INTERVIEW: Catrine Val

Fòcas would like you to meet the latest addition to our jury – photographer Catrine Val. Catrine has worked extensively in Scotland and India. Her series Political Letters, which brings to life the neglected canon of female philosophers, was exhibited at Street Level Photoworks as part of global visual arts festival Glasgow International in 2016. It will feature at the World Congress on Philosophy in Beijing in 2018. Her current project Kathmandu Girls explores female identity in Nepal with Delhi-based spoken word poet Divya Dureja across film, text and photography, and has been selected as a featured film for Cologne’s 2017 Feminale.

© Catrine Val

F: Catrine, you started out in advertising but you’re now rooted in the arts. Can you tell us about that transition? What changed for you?

C: Everything, I mean each day has it´s own finishing line, and tomorrow is always new beginning. This chapter of advertising is closed, but at my core, it’s still a part of my handicraft and it illuminates, for me, the structures of visual language. You use flash and make-up just to create a precise kind of mass desire . Working particular in this field means that you constantly have to illuminate one endless bright smile and find the perfect angle, optimising and altering the surface of the human body. You always have to blend out the opposite side, the inner world I`m always searching for. In this time of constant, rapid change we are more and more dominated by a flood of narcissism and an obsessive cult of self-expression. In the end, it is only about shoulder pads, pattern, youth and money. Even political speeches are written by the copywriter. I have selected for the photo shootings models and tormented me by their set cards, I was always aware of my own deviations. Thinking back now to when I worked in advertising, in a decade alive with the spirit of a young and vibrant Europe in full swing, boundaries were overcome. Something is falling apart. Where is this spirit of optimism? Brexit and the Trump phenomenon set our course towards dangerous and weak perspectives. Germans are willing to run into this foulness like so many other states. Coming from a very political left wing background, this was the time to break out, I was totally unsure about who I was and what my work was about. I broke totally with my previous identity. I wanted to stand on my own feet and began to study art. The advertiser in me, however, I kept silent. And then came comments such as: “Catrine, you cannot manically produce beautiful images on your canvas!” Beauty was suddenly a dirty word. So it took me years to find my own vision. Not a day goes by without the senseless killing of innocent people by the misguided and fanatical, as part of ridiculous and cynical political games. We must work against all that’s been unfair and energy draining, through our words and our art. Still shaken up on the inside, moving and raging on the outside. I wanted to show that I can also be a woman as an artist. This is still not self-evident. I was studying as a young mother of two children with the media artist Valie Export in Cologne. Her own struggle for recognition as a woman stands as a memorial for other artists. She was terribly excited by the birth of my third child, but she encouraged me to continue to take myself seriously as an artist.

F: Now that you have complete creative freedom, what key themes do you gravitate to in your work?
C: Conceptual photography is at the centre of my work, which is interdisciplinary and interactive; it encompasses video installation and documentary film – I use them to investigate complex themes. But mostly I tell stories to encourage and empower women. Particularly in times of xenophobia, it is important to hold on to art, for the diversity and knowledge, values, exchange of cultures and the emphasis on the female voice. Thanks to global communications it is today no longer only about the equality between the sexes, rather about answering the growing question of cultural differences and where gender identity belongs in all this, – always in conjunction with the parameters of ethnicity, class or other cultural aspects. Which is why, in the work I made for Glasgow International in 2016, which showed at Street Level Photoworks, I tried to address the under-representation of women in the field of Philosophers, as gender equity is still one of the most difficult issues to resolve. My work on female philosophers is about visibility. In a world full of generated images, the assignment of contemporary art has to reinforce gender freedom and also responsibility and respect for the one, overall living space we all share. Thinking of the process of globalisation, the progress towards equality proceeds extremely unevenly. Above all, women not just in developing countries, run the risk becoming the losers of globalisation.

© Catrine Val

F: What – in your view – constitutes success for emerging photographers today?

C: Success is such a difficult and overburdened word for me. We all have high expectations and high hopes. For each of us success, whatever it means in the context of your own art, limits our dreams and puts in us in the corset of competition. In our performance-oriented society, we give this word much too much space, thereby we can lose the most important vision – that is, our passion and sensitivity. We live in this digital age in which the mobile phone has become our second nature. What is needed at this point seems to be a renewed interest in humanity, culture and Identity. For me, what we need today is to understand the world from the vantage point of abstraction and not be too abstract from the world. In the first line Art was never democratic, most commonly means financial wealth. and so my only advice I can give is that you should simply carry stubbornly and joyfully on, take a long breath and believe in yourself, be full of endless curiosity and have immediate proximity with the world. There is still so much to discover. The Internet is still in a pioneering phase and the coming generation is formulating its own platforms. They are more independent than I ever could be. But we find ourselves, at the moment, exploring the possibilities of digital networking in an identity crisis. The mobile phone provides for many a parallel representation of the “alter ego” that allows us to sleepwalk, maintaining relationships, hopes, reality, documenting life and optimising our own bodies with digital filters. This involves much more than pure play; devices give us immediate comfort – every cry for help leads to a digital hug. Real respect among peers and self-confidence are key… you have to work very hard and strong self belief – after everything will fall into a perfect frame.

