?
M.H.: I decided for photography where I felt independent. My topic is my closest environment I deeply lived through. It’s my family, my home and people I meet with.
Who were your friends at that time?
M.H.: I had two groups of friends at that time – in Prague and Bratislava. The first were my friends from FAMU (The Film Academy in Prague); it was very strong there. We were reading books of the world classics and absorbing their great ideas. Besides, thanks to the academic milieu we could watch all the surrealist and new wave films. Many of them were forbidden… Or we were visiting flats of prominent people who are now scattered around the world. It was amazing and unique in its own way. In Bratislava, I was active among the young people that were making the university cultural magazine ECHO. When they saw my photos, they immediately found a place for them, right beside the articles about political reality. The magazine was done “on the carpet” at our friend Zeman or at our home, for my husband Ivan Marko did the graphic layout. Paradoxically, my photos fitted in; they were full of tension and expressivity of the time. I also took part in the first symposium of universities organised by ECHO people in Tübingen, where I had my first exhibition in 1965. That was during the period of political détente. The magazine and everything around them was later forbidden and monitored.
Didn‘t you mentally live in the West in the 1960s?
M.H.: We didn’t travel a lot, or it was very hard. It was a strange paradoxical euphoria we lived in. We admired individualities we hardly knew anything about and they were like gods to us. The euphoria was getting so strong we didn’t need to go to the West. Everything was opening here, inside of us. A then came the period of disappointment and everything came to an end.
When one reads about it today in e.g. the director Juráček‘s dairies from 1971 – 1973, one can really see the exposed human suffering live. Nothing goes, everything ended…
M.H.: All my friends left the country and everything looked lost. I shut myself away from society and creative photography helped me get out of my isolation. I found out that photography I was fully immersed in made me feel totally free. On the other hand, classic document, capturing direct truth, was impossible to do. Documentary photographer Jindřich Štreit was arrested for the photos that didn’t cater to their demands. But the works I was doing were closer to a concept of my vision of a sort; many people didn’t take them seriously, so they finished in my desk drawer.
I.M.: I guess photography at that time was not so monitored. It was a new medium, so the space for creativity was a bit more open in comparison with the more traditional ones that the regime censored as if from habit.
M.H.: It was somehow more open. There were first signals of shifting toward digital. I felt it already in the 70s that the medium was going to change. That’s why I wanted to know it thoroughly. From the technological point of view, too.
And how did you set yourself up then in the 70s?
M.H.: Naturally, it was desperation, but I was lucky. I met Brimich from ŠUP – he was a director of the Secondary School of Applied Arts from 1964 – 1983 – who told me: „Milota, you have to come and teach at once.“ They needed somebody with a university degree. Somewhere there were the roots of the Slovak new wave. I was excited about the medium after my studies at FAMU, doing various experiments with my students, e.g. American retouch or other things. I was verifying many things with them. You know, the whole photography department was in a terrible state. There were teachers like Sedílek and Absolón. Absolón was maybe good at teaching how to weigh chemicals and Sedílek was taking sport pictures at stadiums. When I came to the school, I was visiting different departments to see what they were doing. The decorating department was painting surfaces, the textile department was making quilts. I had given a lot of thought to the way how to teach. I told myself we were going to spend the first year closed in the darkroom. I gave them 100 paper sheets and showed how to work with an enlarger. They were illuminating; I was teaching them how to perceive the world and things around trying out different expositions and other parameters, through a photogram and appropriate play. Based on those grey sheets, I explained them what a blackening curve is. All this was very relaxing for my students. Štrba (Slovak camera operator) in some interview said he remembered when he had studied under me, how they had been touching things and getting under their surface at the same time. I felt a great satisfaction.
