I was sitting in a café in Bratislava, having a final cup of coffee and picking up my email before boarding a train for Budapest. I was dimly aware of a couple of guys in another part of the café dismantling film equipment as if after a shoot. I was in a hurry, so I wasn’t paying much attention. But then one of the guys came over to my table.
“You look like that Apple fellow,” he said to me.
True, I was wearing a turtleneck and wire-rimmed glasses, and I was sporting a sort of Steve Jobs beard. But no one had ever before mistaken me for the computer magnate.
Pavol Kustar introduced himself with a couple business cards and, once he found out that I had been interviewing people in Bratislava, he offered his services as a fixer. I told him that I was leaving the country in an hour. He looked unhappy. If I returned to Bratislava, he could introduce me to his friend the filmmaker, Michal Vasilko. And there was a famous violinist I should talk to. And maybe I could also interview Michal’s mother, a bestselling author.
So, on my next trip to the region in April 2013, I took a detour back to Bratislava. Pavol Kustar, his filmmaker friend Michal Vasilko, and I sat at an outdoor pub and talked about videos, contemporary art, and the South Pacific.
Vasilko specializes in one-minutes films. “I think that if you want to say something interesting, one minute is enough to get right to the point,” he told me. He’s done 60-second shorts on kids playing with toy guns, an erotic festival, and a disabled rapper. But he really wants to do films about famous Slovaks, like the traveler and astronomer – Milan Rastislav Štefánik. He is currently trying to raise money to finish the film.
Kustar too makes art. Or, rather, his son does. And his son is also focused on producing art in short bursts. We talked about his exhibition entitled The Youngest Artist in the World, which includes the above picture.
Do you remember the fall of the Berlin Wall?
Michal Vasilko: Only from history.
When were you born?
Michal Vasilko: 1984.
You were only 5 years old. Do you remember when Czechoslovakia split?
Michal Vasilko: I remember that people wanted it. The Slovak people wanted the separation. They were okay with that.
Did it have any effect in your school?
Michal Vasilko: No.
Did you have family in Czech Republic?
Michal Vasilko: Yes. I had family there. Also Czech family here. My grandmother is from the Czech side. But I was only nine years old. I don’t really know about how Czechs and Slovaks dealt with one another at that time.
Pavol Kustar: What I remember from that time is a giant picture from the live TV news report about the situation in Berlin with people climbing freely on the Wall for the first time in their life and screaming with joy. Before 1989, I remember that peanuts in sugar, which I really liked, cost two Czechoslovak crowns. The price went up a lot after that…
How old were you in 1989?
Pavol Kustar: Nine years old.
What do you remember from the split?
Pavol Kustar: From that age (13 years) I remember that Slovak politicians (especially Vladimír Mečiar) were probably the ones who most wanted Czechoslovakia to be split. I think the common people did not want it. The proof that politicians were afraid of public opinion is that there was no democratic referendum on the issue at that time. Well, what I would say now (when I’m 33) is that ordinary Slovaks were motivated by their politicians to face the experience of the split because of the individual egos of the political representatives. And history wanted them to go through such an experience. We were all the time in our history under the control of someone else. In the Middle Ages, there was a lot of gold and copper in Slovakia but everything was taken out to Europe. There were Turks here. There were Hungarians here. The only independent history we have is the era of the Samos Empire in 7th and Great Moravia in the 9th century.
There was one other time: Jozef Tiso.
Pavol Kustar: Ah yes. The dead end luckily driven out of by those heroes of the Slovak National Uprising! Imagine, there are still people celebrating Jozef Tiso as a hero in Slovakia! What a shame!
Tell me when you decided to become involved in filmmaking?
Michal Vasilko: I started with photography when I was 14. After that, I started to think about moving pictures. I bought a movie camera when I was 18. I went to Great Britain to earn money for the camera. It was still difficult here to earn more money.
Then I realized that with this camera, I could make short films. I started to think what it meant to direct short films. All these experiences in these fields were very helpful and necessary for me. Some people start out with school, or they get their start because a director asks them to help with their film. But I went my own way. I didn’t know people from film industry in the beginning. There were no real film professionals or photographers in my family. I can say I am “independent” in video art, and my opinion is independent too. That is advantage for me.
