by Emmanuel Olunkwa

Nora Turato (b. 1991 Zagreb, Croatia) is an artist and graphic designer living and working in Amsterdam. As a teenager, she uploaded soundscapes to her Myspace profile, which occasionally included tracks of her voice. She later sold her sound equipment at the start of her formal education, intending to pursue a more practical career in graphic design.

For her thesis at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie, Turato made a video work with a voiceover recording. A friend’s suggestion that she perform the script live developed into an ongoing performance practice, which Turato positions in relation to sculptural installations and wall paintings employing typography and the techniques of graphic and industrial design. Turato is interested in playing with the boundaries of meaning in language, the performative aspects of sound and material, and the limits of control.

Turato’s recent presentations include pool 5 at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, and govern me harder at David Zwirner’s 52 Walker. Her current installation, poor babies so scared of themselves and others, is on view at Galerie Gregor Staiger in Zürich until October 22, 2022. Her digital work and then they say it’s true can be viewed at Digilab Kunsthalle Zürich.

Nora Turato. let the mosquito finish, 2021. LED lightbox, printed fabric. 200 × 300 × 6.6 cm | 78 3/4 × 118 × 2 2/3 in. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Gregor Staiger, Zurich.

Emmanuel Olunkwa: Reading about your work, it strikes me that a lot of writers seem to project their own desires and fantasies onto it. There’s a lot of describing what they want your work to be.

Nora Turato: Yeah, some people are really good at controlling the narrative around their work, but I can’t put effort into doing that. I enjoy that people are writing about it, and I don’t want to interfere with how they choose to engage with the work.

EO: Is the interview a medium you enjoy participating in?

NT: I don’t like the stress of it. I have noticed that in the United States, there is such an extreme professionalization of the artist. Everyone is trying to control the narrative so much with press releases, reviews, and interviews. It becomes disconnected. I like to think that being an artist is like being a part of a chain, where critics and curators are the other parts linked together.

EO: How does the presentation and reception of an exhibition differ in Europe and the United States?

NT: It’s much more hardcore in the States. You have to be professional; you need a website and a CV. There’s a rigor applied to the presentation of the person that isn’t always applied to the work itself.

Nora Turato. pool 5, 2022. Performance, MoMA, New York. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Gregor Staiger, Zurich. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

EO: In this particular case, I think it’s good that we hear from you in your own words. Where are you from and what do you do?

NT: I’m originally from Croatia. I was born in the 1990s, in ’91 specifically. It was a time when socialism and Yugoslavia fell apart and Croatia became a different but new country. There was a weird and interesting enthusiasm for capitalism and Western culture more generally.

EO: Spell it out for us: the 90s, capitalism, and Yugoslavia. What was happening?

NT: Something came about that didn’t exist before. It wasn’t a capitalist society before. There was socialism, and the country had just gotten out of a war. There was a weird charge of positivity and the potential for "bright futures" and beyond. Growing up in this time as a teenager, I was very impressed with Western culture, movies, and music. When you come from a place where these things aren’t the norm you almost have an extra sensitivity to them.

EO: What was happening immediately around you?

NT: Not much. It’s not to say that it was boring, but there wasn’t much happening that required my focus. I was listening to a lot of music at the time and I wanted to be a musician though.

EO: Why did you want to make music?

NT: I don’t know. It was the Myspace era, and it was the first moment in my life that I was cool. I had been super uncool up until that point but when I started uploading my music to my page and people started listening to my music, things started to change. It was my first opportunity to make friends, meet people online, and it was the first time that I started having valuable social experiences. Making music was the first time in my life that I felt like I had something to offer to people.

EO: The first time you had a community?

NT: Yeah, it was the first time that I felt like I was a part of something. But even though I was making music and wanted to keep making it, one thing I felt like was never off the table was getting an education. I was a total nerd and never had the thought that I would break the news to my family that I wasn’t going to go off and study. I decided that I wanted to study graphic design because it was something that I could combine with making music. I started researching where I could go to study graphic design, and then of course the Netherlands came to mind because it was much cheaper to study here than it was to study in London, and the legacy of the Gerrit Rietveld Academie was major.

When I first came to study, I sold all of my music equipment because I felt like it was bullshit and really got into graphic design.

EO: What changed?

NT: It didn’t feel like I was being creative anymore making music. At that point, I didn’t feel like I had anything interesting to say or add to it as a medium.

EO: What year was this?

NT: 2009.

EO: What was happening music-wise at the time?

