first published in
Approximation in the digital age to a humanity condemned to disappear
Sternberg Press, 2015.
Keywords: anthropology, approximation, 4k video, experience, knowledge, ethnography, extinction, technology, internet, research, techno music
Experience Is Knowledge
– An E-mail Conversation between Mario Pfeifer and Thomas Seelig
Thomas Seelig lives in Winterthur, Switzerland, and has been codirector/curator of the Fotomuseum Winterthur since 2013. His group exhibitions and themed shows include The Ecstasy of Things (2004), Research and Invention (2007), Status (2012), and Concrete – Photography and Architecture (2013). He has recently published two monographs Deposit: Yann Mingard and Peter Piller: Document Control (both 2014).
Thomas Seelig: What was the starting point for you when you were devising your video project Approximation in the digital age to a humanity condemned to disappear? There must have been a decisive moment at the beginning that impelled you to spend four months at the other end of the world. What was it?
Mario Pfeifer: Initially, I responded to an invitation to exhibit at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes – Museo sin Muros in Santiago de Chile. Rather than exhibiting an existing work, I was interested in developing a new project in a specific cultural context I could only find in Chile.
Having never traveled to South America before, I looked at different contexts and situations in Santiago de Chile and its environs. During that time, the Chilean artist Nicolás Franco drew my attention to the photographs of Martin Gusinde, a German missionary and anthropologist, who in the early twentieth century created extraordinary photographs in the course of several trips to Tierra del Fuego, living and working with indigenous tribes—namely, the Selk’nam, the Alacaluf, and the Yaghan. Gusinde’s staged photographs of rituals and communal activities as well as sound recordings of ritual songs documented the last free native inhabitants living at that time in Tierra del Fuego at the moment of their evangelization, during the process of their being “civilized,” their infection with diseases brought by Europeans, and their relocation to missions and farms. I had heard that in Puerto Williams on Isla Navarino a few descendants of the Yaghan tribe are about to finally disappear—and with them their culture and nation—so I decided to visit the southernmost town on the planet for a week-long research trip in order to understand the present situation better, and to see if such an environment would be interesting to live and work in for a couple of months and would offer a complex setting to engage with.
The initial idea to revisit sites of genocide in an “end-of-the-world” landscape that is now militarized and has been exploited by the fishing and tourist industries felt challenging. The fact that historically it has been (and still is) a conflicted situation that not much is known about—almost no critical literature exists on the subject—of course carries a lot of potential for an artist like me. My journey to Puerto Williams in a Twin Otter airplane with mostly military personnel onboard, flying across the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego over endless mountain tops and glaciers, indicated the remoteness of the area I was going into. But spending several days in Puerto Williams among settlers, fishermen, international tourists, and the military was to some extent brutal. Nothing seemed in sync: the beautiful landscape was counterposed with a dreadful urban settlement in between military barracks, factories, and backpacker hostels that had explorer names or carried indigenous references. The environment seemed afflicted by these diverse communities and their interests, and their claims on cultural, economic, and social matters. My inability to speak Spanish fluently didn’t make it any easier for me.
I finally decided to expose myself to this harsh environment to test my own boundaries and see how an artistic project within the indigenous community would develop under such remote and socially complex conditions. It was actually not clear to me whether a project would come together at all, but I felt it was about time to take such a risk. There was no initial moment of impulse per se, as it is often a process for me to develop an idea, one that most often originates in the site itself. During this process, the question arose of how I could build a project that would allow a culture with a marginalized community in a very remote place to reappear, without becoming trapped in historical artifacts and standard anthropological approaches. That Martin Gusinde was of German origin gave it another strategic angle, as, through him, the Yaghan culture is still marked by a “German footprint,” represented by the museum that carries his name but doesn’t have a single original document or artifact in its collection. While no Yaghan could easily access the Gusinde Estate in Sankt Augustin near Cologne—for me it was a train ride away from Berlin—this situation, whereby the archive was not readily available to the descendants of the original research subjects, gave me another reason to decide to install myself on Shunuko, as the Yaghan used to call their island. I certainly had not foreseen many of the issues I would be dealing with later when I found myself spending four months in Puerto Williams, in close proximity to Villa Ukika, the village designated for the Yaghan population and their descendants when they were resettled in 1953 by Chilean armed forces.
TS: The use of the term “approximation” in the title deliberately leaves open the question of how near you get to your subject, in this case the descendants of the aboriginal Yaghan inhabitants of the islands of Tierra del Fuego. How did this circling process happen—are your approaches and methods intuitive or strategic?
