SAŠA NEMEC: MY TEENAGE ANGST NEVER FADED, I AM STILL REBELLING

Saša Nemec is an independent artist working between Nova Gorica, Slovenia and Helsinki, Finland. Her practice spans between exploration of new technologies and use of age-old techniques – from mending a loose button to creating garments with 3D scanning technology. Since 2017 she has been a part of ‘Collective Intelligence’ with whom she presented projects in Helsinki and Palermo. Their latest project ‘Il Traffico’ was part of ‘Manifesta12 5x5x5 program’. She has continued to organise Repair-a-thons in Finland since 2016, firstly in the scope of Fashion Revolution Finland, then independently. She has collaborated with Designmuseo, Aalto University, Upcycling Design Center and Fashion Colloquium. OUTSIDERS AT WORK met Saša Nemec after the successful completion ‘Pixelache Festival 2019 – Breaking the Fifth Wall’ of which she was one of the artistic directors, to talk about the politics of textiles, Pixelache Festival and repairing for sustainable futures.


V: How did you get interested in textiles?

S: My first passion was drawing, then textiles. My interest in textile comes from my grandmothers. They were both repairing or sewing. Different aspects of textiles like how you make a textile or how you embroider had been passed on to me by them and was a big part of my education as a child. This was something quite common because I was born in Yugoslavia, which meant that our borders were partially closed to imports. It was not this capitalistic culture that we live in nowadays, 30 years later. One of my grandmothers was repairing and sewing. The other was making her own textiles, meaning that she was weaving her own fabric and making her version of Chanel jackets. I still own two pieces and perhaps a few others also exist which I will have to collect from here and there. Both my grandmothers have contributed to what I do now, and although my work is more digital, there is a counterpart to it that is tactile.

V: How did you transition from this early informal education to studying at a fashion institute?

S: Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to do something related to the Arts. I went to Saturday art school for 10 years straight and attended activities that were in some way connected to the arts. I would take them as hobbies and they were all part of my childhood. But when it was time for me to go to an institute as a 16 year old, obviously I didn’t know what to do.

The way it works in Slovenia is that you put down three choices [for University]. Based on your grades, The National Institute for Higher Education calculates which school you get to attend. If it’s an art school, then you also have an entrance test or portfolio review. I remember my first choice was Fashion Design, the second was Art Restoration and the third was Art History. And I got accepted into my first choice. 

V: Why did you choose Fashion Design?

I chose Fashion Design because at the time I was quite passionate about it, but also when I went to visit the premises of the Fashion Design department, it was a sunny day, the walls were freshly painted and everything was bright and colourful. The Academy of Art on the other hand, was in a mouldy, dilapidated building, and the studios looked like from a vintage film of painters in 1920s Paris – working to their deaths. It didn’t entice me at all.

V: What was your particular interest within this realm of Fashion Design studies? Did you get to choose the specialisation early on?

S: Because Slovenia had a flourishing textile industry since the 60s and 70s, the university offered programs in Chemistry and Textile Chemistry. Later, they decided to add Fashion and Textile Design into the program. This meant that we had to study mathematics, physics, chemistry, topped up with digital rendering, Photoshop and video editing. This is how the curriculum had been originally designed when the department of Fashion and Textile Design opened at the University of Ljubljana in the 80s. The program prepared you to be a full-fledged designer who would be knowledgeable about ‘everything about everything’ and that you would have the know-how to employ a small team of people in the future – probably (which you come to realise is not the reality).

For the first few years, we had full days of assignments and compulsory courses that were designed mainly towards skill development. The amount of work was so large that you just give up on any of your own ideas…

Things changed after I went to England in 2009-2010 for my Erasmus exchange. There, the faculty recognised what the students are capable of and we had more creative independence. Additionally, reading and writing on subjects beyond fashion design for the mandatory classes on Visual Culture expanded my oeuvre.

Ali: When we first met in 2015, you were talking about your work and about 3D rendered dresses. Being someone who has a background in 3D animation and computer modelling, it revealed to me a fascinating application of 3D software. Could you tell us more about this aspect of your practice?

S: Already in the University I was interested in computer rendering, or how digital technology and textile industry could work together. But University teaching methods can often be quite stiff about carrying out all processes by hand. I mean, I know why they should be learnt and why one needs to go through the processes but it is a lot of work for not much gain.

The first 3D programs for pattern-making and 3D knitters had been invented in the 80s and have been present in the industry ever since. So, 30 years later, in 2010, when the University is asking students to make patterns for textiles or dresses, completely by hand, as a 23 year old I was thinking, ‘why are we doing this by hand when there are machines and computers?’ 

