Sneaking Up On Creation: An Interview with Dunja Jankovic

Elizabeth Pusack

Artist, organizer, and drummer Dunja Janković, whose comic “Breather” is featured in the Tin House Portland/Brooklyn issue, was born and raised on the Croatian island of Mali Lošinj, studied in Zagreb and New York City, and has published and exhibited throughout the Balkans, Western Europe and the United States. She spends half her year in Croatia, during which time she curates an experimental and fringe arts festival called ŠKVER—named for, and held in the shipyards of her hometown. The other half of her year is spent in Portland, Oregon, where she teaches in the comics certificate program at the Independent Publishing Resources Center. She is one of the four founders of a forthcoming PDX comics festival—THE PROJECTS—which will take place October 19-21 of this year: “3 days of workshops, exhibitions, panels, performances, projections and collaborative projects. Introducing experimental artists from comics, animation, and other narrative arts. This festival is a free event, oriented toward creative process, idiosyncratic expression, and inspiration, leaving behind the flat model of comics as commerce.”

Here Dunja talks with student, friend, and Tin House intern Elizabeth Pusack about masks, sneak-attacks and capitalism.

Elisabeth Pusack: You said in an interview with the Ljubljana-based comics journal Stripburger, “When I am creating a comic, what is most important is to surprise myself.” As a teacher you often offer playful artistic exercises and games of chance. Do you have any particular ways of sneaking up on yourself, or startling yourself during the creative process? Does anything scary ever happen?

Dunja Jankovic: There’s nothing scarier then the fear itself. In making art, for example, it can be a fear of ruining the work or taking chances. Secure and comfortable places scare me with their power to lull you. I’m trying to avoid it in anyway I can, so if it means destruction of the work, destruction will happen. Construction and destruction are two equally important parts of creation, anyway. It’s the process I’m interested in, rather then the final product. And then again, what is a final product? I’ve altered so many of my final products that I don’t believe in finalization. Everything I finish can and will be reused.

I use collage technique more and more, it perfectly sooths this way of creating. With it, it’s so much easier to be playful, and to improvise, everything is happening in an instant moment, you can change or get a different result very fast, you don’t spend too much time on the piece of art you’re working on so it becomes easier to destroy it and rebuild it again.

Also, I don’t use collage only as a visual technique but also as a tool of narration in the comic. I don’t sketch anymore because I decided I don’t want to loose the energy, directness and the freshness of the first-born creation by trying to recreate it again.

I start with the association and a vague idea, from which the images are being made, parts of text too, then combining them randomly; putting them together in improvisational manner builds the story and creates that surprise I’m longing for. There are millions of stories or ways you can go, but eventually, you choose one. I’m not creating, I’m searching and finding and have a feeling that everything I make, every story I “find”, is just a small part of something bigger, eternal.

When I teach about comics; and teaching art is a slippery ground, I’m basically trying to make people aware, through different “games,” techniques, a lot of “stepping out of the comfort zone” exercises where the person creating the work has the power to alter it, destroy it, recreate it. Building through control, but at the same time with losing control, is the balance of everything.

EP: Department of Art(Sparkplug Comic Books, 2008) situates art-making in a labyrinth of cubicles. Its secondary characters speak in office argot, as if art-making were just another industry. The comic’s protagonist is driven mad by this environment and finally driven out of it. Habitat (Sparkplug Comic Books, 2011) depicts the way financial entanglements stratify and estrange people who might otherwise live in harmony or friendship. Do you think capitalism interferes with the artistic process? With the forging of relationships within communities?

DJ: I have always been attracted to dystopian stories, comics, movies, and in these two comics I tried to present my own version/vision of a dystopian world, loosely based on the experiences I personally had, but twisted and exaggerated. It’s funny, but they were basically just a beginning of a larger story. They were purely an interlude to this pretty megalomaniacal story I was building for years. Unfortunately, it took me too long to work on each piece, months and months, and there were millions of years in between them, so I kind of abandoned the whole idea. It was too long ago, I have changed, my thoughts and interests have changed.

