A conversation with Lars Laumann

 

Making a Change

In the midst of the installation Lars Laumann talks to Objektiv about his exhibition Kompendium.

Lars Laumann, Berlin Wall, 2008

Lars Laumann, Berlin Wall, 2008

Nina Strand: Your work has been shown at renowned international institutions like MoMA, Tate Modern and Kunsthalle Basel, but seldom in Norway other than your gallery VI, VII. Now, Kunstnernes Hus is not only premiering your latest work Season of Migration to the North, which seems extremely relevant in these times, but also presenting what you've insisted on calling a ‘mid-career’ retrospective. 

Lars Laumann: It’s work from the past ten years. I feel that this will mark a change in my artistic oeuvre. 

NS: Is this a plan, or something you think will happen?

LL: I hope and believe there will be a change, another way of working. 

NS: In an on-going conversation with Stewart Uuo for our next issue of Objektiv, you mention you're turning 40 soon. So is this a mid-life crisis?

LL: Not at all. I feel I've been going through a mid-life crisis since I was seventeen, so in a way it will be nice to be done with it.

NS: Everyone should probably do this after ten years. Maybe it could be seen as a sort of evaluation.

LL: It will be more like a personal evaluation for me, something I think all artist should do every five or ten years.

NS: With a retrospective, you get an overview of everything you've made.

LL: I feel I've made everything I said I would make. And it's interesting to see that my latest work goes back to the way I worked with Berlin Wall (2008), with voiceover and found material. So that might have been investigated enough now. 

NSBerlin Wall is one of my absolute favourites. (The work focuses on Eija-Riita Eklöf- Berliner Mauer, a woman who described herself as ‘object sexualist’ and ‘married to the Berlin Wall’.) 

LL: She made me believe in objects. We have her model of the wall down in the basement, ready for installation. Mats [Stjernstedt, artistic director of Kunstnernes Hus] personally drove to her house to pick it up. Eija-Riita has sadly just passed away in a fire in her house and the catalouge is in memory of her. 

NS: That’s so sad to hear.

LL: I’m very sad to lose her. She was an eccentric, she was my idol, my muse and my hero. Erica Eiffel, also from the movie, is here for the opening which is comforting. 

NS: How did you find Eija-Riita and the idea for the film? 

LL: On the Internet. I read about her and hoped, while I was reading, that this wasn't already an art project, which it wasn't, luckily for me. 

NS: Do you start many films like this?  

Lars Laumann, Morrissey Foretelling the Death of Diana, 2006

Lars Laumann, Morrissey Foretelling the Death of Diana, 2006

LL: Many projects have come to me like this. My fascination with the object has been with me all my life. You could say the research for my Morrissey video started when I bought my first Smiths album when I was twelve. There are so many clues in his covers. 

NS: It’s crazy how many things are connected in your Morrissey Foretelling The Death of Diana (2006). [A montage of existing film clips that evolve into an intricate and conspiratorial narrative of two pop culture icons.]

So, let's talk about your new work, which is very topical. First, what’s it like to be an artist in these times?

LL: The world has changed profoundly in these past three weeks. It’s like with the Oslo attacks – you couldn't make the same art afterwards as you did before. You have to make sense of it in a different matter and this is something we need to figure out. I feel that my latest work is very political and became even more relevant. 

NS: In Season of Migration to the North (2015), refugee Eddie Ismael tells his story of coming to Norway from Sudan, and as a parallel story we hear the diary of Ruth Maier, an Austrian refugee in Norway during the Second World War. And this started with you reading a book about Ruth Maier?

LL: Yes, I read The Diaries of Ruth Maier. She was called the lesbian Anne Frank, and had this amazing romance with Gunvor Hofmo, who later became Norway's most prominent modernist poet. They were the first open gay couple that we know about in Norway. But they only had their affair for a year or so before Maier was sent to Auschwitz.

NS: In your conversation with Uuo, you say the best stories are your own.

LL: I believe in that, or that you have to make the stories your own. Eddie’s an architect, and knowing his story, the work became more about the fact that Scandinavia isn’t the humanist gay-friendly utopia you think it is. He said he’s never experienced as much racism and homophobia as in the Norwegian gay community.

NS: Tell me about the installation in which you're showing the movie. 

LL: The audience will sit on scaffolding, because I wanted to stage a fashion show. And there’s this voiceover telling his story, and Eddie also designed the installation of the scaffolding. He also refers to Ruth Maier’s diary in the voice over.  

NS: So this is very much a collaborative project, as you've done before with Kjersti Andvig and Benjamin A. Huseby? 

LL: In a way, all my projects are. I don't want to create something just from myself. Maybe that's my new phase – that I’ll become very introspective.

NS: So what would you like to do now?

LL: Maybe the animal rescue centre I've started in Palestine. They don't like dogs there. When I was there, some friends were taking care of some dogs, but they really didn't know what they were doing – they didn't know how to handle dogs. I had to help.

NS: Will we see a video about this in the near future? 

LL: No, this is just something I do. It has nothing to do with art. 

NS: But will it ever become art? Have you done any filming there?

LL: I have filmed a little, but I don't think so. I'm also getting a driver’s licence. Palestinian people seldom adopt dogs, so we need to bring them over to the other side by car. No one wants to go across the border from Israel to Palestine, so I'm going to learn to drive after this is over. I'm neither an Arab nor a Jew, so I'll be fine. 

And then I'm building a studio at my home in Brønnøysund. All my projects have been connected to the places in which I work. Now I'll try to create two bases – Brønnøysund and the Middle East. I'll try to make sense of the two places in order to become a new person. 

NS: What are your hopes for the people coming to see your work? 

LL: I hope they’ll download the catalogue. I feel I've succeeded when people go home and read more, google my work and keep on thinking further. That’s a great compliment.

Lars Laumann: Berlin Wall, 2008, installation at Kunstnernes Hus. Photo: Kunstnernes Hus

Lars Laumann: Berlin Wall, 2008, installation at Kunstnernes Hus. Photo: Kunstnernes Hus

You can download the catalogue for free at www.drsprucebooks.com. 

Kompendium opens this Friday at Kunstnernes Hus, and will premiere Lauman’s latest work Season of Migration to the North (2015) among other videos like Morrissey Foretelling the Death of Diana (2006), Berlin Wall (2008) and You Can't Pretend to be Somebody Else, You Already Are (a collaboration with Benjamin A. Huseby from 2009–2011).

New forms of life: The physicality and poetics of pictures

A conversation between Sara R.Yazdani and Susanne M.Winterling 

Susanne M Winterling,  Solidarity ,  2014.       Installation, courtesy the artist

Susanne M Winterling, Solidarity,  2014. Installation, courtesy the artist

Sara R. Yazdani: In 2011, Rom for Kunst organised an exhibition of Tom Sandberg’s large-format photographs, hung over the entrance of Oslo Central Station. Black- and-white images denote an entire era of modern analogue photography, both its poetic and its documentary aesthetics. I remember one image from this public project in particular: the child bending and placing her head on the ground. It is present yet remote at the same time. 

Susanne M. Winterling: What struck me was the classical physicality of these images and also the way that they are very ephemeral. But another reason to use Sandberg’s work as a starting point for our conversation is how in that setting, in the middle of life, they take on a near animated quality. The train station is such a time place and seemed such a strong materialisation of the moments captured in Sandberg’s images. This time in this space matters in a station, so one can get very close to the singularity of those moments. When we look at the images, we zoom in and pause them against this background of the busy station. We’re aware of the medium, the large photograph, because it’s immersed in this context, yet stands out in its singularity. 

Yazdani: Sandberg’s legacy is profound. The medium of photography has, however, radically changed since he made these works. Media technologies change, art and human perception always develop alongside such changes. 

Tom Sandberg,  Untitled,  1996

Tom Sandberg, Untitled, 1996

Winterling: Exactly, and another time thing: today, to use black and white photography is to emphasise its materiality; for example, used directly on the wall and blown up large scale it emphasises the reality of how we see images on an HD display. The acceleration of ways of perceiving, the constant scrolling, disposing and consuming of images on screens, not only contrasts with the sentiments conveyed by large- scale black-and-white photos, but also the use of material as content. This recalls the writer and feminist theorist Karen Barad, who, drawing from quantum physics and feminist theory, takes a different approach to the nature of matter that can fundamentally shake our understanding of the line between nature and culture. 

Wolfgang Tillmans,  Outer Ear,   unframed inkjet print,   200 x 135 cm,   2012, courtesy Maureen Paley.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Outer Ear, unframed inkjet print, 200 x 135 cm, 2012, courtesy Maureen Paley.

Yazdani:  It also reminds me of Wolfgang Tillmans’ words in an interview with Beatriz Ruf, published in his artist’s book Neue Welt (2010): Everything is matter continually renewing itself and transforming from one aggregate state into another. His words emphasise that everything on the planet is matter – humans, plants and technologies – and that these matters are constantly transforming and changing one another. This hypothesis seems to linger throughout Tillmans’ body of work and invites an exploration of the vitality and formation of life and technologies. Meanwhile, it emphasises tendencies in contemporary art where visual images are assemblages. What if, for once, we did not see images as representations or semantic bearers? What if we started with materiality, media and technologies – the materiality of human bodies, nature, objects and machines – in our understanding of contemporary images? 

Winterling: The physicality of an image in Tillmans’ photos is often connected to a closeness and intimacy in the tradition of 1990s photography, and talks about the human body and desire. Other images that were really vivid for me when I was invited to his London studio as a young artist are all the still lifes he made, mini stages with light, fruits and food as well as remnants of certain night activities. On top of their intimacy and traces of a social community, there is a life, a kind of animation. For a lot of artists of my generation working with the camera, his work has been a strong influence. 

Yazdani: In What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images, W.J.T. Mitchell radically underlines the fact that pictures are assemblages of images, objects and media. Whereas image refers to the figure or motif that appears in a medium, ‘object’ refers to the ‘material support in or on which an image appears, or the material thing that an image refers to or brings into view’.  The third component of the assemblage, ‘media’, refers to the ‘set of material practices that brings an image together with an object to produce a picture’. Pictures, as he notes, are ‘understood as complex assemblages of virtual, material, and symbolic elements’. This complexity arguably lingers throughout new media art. Pictures, photographs or images can no longer be interpreted as pure symbolic representations or mirrors of the world. They’re embodied systems, operating in and through larger technical, political, economical and societal systems and not only surfaces signifying language. As Mitchell stresses, pictures have ‘lives and loves’. We thus need to move beyond the idea of images as world mirrors. Or do we? 

Winterling: They live and love, and include other sensual aspects not only relying on language. The idea of the mirror seems more interesting as a screen. And nearly all the screens we face are reflective like a mirror. The screen has a life of its own. The shiny surfaces and screens that conquer so much of our immediate surroundings in daily life are often more like dark holes, like a Pandora’s box. 

Yazdani:  In philosophy, feminism and art, the theoretical debates are more and more concerned with materialism. These discussions are ontological as well as epistemological and are interested in non-human forces, human perception, matter and objects as meaning-makers. As the professor and writer Jane Bennett has asked: ‘Why advocate the vitality of matter?’ Her answer is fruitful: ‘Because my hunch is that the image of dead or thoroughly instrumentalized matter feeds human hubris and our earth-destroying fantasies of conquest and consumption. It does so by preventing us from detecting (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling) a fuller range of the nonhuman powers circulating around and within human bodies.’  These nonhuman powers thus need to be taken into consideration.They affect how we feel, taste and experience the world. And they most certainly circulate within new-media art. Here, material isn’t a physical object, a thin piece of paper, a medium, a photograph, or a colour; it’s the substance of material relations. In short, it’s a sphere, surface or mechanism where social relations are manifested. This mechanism, or mechanisms, seems crucial when entering the world of pictures, not only contemporary ones, but also earlier works. Sandberg’s large photographs unambiguously do that. 