I.M.: Now that we’re talking about touching the space, I see a parallel with our discussion on the dysfunctional communication. We can’t communicate complex issues with open public. I would appreciate communication about fundamental things that form the content and character of space, place and a city. About the sound and temperature of streets, about darkness in the city, about the sensation of pavements… Ordinary things sometimes make a huge difference. The things is to learn how to work with them. How to move things forward in subtleties. Also in the situation when everybody wants to create something often without understanding simple principles. For example, why a pavement should be wide in one place and narrow in another. It is not only a superficial engineering logic, there is also psychology and long-time research, but it’s not discussed. We are losing our authentic relationship with our environment and therefore losing the ability to understand it.
The goal should be the predictability of the result. People experiment, people play, but it’s a game with rules.
M.H.: Just like architecture, photography has its rules, too. The ones we have to feel, touch and understand. We need to know the medium. For example, I was making negatives with my students. At the time, nobody understood why I was doing it. There are many impulses that we don’t have to understand at once, but they may later find us. We only have to be ready for them.
Igor, now a question for you: what was the attitude towards the West in you generation of the 1980s in Bratislava?
I.M.: I can’t judge it from a general point of view. When I first got abroad, I was absolutely perplexed. I couldn’t push the button in the tube and I felt we could never catch up with this. I had a feeling I was defensive and that I had nothing to offer. This was a bit vice-versa in the 1960s. The thought they’d had something to expand with. But the more I am there, the more I think I have something to offer.
What role does your generational experience with both regimes have in it? Could it be that this can also be a factor of your success in London?
I.M.: One of them. But there are many more other parameters. I’ll come back to what Milota was saying – there are many things you can focus or not focus on. Everything is new abroad. So the first thing you do is to look at yourself. What is it that I’m actually doing? Why am I here? And when you can’t sort your integrity in this complicated world, you will fall apart. I keep hearing the word “drift wood”. It is a piece of wood swimming in the ocean wearing away step by step. I know many people who live like drifters. The West can engulf you with its consumerism, colourfulness and visual appeal, as they are interesting at first sight. If you don’t have something of your own you want to say or do, you’ll never put it together and pull it off.
And did you know what you wanted? When was the moment when you said to yourself: “this is what I want, I will enjoy this.”
I.M.: I was always doing many things I didn’t get any feedback to. Architecture was like a club for me. We were making something, but it was only for us. For the club of people who understood it. It upset me. I wasn’t in touch with other people, other professions and then I found out that I didn’t enjoy architecture so much. I found out that the in-between space where more people could meet is interests me much more. This in-between space has now a modern name – “public space”. The first project we did and was carried out in the exterior was a public park. And then I got a slap. I started to realise it would be used by the people who can be angry and have different opinions, too. There is a law in Britain when you do something in public space, for public money, you need to consult it with the public. I had to consult my designer’s and procedural things with everybody who would use the park and mainly, I had to explain which decision gives something to one group while taking something from another. I can’t join this process with a feeling that I must push something through. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to listen to the others and learn from them.
How did it go?
I.M.: For me it was dramatic. This was the moment of catharsis when I realised I couldn’t dictate anything to anybody. And that the things I do are not good and it doesn’t work. I like people with a good taste; I incline to them somehow naturally. But it doesn’t mean I should be mean and put a person without it aside. Architects often tend to convince and try to accommodate the world to themselves. This project made me understand the meaning of the expression “let it be”. The only thing I can determine are the processes, the taste will continually follow. You draw some people into the process of designing, and only then they will understand what a result means. When people don’t understand the logic of a city, they don’t have any relationship with it. And you also have to inspire those people, not just passively wait until everybody expresses themselves. First, you must bring something, some topic, or thesis and limit the discussion.
What is your method?
I.M.: I call it “parametrical planning of cities”. There are many variable things. For instance, the economy is a parameter that varies from the point of view of time. On the other hand, some things are fixed and they are in minority. A pavement is always good when it’s five to seven metres wide. In my opinion, making of a certain parametrical model based on precedents is the only option. A precedent is a good event of some change inscribed in time. You know, we are pleased because we were there. It’s not that someone took a decision and your task is only to choose between yellow, red and blue variant. We were there, we had a chance to take a decision and somebody inspired us. The law has nothing new to tell you, as it just defines something that has to be observed. Great Britain has a totally different thinking, the precedent wins there, as it’s negotiable. You must convince everybody about the potential consequences and then the precedent moves creative solutions forward. So, you are devising something new as if beyond that law and you win if you reach a consensus in the discussion.
