Miha Colner in conversation with Eva Sajovic
Eva Sajovic is an artist, educator and activist who has been primarily focusing on pressing social and environmental issues. Her artistic practice addresses important dilemmas of contemporary global society which is confronted by ever-faster climate changes, having direct as well as indirect consequences on the everyday lives of people, as they lead to migrations, ideological violence and changes in work patterns.
In GBJ – Božidar Jakac Art Museum she prepared an exhibition entitled Hanging By a Thread that revolves around three ongoing works, Ecology, Picturing Climate and All Rise for the Planet, which Sajovic has been developing since 2015 with various visual art, performative and educational approaches focused on the phenomena of increased climate instability and environmental uncertainty. Furthermore, she also created an entirely new artwork for the exhibition, which is linked to the aspects of local ecology and cohabitation with the environment.
In her artistic practice she has been combining art, anthropology, independent reporting and ecology, with which she has been trying to draw attention to the unsustainability of the currently dominating principles of constant growth of production and consumption and the slump caused by the domination of economic interests over people and the environment. During the preparations of the exhibition we have been conversing about different aspects of her work – about her concepts, world views, artistic decisions, intentions, use of artistic media and role of art in the society.
You have always explored social issues, locally and globally, such as climate change, social injustice or migration. Why do you use art as a medium to address these issues?
I guess art is what I do; but it goes deeper than that. I initially studied and graduated in law completing BA level in Ljubljana, and later MA level in Paris and Utrecht. My subject was international law in relation to human rights issues but my MA thesis was on international protection of indigenous art, with case studies of Aboriginal, Indian and African art. However, I never felt comfortable and familiar in the area of law; on the other hand, issues of social justice are still present in my artistic work.
But to go back to your question: why using art as a platform? Art has an important role to play in changing people’s perceptions of the world. We learned that visual communication, design and advertising have the ability to shape our understanding of the world. People often read visual language of symbols and signs without deliberating much about its true meaning, but when it comes to advertising, this language has turned to planetary destruction because it is all about consumption. It is urgent for artists and others active citizens to provide a counter: a visual language that reveals what lies beneath the glossy veneer of consumption and which raises consciousness of the urgent need for transformative social and political change.
Art is less limited than law, where one is bound by certain procedures, and in art there is more space to maneuver in order to expose certain questions.
Art has relative freedom of expression which is, on the other hand, very limited in the mainstream media. But art also has limited outreach. How do you cope with that?
When we change the way people see the world, already we change the world. Not the artist in isolation, but in the context of a wider ecosystem. Art may not reach a mass audience directly. But when it influences activists, journalists, young people and others it influences the broader culture indirectly.
Yes, it is important to avoid elitism in artistic practice. I like to work at the interface of political processes, working with local people and others on the frontline, exploring from one situation themes of wider relevance. An example was my work around the “development” of the Elephant & Castle area in London, which raised issues of displacement and neocolonialism.
What was the aim of the Elephant and Castle project?
The project was a response to regeneration plans in this area which, in other words, is gentrification. International financial capital invades with the aim to colonise the existing community to make profit according to its homogenised business plan. For instance, there is a shopping centre in the area, which is an iconic building, an architectural masterpiece, that has been used as a community space, despite being privately owned. However, vested interests portrayed it as an “eyesore”, paving the way for its removal. I started talking to local people, for whom the shopping mall was a community base and meeting place, photographing them and eventually the project became a portrait of the area and a counter to the negative portrayal. The shopping mall is going to be demolished. That particular battle has been lost. But by exposing the processes at work, the aim is to strengthen the resistance to the overall trend.
This issue of financial capital displacing communities is seen all around the world. The principle is generic. A developer comes in and builds something that doesn’t really contribute to the local economy because the new shops mostly belong to corporate chains, which find complex ways to avoid paying tax.
We started running People’s Bureau where people would learn about different models of economy from each other, sharing skills, from sewing to grief-counselling. We wanted to show the potential of an economy based on exchange of human capital as an alternative to the economy of ongoing growth, greed and exploitation.
How do communities survive in such a transient city as London?
That is the exact problem we have been facing. One of the issues is the way properties are built nowadays (not only in London) where flats are organised like boxes, to maximise profit, and are not spacious enough for a family or for any form of communal life; they are the building blocks of a rootless, individualised society, which works against the emergence of communities of resistance. But London still has many council estates, a reminder of the more idealistic visions of the 1970s, with lots of green spaces where people socialise. The fact is that architecture dictates the ability to create community and very often new buildings don’t have any communal or public spaces. In her book The Life and Death of American Cities the journalist Jane Jacobs wrote that communities don’t need interference and that they thrive when they police themselves.
