first published in
Three Films/ Three Photographs
Fotohof edition Vol. 181, Salzburg, 2013.
Christy Lange with Mario Pfeifer
CL Looking at your work, one major theme comes to mind, which is the inadequacy of representation—whether photographic, filmic, narrative, or all three together.
MP Indeed, considerations of representation and its inadequacy interest me fundamentally as a cultural producer and observer, and therefore one might find questions related to this issue in many of my projects and works, or accompanying publications.
In the case of Untitled [“Two Guys”] (2008), it is the relationship among the viewers, as well as my view towards the protagonists, the environment they occupy for the time, either listening to rap music on their cell phone or when they krump—a social dance whose history is linked to Los Angeles gang crimes and their social counter-culture in the 1990s. The inability, as an outsider to this specific community, to capture or accurately represent their ideas, interests, or lifestyle guided me to offer a collaboration to the two adolescents. The result might be accordingly described as a negotiation between their self-representation and our/my gaze towards them, manifested on the one side by the performers’ choices of music, clothing, make up, and choreography, and the rules and strategies I decided to apply to the situation created by a steadicam video production, mimicking a point-of-view in a public space: a gym, a social housing complex and the blue-neon-lit terrace of a local, modernist church tower.1 I believe that the questions that arise from this undertaking for any audience, including the two protagonists and their community, carry the most interesting potential for what we call (an inadequacy of) representation―questions that have existed maybe since the beginning of cultural production and yet have to be asked again as, with changing political, social, technological, and environmental progress, the subject of these questions has changed. At least, I thought of investigating a phenome-non I encountered in the Berlin neighborhood where I live as a case study, and the appropriation of krumping by teenagers of primarily second-generation immigrant families offered an interesting situation that I wanted to learn more about and expose myself to.
CL One work I keep thinking about in relation to Reconsidering The new Industrial Parks near Irvine, California, by Lewis Baltz, 1974 (2009) is Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems (1974–75). The way your work juxtaposes three different forms of representation—photographic, filmic, and the voice of the narrator, as well as a meta-level of your own subjective representation of all of these—seems to have a lot in common with Rosler’s look at the Bowery, which was both a social document of a neglected space, and a conceptual and formal series: that is, it deployed many of the same strategies that Baltz did, and that you do. Was this a work you were aware of?
MP I became more aware of Rosler’s work, and the Bowery project, during my studies in Frankfurt am Main, where she was part of the faculty. I moved to Los Angeles the day after my graduation from Städelschule. Nevertheless I can say that the Bowery project was not a direct influence on Reconsidering, but at the same time I was familiar with the conceptual strategy and representational aesthetic Rosler applied, and this knowledge certainly shaped my general thinking at the time on how to approach the Irvine Project. But there were also many other practitioners of that generation I was interested in. Since I had hardly worked in a studio, and my last educational training in a visual arts program took place in Michael Asher’s “Post-Studio” environment at the California Institute of the Arts, I favored libraries, museums, and cinemas for knowledge production and consumption. And that information has an effect on your practice, especially if you come out of an educational training and try to continue to practice artistically, or as in my case to expand the available time trying to define a project with the support of research and travel grants. Often one needs to outline the interests, strategies, and potential results of the proposed project to be considered for funding. This thinking process, along with a detailed strategy of approach helped me define what I was trying to investigate and express.
Given the pretext of Baltz’s work and my disbelief in the accuracy of the historical reception of The new Industrial Parks near Irvine, California (1974) in most writings to date, I was keen on making conceptual, formal, and strategic decisions that were very close to Baltz, as I was also interested in blurring the boundaries of authorship between him and me, and further collaborators such as the factory owner and narrator. A general interest of mine at that time was to conceive a comparative analysis and establish descriptive systems of what was documented in an already existing artist’s project, and how I described the present condition in another reproductive medium with sound and narration, as well as finally through a publication that again referenced Baltz’s book design. Baltz’s photographs of industrial parks in the south of Los Angeles appeared to be fruitful material to investigate, both on site and also in libraries and museum collections in the region, and to argue for a fundamentally different discussion of his project, the social-political meaning and reality of the depicted structures and its workers today.
CL Why Lewis Baltz and why Irvine, California?
