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»The camera is my »exosomatic extension‹.«

Allan Sekula, Bernhard Schieder, Gertrud Koch, Michael Lüthy

A Walk With Allan Sekula Through His Exhibition
›Polonia and Other Fables‹

PDF, 23 pages

Gertrud Koch: We would like to start by discussing the different narrative forms you have chosen for the titles of your series, like »story«, »fable« or »tale«: how would you differentiate between stories and fables, and what autobiographical narratives are involved here? Is it a kind of metanarrative, is it a composing of different narrative moments?

Allan Sekula: Very often my titling a particular work has an idiomatic logic: Fish Story has a vernacular resonance, particularly in American English where a mere »fish story« is always opposed to the literary seriousness of Moby Dick, which is in turn suspected by cynics and philistines of being in the end nothing more than a fish story. On that level, I make no structural distinction between a story and a fable. I look for what is idiomatically appropriate to a particular work. But once a number of works are organized together, works made at different times and according to different logics or immediate demands, then, of course, the meta-narrative question is more pressing: »Is this one a fable or a story?«

This exhibition takes its overall title from the most recent work included, Polonia and Other Fables. The earliest work shown is Aerospace Folktales. When I made Aerospace Folktales between 1971–73, I thought about the brothers Grimm, and made a point of photographing a two-volume English edition of their fairy tales on the family bookshelf, along with Lord Jim and Billy Budd and Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis. So the logic of the title was already present as pictorial evidence within the work, as part of the literary world of the »aerospace« family within which I grew up. And »Fables« somehow seemed appropriate to all the stories of Polish national identity that I was trying to take on board with Polonia. None of the other titles contain references to particular narrative modes. Lottery of the Sea is a quote from Adam Smith. Walking on Water – my first work on Polish themes – has obvious New Testament connotations, channeled through Polanski, because I was thinking about that wonderful scene in Knife in the Water where you have the actor hanging from the rigging and running just above the waves. The idea of an apparent non-swimmer who can run – not walk – on water has a particularly perverse, Polanskian charm. There is one other title that begins with a gerund: Waiting for Tear Gas, which may mark a shift from the political example of Christ to that of Gandhi. Meditations on a Triptych would connote a different literary form, and then there is the anonymous letter-writer’s salutation Dear Bill Gates. 

Titles are meta-captions, and frame the narrative possibilities of the work. Typically, there is something reductive about the notion of the caption. On the contrary, when Walter Benjamin wrote of the caption bringing a revolutionary use value to the photograph, I like to think that he was considering the possibilities of the caption in the broadest linguistic sense. Logocentrism has boiled the possibility of the caption down to something rather positivistic. This is a legacy of the picture press and photojournalism, where the caption locks the image in to a precise meaning, marking what is »important« in the image. This is what Roland Barthes called the anchorage function. I have been more interested in what ­Barthes calls the relay function, where the parallel alignment of autonomous image and autonomous text lead to other levels of meaning. But even the most tightly anchored photograph can slip its mooring and begin to drift, and even the most limiting caption is subject to deconstruction. I’m digressing, but I was thinking about this today because a Polish acquaintance came by the exhibition while we were still installing, having just undergone a four years of graduate studies at one of the British art schools. He was saying that he had received from the curator all of the texts for the exhibition in advance, and had then come in and seen the photographs on the walls here without the labels and captions and additional texts in place. He experienced a rather odd textual prefiguration. As a result, he felt that his prior reading of the text limited the freedom of his metaphoric associations when looking at the images. A »narrative« had already been imposed. I asked if he really thought this is the case, did he really think texts had this power to limit interpretive freedom. Wasn’t he attributing a bit too much power to the word? In the name of anti-logos, the custodians of the visual arts often attribute a power to logos that it doesn’t really have. They are so busy defending the heroic David of the image against the Goliath of the text that they lose sight of the slingshot. If your self-defining fable as an artist is that you are the underdog in a perpetual war with logos, then you get what you deserve. But if you believe that these are both modalities with their own characteristic modes of uncertainty, then the work of bringing text and image into some provisional association is much more open. 

Michael Lüthy: Our impression was that the new work about »Polonia«/Poland has a stronger fictional element than the other works in the exhibition because this »Poland« always slips away, is present and at the same time not, is only a memory, an element in the biographies of certain people, of your own biography, as remembrance of dead members of the family. »Fable« seems to have a literal sense which distinguishes this work from Fish Story, for example. This is the background of Gertrud’s question, whether »fable« is the appropriate term for the kind of sequence we are walking through when we follow the meanders of the installation. In Polonia and Other Fables the tension between fact and fiction is quite strong.

AS: Obviously calling the work a fable is a way of thwarting the documentary expectations that are often brought to my work. A story, on the other hand, could as easily be nonfiction. Fables transport us to a very different terrain. The various Polands that I grew up with were completely phantasmatic. Here I am to some degree engaged in a work of remembrance for my father’s fabulist story-telling. He told tales about a country in which he had never lived, even though it was the source of his mother-tongue. His stories both fascinated and annoyed me when he was alive. When I read Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, I had a shock of recognition of my father’s linguistic predicament, even though the language in question was Yiddish rather than Polish. An immigrant child is caught between Yiddish and English. The perplexity of the boy’s circumstance can be boiled down to incomprehensible parental intentions, and the growing awareness that whatever those intentions might be, they carry no weight in the chaos of the external world. The parents are inscrutable but not omnipotent; the boy himself is not omnipotent; the parents are increasingly minor figures in an overwhelming chaos; and this chaos resides in an abyss between two languages. Call It Sleep gave me an insight into what must have been my father’s childhood, and that in turn, helped me think about the fabulist dimension of national narratives, which exert such powerful centripetal force. These stories spin us homeward, and yet they are completely bogus, especially for diasporic peoples.

