Searching for truth in truth
Armands Zelčs, Artist
Katrīna Neiburga. In truth: work, family, love, God, children and musical performances
25.02.–27.03.2010. Latvian Railway History Museum
A very brief editor’s introduction. Katrīna Neiburga’s artwork Patiesībā: darbs, ģimene, mīlestība, Dievs, bērni un muzikāli priekšnesumi (‘In truth: work, family, love, God, children and musical performances’) can be seen at the Latvian Railway Museum in Riga from 25 February. This conversation took place in late December 2009 and was intended for the February/March issue of Studija. However, for rational, irrational or personal reasons, Neiburga requested that its publication be delayed until after the opening of the exhibition. Now the exhibition is under way, everything is going perfectly and there is no reason why you too shouldn’t have the chance to move closer to the truth.
Katrīna Neiburga. In truth: work, family, love, God, children and musical performances. View from the exposition. Photo: Martins Vizbulis
Armands Zelčs: Your exhibition is coming up soon. What will we see in it? Will there be something surprising and unexpected, or will you stick to video, the medium you have worked in up to now?

Katrīna Neiburga: Yes, that’s exactly what I wanted to ask, what is my line of work, but OK... At present it’s still hard to say, because it’s December and only half the work has been done – video material filmed during the summer. I’d almost forgotten about this in the context of the overall feeling. I had hoped that the interviews would take place after the exhibition had opened. But fine! I’ll try to tell you about what is already clear and has been done.

I got the idea for the work after reading two books: ‘Light’ and ‘The Cool Virgin and other Nonsense Stories’. Although the titles sound very unserious, I was fascinated by the way they mythologized day-to-day life. In parallel with reading these books, for quite some time now I have had the desire to collect a great many stories and to create a film. I wondered – where can I go further, generally? How many of those short video works will I make?! I had to get stuck into something bigger – making a film. I talked to Agnese Krivade about writing a screenplay, and she agreed that she could do something like that in the future. This nebulous intention converted to the gathering of material. Initially this was only to find sources of inspiration, but eventually the activity overwhelmed the idea of the film itself and the outlines of the current work took shape. In the summer we started travelling around and collecting stories. We made two trips lasting about a fortnight each. We turned up to meet various people totally unprepared, and of course things were more complicated than I had imagined – simply discovering great storytellers with ready tales about the people around them. Although it might seem to be easier to talk about the people around you, it turned out that everybody wanted to talk about themselves. I think that we performed a good service in listening to over 40 people who wanted to talk about themselves. Some of them hoped to have a massive film made about them, but they’ll just have to accept things as they are and be hugely disappointed. But that’s art for you!

A.Z.: What are the current outlines?

K.N.: About some six years ago now, a relative of mine in the town of Madona told me these sort of invented stories about all his neigh-bours. I assume that they were based on actual events, but had been retold and expanded on so many times that they became, as I would like to call them, modern-day fairytales. For example, in one old man’s house the chimney smoked without interruption, and everyone wondered how this was possible for so long. It turned out that the man’s wife had left him and he was using her clothes to fuel the stove. Once the clothes ran out, he moved on to belongings – the marital bed and then everything else in the house. He burned up everything there was and was left only with a little stool to sit on. I thought it would be wonderful to collect modern-day tales like that. And in the two books I mentioned, although they are literary works and not based on documented facts, I can detect the feeling that real life has somehow become a fairytale. It’s like when we talk about ourselves – there are some events which are half-forgotten, yet we have repeatedly recounted them. They are like everyday fairytales that, over time, we learn to recite like stories with a beginning, a climax and a conclusion.

A.Z.: Why did you choose country people? Are country people more honest or naïve, or do they talk about things that are exotic for city dwellers?

Well... Of course they are more naïve! And it’s quite clear that we differ a lot from country people. As Alvis Hermanis says: “That’s where the real life is!” I don’t totally agree with this, because there is no such thing as real or not real life. We also live a real life, only that it’s totally different. When I returned from filming, I was consumed by the rhythm of country life and thought that yes, maybe I’ll move there and start living like that! But, on reflection, I understood that those are just illusions. The people I met in the country had a common characteristic which I don’t share. They were faithful to and very firm in their con-victions. In contrast, I’m not convinced about anything at all. I’m constantly dogged by a feeling that any moment I’ll stop and start living my real and true life. I just need a bit of time to think it through properly. It’s true – until now I haven’t succeeded. Country people don’t think for a minute that they are living something that isn’t real. Each has their own firm convictions and their own unbending truths. In comparison I could only give a definite answer when I had stopped eating meat. It seemed to me that at last I could say one thing about myself with complete certainty: I don’t eat meat! The rest could be like this or like that. Those people have very strong convictions about fundamental issues: God exists, that’s bad, that’s good etc. They don’t suffer any serious doubts.

A.Z.: An uncomplicated approach to life.

K.N.: Well, yes! You could say that we are sort of moral cripples, but they aren’t.

A.Z.: You mentioned Alvis Hermanis. He has found a successful way of transforming true life stories into theatre performances. In the context of the new work, are you interested in common “source material”?

K.N.: I’ve been interested in people ever since my involvement with the Tējas sēne (‘Tea-Shroom’). That was around 2001. I think that the “people collecting” also began about then. At that time the mere words “tea mushroom” could open many doors. And there immediately followed a wonderful story. I also had a work about girls’ handbags, taxis...

A.Z.: ... an apartment building with tenants.

