Sven Harambašić is a Croatian artist working in photography and mixed-media. Known for his thought-provoking and boundary-blurring creations, Sven’s art delves into the intersection of reality and contemporary media culture, challenging our perceptions and fostering critical thinking. In this conversation, we discussed Sven’s artistic process and the role of art in today’s media-driven society. His work function as a strong communication device, initiating dialogues and offering authentic frameworks; he reflects on the importance of authentic expression and the value of knowing what one is not, rather than only knowing what one is.
Could you tell us what PROPAGANDNI MATERIJAL actually is, is it a one-off project? Where did the inspiration for the project come from?
The path to that project was very organic. My work over the past couple of years had mostly been collaborative, primarily with artists from the music realm so, for some time, I had this urge to do something solely with *myself*, or at least in a different medium. To challenge myself if for nothing else. I had the phrase PROPAGANDNI MATERIJAL written down for a couple of years and it fascinated me in a morbid way so I knew I would use it eventually. As I let it sit for so long, I realized its origin and meaning are directly or indirectly entwined with a couple of construal elements in my life, from growing up during the war [where my first drawings were almost exclusively military-based and violent], to being fascinated by the nWo mechanics and the ‘90s NBA gear alike and finally, pursuing academia where P-word is *forbidden* and derogatory. Then, it all connected in this current world’s climate where everything is so overly excessive that irony is sometimes the only functional weapon against the universal spectacle. PM was initially supposed to be a one-off drop, playing to all the aforementioned cards while testing my return to the fashion realm, reviving my project VERY RARE by portraying a fashion product in the collaged, mixed-media visual style I utilized over the years in work with musicians. It wasn’t long until I noticed the project’s role in what certain people that I look up to described as an “ordering device” or simply “a different storytelling device”, allowing me to remove pressure from the themes I deal with in my regular work. For example, now I know: PM is product-based, XIII1313 is text-based, “Sven Harambašić” works with faces, or as Francis Bacon would say – injuries. One doesn’t need to exclude the other though.
When it comes to your artwork, it blurs the boundaries of reality in a peculiar way, where often images of reality merge with contemporary media culture. I am referring to how tacitly in some of your works, such as your collaboration with Amenra, your art manifests itself as a true medium. Through your creative process, the viewer is able to grasp cultural processes and changes that help shape the way we perceive the world and develop critical thinking about it. Could you tell me about the social component present in your works, or how you interpret the role of art in contemporary society, understood here as a media-driven society in which the image form is omnipresent.
My drive to do art is selfish most of the time because I always speak to myself first. In a direct relation to that, I prefer to avoid giving away a direct interpretation of it because I like to hear different ways it affects others – there is a certain variation of inverted voyeurism in it I think. For example, you told me that my work with Amenra was tacit, which is something I could only ask for while creating it, because I always perceived their music as a variation of silence, despite its surface intensity. On the other hand, the work with DUMA was supposed to be very physical, and perhaps it was experienced the best when we performed it live and one could feel the full sensory assault on the spot.
I like the quote from Fredric Jameson which says that aesthetic forms live and die according to how well they resolve social and cultural anxieties of the time. On the other hand, general cultural anxiety often ignores individual anxieties. I don’t perceive my work as something that has a wider social component, in my opinion, its value lies in dealing with isolated, inner worlds. There is also this question of form which, by the saying, is only “visible” to those who can add or subtract from it, while the surface is visible to everyone. In that sense, artwork becomes a very strong communication device, a means to start a dialogue. After all, the purpose of art should be to facilitate feeling or further thinking, not imposing meanings – still, that shouldn’t be an excuse for simplifying things. The same way incorporating critical thinking in education is *critical* but also shouldn’t be an excuse for avoiding basics since those basics provide you a framework for further critical thinking. Today’s world is often dubbed as Orwellian, and Orwell still holds the championship belt in buzzword and hype context, even though in many ways, the situation today is more like Huxley; endless cycle of consumption and pleasure, with no time or interest to think. We are all guilty in that sense. My, or any artist’s (or person’s), responsibility is to be authentic, or at least to provide an authentic framework, and in that sense sometimes it’s more important knowing what you’re not, rather than knowing what you are.
Where does your creative process come from? Who do you feel most inspired by at the moment? Both artistically and culturally.
With time, I noticed that the answer to the inspiration question usually goes in one of two directions, both kinda cliché; one is very specific, driven by pretentious references, the other one takes a more general, secretive approach and cites ‘life’ itself as an inspiration. Personally, I lost belief in this romantic concept of inspiration as some divine intervention and learned that the only thing stimulating the work (and thus the inspiration) is the work itself. I doubt I would come to that conclusion this quickly without the original lockdown, where scarcity of new work made me slow down and detox from dopamine shots provided by airports and algorithmic manipulations. There is this quote how writer could spend a lifetime rewriting his ideas, in a similar manner I had to dig back into the archive in order to rethink my existing output.