NT: It was very Canadian, with a major Pitchfork vibe. I didn’t feel like I had anything to contribute to what was happening, and only recently has that started to change where I now feel like maybe there are some interesting things I can do with music. I made music because it used to feel good making music, not because I was adding anything to any discourse. I never thought of myself as making anything interesting.

Nora Turato. you’re so vain, 2021. Vitreous enamel on steel, two elements. 192.5 x 120 x 3 cm | 75 3/4 x 47 1/4 x 1 1/4 in. Courtesy of the artist and 52 Walker, New York.

Nora Turato. govern me harder, 2021. Vitreous enamel on steel, two elements. 192.5 x 120 x 3 cm | 75 3/4 x 47 1/4 x 1 1/4 in. Courtesy of the artist and 52 Walker, New York.

EO: What type of music were you making when you first started and had become cool?

NT: I was making music with a drum machine, bass guitar, and a lot of reverb. [Laughter.]

EO: Were you singing on the tracks or was it ambient?

NT: No. It was more punk and noisier, but simple music. It meant more to me in the long run as a developmental thing. Though there was something to it.

EO: What happened once you arrived at school?

NT: I was very impressed with the potential of graphic design, that you can work in the cultural industry and actually make money. Also, the person who ran the department, Linda van Deursen, she was so cool and a total role model. She did all of the graphic design for the cultural institutions in Amsterdam, and it felt like the first time that I could be a professional but also make cool stuff, which was wild for me, because before you could only have it one way.

EO: Yeah, you had to compromise your integrity by being a professional.

NT: Exactly. It was the first time I thought, 'Wow, you could be a cool creative thinking person and be a professional functioning in society.'

EO: Did you always feel like you had to be practical?

NT: Yes, of course! Where I come from, you can’t just be bohemian. It’s not an option. Just being an artist was never something that crossed my mind, until I started making money as an artist. It was so deeply ingrained in me that I had to be practical. After I graduated from school I got a job working in a graphic design studio. And then I don’t know how it happened, but I started to do these spoken word performances.

EO: Had you done performance before?

NT: No, I graduated with my B.A. with a video featuring a voiceover component. Someone during the graduation show was like, “Oh my god, you should perform the voiceover work.” It was all so random. My whole career I've never decided to do anything. It was mostly one thing leading to the next and deciding what to invest my energy into, which is how it is to this day. I don’t think it was the most compelling performance, but I think people found it strange and engaging. I think this happens with a lot of artists. They get this initial interest in their practice, not because the work is necessarily compelling but because there is an idea that something more is there.

I was performing a lot, and then at one point it got plugged back into graphic design. I thought, wait a minute, I’m performing these words but I can also make them into exhibitions, [Laughter] because I have six years of typography education, and maybe it could be interesting to start combining the two things together.

EO: Did anything specific happen to make you feel that way?

NT: It’s very hard to be a performance artist in the art world, exclusively performing, because no one takes you seriously. Infrastructurally it’s bullshit and you can’t make any money. There’s this whole part of me which was craving graphic design. Things collided. My life as a performance artist was lacking the space to work with words visually, and the graphic design side was missing typography and printmaking, and then somehow very rationally it came to me to combine the two of them.

EO: Do you think there was a desire to create a tactile object or experience, one that isn’t completely ephemeral?

NT: For the performance, and content of the performances, they both possess ephemeral aspects that pass by very quickly, whether they’re the words I’m saying or the murals that I'm designing for installation. With physical works I try to do something counterintuitive. I want to use something that is so temporal and fluffy and work with it to present it in a classic way.

EO: Like an advertisement or catchy showtune?

NT: Yeah, I find that kind of persistence interesting, creating that type of language and using that structure.

Nora Turato. eeeexactlyyy my point., 2021. Emulsion paint on wall. Installation view, 'Post-Capital: Art and the Economics of the Digital Age', MUDAM, Luxembourg, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Gregor Staiger, Zurich. Photo: Rémi Villaggi.

EO: There are two statements from shows of yours that made me laugh. The first is, “I’m no longer a baby I want power,” and the second, “I’m going to get medieval on your ass.” [Laughter.]

NT: [Laughs.] The second is from Pulp Fiction.

EO: Really? It’s funny because the language doesn’t feel borrowed when presented visually and graphically. How did you learn to trust the language you like?

NT: I just trust my instincts. It’s a very intuitive process and I try not to think too much. When I do think about the phrases and words, it mostly happens retroactively.

EO: What is the process?