MP: Yeah, that’s an interesting take on “approximation” or approximate activity.
The journey I undertook on site started in complete isolation. The community—both the settlers, or antiguos, and their descendants—didn’t interact with me at all. For weeks the only conversations I had—and even those were rare—were either with a sociologist (the director of the Museo Antropológico Martin Gusinde, who is considered to be a middleman between antiguos and other citizens) or at the supermarket on my weekly trips to collect groceries. In a way, I had no clear strategy or approach other than that of becoming a regular inhabitant with an everyday life in town. When word got around and more people got to know me, I started to approach one of the Yaghan descendants who I heard had reconstructed a ceremonial site at Bahía Mejillones, but for the first ten weeks I was rebuffed. This reticence toward a stranger who happened to be informed about the cultural history and the tremendous changes it had wrought was harsh but also understandable, given that every year anthropologists, sociologists, archaeologists, and tourists press the last representatives of the Yaghans for information and visual recordings. Intuitively, I didn’t want to cross this threshold, so I stayed at my place and waited for situations to arise that would give me the chance to interact in a more open, loose, and natural way—especially as I had no real questions to address or a precise goal in mind of how my project would materialize. A situation came about when I was asked if I could transport a boat engine to Bahía Mejillones for Martín Gonzáles Calderón, who happened to be an active community member. His family had built a home in their ancestors’ place—the bay where Martin Gusinde photographed youth rituals (Jugendweihe) and recorded the Yaghan chants. A few days later, I left Isla Navarino to take a break in Santiago de Chile and reflect on the project’s development, which until then—ten weeks after my arrival—hadn’t gone very far. Martín asked me if I would return when I told him I would leave for some days, and I took it as a good sign. It made me travel back to Puerto Williams, and the situation gained in intensity from that moment on, so that for the following ten weeks I got decent access to the community in Bahía Mejillones and Kathushwaia.
TS: To what extent is this methodology the product of your artistic decision making? And, by the same token, how much of it is derived from your direct experience or from repositories of knowledge, such as archives and libraries?
MP: As there are different communities at play—the museum, the seafood production facility, fishermen—my approach to them was quite different in each case. In order to obtain permission to video-capture in the world’s southernmost king-crab factory for the first time in the company’s history, it was necessary to write a few letters to the CEO in Santiago de Chile explaining “a visual interest” in such a high-tech facility in a remote place. The fact that a company like White Land Ltd. mainly exports to China and works in a competitive shift system with rather low-paid laborers made it a delicate situation to negotiate in. But in the end we managed to come to an agreement. My involvement with the Museo Antropológico Martin Gusinde was very different, more like a mutual exchange program: I offered the museum any digital documents I created from the Estate of Martin Gusinde (all the originals are housed at the Anthropos Institute in Sankt Augustin, Germany), and I more or less received word-of-mouth recommendations so that the Yaghan community would accept me. The problematic situation here was that I needed such word-of-mouth assistance but at the same time didn’t want to be considered a scholar or journalist. The term visual artist was confusing, and I didn’t represent myself as a filmmaker either. With the fishermen it was more about having BBQs and drinking beer in the woods. One day, they asked me to join their boat to see if I could cope with the wind and waves. Usually, one would need to seek the military’s approval to enter any commercial boat, as the Argentinian border is only a few nautical miles away. It turned out to be a stormy, rough morning, and I was happy to have survived one of the most dangerous days.
To get back to your question: I tend to act intuitively in most of my decisions, especially when I am interacting with people. I was also vulnerable since I was by myself and dependent on everybody around me. Making yourself this vulnerable means there is the opportunity to build trust, and this project was built on trust as the differences between me and the people I spent time with were tremendous. Some situations do ask for strategic decisions, as one then enters either economic or political-cultural scenarios in which the people you are dealing with have already fixed their position, or one has to use every negotiating ploy available in an attempt to gain access somewhere. Getting into institutions like the Museo Antropológico Martin Gusinde or the Museo Borgatello (a Salesian missionary museum with an ethnographic collection housed in a church in Punta Arenas) calls for a more strategic approach with a clear goal in mind: the idea of displaying notions of “cultural preservation” that depict genocides and land grabs and the destruction of entire cultures.
I build my knowledge during such projects on different fronts in parallel and then combine them, as one piece of experience and information links with another—just as the community life I inserted myself into has many members and facets. In the end, I had several relationships of mutual benefit and received requests from the indigenous community, the museum’s staff, and the factory manager. It felt like the moment I gained access I became a resource other people started to make use of. So we developed an economy of exchanges, both of a symbolic and monetary nature.