Then there are the eighteen quotations that punctuate the sequence of photographs. In Chicago, at the Renaissance Society, they formed a kind of frieze around the outer walls of the exhibition space. Here in Warsaw, they fall into gaps on the same walls that hold the images. The quotes begin with Jarry’s on-stage preface to the first performance of Ubu Roi in 1896: »La scène se passe en Pologne c’est à dire nulle part.« Beyond the then-literal fact of Poland’s non-existence after the third partition, Ubu is now the ur-buffoon for politicians pretending to lead »post-democratic« societies: Bush, Berlusconi, Blair, Sarkozy, and indeed the brothers Kaczynski in Poland. My idea was to bring together seemingly incommensurate discourses: avant-garde farce, in the case of Jarry, and the solemnities of realpolitik or the oracular pronouncements of free-marketeers. Jarry would have been hard-pressed to come up with something as absurd as Alan Greenspan’s »We have never successfully modeled the transition from euphoria to fear.« And yet other economists are quoted who speak more realistically and presciently, most notably the largely forgotten Polish Marxist Michal Kalecki, who discovered many of Keynes’ key insights into the crisis tendencies of capitalism before Keynes. Kalecki would have regarded Greenspan as yet another falsely optimistic American caster of »horoscopes«. The challenge was to find fragments that stood up as aphorisms, which relates as well to the brevity of the fable form. Another challenge was allow for a dialectical tension between these statements, so that some fables are implicitly revealed to be wiser and thus more true than others. 

Bernhard Schieder: Compared to older works of yours, I had the impression that now the syntax is looser between text and image and between the images. In Aerospace Folktales, for example, the text-image relation is really close, you’re even commenting sometimes on what happens there, or on what you’re doing there as a photographer. Now, I sometimes got the feeling that it is much harder to interpret the relations between the images. For example, the image of the girl on the Chicago stock-exchange; it’s hard to see the links (Abb. 1). And I got the feeling that the images are more structurally closed as well. You use rectangular formats, you use bigger formats than before. Sometimes even the distance between object and observer seems to have grown. In Fish Story for example, you had the feeling of being really close to what is happening there, while now, you are creating other distances. I’m referring to these investigative images where you can’t get to the targets you are showing, for example the images of the rye field and the pig farm, of the CIA black site or of the air base. So everything – on the side of the photographer and on the side of the beholder – seems to fall apart. Is this another way of making it more open or of fictionalizing your work? 

AS: It seemed important to begin with a question that inevitably decentered the whole project. What happens when the »hog butcher of the world« (which was Carl Sandburg’s description of Chicago) meets the »Jesus Christ of nations« (which is an ironically devout and masochistic description of Poland by Poles)?

The first image you mention, of the young woman: she’s an art student working on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, where they trade futures in commodities such as soybeans and wheat and corn. Now they traffic as well in futures and options in bonds and securities and arcane debt instruments – and thus are a key platform for the risk-derivative workings of the credit system. I made a point to stay in the pits speculating on the future prices of real agricultural commodities, the commodities with which the exchange began in the late nineteenth century. That was also when Polish peasants, forced off the land by the crisis of the ­collapsing feudal economy, headed for the slaughterhouses of Chicago. And of course Poland today remains one of the most agricultural of the European eco­nomies. I made the photo in the summer of 2007, in the middle of the euphoria for biofuels, for ethanol derived from corn. Someone in the pit let out a triumphant bellow: »Food prices are going up!« My thinking was that this life-size standing portrait spoke directly about neoliberalism and their own aspirations to students at the University of Chicago, where the Renaissance Society is located. Hamza Walker, in his essay for the catalogue, speaks of her implicit link to the biography of Jeff Koons, who attended the Chicago Art Institute and then worked as a commodities trader before launching his boom-to-bust-to-boom art career. Hamza remarks that my photo, unlike pictures of the exchange made earlier by Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth, conveys the sense that »the party’s over«. That was very much what I had in mind, but I was also thinking more generally of Chicago as the mercantile city par excellence – as the »city on the make«, as Nelson Algren put it – and thus as a model for capitalist aspiration in post-socialist Poland. Everyone knows that »pork bellies« are traded on the exchange, and so there is a direct link to a U.S. multinational like Smithfield initiating industrial scale pig farming in Poland. So for me there are strong associative links between images that might well, as you say, »fall apart«. The scaling up of the pictures is also a way of allowing these links to operate at a distance, across intervals filled with other images. The viewer glances up from a color picture of a field of rye, and catches a monochrome glimpse of a sickle being forged, as if in flashback to an older mode of agricultural production, and to the symbols of the old regime. And yet I agree with you that nothing compels these associations, and they may well be missed. So in that sense the work is more open than a number of earlier works where the linkages are indeed tighter, or the metonomy is more filled in. 

Taking up your question of closeness and distance: Aerospace Folktales dispenses with the presumption of closeness to one’s own family; what I do immediately is to create an artificial »sociological« distance. One has to read the work rather closely to know that these are my parents, although that fact is in no way hidden. Admittedly the tone of the text might sometimes be that of a Holden Caulfield getting his Boy Scout badge in Marxist sociology. Despite such moments, the work has a coolness that really differed a lot from the documentary work that appeared a bit later about the family in American photography, where the assumption of familial intimacy was sustained throughout. I’m thinking here, for example, of photographers like Larry Sultan, where the overriding tendency is to psychologize the family realm rather than to open it up to economic or even ideological themes. This goes along with a certain elegiac pictorialism. For me, on the other hand, there was a considered anti-psychologistic and even Brechtian bent to the work: resisting psychological theater, treating family life instead as an intersubjective play of actions in a confined space, much in the sense of performance art or actionism. My father straightens the lamps. My mother prepares dinner (Abb. 2). Could I photograph these habitual actions as if they were performances? 