NT: The process is about expanding the possibility of bumping into something; language, graphic, or otherwise. It’s about seeing something and having it stay with you. I feel like a detective. I read a lot and do exercises with language. I often have a topic in mind when I’m working on a performance or making a show, and I’m digging as deep as I humanly can.

EO: So, when you’re watching a movie, are you stopping it and then writing down a line?

NT: Yes, I go back and then I record it. I do it constantly, archiving sounds, and then if it's good enough I’ll come back to it instinctively. Some things I’ll forget about and others will come back to me three months later.

EO: What’s your relationship to material? I noticed you’ve made a few works using tile.

NT: Yes. I want to push my material use further. I’m most familiar with working with paper, making prints and books. But now I’m making enamel works that are essentially baked steel, and doing wall paintings for shows which are precise hand painted murals. I’ve realized that my work is about claiming monumentality through something more temporal.

EO: The wall paintings, how did you arrive there?

NT: That’s another example of me not thinking and retroactively ascribing meaning. I wanted to do big wall works but there wasn’t enough money in the budget to do vinyl, so we just painted them directly on the wall because it was a cheaper option. What’s interesting about the painting is that from afar it looks like a digital painting but then up-close you recognize it’s the human hand.

EO: Does the hand feel essential to your practice?

NT: What’s nice about the mural is that it’s super labor intensive to put on, the same as the performances, and there’s something ceremonious about both of those experiences and similarities. I like how the work doesn’t exist as a work but exists more as a manual that has specific protocols. I think it’s cool that you don’t have to ship or store the work which I think solves a lot of problems for the art world. [Laughter.]

EO: Do you think of yourself as a storyteller?

NT: I don’t think I’m a good storyteller yet. I think it’s something that one learns with time. I think Hollywood is a good example of this, where there are a lot of stories being told, but some are good and others don’t quite work. I don’t think a lot of people are writing stories anymore. I feel like most writing is based on true stories and everything is meta these days and movies are made based on true events. It’s almost like we’re being primed for a life where there is no fiction, though I think because there is so little fiction being made right now it’s hot and sexy. I’m interested in it because it’s become this thing that's slowly disappearing.

Nora Turato. your bed is a magical place where you remember all the things you forgot during the day / your vanity is powerful enough to defeat anything, 2021. Emulsion paint on wall. Installation view 'INFORMATION (Today)', Kunsthalle Basel, 2021. Courtesy of the artist, LambdaLambdaLambda, Prishtina and Galerie Gregor Staiger, Zurich.

EO: How would you describe your practice?

NT: I think I am channeling with technique. I don’t think there’s something necessarily spiritual about my work, but the technology and technique makes the work transcend into something spiritual. For instance, with my performances, if I take audio of Orson Welles and imitate him down to the twitch of an eye or the breath that he takes, I’m sort of becoming him. With technique, practice, precision, and craft you can achieve different states in a scientific way.

I’m not a mad scientist, and with saying these words, they’re so heavy, but is it like a form of witchcraft in a way? [Laughter.]

EO: [Laughs.] Yes! What’s your relationship to architecture? As a designer, are you thinking about the politics of space?

NT: Both of my parents are architects. Since I was a little baby, we’d go everywhere and see every building, and they’d point out these little details of each one. [Laughter.] Architecture is just so ingrained in me. I think I have such a deep understanding of space because it was forced upon me.

EO: What do you think about windows, rooms, and walls?

NT: What I’d really like to do once is design a Memory Palace, because in a way, when I memorize my scripts, I attach them to architecture. In a way, there are spaces that I’ve navigated as I’m moving in my head.

EO: ...different anchors or queues?

NT: Yes, different anchors that are tied to space. It’s important to have those space markers. Architecture is super interesting and heavy, but the thing is, you have to achieve a certain type of success in your career before you can start fucking with it as a form. It’s tied to budgets, spaces where you’re permitted to display work and so on. It’s not an easy thing to fuck around with at the beginning of your career. It’s funny, you know you’ve made it far the moment you’re able to fuck up space.

EO: How would you describe architecture to someone who knew nothing about it?

NT: To be honest, I don’t know what the fuck architecture is today. Architects today are bureaucrats who are filling up space. There’s not much for one to do today. If you look at most architecture it’s all just about the grid; where all we talk about is safety, efficiency, and climate. I think architecture is kind of dead. If you look at a Mies Van der Rohe building, those types of constructions are not legal to make today, because of certain codes. I don’t know how you progress from a point where things are so regulated. I’m not saying things should not be regulated, I’m just saying that the future of architecture is somewhere else, maybe in the virtual world, exhibition spaces, or in cinema. I think cinema is a better place for architects to go to than building buildings, because buildings have become boring.

