During this year’s edition of the Krakow Photomonth, one of the topics explored by the artists was the relationship between people and animals. The exhibition by Marta Bogdańska at the Gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts (ASP) in Krakow, where the artist showcased her “Shifters” Project, opened a discussion on the issue. I had an opportunity to talk to Marta Bogdańska about the significance of the exhibition for herself and about why she decided to compel her viewers to change the perspective of looking at animals by proposing a non-anthropocentric vision of the world.
Patrycja Głusiec: As the winner of Photo-Match 2020 — a portfolio review organised by Fotofestiwal and the Photomonth — you got a chance to showcase your works as part of an individual exhibition during this year’s edition of the Krakow Photomonth. The viewers have the chance to watch your works from the “Shifters” project at the ASP Gallery. What does this exhibition mean to you and what opportunities does it open?
Marta Bogdańska: The exhibition at the ASP Gallery in Krakow is very important to me. The lengthy process of thinking over the final shape of the exhibition with its curators, Anna Bas and Karolina Wróblewska-Leśniak, was particularly vital. I rarely get this exceptional opportunity to have so much time to rework a project (I was preparing the exhibition since December 2020). I was positively surprised by the cooperation with the curators– I saw their great engagement and openness to discussion, which I value, because conversations are very important to me. The project itself tends to “engross” people and to engage them.
Also, the collaboration with the ASP Gallery in Krakow was fantastic. I am pleased with the possibility to occupy the gallery space and that the organisers of the Krakow Photomonth, in particular Joanna Gorlach and Tomasz Gutkowski, decided to publish a book related to the “Shifters” project. The presence of this book is crucial, and I can say that the exhibition accompanies the book. The book is the first item which was created in relation to the “Shifters” project.
PG: The “Shifters” project you’ve mentioned, currently being showcased at the ASP Gallery in Krakow, is an attempt to talk about history as a non-anthropocentric construct. Animals, and precisely the ones working for the army, the police or intelligence agencies, have been at the centre of your attention. Can you tell us how you came across this subject matter and why did you decide to take a closer look at it?
MB: Working on a lot of projects is a lengthy process. I sometimes prefer taking my time to think, and a specific concept is developed along with the process. In the case of “Shifters,” everything started when I was living in Lebanon. I came across articles about animal spies in local newspapers. Then, I observed how the stories were presented by mainstream media, which got me interested in the topic. Most of them had a mocking overtone, and the authors of only few of the articles decided to introduce the context to analyse the stories, e.g. mention of the fact that the CIA had programmes involving animals.
I started exploring the issue at the beginning of 2019, while I was settling in after my return to Poland from Lebanon, but it was not a standard analysis of the stories back then. I started browsing the Internet, moving from one photo to another, checking how the animal images which intrigued me functioned. I also read a lot about animal rights at the time and their empowerment. At the same time, I was checking how the knowledge of these animals functions on the Internet. The stories nearly always appeared in a sentimental and anecdotal context as nobody suggested a different perspective. I also focused on the poor quality images, which can often be found online, and I observed how they are used and how they shape our knowledge. I was inspired by the text by Hito Steyerl entitled “In defence of the poor image.” I was wondering if anything useful could be done with these bastards of an image.
At the same time, I realised that the words “spy” and “agent” are the key to my work, as their meaning brings together numerous threads. An agent also means a subject who takes action, so we have the subject matter of the agency and empowerment of animals.
And the title of the project itself, “Shifters,” was inspired by the word “shapeshifter” taken from the film and fantasy world, meaning a creature with a capability to change its shape. The motif is also well-known from mythology.
PG: The protagonists of your exhibition might leave your audience confused. Not everyone is ready to give up the anthropocentric vision of the world, according to which animals serve humans. The images you demonstrate encourage reflection about our relationship with animals. Would you like your “Shifters” exhibition to contribute to the change in the way we perceive animals? What is the objective of the project?
It would be great if people changed their approach to animals. I’m a realist though, and I know that the world is not going to change so fast. With my project, I am nevertheless trying to depart from talking about history from the dominant perspective, proposing a vision of history viewed from the point of view of animals.
