Artist Interview

Nez Pez is currently particularly focused on installations exploring sound and space and on abstract drawing, though she is also interested in zines and printmaking. Her works – she works between Berlin and Ljubljana – also include mural pieces that usually take their inspiration from the urban environment. In this interview, which forms part of RogLab's GraFEM programme, we talked also about these mural pieces.

Hello, Neža. You are best known as an independent multimedia artist working at the intersection of a number of artistic practices. Your interests span installations, art in public spaces, illustration, and exploring space through sound. How did you become involved in all these different fields?
I used to draw a lot in junior school, so the decision to move on to the Secondary School for Design and Photography in Ljubljana was an easy one. There was no choice to be made, I was quite determined. It was only later, when I attended a course with the sculptor Dragica Čadež Lapajne, that I discovered I loved working with clay and decided to study sculpture. My studies gave me an insight into installations and I started thinking about projects in conceptual terms. Drawing has always been the foundation for me, though, and it was through drawing that I became involved in other media as well. Including printmaking, of course. In his first lecture on printmaking, Professor Lojze Logar asked us to do some sketches for linocuts. You always do the sketch the day before. And you make mistakes, cross them out, turn a new page. When Professor Logar looked at my sketches the next day, he focused on the mistakes I’d made and told me to make a print from them and use them as my starting point. That’s when I started really thinking about process: from then on, my work focused more on the process than on the idea in my head.

So the actual process of creation is important to you?
It’s the most important thing. Even when I’m making zines and prints, I try to use the copier as a medium. It’s only when you get the result that you see what is going on and can focus on that. When you see how a line or plane changes, you start to manipulate the machine in order to get a different result, and that takes you away from what you originally had in mind. That’s the whole point. It’s a kind of deconstruction of what you’re doing. You have to do it, otherwise it gets boring.

And what led you to the world of graffiti?
I started doing graffiti when I was quite young. I was always playful and loved being outdoors. One day my mum went out and bought some car paint for me – I must have been about 13 or 14. We were already going out a lot by then. I wasn’t any good at first, but I loved it. Then you get to know people who are in to the same kind of things, and you start hanging out with them. But I was never part of any of the groups.

So you’re not a typical graffitist?
I was never interested in becoming a master or improving my technical skills to make everything I did really accurate. I’m much more interested in the process. That’s always been the central point of interest for me. It’s why I worked on illustrations, colour combinations and painting techniques rather than on developing letters. I’m also interested in finding the right approach to take to the space I’m working in, I want to see how a work fits in to the overall urban context.

When you were painting the wall of the Street Gallery in Vegova Street a couple of years ago, you said that the city provided some ready-made elements that you were able to work with. How is this reflected in your graffiti and mural pieces?
In the case of the Street Gallery I used a crack in the wall beneath the poster frames to put small sculptures in that passersby could take away with them. In other cases I was able to use elements I’d found while researching the surrounding area, or that expressed my reaction to something. When observing my surroundings I’m always looking for the surprise factor: something that is out of place, that stands out as a mistake, a glitch, an accident. That’s why I am always fascinated by liminal situations. At the same time, though, I want to act lightly, not think about things too much, act intuitively and playfully, not take myself too seriously. But you should really be asking the people who live in the streets where my work is.

You have had a lot of exhibitions abroad over the years and earlier this year you moved to Berlin. How does travel influence your creativity? Has your graffiti style changed over the years?
Whenever I'm abroad I always find something that I will remember. I see elements that I take away with me and that serve as an inspiration when I’m developing ideas on paper later. It’s always worth walking around places because you spot lots of new things that you can use later. In terms of style, though, my greatest influence has been the people I’ve worked with. I always pick something up from my friends.

How active are you in the graffiti scene now?
I have to admit I haven’t been very active the last few years, though I’m always in whenever there’s an opportunity of some kind, like this one now, or when there’s a graffiti jam. It’s fun, you meet up with friends. The graffiti community in Slovenia is quite strong. There are some people who have been doing it for a long time, and who are always active. I get the feeling there haven’t been as many graffiti artists over the last few years, though, or perhaps I just don’t know many of them any more. I have spotted a few new names recently, though, so perhaps the scene has become more active again. When I was starting out, it was very much alive. You had 1107, Egotrip, Pony mafija, Ovca. Later you had the Animals, who were a superb team who created a lot of works in the streets. Train graffiti has always been very popular in Slovenia, too. Lots of people come here from other countries to see the trains. At some point, though, with the creation of legal graffiti sites, illegal graffiti took a bit of a hit: suddenly more designs were appearing, more graffiti jams taking place, and there were more opportunities to do graffiti in an organised way.