But what is the social life of photography? What is a social surface? And how to they interrelate with one another? As the social is always a process occurring between humans and technologies, the distinction is possibly non-existent. These new social realities manifest themselves in our aesthetic relations with technologies and materials. These works are rendering new forms of subjectivity and have the ability to construct and question not only the materiality of the art, but also the existence of life and bodies. 

Susanne M. Winterling.

Susanne M. Winterling.

Your work My Physicality (2014) emphasises these forms of life explicitly. Human perception becomes key. It’s where the viewing subject enters the agency of the work, and where the work enters the subject.This agency is thus always social, always alive and operates in and through human and non-human objects. In your work, it appears that these social processes take place on the surface. Surface is here not superficial, empty or flat; it refers to the agency of media and technologies. For new media tech- nologies generate new forms of materiality. And it’s inside and through them that materials are transformed and embodied. The bodily dimension becomes central. Skin, tactility and surface are also emphasised in A Skin Too Thin (Light to Pink, No. 1) (2012). Skin is replaced with photo paper, colour, light and signals. Are the materials replaced by skin?

It appears they meet somewhere halfway. 

Winterling: Skin colour: film and photography have always struggled to capture it. Also, it’s still a crucial element in the way lenses and recording devices are developed. Skin colour is a very peculiar phenomenon and thus tricky to work with in any medium. From the inside to the outside, it’s how we relate to the world in the first and most immediate sense. We’re covered with clothes, of course, but that’s also why conductive fabrics will become interesting tools and materials. With conductive fabric or paint we connect to interfaces; one might even claim we can become interface. The first materialisation of this in my work is photographic paper and the way it absorbs and gets absorbed and changed in the exposure process. That process is interesting to me on one side because it’s never the same and constantly moves and stays alive, always a singularity, but very visually ephemeral and super-sensitive. Its physicality is expressed in different shades of blue or pinkless than we find in biology, but definitely similar or comparable to biodiversity. 

Yazdani:  You’ve preferred to use the term ‘physicality’: physicality of the image; physicality of the material; physicality of the body. What does that mean to you? When and where does physicality happen in photography, and objects of art in general? The term reminds me of Barad, whom I know has been an inspiration to you. 

Winterling: Matter and materiality denote a wider range than ‘physicality’. I insist on what can be extracted from historical materialism, or other materialist specifications – as a political fact as well as an aesthetic one. In my work I often refer to film and film history as a material, just as the donkey in Robert Bresson’s film Au Hasard Balthazar (1996) is already an animal with a history. But to speak about the ‘physicality’ of an image is more to describe and investigate its qualities sensually: how is this happening? How is it talking? The past as well as the future influence us – for example, our perception of a piece of photo paper in an exhibition that has been developing since the opening and is constantly, according to the rhythm of the space and its architecture, exposed to light. 

Barad would say: ‘the larger apparatus in its particular material configuration enacts particular cuts that materialize determinately bounded and propertied ‘things’ together with their ‘agencies of observation’. A movement, a touch might evolve from light; light might also be matter. As an artist, the entanglement of this is very sexy and it allows for a super complexity even if it’s a very simple effect. We can be touched in many ways. 

Yazdani: There’s an aesthetic interrelation between the material support of the work and its tactility. New materialism is also about how media and technologies process, transform and transmit information. It permits one to explore material that isn’t necessarily seen, directly ‘felt’ or visible. Hence, the digital. For how can one touch, see or feel digital codes, information and signals? Does its invisibility and lack of matter mean that it has vitality? These concerns recall the idea that electronic signals al- ways are embodied. 

Winterling: Electronic signals and all embodied waves also refer to the fact that all perceiving is embodied. This is one reason why I like working with 3D animation: you can feel the body being carved into space. Like marble as a material, the grid and wireframe structure allows one to play with touch and the possibility of closeness in a physical way. Surfaces like skin become crucial for osmosis; that’s where waves permeate. Like the nature/culture divide, I think the digital/analogue divide has to be changed and redrawn or even dropped. 

Wolfgang Tillmans,  Central Nervous System,   inkjet print on paper mounted on aluminium in artist’s frame,   frame: 97 x 82 cm,   2013, courtesy Maureen Paley.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Central Nervous System, inkjet print on paper mounted on aluminium in artist’s frame, frame: 97 x 82 cm, 2013, courtesy Maureen Paley.

Yazdani:  What has influenced my questions in this regard is Tillmans’ exhibition Central Nervous System at Maureen Paley’s gallery in 2013. The subjects are in one sense becoming what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari referred to as a ‘body without organs’. Meanwhile, via the technological possibilities of both the digital camera and the inkjet print, the surface of the bodies in the images has become beyond or ‘larger’ than human biological skin. It touches you, and itself, almost like it’s living its own life, beyond the biological. It has become post-human. The touch is very mechanical, yet very poetic. In the gallery space the images become surfaces that create an intimate space where human perception and the body become essential. 

One could therefore argue that the materiality of these pictorial surfaces constructs new social realities. According to Barad, matter and meaning can’t be alienated. And science can’t be ignored here. This was explicit in your latest show Drift at Gallery Parrotta, Stuttgart, earlier this year, where hands, touch, immersion and technology drift through the gallery space. As Barad notes, ‘Touch is the primary concern of physics.’ This relates to the senses, how humans as well as particles sense and experience one another. As material forces, art objects also drift in social life and subjectivity. Reality and being become phenomena on the surface and its materialization of ourselves, as in Tillmans’ Central Nervous System and Sandberg’s enlarged pictures in Oslo. Here, photography is a medium whose agency empowers its meaning, movement and vitality. It’s an object that can reinforce and generate events and causality. But to what extent? 

Sara R. Yazdani is PhD Candidate in Media Aestethics at the University of Oslo and works as an art critic. Susanne M. Winterling is an artist and professor at Oslo National Academy of the Arts. This conversation can be found in our current issue. 

A passion for photography - Nan Goldin

The legendary photographer Nan Goldin in conversation with JH Engström.

Nan Goldin and JH Engström in Landskrona, August 2014 Photo: Nina Strand

Nan Goldin and JH Engström in Landskrona, August 2014 Photo: Nina Strand

Text: Nina Strand

During the photo festival in Landskrona last August, Nan Goldin was one of the four main exhibitors. She presented the version of her slideshow The Ballad of Sexual Dependency that was shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2007. The work, first published as a book in 1986, was revolutionary for its personal, intimate diaristic style. In Landskrona, she granted us an exclusive interview on the condition that her close friend, Swedish photographer JH Engström, could join us in the small, cosy restaurant in the basement of Hotel Öresund.

“My work is best either as a book or as a slide show. Photography has to be experienced physically, not online”, says Goldin. “Photography is the only art form that works in books”, she adds. She loves books, but originally wanted to make films. She says that the slideshow is the closest she comes to filmmaking. She has made one film installation, Sisters, Saints & Sibyls, a work about her sister’s suicide in 1965, shown at Rencontres d’Arles in 2009, but according to Goldin it’s not yet finished, and it’s uncertain whether it ever will be.

“Three hundred and fifty people fainted when they saw it”, she claims. “That’s the best accolade I could get. It made me feel good. I always want to make people laugh or cry. I could never dream of fainting!”

The two photographers hope that Rencontres’ new director Sam Stourdzé will be able to bring more magic to Arles.
“I still remember seeing Guy Bourdin there”, says Goldin. “He’s been a great influence.” “Really strange stuff”, Engström agrees.
“Really radical work. I saw his work when I started to look at photography.”

Goldin says she has always been fascinated by photography, but that it took her a while to realize that it could be viewed as art. She was overjoyed when, in an evening class, she was introduced to photographers like Diane Arbus and Larry Clark.

“Clark’s book Tulsa made a huge impression on me. I’ve never been interested in so-called ‘good’ photography, only 100% honesty.

Engström remembers the magic of taking his first photograph.
“My father had a box camera. I was four years old. We put the negative under a glass in the sun. It was absolutely magic. It’s magic now even. The Japanese photographer Rinko Kawauchi said this in her talk earlier today: that the most important process of photography is in the darkroom and that she longs for the darkroom-magic.”

Goldin agrees.

“I don’t like what the internet does to photography: you no longer see the images. The computer should only be used for sending mail and reading news”, she insists. “Computers and social media have ruined the world. And I feel I’ve lost my medium. I was recently at a party for Magnum, where I stated that photography is over – it’s dead, it’s just a video game. No one talked to me for the rest of the evening.”

Engström disagrees that Goldin has lost her medium.
“You spent two hours inside the book tents after your talk today. I don’t know anyone who’s so passionate when it comes to photography as you.”

They were destined to meet, she says of Engström. She has a strong relationship with Scandinavian photography.
“My favourite photographers are Swedish. I really believe in the heritage that came from Christer Strömholm, which his student Anders
Petersen continued on and what Petersen’s student JH Engström is working with now. All three of them have a special sensitivity that they’re not afraid to show. When I first met Strömholm, he was happy to have met someone as egotistical as himself.”

They also share a true passion for photography.

“We both take images to stay alive”, Goldin says. “This is my reality. I’ve made a record of my life. Photography has really saved my soul.” Later she says, “My advice to young artists is that they shouldn’t do it if they don’t absolutely have to. If you don’t have to make art to stay alive, then do something else. It’s art – it’s not a job – it should be what you do to survive. When I was teaching, I wasn’t interested in tearing my students apart; I wanted to look for the positive in them. I wanted them to believe in themselves, and from that point they could do anything. I grew up before there was an art market, where you were an artist in a more spiritual way. Today, my students only talk about what gallery they want to exhibit in. I’m not sure if this is the way to go. Art must come from deep inside yourself, and how you look at the world around you. I tell my students never to read texts on postmodern theory – they should take LSD instead.

Engström praises Goldin’s teaching and inspirational skills.
“I remember once in Skåne, when we’d worked on one of my books all day. I was tired and made a joke, and you looked really angrily at me and said if it wasn’t important for me then we should just quit. I’ve never forgotten it. It’s important to stay focused.”

Goldin says she suffers from a ’Pygmalion complex’.
“I can help people see themselves, show them how beautiful they are. I’m famous for getting people out of the closet, and some have fallen in love with themselves through my photos of them.”

So photography may not be completely dead for Goldin, but she no longer believes in a singular photograph.
Engström agrees.
“Many photographs make one photograph.”

“I work in series, just like you”, Goldin says. “When I saw one of your first books, Trying to Dance, I was so happy. And I love the title, it’s very Scandinavian. I was thrilled that one can make such tremendously powerful work without creating the ‘good image’. I was raised to believe that a book should look a certain way, be printed in a certain manner, but you’ve found a different way. You’ve achieved a freedom from the conservative idea of what’s right. I’ve previously said, when looking through your book La Recidence, that when looking at your work, you have to learn a new photographic language.”

Goldin says that it was when working on her latest exhibition Scopophilia, commissioned by the Louvre, Paris, that “I lost my faith in the single photograph and started working with grids.” In 2010, for a period of eight months, she was allowed to wander around the museum every Tuesday with her camera. The exhibition featured details from various paintings, put together with pictures from her own archive.
“I fell in love with several of the paintings. There were some faces who brought back memories of people I once knew. My dear friend Peter Hujar explained to me what the word ‘scopophilia’ really means: ‘fulfilment of your whole self by looking’. It was fantastic to work at the Louvre. I could walk into a room and fall totally in love with a painting.”

Lo in camouflage, NYC, 1994,   from the book   Eden & After  , 2014 Nan Goldin, Phaidon 

Lo in camouflage, NYC, 1994, from the book Eden & After, 2014 Nan Goldin, Phaidon 

Goldin has just published her first book in eleven years, Eden & After. She explains that the reason it has taken so long was a strict publishing deal, which she doesn’t want to talk about. Eden & After, is a collection of images that the childless photographer has taken of her friends’ children over a period of 35 years.

