3.9 / Thinker, Sailor, Collector, Thief

In conversation with Bruno Serralongue and Allan Sekula

By Hou Hanru February 15, 2012

Image: Allan Sekula. Crew Portraits, from Ship of Fools, 1999-2010. Courtesy of the Artist, Christopher Grimes Gallery, Santa Monica, and Galerie Michel Rein, Paris.

Hou Hanru, director of exhibitions and public programs of the Walter and McBean Galleries of the San Francisco Art Institute, spoke with artists Allan Sekula and Bruno Serralongue in conjunction with the exhibition Oceans and Campfires, on view through February 18, 2012.

The exhibition examines the significant role "photography and video documentaries have played in the evolution of global contemporary art, opening a new dimension of artists' engagements with social and political changes, and producing an aesthetic genre highly relevant to our age of media and communication. Differing from traditional journalistic photography and films, these works negotiate the moving boundaries between reality and imagination, reportage and critique."1

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Hou Hanru: We are in a key moment again of rethinking the relationship between what we do and history, as pointed out by Alain Badiou in his latest book, Le Réveil de l’Histoire, trying to answer the challenging question of the historical significance of the current revolutions around the world, from Arab countries to Europe to Wall Street. How do you consider your personal work in relation to a much larger, historical perspective?

Bruno’s work has to do with the production of space, since you document the process of making new nations like Kosovo and South Sudan. However, as you say, they are not really nation-states. They are nations without economy, without cultural identity, or with only a certain kind of cultural identity. This is more about drawing the territory rather than building a social structure.

Allan has a similar understanding in terms of what territory means and what is happening in the forgotten territory that he shows in his film The Forgotten Space. As an artist, how do you document this process? This work is not simply about describing it in a super-realistic manner. In fact, it deals with the perspective of historical reasons.

I wonder how you position yourselves in that perspective? How do you understand your roles in such a complicated relation to current events and the historical perspective?

Bruno_Serralongue-Kosovo

Bruno Serralongue. From the Kosovo series, 2009; ilfochrome on aluminum; edition of five; 125 x 156 cm. Courtesy of the Artist.

Bruno Serralongue: We could look at the examples of the South Sudan and Kosovo, two nations built from the outside; they are United Nations nations, productions of the United States and European Union. They tried to make a country following those same rules for organizing the border and turning the population into new citizens. In addition, the emigrants are expected to come home. This is what is written on the slogan of South Sudan. It’s the same for Kosovo, because Kosovo is a country without economies. All of the economies are outside the border. With the European Union, it feels that if we stabilize the country with the military and we try to implement a kind of economic growth, people will come back soon, maybe in five or six years. But I think it will never work like this.

HH: It is also an interesting question of belonging and how history actually reorganizes the sense of belonging. For example, we can compare it with the case of Palestine and the right of return; it has been one of the key reasons for the conflict in the region. In terms of the ocean, people are sailing on boats that use the flag of convenience, as you have pointed out in your work, Allan. The ships all belong to multinational companies, and the crews are coming from different countries.

Allan Sekula: Global maritime regime is full of contradictions because you have this doctrine of freedom of the seas that has a long historical lineage, back to the early seventeenth century. The argument was formulated because of a conflict between the Portuguese and the Dutch in the seas around what is now Indonesia and New Guinea. The Portuguese were trying to claim proprietary rights to sea routes approaching trading ports and the Dutch were basically arguing that the sea is an open highway for all parties. That established one of the key principles of maritime law.

Then today we have this idea that the United States is the dominant naval power in the world. It is the guarantor of freedom of the seas. China’s neighbors are rattled whenever the question of China’s becoming a naval power around the South China Sea islands arises, and somehow the absurd idea that the United States Navy is going to adjudicate this becomes even more absurd when you look at the real patterns of trade. For example, the paranoia that’s perennially stoked about Chinese military power in the western Pacific, which I think is symptomatic of America’s decline; atrophy of the American industrial base is combined with this hypertrophy of the American military power. So how does the United States ensure its dominion of the Pacific and the whole Pacific region and yet make concessions? When you think about it, it’s always possible that a war could happen between China and the United States. One could be naïve and say the global trade system is a step toward peace because there is too much at stake for countries to have war, but we know that the logic of war often pursues its course. The military sector has its own agenda and its own momentum, and you also have the nationalist wings in many countries that see militarism as the only economic solution because it mobilizes people. It’s hard to say, but the sea is both a space where these claims for freedom are made and yet where very parochial interests are also pursued.

HH: As an artist, how did you decide to be involved with this situation? You started working very early with the question of global economy.

