Unanchored, Destabilized: About Some Artists’ Books Using Photography – Q&A with Katja Gentric, part #2
In this second installment of her interview about artists’ books using photography in particular experimental or innovative ways, scholar Katja Gentric focuses on six works.
Read part #1 here.
One of the most prolific examples I could give you is Barthélémy Toguo who is the author of quite a number of artist’s books with extensive use of photography as part of the process, often combining drawing and photography in collages.
In Die Tageszeitung (1), Toguo has patiently covered the text of the daily newspaper in graphite, miming a rudimentary form of drawing and conceptualizing the artist’s intervention into printed matter; only the photographs in the “Tageszeitung” remain visible. The result is a commentary on the caricatural view on culture produced in the daily press for the general public and, worse still, the over-simplified, exaggerated way in which anything related to cultural difference is portrayed. In Migrateurs (1999) and Labyrinth process (2000) Toguo combines photography with typography. Head above water (since 2004), not strictly speaking an artist’s book, is a series of post-cards produced while travelling and inviting locals met by chance to comment on some essential aspect of their social and political day-to-day reality. Working in this procedural method, accumulating postcards (and with them a certain kind of image), linked to the itinerant way of life of the (artist)traveller, Toguo creates a work which adopts the seriality of the book format, even if the individual units are not bound.
Robin Rhode is known for his inventive approach combining performance, wall drawing and stop-frame animation – or creating comic strips with photographs combining an actor and drawings. The same serial technique has led him to the obvious solution of a flipbook (2). In this case, the book literally transcribes the process. By using the technical circumstances of the book (it is page-by-page organization), the illusion of movement is created. Robin Rhode’s brief stories read like comic fables or tall tales. What I find interesting in the way Rhode’s series of images are produced is the awareness of the intense activity going on between the visible moments – between the moments when the shutter release button is pressed. I imagine the artist and his team busily repainting the wall, changing the drawings, moving all objects, the photographer preparing the next frame, the team waiting for the sun to move on or, if need be they adapt the lights, finally the performer gets into the next pose, etc. Rhodes plays with all the parameters of the photographic process, where the essential part of the action goes ahead behind the scenes or outside the frame. Or let us put it this way: the photographic procedure seems all-important, even if it does not meet the eye. In the flipbook or in the comic strip the fable goes ahead, uninhibited.
The book by Marc Johnson, Lacune féconde/Fecund lacuna (3), comes out of a research project linked to an exhibition, and is the result of Johnson’s exchange with the institute INRAP (“Insititut national de recherches archéologiques préventives” or National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research). This book might be referred to as a philosophical adventure or a “metaphor for an archeological dig under exploration”, the whiteness of the empty page being referred to as unexplored territory: the lacuna. Johnson juxtaposes archival archaeological images with texts by specialists in the fields of paleogenomics and posthuman theory: starting with images from Sterkfontein (one of the South-African sites studied for possibly being the earliest known fossils of Australopithecus) and spanning to transhumanist and posthumanist theories touching on predictions by means of gene technologies and algorithms. The imagery reproduced and the techniques discussed by the specialists are the most advanced methods used in the sciences, medical technology, forensic methods, photogrammetry etc. Apart from conceiving the project, the main intervention of the artist is the layout and the book design (in collaboration with graphic design by Baldinger-Vu-Huu). The photographs are inserted in amongst the text without any framing or bordering, which means the text is interrupted by images not directly illustrating its content. Johnson works with a second interruption, creating the effect of a reply by a third person in a conversation: on the verso of the images he leaves the slightly transparent paper blank. This further enhances the impression that the pages act as archaeological layering would…
Keith Dietrich’s Fourteen stations of the cross (4) is a publication in three volumes held in a slip-case. The first volume contains essays presenting research on the historical moment of the pioneer period of Christianity on the south point of Africa. The second book dedicates separate sections to each of the fourteen provisional mission outposts established in southern Africa from 1736 to 1813. Dietrich uses satellite images showing the geographic position of the stations; we see rough mountainside, lines of rivers or roads and dry desert in bird’s eye view. The satellite images are overlaid with a graphic labyrinth. Dietrich has printed the satellite view as well as an extreme close-up of the ground as negatives, which gives these images a strange removed atmosphere. Each section contains a computer enhanced photograph of a baptismal filled with water, the surface reflecting a window. On these pages Dietrich also prints the names given to those baptised here: a long, almost never-ending litany of colonial, “Christian”, names, effacing the name the individuals carried before their conversion. The third book contains close-up images of the soil, a “path” into the river. Dietrich swivelled his camera downwards and photographed the ground meter-by-meter, step-by-step, commencing on the riverbank and moving into the river. The photographs are printed in one continuous strip of nine metres that can be folded out. It is as though each time the shutter opens and closes, one painful step is taken and imprinted on memory, (remembered) in an indelible extreme close-up. There is a sensuous quality about this intimate look at the rock bed, soil, dry grasses and other plant matter, some trodden-down, some visibly carried and deposited here by the river, footprints in the sand, insects, traces left in the mud by snails or birds, shadows cast by the grasses and the irregularities of the surface, … pebbles under our feet and the water we come to stand in, in search of redemption. The book is meant to be a lamentation of cruelties inflicted in the name of the “higher” goals pursued by these stations.