“My philosophy is that children come from another planet; they know everything when they’re born. I once heard a friend’s child – she was maybe four or five at the time – asking a baby: ‘Do you remember God? Because I’m beginning to forget.’ Children come so wise, and in the course of taking pictures I began to understand that they understand everything, and then people devote their lives to making them forget. This work isn’t so different from what I’ve done before. I’ve photographed artists and children my whole life. I photograph the wild ones, the ones who can’t be tamed.”

The book also deals with the relationship between parents and children, as well as the issue of gender. In some images, Goldin portrays a child who wanted to be a boy between the ages of six and fourteen.

“There are no images of kids crying in the book”, Engström remarks. “That’s not what I was focusing on”, Goldin says. “It’s the knowledge they’re born with, and that they are taught to lose.”

Goldin works constantly – obviously not on a computer. The floor of her studio in Brooklyn, New York, is scattered with prints, ready for editing. “I have assistants with aspirations of becoming archivists who go through all my photos for me. There are many images I’ve forgotten; it’s like a treasure hunt. I heard a rumour that Weegee had big bags full of negatives in his garage when he died, something that’s comforting for me to know if I don’t get through my own.”

She photographs whatever her gaze is drawn to, believing that photography is all about memories. Whether the images show people or buildings is irrelevant.
“Right now, I’m very into architecture. Maybe I’ll look closer into this. My latest work consists of landscape imagery. I had a visit from a friend in my studio who took a look at them and said they were landscape photos taken by a person from another planet.”

Goldin, who divides her time between apartments in Paris, Berlin and New York, was not keen on leaving New York this time. She’s worried about the growing anti-Semitism in Europe. During her artist talk, she also expressed her deep concern about the situation in Gaza and said that instead of listening to her, we should all be out on the streets demonstrating.

“It’s a massacre we’re witnessing. This situation is raising the anti-Semitism, and it’s very scary. I encourage all artists I know to make a cultural boycott of Israel. I’ve always been afraid of anti-Semitism, and always been pro-Palestine. I remember a book I saw when I was fifteen, with images of Palestinians in the camps. I’ll never forget it. Ever since, I’ve refused to have anything to do with Israel, despite repeated invitations. There are no grey tones in this conflict: the situation is completely black and white.”

“I came here because I love you”, she tells Engström. “All I do is about love. I never photograph anyone I don’t love. Or maybe The Ballad is made of both love and hate. Eden & After is more tender. I’m more tender.”

It is late. The restaurant has actually been closed for an hour but our waiter did not want to disturb us. Now he asks us kindly if we can possibly take our last drinks in the restaurant lobby. After Goldin has given him a huge tip, we go outside for some fresh air. Engström hands me his camera to photograph the two photographers. We’re all happy with the result. And in a way, we all took the image.

“It doesn’t matter who pushes the button”, Engström says.
And then Goldin is done. She has a new book she wants to read. “Every night I read for two or three hours. I’m from the not-googling generation. We can keep the book alive. I don’t need to explain myself further”, she concludes. “It’s all there in my photographs.” 

Ava twirling, 2007,   from the book   Eden & After  , 2014 Nan Goldin, Phaidon

Ava twirling, 2007, from the book Eden & After, 2014 Nan Goldin, Phaidon

This interview is published in Objektiv #10.

Conversation with Charlotte Cotton

During the last two decades, Charlotte Cotton has been at the forefront of developments in contemporary photography. Artist and gallery owner Bjarne Bare talks to her about institutional challenges and what the future might bring for the medium.

Dalston Anatomy, 2013, Lorenzo Vitturi. Photo by Petter Berg. 

Dalston Anatomy, 2013, Lorenzo Vitturi. Photo by Petter Berg. 

BARE: Through your various positions, writings and discourse, you’ve been a close witness to the changes in photography over the course of your career, which has taken place over an interesting couple of decades for the medium. Could we start by talking about institutions? You’ve been involved in both institutional spaces as-well-as commercial and independent initiatives, and online projects. I run a non-commercial space myself, and I believe that both commercial and non-commercial spaces have responsibilities in shaping local scenes and thus influencing artists in constructive dialogues. Although larger institutions might be stronger on academic discourse, commercial spaces can bring a visual dialogue by showing refreshing new talent. The role for smaller independent spaces could be to create a closer dialogue with artist and audience. I believe this balance is crucial for the local scene, as well as the international one. How do you see this “dance” working out between various spaces and thus the overall discourse? Does photography differ from contemporary art in general?

COTTON: I find it really difficult to characterise the changes that have taken place over the twenty years I’ve been working with photographic culture. The subject and the context of the photographic has changed, and I’ve found that about every three years I seem to be working with a new set of militating factors that shape the frame of my thinking. I do feel very lucky that my training was at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where I started working as an intern in 1992. It’s an institution that was founded as, and is still – just about – operating as a place of public service. It was a blessing to be in a position to think about photography as a broad terrain of uses and outcomes and also observe the rapid development of the idea of photography as contemporary art through the 1990s from a vantage point that still had the patina of Victorian ideas about public access to culture. I learnt about photography as a part of material culture and a demonstration of human endeavour, rather than as a subsection of the story of modern and contemporary art with the concomitant concept of art photography as a commodity within a neoliberal marketplace. Because I began my curatorial career in the early 1990s, I developed my relationship with photography partially in a historical mode – it was seen as an underdog section of artistic culture, shaped by its twentieth-century proponents, who formed a separatist history and identity in order to forge the medium’s cultural legitimacy. At the same time, I was learning how to be a curator alongside the first generation of art-school graduates who were confidently creating contemporary art photography, works that were intended to operate within the wider discourses of contemporary art. A general sense of the coexistences that are possible in the photographic realm has been an enduring interest of mine. Bjarne, I’d love to hear from you about your start in photography and how you think it shaped your approach. 

BARE: It’s this rather schizophrenic aspect of photography that’s been keeping me up at night. Your voyage, starting at the V&A, seems ideal for mapping out the various views, uses and opinions regarding a medium that has become accepted to such an extent in society that people rarely seem to question its existence or hidden layers of meanings. My introduction to photography came about as a clichéd image, starting with a trip to Mekhong, where I met a rather flamboyant Russian photojournalist who smoked opium and shot photos with an ancient Nikon F1. I was nineteen at the time, and I began to romanticise the idea of the war photographer: the possible influence one might have within news media, saving the world through important imagery. Photography then brought me to Cairo to meet with professional war photographers, only to hear their stories about the invasion of Iraq and to realise that even the pure war photographers seemed to have become part of a game, where journalism is allowed into certain rooms in the party and the backstage is filled with others who control the guest list. It didn’t suit my romantic vision of the photographic image, and I lost faith in true journalism.

I then looked to art, since it seemed the only place left where a pure dialogue could be had within photography. Here, I also found freedom in terms of storytelling and truth, and a large potential for creation. Tacita Dean has said that ‘in order to deal with fact, it’s best to resort to fiction’. For me, this might be the core of my interest in contemporary art photography, and why I think the medium has evolved in the right direction over the past decade. It seems to have shifted away from the classic narrative of the photography exhibition where every image tells a story, and into a situation where the exhibition space functions more as a total installation and each work contributes to the larger narrative. Here, I believe that photography is finally moving towards contemporary art in its understanding of communication. After all, art boils down to communication. Do you share this idea of the changes within so called art-photography, and do you believe it’s moved further away from other types of photography in recent years?

COTTON: The best photographic practices that I’ve seen haven’t so much moved away from other types of photography, but rather acknowledge the contemporary condition of image-making: namely, that it’s no longer useful to think of photographic practice as pivoting around fixed ideas of types of photographers and better to accept the very unfixed nature of how artistic practice navigates the contemporary media ecology. The photographic practices that resonate for me are clearly embedded within our image-making and disseminating culture. It’s important to acknowledge that embeddedness for what it is: a necessarily close position from which to pinpoint the important things that are happening within our pervasive visual systems. It’s not primarily a strategy for the adoption of the language and behaviour of photographs within mass media and social circulation for its own sake, but the best vantage point from which real and close attention to the incipient nature of image culture can be paid. These artists aren’t venturing out into the broad terrain of image culture to gather up material to take back to a fixed and detached space defined as art – or indeed photojournalism or commercial image-making. If they were, then I think we could call photography the art of the illustrator. The creative processes that I am drawn to rely on finding points of interest and properly reflecting on their meaning and causality. This position enables open-ended practices to unfold. Such practices are at the heart of human creativity and the enduring – pre-photographic – desire to make marks that delineate and are comprehended in our time.

What I also respond to in your previous reply is the sense that it’s important to you that photography is a discursive space – that it’s a discussion between practitioners and viewers, an acceptance that within a ubiquitous image culture, photographic capture is something that’s shared between photographers and their audience.

BARE:  I agree that open-ended practices are the ideal, but they require open-minded practitioners and audiences across disciplines within the medium. I believe this occurs most often in the field of independent publishing, where practitioners have developed a playful approach to the finished work, while it seems to me that the exhibition format still obtains a certain seriousness. This could simply be because the publishing scene is mainly driven by a new generation of practitioners. Within photography, I feel there’s a strong conservative mass, possibly driven by the market, photography fairs or certain medium-specific museums. In photobook-making and self-publishing there’s an open approach to aesthetics, source and output, where sharing is the ideal. Simultaneously, I do have the constant feeling that although photography has evolved technically, as well as becoming increasingly available, the intellectual level hasn’t followed suit. We’re still in a situation where a direct message translates better to the audience than a more complex photograph containing several layers of dialogue. Again, I believe this multi-layered dialogue is found more often within art, and thus is more appealing to me, though I might be the conservative one here. Is this a view you share, and if so, how do you grapple with this when curating a large show for an institution such as The Photographers Gallery, V&A or LACMA, which have such varied audiences?

COTTON: Publishing has been a flourishing area for photographic creativity for a number of reasons. Firstly, the stakes aren’t so high. What I mean by that is that as digital printing has reanimated the small print-run area of photobook publishing, the gap has opened up for photographic projects to embody the book as its primary form, unmodified by the conventions of trade-book publishing. The production costs are potentially less than those of an exhibition and a book is capable of directly reaching an international audience. It’s easy to list the small number of bookstores in cities in Europe and the Americas that will take copies of new books from artists. You can promote and sell directly online and thus reach the niche, and very knowledgeable, audience of fellow practitioners for whom this current creative energy means something. This process doesn’t involve intersecting and negotiating with large and traditional structures like major publishing houses or, indeed, museums and galleries. But I think the book form is also a good ideogram for contemporary photographic practices with their meaning bound up in a dynamic process of production and distribution as inseparable parts of the process of making contemporary art.

When I think about how my own curatorial practices have intersected with this diversification of creativity and the way that we see and talk about it, it’s rarely been in the form of an exhibition in the institutions at which I have worked. Where I have felt this synergy with actual creative practices is when I’ve been curating contemporary fashion photography exhibitions. The nature of fashion photography has pushed me to think about how you narrate the cultural meaning of the collective efforts (rather than single authorship) of image-makers, and how you narrate very temporary stories intended for the lifetime of magazines, not the ‘in perpetuity’ of museums. When I was working at LACMA, I think it was the non-exhibition elements of the programme that carried that discursive spirit, and in particular the website and live discussions that curator and artist Alex Klein, designer David Reinfurt and I created as part of Words Without Pictures. I’m interested in how museums can create iterative frameworks and host the urgent discussions that practitioners want to have. In the past two years, I’ve mainly been teaching in art schools, writing and participating in exhibition projects with other curators. For me, it feels very much like a time to participate in new things and talk out the possibilities rather than try to set things in institutional stone, as it were.

