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Liquid Emulsion on Kombucha Leather

and more incredible work by Sabrina Komár

In the world of photography, few artists navigate the intricate landscape of interdisciplinary techniques as effectively as Sabrina Komár. Her work transcends traditional boundaries, integrating various elements such as ice, emulsions, cellulose, and Polaroids to explore complex personal themes. This approach allows her to reveal her own truth through a unique blend of analog and digital methods, often incorporating manual techniques like sewing, cutting, and weaving. Her art crosses the line between photography and fine art, acquiring a spatial dimension that is both liberating and expressive.



The first word that comes to mind when I look at your work is materic. Your work explores so many layers of photography and incorporates ice, different emulsions, cellulose, polaroid, cutting and tearing apart. Can you share how this interdisciplinary approach has allowed you to navigate and express complex personal themes more effectively than if confined to a single medium?

The primary medium of my art is consciously photography, as perhaps nothing is as close to depicting reality. But that's not enough for me. On one hand, I seek to reveal my own truth, but not in a conventional photographic manner. On the other hand, traditional techniques trigger my compulsions, while in experimental photography I find reassurance. In my art, I expand, cross, and deconstruct genre and media boundaries with a sense of experimentation. I use a wide range of analog and digital techniques with a huge amount of freedom, from archaic photography techniques to digital image modification procedures. In addition, I like using manual techniques, from sewing, cutting, folding, to weaving, with which my works cross the border between photography and fine art and acquire a spatial dimension. It’s the interdisciplinary approach that liberates me - an escape from the confines of a single medium. It allows me to weave intricate narratives and convey layered meanings. The juxtaposition of elements becomes a personal metaphorical language. 

In your project "Entropy is an unfriendly quantity," you use melting ice on photographic paper to show how things change and evolve. Can you share more about how you set up these experiments with ice and photography? (I am interested in how long they expose, how controlled is press versus accidental / spontaneous) What draws you to explore changes over time and space in this unique way?

I am fascinated by science, I am interested in the parallel between internal mental processes and the working of the universe from both an experiential and scientific perspective. The second law of thermodynamics states that everything is moving towards chaos. I have the perception that maintaining the pseudo-order, which is the most improbable scenario, consumes more and more of my energy.

The entire process begins with making the ice cubes: I add some fixer to the water, pour it into an ice cube tray, and let it freeze. (Btw, at our home, it’s not worth taking an ice cube out of the fridge for your drink without asking me! - haha) On a sunny day, I set up a makeshift “studio” in our garden. Indoors, I prepare the light-sensitive photo paper for the lumenprint, cover it and take out together with the ice cubes. There, I quickly arrange them on the paper in a preconceived order and let entropy do its magic. As a result, the ice cubes seem to come to life—they start moving, their forms become distorted, and all of this leaves a unique mark on the photographic paper. Photography not only becomes the field of a psychical, chemical process, but all of this turns into a specific, amorphous, i.e., constantly developing and changing abstraction. 

I can’t completely influence what happens on the paper, the melting itself takes place independently, but I can choose the type and size of the photo paper, the amount and order of the ice cubes, and set the desk’s tilt angle. Exposure times depend on how strongly the sun shines. Honestly, I never measured. Sometimes I stop the process, remove the remaining ice cubes, and quickly absorb the moisture from the paper; sometimes I let them melt completely. The process itself is the essence, usually the final artworks are the photographs I took with a digital camera during the melting.

Let's talk about kombucha leather, the incredible material you used in "you don’t seem to be" and "Which one am I?". How do you create the kombucha leather, how fragile is it and how does this material contribute to the meaning of your work?

When preparing my MA thesis „You don’t seem to be”, I would have liked the material used for my mask to be leather-like, transparent, such as, e.g., parchment skin, but to use animal leather for an autonomous project was morally unacceptable to me. I searched various technical literature and internet forums until I came across kombucha leather, which is a bacterial cellulose, a leathery, translucent, culturable, and living material. In both of my projects, „You don’t seem to be” and „Which one am I?” I used this material because of its symbolic skin-like appearance and the symbolic meaning of its development process.

In essence, this jelly-like cellulose is a microbial mixture that develops on the surface of kombucha tea: a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, aka scoby. It is a fairly sensitive substance; it needs a dark, smoke-free place, peace, and room temperature for its development. The most ideal temperature is somewhere between 22 and 27°C; below and above it becomes moldy easily. If I let the scoby develop long enough, it will become thick and sturdy, preventing it from being fragile once it dries. I grow the quite large scobys in huge and flat Ikea plastic boxes (please, note, in this case, kombucha tea is not suitable for consumption!) with the help of unflavored black tea, sugar, starter liquid, and a mother scoby from a previous brew. When the scobys are thick enough, I harvest them from the tea’s surface, wash them with running water, and let them dry stretched out for a couple of days.

Okay, this sounds now easy, but I remember how stressful it was growing the final leathers for my thesis project: the summer heat came earlier, and the indoor temperature suddenly rose from 22 to 27°C. I could make very thick leathers before, but this change made the scobys’ development more unpredictable. I was running a race with time, I had no chance to conduct additional experiments then, so I got thinner leathers.

