Objektiv #9

 

Objektiv #9

We titled this issue Archive Art in order to look into how different artists work with archive. 

This is not a new tendency in contemporary art, but several recent exhibitions and institutional initiatives, both in Norway and internationally, indicate that there are many artists who work with found material. Perhaps the lack of physical presence makes the photograph seem absent, and that this is why we are drawn to the archive. With contributions from artists like Haris Epaminonda&Daniel Gustav Cramer, Helene Sommer, Emil Salto and Jumana Manna, we hope to get a bigger picture of the tendency.

 

 

 

The Infinite Library - Q&A with Daniel Gustav Cramer and Haris Epaminonda

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.


Dream Spaces - Cora Fisher on Jumana Manna

 

A group of tragicomic masqueraders dressed in Pierrot costumes pose for their commemorative portrait to be taken. As they wait for the shutter to click, they address the camera, and through it, the long, piercing glance of history. They stare and fidget; they wait and rustle. The video camera pans across their heavily lined eyes and faces caked with white makeup. Finally, it stops to rest in the centre of the group, framing the portrait. With its patina of a bygone era, the fully frontal image recalls a vintage photograph, but the colour is decidedly contemporary, and the HD video camera captures the sitters’ movements, registering their tension. In this way, the moving image resuscitates the historicity of an early studio photograph, placing us firmly in the present. 

Jumana Manna’s twelve-minute-long film, A Sketch of Manners (Alfred Roch’s Last Masquerade) (2012) was fist shown in Ramallah, at the A.M. Qattan Foundation’s Young Artist Award 2012, where Manna won first prize. Drawing vectors between photographic image, historical re-enactment and geopolitical space, the film is particularly interesting in the way in which it re-imagines history. Its subject is an eccentric and over-looked dimension of the social life of a people now belonging to an unrecognised state and confined behind walls. It was inspired by an archival photograph of a masked ball held in Jerusalem in 1942, on the fateful eve of the nation’s dissolution, and depicts what the artist imagines ‘was to be the last masquerade in Palestine’. It offers a counter-narrative of Palestine through an anecdotal event.

The annual bon-vivant parties described by A Sketch were hosted from the 1920s to the 1940s by a landowner and merchant in Jaffa, Alfred Roch, who was also a member of the Palestinian National League. This cosmopolitan world dissolved with the dismantling of the country and its urban centres in 1948. Manna offers a decidedly romantic view of a bohemian microcosm, where theatricality and dreaming enlarge the psychic dimension of the photographic index. By way of this glimpse into a menagerie of upper-class Palestinians, A Sketch of Manners conjures the prelapsarian moment before the Nakba – ‘the disaster’ – which saw the expulsion of nearly 750,000 Palestinians from their homes and the 1948 Arab-Isreali war, a traumatic rupture shaping Palestine as the space of endless contestation and geopolitical erasure. 

Scattered throughout the film are clues suggesting the mutual influence, in terms of cultural fantasy and dreaming, between Europe and the Arab world. A desk is strewn with Arab editions of European books, one by Charles Baudelaire, and the playbills and magazines of Egyptian Opera, cultural ephemera that also serve as archival mementos. Before the scene of the group portrait, the film opens with Roch sleeping on a couch after the ball, his make-up still thickly applied. The projected Orientalist fantasy imagined by the West is met with Roch’s inner dreamtime. A British narrator’s voice recites Baudelaire’s poem ‘A Former Life’, offering a somnambulant texture of fantasy: ‘Long since, I lived beneath vast porticoes … And there I lived amid voluptuous calms / In splendours of blue sky and wandering wave / Tended by many a naked, perfumed slave.’

To create the film and to deepen the understanding of the world evoked by the photograph, Manna consulted both private and public archives, as well as historians and sociologists including Dr Salim Tamari, Issam Nassar and her father, Dr Adel Manna. Her research yielded source images from the Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection held in the Library of Congress, which appear interspersed throughout the film (rather than simulated like the group portrait) as a foil for the film’s social context and the private dreaming of the protagonist. These include a photograph of a Middle Eastern merchant sipping tea with a group of British men, suggesting a detail from the biography of Roch, who was invited to the UK to speak at a conference on the Palestinian question. According to the story, he brought back the Pierrot costumes from this trip, attesting to the porosity between East and West that would be overshadowed by World War II.

This interplay between archival photographs and simulated scenes suspends the Palestinian bourgeoisie of the 1940s in a limbo between present and past time and space. Through the recurrent oscillating between static and moving images – between the external ‘fact’ of the indexical image, and the inward contemplative space suggested by the experiential image (the contemporary actors, the colour video medium) – the work re-animates the archive and offers up a third space – neither fact nor purely fictional – a psychic space of dreaming that is not Roch’s alone. A Sketch shows us how the artistic strategy of re-enactment invokes the lived dimension of history and the private life of politics.

