A trained graphic designer, avid reader and incessant Internet consumer, coming from a long line of “psychotic tall women,” the Croatian artist plucks language from different sources into books, posters, videos and performances. Her main tool, her voice, is a bottomless pit of ephemeral possibilities—manifesting her need to connect, overcome shame and make mistakes.
PHOTOGRAPHY: ROOS QUAKERNAAT
INTERVIEW: ANA JANEVSKI
ANA JANEVSKIAs we speak, we find ourselves in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. How are you spending your days?
NORA TURATOFour weeks ago, I dreamt of having more time alone doing all and only what I ever wanted to do, which is, in essence, my work—no emails, meetings, travel and such. I thought that slowing things down this radically would turn out to be my perfect sabbatical, an enriching hiatus from which I could emerge brand new and better fresh or something. Well, I actually spend my days between romantically believing this to be possible and having a hard time finding any point in it all. I can’t focus.
We artists are all somehow trying to make this about ourselves and our work, but I really think we should think twice before we do. Most of of us have never witnessed something this big, but I would also be very hesitant to say I’m “curious” about what’s going to happen next. I’m really baffled and confused by people expressing any kind of curiosity or excitement about the new world order. It so clearly comes from a privileged perspective.
AJYou are an avid reader and an incessant Internet consumer; you collect language, words, phrases and fragments in your ongoing scripts that you publish as “pools” and use in in your posters, videos and performances. Even if there is not an internal logic or narrative structure, there is a choice that you make to include some of those quotations. How are those decisions made? What sparks your attention?
NTWhen I mine for language, there is so much internal logic at play that the choice to pluck a sentence or not cannot be declared very rational, I guess. Even my own internal logic changes with time. I often look back at pool 1 (2017) and think some sentences sounded naïve. I was young.
What you’re asking is quite hard for me to answer, but it’s also quite interesting to wonder about. The people around me know what I do by now: they saw the “pools,” they saw the performances, they saw the prints, and they kind of get the gist of it. So they send me sentences they pluck themselves for me. Some of it resonates consistently and immediately, and some consistently “fail” to meet me, in some sense. All of a sudden, a few copy-paste sentences later, there are two camps of people in my head: those who get it and those who don’t. It’s mind-blowing.
I find this shared internal logic across friendships very fascinating. It connects people in a very profound way, and I guess that connection is what I’m after when I pluck, write or perform. I’m hoping to connect.
AJYou just finished pool 4 for your project at the Museum at Modern Art in New York, which was supposed to open in May but it is now postponed. How do you see these four books from today’s perspective? What do they have in common? How are they different?
NTEvery time one of my books is printed, it really feels like making a baby or something. I’m such a sucker for books as objects, it’s disgusting. I love looking at my “pools” stacked, and fantasize what will they mean ten years from now. I fantasize about how many I will manage to make, and how will they all relate to each other in time.
Pool 4 went to print when the coronavirus crisis was only starting to spread from China; we still had no clue what was to come. At first I thought this would be a big fiasco, with pool 4 coming out just a little bit too late, coming out all tone deaf, dumb, stuck in some other time. But now that I’m leafing through it, I can’t help being excited about what it is: the pre-pandemic weeks encapsulated and trapped in the forms of language we exchanged not knowing what was to come.
AJYour phone is your main working tool—you’ve said many times that you don’t use any form of laptop—and the Internet is your main source of content. In his catalog essay for pool 3 (2019), the curator Sohrab Mohebbi wrote that you “ghostwrite the Internet’s stream of consciousness.” I thought it was an interesting way of defining your relationship to the Internet. What do you think about this?
NT“Ghostwriting the Internet’s stream of consciousness” sounds pretty amazing—I love when people write stuff about my work that sounds this juicy. If people continue writing about my work, I will never have to think about my work and what it means again (laughs).
I also think it’s important to note that I really think what I do is not about the Internet. I think of the Internet as I think of my toilet: it’s there, so I use it. Things are probably better with the toilet—but if there was no toilet, I would still find a place to shit. Similarly, the Internet is here, it’s huge, essential and unavoidable, and as such my work is made on it, with it, but I think I could do what I do without it. If there was no Internet or phone, I could still write, pluck and gather language, and I could still perform it—because at the end of the day, I need my memory and voice, and I need language and people using it. That’s the indispensable part, not the Internet.
AJVoice is your other tool. During your performances, you’re able to perform a wide range of voices, to change rhythm and intonations, to speed up and slow down, even to scream. How do you work with your voice?
NTI’ve “worked’ with my voice since I was a child. If we were in the car, I would ask my parents to turn off the radio so I could be the radio—and the radio I was. It’s funny: I’m still doing what I did in my parents’ car when I was four.