Is there a film school in Bratislava?
Michal Vasilko: Yes, there’s one film school.
Did you consider going there?
Michal Vasilko: I considered it. But I’m proud that I decided not to study there. There were possibilities there, of course, because of the teachers there and the classes on technical skills. But on the other hand it was not very interesting for me. I am still learning. I am still studying. People can study every day, but it’s not necessary study in the school.
To learn things, some people need teachers, some need books, some need university. But it’s not necessary to have a teacher or a university. It can depend on experience. I’m not interested in a person’s age but rather their experience. The great artists and men have emerged from their own experience. That’s the richest source of inspiration.
Tell me about your early films. What were your themes?
Michal Vasilko: With the first one, the theme was the difference between the life of people who are disabled and people who are not disabled. It’s about a boy of 16 years old who was disabled, both physically and mentally. In another way he was very talented. He was also very empathic. He was conscious of himself and of his ability.
Can you give me an example of how he was gifted?
Michal Vasilko: He speaks in rhymes. He listens to a lot of music, and he could sing some of these songs. My movie was at a festival of short films – the topic of festival was “We Are People.”
It was here in Slovakia?
Michal Vasilko: It started as a Slovak festival, and it is now international. This film won third place. I was 20 years old. For me, it was a message: “hey if you want to make films, go for it.” I was the cameraman, editor, and also an actor in the film.
Was it a documentary film?
Michal Vasilko: There are many kinds of documentaries. I like it when you’re not sure whether it’s a documentary or a feature film.
Did you see Michal’s first film?
Pavol Kustar: Yes.
Did you know him then?
Pavol Kustar: Yes, because we met on the street before. I met Michal with a camera in his hand. At that time, I was in the photographic period of my life –I was taking photographs of everything around me. I never had a problem stopping anyone on the street. So I met Michal in the street with a camera in his hands and I asked him what he was doing. We became friends, and he showed me this film.
What was the year of this film?
Pavol Kustar: 2006. At that time, I had already finished university in communication, and I was looking at this film also through the lens of advertising — telling an idea in a very short time. It’s one minute long.
One minute long! You said it was short, but I didn’t realize it was so short.
Michal Vasilko: I was interested in one-minute films. I think that if you want to say something interesting, one minute is enough to get right to the point.
Are all your films one-minute long?
Michal Vasilko: No, but as I said it is a nice to say a lot in a short time.
You make Twitter films.
Michal Vasilko: My last film also interested a director from the Czech Republic, who teaches at the film school in Prague. He’s made a movie about Czech and Slovak attitudes toward the EU. He asked me if he could use my one-minute film in his 30-minute documentary.
That’s what you were filming when I met you.
Michal Vasilko: Yes, in the cafe at interview. He asked me if I would send my film, which had been submitted to the festival under the theme “We Are Europeans,” also to an American festival. I said, “Of course, why not? The things that work here in our society also work in America. I don’t divide people between Americans and Europeans, or Gypsies and non-Gypsies. Of course people are different, but not in the sense of “I am European” and “you are American.” What’s more important is people’s consciousness.
The film you did, the one-minute film, what was that about?
Pavol Kustar: It was shot in Prague. It was about different people coming to an erotic festival. It is an audio-visual fingerprint in the space of one moment at this festival – a very funny and realistic moment. But I just saw the film. I did not attend the festival!
Michal Vasilko: My recent one-minute films are about the moments —about the right time and the right place. We are now here, sitting and talking, and it might seem like nothing is happening. But a good director or a good writer could turn this moment into something. It just depends on what you see. I was at the festival and I was taking shots of people coming there because of erotic toys and things like that. I was interested in that message, conveying that message. That’s the definition of successful art. If someone makes a picture and nobody likes it or sees it, it might be art but not successful art.
Pavol Kustar: Michal’s second short film was called Bratislava Boys. It was one of 23 films selected as the best from 1,600 films submitted from around the world. The festival was organized by John Ketchum, and the film was selected by the Oscar winning screenwriter of Million Dollar Baby, Paul Haggis. What I enjoy the most about Michal Vasilko’s films is the connection between picture and music. We have an expression in Slovak – “it fits like a butt on a baby’s plastic toilet.” The music and the picture in his films couldn’t be closer. In this film Bratislava Boys, some neighborhood boys are playing with toy guns, but it all looks very realistic, and it’s a very emotionally strong story.
