Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin are a collaborative duo whose photography-based practice explores themes of institutional authority, surveillance, and consent in an era of rapid technological advances. Here they discuss their recent book, Spirit Is a Bone (Mack, 2015), as well as their first US solo exhibition, which is on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art through September 11, 2016.
IN MARK TWAIN’S 1905 pamphlet King Leopold’s Soliloquy, he assumes the persona of King Leopold bemoaning the arrival of the camera, the “incorruptible Kodak.” This new technology is able to bear witness to the atrocities the king was committing in the Congo, and undermining the lies that he could previously manage in the press. Surveillance, of course, has since reached new levels of horror. Our book Spirit Is a Bone uses technology developed in Moscow, just now being rolled out worldwide, which allows the state to create a three-dimensional photograph, a digital life mask, of citizens in crowded public places—made without any consent or knowledge. They call these “non-collaborative portraits,” and the phenomenon marks a fundamental shift in portraiture, where for the first time there is no relation between the imagemakers and the subject—the citizens. Using this same technology, we re-created August Sander’s entire life’s work in four days by casting all of his “categories” of people on the streets of Russia. Our poet is the wonderful Lev Rubinstein and the revolutionary is Yekaterina Samutsevich, from Pussy Riot.
We’ve spent some time in war zones, so when approaching new work, we decide to take some steps back and examine the beginnings of when young people give over to hierarchy, authority, and power. Virginia Woolf nailed it in Three Guineas, when she said that if men were not in control of education, business, and government, then perhaps there’d be a chance for peace. We gained access to a cadet camp in Liverpool—it’s a grim military base where schoolkids between the ages of seven and seventeen get sent to learn how to march, drum, drill, and obey orders. What we didn’t tell the military was that we were coming with a bouffon—a dark clown whose performance teeters on vulgarity. Each evening our bouffon held workshops with the kids, effectively getting them to unlearn the day’s discipline. This power play is the basis of our film Rudiments, which is currently showing at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
We typically work in spaces populated by journalists, not in an artist’s studio or on a film set. But we treat these settings as backdrops to a performance, a dance with authority that inevitably ends in us being booted out. We are curious about how these institutions of power function, from the military to psychiatric hospitals. The state’s increasingly insidious command of our lives is acutely troubling. As photographers we always try to remember that the technology of imagemaking is never morally neutral, that it always embodies the ideology of whoever uses it. So much of our work is about seduction—getting permission to enter these spaces to gain an understanding of the workings and then find some way of fucking them over, of exposing the machinery.
View of “Frank Stella and Synagogues of Historic Poland,” 2016.
Frank Stella’s assemblage series “Polish Village,” 1970–74, is making its debut in Europe as part of the exhibition “Frank Stella and Synagogues of Historic Poland,” on view through June 20, 2016, at the POLIN Museum in Warsaw. Here Stella discusses the show as well as the genesis of the works, their exhibition history, and what it means to present his works in Poland, where the titular inspirational wooden synagogues once stood.
THIS SERIES has been exhibited before: at the Fort Worth Museum of Dallas in 1978, the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1987, and the Jewish Museum in New York in 1983, to name a few venues. This is the first time, though, that the works are being seen in Poland. This is worth noting only because the forty or so works in the series on display are based on photographs and drawings of wooden synagogues in eastern Poland. All of these buildings had been burned down by the Nazis. I came across the images in Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka’s book Wooden Synagogues (Arkady, 1959). The photographs and drawings from the book are part of the exhibition, as is a close-to-scale reconstruction of the roof and painted ceiling of a synagogue that once stood in the city of Gwoździec.
The carpentry of the synagogues is incredibly sophisticated on a formal level. The interlockingness—the complex geometric connectedness of each part of the building, which is visible in the photographs—really attracted me. My own works for the series began as simple forms on a flat plane. In the end, the final works are a kind of projected relief, if you hang them on the wall, or architecture models if you lay them on the ground. This was the first time, I suppose, that I directly dealt with relief.
Interestingly, the constructivist line in modernism in the early twentieth century can roughly be traced from Moscow to Berlin via Warsaw; this is mirrored in reverse by the path of the Nazis that led to the destruction of these wooden synagogues. The memory of the death of constructivism as well as the synagogues is embedded in the works.
The works weren’t really about the synagogues (any more than they were about constructivism), but that’s what they inevitably have to be about. You can’t get away from where the works came from. That is, my series wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for the drawings I saw. Robert Rauschenberg once said that his paintings are an invitation to look somewhere else. You do what you can do and hope that people will look beyond the things themselves.