One hand, and then the other. 2014, Emil Salto, Cornerkiosk Press

One hand, and then the other. 2014, Emil Salto, Cornerkiosk Press

BARE: Lowering the stakes and creating effective distribution channels has certainly helped numerous young practitioners to go global while maintaining a relevant local scene. On the other hand, nothing is better than experiencing a large-scale, well-produced exhibition that can ultimately function as a vehicle for inspiration and dreams. Referring back to the open-ended dialogue you mentioned earlier, do you believe it’s possible for larger institutions to achieve more direct dialogue? Since institutions have a responsibility for a broad audience who might be used to the standard formula, I imagine it must be hard to break that core. Do you have any ideas about this, and about the type of practitioners that these institutions should involve to create a more open dialogue? Is it only possible through non-exhibition elements, or have you witnessed successful exhibitions that managed to bridge this gap? Words Without Pictures certainly seemed a step in the right direction, involving the audience directly, as well as the web. Do you feel this happens more easily now that you’re outside the institutional system, and possibly working on shorter-term projects?

COTTON: I agree that what makes this such a game-changing time for photographic ideas is that it’s practitioner-led rather than being defined as a movement within institutions and academia. I imagine it will always be hard for innovative practices to lead the narrative of institutional writing and exhibitions, rather than being subsumed as the ‘illustrations’ for overarching curatorial ideas. Some institutions and some curators find ways to frame their exhibitions that are at least fronted by the idea of ‘practice-led’, with strong intellectual arguments that sensitively survey contemporary artistic practices on their own terms and in rapid, flexible programmes that bring a lot of new ideas into the context of galleries and museums. Some of the more successful institutional and curatorial strategies are ones that consciously attempt to embody the momentum of now – rapidly changing, providing more than one version of the story of contemporary practice, thinking of their desired audiences as going on a journey with the institution and curator. I suppose it’s about creating structures that provide possibilities rather than the definite, concretised idea of contemporary practice. This is one of the reasons why the biennial and triennial format is so successful now – you can make an explicit and definite statement but within a context where there’s another – different but equally strong – statement on the horizon.

Another analogy that you raised earlier is the difference between the rapidity of photobook publishing (and the expanding of the idea of a book into the territory that was traditionally that of the magazine), and the conventional trade book that was the sum total, set-in-stone conveyance of ideas. For me, curating and publishing should mirror contemporary practices in being iterative and inputting into the discourses and dynamics that are at play right now, rather than being about the ring-fencing or historicising of some sections of contemporary artists’ work that can be plausibly made to fit into the linear story of contemporary art as it’s been told so far.

BARE: Is the practitioner-led aspect part of bringing down traditional hierarchies within the arts? In other non-art aspects of photography, this seems to be the case, but possibly not in favour of photography, since it seems that practitioners are now handling more than one task in the process, often due to budgets. In journalism this seems to be the case, and also in fashion and advertising.

COTTON: I don’t think we’re seeing the dismantling of the traditional hierarchies of arts organisations. That may of course just be a generational consequence: the fact that there simply aren’t enough people at the top of management structures who have a genuine interest in bringing about change that’s responsive to the momentum of creative practices right now or the seismic shift in our collective visual consciousness in the twenty-first century. The business plan of the culture industry places its trust in monographic exhibitions and artists with track records in the market. I don’t think the culture industries are in any way in a different situation at this stage of neoliberalism from their cousins in the creative industries. If you look at feature-filmmaking, the two areas of confidence are the large action-movie blockbusters and the crowd-sourced, ground-swelling independent movies with all their innovation and timeliness. Culture is also polarised in this way, with major museum exhibitions at one end of the scale and artist and independent curator-led initiatives at the other.

BARE: I think one of the reasons for the popularity of the biennale (and at times the less interesting but equally popular art fair), is that there are fewer set systems. The players change with every edition, always bringing in new hierarchies of curators, artists and thus audiences – keeping the discourse fresh and relevant. This occurs especially in the biennale format, which usually manages to blend all media into a whole. The photography biennales I feel are less relevant, possibly due to a smaller field of players. Although I run a photography space myself, and this conversation is due to be published in a photography journal, I feel we should work towards making these spaces redundant, aiming for a more open dialogue between media. Why do you think there are so many medium-specific galleries, journals, biennales and fairs for photography, while the other arts blend naturally?

COTTON: Photo biennales and festivals have a mixed heritage. They weren’t born out of this era of global contemporary art biennials and art fairs, but had more photographer-led starting points, often in the 1970s, and were forums for practitioners and a small band of supporters to get together to see and talk over what was new. Some, but not all, current photo festivals still carry that heritage, as if photography were a separatist medium. Personally I don’t think that’s true, or at least the narratives and discourses of these festivals aren’t pluralistic or responsive enough to what’s actually happening in photographic practices. Festivals can run the risk of being the meeting point for historical cliques or those who feel disenfranchised from the growth of photography as contemporary art, which is quite ironic given that in the formation of the idea of photography as a cultural subject in the postwar period, its members had to come from somewhere else because the field didn’t exist. If photography festivals continue to be relevant, it will be because they create structures that are actively diverse and make genuine enquiries into the shifting terms of the photographic, both within the context of contemporary art and also within our media ecology at large. I think festivals are better when they align with practitioners and not the market-driven systems of major institutions.

BARE: I’m interested in how photography has evolved within the exhibition space. The photograph’s ability to show a more complex multilayered message comes forth as photographic exhibitions blend works that don’t seem to fit together at first glance, but create a message as a whole. I see this development more often in galleries and institutions focusing on more than one medium, as if this approach comes from contemporary art rather than the photography world. In addition, I see more and more exhibitions including spatial elements in dialogue with the framed photographic works, thus pointing at the photograph as an object in dialogue with the spatial matter in the room. In this sense, how do you see the future of photography in exhibitions and museum collections? I recall you once stated it was at risk of becoming the watercolour of museum collections.

COTTON: What I meant by the danger of photography becoming a historical form of creativity akin to the watercolour is the risk that photographic practices will stay fixed to their conventions and not re-calibrate so that they still have real relationships with the defaults of today’s image environment. I don’t think that there is this separate intellectual space called art; photographic artists are embedded within the dynamic of the wider visual culture. What you’re alluding to is that often the most timely exhibitions of contemporary practice have made a complete break from the editorial, linear mode of photographic sequencing that morphed from the magazine page to the gallery wall in the late twentieth century. Or indeed, the vogue in the late twentieth century for stand-alone, painting-like tableaux photographs that you were expected to study in isolation. I think you’re talking about installations that may bring photographic qualities into the space of art that come from another area, but done in such a way as to bring each photographic element into a constellation of photographic standpoints whose meaning comes from these contingent relations.

I’m aware that I’m describing the rhizome model of cultural production. The rhizome is a useful model for thinking about the way in which we create dynamic maps of seemingly disparate forms of ideas, their meaning held in the constantly changing connections we make between them. It’s a useful way of thinking about not only the structures of some of the most interesting photographic gallery installations but also the shared way in which we create meaning with the viewer. Just as some of the best artists who work with photographic ideas are constantly questioning and shifting their practices in response to our image world, I’d like to imagine that institutions feel a parallel responsibility not to solidify their working practices. It’s hard to envision such open-ended practices if you view the museum’s responsibilities as exclusively to collect and exhibit objects that are the final resolution of artistic ideas. But if we viewed museums as spaces that also host new ideas that come from outside their collecting purview, sites for open discussion, centres for publishing and disseminating ideas about contemporary human endeavour, and you made this the substantive archive of record, then I think we’d have more belief in what institutions can provide at this mercurial point in photographic culture.

BARE: If the rhizome model can be used to inform contemporary photographic production, and if I understand the theory right, it does indeed point towards an open-ended dialogue, where several aspects of production inform each other simultaneously, thus creating new perspectives. This is an aspect that I often miss within photographic discourse. Stub by Linn Pedersen (2010) is a good illustration of the rhizome theory. It’s a theory that can point to the core of the ideal practice, not only in terms of exhibitions, but already manifested in book-making and other forms of photography as you mention. You said once that when you started curating, the scene was still dominated by shows focusing on the history of photography, as if the medium were still new to the public. With the young generation growing up with media such as Instagram, making them capable of reading small images swiftly, perhaps we’ll see a strong photographic understanding in the coming generations. As photography spreads so fast, however, the Benjaminian ‘aura’ that photography has struggled to build up over the past century might fade. People are now talking about post-photography; do you feel that the digital photograph distances itself from the genuine analogue photograph by losing its indexicality through the computer process? If so, do you feel that photography is suffering or strengthened in the postinternet/digital generation?

COTTON: Actually, I don’t share that concern that something will be lost, although I do sympathise with such reservations. I don’t think that the actuality of our media environment should stop anyone continuing along the path of a practice that was set in the last century, but what it means to do so has shifted profoundly due to the context of contemporary practice. I definitely share with you a great optimism that artists working with photographic ideas are entirely capable of keeping up with the behaviours and nuanced visual capacities of their viewers. Today’s artists are better considered as shaping their practices as entry points that are legible within the epoch of the maker-consumer, interpreting what’s already the contemporary viewing experience for the dynamic of their work. Contemporary practice doesn’t take specific forms per se – it includes artists working with traditional materials (such as photographic prints, knowingly deployed for their auratic materiality) just as much as artists directly using the vernacular language of online culture, encapsulating the actual and symbolic pervasive impact it has had on the ways we make, consume and read visual culture. We could talk about ‘post-photography’ in the sense of photography as a medium and a discrete discipline of art being a defined entity, but I think the photographic is alive and well; a fitting adjective rather than a solidified noun.

Dalston Anatomy, 2013, Lorenzo Vitturi. Photo by Petter Berg. 

Dalston Anatomy, 2013, Lorenzo Vitturi. Photo by Petter Berg. 

This conversation is from our current issue. 

Charlotte Cotton (b. 1970 currently lives and works in New York) has worked with writing and as a curator through positions such as Head of the Wallis Annenberg Photography Department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Head of Programming at the Photographers’ Gallery, London  and Curator of Photographs at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. In 2004 she authored The Photograph as Contemporary Art, published by Thames & Hudson and now on its third edition, and she is currently finishing her forthcoming book Photography is Magic, which will be published by Aperture in August 2015. The book includes the work of over eighty contemporary artists who are proposing new photographic ideas, thus bringing the dialogue forward. She is also working on a book entitled Photographic, which outlines six characteristics of contemporary photographic practice. Its first iteration will be available in the form of pdfs throughout 2015.

Bjarne Bare (b. 1985 in Poznan, lives and works between Oslo and Stockholm) holds a BA from The Academy of Fine Art, Oslo. He is a photographer and co-founder of the artist-run initiative MELK in Oslo, where he has organised and curated more than thirty exhibitions with emerging artists since 2009. His works and publications have been presented in venues such as the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Bærum, Norway; the Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna; the Galerie Dieschönestadt, Halle, Germany; TJ Boulting and Viktor Wynd Fine Art, London; MiauMiau, Buenos Aires; and Kunstnernes Hus, Oslo. In 2011 he published his first book, Hose Variations, Studies from Los Angeles and Elsewhere (Cornerkiosk Press), and in 2012 he was a contributor to the publication Entering a Site of Production – MoDERNISM MACHINE, accompanying the exhibition MoDERNISM MACHINE at the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter. Most recently, he has held a solo exhibition titled Outboard Swaddle at Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa in Venice, and published two monographs: Grapnel Grapple and Cropping the Ocean.



Conversation with Torbjørn Rødland

Torbjørn Rødland met with Kristian Skylstad to discuss the space between art and photography and how we can go beyond both

Torbjørn Rødland, Meganekko Moe, 2003-14, from Sasquatch Century at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter.

Torbjørn Rødland, Meganekko Moe, 2003-14, from Sasquatch Century at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter.

Kristian Skylstad: Is your production affected by your biography?

