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The context of this conversation is the exhibition No Man’s Land, an exhibition by Dessislava Terzieva, which documents interventions in public space by the artist in Detroit last year. In order to broaden the discussion around art and its social effects, we invited Driton Selmani and Paula Schubatis – who also engage in their artistic practice with activities outside the white cube – to join the conversation. Questions asked by Viktoria Draganova.

Driton Selmani, Secretly Kissing Each Other, 2018 © Photo: Nemanja Kneževic
Dessislava Terzieva, Big Bertha (Prima Materia World), 2019-2021 © Photo: Dessislava Terzieva

Last year, as part of the program of the Center of Social Vision, we showed works by Dessislava Terzieva from the series Prima Materia World which she has been working on since 2019. The series features public space interventions, which we found very intriguing to discuss within the broader framework of how art participates in social processes. Later, we were happy to continue working with Dessislava on that topic and staged No Man’s Land. So, I wanted to ask you, Driton and Paula, how far back can you trace your interest in art in public space?

Driton Selmani I think most of my works have never really belonged to white cubes. From the very beginning, my work ended up everywhere – on streets, in squares. You've just reminded me that one of the first ever artworks I did was at Mother Teresa Square in Pristina: the intervention For God’s Sake back in 2008. Also, while I was in art school, I wasn’t interested in the painting itself, but rather in the back of the painting, the canvas, and its surroundings. Perhaps that’s why every time I saw a van in the street, I thought of it as a white canvas and that I could do something here. It can be straightforward, quick, simple, minimal, and I can also communicate with others without the need to invite them into the white cube. So, I started putting messages on vans. At the beginning, one of these was When I see nothing I have to imagine something (realised in Pristina in 2018), because I was also interested in the void, and the non-places. I believe that the non-places are very often the places themselves. If you look carefully at the universe, there is more of nothing than something.

Paula Schubatis I also studied painting in art school. For me, painting was a way of documenting spaces, and I found abandoned spaces interesting as a formal context. Engaging with public spaces is really about engaging with the community. Planning an interaction and a participatory experience, for me, is understanding how to communicate with people and how they experience the world. Many projects I've done in the past have to do with sensory experiences. Textures are important.

How important is it for you to engage with communities? Do you prefer to approach communities that already exist, or to create communities via your projects? Or, do we rather think of imaginary communities?

Driton Selmani Both space and the community you’d like to address are important, but most important is the imaginary one, because of the fact that we don’t know whether it exists, but we believe in it. Moreover, when we work we imagine something but then it turns out to be something completely different. The gap between the imagined and the real event seems to be crucial – and this seems to be another non-place.

Dessislava Terzieva Sometimes the work becomes almost like a destination - as it has happened quite a few times with my public space interventions. People know that it exists, so they travel to see it. This is when an artwork creates a community around itself. But most of the time the work does exist in a place that already has a community. So it could be something that someone sees every day, and then it's activated in a different way, and they look at it differently. And it's part of their everyday environment.

Paula Schubatis As you are mentioning imaginary communities, to me these are the ways I group people and ideas and relationships based on observation of interactions. I think it is curiosity, and, again, observation of spaces and things, that I’m really interested in. I find it intriguing how other people experience things. How we can bridge and share together this experience that doesn’t have language. There is a piece that I did when I was teaching high school which was called Pothole Prevention. It took place in a pretty bad neighbourhood of Detroit. I suggested filling all these huge potholes in the roads with pretty stuff. I had my students dress up as construction workers, and we filled the potholes with all sorts of glitter, jewels, gummy bears and resin, and made them pretty.

Paula Schubatis, Pothole Prevention, 2015 © Photo: Paula Schubatis

Let’s talk about language. Dessislava, in your public space interventions in Detroit, you use Bulgarian (and its Cyrillic script) which are barely translatable, we need imagination to interpret them. And, Driton, your quotes on vans have quite a poetic value. How do you wish your texts to be perceived?