Image: courtesy of the artist

The first computers were based on the Jacquard Weaving Machine loom. Historically, technology is inextricably tied to textiles. This culminated in my MA thesis which was about 3D Programs in Fashion Design. In fashion design, you basically take a mannequin as the body. In my thesis I took a living body – not a model but the body of a regular person  – I 3D scanned it and with the help of a 3D modelling software, I changed the scanned mesh of the body so that it became ‘clothing’. For me, the process of ‘scanning and modelling’ meant that the garment was more attuned to the body, and had its basis in the body even if the garment is not sartorially perfect. At the time, my inspiration was Xavier Veilhan, who also 3D scans bodies and creates ‘low-polygon sculptures’ from them

Image courtesy of the artist

A: You have regularly expressed concern regarding the slow disappearance of traditional Slovenian clothing, and your interest in its revival. Could you talk about this?

S: The disappearance of traditional clothing is not particular to Slovenia, you see this disappearance throughout Europe or Western societies. I am concerned about how they are revived in the public imagination. After the textile industry collapsed textiles and national clothing ended up in museums and ethnographic collections instead of being with the people themselves. It’s a sour subject for me because when collections of traditional clothing are created, curated, and exhibited, they are neither revived as physical collections nor is the making of these garments taught as knowledge. 

The other problem is that although several credible research-based examples of how people used to dress or how textiles were made, are available as digitised archives on the Internet, they are propagated by the right-wing party of Slovenia. So, whenever you want to find anything on the Slovenian culture you have to visit these kinds of sites and forums. I see a misguided anchoring in these beliefs and traditions that are moulded to fit a nationalist agenda instead of being a historical documentation of the clothing of the people. 

There is still room in Slovenia for these to be revived within the contexts of folklore themes – For example, people wear them for the traditional dances as part of festivals. 

All these concerns are quietly present in my practice. Even now a large population thinks that fashion or textile is frivolous and not something to be thought of, written about, or engaged with critically and academically. Although the perceptions are changing there is still a mentality that clothes don’t mean anything, or that they’re just fashion – that this season you’re wearing this and the next season, that. For me even that is political. It shows how our consumer culture works. It becomes visible even if you only follow trends. There are underlined meanings to trends – a message that an individual is putting out to the world. It cannot be dismissed.

A: Would it then be right to say that you are not interested in using history (of textiles and garments) in promoting a sentiment anchoring us to some kind of idealised and nostalgic version of the past, but instead study it in order to make sense of the future – a kind of a future-facing learning of history?

S: Yes

V: When did you formally join Fashion Revolution and why?

S: The unethical practices are very visible in the fashion industry and our growing consumer culture is not helping anyone. Although not hidden anymore, we usually hear stories from Bangladesh, India, Turkey and other places where cheap clothing is produced – how the Fashion Industry is both polluting and ill-treating workers. Fashion Revolution does social media actions to make many of these problems visible. So around that time some little things led me to start this practice and also to help Fashion Revolution with practical actions. To quote Sarah Corbett from her TEDxtalk, “I use craft, like needlework – like this guy behind me is doing – as a way to not only slow down those extroverted doers, but also to bring in nervous, quiet introverts into activism. By doing repetitive actions, like handicrafts, you can’t do it fast, you have to do it slowly. And those repetitive stitches help you meditate on the big, complex, messy social change issues and figure out what we can do as a citizen, as a consumer, as a constituent, and all of those different things. It helps you think critically while you’re stitching away, and it helps you be more mindful of what are your motives.”

I started with ‘Repair-a-thons’ because when I moved to Finland, I saw a problem staring right at me. I joined them formally in late 2016, soon after moving to Helsinki, Finland.   

Image: courtesy of the artist

A: When did you have your first repair-a-thon session?

S: April 22, 2016 

A: Where?

S: Arthouse, of course!

A: How was the Repair-a-thon received as an ongoing action?

S: I initially started it as a volunteer action. At the time, I just wanted to see less waste – less clothing ending up in a landfill. People, especially in the so called ‘developed nations’ are in the habit of discarding clothing instead of making small repairs that everyone should know how to do by themselves. At least it’s logical for me to think that people should know how to do those things. And maybe they do know but lack the time to do it themselves. By this time I was already distancing myself from fashion practices for ethical reasons and also because the industry itself is not created to function from an individual worker’s standpoint. Working in the Fashion Industry even in the West is stressful. It is demanding on so many fronts that people often end up needing medical attention. Also in Finland, there is a high number of recycling centres where people give clothes to charity but in the longer run this leads to another set of problems. So I wanted to take some action.

