Immersed, Brian Dillon, Camden Arts Centre Filenotes, 2015
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Immersed, Brain Dillon
— This text was first published in Camden Art Centre filenotes, 2015
Time and again in the photographs and films of Hannah Collins one encounters a paradox regarding the arts of travel and arrival. ‘My journeys have just a skeletal intention,’ she has written, ‘I experience a lightness that I never feel at home.’ This lightness is in her work too: a delicately conceptual and sometimes humorous play with objects, places and the image itself. But a kind of weight insists also, a density of concentration on object or scene. You could say, too easily, that this quality derives from composition and style: the way that some of Collins’s photographs fill the gaze, metres wide, or cram the field of the picture with things and textures that threaten to overflow. But her work is intimate and immersive in other ways too; if Collins is a traveller, it’s in the mode of a travelling shot — this is literally the mode of her film Solitude and Company (2008) — moving ever deeper and closer to a subject that remains somehow poised and not quite known.
Consider the photographic works she made in Hackney in the 1980s, when her methods frequently involved annexing to the studio items discovered near at hand in the not-yet- regenerated east end of London. ‘My aim was to create a momentary place or a real-life scale. The temporary combinations seemed to liberate each from its origins.’ In Grapes (1989) a wobbly tower of balloons describes a cartoonish rendering of a bunch of grapes. In Family (1988) an arrangement of dilapidated-looking speaker cabinets composes a comically formal group portrait; the objects have been borrowed from a club next door, but they inhabit the studio as if it were a domestic space. Home, in fact, is a recurring subject in these early works. Thin Protective Coverings II (1987) shows an expanse of cardboard boxes opened out to cover floor and part of a wall behind, where they meet large sheets of transparent plastic. The stuff of temporary dwellings constructed by the homeless expands to remake the studio, opening it up to the world outside the photograph. (It’s a feature of many of Collins’s photographs, this sense that the subject does not stop at the edges of the image.)
The word ‘liminal’ is too frequently applied to works of art that involve incomplete translations from one medium or milieu to another, or which explore real places at the edges or frontiers of geopolitical safety and privilege. With Collins the journey to the edge is only part of the point of her travels; what also matters is the quality of attention and immersion that occurs there — it is never enough merely to note the extremity of a place or a way of life, the artist must also extract something more ambiguous, formally and conceptually taxing, from it. The first such journey for Collins was to Istanbul, a city that seemed to her, in such photographs as Signs of Life, Istanbul (1992), with its crumbling and patched-up factory walls, to exist in a condition of ruination and accretion at the same time. Collins lived in Spain for many years, and on the outskirts of Barcelona she made La Mina (2001-04), a complex multiscreen film that involved her deeply in the gypsy culture that had been there for centuries. Such journeys require levels of intimacy and collaboration that have only been heightened in her most recent work.
You can witness the delicacy and danger of this engagement very clearly in The Fertile Forest, Collins’s series of photographs of medicinal plants taken (mostly) deep in the rainforest of the Amazon basin. The Ticuna, Inga and Cofan people with whom Collins travelled know thousands of such species: ‘As I walked further with them through the forest I began to appreciate the environment as a three-dimensional presence. Plants hung from the great height of the trees. The flowers revealed their presence with fallen petals. Ferns and creepers spread along the ground or nestled in rotting trunks.’ As Collins tells it the process of being led to these plants was an education in a new type of looking. The resulting photographs often show clearly which plant is to be looked at, but frequently the object of attention is ambiguous or unclear, and forest lushness fills the picture with the same enigmatic force that cardboard and balloons and borrowed speakers did in Collins’s early work. These photographs confront us with our own lack of skill and knowledge at precisely the moment they immerse us in the scene. There must be another kind of knowing, they suggest: exact but hallucinatory.
As regards Collins the traveller, there is perhaps no more exposing nor risky journey than into the work of another artist, and especially one whose own immersive excursion to the edge of things is or was so resonant. The African-American artist Noah Purifoy, whose exhibition 66 Signs of Neon repurposed detritus from the Watts riots of 1965, and who was subsequently a pivotal figure in the nexus of art, education and civic duty in California, relocated to the Mojave Desert where he constructed over a hundred sculptural and installation works. Collins’s photographs frame these works — a homage to Frank Gehry in corrugated metal, a wooden lattice based on a gallows from the Clint Eastwood western Hang ‘Em High — with expanses of desert and sky that recall the great American landscape photographers and the interiors of Walker Evans, whose 1966 book Message From the Interior provides a container for smaller reproductions Collins’s images of Purifoy’s desert assemblages.
Accompanying the eighteen large-scale prints themselves are the artist’s recorded interviews with figures associated with Purifoy and his first politically forceful and visible work. Among these, the artist John Outterbridge voices an astonishing metaphor for the predicament of African Americans in the wake of Watts, though it might also be an image for any artist’s proximity and distance from his or her subject: ‘We had no nation, we had no heart. Though, a lot of times you would take it out, and it would still be beating, and you would ask: “Could you use this? You want it? I don’t have any use for it.”’
Brian Dillon’s books include The Great Explosion (Penguin, 2015), Objects in This Mirror: Essays (Sternberg, 2014) and Ruin Lust (Tate, 2014). His writing has appeared in Artforum, frieze, the Guardian, the New York Times and London Review of Books. He is UK editor of Cabinet magazine, and teaches critical writing at the Royal College of Art.
The Hospitable Universe, Inka Schube, Sprengel Catalogue, 2014
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The Hospitable Universe, Inka Schube
— This text first appeared in the catalogue accompanying Hannah Collins exhibition at the Sprengel Museum in Hannover in 2015.
Against the accident of limits, the tree needs you to give it your superabundant images, nurtured in your intimate space, in ‘this space that has its being in you.’ Gaston Bachelard 1
Spaces, it is said, are like covers that wrap themselves around people and testify to them even when they are no longer there.2 The British artist Hannah Collins seems to have her own special interest in such covers, sheaths and skins. She finds them and translates them into suggestive images: she invites us to ‘inhabit’ these spaces anew.
In her work, Collins lays trails in the history of this and last century. They often lead to territories that rarely conform to traditional conceptions of hospitability, those reserved for the uprooted and nomadic.
Nevertheless, it would inadmissibly diminish the artist’s work if we were to interpret it as being focused on social and political exclusion, as drawing on the preoccupation with and anticipation of the experience of the ‘other’. For in Collins’ work, a dualistic distinction of one kind or another between ‘self’ and ‘other’ does not play a truly fundamental role. Instead, it is a question of the multiplicity, of the radical plurality of different interests and ways of life, of a comprehensive, reciprocal and perhaps best termed cosmic hospitability of the world – including ruptures, fissures, productive conflicts and differences of all kinds.
Collins’ work constitutes an on-going, rhizomatic research project on this subject. Encountering it means first and foremost entering worlds of images that ‘wrap’ themselves around the look. There are the delicately protective skins, the studio interiors hosting large- scale performances and installations. There are the equally large, in some cases more than six metres wide pictures of mostly unspectacular but historically highly charged locations – the road leading to Auschwitz, and Nelson Mandela’s childhood home. There is the photographic and audio collage on assemblage artist Noah Purifoy (1917–2004) and his
legacy in the Californian desert. There is the strictly photographic and at the same time psychedelically labyrinthine series of over a hundred pictures from the Colombian rainforest that engages intellectually and bodily with the culture of its inhabitants. This list could be continued. Her works always come with an invitation to enter her panoramic pictorial worlds.
Collins’ research is tied to experiences in situ, experiences of the physicality of things and situations. Spaces construct themselves from selected perceptions of manmade and natural objects and their interrelations. In doing so, Collins – and it is not only here that we see an affinity to performance – comprehends her own body as a kind of medium: experiences of self and non-self, conscious and unconscious perceptions and knowledge accumulate and distil in this medium and contribute to the development of film and photographic images and their symbolic orders.
Collins often finds her material on her travels, at places momentous for the understanding of history and the individual’s place in it – or in situations permitting an extended experience of the self on levels transcending the rational and effable.
In other cases, she brings objects to her studio and asks people along as well. In the sober austerity of these laboratory-like set-ups, she develops vivid models of and for experience and encounters.
Despite all this, Collins’ work is peculiarly poetic. Even in those instances where she photographs streets, a public space or a building, it possesses a surreal dimension. As if it were not a question of rendering something visible, but of overcoming customary ways of seeing; as if the images were conversing among themselves; as if they were mounting secret but stubborn resistance to the order that photography and film inevitably install. Concealed in the suggestive tidiness of the large format photographic prints, in the greys of her melancholic black and white, in the films and in the extensive smaller-format picture cycles lies an intractable diversity of voices, a rustling, a murmur and a hum that Collins brings, to a greater or lesser degree, to the surface. In her art, language is of elementary significance, be it as a picture title, as a sound or as a narrative accompanying the work (as in this and earlier of the artist’s publications).
Take, for example, Solitude and Company, a film opus dating from 2008. It opens with historic shots taken inside and outside a factory. In a new montage and bathed in broken colours, they mark the start of an almost 60-minute camera tracking shot, cut only three times, through the expanses of a now derelict factory shop. The view changes slowly, very slowly, as we move through the rooms. The delapidated and abandoned Modernist hall of festivities is articulated with columns and dipped in a Rembrandt-esque light tracing the sun’s path. Disconnected feed and discharge pipes project from the ceilings, floors and walls as vestiges of various epochs and purposes.
And while we accommodate ourselves to this different way of seeing intensified by the slowness of progress, while our look gauges the morbid beauty of this murky space, we hear water flowing, leaves rustling and birds singing, and we hear voices recounting dreams. Someone is the president and is regulating the world’s water requirements. Someone can fly and is gliding homewards. Someone is talking to a gazelle. Someone wants to understand what the evidently taboo word ‘harki’ 3 means.
The Place we see is the La Tossée wool-combing mill built in Roubaix, France, in 1871. It has been empty for many years when Collins, local guest professor, comes across it. The Lille metropolitan area to which the town on the border with Belgium belongs has a high rate of unemployment, like other European centres of heavy industry. Disused industrial sites and crumbling production installations testify to economic decline. Collins sees the challenge of placing the commemoration of the building and its materiality in a context with those living in the town today.
For the soundtrack, she works together with the Algerian DJ Boulaone and a locally resident Algerian community. It is characteristic of Collins’ modus operandi that she asks people not about their real lives and times but about their dreams. So we have, on the one hand, the history-laden one-time production shop in its picturesque beauty, and, on the other, the
disembodied voices of those closely associated with it. Interior and exterior experience intermingle, and the sound adds to the picture the dimension that lies beyond the factual.
What as text, as a level extending the visual, can be heard and experienced in Solitude and Company often finds expression in the photographs in the interplay between the picture and its title. An example of this is Family, a black and white photograph measuring 275 x 350 cm and dating from 1988. The box-like loudspeakers laconically constituting a fragile studio situation have obviously seen better times, perhaps once part of the equipment of an underground rock or punk band. The kind of sound they produce is left to our imagination, as the photo resonates solely with the title assigned to it and with the ungainly wording ‘Sweet Daddy Majestic’ emblazoned on several of the speakers, large and small. Like on a stage with dramatic lighting (as if light were admitted through an opened door), they represent a community in which each has its own specific potential, role and possibilities, despite the differences in size and wear. What could be more obvious than to interpret Family as a portrait of kinship or of a metaphor of inner-familial structures and their in some cases subliminal but always powerful presence?
Here, as with other pictures taken in the studio, the obvious field of reference for viewers familiar with art history is the tradition of genre and still-life painting. Seen from this point of view, the loudspeakers could be a kind of re-interpretation of the depiction of musical instruments in Dutch painting, for example. There they symbolise the sense of hearing, the allusion to the elusiveness of sound and to impermanence in general. The picture Grapes (1989), for example, can be read perhaps as a bacchantic symbol; or, from the Book of Numbers in the Bible, as the Grapes of Canaan that showed the people of Israel their way to the Promised Land after their exodus from Egypt: but the people rebelled and refused to follow this route and were thereupon punished by God with 40 years of wandering in the desert. The salt that can be found in several of the artist’s sculptural configurations, such as in Salt (5) (1995), has been so richly imbued with symbolism in cultural history that there is no need to even start a list here.
However, the photographs always also lay trails in the debates about picture making, and, with its title, Family may refer psychologically and/ or allegorically to a philosophical background. It leads us to postmodern interest in the function and significance of linguistic signs. ‘Family resemblance’, 4 a concept coined by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) and important in the postmodernism debate, is for the philosopher the ordering principle of the grammar of everyday language. 5 It is the key criterion for the conception of the indefinability, vagueness and imprecision of terms that only ever ‘resemble’ each other, as they are repeatedly renegotiated in different applications, so-called ‘language games’, and can never be identical. This in turn is the basis for a fundamental structural openness and mobility of communication and for the social exchange taking place within it. In the resultant paradigm of radical multiplicity and plurality, responsible action formulates itself in directing special attention to the affective, unconsidered, marginal and paradoxical, as it is not ‘translatable into computer language’6 of the high-tech present. This is an approach that Collins consistently pursues in her work.
Guided via the sense of form and structure, Family is therefore far more than the opportunity for an engagement with the psychological aspects of family ties or with a contemporary variant of the allegorical motif of impermanence. Family refers at the same time to a theoretical and philosophical concept of the social mediated by language: in a subliminal, poetically sensuous, surreal way – in a seemingly paradoxical, productively disconcerting superimposition of real silence and imagined sound.
In her work, Collins not only explores her own biography: a childhood with a Jewish intellectual background in Scotland, in which work with and on language through her mother’s job at Penguin Books is just as omnipresent as her father’s realities coloured by paranoid schizophrenia. This is followed by her course at the Slade School of Art in London from 1974 to 1978. The artist Rita Donagh (b. 1939) working on the themes of social identity against the background of the troubles in Northern Ireland is lecturing here at the time: Paul Klee, Victor Pasmore, Richard Hamilton, Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol are among the artists who have made their impression on Donagh’s own development. Collins’ years of study coincide with the period in which London is painfully confronted with the consequences of its decline as a port and trading centre and with a rapid series of terrorist bombings by the IRA, the period in which inflation and unemployment reach unprecedented levels and squatting is a daily occurrence. These are the years in which Marcel Broodthaers (1924–1976) brings the legacy of Surrealism – extended notably to include institutional criticism 7 – to London, in which the Sex Pistols annoy the British establishment with God Save the Queen (1977) and Never Mind the Bollocks (1977), and which Derek Jarman powerfully documents with such films as Jubilee (1978) in which the semiotic systems of dissident counterculture and history-saturated high culture are interwoven.
It is the period in which the concept of Postmodernism rises to prominence in the cultural debate. Philosophical foundations are laid by such writings as The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979) by Jean-François Lyotard (1924–1998). Attention is now trained no longer on the grand narratives of Modernism legitimising themselves in Idealism, Enlightenment and Reason, but on an endless, non-hierarchical and non-consensus-oriented multiplicity of voices and narratives. Collins’ interest in social marginalisation and the shadowy sides of existence can also be interpreted in this connection.
It is possible to discover links with Broodthaers in Collins’ work: crustaceans (cf. Broodthaers’ Pot of Mussels, 1968, among others), the passage (A Voyage on the North Sea, 1973) and the inscribed room (La Salle blanche, 1975) are common to both. Even the caged bird (Le Perroquet, 1974) as tracked down in her image of a gypsy youth with caged bird, Manu with bird 2 (2007), a single image from her work in and on La Mina (2001–2004), a 5-channel video film that concentrates on the culture of Spain’s Romani at loggerheads with Modernism. American photography in the tradition of Walker Evans (1903–1975) impresses itself upon Collins during a post-graduation stay in the USA made possible by a Fulbright scholarship. And it looks as if there is indeed a direct line of connection between the pictures of roads, urban spaces and landscapes, her details of the discovered and the found, taken in Poland, Istanbul and South Africa and the photographs of French Eugène Atget (1857– 1927). The latter’s pictures also reached Walker Evans as a result of the active interest of the Surrealists. In the context of their poetic language games, the photographic archive created by Atget in Paris at the turn of the century had revealed itself as a projection space for the unconscious and the subconscious, ideal for symbolic, metaphorical and metaphysical interpretations. The reception of this photographer’s work is closely tied to the shaping of an understanding of photographic images in the ambivalence of pictorial autonomy and the representation of the real.
Although, or precisely because, Collins’ pictures are exact and at first sight unspectacular, they are so extraordinarily open to interpretation and projection. Nevertheless, they are anything but arbitrary. Their symbolic orders are steeped in cultural and social history and their materiality testifies to reality. All the same, within them lies a grandeur that, beyond language, allows the poetic imagination to enter their often frameless ‘suchness’.
This catalogue is published to mark the presentation of the »SPECTRUM« International Prize for Photography of the Stiftung Niedersachsen to Hannah Collins. It extends the exhibition accompanying the award to include a range of works affording a deeper insight into the artist’s oeuvre.
Not only will this make an encounter with the artist’s work possible for the first time in the German-speaking world, but two extensive new works, The Interior and the Exterior – Noah Purifoy (2014) and The Fertile Forest (2013–14), specially produced for Hannover, are also being presented.
In addition, the volume offers different avenues of approach to Hannah Collins’ work: The American born British American art critic Gilda Williams places the artist’s work in the context of the cultural theory of the 1980s as a kind of emotional cartography. Resorting to a term coined by John L. Cotter, she regards it as ‘above-ground archaeology’ and draws attention to relations with the work of artists like Robert Smithson (1938– 1973) and Ed Ruscha (b. 1937). Williams describes the horizon as one of the central features of her output and thus also refers implicitly to the philosopher Gaston Bachelard (1883–1962) and his phenomenology of the imagination proposed in his text The Poetics of Space. 8 It is possible also to comprehend Hannah Collins work as archaeological in these contexts.
The philosopher Stephan Günzel approaches the artist’s work via the term ‘response’ which he interprets in terms of ‘responsibility’. Günzel encourages us to regard Collins herself as a secular medium who establishes lines of communication between different experiences of time.
The question of responsibility plays a central role in the artist’s work at all times. The British philosopher Richard Noble has kindly permitted us to reprint his essay ‘Bird Land’ in this volume. He deals at length with one of Collins’ key works, the film project La Mina. Although this cannot be shown in the exhibition, it occupies such a central position in the artist’s work that it should not be passed over here. Noble provides an in-depth analysis of this work whose intricate poetic and documentary complexity can be considered the hallmark of Hannah Collins’ oeuvre.
1. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. by Maria Jolas (French La poétique de l’éspace, 1958), , Boston: Beacon Press 1994 p. 200.
2. Andreas Baur/Bernd Stiegler/Felix Thürlemann et al. (ed.), Wozu Bilder? Gebrauchsweisen der Fotografie, Exh. cat. for Villa Merkel, Esslingen; Cologne: Snoeck 2013, p. 142.
3. Originally a term for Algerian Muslims who sided with the French army during the Algerian War (1954–1962).
4. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Oxford: Blackwell, 1953, § 66, p. 15.
5 See Anat Biletzki/Anat Matar, ‘Ludwig Wittgenstein’, esp. Ch. 3.4, in: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL: http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/wittgenstein/ (retrieved 2 February 2015).
6. Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. By Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (French La condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir, 1979), ed. by Peter Engelmann, Manchester: Manchester University Press 1984, p. 4.
7. In 1974 Petersburg Press, London, stages the exhibition ‘Marcel Broodthaers, Un Voyage en Mer du Nord’, and in 1977 the Tate Gallery, London, devotes a posthumous solo exhibition to the artist.
8. Bachelard 1987 (see note 1).
Emotional Cartography, Gilda Williams, Sprengel Catalogue, 2014
Emotional Cartography, Gilda Williams, 2014
In 1980 – the opening year of the Postmodern decade – cultural theorist Raymond Williams published his influential essay ‘Ideas of Nature’1 which shattered any clear demarcation between the ‘natural’ and the ‘manmade’ landscape. As Williams theorised, the built environment is but an accumulation of social, historical, topographical, and economic causes, hidden in plain sight in the world around us. The outdated notion of ‘landscape’ as combining the unpredictability of Nature with the rationality of human management crumbles in the many places where inhabitants struggle to survive human intervention.
Williams’ ideas eventually crystallised in a pioneering concept: ‘Cultural Landscape’, a new discipline pulling together separate fields: history, sociology, economics, anthropology, and urban studies, among others. The landscape was re-conceived as an active product and producer of a place. Such a vision disrupted the natural/manmade division while also replacing the Modernist conception of the environment as a potential tabula rasa, to be razed and rebuilt from scratch. Modernism had not proven a shining new beginning – just another layer to be reckoned with.
In that same year (1980) the artist and filmmaker Hannah Collins had just finished a year- long tour of the U.S. courtesy of a Fulbright scholarship. Her interest in her surrounding world was influenced by her own self-reckoning as an artist; to understand the complex human-natural-economic- political world in which she lived also meant for Collins to interrogate her place within it, and how this might be expressed in her art. Just as the developing concept of a ‘Cultural Landscape’ served to incorporate numerous approaches within it, Hannah Collins’ art not only crossed the social, architectural, and historic through the use of overlapping media (photography, installation, documentary, and filmmaking), but hinged on an impetus towards self-awareness. There is an abiding self-questioning of her recurring need to travel and unravel both different and sympathetic histories; her films are about the unseen observer – both the artist and the viewer. In her films – such as those in which she investigated the outskirts of Barcelona (La Mina, 2001–2004), or the North African population in a former industrial town of northern France (Solitude and Company, 2008) – the artist is central to the work, yet rarely seen. Having survived ‘growing up without a sense of permanence and place’ due to the suffering of her paranoid schizophrenic father, she has developed into an artist with uncommon powers of empathetic interest.
I would describe her practice as an ‘emotional cartography’: mapping through sounds and imagery the places inhabited by people about whom she wishes to tell us something. Her desire to transmit an overall close emotional experience results in the recurring, immersive quality of her art – whether in the immense, 5 x 7 metres photos functioning like life-size stage sets; or the film and photo works combining sound (such as The Interior and the Exterior – Noah Purifoy, 2014, which includes voices recounting the history and culture that she documents, or Solitude and Company incorporating ambient music by the local DJ Boulaone); the room-size La Mina installation; or the scale that she bestows upon small things, such as oysters transformed into a sensuous presence. We are asked not just to look at her images but perhaps to revisit the physical and emotional engagement that she experienced when observing them.
Born in the 1950s, Hannah Collins spent her early childhood enjoying the natural beauty and freedom afforded on the isolated Scottish isle of Arran, before moving to London. As a young woman she found herself living and working in the East End where she produced her early photographs, mostly interiors, such as Thin Protective Coverings (1986) and The Violin Player (1988). Exhibiting in noted commercial spaces from London’s Interim Art and Matt’s Gallery to the legendary Leo Castelli in New York, Collins’ large scale, semi- constructed photographs gained the attention of the international art world. In 1991 she won the European Photography Award, and, in 1993, was nominated for the Turner Prize.