With Fish Story of course, the underlying story itself is one of distance; it’s the sea and the global transport system, always leading over the horizon, you never really get there, wherever »there« might be. The operating tension at the level of images was that between the panorama and the detail. This is summed up by the melancholic ship’s engineer played by Bruno Ganz in Alain Tanner’s film Dans la ville blanche: »Too small in the cabin, too big outside.« And so I proceeded by means of details, one little floating element after another. In the claustrophobia of those views there is some sense of intimate space, of little still-lives provisionally suspended in an unrepresentable vastness. 

GK: What I found very impressive was the sequencing, the way you put sequences together. This was, in my view, organized in a way that we know from film montage as an identical recourse. So you have a very formal abstract moment that goes through the sequence, and this I think is very much marked by color, like the green objects that are stitched together, on some level visually, the machine hall of the airplanes, and the peasant in the meadow (Abb. 3). I wondered how far color as an active choice in photography plays a role for you. When does this emphasis on specific color enter in? Is it already there when you take the photograph, or does it come in during development? These are very lively colors. 

AS: The color is not particularly manipulated or enhanced, it’s more a matter of photographing with a certain consistency of color and light in mind, and in that way partly anticipating the different sub-sequences that will develop on the wall or in the slide show. 

Starting in the early 1970s, I’ve built work around the shift between color and black-and-white. In This Ain’t China, which is not in this exhibition but which will be shown later this year in New York and Shanghai, all the work in the kitchen of the restaurant is depicted in black and white and the food is photographed in color. Food photography can be said to have only come into its own with the development of color in the 1930s. The idea was to photograph in a way that one wouldn’t reasonably picture food, treating the prepared dish more as medical specimen. I wanted to show the food in a hard light that exaggerated the ugly materiality of kitchen illumination, which is after all designed not to glamorize food, but to allow for a quick clinical once-over so as not to serve something atrocious. A few years ago, I had a chance to photograph the workshop of the chef Ferrán Adrià in Barcelona, and the only semi-original idea I could come up with was to treat his kitchen as a theater of war, and use only grainy, push-processed black and white film, as if this were Grozny or Mogadishu. 

When it came to Polonia, I went back to this play between black-and-white and color. Certain subjects needed to be shown in monochrome, such as the blacksmith. Thinking about the rich tradition of Chicago street photography, much of it in black and white, I set out to make photographs of smokers on the Loop in winter. The American ban on smoking in public spaces is quite brutal in Chicago, where one must go out in -10°F, with a wind chill that drops it another 20°, to fire up a soothing smoke. How many people are getting pneumonia on top of their smokers’ cough because of these enlightened public health measures? Once upon a time, this would have been the sort of question that demanded the solemnity of black and white, much as anti-smoking campaigns have used the austerity of the monochrome image.

The black and white groupings provide an interval that allows the color signature to shift, let’s say from a predominant green to a predominant orange. Each sub-sequence has its own hue, which is a way of suggesting that the »picture« being developed is more than a single image, but rather an interrelated sequential montage.

You noticed the repeated green color which allows the jet fighter to coexist in the same »landscape-world« as the farmer or the boy who has grown up next to an industrial pig farm, which is also seen in an aerial view with the same predominant green. In framing the farmer, and in selecting the tightest framing from a number of others made at the same time, I minimized the technological nature of his work, avoiding broader views of his prized American tractor, and emphasizing the tension in his arms as if this were purely manual activity. In the spirit of the overall sequence, one loops back to an image deliberately reminiscent of Albert Renger-Patzsch, or further back to Jean-François Millet and the agrarian realism of the late 19th century, in order to emphasize the harsh, technological and inhuman aspect of the American jet fighter. The tractor, which is also green, falls by the wayside. It’s a matter of pushing in two opposite directions in order to create the strongest semiotic opposition, while maintaining a certain formal topographic coherence. The fighter pilot, by the way, looks like a knight receiving his helmet from a squire, and in another context this could be read as a thoroughly reactionary image, like the Nazi image of Hitler as Siegfried. It is therefore important that this landscape-world also includes evidence of the secret spaces of clandestine torture, the ignoble side of the presumably noble face of NATO.

GK: I think what you’re saying is very interesting, I mean this interplay, when you go to a Millet or other so-called realist paintings. So it’s mostly a kind of art of gestures. It’s not so much a factographic depiction, it’s a big gesture many times. And so on some level you can see that in some way you describe the peasant’s gesture as both linked to work and culture.

ML: You spoke about the aspect of mourning in this work and the phantasmatic aspect of your father’s Polish identity. I would like to reflect on that by shifting to another aspect of the work. How would you describe the relation between manual labor and culture in Polonia and Other Fables? Is there also a mourning about vanishing labor forms which were linked to Polish rural culture? I’m thinking especially of the blacksmith in which labor and culture come together (Abb. 4): the cultural dimension of labor, and a culture which is based on labor. I ask this also because your work in general is often discussed as being focused on the themes of labor in capitalist market economies.