Torbjørn Rødland: I believe art will always be affected by biography, not just for me but for everyone. Most artists tend to focus on other aspects, though. A photographer finds and places the camera in front of something, or something in front of the camera – a person, a site, an object. Sometimes I photograph objects I’ve travelled with for a while – it might be a leather strap from Tokyo or some stockings from Beijing. Even when certain elements aren’t from the place where the photograph is made, the local always bleeds into the picture somehow. If you compare my work to a photographic project based on the standards of reportage, the bleeding I’m dealing with is limited. My job is to externalise internal images, which are both personal and cultural. I’m actually keen on finding ways to deal with personal factors in art, especially since this was largely avoided by the previous generation of artists.

Unlike that of my generation, where the personal is inflated.

At the time when I defined my project, no one was talking positively about biography. If you know Jeff Wall’s story, you’ll find that the background for some of his pictures is almost soap opera-like, but he’s not comfortable sharing that, probably for good reason. The biographical reading has a tendency to overshadow other motivations. Most people still expect art to be a processing of personal experience, even though for a long time now postmodern artists have aspired to a role as social critics of a culture not centred around a specific individual. I accept that my pictures operate on different levels that are both interesting and irritating, depending on where you stand. These different levels are integrated or in balance.

The photographic, art and poetry – in contradiction to other forms of culture that point at something specific – tend to look for an eternal understanding, but that also means an eternal misunderstanding. Gauguin once said that the art was inside his head and nowhere else. Is your work a manifestation of your fantasies? You work with ideas, but your work isn’t conceptual.

An idea in itself has no value. The image is both result and starting point – it starts with an image that I don’t know how to deal with or to explain, and in the process of creating my version, I try to figure out why exactly it’s worth paying attention to. Creating the individual image is one thing, but how it fits into a format and inside a bigger group of pictures is essential. This process ends with an exhibition or a book, or both.

Torbjørn Rødland, Summer Scene, 2014, Courtesy of STANDARD (OSLO)

Torbjørn Rødland, Summer Scene, 2014, Courtesy of STANDARD (OSLO)

Which format has most importance? Do you compare their value? The book is eternal but the exhibition is fleeting.

When I was a student, the book was my main interest. Then I got pictures published in different contexts, and it always left me discontented. Mistakes were made, photographs were cropped and mislabelled – they didn’t look good most of the time. This made me gradually appreciate the exhibition, because there I was able to control the result. A dialogue in a room is very different from a book. They’re both interesting, but different. I started exhibiting internationally twenty years ago, ten years before I put my first real book together. I learned about how to exhibit photographs. The book format came in later and redefined the production. The images in I Want To Live Innocent from 2008 were created with a publication in mind. The book was the main framework and first context. Later, I would make exhibitions from more pointed selections. This was also the method for Vanilla Partner from 2012.

The book allows a broad production with many genres and image types coexisting. An exhibition holds a different tension, because you can see many more images at the same time. Some pictures that function in a book don’t work on a wall. You can compare it to playing live for many years as a musician, and then releasing an album. The benefit of the album is that it can be discovered and experienced whenever and wherever, while a concert has a very limited duration and extent.

Is your process intuitive or carefully planned?

What can potentially happen in front of and inside a camera is miraculous. I go for the photographic negative, which can’t be planned in detail. If I don’t succeed in creating a picture on my first attempt, making a new one is almost impossible. This has happened very rarely and only with pure still-life or object photographs. I believe I share this process with everyone who works intuitively: you have an inner picture of what can potentially be and this conception is essential for you to push the material or the situation beyond what’s ordinary and towards something indispensable. To get there you have to be open to what might potentially happen. I realise that the image I actually make is much more valuable than the one I planned to make. The final photograph has more precision, more individuality. Much of the joy in my working process comes from discovering qualities and symbols and consistencies in a completed body of work. I aspire for this to happen. I relinquish control, and then I react to whatever occurs. I’m not alone in this method. I do believe that both painters and writers work like this.

Torbjørn Rødland, ACV09, 2009, Courtesy of STANDARD (OSLO)

Torbjørn Rødland, ACV09, 2009, Courtesy of STANDARD (OSLO)

In your gallery shows you’ve often chosen a more eccentric and absurd selection of images than the work you’ve shown in institutions, even though it still has the same connotations. I’m specifically interested in the Andy Capp Variations, which in my eyes is an aesthetic exception. Where were you going with that series?

In retrospect I think the Andy Capp Variations, maybe more than anything else I’ve done, demonstrates the need to work through and go beyond postmodern appropriations by integrating qualities from classical art photography. The flat and mediated cartoon character is appropriated from a bar mirror photographed and combined with intimate everyday objects observed with an interest in personal association and light, surface, texture. I see an almost desperate need to reconcile different levels in one picture. As a viewer, you can choose to focus on the poetry of the familiar or you can miss these qualities because you’re provoked by the stupid Andy character, but the elements are there and in balance with each other. It’s pretty much the same balance as in my early photographs of myself as a long-haired art student with a plastic bag in the forest. ¨


In your multiple exposures you’re exploring something more pictorial.

The multiple exposures show many parallels with what I tried to achieve with the use of a mirror in the Andy Capp Variations, but here it’s the result of two separate exposures on one photographic negative. I don’t know if it’s more or less pictorial. You could also see the double exposures as more in line with modernist photography and its critique of pictorialism. To me, they complicate the pictorial space in ways that are different from the single-view photographs that dominate my catalogue. Multiple exposures became another way of creating a fantastical pictorial space with basic photographic methods. I could have controlled it much better in Photoshop, but this is about losing control. I’m interested in the complexity of a picture. Here the layers are readable through the basic physics of analogue photography.

There are many markers in your early work referring to specifically Norwegian themes: heavy metal in the forest or nudists. As a Norwegian artist I find this liberating.

Yes, especially when I made portraits of Erik Bye, Maria Bonnevie and Titten Tei. The Black Metal musicians are all pretty much my age. It was important to me to look at how my project overlapped with and differed from theirs. Later, my focus expanded to include elements from American and Japanese image culture. On a trip to Japan in 2002 I discovered that the marginalised cuteness that came out of my 1990s production was mainstream in Japan. This discovery sent me back to Tokyo to talk to people and try to understand what the hell I was doing. The advanced Japanese image culture is very different from the Western one, partly because it developed outside of humanism. My belief is that many of the changes in mass culture in the United States and Europe after the internet have followed Japanese pop-culture: the acceptance of extreme cuteness and explicit eroticism are two examples. Japan has also developed a more advanced discourse around passion and strong feelings for fictional characters, for boys and girls, that you only get to know through visual media.

These kinds of cultures are more or less taboo in Scandinavia.

In Scandinavia we have strong ideas about how things should be. These basically Christian morals were continued and further developed in Western humanism. In Japanese pictorial culture, human nature is understood quite differently.

Torbjørn Rødland, Dancer, 2009-2012, from Sasquatch Century at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter

Torbjørn Rødland, Dancer, 2009-2012, from Sasquatch Century at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter

Photography has never been as powerful and popular as now. How does this affect you?

The idea of a reality dominated by pictures I know intimately from postmodern theories of the offline era, but there seems to be less shame in clichés now. It’s no longer problematic to explore experiences emulating banal photographs or movies. Quite the opposite. I always wanted my work to be more than self-conscious variations on worn-out cultural forms. The first photographs I did made me attempt other ones, which led to a couple of movies, which again led to quite different pictures, followed by a few books that led to some multiple exposures. I never had to stop and redefine this ongoing process because of Flickr, Instagram or Facebook. Changes in my work run alongside the development of these new social platforms. Dialogues do occur, since I reach for purely photographic qualities and a human appeal. I observe and I participate in the increased sharing of photographic material, but my project started rolling before the internet was fast enough for photography.

You staged some photographs before the internet that have qualities that are now a kind of norm on social media.

Something similar happened to major chunks of the photographic art I got to know in my twenties; it’s to do with teen image production. Memes are pure expressions of postmodern pluralism; the truth is not out there, memes say. Various contexts and surfaces reflect and distort each other, to everyone’s amusement. To me, this was a starting point. I tried to move on by no longer rejecting an inner life of emotions and contemplation, and by seeking contact with the juiciness of the real. On the internet you’ll find a lot of naïve photographs, a lot of cynical photographs, a lot of humorous visuals, but you’re not overwhelmed by this type of integrating project aspiring to be more inclusive than pluralism.

Do you deal with photography and art in the same way?

I see no reason for a division between the two. I process other forms of expression in the same way as photography. I have little sympathy for magazines and internet sites with separate sections for art and photography. If a sculptor hires a professional photographer to make a picture for him then it’s art, but if an artist manages the whole process herself, it’s photography. That’s what’s happening, and the medium of photography tends to gravitate towards contexts where luxury goods are promoted, especially in magazines. I call it a problem but the closeness to popular visual communication is also what makes art-as-photography so exciting and often so difficult to judge. Reading a photograph is now a very complex thing. This annoys a substantial number of people. Projects that stay within the overfamiliar zone of conceptual art are safe. Pure appropriation – to move a magazine page into the gallery space in order to study its form, its ethics and aesthetics – is a protected exercise. But this “critique” doesn’t challenge anyone anymore. Everyone is familiar with basic postmodern strategies. We understand an artist using photography. It’s more complicated to come to terms with the complexity in a photographer’s approach to a breathing world of beauty, life and consumption.

It’s sad that the art world didn’t learn more about photography in the short period when it dominated the scene. I see now how unable people are to evaluate the quality of a photograph. You could say that I advocate a rich photographic image that very often needs the context of art to stand out in a landscape of simplifying commercial structures. We just don’t seem to have a language for the kind of image that transcends these biased devices.

Do you have a language for it?

Well, we’re trying to create a language, to explain what happened and how we got here – not by rejecting conceptual art but by transcending it. If we want to redefine pictorialism, it can’t be pre-conceptual; it has to be trans-conceptual. We need more ambivalent categories, or categories that contain ambivalence.

You believe that it’s valid to channel these ideas through photography?

This isn’t something that I channel through photography. This is something photography channels through me.

I’ve never heard that one before. It reminds me of something Roberto Bolaño could or should have said about poetry.

I’m not sitting here with fancy ideas that I seek to spread using photography. I try to understand what I’m actually doing with this medium and why I return to certain kinds of pictures. I try to understand why and how they’re meaningful.

What’s the next step?

Oh, I just continue photographing. It’s a way to accept the passing of time – to realise I’ve made something I’m satisfied with. Often, when I see something that could become a picture I realise that a photograph I’ve already made is stronger than the one I could do there. Then I don’t have to pick up a big camera. In other words, I can imagine the project coming to an end. Maybe at some point there will be nothing left for me to do.

Have you ever considered quitting?

No.

You depend on it?

I’ve never thought of it like that. But I have nothing stronger or more meaningful, which may be a bit sad. Observer types often become photographers because they’re not so good at participating. Photography has fascinatingly enough become an entrance point for participation. If your photographic practice is oriented towards reportage you’ll end up searching and waiting for stuff to happen in front of the camera, but my approach is more active. I initiate a world that’s meaningful to me, as a picture but also as a place to live.

Torbjørn Rødland, The Measure, 2010

Torbjørn Rødland, The Measure, 2010

Torbjørn Rødland lives and works in Los Angeles. He is currently represented by Air de Paris, Paris; Algus Greenspon, New York; Galerie Rodolphe Janssen, Brussels; Nils Stærk, Copenhagen; STANDARD (OSLO), Oslo. Rødland has five photography books published – the most recent, titled Vanilla Partner, by MACK in 2012.

Kristian Skylstad is a photographer, documentary film maker, gallerist, artist, art critic, jour- nalist, and poet. He’s running the showroom NoPlace in Oslo in collaboration with Petter Buhagen, Karen Nikgol, Hans Skovholt & Jason Havneraas, and is represented by the gallery OSL Contemporary.

Henie Onstad Kunstsenter presents a large scale survey of Los Angeles-based Norwegian photographer Torbjørn Rødland. Sasquatch Century is the first large-scale presentation of the Los Angeles based artist Torbjørn Rødland in Oslo in twelve years. The exhibition features a careful selection of works, primarily photographs, from 20 years of artistic production. On the occasion of the exhibition, HOK and Mousse Publishing will publish a catalog with an in depth essay by NYC-based writer Linda Norden.