In 1988, Collins moved to Barcelona. Her travels have taken her to Eastern Europe – perhaps in pursuit of familial roots – as well as wholly unfamiliar places: from Istanbul, to the Joshua Tree desert (The Interior and the Exterior – Noah Purifoy, 2014), to the Amazon (The Fertile Forest, 2014). One potential theme at the heart of Hannah Collins’ work is the concept of ‘occupation’: how do we humans occupy space – physically and symbolically; artistically, architecturally, economically or socially? How do we ‘occupy’ roles and positions in both the local and the wider society? How do we ‘occupy’ ourselves in the sense of earning a livelihood? And, finally, how does art occupy space – does it stretch across a wall, like the bank of five screens in La Mina; or occupy a wall and almost ‘stand’ on the floor, just like us, in giant mural-like photographs? Or do we engage in a close, intimate relationship, as with her photobooks or the many small photographs stretching on the long shelf-like structure making up the installation The Fertile Forest? Each of us, Collins’ works seem to say, must define and occupy a ‘position’, and the artist seems indefatigably interested in documenting how the forces of creativity, material and emotional needs, as well as macrocosmic political/economic policies shape those choices, or how the subcultures existing as microcosms within the city – whether Rome, Madrid, London – seem, despite shifting histories, to return to recurring local patterns of occupation, century after century.
Other artists have similarly attempted to observe a comprehensive view of the occupied landscape. Robert Smithson, for example, with Spiral Jetty (1970) not only drew together the vastness of geological time with the finite nature of historic time (particularly, the Gold Rush), but presented his findings in multiple media – the Great Salt Lake earthwork itself as well as photographs, drawings, and a film. Collins too documents her art-making across media, such as Parallel, 2007, her work with African immigrants in three European cities, which exists as a photobook and film installation.
Another artist of Smithson’s generation, Ed Ruscha, in photobooks such as Thirtyfour Parking Lots (1967), serially captured from the air how the virgin American earth is transformed by the automobile, regimented into rows of straight lines. I was reminded of Ruscha in an image from La Mina, in which Collins photographs from a balcony, far above the city pavement, children’s chalk-drawings of swirling magical birds and fiery dragons – like Ruscha’s hard-edged Los Angeles grid, reborn in Barcelona as flamenco-dancing mythological creatures. Collins’ methods of investigation and display embrace the sedimented nature of human and natural space that Smithson and Ruscha envisioned, enacting what anthropologist John L. Cotter called ‘above ground archaeology’2 (1974): not so much digging underground for hidden signs of the past but acknowledging the aboveground signs of time’s passage, and the lingering effects on both the inhabitants and the landscape itself. When looking at Collins’ artworks since her very earliest pictures, the temptation arises to read them as allegories. In The Plate Spinner (1985) an intensely skilled man spins atop tall sticks a glowing array of a dozen plates, all flatly perched and precariously balanced, creating a strange, floating horizon in perpetual motion. This figure might symbolise a complicatedly balanced system, hovering on the verge of collapse, about to disappear for all time. In Thin Protective Coverings we see the freely available street-material of cardboard boxes which the young artist hauled back to her east London studio: as if a symbol for her own emotional defences, opened up and laid bare in their vulnerability; or like Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, splayed open to demonstrate how hollow they really are. In The Violin Player (1988) we see a violin-playing female friend of Collins, balancing on a sea of mattresses covering the floor. In this enclosed space, an anonymous violin-player remains devoted to her music, a kind of allegory of stability on the brink of a crash, or of art (music) responding to whatever conditions exist ‘underfoot’, finding equilibrium in the effort to continue. In these early images, the sense of temporariness and transience (the unadorned mattresses; the boxes) becomes almost prophetic of Collins’ own journey.
In one well-known image from La Mina, a young boy holds in his hands a caged bird: the bird is both a symbol and a mirror image – a symbolic overlap which, as Collins is keen to point out, the boy is well aware. Hers are thoughtful subjects perfectly conscious of the power of their own image. These pictures are not allegories but, as critic Michael Tarantino put it, artworks ‘somewhere between a tableau vivant and nature morte, a kind of interior landscape’3 . The photographic series titled Clouds (1988) show an empty sky, taken a week after her child was born one winter in England: ‘It was the first time I went outside onto the roof of my house [...]. I saw not only Stieglitz’s series of clouds Equivalents but also my own range of thoughts and feelings.’4 The only presence here is the unseen photographer. However, we find in Clouds the three essential centres around which Collins’ art coalesces: firstly, the world around her (the sky and clouds); secondly, an awareness of her choices of media within art history (Stieglitz); and finally, the artist’s reactive emotions. As critic David Campany has written, Collins’ art is ‘both an epic form, and a subjective horizon of doubt or hesitation [...] of finding ways to picture feelings.’5
The horizon – or its lack, as with Clouds – plays a big part in Collins’ image-making. The horizontal arrangement of cardboard laid out against the studio wall in Thin Protective Coverings is the first example of a recurring composition in her art: a long, horizontal display that seems to rise out of the earth, literalising her vision of a layer of history, occupying her chosen site. This landscape-like horizontal image appears in the flat expanse of toppled tombstones in The Hunter’s Space (1995); the long outdoor structure of screens in The Road to Mvezo. Nelson Mandela’s Birthplace (2007–2008); the spread of bedsteads, gates and other objects raised up and extending over a desert sculpture in the work The Interior and the Exterior – Noah Purifoy, 2014 (sound/photographic documentation of the California desertworks by African-American sculptor Noah Purifoy, 1917–2004); and the broad horizontality of a street scene in Istanbul (Signs of Life, Istanbul, 1992). The long horizontal format is, of course, cinematographic but it also attests to the gravity-bound nature of human occupation on earth.
In Signs of Life, Istanbul (1992) rising from the expansive ground are, indeed, myriad ‘signs of life’: from once-grand urban buildings to tides of rubbish ‘as if washed up after a flood’, 3 (as the artist describes it), together forming a majestic, almost sculptural street-scene. Perhaps most vividly, in In the Course of Time (6) (1995), we find the late-industrial furnace-room of a factory in Krakow, whose objects read from left to right as a veritable inventory of how objects and elements occupy the earth: they flow like water up or down in pipes; or merely lean against a wall like the spade; or roll across the earth like the rubber tire and giant spools of rope; or are built up on blocks or bricks like a primitive architecture. In the middle a fiery, luminous centre: a fire ascending gravityless from it all.
The most recent sound/image work, The Interior and the Exterior – Noah Purifoy, is all about horizon – the flat desert expanse interrupted by horizontally laid-out sculptures, like a line-up of disembodied ‘legs’: prosthetic shins, covered in old trousers and ‘wearing’ shoes, like halved people waiting for some phantom bus. Other horizontally oriented images in Purifoy include the fragment of a rolling train track, or a sequence of cannonballs suspended in mid-air formation. Where Purifoy’s assisted readymade sculptures – scaffolds, sheds, weathered accumulations of all description – seem to describe an open expanse that is as ‘all- horizon’, her recent work in the Amazon, The Fertile Forest, seems in contrast to be – like the Clouds – utterly horizonless. The Amazon is seen in innumerable highly specified images as a tangle of vegetation, observed during her prolonged stays with the local tribe who were willing to share their ways and rituals with her. Extracted from the tangle of vegetation is an occasional fragmented view of the sky glimpsed through towering treetops, as if to float magically upwards from this life-affirming jungle. The shelf in the gallery where The Fertile Forest’s sequence of innumerable images are on display winds its way at waist level round the walls, becoming a kind of surrogate horizon-line absent in the jungle landscape itself.
Hannah Collins’ work is, finally, a supremely ethical project, one intent on breaking down boundaries across media (photography, film) and genres (landscape, still life, portraiture) in which she must also test herself in discovering her own art-making. The role she devises as artist is not just image-maker and sound-coordinator but, perhaps above all, a welcome, empathetic and curious guest. ‘Ethics are hospitality’, 6 Derrida once said: the making of common world citizenship can only be accomplished by those, like Hannah Collins, willing to cross high fences and discover what lies beyond – hidden in plain sight.
1 Raymond Williams, ‘Ideas of Natur’, in: id., Problems in Materialism and Culture: Selected Essays, London: Verso 1980, pp. 67–85.
2 John L. Cotter, ‘Above Ground Archaeology”, in: American Quarterly, Vol. 26 (1974), No. 3, pp. 266–280.
3 Michael Tarantino, ‘The Façade of the Objective’, in: Hannah Collins. Filming Things, Exh.- Cat. Centre national de la photographie Paris, Paris 1997, pp. 11–14, here p. 12.
4 Collins 1997 (see note 3), p. 19
5 David Campany, ‘Solitude and Company. The Films and Photographs of Hannah Collins’, in: Hannah Collins. Historia en curso. Pel.culas y fotograf.as, Barcelona: Obra Social Fundación ”la Caixa” 2008, pp. 117–120, here p. 118.
6 Jacques Derrida, Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas
Medium and Response, Stephan Günzel, Sprengel Museum Catalogue, 2014
Medium and Response, Stephan Günzel, 2015
Hannah Collins' works do not seem at first glance to come from a single artist, but rather from different originators or a group. The outward diversity and at the same time inner complexity of her works are nevertheless the result of a single basic principle: that of a response, as she herself puts it. While embodying both 'reply' and 'reaction', response also has echoes of responsibility. Collins' works are thus both a reply and a commitment: they are the response to events, facts or objects while taking responsibility for them at the same time. This is particularly conspicuous in her film project La Mina in which she films a Romani community to which outsiders rarely have access.
In view of this, the artist doesn't have to commit herself to a subject at all and certainly not to a medium or material – whose diversity seems to suggest multiple originators. In fact, Collins herself is the medium of what there is responsibility for and which a response is given to. On the contrary: a commitment to a technical medium like that of her favoured film or photography, or drawing as their predecessor medium, would conflict with the basic principle. In fact, 'mediums' (before medium/media was adopted for the book, cinema, television or the computer in the course of the 20th century) used to be human: those thought to have the ability to communicate beyond the here and now with people at a different location or time and mostly with the deceased in the hereafter with whom they established contact for the living. It is not for nothing that she gives an illustrated book of 2007 containing an overview of works the title of Finding, Transmitting, Receiving, which succinctly describes the procedure of any medium used for transmitting a message from a sender to a receiver.
But even if Collins' most recent work on hallucinogenic plants of the Amazon might harbour a spiritual dimension for viewers, her way of working is in fact more secular than today's media. For the latter are used for what human mediums were resorted to in former times: contacting the absent in space and time (as facilitated today by the telephone and social networks) or showing images suggestive of other-worldly spheres (as facilitated today by movies and computer games). On the other hand, through her works, Collins is the medium for entirely earthly, this-worldly things, although they could take place in the past – such as her interviews and images on Noah Purifoy's outdoor museum in the Joshua Tree National Park in California, produced specifically for the exhibition at the Sprengel Museum. Even if this work has pronounced aspects of 'research', a by no means uncommon activity for artists today, the underlying principle is again responsibility. In this case, the responsibility also results in recorded responses: audio tracks of in some cases aged respondents who personally knew the artist that died a decade ago. So it is not so much a case of research as of investigations with an inherent purpose.
The most important medium of her work – this is demonstrated by the named locations where and on which her works are produced – is again not the chosen medium of photography, film or audio recording, but travel. Although Collins has her studio in Swiss Cottage in London, her works are almost always produced with inspiration from a location where she either settles for a certain period (e.g. Barcelona in the 1990s, where she still has a studio today), that she specifically visits (like the above-mentioned Joshua Tree National Park) or that she allows herself to be drawn into (like most recently the Amazon basin). In each case, travel is distinguished by the fact that it cannot be comprehended in terms of dwelling or holiday making. But even these concepts are only seemingly antithetical: in fact, holidays imply dwelling and the associated distinction between leisure and work. Travel, on the other hand, stands outside this dichotomy and, strictly speaking, doesn't start anywhere (the home or workplace) or go anywhere (place of relaxation). The point of departure for the journey is instead the quest(ion), and the destination is not the location travelled-to but Collins' elementary responses that, with the quest, form a sounding board for encounters bringing forth responses/responsibilities. (By the same token, the journey doesn't start in time either nor end on a certain date, but is ultimately endless and can, be interrupted.)
Collins herself attributes her modus operandi to some extent to the illness of her father who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, which would explain her travelling as the result of an inability to adapt. But whatever the personal and hence existential reasons, the journey is decisive as a structure that manifests itself in the work of art and not as the mainspring of an individual biography. In a certain sense, this is demonstrated by the fact that Collins takes to the road in her imagination before physically embarking on her first trip. This takes her relatively late in life to Istanbul in 1992 before she then sets off into Eastern Europe, newly opened to the West, where she visits her father's home territory in Poland in 1993 and 1994. Her imaginary travels were initiated early on by pictures of plants from Australia that she saw in her grandfather's house (and whose forebear was in turn a botanist with whom James Cook sailed to New Zealand).
Like all mediums, Collins is ultimately not entirely passive, even if responses call for a listening, but bring forth what they show – for which they accept responsibility. It is a profoundly ethical form of research and documentation that renders account of what has happened or is still happening and that was not yet visible or manifested. Rather than moralising, Collins allows the viewer to witness the action. A key motivation for her work is the seemingly simple question: What does an artist do? It is precisely this question that she puts posthumously to Purifoy.
However, on closer inspection, Collins' question is highly remarkable since it doesn't seek clarification of what art is – clarification that is still outstanding after at least five hundred years of asking. Nor does she ask what an artist is but what such a person does. This question is crucial, since the answers given so far are tautological and usually end up defining artists with the activity of producing art. Although Collins doesn't give any direct information on what (all) artists (always) do, but expresses in concrete terms what an artist does through her ethical position on the one hand and through her resultant responsibility towards events and materials on the other.
The philosophical dimension of this self-reflection thus consists in the performative feedback. And this is why what the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle propounds in his Ethics when he deems theory to be the highest form of practice does not apply to her. The very opposite holds for Collins for whom the highest form of theory is practice, answering the question of what an artist does through her constant action and not with a definition. In a certain sense, this lends expression to a cultural difference between her and the many continental artists working in the tradition known, sometimes confusingly, as 'free art'. By this are meant not the artes liberales comprising the general basic course of study, but an art devoid of purpose, i.e. something like what is known in French as l’art pour l’art or art for art’s sake. Just as in Britain the concept of 'free art' is more likely to suggest free admission to public museums, it would be inconceivable for Collins to devote herself to an activity that brings forth art that has no function other than perhaps aesthetic edification (the definition of the fine arts) which has been superseded by art as a commodity and investment in the present day. Even if Collins' first artwork dates back to the heyday of the British Punk movement, her art doesn't aim solely to provoke or agitate (anti- )politically. The response is located in an Inbetween that is opened up by her work as an artist.
In detail, it is above all three openings of such a responsible Inbetween in which her work as an artist literally unfolds: at the same time they also mark stages in the work's development distinguished in parts by the dominance of a technique, although the stages are linked by threads rather than being separated by radical breaks. A work starts with photography that opens up an Inbetween with the treatment of the materiality of photography and later also integrates the materiality of the photographed objects. At a later stage, these are film experiments that in different ways explore an Inbetween of both space and time. Her current work, finally, is distinguished by a search for clues that applies firstly to the botanical world in its relation to human use and secondly also to her work as an artist.
Structurally, her work is rare in contemporary art in revealing a congruence of form and content without the latter being 'empty'. In a certain sense as a commentary on her own work, she photographed the reconstruction of the pavilion of Bauhaus architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, built for the 1929 International Expo, during her stay in Barcelona. The peculiarity of this and his other architectural designs is the calling-into-question of a millennium-old architectural dogma according to which a building's wall separates an interior from an exterior and which constitutes so-to-speak the ultimate goal and primary purpose of building construction. In Mies' buildings, the partitions essential for this become the linking elements. The interior is no longer separated from the exterior, but the two merge or become interchanged in the light of the experience that projecting roofs create a protective room-like space outside the building while the use of glass as a material for the walls contributes to a sense of being outdoors while indoors. Collins' 2003 pictures of the Barcelona pavilion, entitled Mies Pavilion, focus not like other architecture photography on the structure as a whole but on the separating elements. These no longer have a separating function but establish connections and as such are themselves spaces in between where content and form become one. Collins thus ultimately not only supplies a commentary on her own work but also shows where the core of the overworked concept of 'form follows function' lies.
1. Photography: material and metonymy
Collins' early works consist mainly of photography, although the term in no way captures the specific quality of her work. These are anything but 'light drawings' (photo- = light, -graphy = drawing), but genuine 'material images'. Of course, like all analogue camera photography, they come about optically through the transmission of reflected light through the lens onto the negative, but the work of the photographer only starts here. In sometimes 'monumental' exposures of the positive, the pictures are enlarged back to almost the original size of the original light-reflecting objects. The supposed lightness and luminosity of photography is transformed here into a material whose heaviness is more effort than weight. Despite the oppressive subjects, the black & white renditions of the pictures do not weigh down the viewer but lend detail to the subjects: the gravestones of the Jewish cemetery in Poland, the house façades in Istanbul, the road to Auschwitz – they are there. In keeping with Collins' position, their presence is not intrusive but takes responsibility for itself.
What they show are metonymic operations revealing parts of a whole that they represent – with the peculiarity, however, that the whole for which they stand (pars pro toto) cannot be seen. This stylistic device differs from metaphor, which refers to something entirely different for representation; and from synecdoche, which shifts meanings into different semantic contexts. Collins thus draws attention to a way of dealing with the unrepresentability of the Holocaust and with the two-fold ban on images: it is neither possible to picture nor symbolise the genocide perpetrated on the Jews. However, photographs can share in it, or rather they can testify that the genocide took place and – as shown by Collins' picture The Road to Auschwitz of 1996 – that the place of the killing exists. Showing the route of a road to Auschwitz is thus not solely a reference to the 'banality of evil', as the philosopher Hannah Arendt called the logistics of death, or to an infrastructural prerequisite, but a partial representation of the immeasurable whole that is not a whole but in fact signifies a breakdown of humanity.
Having studied the life of Romani in the surrounding counter-society three years earlier, Collins finally resumes her film work on Current History in 2004 by travelling to Central Russia to the city of Nizhny Novgorod where she buys old photographs of strangers in a shop. The purchase of these pictures coincides with the rediscovery of a drawing from her childhood while clearing the house of her mother who died in the same year. This picture shows Collins in the company of a ghost. Even if she has no memory of the context of this snapshot, the resultant constellation says something about the nature of photography: it shows ghosts – living people who are dead but immortalised in photographs. The undead of photography populate a between-realm which Collins accepts through the appropriation and exhibition of the pictures and which she responds to and accepts responsibility for at the same time.
2. Film: space and time
The titles of her large-format photographs already suggest what Collins elaborates on in her film work. The sub- and main title of many of her photographs is 'In the Course of Time' and expounds a far-reaching paradox of photography, which as a technical medium also has the 'ghost-forming' ability to extract a moment from the flow of time – as well as, and necessarily, a chunk of space. But photography also maintains inseverable ties with the moving picture, i.e. film, as the latter is composed of stills, of single images that when viewed together synthesise the illusion of experienced time. 'Time' also of course refers to time in the sense of 'history'. Photography and subsequently film also have a paradoxical relationship with history since the moment or continuum that they capture that no longer exists although they preserve the past that would otherwise be lost for ever. There exists a dual unreality of the medium that seemingly guarantees the link with reality. Not in the sense of the manipulation or stage-managing of reality, but in the sense of facilitating a mediated perception of the otherwise imperceptible, which is the past in the present and the present in the past per se.
Collins' film installation La Mina – named after the settlement concerned in Sant Adria Besos in Catalonia, which is known for its modernist and inhumane high-rises of the Franco era – consists of five monitors showing the life of Romani in Spain's northeast from different angles and at overlapping times. In terms of content, the project again demonstrates Collins' ethical position as one of responsibility that attempts to enable the film's viewers to understand the basic principles of community life – or rather the differences from a surrounding society that is to a large extent unable to grasp the rules governing jurisdiction or property. To this extent, the film documents not the understanding, but again focuses – paradigmatically for Collins – on the Inbetween of the difference existing between Spanish society and the forcibly sedentary Romani community. It also takes this contrast a step further by highlighting the Inbetween of the sedentary Romani and those still living nomadically who, at the beginning of the film, meet the community living near Barcelona and initiate a discussion on how to deal with those still on the move.
The form of the film resonates with the content in so far as it has a mode of presentation positively spectacular for the date of its production, if the term 'spectacular' weren’t wholly inappropriate to Collins' work. In 2001, however, it was anything but easy for independent filmmakers to synchronise such a large number of sequences. Technically, Collins implements something that can be considered one of the milestones of early narrative cinema: so-called parallel montage. While this is still used in feature films mainly to show spatially separate and periodically independent strands of the plot alternately in succession in order to bring them together at the end, Collins uses the actual and simultaneous parallelisation of points of view of both one and the same action and of different events in order to have them disintegrate – or, to be more precise, to leave the Inbetween open. The effect is by no means the expected distancing of the viewers for whom such deconstructed action would no longer be comprehensible, but, on the contrary, their induction into it. Collins thus undermines the essence of the documentary image that binds viewers not theatrically by means of a self-contained narrative, but 'admits' them via its openness. Contributory to this are the jump cuts absolutely outlawed in feature film editing because they destroy the illusion of continuity. Yet because they 'jump' in La Mina not in the individual sequence, but only in the overall context of sequences, the film doesn't unsettle the viewer at any point.
Again, Collins' work stands out not because of its artistic formalism for its own sake, but because of its congruence of content and form. This experiences its barely surpassable culmination in Solitude and Company in 2008. At first sight, it appears to be purely an art film in which the film sequences are dictated by the external conditions of the film material: in two successive sequences, the interior of an empty factory shop, in La Tossée in Roubaix, France on the border with Belgium, is shown from a static position for a period of 24 hours and then with the camera tracking along the length of the building. Both the frequency of the individual shots in the first case and the speed of the camera in the second are determined by the length of the reels of film employed, which are sufficient for 60 minutes when shown at normal speed and which were fully exposed without interruption.
Again, in the interests of documentary cinema, Collins reverses the organisational approach of narrative cinema: while the latter combines the moving with the static viewpoint in continuity montage to bring about the coherence of narrative space and narrative time, space and time diverge in two respects. First directly due to the sequencing of spatial shot and temporal shot, and then also indirectly in that the latter was taken from a static position while the former was shot in motion. Collins demonstrates visually what physical theories of relativity wish to say: that space is always comprehended in time and time in space. The formal conditions effective here are again intimately related to a content that is communicated here with sound recordings of the narrated dreams of local Algerian migrants who have in fact never seen the inside of the factory which has been closed since they arrived in France. Just as the wishes and fantasies expressed in them do not concur with reality, so the separation of space (time) and time (space) is something imaginary mediated by Collins through the medium of film.