K.N.: Yes! If I think about further education as well, it’s always in connection with documentary filmmaking. The stories collected for the exhibition cannot stand alone, so what will be seen in the exhibition – in truth I haven’t fully made up my mind yet – will be my interpretation of what I heard and saw in the country. The people will work as actors who create a meditative sense of their truthful convictions – their con-victions about their beliefs – through one or two sentences or verses of poetry, songs, swear words or affirmations of faith. For us it will be... well, it’s too early to tell how it will be for us.

A.Z.: What have you planned from a purely technical stand-point? Large format video projections or...?

K.N.: Yes, that’s exactly right – vertical video projections! Initially I had a few doubts about the vertical format. I thought I might ruin everything that way. But in the end, that’s how I filmed it all. Everything is vertically, quite evenly framed. For easier editing I also filmed the “mandatory” shots without the storyteller. Already I can say, with almost complete certainty, that there will be eight large video projections. The feeling should be fairly realistic, as if the person filmed is sitting right there in the exhibition space. He or she says a sentence, but another character answers. It will be like a conversation, dialogues between 45 different people. I think that everyone will appear on the eight projections. Questions will be asked, answers given, at times someone will become the background, at times someone will become a soloist etc. I really want to stress that the sound will be of great im-portance. It will be created by Andris Indāns, and I want it to be like a grandiose musical work, an opera... A really major musical work.

A.Z.: Did you have to interrupt the storytelling a lot?

K.N.: No, the texts were not planned in advance, but there were questions we repeated beforehand. About faith or happiness... About things where a common thread might be found later. Occasionally some-one also comes up with a wonderful phrase. For example: “So what was I telling you!?”, “What kind of story do you need?” Or also, for example, an address which was directed toward me while filming, and which becomes a speech to the viewers in the exhibition space. I tried to ensure that they kept their gaze on the camera and they spoke directly to the viewer.

A.Z.: In selecting the fragments to be used in the work, were you guided by the message conveyed by the speaker, or by aesthetic criteria or was the speaker an instrument with which to “play out” your relationship with the truth? In other words, what significance is assigned to a specific person and their unique story?

K.N.: At the moment each person gets ten minutes, which is a lot. The sifting through is taking place in several stages, to dispose of what’s not needed. I’m nowhere near a result yet, but it’s clear that the mood and what I want to say will also be what they end up saying, and so they definitely won’t be happy. I exchanged e-mails today with Agnese Krivade and we agreed that while these people are far away from us, we find them very interesting.
Often the thing that attracts us seems to be rude to them, or what they find is wonderful and right strikes us as being boring. The idea is, of course, to invite them all to the opening of the exhibition, but I doubt that they will get what they expected. However, I think that what we gave to them at the time … that’s what they wanted: to tell their stories and sense that there is interest in them.

A.Z.: The word “instrument” is relatively directly applicable to the tone of the speech of the people who were filmed. Will the speech of the speakers be like musical notes?

K.N.: Exactly! There’s a lot of musicality there. How they say things! You could make a song out of it. An opera! While filming, we also met a couple of musicians who played or sang a few songs for us. So yes, you could make a sort of choir out of them.

A.Z.: The chosen shot aesthetic and camera placement invite the description “minimalist”. By choosing this model, do you want to make an additional intellectual statement or are you simply following visual aesthetic principles?

K.N.: It’s completely definitely to do with aesthetic principles. I simply found what was, in my view, an ideal place for the person to sit down. A little lighting, to see the space where they were sitting, and that’s all. Although it wasn’t all that straightforward, because when I seated our Latvian druid… I sat him down in a concrete spot, the one I thought was most appropriate. I also sat down in a particular spot and he said to me: “Well, look here! Another little witch has come to see me!” It turned out that I had somehow placed my subject and object in a position that had some sort of meaning. So it’s not as unambiguous as all that. God only knows who knows that.

A.Z.: It turns out that from the druid’s viewpoint everything is totally different. And the work is actually about, say, lichen.

K.N.: No, quite the opposite. From the druid’s viewpoint everything is correct.

A.Z.: Getting back to music, one of the pioneers of this sort of sound processing was the minimalist composer Steve Reich. In 1965 he created his work It’s Gonna Rain, in which a recorded voice generates musical material. Later Reich said something worth noting: “This is the beginning of a path leading to documentary musical video theatre.” Have you been influenced by Reich’s work?

K.N.: In a way, yes. During a certain period of my life the composer was quite important to me. I listened to him a great deal when I was 20. Actually it probably came together with the Academy of Art, where we had a very good music history lecturer, a Mr. Avramecs, who “infected” us with all that. But it wasn’t as if I remembered what you mentioned while I was making my work. Later, after I had already started filming, Mārtiņš Grauds put me on to another work by Reich – Different Trains – in which the same composition style is used. Well, I’d only be too pleased if I managed to become a part of what he foretold. This however is just my first attempt.

A.Z.: Different Trains is based on the author’s own childhood and reflections on the Holocaust in Europe. What message do you want to convey to your viewer?

I think that if you create a musical work and a meditative feeling about so many truths, you can end up with such an active background that the opposite effect takes over – it engenders neutrality. And you can suddenly find a pure mind and calmly reflect on your feelings. I hope to be able to achieve the same effect with constantly changing, even attacking truths. Perhaps I will achieve that ultimately a person realises that there is nothing.

/Translator into English: Filips Birzulis/
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