Interviewed by Tiago Bom
At Documenta 13, the exhibition The End of Summer by Daniel Gustav Cramer and Haris Epaminonda extended vertically along two floors and the attic of a former office building behind Kassel’s train station. The carefully orchestrated progression of works included an array of books, photographs, found images, statuettes, 8mm films, among other ‘surgically’ displayed imagery. It was like entering a space where time had stood still and contemplation reigned. Within this ethereal juxtaposition of images, accessibility had to be constantly negotiated through spatial constraints and other artifices of placement. In a similar way, the artists’ ongoing archival project, The Infinite Library (started in 2007), tries to make a very particular sense of the heritage of images and texts belonging to the history of printed matter.
Tiago Bom: Your Documenta exhibition was one of those rare presentations that I recall vividly long after experiencing it. I was not only mentally immersed in the work, which made me lose track of my geographical situation, but there was a very natural synergy between both of your interventions. At times, I thought I was experiencing work by the same person. When and how did you start collaborating?
Daniel Gustav Cramer and Haris Epaminonda: We met in 2001 at the Royal College of Art in London, on the first day of our studies. We gradually became best friends and later, around 2006, we worked on our first collaboration, an online project titled The Beehive. In the beginning, we were living in different places and talked about our thoughts and troubles for hours on the phone. Later, when we started living in the same city, we continued to do this, and still do today. This has probably made us very sensitive to each other’s work. The situation in Kassel was very particular, since we don't usually collaborate in this way. Actually, that exhibition was one of three such shows, the other two at Kunsthalle Lissabon in 2012 and Samsa, Berlin, in 2010. Perhaps our closeness has helped us to find the right balance in pushing and pulling the individual works to attain this unity in the space; in a way, we’ve created a third language.
Bom: The notion of archive and found/collected material seems to be a recurrent idea in your works, especially in the Infinite Library. How has this process affected your general practice and this project in particular?
Cramer & Epaminonda: We both, in different ways, look at what’s there in the world around us. Both of us enjoy browsing through books – this is where The Infinite Library began. Haris loves to collect – vases, images and objects of all kinds of cultures and eras – and Daniel loves collections themselves, their particularities, especially when they’re incomplete or attempting the impossible.
Bom: The choice of books and images seems to focus mainly on a specific set of decades. Is there a particular reason for this selection?
Cramer & Epaminonda: For us, there are two main reasons why we focus more on books from certain periods. Firstly, it’s the quality of the paper, the printing, the original sources (Kodachrome, etc). Nowadays every printer tells you the same thing: ‘The quality of the paper is decreasing year by year.’ The other reason is the level of abstraction. A contemporary photograph is very close to today. A photograph from the 1980s is somehow connected to our childhoods. Older pictures have this feeling of coming from another time – although depicting what we can relate to, they remain quite abstract.
Bom: It seems that the title and the nature of the project alludes to Jorge Luis Borges’ work. Did you draw inspiration from his writings?
Cramer & Epaminonda: One of Borges’ short stories, The Garden of Forking Paths, describes a vast library filled with books with all the letters, punctuation and spacing organised randomly and without meaning. This library is made up of hexagonal rooms. Each room has walls full of shelves, mirrors and doors to the next rooms. Every day, people walk into the library to search for one specific room, somewhere deep inside the library, which is filled with books that give all possible answers – a room that’s never found. In a sense, one could say that The Infinite Library inverts this narrative. For us, it’s a liberating moment to open a book, written by an individual mind, and connect it with another, constructed by someone else. When these two poles come together, you establish an open conversation of fragments where a certain level of authorship still remains, but it acts within another structure: that of the newly created book. Each book is rebound and numbered.
Bom: Also, when considering your infinite library, I can't help but think of André Malraux's ideas, in particular the book trilogy Le Musée imaginaire de la sculpture mondiale. There, within the layout, images are at times freed from a conventional historical association based on time and geography. Do you have any specific method or historical/chronological concerns when assembling the images and texts?
Cramer & Epaminonda: We have an extensive library of picture books that we collect. At times we sit down and look at them. We disassemble them, place them on the floor and test the individual pages. We rearrange pages, take out a few, add others from another book, and in the end come to a point where certain decisions form a new book. There’s no method; the only concern is to make the new book work as a book, visually, conceptually. It’s an intuitive process. On one occasion, we took all the pages from a book with the exception of one, and just showed this singular picture, framed on a wall. Another time, the content of the book led us to an installation consisting of a film, a slide projection and several images from other books in the space.
Bom: Is the idea of a virtual museum in the form of a book something you can relate to within this project? And what are your thoughts on the use of photographs (in this case found material) at a time when sight has never been so essential to our way of life but at the same time is so over-stimulated?
Cramer & Epaminonda: Perhaps a book is more like a space in which something can happen, comparable to an exhibition space. A museum has its own history and motives that we wouldn’t necessarily connect to a book. A book and a space have an outside and an inside. You’re right, there are so many images that there’s total over-stimulation. On the other hand, there are always stories to tell – with words, sounds and images. The fact that there’s an overload of information doesn’t influence the experience of a moment or a story.
Bom: Does the book format allow you to bypass some social and spatial constraints that you face, for example, in your exhibitions? What challenges does it offer when composing image associations?