So you confront “the spirit of the laws” with real conditions, thus perpetually improving it. Let’s come back to the Czech and Slovak new wave. They, too, were precedents and you, Milota, were there. How did it all end? There used to be communities of people where the spirit was renewed. What happened to them?
M.H.: They are individual creative personalities who may be a bit more introvert today, but their results are still inspiring. The Slovak new wave exists no longer. Those boys are already somewhere else, but each of them still does the things where you can feel the DNA of their early period. What’s important is that this period encouraged future generations. The inspiration is always important for those who will come after.
And wasn’t it just a dead-end street?
M.H.: Surely not. The time is changing. Back then, there were no social networks, no digital technologies, or technologies coming up with something completely different. The Slovak new wave is a real wave with its peak and its ebb.
I.M.: When they were using their own signs of expression, I understood those qualities. But the very moment each of them took their own path and chose their own “winning formulas”, i. e. things they knew were working and they started using them on a day-to-day basis, it all stopped working. This was more like a dead-end to me, I’d say.
Milota, I like that you still try to move forward and not rest in the proven things. In the things that have their buyers or art dealers…
M.H.: Everything is a road and we set it up, so it‘s only up to us how we manage it. That’s how it is.
I would also like to know your opinion about design. Particularly about the Czechoslovak scene of the 70s and 80s. Whose works did you respect?
M.H.: Cepka and Cígler were such two icons. But they were icons for me, as I knew them in person. They were similar to me. Cígler, for instance, never insisted on his students working only with glass. He took the line of experimenting with the boundaries of his medium. At the same time, he was a very strong personality. I have always been interested in design, I saw it as an open space of life style belonging to people who can perceive themselves in it.
I.M.: I think that my inspiration by design came from the interior environment. For instance, there was no furniture in our flat, we were living in a scenery. Everything was covered with photos and when I was visiting other households as a child, I was admiring armchairs. We didn’t have anything at home. We only had a table where photos were to be stuck. Everything was functionally adjusted for artistic creation. Design was like a medium of expression of our way of life. Our grandmother was sewing a lot and had her things there. Milota grasped them right away and used as a background, as means of expression… Or, for instance, we didn’t have any doors at home.
Provisional arrangement as a form of life and the authenticity coming out of it. Did you live a Bohemian lifestyle?
I.M.: It was surely not a conscious bohemian life. I’ll tell you a story with a picture-shooting session. When I was in the 2nd or 3rd grade at the elementary school, there was an announcement about this all-class photo session on the yard. I took my pioneer uniform for that photo session, because I thought it was appropriate, not that I would be a rebel. Everybody was wearing nice jeans and sweaters and it was just me from that “bohemian milieu” who came in the pioneer uniform.
M.H.: Everybody was visiting me, because they were inspired by the environment. Anybody could come, sometimes they would clear my fridge and we wouldn’t have anything to eat… There was a case that my neighbours reported me. When we were enlarging large-sized photos in the flat, we had to seal up the windows with red paper, so that we could do it during the day, too. We were always listening to music on the top of it all. They reported me, because they thought we were doing drugs. There came a police officer, four people from the municipality, they were walking around the kitchen thinking that I butcher children or something like that. After finding out there was nothing happening but enlarging photos, they left and that was it.
What music did you listen to?
M.H.: I was friends with Vlado Havrila and we listened to Pink Floyd and Beatles. It was a mix of quite different things. A couple of people started playing similar music at that time. They got together, I was writing lyrics for them and then we were shooting it all at our place.
Didn’t you have problems with the regime?
