A public talk between

Mario Pfeifer and Amira Gad

at Baltic - The Centre for Contem-porary Art, Newcastle, UK

on October 19, 2015.

Recorded, transcribed and edited

by Circa Projects, Newcastle.

keywords:  anthropology, approximation, demoratisation, discourse, filmmaking, knowledge, ethnography, community, technology, internet, research,  music

The Anthropological Gaze

Mario Pfeifer In Conversation with Amira Gad

Amira Gad: We just watched two very interesting films 'Agarrando Pueblo' (1977) by Luis Ospina & Carlos Mayolo and 'An Image' (1983) by Harun Farocki: I would start by asking: why you selected these films and how they have impacted upon your own thinking?

Mario Pfeifer: I am glad you responded positively to the two films we have seen tonight. I think that both films consider image-making as a structural, conceptual tool - and so do I. I am from Germany, so Harun Farocki has influenced my education as a student and continues toimpact upon my thinking today - in relation to how I understand the creation of images. We wanted to programmean evening that could be seen in relation to the exhibition I have just opened with CIRCA Projects, but which also had its own rational. 'Ein Bild' (An Image), speaks directly from a Western context about the creation of images: the production, commerce and economy of images. Then in comparison, the Latin American production: 'Agarrando Pueblo (The Vampires of Poverty)'  refers back to Europe and Germany marginally – this was interesting to me. The films are highly constructed but both have different cultural concerns and contexts. They both refer to the economy of filmmaking but also address different ideas surrounding cultural values: one I would call, 'the beauty of the perfect' and the other, 'the culture of vampirism', or 'the culture of poverty'. In a certain way, we also see how poverty has been portrayed as a concept of beauty - by and for those in a more 'privileged' position. All of these ideas, concepts and structures play a modest role in my own artworks. I travel a lot to different places all around the world and I am always confronted with both the position I look from and also what I look at. Therefor I also have to adopt rules, to be productive in these situations, and films like both of these have helped me to create my own conceptual frameworks to work within.

It is also helpful to look at films that are not produced nowadays because I feel that a film-maker like Farocki was quite a radical filmmaker and you don’t see these works very often produced today. One film that one could mention would be Renzo Marten’s 'Enjoy Poverty: Episode III', but in general film production has become, in the traditional sense, something mainly for commercial TV and cinema - a tool to make money. For the creators, producers and distributors, often the economic system is set up so that you need an audience of a couple of million people to actually gain money. This condition also limits the radicality of traditional film-makers. So artists who use video and film tend to occupy now a very interesting role because we have less rules to deal with; a gallery or a museum might be more welcoming to a radical work than a TV station nowadays. I consider my video installation as part of the programme tonight because you have seen it, other people have seen it today, so we could technically compare three films tonight. 

AG: In that sense I agree because the selection of the two films you have picked for this evening function as a really good point of reference to start understanding your work and your practice in general. There is one aspect which is particularly interesting which is this idea of filming the backstage, filming the process, the structures, the procedures and how things actually take place. This is something that becomes transparent and evident throughout different devices throughout your practice; it is something which becomes much more visible within the installation and how you stage different elements. In that sense, there is an interesting parallel but of course, it is a point of reference and only one way to access your practice. The other aspect is the subject matters that are being dealt with which form a core of how you think about your films. It is not how you approach a particular subject matter but the role which needs to be adopted within that. What are the approaches and methodologies which need to be put into place in order to provide an unbiased, discursive product?

MP: We can talk about what makes my video installation different than these two films. The project I am showing in Gateshead now, was produced on the southern tip of Chile in Tierra del Fuego, the southern-most urban environment on this planet; it is a very remote place. At the same time, through its remoteness, it is a hub for anthropologists, sociologists and tourists and certain industries as well as the military. Going to such a place immediately carries a lot of burden for an artist because it is supposed to be an exotic place, a place that is hard to reach so I had to take an effort to travel there; to travel from Germany it would take minimum three/four days with airplanes and ships. The effort is really high and with this effort there comes a bunch of questions into play - why one would do that. For me, a key aspect of why I went there was that the museum there was named after a German missionary and anthropologist, Martin Gusinde – any black and white imagery you see in this slideshow (showing behind) comes from his archive that is based in Germany. His archive carries information of the Yaghan and other indigenous tribes from that region. The Anthropos Institute have the originals, while the museum named after the missionary only carries replicas and copies. The museum was erected on the order of Augusto Pinochet, a dictator in Chile in the 1970’s/80’s, and served in front of a British crown jury to negotiate between Argentina and Chile over which country Tierra del Fuego should belong. Even the pope intervened to avoid war during that time. So the museum to some extent served a political cause. It was dedicated to a German anthropologist and missionary who was the last one to document indigenous life, a free life, on that island. That is a highly complex situation that I was interested in that somehow related also to my nationality. To intervene in that situation - that is composed of settlers, fishermen, descendants of indigenous people, military personnel, anthropologists; there were several intruders and I was one of them, I was maybe the single one of my kind. 