MP When I was preparing for my visual art studies in my hometown, Dresden, my personal mentor introduced me to The new Industrial Parks near Irvine, California. It was then that I decided to buy this publication, maybe one of the first monographs I acquired, since both the photographs and the analytic representation in the book impressed me a lot. During my studies, I thought very differently from many art historical texts I read on Baltz’s project. It was my notion that there was more of a rigorous conceptual and analytic ambition behind these fifty-one plates. It was one of the few books from my personal library that I remembered to take when I moved to Los Angeles in 2008 on a Fulbright scholarship. The simple idea to drive to Irvine one day to visit locations in the book and see if they would still be present, functioning, abandoned, or replaced was also one way to navigate through the greater Los Angeles region, Orange County. The highway system, the organization of traffic and land use in this formerly agricultural area itself was overwhelming, if not depressing, not to mention the political climate of this region. I traced all of the addresses included in Baltz’s book with a car navigation system. Most of them were in close proximity to each other. What I had understood by then was the way an industrial park operates in the US. The dimensions were, of course extreme, the neighboring sites as well. Air bases, for example, shopping malls of tremendous size, or UC Irvine, one of the largest campuses in the US, where I once went for a lecture by Yvonne Rainer. I couldn’t imagine a stronger contrast of cultural activities in one day than the one I experienced. Many facilities were transformed into offices or high-tech production lines. Any contact with the owners or managers of these new businesses was fairly impossible; nobody would let me enter a facility to conduct research on their affairs and production methods. Anything in there seemed to involve high security standards. My intuitive interest was in the architectural representation in Baltz’s plate no. 2, 1611 S Boyd Street, Santa Ana. The building’s real facade looked identical to the one in Baltz’s photograph. Since Baltz never shared information on the production inside these facilities, I approached the company owner directly. The gate of his factory stood open and I got an immediate idea about the production inside.
CL What was your relationship to Baltz before you began making the piece, and what was your relationship to him afterwards? And how did making the piece transform your relationship to Baltz’s work?
MP I think it is important to mention that I never met Lewis Baltz before the project was finalized. Since Lewis lives and works in Paris and Venice, so to speak, he was living closer to my home country than my residence at the time, so there was no chance, and maybe no reason, to interact with him. This situation changed when my film project was finalized and introduced to several scholars and Baltz’s publisher in Santa Monica, Theresa Luisotti. Since she very much supported my research with her co-workers, she recommended at one point that I send a documentation of the installation to Lewis. Chris Balaschak, who was at the time writing a PhD on Baltz’s practice, recommended me one of Baltz’s most stunning pieces of writing and told me he occasionally interviewed Baltz for his research. I then asked my former mentor Michael Mauracher at Fotohof Salzburg if he could introduce me to Baltz, since they had known each other for a long time, and so he did. By the time I emailed Lewis, he had received the documentation and appreciated the project. I then asked to discuss Lewis’s work, its historical discourse, and suggested different terms to continue a discussion of his project based on the information I revealed through my film project. Our conversation via email between Los Angeles, Paris, and Venice took about two months. We have never spoken on the phone. I visited Paris in the same summer and asked Lewis for a meeting. He was kind enough to agree and suggested a cafe near his house in the Marais. We happened to have a good conversation, and I asked him about his thoughts on publishing our email transcript in a critical reader that will discuss Reconsidering The new Industrial Parks near Irvine, California by Lewis Baltz, 1974 (2011). After approval of the transcript he agreed and a year later I was happy to send him copies of the publication. I believe Lewis was very happy with the project, our conversation, and the discussions it facilitated. I remember a meeting at Café Einstein in Berlin, where Lewis’ wife Slavica asked me very critical questions about my undertaking. Lewis defended the project’s sincerity and academic research before I could reply. I believe he appreciated the outcome. We still remain in contact and meet when we happen to be in the same city; either Paris, Berlin, or recently in Bonn, where his first retrospective in Germany took place— an occasion I used to write a review of the exhibition for the magazine Camera Austria, since I believed Baltz’s practice was again cast in a single-minded photography discussion, while my project argued that one should acknowledge different possible readings.
CL How did the project challenge your relationship to Irvine and Greater Los Angeles?
MP Interestingly, in 2011 I returned to Los Angeles to present the publication Reconsidering in a panel discussion with Allan Sekula and Catherine Taft, moderated by Andrew Freeman, at LA><Art, a non-profit exhibition space located in a former industrial building in Culver City, similar in shape to the ones I discussed. The conversation on Baltz, his early project and my reconsideration, was ambitious both from the point of view of the participants and the audience. It was certainly noticeable that I either intervened in or expanded upon—or maybe both—a discussion of site-generated works that in some way represent a certain art practice in Los Angeles, which became known for that decades ago. Somehow I felt it was the most challenging situation to present the book at an event I learned a lot from. The presentation and discussion that was organized at White Columns in New York a month later went very differently. Maybe more analytical and with a distance towards the subject and its immediate location, but no less intense.
CL Looking at the exhibition and its organization I wonder if you could explain why you opted for gray-painted partition walls to screen the works on, rather than the conventional black box space often used for film and video? You also specified that there should be no seating in the exhibition space. Could you explain the ideas behind your decision?
MP The exhibition space’s walls remained untouched, and therefore white. In a sense one could refer to the white cube as the standard space this exhibition would be staged in. There was no ambition from my side to either change the exhibition space’s wall colors or to build a conventional black box to accommodate film or video installation for this exhibition. There were reasons to proceed the way we did.
