Darja Bajagić sends me screenshots of an email she’s written. It’s a detailed and eloquent riposte to accusations of irresponsibility levelled at her by the Yale School of Art faculty, where she’s completing an MFA in Painting and Printmaking. In it she references Giorgio Agamben’s Profanations and his ideas on the possibility of neutralising and desexualising the pornographic image, of which her work is in abundance. And it is her work and they are her photos. Even if they’re of other people that Bajagić doesn’t know, appropriated depictions of women, nude and staring defiantly at the camera often in some kind of obscene hardcore pose. These are her pictures, stripped of their intention and brazenly held aloft.
Following Bajagić on Twitter, I like to retweet her dry aphorisms, relieving a slight chuckle as she drolly broadcasts, “I Love Pussy” or “Nothing gets eaten in this bed except me”. But I draw the line at the photo of a woman’s g-stringed butt, bent over and announcing, “Im ready for my review tomorrow”. All of them make me smile but that one is more likely to cause offence, and mine is a semi-professional Twitter account. There’s still a certain protocol to follow, however unclear it might be.
Bajagić’s work deals directly in these taboos; sex made scandalous because no one is talking about it, at least, not in the public sphere. When you do there are boundaries, ones that she well and truly crosses, especially in terms of the “conservative and conventional” attitudes of her professors. “It sounds like such a cliché to say that but it’s the truth”, Bajagić tells me from her bed in New Haven, Connecticut, where she’s been living and studying for the past two years. There’ll be no video chat because she feels like “a sack of shit”, sick after an intensified period of preparing for her thesis, where she showed ‘Sample XXX Puzzle– Pin-up Land™ Cum-centration‘ as part of an installation, pissing off a bunch of people in the process: “nobody thought it was funny and they were just really angry”.
I get the feeling there’s more to Bajagić’s refusal to show her face though, imagining she wouldn’t do video even if she wasn’t ill. She consciously avoids having her picture taken generally and found herself policing their appearance on Facebook when she still had an account: “if someone tagged me I would automatically report the photo”. As she often does, Bajagić is chuckling while saying this but there’s something deeply provocative about that attitude. Across ages “ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen”, she’s been constructing various identities and starting relationships with men on social media using these images of sexy and objectified eastern European women; watching her uncle’s Pay-per-view porn from younger. There are reams of images, collected ever since getting her first computer (“I was a huge nerd. I didn’t have any friends”), some of which appear in my downloads as a 1.3 GB folder marked ‘For [Jean]’ –Hito Steyerl’s ambivalent image thrust into view and daring me to look at it.
It’s a two-way street and there’s a power in the gaze, as Bajagić’s women level theirs right back at the viewer, half-concealed, slowly revealed and meticulously presented across chess game motifs, puzzle pieces and cross words. It’s all a game, a strategy loaded with its own sequences and “mini narratives”, thrust into a complex web of networked structures diffused across the online and offline realms –video and installation, jpeg and painting –made all the more perfidious for its own ambiguity.
Pornographic imagery is no longer exclusively the domain of 18+ sex shops and gentlemen’s clubs but accessible to all. Though that’s only if you have the nerve to disregard the implied etiquette and enforced censorship, things that prevent me from making a certain RT or YouTube from hosting Bajagić’s latest ‘Tanya versus Irena’ (2014) video. As a US immigrant, born in Montenegro, raised in Egypt and settled in Chicago before moving to New Haven to continue her studies, Darja Bajagić is no stranger to feeling like an intruder. Here, she enters and pillages what is conventionally a man’s domain of female objectification, demanding she not only be included but implicating her audience in the meantime.
You mention the negative reactions your work often provokes and your refusal to be an activist about your subject. Do you think there’s something wrong with that activism?
Darja Bajagić: I think there’s something wrong with that because I don’t think that women need to be saved. There is something really complex about where these images come from, how they’re made and the exploitative nature of the whole thing. I’m interested in that tension of the work but I’d also like to present them as blank images. I know it’s impossible but that tension is interesting to me, forcing the viewer to come to terms with all of that baggage and then ignoring it simultaneously.
It’s interesting you say that because it makes me think about the ‘gaze’ and this idea that these women are playing to, or for a male one but who’s to say whose gaze it is?
DB: Exactly. I read this really interesting text by Agamben called Profanations and he talks about this porn actress Chloë des Lysses. She got really famous in the 90s in France. She was an amateur porn actress who got into it because of her boyfriend or something and it became a really serious career thing for her.
Now it’s really popular for porn to look like this, but back then it was rare, when the woman would stare back into the camera in hardcore porn. In a lot of the images she’ll be getting fucked by like five guys and she’ll be petting a cat and smiling at the camera as if nothing was happening. That really struck me when I read that text a few years ago, that sort of weirdness. It’s not really letting you get what you want out the images.
So do you think of that a form of empowerment?
DB: Yeah, I think so.
If that empowered approach is so pervasive these days, does that make women working in contemporary porn more empowered?