Farocki documents the notions of image creation and in my point of view a sociological study of photographer, model, makeup artist, and stage designer. We look at these people and what they do. The two Columbian film-makers, Carlos Mayolo and Luis Ospina, look at themselves and they do that through making two films at the same time but in the end they make a film about themselves in relation to their subject matter and role as spectators for a potential German producer who might be interested in a film about poverty. In this sense anthropology as a concept might work very differently, highly staged, satirical, cynical but clearly aware of what they do. 

In my film I would say that I reached that place as an intruder who nobody knew what to do with. I stayed there four months, I lived part of that time with the descendants of the indigenous community but to get there meant sticking around for 2-3 months and to build trust because anything you can achieve from person to person or from community to community is built through trust, if you don't trust somebody you cannot have a real conversation. One way to achieve that in Tierra del Fuego is different to a film studio which already has rules and measurements. An island also has measurements but they are loose, if you consider the air and sea a part of it, it is infinite. 

I approached a scenario like Tierra del Fuego without questions but with openness. The heaviest part of a project like this is to be accepted in order to appear like a human, not a scientist, not like a filmmaker, not like an artist. I was somebody without a purpose and I tried to build trust with the people so they would give me a purpose to be there and that was reached by being invited into the community. Carrying a small camera, a sleeping bag and the basic things you need to survive, to live together and spend time with each other. My Spanish is very poor so it was a different kind of relationship you build, also in respect to the place and the people. People have a limited access to tools and materials so the luxury is pretty low. It wasn't even about filming... these two projects - they are straightforward about filming. What they don’t document is all the preproduction and the actual preparation to start to film; people don't show up and just film, they prepare for months. I also prepare for months but for me the first day is on location so I don't sit at home to learn about people and try to research preconceived knowledge about a culture that I have never visited, I go there to actually learn about it and this means not to read any book because what the people know I consider this of a higher value that what a scientist has written. This can be helpful but for me more retrospectively, to compare my experience and my conceived knowledge with that of scientists. The main difference between me and scientist is that he has a goal. I cant really phrase my goal, I just know that I want to make a project and that would be it. Whereas scientists in a certain way might have a goal, most of the conventional scientists do have a goal. Quite practically it turns out that when you carry a camera and don’t use it somebody might ask you ‘do you want to take a picture?’. That is an interesting invitation if you are invited to take a picture you think you are allowed to take the picture. I guess Farocki made a deal with the photographer saying I want to document you but of course Farocki documents a whole bunch of things - the photographer might be honoured that someone wants to make a documentary about him. But actually this scenario allows a very different kind of filmmaking. The other two film-makers of The Vampires of Poverty obviously don't need to have an invitation, they cast, the arrange everything, they just make everything look like a documentary but it is a fiction film. It is a documentary because they document themselves but everything that happens in front of the camera until the very end is a fiction film. My film I think is considered ‘art’ so it doesn't have to be in any of these genres which is important to me. I don't want to be a documentarian because I don't really believe in that. People can try to make documentaries but they heavily manipulate anything that is going on. Just by showing up with a camera team you change the entire scenario of a place. So I was basically just a guy with a backpack, not a tourist or a scientist because I didn't go round just looking at things, and I also wasn't a scientist because I didn't ask any questions. I was kind of a stranger. That allowed me to be invited and allowed me to create a large scale video installation by just being there and it didn't matter if I had a camera or not because my camera wasn't a harm to the people, it was as naturally in place as I was and the camera wasn't positioned to frame somebody, it just framed everything. Even though the images are very cinematic it just means that the camera was so naturally accepted that it looks like it’s framed. You see very private moments but you also see proper documentation of labour, of disappeared cultures, of architecture and artefacts that all compose a cultural situation. 