Any prior knowledge I had built up while spending days with the Gusinde Archive in the German Steyler Monastery or the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin-Dahlem helped me to understand the history and negotiate with other scholars, but it wasn’t essential to collaborate with the people who finally took me to their sites and who let me participate in their very private struggle for survival. My very limited verbal interactions with the local people were another factor in the end. The mutual atmosphere that we created gave them a reason to let me be with them, as they at no point felt overpowered or interrogated—situations they had experienced with anthropologists, journalists, and other professionals doing “fieldwork.”
The places I spend time in do carry a lot of information, and I consider a landscape as much a place of knowledge as an archive, just that the information must be accessed according to a different pattern. Most of the remote places I worked in had been renamed after settlers and occupied by the military, as preexisting names were overwritten by history. Archival materials can help you to reconsider these places and histories—in that sense, the archive and landscape are both sites of intertwined knowledge.
I am more interested in sites where people still engage with them and transform them into the “now” in whatever way. I wasn’t interested in visiting a cemetery but curious about the local discotheque and its dancing crowd.
The sequences when two women identify family relations through digitized Gusinde photographs of their ancestors came about through my offer to work with these photographs on a digital device with a retina
display, in this case an iPad. Since the women had a great deal of knowledge about particular images, I asked them to spend time working with my device. Their skepticism—they kept me waiting for a meeting until the very last day of my journey—turned into a breathtaking experience of how digital technology allowed them to engage with the same pictures they knew from low-res photo prints. Neither they nor I could have foreseen these intimate moments, swiping and zooming into details.
All of this experience and information shifted at the moment I started editing the materials I had recorded over months, at the point when I created a structure of what actually manifested in the video installation and this publication—the knowledge I had acquired led to the idea of moving the initial experience toward a larger perspective of a culturally disrupted situation, reflecting the past and present.
TS: What role does your own research play for you?
MP: The research I conduct differs on each project. Sometimes the research takes more weight after the production of a film or video, sometimes before, and sometimes in parallel. For me, it simply means gathering as much information as possible, mainly to educate myself and not necessarily to exploit such information directly for the projects I am working on. I would also say that the way I research—in archives, libraries, cinemas, or the Internet—follows intuitive patterns. Maybe some researchers wouldn’t agree that I even conduct accurate research, but as an artist one can loosen up a bit and therefore get lucky if information comes up that one would never have thought about otherwise. This is probably the situation I’m most interested in, touching on materials or information that appear through odd incidents, when people meet that might not have much in common, or if you visit places that might not interest you too much, but you feel there could be something interesting in them. Research becomes another tool for me to reflect on my own productions—often in tandem with the publications I edit—with writers and cultural thinkers, the experts in the fields I touch on in my works. What is interesting about Approximation is that many of the facts laid out in this publication came into play much later on in the project. During my time on Isla Navarino I heard a lot of things and picked up information I couldn’t really follow through on, as there was no proper Internet service around or I was in such a remote area that there weren’t even any cell-phone signals to pick up.
TS: How did Approximation develop in the course of its production?
MP: Since most of the video was produced in the presence of locals, any information I gathered before would not have helped me much, other than making me aware of certain sensitive information. So the key for this production was not the research but the awareness I built through my research—a way to avoid traps, basically, but also a tool allowing me, if necessary, to negotiate from a position of knowledge on different subject matters. In developing projects with a remote and marginalized community, I saw no potential in giving my research information a visual appearance. Instead, I now think I would have been trapped, and the project would never have been as uncompromising and radical as it now is. Knowledge itself can also be a hindrance. I always wanted to put the experience before the knowledge, as experience is knowledge in my eyes, just undocumented. Approximation carries such experiential knowledge in its own form, and this increased the more trust we mutually built by spending the necessary time together.
To produce such a complex and engaging video, then edit it for months on a three-channel synchronized 4K video installation with a commissioned techno soundtrack gives you a new view of the materials, very different from what you experienced on location.
After my return from Chile, I went back to the Anthropos Archive to have another look at letters and documents in the Estate of Martin Gusinde, while working with my assistant on an annotated collection of rather unknown information about the development of Tierra del Fuego, a region of military tension since
its settlement by Europeans and the gold and oil rushes of the nineteenth century. This particular research was intense, as the really interesting political information was hidden and hard to trace, either physically or online. We worked on it for months, long after the video had been finalized.