Rødlands gallery STANDARD (OSLO) opens an exhibition with Rødland the day after Henie Onstad, entitled The Face I Found I Will Find Again. 

This text was first published in Objektiv #10.

Unknown unknowns - Lucas Blalock & Morten Andenæs

"With each new photographic event, we change not only the possibilities of a photographic future yet to come, but also the totality of photographic history."

The intro of the conversation between Morten Andenæs and Lucas Blalock from Objektiv #10. 

shoe  , 2013, archival inkjet print, 58 x 72.5 in framed (147 x 184 cm), Lucas Blalock

shoe, 2013, archival inkjet print, 58 x 72.5 in framed (147 x 184 cm), Lucas Blalock

Morten Andenæs: My three-year old has started to ask questions about the causes of given situations. Why does it snow? Why is grandmother old? In my feeble attempts to give answers succinct enough to resonate with her, I’ve noticed that she’ll repeat these answers verbatim, affirmatively, as if the questions themselves were never posed – as if she’s telling me something I didn’t already know. She repeats these lines fluently, but without the understanding that comes with having lived through the experience that spawned the statement. I mention this because it occurs to me that even though photographs are used with such ease, and the field of photography in its short history is so vast, our usage and understanding of photography is like a child repeating something with the fluency of an adult, without the concomitant understanding that the experience brings with it.

I learned today that a computer recently passed the Turing test, and what made the news interesting was that the machine managed to pass itself off as a fourteeen-year old. I’ve often thought of photography (and when I use this term I tend to think both in terms of our understanding of images and the ways in which we use the medium) as pubescent. We grant it a certain amount of respect often accorded to those more mature in the hope that they’ll live up to that kind of a responsibility, but at the same time our behavior towards them is dependent on the knowledge that there’s a whole ocean of experience that will change their very beings in the decades to come. Typically, adolescence is a time when we try on certain world views in order to see how they mesh with whatever conception we have of the world around us and ourselves in it. Over time, and much like the phrases repeated to me by my three-year old, these worldviews become assimilated and blend with our idea of the self, in turn churned out as genuine expressions of us. This could be an analogy to the way photography is being used, especially when perusing sites like Instagram. There’s a kind of visual thoughtlessness and lack of understanding of the potential meanings generated, while at the same time, the images look great. They’re different from what we encounter in family albums from the 1970s or 80s. Rather than being an archive of a lost present (and presence) within which we can trace a life, or parts of a life, they seem to be chiefly concerned with affirming presence here and now. They do this with perfect pronunciation, inflection and grammar, but perhaps without the intimate understanding invoked by the term “mother tongue.”

This analogy between photography and language is often invoked in the literature surrounding photography. I'm inclined to go with the John Berger and Roland Barthes version, whereby photography is seen as a pseudo-language, but what concerns me above all, is the common conception whereby photography is treated as a fully fledged language. This idea that we could communicate with images just as unambiguously as we do with words is a way of thinking that denies the photograph it’s full potential as a vehicle that opens a space within us that we didn’t know existed. The power of a photograph is precisely the multiple meanings it generates, its inability to be pinned down to just one meaning, and to treat photographs as akin to language is to commit a certain kind of violence towards the world in our efforts to make that world more orderly and less dangerous to our very being. This is why Barthes was onto something wildly important when he said that he wanted, in writing about photographs, to create a new science for each object of study (for each photograph).

All of this is a way of relating to the question of whether we need spaces devoted to photography. There’s always going to be a need for specialized discourse, and particularly one that manages to bridge the events of the past with the present.

Lucas Blalock: I want to start by saying that I think about the activity of my work as photography even though there’s some perversity in this claim. This is important to me because my project is essentially one of looking and picturing, and it seems that the common name for that activity in our time is “photography.” It’s perverse because I’m not interested in stabilizing, or insisting on, photography’s terms, but in undermining and stretching them. And one of the most interesting things about photography is that it’s so difficult to locate or essentialize. Even the staunchest of photography’s defenders tend to make all sorts of exceptions when it comes to what counts as a photograph. For example, if we were to follow an essentialist trajectory and say that a photograph is a picture made with a light impression on a chemical surface, then we’d have to acquiesce that a photograph is rarely seen in a newspaper or an advertisement; and this is obviously both nominally true and also deeply limiting in terms of understanding photography and its impact on our culture. This may seem like semantics, but I have the sense that teasing out photography’s contradictions and multiplicities is in fact the best way to see it, and a really productive space for working. 

Andenæs: I’ve always considered myself a photographer first and foremost, and whatever I’ve done, whether adding fake piping to a gallery wall, covering the floor of a gallery space with laminate flooring or writing, I’ve thought of it as using whatever means at my disposal to create photography by other means, to borrow a phrase from Gerhard Richter. Jacques Ranciere remarks on Godard’s Histoires de Cinema and the choice made by the director to “write” the history of film in a different medium as a key to understanding not only the Histoires, but also the structure of investigation in general. After my first glance through your book Windows, Mirrors, Tabletops, I’m wondering how you relate to that idea? Rather than investigating from the outside, part of what’s happening in your work is instead to use the very stuff of photography and of the photograph, in order to say something hitherto unsaid about photography. We don’t need to distance ourselves from the medium and use other media in order to expand and undermine the medium.

Blalock: I love this idea of interrogating the medium from the inside! Godard, and Ranciere for that matter, have been major influences in my thinking. I’ve read something somewhere before (maybe Barthes) that has made a similar case for poetry – that a proper poetic criticism would have to be in verse....

Read more in our upcoming issue!

 

Abstraction as action - a conversation with Marte Johnslien

I insist on the rightful place of abstract work and thought in contemporary society,  says Marte Johnslien about her new exhibition Forms of Protest at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter in Oslo.

A conversation between artist Marte Johnslien and curator Gerd Elise Mørland.

Marte Johnslien, Life and Death and That, detail from the installation,  2014.

Marte Johnslien, Life and Death and That, detail from the installation, 2014.

Marte Johnslien: The more mindfulness courses people take, the greater the production of abstract and processual art, the more I get the sense that people are actually seeking alternative modes of action. I consider this a reaction to the world we live in. We are constantly assailed by the capitalist message of consumption, thereby rendering us passive on a human level.

Gerd Elise Mørland: And this lands us right in the middle of this project Forms of Protest where you use a formal language based on Buddhist theory and practice. The goal—as you have suggested—was to create a personal space of action. Why?

Well, this ties in with my dualistic attitude toward paralysis. On one hand I have this strong aversion towards myself as a paralyzed human being. I really have to pull myself together to get anything done. I have to say to myself, “No way am I going to sit here, doing nothing!” On the other hand I wonder how I can do something relevant, something meaningful? I lack the conviction that I have something to offer just by being myself. I have no “inner source” if you will, to draw on for my projects. For me it’s all about finding the right ways to access the material—finding what fuels it.

Funny you should say that, since you seem to be a highly accomplished person…

Yes, but I’m not! (laughter)

How do you move past this paralysis?

It’s a constant battle! (laughs) But, as I mentioned, I’m primarily seeking fuel for action. I start off my projects analytically and this time I’ve been seeking the source of my paralysis. What does it actually consist of? How can I deal with it? This is where spirituality has become an access point for me. I’ve always felt that art speaks to that part of me which is “spiritual.” Even rather dry concept-based art can provide a transcendent experience for me. I remember once asking Matias Faldbakken, “Do you feel you obtain any kind of spiritual experience from hatching these compact conceptual ideas?” He replied that he felt no such thing. And I was shocked! (laughter) Since then I’ve wondered why I was so surprised at his answer. I think it’s because art that strikes a chord in me—as Faldbakken’s work sometimes does—gives me the feeling of being part of a greater whole. And meditation and spiritual work, as practiced in Buddhism, are very much about that. Both give me the feeling of being part of a universal community.

And this prompted you to begin searching for specific connections between art and Buddhism?

Yes, and I’ve found that my spiritual experiences aren’t actually as diffuse as I first thought.  They actually fit into Buddhist systems. Some even call Buddhism “the science of the mind.” I find this interesting because it means that Buddhism is based on a kind of science. This triggers something in me. It makes me want to put it to the test.

What you’re saying gives me two ideas. You spoke previously of your experience of art as transcendence as something reminiscent of the definition of high-quality modernist art by American art theorists Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried in the 1960s. At the same time I’m thinking that meditation and mindfulness are often considered practices of withdrawal, in effect the opposite of action and drive. How are mindfulness, drive, and the transcendent experience of art connected for you?

I take my point of departure in the perception of meditation and mindfulness trends as an expression of protest. Silent protest, if you will. I sense that the relationship between art, spirituality and social involvement can uncover something essential about the times we’re living in. Forms of Protest ties into a series of projects I’m working on, examining the link between the three. I previously completed another project, United Nuances (2011). This work took its cue from the Mediation Room at the UN headquarters in New York City. This room to me represents a harmonious union of art, spirituality, and social involvement. The practice of meditation is an instrument for strengthening our sense of unity with the world by training our ability to look beyond the ego. I found that there’s a vein of artists using this same instrument for the purposes of creation. Modernist artists were not the only ones to adopt this approach. Seen from this perspective, meditation and artistic production are fundamentally political activities, since they are both about understanding the situation of others and considering oneself part of a bigger picture: Both are basically about strengthening our sensitivity to the world. I realize it sounds abstract, yet this is the locus of much of the energy of this project: I insist on the rightful place of abstract work and thought in contemporary society.

One of your works at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter is grounded in a specific connection between abstraction, action, and Buddhism. You followed a group of Buddhist from the Shugden Community demonstrating against the Dalai Lama during his visit to Norway and created a photo-series of video stills from one of the demonstrations.

I had been following the tensions building up in relation to the Dalai Lama’s Norwegian visit in 2014. There were fears that the visit would spur a diplomatic crisis and this lead to expectations of an embarrassing display on the part of the Norwegian government, which certainly did come about! I chose to follow the demonstrators from the Shugden Community during the visit. For me this was an experientially based way of approaching my artistic material. I was already aware of the conflict since the Buddhist center that hosted my meditation courses happened to belong to the Shugden tradition, which they believe is being suppressed by the Dalai Lama.

Marte Johnslien. Shouts from Silence, detail from the installation,  2014

Marte Johnslien. Shouts from Silence, detail from the installation, 2014

I had previously tried to read up on the conflict, but its background had proved too intricate for me to grasp. When I heard that major demonstrations were planned in Oslo I redoubled my efforts. In short, the conflict centers on the advice of Dalai Lama to all Buddhists against worshipping Dorje Shugden, one of the many divine figures in Tibetan Buddhism. Many interpret such a statement as a prohibition, since the word of the Dalai Lama is considered law. This means that those who opt to continue their Shugden practice are excluded from political office, hospitals, and stores (mainly in Tibet and in the exile communities). So members of the Shugden Community believe the Dalai Lama to be in breach of human rights, since he fails to respect their religious freedom. The Dalai Lama for his part denies decreeing an official ban on the worship of Dorje Shugden.

This situation roused my curiosity for several reasons. First, we Norwegians have great difficulty perceiving the Dalai Lama as oppressive. Second, I find it fascinating that Buddhist monks and nuns should use public demonstrations as their instrument of choice. The result of this process became a documentary video from the demonstration, where I focus on the faces of individual demonstrators. I hope encountering these images of the demonstrators will challenge the common perception that meditation entails avoiding important social issues. In many ways they represent the modernization and globalization of Tibetan Buddhism. We might say that these demonstrations and the cause they champion highlight an important issue: What will happen to Tibet and to Buddhism when the Dalai Lama dies? Some believe that Tibetan Buddhism will then face a crisis with Western-supported Tibet and China confronting one another. In this respect it must be said that my project has become more about geopolitics than about personal spaces of action! I often find myself inspired by large-scale connections like that. That day—outside Chateau Neuf—with the demonstrators on one side and the endless queue of people lining up to hear the Dalai Lama on the other there was a lot of tension in the air. For me this tension drew a line back to Samye Ling and the advent of Buddhism in Europe.