But dystopian ideas and worlds are still here. I believe this system has become a caricature of itself, as has happened with all the systems that preceded it, at some point. It’s really ugly, fake, superficial, distorted and it can be seen in all the areas of life/humanity, not just art-making. Art-making is specific though, because it is one human activity that is hard to explain intellectually, define, make common sense of, or practical use of. Art is a pure soul capital, which really clashes with capitalistic value system, money <=> products. When you start selling the soul capital, it becomes a paradox, you’re creating a product and force material value on it, it becomes an object, it has to be sellable and it looses it’s primary function. It tends to become one of many other goods, aesthetic pleasers, superficial products, and it loses its purifying, transcending role.

Of course, aesthetics can also be enriching for the soul, but on a superficial level, on a pleasure plane, on the surface. People work their asses off, they don’t take vacations because of fear they will loose jobs and end up on a street, they are slaves to credit systems, so it’s obvious that they don’t have time to think outside of the box, observe, transcend and work inwards on opening different doors inside of them. It’s an awful situation, to be afraid or to not have time to fulfill your true self. Obviously, we live and then we die, so what should we really do with all that time in between?

Another thing that goes on my nerves in this system is a version of hard-core individualism that went too far, and the society became very alienated. You are responsible of your own destiny, alone. You can do it on your own but if you fail, it’s your own fault and again, you’re on your own. That’s total bullshit. I’m comparing it to a completely opposite, socialistic system I was brought up in, were society should be a safety cushion for everybody.

EP: How old were you at the time of the breakup of Yugoslavia? Do you see a difference between Yugoslav and Croatian art? Between Croatian and Serbian art? How do you think Croatia’s accession to the EU next June will affect its art, its artists?

DJ: I was 10 then. So to me, life in YU looks like the best times because I was also a carefree child. The truth is, Yugoslavia was not at all a bad system, very different from today. I don’t know why the separation had to be bloody. With the split of Yugoslavia, it was also the end of socialism. The result is Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and other countries, 20 years after the war, are still countries in transition. Poor, corrupted, sucking the worst influences from the Western culture with governments strongly linked to religions and still drowning in the memories of wars (even the second world war conflicts are erupting).

If we’re talking about art, that world has collapsed. One of the big changes that happened after separation is shrinking of the scenes/markets. Imagine, Yugoslavia was a huge country, and right before the war the art scene was flourishing. The population in Croatia is just around 4 million people today. And of course, not all of those 4million people are into arts. Actually art and culture is becoming less and less popular, education is deteriorating and in those 20 years everything has been going downhill, slowly but surely.

I’m not sure what good the EU will bring. Hopefully less domestic corruption. But then again EU is a corrupted mechanism too. At least, kids will be able to leave home in search for better schools, better opportunities. Is that positive or not? Time will tell. Croatia is loosing more and more good, educated people every year, and its demographics are changing rapidly. Not for the good.

EP: This might be a sort of scandalous question. You’ve said (in the aforementioned Stripburger interview) that you were disappointed by the artistic community you encountered in New York—that the people you met there weren’t as inspiring as the ones you met in Komikaze (Croatian art collective) workshops. Do you stand by that assessment? What is your experience with artists in Portland?

DJ: New York has this different general energy, it’s the one of striving for success, people are there “to make it”, everything smells like money and power, so it wasn’t really a fruitful atmosphere for me. People are very small in comparison to the mechanism of the City; they come and go, they are not important as individuals. It’s the collectiveness of all those fast passing souls that makes that city what it is. Everything is happening there, everything is filtered through NYC but everyday life is so harsh and you really have to be in love with the chaos to feel good there. Also, I need connection with the nature to feel well balanced, and that doesn’t exist there. Yes, you can go to Central or Prospect park, but I used to feel kind of pathetic sitting next to the pretty fake lake with pigeons hopping around, knowing that two minutes from that idyllic scene you’re surrounded by busy streets with six lanes.