First, there is a fundamental difference in presenting moving-image-based work in an exhibition venue rather than a cinema. Given that the conventional black box tries to mimic the setting of a conventional film theater by eliminating most of the disturbing factors for a film presentation such as light, noise, or maybe most interestingly, other art works, for the viewer. The viewer, though, takes up a suggested position—the cinema seat—to engage with the projected information at the starting time, and usually leaves after the film’s end when sound and image are turned off and the lights go on. The viewer usually follows these rules and, in that sense, gives up fundamental participatory elements. In defense of the viewer one must also argue that the information or films that are usually presented in a cinema kindly ask the viewer to arrive on time and to watch the entire film in order to critique it after, but certainly not during, the screening. The medium of narrative or documentary film in cinema often follows a linear track that demands these rules. There is also an economic idea behind these time-based presentations for a movie theater, namely to distribute one product to as many people as possible at different times of day or night.2 While the cinema manifests itself with a given
internal architectural layout—a defined screen in front of seating rows indicating a clear separation between viewer and projection, in darkness and soundproofed to external noise—the exhibition space is lit, empty, and does not have any seating, nor is it considered bad behavior to discuss the experienced information at any moment.
Since all of my moving image based works have been screened in film theaters during smaller film festivals, I approached an exhibition of these works within that specific context solely, namely discussing these works as installations within a specific setting that essentially differs from the cinema, which has its own cultural history. For instance, the fact that moving-image works were integrated much later into institutional presentations and collections than many other mediums and still remain a minority today, and the target is a specific audience that decided to visit an exhibition space rather than a cinema. Interestingly, many American institutions founded post-war have a cinema and film collection attached to their galleries and showrooms and have created collections for moving-image-based art works. In their definition, one differentiates between a film and a film installation, and there are certainly works that find themselves able to be presented in between those definitions, in both formats.
Obviously I do not believe in presenting my installation in a cinematic setting within an exhibition context, even though all film projects use cinematic aesthetics and specific techniques and languages that refer to the history and current production of cinema, simply because they were created for an industry and remain a strong manipulative tool. What is more interesting to ask is how this aesthetic, language, or technical tool is strategically used, and how the viewer is supposed to interact with the projected image and amplified sound within a space that opposes any of those rules we know from a theater.
The opening hours of an institution are usually from 10am to 6pm. If there is an entry fee, the visitor need only decide on the length of their stay. In the case of my exhibition, the visitor is then challenged to decide which of the films or videos he or she wants to see first, second, and third, also needing to position him- or herself in an entirely empty space, standing up to thirteen minutes to see the longest film. The viewer has the opportunity to either see the entire film or video or leave early. Since all of them are looped, the viewer can investigate the piece as long as he or she wishes. I believe that an exhibition therefore liberates the viewer to actively engage in such a format by making personal decisions, which at least has always interested me both as a visitor and co-producer of exhibitions.
I also decided to cover the windows of the institutions with UV-foil to darken the room, but at the same time give enough light to experience the architecture of the institution and even allow the visitors to look out of the window into real life while comparing it simultaneously
with what is going on “on the screen”—by definition of the cinema— the death of illusion and manipulation. Dan Graham designed an architectural model entitled Cinema (1981), which would allow a passerby to not only see the movie screened in reverse without sound from the street, but also the movie’s viewers. This situation, and its reverse, interests me. In general one would think of it in terms of what effects art can have on life and society, and how we can use an exhibition space to discuss societal issues through artistic practice and its presentation, and return it to the streets while rethinking our ideas and ideals.
When I visited the exhibition space in broad daylight in preparation for the show, I immediately thought to keep the structure as visible as possible and, furthermore, try not to interact with its walls and accept them as an autonomous frame. The three showrooms, one central space that one would enter into, and two more that would be both on the east/west side, perfectly mirrored the number of projects I suggested presenting. One core question during the years of making these works inside educational institutions was, “What combines these works besides my authorship?” I believe that the works introduced in the exhibition and this publication are single entities in the subjects they address, theoretical references they draw, and formal investigations they undertake. But all projects clearly indicate a research-based practice towards a circumspect creation of images, trying to use a camera not only to discuss societal issues, but also to de-construct images we seem to be familiar with. I was interested in thinking about image production in itself as a problematic practice.
CL Why did you decide to include a single photograph with each film/video installation? What function do they perform?
MP Exhibiting these three moving-image-based works together for the first time asked for a mediator; in my case that was the exhibition architecture and the production of photographs for each project. The display was conceived subject to conceptual, practical, and formal restrictions: two partition walls were installed for the east/west spaces. The front side would host a photograph lit by a spotlight, the back side was used to screen a full format moving image with sound. The center room hosted a dual 16 mm film installation. The projectors had to stand on a plinth, which was then also used to present a photograph on its front side, a quite atypical position. Partition walls and plinth appeared in a light gray tone that was different from the surrounding architecture. Gray as a color—or maybe a non-color, since it resembles all colors mixed to one tone— is used to calibrate color for film or still cameras, a procedure that is inherent in any technical image production. On the level of perception, gray, rather than white, is a neutral tone that doesn’t evoke taste or meaning unlike white or black, I believe. Since white can be related to the standard cube setting, and black to the conventional box or movie theater, gray retains the same distance to both of them, and therefore defines a space in between the two—not to be underestimated in an important moment within the exhibition when the film or video ends. For a few seconds the entire showroom will be empty and quiet, since the projector isn’t project ing any visible image nor is there any sound audible. In this moment the display itself within the architecture becomes visible and readable as an artistic statement to express the ideas that are mentioned above, basically that we are watching moving images in an art exhibition and that we have to acknowledge the setting to discuss the works in this context and not in any other.
