About the ‘Feeling of Being in Transition’ – Performing the Archive: A Conversation with Clarissa Thieme about her Film “Today Is 11th June 1993”
A first version of this conversation about historicity, subjectivity and the act of remembering oscillating between the archive and translation took place on June 30, 2018 on the occasion of the D’EST: The Suspension and Excess of Time launch event realized in collaboration with Kunstverein Düsseldorf and Filmwerkstatt Düsseldorf.
The online video platform D’EST: A Multi-Curatorial Platform for Video Art from the Former ‘East’ and ‘West’ is a multicuratorial initiative presenting six thematic screening chapters between June and December 2018. Inspired by Chantal Akerman’s iconic film D’Est (1993), the platform gathers around 45 video works, experimental and documentary films addressing the transformation period of the 1990s, selected by 15 curators. With a focus on post-geographical, queer-feminist and historiographical perspectives, the platform mostly introduces female producers and artist collectives.
Screening chapter #1 D’EST: The Suspension and Excess of Time, curated by Kathrin Becker and Jana Seehusen in collaboration with the Video-Forum at Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (n.b.k.), explores the role of time within two political systems and understands the ‘feeling of being in transition’ as a key point for thinking about the transformation period through their chapter’s chosen works. Becker and Seehusen carefully analyze the chrono-political effects this time had on people’s lives, understanding the symptomatic ‘feeling of being-in-between’ and of ‘being in transition’ as a crucial situation experienced by people at the time, still characteristic for today’s post-Cold War multiplural world order. Challenging the idea of isolating the past in this context follows a conception of history in which multiple times coexist. The film Today Is 11th June 1993 (2018) by Clarissa Thieme with its envisioning of a time machine in 1993 and its transposition through simultaneous translation into the year 2018 creates and opens up parallel perspectives between those years.
In the following conversation, Clarissa Thieme and Jana Seehusen discuss the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian war, an almost unbearable situation lasting for four years during the early nineties and her artistic, translational reaction towards unusual VHS amateur footage from a private household, having survived in the Library Hamdija Kreševljaković Video Archive Sarajevo.
Clarissa Thieme is an artist and filmmaker. Working across film, photography, performance, installation and text, she combines documentary and fictional forms focussing on processes of memory, politics of identity and strategies of translation. Her practice is research-based and often takes a collaborative approach. Thieme is currently a Research Fellow at the Berlin Center for Advanced Studies in Arts and Sciences (BAS) where she also created Today is 11th June 1993. Films (selection): Was bleibt / Sta Ostaje / What Remains (30′, forum expanded 2010). The Place We Left (60′, 2012). Resort (15′, 2013). Die DDR hat es nie gegeben / Appell (4′, 2016). Today is 11th June 1993 (13′, forum expanded 2018).
SUMMER OF 1993
Jana Seehusen: I’ll start with a quote. “Today is 11th June, 1993. The war has been going on for very long. I’ve tried everything to get out, to save myself, nothing worked. The only thing left is to make this videotape that I will give to my son, he to his, and so on, until a time machine is invented and someone watching this will come and get me out of this.”
We hear this several times in different variations in your film Today Is 11th June 1993. It seems like the date means something really specific, as if a date might condense a feeling of a particular moment in time. Can you tell us a little bit more? What was going on in June 1993 in Sarajevo?
Clarissa Thieme: What immediately comes to my mind is “Don’t dream dreams.” That was the advice Lord David Owen, the EU peace negotiator, gave to the Bosnian people at the end of 1992 while visiting the besieged city of Sarajevo. The whole quote actually goes: “Don’t, don’t, don’t live under this dream that the West is going to come in and sort this problem out. Don’t dream dreams.” How cynical and arrogant was that?
A one hour-flight from Vienna, Sarajevo has a population of 400,000. At the time, its citizens were subject to constant shelling and snipers as well as a lack of food, water, heating, and medication. Not to mention that people were locked in. Who amongst Sarajevans lived under some dream? Everybody lived under siege, under terror. The siege lasted for almost four years: from April 1992 until February 1996. In the end, close to 14,000 people perished in Sarajevo alone. This “dream” Owen was referring to were basic human rights, starting with not being killed.
Friends of mine who stayed in the city during the siege told me that everyone was in hiding at the beginning. But, at a certain point, it was clear no one would come. Owen was right: there was nothing to wait for. The ‘West,’ first of all Europe, didn’t care. This shock created an unexpected kind of resistance. People started going out and doing stuff again – in order not to go crazy.
First and foremost, Sarajevo under siege shows the incredible courage of people daring to be normal in times that are not. That is a very political thing in itself. To keep ‘dreaming’ and insisting on your right to have a life and future. This brought me to the sci-fi video which I found in the Library Hamdija Kreševljaković Video Archive Sarajevo shot on the day of June 11th, 1993, in Sarajevo. In the video a group of young people imagine their escape from the war with the help of a time machine. I felt immediately attached to it.
ENTANGLED MEMORY / HISTORY AND SUBJECTIVITY
JS: Today is 11th June 1993 was developed in cooperation with the Library Hamdija Kreševljaković Video Archive Sarajevo, a private collection of amateur videos. Could you tell us a little bit more about this archive?
CT: The first time I got to know about the Library Hamdija Kreševljaković Video Archive Sarajevo was around 2006. Nihad Kreševljaković who runs the archive showed me some of its material. It offered a very different personal view on besieged Sarajevo. In a lot of the video testimonies, not much is happening. It’s not like breaking news. I realized that there is a specific dramatic structure we build our stories of war around. The amateur footage gave me a little taste of how tiring the days and nights must have been. That the waiting gets into your system – and that, nevertheless, your days are full with organizing the basics – that you try to make sense of the senselessness around you, that you try to maintain your sense of humor – because surprisingly, your life goes on as long as you’re not dead. That may sound banal, and it is, but it deeply touched me. I saw people like me. The subjectivity of the material turned things around for me.