Observing the involvement of other Buddhists I would like to return to your own testing of Buddhist thought and practice as an engine for powering art production. When initiating the project, you traveled to the first Buddhist center in Western Europe, the Kagyu Samye Ling Monastery in Scotland. This center is still running and the founder of the center, Chögyam Trungpa, was of great significance to several artists from the 1960s (John Cage, Allan Kaprow, and Allen Ginsberg, among others). Why did you become interested in this center?

Well, it all started a couple of years ago while I was attending a course on meditation and Buddhist thought. I was surprised to find “instruments of thought” that were of use to me as an artist and which I had actually been using for a long time. I’m referring to the act of drawing away from my personal standpoint, looking behind things, and seeing them from several angles. When I do this I feel I’m assuming a more powerful position from which to act. Subsequently I’ve tracked this idea throughout the history of art. I’ve seen how Buddhism has been used in art as a line of thought producing artistic approaches and ideas that have changed the course of modern art history.

Can you give some examples?

Yes. John Cage’s work 4’33’’ (1952–53) is a perfect example: 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence, illustrating the Buddhist concept of emptiness. He’s a textbook example of how artists in the mid-twentieth utilized Buddhist philosophy. The Beat Poets did the same thing with their penchant for automatic, spontaneous poetry. They all had contact with Chögyam Trungpa, who spread knowledge of Buddhism to the US and founded the Buddhist center you mentioned earlier, Kagyu Samye Ling in Scotland. So I decided to travel to Scotland. Before I left I read a number of Trungpa’s texts since he wrote a lot about art and creativity. Here I found things I realized I had been looking for, things I had not found in art theory. I was astounded because I never expected to find anything relevant in the notes of a Buddhist monk. Trungpa uses the term “dharma art” to denote what he considers good art. The key issue here is about creating art in a state of “non-aggression,” working your way into a state in which all aggressive emotion is lost. By aggression he means most negative emotions, right from self-aggrandizement to thoughts along the line of “this is going to be the best work I’ve done”: any thoughts that obstruct being in the present moment.

This leads us to one of your series where you specifically tested a dharma art–like approach. Where did that lead?

You might say I found a key to escaping paralysis! I went to Kagye Samye Ling to try out Trungpa’s ideas about the state of being required to embark on a phase of artistic work. Would I need to meditate to reach this state, or was it already latent within me? I was interested in whether there were parallels between creating art and meditative states. Here I must emphasize that the “meditative state” to which I refer is about focusing on an “object of thought” and has nothing to do with our usual understanding of the word “meditation,” which refers to thinking of nothing or letting our thoughts fly away. When in a meditative state I experience a sense of oneness with my surroundings. Trungpa’s idea was that this state allows us to see their essence, which can then for instance be transferred to photographs. When I walked around Kagye Samye Ling for the first time I tried to enter such a state. The prayer flags in the trees and the reflection of the Guru Rinpoche statue on the water became my motifs. The movement of the water around the Buddha sculpture created a kind of painting that never stood still. I took hundreds of photos, all of them different. That was when I had this strange experience that artists sometimes have, where something abstract suddenly appears meaningful.

What you say makes me think of the main different between art and meditation. Mediation mainly includes the practitioner, while art—with the exception of certain forms of participatory art—also includes the observer.

Yes.

As I read your works they embrace the classic observer’s role even as they counteract the established categories and divisions on which it is based—those of artist as author and viewer as recipient—and the fact that these are two distinctly separate elements. Despite poststructuralist theory, which drove home the point that the observer is the actual author, I still think the role of the observer in modern art affords the artist’s intention a great deal of space in the experience of the work. I see your art as works that motivate a slightly different observational role, even if it is based on many of the same fundamental ideas concerning the role of the artist as the creator of the works and the role of the observer as those experiencing them. Your works are frequently combined installations, which people can walk into and experience in their entirety. They offer a great sense of presence and function as a single work. At the same time I feel they work as a sum of individual objects, each one of which you have filled with meaning. They work as traces in a process leading up to the exhibition. It’s as if the whole installation provokes a certain awareness or openness to everything it contains.

Marte Johnslien, untitled, 2014. 

Marte Johnslien, untitled, 2014. 

I’ve always been concerned with making my work function at many levels. I’m preoccupied with the visual. At the same time I seek to create a certain atmosphere within the exhibition space. I want to provide viewers with spontaneous experiences because I believe that visual experience has the power to bind us together. I want the processual traces I lay out leading up to the work—my knowledge and experiences—to be accessible to those who seek them, even if my main objective is to provide viewers with an experience. I fight for these firsthand experiences on several fronts. Still, this is very much about viewers’ expectations: what do you expect when you go to view a work? Do you expect to understand; or do you expect a visual experience? I often think there seems to be an expectation that we as artists must forever be challenging the definition of art, especially from within the art world itself. This is not my ambition. To me this mode of thought appears too linear, always looking ahead.

I expect you encounter these expectations quite frequently, since some of your works are so reminiscent of modernist works that they might be mistaken as such. I’m sure it’s a challenge for many artists working with an abstract formal language today that the art world is so preoccupied with its own history and narrative, that if things becomes too visually similar, they easily gets mistaken for other, historical statements.

Yes, this is something I’ve struggled a great deal with, trying to work out why I find meaning in doing things that resemble works of fifty years ago. The answer must be that what I create today can never be the same. I’m not working with the same projects as the artists of fifty or seventy years ago. My project is based in an entirely different reality, in another age. My project is to enter the chaos of references, histories, and possible future scenarios that lie before us in the here and now.

Would it be correct to say that you are interested in the modernist project of imbuing form with meaning?

Well, I’ve always been interested in tracing ideology in art and architecture, or in form, if you will. All form does have meaning and I’m interested in how this meaning comes into being. Just as each person constitutes his or her own individual “science of the mind,” I see art in the same way. If you begin looking at art—and here I’m referring to formal, modernist art—there’s actually a kind of science to it, even if the modernists did imbue their formal language with so much meaning that it became blown out of propotion and self-destructive.. I still don’t think this is a reason to simply abandon this kind of art. I see Trungpa’s writings in much the same way. I disagree with a lot of his ideas on art, but if I begin to dissect his thoughts I can see that he’s actually saying something about being present while producing, that this is an activity, which is about being human in the moment. Then I think, okay, what dharma art do we have today? For example we see a lot of artists working with abstract art focusing on form and intuition. In my interpretation, this is a kind of pendulum, which has swung back from theoretical and conceptual ideas of the 1990s and before. I see a lot of this on Contemporary Art Daily, a website that shows a lot of abstract, materially-based and visual art. But then again I don’t feel we have a valid language for discussing such art today!

And your solution then is to follow this visual trend while adding a kind of archaeology of meaning to explain the various modes of thought?

I try very hard to avoid following visual trends. Right now, like many other artists, I have a strong urge to paint on textiles, hang them over frames and mount them loosely on a wall. I suppose it’s a little hard to explain, but I see it as a trend. Then I ask myself, why do we present art in this manner? Why are we producing installations with wooden sticks and neon sets right now? I don’t actually oppose these trends; I just like to move behind them. Can I find out how they fit into history? In this project Forms of Protest I hit a vein that a Buddhist monk in the 1960s termed dharma art, and which has inspired other artists at a later point in time. My approach is to gain first-hand experience with the material and then to produce art in accordance with this. In this case I ended up with two series of photographs, a few paintings on textiles and several other corny ideas. (laughter) But that’s how it has to be. This is how I work.

Marte Johnslien, from the series  Action Cushions, 2014.

Marte Johnslien, from the series Action Cushions, 2014.


This text is an excerpt from the exhibition catalogue for the show Forms of Protest by Marte Johnslien at Henie Onstad from 13th of November until 1st of March 2015.


Words Without Pictures - a conversation between Alex Klein and Milena Hoegsberg

When Milena Hoegsberg, acting chief curator at the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter just outside Oslo, read the book Words Without Pictures (LACMA 2009 / Aperture 2010) she began to ask many questions about a subject that, in her own words, is not her area of expertise. The book, edited by Alex Klein, was conceived in collaboration with curator Charlotte Cotton to create a thoughtful discourse around current issues in photography. Every month for a year, an artist, educator, critic, art historian, or curator was invited to contribute a short, unillustrated, opinionated essay about an emerging or changing aspect of photography. These essays are accompanied by online responses by other photographers, curators and writers as well as transcriptions of live debates.

Stills from The Forgotten Space, Allan Sekula, 2010

Stills from The Forgotten Space, Allan Sekula, 2010

Hoegsberg: Words Without Pictures offers a language to address not just photography itself, but the crisis it might be in. I think this also extends to the lack of a critical framework to determine its aesthetic value under the rubric of visual art. The book has no illustrations – a strategy that both offered a welcome space for inner visualisation and occasionally had me refreshing my mem­ory through Google searches on my phone. I was really struck by the intertextual approach, the way the included texts refer not just to each other, but also to a rich historical discourse on photography. I’m curious about what led up to this publication and to the choice of title.

Klein: I’m glad you responded to the format of the book. That was a very specific and considered decision that was made between myself, Charlotte Cotton and our designer David Reinfurt. Despite its seeming simplicity, and the role of the online component of the project, the objectness of the book was incredibly important to us. We wanted to strip away a pre- conceived photographic language going into the project because we were dealing with so many different types of photography and wanted readers to draw their own conclusions.

The temporal dimension was also key. There’s a running header with the date at the top of each page that always grounds you in time. This is because the project is, in its simplest sense, a document of one year of conversations about photography that happened in person, in public forums, online and through correspondence. It’s no coincidence that the design also resonated with the stripped-down aesthetic of information often associated with classic conceptualism.

The project initially developed out of a website that Cotton was working on called Tip of the Tongue and a one- week symposium and series of events called Around Photo­ graphy that I’d co-organised at the Hammer Museum with the artist James Welling. When we began the project in 2007 there was a feeling of urgency around the shifts in technology in both publishing and photography (believe it or not, it was still a moment when artists had a foot grounded equally in the analogue and the digital) and issues such as the resurgence of abstraction. Because we were based in Los Angeles and running the project out of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) it was deeply rooted in and pivoted around the conversations happening in the local community, which at the time were really exciting and contentious. My core concern, and I think one of my main contributions to Words Without Pictures, was to put different camps who don’t normally communicate in conversation with each other, such as art historians, photographers, ‘artists who use photography’, students, critics, enthusiasts, established artists, emerging artists, etc. I was keen to cross some wires and point to the multiplicity of what are seemingly simple prompts. Ultimately, we weren’t out to answer questions; it was more important to start the conversation and keep it open for continued discussion, which is why I think people still use the book in the classroom.

Hoegsberg: I particularly like your comment that one of the book’s aims was to connect different people in the ‘photo world’ and get them all into the conversation. It seems to me that there’s still a gap between visual artists and people who define themselves as ‘photographers’. Especially now, in the age of image overflow, with sites like Instagram and a proliferation of good amateur photo­graphers making well­composed images – where everyone has a stake in ‘creativity’ – it seems important to insist on the rubric of ‘artist’ and be able to distinguish those who have a legitimate artistic project/practice from the rest.