AS: Agriculture is the original meeting ground of labor and culture. This may seem digressive, but having been to Poland in 1990 to make Walking on Water, the work that took me to the Gdansk shipyards, I didn’t come back until 2001, when I was invited to a conference on photography in Kraków. The main reason I agreed to go was because John Berger was also speaking. I had engaged in a brief correspondence with him about photography and politics in the 1970s, which of course he wouldn’t have remembered, but I thought it would be great to meet him, especially because he had immersed himself in the surviving peasant culture of the Haute Savoie. It turned out that he was very intent on meeting with Polish farmers because of the serious implications of Poland’s entry into the European Union. Poland was at that point the most agriculturally-oriented of the European economies with 60% of the working population engaged in farming. Much more than France, where terroir is a matter of national pride, Poland is linked culturally to the soil, to the gathering of strawberries and mushrooms and the raising of rye and pigs. 

Going back to the opposition between the farmer and the jet fighter: what is the most anti-agricultural force in the world – leaving aside corporate agribusiness which is the most direct form of violence being directed against rural life? It’s air warfare, the fact that the machinery of air warfare is at this point about bombing peasants (Abb. 5). Join NATO, and you get to bomb peasants and irradiate the soil with depleted uranium munitions. They might now be Afghan villagers, but next year they could be Somali or Yememi, or the peasants of the Niger Delta or even Mindanao. Why not? The rich countries will use of their metallic angels of death – purchased from Lockheed or Dassault or BAE – as they must, to defend their right to a disproportionate share of resources seized from the poor of the earth. That’s what you get when you sign on to the ongoing American geopolitical program, which is what Europe has done without admitting as much to itself. Am I really being overly simplistic in saying this? 

The objective conditions of my grandparents’ migration from Poland had a lot to do with the rural economic crisis of the early 20th century. My paternal grandfather was a village blacksmith, which didn’t make him a peasant, but it made him dependent on the fluctuations of the rural economy. Like many peasants, he was illiterate. He crossed over and went to work for the railroad, which of course had been the final force in the extermination of the indigenous hunter-gatherer population of North America. The railroad did what the calvary failed to do.

The blacksmith is a figure of transition from the rural economy to the early industrial economy, much as the seafarer is a figure of transition from the mercantile economy to the industrially-based »free-trading« economy.

The family mythology, or fable, as retold repeatedly by my father suggested that his parents’ migration was a mere detour from a much more noble Polish story, that of the szlachta country gentry. This was his national »family romance«, the Poland that he came to identify with from afar. Strange that he would do this at the time when the privileges of the nobility were being abolished by Pilsudski’s republic – which was the most modern manifestation of Polish nationalism – but that is precisely the sort of lag that one finds in diasporic communites. As a young adult in the 1930s my father took it upon himself to replace what he termed the »gutter Polish« of his childhood with more refined speech. He had no one to converse with but he was an avid reader of Sienkiewicz and Reymont, and in his later years took special pride in the fact that Czeslaw Milosz complimented him on his Polish. 

It was almost all in his head. He was having a conversation with himself, an inner monologue. I never learned the language, despite his hints, although my younger brother learned Russian, so they shared the language of the enemy, which my father had taught himself for Cold War purposes. He couldn’t talk to me, his brothers didn’t speak Polish, so he nurtured a private literary Polish in his head that would burst forth on rare occasions in ornate and anachronistic ­Sienkiewiczian formulations of the sort that would of course be completely ­recognizable to a poet and literary historian such as Milosz. 

My father, who had served in the Air Corps during the second World War, but who lacked the visual acuity demanded of pilots, was fond of telling stories of the 20th-century reincarnations of Jan Sobieski’s Winged Hussars, the exiled Polish Air Force pilots who flew heroically in the Battle of Britain. He was especially liked to recount that some of these pilots were foolhardy enough to exceed the limits of their fuel tanks, so intent were they on shooting down one more Jerry before parachuting into France. I know it sounds almost like a classic »Polish joke«, but the story was told with great pride. So here was an »aerospace folktale« stretching all the way back to the Battle of Vienna in the 17th century, when the Polish horsemen wore those crazy wings, the better to terrify the sultan’s janissaries. There are deeply rooted ideas of airborne Poland, of Copernicus peering into the heavens, of the crane that never alights, like Mickiewicz’s homeless wanderings, or even those storks that live in belltowers and atop posts in the north of Poland. 

GK: The fable of the calvary is that you are a little bit above the earth, you are on your horse. That’s the image I think of.

AS: Exactly, you’re looking down at the peasants. It’s the sort of thing that is spoofed in Monty Python films. But the Poles took it one step further. They built these fake wings out of feathers and leather. You can see them, they’re mouldering away in the military history museum here in Warsaw. In the museum they look quite pathetic, more or less like crutches, but apparently they created a sound in the wind that was quite terrifying. The ethological logic of it is quite clear. Like many animals, the winged knight pumps himself up to terrify his foe; this was the idea. It is not enough to be a mere centaur, one must be Bellerophon astride Pegasus.

BS: I read that there is a special form of site specificity that you work out in relating the exhibited works to the exhibition place. For example, Fish Story was shown in large port cities. That’s true here for Polonia and Other Fables but what about the older and unrelated works? I had the impression that you can’t work against the effect that they are automatically received more as documents of art history. For example Aerospace Folktales as a good illustration for post-conceptual photography. It is hard for me to wear the same glasses for this work as I do for newer ones, which are dedicated to actual political conflicts like for example Waiting for Tear Gas. The form of perception changes when the works get integrated into the artworld. Do you have a strategy for the future to somehow control reception through site and exhibition context? Do you think about what will happen to your works when they get older, how do you deal with this? 

