Selecting what to conserve in order to represent our time is no easy task. We have the freedom to choose the material and how it might be communicated, but no control over the way it will be understood. Interview with curator Silja Leifsdottir by Ada Nilsen.
Ada Nilsen: In 1977, the Voyager Golden Records – phonograph records of sounds and images representing human life – were sent out into space by the Voyager spacecraft, intended as a greeting to extraterrestrial life and future descendants. 40 years later, Fotogalleriet is celebrating its 40th anniversary. Inspired by these two events, you’ve curated the exhibition What Remains and the publication GR-09022017. I’m curious to hear more about the parallels here and how you came up with this idea.
Silja Leifsdottir: It started out as a desire to challenge the traditional shape and form of an anniversary exhibition, but still talk about the past, the present and the future. I wanted to move around these three aspects of time in a non-linear way, to see if it was possible to show the history of photography and Fotogalleriet without making a straight timeline that takes you from Kåre Kivijärvi to Torbjørn Rødland, for example.
My initial idea was a group exhibition, but when I started the process, I realised that it was impossible to fit ‘the whole world’ and the whole project into the small space at Fotogalleriet. That’s how the book GR-09022017 came to life. A book obviously gives you more 'walls' and even more possibilities and freedom in the curatorial process. It was important to link the book and the exhibition together as a record describing our time, our place in space, cultures, contemporary art and technology today.
AN: The publication GR-09022017 includes work from over 100 photographers and artists, amongst them Torbjørn Rødland, Wolfgang Tillmans, Emil Salto, Lucas Blalock, Annika von Hausswolff, Pieter Hugo and Bjarne Bare. In what way do these artists represent the past, present and future moment – who we were, who we are and where we’re going?
SL: All the artists received the same invitation: to relate to the theme of time – past, present and future. To me, all the works are also somehow connected to the word 'perception’ They talk in their different ways about the various means of seeing, and also about how language today (words, symbols, signs, images) might well be an impossible way of communicating 40,000 years into the future. They’re all sort of playing with this mental experiment. How it is possible to communicate in this context? How and what should you communicate? It’s an exciting experiment for a curator as well, because you have to force yourself to think about this kind of 'receiver' – how you communicate with an unknown audience in the unknown future.
AN: How are new technologies and new ways of spreading information today shaping the way we send and receive image-based messages?
SL: Well, for example, with the vast amount of new technology and information available today, we don’t necessarily go and see exhibitions anymore. I know for myself I see more exhibitions on the internet than in RL. Today, you can also read about exhibitions shown decades ago. And what isn’t relevant today might be relevant in 20 years to come or visa versa. That means you don’t really know when or with whom you’ll be communicating. Whether you’re forming a sentence or putting up a work in a gallery, it’s a good exercise not to personalise your audience or the timeframe and observe what happens to your 'message' in the process.
AN: The Golden Records contained 118 images, 100 of them photographs, as well as sound and music, not to mention greetings in 54 different languages. What is it about photography that builds a bridge between people across nations, time and space?
SL: Photography as a medium makes it possible for us to travel into an unknown future and to ensure that we’ll never be forgotten. Throughout the history of human beings, we’ve always communicated with each other through images. The earliest cave paintings date back 35,000 years.
A while ago, I was told about this research where scientists were studying the brain by isolating people in dark rooms with no visual, textual or sound-based stimulation. They found out that our brains actually start to produce images in these conditions. The subjects started to see patterns, colours and other forms of visual pictorial information. Our body is basically like an image-making apparatus. To me, this research is an indication that images are and have always been extremely important to us and the way in which we communicate and understand our surroundings. So when looking for something like a universal language, and a language that can endure, it’s perhaps as close as we get. But even images don’t translate smoothly between eras, or between places. There will always be friction and slippage within interpretation; time itself distorts, erodes and recodes meanings, like memories that change every time you think about them. However, contemporary art and photography, because it’s always in formation, necessarily admits its own instabilities, its limits and powers. Therefore, artists and photographers are experts in developing new tools to mine the rich interface between past, present and future.
AN: 18 of the 118 images in The Golden Records aren’t photographs but something NASA and Carl Sagen included as more graphical images. These are like the first pictures in your book, which look like binary codes. What’s the reason for starting with these particular images?