But such communities are being driven out of London through the forces of “regeneration”. In these new gentrified neighbourhoods, the emphasis is on private property, reinforced by the police state, culture of surveillance and private security. London remains a diverse City and a home to cultures and communities from around the world. But for many, life is increasingly precarious.
You also made a piece about homelessness which became a serious issue in London in the past couple of years.
Homelessness hasn’t been properly understood, largely because of mischaracterisation by the corporate media. I wanted to address it in my work because there is a lot of homelessness but very little understanding about what it actually means. There is a lot of misunderstanding who a homeless person is – it is not just somebody who lives on the street.
We worked with members of the public following a principle of sortition – a principle of random selection in order to gather a genuine cross-section of views. We worked with the Sortition Foundation and we sent out 1000 letters of invitation in the Southwark borough to get people to take part in the project. We then formed a group of 18 people including some homeless people. We invited professionals to brief us on different aspects of homelessness including legal. In the end the group took certain decisions that were later presented in the local parliament.
How important for your artistic practice is direct communication with people?
Direct communication is crucial; I call it socially engaged practice. On the other hand, I don’t like the idea of an artist who is independent or abstract observer of the world. Art is always political, sometimes even on an unconscious level. Therefore, I involve other people mainly for two reasons: because art is relevant to understand the political crisis that we are facing, and also to provoke a discussion about the role of art. I am not an expert on social issues and therefore I usually invite people who know better how to present problems that concern them. I can’t speak for somebody else and I reject the idea of giving people a voice which I find insulting. Instead I try to create platforms for people to represent themselves.
I can also identify with certain marginalised groups because I can connect myself to their stories; I have always felt an outsider, even on a personal level, because my family didn’t conform to what was normal, and growing up I was very self-conscious about my height. I have always felt myself to be outside of the mainstream and that also shaped my artistic practice.
There is a notion that no other thing had such a huge impact on society as individualism where everybody wants to be unique and special. In your practice you connect social and climate issues. How much does individualism as such affect climate change?
Individualism is having direct consequence in destruction of communities, and in turn, individualism becomes a cycle again. If by individualism we mean that everybody fends for themselves first, it is a no go strategy. On a very basic level I see it this way: “I make shoes, you grow rice; if we are not going to collaborate, it won’t work.”
We’re also seeing Governments and corporations embed the culture of individualism and consumerism to avoid accountability for climate breakdown. We are encouraged to think we can tackle the climate crisis by purchasing “climate friendly” products, and that it is just a matter of making the right consumer choices. That is a lie. We are in an extreme crisis, which cannot be solved by buying the right shampoo. We need a radical transformation of the entire political economy.
In the present society the principle is more like: »I am special, you are special, and now we compete«. Most of us were brought up in that way.
Back in the late 19th century, William Morris equalled capitalism to war. He said: “Capitalism at best means pursuing one’s own advantage at the cost of somebody else’s loss.” In short, according to Morris, competition is war, and the society is in the state of perpetual war. He also said: “there are certain definite obstacles to the real progress of man; we can tell you what these are, take them away and then you shall see.” But there is no real system behind that. Slavoj Žižek once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. But this is now the urgent role of the artist – to fertilise the imagination around alternative ways of ordering ourselves. For most of human history, most advanced societies flourished without capitalism, something capitalism has made us forget.
True, popular culture is all about confirming the claim that this system doesn’t have an alternative.
I strongly believe the present system has an alternative. It is true, I don’t know what this alternative may be but I am sure that an alternative is possible. And if we want to continue to live on the planet we will have to find it because there is nowhere else to go. And there cannot be infinite growth on a finite planet.
In his recent book Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime philosopher Bruno Latour claims that if all the people of the world started to live a lifestyle of the middle classes in the West, we would destroy the planet. So this very complex equation suggests that social equality and climate justice are somewhat excluding themselves?
We are already destroying the planet, even as things are. The pandemic is a symptom of the devastation of ecosystems. We are in the middle of the 6th mass extinction, the climate is already dangerously unstable, and people are already dying and being displaced at scale. The shit is hitting the fan and we would be made to carry on as we are. In the West, we must reduce our consumption and change the goal from growth to sustainability.
I have this conflict with my own art; is what I am making just creating more destruction, do we really need more things? I can also apply these concerns to everyday life and, for instance, to clothes we wear; how do we produce them, how do we look after them, how do we dispose of them, how do we acquire them? Before I started my research I didn’t even know that the clothes we wear are not only damaging the environment through the process of their production but also through their maintenance; every time we wash our clothes the synthetic substances leak into the water system, while it takes around two hundred years for a piece of clothing to decompose. When researchers analysed selected clothes and their fibres, it turned out that the chemical findings don’t necessarily correspond to what is written on the labels. It is very difficult to get clear information about what things are really made of. So I am interested in the surplus of production, where things are coming from, from source to product.