Then you also have the title which is a very important part of the project. In the exhibition you see objects that I brought from this place, that I traded. You have a soundtrack to the video which is also published as a record and you have a publication which quotes a lot of cultural information that you find online if you really search hard. This pool of information constitutes my project which somehow is a development from the 1970’s of filmmaking into now, something which has many more forms of appearance in terms of what is really going on. Film and video can only reach certain aspects and if you spend 90minutes with a film that is a lot of time and most people don't even spend that time in a museum. To expand that notion is interesting for me but also to accept that film and video can only offer a certain amount of information especially if you have a visual, emotional experience in the showroom that I often try to achieve, To then put that amount of information on top would destroy the piece I think. I have to find different ways of communication for the information I think is important to know.

AG: Especially for members of the public who haven’t had a chance to see your exhibition yet I think we should try to break it up a bit. I think there are different ways to access your work and especially the exhibition which is on view now, you have already touched on a few points but lets try and do a bit deeper. I think it would be great to talk about the sound, music and the installation and how this is all done and also this idea of knowledge. But before we go into more detail we need to talk about the title and what actually constitutes the exhibition which is on view here. The title of your work, Approximation in the digital age to a humanity condemned to disappear, is very interesting and important in terms of what you are presenting. The exhibition constitutes a three-channel projection of the film and then when you enter the exhibition there is a display of vitrines and different elements on the walls and, from speaking to Mario earlier, I found out that this was very well thought through with Mario’s collaboration with CIRCA projects. In terms of understanding your methodology it is important to point out this fact; can you tell us some more about the ideas behind the title? The word ‘approximation’ is a very important one and your decision to come to it is very much relevant to the content of the film. It is hinting to the idea of association and is hinting to us that you were a stranger within this community, you cannot quite be assimilated to them but it is also trying to draw as close as possible. 

MP: I am not a native speaker, so I guess everybody knows what ‘approximation’ stands for but, for me, ‘approximation’ means to try and get close to something which you will never reach. It is a mathematical concept where mathematicians say we have an indefinite way to go that these two lines will cross each other or meet in one point. As a cultural concept it certainly applied to me very well that I would travel so far but I would never reach what I was looking for. I was approximate to anything I was expecting but I would never access it because I am not one of them. And even that concept somehow is a failure but even to think about it is another approximate way to make art. From day one to accept that I would never reach what I was looking for was a big gesture, communicated through the title. When you walk into the show and read the title you might already seal the deal with me that whatever you expect you will not find because that is not how life works, you can just live your life, you go out and try to make the best out of it. In the 'digital age’, that I guess is the world we all live in now, it came from an experience that is also documented in the video. I brought my iPad with the entire digitalised Martin Gusinde photography archive to show to descendants who have never seen an iPad or these photographs digitally. They engaged with my iPad in front of the camera in their own house with their own heritage lets say, but in digital form. They could zoom and swipe, they would learn a physical interaction with a digital device by analysing photos which depicted their families. That is interesting on many levels because they have a chance to work with a digital device that they would never have had access to. Then they would have a chance to engage with material that directly concerns them. They would have a way to engage in a contemporary fashion with their own history. I believe that in a digital device there is a certain democratic stance you can take, if they can afford it. In that place, of course, no one can afford an iPad unless you are an army officer. But not even to know what an iPad is, that is actually the real problem, because if you don't know what is around then it is even harder to access it. So even in my video production there are social elements that I brought into play that go beyond video making. Video is just a tool for me. It suits me to work in but if I would have another way to express it I might try that too. 