The three photographs all dated back to the films’ or video’s production, and have remained since then in my archive. Before the opportunity arose for this exhibition I never imagined working with photography in relation to my moving-image based works. I was not interested in producing collectible still images to re-finance the production costs, nor did I believe that I was a talented photographer at the time. The idea of the exhibition display took me back to my own archive, and I discovered images that somehow differed a lot from the films’ aesthetic, but instead summarized what the film project was about and how I approached it. The photographs were all produced in different formats and materials, with very different ideas to communicate and to be discussed in relation to the film project. To some extent the still challenges the moving image, and vice versa. Each photograph focuses on the subject of the film or video: two guys, a bouquet, or a reproduced photograph showing a facade of an industrial structure. The three photographs differ in dimension and framing—parameters I considered part of the work, as they indicate a potential reading of the object. All three photographs were presented in front of the moving-image-based project, either to give an introduction or make a statement about what can be expected when entering the projection. The titles of the photographs share information that deepens the reading and discourse of each film or video, for example the “Two Guys” are then titled [Sami & Yeisen] while the origin of the Pieces of Nature is referred to [after Robert Bresson], and finally the ultimate street address of the films’ and photographs’ production location is concluded with [mirrored] in Reconsidering. In a certain way I tried to look critically at my conceived projects through photography, its representation, and titling, to challenge the existing moving images artistically.
CL How did you arrive at the exhibition’s title?
MP With the decisions mentioned above taken and realized, the title of Three Films / Three Photographs within Einzelausstellung took shape—a formal title that describes the arrangement and expectation quite clearly, but doesn’t suggest any further information before one has visited and experienced the exhibition.
CL Why did you also include the three publications?
MP Obviously the exhibited works have been produced within a network of specific, pre-existing knowledge, often called references. Until this exhibition took place I did not include texts or publications in an exhibition. I believed that these works can be experienced and reflected on without knowing, or not yet knowing, the contexts they refer to, simply because they address and depict subjects that are commonly known, more or less. In the moment where an audience, whether professional or not, wishes to evaluate the source materials of my thinking and to discuss these works in depth, one would either need to visit a library, the internet, or other forms of archives. I was interested in sharing materials out of my personal library within the exhibition space that were of a third authorship, independently published. An audience is then empowered to take these materials into consideration to further engage with each project, or not. How a perception might change after engaging with these source materials might evoke interesting reactions from an audience on how to think about the work displayed. Another consideration was to follow the exhibition’s concept of having three different subjects in three similar, but technically different formats in one exhibition. Both the display and the photographs set up a framework within which to experience these works within one exhibition. The three publications become another common element inside this framework as each project refers to one of these source texts or publications. This notion and experiment might have come to my mind when my first monograph, a critical reader on Reconsidering, was published in 2011. The research information, production notes, and reflections by several contributors enriched the entire project and its reception. Since then I have regarded the format of a publication as an integral part of my practice, both with regard to the production and reflection of a project for an audience and myself too.
CL You refer to your practice as research-based, but also one that deals with the camera as a way of approaching social issues. In that sense your work seems to deconstruct the documentary approach of filmic or photographic practices as much as it challenges a formal and/ or conceptual approach. What does that leave?
MP At first I would describe my practice as resulting from living, and successively investigating, my immediate environment. This habitat is often defined by societal rules has an embedded cultural norm, history, or rules. Since I regularly moved to different places from 2008 onwards, I certainly also moved into different cultural systems, experienced societal norms that I didn’t know but was interested to learn about. In that sense, any project would need to be discussed acknowledging the conditions it was produced under, the environment it was created in, and the role of a potential audience, which I always consider as part of my conception for a project.
As an artist trained within a specific, and we can call it Western cultural history and its inherent aesthetics, this knowledge, which we could also call a conditioned knowledge, defines many parts of my thinking. When I think back to projects such as Untitled [“Two Guys”], I strongly reacted to what I experienced in public spaces, to the way teenagers with an obvious migration background were looked at or reacted to. What followed was research that focused both on the teenagers’ spare-time activities, aesthetic choices, and social interests, as well as on film and performance theory. Since I was visiting youth centers in Berlin Kreuzberg, observing and discussing what I believed to be cultural practice in public spaces—teenagers listening to music on their cell phone speakers in the subway or while walking on a street, dancing in backyards, or simply hanging around wearing specific clothing—my approach was of a documentarian nature.