AS: I started doing more and more work about global economic questions in the early 1980s. My work was always about economic questions; I would say all my work since the early ’70s has been about the end of the postwar economic boom. My earliest works date from roughly the year when Nixon withdrew the dollar from the gold standard at the end of the Bretton Woods Agreement. But there was the opposition between the Soviet bloc and the United States and the prosperity that followed from this heavily militarized development of the United States during that period, all of which was very strong in California and made the University of California a great university. I was a child of that, but by the time I finished as a student this sense of prosperity was already crumbling.

HH: Yes, the same in Europe actually.

AS: Yes, and it’s becoming tougher. I’m the guy to say the depression is not so far away. It can come back. Unemployment is something people experience. By the early ’80s, it was pretty clear that we were also dealing with this incredible offshoring of production and an increase in the volume of global trade through various technical innovations like containerization. I began to look at that. I had already initiated these projects that I call Geography Lessons. Initially, Fish Story was the third of the Geography Lessons. Then I dropped that generic title. Fish Story became its own whale, and even though it’s a work that I consider finished in 1995, I continue to do these other works on this narrative and same themes because I feel it’s one of my subjects. Another subject is national identity. Which is something I think Bruno and I share—this fascination with national identity at a time when nations are not strongly constructed. Even the strongest nations are full of holes and gaps and lack sovereignty.

HH: Well, as Bruno has said, there’s a difference between a journalist and an artist when facing the same events, the same news in the newspaper. My question is at which moment can one actually say one is an artist? And is this distinction really important?

AS: I often don’t tell people I’m an artist. I’ll say I’m a photographer, a filmmaker, or a writer. Partly because I think in the Anglo-Saxon world, people often think artists are kind of charlatans. Maybe this is less true in France, as there is still a strong artisan sense in France and a respect for artists. But that’s a side point. I think the main point is that I don’t want to judge journalism by the standard product of the apparatus, which is definitely becoming degraded with the decline of print journalism but is also opening up in certain ways with the rise of Internet sites and Internet-based communications. I think with journalists we have an approach where the sense of form is more secondary. But with artists, those questions are often more primary, and so we can come in altering the standard relations of image and text.

BS: Yes, to be anti-photojournalism is not to be against journalism; it is trying to find a new way of speaking of the same subject but following a different method. Maybe because you follow a different method, you can give different information on the subject.

HH: Yes, that might change the essential aspect of your position.

AS: I remember during the 2000 Democratic Convention, in Los Angeles, there was a lot of heavy stuff with the police on the streets. It was one year after Seattle, so they were really trying to control it. There was a very funny demonstration [one night] on the pier in Santa Monica where a bunch of right-wing Democrats held a fundraising party. They had maybe ten different police departments there to keep the protesters away. I was photographing it with fast, pushed film and just the crazy light of the pier. It was great because you had these police horses on the pier and there was horseshit everywhere and all these women coming to the party with high heels walking through the horseshit. That was the most fascinating thing about it. But there were maybe five or six kids who look like [Black Bloc anarchists] with masks on. Of course, all these journalists were just on top of them, waiting for some gesture of violence. I was busy photographing the high heels and the

Bruno_Serralongue-Peacemakers_We_Thank_You

Bruno Serralongue. Peace Makers We Thank You, from Series Carnival of Independence, Sud Soudan, 2011; pigment print on Hahnemühle Baryta FB paper; edition of five; 75 x 55 cm. Courtesy of the Artist.

 

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NOTES:

1. From the exhibition press release, http://www.waltermcbean.com/current_ocean.shtml.

AS (cont.): horseshit and trying to get the light right. In the middle of this, I bumped into Gilles Peress from Magnum, and he said, “Oh, you don’t have a flash. I can’t afford not to have a flash.” At that point, I think, he was doing things for Vanity Fair, and he knew he would get one page, and it was better to get the image than to miss it. Gilles was under a certain pressure to produce the one image, but I did not have to think the same way.

BS: We know that press photographers have maybe one page in a magazine. It’s one photo, maximum two. So they are always chasing the most spectacular image. And for us, we work more in a sequence or série. It is totally different.

HH: So it’s the narrative that involves more contextual information and also that creates a space or distance of suspicion or suspense, or even critique, in that sense.