The transformation of the kombucha leather, from a skin-like texture to a dehydrated and distorted state, serves as a powerful metaphor for the mental and emotional effects of anxiety. Can you discuss the challenges and discoveries you encountered while manipulating this medium to reflect such a personal and dynamic experience? 

In the work „You don’t seem to be”, the process itself was actually the point: I was part of it; I created the medium for the bacterial cellulose’s development, like for my own anxieties. As a result, I made a mask that doesn’t hide but reveals what is going on below the surface. My mask shows how I fall apart on pixels when anxiety attacks me. With the mask, I also show my face’s different distortion stations as a symbol of the mental processes that take place. From the almost skin-like flat surface, I get to the dehydrated, unrecognizably distorted state formed by the structure. However, this state is not permanent; the material is able to be skin-like again, to “breathe”, as I am also able to regain my perception. As part of my project, I demonstrated this with a stop-motion gif.

I also kept a written work diary where I recorded my experiences related to the process and my emotions arising during the work. Here are some parts of the diary:

May 12, 2020

I removed the thin scoby layers that had formed so far because they had developed too unevenly. This is often the case with the first layers to develop. I washed them with the intention of drying to parchment. As I rinsed them in the tub, I felt disgust again. It's a slippery substance, and with the yeast stuck to it, it's like a placenta. Since I started working with this material, I have had pretty mixed feelings about it. One moment I find it downright disgusting, and the next it's wonderful and exciting. I'm not surprised, because I feel similarly about myself.

May 17, 2020

Sylvia Plath's ‘The Bell Jar’ completely buried me under itself today. I closed it at page 218. I recognized myself in many of her thoughts, which intensified my anxiety. I stared off into space for half an hour, then went to the darkroom (bathroom) to continue experimenting. I looked at my self-portrait negative, and then it suddenly dawned on me that I didn't even know my own face. I can't see on the negative which is the left and which is the right half of my face. I know that my mouth is slanted to one side, but I didn't know which way. And I always realize this in the dark, over the photo paper. Afterwards, by light, I took a good look at myself in the mirror: to the left. Okay, I didn’t make it again.

May 20, 2020

(…) I think I worry too much. When I didn't pay attention to the scobys, they grew like weeds, and now that I really want them to grow nicely, I'm piling on problem after problem. Why do I want perfect leather? Am I perfect anyway?

The photosensitive component in your work is liquid emulsion, a substance that I know is very tricky to work with especially with fragile surfaces. Can you walk us through the reason why you chose this medium and your process of working with liquid emulsion? (I'm curious to know what brand you use, how do you ensure everything is properly fixed, the process in general!) 

During my MA thesis project „You don’t seem to be”, I was thinking about what other technique could be used to place my self-portrait on the surface than inkjet printing. I came across an alternative photographic process, anthotype, which exploits the sensitivity of plants to light. I made a much more contrasted version of my digital photograph and printed it on transparent sheets. I coloured watercolour papers and pieces of cotton canvas fabric with beetroot, let them dry, placed my photographs on them, and then left them exposed to direct sunlight. The beetroot juice faded already in 1 week, even in winter with low UV, so that my image became perfectly visible on the watercolour paper. Unfortunately, the image did not appear on the cotton fabric at all. However, on paper, it worked well, but I was not satisfied with the portrait’s contrast in this case. Then I got the idea to try liquid photo emulsion, which I had never used before. I first applied it to vegetable-tanned leather; it worked, but something was still missing. And that's when kombucha leather came along. The kombucha leather itself is not fragile if it is grown thick enough. I had no problem using liquid photo emulsion on it at all (I use Foma), the trick is to first apply a layer of gelatine or agar-agar in the case of leather-like surfaces. I used agar-agar, which is a vegan option, instead of gelatine. Let it dry, and then apply the photo emulsion. You probably noticed that when applying the heated photo emulsion to a surface in the darkroom, it cools rapidly and becomes challenging to work with. My personal trick is to place the heated photo emulsion bottle in a saucepan filled halfway with boiled water. This method helps keep the emulsion in a liquid state for a longer duration while I apply it.

In your explorations with photography, you've utilized hand manipulation of Polaroids often in your work. This technique allows for a tangible, intimate interaction with the image as it gets teared, cut and re assembled. Could you share your process and thoughts behind choosing to manipulate Polaroids by hand? How does this physical engagement with the photograph enhance or alter the narrative you aim to convey through your images?

I like using Polaroid, because it is a pre-framed image that I can cross while manipulating, just as I often do with my own frames. For the maximalism of my compulsion, which in many cases manifested in an infinite retouching in relation to digital images, the finality and contingency of the Polaroid means reassurance. I cannot modify the image itself, but I can process it manually in any way afterwards.

In most of my projects, I have direct tactile contact with my images. The imperfections and irregularities become part of the story, and I embrace them, recognizing that authenticity lies in vulnerability. For example, in my series “Analysis”, I metaphorically dissect myself, cutting my thoughts and emotions into pieces, regaining control this way.

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