The early Feminist efforts and gathering of suffragettes were done in these ways. In fact even before the suffragettes, women collected around needle-pointing together and talking. It’s an important aspect to keep in mind to understand how textiles have been political throughout history. Let’s not forget Khadi.

Such congregations are lacking in contemporary Finland. People don’t do that on a daily basis or a monthly basis. They wait for summer to go on a picnic but during winter it seems grim and dire. So, when I started, I referred to these early ideas of events where you just gather a few people and have some tea and cookies. I thought this would be a welcoming environment for everyone, to just sit and enjoy and do things together.

V: At the Repair-a-thons, it’s delightful to encounter how after you’ve repaired clothing that was about to be thrown, there is a sense of joy from disbelief – it’s the shock of realising, “Oh! I can wear it now.”

A: What I enjoyed about the process was that not only were you repairing the clothes, shoes, and bags, which seem impossible tasks to me, but also that we learnt from your process…

S: My focus was to help people understand the process of repair so that they can visualize it and follow it in their own manner. More importantly, to become aware that this can be done. So, when at times there was a repair that would take time beyond the 4 hours of the Repair-a-thon, or if it was a repair which needed a special machine – I would suggest them to a specialist and explain how the process works.

Image: courtesy of the artist

Things like repairing and mending of not just clothes, but houses or automobiles have been taken away from us and outsourced as if it is something that must be removed from our lives. As a result, people are no longer knowledgeable about how it’s done, they just think it’s impossible to do it themselves. Or, people tend to think, ‘nobody else is doing it, I will also not do it’. It is crucial that people realise that they are the owners of the objects that they either bought or it was passed on to them – now it’s in their possession and they have made the choice to own them. All these things populating our lives are not forced onto us. 

V: Whenever we visited your home we saw glimpses into how reducing, reusing, repairing, recycling is part of your everyday practice, whether it is a kitchen cloth repaired with patches of wool or recycled cans given crocheted sleeves. Through observation and conversations, your work has impacted me towards the idea of paying attention. Last year I started making sculptures from clothes that I would otherwise discard. Textiles started forming a new vocabulary. I want to thank you for that

A: It’s a process of empowerment… you’ve often spoken about the right to repair as a  philosophy and we see how conservation research is contained within every action and thought of your practice.

S: This is also one of the things in Art that should be taken more seriously. When making a new work, or even while finishing work, artists seldom think about everyday life and to what a human body is accustomed to. For lack of a better phrase, we could say that they forget about the human experience. Artists concern themselves with the visual but forget about other equally important aspects that a viewer needs or unintentionally craves for. Tactile or any other sensory experience, like taste or an emotional feedback. This lack of something relatable makes an artwork confusing or just off-putting and unremarkable.

You know, in my own opinion, just a glass cube sitting on a desk by itself is beautiful, but you need to give it the right light, or maybe allow the visitors to touch it … and then maybe heat it up, so the visitors are surprised when they touch the piece. They expected a cold glass feeling, without any resistance to the touch, but you have given them something unexpected. If we think of let’s say Anish Kapoor’s pigment pieces, what draws a spectator in is the notion of the instability of the piece, the sense that you might get after touching it, or the fear that someone will see you touch the artwork. Over and above the cultural references that he puts into the work, it is not just the colour and the shape (visual), but the tactile that draws us in. It is the desire to touch the work even if we are not supposed to. That is the center of the piece.

So even if we are more and more engrossed with the digital ( we see something, we screenshot it, and forget about it), we still live in a tactile world. I believe that if artists don’t present something more relatable or something that a viewer can understand with their ‘gut feeling’, it won’t be retained.

This is what I almost achieved with the Repair-a-thon. It is relatable, it makes you think, you are curious about it, even if you hesitate to ask what is it about.

With mending back in the days it was a practice that was widespread. Nobody was thinking about it separately or writing about it, because everyone repaired… and it’s not even a gendered practice. All genders needed to know how to repair. In the worst case scenario when men went to war and were in the army, they needed to know how to repair their own clothing and arms and everything. It was not the scenario that there were frail old women in the dark corner of their homes, mending away. (laughs) Or, maybe there were frail old women in the dark corner of their homes who were sewing together the flags for the revolution.

In my practice it’s quite important that such ideas are highlighted. This means the processes are longer and slower. I work backwards – I start with the tactile and work to see what went into it and how it is perceived by people.

Image: courtesy of the artist

V: You started Repair-a-thons at the Arthouse, then you also did versions where you conducted them like workshops, teaching people how to sew a button or repair a hem. This gesture of hand-holding and carrying an interested but nervous mind through the process of repair is moving. How did you know that this will process will grow? Or that you will be able to sustain interest in it?