Did you go to the South Pacific to do a one-minute film?
Michal Vasilko: Not one minute. It was a longer trip, and I was the cameraman of the expedition. It was really a fantastic life experience. The point of the trip was to follow in the steps of one of the founders of Czechoslovakia – Milan Rastislav Štefánik, who in 1911 was searching for the eclipse of the sun on Vava’u Island.
He made a great astronomical discovery at that time. We were there because we were honored to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his search for the eclipse. He was also a general in addition to being a traveler and astronomer. He built two pedestals for his telescope.
The video pictures from this expedition were used for promotion and spreading the message of activities of M.R. Štefánik and also the people who were on the expedition.
What did you find in he South Pacific that was left from the astronomer?
Michal Vasilko: The pylons that were used for the telescope. It was my grandfather who had followed in the steps of Štefánik and found these pylons in 1997. My grandfather was also on this trip with me. He put together the program. He was the leader. We both thought that it was good for the country to know more about Štefánik. We need to know about our founders and our national heroes.
The film you made, did Slovak TV show it yet?
Michal Vasilko: Slovak TV broadcast a 15-minute documentary about František Kele, my grandfather, who is a writer, traveler, and teacher and was the leader of many expeditions following the steps of M.R. Štefánik. My pictures were used there, they were necessary to make this story.After I saw all the video material which I collected, I decided to make a short music clip to represent the nature of Tonga Islands and also New Zealand.
You went half way around the world to look at two rocks?
Michal Vasilko: Not only to see the pylons, those “two rocks.” The expedition had the aim to make a replica of these two pylons, because they are Slovak national heritage. So these pylons now exist also as replicas in the city were Štefánik was born in Košariská.
Your grandfather is a traveler and also a mountain climber.
Michal Vasilko: Yes he was a climber, but more a traveler. Today he is 78 years old. He was the director of over 70 expeditions to many places of the world. He also organized the first Slovak expedition to Mt. Everest in 1984. When he came back from the expedition, he picked me up at the hospital. When he made the expedition in 1984, not so many people had climbed Everest. At that time it was a really important expedition for Czechoslovakia.
Have you thought about doing a documentary about him?
Michal Vasilko: I will make for him kind a family video as a surprise for him on his birthday.
You mentioned that you are doing several projects for money. What are those?
Michal Vasilko: I am producing several projects that I like to do. That is important for me. I still learn something new, and it’s important that I have a good feeling from the vids. I’m making promo videos of all kinds – music events, concerts, sport events, short documentaries, also music video clips. I have been working for more than one year with the W5 World Kickboxing Championship. But I also start produce different videos on the common topic of “Life is Love.”
What’s your view of culture here in Slovakia? What are the good parts and the not-so-good parts of Slovak culture?
Pavol Kustar: I’d like to stress something I heard from Michal´s grandfather, that it was easier before 1989 to go to the ministry of culture and get money for some projects — like mountain expedition projects, which were his interest. And what’s more, common people now have less money for culture – for going to theatre or opera or concerts — than under the previous regime.
Michal Vasilko: This question is very broad. So the answer should be as well. But as Pavol said, the audio-visual fund should support many more films on the theme of our national heroes, such as Štefánik.
Pavol Kustar: We asked for support for two projects. One was for the Jozef “Dodo” Šošoka, the great Slovak jazzman. He was a really great guy who was the first jazzman to introduce jazz percussion and drum rhythms influenced by world (especially African) music to Slovakia. I heard that his collection of various drums and percussion instruments from around the world was amazing.
The other personality was Móric Beňovský, a scholar and political in the 18th century who traveled around the world and was briefly the king of Madagascar. We asked for money from the ministry, but we were not successful. Michal’s grandfather was also interested in Beňovský and following in his steps. He was helping us with writing the materials for the grant. And he was also disappointed by lack of success of the project.
There’s also Martin Kukučín, a writer and doctor in South America.
Michal Vasilko: These people represent our culture and our past: Štefánik, Kukučín, Beňovský (Benyawszky), Šošoka, and František Kele, who is still living.