At the time when I decided to produce a video or film, or even a photograph, I did not believe that these mediums of reproduction could possibly either tell the truth or accurately represent what exists in life. Nevertheless, there is a quality to these mediums where one can describe issues referring to a reality that surrounds us, but at the same time one needs to question how a camera is utilized in order to represent, document, investigate, or narrate. Sami and Yeisen belong to a generation of teenagers outside the US who appropriated their dance technique, fashion, and preferences in music from an American phenomenon known as “Krumping” or “Clowning.” David La Chapelle’s documentary Rize (2003) presented a social movement founded by social workers in the Los Angeles region and designed to prevent juvenile gun crimes by understanding and accepting the gang structure and aggressive energies of its members, and using these given para-meters to motivate teenagers to transform this energy into something related, an aesthetic—an aggressive dance to hip-hop and rap music that precisely discussed the specific conditions the teenagers lived in. None of those social and aesthetic conditions were real for Sami and Yeisen, or other teenagers who became krumpers outside of the US, but of course they could relate and express their experiences in the given form, which they learned either from cinema, television, or YouTube.
It was always a concern of mine, as much as with the subject and issue to be addressed, how one creates images and how self-aware this process and its presentation can be, mainly with the ambition to mobilize a viewer to take a stance, to empower the viewer to actively watch and deal with the manipulation or seduction that any image attempts to overpower its viewer with. Whether in beauty or camp, whether with a political or apolitical subject, an image functions on this basis. An escape into straightforward formalism was not a choice for me; instead I was interested in using formal strategies within the documentary format, since form has a social meaning and often affects immediate reactions. The color blue in Untitled [“Two Guys”] is one example, while Yet Untitled [“Pieces of Nature”] (2008), the project that followed, investigates the ultimate setting of image production: the film studio. The chosen situation to be investigated was an empty film studio, which is documented as much as possible in the opening sequence of the film when a camera gaze analyzes the space, its technical apparatus, and aura. At the end of this sequence, assistants roll in two huge mirrors—hardly visible to the viewer, but possible to see after watching a second or third time—which indicate, both in a technical and philosophical manner, a highly manipulative context. Six performers were invited to discuss with me the nature of performance, whether it be a film, movie, theater, happening, etc. The conceived dialogue, which happened in the film studio exposing the setting to the interlocutors while the camera was turned off, was then performed by the same speaker in front of the mirror while filming. A narrative was constructed out of several re-enacted interviews, and reinforced through the montage of these single sequences. Since the entire setting was based on Jeff Wall’s Picture for a Women (1979), which itself referenced Manet’s Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère (1882), this image production took place under conceptual rules referring to a long-existing doubt about image-creating, through several centuries and representational mediums: painting, photography, and moving images. The constructed, interview-based narrative collapses when the mirror we have been looking through to follow the conversation is pushed out, and the empty film studio reappears as it always existed behind the mirror—the built narrative is interrupted by conversations in between the performers, one of whom leaves the film studio through a door on a street, into reality. To wonder what is real and fiction in this piece is a complex question— it is both and neither at the same time.
In the case of Reconsidering, the project investigates both an architectural structure in Irvine, California via its reproduction in an artist book from 1974, republished recently in its fourth edition. The parallel-projected 16 mm films are accompanied by an oral history of the factory owner, who has been working in the structure for nineteen years, while the images both indicate their “reproductional” quality, namely the top-shot filming of a book on the Getty Research Center’s examination table, and, in the other film, the visibility of the camera’s tracks. Both films appear unedited, and are therefore, to a certain extent, a documentation of their reproduction within the framework of a comparative study that leads to a misrepresentation of one photograph (until then called documentary) taken by Lewis Baltz in the 1970s. Since it is mirrored, it shows an abstract representation of the building, not a realistic one. This image, and its digital source, then became the basis for a photographic appropriation I conducted by mirroring the image back to its original and accurate representation, framing it in Baltz’s typically used aluminum profile, and reproducing the framed print in a 1:1 scale to Baltz’s original format, printing this image digitally and framing it in the same profile as used for the reproduction.
Clearly, this project uses all the approaches and tactics you mentioned in your question, since I believe they are— in combination— valid ways to determine Baltz’s project and my intervention within it. What remains is both a film and photograph that invite the viewer to look closely at what is suggested by the work of an artist, and to investigate the formal, conceptual, and referential information that is offered in order to rethink our societal norms, rules, and experiences. Since one must acknowledge that the society we live and work in is quite complex, its visual representation is no less so.
The consequences of deconstructing the concept of documentary, either in photography or film, should be to fundamentally question the documentary thesis and be sincere about the fact that any image tries to perform a function within our society. To visibly acknowledge the process of image-creating has been one approach I investigated in these projects. The most intriguing documentaries I have seen so far were always very close to fiction, or even applied aesthetics used in fiction films, and vice versa, for narrative films. Alain Resnais, Werner Herzog, and Erroll Morris are only three of the filmmakers to mention here.