‘Condemned to disappear’ refers to any anthropological or sociological study that has already called this tribe and human nation dead. They have already said that they are going to be extinct, you are going to be condemned to disappear, we can watch the clock until the last one dies and we are here as anthropologists to document it and to make money out of it as any tourist guide. They wait until they all disappear and for me as a cultural producer, this is unacceptable because that would mean that some people would watch me dying what I do. In order to prevent that I believe that you have to keep the cultural practitioners doing what they always do so they will be extinct one day. If they progress, the culture won’t die and the nation will not die. That is a huge controversy or a conflict that I felt that any anthropologist sits there with a notepad and writes down what has been lost in the last 50 years. As an artist I don't have to follow these paths, I can act differently. I can accept them as cultural producers as far as I am one, I don't see any difference between anybody, so someone who produces harpoons or paints a painting with an Indian, I would definitely consider this person as a cultural producer. The problem is that the people who are said to be cultural producers and are trying to save their nation and culture are acting like they would dig their own grave, because they are doing what they have been told to do, what their ancestors did. As an artist I can only speak through art, the only thing I can offer is to make art. I am not good at talking about things that concern issues, I have to contribute to the issue in order to make it visible. That is how I decided to create a video with all these people I was living with by allowing them to be who they are, to not give the camera the importance but the relationship. There are no forced situations, it is as it is, it speaks for itself. If they still believe that they have to act with certain conventions then it is the way it is. In a certain way, talking about the music, the Yaghan have a cultural tradition of chanting mourning songs; when somebody would die they would have a ritual and they would sing. About 14 of these songs were recorded by the same anthropologist, also these sound recordings are all in Berlin and they have been digitised. We used one of these songs for a techno soundtrack to be resampled. We created a soundtrack that sounds like it would if you were in a club tonight. It has the same level of commitment and technology and the same aesthetic but it is based on rhythms and chants of one of the oldest tribes of South America. As an example, I believe that any culture can only progress if it reinvents itself, that is how the most powerful cultures do it, for example the economic culture we have. You can only be competitive if you are inventive. For culture it is more or less the same thing. For example, there is a high end facility in Puerto Williams that produces sea food. Based on Fordist system it has cheap labour and a shift system that runs 24 hours / 7 days a week exporting its goods straight to China. Economy is competitive down there but the culture is dying. I am concerned about the culture not the factory, I am not interested in the exports, I am interested in local cultural production which enriches the local community, the national and finally the planet. Injecting the techno soundtrack produced parallel in New York into a remote place talking about indigenous culture about to disappear was my way to suggest to any cultural producer there to rethink whether they want to produce culture that is already outdated and old or if they want to use their heritage and their knowledge to produce culture that is valid today and tomorrow. 

AG: Beyond pointing to a desire for evolution within the Yaghan tribe the use of sound which you have incorporated in your film, this techno sound, is also creating another level of approximation in terms of the viewer. The viewer is looking into this film and gaining access into this community that you have interacted with and then you layer it again with almost a discrepancy between what you are seeing and the sound that is being included. At the same time this discrepancy is functioning as another way of allowing your viewer another entrance point. It’s about relating it more to the contemporary setting and bringing forward a relevance to today. 

MP: Certain music is considered bad or outdated. What would we do – not that I think that the Western concept is a strong one because it pushes everything away, but it is also the one I come from and that is what I can offer as knowledge – if you hear the music down there – they have a discotheque which is also documented in the video – you hear that all the music they play is also displaced, it originates from Spain mainly. The tragic thing is that the cultural producers on Navarino create replicas of their hunting tools and ceremonial sites, of everything they have been told to remember. No one has been told to take it to the next level and produce something that they would find now important and essential to their culture. Not everyone has to like techno music and it is also fine if somebody rejects it from down there saying it is not appropriate to our, culture. Then at least we have a response, at least somebody knows what they don’t like. In a certain way a project like mine is an approximation, a conversation, a dialogue and I would prefer someone to say that they dislike it than to say nothing or that they don’t care. Obviously, people down there who belong to the tribe are sad because they are considered extinct but as much as I criticise sociologists and anthropologists who actually look at people and the culture dying the protagonists have to ask themselves ‘what are we doing not to die?’, ‘how can we survive?’. My impression was that anthropologists and sociologists don't really offer that platform to talk about that, it would mean that they might lose their job in this particular context. They all design the gravestone. As an intruder you can go multiple ways to engage, I chose the one I took, to let things to be as there are and to inject certain aspects that are clearly out of the way, what is considered normal there. That means that people would need to react to it.