DB: No, I don’t think so [laughs]. But I think there’s something in that, when the woman returns the gaze. Smiling or not really showing much expression, I think there’s something powerful in that.
Do you think there needs to be an element of submission or violence to indulge a patronising gaze?
DB: Yeah I think so. I’m attracted to the images that are sort of confused. It’s like you can’t really tell if the actress is into it or not but she’s kind of pretending like she is, or she’s smiling or not taking it too seriously but then it’s obviously very patronising, in the conventional sense.
I’ve found things like amateur porn produced out of desperation to be a turn off but I suppose it can be a turn on?
DB: I think it’s a turn on. I mean, just personally I don’t get off on amateur porn or like, when both parties are just enjoying themselves or something [laughs a lot]. I think I’m being too honest.
The faculty always ask me like, ‘are you turned on by these women?’ I always say, ‘no I’m not, I’m not’ but I don’t understand why that would even be important. I can understand people being curious, if I’m actually into these girls. But it sort of annoys me so I always say no.
It only occurred to me recently that that kind of self-exposure and provocation within an art practice isn’t necessarily comfortable for the artist producing it.
DB: For me personally, maybe that’s where the frustration comes in with the faculty, where they annoy me so much that I just don’t give them anything in terms of my relationship to the images. They really try to take it to this personal place, which, again I understand the curiosity, like why I would collect these images and work with them so much, but at the same time I’d like the work to be about something else, not just about my habits.
Your sexual proclivities.
DB: Yeah it’s like, ‘what do you do in your spare time?’
If you think about that in terms of personalising the political, where if a radical feminist is defined as a lesbian, for example, she becomes the exception, rendering her perspective the exception by extension.
DB: Yeah exactly, I really hate that. What about all of those male artists that work with porn? Like Richard Kern, who shoots porn on the side. I would love to know if Richard Prince bangs all those models that come through his studio but nobody’s going to ask him. And if they did, he probably wouldn’t tell them the truth anyway.
When you mention finally revealing these images you’ve been collecting behind your earlier monochrome paintings, I get a similar sense that when you start revealing your own personal history that people start making assumptions.
DB: I think I was fighting that for a long time. In trying to force the viewer to encounter these images, I just wanted to be a blank. I didn’t want myself really implicated. I guess I’m implicating myself a lot more now, obviously, but I still have this desire for these images to force people to see them for, not really for what they are, but what they give on a formal or visual level.
When you say you don’t want to be implicated, and then you talk about Richard Kern, it is like this really powerful, really defined gender distinction where a man is the prototype, the blank image, whereas a woman has all that baggage.
DB: Yeah, exactly. I’ve dealt with it for a long time, obviously, as far back as I can remember. In high school I made this weird porn movie. It was my first year in a pre-college program and I think I was seventeen or something.
I just found this random dude in the park and I asked him to masturbate on camera. I just got a kick off it or something and there was nothing to it except that. We got caught half way through it but I did manage to get a video. It was censored, obviously, because it was a high school show and I was so annoyed by the teachers asking me, ‘what does it mean, you’re a girl making this?’ I thought, ‘why does that even have to come into question, why can’t we talk about this for its other significances?’
You talk a bit about reality or ‘the real’. Were your online behaviours growing up playing with that?
DB: Totally. I always think of the images as blanks. Obviously they give a lot of themselves away, some of them, especially with the amateur ones that I’m working with right now. But it’s like, ‘what is really happening here? What can you make up for yourself, or just assume?’ Looking at them from a purely formal perspective.
So these women you work with are perceivably exports of Western perceptions of eastern European women, I’d like to know what the porn’s like in Montenegro.
DB: I’m not sure. I would just assume they would be into bimbo blondes from America or something [laughs]. I was sort of starting to research it but most of the porn made in Eastern Europe is made for a Western audience, it’s mostly consumed by the west. So I’m not sure really, what people there are into.
Thinking in terms of cultural stereotypes, you don’t really get those cultural caricatures, on such a pervasive level at least, of Westerners in non-Western countries. If you think about it in terms of men being the prototype, that same Patriarchal power structure applies to the West as a whole.
DB: Yeah, even with myself, encountering people having an idea of how I am because I’m Eastern European, even though I’ve never lived there. I was just born there and as soon as I was born we left. So the most I’ve encountered of people from that part of the world was through family functions or something [laughs]. But just because of my name and the way that I look, people automatically assume the kind of person I am.
There’s obviously something very confronting about the images you use; this discomfort, or tension in their ambivalence.
DB: Yeah, I like that. I think it can relate to if, for example, you’re really into watching fucked up porn and you get off on it and then right after you get off on it you have to close the tab. It’s like disgusting, it’s all these feelings in five minutes.
I wanted the video to have a little of that, ‘you’re kind of attracted to them but they’re also presented in this kind of PowerPoint and it’s like, ‘how am I supposed to read this?’ It’s making you feel really conflicted and you want to laugh but maybe people want to punch me. I like creating that space. **