And I don’t know about the exhibition in Poland. People seem to like it, which I think is nice. It’s tough in a way—the work is in a museum of the history of Polish Jews, and I’m not Jewish and I’m not part of that history. But the synagogues are part of the history of art. And so it’s inevitable that you react to that.
Thom Andersen, The Thoughts That Once We Had, 2015, digital video, black and white and color, sound, 1 hour 48 minutes.
Thom Andersen lives in Los Angeles. For over fifty years, his films, including Red Hollywood (1995) and Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), have critically engaged the documentary form. A retrospective of his work will run at Anthology Film Archives from June 3 through June 12, 2016. The screening series will also feature his latest full-length film, The Thoughts That Once We Had, plus the New York premiere of two new shorts.
MY WORK ISN’T EXPERIMENTAL, IS IT? People call Los Angeles Plays Itself an essay film; personally, I prefer to call it a documentary. I think that when you go see a documentary film, you should learn something, and I don’t think that’s such a radical idea, actually. Of course we learn from a good fiction film as well, although maybe it’s a different type of truth. I think all films should aspire toward truth, but people misunderstand the idea when it comes to movies. They think of truth as being accuracy, and that is unobtainable by the nature of film, which is selection by framing and editing. Truth is simply an aspiration, like any other classic virtue—charity, for example. Sometimes you may give money to a beggar, but other times you keep walking.
There’s definitely an argument made in Red Hollywood, and maybe more successfully in Los Angeles Plays Itself. They’re about an ethics of filmmaking. For my newest full-length film, The Thoughts That Once We Had, Deleuze’s books Cinema 1: The Movement Image and Cinema 2: The Time Image were a main source of inspiration—and the other main source was when Turner Classic Movies had a marathon of MGM’s musical compilation That’s Entertainment! in 2013 to 2014, which, strange as it seems, was how I discovered Hollywood musicals, because I had never really liked them before. Deleuze makes a separation between what he calls realism and what he calls naturalism. And the three directors who he considers as naturalists were all blacklisted in one way or another. Erich von Stroheim was personally blacklisted, because he was too profligate in his methods of filmmaking. Luis Buńuel and Joseph Losey were both victims of the anticommunist blacklist. The naturalists are like the physicians of society, making a fundamental critique of the way things are. The real world is a derived milieu that has its roots, its origins, in something deeper—that can also be a characterization of Marxism, which is concerned with looking below the surface of social relations to get to its origins. But realists are concerned with the surface itself.
Get Out of the Car began as a little study of distressed billboards, which was an intentionally dumb idea. But from there it made sense to go to other kinds of signage, murals, some rundown buildings. Almost all the music in the film is either Latino or black in origin. The music of Los Tigres del Norte, for example, expresses the feelings of indocumentados. That also says something about the history of Los Angeles and where it is now. It ended up being a movie about immigration as well as black culture in the city.
Most of the things that we filmed in Get Out of the Car are gone now. The murals are pretty much all destroyed. There’s nostalgia there, but it’s not something I’m going to apologize for. I’m not one of those who’s contemptuous of young people; I think that I’m just the opposite. In the Hollywood Reporter, Todd McCarthy accused The Thoughts That Once We Had of a “leftism so tiresomely doctrinaire that it’s quaint.” Red Hollywood got the same treatment when it first came out, but maybe its time has finally come. When it played at Lincoln Center in 2014, the audience was very young. That was encouraging, because I don’t think of leftist politics as some vague, exhausted dispute. What happened in the past, the way in which the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 turned labor unions against one another for instance, and the suppression of the left in the United States, that’s a history that is still with us.
DIS are a collective whose activities flirt across many spheres of contemporary culture—art, fashion, publishing, and now curating, in which their first major outing is the ninth edition of the Berlin Biennale, “The Present in Drag.” The show opens on June 4 in various venues across the city and runs through September 18, 2016. Here the members of DIS discuss their new curatorial role, the process of putting together the exhibition, and a few projects one can expect to see.