AS: If I start thinking about your last question too much, I will start behaving like a dead artist. But the sad fact of the art world is if the work doesn’t end up in a serious collection it’s often in a kind of limbo, in an artist’s estate, maybe in the hands of a gallery. With Aerospace Folktales, there is an edition of two, simply because there were two sets of prints. One is in the collection of the Generali Foundation in Vienna, along with a number of my other early works. I hope that eventually the second set will end up in an American institution, preferably one in Southern California, because it speaks to the economic and social history of the region. Aerospace Folktales showed at an art center near Lockheed in 1974, and I remember a woman coming up to me at the opening, slightly tipsy, and said, »your father obviously was a loser, but my husband is one of the top engineers at the Skunk Works«. I was more than a little taken aback, especially because she said it in such a friendly and confidential way. The Skunk Works was the top secret design group within Lockheed that had designed the P-38, the first escort fighter able to accompany bombing squadrons all the way to German targets. During the Cold War, they came up with the high-altitude spy plane, the U-2, which is still taking photos over Afganistan, more than a half-century after its first flight. Around 30 or 40 minutes after this enounter, I saw a man in tie and white shirt with a plastic pocket-protector for his pens – the very model of the rank-and-file aerospace engineer. His wife was urging him away for some other event, but he was absolutely engrossed in the pictures, and kept saying, »give me a minute, this is very interesting«. I thought – wow – the class division at the thematic core of the work is being enacted at the opening, right in front of me. So I realized that I was doing something right, and that set me on a path of sorts, with the idea that work could speak in unconventional formal terms to immediate social questions. Interest in or curiosity about the subject matter could overcome unfamiliarity with the structure of the work. And yet after that show, there was no exhibition of the work in Southern California until just a few years ago. No one in the California art world was interested, in fact almost no one in the American art world was interested. The interest came from Canada – from Vancouver, where there is a strong current of conceptual photography, and from Europe. 

I am most pleased when older works are reactivated in a new political context. The fact that I have more requests to show Waiting for Tear Gas than for any other work suggests that something is still living in the spirit of resistance to multinational capital that burst forth in Seattle in 1999. And given that my entire career as an artist has been framed by the end of the postwar boom and the protracted profitability crisis of capitalism entered at the end of the 1960s, I think there is still something timely about almost all of my work, whether it is about family relations, the rationalization of education, the logic of the permanent arms economy, or the global maritime trading system. Those are all themes, in the longstanding realist sense, but the work is also always about the status of photography within the system of the arts, an effort to reclaim photography for social referentiality. I was recently asked by interviewers for Kunstforum International what photography could hope to gain by depicting social reality. I answered by saying that photography has certainly gained a lot in status and market value by not depicting social reality. The challenge is to turn the situation around, and the most difficult part of that is to address the status question. And that turns precisely on the problem of becoming a »document of art history«. This means that the fight also has to be waged for a different art history, and for a history of photography that may not be completely absorbable into art history as it is presently practiced and institutionalized in museum collections.

GK: There is a very complicated form of address in your work, one that is directed toward a topography of the local. Fish Story tells a different story in different places, so to speak. We wondered how you would bring together this idea of the global as a kind of horizontal line and the topographical concrete that always has this kind of historical axis, a cultural axis if you will, a memory access. How do you see your own work in this grid of the simultaneity of the global and the, let’s say, historicity of memory and culture? Concerning forms of address in your work, what kind of spectator do you imagine? I wouldn’t say you imply it, but I’m pretty sure that you imagine a form of address. I was interested in knowing: can your work itself be seen as part of a global art form? Isn’t this kind of new realism something that is distributed globally? Does it have to do with a notion or a practice of evoking kinds of reality, even in the form of fables?

AS: There is something emerging that one could call global art, which makes me want to run screaming in the other direction. The danger is that one ends up providing the elevator music for neoliberalism, which imagines a world of well-sedated upwardly mobile consumers, who need a good shocking now and again, just to keep the juices flowing. According to this depressing program, the ideal global artist is a spiritual trainer in flexibility.

Realist photographs are always presenting us with localities. In that sense, even the photographs taken of earth from the moon have the overwhelming effect of locating our planet, of making it local. Yet the photographic frame also de-localizes by radically excluding context. It gives us so much, and then, at the edge, no more! Much the same thing can be said for the photographic rendering of time as can be said for space: this interval and no more. Photography exemplifies what Agnes Heller described as the »touristic« dimension of the experience of modernity, the experience of being a stranger everywhere and always.

So the audience question comes down to this: how to engage with strangers as a stranger?

That is the fundamental question of human communication. And it is precisely not the question pursued by most of the art world, which is primarily interested in conversation between insiders, to what amounts to little more than an endless exchange of secret passwords. It is also not the question pursued by mass-media culture, exemplified as much by Google as by Hollywood film, which seek to reduce target audiences to rationalized identity-relations: »We know what you are looking for!«

In Fish Story, the axis of locality, of the »topographical concrete«, of ports and ships and labor in the present, is addressed by sequences of documentary photographs and their accompanying texts. Some of those photographs, more than others, open up the historical, or memory axis, which is also the axis of amnesia. For example, I was working in the port of Vera Cruz at the moment when the candidate for Mexican president was assassinated, and the next afternoon I came upon and photographed a street urchin begging while draped in a poster for the dead candidate as if he were still alive and running. 

But of course only the caption can inform us of this uncanny slippage. Thus clarified, perhaps this image speaks from this a precise location and moment – Vera Cruz, 24 March 1994 – to a common condition of pseudo-democratic cultures, cultures with »elections« that are shrouded in intrigue and secrecy, which is increasingly the global paradigm under neoliberalism. The longer text – essay or prose poem, I’m not always sure what to call it – that goes with this chapter on Vera Cruz plays with the primal material chemistry of the place, with coral, wood, and gold: »If ships were made of gold, rather than wood, Cortés could have stayed home.« So that is one instance of a turn to the mode of thought found in fables.