Dessislava Terzieva It's interesting how the things we make help us see better. And by that I mean that after the show (No Man's Land ) happened, I was on a bus in Bulgaria, and I was looking out the window at the [apartment] blocks and seeing how their colours, the colour blocking, is not any different than what I did on the walls of the gallery. And it's not any different than the colours that I chose. And I was wondering, did these colours choose themselves from what I’m picking up every day and not even noticing consciously? Once they came out of me, I wondered, what came first, the subconscious integration of this visual data that is constantly around me that I only really saw clearly once it came out through me. Versus, I created it independently, and only then saw the coincidences. It's probably one big mixture of feeding and eating with the environment.

“Dessislava Terzieva: No Man’s Land”, installation view at Swimming Pool, Sofia, 2022. © Swimming Pool and the artist. Photo: Yana Lozeva.
Dessislava Terzieva, От нищо нещо, 2022. Digital print, Dibond © Swimming Pool and the artist. Photo: Yana Lozeva.

Driton Selmani First, when talking about poetry, I don't believe you become a poet, but that it's somewhere deep in the hearts and the souls of people. I grew up with a friend of mine, and he happens to be a cousin of mine, a very close person in my life. He is one of the best known poets in Kosovo right now – Shpëtim Selmani. One day, I was checking my notes on my iPhone, and it was full with, you know, random thoughts. Later, I was having a beer with him, and I told him that something is happening with me. I was waking up during the night and writing things down. And he said, “Motherfucker, you are a poet as well.” For me, that was a very legitimate moment, because I needed this particular support that I have the poetry inside me and I am eligible to use it. This is how the van project in Belgrade (Secretly Kissing Each Other, 2019) started because I said, well, I don't want classical poems. And actually, I don't know what the poem is, I just write things and I want them to be as short as possible. Upon invitation for the Mundane show in Eugster || Belgrade, we rented a van and printed the text on it. I thought that it will bring poetry to the people, it will bring intermezzo to the people. I like to produce these intermezzi, the alienation effect, as in the Brechtian theory. And it has slowly become my pattern, as it has to do a lot with what I’m doing right now.

Driton Selmani, Secretly Kissing Each Other, 2018
Driton Selmani, Secretly Kissing Each Other, 2018 © Photo: Nemanja Kneževic

What kind of process or interrelations are you trying to create when working with a ce

rtain place or community? What possible body and network does the artwork create around itself?

Driton Selmani Very often I try to put stories around, and you can also say that I’d wish every solo show of mine to be a storybook. Sometimes I'm jealous I am not a writer, and sometimes I am very jealous I'm not a movie maker. Sometimes I would even wish my works to be like the writings of Etel Adnan, I wish them to have the aura, I want my artworks to invite the audience to something which might be triggering, but then to have this momentum of not making sense at first glance and then starting to grasp what the sense could be. I like producing the algorithm of knowing – not knowing – and understanding. This is what I believe produces this fantastic thing called knowledge.

Paula Schubatis I'm really fascinated by the way that other people think, learn, and experience things. Sensation is superimposed, and it is the reflexive thing between your reality and the world around you in projecting one onto another one. I want to create the relations between people in that sense, too.

Dessislava Terzieva My work in public space is an exploration of a personal narrative related to the experience of being an immigrant. My public work likes to pose questions, but the questions are not apparent. They could be like:Why is that there? What is it? And, there's never an answer to be found. I think it is a playful, but also serious, way to engage someone in the most simple way, where something strikes you and you get to think and wonder for a minute, because as simple as that is, I think it doesn’t happen often. I think it’s like if you watch people on a street – the street gives me so much, so much inspiration. When working with Paula, a lot of the things that we do together in the street are really inspired by what was there right before…

Paula Schubatis We were talking a lot about imagination and play the last time we did something together.

Dessislava Terzieva And about potential.

Paula Schubatis Yes, about modality, and potential. Public interventions make people think for themselves.

Dessislava, thinking of relations, I was reminded of your installations Prima Materia World (2019–) that turn leftover textiles into poetic symbols of solidarity. The works you installed on two bridges in Sofia in 2022 were stolen shortly after they were installed.

