Language is both playground and workshop for Nora Turato: Her text-based works range from striking performances to minimalistic posters, books, and wall paintings and have brought the Croatia-born, Amsterdam-based artist a meteoric career in the artworld. In conversation with Kathrin Heinrich, she talks about the relation of accent and identity, the entanglement of success and failure, and why she envies Kendrick Lamar.
Your show »ri-mEm-buhr THuh mUHn-ee« at Secession revolves around a recorded spoken-word piece. How did you develop the sound installation?
For the last year, I have been working with the dialect coach Julie Adams, who has been in Hollywood since the 1970s, working on the sort of movies that defined my idea of the English language. It was interesting to work with the person who was at the source of my infatuation with language. We focus on the tiniest possible details in phonetics, alignments, and accents, on deliveries and their social repercussions. So it made a lot of sense to shut everything up, switch all the lights off, and just have an audio. The room is completely dark except for a tiny LED light that flickers a little and can evoke many things.
This reduction seems like quite a big step away from your performances and graphic text-based works.
I just really wanted to focus on the voice. The more I dive into this kind of voice shit, the more I realize what is possible and how much I’m capable of. There really are no limits. The moment you think you’ve mastered something is the moment you realize there’s a next step. Talking is dancing in that way. You’re involving muscles and proprioception isolation techniques, as you would do with moving your arm, and you’re carving different neural pathways towards muscles you’ve never encountered before to make a sound. The voice is an instrument that you need to learn to play, and right now I’m at a lower intermediate level.
In »ri-mEm-buhr THuh mUHn-ee«, my voice is also quite different than usual, much more bassy, lower, and calm, much more whispery. If you’re quieter, you can do more nuance. For this work, it felt right to be in a conversational register instead of a singing or screaming one.
You’ve often said that you come from a family of tall, intense women, and that you channel that energy in your performances.
I feel like I’m doing the same thing that someone generations before would get locked up for. I’m not doing anything different; I’m just thriving because it’s contextualized differently.
In his book »The Gene: An Intimate History«, Siddhartha Mukherjee explains how, for instance, schizophrenia runs in families and how the genome—the constellation of genes—influences whether your mind is going to unravel. But the same genomes are associated with high creativity. This unraveling of minds and its connection to language has fascinated me since I was a child. Why is this person crazy? Why are we thinking of this as crazy? We judge people by how they speak every day. I can have a bit of an Eastern European accent. But if I go to a bank or pharmacy, I put on my American accent, and I’m immediately treated nicer. In this way, accents are also connected to survival.
Could you explain a little how you train with your vocal coach?
I’m not learning to imitate accents but looking into how I can speak in a way that has no age or geographical connotation. As far as I’m concerned, I can design my own accent, in a post-identity way. Growing up in the 1990s after the war, any kind of identification was a bad thing, whether with the country, the city, or with the family. This idea was really inflicted on me—that identity is bad, and that a person can change. You can be whatever the fuck you want, you know?
Until now you’ve never explicitly dealt with your personal background in your work. Are you shifting gears?
Not so much shifting gears as I’m just realizing stuff about my work. I am dabbling in the English language in a very blind but curious way. It’s like—let me try to fuck with it, let me play with this. It’s a certain mimicry that goes beyond mimicry. I am fascinated by something that is not mine, or that I’m not coming from.
You wouldn’t do the same sort of language play with your native Croatian?
No, I don’t think I would be able to. Exactly because English is not my native language, there is this fascination of the Other.
It seems to me that in your most recent works, like »ri-mEm-buhr THuh mUHn-ee« or your wall paintings, you are showing more of your process and allowing its little glitches.
That’s not because I decided to show the process more. I’m becoming more serious, and I also have the money to not do anything else. I can spend all day long thinking about it. I don’t believe my work was amazing when I started, but I’m going somewhere and maybe in 20 years I will do something that is very interesting. And in 200 years, somebody’s going to look at my work and be like, »Oh my god, that was conservative.«
It may be a controversial thing to say, but I’ve noticed that for many artists the point I’m at in my career is a time to start doing crap work, because you start to think of yourself as amazing. What usually happens is: People come up with something interesting but not necessarily brilliant. They get attention for it, they keep on doing the same shit, and people get tired of it. And then you get three years of a career and that’s it. You surround yourself with a gallery, with a curator, and everybody’s like, »Oh, you’re amazing. This is great.« They don’t tell you it sucks.
So you’re very consciously trying to avoid this career trajectory?
I don’t want to be stuck. Success is not showing the same shit over and over again. Great work happens in different ways. Punk music is the best example of something that is not brilliant but was brilliant once. But then you have somebody like Fiona Apple, who started off with something maybe not so brilliant, but very popular and interesting, and then went on to make amazing work. There are different curvatures: young, crazy, and brilliant, or time-passing and about the process. It really is safer and more interesting and fulfilling to go for the process.
It’s interesting how you address failing, because the culture around failing is usually rooted in this neoliberal narrative of overcoming, not the kind of perpetual failing that is part of a practice.
This is a good point. Like, »Oh, I was terrible, but now I’m fine.«—No. I’ve failed. I’m gonna fail again. I’m gonna keep failing. We need to remember that nobody saw Dan Graham’s student work. Nobody came to photograph his student installation and put it on Contemporary Art Daily. As artists we are basically failing in public constantly. And if we don’t start owning that failure, we’re fucked.
The way you keep evolving your performances, for example regarding the way you dress—something critics love to comment on—, reminds me of how musicians develop their work from one album to the next. Since you also have a past as a musician, does this analogy make sense?
Yeah, for me the biggest role models are in music. For instance, I find Kendrick Lamar so interesting because he gets five years to do an album. Nobody bugs him; we’re fine with waiting, because we know it’s going to be amazing. But the artist cannot do this. How did we get to the point where stadium-filling musicians get more freedom to work than artists? I’m supposed to have three solo shows a year—but it takes time to make good stuff. Maybe that’s why I’m sharing my process: If I can’t get these five years of silence in order to have a process happen, the process will be the work. You just do these five years in public, as if Kendrick Lamar was releasing his demo tapes every three months.
Did the pandemic give you a bit of this freedom? You were set to perform at MoMA in May 2020, which has been postponed to January 2022.
I am aware of how vulgar it sounds, but yes. It was a moment in which my career was about to accelerate—a perfect moment to do shit work in front of a lot of eyes. And then the pandemic happened, and I got two years to work, to start understanding my work and finding things in it, in silence, calm, and peace.