My idea is always to make something that is readable in the context of its making, and also elsewhere. Is this »Mexico« that I have imagined legible in the United States, in Europe, or in Korea, or Japan, or the Philippines?

There is a memory strata particular to any place, whether it be Pusan or Vera Cruz or Gdansk. Ghost memories are floating, they only have to be summoned. The big question in semiotic terms is how transportable are those core samples or traces. I have no idea how legible Polonia will be in Budapest. But I have really asked myself how legible it could be in the Philippines, a country subject to similar diasporic pressures, with a massive dispersal of population into the global labor market as domestic workers, nurses and seafarers. Could Poles and Filipinos recognize their common condition, or their similarly fraught connections to the United States? That is the challenge. Where the work goes is not always a matter of my choosing, but I have tried to hold to a principle of making works that speak to specific places while bringing global connectedness into play.

GK: And in some ways it’s a precondition, there is a kind of globalized market for art, to have the choice of presenting those shows at all those different places. And this is an empirical situation we are already in. It’s not that we can say, well, we don’t want to be globalized, we are already there. And so the question is: what are you doing with this? And therefore I found it so interesting that in these very concrete arrangements, these montages of single pieces of photography, on some level you are already going into a kind of principle of understanding that there is a link, that linkage is something that one can do. In this sense, one could say that your practice of doing things already invites us to make links of our own, and maybe this is a response to the situation already.

AS: Absolutely, once photography proliferates and becomes accessible to a good percentage of the world population, there is some ground for common understanding, for sharing the work of interpretation of images. I say that having always been strongly critical of the »universal language« claims made in favor of highly ideological exhibitions such as The Family of Man. And, images aside, there are still linguistic issues to address. Whether or not English is taking over the world, there is a practical battle to be fought for specific local languages in globalized exhibition contexts. For documenta 11, I had to insist on a German translation: 70% of the audience is German-speaking and therefore we needed a complete German version of the text of Fish Story. In the same documenta, South African artist William Kentridge’s opera Zeno at 4am was presented with no German translation of the libretto, which was a problem. The second time around, with documenta 12, I had gained a better understanding of the demographics of Kassel. If I wanted to install an outdoor work in the Bergpark to be seen by a big local population I best ask for Turkish and Russian as well as German.

ML: I would like to follow this question a little bit further. In the 1950s, for example in the first documenta exhibition, a vision of abstraction as world language was put forward, not independent of Cold War ideology, but with some plausibility, because an abstract work of just form and color could be understood by anyone – at least that was the fiction. Today, it seems that the lingua franca of globalized art is not abstraction but realism. This is somehow surprising because the return of the real into art in the 1960s, directed against the ideology of the abstract and the formalist theory supporting it, was in the name of the specific, of the concrete body, of the personal perspective of the artist, etc. But how can an art in the name of the specific be the lingua franca of globalized art? There is a huge tension between – as Gertrud called it – the historical or cultural axis in realist art, going into the depths of a concrete situation or a singular biography, as with your and your father’s biography in Polonia and Other Fables, and the global interchange of images and artworks worldwide. How do you situate your artistic practice in this new global realism, as put forward, for example, in the last three documenta exhibitions?

AS: I’m never comfortable with institutional definitions. Your point could be reframed further back in terms of the modernism of the 1920s and 30s. Was abstraction, which had suffered grave setbacks with the retour à l’ordre, a thwarted universal language or the utopian signifier of a universal language that could never be achieved even under the most tolerant conditions? Was the realism of photography and silent cinema a substitute universal language, and if so, was its promise utopian or merely utilitarian, a matter of the greatest visual pleasure for the greatest number? This drama is replayed in the postwar period, in the context of Cold War tensions. The three documentas, 1997, 2002, and 2007 have been attempts to rethink the relationship between art and politics in the neoliberal post-Cold-War world, with the dramatic turn to the art of the former colonies in the 2002 exhibition. I am not sure that realism, in any serious sense, is the main thread. For example, I am not sure a realist epistemology was central to the thinking of any of the organizers. What I did see in the work presented was a certain archivalism, a pervasive sense that art-making is always rummaging around in the already accumulated midden heap of images. Merely because artists increasingly employ the recording tools of photographic media does not make their practice realist. If anything, what is most common now is a mannerist version of realism, a version that has relinquished any effort at making truth claims of any sort, and that is more interested in the secret handshake. Maybe we are stranded between an archivalist realism that can’t often see beyond the structural logic of the archive and a mannerist realism that slinks back once again to the cult of artistic subjectivity, while pretending along with the archivist to have ringside seats for the death of the author and the death of photography.

We have to make distinctions between realisms. On an ethical plane, witnessing and testimony are the most fundamental operations. This goes back to Goya’s Disasters of War.

GK: I have a question regarding this aspect. Would you describe your approach to using or doing photography according to the model of witnessing? I mean, on some level it is definitely not archival in the sense that you are looking for the documentary. You have a kind of individualized point of view of things, so to speak. It’s not just that you play the role of an entirely distanced observer, you’re not just a passive registrar. But as a witness, you record and retell what you have seen, and you do this through objects that are simultaneously very subjective but part of the story that is to be told. There is a very old metaphor of photographer as a kind of mediated eyewitness, and I wonder if this plays a role for you. Concerning the problem of witness, this involves the construction of memory and at the same time makes very strong truth claims, and maybe this is the maximum in truth claims that one can do, but it is still a truth claim. It refers to history and at the same time constructs reality for the present. I thought it could be a focus to stitch some of these points of view in your work together. You are a kind of witness who visits specific places, but who tells a global audience, »to whom it may concern …«.