Following that, the most valuable skill I developed over that course is learning to differentiate a termination point from a navigation point; often, artwork is perceived as a termination point while, essentially, it should always be a navigational, fluid point for the future process. Then, the process itself builds or kills whatever ideas come in its way. The idea is always somewhere inside, it just needs to be decoded and that takes time. If I’m more concrete, perhaps unusual for a ‘visual artist’, my process is almost always sparked from reading; a written word or sentence that catches my attention, then I build up (or down) from there. There is no rule for its format though, Lingua Ignota work was always about strong declarative sentences, Boy Harsher, on the other hand, were all about bold all-caps words. For the work with Moor Mother, I got the text first so I had to work backwards and reimagine those words visually…
All things considered, there is always a deeper hole to dig, with a lot of doors that lead to solid walls. It’s all about finding that one sensation which makes you want to rework your whole catalogue. The false approach would be to dig and expect answers, the point is exclusively in new questions, which is an eternal gift and curse. It sounds romantic once you revisit it though. To be less pretentious and more direct, symbiotic alien matter from Spiderman had been an inspiration ever since I first seen it, when I was four years old.
What do you think is the role of the image in contemporary society? Do you think that photography today plays any role in the representation of reality?
The actual question is what is a reality nowadays anyway? Ten years ago, it was still possible to maneuver between offline and digital worlds because they were still separated in a larger context; today, we are shifting between different identities and personas on-the-go, often inside a single app. In that sense, it is not a surprise that marketing agencies value focus so much since everything is like a hyperbolized liquid modernity, where reality to one identity may seem like an illusion to the other – and we often switch between them numerous times per a minute.
I generally like the dichotomy of photography itself, on one hand you have Susan Sontag who criticizes excessive photographing as an aesthetic consumerism, driven by the need to have reality confirmed, on the other hand you have thinkers like Baudrillard or Virilio who, more or less, consider photography as something creating the reality, not reporting it. I don’t consider myself as a photographer in a natural sense because it had always been a by-product of my other interests. I think one of the positive consequences of social media is training our eye to constantly search and instantly perceive something the way it would appear on a photo [a post], rather than what it truly looks like in the actual world. I take photos as a *muscle memory* of sorts, seeing things and documenting them, then archiving them in order to *misinterpret* them later, by using their indecipherable fragment in a collage; very often, the most morbid looking textures in my works are just fragments of some everyday objects. So, in my own practice the process of documenting is inverted, maybe I’m constructing my own version of the truth. In that sense, perhaps I’m closer to Daido Moriyama’s philosophy, where photography isn’t there because of language but instead provokes or recasts the language.
In science more or less you can never confirm a hypothesis completely, but you can refute it with one single proof, that’s the way progress is made, for example paradigm shift happens when the current theory proves to be *obsolete*. I think that, in today’s digital world, photography deals with reality in a similar manner, just on an individualized micro-level, helping individuals believe, identify and dream – until they are proven otherwise, for better or worse, of course.
Images have always been a powerful sign of culture, they are signs that convey messages, viewers are the interpreters and perhaps you have expressed yourself several times through image-based interviews, for this reason I am asking you: What do you think is the cultural legacy left by the DIY approach in image making?
I think we cannot speak of any legacy today without positioning it into the context of a digital surrounding and identity, so I’ll primarily answer through that lens. The taste, more or less, became a new currency; it’s not about the books you read, it was about the books you had on your shelf and now it’s about the books you pick-up in your hand to post on your Instagram story. In my opinion, DIY still holds very well in *taste* realm due to its connection to subculture and people’s general fascination with manual work. In that sense, DIY image-making focused on physical mediums is perhaps a noise culture of image-making, what could be the last forefront of underground, or at least a much-needed balance to the overflow of digital art, regardless of how niche it is. In the end, it had always been a choice between a true solitude and a collective paranoia, and today is not different.
Due to globalization, everything is getting institutionalized and standardized more quickly, regardless if it’s about something unharmful such as “collage artists” working with digital presets and texture templates or a subcultural movement losing its “imp of perversity”, as Žižek puts it. The idea of appropriation, or aestheticization, is both, interesting and dangerous, depending on the context, as we had learned throughout history more than once. I always praised early 2010s Tumblr as a motivational influence on me, as well as its role in democratization of taste. Ten years later one could also accuse it for destruction of taste. What was once a prothesis now could be perceived as an amputation. Returning to my previous points; digital revolution led to more digital captives than renegades, while Internet changed from a window to the mirror too quickly. All in all, to [finally] answer your question – since Internet doesn’t need to burn, rip or scribble-out book pages in order to rewrite history, the cultural legacy of DIY should primarily be a discovery site for identity – an irreversible document of sorts, celebrating proactivity in a stream of ‘reactionary’.
You are a photographer, designer, and art director. What are we going to see more about you in future, could you tell us about your upcoming projects?
I like to say that stagnation is the Devil and the constant fear of stagnation was my primary driver most of the time, no matter the field. Only recently I learned that things don’t have to move in a linear way to be perceived as *progress* so I actually started to like the idea of a non-linear curve. It is not necessarily about surpassing or negating the predecing act as much as about changing the zone of activity; reinvention through incremental evolution rather than revolution. For example, I released nearly twenty print publications in a three-year period, so it’s probably natural to try to diverge from that and seek different mediums, which eventually led to PROPAGANDNI MATERIJAL. Most of my movement over the years had been incremental and organic, and I would like it to continue that way so I am never interested in announcements, more into the right decisions which will, hopefully, speak for themselves eventually. I would like to say it’s about adding by subtraction but I think I haven’t reached that level of *completion* yet [haha]. If I had to choose one word which is omnipresent in each of my *ordering devices* and accurately depicts my regular day, that would probably be a ‘research’. Also, it’s slightly embarrassing, but only recently had I learned that apocalypse, or revelation, directly translates to “lifting the veil”, and the duality of veils had never been more relevant to me.