by Polina Shubkina

© Stepanka Simlova, 'Years of Levitation', exhibition view at Prague City Gallery 2015

Could you briefly describe your career? How did you get to teach at FAMU (Film and TV School of Academy of Permforming Arts) in Prague?

Stepanka Simlova (SS): I studied Intermedia at the Academy of Fine Arts. When I was about 35, I got invited to teach at the University of Usti Nad Labem, where became in charge of the digital media studio. After five years I decided to quit because I wanted to focus on my personal art projects. After 2-3 years of being a free artist, I was invited to participate in the competition at FAMU, at that time I started feeling a little bit nostalgic about teaching. Teaching definitely can get addictive. So I ended up teaching photography at FAMU, and after four years I became a head of its photo department.

Could you compare teaching in Usti Nad Labem University to your process in FAMU? What directed you towards the teaching career?

SS: At my first job I used to teach photography as well, but in the frames of a digital media program. In FAMU I also teach digital media. To be honest, at first, I didn't feel like a professor, I was young and convinced that I have nothing to say to the students. However, after meeting all these 18-19 years olds, I came to a realization that maybe it's not such a bad idea. When I was a student myself, I learned a lot from Milan Knizak'ss method. – For example using very abstract concepts (like freedom or piece), historical events or general topics as a theme for assignments; limiting it by media, size or length (in a case of the video). I apply his method in my teaching as well, focusing on figuring out the student's individuality.

Minghui Zheng, 'On the mythology of the black and pink mushroom women', BA photography student work, FAMU, 2016. #Colour: 7 Shape: 9 | Inference: Not a virgin but only a few sexual experiences. Very good-looking. From a rich family. Well educated, perhaps even have abroad study experience. These types of women are valued as top class. But they never will belong to us. They will just look down upon us. They are well educated and sell themselves tp foreigners. They marry with foreign trash. For them, everything from abroad is better than Chinese things. In this sense, we can actually call them traitors. 

How can you describe your time at the Royal Academy of Beldeenden Kunsten?

SS: It was a great and very beneficial experience. Curators and critics visited the school very often. Learning process was based on the individual consultations. There was a great background for personal work including special workshops open 24 hours a day and fantastic production support. It helped me a lot to understand what does it mean to succeed as an artist. But Czech contemporary art education was still in the beginning back then. This program made a huge impact on my career and my vision of course.

How did your teaching method evolve since you started teaching at FAMU?

SS: What are your goals as a professor? The basics of my teaching method remained the same because it's coming from my artistic and academic background. But, the students at Usti Nad Labem are very different from the students at FAMU, they simply have various life goals. I am not saying that either of them are more of less talented. People, who are going to FAMU are more focused on pursuing a career in Fine Art; they are more oriented on making it to the galleries. Students from Usti Nad Labem are more hesitant in choosing their career path; they usually pick between careers in publishing, cultural affairs, etc. Right now, Czech Republic has about seven schools of photography, which is a lot for the country of 10mln. Every school has to figure it's on niche, a sphere of influence. FAMU is an older school with a strong tradition of teaching photography. We provide an excellent technical darkroom training, which was obviously lacking at the Usti Nad Labem, their school is all about digital. I am not saying that one is better than another, but the approaches are very different.

© Nina Speranda, Perfect Parents, MA Photography student work installation view, FAMU, 2014 

How long does the FAMU International program exist?

SS: The international program of FAMU started a long time ago. Although during the 1970s-80s, it existed mainly for the students from Socialist countries, back then we had many students from former Yugoslavia. I'm speaking of FAMU in general, not only the photography department. Yugoslavia did not have its film and photography schools. So they all used to come here, one of the most famous graduates of our school is Emir Kusturica.

The program in English got established around the year 1992, by the former chair of the department Miloslav VojtÄ›chovský. He was very keen on bringing the international students to the university, which I think, now is the biggest value of FAMU. The global art scene has a tendency to mutate; it always confronts different approaches from various countries. Right now we have students from Russia, China, India, USA, UK, etc. Their thinking is very distinct from the local students, and it is fantastic that by being exposed to each other's approach during their time here, they all get to learn from each other. It is especially beneficial for our Czech students because this way they get prepared for the big world, they get to learn about various mentalities, before going to do an internship somewhere abroad.

© Maria Elinardottir, 'God Bless Iceland', MA Photography student work installation view, FAMU, 2014

© Michaela Cejkova, 'After Eden', MA Photography student work installation and projection, FAMU, 2015

What is your idea about the Czech art scene, Prague in particular?

SS: It is a tough one. For a long time, the Czech art market was too local, the artists were almost in a bubble. But for the past few years, it started to change; I feel that it is getting better, as the market becomes more competitive. The local scene gets confronted to the works of the international art community. I think that competition is always healthy, it eliminates the weak. The young artists are a lot more open to the global trends; I am not talking only about photography, I also mean theater, film, performance art. For example all these performances at Letna and Naplavka, small galleries of Zizkov district, they all make a very up to date work. I feel very positively about these changes. I am coming from the generation, which was inspired by the fall of the Berlin wall, we had a great example, sort of direction with our art and lives. The vibe that I am getting from the young art scene of Prague is similar, they are influenced by the world changes.

Any galleries that you enjoy the most?

There are quite a lot of galleries I truly appreciate, for example, Hunt Kastner gallery in Zizkov; this is a private gallery, that takes care of their artists, represents them at the art fairs, they do a lot for the Prague cultural scene. The Tranzitdisplay, Berlinskej model, which is a completely "Do It Yourself" gallery, run by independent artists and curators, who bring very exciting projects into the scene.

© Daniel Pitin, 'Baroque Office' installation view at Hunt Kastner gallery, Prague, 2015

How do you manage to combine teaching with pursuing your art projects? Is there any project that you are working on now?

It is a very strange experience, in fact, teaching doesn't take up too much physical time, but it consumes a part of your mind. My brain is occupied by the projects of my students more than by my projects. I understand that I have to minimize my work because teaching is my priority, for now; otherwise it would be a fast road to the mental institution (laughing). Last year I had a big show at the Municipal Gallery of Prague, right now I am working on a few smaller projects simultaneously, will see where it will go. It requires a lot of self-discipline to combine teaching with your art practice.

Stepanka Simlova is a Czech multimedia artist, currently she runs the photographic department of FAMU.


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