THIS IS OUR FIRST AND ONLY BIENNIAL, and in a sense it is a materialization of concepts, themes, and aesthetic interests embedded in the last six years of the DIS magazine website. This biennial is not a DIS piece, but we think that the way to approach it is not dissimilar to the way you might approach our site—it’s a hyperlinked landscape in which artists have set about restructuring and twisting existing narratives in response to the contradictory nature of the present, and the unstoppable digital influence on the way we think and feel. It is grounded in the idea that you exist online, but your ass still hurts and grinds. The biennial artists probe how layered, conflicting ideologies manifest in society, where even one product, image, or work of art inhabits self-contradictory positions. In the context of the Berlin Biennale, it becomes very clear how even something as basic as juice can also embody the uncertainties of the moment. Mexican artist Débora Delmar’s geopolitical juice bar, named after emerging global economies—Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, Turkey—links green juice to labor, economic shifts, aspirational lifestyle, celebrity culture, wellness, greenwashing, eco-confusion, and environmental degradation.
One of our favorite projects for the biennial is an album of anthems produced by Ashland Mines, aka TOTAL FREEDOM, and published as twelve-inch records by Vinyl Factory. We liked the idea of a biennial you couldn’t get out of your head, and that had a component that could spread as a dispersed, viral extension of the show. Each song is a collaboration between artists and musicians: Kelela with Adrian Piper and Elysia Crampton, TOTAL FREEDOM and Isa Genzken, Fatima Al Qadiri and Juliana Huxtable with Hito Steyerl. Babak Radboy’s visual and textual communication strategy for the biennial itself includes an array of participants like Chris Kraus, Roe Ethridge, and Bjarne Melgaard, who are all in the part of the biennial called Not in the Berlin Biennale. They are not in the show but simply in front of it as a skin, the largest organ of all. Our idea of the body of the Berlin Biennale is about the relationship between its physical or social existence, and its online presence and outward communication. Who we are and what we project, our drag, our self as content—these are at once blurry and distinctly separate categories. Artists play with this performance and construction of personal identity, and we thought it was interesting to consider this in terms of a biennial, an entity swarmed by state and market, art and commerce.
When we got to Berlin and had to choose venues to use, we looked through all the venues that have been used for the Berlin Biennale since its first iteration, in 1998, and one by one we were told, “Now that’s a spa, that’s a hotel, that’s a gym, that’s a bank.” Every abandoned building here is available for event rentals—this had a profound influence on our relationship to the spaces we looked at, and ultimately to the themes and work in the show. In all of the venues, there’s a dichotomy between the hyperpersonal and the globally complex, from privatized public spaces, like the ESMT, a business school housed in the former and perfectly intact GDR State Council Building—which will host projects by GCC, Simon Denny, and Katja Novitskova, all of whose work addresses capitalist business, state ideology, and their aesthetic manifestations—to the residential. The KW Institute, for example, is in Mitte, a neighborhood of permalancers and Airbnb. It’s a domain that was once circumscribed as personal and residential and is now a gray zone of public/private profit.
We were drawn to the aesthetics of transparency and glass facades, with their blatant visual similarity to airports and shopping malls, because of the paradox of transparency as architecture or ethic. This feeling of private spaces with public faces has been really important—our central venue, Akademie der Kunste in Pariser Platz, is surrounded by the US, French, and British embassies, the DZ and Commerz banks, and Lockheed Martin, among other buildings. But the Akademie and the Starbucks are the only two buildings the public is able to enter around there, which is a hard-core tourist zone. The biennial will be infiltrating the Akademie’s passageways and event rooms. These glass spaces emulate the surrounding corporate buildings, and they are actually rented out regularly for corporate and government events. We’re trying to make people forget they’re in a biennial—most of the installations there don’t initially connote art and many have adopted commercial formats. For instance, Christopher Kulendran Thomas has created an experience suite for his start-up New Eelam, which imagines the future of citizenship in an age of technologically accelerated dislocation by charting an alternative trajectory for Sri Lanka’s recent history. Trevor Paglen and Jacob Appelbaum’s Autonomy Cube is a usable sculpture that turns the space where it is installed into an open wireless Tor network, an anonymous relay router for Internet traffic, revealing the usually invisible mechanisms behind digital surveillance and how they can be eschewed. It’s especially relevant because this piece is directly across the street from the French embassy, at a moment when TOR has been particularly contentious in France.
The surreal used to be the domain of the future—but today it more accurately describes the present.
The mythmaker Terence Koh makes the most of big questions. For his show “bee chapel” at Andrew Edlin’s new space on the Bowery, the Beijing-born, Ontario-raised artist has brought upstate New York downtown, covering the gallery’s floors in topsoil, conjuring a living-dying apple tree, and building a wax shrine for a colony of bees. Acrylic tubes connect the “chapel” to the outside, allowing the little ciphers to come and go as they please. This is Koh’s first solo presentation in New York since nothingtoodoo, his memorable performance at Mary Boone Gallery in 2011.