What is your opinion of these officially authorised graffiti areas?
It’s really a question of different techniques and different principles. The difference between political graffiti, visually appealing graffiti, the aesthetics of the ugly, and mere provocation. These are all different ways of communicating with the space. Sometimes it’s good to see aesthetically pleasing graffiti: it adds to the beauty of a city. On the other hand, though, we are now seeing alternative tourism and the monetisation of an independent culture that evolved through rebellion but is now a source of revenue. We could talk about this for hours. Personally, I like exploring public space, the boundary between public and private, liminal space – space that is seen as transient rather than useful. I love exploring these things, and sometimes the drawing and graffiti helps me notice what’s going on around me. And in the process, you see how people start using things in ways they weren’t originally intended for. I find that really interesting. Legal graffiti sites in cities deprive us of the freedom to use the whole of the public space. It’s strange that cities today are designed quite artificially, and primarily with tourists in mind. Cities have to be interesting for tourists, but at the same time youthful, clean, friendly and safe. Public space is increasingly turning into something quite different from what it was when I was younger.

How does this apply to Berlin, where you currently live?
I was thinking about this just yesterday. The older parts of a lot of European cities now cater primarily for the needs of tourists, and are completely useless when it comes to the needs of their actual residents. Ljubljana is beginning to go that way too. When I was younger, the whole city was full of life. It was where the young people met up. Thinking about Berlin – it’s not a typical city, it lacks a true centre. Being divided into so many different districts means its whole approach is different. I’ve always felt that Berlin is a city designed by and for people. There are posters glued to every lamp post, there are flyers everywhere, people chalk messages on the pavement, there are benches everywhere where you can sit and hang out. I prefer that to living in a kind of a grid where things are starting to get tidied away and the types of activities that can take place in any given location are tightly defined.

Graffitiing is typically associated with men. RogLab's GraFEM programme will be promoting women's graffiti and street art culture. How have you felt as a woman in the graffiti and street art scene?
I’m not sure I can point to anything specific that could only happen to me because I’m female. Perhaps people didn’t want to take me seriously because I came from an independent culture. I often start my projects by talking to people informally, and I do find that they sometimes act as though I didn't deserve the same kind of attention as more formal artists. But I’ve never felt rejected just because I’m a woman, either in my graffiti or my skating. I welcome the GraFEM programme because it’s good that a new opportunity is being created, a platform for creating, a platform giving female artists the opportunity to meet, work together and create. Back when I used to take part in graffiti jams, I was usually in the minority; but it seems to me that graffiti writing is about ego and that gender wasn’t important. I never felt pushed out or unwanted. I want to work in an environment where the quality of the work is recognised regardless of gender, status, race, etc. It is indeed a stereotype that graffiti and street art are mainly male activities, but I don’t think it’s the case anymore. Festivals often attract female artists, and the groups of friends who have been coming to Ljubljana in the last few years as part of the graffiti subculture often include girls and women.

In Slovenia we mostly know the male graffitists. We rarely come across female ones. Why do you think this is?
Over the last few years, more and more designated graffiti areas – legal graffiti sites – have been springing up. But at heart, subculture is based on illegality, guerrilla action, and the anonymity that goes with that, so you can’t tell whether a graffitist is male or female.

Graffiti is a highly ephemeral type of art. Your painting on the RogLab walls will be temporary too: only there until it is painted over by someone else. How do you feel about that?
A graffiti piece really is an ephemeral art form, and it’s only right that it be constantly replaced. Even if an individual piece is not cleaned off, as has been happening in Ljubljana for years now, walls crumble, plaster peels off, some things get overwritten, the content changes constantly. This is actually one of the most beautiful aspects of graffiti, and again, it’s all about process.