EO: I almost think architects are better artmakers than more artists. What did architecture mean to your parents? What were their principles?

NT: I never thought that deeply about it.

EO: When you went to see buildings with your parents, what did they tell you to pay attention to?

NT: I was always very pissed about going, because it was a form of torture. I think architects had this larger-than-life influence. Some were constructing the way that people live and how we see and get to experience the world and how we move. It was a very powerful position at the beginning of the 19th and 20th centuries. With Frank Lloyd Wright, it was a very larger than life occupation which I think is gone in a lot of ways. I think people who design spaces such as Instagram are much more an architect of our lives than someone designing the buildings where we live.

Nora Turato. and i'm like dah dah dah dah dah is it right that blah blah blah blah? and he'll say yes, but think of this, 2021. Vitreous enamel on steel, four elements. 242 x 192.5 x 3 cm | 95 1/4 x 75 3/4 x 1 1/4 in. Courtesy the artist and 52 Walker, New York.

Nora Turato. all is forgiven, 2021. Vitreous enamel on steel, four elements. 242 x 192.5 x 3 cm | 95 1/4 x 75 3/4 x 1 1/4 in. Courtesy the artist and 52 Walker, New York.

EO: What’s your relationship to color and shape?

NT: I was talking to someone about the recurring structure of sentences, shapes, logos, letters, and melodies all being these small packages of information that can exist on their own but are fragmented at the same time. I think about it in terms of the sublime, how beyond meaning you can still find something resonant. What does it take to make good shapes? It requires the same type of thinking to understand what makes a good sentence, melody, or rhythm. I think it’s beautiful and fascinating to look at these different systems of working and communicating.

EO: Completely. It’s really all about understanding how to communicate an idea and finding the right platform for the message. It’s all about knowing how to reach or create an audience.

NT: I like pop colors and others that are bright. I don’t like muddy or dull colors.

EO: Where do your references come from?

NT: From different kinds of places. Some references I find in scientific charts, advertisements for gas stations, circuses, or a company’s powerpoint presentation. I don’t always have a concrete idea. I just have a vision of where I want to go, so I see different words in my head that form these themes for the show. I’ll sit down and write different terms down, like corporate, devil, circus, and there’s this mood board approach to how I work through my ideas.

EO: I like that you brought up the sublime as a structure for thinking. Do you believe in it as a frame of reference? Like something being so powerful it can’t be described in words but can only exist experientially?

NT: Yes, I think about it being something that can exist and work beyond its meaning and reach many people. It’s something that just works on its own and looks good. It doesn’t need to be theorized, though it can be, but it’s just something that effectively communicates what it does well.

EO: What are your favorite letters?

NT: The letter R I like a lot. I like B and letters that are more pronounced in shape and have a texture to them. I also like the shape of the letter S a lot and P. [Laughter.] It’s such a weird thing to think about which letters you like. Oh, and O's are great because you can do a lot with them in terms of storytelling with visual language. It’s funny that we’re talking about this because I took a different approach to the show at 52 Walker, where I was only thinking about writing in a way that looks good, you know, thinking about writing that is visually captivating. It was about approaching language aesthetically and not through its meaning or communication. It’s a bit like what singing is to spoken word, that’s what this could be for written words, where letters are only an aesthetic experience, and they just transcend the meaning. I think it’s interesting that there are these laws about pronunciation and grammar, but in my work I completely disregard them. I’m thinking about how to communicate the feeling of the words by adding extra letters to communicate expression through form.

EO: What do you feel like you’re in service of? Do you start building out the work based on the place where you’re showing the artwork or are you more the type to bring a pre-formed idea to wherever you’re showing?

NT: It’s often that I start with the space, but it’s hard to always know which mental place I’m working from because I’ll be doing a lot of different things at once and then ideas will just present themselves to me. Whether they’re in my own word-bank-archive, or something that I see out in the world and then repackage, it happens in a lot of different ways. Every time that I have tried to be super clear and conceptual with an idea, I noticed I’ve failed. There is a lot of great art that is very descriptive, but my problem is that whenever I start with an idea, the work becomes an illustration of an idea which I could just tell you directly and it wouldn’t need to exist as a work or show something that I’m working through. What’s the point of illustrating a thesis or idea of the work you already understand? I think it’s better to let the work create the idea that later comes to life. I find it personally reductive to start from a very clear idea or stance of telling a specific story. For my own work, I’ve noticed that I’m happier with the work when I’m lost in making its meaning.