AG: I think there are three things. On the one hand it is very interesting your use of sound and music in your work because I also remember it from your other work 'A Formal Film In Nine Episodes' where sound is used as devices to interject and interrupt the film so the viewer asks ‘why is this happening now?’ and ‘what is the relationship?’. Again it is this kind of pause, but not a quiet pause that asks for a moment of reflection. This is something this is coming back now in your work, another device and tool that you are using. The second element that I find interesting is going back to this idea of ethnography and how the desire of moving forward and wishing that anthropologists and sociologists in this particular context are not just looking essentially at what has become a dying culture but trying to figure out ways of reviving it so it can move forward. Another element which you have incorporated in your exhibition here is vitrines, something that you haven’t done before and there is an interesting element here about your play with the museum display and using this anthropological language as if the objects you are presenting are artefacts, that they need to be labelled. I think this comes back to the idea that you are looking at these objects as objects not sculptures, these vitrines as well are play in terms of these strategies of display. Also the space in general, looking at it from a birds-eye view, it becomes a repository for knowledge. The viewer is being asked to go in and walking from one vitrine to the next, gaining information as the go along but not gaining the whole picture as your video is also three channels and you are never confronted with the whole view. You are constantly asked to move to try and figure out what is happening on the screen which you can’t see; you are always playing with your viewer on the screen but also in the exhibition.

MP: Art is a game - life is a game. I consider what I try to achieve as very much based on life and experience. It is highly aesthetic but it comes from an experience and the best thing I could achieve with my audience is that someone wants to go there. That is only one way to look at it and that is why it is so complex because it is my way - how I engaged with it. I can not deliver something that can be read in only one way, I would fail in my mission. I can only show a complexity of events and scenarios which take place because so many people are involved with it. What is shown the vitrines is actually something you could buy outside, there is a monetary value attached to it because the book needs to be printed and designed. I display a book but with loose pages, I overlap the pages and I show that there is so much information at play that. even if you read the book beginning to end you would need to go back to page 15 to relate it to page 88.

AG: I think that is partly how you deal with knowledge in general and in a lot of your work you are presenting this idea that it is impossible to have a complete picture; that is what your installations all mimic, the problems of the access to knowledge and the access to a full picture. Your installation invites the viewer to experience what you have experienced yourself. I would also link it to the idea of the hashtag on the panels in the exhibition, ‘#replicas’ and ‘#locations, and in your book which are also form of tracing the journey in different categories for that project. The interesting idea about that is the democratisation of knowledge, the idea of people feeding into it …

MP: … and also the humbleness of not thinking you might get it, because I also don't get it either, I can also only intervene on my own human scale. Talking about the culture and the nation and approximation, disappearance, the internet age … these are all big terms and we can all just find a way to deal with it. Collecting information and also arranging it but also editing it is a way to start a conversation. Since it is a conversation also about a nation I think being humble and loose, and putting things on the table at the same time and also going for a project that might create reaction is important. There is something very human discussing in a format that draws on many different directions, speaks to very different people. But most of all it should be an experience.

AG: It is accepting your subjectivity and, in a way, the multiple subjectivities that come with it … 

MP: … and also letting objects speak for themselves and never to override the history that concerns other people. I don't want to be somebody who writes history about other people, I want to write my own history. ‘His story’, that is what history is for me, it is somebody’s story, and everyone has a right to write their own.

AG: I can’t think of a more beautiful note to move forward with questions from the audience.

Audience member: Have the people on the island seen the film?

MP: No.

Audience Member: Do you intend to take it down sometime?

MP: If I were to be invited, yes. Previously I fought quite lot to bring my pieces to their origin like Bombay, Delhi or in Europe. In the Western world it’s a bit easier because you can have a straight conversation about it but down there it is a bit difficult. It has shown in Santiago, the capital, and in Concepción, another bigger city. I have been in touch with people who want to display it there but I think quite honestly that in the Chilean context and in the context of Tierra del Fuego they are aware of it. Once you are an intruder and you do something and let everyone know that you are doing it, then you need also somebody who is curious to want to have it there. I showed my other works there in the museum but in a certain way if you have an institution you have a director of an institution, the director has a mission and he might have an attitude. He might consider this as maybe harming because it may not be aligned with what he thinks is right. I produce these publications in order to send them around, so at least people I work with will receive this book; it just came out about 10 days ago so that is another way to distribute information more easily, to send a book and then wait for a reaction or even an invitation. 