Voice is very rewarding as a medium. There is just so much to learn; I actually hired a vocal coach one year ago, and that was a smart move. It’s a bottomless pit of ephemeral craft and possibilities. No translation from thought to any material is needed, because you can just say it, or sing it, or scream it. But it’s up to you to do it, to pass that barrier of shame, to make voices when you’re alone, to overcome the fear of being the crazy one, talking to yourself. Every rehearsal I do is me talking to myself, and that makes me feel very vulnerable at times. I come from a long line of psychotic tall women who did same thing I do, but in public, in the streets of Split, Croatia. They did lots of voices, and voices spoke to them. They were really all about that voice, but they were not invited to do so: they were called crazy, and most of them got locked up or put on meds. So I’m doing the whole voices thing in their honor—and I make a living from it! I think of that as my biggest success, really.
AJThat’s a beautiful tribute to the women in your family. So what about singing? You fronted a punk band. What role has music played in your life?
NTI used to make music and sing. I was this very uncool nerd with no friends in high school, so music sort of saved me. I met people through music, and for the first time ever started to feel like I had a life. It was Myspace time, and we had a band; we toured all over former Yugoslavia in a small car, and it was so, so very nice. I became this Myspace chick on weekends, and a straight-A student on weekdays.
When I moved to Holland to study and continued to make music alone, I lost that social aspect that came with making music before. I started to think harder about why I was doing what I was doing, and I realized I was just making music so I could have something to sing over. Writing lyrics and singing was the part I actually really liked; everything else felt like a chore. It was like, “Let’s make a beat, record some bass and guitars, and then fun part can begin.” So at some point, I started to skip the whole music-making part, but continued to write lyrics and sing. That’s how I got to what I do now. Making music without my music friends became a little lonely, so I guess I involuntarily pushed this “lonely’ aspect to the forefront. Without music to sing over, I was left alone with my voice, and I realized I could also talk and scream and whisper, going in and out of rhythm. I was free not only to sing, but to do other stuff with my voice. The possibilities were many, and that was very exciting.
Today, I don’t listen to music unless I’m cleaning. The music I listen to when I clean is exclusively music I can sing to. My musical taste is stuck in my teenage years; any interest in discovering new music is gone for now. My focus shifted to reading and writing, and those two are hard to do with any music on.
AJCan you give few examples of your “cleaning music”?
NTThe ultimate example is definitely Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.” The second half of that song is the epitome of everything I need in order clean—straight after the bass line goes solo and the guitar and voices kick in. A second example would be “Underwear” by The Magnetic Fields. That striptease mood makes me feel like I’m on Prozac—very NYC 2000, in my apron and latex gloves, singing. The third example is a very important song for me: Whitney Houston’s “All The Man I Need.” This is the first song I took to my vocal coach, asking if he could teach me how to sing it. He did it on piano for an hour and I sang my guts out. It was the single most important therapy moment of my life.
AJIn your performances, the audience must arrive at a scheduled time and usually has a place to sit, even in a gallery contexts. You ask of them a certain dedication and focus. What is your relation to the audience?
NTComplicated at best. To be honest, performing in front of an audience is very draining most of the time; every time I’m preparing for a performance, I wonder why I’ve put myself and the audience in this situation. I think it’s some strange manifestation of my need to connect—a strange mixture of narcissism and insecurity is at play here. I want to stir shit, but I also want to be validated, and maybe part of me believes I have something to say.
I do love developing performances, I love rehearsing, but I would be lying if I said I always enjoy performing. The same performance can blow many ways with a different audience, different mood, space, time—there are so many variables. Performance is so fragile, and you can’t control as much as you would like to think you can. Creating those moments and possibly maintaining them is probably the single most important objective of mine when I perform.
AJIn the endless dispute between performance and documentation, you found your way: no video recordings, no photos, just graphic design and words, whether in your books or in videos of the script. Last year, you had your first museum exhibition, “explained away,” at the Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein, where you were able to show your graphic, sculptural, video and performative works in response to the museum collection. What was the thinking behind the exhibition in organizing all this material?
NTHaving to work with a collection was a condition posed by the museum; it was a windmill I didn’t feel like fighting, so I tried to do my best to make sense of it. Being young and excited does not exactly put you in a good negotiating position.