I MOVED UPSTATE about two-and-a-half years ago. Maybe it’s a genetic calling that you have to go to nature for a while, and I started looking for different places. But when we finally found this mountaintop in the Catskills, me and my boyfriend Garrick knew that this was our home.
The first thing we did when we moved up there, we set up a tepee on top of the mountain. We just slept in the tepee and built a fire, looked at the stars and I guess questioned who we are—not just as yourself, but who we are as a species.
I thought that with all of these things going on, what can you do sitting on a mountaintop as an artist, as a human being, as a person that’s conscious about what’s happening today? I have been reading Krishnamurti, an Indian philosopher. “How do you change society?” he asks. And he goes, “You have to start at the present moment, with yourself and the spirit first, and once you start with the spirit of who we are, then everything takes care of itself.” I watched him on YouTube and the next day I was like, “You will build a bee chapel.” And I was like, “What’s a bee chapel?” Maybe build a place where humans and bees can come together as one, sitting in this room. And then maybe one person sitting here by themselves with their feet up would be one way to spread out the vibrations of what we can do.
At first, I didn’t know much about bees. One of the first configurations was a pyramid covered in honey. I just stupidly thought that if you covered a pyramid in honey, the bees would just automatically start doing that. I talked to an architecture consultant about how to build the shape and to bee consultants, and it all came about through different people excited about the project.
When we began to build the bee chapel, Garrick and I were walking on at length trying to find a site. And when we were walking, we saw an apple tree and… Oh, wow, apple tree. We walked around and we saw a second apple tree. It made sense to build the bee chapel in the middle and then it started becoming like a Garden of Eden. In the original version upstate, we called this installation O felix culpa, which means “O happy fall” in Latin. It’s a happy fall because Adam had to sin and bite the apple, and the happiness of being forgiven by God.
You can talk to the bees as well. I tell them about what’s happening in the world today. “We’re going to build a new bee chapel in the city, so your sisters are going to have a little sister home.” You just tell them about Bernie Sanders, how Bernie Sanders and Hillary are doing and what’s happening with Syria and stuff like that. Because I think they want to know what’s happening in the world as well. You transmit a living, verbal thing to the bees and who knows? I really believe that we’re going to find all these mysteries that somehow maybe it’s all going to be channeled in a ripple into the world itself.
The whole front room of the gallery is a sine wave system. It’s covered in soil and there’s an apple tree in the middle and a speaker playing sounds. Where the apple tree is there’s a cone of… like a living “NOW” moment. So you are vibrating in the room and then you walk to the apple tree and suddenly you stop vibrating and you can sit around the apple tree. And then you walk away from it and it vibrates again.
There are six sounds being played. The first is a livestream of the background cosmos, from a radio telescope in Hawaii. The second is from a mic in the bee chapel, while the third is a mic from a double-sided candle burning in another of the rooms. There’s one measuring anti-phase energies in the apple tree gallery. And then the tree’s connected and the ground is connected to an EEG monitor, which somehow detects life. It’s something about the voltage system. So any breath, any step, any touch of the tree—I really believe that even the synapses in our brains, the veins, the blood flowing in our system—is going to affect the vibrations in that room. There’s also the sound of two black holes colliding, the famous Chirp. It goes, “Voooo.” It’s 1.2 billion light years away. The existence proves Einstein’s theory that the whole universe is a vibration.
The tree in the front gallery is called Eve. She used to be called Harriett. Because we had the apple tree in the original bee chapel installation, I thought I should create a Garden of Eden in the gallery as well. But I said, “I don't want to kill a tree just to make a Garden of Eden.” So I started asking different people and came to Andy and Polly who own an apple tree farm in Wurtsboro, New York. And Andy goes, “We happen to be cutting down Harriett because she’s diseased and she would spread the disease to the other trees.” So it came out perfectly. He’s an artist as well so he understood I wasn’t crazy. I was going to move this tree and treat it like a living goddess, move her with as much care as we can to the gallery system and wrap her roots up and bandage her. We spritz her roots with water every day and we talk to her and we sing to her and everything.
That’s the story of Eve.
Simon Leung, War After War, 2011, single-channel video, color, sound, 90 minutes.