Interestingly, Morris’s A Thin Blue Line (1988), an American docu-mentary that reconsiders a murder crime Randall Dale Adams was charged for, never committed, but sentenced to life imprisonment for in 1979, uses interviews and, in many parts, reenactments, as well as a melodramatic musical score by Phillip Glass. By intertwining fictional and documentarian strategies with the aim of investigating the case again, Morris’s film, and the audience who watched it and took action, pressured the courts, which led to Randall’s release one year after the film’s premiere in a habeas corpus hearing in 1988. Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966) is a different example of a fiction film that applied a remarkable documentarian aesthetic, producing considerable political controversy in France at the time, while it is said that it may have influenced several armed resistance groups in Europe, the US, and the Middle East in the following decade in terms of their political operations and violent threats.
CL Do you think that either academic or photographic research can contribute to any sense of truth?
MP I strongly believe that criticism and research are important aspects within the educational spectrum and cultural production, whichever (cross-)discipline we would refer to— obviously art in this conversation, but certainly also politics, science, and ethics. If criticism or research, whether written by an artist or theoretician, a journalist or thinker, can contribute to truth is maybe first of all an ethical question. (A fundamental doubt I have is what manner of research and investigative material is actually accessible to a reader, a public. If somebody knew the truth, but there was no chance to articulate it, how would we become aware of this truth? And is the acclaimed truth not often rewritten in subsequent decades?) Criticism or research finding truth might depend on the person or organization conducting these activities. Personally I believe that the process of research, criticism, and its reflection, which leads to a discussion evolving from thesis, argument, and antithesis, carries an interesting potential to seek a multi-perspective truth. To discuss an issue in an outspoken community can be more fruitful than a deadpan argument asserting a fact. I would not argue that any of my works seek or represent immediate truth, but instead believe that the proposal for a thesis to argue about and determining a position relative to it helps a community and society to develop. Art, or in a greater sense culture, can be a transmitter to acknowledge societal issues and at least look for truth, or as I would describe it, to look for the under-represented and mis-representations. The above-mentioned films, for example, achieved a discussion that had sociopolitical impact. Whether they seek or speak truth might be less relevant—the reactions towards their theses are relevant.
CL When I watched your latest film installation, A Formal Film in Nine Episodes, Prologue & Epilogue (2010), presented on three separate projections in three different open spaces where different sounds intermixed in a parallel exhibition, the work of filmmaker Lars von Trier and especially The Five Obstructions (2003), in which he challenges a filmmaker to re-make his own famous film by using five different formal strategies or “obstructions,” came to my mind. One of the propositions is to remake the film “in the worst place in the world,” which turns out to be Mumbai. We see the filmmaker struggling to conform to this strict formal rule while standing on the chaotic streets of Mumbai. Somehow it brought up a lot of parallels with the kind of formal challenges that you set for yourself in these highly loaded social environments. Was Dogme 95 ever a point of reference for you?
MP Both Lars von Trier and Jørgen Leth are filmmakers whose works I have followed for a long time with great enthusiasm and expectations with regard to contemporary cultural production—particularly in Leth’s case (he served as the Danish Honorary Consul in Haiti until he resigned over a controversy about his autobiography). Within a film context The Five Obstructions is certainly a radical approach towards the idea of a re-make. Looking at it from the perspective of a visual artist, it seems much more familiar and reasonable what von Trier suggested and challenged. This is also true for Dogme 95, a movement I still truly admire, as many films were extremely radical and groundbreaking for World Cinema, not only for new narrative, technological, or organizational liberating strategies, but also in terms
of economical conceptions of how to create, produce, finance, and distribute independent films with truly humanistic, personal topics. Looking at the set of rules von Trier and his contemporaries noted and applied to release the Dogme manifesto and certificates to films, one finds similar approaches in the French Nouvelle Vague, or even earlier with avant-garde filmmakers outside of a mainstream reception. This approach of a manifesto, as suggested by the Surrealists, or later through Sol Lewitt’s Sentences on Conceptual Art (1969) as two examples, is of course now a standard episode in academic training for visual artists, and therefore appeared less radical to me and my environment than it might have been inside the independent film community. Nevertheless, the reactions that films like Festen or Idiots (both 1998) caused were enormous, effects that make film a very powerful medium, whatever shape it takes, also supported by endless opportunities of distribution and accessibility in the digital age.