Portland is a completely different story. It offers that quality of life, time for yourself and others and at the same time, it’s a big artist Mecca. I always have this feeling that this city is boiling with creative energy. If you could shape it in the form of pan you could fry eggs on it. Portland art scene is manageable and very multi-media, you can cruise between all this different scenes and collaborate with different artists on all art fields, and this type of situation is interesting and inspiring to me.

Collaboration is something I find super powerful. I’ve done visual and musical collaborations with local artists like Cody Brant, made an exciting exhibition with Derek Bourcier. One of the recent great things that happened was bringing a couple of Portland artists to Croatia. This year it was Experimental Half Hour and Matt Carlson who visited and joined the festivals in the Balkan region, creating work and collaborating with local artists. Last year it was Ryan Jeffery who then made a documentary of the last, slowly vanishing socialistic hotel on the island. All those unusual interactions are very refreshing.

EP: How did you end up in Portland? When you are in Portland, do you miss the sea?

DJ: The stream of life brought me here. I wanted to move out of NYC, together with my partner, but still, we wanted to stay in US for a little while, and my good friend Lisa Mangum lived in Portland so she made it super easy for us to transition to a completely new environment.

In NYC I met Dylan Williams, who became my publisher, and a friend, later. Through him I instantly merged with the PDX comics scene, he was the door opener as he was also partly an architect of that scene. His energy is still present in everything we started doing here after he died. THE PROJECTS festival–“ a new kind of comics festival”—we are making in October this year is happening because of his energy of non-compromising action and that strong energy is still flowing through all of us.

But yeah, I miss the sea.  That fact, and the fact that my family and old friends are still there, is a reason why I have to spend half of my time back on the island in Croatia. I am still surprised how, when I’m not by the sea, I dream about it EVERY night. It is so strong.

EP: I think Tin House readers will be curious to know whether there is a difference between your relationship with the textual elements in your work and your relationship with the graphics? “What comes first?” and all that. How would you characterize the interplay between word and image in your comics?

DJ: I could say I almost always start with the visuals or a vague idea. Then I build from there, I make art driven by some association or the atmosphere of some sort. Words start to shape along the way and sometimes they can influence the work and turn it in another direction. They have a power of their own, life of their own. When I use words and images, I’m trying to combine them in that way to create a Meta meaning, create three out of two. Otherwise their purpose would be purely explanatory or describing. It’s an organic way of creating, absolutely non-linear and it has to be surprising for myself.

It is interesting, words/language is something I slowly started leaving behind, especially since I came to US, and, for a long period of time, was unable to express my complicated thoughts, deep emotions, personal philosophy, all those non-tangible ideas that are, in general, hard to put into words. My words would radiate such frustrating simplicity. So, I started making silent comics. I learnt to think abstractly too.

EP: Mutations and body modifications—both self-inflicted and unwitting—appear again and again in your comics. Shrinking, ballooning, piercing, captivity, metamorphosis and disguise are just a few of the transformations I noticed. What is the correlation between physical change and shifting mind-states, or moves between experiential dimensions? Is this emphasis on transformation related to personal experience?

DJ: Again it’s about the altering of our given form, changing the physical is the most obvious way of mutating.  This is the line from my comic Hello World, about a girl who mutilates and deforms herself on purpose: “I was destroying my given identity…to get closer to universe… I chose to be everything rather then one.” That’s how I see it, I guess.

