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Red, tomato, red. These are the first words of Damir Očko’s most recent video, Dicta II. They refer to safe words and are accompanied by an uneasy close up of two sparring wrestlers. The Croatian artist has created a rather vast collection of critical artworks, and Dicta II is no exception. Očko’s fixation on language and politics has resulted in a unique audiovisual language that allows him to seamlessly combine text and image into a blend that rejects most logic or reason. Yet because of this, he manages to touch on intricate topics such as consensual violence and alternative facts.
You were born in Croatia when it was still part of Yugoslavia, a place and time of political unrest and maybe even violence. Could you tell us a little more about this upbringing? How has it shaped your art?
From a very early age, I understood how political constellations could change in a violent and unpredictable way. During my most formative years, there was a very violent set of events that stormed the region. The effects of it still resonate with choices I make as an artist. I came to realize there is an imbalance between empathy and the continuous presence of violence in our daily lives.
Now you are a filmmaker and an installation artist. How did you get here? How was your interest born and which studies did you follow after that?
My interest in film developed gradually. I still work with various media but I feel that the space of film for me is somehow a total. I work with text, poetry, music, performance and therefore film is the media that gives me this singular space where I can actually work with all the other media together. I had a rather classical training in art at Zagreb Fine Art Academy and I took quite a journey until I arrived at the media I now feel comfortable with. I had no particular training in filmmaking. Perhaps this is why my audiovisual artworks are rather unconcerned with what film should be in terms of structure, story or classical narratives. I follow what feels natural to me.

Your mother tongue is Croatian, yet your movies (that explore language) are in English. Why?
This was another thing that came naturally. To begin with, I write most of my work in English, particularly poetry. The reason for this is that I have found that using a language that is not my mother tongue actually works best with the kind of poetry I write, it’s a technical challenge. I have a much more analytical approach to writing in English, and the presence of doubt and insecurity in language eventually pays off better than writing in my mother tongue, which would usually come without thinking. 
And why did you decide not to use subtitles?
In most of my films, the presence of subtitles is redundant. They are not only about the text itself but there is always a particular performative way of reading the text. This is something subtitles cannot translate. And downplaying the complexity of a poetry reading to a line of written text in film rarely works. It is a problem I have developed several solutions for, which an exhibition format offers extensively. However, Dicta I has subtitles embedded in the film, yet they were done in a way that eventually enriched its conceptual idea. The poem from Dicta I is a Dada cut-out text by Brecht, full of mistakes, strange constellations, and nonsenses. I created the subtitles using Google translate, which gave the work a dimension that was conceptually fitting and clear. So to sum it up, in most of the cases there is no conceptual reason to have subtitles or the subtitles contradict the specific nature of the reading. However, texts and translations are always presented with the film in different formats.
You express an interest in Dadaism, what is it exactly about this art form that appeals to you?
I actually turned back to research Dada because, in my more recent works, I am exploring the concept of nonsense in a relation to the political speech, something we can, unfortunately, relate to in our current political situation. It was really interesting to look back how Dada came up with all sorts of tools in the age of big turmoils during the 20th century, and to use these tools as a critical commentary for the current situation.
In your latest video, Dicta II, you explore the safe word, which is used to stop BDSM practices when things get too violent. Can you tell us a little more about it? What sparked your interest in this particular word?
It is not only used in the BDSM context but in all sorts of situations where there is a consensual violent protocol going on and where there is potential to go too far. For example, the mixed martial arts fighters in Dicta II perform the sparring session in which they use a tapping signal to break the scene before someone gets injured. A safe word can be a word, sound or a movement and means the situation is always controlled. And that is exactly what I found interesting about this concept.
How did you collect these safe words?
My research team did a great job sourcing the words throughout various online forums and platforms.
When you are talking about your movie Dicta I, you use the phrase “alternative facts”. Could you further elaborate this idea for us?
It refers to the idea of fabricating a sense of truth out of completely false information. I find it particularly relevant for how the political discourse currently works, like a manipulative form of mimicry. Dicta I explores this mimicry by re-collaging a very important text by Bertolt Brecht, Writing the Truth: Five Difficulties, into something that sounds right and truthful but is, in reality, complete nonsense.

“I had no particular training in filmmaking. Perhaps this is why my audiovisual artworks are rather unconcerned with what film should be in terms of structure, story or classical narratives. I follow what feels natural to me.”
The political landscape is quite a serious problem to tackle, what do you feel is your responsibility as an artist in regard to this problem?
I don't tend to say what all art or artists should do, but for me, it is important to be part of the critical mechanism that offers the space for a re-evaluation of the political discourse. In that sense, art for me has a purpose greater than myself.
Your film The Third Degree has an interesting setting, as it shows the camera crew through an installation of broken mirrors. Why did you decide to do so?
The Third Degree was a film that came after the problematic filming of the previous film, TK. On the set of TK, I realized that the process of filmmaking can be as violent as the subjects it tries to portray. The Third Degree was my way of trying to bring the question of empathy and togetherness by literally placing the whole process of filmmaking in the position of the subject, and together with the subject. The broken mirrors were necessary because I did not want another film crew filming the film crew filming. The artwork is as much about the empathy, compassion, and understanding as it is about looking at difficult images.
Your films appear to have a violent undertone, why do you like to portray violence?
I think that violence is the undertone of our world. But for me it also relates to the mechanisms of control that make any society functional. I find my works very close to the discord between the seeming state of tranquillity, which is achieved by a set of strict rules and controls in society, and the violent undertones.

With their extreme close-ups, your movies are often a little bit uneasy or uncomfortable to watch. Is this an effect that you strive for? Or does it automatically happen due to the serious themes of your films?
Closing up to the subject is a tool I really like to use a lot. There are few reasons for this, but most the important is that by coming too close to the subject, you somehow lose perspective and the control of the whole image. Much like in real life. Another reason is that it gives a very physical, human feeling to the images. The moments you don't know what is exactly going on and the moments you realize you have been misguided are what make the experience complete. Discomfort comes from the occasional unnatural perspective for the human eye and the intensity of it is, which in the end makes the complete experience even more human.
Do you have any plans for the future?
Quite a few, actually! This year, after shows at Jeu de Paume (on view until May 20) and CAPC Bordeaux, Dicta project is travelling to Museo Amparo in Puebla (Mexico) and in October I will present the project at the National Gallery in Prague. I also plan to film the third part of Dicta early 2019, which is very exciting.

Marjolijn Oostermeijer
Damir Žižić

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