With this exhibition, I wanted to take up the space! I was angry with people telling me to keep things ephemeral and modest. I wanted to do what I felt, to try out things with a budget I would not get again any time soon. I wanted to try all these things, some of which I knew would fail. What came out of that show is a body of not-so-amazing sculpture work and some wall-painting work I really, really like, and that was more than enough of a win for me. Now I can continue working, knowing what I learnt, and do something else—failing a little each step of the way, but moving forward in a long run. I want to fight against this claustrophobic feeling of having to make the right moves, the right art, no mistakes, because everything is to be documented and will follow
AJI’m glad you’re saying this, and that you’re aware of the up and down moments. On the other hand, you’re supposed to have a project at MoMA in May, you’ve already had a museum solo exhibition, and you’ve performed in numerous venues and biennials—and you’re only twenty-nine. Do you feel sometimes that your career is going too fast, or that you became too successful in too short a time?
NTYes, I feel this way sometimes, but I also don’t know what I’m I supposed to do about that—say “No, thank you,” and actively sabotage my career?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and it’s a fact that stabilizing this career curve would be beneficial. So many artists have blown up for two years, had their big moments, and lost their audience just as quickly. I’m very aware how fragile careers are, and I’m also very aware that I want to do what I do for a long time. The question is whether being aware and trying to continue making good work is enough to have a good, long, healthy career.
AJIn previous interviews, you’ve been pretty vocal about performance art being done with “women being in jeans and a T-shirt or naked”; in response, you’ve opted for “high fashion,” choosing your clothes very carefully and very consciously. Even if you always looked very chic, my feeling was that there was something goofy or distant about the way that you wore those clothes, almost mocking the severe intellectuals who deem fashion “superficial”—and yet, you recently decided to go back to the “jeans and a T-shirt” look. What was behind that decision?
NTWhen I started doing these performances, someone told me I should wear something I wore five days ago, in an attempt to ensure I don’t make any decision whatsoever. I thought that was such a snobbish and stupid advice. It really pissed me off. I wanted to make a decision, and I wanted people to know I cared. High fashion seemed like a great choice; it seemed to be a way to signal a choice, to signal respect and excitement. As I grew to be more known, the power of me wearing high fashion deflated, as people slowly knew what to expect. In the beginning, it was interesting: this young nobody in fancy clothes, talking and screaming, but I have this nagging feeling that that’s done now, and that it’s time for something else. I have a feeling high fashion is not doing much for me at this point; it’s starting to make noise, and I don’t need that type of noise. I still want to show the audience I care, and that I’m ready to make decisions. I still hate the idea of the costume, and I still hate the idea of performing while looking like the depressed, unwashed lululemon slob I actually am. Even in the light of the crisis we are going through now, I do think this will have a huge impact on the luxury sector and fashion, and that we will grow to think of it as noise, more and more.
AJIn your performances, you disrupt the stereotype of the soft-spoken woman—you speak, loudly and fearlessly about many things, from sex to politics, with no need to seduce. Women are required to be everything at once—to have it all, but not too much, lest they be characterized as “intense.” I know we’ve both been called “intense.” Are we intense? What does that mean?
NTMy granddad always said no one would ever marry me because I’m too intense. This “intensity” thing is a huge insecurity of mine, and I’ve been hearing it for so long. Too long. For instance, no one ever describes me or my work as being smart. It’s always “interesting,” or “intense”, “envelope-pushing,” “different,” “confrontational.” At first I believed it, but now I don’t understand what people mean say when they say it’s “intense.” Maybe its euphemism for, “I can’t stand you, annoying bitch!” I would love to think they say I’m intense because they feel threatened, but that’s just too fucking cocky.
AJI think your work is smart, feminist and political, but you are not trying to be strategic about it—and people are afraid and threatened by all that if you’re a woman. You’re originally from Croatia, but you’ve been living abroad for many years. Do you feel the need to go back to Croatia from time to time? What do you bring with you from these foreign places?
NTThere is a lot I miss about Croatia. I miss a particular sense of humor—so deeply rooted in empathy that it can never become cynical—that I never managed to find in the West. I think that’s of course tied to a very profound feeling for your mother tongue and specific cultural references—like war, conflict and struggle.
When I think about Croatia, I tend to think about Split. My grandparents lived there, and while I was not a huge fan of my granddad, I deemed my grandma to be a queen. She held this dubious office job that was still left from Yugo times, meaning she didn’t do shit but was on a payroll. Her work being dull, and her really being something special, she had a lot of residual energy, which she then poured into me.
AJI know you don’t work with preset ideas and themes, but I imagine that with everything going on right now, and with the incredible range of news about the spread of the virus, you have already started the to work on pool 5, at least in your mind.
NTTrue, true, true! I started working on pool 5 the moment pool 4 went to print. It was the same moment the world turned upside down. For the first time, I feel like I’m obviously chronicling something that will be held in contrast to what I chronicled before, and that contrast will be of importance.