Cramer & Epaminonda: The project, at its heart, is a way for us to communicate with each other in a playful way. We sit together and try things out. The exhibitions of the books always confront us with the difficulties of showing a unique book to an audience.
Bom: You often refer to subjects such as history, monumentality, architecture and anthropology in your work, but it seems that it’s never with the intention of treating information in a chronological way. Instead, you create new meanings and new relations based on your aesthetic considerations. Therefore, I wonder what role monumentality plays in this work and in your general practice?
Cramer & Epaminonda: We select the books by their quality – a purely subjective measure. We like certain papers, colours, ideas about the placement of images and text. We allow almost all topics into the work and collect books from all genres. The collection becomes more specific when we reassemble the books. There’s no rule to it, but we feel that some books of different origin work together beautifully and others simply don’t. A book works when it tells you something more than its content. This can only really be explained when sitting in front of it and looking at it page by page. Somehow, there’s always a moment when two things find each other and immediately connect; there’s almost a chemical reaction in the air – it just makes sense. That’s a monumental moment, when it feels as if these elements were waiting for that moment to be reactivated and given a new life.
Bom: There’s a certain degree of violence in the act of tearing books apart, in separating or excluding parts of its original content. By shuffling the content, you generate hybrids, a new meaning, in an implicit and potentially infinite motion, like an illustration of an unfinished, always mutating world.
Cramer & Epaminonda: That’s a nice way to put it. We agree, there is a certain violence in the act of tearing books apart, but in most cases we have a second copy of the same book. It doesn’t justify the act, but it calms our minds to know that we’re not destroying a unique object, but dismantling one copy in a larger edition. We treat the books with care and respect and give them a new life. Still, there is a certain violence, its true.
Bom: The subversiveness and the meta character of this archive challenges established hierarchies in the dissemination of information. I remember having the same impression at your exhibition in Kassel. Even though the works fascinated me, one particular aspect that seized my gaze was the general installation of the pieces and the relation between images – as if they were acquiring a personified character and could sometimes shyly hide behind each other. It’s obvious that the arrangement and set-up of the shows play a crucial role within your practice, but how does the question of hierarchy manifest itself in the content and layout of The Infinite Library?
Cramer & Epaminonda: You’re right about the importance of placement in the show in Kassel. There, we wanted to create narratives, even just through the way things were installed in the space, since the show was meant to be felt as an experience in its totality – not just what, but how and where things were placed, which rooms were accessible or not. We needed to build up focal points, vanishing points, moments of dispersal and a sense of disorientation, losing and finding oneself again through markings and remembrance. We thought of the space as one that had no beginning or end, seemingly with many repetitive aspects and connecting threads. One entered, turned one’s head, decided to go this way or that. The entrance and the exit door were one and the same, so that when you assumed you’d come to the end, you had to go back to where it all started. The thread of connections and tensions was built up by the relation of the elements within the space as much as by the viewer, depending on which work or room one encountered first, the length of time one spent in a room or in front of a work etc. As for the books, the rules are somewhat different. As we stated before, in The Infinite Library each book is a new beginning with a new set of rules.
Bom: Do you have any plans for the preservation and storing of the library once it reaches an overwhelming volume?
Cramer & Epaminonda: At the moment, we’ve reached about eighty books in total. The library, if we placed one book next to the other, would extend over perhaps 120 cm. Those books are kept in a shelf in our storage room. The original books have stayed on shelves since they were first published. We maintain them in the same condition, and protect them from too much natural light, although much of the ageing is unavoidable and natural.
Bom: What are you working on now?
Cramer & Epaminonda: A book about The Infinite Library that will show each individual page of the first fifty books, to be published by New Documents. Also a book published by Kunsthalle Lissabon and Mousse Publishing about the three collaborative projects we’ve done together, as mentioned above. And as always, we’re working on our own individual projects.
Haris Epaminonda (b. 1980 in Nicosia, Cyprus) is a Berlin-based artist. Her practice mainly consists of film, photography, collage and installation. She often works with found images, both still and moving, and collected objects. Epaminonda co-represented Cyprus at the Venice Biennale in 2007 and participated in the 5th Berlin Biennale in 2008 as well as Docmenta 13 in 2012. She has had solo exhibitions at Malmö Konsthall (2009), Tate Modern, London (2010), Museum of Modern Art, New York (2011) and Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, Germany (2011).
Daniel Gustav Cramer (b. 1975 in Dusseldorf, Germany) is a Berlin-based artist. His practice ranges from sculpture, to film and photography. He has had solo exhibitions at the Kunsthalle Mulhouse (2013), Kunsthaus Glarus (2012), Badischer Kunstverein (2012), Kunsthalle Lissabon (2012) and at the Kunstverein Dortmund (2010). He has also participated in group shows such as Documenta 13 (2012), at Nouveau Museé National de Monaco (2012), Kunstmuseum Bochum (2010), and the Stiftung Schloss Moyland (2010), as well as the Athens Biennale (2009).
Tiago Bom (b. 1986, Portugal) is an artist and curator currently finishing his Masters degree in Fine Art at the Oslo National Academy of the Arts. Last year, he co-curated the Central Asian Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale, its parallel programme and the respective publication, Winter: Poetics and Politics, by Mousse Publishing.