But sometimes people become attached to some of the works you see in the street and feel quite sad when they are removed – though it depends, of course, on where these graffiti pieces are and whether they have become part of the life of the community or subculture.
It’s all part of how you move around the city, what you notice, what you orient yourself by. Whenever I’ve travelled with other graffiti artists, we’ve always agreed to meet “at this graffiti piece, then turn left at that tag”. You recognise the place by means of certain signs. What interests you is your alphabet. When I travel with fellow skaters we talk about skating spots, what the asphalt is like in a given location. People notice different things. But sometimes you notice something, smile and remember it. There’s a sign on a friend’s door in Berlin that says, “Have one good day” – one, just one. It makes me feel good every time I see it. I’d be sad if it were removed. Like you said, there are some pieces you become attached to. Sometimes you notice a new piece, take a picture of it and send it to your friends, and when it disappears a week later you say to yourself, “What a pity, I really liked that one”. It seems to me that the purpose of all urban art forms is to build some kind of community. It’s not just about graffitiing, hanging out and going around together, it’s also about encouraging younger artists to join in. Whenever anything is organised, it’s usually with the intention of building a community, and I like that.

You said that what interests you in the city is your alphabet and that you orient yourself by the spots that appeal to you. What sites do you immediately think of when talking about graffiti in Ljubljana? What sites would you say your friends from abroad absolutely must see?
Our regular meeting place was Trubarjeva Street: it was our orientation point. We used to meet at the Riviera bar at the intersection with Resljeva Street for a while too. You didn’t even need a phone, we all knew we’d meet there. The whole city is a network of orientation points, a code that allows us to communicate with one another. A friend of mine used to tease me: “Don’t you know all the graffiti in your city?” From the railway station, around Metelkova Street, Maistrova Street, Slomškova Street, Resljeva Street, up to the squat on the site of the former Rog bicycle factory, across the Ljubljanica River to the city centre, and then on the other side, around the Soteska district. We used to hang out in all these places, and on the way back home again too (laughs).

Graffiti has been getting a lot of attention from museums and galleries these last few years. How do you feel about the institutionalisation of graffiti and street art?
It’s just what happens when a branch of culture splits in two: one part becomes increasingly institutionalised and commercialised, the other remains marginalised. I think it’s ok. Graffiti writing and painting techniques such as the use of spray paints, caps, stencils and stickers – I don’t have a problem with them being a medium that can be exploited in different ways. But graffitists who wish to remain in the street will always remain in the street. There are a couple of good anecdotes. For instance, a while back the International Centre of Graphic Arts in Ljubljana held a graffiti exhibition featuring artists from Slovenia and abroad, and someone sprayed “A grafite bi mel" (So, you wanna some graffiti!) on the front wall. Gestures like that are playful. They show that even if you institutionalise a medium by putting it in a gallery, one aspect of it will always remain faithful to its original form. As for commercialisation, monetisation: that always happens, with all forms of culture.

Your graffiti and light installations are all in public spaces. How important is it to have art in public spaces?
In a lot of my works I’m trying to communicate with my audiences in an interactive sense. Street art is highly interactive by definition – when you create street art you enter into a kind of a dialogue with whoever passes by. When I was making a piece of work for the Lighting Guerrilla Festival, my project was destroyed in a single evening and I swore I’d never make art for a public space again. But on the whole, it’s nice creating something that attracts people.

Turning back to your project for RogLab – how do you intend to tackle it?
My starting point will be the desire to explore painting techniques and deconstruct an illustration. The shipping container is an inherently active kind of object, so I’d like to create a scene that runs along its entire length. It’s not just a huge wall that can be read as a sequence so, rather than creating a typical sequence, I’d like to deconstruct an illustration in order to suggest some kind of movement or activity. When I was thinking about what to paint there, I wanted to connect the work with its surroundings. What I currently have in mind is a dragon that is being deconstructed into a machine – a few wires, a few resistors. In terms of ideas, this kind of motif sits well with my other work, but in visual and technical terms I’d really like to explore the colour scale, the function of the background and the lines. I want it to be more than just a drawing with black outlines.

The ‘open-closed’ factor is interesting too. When the shipping container is closed, we will be able to see the whole painting, but when it is open, we’ll only see one part of it.
This is one of the interesting aspects of the project: it forces us to think about what RogLab really is, the cube on top of the container included. I’d always imagined that the cube was filled with something, but when we were talking about it you said it was virtually empty. So again, this is liminal space, something that arouses our interest. The public doesn’t need to be able to see it – we could just put the word out that I have created something inside it. It also encourages conceptual reflection on how the space could be used.

Producer Nika Perne (RogLab) talked to Nez Pez about her work.

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