Artist Simon Leung here speaks about War After War, 2011, his video portrait of writer and translator Warren Niesłuchowski. The ninety-minute video unravels Niesłuchowski as a perpetual guest, a nomad without a home, while exploring notions of hospitality, mortality, vulnerability, and resistance. Leung has been filming Niesłuchowski for decades; an earlier companion piece, Warren Piece, 1993, focused on his desertion from the US Army and his life as an exile. For another, Artist in Residence, 2011, Leung procured an artist residency for Niesłuchowski. War After War is currently featured in “Routine Pleasures,” which is curated by Michael Ned Holte and on view at MAK Center for Art and Architecture, Schindler House in LA from May 25 through August 14, 2016.
WAR AFTER WAR follows the rhythm of Warren’s life, of continually moving and looking for a place to rest; at one point in the film he compares himself to a migratory bird. I think about my work with him as a set of ethical propositions—how to be with the other, and how to come closer to someone while they remain essentially a stranger. It was not until I finished the film that I realized I had made it for him. I typically make works directed toward one person, or a few people. This is not so much in the sense of an ideal viewer, but in that the work is directed toward specific people so they will receive it in a deeply felt way. In other words, if you know Warren, you might understand this work differently from those who don’t.
I decided to focus on the general idea of Warren moving toward a bed. In a way, Warren poses an ethical challenge; we’re confronted not just with a person in need of a bed but with somebody who asks, “Who are you in relationship to the other?” There’s a passage in the film where he talks about the etymological reversibility of the words host and guest. In Derrida’s writing about hospitality, he proposes that the guest is the host for the host. Hospitality is an interruption of the self, and at the same time, true hospitality must ask nothing in return, except for that interruption. That’s a lot of work, and not just for Warren but for the other people as well. This is the undertone of the piece: Warren comes to you and you must ask yourself, What is my limit? That assumption of being able to give, of being a host, presupposes having something to give, having some version of home. But that’s not something one can take for granted—how far is anyone from Warren, from “war”? This is the ethical question we must always ask ourselves, but not just as individuals. I conceived this work with the thought that Kant’s essay “Perpetual Peace,” which is a foundational text for international law, would serve as a script. The “third definitive article” of it is recited several times over the course of the film—it’s about the obligation of nations to welcome the stranger.
One of the things Warren and I talk about is askesis, which means discipline, a way of training, but also a care of the self. Warren is always in training; he’s always getting ready because he is always moving. I’m trying to reflect back to him the rigor of his life—the particular care he takes in leading his life—and to think with him the way that his life is also work. In a way, Warren asks us to think about what work is. It takes a lot of work to be Warren; it requires constant care and constant negotiations. Warren studied with Jerzy Grotowski, so he learned the exercises that are shown in the film when he was a young person involved in theater. The exercises for me signify not only a way of getting ready or of training, but an attitude of thrownness—giving up resistance.
When I met Warren in 1992 I was an artist-in-residence at PS1, and he had a steady job and an apartment. Back then I focused on his life as a deserter from the US Army. A decade later I discovered that he had lost both his job and a place to live, and was perpetually in need of being taken in. It was as if one war story displaced another. Warren was in fact born in, and spent the first few years of his life in, a displaced persons camp in Germany after World War II—it was as if he atavistically returned to the state of being a refugee.
The art world is an apparatus that allows Warren to seem like a refugee from the 1960s. It accepts him on terms that a more conventional milieu would not. He’s able to lead a life that looks a bit like bare life, on the edges of the art world, but it isn’t really, since the art world is a particular kind of stage. In order for him to find people who would put him up, for example, he needs the art world as a receiver for the type of signal that he sends. Some people ascribe a sort of spiritual dimension to the way Warren lives. Perhaps they understand guest plus host equals ghost.
Some of the piece was shot in a two-story freestanding library. The first floor is filled with books; the second floor is a work area with desks, a couch, and a lot of space. Between the two floors there are old boards with holes in them which the architect had filled in with resin, so that when you are upstairs at night and the lights are on downstairs, it’s as if the room is illuminated by stars, celestial points of light from below. I knew that’s where I wanted to shoot because at the beginning of “Perpetual Peace” there is a description of a cemetery. So these points of light were for me both the reversal of sky and earth and the illuminated speech of the dead. I told Warren he can think of this freestanding library in the countryside as a version of his brain, as a place of rest, and as a slower idealized view of himself—an image of what he doesn’t have time for in his continual movement.