On War, Language and Intergenerational Trauma: A Conversation with Damir Avdagic

How is war trauma passed down through language, the body, and the family? Gelare Khoshgozaran of contemporary.org spoke with artist Damir Avdagic about his recent work, which tackles this very subject.


Wars never end in the past. A ceasefire is never the end to the war, no matter how much further destruction it may prevent. No matter the point in time, the damage is done. Ruins, neither here, nor there, are carried around in bodies, in the heads, feet and the arms of people, in the cardiovascular and digestive systems. Irrespective of age and aging, war marks the body. War is transferred millions of times every day in a single living body from every cell that dies onto the new ones being born.

The technologies of war may change constantly: the more progressive and postmodern the technologies, the more outdated the pains, the ruins and the scars. Like a body floating on the waves in the ocean, it goes in and out of sight with every movement. But it is always there; the damage is always done.

It never seems irrelevant for an artist to make work about or through the memories of war. If damage is always done, war is always relevant. But how do we understand ourselves through our understanding of war, occupation or genocide, when one is born into it, one has become through it, around it? And, how is our everyday life today, living in the United States with its increasing militarization, both domestic and overseas, not shaped around it when anyone born after 1984 has likely seen America at war for at least half of their life? These are questions that I have always been concerned with; questions I have been exploring in my art, my writing, my friendships, the way I talk about my past and present, and the way I listen to others. They have informed my position in the world, my thoughts, feelings and politics.

With these and more questions in mind, I sat down on the internet to talk with a friend and colleague, Damir Avdagic, about his practice and recent thesis exhibition at the UCLA Wight Gallery. Damir just finished his MFA in Interdisciplinary Studio and is going to move to NYC soon to join the International Studio and Curatorial Program.

Gelare Khoshgozaran: You have been working on the topic of the civil war in former Yugoslavia and intergenerational trauma for some time. Where did the last iteration, the idea for Reenactment/Process come from? Here you turn to conventional “historical” documents, as opposed to oral storytelling and personal memory. Yet you use these documents as a pretext to embark on a spontaneous conversation among the reenactors. This is formally very interesting to me because the conversation takes place against the backdrop of reenactment–a scripted attempt to perform or recreate something that existed in history. How did this decision inform the direction of your work? 

Reenactment/Process, 2015-2016 | Video installation, dimensions variable, sound
Reenactment/Process, 2015-2016 | Video installation, dimensions variable, sound
Reenactment/Process, 2015-2016 | Video installation, dimensions variable, sound
Reenactment/Process, 2015-2016 | Video installation, dimensions variable, sound

Damir Avdagic: Every time I make a new work I think back to the previous one to ask myself what questions were left unanswered? What didn’t that last work do? Spending time with these questions usually gives me something to start from.

In a series of older works I’ve worked with spoken narratives, which specifically deal with the civil war and were gathered within my own family either through prompting or recording them casually as they appeared in everyday situations. By performing this material, through translation, reading and reenactment, I’ve used my own body and voice as a tool of research to investigate the intergenerational remembering and forgetting of this history.

In “Reenactment/Process” I sought to broaden this excavation to see what the common “historical symptoms” were (if any) within a group of people who share a historical background and belong to the same age group. As a way of revisiting this history, I looked for people to reenact trial transcripts from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Through a laborious and not to mention difficult casting process, I ended up working with the actors Natasha Coralic, Mario Selak and Miljan Rakic, who were all children during the conflict in ex-Yugoslavia and belong to different ethnic groups from that region.

Reenactment/Process, 2015-2016 | Video installation, dimensions variable, sound
Reenactment/Process, 2015-2016 | Video installation, dimensions variable, sound

Whereas my previous work uses this type of “symptomatic” spoken material as its starting point for performances, “Reenactment/Process” documents the surfacing of this material itself, as it appears as a consequence of the historical material that the group performed. Watching these narratives unfold, the viewer is confronted with two historical registers, the institutional treatment of this history through the trial readings and the lived experience of this history in the now as it unfolds in the conversation between the participants. By being implicated in these conversations through the installation of the piece, I hope the viewer can engage in thinking about historical trauma and its transgenerational reach.

I think this piece marked a change in my practice in the way that it established an actual space for people to come together and talk about repressed material that I later realized we couldn’t talk about anywhere else. In that way, the work functioned as a therapeutic space for us as participants, and hopefully, it can function as a space for consciousness raising for those that see the work.

GK: In “Prevodenje (Translation)” a voice that is barely audible is speaking Bosnian through an electronic device, while most of what’s legible to us is in English thanks to your labor of interpretation. Similarly, in the “Reenactment/Process” piece you and your conversants speak Bosnian mostly when quoting your parents or talking about a specific incident that took place at “home,” either in former Yugoslavia or at your home wherever in the world it may be. Language seems to play an important role in your work as the thread that connects trauma, different generations and the idea of home together. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship to Bosnian?

Prevodenje (Translation), 2015 | SD-video, 16;12 min, sound
Prevodenje (Translation), 2015 | SD-video, 16;12 min, sound

DA: Yes. Absolutely. At one point in the piece “Prevodenje (Translation)” I ask my father how people knew who was a Serb, who was a Muslim and who was a Croat, to which he answered that you knew based on what a person’s name was, which I didn’t know about. I continued asking him to what ethnic group the name Damir belonged and he told me that it was mainly Croatian and that he wasn’t sure whether it was given to Bosnian Muslims. At this point, my mother interrupts and says; ”It was given! Of course it was given (to Muslims and Serbs as well as Croatians) That’s why we gave him the name! Because it could be given both here and there.”