3. The quest: clues and nature
In Collins' later works, she again uses the still camera, a tool that she never abandons although she has subjected it in the meantime to an appraisal as a means of truth. In various urban shots taken in London, Lisbon, Barcelona again, Paris and Madrid from 1998 to 2008, we see roofscapes beneath surreal colours of the sky that clearly show the signs of image post-processing – its false colours. For Collins herself, the pictures, which she calls True Stories, are the opening scenes of possible films and thus only true in relation to the fiction of the film for which the locations are only ever sets. In keeping with postmodern photography, this poses problems in that the picture's referential value becomes (has become) doubtful. But rather than losing herself in the game of its revocation, Collins again seeks to regain it by embarking on the search for what remains and where it comes from.
In this way, she discovers for herself the things of nature and equally the nature of things. A staging post is her visits to Sigmund Freud's Hampstead home where he lived and died in exile and which is near Collins' studio. In the interior, she is interested most in the archaeological replicas that Freud not only collected but also used as therapeutic tools in Vienna to encourage his patients to speak, i.e. to start their narrative and then to arrive at the reasons for their problems and conditions. Psychoanalysis is in itself a search for clues and proceeds in its method 'archaeologically', which is why antiques as objects of the past, irrespective of their specific significance, have a semantic equivalence to the deeper strata of the soul explored in the therapy process. For Collins, the analogy goes even further and concerns the medium of photography. This time, however, not as a material, but as a path of dissemination. Just as mechanical reproductions disseminate content worldwide, so were the miniatures of ancient sculptures a means of making these sculptures universally known and available.
But she is also interested in something else about Freud: in the night of 9 to 10 March 1898, Freud has a dream that will become known from his accounts as the 'dream of the botanical monograph'. The entirely positive dream, which can also be interpreted as a reference to his patient 'Flora' or to Freud's own 'maturation' or 'flowering', is concerned with an undefined plant contained in the imaginary book seen the previous day in a shop window. The plant exists not only as an illustration, but also as itself in dried form in the book in the manner of a herbarium. Concurring with Freud's researchers, Collins identifies the leaves as those of the coca plant (lat. Erythroxylum coca), whose effects Freud and some of his contemporaries appreciated.
Collins' visit to Freud's house also becomes a farther-reaching search for clues that leads her to the plant's place of origin in South America. Even if she subjects herself there to a drug experiment with the ayahuasca brew derived from yagé plants, she is concerned not so much with the hallucinatory experience as with investigating the relationship between the body and the plant and also between the mind and nature. In addition to Freud as the inspiration for the trip, she is guided by various books on plants and above all by Richard Evans Schultes' Hallucinogenic Plants dating back to 1976, a cult book of the psychedelic age. Like Collins, Schultes, who was himself in charge of a herbarium at Harvard University, was interested not so much in the 'pleasure factor' induced by the plant, but in its immediate effect on the body where the distinction between the plant and the body in the intoxication experience is overcome and the person can experience him- or herself (again) as nature. Like Schultes, who is considered the founder of ethnobotany, Collins wants to study indigenous peoples' knowledge of all manner of plants before it vanishes along with these peoples.
An unusual parallel, though no longer surprising in view of Collins' approach, exists between her Fertile Forest project from the south of Colombia, which Collins carried out specifically for the exhibition in the Sprengel Museum and a commission for the celebrated Catalonian chef Ferran Adrià in 2011. In his thoroughly experimental and molecular cuisine, a huge range of foods are used in the preparation of meals that puts the relationship between humanity and nature to the test: what makes the 'feast' 'fragile' is not only that the unusual is brought to the table, but that also Collins shows the products before their transformation by the chef. For this, she travels to the places of origin of the wasabi (Japanese horseradish) and nori (seaweed) in Japan, Stenorhynchus crabs in Galicia and anemones in Cádiz. What is striking about her photography is that it shows the foods in their environments as things that have already been 'served', i.e. what nature has given without the pictures 'humanising' their objects. The characteristic pallor of Collins' colour photographs – that strangely match the false colours of the townscapes – are also at variance with the glossy aesthetic of food photography. The latter not only tends to focus on the served final product, but also, in its theatrical presentation and lighting, elevates the food into an almost supernatural state. As a preliminary to this, Collins captured shelves and frozen food counters containing tablets and vegetables in pictures entitled Supermarket in 2004 – and once again the Inbetween comes to the fore. Here it is the intermediate zone of the retailing of foods that are neither in their place of origin in nature nor at home on the table; or, in the case of medicines, that intermediate zone of hybrid products of pharmacological knowledge that has cancelled its ties with nature without ever being able to leave it behind.
Collins' current project on Noah Purifoy, finally, finds its predecessor in another search for clues – The Road to Mvezo of 2010 in which she seeks the place of Nelson Mandela's birth in the former province of Transkei in South Africa's southeast. This is where she not only visits the memorial erected there, but also Mthatha, the place where he spent his youth. The pictures that she brings back could hardly be more distressing, as they show Mthatha as a place that has evidently been abandoned and documents its own abandonment as such (its only legacy being a crooked bookcase in an open house); while at Mvezo is a structure that for its part houses a portrait of Mandela. The current work on Purifoy shows initial points of contact with that on Mandela in that both played a leading role in the struggle of black Africans and black Americans for equal rights. However, when Mandela was elected President of South Africa in 1994, Purifoy had shifted the focus of his work to the Mojave Desert after being the foremost artist of the Watts Riots of 1965 – which happened a year after the sentencing of Nelson Mandela to life imprisonment – and in the process of becoming famous due to his association with the Black Panther movement founded a year later.
The challenge that Purifoy poses for Collins is the fleetingness of his art that consists not of works but of an activity. There is a huge temptation to regard his inheritance, i.e. what is managed today by the Noah Purifoy Foundation in Joshua Tree, as the artist's work. These are installations with objects in their discovered state, which puts Purifoy in the long tradition of work with objets trouvés that he combines as assemblages with the inhospitable desert environment. But the sculptures and structures are merely the results of an activity, and it is this that Collins is concerned with in her basic question of 'what an artist does'. So she doesn't just document the shacks, readymades and garbage installations on Purifoy's property. She also asks his still living friends and fellow witnesses about his activity resulting from the protest culture of the West Coast so that she can record the replies and make them available to posterity.
It may be that Collins will never be able to give a definitive answer to the question of what an artist does. But in her affinity to the American artist she has reiterated her position on what an artist should do: her art must not be irresponsible in order to justify her work as an artist. So Noah Purifoy's motto is certainly applicable to Hannah Collins as a responsive artist: 'I do not wish to be an artist. I only wish that art enables me to be.'
Introduction, Ferran Adrià, Fragile Feast Book, 2011
The Fragile Feast, 2011
— This introduction was written for The Fragile Feast published by Hatje Cantz in 2011
Hannah Collins’ book is unique. Not only because of the brilliant concept, but because of the special sensibility, the privileged eye, that Hannah possesses. She captures those elements that are most essential, most hidden and at the same time most natural in daily life. In fact, it is the most important contribution that has been made to the dialogue between art and high cooking.
I realise that when we analyse a dish or a style of cooking, we notice comp`osition and technique, but rarely do we realise that the product we are eating has a history. Hannah has portrayed what lies behind each of these ingredients and has pulled on the threads until the origins of a series of emblematic products have been revealed. Each product implies a territory and reflects the people who have worked it for many years, often following ancestral techniques and procedures. She has chosen rare and unusual things. So she has travelled to Colombia in search of the producers of lulos, to Japan to see where miso and wasabi come from, to Greece for bottarga, to Ecuador for roses or cane, to Piedmonte for honey and even to Wales for water with unique qualities. The world is wide and in each corner a product is created that is worth searching for, but our immediate environment is also a protagonist. From Galicia comes seaweed and percebes; from Cadiz, sea anemones; and from Salamanca, a sublime ham. And even closer still, a few metres away from the kitchen at elBulli are pine nuts, espardenyes, pumpkin, sheep’s milk, ceps. In some dishes we even use the earth.
The result is a beautiful story, which I have never seen before in any book. It forms a trajectory that only Hannah Collins could create with such naturalness, such poetry, and with as much truth as we find in these pages.
We Live, Weave Each Other And Have Our Being, María Belén Sáez de Ibarra, 2010
We Live, Weave Each Other and Have Our Being – The films and photographs of Hannah Collins María Belén Sáez de Ibarra
— This text first appeared in the catalogue accompanying Hannah Collins’ exhibition at the the Museo de la Universidad de Colombia in Bogota in 2010.
Between the world and the eye there exists an insuperable distance. Crossing that distance is perhaps the incessant task of knowledge. Philosophy, science and art give different forms to this knowledge. Forms that weave themselves around perception, around the affections and sensations which impulse us into a tension: to fabricate the concepts that mediate existence with a possible world. Images are, like words, the substance that incarnates a becoming of thought into the things of the world.
Between the world and the eye, images live.
Thus, images are factories of the world. although paradoxically, they inhabit the interstices of a reality before which they never seem to appear. Rather the imaginary seems to pursue in order to substitute, supplant, a reality that will not be conjured up, and that persistently pressures in a violent friction of another dark side.
This permanent collapse is knowledge’s way of being. But knowledge of and from images, offers more things to look at than what may appear. as well as lodging themselves in the gaps of the real, and perhaps because of it, they fundamentally activate themselves in the psychic life that exists behind the eye. this psychic life has layers and folds. To enter there is also to enter to see that there is much in what we see, that we don’t see what we see. In these blind spots we will foresee a task of revealing the logics of operation of these factories of knowledge and about what we are as individuals and as forms of subjectivity, given that we have the face they reflect.
Portraits in which we live, weave each other and are
Hannah Collins seems to have a specific conscience of the imaginary condition of her work as an artist. Her eye is obsessed with itself. It seems to be very attentive to what it focuses on, what it registers. She comes back time and time again to what she is looking at, and attempts to see what she intuitively knows is not seen, what we have obstinately got used to overlooking. that which seems irrelevant, unimportant or perhaps imperceptible. In that she is powerfully attracted by the small stories of non-singular people and those who collectively but in silence, we have agreed to not see. The details of the intimacy of everyday lives and the particulars of the things and people that are there, on the lost horizon of what doesn’t count. Even of waste.
Perhaps it is because of this that she prefers to enlarge the images she registers. To offer a gigantic size, if it’s possible, akin to the thoroughness of her looking.
She grants to these characters giant dimensions, to their little things – sometimes parts of others, recycled for impossible uses such as utensils or the home itself – to landscapes, to the habitats of the battles for survival taking place and for the joy of their forgotten, unnoticed lives; as if they were full of a life we cannot discern. they become gigantic. It doesn’t matter if they are intelligent, stupid, talented, clumsy, malicious, kind, ingenuous, or perceptive; or the things are old, withered, or brilliant and sumptuous; or the landscapes splendid, ardent, green, placid, unpleasant, nostalgic or convulsed; they turn into giants.
The search to succeed in figuring portraits predominates in Collins’s art. These portraits are open, they do not end but are left in suspense. They seem abstract, in the end they will not be people in particular but perceptive and intuitive forms, charged with affection and sensations, of anonymous individuals, whoever, (ourselves?).
These characters, are weaving themselves their own portraits, through a dialogical dynamic between themselves as individuals and the situations and things they come across. Perhaps understanding a bit that we actually tend to become what others see in us, and what we see in others. To speak of others is to speak of one’s self, to look at others is to see ourselves, and vice versa. and of course things look at us and reflect us.
Through this dialogic dynamic affective and perceptive blocks of individuals that Collins wants to make us see, imagine, begin to take form. a sort of existential space is generated that links these persons among themselves in a social tie, in which “we live, weave each other and are”, as san Pablo says in his speech to the aeropagus. In this common space one must count on the interpellation and the anticipation of things and persons. a care, occupation, commitment. In terms of what Peter Sloterdijk (1998) would call the sphere, a spherical context: “occupation would be what drags us towards tensions, to take sides and makes us come out of our own emptiness so as to go into the spaces we share with people and things”. There is always something that occupies us, worries us, affects us and takes us out of ourselves and that is what interweaves us with what we live and we are.
They are projected in films and photographs tinged with scripts that the characters themselves have wanted to write acting as themselves; surprised in the moments that most belong to their everyday in an – untimely? – register where the allegory of themselves is fulfilled in a secret surprise. The look over things is essential to Collins in the configuration of these existential spaces; she searches in them for traces of the marks left by her coexistence with people, as if she wanted to liberate the life and the signs which are captive in them.
All this framework of an existential space does not obey a horizontal narration in a physical plane and in a timetable, nor does it establish itself in absolute terms. It is taking place in a simultaneous superposition of places and ways of perceiving time. Many possible intuitions of sense are partially and simultaneously offered, although the reading realized by the spectator leads to the finding of a story. In fact conscience procures an ephemeral and blurred order to know that which is exhibited, and finds – although in an uncertain and faltering way – that beginning and end which incorporates itself in the spirit of the condition of that which is filmed, that ordered sequence of a mechanical time and its physical sliding in the apparently smooth space in the everyday life of the world. a condition that has been perverted in the editing work that Collins has done and in the disposition of a scene for the simultaneous and multiple projection where these existential planes that are offered open and diverging, will meet their receptors, our eyes.
We cannot seize much of complex reality; even so when looking to the images of the real itself. Collins’ conscience of this abyss that opens up between the world and the eye is explicit, and some form of insinuation of that friction of the dark side of the reality that lies in wait, and of its own limitation of the speed of the look in perceiving that which could unfold before the eye of one’s conscience. on all these screens the sonorous photographs in movement that are there projected – these dialogues, this life that happens –, pass by.
The revealing of time
He who has seen present things has seen all, both everything which has taken place from all eternity and everything which will be for time without end.
Marcus Aurelius, (reflections, sixth book, year 170)
And yet, and yet – to deny temporal succession, to deny the ego, to deny the astronomical universe, are apparent desperations and secret assuagements. our destiny ...is not horrible because of its unreality; it is horrible because it is irreversible and ironbound. time is the substance I am made of. time is a river that carries me away, but I am the river, it is a tiger that mangles me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire. the world, alas, is real; I alas, am Borges.
J.l. Borges, (Other Inquisitions, 1948)
Film is the medium that Collins uses, that thin film which in the interior of a machine that imitates the workings of the eye attempts to capture the passing of time, to capture succession itself. the photographic camera and the film camera share their status as filmic machines. There isn’t an essential distinction between photography and film. They are the capturers of time. layers and layers of images, sometimes of immobile movement, or terribly slow; as when Collins decides on the dragging capture of the camera obscure, or keeping the film camera still on a single shot which barely changes. The duration is registered on the image in movement, which is made of time: all movement in which something happens is present and is also a continuation that comes.
Images in movement are almost instantly forgotten, they are difficult to retain. sequences of instants captured. In this spirit of film– volatile and passing –, time is revealed.
This auto-awareness of the passing of time that Collins’ images powerfully evoke, assaults us with a feeling of nostalgia, or rather melancholy, “... promise of impermanence and temporariness, occurring like vanitas, memory of sure death – memento mori –, strength of melancholy” (Brea, 2010); reminder that we ourselves are made of time, like all things. These existential planes that Collins develops in these projects of film and photography that I have allowed myself to call portraits, are constantly attempting to focus the look on the strange nature of time, with curiosity and care, intuitively allowing it in freedom to slide into the interior of a small cosmos, where as a tension manifests itself, disintegrates or appears transfigured. These characters, all together with the things and the circumstances that surround them seem to surge from an unperceived fold in time. Perhaps it’s a crack in thought, of abyssal fall, – a blind spot of sight: – occurring in these characters singular extraordinary characteristics; inhabitants of an alien space and time, perhaps phantasmagorical images of the blindness of a sleeping consciousness, lethargic in the torpor if the machinery of clocks, and in the eagerness of our small-minded undertakings for capitalism’s progress.
Perhaps the block of sense that overcomes us in these volatile scenes of Hannah Collins’ fractured narrative, in the figure of portrait of what we are being and what we have been, facing the pulse of this flow of change that presents itself, forces us to imagine what “is not there” in the film. These are no longer images of “the things” captured by the eye and the camera but pure mental images pregnant with future, that make themselves owners of other time; owners of a strength in becoming-difference: images of something that has not yet been accomplished, that has not appeared in the movement of the past before the present of what we ourselves and the other that questions us, could turn out to be. A memory of memento, an inverted déjà-vu or unseen paramnesia. as Jose Luis Brea expresses it, (Las tres era de la imagen, 2010) – when thinking memory... of difference, of the mental image or the electronic one: “(...) of it – of that difference to come that is the most proper content of the memory being of these images. What is given to us is little more than a coefficient (of artisticness, said duchamp; of significance we say here) a mere contribution, an assignation – always waiting to be resolved, to be decided –. a consignment that, each time, still waits for its receiver and the activework of reading that he will do. (...) a silent caress in that which speaks within, if it does – puts itself where it is not: prosopopoeia, pure allegory, necessarily – , nothing else says that the will to be listened to as if – there would be a voice there wanting to tell us something (a voice there, wanting to tell us something) –. and it is from this being- there of what-is-not-there like a wanting to speak (giving only the real testimony of the affective presence of a remaining of the will: that of producing or living or transmitting a something of sense) of what that drawn gesture a sign is, forward, memory.
Memento, I would almost prefer to say ...
Also an instant, while watching the trajectories of those lives in Collins’ multiple portraits, we could feel the disintegration of time, see it become circular; a return of the same: Is one sole repeated term enough to ruin and confuse the series of time? “...a refutation of time, which I myself disbelieve, but which comes to visit me at night and in the weary dawns...” (Borges, 1946). Especially in these lives which transit in the calm sequence of the everyday where repetition is abundant: a horse cart and its gypsy crossing the same corner on its daily trip, we hear the train on its routine and the sweet gallop which clip-clops always with the same rhythm; the light of the same square where the children always play hopscotch that we ourselves have played – which is itself a numbered sequence – and always identical – of steps to heaven; the old familiar melody of a trumpet played by a gypsy at the break of the evening dawn in the joy of that square which is my home, which always makes me remember the same memory when I hear it – an elusive premonition of one music –...
Urbi et orbi
The world is a sphere. “Five centuries have passed since Columbus’ first voyage and the revolution of what we understand when speaking of space has reached its highest summits” (sloterdijk, 1994). Globalization would be that dynamic that establishes contacts, permanent communications of double life, with all the corners of that globe that is the planet; spanning people and their way of living, things that have been found, capitals and territories –. urbi et orbi, the ancient papal blessing which is till used in the persistence of the image of the middle ages’ colonizer with his feet on the globe, represents this idea of being everywhere at once; in the city and in the world. The europeanism of before which presents itself as the centre of the world towards where all the tides converge is today replaced by a group of circular centres coexisting, all inside multiple spheres at once.
This spherical condition of the world and its consequences were carefully observed two hundred years ago in a book of Kant’s, forgotten until now when it is quoted by many historians: universal History(1). According to him we are all doomed to dwell and move in this sphere without having another space to turn to and therefore we are forced to always live in neighbourhood and company. This book touches upon the precise debate on current globalization: citizenship for all men, as their only real dignity. “The perfect unification of the human species beginning with our common citizenship, is the destiny that nature has chosen for us, the last horizon of our universal history that, originating from and driven by reason and the instinct of conservation, we are destined to pursue and with time reach”. Derrida, in 1996, observes that Kant’s proposals can be followed up with “hospitality is culture itself and not just a moral among many... ethics are hospitality”.
Nonetheless what we have seen with the outcome of modernity is a determination to erect high borders, papers, passports, nationalities and an extended eternal fear about the immigrant. He who comes to introduce himself without having before or clearly taken part in the established constellation of the flow of globalized capital. Things get more complicated when the world is contracted and depleted: our space today. The places to turn to with the system’s waste no longer exist, not one place remains to be invented, not one that opens up with promise as a destination for “those who have been unlucky”. The immigrant is everywhere. there is a category of immigrant that is not visible to us, unwanted immigrants, – some without papers – who arrive in another territory or who are a part of a territory under value with very little to offer, (immigrants of the global system in their own land); territories closed on themselves in relation to its capacity to host; where unwanted immigrants don’t easily meet citizens. the city could possibly be everywhere at once, urbi et orbi, but not the citizen. Many theoretical efforts have been developed to organize coexistence and the integration of “those who come” in culturally subordinate conditions; multiculturalism, dominant of the previous century, those machines of identity/ difference that looks at race, and culture as bastions, hasn’t perhaps been successful in understanding that those of us who “live, weave each other and are”, are individuals, small personal stories who struggle for the capacity to act.
The portraits, the existential blocks that Collins works with, tend to focus on migrants. We have already said that the eye here insisted upon does not pause on differences, we forget now this obsession with difference, (we are all universal subjects, we are all exotic subjects). Instead we find these dialogues between people who search for the action that will take them to find a destiny for themselves beyond any situations, of any difficulty: the search for an agency of themselves that makes it possible for them as individuals to transform a series of lived situations into a history and into a personal project. a radical change of point of view, it is not about looking at cultures who go through encounters and disencounters on the journey of one culture towards another, of one society towards another – even inside the different societies which coexist in the same territory and in the same time frame –; but to observe how are formed or discompose these subjects who conceive themselves as actors, and the production of the themselves as the ultimately end of their actions. This would be the horizon that configures itself in the projects La Mina and Parallel. The idea of the journey of the lulos and the drawings and phrases that travel from the country to the city of Bogota are equally a part of this urbi et orbi that dynamize all these encounters.
In Solitude and Company, we find another singular situation: in the interwoven tapestry of times and places in this dreamlike climate of that territory under value, in the emptiness of that abandoned factory, we can also find the intuition of a distinction between the self and the subject. They are not synonyms. Alain Touraine quotes to comment on this distinction the work of Pirandello, Six Characters in Search of an Author: “the drama, for me is all there inside, to dream in the consciousness oneself has, that has everyone of us, to be ‘one’ when is ‘a hundred’, ‘a thousand’, when one is as many times as possibilities are inside of oneself”. An idea that must be taken to the extreme according to Touraine: “only on the ruins of a broken ego an idea of a subject can be imposed, which is the opposite of an identification with oneself that would make us to vindicate each one of our thoughts and our acts as if they belong to us like subjects, when we cannot size ourselves as subjects rather than making inside of us an emptiness which expels everything that comes from me.”
Brea, Jose Luis. 2007. Cultura_ RAM, Madrid, Gedisa.
Brea, Jose Luis. 2010. the three ages of image: material image, film, e-image. Madrid, akal, estudios visuales
Sloterdijk, Peter. 2003. Experiments with oneself, Madrid, Pre-textos.
Borges, Jorge luis. 1974. Complete works; Other inquisitions (1948), Buenos Aires, Emece
Derrida, Jacques. (2000a). Of Hospitality: Anne Dufourmantelle Invites Jacques Derrida to respond. trans. R. Bowlby. stanford: stanford university Press.
Bauman, Zygmunt. 2004. Society under siege, Buenos aires, Fondo de Cultura econ.mica de argentina Touraine, Alain. 2006. a new paradigm for understanding today’s world, Buenos Aires, Paidos.