The book Not No Place, Johannesburg. Fragments of Spaces and Times (5) by Bettina Malcomess and Dorothee Kreutzfeldt is the result of a research-project over several years. Taking their cue from Walter Benjamin’s Arcade project in that their research is presented in the form of a montage of images and fragmented text, Malcomess and Kreutzfeldt refer to “material history” becoming evident in an “approach that takes a built structure as a point from which to speak about how the city unconsciously projects and literally constructs its own image” (p. 11). Texts and images are partly authored by Malcomess or Kretzfeldt; others are archive material or contributed by their interlocutors: friends, fellow artists, kindred researchers, some are extracts from existing publications, producing a layered lexicon-like montage. The reader can navigate through the pages and separate sections with the help of an index seconded by an index map, evidencing the links between the different key words and entries. This organization allows catering for the changing (and sometimes contradictory) significations attached to certain notions over time and under regime changes. The research process included the two author’s own trajectories and iterations through the city. In this process some significant sites (“not no place”) became the venues of performances where the texts to be included in the book were read on the site they reference, photographic material from these performances is in turn included in the book.
Letter to Lagat (6), by Sam Hopkins and Simon Rittmeier, approaches the highly polemical question of African collections held in ethnographic museums established during colonial rule, as though it were a fictive detective story. The cultural objects in question have here disappeared: when? why? who took them? Taking advantage of an ethnographic collection being moved to new premises, using (fictive) forensic working-methods the artists spin their yarn. A stack of found (analogue) photographs stored in a shoebox and forgotten in the attic of the empty museum serves as a starting point for the quest. The artists “conjure up” virtual simulations of the disappeared objects, using footage from the security cameras, making use of stamp size jpj files in the museum’s data base, 3D volumes though the use of a 3D printer, interviewing the staff – everything cutting-edge technology allows in a contemporary police inquiry. Palpable absence hovers about the 3D replicas which become a three-dimensional representation of loss, “of the knowledge that disappeared with the epistemic violence of the colonial project” – a memorial to the loss of the original? The “originals” have disappeared a first time in the communities who created them and a second time from the museum that had become their guardian. Photographs of the 3D replicas, made by the professional museum photographer, are in turn included in the artist’s book which is first and foremost all a performative process including not only the “detectives” and their “assistants” moving through the empty building, but also the traces they find. The objects shaped the way the people moved in the building – once the objects are gone, the only thing visible are the traces these movements left (and which the detective-artists photographed in turn). The book is accompanied by a text by Kitso Lynn Lelliott titled “The nearby, the gaps and what is missing”.
These examples are multiples by virtue of the publication process. Their multiplicity and affordability (“democracy” if we follow Anne Mœglin-Delcroix, op. cit, pp. 105-147) is part of their concept. Beyond this they have in common the circumstance that they take their cue from a process, which is then translated into the book format. This work is as much an artistic research project, an intervention or an action before being a publication.
Artist and art historian, Katja Gentric completed her studies in South Africa and in France. In 2017 /2018 she is an associate researcher at the Centre Georges Chevrier, Dijon, France and post-doctoral fellow at the University of the Free State, South Africa.
(6) Strzelecki Books, Cologne, 2015.