S: Just by looking at how much gets thrown out I could gauge that there will be enough work for me. Things have to be repaired all the time. Even that which is repaired will wear out and will re-need repairing. It’s a never ending process. Repair-a-thons started as a volunteered effort, and I knew that even if I did it once a month the Repair-a-thons would attract at least 20 people. More would come too, if each person in Helsinki knew I was doing this. It could have been so that if I sat in the same spot at the same time on the same day, then, over a period of time people would know where to go for such a service and rely on it.

V: Ironically, given where we are in terms of global warming, parallel to the abundance of material is the exhaustion of resources and we really are on our own. In a scenario like this you have displayed an understanding and sensitivity towards ‘use’. For example, how you have reduced your own requirements and not that you have become an ascetic… there is a fulfilment of experiences, food or clothing or traveling, but you are conscious of how you are ‘using’. It makes me think whether it is because of paying attention to textiles, fashion and repair that this way of thinking came about or was there anything else from your childhood or other learning that caused it?

S: My childhood was in Yugoslavia. There was a scarcity of things although not as scarce as it was for my parents but it was still miles away from where we are today. I have seen my grandparents not only repairing, but also buying less. You buy intentionally. You don’t haul. You do it as part of your monthly budget. You couldn’t just throw money at a problem. When I became a student – and students never have enough money to do certain things – you get creative. I was repairing my own clothing or buying vintage and knew the quality of it. Due to studying fashion, year after year a new piece of the puzzle fell into place, and it all added up to how I live now. And, Instagram has helped me a lot (laughs), it keeps me visually inspired.

A: You mentioned both your grandmothers and you narrated the contrast between your grandparents time and your time with regards to value systems and disposability of money. Was there a shift in your parents’ generation and now with you again? One can see the current generation going back to a certain value system of ‘using less’. Do you think that the in-between generation seems to have got it slightly wrong,?

S: YES. THEY DID. AND I AM REBELLING. 

My teenage angst never faded, I am still rebelling. I never got married, never had kids, so I may  still be in this teenage phase until I am 70. You learn from your mistakes and you can also learn from other people’s mistakes.

A: This journey from studying fashion design to an artistic practice that comprises conservation and repair, 3D printing, as well as old stitching methods – it must have not been easy to categorise. What difficulties did you face in making these decisions. What are the transit zones that we may have not spoken about?

S: I am not sure if I thought of them as difficulties or if I deliberately put myself through a challenge. It is fine for me that my work speaks for itself and I don’t need to be loud about it. It’s part of my being. When I do something digital, it’s always about how our lives are perceived in the digital world and how we interact on social media. When I work with textile, the experience is more tactile. We dress ourselves everyday, we collectively relate to this action. Nowadays, we talk about trajectories and how our careers should be going. But it’s not going to go as we plan. So do what you like to do. In the end it’s all us and our everyday lives. What it means is that life is multifaceted. We may compartmentalise life into work, home, friends, co-workers, but life flows and spills over. It cannot be boxed in, and the same goes for an artistic practice.

V:  You were one of the Artistic Directors of Pixelache Festival 2019. What got you interested in the Festival and how was the journey?

S: During my time in Helsinki, I had already begun collaborating with Pixelache Art Association. By being active in the Pixelache program – by doing my own programming or being a part of other artists’ programs – I became involved in their processes. Last year there was the opportunity to become one of the directors of  the festival for 2019, and of course I was interested. I was interested because I wanted to be involved in a festival that we as artists would wish to do and where we would treat artists in a manner that we would like to be treated. In the Art world, many amongst us complain about the same issues but in the end the talk is not backed up. For me those actions were missing in the planning and execution of many perceivably successful programs and festivals.

Being part of a team of four Artistic Directors of Pixelache Festival 2019 (along with Alan Bulfin, Steve Maher, and Vishnu Vardhani), most importantly we ensured ‘fair wage’, along with adequate space and support for artists to present their work. We believe that artists know how to provide for themselves and that they have been doing it for years. But we were also aware that we needed to sustain them in terms of money, and in terms of feeding them throughout the duration of the festival, reassuring them, and providing them with support in the form of volunteers, equipment and openness so that they could feel free to speak to us about the problems they encountered – essentially to facilitate the space for them to create their work.

Limited edition ‘Pixelache Festival 2019:Breaking the Fifth Wall‘ badges | 3D printed, handpainted, glow-in-the-dark PLA | Photo by Antti Ahonen

The festival was titled ‘Breaking the Fifth Wall’ – a proposed counter-action to how we currently interact with technology at large. With this curatorial premise we brought in artists whose practices matched it, but we also were comfortable to have artists freely interpret it. We sought to give free space to the artists to reinterpret the theme as they saw fit. In these respects, we succeeded.