The Films and Photographs of Hannah Collins, David Campany, 2008
Solitude and Company: the films and photographs of Hannah Collins David Campany
— This text first appeared in the catalogue accompanying Hannah Collins exhibition at CaixaForum in Barcelona and Madrid in 2008-2009
Let us begin in another era, and with a manifesto: One must be of one’s time. This was the slogan of the realist artists and writers of the second half of the nineteenth century. For the painter Gustave Courbet and his circle, for example, it represented not just an artistic calling but a commitment to a new way of living, a new way of being, a new way of attuning oneself to the world. The demand was at once simple and multi-layered. Firstly it implied that ‘one’s time’ was significantly different in character from the past, and from times to come. Indeed it was in the nineteenth century that artists and writers first experienced in a deep and unavoidable way the rupture in continuity caused by modernity. Time was inconsistent, ‘out of joint’. Time did not simply pass, it had a character that was subject to change. Secondly, it implied that the role of artists and writers was to immerse themselves in this new temporality and allow it to be expressed through them. Their task was not to look back nor to resist the present, nor to predict the future. It was to grasp everyday experience in all its transient particularity. Thirdly, being attentive to the texture and the grain of the present also implied being attentive to one’s location in the world. In effect ‘to be of one’s time’ contained a second, unspoken demand that was just as significant: One must be of one’s place.
Even in the nineteenth century to know with any certainty the nature of one’s time and one’s place was not easy. In fact the emergence of a particular desire for such knowledge was itself a response to the difficulty of attaining it. After all, we tend to think we know what is particular about a time and a place only with hindsight. Perhaps we can only ‘be’ of our time and place without really ‘knowing’ it in the fullest sense.
In the century that followed the task became increasingly difficult. Histories began to conflict with each other. Populations began to move. Cultures began to mix or clash.
Different orders of time and place began to assert themselves on daily life in ways that could not be reconciled. Even finding a fixed position from which to consider the rapid changes was a challenge. Here in the twenty-first century we are trying to come to terms with the effects of that long period of instability, if only to prepare ourselves for the instabilities to come.
An exhibition of the films and photographs of Hannah Collins presents us with a remarkably subtle and suggestive response by an artist to this condition. Her imagery offers a profound insight into how we might come to know and come to terms with our own times and places.
Panoramas of the Unknown
Through all her searching and experimentation, Hannah Collins has been drawn towards one pictorial form more than any other. It is the panorama. It has shaped many of her photographs and is explicit in her multi-screen films. And even when her artworks do not take this form, something panoramic promises to emerge in the connections between them.
Historically, the panorama was always an ambiguous form. On one level it could foster a gaze that was grounded and surveying, with a certain mastery of the world. The wide expanse of the panorama, coupled with its tendency toward the epic and spectacular, could lend a representation an air of confidence and stability. The viewer and the viewed were centred and lucid, imbued with power and promise. The panorama could allow space and time to be brought under one system of vision and one symbolic order. It also theatricalised that space, presenting it as a heroic stage for future action. Used in this way the panorama played an important part in the establishment of the bold self-image of modernity. At the same time however, the panorama always retained the potential to offer the viewer more than they could really cope with, more than they could contain or encompass. Literally, the viewer faced with a panorama may not be able to ‘take it all in’. The camera might aspire to a mastery of the scene but viewers could easily lose themselves in the uncontainable scope of the image. In the act of looking the viewer may not be able to maintain a sense of control. The panorama could rob the viewer of their safe coordinates in time and space. Despite its orderly and rational intention, the panorama always had the potential to become a dream- space of unbounded immersion.
Hannah Collins’s panoramas have exactly this kind of ambiguity. She is one of very few image-makers who have adopted the panorama as both an epic form and as a subjective horizon of doubt or hesitation. She has arrived at this by way of her interest in the confusing and often contradictory nature of modern time and space. This is the theme that has informed much of her art. It presents her with the challenge of finding ways to picture feelings, attitudes and subjects that are often at the very limit of what is representable.
Other spaces and spaces of otherness
For Collins the panorama is a means of picturing the incoherent consequences of modernity. Her compositions are often unified and have a visual assurance about them, but the signs and meanings they contain swirl and fold in on themselves, tending toward the open and ambiguous. They are inclusive in their scope yet inconclusive in their meaning. They take us to particular kinds of locations, to the sorts of spaces Michel Foucault once described as heterotopias. These are spaces characterised by their unstable relation to historical time and social function. The heterotopia has ill-defined and often overlapping uses. It is a fugitive terrain – fragile, transient, and subject to unpredictable change.
Under international capitalism such heterotopic space has proliferated. Land is becoming expensive, forcing layered uses and denser populations upon our cities, while making other spaces unexpectedly peripheral. At the same time the labour market is becoming increasingly nomadic. The built environment is being formed and re-formed by short-term concerns. The rootedness of communities is being undermined, reshaping our ideas of social ritual and meaningful living. These are the spatial and temporal orders in which, to paraphrase Karl Marx, ‘all that is solid’ may before long ‘melt into air’. The inevitable uncertainty this situation produces has lead Collins herself to characterise it as “a worldwide case of homesickness”. To be homesick is to find oneself in one place and one time while longing for another. It is an unfulfilled longing that knows there really is no ‘going home’. One must contend with time and space rather than simply being in it. Either one makes a new home or one gets used to instability and rootlessness. Or one resists in the hope of something better, something as yet unimagined. Any image of this condition is likely to be more stable than the condition itself. Making it visible is not easy. There are no clear paths for those wishing to understand or represent it.The artist must set themselves the task of making their own path.
Monuments and anti-monuments
Almost from the beginning of her artistic career Collins has worked on a monumental scale. Hers are some of the largest photographs and film projections you are likely to encounter in contemporary art. At the same time they are also some of the most intimate. This balance between the monumental and the intimate is very fine. It depends upon a close relationship between the viewers’ experience of themselves in the gallery space and the kinds of experience they see pictured or expressed by the image. In other words Collins looks for a consonance between the embodied spectator and the embodied world of social forces that she depicts.
It goes without saying that this kind of scale is not her invention. It is the scale that has been central to the Western pictorial tradition as well as to the history of sculpture and, more recently, cinema. However, this kind of scale did not play a substantial part in the artistic evolution of photography. Modern art photography adopted the dimensions of the page or the small study drawing. It kept to that size, more or less, for over a century. At the start the limits were technical but small scale soon became a preference. Photography, that most public and dispersed of mediums, was something that art photographers felt they needed to rescue through precious small size and privatised spectatorship. Photography, the mass medium that helped to scramble our experience of time and space, had to be tamed and domesticated. Today of course large-scale photography is almost standard in contemporary art, but it came relatively late. It arrived via Pop in the 1960s and postmodern photography in the 1980s, when art engaged with photography not as a privatised world but as a medium of collective consumption, spectacle and entertainment. But there were other ways and other reasons to work at a large scale that had little or nothing to do with spectacle. Collins was among several artists (including Suzanne Lafont, Craigie Horsfield, John Coplans and Jeff Wall) who came to prominence with bodies of work that were, despite their size, much quieter and more reserved. Grand scale was rediscovered as a means of evoking intimacy. Their works were immersive, inviting viewers to identify with figures and places. There is nothing sentimental in this notion of intimacy. Rather, it is a scale at which the fullest complexity of a subject can be presented to, and represented for, the viewer. In this sense ‘large scale’ is not a very useful term. Collins would describe the scale at which she works as being neither large nor small but simply appropriate.
For many photographic artists, notably Jeff Wall, life scale provided a way for photography to reconnect with ‘the painting of modern life’, the programme of everyday depiction outlined by Charles Baudelaire in 1863. Realist painters, who had taken up the challenge of trying to represent the complexities of their time and place, provided a vital model for photography in the latter decades of the last century. But Hannah Collins’ trajectory was different. Her early photographs evoked something of the scale and presence of monumental sculpture. They played with relations between the tactile and the untouchable, heaviness and lightness, surface and volume, appearance and presence. She began to hang her black-and- white prints less as photographs or even pictures than as vast undulating surfaces bearing images. They were presented to the viewer both as pictures of the world and as physical objects in the world. The irregular surfaces of the prints would take on the elemental qualities of the surfaces they recorded – cardboard, paper, cloth, metal, plastic, stone, brick, wood. They had as much in common with the work of Robert Smithson and Eva Hesse as they did with anything photographic or painterly. For example in the early work WhereWords Fail Completely (1986) we see a makeshift bed on the floor of a space that seems to be occupied only temporarily. Plastic sheeting covers the wooden floor as if the occupant is living fugitively, without leaving evidence. This space is not a bedroom and it is certainly not a home as we know it. Moreover the image is split into two sections, forcing us to confront its disunity and it is printed so that the white pillow on the bed appears life-size, emphasising not just what we see in the image but what we cannot – the occupant.
Collins undercuts the monumental presence of her art by making images that seem to be haunted by absences and traces. They are as much about what we cannot see in the frame as what we can. The adjective ‘monumental’ is often used to speak of great size and solidity. In this sense the monumental signals an unarguable presence. But Collins never allows us to forget that any monument marks the absence of something that has passed. The things and spaces to which she is attracted are rarely new or pristine. They have the patina of age, of wear and tear, of other times and other uses. They speak of life lived, of time passing, of history endured. The objects she photographs are often ephemeral while the spaces seem to be in a state of transition. We may glimpse new things (perhaps a steel and glass building, or a shiny car) but they are embedded in the weight of history and subject to the course of time. In Collins’ art, history appears as a force of measure and humility. It tempers the follies of the present while pointing to the follies of the past. Rarely are her images monuments to anything specific that has happened. Instead they are monuments to the more abstract idea of what we might call passingness. It is lived time itself that is memorialised here.
The solitude and company of viewers
Monumental scale allows for the possibility of multiple viewers all looking at an artwork at once. This, it could be argued, is the most significant shift that has happened to photographic and filmic art in the last few decades. The collective viewing of a photograph breaks with the tight relay between the artistic ego, the monocular image and the singular viewer. Instead the image opens itself out to the gaze of many eyes, many potential subjects who are all in the same place, looking at the work at the same time. To gaze at an artwork in the presence of others is to gaze alone and as part of what Giambattista Vico called the sensus communis – the collective, social, negotiated consciousness of the informal group.
Such communal looking is something that cinema always tried to deny. This was so despite the fact that in its commercial forms cinema required large movie theatres and mass audiences. The darkened space, the narrative drive of the films and the identification with characters on screen would draw viewers into the film and away from each other. The arrival
of the moving image in the gallery space, particularly in the multi-screen format used by Collins, reintroduced a properly social viewing to the moving image. The gallery space is not a cinema, and in general it does not screen films intended for cinemas. Instead, film in the space of art accepts this notion of viewers who are at once individual and present to each other.
In other words we look at Collins’ photographs and films in our solitude and in the company of others. In this way our experience of her art emerges from the subtle negotiation between the two. This would emerges from the subtle negotiation between the two. This would hardly be worth mentioning were it not for the fact that the relationship between solitude and company informs much of Collins’ art. This is the condition that her art is attempting to describe.
We cannot attribute a single, stable quality to solitude, nor to company. There are situations in which solitude is involuntary, coming as an awful fate or consequence forced upon a person: alienation, living alone, looking for work, working alone. And yet we all know there are situations in which solitude seems like the height of luxury, indeed the most rare of commodities affordable only by the few. Likewise there are moments when “hell is other people” as they say, and there are moments when it is only company that will save us from the madness of solitude. This double character of solitude and company can be sensed quite acutely in Collins’ recent films. While very different in setting and structure La Mina, Current History and Parallel all unfold as searches for the meaning of solitude and company. The settings vary – a community of Spanish gypsies, a remote Russian village, and the fractured geographies of economic migration – but in each situation Collins organises her film around the fragile connections between individuals and social groups.
The art of viewing
Some of the most revealing moments in these films seem to come almost by chance. There are fleeting juxtapositions created not as they are in conventional cinema by the sequencing of shots on a single screen, but by viewers themselves as their eyes switch from one screen to another screen, assembling for ourselves a picture of what it is we think we are coming to understand. At other moments it is quite clearly Collins herself who is bringing one image into a dialectical relationship with another. Then there are moments when it is the people on screen who unexpectedly offer up their own thoughts on their situation. In this way we viewers find ourselves moving between making our own sense of the films and listening to the sense of others. For many artists the use of more than one film screen has been a way to dismantle or explode the dominant linear narratives of mainstream cinema. Multiple screens offer the possibility of multiple views or multiple plotlines. Here the space of art is used as a kind of operating table for the dissection of narrative cinema into its various parts.There is a long history of art being mobilised to alienate or estrange mainstream culture (from Dada, Surrealism and Situationism to Minimalism and Pop).Hannah Collins’ films seem to have little to do with this motivation. She is not trying to estrange or alienate the familiar. In many respects her art attempts the exact opposite. For Collins is interested in the idea that what we often think is familiar is at the same time alienating and estranging. Multiple screens are simply the best way to try and assemble pictures of phenomena that are almost unpicturable. At first glance any multi-screen installation will exude an aura of confidence and control. Multi-screen work always looks assured and spectacular. This is in part because it is bigger than any single viewer.
The viewer cannot take it all in or fantasise that they have a grip on it. To watch a multi- screen film is, by definition, a decentring experience. Decentred experience is a strong theme within Collins’ films themselves. So again we find a consonance between the experience of the viewer and the experience of the viewed. Her films offer us the chance to consider people whose identities are somehow in flux. They are in flux because they are confronting their own fragile relation to time and place, caught between one thing and another. That ‘thing’ may be personal loyalty, economic necessity, a cultural affiliation or something much less easily defined. Certainly there is a confidence and control in Collins’ physical construction of these films. We see it in the precise choices of location, subject matter, framing, lighting, cinematography, editing, sound design and so on. As I mentioned earlier all of her art feels highly considered but its meaning is much less fixed. Even so, there is no revelling in ambiguity for its own sake here. This is an art that is searching, looking for glimpses of something truthful or at least revealing about our experience of a contradictory world. In picking up on this search, the audience finds their own active place in the making of meaning. The composer John Cage gave a word to this active role of the audience. He called it response-ability. It is a beautifully simple marriage of words that gets us close to describing the obligations of the audience. It is not simply responsibility, nor response, nor ability. It is rather an obligation to actively use one’s abilities to respond, to accept that meaning will not arise without our participation.
Time and time again
Collins’ films make manifest what was often latent in her photographs. They are full of the living presence of people that her photographs only imply. Before she began to make films nearly all of her still images were devoid of human presence. Her subject matter was certainly the lives of people, but she approached things indirectly, photographing their spaces, places, surfaces and objects. Presented alongside her films those photographs are now transformed. Their ‘emptiness’ becomes even more charged, more infused with the aura of absent stories. It becomes more difficult to refuse the impulse to project narrative upon them. Perhaps this situation has affected all photography in the age of the moving image. Cinema converted the natural stillness of photography into ‘stoppedness’ or ‘arrestedness’. This was why AlbertValentin in 1929 described Eugene Atget’s photographs of the outskirts of Paris as resembling images of crime scenes. He could not help but narrate them, seeing their spaces as empty stages.
But there is a more telling comparison to be made that brings us much closer to the tension Collins sets up between the times of photography and film. In 1974 the filmmaker Alain Resnais published a book of photographs titled Réperages. It collected together shots of streets and buildings made while he was looking for locations for his films. But Resnais’ photos do more than record what was there before his camera. They speak of narratives yet to come. They have the past tense common to all photographs but they also have a futuretense. The promise of the unmade films keeps the photographs alive, looking forward as much as back.
When we were preparing this book and exhibition I asked Hannah if she knew of Alain Resnais’ rather forgotten book. She didn’t. I took it from my shelf and handed it to her. Looking through his images she immediately saw a connection with her own. It was more than the tactility of the printed pages and the panoramic layout. It was this double relation to time. Hannah stopped at a photograph of a long wall made entirely of re-used doors. This mundane yet surreal image was also a little uncanny because Hannah had already made her own photograph of something uncannily similar – a house made of doors that she came across in Barcelona. Her image of it became a guiding symbol in the preparation of this book and exhibition. It embodies the layering of time and place that runs through so much of her work. It is an image pragmatism, experience and unlikely beauty. But the story does not end here. It continues into the future. As part of the project Drawing on the City the artist plans to reconstruct that house of doors, as a floating monument in the waters of Barcelona. It will be moored as a platform for swimmers to use. From the shore it will be a vision of transience and transcendence – a monument to those who continue to come to Barcelona from across the water, to those who changed the city’s sense of time and place. Thanks to Hannah Collins it will have made the transition from object to image and back to object again. The house of doors will reappear.
Introduction, Iwona Blazwick, Finding Transmitting Receiving, 2007
Hannah Collins Introduction, Iwona Blazwick
— First published in Finding, Receiving, Transmitting, published by Black Dog Publishing in 2007
If art once presented a window onto the world, modern art resolutely created a world in its own right. Whether through an emphasis on materiality and form or through the evocation of a broader social context, this tendency can be understood as an engagement with the real. The viewer has been invited to enter and become immersed in works of art that combine a symbolic reading with a phenomenal one.
While photography lays claim to the real through its documentary and indexical nature, few artists have been able to defy the pictorial limits of the image by dissolving the picture frame, blurring the boundary between the image and the space in which it is viewed.
An important exception has been the artist Hannah Collins. Her photographs can be experienced as an image and as a kind of architecture; as two -dimensional surface and as sculpture.
One of her earliest works pictures a room and is itself room sized. The scale is one on one. Thin Protective Coverings (1986) is a giant, canvas mounted black and white photograph of a constructed environment made up of flattened cardboard boxes. The image appears to continue the floor and wall of any space in which it is hung. Yet the solidity of the room’s structure is disintegrated into an overlapping mosaic of cardboard sheets. This remarkable image has a powerful sculptural quality. At the same time it evokes the makeshift architecture of the homeless; and the unofficial structures of the favela. Imposing in its architectonic scale and imagery the work combines fragility with tenacity; ubiquitous, transitory and disposable, cardboard is a mainstay of surviving life on the streets. The reference to ‘coverings’ also suggests skin, our own thin, protective covering.
Collins’ evocation of the tactile, sensual qualities of the material world combines with her use of scale to give her photographs a spatial, even phenomenological quality that, to paraphrase Rosalind Krauss, locates her work in an expanded field.
There are some other important features of the photographs and film works gathered together in this book. Collins is interested in revealing the archeology of urban space, showing how the built environment bares the traces of the past and intimations of a future. She also pictures the architecture of survival, documenting places created by those who have been displaced.
Juxtaposed with her photographs of buildings and cityscapes, there is an ongoing engagement with the still life and the beauty and interconnectedness of organic things.
Finally there are portraits; animated and speaking for themselves, through film; or, most recently, brought back from the dead through found negatives or prints.
‘Photography alludes to the past and the future only in so far as they exist in the present, the past through its surviving relics, the future through prophecy visible in the present.’ 1
Collins has lived and worked in London, Barcelona and California. She has also made work in India, North Africa, Poland, Russia and Turkey. In each location she documents the omnipresence of a universal modernism and the global features of modernity. At the same time her lens reveals the cracks and fissures through which the ancient and the culturally specific become visible. Her images move between panoramic city scapes bristling with television aerials or festooned with billboard posters; and the marbled texture of a single slab of stone cladding.
The surface of the world becomes itself a kind of photograph, exposed to time, to the light of millennia, recording the deep shift of tectonic plates, or the surface patinas of changing civilizations. The epic sweep of a roofscape or modernist urban facade is juxtaposed with a fragment; it might be the corner of a street, a gate, a brick wall. Collins combines the ‘fast time’ of technological and cultural change, the dynamo of the modern - with the slow time of geology, forgotten settlements and activities. A building or conurbation may even bare the signs of trauma, such as her pictures of the streets around Auschwitz, or overgrown cemeteries. Her archeology of urban space, with its ravishing textures and intense colours, is also an attempt to confront the present with the past, to show how social history is part of the everyday present.
Collins is also drawn to people who by choice, by virtue of their identity or as victims of circumstance, pursue an existence at the edge of urban space and of legality. Just as her architectural typologies speak of shelter, communal life and labour – she also pictures the structures and topologies that invoke their opposite – homelessness, exile, alienation, unemployment.
Through stills and the moving image, Collins has tracked how groups and individuals can maintain communal rituals and a sense of dignity when they are relegated to the edge of the dominant social order, prohibited from truly occupying the public arena. This existence of contingency finds its expression in temporary habitats and the colonization of those public spaces deemed to occupy the margins. These might be self-built shelters, collaged together from found materials, disorderly and beguilingly sculptural, structures of survival and resistance. Or they might be found spaces that are co-opted for living – a motorway underpass where a gypsy keeps his horses, the no-go concrete zones between public housing tower blocks, a bench in the park. These spaces become co-opted to provide meeting places, areas for negotiation and zones of departure.
Collins has photographed and interviewed gypsy communities who live at the edge of the polis; and individual refugees who live among us yet are invisible. This documentation has been extrapolated into narrative through a series of films where she has given a voice to three exiles. Their parallel lives, where every day is a struggle for survival, lack symbolic representation; they are like ghosts among the citizenry, illegal, invisible, impotent. Collins has sought them out to give them visibility through the lens.
She has also pictured those who have disappeared entirely, their passing marked by gravestones, memorials and of course photographs themselves. Juxtaposed in the pages of this book with an image of an earthy hole in the ground, a waterfall and a giant staircase, are a series of sepia photographs Collins deploys as found objects. Again she moves between the generic and the specific. These works are reprints of 19th century photographs of family groups or individuals. They are anonymous, yet recognizable as part of the genre of portraiture. Collins draws attention to the details – the leaves hand painted on the wallpaper behind a figure that look like fingerprints; a large male hand grasping a tiny female one; two women’s heads at the back of a family group; the label on the back of a print with the name of the photographer’s studio embellished with a graphic flourish. We will never know anything of the subjectivity, history or significance of the subjects of these photographs which can be understood as ‘found objects’. In an important paper where on the readymade and the found object in modern and contemporary art, art historian Margaret Iversen comments: The found object shares with the readymade a lack of obvious aesthetic quality and little intervention on the part of the artist beyond putting the object into circulation, but in almost every other respect it is dissimilar. The difference is attributable to Breton’s positioning the found object in a difference space – the space of the unconscious’. By dissecting elements of these generic formal portraits, isolating features such as heads, patterns, gestures, Collins triggers an empathetic sense of recognition. She gives them an emotional and psychic charge by highlighting what Iversen has described as ‘the texture of the real’ 2 .
Alongside her meditative studies of modern and historic topographies, Collins has always maintained an engagement with the interiority of the still life. Although her exquisitely sensual studies of organic forms and manmade objects can be understood within the genre of the still life, they are not so much prearranged compositions on a table as sensual moments, oasis of physicality, grasped from the flux of the everyday. The folds of a cotton sheet caress the eye; the crystals of a chandelier dazzle the gaze; a box of dried sardines triggers an olfactory response. They relate to basic human functions such as eating, sleeping; at the same time they offer moments of intense beauty.
This book has been structured by the artist to follow certain themes. The first section, titled Events and Conditions offers a sequence of urban and suburban images. The second section, titled Finding, Transmitting, Receiving demonstrates how space is transformed into situation. Ghosts is a chapter where the ‘dead’ images of historic portrait photography come to life. Scripts documents Collins’ recent film projects. The final section Pavilions, moves between the great iconic Barcelona Pavilion of Mies van der Rohe, a home-made tent/ shack and the surprisingly baroque interior of a Spanish high rise apartment. These exteriors and interiors leave us with the two polarities in Collins’ work - the utopian and the dystopian, folded within one another through Collins’ sculptural and architectural photographic practice.