AG: But in terms of your presence when you were working there and filming, and of course after you have gained their trust and they have gained yours, there was a certain exchange in order for you to realise certain things, there was this idea of the economy of exchange. Throughout the whole process did they not ask ‘how are you going to be using this?’ and ‘what is the result of that?’. Did this lead to a curiosity?

MP: During the production everybody saw what I did, I had my laptop here and they were like ‘yeah, cool, that’s nice, it doesn’t really matter because it is just us’. There is nothing in there that they didn't know. The editing, the composition, the counter- exposition of things is what actually makes it interesting. You can’t just send a DVD because it is a different experience if you go down to Gateshead to see the exhibition, its not possible to communicate that on a DVD and that makes my work very different to Farocki. He can produce a DVD. With what I do it is not successful I think, I need the installation context, I need a space to let the work speak. And they have the space at the museum so it is up to the person who runs it, like in any museum, to think about the community and to program the museum to the needs of the community. There are not many people like me down there who did such a project. Through my presence over the 4 months you leave traces and any imagery I took in the Gusinde archive I left there and I gave them a huge amount of data, also printouts to people who didn’t have a computer. I left traces but you don't want to take over a place. So I am completely ready if the invitation would come but also I am not doing anything for it because to self-invite yourself is very dangerous.

AG: But do you think the museum is actually doing a program that the community wants or do you think it needs to offering another type of program where the community doesn’t know it wants it in a way. How are you trying to position them?

MP: I think the community should ask for a program, whatever they need, any community. The person in charge has to negotiate how to deal with that demand but if it is the other way round where a program only offers you certain things then I consider this as problematic, if any institution should tell you that this is our schedule and our agenda because this is where you come from so you should know this.

AG: Any closing questions?

Audience member: You had mentioned in terms of the exchange on a day-to-day level, of an intimate nature and in a larger sense, you had offered material and archives of their history from our larger digital world which they don't have access to. And I’m curious, now there is a new creation, where does that fit in terms of your work? I know it needs a space and that there is the institution that establishes it within that context but I am looking from that more intimate level. Where is that exchange happening in terms of looking at this new kind of document and whether or not that has been exchanged, you said no, but could you tell me a little bit more about how you would want, or not that to happen?

MP: First of all, the exchange of the project is in the project. It is the project, whatever I exchanged, that represents it. But now you talk about the post-project exchange right?  mean I made a book which is published by an international publisher but with more or less German taxpayer money and some personal funds but it’s not in published German, it is published in English and Spanish and that is always a strategy I use. I take care about the languages that can be read internationally, which happens to be English, and the local language, at least the one which is spoken by the majority which makes a place like India very difficult to negotiate languages. The publication can be a vehicle for exchange. Sometimes you are interested in exchange and you know the partner to exchange with but that transaction hasn’t been set up. The exhibition was in two major places in Chile. All these museums are connected on a platform so they know what is going on. It has now been shown in Brazil and it is traveling to Switzerland, it was in Belgium, now it is here. So, I accept every invitation and I let the project free, but in order to have this exchange with that particular place you need also the person to start the transaction. I don’t believe in going back there myself and saying I will do it, it is going to happen, I rent a place and install it. I can’t do that and I can’t change the format of the project to fit on a DVD which is the only other way to do it. The publication shows what it could be and then the next notion could be an invitation, maybe we want to have this permanently here, I would be very open to that. But I cant force this transaction, I can’t say ‘hey you need to see this’. You can only have a transaction if you have two partners at least. And once I was there I was there to negotiate and now I am not there, that is also reality because I am not from there but it could technically go there. I can’t be one who pushes that, but I am ready to follow an invitation.

AG: It is also about allowing everything its own time and building it.

MP: Also considering that they might not be interested, that is also fair. But I guess we left on good terms and maybe one day they might think ‘who was this guy?’ and ‘what did he do?’


Amira Gad is currently Exhibitions Curator at the Serpentine Galleries in London. Prior to this, Gad was Managing Curator/Publications at Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam. In 2013 she contributed a new text for Mario Pfeifer’s book ‘A Formal Film in Nine Episodes, Prologue and Epilogue – A Critical Reader’, published by Spector Books. 

Mario Pfeifer’s ‘Approximation in the digital age to a humanity condemned to disappear’ is presented by CIRCA Projects October 16 – November 21 2015.  The John Joyce building, Saltmeadows Road, Gateshead.