F: You’ve worked quite intensely in both Scotland and India. What are your impressions of Indian and Scottish visual arts / photography at the moment?

C: I’ve worked a lot, and very fruitfully, in India and in Scotland, yes. It was an amazing experience, for example, highly intense, to work on a local-based project in Scotland, which had such cultural uniqueness. I was invited by Street Level Photoworks, as I’ve said, to focus on, elaborate and reinterpret the histories of Scottish female philosophers, working in the mountains of Scotland. Based on the exhibition that resulted, “Political Letters” at the same time I developed a new project “The future will resemble the past,” focused on the outstanding Scottish philosopher David Hume. I interpreted his revolutionary ideas using a recurring motif – a recurring red velvet mantle, loaned from the Scottish Opera.

© Catrine Val

As to the future, I do not dare to compare or make any forecast – we are all world citizens. The landscape of photography is as diverse as the languages spoken in India. Some people do not even understand their own prime minister. The country is on the upswing, on the move – breaking out and mobilising towards a new horizon. The young generation of photographers are perfectly connected internationally. They seem engaged with a politics of transformation. They think deeply about the indefiniteness of what describes identity and ultimately us as humans. They are nomads in their own country, exploring identity in a high spectrum of colours and sensibility, through digital devices. We are global more now than ever. The various photo festivals all over India as well as the Kochi Biennale, which has just finished, gave people a very fruitful and powerful overview of how strongly Indian photographers and other artists are rethinking, re-shaping and testing cultural and historical assumptions and the role that images play as agents of perception. But, thanks to the pervasive nature and speed of modern and global communications, our vision now extends beyond the local. We are a species wandering dangerously close to the edge of itself. In India, artists are concerned about the state of a distressed world in which politicisation of space and the violent legacy of white dominance have caused the need for new balance. If we look inwards, not as a retreat, but to ground one’s self, one’s being. we can be light and playful, fearless and fragile, free just to be. Photography can offer us the courage to engage with the unstable world, confident in our own stability and identity, and aware of our social, political and ethical place in the world.

© Catrine Val

F: Can you tell us more about Kathmandu Girls?

C: The title Kathmandu Girl is inspired by a poem of the same name by Nasala Chitrakar, a young Nepali poet. I found that the images and experiences present in her words are interwoven with my own. The title evokes ideas and aspirations of raising a young generation of women who eagerly chase after the elusive dream of forging their own paths. Stepping out from my comfort-zone, I have presented two vibrant microcosms of parallel worlds: bold spoken word poetry, and the shining, superficial world of fashion. With Kathmandu Girl, these disciplines compliment and enrich one another. I photographed graduates of the Namuna College of Fashion Technology in front of the same background image of Mount Everest, as the icon and the tourist magnet of Nepal. The landscape enters a kind of visual synergy with the women’s hair, which is regarded as a female characteristic. I suppose I’m investigating the connection between performance and reality, between narratives of nation and the female self. National culture, either traditional or popular, can legitimize violence against women in Nepal, for example, as it can around the world. In the poetry in Kathmandu Girls, by contrast, the Delhi-based poet Divya Dureja breaks all taboos and introduces the spectator to her own intimacy in a very powerful and self-confident way. All the protagonists in the project work in such a stunning way against the limitations of gender mores. My longstanding interest in female issues and the exploration of identity extends to social media platforms such as Facebook, and Instagram, where alternative versions of the self can quickly appear, reassembled through the lens as a timely kind of poetry.

F: And what’s next for you?

K: I’m excited about my new project: A Poem of Modernity: It’s a response to the instability of our world affairs and a visual discussion of my psychological reaction to recent Western political developments. It reflects a flight response to our changed and more threatening environment… a flight to white. White serves as a counter-proposal to our colourfully overloaded world of visual stimulation. “Poem of Modernity” is also an artistic exploration of Being and Time. It engages with Heidegger´s preoccupation with “the essence of being-in-the-world.” In an increasingly fast paced mechanised and digitised age, the fear of progress grows. Existence as “being-in-the-world” is at the same time a being together in the global context, interweaving in space and time.

I’m also exhibiting my work in conjunction with a conference on women philosophers, and I have cooperated with women thinkers in India, South America , Asia and Europe. From there, I’ve been invited to the 24th World Congress of Philosophy, which will be held in 2018 in Beijing. I’m the first artist to contribute to the Congress, so I’m really grateful.

Catrine Val

Born in Cologne, Germany, Val started out her career in Vienna, Austria working in the field of advertising as a commercial artist. Feeling unfulfilled in this profession, Val entered the arts, beginning a course of studies at the Art Academy in Kassel, Germany. She eagerly pursued her studies there. Upon successful completion of her BA, Val attended post-graduate studies at the Kunsthochschule für Medien in Cologne. Graduating from there, she worked as an assistant lecturer to Bjørn Melhus at the Art Academy in Kassel, in the field of virtual reality, where she further developed her artistic position.