Iwona Blazwick, 2007
1 John Szarkowski, from The Photographer’s Eye, catalogue essay, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1969
2 Margeret Iversen, ‘Readymade to Found Object’, lecture, Big Ideas, Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2004
Bonjour Mademoiselle Collins, Blake Stimson, CAC Malaga Catalogue, 2004
Bonjour, Mademoiselle Collins, Blake Stimson, 2004
— First published in the catalogue for the exhibition The Street CAC Malaga in 2004
Photography has long been an existential medium. This is not its only quality, of course—we need think only of the everyday snapshot, the occupational portrait, the promotional image, the journalistic or technical document, or, even, the travel souvenir, to realize otherwise— but the modern combination of unabashed nerve and raw self-doubt that has served as the mark of existence held out has a value unto itself has played an important role, particularly as photography has made its claim to be art. This is most evident when we realize that the world the photographer travels to in order to stake that claim is one that frequently looks back with a peculiar gaze, one that recognizes her not as family or friend, proselytizer, service provider or tourist but as someone or something quite fully other, as a dark continent only barely recognizable and yet still largely known. Indeed, if given half a chance the world brought into view by the art photographer will always look back—will always stare, really, as she sets up tripod and camera, determines exposure, adjusts focus and framing, smiles nervously or otherwise ingratiates herself to the subjects at hand and exposes one or two or three sheets of film—stare, that is, at the strangeness of someone without a home.
Of course the romance with such homelessness has regularly held modernists of all stripes in thrall and particularly so the artists. Witness, for example, even such a matter-of-fact modernist as Gustave Courbet: “In our overcivilized society, I must lead the life of a savage,” he wrote to a friend in 1850, concluding triumphantly, “I have, therefore, just started out on the great, wandering, and independent life of the gypsy.” It is the greatness of this life that Courbet would subsequently thematize in his 1854 painting titled The Meeting, or Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet, albeit now no longer in the figure of savage or gypsy but instead by assuming the great, wandering, and independent life of the Wandering Jew. In all three models—savage, gypsy, and Jew—that wandering is itself assumed to be an ethical procedure, a movement away from modern European life in order to gain a critical view. In Courbet’s painting the meaning of wandering is triangulated between three comportments: the straight-on carriage of bourgeois entitlement of Courbet’s patron Alfred Bruyas, the head cast down in subservience of Bruyas’s servant, and the head held high in a bodily declaration of autonomy by Courbet himself. The artist as wanderer, we are to understand, realizes his independence from “overcivilized society,” his proud if harsh homelessness, not by foregoing the trappings of the industrializing world, but instead through a form of class vagrancy.
The question that raises itself for us here is what happens in the transition from the modernist ideal of savage/gypsy/Jew/artist to that of savage/gypsy/Jew/photographer, from the wandering outwards towards otherness of Monsieur Courbet to that of Mademoiselle Collins? That is, what does the ethical wandering given by photography have to say to that given by art? The first and most obvious factor to consider is the mechanical difference and its implications for the encounter between artist and photographer and his or her subjects. Where the artist typically experiences that encounter over time—think of Bruyas modeling for Courbet, for example, not to mention the extensive relations of patronage necessary to support the production of even a single painting—the photographer’s relationship with any subject is far more likely to be only momentary. To illustrate this we need only imagine a photographer like Jacob Riis sneaking into a tenement house in the middle of the night to startle its impoverished tenants with his magnesium flash before fleeing from the brickbats flying in response, or Cartier-Bresson arriving here or there just in the knick of time to capture its “decisive moment,” or Robert Frank stealing a shot on the fly as a “solitary observer,” in his characterization of this mode of wandering, “turning away after the click of the shutter.”
The photographer distances herself from the world very differently than the artist. In a sense she is simply more itinerant as she skips from one fleeting click of the shutter to the next than is the artist whose movement is in reaction and therefore always anchored on either side by the relatively stable rankings of the social order. Casting herself into the moment to sink or swim without such social quays for her subjectivity, the photographer’s homelessness can only realize itself fully as a kind of “shame,” as Sartre once termed it, a discomfort born of “the recognition of the fact that I am indeed that object which the other is looking at.” The photographer’s version of the modernist dare is to immerse herself in that look which “embraces [her] being and correlatively the walls, the door,” even, Sartre says, “the keyhole” through which she gazes in return. Indeed, given in every passage from life as lived to “life on film,” at least when that passage rises to the level of art, is a kind of brutal honesty—a confession almost—that speaks to the social conditions of knowing. It is only a momentary shame, of course, and one largely lost to posterity once recorded, but for a brief but vital moment photography is experienced most fully in its existential condition: as an index of experience with all the power and all the poverty of its close relations information, data and statistics.
Birdland, Richard Noble, 2004
Bird Land, 2004 Richard Noble
At the beginning of Hannah Collins’ new projection La Mina, a group of people awake in a sort of temporary encampment on the edge of a vast housing estate. Sleeping bags, lean-tos, the odd table and chair scattered in the open space suggest an encampment of the homeless, or perhaps of Gypsies. Two men bridle an old horse and talk about what to do about the Romanian Gypsies encamped in this space, which they use for their scrap business and clearly regard as their own. The plan they hit upon is to dump as much scrap as they can on the space so as to drive them off (this has the virtue of being within their rights as users of the space and avoiding the financial obligations – petrol, etc. - traditionally involved in helping fellow Gypsies to move on). As they set off in their horse drawn cart towards the main estate to gather scrap, they pass under a motorway. A large bus thunders towards and passes them just at the low point of the road. Neither the horse nor the drivers seem at all disturbed by the size and power of the passing bus; they carry on as if this sort of confrontation between the modern and the pre-modern, town and country, between historic and present time, is nothing out of the ordinary. This brief series of events at the beginning of Hannah Collins’La Mina sets up two tensions which recur throughout the work. The scrap dealers are residents of the permanent community of La Mina, working within its political economy and proprietorial about the spaces they’ve colonised within the community. The Romanian Gypsies are in this sense marginal to the Gypsies of La Mina; still living the ancient, nomadic life, and still regarded with contempt by the town dwelling property owners. Yet equally, the scrap guys are marginal to the main economy and culture of Barcelona. They work within the confines of La Mina, deal only with other Gypsies and their main technological asset is a carthorse.
The cart emerges from the underpass at a leisurely pace, already one can feel the languid heat of the morning pressing down and enveloping the community. Their pace seems congruent with the heat, but radically at odds with the environment through which they are moving. Ringed by teaming motorways, a vast housing estate of 1960s modernist blocks, thousands of units in each, rises out of a concrete and asphalt field. This is the Gypsy community of La Mina on the edge of Barcelona. La Mina was built by the Franco regime as a typically ‘modern’ solution to the problem of housing the poor and the marginal in 1960s Spain. It was in this sense also a solution to the ‘Gypsy problem’, because Gypsies were the poorest and most marginal community in Spain at the time, though it would not have been articulated as such. Architecturally, it has the look of a particularly fascist solution, vast alienating modernist blocks built around huge rectangular plazas; a triumph of rational geometric design profoundly inimical to the development of any kind of organic street life. But of course, it wasn’t just the fascists who built such estates; they became central to post-war social housing schemes across Europe, and plague its cities from Moscow to London. La Mina is merely one of many registers of the utopian impulse in architectural modernism gone wrong. Nor were the fascists the only ones who identified gypsy communities as a ‘problem’. Nomadic cultures are, to understate the case, incompatible with modernity. There can no longer be any question of large numbers of people with a distinct culture and language travelling from place to place, following work or seasonal patters of migration through developed modern societies. Nomadic cultures are just too at odds with capitalist modernity. Their general indifference to its most basic values: individual property rights, the self-regulating anxieties of linear time keeping, and perhaps most importantly their refusal to identify with and stay in any one particular place or community, make them problematic from the standpoint of governments and social systems grounded on ownership, enterprise and rigorous self-surveillance. This is borne out by the fact that governments throughout the developed world: in North America, Australia, and Central Europe as well as Spain, have sought to constrain, localise and assimilate nomadic peoples.
La Mina evokes the sense of a community and a culture that is neither nomadic nor wholly assimilated into the modern. It exists somewhere in between, an interstitial ghetto surrounded by motorways, symbolically (and perhaps actually) excluded from the rest of the city by the arteries of economic modernisation; but also by its own cultural solipsism, by its very refusal to assimilate, to submit its own conventions, customs and traditions to the great homogenising forces of the modern.
This complex five screen projection tells three distinct but nonetheless connected ‘stories’ or narratives over three days. Each narrative unfolds in linear time, but they are projected over the five screens so that they overlap, most of the time two of the narratives unfold simultaneously. This is an immensely complex and subtle narrative technique, which allows the viewer to register the specificities of each narrative (cultural, personal, aesthetic), while at the same time grasping the larger cultural context in which the narratives of others unfold. This seems central to Collins’ project. She uses the languages of photography and cinema to construct what might be termed an ‘anthropoetical’ portrait of this community. We are offered shifting perspectives: sometimes the perspective of the observer, Collins herself, sometimes the perspective of the participants, a judge, a young boy, a man mourning his father. Similarly the camera shifts back and forth between the structural components of the community: its architecture, its judicial procedures, its internal economy; and the lives of individuals who iterate these various cultural forms through the narratives Collins constructs around them.
The shifting perspective is, it would seem, central to the poetics of the piece. Collins creates a kind of multidirectional dialogue which is based on the interplay of three ‘authorial’ perspectives: the Gypsies who are the authors of their own stories and their own dialogues, Collins herself who has filmed and edited these stories into one work, and the viewer who is offered a series of very detailed and intimate narratives that he or she must interpret from their own very limited knowledge of the situation and culture against which the stories unfold. The Gypsies involved in the project have been asked to represent themselves through a series of narratives, but there is no way of telling from either the narratives themselves or form Collins unobtrusive cinematography to what extent the stories are fictional and to what extent they are based on fact. In the end, it simply doesn’t matter, because they are evidently intended to tell us a certain kind of truth about the experience of the people involved, but this is a truth they the audience must participate in verifying or legitimating through interpreting the work itself. Everything is left open, which means one must participate actively in order to understand.
Collins does not attempt a systematic analysis of the community of La Mina, still less a straightforward record of an anthropological exercise in participant observation. We are offered a plurality of perspectives on different aspects of the culture; these views do not cohere into a logical analysis, nor do they add up to a vision of the whole. Yet at the same time they tell us a kind of fragmentary truth about life in this community. We sense the overwhelming alienation and confinement imposed by its architecture, the depressing lack of opportunity or diversion for its inhabitants; yet we also witness the power of its traditions of social cohesion, the redemptive possibilities of its music, and the strangely unexpected beauty of particular cultural practices, like caging wild birds in order to hear them sing. II
By staging the slightly frightening confrontation between the cart horse and the bus Collins alerts us to a trope running throughout La Mina; the tension between the modern and the pre-modern in Gypsy culture expressed in a variety of different forms as each of the narratives unfold. In the first narrative, the two guys driving the cart seem to represent a kind of dionysian chorus on the edges of the mainstream society. They enter La Mina from the outside, from the temporary shantytown of the more transitory, traditional gypsy culture they want to be rid of, and they circle it over the course of the narrative, gathering their stuff, taking their chances. They are members of the community but somehow on the outside, somehow aligned with an earlier or more primal sense of disorder or anarchy which the community of La Mina has apparently left behind. But of course, as both Hobbes and Nietzsche in their different ways have told us, we can never leave this primal impulse to disorder behind entirely; it is always threatening to break out: in children’s games, in civil conflict, and in art 1 .
Collins models this tension over the first day by projecting structures of order on the left hand screens, while the travelling dionysian chorus are confined to the right. In effect, the narrative unfolds on the left hand side of the projection. Initially, we encounter images of the architecture; a vast homogenous banality of box-like dwellings stacked endlessly on top of each other, spreading out across the five screens like a sort of demonically expanding Gursky photograph. Collins’ sensitivity to architecture is very refined. She finds in it the underlying structures of how we think about the spaces in which we live, and is somehow able to effect an immediate, almost visceral connection between the images she makes of buildings and the viewer’s subjective experience of space. What emerges in her initial tour d’horizon of La Mina, and returns at the end of the first section with the singing of the Cante Hondo, is the sense of the architecture of La Mina as a profoundly external and alienating structure. It is in a sense the authoritative presence of the external world, the world of Spanish or Catalan culture and politics which threatens both their political autonomy and their cultural integrity.
This is evoked with a sombre, aching beauty as night falls on the first day of the narrative. A wheelchair bound flamenco singer, Rafael, sings a Cante Hondo lament; a sad, solitary song which evinces the pain he feels at the loss of his mother with a directness and power that is both unsettling and moving at the same time. As he sings Collins projects images of the estate that reveal the underlying panopticism of the architecture 2 . Like Bentham’s ideal prison La Mina isolates families into discrete, isolated spaces. The essentially communal existence of nomadic peoples fosters a domestic architecture which allows several generations to live together at once. Density and isolation replace the organically communal growth of the shanty town or the temporary encampment. And in addition to this the sheer monumentality of the estate, its heavy, immobile, concrete permanence, constitutes a profound rupture with the community’s nomadic traditions. Like Rafael in his wheelchair, the Gypsies of La Mina cannot go back to the way it was before.
Yet the narrative of the first day is not entirely devoted to the alienating effects of externally imposed structures. Within the framework of this static, incarcerating architecture, traditional cultural forms and practices continue to flourish and sustain the community. The survival of these traditional practices is of course central to the community’s identity, and Collins’ narrative shows us how this actually works. Images of a community patriarch, Tio Emilio, gradually segue into the film as a full blown narrative. He is a judge, what aboriginal communities might call an elder, who is often called upon to resolve civil or criminal disputes within the community. In this case, two young men have had a dispute over a car, and it appears that there was some minor violence or threatening behaviour. The operation of this ‘court’ is fascinating: spontaneous and popular and thoroughly pre-modern. It shows us how an ancient mechanism for resolving disputes between members of the community can flourish in the present, and also how this practice can be a kind of resistance (that something so spontaneous and transitory, but nonetheless important, could break out amidst the monolithic architecture of La Mina is at least a symbolic kind of resistance to the colonisers’ will).
Tio Emilio approaches the dispute very differently from a judge in the common or Roman law tradition would. He is evidently not the least interested in the rights or wrongs of the case, and takes it for granted that some measure of each is present on both sides. What he seems most concerned with is restoring balance and unity to the community by reconciling the young men, and more importantly their families, to each other. The fathers of the young men are asked to put their respective cases, suggesting it is really the families who are the subjects of this judicial procedure, not the individuals. Tio Emilio then speaks to the respective fathers and their families with a mixture of cajoling intimacy and subtle intimidation: it is a bravura performance. He succeeds in persuading them to reconcile, but he also threatens the boys with banishment if they fight again. Historically, banishment is the severest punishment of all in nomadic cultures, because to be banished meant the loss of everything: identity, family, and very likely life. It is hard to imagine this as a punishment anyone would take seriously in a Spanish or English court, yet here it remains a powerful deterrent to uncivil behaviour. This of course points up a major difference between dominant and marginal cultures; in the former the loss of one’s culture is virtually inconceivable, and so plays little or no role in the framing of one’s identity. However, in the latter, where the loss of culture is an ever present prospect, sustaining one’s links to it takes on a much greater urgency, and more directly frames one’s sense of self. In the end the purpose of the proceeding seems to be the health of the community, not the vindication of a moral or legal standard, and still less the upholding of an individual right. The narrative of this particular judicial proceeding ends in a successful resolution of the problem, though it is easy to see that this might not be the case in more extreme circumstances. Nonetheless it illustrates two important dimensions of the way this community sustains itself. First, that it has the internal cultural and political resources for sustaining its own civil society. Second, these kinds of resources allow it to resist assimilation; they are the living or functioning basis of the community’s capacity for self-governance.
By intertwining these very complex narratives, Collins has given us a measured and it seems to me quite profound sense of the tensions that frame this community’s existence.
She illustrates the nature of their incarceration in the alienating and panoptic architecture of La Mina; an incarceration which is all the more tragic for being to a significant degree self-imposed. Yet at the same time she is attentive to and able to celebrate their day to day strategies of resistance, some of which are extremely effective at stimulating pride and self-confidence in the community. All the while the cart horse and its drivers slowly circle the estate, like witnesses from a bygone era, a time when the entire community might literally have just slipped away into the night. III
The second section of this work opens in the country. Collins’ camera again frames this new community with an examination of its architecture. This is a rural, more traditional Gypsy encampment; instead of vast modernist blocks we find a series of single story ‘jabollas’ spreading horizontally along a dirt track. The houses appear to be put together with waste materials salvaged from here and there. They have a transitory but nonetheless organic feel to them. Collins is here in familiar territory. She has photographed this kind of dwelling before, in Poland and in India. One section of the work In the Course of Time (1994) details a cluster of low, A-frame shacks, half dug into the ground and put together with bits of wood, tar paper, plastic and whatever else had come to hand. This is a difficult, complex image; rough, chaotic, evidence of hard, transitory life. Again, Collins uses architecture as a register of the subjectivity of those who build and inhabit them. These shacks are evidently used by hunters, or woodsmen, who appear to have a non- proprietorial relation to the place they have chosen to inhabit. They are registers of an economy of marginality, places where the excluded, the damaged, the other are allowed to exist. Yet at the same time they have a kind of beauty, the sensuous detail of the black and white image is almost elegiac.
However, the images here are anything but elegiac. The rural Gypsy settlement contrasts sharply with the monumental urban architecture of La Mina, images of which continue to appear as Collins camera examines the rural settlement. The contrast between them highlights a distinction within the Gypsy community itself, which parallels or perhaps echoes the some of the divisions between the community of La Mina and the broader Catalan and Spanish cultures in which it exists. Life in La Mina would appear to be more urban, in many respects both more sophisticated and more alienating than life in the rural settlement. In the former, children play in the street, families are isolated from one another in concrete boxes, personal histories seem much more tied up with the larger society. In the latter women and children move in and out of each others’ homes easily, talking and sharing their day to day lives. A man openly discusses his worries over his son and the loss of his father, sharing his unhappiness with the head of another Gypsy community, and with his sister, who is (interestingly in this heavily patriarchal culture) the head of his own community. The implication is that despite its marginality and the profoundly self-protected, inward-looking perspective of Gypsy culture, it not one monolithic thing. Differences exist within it, and these are as important to understanding how it works as the defining commonalities.
The narrative of the second day contrasts these two communities in a series of subtle, languid images. The two communities meet and so in a certain sense solidify their differences at a marketplace, which appears to be on the edges of La Mina underneath one of the motorways that surrounds it. This a the point of encounter between two Gypsy cultures; a point at which trade occurs but at a more metaphorical level a point at which each community in a certain sense responds to and fulfils the lack of the other. To know itself each needs the difference of the other. The presence of these two communities mixing together under a flyover puts one in mind of Jeff Wall’s The Storyteller, which links the marginalisation of another nomadic people to the history of modern painting, and modernism in general. There is however an important difference. Whereas Wall’s work is primarily about representation 3, Collins’ uses the metaphorical potential of architecture to make an essentially anthropological point. Sequestered away under the motorway, the marketplace also becomes a place otherness and marginality, almost literally nowhere. Yet at the same time it is also a place of cultural exchange and renewal, a place where the dialectics internal to Gypsy culture drive it forward, sustaining and renewing its vitality.
As the second day progresses Collins focuses increasingly on life in the rural Gypsy community. The main subject of the narrative is Nanin, a middle aged man whose son is in prison, and who seems to be in a state of more or less permanent mourning for his father. There is nothing dramatic about his unhappiness, but it would seem to be rendering him in some serious way unable to cope. His family and friends are obviously concerned about him, but perhaps also somewhat impatient with his unhappiness. They want him to play the trumpet again, something he has apparently not done since the death of his father ten years ago. They tell him that he needs to play it, for himself, and for his son and for the community as a whole. The implication seems to be that music is therapeutic; it offers some sort of release or redemption to the individual, but it is also a way of sustaining the culture as a whole because it introduces new generations (in this case his son) to a defining cultural form. It links the generations together by preserving a cultural form and orienting the living away from the absolute loss of death towards the needs and aspirations of the living. At a certain point someone gives him a trumpet, while all around preparations see to be made for some sort of party. They urge him to play, which he does quite beautifully; a melody made familiar by the Gypsy Kings, more upbeat that the Cante Hondo sung at the end of the previous day, but nonetheless cathartic for that. As he finishes his song his wife, and then his sister, throw their arms around him, a smile of genuine joy and relief animates his face. This marks the beginning of a bacchanalian celebration by the whole community, suggesting in some sense that the resolution of his unhappiness, however temporary, is ultimately something that must be accomplished communally, as if it were necessary to the restoration the community’s health. The contrast with the ending of the first day, and by extension the character of the two communities, could hardly be sharper. If Rafael’s song is one of absolute loss sung out against the alienating and indifferent architecture of La Mina, in a certain sense the trumpeter’s song initiates a celebratory return to his community. IV
The third day begins with the arresting image of birdcages hung along a deep red terracotta wall; at first they look a bit like constructivist paintings, but then a certain parallel with the box-like apartments of La Mina becomes inescapable. It is apparently common here to cage wild birds in order to enjoy their song; a practice which must resonate, consciously or unconsciously, of their own cultural condition. We are back in La Mina; the quiet repose inspired by the images of the birdcages gradually gives way to the increasingly intense activities of a dense urban community. The narrative of the final day revolves around preparations for a concert in the evening. The main character is a boy of about fourteen, who is out and about in the community during the day and then prepares for the concert in the evening. Over the course of the day, moving in and out of the boy’s narrative, we encounter a large number of individuals. Some of them we’ve seen before, Tio Emilio, Rafael, the boy himself, but many of them are new, the man in the bar who speaks to the boy, lots of women wearing gold jewellery, some men in a club, children playing in the plaza. There is a sense of the community unfolding before us in all its multiplicity; after the careful examination of architecture and cultural forms we are reminded that individual specificity is always in excess of our attempts to capture it in generalisation.
The boy’s narrative is at root a story of cultural identity; of how this culture links together its past, present and future. The boy is shown listening to Tio Emilio recounting his life as an actor. He evidently had some success in the so-called ‘spaghetti westerns’ of Sergio Leone; one is shown on the television behind Tio Emilio as he speaks. The boy is clearly fascinated by Tio Emilio’s account of his life: he is a figure of authority in the community, someone who commands respect as a wise elder but also someone who has had successes in the world outside. These kinds of stories are central to the oral tradition of the community, they teach new generations about the past, about how it was for their grandfathers and grandmothers, why they left, why they returned. After he leaves Tio Emilio the boy visits a video store, perhaps in search of a ‘spaghetti western’, but all he seems to find are Hollywood films. In a way this underlines the importance of the oral tradition, without the stories of the older generations La Mina’s youth would have only American popular culture and its variants to draw upon.