We feel the compilation in this publication offers a variety of research information to accompany Approximation and share the diversity of interest, facts, arguments, and conflicts one finds throughout the region, in its past, present, and surely also its future. And I see this effort as an integral part of my way of thinking, working, and articulating myself.
TS: The titles and short titles of your works often seem to be very programmatic in nature. Reconsidering, A Formal Film, and Approximation, for example. This brings up the chicken-and-egg question: Do you find the titles for your work or is it rather the other way around?
MP: Neither. There’s no pattern, but what I can say is that the titles do play an important role for me. They are programmatic. They might function as announcements, as a thesis, as a program. In the first two cases you mentioned, Reconsidering The New Industrial Parks near Irvine California by Lewis Baltz, 1974 (2009) and A Formal Film in Nine Episodes, Prologue and Epilogue (2010), the titles were drafted before the actual production. Both films follow a conceptual approach within their documentary realm, and the titles helped me to focus on what I was trying to do and say. Today I can say that both films bear out what the titles suggest. With Approximation it was different, as my working title differs from the actual work title. The title came about in the course of a dialogue with Ronald Kay over a period of months—Ronald not only gave me moral and intellectual support for my isolated undertaking in the South, but also had a great stock of knowledge to share, since he had published a key book in 1980 with the title Del espacio de acá. Ronald also spent hours doing nocturnal editing sessions with me in his studio in Santiago, during which we discussed every possible notion of culture. Since we also both shared a great admiration for Hubert Fichte, we finally came to agree on the title for Approximation. It was a fight over every word, both in Spanish and in English, and I am confident we made the right decision and that the work is true to it.
TS: You intended A Formal Film in Nine Episodes to be an aggregative work comprising many elements—this condition was both open and clearly defined. Approximation now exists in parallel forms, as a multichannel room installation and as a single-channel cinema version. What constitutes the difference here for you and for the viewer? Amidst all the polyphony of today’s media, do you retain a belief (held in whatever way) in linear storytelling?
MP: All my works in film or video—with the sole exception of The Los Angeles River Project (2009)—were conceived as installations in exhibition spaces. The Los Angeles River Project is a feature-length experimental narrative, situated between fiction and documentary. Any other video work or film is primarily shown in exhibitions spaces, as well as at international film festivals. My experience is—I must confess—that my works unfold much more potently in the installation format. It allows me a very different way of editing, of setting sequences off against each other or combining them either on the same or on several screens. I assume that this goes back to my own experiences of sitting in a cinema or finding my own individual position in an exhibition from which to view moving images. Most often I find the latter to be more liberating and engaging. But, of course, I have had some of my most intense moments looking at films in cinemas. Linearity for me has less to do with the institution than with what I see on screen. A film like Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2003) exemplifies this kind of nonlinear narrative within the cinematic context at its best, and Godard’s oeuvre has challenged the screen with nonlinear narratives over decades. I believe that, both in linear and nonlinear storytelling, it all depends on what is actually being narrated.
I showed Approximation three times in a festival context on large screens in beautiful cinemas with a vibrant audience, but I must say it did not develop into such a powerful experience as it did in several exhibitions. And seeing it streaming online cannot compete with either, so I must admit that a controlled installation setting with the right technical equipment and surround sound gives the audience the right context to experience Approximation in its most eloquent form.
TS: Your use of 4K in Approximation involves a totally new digital image technology. What happens with these synthetic images, in comparison, that is, to 16 mm or 35 mm analogue film?