Pavol Kustar: We also did a project that connected different genres of art — musicians, graphic artists, fine artists, dancers.
Michal Vasilko: When we were more idealistic and less busy – Pavol is now a father – we made a multi-art jam session. It was really cool, something that people liked. If we get money from the Slovak ministry of culture, we could do this jam session every year free in the squares and bring in people from different countries. It’s a good idea, but it seems like the money only goes to people who have contacts, not the people who have good ideas.
Pavol Kustar: One of the projects we did was called The Youngest Artist in the World. It opened on October 10, 2012, two years after the youngest artist in the world was born. The youngest artist could be any baby. Picasso once said, “Every child is an artist, the problem is staying an artist when you grow up.” When a baby comes into this world, his or her book of life is clean, with blank pages. What’s written in this book when the child and then the teenager is studying art are the thoughts of the people the child meets. Why not turn this upside down and start when the book is clean and show the untouched art, without any later influences?
Michal Vasilko: This art was baby poo.
Pavol Kustar: Poo in the nappy. I was thinking that the nappy is like the canvass and the poo is like the paint. And the baby is the brush. And the artist is nature. The baby is the medium. Nature is the most important artist. Nature is the fundamental co-creator of all of us, and we are part of nature. The creativity from nature is in every one of us and also all around us. The baby — the youngest artist in the world — is the unwritten book in the hands of nature. Somehow, this art is the cleanest, most natural, and the best in my opinion.
Was this a film?
Pavol Kustar: It was an exhibition of pictures.
Michal Vasilko: We also want to take this exhibition to the United States.
Send me a picture and I’ll see what I can do.
Pavol Kustar: The most interesting part was the process. No one until the moment that we uncovered the pictures knew what was on the pictures. Everyone thought that they would be pictures drawn by color pastels or pencils or painted by the hand of the baby. But it wasn’t. During the exhibition´s opening ceremony we also projected a short film of the creation and destruction of a mandala by Buddhist monks to stress the impermanence of life.
By displaying such kind of art works I think we also put up imaginary mirrors in front of the people who joined the exhibition so that they could face their physical state at that moment. When you are a parent of a baby, you are often going through a situation with the baby when it can’t make poo. And then when the baby finally makes it, it brings laughter and smiles to your face. And the poo from cows is still the most important thing for soil and agriculture. It’s not normal if someone gets angry about all this. But there are also people who admired the idea and said it was brilliant. This is the point of the mirror. For some people, they see in the mirror only the the reflection of the “emperor’s new clothes. ” But what I would like people to recognize is their own nakedness in the mirror’s reflection and laugh liberatingly from the heart.
I asked the Slovak National Gallery to host the exhibition. The director of the gallery wrote me, “I’m not quite clear whether this is an offer or a retraction, but I’m afraid that being the youngest artist in the world is not a qualification for SNG (Slovak National Gallery).” So I asked her what she thought that the Joseph Beuys performance “I Like America and America Likes Me,” the “Fountain” by Marcel Duchamps, “For The Void” by Yves Klein, or finally “Artist’s Shit,” a 1961 artwork from the Italian artist Piero Manzoni who took a shit in a can and put a label on it with all the ingredients. Were these artworks respected in the art world or just retractions? worldwide were also recession:
The director just said, “If you are interested in issues in 20th-century art, I suggest that you go to the Slovak National Gallery’s Art history library or take a guided tour.”
I told her I was not satisfied with her answer.
Did you find a place to have the exhibition?
Pavol Kustar: Yes, we had it at Batelier art club with a gallery room and live music. I decided to do it there in order to make the idea real and bring it to life.
This idea occurred to me when we brought our baby home from the hospital, and suddenly, on the top of the cloth he was wrapped in to be brought to our home from hospital, there appeared the picture of a heart. He created a poo mark in the shape of a heart.
I said in that moment, “So far he can’t say anything, he can´t use any words to communicate. The only natural creative material substance he has to communicate with is his poo, but he said everything with it. He said, “I love you.” He said the only and the most important thing to his parents, with the only way of communication they could understand in that moment – the natural visual language…
Yeats once wrote that “love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement.”
Pavol Kustar: This could be the motto of the exhibition. Alongside the Picasso quote.
Bratislava, April 30, 2013