Nora Turato. what is dead may never die, 2021. Performance, Library Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 2021. Courtesy of the artist, LambdaLambdaLambda, Prishtina and Galerie Gregor Staiger, Zurich. Photo: Maarten Nauw.

EO: It sounds like you’re best when you’re working from an intuitive place.

NT: Yeah, it’s not to say that I’m clueless. I'm just saying that I have to start making something first, and then reflect on what it is, and that’s when the ideas come in: after I’ve given myself a foundation to think on.

EO: Right. You let the process reveal itself to you. How does this translate to the production and execution of ideas though? Artists historically have had to compromise ideas because of material or budget constraints. How has this affected your work? Do you still work with vinyl? Or now do you exclusively paint the murals directly on the walls?

NT: Listen, the enamels that I make are actually hard to produce and are technically beyond the means of what is usually done with it as a material. I find it super exciting to push printmaking and the general technology that exists. If something is made purely for the purpose of advertising, there's no need for it to be perfect or technically intricate. But in a way it’s interesting to use printmaking processes that have to do with mass production to produce a single work and make it almost painterly in a sense. With these enamels, they’re baked to 800 degrees and they’re too big, so the tension across the board is high. It’s really hard to make them and have them not break in the process. It’s not a process that would lend itself to advertising because it’s inconvenient to do.

EO: What are you trying to communicate with the use of enamels?

NT: We exist in a world where everything moves so quickly. It’s cool to stick with a material and slow down the process and bake something with metal and porcelain.

EO: How long does it take to make an enamel work?

NT: [Laughs.] A long time. Each layer is painted and baked separately and then has to cool down. And there are times when layers crack or break so we have to do it again. If they were a bit smaller, they would be easier to produce, but I’m a sucker for big things. [Laughter.]

EO: Are they heavy?

NT: Yeah, they’re actually pretty heavy. They're about 100kg [220lbs] each. It’s funny because I really think about them in terms of objects that you encounter in physical space. It’s hard to trust photography because information gets lost, and you lose the quality and presence of the work because it doesn’t translate directly. I enjoy being able to make things that are pretty objects that communicate these instructive messages through these different kinds of materials. It’s cool to be able to make something that lends itself to both forms though, that can translate online because the work has an advertisement sensibility but also is sculptural when you see it in person. It’s important to leave some heaviness in the actual object itself that doesn’t translate to the image. There’s a physicality about the work that leaves hope for the exhibition space. [Laughter.]

Nora Turato. explore heaven now, 2022. Emulsion paint on wall. Installation view, INFORMATION (Today) © Astrup Fearnley Museet, 2022. Courtesy of the artist, LambdaLambdaLambda, Prishtina and Galerie Gregor Staiger, Zurich. Photo: Christian Øen.

EO: I was thinking about this concept the other day in terms of graphic design and making websites. If you think about the project of constructing a website, you have to think about having the idea translate on two different architectural planes, one being the desktop, and the other being the mobile view. To be the most effective, you have to use the visual weight in different ways to communicate the message to the user. The idea has to be reworked based on what the form needs, right? The form dictates the function.

NT: Yeah, completely. If I look up something on my computer, it’s a much bigger production and deal than it is when I’m looking for something on my phone. It's a different experience entirely but we’re conditioned to think that it’s the same thing.

EO: You brought up the idea of your work having an advertisement dimensionality to it. What do you think you are advertising?

NT: No, I don’t think my work functions as an advertisement, but it takes a lot from advertising. I think that’s what art is supposed to do, no? It’s meant to look at the real world and offer some digested form, so that when people find or encounter the thing that you are referencing, you’ve provided them with a new perspective. You’re adding objects to the discourse that is life. It’s a funny cycle, because someone who works in advertising can see your work and use it as a reference. Then you’re back where you started. It’s a cool chain where you’re reflecting and influencing the real world through something. We walk through the world encountering all of these different typographical messages all the time but don’t sit to take time to think about what they may mean. We’re kind of brainwashed, but it’s nice that there is a context where you can see these ideas distilled so you can reflect on them and make your own conclusions.

EO: What is your relationship to humor?

NT: I think it’s important, and sad when it goes away because people want to be smart about things. There’s this idea that it’s not a position you should take if you want to be taken seriously as an artist. I think humor is healing and jokes help people heal. The moment you can laugh about something is the moment you can actually deal with it.

Nora Turato. a limited supply of nothing, 2021. LED lightbox, printed fabric. 200 × 300 × 6.6 cm | 78 3/4 × 118 × 2 2/3 in. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Gregor Staiger, Zurich.