AS: But someone like Gilles, who is working at an intelligent and smart level, is also able, with certain bodies of his work, to develop that same kind of context that we are talking about. I don’t think we always get nervous when people construct too simplified an image of the thing that they say they are not doing. Because I think the history of modernism is the history of looking down at realism, and realism is what makes you a journalist. We know that there is a poetics in realist language. Whether we are for [Émile] Zola or not, there is as much structural play in Zola, perhaps, as there is in [Stéphane] Mallarmé. But, you know, the poetics of prose is the issue here. We are in the prose genre, and all nonfiction tends toward that. The novel as a form is a form that allows you to paraphrase and quote other genres of speech, forms of dialogue. I think that with documentary photography we should be open to a variety of different visual styles that can be emulated or appropriated within a broader or bigger context to make a work.

HH: And do you think that exhibitions somehow serve as a kind of articulation, an intensified moment to display all these different kinds of forms? Yesterday, Bruno was talking about exhibition as a place where a difference from journalism emerges.

BS: It is not only a place to display a photo in the room. It is about how you perceive it, how the spectator looks at an image. Looking at an image on the wall is totally different from how you look at it in the press, a newspaper, or a magazine. I definitely think the exhibition space is very important to understand the work in a specific way.

HH: With this long film, The Forgotten Space, Allan’s work has entered a new phase. It brings us into the cinema context. It’s also shown in film festivals. How do you decide to shift to this practice? Do you expect the film to be featured in cinema? Or in an exhibition? Or, how about on TV?

AS: We actually made the film with the idea that it would be shown on television as well as in theatres because the initial money came from a fund for public art in Holland. People from the village requested to have an artwork made about their struggle against this container freight line. I said, “Would you consider a film that could show on television as a work of public art? Does television constitute a public?” And we discussed the difference between people seeing it at home and seeing it in the town hall with a meeting and a discussion. We got funding from the VPRO, the Dutch alternate channel, and from ORF, the Austrian state channel. So the film is shown on television in both countries.

After Holland and Austria, we also began to have some cinema distributions in Europe and Northern Ireland. I am showing it at universities, colleges, and art schools. I am open to almost any form of exhibition because I think we are in a time when these things are in flux. But I do think a 113-minute film in an art exhibition context is difficult. You have to provide comfortable seating. Also, it’s not great that people just come in at the middle; maybe we should program it to play at certain hours. But also, there is the fact that I am coming from a more formal screening context. I think we have to be experimental about how films are seen because film festivals are becoming more like art biennials and art biennials are becoming more like film festivals. When you add up all the hours of media material in an art biennial, no one sees everything.

HH: It’s impossible.

AS: No human being could do it. Even the curators would have a hard time. And at the same time every film festival wants to have a little commissioned work in a side gallery. I’ve had slide projections shown as side pieces to film festivals. The decision makers in the film world are getting more and more narrow in terms of what gets produced for broadcast. So we have to find the milieu where the work can get out.

HH: And Bruno, it seems that you have decided not to do films.

BS: It’s not a decision. Maybe I would do a film. Of course, I am really interested in moving images, films, documentary films, everything. But you have to work with a team to make films. You can’t do it alone. For the moment, all the works I have done are done alone. So it’s a big shift if I change the way I work. Maybe I am not ready for this at the moment.

HH: In the process of photographing and filming, do you have much interaction with the subject, the workers on the boat in Allan’s case and the people surrounding the events in Bruno’s case?

AS: Well, without those people you don’t have an image. Without some interaction with them and some way of communicating, you don’t have the image. It strikes me in my portraits of the crew of the ship that the friendliness and the way they project themselves to me has something to do with the fact that I got to know them all over the time of being on the ship. I would not have gotten the same openness and edge of humor. What does it mean that I am calling this The Ship of Fools? Are these people fools? There is a specific literary lineage here, which is that Sebastian Brant’s book [Das Narrenschiff (The Ship of Fools)] had an influence on [Desiderius] Erasmus when Erasmus writes his famous text dedicated to Thomas Moore, The Praise of Folly. And the role of folly in human creativity and resistance to dogma and doctrinal frozenness is very important. Maybe that sounds strange, because I am so identified with the left, that I say that this idea of folly is a creative and critical side of human endeavor. These projects that seem quixotic and to flail at the windmills are often pregnant with the future. They are in on the joke, and that spirit is something I wanted to get.

Allan_Sekula-Churn

Allan Sekula. Churn, from the series Ship of Fools, 1999-2010; 48 x 52 inches. Courtesy of the Artist, Christopher Grimes Gallery, Santa Monica, and Galerie Michel Rein, Paris.