Historical re-enactment is currently circulating heavily in art-world contexts, where historical tropes and content speak to the inheritances and conditions of the contemporary. Omer Fast’s 2005 film Godville, for example, used the site of a living-history museum in colonial Williamsburg to animate contemporary relationships to the imagined past of Virginia. In 2007, Nato Thompson curated ‘A Historic Occasion: Artists Making History’, a survey at Mass MoCA of artists interested in historical retelling, including Paul Chan, Jeremy Deller, Peggy Diggs, Felix Gmelin, Kerry James Marshall, Trevor Paglen, Greta Pratt, Dario Robleto, Nebojsa Seric-Shoba, Yinka Shonibare and Allison Smith. The exhibition took a materialist bent on historical revision, looking at how visual artists render history through objects, especially in a cultural climate where, according to Thompson, the ‘very idea of history seems under siege’ by historians rewriting the past, thinning attention spans, accelerated news cycles and amnesiac governments. In this exhibition, and in films like Manna’s that speak to the present through the past by referencing archival images or moments of historical rupture, one aim is to deliberately slow things down in order to sidestep these modern conditions. 

In A Sketch of Manners, the overlay of a twentieth-century past and current events is palpable, if restrained. While we are afforded the spaciousness of historical distance, we can also understand Manna’s film as a direct commentary on the present. Other film and performance work takes up a more recent history of the last five years. Lebanese performance and stage artist Rabih Mroué, for instance, takes as his focus the current political unrest and protest movements throughout the Arab world. However, recent approaches to historical re-enactment can be observed not just in films, but also in paintings that refer to art history or create a historical imaginary that ties into the present. Emerging artists like Los Angeles-based Kour Pour, who recreates Eastern rugs through a process of transfer and erasure, retell a cultural narrative pictorially. The more archaeological, process-based conceptual paintings of Lebanese poet and painter Etel Adnan, recently included in Documenta 13, present a series of amalgamated objects and images that point to Lebanon’s 1975–90 civil war, when militiamen occupied Beirut’s National Museum, a reference that potently alludes to current events in the country. 

The trend for using historical contexts as a vehicle to respond to the urgencies of current local and global protest movements and unrest means that the Middle East has been the historical locus du jour, with many film-makers and visual artists of this region circulating more widely on the international scene than they have done previously. Yet historical re-tellers are not always ‘native informants’ or cultural ambassadors hungry to broaden the cultural breadth and understanding of a Eurocentric West or an increasingly cosmopolitan and international art world. Sometimes, they are Western ethnographer-documentarians working with decidedly ahistorical approaches to storytelling. The striking release The Act of Killing (2012) by Joshua Oppenheim pushes documentary re-enactment towards the experimental, blurring the genre of documentary feature. Oppenheim’s implicit denunciation of the Western military-ideological projects of the Cold War and beyond focuses on the massacre, funded by the United States, of more than 500,000 communists and ethnic Chinese in Indonesia during the mid-1960s. The gangster Anwar Congo led the most notorious death squad in North Sumatra. Oppenheimer invites Anwar and his associates to re-enact the genocide as a theatrical dance macabre, using sets and costumes. The viewer is launched into the slippery terrain of Anwar’s trauma-afflicted psyche as he and his friends re-enact, in increasingly elaborate set-ups, their methods of killing. This performance of earlier crimes by living perpetrators proves that re-enactment is more than just a de-politicised visual strategy; it can convey the violent effects of politics better than any statistical abstraction. The re-enactors activate history as they re-write it in real time. The creation of a tertiary space of consciousness through the combination of documentary sources and artistic elements resurrects the depths of the collective unconscious. 

More dreamscape than nightmare, it would be inappropriate to compare Manna’s film to such a full-length re-enactment. A Sketch concisely signifies the unconscious without actually exhuming its contents. (It is enough to hear Baudelaire’s lines and see Roch sleeping on the sofa, to extract the notion of dreaming.) Nevertheless, with its capsular view onto the past, it offers an account that gently defies the prevailing Western cultural bias, which sees the East as hardened by radicalism and categorically antagonistic to Western influence. Like the bon-vivant pleasantries of Roch’s last masquerade, the representation of the psychic space of the dream is a depiction that also runs counter to the expectations of dominant forms of historical narration. In Manna’s short film we find a world of pleasure on the brink of a tectonic geopolitical shift. With her deft transitions from archival image to personal imaginings, she offers a cavernous space that echoes with the traumas of the twentieth century.