AS: Well, we could end there. But as you were speaking, I was thinking of the Bill Gates triptych, which sits on the wall just over my shoulder (Abb. 6–8). If you look at it, you see that I’m not looking at his waterfront mansion. I’m treading water and facing away. But I’m holding a waterproof camera that is doing the looking for me, and we see the results in the other two frames. The camera is my – what is the word that the economist Georgescu-Roegen uses – »exosomatic extension«. The camera is my eye looking in the opposite direction. It’s a prosthetic device. I’m closing one eye and squinting with the other, but I have an extra eye, the camera, which I’m holding at arm’s length as I tread water with my legs. The point of view, the time of day, were very deliberately worked out, for sundown when the house would be frontally illuminated, for water temperature that wouldn’t give me hypothermia in ten minutes. (Although as it turns out I was hypothermic anyway, after spending something like twenty minutes in the water.) No wet suit because I didn’t want to be floating higher in water, and it is better to go up against someone like Gates nearly naked, lest you be mistaken for a frogman commando. So witnessing is complicated, it is more than a matter of happening to be in the right place at the right time. It has to be planned and enacted, like a play. So there I am in the water, my body heat seeping out, spying on a guy who believes that he has conquered entropy through cybernetics. The computer is a perpetual motion machine of the mind, leaving material constraints behind. This fantasy is a version of what Georgescu-Roegen called »energy bootlegging«, which is pretending that the third law of thermodynamics does not exist. For me, witnessing is never a matter of directly recording a traumatic event, as a war photographer might. In the case of Bill Gates, the trauma is somehow buried as a memory trace in the Winslow Homer painting of lost fishermen that he purchased for 30 million dollars. Viewed from a different position, from water level one hundred yards offshore from his property, the painting is a record of the entropic losses that contributed to his wealth, losses that perhaps haunt both his dreams and his daytime calculations of risk.

GK: I think that is quite an interesting concept relating to realism because it takes into account the unavoidably fictional character in this approach to reality, so that on some level, realism and fiction are not contradictory – it is not the opposition between, let’s say, truth and lie – instead they are a kind of coherent couple. So I was interested in how, with these specific techniques of photography, the aspects of referentiality as a kind of mega-guarantor of reality, of the presence of reality, interact with the fictional aspects of saying what this reality that I am showing here is like. In a pragmatic sense, there is a deictic moment, the witness might be a model; I wouldn’t bring it so near now to the definition that was undertaken in the Shoah discussion, where the witness was seen as giving testimony as a moral obligation, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that witnessing has such a strong moral aspect, but …

AS: Where the question of witnessing becomes perhaps the most pronounced and even a little bit farcical in Polonia is with the pictures of the so-called »black sites«. And in that case, I was very deliberate with my captions, stating not that they were »alleged« black sites, but that they were actual locations for CIA torture, Q.E.D., full stop. Neither the Polish nor the American government are admitting anything, and journalists are stuck with the politesse of »allegations«. In fact, the American embassy withdrew promised support for this exhibition on that basis, which is all for the good. At some point, one has to insist on the truth of what cannot be proved. I crawl in the bushes to make a photo, my film is confiscated by military police, but none of this proves anything except that a climate of secrecy and high security prevails. The moral point is to say that torture will not be ignored, wherever it is going on.

GK: This raises a question about the slideshow of the Seattle demonstration where the viewpoints of the photographer play a role (Abb. 9). I mean, where are you there? Is it a testimony to the situation?

AS: For the Seattle project, Waiting for Tear Gas, my working premise was simply to be there with the people who had taken to the streets. On the first day, early in the morning, direct actions of all sorts were taking place, even before sunrise, but there was also a very large labor movement rally in the stadium. I decided to go to the labor rally because it seemed to me that the profoundly working-class character of the protest would go unreported. The streets were full of working-class people, some in unions, some not, temporary workers for companies like Microsoft or Amazon, students from the two-year community colleges, chronically unemployed young people, and so on. As the labor march proceeded, it split between more conservative unions that were turned away by their leadership from a confrontation with the police and more radical unions of truck drivers and dock workers who joined in blocking the opening plenary session of the World Trade Organization. I went with that flank, you might say the left flank. After getting tear gassed, I found myself with my own little affinity group, which was very common under those circumstances. We stuck together over the next three days and nights, which provided a certain narrative thread, with excursions and crazy detours within the larger flow of the protests. Here I was being helped out in my photographic mission by a recording studio technician and a legal secretary, both much younger than me, both enjoying the whole confrontation to the hilt. I was fascinated by the lulls and diversions, intervals that were of no journalistic interest whatsoever. When a city is seized by popular protest, time itself is transformed. One experiences one’s age, one’s vulnerability, one’s beholdeness to strangers, and the kind of freedom that comes with a city being radically redefined by troublemakers, if only for a brief time.

Protests are great engines of clichés. What goes unremarked is that the gap between elites and the broad population, even in the developed world, is so profound now. Clinton arrived on the second day. For the first time, the president was forced to move within a fully militarized protective perimeter, with buses parked end to end to barricade his hotel against the nonviolent mob that had taken over the streets.

BS: Is it a new phenomenon here at this kind of retrospective exhibition that you are constructing a kind of superstructure between the individual works? I had the impression that different works are really closely linked – referring to, contrasting with each other. On the one hand everything is developing itself in a kind of Allan Sekula’s cosmos of images, referring to one another. On the other hand perception of the individual work is changed by others. Is this the first time you have related the works to one another in this form? 