My personal and artistic challenge in Mumbai was certainly not only grounded in the natural chaos (I would actually prefer to call my experiences there as something of a different routine in everyday life) of the city, which follows self-imposed formal restrictions. I experienced these restrictions as the stable part of my experience and production. My ambiguity towards an artistic engagement had more to do with the question: What might one be able to contribute within such a culture and its extremely complex environment and history? Being aware of the problems that ultimately arise from a cultural production in a developing country as an artist educated in industrial countries, it took me months to figure out a scenario to feel more or less comfortable to work in, a situation that felt both self-aware and engaging in the local environment. Time and patience always play a major role, in my opinion and experience. To research quite complex cultural, social, political, urban, or religious phenomena was as challenging as finding protagonists who would be willing to engage in a 35 mm film production. In addition, the majority of all film crew members were trained for the Bollywood film industry and therefore often astonished by the organizational, structural, and aesthetic decisions we took. Once the production materialized, it felt liberating, even though in a megalopolis like Mumbai there was never any reassurance that one would succeed, even on a purely technical level, since every day is unpredictable in many ways, and we worked around film permissions in comparatively highly secured areas. Early on, I took what might have been the most radical decision for the project, to shoot every sequence only once due to representational but also economic restrictions, which I felt were essential for the project’s outcome. The feeling of failure and being trapped in an enormous context such as trying to expand and artistically re-define a post-colonial debate, and potentially overthrow it, stayed until the first exhibition at the Frankfurter Kunstverein and Zollamt MMK in 2010 and continued until I gave a lecture presentation in Mumbai in March 2012—two years after the production local artists and intellectuals discussed the project in my presence, its inherent proposal and suggested representation for a local, if not national audience. The resonance and engaged discussion carried a great deal of potential for the project and its audience. In this moment the project took a final step, parallel to publishing a critical reader in Hindi and English in collaboration with designers and writers from Mumbai, New Delhi, London, Berlin, and Frankfurt, produced on location with local craftsmen and specific paper stocks, as well as printing techniques only to be found nowadays in Mumbai.
CL In a conversation between Willem de Rooij and Christopher Williams in the October 2010 issue of frieze, the two artists start out by talking about an earlier conversation between De Rooij and Jeff Wall in 2008, in which Wall called the era of the mid-1970s “the era of polemical referentiality.” Williams claims that making pictures became “a political act.” But De Rooij goes on to say, “we may now need to revise that take on referentiality, because that way of working has now turned into an orthodoxy.” Williams says, “When I started working, using existing cultural material meant you were taking a critical position—and I find a lot of younger artists that I talk to claim it’s just material, and for them there is no reason to take a position.” De Rooij agrees that “referentiality” has become a completely mainstream convention. Yet both of these artists’ work explicitly still relies on “referentiality,” as does yours, though I think your sense of referencing is less opaque than theirs. Where do you think that your work fits into this spectrum of “polemical referentiality,” from Wall to Williams to De Rooij?
MP I remember reading both conversations when they were published, with great curiosity and interest. Not only did I study the aforementioned artists’ work and previous conversations in detail, (Willem de Rooij was the professor I graduated under in 2008) but I believe that both discussions are of a delicate and special quality, with their chosen issues and their outspoken confrontation with “polemical referentiality” and its contemporary accomplice. The second notion that came to my mind actually concerned your question: How do these statements and arguments affect the readings of some of my works and current, if not future, approaches towards cultural production, besides the notion of education at art academies today? The third quality that struck me was the different tones of the two conversations.
I very much agree with de Rooij’s ideas about pure reference, and I also agree with the examples he describes concerning books and shelves or their photographic representation—this does seem like misguided artistic articulation. In Reconsidering, a book became the basis for an investigation, a film production, and a successive publication that would discuss all the elements that Baltz’s work consists of to argue for a thesis. This publication was then discussed in public to generate a productive conversation where I exposed myself to different critical thinkers of at least three generations. In this project, which certainly has a didactic quality, there is no explicit reference, but a sincere reconsideration of an existing work, mentioned directly in the title, with the result that, through my investigation, Baltz’s project could be read differently thirty-five years later.
For the exhibition context discussed here, I decided to show the original publication to avoid the notion of referencing something unknown or unavailable to the audience. That my film installation might evoke references to other works that might have similar aesthetics or approaches indicates the dilemma, or a simple statement of fact, that we are not alone as cultural producers. Responding to Williams’s remark that it seems that a younger generation does not want to, or thinks it does not need to, take a critical position, might have less to do with “referentiality per se,” and more to do with the understanding of a producer’s political or social ambition, if there is one. I would not limit this question solely to practicing artists; instead I would also pose it to each individual in any community. In the case of artistic production and its reception, I believe that an artist takes a position by producing or displaying a work. It’s more the question of who would claim a position of responsibility for this work if not the critic, a fellow artist, a curator, or an engaged audience.
I believe that once a reference becomes part of an artistic project, one has to be aware of the reasons for this and subsequent possible conflicts that might surround the work. In this sense I feel the two conversations you brought up could have a strong impact on current and future practices or, maybe more importantly, within education. The mentioned revision of “referentiality,” though, must come from practitioners, and criticism might help here to suggest what has become an “orthodoxy.” That Wall’s practice reflects a temporal climate is clear, but as he continues exclusively in this tradition, it does not necessarily mean it is to be considered a practice engaging with relevant issues of research and reference combined with personal interest, like, for example, his rejection of open digital sources or popular culture. As Wall expresses his fatigue, the tone of the conversation makes him appear as a historical artist, and I thought that was quite interesting to feel by reading this conversation. De Rooij and Williams certainly speak in a different, more peer-to-peer tone to each other.