SL: A lot of the information in The Golden Records was coded into binary and this first picture is the introduction for the receiver to decode them. NASA and Carl Sagen decided that if there’s one language that a future audience could understand, it’s probably binary codes. It sounds crazy but that was what they worked out. To make a direct link to our book, the designer and I decided to make the page numbers into binary code.
AN: The publication doesn’t contain captions with the names of the artists. You have to look at the very end to find the whole list. Why do you make it difficult for the reader to find out which picture belongs to whom?
SL: There’s a very good reason for that. The moment you combine images with words, you immediately start adding stuff to it. If you put a name under each photograph the audience will immediately add a whole bunch of associations to the photo and read it in a very limited way. Names tell you something about gender, nationality, and whether the artist is well known or not, for example. I didn’t want this book to be about the hot shots, or about the aesthetics of Asian photography compared to European etc. I wanted people to read each picture with no underlying association or message. I wanted people to look through the book with the images themselves as the only message. I have to say, I was tempted to leave the book without any names or credits, but that turned out to be completely impossible, of course.
AN: The book ends with an antique star chart image. Why?
SL: It’s a chart of the Milky Way galaxy seen from the perspective of northern Europe. I wanted to end the book by saying that it comes from this point of view. Even though I’ve tried to include artists from the whole world, it will always and forever be from my perspective, based on my cultural preferences, taste and mindset, just as The Golden Records in 1977 were from an American point of view. It will always contain traces of the fact that I’m Norwegian, and based here in Oslo with my own network and cultural background. Even though I worked really hard to remove my personal perspective in this curatorial process, I realised that it’s an impossible task that failed before it even started.
WHAT REMAINS LIV BUGGE / KRISTINA BENGTSSON / TORIL JOHANNESSEN / DITTE KNUS TØNNESEN / TORI WRÅNES FEATURING CLARE MILLEDGE. 9.02.2017 - 19.03.2017. GR-09022017: Adam Fuss / Adam Golfer / Adam Jeppesen / Alec Soth / Alejandra Laviada / Alejandro Cartagena / Aleksander Rodchenko / Ana-Maria Preduț / Andrew Hammerand / Anne Collier / Annika von Hausswolff / Anouk Kruithof / Arseny Zhilyaev / Awoiska van der Molen / Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme / Beatrix Pang / Bjarne Bare / Bogdan Bordeianu / Brud / Carolyn Drake / Chen Kun Hui / Ching Chin Wai / Christina Leithe Hansen / Daisuke Yokota / Daniel Stier / David Fathi / Doug Dubois / Eliza Hutchison / Emil Salto / Espen Gleditsch / Espen Tveit / Eva Stenram / Federico Ciamei / Francesca Catastini / Giulia Mangione / Godwin Koay / Guadalupe Ruiz / Guy Tillim / Hajime Kimura / Ingrid Eggen / Jaap Scheeren / Jetmir Idrizi / Judith Joy Ross / Ka-Man Tse / Katrin Koenning/ Kiluanji Kia Henda / Lau Wai / Lina Selander / Lisa Oppenheim / Lorena Guillen Vaschetti / Lorenzo Vitturi / Lucas Blalock / Mame-Diarra Niang / Marianna Dellekamp / Marie Sjøvold / Mariela Sancari / Marwa Arsanios / Matt Lipps / Mihai Șovăială / Mikhael Subotzky / Ming Wong / Morten Andenæs / Mårten Lange / Nadia Mounier/ Nico Krebs & Taiyo Onorato / Nicu Ilfoveanu / Ola Rindal / Oleg Samoilov / Patricia Piccinini / Peter Puklus / Pieter Hugo / Pipilotti Rist / Preben Holst / Sabelo Mlangeni / Sandrine Lopez / Setareh Shahbazi / Shimpei Takeda / Shirana Shahbazi / Sonja Thomsen / Susan Derges / Sveinn Fannar Jóhannsson / Tereza Zelenkova / Torbjørn Rødland / Tracey Moffatt / Trevor Paglen / Veronica Gerber Bicecci / Vik Lai / Vittorio Mortarotti / Viviane Sassen / Vlad Albu / Vojtech Veskrna / Wawi Navarroza / Wendy Ewald / Wolfgang Tillmans / Yafei Qi / Yakov Chernikhov / Yamamoto Masao / Yvonne Todd