As on the second day, music comes to the fore as an important part of what links the generations of La Mina together. After the birdcages we encounter a group of flamenco musicians playing or practicing with each other in one of the plazas of La Mina. The music is beautiful, up lifting, and we can see the pleasure on the faces of the musicians as the play. Strains of the melody float across the images in the projection, drawing them together. The camera pans around the square, catching from different angles a statue of Camaron, the most famous Gypsy flamenco singer of the 1970s and 1980s. Camaron is a cultural hero here. One can sense the extent of his influence in the hairstyles of the flamenco musicians preparing for the concert in the evening, who seem mostly to be sporting seventies style mullets. Ten years after his death, he is still the standard of what can be achieved in flamenco. This is underlined by a second conversation the boy has in a bar, this time with a clean shaven Nanin, who has come to the city for the concert. He tells the boy that Camaron was a god for his generation; a hero of their own culture who was also admired and respected worldwide.
One has the sense that the boy has heard this before, but it nonetheless prepares him for the final cathartic moment of the day, the concert which brings the entire community together around one of its oldest, most vibrant traditions. At one level of course it is just like any other urban community enjoying a concert on a warm summer evening; a mixture of excitement, dressing up, socialising, and having a good time. But it is also the reiteration of an internal structure, a tradition that reaches back before the tower blocks and the static, urban existence that now defines the community of La Mina. The work ends with this reiteration of the community’s ties to the pre-modern, not as an offering of hope or redemption or even nostalgia, but rather as an observation about how it endures. Yet at the same time, just as the concert is about to begin, Collins draws us back. We are not allowed to witness the climactic event, and the images are allowed to fade out against the returning image of Barcelona at night. This drawing back is a kind of intentional rupture, it reminds us that what we have witnessed is artifice; that we are not part of this community and that we have only been given the illusion that we might be able to get close to it or understand what is actually going on there. In the final frame, before the distant city reclaims the screen, an image of the cart horse fades gently out focus.
1 See Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (London: Basil Blackwell, 1949), ch. 13: Hobbes here offers his famous description of the ‘state of nature’ as a condition of the war of everyone against everyone, ‘And the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.’ He believed all human society to be constantly threatened with the outbreak of civil disorder, and hence valued authority highly; Nietzsche, on the other hand, finds the source of all great art in the primal disorder of life; see Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, ed. R. Guess, trans. R. Spiers (Cambridge: CUP, 1999), secs, 6,7.
2 The term ‘panopticism’ comes from Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Penguin Books, 1979), pp. 195-225, esp. 201, 209; I do not of course suggest that La Mina is literally like a prison, rather that the effects of isolating families into discrete box-like units marks a radical break with pre-modern modes of existence, and in the process habituates people to a de-personalised and mechanistic form of power which is manifested not in symbols or individual persons but through the self-regulating behaviour of those subject to it.
3 See Thierry de Duve, ‘The Mainstream and the Crooked Path’ in Jeff Wall (London: Phaidon Press, 19960, pp.47
In the Course of Time, Andrew Renton, 1996
— This text was first published in the catalogue for Chisenhale Gallery in 1996
(SOMEWHERE ON THE ROAD BETWEEN JERUSALEM TO TEL AVIV)
I tried to send you something before you went, but I could not get through. I wanted to warn you, to direct you, but it wouild appear, in the end, that you needed little or nothing from the likes of me.
But I will piece together some scraps, just for the sake of it. Or because I know that you now know how it does not unveil itself willingly. And because you know how much I have wanted you to see what you saw, and for how long.
There isn’t a single way through it. The signs are always shifting, quickly but imperceptibly. Perhaps one way through it would be to root out first thoughts and set them constantly against one’s changing perspective. Because when one looks at an object, however apparently stable it might appear, circumstances are always shifting around it. Or because some things do not catch the attention until later.
(Your journey is already marked by a thread or trail left behind from some time before that you might retrace your steps should you ever be obliged in yourself to return again.)
In gathering and furling the thread or trail you left that last time, you pass from one place to another by circuitous routes. You begin to remember the stages of your return despite the contrary motion.
The sun begins to rise at last over the basin laden with mist. You follow it from hill to hill, eastwards of necessity. And from time to time, somewhat southwards. Of necessity. South- eastwards, from time to time, before resuming true course.
I wanted to send you to places.
She takes your right hand and ties a red thread around your wrist, blessing you, the son of your mother.
One day it will fall from you, having done it’s work.
I wanted to send you places, but realize now that they must be fallen upon by accident. (...)
You come across an object which obstructs your path. It is not something which has drawn you toward it or around it. You cannot be sure if it was left by you or with you in mind, or whether it is something abandoned.
And the crossroads in Jerusalem, where the Jaffa Road meets King George. A complexity out of a desire to have things work one stage at a time. The traffic lights let cars pass west to east and east to west, then north to south and south to north, in succession. As far as I understand it (and it is, incidentally, replicated further up King George at Mea Shearim), the pedestrians cross not in alternation with the two planes of traffic, but all at once in all directions. They bide their time, then cross. Twelve directions together.
The point of all this is the crucial meeting point or evasion point at the no-place, at the centre of the square. Because it is nowhere as such, but a moment to avoid, and in so doing, avoid others. This, then, is the centre of absolutely everything.
You have not really looked at the garden before. The last time was somewhat later in the season or the next, and the orange tree was bearing its fruit, now still green.
But other colours, like berries staining the ground with excessive yield. The moist surplus is extravagant in this dry heat.
The walls of the garden. The feeling which unsettles you most here is the proximity of the sounds which break not so much the silence but nature taking its course. The walls offer a seclusion against all but the most inventive of intruders. And here more than ever, you feel that the intruders are aware of you.
You cannot decide whether they notice you in the street, or whether you leave no impression at all. The latter, in all probability, but the sense of how you appear, how you cover yourself, from whose hand you can receive directly, all such suggest that you should modify your deportment according to the vernacular.
In the last hours of the week, you sit at the top of the house, this time not facing the valley to the west, but southwards towards David’s Tomb and the Zion Gate. Below, the odd soul burdened with preserves and condiments, making a purposeful way up or down the hill.
(...) I wanted to tell you to watch your step and watch how others watch yours.
And when one travels even from one side of the city to another. It is not so much a question of disguising oneself, but of not announcing oneself. The codes are complex. There are nuances to what to wear, how to carry yourself, how to pass through the street. With hardly a glance, they will look at you and either recognize you as one of their own or as one not of their own. Or as another still, somehow out of the frame or focus.
Somewhere on the road from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. A few miles from an established point of arrival, in the distance, set back from the road, and in turn set back from a cluster of white houses, a red brick house, standing higher than the others, quite out of place in terms of style. The house is an exact replica of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s headquarters in Brooklyn. It was passionately believed by the Rebbe’s followers in his later years that he might declare himself as the Messiah and ‘return’ triumphant. Thus, the likeness was constructed to make him feel at home.
Whose home? Where?
Because this place was to be all about home. But there are claims in all directions. It is not simply territorial according to the lines of demarcation disputed endlessly. It is about applying marks to a never neutral landscape, to suggest home. As if home was always elsewhere.
And this landscape is worked to look like its own paradigm, whilst possibly never having looked this way before. The landscape is posited as history, your history, a universal history, but one’s eyes need to grow accustomed to all that information. There are layers to what one sees. Or rather, to what one does not.
There are images, where the makers saw without seeing. It took time to unsee what had got in the way of what was already there. The eye must exclude what was superimposed to reveal what was already excluded.
I wanted to talk to you about names. Naming things. Everything is named in the name of someone else, someone elsewhere. But what is being memorialized? The place not yet relinquished and an idea becoming home.
Places speaking in the name of one elsewhere.
Because a name is earned and carried forward. You come to inhabit your name.
The Rabbis could hardly speak except in the name of another.
Andrew Renton London, July 1997
Conversation between Hannah Collins and Ferran Adrià, (Spanish) 2011
Conversación Hannah Collins y Ferrán Adriá, 17 diciembre 2009, ElBulli
— This conversation took place for the project The Fragile Feast in 2011
HA: Entonces creo que necesitaremos definir que hay en este proyecto.
FA: Bueno, sobre todo, lo más interesante, que ya te dije el primer día, es que debe ser un proyecto tuyo. ¿Por qué? Porque miradas mías sobre elBulli, pues...yo he hecho cien, por eso me interesa es la mirada de otras personas sobre elBulli. Por eso he hecho hincapié en esto, es un proyecto tuyo. Si yo entro, te intoxico, y esto yo no lo quería hacer. Para mi, lo más interesante es que es una mirada de elBulli muy poco intoxicada por nosotros, estas fotos no es como nosotros las vemos; ....esto es lo más interesante de este proyecto.
Después, lo que hablábamos ayer, que se abre un diálogo, un puente entre Cocina de Vanguardia (que es ,muy importante tener en cuenta que estamos hablamos de Cocina de Vanguardia, no de Cocina) con el mundo de otras disciplinas del arte, como la fotografía, el video, la pintura.
HC: Pero el origen del producto. Estos productos que tenemos, que son 30 al final, como es su relación con el origen. Para mi, cuando yo llegué a los orígenes.lo que para mi era una sorpresa era la violencia de romper con su origen, al sacar una planta, que sacas una flor...
FA: para nosotros, al final (la selección del producto) es muy fácil: uno-calidad; dos-proximidad; a mi no me sirve, si la piña de 100 km más allá de Lleida es mejor que esta, pues no voy a utilizar esta. En cierto modo, es la sofisticación máxima de lo que tiene que haber en cocina y no vamos a entrar en temas románticos. y otro valor es que tiene que ser nuevo, como la rosa, por ejemplo. la originalidad. Y a partir de aquí cada producto es un mundo.
HC: Y cada producto tiene esto; por ejemplo, en el lulo yo he encontrado que la relación entre el Lulo y su origen es muy complejo, por una parte esto que tiene de social, en el sentido en que una persona va en su bicicleta a recogerlo;y por otra es la planta, que es físicamente una cosa, y después se transforma. Entonces cuando llega aquí ya esta transformada.
FA: Seguramente en trabajos como el tuyo, lo interesante es que expliques esto, nosotros no tenemos el tiempo para explicarlo.
HC: Es una explicación y también una exploración, porque cuando viene aquí es otra exploración. Son como dos exploraciones
FA: Ya ves como vamos nosotros, cada producto tiene una historia. Si la gente que viene a comer aquí supiera la historia, sería algo completamente diferente, y en este caso muy importante.
HC: Pero también de cualidad física es algo tiene mucho que ver con la esencia, por ejemplo, la rosa, que cuando comes esta rosa, es más rosa que la rosa. tiene esta característica de intensidad.
FA: Una vez que viene el producto, como con tu trabajo, hay cientos de posibilidades. En el caso de la rosa, como nunca se ha trabajado como verdura, es muy básico , simplemente los pétalos, y si puedes comerlo con la mano, mejor, muy básico. En comparación con otros platos nuestros si que es muy poco elaborado. Cuando comes el coco suflado es muy elaborado. Nosotros hemos realizado cientos de elaboraciones (del coco) y en el mundo, miles.
HC: Por otro lado la rosa, empieza con mucha calidad, como esto que he fotografiado al lado del volcán que es muy alto, es un sitio increíble; y después pierde en el viaje y luego vuelve a ganar; es entender la fuerza del producto.
FA: Más a miles de kilómetros que parece que no tendría que aguantar, y aguanta. Al final conocer de productos nadie conoce, como mucho este señor de rosas sí pero sólo sobre rosas. Y ha tenido que estar toda su vida sólo dedicado a las rosas
HC: Y esto de secuencias que me interesa mucho.
FA: Entonces nosotros, en este aspecto, nuestra relación con el producto es mucho más “animal” : nosotros lo vemos, lo tocamos, lo perfumamos, lo comemos, y dices:este es mágico o no es mágico, No es que conozcamos los miles de tipos de rosas, y luego dices si es mágico o no ,si y aporta algo o no. Por ejemplo, la textura de un lulo es completamente diferente. Nosotros no sabemos de productos, es imposible, como mucho hay especialistas de aceite. de oliva. Nosotros somos mucho más “animal”.
HC: La idea del origen, es importante por ejemplo, en este sentido, en Galicia, el mar es muy salvaje, por ejemplo las algas son muy diferentes al Mediterráneo. o a Portugal. Cada sitio tiene una cosas muy especifica suya, a lo largo de toda la Tierra
FA: Si esto lo trasladas...nosotros a nivel creativo, no tenemos tiempo a reflexionar tanto.
HC: Pero por ejemplo una secuencia es una combinación de cosas ¿es simplemente gusto o interviene algo más?
FA: Es una creación pura. Nosotros no podemos estar pensando cuatro días en las algas, que sería lo interesante, pero nuestro modelo creativo y nuestra manera de hacer hace que seamos muy básicos; la gente piensa que somos muy sofisticados a la hora de pensar y somos muy básicos; es una creatividad muy pura en el sentido de que es o no es, y hasta violenta.
Esto de violencia,,,,,
HC: Por ejemplo, el conejo, que es como algo de imagen tradicional muy tierna, y que tras de la cocina supone matarlo y convertirlo en otra cosa, es la conversión.
FA: Claro, es que según esta visión tuya somos unos asesinos.
HC: Sí pero somos todos, todos somos implicados (risas) yo he visto que la gente se identifica con el proceso, ¿es algo que buscas o no?
FA: Al final el backstage es una cosa, y en este caso sí que es un trabajo muy vigente, en el tuyo también, en cualquier disciplina es diferente; pero en el nuestro no tiene nada que ver , una cosa es una cosa es cuando vas allí, y otra cuando te sientas a la mesa; tú porque ya lo conocías de venir y hacer fotos, tu visión no es la habitual, la gente no sabe qué es lo que pasa dentro.
HC: Pero por otro lado, cada persona conoce, porque cada persona mata cosas
FA: Pero cuando vienes a comer no te lo planteas esto, esta comunión con el producto; nadie cuando bebe agua se plantea que miles de personas no la tienen
HC: ¿Es algo implícito en un restaurante que se separe el producto del final?, Porque muchos de platos muestran específicamente esto, la rosa, por ejemplo, ha sido muy transformada pero al final se parece a una rosa.
FA: A mi lo que me gusta es que cada persona que ve una fotografía tuya, y cada persona ve una cosa diferente y siente algo diferente. Aqui pasa igual y nosotros procuramos manipular muy poco a la gente.
HC: Pero por ejemplo, la flor, cuando se chupa lo que tiene dentro de la flor, es un acto muy sexual.
FA: Si claro, para ti es un acto muy sexual, pero para otro le recuerda que de pequeño iba al campo y hacía esto. Todo el mundo tiene una relación con la comida, desde que nace, y esto la hace especial. todo el mundo tiene una referencia. La diferencia es que nosotros procuramos no manipular, en este sentido, ya ves que el camarero te explica lo mínimo, puede haber un juego, como la rosa y la alcachofa, un poco para hacer reflexionar a la gente de que no queremos manipularla.
El coco, no explicamos que esto es el coco que chufla, que esto, una esponja de huevo, ¿ y tú que ves aquí? unos ven el jabón de coco, otros ven no se qué, otros no sé cuanto... todos ven una cosa
HC: Cada uno tienen una referencia
FA: Y personalmente me gusta cada vez más que cada uno vea diferente; es una lucha diaria, y cada vez me cansa más
HC: ¿Qué cada vez la gente sabe más?
FA: No, no, me cansa el querer entender a la gente. Ya no discutimos sobre la gente que le gusta o no le gusta, que de eso ya estoy vacunado. Sino que a la gente que le gusta, ¡cómo es posible que tengan tantas visiones! Y cada vez me cansa más. El otro día una mesa estuvo 5 horas para comer. ¡Es imposible que le guste! pero después hizo un escrito maravilloso y lo entendió todo. Para mi lo que puede estar bien, para otros puede no estarlo y al revés. Al final es todo bastante esquizofrénico. Cuando tú vas a una exposición y sólo vas un día,
HC: bueno, hay un momento en que corto; yo produzco y después corto
FA: Sí, pero nosotros no podemos
HC: Pero por otro lado se inicia cada noche y a la mañana después ya es otra cosa
FA: Pero yo estoy en contacto con la opinión y en relación con el feedback de la gente. La cocina es una acto muy comunicativo. No existe si no hay alguien que recibe.
HC: Pero por otro lado está la globalización y hay que entender, ahora tienes ropa hecha en un país, y comes cosas de otro país. Lo específico que entiendes de una cosa tiene muchas historias posibles. Como dices tú, cada historia es individual pero también cada historia es comunalmente diferente.
FA: Nuestro hilo conductor es la creatividad. Podemos hacer cosas mal hechas por el bien de la creatividad. No mal hechas, más bien en contra de una filosofía. En este sentido somos muy pragmáticos, y lo que mueve todo es la creatividad. Que puede estar hecha mal o no...el único sentido que tiene venir aquí a la mañana, es ver los limite que tenemos...y si el límite significa ir a buscar rosas a Ecuador, pues vamos; y si significa matar un oso polar en Alaska...¿tú matarías osos polares por hacer algo nuevo? ¡Pues seguro que sí!
HC: Pero también los limites son históricos y sociales, comer una oreja de conejo no tiene ninguna historia en la cocina.Es un límite físico, cultural y social.
FA: Sí, esto cuando comes, pero nosotros, con los productos, seriamos capaces de ir a robar al Amazonas una fruta en pro de la creatividad, y esto es difícil de entender. Primero la calidad y después otros valores. Y esto es criticable. Yo puedo criticar también cincuenta mil opiniones
HC: Pero en el siglo SV o XVI, las imágenes que hay de pinturas, de naturalezas muertas que incluyen productos específicamente locales, como conejo, apio, limón, y ahora vas a Perpignan y encuentras (...)
FA: No, locales no, un limón no es local HA: Bueno, al límite que han podido traer
FA: El tema de los productos es mucho mas fácil de lo que parece: de América, en 1492, vinieron muchos productos, lo único que estamos haciendo nosotros es que vengan más. El tema es que si yo mañana tengo una rosa como la de Ecuador, la misma, pues no voy a ser tan tonto de traerla de Ecuador,
HC: Pero es tan diferente, por ejemplo, la gente que busca las algas en Galicia; este hombre se va su domingo y bucea buscándolas porque sabe que necesita venir.
FA: Claro, esto es el trabajo que has hecho tú, y es muy interesante, pero nosotros no podemos explicar esto, no tenemos el tiempo material, en nuestro escenario no tenemos sitio, sería tanta información que sería una auténtica locura.
HC: Para mi no sólo es información, cuando llego es la esencia de la situación, la esencia es el peligro del mar, que es increíble en Galicia.
FA: Pero nosotros lo valoramos ayudando a esta persona
HC: Pero no hay tantos que pongan este esfuerzo para producir, una cosa; por ejemplo, las ovejas. La gente que tiene ovejas estas son como los reyes de la casa, se cuidan muchísimo, comen increíblemente bien y están libres; y la diferencia del producto es enorme.
FA: Seguramente tu leyenda del trabajo pasa por aquí, por el esfuerzo de una serie de gente que hace cosas especiales.
HC: Y no tiene nada que ver con dinero. —
FA: Y lo que hacemos los cocineros es poner en valor esto; y haciendo vanguardia de una manera especial.
HC: Yo al principio, en mi primer día fui a ver unas ovejas, veía las flores que cogen, lo que comen y estaba completamente confundida. Al final vi un bebe, tomando la leche de su madre, en esta situación muy primitiva, muy catalana, y ¡lo entendí!. Es esta relación, que la leche es algo que sale de la madre
FA: Toda esta poesía que hay detrás, cuando lo trasladas un sitio tan pragmático como este y de vanguardia; este es el shock interesante, lo lógico sería que esto se diera en una masía, una cocina muy sencilla y que viniera un señor y te diera el discurso ; “si porque esto tiene la leche que hay aquí al lado”
HC: Si pero no tiene nada que ver, y es esto lo que hay que evitar de alguna forma
FA: No no no, siempre que sea ético, sin hacer todo esto para manipular a la gente.; como decía. Esta es la diferencia, nosotros no queremos manipular a la gente.diciéndole: “estas algas que come, un señor se ha jugado la vida”
HC: Pero yo me enfrento a la situación, por ejemplo, cuando voy a ver la la leche, voy muy centrada, voy con la cabeza despejada, e intento entender, y lo mismo cuando llego al producto.
FA: Cuando la gente ve la exposición va a entender . La gente no sabe, no sabe. HC: También son muy pocas cosas, son 30 productos de 180.
FA: Ya pero esto la gente no lo sabe, como habíamos hablado, hay muy poca divulgación del mundo de la cocina. Y si esto va ligado con la vanguardia, es que no hay nada...Y claro, hay muchas cosas que se quieren manipular, si, la mantequilla de la pequeña hacienda, con las algas, al final, tú me estas manipulado. Yo doy por supuesto, que cuando voy a restaurante como ElBulli,que los cocineros hacen el esfuerzo para que esto ya esté. Como cuando haces un Ferrari das por supuesto que ya estarán los mejores productos. yo creo que este valor debe estar integrado en la comida, que sea todo en uno, no que sea El Valor
HC: Yo intento manipular lo menos posible las fotos. Empiezo con negativo, que en cierta manera es más de verdad,después ya no puedes manipularlo, después hago la impresión, que es exacto, directo, que has cogido.
FA: Tú has vivido todo esto en el tema que tienen que hacer tú, es orgánico o no orgánico. Tú has visto a mucha gente que no es orgánico.
HC: Las rosas son orgánicos.
FA: Todo lo salvaje no es orgánico. Las algas no.
HC: Lo orgánico es una manera de controlar la recepción de de las cosas
FA: Hay una manipulación terrible dentro de este orgánico o inorgánico, todo esto
HC: Si si si
FA: Las algas no son orgánicas, ni el pescado. Es muy interesante todo el esfuerzo. Las anémonas no son orgánicas,
HC: Claro vienen del mar y no puedes controlar.
FA: Claro, que es la calidad, el cariño, que a ver cómo estaría ahora el tema orgánico en tu escala de valores: el esfuerzo, la gente etc
HC: también las cualidades naturales del mundo, por ejemplo la altura de Bogotá. O la lluvia en el Amazonas, que estás viendo la fuente del mundo, como puede existir el mundo como es, y estamos destrozando en muchas maneras, estamos haciendo muchos esfuerzos contra las cosas. Pero el arte esto es más anárquico. Entender al mundo es más anárquico. Es muy difícil controlar las cosas.
FA: El tema de la ética es muy complejo, yo siempre soy muy pragmático. Por un lado somos muy éticos y hay miles de personas que pasan hambre, y el que esta en una manifestación tienen dos coches, y igual con uno tenía bastante.
HC: Pero en cada oficio tú entiendes tu posición después de tiempo, y tu posición es mantener una investigación y el resultado se va como olas; en la comida esto es muy complejo. Es una serie de relaciones muy complejas que no se pueden simplificar.