MP: The range of opportunities with footage shot in 4K is quite remarkable. When I produced films on 16 mm and 35 mm it already felt outdated to me, but conceptually I needed the film emulsion, the aes-
thetic, and the production environment, purely content-wise. I would opt to produce analogue films any time there is a conceptual reason to do so. However, I see great opportunities with digitally produced images, mostly because I have full control in any given moment over the materials, thanks to advanced software
for postproduction. I think my experience with producing in a 4K workflow and exhibiting in the same high-res format demonstrates a consistency from production to presentation. Talking content-wise about how the 4K aesthetic contributes to Approximation from my point of view, any image that is registered through the lens and chip is a digital artifact of the highest resolution. The postproduction—mainly color correction and degraining—allows me to create an extremely clean documentary image that feels almost hyperreal. The composition of the imagery makes the landscape and the people in it appear absolutely contemporary. In a remote region that is technologically very undeveloped—the king-crab factory, by contrast, is a state-of-the-art facility so that it can compete on the world market—a 4K video production also means exposing the residents, my collaborators, to the latest technology. I think that, working in a sociopolitical context, these high-res recordings challenge our visual engagement with the subject matter, which asks for more attention than it usually receives. Technology drives our civilization at breakneck speed, and it is up to us to make use of it. My experience on Isla Navarino, living in shacks without a telephone signal, is certainly different from what we see in Approximation, and I see it all the more as a political gesture to produce work with the highest resolution available in order to depict a culture that has been and continues to be destroyed. Such pronounced artificiality might give the culture a much more contemporary look than is apparent in than the world its inhabitants are forced to live in today. On top of that, when we talk about the culture of water nomads who have inhabited one of the harshest environments on the planet for over 6,500 years and developed navigation and hunting tools along with a complex language with over 32,000 words, we have to consider this culture as being highly advanced. And why would I not then approach this culture with the highest standard available in the world of western technology? 16 mm and 35 mm were, and perhaps still are, considered the art of the real—registered at 24 frames per second—and documentary and anthropological filmmaking, in particular, have used these formats to stay “real.” For me, it’s not about the technical apparatus but the conceptual decisions one takes. 4K video allowed me to register the most intimate and complicated situations as a single operator, without the sense of separation inevitably created by having to direct a technical crew working behind me, as I did several times on earlier productions. This social aspect combined with these aesthetic notions set the tone for Approximation. This culture that is on the point of vanishing reappears in a hyperreal aesthetic of the kind that the Internet generation takes for granted today, and thus they might engage more easily with the subject matter and concerns that Approximation tries to articulate.
TS: The collaborations you make space for often play an important part in your projects. Without Kamran Sadeghi’s pumping soundtrack, the engaging effect that Approximation succeeds in achieving would be inconceivable. Markus Weisbeck’s clearly structured designs also give your publications a compelling formal rigor. How would you define autonomy and authorship in these projects, and how far do these concepts extend into the individual areas of your work?
MP: I enjoy discussing my projects with active coauthors, including many people close to me, who offer advice and reflect on my suggestions. I believe that my authorship, meanwhile, makes reference to many other authors, and I don’t see any reason not to mention them or limit their field of activity so that my authorship predominates. I believe the opposite is actually more fruitful.
Ronald Kay’s coediting of the video with me really enriched the project, purely through the questions he asked, the hours of nocturnal conversations we had, the disagreements we overcame, and the way he spoke about Hubert Fichte to me. It’s a collaboration in a very intimate setting, intellectual and emotional. I am grateful that Approximation offered me the opportunity to work with associates.
The New York–based musician Kamran Sadeghi, whom I collaborated with for the first time, was very open to my idea of commissioning a soundtrack for Approximation. We share a similar interest in certain electronic music producers in Europe and the US. Based on that, I felt that Kamran could contribute his own knowledge and aesthetic to Approximation. So when the first video sequences seemed to shape Approximation’s final appearance—I was still in the far South—I sent a DVD to my assistant in Santiago and asked him to upload these videos so that Kamran could start work. Prior to that, I sent Kamran a compilation of digitalized sound recordings by Martin Gusinde. I obtained a copy at the Museo Antropológico Martin Gusinde, as the originals were at the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin-Dahlem. I also sent him some analytical literature I had located at the Anthropos Institute in order to give him a cultural framework. Sampling the Yaghan chants Gusinde recorded in 1923 into a contemporary techno soundtrack was the idea we both had in mind. A few weeks later, I was in Santiago editing my sequences, when Kamran sent the first tracks, which became the soundtrack to Approximation. There were some little adjustments on how long a track needed to be, but everything Kamran created blended with the video sequences I was editing. And since Kamran interpreted the archival material as something newly produced, it became a very strong and important component in the video installation. We decided to publish the musical score to give it its own, well-deserved life in the music scene. And as I understand it, it is played by DJs in clubs. It proves that the musical culture of the Yaghans hasn’t disappeared—Kamran allowed it to reappear in the here and now. We
laid down a marker in the Yaghan’s culture by sampling and producing as an overlay to what Gusinde had preserved for them. In additional to all the tracks Kamran had composed and produced in New York, we added one original sound recording from Gusinde with the agreement of the Ethnologisches Museum. The only condition we needed to fulfill was to include in our LP’s booklet a “scientific” text on the recording that had been published in advance. To my surprise, this musical-ethnographic essay was marred by misrepresentative descriptions and factual mistakes.