BS: For me as well. This relation is crucial. It’s probably the biggest difference between the way I work and how a photojournalist works. I arrive somewhere, like in Kosovo or in South Sudan, and I don’t know exactly what I can photograph because I don’t have a special permit. When a photojournalist arrives somewhere, he knows what he wants to photograph more or less. I am more open. So the relations with people I meet are extremely important. It gives me different possibilities to explore the subject.

HH: It’s like Foucault’s research on how modernity created this system that contained the folly, contained the things called irrational, irregular, sick, crazy, or criminal. In a way, what makes your work, and also art in general, powerful is that you can transgress these containing borders. Maybe this happens in a very intimate way.

AS: I think so. Though I sometimes wonder when we overgeneralize and we say all art is on the side of madness, and virtually any art exhibition made today makes a claim for transgression. You should know whether it’s the transgression of the rules of art or transgression of the social standards. So we need to have a clearer sense of our targets. What precisely are we transgressing here?

But I’ve always been fascinated with the discourse of the people who are living close to the street, people who develop language as a kind of poetic way of dealing with the hard life. You meet street people in cities like San Francisco, and they start talking to you in a kind of poetic way. This fascinates me; there is a kind of truth in that. And I would like to respect that. Then sometimes I wonder how does that verbal model then translate into images?

Bruno_Serralongue-South_Sudan

Bruno Serralongue. Brothers and Sisters Come Back Home, from Series Carnival of Independence, Sud Soudan, 2011; pigment print on Hahnemühle Baryta FB paper; edition of five; 75 x 55 cm. Courtesy of the Artist.

HH: Maybe a few words on the Occupy movement? Because that’s exactly coming back to this question of general claims against capitalism today.

BS: Well, occupy is just an empty word. It’s a nice word. But you have to do something with it. Because if you occupy a square, like in San Francisco, who cares? You can stay weeks, months, but you only create an image. Maybe it’s good to have this image. But it’s probably limited in a way.

AS: Well, the thing that is radical about it is this idea that we are all homeless. That if we all start behaving like homeless people and try to live on the street…I think the imaginative leap for the Occupy people was to live on the street like the homeless and welcome the homeless into their camps, which created all kinds of tensions.

BS: It’s really important. But what will happen if we are open to those situations somewhere else, in Africa or in the poor countries where people don’t want to live like homeless? They want to have nice houses and a good living, and so these two movements would be in conflict.

AS: That is absolutely right. But where do these things converge? Where do you make a dialogue that says, Okay, there is a dialectic here of some kind?

HH: In a way I always think that May 1968 was a petit bourgeois revolution or intellectual claim for a certain freedom. But that is the contradiction of all revolutions.

AS: But one thing that has advanced since then is the understanding, especially from the Italians, of the proletariatization of the so-called creative classes or the intellectual labor. Now this kind of impermanence, this précaire—in English we can’t really say it—this kind of flexibility we are all supposed to see as a condition of our life is being imposed brutally on us. In that sense, everyone is a potential migrant. There is a big difference between the developed world and the undeveloped world, or developing world. But this précarité is a recipe that we have to fight against. People want security. But theatricalizing insecurity is a step, and it seems to provoke interesting, dramatic assertions from those in power. So in some ways the message of Occupy goes back to very old social reform and progressive currents. But how to push it to be more articulate, to focus on the real economy as an answer to the deprivations of the financial economy? This is a struggle. We need expertise, knowledge.

 

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Allan Sekula is a Los Angeles–based photographer, writer, and filmmaker who, for the past three decades, has been traveling around the world to document the impacts of globalization on the everyday life of people and social systems. His critical examination has focused on the maritime economy, namely intercontinental transportations. In his long-term engagement with this adventure, he has developed interrelated exhibitions, books, and films such as Fish Story, Lottery of the Sea, Ship of Fools, and The Forgotten Space. These works reveal the complexity, contradictions, and violence of this key sector of global capitalism and help voice the muffled claims of those who risk their lives laboring in the system.

Parisian photographer Bruno Serralongue has developed a distinctive body of work that questions the truth of photographic representation and how images are produced, disseminated, and circulated in contemporary contexts. He pursues traces of media events that marked key moments in regions facing geopolitical changes: global economic and social forums, celebrations of new independent nations such as Kosovo and South Sudan in the aftermaths of civil wars, strikes and labor conflicts. Instead of seeking spectacular images of these events in the voyeuristic and dramatic style of paparazzi, Serralongue chooses to catch angles excluded from the mainstream media’s framings of “reality” and surmounts considerable difficulties to cover events in his independent manner. Through images such as campfires in the campsite of striking workers at the New Fabris factory in Châtellerault, France, Serralongue symbolizes rage and determination in the face of exploitation and oppression.

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