I was inspired by the idea put forward by Eric Baratay in his books “The animal point of view. An Alternative Version of History” [“Le point de vue animal. Une autre version de l’histoire”] or “The Animals of the Trenches. Forgotten Stories” [Bêtes des tranchées. Des vécus oubliés], where the author presents the stories of animals serving in the armies which fought in World War I.
My project comprises a lot of elements – it is not only the book, although the book is the heart of the undertaking.
I intentionally tried to make sure that the book has this specific thickness and weight to show the volume of the work, dedication and experience of animals. I wanted it to recall the form of a bad novel which we read and forget right after putting it away. This is what happens to the history of animals which takes place on the margins.
I also propose a more personal approach to the subject matter by, for example, using videos at the exhibition as a reflection of what the agency of animals could be like. My mum and I made bags for the animals based on the ones known from the Red Cross. We tried putting them on, and we observed how the animals were trying to defend against them. In the video essay, I used archive materials– footages made by the animals themselves, and contemporary philosophical texts.
I also applied sound, since we are surrounded by images, and we have a lot of ready-made patterns in our heads. I believe that sound can help us look at the experience of animals. It is a medium which is not always seen as appropriate for archival topics. I want to think outside the box, and to find a way to build a narrative with sounds.
The whole collection of works has a potential to reach a vast audience by using various tools.
PG: By continuing this project, would you like to present history from the perspective of animals, going beyond the group of animals taking part in war campaigns? Or would you rather focus on studying history from other perspectives, not only the animal perspective?
MB: I am interested in circus, the animals working there, and animals in entertainment. In “Shifters,” I am quoting an extraordinary story of horses used to provide people with entertainment in the USA. These were the so called “High Diving Horses” – horses jumping to water with female riders. It was a popular form of amusement until 1970s in the USA. I also found information about a horse who performed such a job until 2008.
I could choose any other topic and adopt a similar approach. I would like to expand on my activities involving sound, and move the “shifters” to the stage.
I am interested in the way discourse develops. In one of my previous projects I created in Lebanon, “Plaintext”, I observed the creation of discourse on threats and fear.
I explore history shown from different perspectives. One of my projects, entitled “Love that Dare Not Speak its Name” and showcased in Lokal_30 in Warsaw at the “Poganki” exhibition, was focused on the figure of Selma Lagerlof, and explored the interpretation of queer biography.Hungry for more?
PG: The “Shifters” project is composed of archival materials. The curators of the Krakow exhibition stress that the archives have interpretative power. You tell a different story using the materials you collected. You go beyond the vision of the world with humans in the centre, and ask questions about the status of animals. Could you briefly tell me what role do photograph archives play in your work, and what is photography for you?
MB: Before the “Shifters” project, I only had one occasion to work on archives, but of a different kind – they were private, family ones. Here, the archives are the heart of the project. In each project, photography has a different meaning for me. I use various media; my roots are in the visual arts, but, I am beginning to work with sounds more often. I can tell that I belong to the visual and auditory culture. I combine research and artistic work. Photography is only one of the media for me; image itself is vital but it is not enough.
I treat archives as a living tissue. Their democratisation and facilitated access to them, including this specific repository of the Internet, give us a chance to interpret and understand the past and ourselves, and to find threads which others have been missed (intentionally or by accident). This is the power of the archives – they can be read in multiple ways. That is why they can become a threat; they can give a chance to create gloomy stories and change the way we think. The conceptual level of working with the archives is important to me.
PG: What are you nearest plans in relation to the “Shifters” project?
MB: The “Shifters” exhibition will be available at the Fort Institute of Photography in Warsaw since 8 July. The curators’ concept will not change, but the space arrangement will differ from the exhibition in Krakow. Some new elements will also be introduced as I would like to include more items in the exhibition. Each exhibition space is different and defines its shape in some way.
PG: Could you tell us how has the pandemic changed your photographic plans?
MB: I get the impression that we are privileged here, observing what has been going on in other countries. The pandemic allowed me to focus on the “Shifters” project, giving me a lot of time to work on it. I got additional time to rethink my actions, I managed to prepare a documentary, and I went to art residency in Landskrona. I missed closer contacts with people though.