In retrospect, this section became really significant for me, because I interpret the choice to name me “Damir” as a way to avoid identification during the rise of nationalism in ex-Yugoslavia, which further implies that the language itself is marked by the historical and political atmosphere of that time period. In this sense, I think the Bosnian language which I speak and understand not only positions me as a subject born in a specific geographical region, but also speaks to my political and social origin, which is one marked by a historical trauma. The language becomes a souvenir, a historical marker, which I carry inside of my body.

In “Reenactment/Process” we often switch to our native language when quoting our parents, which I think is really interesting and possibly speaks to one of the ways the history of the civil war is passed down to my generation. When I say “passed down” I don’t mean literally, it’s not like we’re receiving an understanding of historical events. What is passed down seems to be more an affective residue from this historical era.

For example, one of the participants in the project, Mario, says that he has a terrible amount of anxiety and that the smallest things sometimes overwhelm him. He says “because my parents have always been like: Cuvaj se! Cuvaj se! Cuvaj se!”. “Cuvaj se” means “take care of yourself” or “be cautious”. Natasha mentions her Bosnian friends in Australia who are in their 30s and have a curfew when they’re visiting Bosnia, because their father who was detained in a concentration camp in the 90s, thinks someone will recognize his children and hurt them. There are many other examples like this in the work where various effects are felt as a consequence of the attitudes we grew up around, attitudes that are clearly informed by traumatic experiences.

Through all the material that surfaced in the work, it appears to me that the connection to this history and its effects in the present is perpetuated by the speech and gestures we grew up around in our family homes.

GK: Wow! Thanks for this very thorough response! I think the passing down of this “affective residue” is specifically intelligible in “Prevodenje (Translation).” You are both the simultaneous interpreter of your father’s narrative in Bosnian, and your own inquiries. At the same time, your body as someone who was once a part of that experience/narrative is a translator (and carrier) of that traumatic event. What do you think of this simultaneity of translation and interpretation in your work?

DA: Yes, both those elements are there in “Prevodenje (Translation)” and function almost like a double interpretation of the conversation, one done through the language, and the other through the bodily reactions to the first. As the narrative is being interpreted from Bosnian to English, we quickly understand what kind of task is being performed and what the content of the conversation is.

This gets complicated though, once we start observing the body and the various ways the body acts and reacts to this task of interpretation. The body gestures, makes grimaces, messes up the narration, forgets words etc. and these reactions testify to something more than what is being talked about in the conversation. It testifies to the mutation of history as it passes from one generation to the next and what gets lost or added in that process of transmission. It addresses the difficulty of talking about these things, the difficulty of saying “yes, there were concentration camps” and of course it questions the role of my generation in relation to our past, as we’re caught between different histories, languages and cultures.

GK: More than 20 years after the civil war has ended, how does your project relate to Bosnia’s political condition today? The war is over but it seems like there is a constant war over the narrative of the past that is never going to stop. 

DA: It’s true that there’s a clear conflict about the narrative of the past and as this progresses, people are getting socially conditioned to having specific historical views. And again, as a consequence of that, the relationship between the ethnic groups in the region is getting more estranged.

There was definitely a time in Bosnia when the question about “what you were” ethnically, started becoming significant. I remember this clearly, but I also remember a time before that where those categories didn’t matter. I guess there’s something very emotionally charged about that for me, because those memories function as reminders of who I was before my family fled.

There seems to be a clear desire in the region today to forget the ethnic diversity that existed in Yugoslavia and somehow I feel that I have something to lose with the destruction of that image. Maybe that’s why this latest piece in some ways functions like a reparative work by bringing people together like it does.

If there’s a way my project relates to the current political and historical situation in ex-Yugoslavia, I think it is in the way it raises questions about what the role of my generation is supposed to be in a state of historical disappearance.

GK: Damir, you make me wonder what the world would look like if we all thought more about who we were at the age of six or seven and how we’d relate to the world around us. I enjoyed learning more about your work as always. Thank you for your generosity!

 


Damir Avdagic is an interdisciplinary artist, currently living and working in Los Angeles. Damir Avdagic´s artistic practice is based in performance, text and video and deals with historical memory and identity. With roots in psychoanalytical thinking, he deals with issues of trans-generational transmission of war related trauma. By collecting and performing everyday dialogues, conversations and letters which are circumscribed by the same historical event, he reflects on how history is passed (consciously or unconsciously) to the next generation and what effect it bears on cultural identity, nationality and the self. The historical background for Avdagic’s work is the civil war in ex-Yugoslavia, which lasted from 1991-1995 and from which his family fled in 1993 to Norway.

Gelare Khoshgozaran is an interdisciplinary artist, writer and translator working across the mediums of video, performance, installation and writing. Born and raised in Tehran and living in Los Angeles, she envisions the city as an imaginary space between asylum as “the protection granted by a nation to someone who has left their native country as a political refugee” and the more dated meaning of the word, “an institution offering shelter and support to people who are mentally ill.” Gelare is the recipient of the 2015 California Community Foundation Fellowship for Visual Artists, the 2015 Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant, and the 2016 Rema Hort Mann Foundation Emerging Artist Grant. She is the co-founder of contemptorary.org.

This interview was originally published on contemporary. They have generously given us permission to republish it here. 

contemptorary is an online publication covering: women of color and indigenous women queering the art world: marginalized genders disrupting white hegemony: immigrants and those displaced due to war, occupation and colonialism who breach all terrains. Founded and edited by Eunsong Kim and Gelare Khoshgozaran, contemptorary is a project supported by the Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program.

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