M.H.: No. At least, not serious. I had more problems with my neighbours. Once I was forbidden to screen my film at an exhibition, because they didn’t like the sea star, as they saw some kind of a provocation in it. It was in 1978, my first film. Nothing happened After the exhibition we went to ours and screened it there four times in a row. There were more people, so it was better in the end. We didn’t have any furniture, everybody was lying or sitting on the ground. The children were constantly opening the door, because somebody was always coming or leaving. I remember my daughter welcome me with the words: “the last thing we needed was you all.” The agents didn’t keep track of photographers, that’s why everybody was coming to mine. I made them an asylum. I didn’t care a bit about getting to jail or about what they could do to me.
What made it collapse after 1989?
M.H.: Nothing collapsed, only some things changed. After 1989, I started teaching at VŠVU and later at FAMU. I worked a lot. I was giving a lot, but getting little in return, as I didn’t follow trends, staying faithful only to myself. Art historians ignored me. I was too visual and commercial for many people, because I liked fashion and design. I was taking photos of pictures, glass, fashion, monumental sculptures and many other things. Besides, I was doing “free art” (fine arts) and I wouldn’t be able to exist without it. I hardly slept at that time and my private life started falling apart. My students and my children loved me; they were the ones that supported me.
What about your success story, Igor?
I.M.: I don’t know if I am a success story, but I’m happy to do something I enjoy, because I see there a strong resonance. Which didn’t take place when I was sitting in the studio creating something for the other side of the river. Of course, I worry, it is harder, maybe even financially less attractive. But the feedback is astonishing. When I come somewhere and people say: “this is exactly what I feel and want.”
In art, there is a lot of talk about egos, but it seems quite contrary when looking at you two. Your success appears to be due to empathy.
I.M.: There are two words that are deformed in various ways and may sound funny for many people: broad-mindedness and empathy. I don’t know any other model of human creative thinking. When people aren’t broad-minded, they can’t inspire, there is nothing to inspire with. When I come to Bratislava for a work meeting, nothing is relaxed. Everybody is suited up and troubled. Nothing is joyful. Let’s hope we do not screw anything up… There is no creativity in such environment. Even conferences are set up to solve a problem. What problem? I don’t want to solve a problem. I want to come, inspire people and make them a bit relaxed after the shock.
What do you appreciate about the stage of live you are going through right now?
I.M.: I will paraphrase. An architect was asked which airport in the world was the best one. He said: “Heathrow.“ And they asked: “Why? It’s hideous.“ And he answered: “Potential.“ And that’s something I like.
Milota, what does old age mean for you?
M.H.: I think I am living the most productive and beautiful age I have ever had. I don’t have to think diplomatically. I don’t care any more. I can say what I want, my experience has enriched me. I have my perfect children and a totally different quality of life. I am fully satisfied. I am 71 years old and, finally, I feel that somehow I found satisfaction. Satisfaction is very crucial; everybody needs it. I say that when you don’t get satisfaction in life, it is as if you took a bit of poison every time. And when it’s too much of it, you can’t handle it.
What form does your satisfaction take?
M.H.: People are suddenly looking at me with human eyes. They appreciate me for what I am, it’s pleasant.
I.M.: It’s not official, you can’t find it in texts, but people come to visit Milota after a long time. They meet and say: “it was like this“. Or they say that they didn’t quite understand it. It slips out of the person and you see that they’d wanted to say it all the time, but they lived in a sort of a spasm. These are the things that happen very quickly, they are human and direct.
Our last question is: what did you last see in a theatre?
I.M.: Stoppard’s Arcadia and it was a four-hour marathon in the Slovak National Theatre. I couldn’t concentrate, I had a pain in my buttocks.
M.H.: I went to see Bál (Ball) by Slovak writer Timrava and it was very interesting. I got to realise that she was a great girl who was progressive despite living somewhere in a godforsaken place. And also, how important is the place where you’re born, what people are around you and where it takes you.