FA: Pero esta complejidad sólo la podéis hacer la gente desde fuera, el diálogo con otras disciplinas con el mundo de la cocina, es tan necesario, y nosotros no las podemos hacer, las lecturas que estás haciendo a lo largo del producto, por ejemplo, lo que es el esfuerzo en una cocina, muy poca gente lo tiene en la cabeza. Se piensa que es algo muy glamuroso, banal. Y cuando le dices, “oye, que trabajan 14 horas”. Esto no se ha visto nunca, no hay una conciencia. Y yo no puedo decirlo, por que me dirán, “usted es tonto”. sólo puede ser una visión desde fuera
HC: Y lo que es tiempo, espacio y tiempo, me interesa mucho. Por ejemplo, la rosa, hace diez años era imposible utilizar una rosa de Ecuador. Pero ya la relación el tiempo y espacio ha cambiado .
FA : Ahora cuesta más traer una carreta de caballos de Barcelona a Rosas que las rosas en un avión de Ecuador a Barcelona.
HC: Estuve leyendo esta mañana sobre espacio y tiempo y dice Marx El tiempo anula el espacio. En un lado es verdad, como se entiende el mundo, como gira, ahora es todos los sitios, aquí y allí.
FA: Al final todo es un equilibrio, sería estúpido comprar naranjas de Valencia si las hay aquí. Para esto hay mucha manipulación. En esto lo tienes que hacer tú el trabajo y estudiarlo yo ya no lo puedo hacer yo por una cuestión de etiqueta. Hay que ser conscientes de que no hay una verdad, hay muchas verdades.
HC: Y la simplificación de una cosa, como por ejemplo, lo de las rosas, que es un plato muy simple, que al ver el plato parece una rosa pero que también tiene relación con Japón. Y cuando hemos hablado de los mapas, te he preguntado, ¿pero qué mapa? ¿un mapa en español del mundo? No no un mapa en ruso. Hay muchas posibilidades cuando interpretas una cosa. ¿Como consigues la ruta? Por ejemplo la rosa, ¿cual es su ruta cuando entra en la cocina hasta que llega al plato?.
FA: Pues la rosa es muy sencilla, trabajábamos con olla a presión y después habíamos hecho unos pétalos...
HC: ¿Por que cocina en menos tiempo?
FA: No, porque rompe fibras.
HC: Pero pones esta rosa, el centro, y tiene este gusto a rosa
FA: Porque es buena, y tiene gusto a rosa. Pero esto fue un instinto muy básico, al ver una rosa, y después vas llegando, porque una alcachofa es una flor, y poco a poco lo vas trabajando.
HC: ¿Y una anémona? ¿Qué es una anémona?
FA: Una anémona es algo que se trabaja en la cocina tradicional, muy poco en la moderna, y nosotros la trasladamos, y vimos que si le quitabas parte del medio se transformaba en otro producto; al final vas conociendo, cada producto es un mundo. También lo apasionante de la cocina, es que hay cantidad y cantidad de productos.
HC: También la naturaleza del producto, este pájaro,como se llama?
HC: Fisicamente es increíble en la cocina que es como un ballet, muy característico,. y cuando lo ves muerto en el plato, tiene una identidad que mantiene una relación directa con la naturaleza; pero cuando lo he visto para comer tiene también esta relación con la naturaleza. Es instintivo.
FA: Todo es instintivo,por ejemplo, lo que estábamos grabando ayer noche, es una historia que es el bosque de otoño: la liebre que pasea, llega al pino con los piñones, las setas, sigue corriendo se va. Llegan los pájaros y llega a un lugar donde hay trufas. Es una historia. No es que lo hayamos pensado, íbamos construyendo dijimos “hay un otoño, que no es del bosque,que es del mar, o del campo”, y pero a través del bosque hemos creado un otoño especial y que es mágico. Es una secuencia, larga
HC: Esto es igual, por ejemplo que lo del lulu, que yo empiezo a construir la planta, y encuentro que hay lulo en el frigorífico para refrescos, en el plástico, otro en una motocicleta,otro en el suelo, manchado; y todo con su carácter. Es como esto que haces tu de inyectar cosas, sino lo hay, si no llega, yo lo tiro.
FA: Lo interesante es que nosotros no inyectamos,por inyectar, lo queremos rellenar.
FA: Lo más interesante de este proyecto es que los cocineros no podemos dar una visión de nosotros mismos, lo que hay alrededor es tan poco tan poco, que no hay nada, es increíble como ha habido tan pocas cosas como en el mundo de la cocina.
HC: Yo creo también hay mucho espacio para escribir. Al empezar a hablar del proyecto he buscado he encontrado poemas de Neruda, y de Lorca, este con su relación con la España profunda, a mi me interesaban los gitanos, que pasa mucho tiempo en el sur de España y describe las olivas,los kilómetros y kilómetros de tierra, olivos y nada más. Tiene una poesía sobre esto que me interesa mucho. Por otro lado, hay mucho espacio.
Cuando entra en la cocina y cambia la identidad de una cosa, como una flor, algunas son completos, pero estas que están en bolas y tu utilizas el pétalo, se cambian,y al final tienen otra identidad, propia ¿cómo se empieza a formar esta identidad?¿Cómo es el proceso de mención?
FA: No hay una manera,cada uno tiene un mundo diferente. no tiene nada que ver. Por ejemplo, el Estanque, que sale de una idea, de un cóctel que se compra arriba y se va transformando. Lo bueno de la cocina en este sentido por que es malo que es efímero, es que lo podemos ir cambiando continuamente,
HC: Si, no queda fijo nunca, se va transformando
FA: Esto hace que el método creativo sea bastante diferente al resto de disciplinas. Tú tienes una idea, la vas transformando, y puedes ir manipulando cuando pintas es más difícil,puedes cambiar, pero tienes una plataforma y al final, pues o lo tiras o no. En cocina, tú estas creando no sé; pollo y al final, pues ¡sale un pingüino! A veces son cosas muy directas, evidentes y sencillas, el tema del néctar es porque queríamos hacer algo con la miel ,y después con la flor. De la creatividad se puede hablar muchas horas, pero si tienes una idea, y funciona pues ya está.
HC: Por otro lado, he fotografiado a una cocinera poniendo la miel en la flor, como una performance, como un acto, y esto me parece casi igual de importante que comerla. Son varias fases en la vida de esta flor antes de que desaparece del mundo Otra cosa que me parece increíbles que he ido a las granjas ecológicas y hay mariposas otras muchas especies, y todas estas cosas que han desaparecido en muchos sitios. Y vas a este sitio, que hay miles de mariposas, y es como un paraíso. y viven muy poco tiempo; y en arte estás buscado cosas que viven más tiempo, o estás fijando que viven poco tiempo pero para una vida más larga. En la cocina es una performance, y cada día es diferente.
FA: Es como un teatro donde la vida cambia cada día, y donde la gente manipula la obra “Oiga, que ahora dígame esto antes”. Esto no pasa aquí: Si comes a una velocidad es una cosa, si te levantas, otra.. “oye, que soy alérgica a los lácteos.” esto es una continua manipulación por parte del receptor hacia nosotros, y esto lo hace más duro. Si tu fueras mecánico no podrías manipular. Aquí durante el servicio continuamente se está manipulando, y esto es uno de los motivos de estrés, tú lo tienes todo muy organizado como aquí, pero continuamente te lo están desorganizando, una mesa de seis, que vienen cuatro y dos llegan tarde. Tenemos mecanismos para poder resolverlo, pero a veces.
HC: Yo he visto como el servicio es increíble.
FA: Hay situaciones muy divertidas, por ejemplo , una pareja que a él le gusta comer o a ella y al otro no. Cada mesa es diferente. Pero esto hace de algo que es tan sencillo como el comer de una complejidad.
HC: Cuando yo he ido a buscar la caña de azúcar, buscando, buscando buscando, y llego al Amazonas. Y resulta, que inesperadamente, al lado de la caña de azúcar encuentro ¡las orquídeas.! La distinción de cada cosa reaparece en la cocina. Hay muchos procesos insensibles dentro del viaje de la caña: cuando viaja en las cajas del avión, y llegan aquí, y vuelvo a ver un nivel violencia, una sensibilidad y vuelvo a ver a la gente chupando igual que yo chupaba allí,y ademas con alcohol, era igual como proceso.
FA: Alguien podría hacer poesía de cada plato, o un relato., con todo lo que hay. Una cosa es lo que la gente puede ver; Hay una primera lectura que es la nuestra, pero después hay gente que puede ver más allá.
HC: Y después hay capas.
FA: Si el Estanque,pero hay gente que te puede decir ·que como es plato, que imagina que tu te comías el cristal·, es una sensación violenta, tú haces un videoarte de alguien comiendo ese cristal y sangrando y seria una metáfora y no tendría nada que ver con el estanque.
HC: Si, pero el huevo,también tiene muchas interpretaciones, el huevo de coco,es brutal, y es muy difícil de entender cuando lo comes, es invisible.
FA: No te imaginas lo que me han dicho. ah, ¿pero la idea es un huevo de dinosaurio?
HC: Entonces esto es retrasar muchos muchos años, hasta cuando el mar era el mar y la tierra una montaña. Es algo imaginario total.
FA: Por eso digo que me gusta manipular muy poco. Esto al principio no era así, quería que la gente entendiera lo que hacia,y me di cuenta que es imposible, hay tal información en cuatro horas. Lo que me interesa es el feedback emocional de todo esto.
HC: El nivel más fácil de entender la cocina es técnico, y no tiene nada que ver, porque lo escuchaba que hacíais aquí era como más transformación, pero en un lado visualmente técnico, y no es así; porque la técnica es exacta, pero en un lado es simple.
FA: Esto es un discurso que di, que pero que seguramente me equivoqué porque tenía que haber sido complementario con el tema de la emoción. Si tú creas la pintura al óleo, revolucionas la pintura, si creas la técnica de fotos en color, revolucionas la fotografía. Nuestra búsqueda son nuevas elaboraciones y para hacerlas necesitamos nuevas técnicas. Es un discurso muy simple, pero real. Si tú eres capaz de crear la tortilla, la ensalada, el no sé que...pero esto es normal, también la gente piensa que tirar fotos es así, de cualquier manera.
HC: Sí,todo el mundo
Conversation between Hannah Collins and Ingrid Swenson, 2009
Ingrid Swenson in conversation with Hannah Collins
— This conversation was first published by La Fabrica editorial Spain in 2010
IS: A lot of your work has a sense of looking at the past.
HC: I think it’s actually an attempt to describe the future. It’s just in terms of the past.
IS: Solitude and Company was made in Roubaix in France in 2008. It seems, more so than in your other films, to relate to your photographic work, in terms of its use of still and moving archive images. Although nearly an hour in length, there are only four or five camera positions apart from the last shot, which is a slow tracking shot that travels the entire length of the factory interior.
HC: Perhaps it seems closer to my photography because I didn’t edit it, or rather I edited very little. This film was structured around the length of each film roll, as the film rolls end, we change camera position but not otherwise. The work is very structured and acknowledges structuralist film.
The film is a description of space, in this instance the space of an abandoned factory, one of many abandoned factories in the area of Roubaix around Lille, where there was a textile industry. So one key component of the work is about the end of industry in that area. There are a number of voice- overs from people of different ages, who have come to live in that area, and who are from an Algerian community. I was responding to conversations that I had had with them when they told me about never having been inside these spaces – they may have been in the area for 20 years, and are surrounded by these derelict and locked buildings that they couldn’t enter. It was about prohibited space and what that might mean to different societies. I then asked the group of people that I was working with to recount their dreams to be used as the soundtrack. I worked with them and also an actor to recount their dreams, as if they were dreaming them at that moment.
Many are Algerian people living in the north of France don’t have very much of a voice. They may have quite a strong voice in their own country, but in France, they have very limited official voice.
Dreamscapes are places for potential freedom and I wanted to juxtapose the image of the locked and abandoned space of the factory with the boundless space of the dream.
The dreams recounted by the people have no immediate or direct bearing on the empty factory space, I choose it because it is a un-enterable space that is located in the area that these people live in.
IS: Tell me about the archive footage and images that you used right at the beginning?
HC: One of the first things I was shown after I had been invited to come to Lille, was this film of archive footage, and what was really odd about it was that it’s a series of shots taken at different times from the 1900s to the 1950s of the factories and the workers presumably from the area, shot using a hand held movie camera. They’re short and they're at varying speeds, because the speed of the film has changed and you can’t reproduce it at the film speed that it was filmed at. So people seem to rush about their work as if they were in a dream and the machines jerk through their movements in the projected film. It’s various factories not just one. It’s a sort of amalgam of spaces. I didn’t take it from the original footage, I took it from a video copy that was lying around, and nobody knows where the original footage is, so I haven’t re-edited it. There is one shot that is very similar to an early Lumière film, of people leaving a factory. So for me it’s got a reference to the beginning of film, and I also thought of it as being about industrial processes at their height, and then how things have ended up, in terms of physical space. For me, this has quite strong economic, social and cultural repercussions. Today we are at the end of a very long period of 150 years of industry.
Someone I met recently said “all your work is about filling in gaps in history, filling in things that are invisible.”
I was very drawn to the archive footage at the beginning – all these factories steaming away and massive activity, and hundreds of machines. It felt quite similar to surrealist imagery, like Louis Buñuel perhaps, and of course the idea of the dream was something that the surrealists were very interested in too.
IS: And there are certain still images within the archive footage. In particular there’s one shot of cotton spools against the brick wall, which seems to be about different texture and a lot of your work is about texture.
IS: And the desert appears in the recounted dreams of more than one of the stories, and the image of the desert has played an important role in your photographic work early on.
HC: When you think about abandoned factory or warehouse spaces, perhaps you also think about a desert – perhaps it could also be a desert. One can transform into the other, visually, quite easily while listening to the dreamer’s dream. But I want the viewer to make these connections. One thing I’ve learnt about my own films is that it’s better if you get the viewer to work. The viewer needs to participate in the process of the unravelling of the imagery.
IS: But you also let the viewer take a rest, because there are sequences of up to a minute where you watch nothing happening and there is no voice-over or soundtrack. It’s compelling because there’s little tiny things happening, and little ambient noises, or the suggestion of something moving right at the very back of the empty space. So there’s a heightened sensitivity about it, which appears in a lot of your work. In this sense there is a lot of connection with the desert, which is about emptiness, about texture, a sense of endless time.
HC: In this particular work, I’ve challenged the viewer to stick it out, and be with that place for an hour, which is a cold, not particularly nice place for an hour, just watching changes, but then I’ve given the viewer some help, because of the dreamers’ dreams and the sound. Even so, you’ve got to work hard, it’s quite an exhausting thing to watch.
IS: Now I would like to leap back right to the beginning of your photographic work, and particularly your large cardboard works Thin Protective Coverings (1986) and the haunting interiors like Where Words Fail Completely (1986) that have a heightened sense of stillness.
HC: The first thing I looked at and loved in photography was Roger Fenton’s images. They were much more in touch with process than my contemporaries in British photography at that time. My reason for making those early works had a lot to do with process – a lot to do with the act of putting the paper on the wall, projecting the image in the dark, having the possibility of manipulating that image. I tremendously enjoyed the different stages that you go through; first of all the act of having something in a glass screen, where you see it big, where you see it upside down. The screen I used had measurements on it so I could tell that if my image was going to end up two metres high, which is a bit taller than a person, then half-way up the image would be a particular thing, because it was marked on the screen at the back. So before I took the image, I kind of knew what I was thinking about in terms of printing it, and the printing was a physical, mechanical act. It was getting these great big rolls of paper out of blackened plastic boxes, and then putting them on the wall for maybe six hours.
IS: So you did all the printing yourself?
HC: Yes. Putting them away between the long time of the exposure and then developing and washing the pieces of paper with sponges and chemicals until the image was just right.
IS: Did that connect with your training at art school as a painter, this very physical way of making the work?
HC: Yes, I had studied painting, but also I was a student in America. I saw the work of artists like Jackson Pollock’s as large-scale, physical acts. Their painting was given meaning by the physicality of their presences. I wanted to bring that to photography. The cardboard pieces are similar in my thinking to how Rauchenberg would put a cardboard box on a wall. I was reproducing it photographically and thus gave me a chance to have another attempt at describing it. When I was printing it, I was actually describing it.
IS: What, in terms of controlling the exposure on the paper?
HC: Some of those images are at least 90 minutes and some are two hours in front of an enlarger. Two hours is quite a long time to reconsider an image. It gave me a chance to think that maybe that should be darker, or maybe if you walk to the left, that should be black over there when you finally see the image. When I was printing them, I’d move my body in different places or stand in front of the enlarger to get rid of everything except one area or another. The final image is the result of several stages of working at it or rethinking it.
HC: When I started making all those works with cardboard boxes and things in my studio, I didn’t have a penny, I had to go and get the stuff off the street and work out what to do with it. Part of the reason that I used things like cardboard boxes, plastic sheeting and my bed was because I couldn’t afford anything else.
IS: It’s also important to emphasise the scale of your work at this time.
HC: They were large, often over two metres high and six metres wide and sometimes on multiple sheets, but they roll up and get transported around. They're not massive things with frames, they’re just thin bits of paper put on the wall, I didn’t really think about permanence but I did take care to make them very well, so they lasted very well.
IS: But they were the opposite of what Thomas Struth was doing in terms of his photographic project.
HC: Yes, they were the opposite to that. My work is not at all part of that archiving tradition in Germany from Sander, to the Beckers to Struth and Gursky. When I’ve seen woman photographers adopt that way of working, it’s partly a sense of importance that allows them to archive their surrounding, and its partly a sense of organised history; that history was one thing and then it becomes another thing, then it goes to something else. It’s very ordered, I actually like that work a lot.
IS: So do I, but it's the opposite of what you do.
HC: It is the opposite. I don’t think the British have put up much of a challenge in terms of what they are doing in contemporary photography, and I think there are various reasons for that, and it’s an interesting problem that British artists have in terms of photographic work. But if you go to America, it has quite a strong history connected to the way they see their own history reproduced photographically – exhibitions such as The Family of Man or Robert Frank’s The Americans bear this out. Britain has a completely different history of engagement with photography. It’s had a lot of difficulty bringing photography into the present in a meaningful way. There’s Julia Margaret Cameron, and there’s my favourite photographer of all time, Roger Fenton and later photographers such as Bill Brandt but they didn’t create a trajectory which moved Britain forward in terms of defining a new photographic language.
IS: How do you see your films in terms of film practice in general; as a filmmaker and an artist?
HC: It’s really problematic because of the expectation of your audience. It’s not problematic because of the work, it’s problematic because there’s such a gap between the expectation of a film festival audience, and the expectation in an art gallery. And as film’s presence has grown in art galleries, people expect to spend time watching films in art galleries. Having said that, you can help them. For instance La Mina is a five-channel film, and the running time is 40 minutes, and the sound takes you from one place to another, so you’re physically encouraged to walk around the space in order to hear, and see different things. Because it’s five screens in a row, different connections are set up between the screens. It’s very flexible. You can have one story line or line of thought going on in three screens, and then it changes to two screens, and then the middle screen becomes a kind of centre for an authorial voice – that of the gypsy mediator – Tio Emilio. You’re asked to keep up with a rapid and logical pace of change. I edited La Mina on the west coast in America where there’s a certain film tradition which incorporates Indie narrative and experimental film. The film editor was part of that tradition and was happy to work in that way.
IS: With La Mina, I think you get the sense that, because it’s five screens, you could walk into the gallery at any time. It behaves well in a gallery environment. Although there are certain stories that have a beginning, middle and an end.
HC: Having said that it is flexible, I would like to be able to control the viewing situation in a gallery so visitors could only watch something from the beginning. La Mina was very carefully structured, it deals with architecture, then with the result of the architecture, and the impact it has on the people who live within that architecture, then it describes their relationship to mobility, and their life customs, then it has a break. It has three chapters. Each chapter is entirely different. The second chapter deals with rural gypsies that live just outside the city and how different their lives are, and what their relationship with space is, and what their relationship with night and day is. If you came in half way through and started with chapter two, you really would have a totally different relationship with the work.
IS: La Mina was made in 2003/04, just as you were moving away from Spain to live in London and then teach at UC Davis on the west coast of the States. What prompted this shift into film making at this particular point in your career?
HC: Before La Mina, I made two short films. I made one about an immigrant Bulgarian woman in Barcelona, with her daughter. It was 15 minutes long, and I shot it on film and then I did another one about a singer singing an aria. But La Mina was the first serious attempt to do something on a big scale, and it was very ambitious.
La Mina is a about the gypsy community who live on the outskirts of Barcelona. It is a closed society. The ambition was to describe this whole society through the descriptions of the people who wanted to be in the film, and to describe themselves. I attempt to show all aspects of live and death in their society, from their justice and education system to their folk traditions, music and rituals. It’s closest to a piece of poetry, it’s more like a poem, maybe an epic poem.
It was scripted by me, with the gypsies, and then acted by them. But in one sense they are always acting; their whole interface with society outside the gypsy community is that they act, because they’re constantly put into situations or have to deal with situations, where they’re completely unfamiliar with the surroundings that they’re in. For instance, if a gypsy family have to go to a judge when somebody dies, they resist autopsy, that’s a good example of it. And so the family will have to act in front of that judge, to try to avoid an autopsy being performed, which they would feel to be a violation of their culture. This involves them appearing to be something, which in their own society they would never appear to be.
IS: So is it about the relationship of gypsy society to...
HC: ... how do you manage to maintain a totally separate society over 500 years? I mean, even though things are known about gypsy culture, the particularities of different gypsy communities are not widely known. What was special about La Mina was that they chose to describe their own society. So the work was a kind of reflection on our own changing society in the face of a longstanding culture where the changes are much less apparent.
IS: And what was unusual about that film was that you had that privileged insight, because you got to know particular people in that gypsy community with who you worked closely.
HC: That’s true, and also true of the recent Russian work Current History (2007), which came out of getting to know someone through the gypsy network. Through La Mina, I got to know a Russian who was half Romany and half from a Russian intellectual background, so he had both sides. And what I wanted to make a film about was Russia.
IS: I’ve seen Current History, the Russian film, only in a cinema setting as a split-screen work, so it seems to have a stronger sense of narrative and of juxtaposition. Was your shift into film making about a desire to work in narrative, because your photography isn’t, first and foremost about narrative at all.
HC: No, my photography’s not about narrative, but I don’t think my film work is really about narrative either. It is about different narratives or various narratives that all come together, I don’t think it’s all one narrative that begins at a beginning and ends at an end, I think it’s various narratives. But that’s quite similar to my photographs, even the early photographs using cardboard and found materials. I remember it being very clearly about going and getting bits of cardboard from all over the place and then putting them together at this one time, and then returning them to the streets, so there was this recycling element to it, and also there was just this thing about the fact that these particular things would never be in that particular order again, and that they would return to another environment.
IS: That work had quite a stagey kind of lighting. It seemed to reference homelessness ...
HC: I think it referred to loads of different things all at the same time. It referred to the body a lot as well, to skin. I think they’re quite difficult to describe, because the description isn’t really the experience of looking at them.