Klein: It certainly does, but I don’t get quite as worked up about it anymore. Part of the impetus to start the conversa- tions in Around Photography and Words Without Pictures stemmed from my own formative experience as an undergraduate working between the divide of the darkroom and the classroom. It was clear that the photographers privileged one history while the art historians, even when teaching a History of Photography course, were interested in another trajectory all together – it was very instructive for me to toggle between the two. That said, I think that gap is decreasing. It’s true that there is still a photo photo world, but I think there are more photographers working in the art world who navigate and draw from both histories. This has produced a lot of interesting work, but it also enacts a kind of erasure for the next gene- ration, which is something I articulate in my essay in the book. What happens when these histories become so intermingled, just because they look similar on the surface, that the individual stakes and questions that they proposed are muted? I’m fascinated by these kinds of misreadings and I think they can be productive, and also a little upsetting. It’s great that artists / photographers–whatever you’d like to call them–don’t have to walk around with such a big chip on their shoulder anymore, but I also think it’s important to under- stand the lineages of the medium you choose to work with.

As for the ubiquity of photographic images on social media and the web, I’m not really bothered by all of this because it’s always been a part of the medium. Photography has always been in the hands of scientists, explorers, politicians, the media, and especially amateur enthusiasts. In fact, I would argue that it’s precisely the multiplicity and varied uses of photography that make it so compelling. I’m addicted to Instagram, but I’d never mistake it for my studio work.

Hoegsberg: Although the publication is now five years old, many of the ideas feel current. At the same time, the years since have been so characterised by economic down­ turn and political unrest internationally that it seems like more should have changed. What would you add, given the task of writing a postscript or a revised edition today?

Klein: Because our project spanned 2007–08, the economic and political climate was very present for us. There was a sense of urgency that resulted from the US housing collapse, the presidential race and the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. Although I think these issues manifest themselves most clearly in the debates around abstraction, if I had it to do over again I’d try and open the discussion up to even more participants and connect it with a more global conversation. The book was structured in such a way as to encourage respondents to pull out different threads of inquiry and I think it would be inter- esting to see how people would take on some of the same questions from our current perspective. I’m sure the answers would be totally different.

That said, if I have one big regret it’s that the artist Allan Sekula’s involvement in the project isn’t particularly present in the final publication. Originally we met with Sekula and his students from CalArts to discuss facilitating a series of conversations with international artists, but our process was so fast-paced and our resources were so limited that it never materialised. Instead, I invited him and the artist Walid Raad to participate in a conversation that pointed to all kinds of questions about documentary, narrative, war and education. This was a key part of the project and it pains me that we couldn’t include it in the end, especially in light of Sekula’s recent passing.

Hoegsberg: It struck me when I screened Sekula’s film The Forgotten Space (2010) at the Art Academy in Oslo last autumn, how much his films refer to still photo­graphy, and how he uses this to generate a rhythmic narrative that allows his films to enter the discourse of global labour and economics. There’s a richness to how he contributes to the dynamic field between the still and the moving image. I was really fascinated by his work Fish Story (1989–95), which I’ve seen at Tate Britain. It really utilises the temporality inherent in the slide projec­tion, where the timing allows you to settle into each image, and to make connections between the stories. The work was accompanied by an eloquent wall text epilogue (for Mike Davis). To me, it was important that it was Sekula’s own words that framed the work and not the museum’s.

In the  collection exhibition at Tate Modern, his work Waiting for Tear Gas (white globe to black) was installed, again with his own text, advocating an on ­the­ ground, ‘no mask’, anti­journalistic approach. It was so poignant that you almost didn’t need the pictures. It really resonated with your project and the decision not to include images, to allow the discourse to emerge more clearly.

Klein: Absolutely. Captioning and contextualisation are always a big question within photography. Language always contaminates your interpretation of an image and vice versa. In the book, we were wary of images distracting us from the discussions at hand. There are multiple ‘photographies’.

Hoegsberg: I do, however, question the impact of Sekula’s more recent series of documentary photographs of workers, which somehow have never really resonated with me in the same way. I could extend this to a general disenchantment with representational work, but I think particularly when dealing with the issue of labour and the economic structures that underpin it, abstraction or per­formativity seem to generate a more productive field of interpretation.

Klein: One thing I often think about is how complicated it is for an artist who makes a significant contribution to art critical discourse, it puts an enormous amount of pressure on their own work. There is often an unfair expectation that the artwork is there to fulfill the promise of the writing. In any case, I’m right there with you when it comes to the representation of the body of the worker - not necessarily in Sekula specifically, but in contemporary art in general - as a kind of stand-in for leftist politics. We’re all still in shock that Allan is gone, so it’s hard to process it. As you say, I don’t think there’s any denying his importance as a critic, pedagogue, or his prescient bodies of work that traced the flow of global capital and information, such as Fish Story and Dear Bill Gates, or even the formal qualities of a 1970s installation like Aerospace Folktales. Which is all to say that the abstraction of finance doesn’t always have to be nonrepresentational. I’m cer- tainly not advocating a purely documentary mode, but in some instances I think that the proliferation of formal abstract photography that we saw a few years ago was as much a result of imaging the collapse, as it was a blatant capitalisation that was at times both critical of and complicit with the market. At its most extreme it risked a certain cynicism about the state of photography as a medium.

Hoegsberg: Returning to your earlier comment, I think you’re pointing to an important gap between theory and practice, between intention and output, something we all have to be constantly mindful of. As for the candid images in Waiting for Tear Gas, I found the images from the middle of the protest somehow less important than the text that Sekula generated. However, I also understand that this may well be because I’m reading these images through the lens of the last couple of years’ protests and actions around the world, and how they’ve been documented. Smart­phone cameras and ubiquitous internet access have changed the stake for the kind of photography that Sekula advocates in his 1999–2000 project. Works that operate through either representation or abstraction but also through performativity – an awareness of the problems of representation – sometimes seem to be able to sidestep part of this issue. It’s a difficult issue to speak very precisely about, but I wonder if you could expand on these ideas?

Klein: Maybe it’s a third type of abstraction that resides in, or performs, the multiplicity inherent in contemporary image production. Perhaps we could refer to an artist such as Mark Leckey in this respect. But of course, Leckey isn’t a ‘photographer’. But then again I’m not convinced that we can define ‘photography’ so simply. Ten years ago, we understood ‘photography’ to be the product of a camera loaded with film that was printed in a darkroom, and increasingly we under- stand it to be the product of a camera with a digital chip that’s manipulated via a screen. When photography was invented, however, it was referred to as ‘sun-drawn images’: there was the direct imprint of the world or the object on a chemical- coated piece of paper. What I’m getting at is that these are all very different things and yet they’re all called ‘photography’. In photography’s rather short life (175 years or so), it’s gone through so many technological, economic and conceptual changes that I don’t think we can come to a consensus about what we all mean when we say ‘photography’. Personally I’m much more interested in an idea of photography than trying to defend or demarcate a particular territory for a medium that’s physically in constant flux. Perhaps these hybridised practices that we’re discussing are closer to what a contemporary under- standing of the photographic medium is. This is something I’m thinking a lot about now, because I’m working on a survey of the artist Barbara Kasten’s work. I was just listening to an interview she gave in 1982, where she voices her frustration at being categorised as a photographer when the sculptural part of her work is equally as important.

Hoegsberg: I only recently learned of Kasten’s ama­zing work, but I’m enthused by her dynamic compositions that have a performative quality and the complex meeting of sculpture and photography in her work. Tell me more about how you came to her work, and the exhibition you’re working on.

Klein: It’s actually related to Words Without Pictures in a way. I’d first encountered Kasten’s work in my photography education – she often comes up when you begin learning about colour and lighting – I was reminded of her work around 2007 with the resurgence of photographic abstraction. Some of the work being produced by younger artists around that time was similar to Kasten’s in terms of the questions she was raising about process and photographic representation, but she wasn’t being widely acknowledged. I felt her work was ahead of the curve in terms of straddling different media in tandem with her particular conceptual and formal ways of working. So basically, the more I got to know her, the more her story became increasingly complex and compelling. Her formation develops out of an unexpected intersection of Bauhaus arts pedagogy in the US, California Light + Space, and postmodern concepts relating to representation and architecture. She was older than the ‘Pictures Generation’ artists, so she ended up showing in a post-minimal context and then she got categorised as a ‘photographer’. I don’t think the market or institutions were able to accommodate her kind of hybridised practice at the time. Now I have an incredible opportunity to work with her directly here at the ICA [Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania] to present a survey of her work for the first time and highlight the strong resonance of her work for a younger generation of contemporary artists.

Although Kasten is primarily know for her Constructs of the 1980s – Polaroids and Cibachromes that depict brightly coloured sculptural installations staged for the camera and produced through elaborate lighting techniques – there’s so much rich work produced before and after. For example, she was operating in an ambitious directorial mode in the mid- 1980s with her Architectural Sites photographs, where she worked with a cinematic lighting crew to illuminate and photograph the latest postmodern buildings and sites of globalised capital and culture, whether museums or the World Financial Center. The exhibition will also feature some of her early fibre sculptures and luscious cyanotypes, as well as presenting her collaboration with dancers, her sculptural video work, and the new minimally abrasive photographs that she’s been making for the last seven years or so. Which is to just say that it’s important not only to show the multiple connections in her work through various media, but also to contextualise her as a contemporary figure. Here’s a woman in her late seventies with an incredible body of work behind her, but she’s still very active and the new work is really good.

Hoegsberg: There’s something very rewarding about an artist’s older work striking a chord in the present, and also to see someone who represents a practice that spans decades, in a time when commercial structures are obsessed with discovering new young talent. It sometimes seems as if we think that artists under thirty­five have a monopoly on the contemporary.

Klein: Contemporary art is so often hinged to a sense of the ‘new’, or at least the ‘right now’, which I think is partially a result of its attachment to the market. Some artwork needs time to come into its own and take on new resonances; perhaps it was ahead of the curve or so in sync with its moment that you couldn’t see it when it was made. In the case of Kasten, she’s still producing compelling and relevant work, which is made even more interesting by the decades of work that preceded it.

Hoegsberg: In Venice last year, I was struck by how much work seemed to be engaging the digital and how many video works had a very crisp sculptural composi­ tional language, referring to the photographic (Duncan Campbell, Camille Henrot etc). I find myself wanting to know more about sculpture and film that refers to photo­ graphy (Tamara Hendersen), or photography that positions itself as sculpture (Elad Lassry, and Corin Swoon in the Scottish Pavillion 2013) or in relation to performance (Corin Hewitt).

Klein: I’m hesitant to talk about stylistic trends, but I do think that there’s an ever-increasing interest in the multifaceted nature of image production and dissemination, which might have more to do with the impact of the web than with conventional photography. But then again, as I mentioned earlier, I’m not sure that all of these categories are so distinct right now. One thing all of the artists you mention have in common is that they enact a kind of multivalence of photographic meaning and question the agency of a kind of imaged authorship in different ways, whether through voiceovers, archives, found images or commercial practices.

Hoegsberg: As Getty has just made 10,000 images from its collection available online, to be shared, altered and disseminated, I’m curious whether you feel online platforms are productive for the discourse of photography today?

Klein: If there’s one thing I learned from Words Without Pictures, it’s that the web has its own distinctive temporality and discursive properties. Sometimes it helps to try and slow it down a bit, and sometimes you should just embrace its crazy associative potential. But I’m also a firm believer in print publications and in-person conversations. The web is just one tool for production and distribution. I think we’d be remiss to think otherwise.

Hoegsberg: One last question: you’re currently in­ volved in the Hillman Photography Initiative, a special project within the photography department of Carnegie Museum of Art. Can you tell me a bit more about this?

Klein: Although the Hillman Photography Initiative is in its nascent stages, so far it’s been really exciting. Right now it’s basically operating as a think tank that will bring together a rotating group of artists, curators, critics and scientists to develop a multifaceted project. We’ve been given a lot of free- dom to dream together and I’m excited about the direction it’s taking.

 

Alex Klein is an artist and a curator at the ICA in Philadelphia where her survey exhibition of artist Barbara Kasten will open in February 2015. This conversation is from Objektiv #8. Images below are from the series Scene and the series Architectural Sites, Barbara Kasten. 

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.