That is why I abandoned my photographic practice, the dark-room and the use of chemicals, and am reconceptualising photography through weaving and a process of natural dyes.
What about the impact of overpopulation which is very unpopular and politically incorrect issue? Nobody wants to talk about it but we know that human beings are the invasive species of today.
Of course overpopulation is part of the current crisis. But it is sometimes used to point the finger at Africa and Asia, which is a false and divisive way to understand what is happening. It is the West that has developed and exported a globalised economic model that demands more and more markets for their products and an ever expanding supply of cheap labour. In other words, it is the capitalists economic model which is the cause of the exponential growth in population. My observation of younger people that I am in touch with is that they are very aware of that issue. Many of them claim that they don’t want to have children which is an important consideration. Their common question is what would they bring a child into? And furthermore, there are already too many people on the planet. I’m not saying people shouldn’t have children. I have two children. Given the situation we’re in, having children, against such odds, may be seen as a radical act of hope.
Most of your works are made in collaboration with other people. It seems you are following the idea of the collective enterprise.
I often work with my fellow artists because we have more diverse skills together, and it is also more exciting and effective to make decisions collectively. I also work with people from other disciplines, academics, scientists, students, activists or general public. This is the ecosystem I talked about earlier and it is amazing to combine different skills. Of course, working in a group can also be challenging because nothing in this life is really straight forward; in a group it is inevitable to negotiate because we always have different views, but for me that is the only way to make sense out of all that. And also, if I am not part of a community I don’t have any integrity to speak about things that concern us all.
When I worked on the project about poverty, entitled The Roles We Play, it was powerful because the entire piece was constructed together with people who personally experienced poverty. They are the real experts on the subject, more so than social workers and other professionals dealing with poverty.
Recently you have been working on a couple of long-term projects about climate instability. The first one is called Ecology. What is your intention with this piece?
I call the Ecology project a body of work that is composed of different smaller pieces about ecology and constant changes in the environment. The aim was to have a conversation about nature and to decolonise our perspective of it; the West has this inherent attitude of exploitation towards nature that I think originates in our religion. Nature is something which is subdued to the human and humans can do with nature, including animals, whatever they want, just because humans have got consciousness and the natural world apparently doesn’t. I profoundly disagree with that. I think nature has got consciousness and now we are starting to feel it as well. The objective of the project was to have a discussion about different perspectives of equality. We are part of nature but we shouldn’t anthropomorphise it; instead we should treat it as an entity with rights, equal to human rights, and in fact the precondition to the fulfilment of human rights. I was influenced by the works of Michael Marden and Timothy Morton but also with the changes in the environment that I was observing. I started thinking back to my childhood and how I lived with my grandmother who was much more integrated with nature; we farmed our garden and we ate from it.
The project started with the residency at Darat Al Funun, contemporary art centre in Amman, Jordan, where I became interested in the issue of Syria which is a neighbouring country. Between 2007 and 2010 there was a massive draught in Syria which researchers have suggested was a major factor contributing to the (still ongoing) civil war. As a result of the drought, people moved internally and also across the borders. It highlights how everything is connected. What happens in Syria affects us in Europe as well because these people had to move because of war and climate change. That was the starting point and I continued to work with farmers in Jordan.
So, you are pointing at the fact that we can only act globally?
Yes, climate change is a global threat: the result of a globalised political economy, based on extractivism and the destruction of nature for profit. One way or another that system will change. The question is whether it collapses, with catastrophic consequences, or whether it can be transformed and repurposed before it’s too late.
On a more personal level, I try to use whatever platform I have at my disposal to support communities of resistance, whether this is my small artistic platform in London and my network, or my position in academia, however small it is. Things work as a chain. Every action counts as we aim for a political tipping point.
In your piece Picturing Climate, you showcased three case studies: Jordan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Cuba. However, you didn’t only show the downsides of climate issues in but also examples of good practice such as urban gardening. Can urban gardening be a solution for the probable food shortages in coming decades?
That can definitely be a solution. I will give an example from London. A former farmer who lives nearby central London is looking for a piece of land to rent for farming because he believes that he can be 80% self-sufficient. So it is possible. The other thing is permaculture which is becoming a very important tool to green the desert in Jordan which was part of my research. People there are starting to cultivate the desert by applying principles of permaculture, composting and particular kind of water systems, all natural, and they are now starting to green arid land. So there is a lot one can do but we need more time to do so, and in this system that runs so fast, nobody has got any time anymore because we are made to believe we don’t. But actually we are just running on a treadmill, like hamsters, not even having time to think about what we are doing.
I think one of the roles of art and the artist is to slow us down – to jam a spanner in in in the wheels of the juggernaut that is speeding towards the cliff edge.