My collaboration with Markus Weisbeck started with the publication of A Formal Film, for which he created A Critical Reader (Spector Books, 2013). It was an outstanding process to conduct research in India to find paper, printers, and bookbinders and create a critical volume with twelve authors, published in Hindi and English. Markus’s decision to turn to materials and printing methods that were still in active use in Bombay with its abundance of available labor acted as an accompaniment to the formal aspects of my 35 mm film. The writers for the critical reader contributed essays that went far beyond my activities, taking the film as a point of departure for a cross-cultural debate between East and West. It felt natural to continue working with Markus, and he designed the LP as well as this publication.
In my understanding, the work is autonomous and so is its author. To me, editing a video is conceptually quite similar to editing a publication. The way Kamran contributed a musical score is quite similar to Hugo Palmarola contributing his essay Folding Cultures to this same volume. It is the personal engagement of each contributor, his knowledge and sensitivity in relation to the undertaking I suggested. Just as Kamran’s tracks are published on vinyl, Palmarola’s essay is an autonomous publication within the publication as a whole, designed as a book inside the book. His specific knowledge, researched over years, enriches Approximation tremendously, as it goes far beyond the video installation. In fact, it has nothing to do with it, but the sociopolitical context in which the Yagán jeep was designed, manufactured, and distributed describes the political relationship between Chile as a nation and its indigenous ancestors. The Yagán jeep never reached Isla Navarino.
I was also interested in having renderings created that would depict the jeep. Recognizing the digital work that was needed for this project, I posted a job offer on freelancer.com, an online platform for digital creatives, and commissioned 3D renderings, built from scratch with a few reference images from Palmarola’s archive and whatever we could find online. This was a virtual collaboration without any personal interaction, and I am pleased with the results that came out of it.
So I believe in authorship, just as I believe in autonomy as a cultural producer. My ambition is to create works that discuss issues from multiple angles, and I like to read essays in a publication on a project I conceived that offer me new ideas and factual information I didn’t know before. My research assistant Simon Quiñones, a student of international affairs in Berlin, whom I met in Santiago de Chile and whose father was exiled during the Pinochet dictatorship and worked as a curator in West Berlin, helped research this publication over a period of several months. The ping-pong we played with keywords, search terms, and interpreting the finds we had made enriched this publication enormously. So, to my mind, the collaboration on a project like Approximation is meant to make it as diverse and multi-angled as possible, and everybody involved should be able to autonomously contribute with his or her full authorship. Such an undertaking constitutes the knowledge-based society that I see myself as part of.
TS: In an earlier interview Susanne Gaensheimer—speaking in reference to Bombay, where A Formal Film in Nine Episodes, Prologue and Epilogue was produced—put this rhetorical question to you: “Could you transfer this same approach to another place in a non-Western country, or does it have something specific to do with this place, this city?” What was your experience working on Approximation with regard to this sense of authenticity?
MP: Approximation was created as a direct response to the situation I found myself in: a remote, quite disillusioned environment that was once the home for hunters and gatherers with the tremendous ability to survive in the harshest conditions, strive for knowledge, and advance their native culture. At the time I engaged with it, Bombay was a booming industrial city with hyper-diverse religious communities, a complex city somewhere between a Hollywood-esque movie scene, a fashion industry comparable to New York’s, and a massive working-class city, entirely operating on a caste system established thousands of years ago—all situated between high rises, colonial architecture, and billion-dollar estates occupied by slum dwellers. These descriptions indicate the difference between the two locations, as well as their uniqueness relative to any other destination. In my experience and practice, every location is specifically defined by many factors: history, religion, politics, social systems, and most of all by its inhabitants. I deal with all these aspects through the inhabitants—they are the people I work with, and they represent the conditions they live in. The only consistent factor running through my projects is me. And since I assume that I am influenced by my experiences through the projects I conceive, this consistency might shift over the years. I cannot adapt a strategy, an approach, or a tactic to a new project, since the location defines my engagement. I depend on situations telling me how to interact rather than the other way around. I find authenticity among my collaborators, as they guide my processes and define the outcome of projects.
TS: Thank you very much for your very detailed answers. Could you perhaps give us a quick idea of what you’re working on at the moment?
MP: I am currently preparing a project with a Brooklyn-based underground rap collective that has allowed me to participate in its practice. I act as a moderator among cultural producers who know their social environment much deeper and better than I ever could. I offer a platform for them to speak on, and they negotiate the terms upon which they want to speak to me and the audience. This is how I understand cultural authenticity in a complex world.