Also, I have been in a transitory position for a quite some time now. I split my year between Portland and Mali Lošinj, but I also travel a lot in between. That takes a lot of physical and psychical effort and life becomes very inconsistent. So instead of looking for, or building stability on one specific place I’m trying to figure out how to find a stabile place inside me, because I can’t get it in the timespace around me. That’s a bit what this comic for the Tin House was about. It’s hard and it’s probably a life long process of adjusting and readjusting, mutating and changing, but I can see a slight shift from the position of loneliness and feeling of being lost in the middle of universe to a feeling of absolute connectedness. Then, Internet is a tool for me too transcend beyond my body limits. For a nomad, it’s definitely a prosthetic for a better life.

EP: What is a mask? What can you do with it?

DJ: Hahaha, I like that question combination. I was thinking about my obsession with masks/costumes, some sort of alteration of the outside. I believe it’s contrary from hiding, it’s opening the invisible and the all the inside possibilities. It’s a help to obscure your everyday persona that exists in one layer of “reality”, and to open up the possibilities of all the other personas inside, give them room and space to manifest. Like I said before: by removing one possibility, we’re giving way to so many others, millions of them.

I have this vision of a shaman-ess wearing a huge mask, almost like an armor, impossible to wear, but is still wearing it while performing a ritual with it. It’s clumsy, it’s not aesthetically pleasing, it’s puking and freaking out while on psychedelic drugs, but through pain and difficultness, sometimes it’s easier to transcend. It is like intensifying the feelings (good or bad) on purpose, to trigger all the inside mechanisms and start them working in a different speed, amplifying them. Waking up from the sleepy, dormant state of everydayness.

EP: You seem to be pretty good at disrupting expectations about what constitutes “comics,” but if someone were really desperate for to you to define this medium, what would you say? Are there kinds of stories this medium particularly befits?

DJ: Lately my definition of “comic” has broadened so much that it’s really hard to put it in one sentence. Comics, as I see them, are just one part of this whole world of narrative art. They are defined mostly by the medium they’re using, which has been–printed matter – it is printed on paper, in forms of books and it’s also their limitation from which all this rules and theories are derived (juxtaposition of frames, frames themselves, juxtaposition of pages, spreads, direction of reading etc.). Once you transfer it to another medium, say the Internet, it becomes something else. Frames lose sense, there’s no page structure, no spreads, but there are other, new possibilities: hyperlinks, images out of site reachable by scrolling, sound, movement… And what is it then? Shall we call it comics? Shall we use another name for it? Since I’m not a person of definitions and framing, I will still call it comics, maybe by pure inertia. Then, also, there are abstract comics where visual/aesthetic dynamic is used to create narration—it becomes intuitive reading. Etc. etc., endless possibilities of interpretation, so it’s better to keep it open.

EP: Can you tell about some comics artists you admire who haven’t gotten much attention in the United States? What are they doing that is exciting?

DJ: Kosmoplovci collective = Radovan Popovic, Aleksandar Opacic, Daniel Savovic, to name the few. They were playing with abstract comics before it was popular, and were using the Internet for presenting comics in a new way, same as the Komikaze collective in Croatia. The whole scene that is happening in Serbia right now is very fresh and exciting, people are gathered around the Novo Doba festival and some other projects reaching into various arts, especially music, performance, literary arts.  Small scenes from Portugal. Sreenprinting forces of Oficina Arara, cool guys building the scene through visual arts and music, sucking the inspiration from the domestic rituals and customs. Igor Hofbauer, a Croatian artist most known for the posters he’s been doing for a decade for once famous alternative club in Zagreb, and through his dark comics that evoke social-realistic atmosphere of the neighborhood of Novi Zagreb where he’s been living his entire life. We are bringing him to Portland for THE PROJECTS festival, to introduce his work to the US scene. Bruno Tolic, Anna Ehrlemark, Ilan Manouach, there’s so many and I will forget to mention some…. Kuti Kuti—very diverse Finish comics collective, relatively known in US. The French screenprinting collective Le Dernier Cri – who we are also bringing to Portland for THE PROJECTS and more, more, more. I guess, visiting a festival like Crack would be a good dissection of the European comics scene. I strongly recommend!