AS: There is a very deliberate »metasequence«, if I can call it that. I worked it out with Karolina Lewandowska, the curator here at Zach�ta. We talked it over on and off for a year or more, making changes, deciding to leave things out. I have shown the projections Untitled Slide Sequence and Waiting for Tear Gas back-to-back before. I rather like that, black and white on one side of the wall and color on the other, with the time gap between an aerospace factory in 1972 and a protest in 1999 (Abb. 9, 10). Polonia has its own internal retrospective loops, going back to Aersopace Folktales and to my slide projection from 1990, Walking on Water, which was the first work I made in Poland. The other, more structural thread, runs through a repertoire of ways of working with photographs and text: picture gallery, projection space, reading room, ending with a short version of the film Lottery of the Sea, in which the previously disassembled elements are brought together with music and voice.

ML: The back-to-back projection of these two slideshows is brilliant, and it leads me back to your distinction of different realisms. You said that the understanding of realism in singular artworks is dependent on practice: either you rework the archive, for example by re-enacting images, or you use art to document something. On the other hand, the realism of an artwork is dependent upon reception, upon how it is seen. This is put forward by Roland Barthes’s definition of the »reality effect«: The barometer in Flaubert’s A Simple Heart has the sole function of suggesting to the reader that the whole story is realistic. In the correlation of the two slide works, aspects are produced which would maybe not be seen if the works were seen individually, especially the relation of the individual and the mass. The photographic strategies in the two works are similar. In both works the slides show a person in the foreground, who is somehow portrayed, and you see a mass of people in the background. But because in the early work people are climbing up the stairs, you have a panoramic view of the others. In the Seattle piece, the photographic perspective is horizontal, with the result that the person in the foreground covers many of the people in the background. So the relation between the singular person and the mass has the structure of a dialectical opposition. In the Seattle piece you see the singularity of the individual, for example his creativity in performing the political protest, and the mass seems to be a function of the individual. In the earlier work, the individual appears as a function of the mass because the persons in the foreground are shown as mere »exemplars« of the working people leaving the factory. But this dialectical opposition pops out in this constellation of the two works. What I’m trying to say with this is that the realistic content changes because of the exhibition context: the »reality behind the image« is not just inherent, but context sensitive. 

AS: In both contexts I was interested in a sort of collective motion study, with the portraits of strangers who happen to be fellow citizens. These portraits do appear as suspended moments within the flux of the crowd or the mass. The aerospace workers are breaking free from a day at work, but according to a social discipline that grips their private lives as well. The Seattle protesters are trying, symbolically, to break free from a global economy that refuses to submit to popular scrutiny. 

Returning to the metanarrative of the exhibition, I end Polonia with the would-be sailors, former shipbuilders from the Baltic yards whose plan is to circumnavigate the globe in a boat they are building from scavenged and donated steel. They live and work in a homeless men’s shelter in the old Ursus tractor factory on the outskirts of Warsaw. I was touched that both of them showed up for the opening last night. And Lottery of the Sea begins with Adam Smith’s interesting and little-noticed contrast between the seafarer who gambles with his life and the shipowner, who gambles on a higher plateau. The exhibition ends with a leap back into the fluidity of maritime space, and also into the fluidity of cinema. But it is a fiction of synthesis at the end, for in fact this not the complete film, but only the »prologue and ending« of a film that runs for three-hours in its entirety. So there is a weird, brutal elision in the middle …

  • photography
  • globalization
  • conversation
  • contemporary art
  • Allan Sekula
  • memory
  • fiction
  • Poland
  • mediality
  • exhibition
  • realism
  • testimony

My language

Selected content
English, French

Gertrud Koch

Gertrud Koch

is professor for Cinema Studies at Freie Universität Berlin and head of the DFG-Collaborative Research Centre ›Aesthetic Experience and the Dissolution of Artistic Limits‹. Her research focuses on aesthetic theory as well as film and image theory. She also works on the question of political and historical representation.

Other texts by Gertrud Koch for DIAPHANES
Michael Lüthy

Michael Lüthy

is an art historian and the head of the Interdisciplinary Center »Art and Esthetics« at Freie Universität Berlin. His research focus is on French art of the 19thand early 20thcentury, US-American art of the post-1945 era and on modern aesthetics. He is also head of the subordinated project of »Mittelbarkeit und Unmittelbarkeit in der Kunst der Moderne« as part of a collaborate research project funded by the »Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft« (DFG) on »Ästhetische Erfahrung im Zeichen der Entgrenzung der Künste«, a project he also supervises.

Other texts by Michael Lüthy for DIAPHANES
Dirck Linck (ed.), Michael Lüthy (ed.), ...: Realismus in den Künsten der Gegenwart

Die Künste der Gegenwart geben Anlass, nach ihren realistischen Tendenzen und Impulsen zu fragen. Verstärkt wenden sie sich dem Sozialen und Politischen zu, in dokumentarischer, investigativer oder wirklichkeitsverändernder Absicht. Die breite Verwendung von Fotografie und Film, vielfältige Reflexe auf mediengenerierte Wirklichkeitseffekte, die intermediale Verbindung unterschiedlicher künstlerischer Verfahren und nicht zuletzt ein entgrenzter Begriff der sozialen und politischen Dimension der Kunst charakterisieren eine ästhetische Produktion, deren Kunststatus häufig prekär ist, die aber zeitgemäß anmutet, weil sie global rezipierbar wird.

Der Band interessiert sich insbesondere für jene Realismen, die über eine Darstellung der Wirklichkeit hinausgehen und den gegenwärtig festzustellenden Monopol­anspruch der Realität reflektieren. Die Beiträge suchen nach Begründungen, me­dialen Strategien und historischen Bezügen des gegenwärtigen Realismus in bildender Kunst, Literatur, Film, Theater und Musik und stellen philoso­phische und kunsttheoretische Überlegungen dazu vor.


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