Opaqueness, as a quality appearing within “referentially,” might be one key element to understanding the ambition, and potential reaction of the aforementioned cultural practices. The way I conceive a project has in the first instance to do with my observations within my immediate, even temporal environment. Raising societal issues alongside representational strategies seems impossible if one would ignore existing visual, contextual, or historical material. Since the “two guys” learned their aesthetic from other videos and films, and applied this aesthetic to their appearance, I have to consider their previous decisions and integrate them into the project to remain consistent with the subject matter. (I could also argue that it was they who referenced, but certainly it might not be the way they see it.) But my approach has a fundamental difference to Williams’s approach in being essentially interested in creating references, layers of information from different fields (social, political, technological, etc.), although he is certainly interested in those topics. For example he mentions “Vietnam” twice in this interview, in reference to his artistic practice, but it remains unspecified why he chooses this term exactly, and it clearly evokes a reaction. That remains unexplained— opaque— if one doesn’t engage in the kind of knowledge production he suggests. At the same time, a viewer is able to understand the same image on a very different level in direct response to what is visible. My motivation, so far, has not concerned “pure referentiality.” I am more interested in the question of how, for example, an artwork or text might help me to shape, phrase. and articulate a thesis, and if so, how I can productively situate my project in relation to it. To offer a text source, a critical reader, or artist book, that represents information that the art works challenge does not serve as a reference but much more as an opportunity to distribute further information to a visitor, as a public library does.
Yet Untitled [“Pieces of Nature”] clearly addresses “referentiality” in relation to “polemical referentiality” as Wall introduces it. It was his Picture for a Women (1979) that is mimicked for a moment in the film, when I portray myself with a film camera and female model in a full-frame mirror sitting inside a film studio, clearly hinting at Wall’s picture, which itself refers to Manet’s. This opaque referencing to Wall is contrasted with a quotation, and therefore direct reference to Robert Bresson and his definition of performers, models, and natural appearances in front of a film camera.3 Besides thinking about image production and performance as two artistic mediums combined in the most basic setting of an empty film studio, I was interested in responding to Wall’s thesis of “polemical referentiality” by taking his work as a starting point—as a paradigm of a purely staged, referential photography— and translating its one frame into a number of frames, a film.
While Wall minimizes the societal issues that Manet’s painting inherits (and which Vanessa Müller analyzes in her essay in this publication), I further abstracted his moment of self-representation within a black box, while acknowledging the process of its creation, collaborating with performers who address specific problems of their own practice and their relationship to the camera which observes them. Applying Bresson’s concept of performing for film, in contrast to Wall’s idea of total control in a still frame, negotiates the conditions my moving images are produced in. Looking at this work without identifying these references and their inherent cultural and historical nuances still gives a viewer a general sense of what image production does, even if there is no other reason or motivation than to create images with people who appear in front of the camera. In this reading, the work appears non-referential and focuses more on formal, material-istic and narrative notions—equally interesting subjects to address in my opinion. The actual title of the work with its two parts, Yet Untitled and [“Pieces of Nature’’] hints at those two intersecting approaches, either to look at the work as something yet to be named and therefore still to be investigated in order to potentially give it a name, or to read it as a reference—textually, performatively, and /or visually.
At the time of conceiving this project I thought the combination of these approaches and the potential negotiation of the readings that might take place for different audiences could contribute to the discussion that I participated in during my studies with Willem in a challenging environment at Städelschule—a conversation that Williams and de Rooij articulate on a very high level, which I find quite remarkable and inspiring, also in both their continuing artistic practices and publication projects. So I would not really position myself in the middle of this discussion, given that I’m more interested in specific case studies for each of the subjects and issues I am concerned about.
Looking back at these projects, exhibited together and conceived over several years between 2005 and 2009 during my studies at different institutes (while having been exposed to their different profiles, internal politics, and methodologies), and reflecting about them in this reader and interview, I feel these questions and responses point to some general problems of artistic production, as they might have always existed. To take these problems into account has also shifted my interests and concerns in the last years, as A Formal Film (2010) and the collective project in the form of an intervention at the 4th Marrakech Biennale (2012)4 might suggest. Parallel to the expansion of projects into publications I have tried to have a multi-voiced discussion of the proposed issues with contributors, and this, I feel, is enriching my thinking enormously. So I can say that knowledge production and personal experiences that come along by exposing oneself to problematic situations generate interesting questions about how to move on, in which form, with which strategies, and towards which outcome.
1 Until recently the building served as a local religious community, City Kirche Berlin e.V., before it was acquired by Johann König Galerie and turned into
a commercial exhibition space, designed by Arno Brandlhuber, who himself plans to use the church tower as a project space.
2 This model seems to be endangered since the internet and available bootlegs of recently produced films challenge the producing and distributing movie industry in what has been advertised by new media and technology companies as the “home-movie experience.”
3 The accompanying photograph indicates the film title’s quotation referring to Bresson
4 Further information on this project at http://jamaa2012.tumblr.com/page/2.