V: You said that artists, organisers, and cultural practitioners commonly complain about many things, such as creative freedom, assistance, communication, outreach and fair remuneration – what amongst those did you really want to focus on for this edition of the festival?

S: For this edition of the Festival it was crucial for me to focus not just on the problematic questions but also seek SMART solutions. This edition of the festival was pivoted on offering support regarding tasks and aspects of work that artists are required to do themselves, and to be able to say that ‘the institution is taking care of these things for you’. By extension, it is to say that ‘the institution is taking care of you’. We were aware that we are a small team and that we couldn’t do as much as we would have liked to. Although there were many more things that we endeavored to do, but I think we have created a solid base of how to work from this point onwards. We have shown that there is another way of working. And sometimes its just politeness, it’s not even ethics… at this point, it’s just politeness (chuckles).

Living in Helsinki, I have come to realise the difference between personal and societal problematics in creating artistic work. Monetary issues always get discussed but there is little looking into other aspects that go into an artist’s work, such as building a website, managing social-media, etc. With these diversions, the actual work receives the least attention in the artistic process. Artists run out of energy and the means to carry out artworks. So when a work is presented, artistic visions seldom translate into good work. Given the gallery structure in Finland this is highly pronounced. There is plenty that can go wrong if not taken care of. Often, as an artist, I have entered exhibition spaces and galleries where there is not even the decency to repaint the space or to fill in the holes that have been left from the previous exhibition. They of course charge you a fee to exhibit but the press release will be made two days before the show, or there will be little to no social media coverage.

This needs to change and my aim is to work towards a systematic change. It must be clear at the outset that the artists have certain obligations too, and need to provide certain things like an artist’s text, etc. to us, but the gallery or the institution must also have obligations in terms of what they offer. This assurance was important for us as the Festival directors. We ensured continuous social media coverage, press releases were made in time, information on artists and their work were updated on our websites, amongst other support. We worked on logistics to be able to say to the artists, “Here is the space, you will have all our help so just think about your work and we will do the rest.”

From my personal standpoint, this is what I was trying to achieve, and during the entire process of planning and executing the festival, it became far more important than the curatorial premise. 

V: Although I knew of Pixelache Festival, I didn’t know what it was about or entailed. Initially, I didn’t feel that it was meant for me, I assumed it to be associated with being only “digital” and “technological” and it felt distanced. This year, while working on it, I came to understand that this is another way of looking at one’s own practice. Ali and I came up with a fresh concept – drawing from what we do – in terms of food and working together with people. We felt supported by the festival’s team and touched by the care that was given to us at every step of the way. 

S: I think this is an important part of every artist’s practice, and “artists are the canary birds of society”, that they are the first ones to die out in adversity. In the old days in the mines they would have a canary bird and if there was a gas leak, they would die before the humans. So if the bird is dead, the humans needed to evacuate. And I think that bringing out societal problems is one of the most important things that artists can do now, and it’s motivating to be appreciated and timely acknowledged.

V: Yes, nobody is building monuments to the dead canaries!

S: Maybe. I am also aware that if we didn’t start solving these problems ourselves, it would be difficult to advocate for them. But again, if you’re not doing it yourself, nobody will listen to you. With the festival, we have built a foundation. For years to come, it can be said, “Look, it has been done this way – it’s possible.” Of course not everything is going to be perfect, it never is, but this is a way forward.


Saša Nemec is an independent artist working between Nova Gorica, Slovenia and Helsinki, Finland. She is one of the Artistic Directors of ‘Pixelache Festival 2019 – Breaking the Fifth Wall’. In 2015 she moved to Finland, where she has continued to organise Repair-a-thons, firstly in the scope of Fashion Revolution Finland, then independently. She has collaborated with the Designmuseo and the Aalto University in Helsinki, Dimora OZ Gallery in Palermo and The Fashion Colloquium in Arnhem. Since 2017 she has been a part of ‘Collective Intelligence’ with whom she presented projects in Helsinki and Palermo. Their latest project ‘Il Traffico’ was part of ‘Manifesta12 5x5x5 program’. In 2010 she was one of the founders of Atelier Indevin, Ljubljana based Institute for Fashion, Arts and Design where she has collaborated with non-profits and galleries alike, especially while coordinating the three-day festival Kalejdoskopov Fonografit.

Born 1986 in Nova Gorica, Slovenia Saša Nemec received an MSc in Fashion and Textile Design from the University of Ljubljana in 2015.

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