Interview with Krista Svalbonas
Krista Svalbonas ( b.1977, USA ) holds a BFA Photography (Syracuse University) and an MFA Interdisciplinary (SUNY New Paltz). Her work has been exhibited in a number of exhibitions including at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Howard Yezerski Gallery in Boston, Klompching Gallery and ISE Cultural Foundation in New York. Her work has been collected in a number of private collections, as well as the Cesis Art Museum in Latvia. Recent awards include the Rhonda Wilson Award (2017), Puffin Foundation Grant (2016) and a Bemis Fellowship (2015) among others. In 2015 Svalbonas exhibited a solo installation at the Spartanburg Art Museum in South Carolina. She is an assistant professor of photography at St. Joseph’s University. She lives and works in Philadelphia.
Visit Krista's Website to see more of her work.
First, tell us how your interest in photography started?
I was always interested in the Arts from a very young age. I tried my hand with every medium I came in contact with, clay, paint, metals and eventually photography. I fell into photography in high school. It was the last course in the Arts program that I hadn’t taken. After learning how to see behind the lens it was hard to stop.
In your project ‘displacement’ you tackle your family’s history as your parents were in displaced-person camps in Germany after WWII, before they were able to emigrate to the U.S. – tell us how this project started?
This is a story that I grew up with all throughout my childhood, but only really started to understand with this project. This history has certainly influenced my ideas of home, how one defines home, and has permeated all of the work I have created in some fashion. As this story is steadily disappearing with my parents’ generation, I felt it was time to seriously delve into this history and to preserve it.
Tell us a little about the archives and documents you have gone through and the process of reading plea letters of the Baltic refugees - how was the process for you? What did you learn from that experience?
Although the camp town names have been documented on various sites and in several archives, the exact addresses have not. I began my investigations at the Lithuanian Research Center in Chicago. This particular center has a huge inventory of paperwork that made it out of various Displaced Person Camps in Germany and safely into this archive.
The archive has no searchable database or reference system, so one literally has to sift through boxes of original documents hoping to locate the information you are searching for. It was in the weeks that I spent here searching for addresses that I came across the plea letters being sent to the US, Canada and Australia.
The letters filled in historical information that was largely missing from my personal family history. As my parents were children during this time, their memories of these historical events are of a specific nature. These letters helped me understand what life was like in these camps, how dangerous their flight was to reach them, and how frightened they were of their uncertain future.
Something that I found interesting in your statement online was “Today, the buildings give no hint of the tumultuous lives of the postwar refugees, stuck in stateless limbo with no idea what the future held” – this notion that history is an elusive thing that comes and goes with time and people. The buildings are there, yet history has passed and with that many of the harsh memories. You talk about home and yet these buildings feel very detached and that contrast is very interesting. This is not a question per say but I would be interested in hearing your perspective on the notion.
It’s interesting to me how history is remembered and who remembers it. We all know that there are many histories that surround us and not all of them are chosen to be told or shared. That was very evident for me in the documentation process of these buildings and also in the repurposing of these buildings.
In some cases, town archives had no idea that these buildings housed refugees in WWII, in other cases I came across plaques that commemorated the refugees struggle in these spaces. I almost always had quizzical looks while documenting these buildings and, in a few cases, some concerned questions. In the end, almost everyone I came across understood that there were layers of history around them, some easily recognizable and some not. I think that is true of many places though, if you walk along the cliffs of Normandy beach it’s not evident that almost 425,000 men were killed or wounded on that soil in 1944.
In times like these where immigration is such a talked topic, your work seems to be relevant more than ever, even though you are talking about immigration after the WWII – we are living in times of great immigration crises. How do you feel your work communicates in today’s immigration conversation? How does it change the canon around the subject matter?
The current migration crisis has been often compared to or likened to this original WWII crisis. In 1945, there were 15 million refugees in Europe alone. I find it interesting that Germany again is housing a large number of refugees. In a few cases, I documented buildings that were used after WWII as displaced person camps and those same buildings are now housing Syrian refugees. I think the work reminds us that history repeats, attitudes repeat, but how we respond can change.
You chose a very unique visual representation for this project. Can you tell us a little about the actual process of making this work, and what were the reasons behind these choices?
The research behind the work takes the most time. As I mentioned I started in Chicago at the Lithuanian Research Center, but have been countless times to both the UN archives in New York and the National Archives in near DC. As the documents have been scattered both in the US and across the globe, nothing is complete and many mysteries remain.
I piece together what I can from the various archives and often contact German archives while on location to try and fill in the missing gaps. Not every journey is successful. Documentation happens with a DSLR and drone footage of each place. I print my photographs as neutral black and white images, referencing the archival photographs I use to help locate the camps.