Dessislava Terzieva Yes, that’s part of my curiosity. I want the audience to have some sort of reaction, even if it's minimal, even if it’s just posing a question. But then also it's interesting to see how it either exists or doesn't exist. And then it creates a question for me that I don't have an answer to. I wonder, who took it, did they use it, why did they take it? And each location also dictates the reaction because in Detroit, it will just stay for a year, and I'll take it away so that the mystery continues.

What changes when you show work created in public space in the white cube? No Man's Land doesn't only document the public space interventions in Detroit, it is also a reflection on translational processes between different geographical, personal, imaginary contexts.

Dessislava Terzieva An exhibition in the gallery space creates something like a map, because my works in public space are often spread apart, and they just exist in the world. When you put them all in one place, it helps you to see the bigger picture and to be understood. There's no way to actually condense it all in that way if it only exists in the public space. And I think that maybe having them all in that one space, you could see how they talk to each other – versus when they are in public space, they exist alone, and they live alone.

“Dessislava Terzieva: No Man’s Land”, installation view at Swimming Pool, Sofia, 2022. © Swimming Pool and the artist. Photo: Yana Lozeva.
“Dessislava Terzieva: No Man’s Land”, installation view at Swimming Pool, Sofia, 2022. © Swimming Pool and the artist. Photo: Yana Lozeva.

Paula Schubatis One thing that I’m really interested in my work, especially because I am a hand weaver, is computer science and computational theory. And, in systems theory, you have the white cube, an open system with open boundaries, where all the inner workings are transparent. But then there's also a black box, which is basically a system where there's inputs and outputs. You don't know how it works, but you can only decide on that based on the outcomes or the output. For me, the black box is sort of how I see the work existing outside of the white wall context. The white gallery space is about isolating those things and having them stand alone. In the past, I've approached that in a totally separate way from the installation work: how could I create, in my language, a summative way to express what I’m expressing there in a single object or a collection of objects. Installation has a lot to do with the space around it because it morphs into whatever space is around it – it is just kind of like an amorphous form.

Driton Selmani The white cube is important because it is the temple where we convey the messages and the imagery. It is about legacy. And legacy is the most important asset, especially if you collect legacies. But also, I never thought of how to present works produced in public space in the white cube. I think it is important that if you have the urge to do something, you should never think about how to present it later, because it doesn't matter. Also, the interventions I’ve conceived have never really functioned in the white cube. But that’s a statement again, because, you know, they were not meant to be presented there. They don't fit in the New York elevator – to quote Grayson Perry, who said something like “You’ll never be successful unless your work fits into the elevator of a NY apartment block.” So, they apparently are bigger than the rather small art world.

DESSISLAVA TERZIEVA is a Bulgarian-American contemporary artist based between Detroit and Sofia. She earned a BA in Political Science from Oakland University and an MFA in Sculpture from Cranbrook Academy of Art in 2021. Prior to attending Cranbrook, Terzieva made a name for herself as a prominent figure in the Detroit art scene; exhibiting in off-site locations, curating independent spaces, and executing interactive and immersive installations in the public sphere. In 2021, she founded FIDANA Foundation, a non-profit organization facilitating contemporary art and interventions in public spaces using pre-existing infrastructure.

DRITON SELMANI is a Kosovar artist who completed his MA studies at The Arts University Bournemouth UK. Selmani approaches the idea of perceived reality by deconstructing formations of social, political, and cultural topics that have been embodied around him. He has exhibited at solo and group exhibitions in Ludwig Museum (Budapest), Corridor Project Space (Amsterdam), Maxxi Museum (Rome), Thessaloniki Center of Contemporary Art (Thessaloniki), Manistesta 14 (Pristina) among many others.

PAULA SCHUBATIS is a Detroit-based artist, educator, textile designer, and social sculptor. She explores urban landscapes through woven textiles, paint, and found materials, using material remnants of the past to manipulate the tactile experience of the present, in an attempt to “assert connections to the past by strengthening links to the present”, and blur the distinction between art and artifact. Schubatis is currently the Art Teacher at Emerson Elementary-Middle School in Detroit, Michigan.


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