Together Nihad Kresevljaković, Jasmina Gavrankapetanović (a scholar and artist from Sarajevo), and I founded Izmedzu Nas (Between Us) to open up the video archive to audiences beyond the local context. The initiative aims to act as a critical platform for engaging with people’s shared stories. My interest in the archive is as to whether, in dealing with testimonies, making their subjectivities transparent can be a possible strategy to critically oppose governing discourses with the complexity of a multitude of voices. I am not interested in the fact-hoarding that you see a lot these days in the art world. Of course, it is necessary in legal bearings on cases like that of the International Criminal Tribunal of Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) to hold individuals responsible for their actions. But beyond that, I wonder what we do with these facts. How do we disentangle memories? How do we re-interpret them? And how do they re-interpret us?
The tricky thing with facts is they become addictive. Installing facts as a protective shield against anything frightening places distance between us and the world. We file away events as well as people. We make them into statistics to the point that we become untouchable. You don’t need a fact sheet to empathize with others and act upon it. I mean that politically in the most basic way. We are connected in every way and we live the consequences of everything. We can’t afford to live the illusion of being disconnected.
TRANSITION : TRANSLATION / PLAY
JS: This film is part of a long-term project. Before you made this film, you featured it as a performative interaction. You screened the video as it was shot in 1993, simultaneously translating the dialog into the local language of the hosting exhibition space, performed by a member of the local community. Why these different formats? Why simultaneous translation?
CT: I started playing. It is interesting that you can talk about something but you can’t play about something. You play with. You might say you can also play against. But still it will always be a joint thing. At the least, it’s a game of two halves. As I said before, I was very touched and astonished watching this group of people joking around with the idea of a time machine getting them out of the war. You see them amusing themselves with the idea – although war was the bitter reality of the moment. Nihad was among the group members that did the video in 1993. With his help, I contacted the other members, asking for permission to experiment with their video. It’s a game with time and the different possibilities of reality. It’s kind of confusing and inspiring. I see it like this: no one came back from the future to rescue them. Instead, they dreamed themselves into the future. It eventually proves Owen’s “Don’t dream dreams” wrong. Here they are, 25 years later, giving me permission to play with the versions of themselves that are from 25 years ago. This is really empowering. And, of course, no one could have foreseen it in 1993.
It started with me wanting to activate the time machine again, but not yet knowing how. Then two other aspects came up: I wanted to work with the process of translation and with a non-regional, female voice. The translation aspect needs to be perceptible. You need to feel that you might understand a lot, but you’re probably not getting everything. I found the perfect match in Grace Sungeun Kim, a South Korean, Berlin-based video artist who lived in New York for a very long time. Grace was already part of the project Limited Space: Berlin Sarajevo. The viewer doesn’t know that she is a non-professional translator, nor do they know about her background. But, even if these things are not explicit, I believe these things add another layer. And of course, this sci-fi group of geeky guys needed a female voice to interpret them! With Grace, I worked out this monotonous translation style. It is reminiscent of what they still do on Polish TV: one (male) voice-over translating all dialog parts. I find it hilarious. It’s like Brecht snuck his way into a blockbuster with this estrangement effect. The translation booth was the last thing to come, with synchronous translation becoming a sculptural object. Then there is the aspect of ICTY’s iconography. There were soundproof interpretation booths and simultaneous translators in every courtroom of the ICTY constantly translating into different languages.
The performance Vremeplov / Time Machine has its own intensity: being live and translated into your mother tongue and yet being a historical document you watch. With its various camera perspectives, the film version Today Is 11th June 1993 works quite differently with time and space. It draws you in as a viewer more quickly. Maybe the most intimate view is that of the installation. You enter the translation booth with the video from 1993 playing an English voice-over, and you can sit in the translator’s chair yourself, looking at the transcript and its translation.
JS: You just came back from Sarajevo where you presented the performance Vremeplov / Time Machine at the Historical Museum of Bosnia Herzegovina. How was showing it there?
CT: It was a special version of the performance that I really wanted to do. On June 11th, exactly 25 years after the original video was shot in the besieged city, Nihad himself was in the translation booth ‘translating’ from Bosnian to Bosnian. That was, of course, absurd. But at the same time, by doing so, he transposed the Sarajevo of 1993 into the Sarajevo of 2018. In post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina, so many people struggle and suffer with how to tell their story, how to transfer their past into their present. It was an emotional presentation, with some individuals from his old group of friends being there. Someone from the audience told me later that it was like a message in a bottle coming back. In a broader sense, that is what happened. I received a message from 25 years ago. I read it carefully. I wrote back and brought all of it to Sarajevo, curious to meet the people who sent it in the first place – or more precisely the people they are now.
This interview has been published in cooperation with D’EST: A Multi-Curatorial Online Platform for Video Art from the Former ‘East’ and ‘West’, a project initiated by Ulrike Gerhardt with DISTRICT Berlin and made possible through the generous support of the Senate Chancellery Berlin – Department of Culture.
Upcoming D’EST screenings include chapter #3 Cosmos Cosmetics: Unsettling Memoryscapes and Corpofictions as well as chapter #4 The Body as an Indexical Reader that will be launched by their curators in conversation with invited respondents, artists and audiences on October 6 and 7, 2018 at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art invited by School Without Center *Moscow.