Using text from the plea letters, I make digital files that the laser can read. Often the letters are quite long, anywhere from 2-10 pages, so I can only use portions of text. I program the laser with these files and watch the image burn away for hours. The sepia tone of the images, actually comes from the repeated burn of the laser. To me, the process of burning references trauma, war and disaster, it felt like a natural execution for the work.
It took me about a year of research with lasers, text and photographic imagery to get to this point with the work. I knew as soon as I came across the letters I needed to find a way to merge their words with my images. At that same point in time, I was learning to use a laser and the combination seemed like something that could work conceptually and aesthetically.
It seems that you have a very specific way and reason of material choices in your process – can you tell us more about those types of decisions?
It was very important to me that the work was made of paper. Paper is what I used to find these spaces, what has been used to catalog these places and it’s what was used to communicate the hopes and fears of the refugees housed in these locations.
Many of the pieces use multiple layers to render the image and to also reference the layered history, layered voices and layered surface of these buildings. At the same time, I’ve been experimenting with single layered works where not all of the words are cut and not all of the image is transformed. This gives the impression of a degrading surface or missing information, a visual attribute that so much references the vanishing or vanished history of these camps.
After working on this project – has your perception of home changed?
Not really. My relationship to home has always been a complicated one as a child of refugees. What has happened through the creation of this work, is that this history has truly come alive for me. Something that was distant, confusing and not quite understandable has become tangible, touchable and emotional.
Documenting the camps that my family, extended family and friends’ families spent numbers of years in has enabled me to take this journey with them and to understand the fear and uncertainty this time period held for them.
What was the hardest part of creating the ‘displacement’ project?
In most of the larger Displaced Person camps, the refugees came together to fund in whatever way they could some kind of monument for the individuals who did not survive the camps to find a home elsewhere.
In each instance where I found one of these, I documented it as well. There were parts of the documentation process that were particularly poignant and difficult for me, this was always one of them. From reading their letters, I knew how much of a heartache and struggle it was to leave their homeland and also how necessary for their survival that it was to do so. Standing in the shadow of these events and the lives lost was challenging, but it also gave me the spirit to continue telling this story.
There is always a connection, it seems, in your work to cultural, historical and political issues that you try and challenge in various ways, how do these subject matters influence you? Why are you mostly drawn to that?
I think all of this just comes back to a desire to understand my own history and its relationship to external forces. As I child, I grew up not only with this story of displacement but also learning about a homeland that was literally untouchable until the Berlin Wall fell in 1991. Having this relationship to a distant homeland while growing up quite far away from it, produced a strange dichotomy for me in my understanding of the idea of home and the political and social constructs that inevitably influence these definitions.
Your work, in addition to this body of work, has a great influence from architecture, can you tell us more about your connection to that and how does it shape your photographic and visual practice?
This is directly connected to my answer above. I am very interested in the nature of place, how we connect to places or spaces and how this in turn influences ideas of home. I think everyone feels a connection to certain places and spaces, positively and negatively. The psychology that surrounds space is endlessly fascinating for me.
I think for many artists our work is a way to understand ourselves and help delve into questions that perplex us. My interest in the architectural landscape is very much a part of that, I am still asking myself what is the nature of home and how does place and space play a role in this. I’m also very much interested in the history of architecture, the origins of certain design aesthetics and how these features are intrinsically tied to cultural and political motives of the time.
Which artists or photospheres are your biggest influences, and why?
There are several artists whose works I turn to whenever I need a dose of inspiration. Rachel Whiteread is one of them. Her sensitivity to space and architecture is something I greatly admire. In the photo community I am continuously drawn to the work of Leyla Cardenas who is also interested architecture’s relationship to socio-political forces. Gordon Matta Clark is another favorite of mine, also architecturally influenced and also used a wide range of media to communicate his ideas.
As a well-rounded artist what advice would you give our readers that could help them in their own visual process?
One of the most inspiring texts I’ve had the pleasure of reading is Sol Le Witt’s letter to Eva Hesse, where he very visually and emphatically says JUST DO! , in large bold letters. I think, as artists, fear is often something that prevents us from experimenting, sending out that grant application, or traveling to that residency. It’s important to forget all of those external or internal critics and Just Do!
Anything you want to tell us that we haven’t undertaken?
As I’ve done a significant amount of research both at various archives and in Germany, I’ve been thinking about alternative ways to tell this history that uses some of these archived materials. Over the past few months, I have begun traveling the US and Canada, photographing former Displaced Persons that were in the camps I have documented and recording their stories. My hope is to compile a book of these various personal histories, along with my documentation and historical research. I’d like this history to be remembered and to be accessible to a wide audience across the globe.
Currently the work is on view at Klompching Gallery as part of Commorancy until December 7th.
A solo exhibition of this work opens March 1st at Abington Art Center outside of Philadelphia.