IS: I just mentioned that you were moving away from Spain around 2003/04 around the time you made La Mina. But what interested you about the idea of living in Spain in the first place? That happened around the late 1980s?
HC: It happened around the time I was making the cardboard works. I’ve always loved Spanish art, and I’ve always had Spanish things in my life, because my great grandparents lived in Spain for 40 years. My great grandfather was a ship surveyor. I always had more of a relationship with Spain than say, France or Italy. I think it’s because I liked the art better.
IS: And you visited there when you were young?
HC: I went there first when I was nineteen in the mid 1970s, on my own, and I travelled around. It was quite difficult because Spain still had a fascist government so travelling alone as a woman was quite unheard of. I went to Madrid to see the Prado and I went to Alicante and Barcelona. But the main thing that prompted me to move to Spain was that I didn’t want to bring up a child in London, and it was during a recession so it was fairly depressed in London, and I just felt that I didn’t want the first few years of my daughter’s life to be like that. I knew that the Olympics would take place in Barcelona three years later so I knew the city would be optimistic for the next three years at least. And also I had a plan that I was going to come back to London in five years, but of course you don’t reckon on how much you’re going to change in that time. My whole life changed and I didn’t want to come back. And I did think it might be hard for my daughter Echo to be away from her own country for that many years, or not know her own country, and I did think, I wonder what’s going to happen in ten years’ time, but I just went on with it regardless.
IS: And it turned in to how many years?
HC: It turned into... it’s now 20 years because I still have a studio and make work in Barcelona and rent a flat there. And my gallery is there.
When I went away to Spain, I felt that I saw things much more clearly in terms of my practice as an artist. It wasn’t that I responded differently to them, I just saw them more clearly.
IS: Well there’s also lots of room for misinterpretation when you are in a different country.
HC: Yes, which I’ve also been accused of in Spain, of misinterpreting things, because I simply don’t understand them well enough.
IS: Culturally misinterpreting.
HC: Yes, but that’s been quite useful. One thing that I had noticed is that Spanish people didn’t talk much about their own history when I first moved to live there. They’ve escaped from the British obsession with their own past by going somewhere else, and I went to a place where they simply didn’t talk about their past. And I didn’t question it very much at the time, and now I question it more, and I think, well, now Spain’s having to dig over and think about its past again, and it’s causing quite a lot of trauma. But when I went there, people were just so relieved to get away from what had happened to them, that they were sort of charging into the future and not worrying about what had happened in the past. So that affected how I saw art, actually, because it just meant that I saw everything in immediate terms, I wasn’t thinking about what had happened in 1930, 1940, 1950, 1960.
IS: Your work is often situated in different countries, and I’m intrigued by what you look for or what you find in the very different cultures that you visit. I suppose what I’m asking is, what takes you to South Africa, or to Russia, or to India?
HC: Maybe I am attracted to the moment when there is a regime change or a disappearing status quo or that a place that will simply cease to exist as it is at that time. The first time I really did a major trip was at an invitation from the British Council to go to Istanbul and make work. And that was blindness. I went to this place, I had no particular reason to go there, no particular feeling for it. I just went there. What I decided to do, which was a very particular situation, and quite uncomfortable, was simply to do it with the least possible information I could have. Not to read, not to understand, not to plan, not to investigate. The opposite to what I would now do.
IS: And what work did you make...
HC: I did a picture of a street, Signs of Life (1992), which was some of the work that was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1993, I think because it was so raw. It was a picture of a street, there was one picture of gypsies on a city wall, with big stones on the front. This work came just at a moment where I’d been quite enclosed in Spanish culture, I’d adapted a lot to Spain, showing work there. I was speaking Spanish, my daughter was in a Spanish school, my life was completely sort of wrapped up with Spanish life. And then when I went to Istanbul, it was a raw response to something. What I look for when I go somewhere is the physicality of the place, the complexities of one’s environment... there is something about being nomadic that allows you to absorb complexity in a way that if you belonged to it, you wouldn’t be able to do.
IS: So you try to distance yourself from something to see it. Could this picture of Istanbul be of somewhere else?
HC: It could be somewhere else, except that it was a city that had this particular place that was full of rotting rubbish, mostly animal hides, and animal parts that were on the street. What you see embedded into the walls is the result of the tanning processes. It was an old part of the city that hadn’t been redeveloped, and had a feeling of physical industrialness. It was the first image I made like that. For me it didn’t refer to anything else, it was just itself, and that was what I was trying to do, make an image that was itself – what you got was something quite complete, not something that was part of an essay about a city, or part of a description of somebody else’s life. Something very short and poetic. I started writing diaries, when I was there, and I’ve written diaries ever since when I’ve gone places, so that’s part of it as well.
IS: These dejected places, for want of a better word, are places that have been left to crumble and self-destruct slowly.
HC: Yes, but that gets you into the thought of, what does photography have to offer now?
IS: What I’m trying to prompt you to talk about is your interest in texture and decay in the built environment. And also, when I look at this, or other images of urban spaces that are neglected, or falling apart, or empty, they are often completely or almost devoid of people.
HC: Yes they are. The minute you put a person in a photographic image, you create a sense of scale, and unless you decide to play with this, you have dictated the scale of the image. Once the viewer views the person in the image, the relationship they have to the work is the scale of that person. There is one photograph of a metal factory in Poland with a man walking down a street, but the image isn’t dominated by the person, it’s dominated by a sort of stunted tree, so that helps to stop you from identifying immediately with the figure. But I think they’re more like stage sets, in that sense, they’re more like places where you might imagine a relationship with that person.
IS: Or a film set.
HC: Or a film set. I definitely think they have a relationship to film, that’s right.
IS: I see these works in contrast to but also closely related to your photographs of the Mies van der Rohe Barcelona Pavilion taken over a decade later in 2003.
HC: I think they’re a response to modernism, not a rejection of modernism, but a way of looking at what modernism has failed to address, and why, it has failed as a movement. That’s been my whole interest, really.
Some of the reasons I am interested in decayed spaces is to do with my own personal background. That definitely is true, I identify with them, I understand them, I think about them, I’m aware of those kinds of spaces. I think that this has to do with the fact that my father was a Polish Jew whose family had immigrated to Britain and later in his life he became unwell and ended up living in one room and his life was more or less that of a vagrant. His living situation originally started as a commune in Sussex, so it had the idealism of Modernism, and then it had its decay.
The work that I made with the gypsies is specifically titled after the place, it’s not named after the people in that place, it's named after La Mina, which is a massive ghetto of Franco-built flats. They have no relationship to Modernism. My central force is how did the world develop architecturally. That’s what interests me in art as ideology.
I would say it was impossible for me to work with something where I had never come across any of its attributes before. If I go to a place and I cannot identify with any aspect of it, I would find it very difficult to make work there. For instance, the location in the Russian work was specifically chosen because, first of all, I can relate to the Socialist ideal. I might not go with it, but I can relate with it.
IS: But it’s clearly failed in your film, Current History (2007), where we follow the story of an extended family who live in a small, very traditional village just outside Nizhny Novgorod, the third largest city in Russian. You are constantly made aware of the relationship to the city and post-soviet economic struggle, as it can be viewed in the distance.
HC: It’s failed, exactly. On the other hand, it’s still present as something that has passed and had been there.
Perhaps all of this relates to why I’ve moved about a lot. If I was very English and I’d been brought up in a household where what is valued is the permanence of family, or the place where you live, or traditions of a particular type... none of those three things were valued in my childhood, not one of them. I didn’t have a sense of permanence and place, although I did in fact have more or less permanence in Britain, but I didn’t have a sense that that was where I came from, particularly. And then I didn’t have a sense of traditions, because my father came from a Jewish family, but was sort of in denial about it. But what I did have was a history of thought, the history of the possibility of thought, the idea of where thought could take you, and I suppose that’s what I was interested in about Russia; that thought that had taken Russia to a certain point where it changed, and then what had happened after that change.
IS: I remember you talking about the Russian family, the extended family that you filmed, and you described their way of thinking. The film enacts a set of their collisions such as the city against the country, or the urban against the rural, just as it does different modes of thought – that which is intellectualised and that which is direct.
HC: I’m just reading this book about Stalin, and that opposition is there too. In fact it was set up at that time; essentially the peasants were oppressed and degraded and given no human respect. The film’s an exploration of the relationship between, say, the soviet building – massive blocks of flats, decayed, brutalist modernist flats – and then there’s these wooden decorated houses, and the two exist side by side in Russia, as they do in other places. And also the film engages with idea of the place of nature. It is also a descriptive film about winter; it was supposed to be a white film. It didn’t turn out very white, but the idea was a white film.
The film was also based in part on Isaac Babel’s writing. He was influenced by Chekhov and exposed the brutality of Stalinist Russian and was eventually murdered under the regime. They are short stories, just a few pages long, they’re almost like Haiku poems; incredible, intense human stories, all contained in just a few pages, they explore aspects of human behaviour in that environment.
IS: A word that you use when you talk about a loose series of photographs that you have taken over a number of years that look at the notion of the site of memorial, is nostalgia. Thinking partly about the Russian film and also about this series of images, I wonder how travelling to these places was ...
HC: ... in itself is a nostalgic act.
IS: Exactly. That’s what I’m wondering.
HC: Well, I don’t think my trip to South Africa was particularly nostalgic. IS: No, but maybe going to Poland where your father’s family came from...
HC: Poland perhaps was quite nostalgic, but then and I’m not quite sure to what extent nostalgia is about absence; about something that’s not present, and in my case... I think it’s quite a basic human instinct to want to know where you come from, and that for me, was part of that journey.
IS: When you write about your image of the Hunter’s Space from the series called In the Course of Time taken in 1995 in a Warsaw Cemetery, you talk about a dead tree, next to which there is a little sapling. And you talk about it as a place of memorial, and inside this place there’s both the past and the future. A more recent photograph of a memorial is the one of Nelson Mandela’s teenage home, an extremely modest, impoverished dwelling. Can you talk a bit about your interest in the memorial?
HC: I’ve taken a number of works over the years that I consider to be images of memorials. For me these works are similar to domestic-scale land art. There are traces of the thing that it has originally been and can also be understood in relation to other traces made over long periods of time. Like the image I made 15 years ago in Istanbul has a completely clear relationship with the monument of Nelson Mandela’s home as a teenager that I made this year. And you could put them side by side, and they would read completely coherently and consistently. They are both kind of monuments to the overlooked and the discarded, and both place the emphasis on the tenacity of human beings in relation to their environment. The amazing thing about Nelson Mandela’s teenage home as a monument is that it’s there at all. Not that it has an ability to be monumental in a ‘monumental way’ but just that it’s a monument to the possibility of doing anything in this world.
IS: And it’s also a monument to somebody before they became the figure that we know them as now.
HC: Exactly, and we want Mandela to be a reasonable human being, we want him to have triumphed in the world because we’ve given him that status, we want him to be effective in changing things. He’s a symbol, his own personal life is kind of irrelevant to that. When there’s the monumental made out of the everyday, and the everyday is so obviously humble, the status that it has, has nothing to do with its physical reality. I suppose what I tried to do when I photographed it was to allow myself to imagine that I was Mandela living in that space. I want the viewer to become Mandela when they look at the space, which I think is sort of what happens. A kind of empathy.
Before you know what it is, you just think of it as a domestic, human abstract space. It’s only when you know what it is, that it becomes something else. It’s only a possibility, it was never more than a possibility at that time.
IS: It’s a kernel of his greatness, isn’t it.
HC: It is exactly that. I also went to where Mao grew up in China and it’s quite similar. Although Mandela’s is a truly abandoned space made into a monument, Mao’s is absolutely revered and monumentalised by the Chinese authorities, which has made it into a very pompous place; it isn’t monumentalised visually and physically; it has just been given status. The photograph of Mandela’s hut is printed on very thin fragile paper, and it’s the size of a wall, so it’s big, and very damageable. I wanted the physical image to have equilibrium with it’s subject – the two things to meet in the middle.
IS: I don’t know why, but I’m thinking about the photograph of the little kids in La Mina who are drawing with chalk on the ground, and why you photographed that (Paseo Cameron 2, 2004). If that connects...
HC: That’s quite similar actually. On a hot Summer’s day the children of La Mina who live in tiny apartments make these drawings on the street, all sorts of amazing things at different scales, so an eye can be huge, and a horse can be tiny. These massive collections of drawings get rubbed off the pavement each night so in the morning the drawing begins again. They draw a mixture of what is their everyday life, and what might be their lives. In a way it’s a performance as an action and in another way it’s also got lots of statuses at the same time. So it’s got the status of almost a filmic quality to it, and then it’s got the status of the anticipation of an event, and then it’s got the status of making... you know, it’s about somebody making their version of art, in a way, or certainly of expression, not art but expression. So it’s got lots of different layers to its being on a piece of paper on a wall, and in that sense, it is quite similar to the Mandela one, yes. It’s a sort of monument of an anti-monument.
IS: Yes, they do connect in my head, maybe it’s to do with...
HC: In the background of that photograph there is a statue of the gypsy God of music, Cameron; he is singing. The street is also named after him. I think he is the most important gypsy musician ever, and he is very important to the people that live there. So there is an image of a monument in the picture.
IS: Your work is not autobiographical in any meaningful way, is it?
HC: I’ve written autobiographical stuff, but I don’t quite know what to do with it. I suppose I see it as being a bit limiting, if something is strictly autobiographical. Why would I put myself directly as an image into my art? Some people do it and some people don’t. And in my case, I think when I become more than a shadowy presence in my own art, the art, from my point of view ceases to be interesting. And also, we live in an era of obsession with self-image.
IS: In your artist’s book Finding, Transmitting, Receiving, one of the images is a drawing by you, made in 1961, the titled Myself with a Ghost. I can see why you’re drawn to these childhood drawings, and to use them. In the book you’ve placed this picture alongside found images of postcards and photographs that you collected in Russia. Why did you decide to include this in this context?
HC: One of the gypsies said something to me, which I think is quite interesting. When I look at the past, it’s something that’s behind me, so when I think about myself as a body, the past is physically behind me, and the future is physically in front of me. But when gypsies look at the past, the past is physically in front of their eyes, and the future is behind their backs. So it’s a complete reversal. But the way I think about imaging the past, it’s definitely something that’s behind me, you know, it’s something that creeps up on me or something, it’s not something that I go and face, which is culturally different to some other people, I think. And I think the way contemporary culture is constructed is to do with one’s interrelationship with the past. It’s certainly quite important where it physically is in relationship to you, you know, what you think it ought to be. The image of Myself with a Ghost was included because I remember it as one of the first times I understood myself to be a separate human being in the world, so I drew a ghost to keep me company on my journey through life.
IS: I want to talk about the relationship with still life in your work, and how it keeps coming back as a motif, and also the idea of intimacy.
HC: Historically, photography adopts languages for different purposes. Roger Fenton who I’ve mentioned and Steiglitz and others developed languages for different aspects of the world as it was visualised then, which was informed through painting. When I make something like a still life, it’s not really informed by painting, I think it’s more informed by an act of doing something, an intimate act. What is in common with painting is it’s quite a studio-based activity, so in that sense, it’s in opposition to going out and finding a place that exactly meets criteria for things crossing over with one another, because when you bring things to a studio, you combine things to make the still life. I think about things like Velazquez’s painting of the Old Woman Cooking Eggs, where the viewer is witness to a sort of act of alchemy. It’s halfway between being a still life and being a historical action photograph, or domestic painting.
IS: That reminds me of one of the earlier large photographs you did, which I remember finding completely intriguing and almost a bit incomprehensible. It shows a man spinning plates (The Platespinner, 1986). It was of an action but strangely, perhaps like the Velazquez, it is also a still life.
HC: It was. Well it was also asking somebody to maintain something in perpetual motion and then stopping that through a photograph, essentially a paradoxical act. Which is what painting can do. It can stop something in the act, and it also takes quite a long time to do the act that stops the action, so you’ve got all these different times, and that’s what I took from painting, and incorporated into photography. And the fact that I use a big format camera means you’re always looking at the edge of something rather than looking at... I don’t ever crop anything from the edge of the image; the whole of the negative is usually used for printing. The negative has an edge, and that is the defined edge, you can’t extend beyond that. That is where you’ve cut off the image, and I think that’s how I started making still lives. I was taking notice of the edge, and what could go within it, which is similar to making a still life painting, working out what could go into your painting.
IS: But with this early series of black and white still life images there were no people in them, and then you photographed a person.
HC: That’s right, but that happened almost by accident. What was quite interesting about him was that he was a Russian plate spinner from the Moscow State Circus who’d come to marry a policeman’s daughter in England. He was very aware of his own body, because he was a performer, so it was almost impossible to take a bad photograph. He was so used to being looked at, every movement he made was done with a kind of aesthetic in mind. Also as a performer he was aware that each performance was slightly different.
IS: Like he was constructing the image?
HC: Yes, he was constructing the image. Essentially it was an image of a private performance.
IS: When you were making work as a student, painting, you were taking photographs of performances, is that right?
HC: I did do some. I was certainly surrounded by performance people, and I had the option of becoming a painter or moving more towards performance and I was always somewhere in between, I could never work out where I really ought to be, and I think it’s because I didn’t really fit with any of them. I couldn’t stand the act of painting, and spending months and months on one image. I found that very difficult to do. But when I made photographic images, I no longer found it difficult for some reason. I think it was because there were moments of clarity. With painting, you do get those moments, but it’s not marked by anything, whereas with a photograph, it’s marked by a series of processes. I enjoyed working in total darkness to develop an image exactly as you want it. Something that you know to be there, you’ve see what you’ve photographed and you’ve seen it in the back of the camera, but you’ve never seen it as a negative, which is a flat piece of gelatine. You don’t really know what’s contained in the negative, and you bring that to fruition by developing it. You’ve got lots of choices about where you go with it, and that’s what I liked.
IS: And also just seeing the image appear is also filmic for the maker.
HC: Yes, and it’s also negative, and negative to positive is a whole other change. All those changes made a big difference to how I would think about the subject matter, and what I would do with it, and what I understood as far as scale was concerned. All photography is a kind of performance at some level. You’re bringing about an image out of nothing. When you draw an image, you start with your support, which could be your piece of paper or wall, or whatever you decide to draw on, each line adds to that image, whereas with photography you get a series of shocks, which bring about the potential for that image, to come to fruition and become something. After I did the plate spinner, I started taking pictures of salt, and images that were accumulations of things. The salt was like little grains of something that you could push together into a form, and that became another action in a series of actions that led to the photograph. Most of them were non-aggressive acts, not like cutting and collaging, for instance, which historically in photography is something artists have done, like Hannah Höch who used it to make political or satirical commentaries about society. Whereas my photography has been, if anything, more like an accumulation of something or a dispersal of something.
IS: What was the thing that made you move from working predominantly in black and white, and then to colour?
HC: For a long time you couldn’t choose colour, the only way you could do it was through dye transfer printing, which was terribly expensive. Dye transfer allows you to control colour very beautifully, and it’s what Eggleston used, for instance. But as time went on, you could start to control and work with colour. As I started out as a painter, colour was frustrating to me, because it always had an overall colour one couldn’t lighten or darken areas separately to the colour they had or even change one part of the image – it was kind of all or nothing. I suppose when I started to be able to control colour printing, I got more interested. In a way I shifted the process back, because when I make black and white pictures, I think first about the image and how it’s going to work as a print, and then about the negative and the plane of the camera, and then about developing the negative, and then about making the print. So it’s many-staged. When I work in colour I think about the colour from the very beginning. With black and white photography, I’m discovering it as I go along. With colour photography, I am planning it, so it’s much more manipulated...it’s less felt and more intellectual.
IS: And more purposeful.
HC: Exactly, it has more purpose behind it.
IS: When you digitally insert a colour behind the image of a city skyline, which you’ve done in your series True Stories of many different cities that you have been making since 2001, is the colour you choose based purely on the image, or is it based on a feeling about that city?
HC: I think it’s based on the image that isn’t based on the image, so to speak. They’re mostly colour; almost like flat colour paintings with a bit of an image in them. It’s based on walking down the street and how I feel that day, on a transitory, fleeting impression of something, made physical, visual. It’s not based on ‘London would look good with a green sky’. It catapults the image into another category, in quite a purposeful way. Minute changes make a difference; sometimes when I’m finally printing something, and say, alter two tiles of a roof to the right, the whole thing changes completely. It’s a very absolute kind of image.
IS: Do you feel that this series of images of different cities has a collective purpose?
HC: It’s quite similar to the dreams in Solitude and Company, like a collection of potential thoughts about different places. But to me that’s almost irrelevant, it’s where I physically am at the time. If you put these city photographs in an exhibition with Solitude and Company, I think it would work really well.
IS: These are the only images where there’s obvious digital manipulation.
HC: Yes, but I see that as irrelevant. It’s just another stage in the development of something. It’s all just image-making for the purpose of the work itself.
IS: There’s no narrative in these photographs, is there?
HC: No, they’re just facts in and of themselves, and they float at a distance from the specific geographical location where they originate. They originate in one place, but they finally are in quite a different place.
IS: Is that because you introduced colour, does this have a distancing impact on the image?
HC: First of all it’s an image of the city that you never see, except perhaps in film, not by walking around in a city, you rarely see above a city.
In the case of the recent photograph of Paris (True Stories, Paris, 2009), I knew exactly what colour it was going to be before I shot it because I know what I was thinking about before I took the camera to Paris. My decision was based paintings that I had seen on a recent visit to the Pompidou, surrealist painting from the1930s. One of them was made in Cadaques; it was of a sandy beach, it was gritty and grainy and it had these very specific colours in, and that was one of the colours that I had remembered and took back to Paris. It was sort of an act of return.
IS: You’ve talked about the True Stories series and also how the idea of cities has played a central role in other works like La Mina and Current History. Do you see cities as unmanageable spaces or manageable spaces?
HC: As a child I lived partly in Hampton, a suburban area outside London, and I didn’t understand the complexity of the city; I saw it mostly through American film. I had an ideal of what I thought what the city was as a child growing up. When I came to London and became a student and then lived in New York and LA, I then started photographing cities. Perhaps what I did was try to control them to bring them down to an understandable level. It’s the opposite of a desert, it’s the conglomeration of human beings trying to make a permanent nexus for operations. I used to read Charles Dickens when I was a teenager, and I thought of London as a Victorian city. When I went to Barcelona and discovered the Roman city that it has grown from, I started to understand the city in different timescales. My flat in Barcelona had been built on top of a Roman wall, that fact fascinated me.
For me cities are definitely negotiated spaces. I think that different political regimes and governments have interpreted the city very differently; they’ve used it for their own purposes. When I made the trips in Eastern Europe, for instance, that’s one of the things that I photographed – the city as a socially manipulated space.
I think human beings have a remarkable way of negotiating city space. Like the picture of the people on the railway track in India – my favourite picture of India, which is of Calcutta (Life on Film, 5, 1999-2003) – there’s a lot of hidden histories to almost all of the picture. It is taken beside the funeral ghat – a holy space, which Allen Ginsberg also wrote about. It is where there are open funeral pyres where you’ll see a dead body being burned. You can’t photograph it, but what an extraordinary cultural custom in the middle of a city? The photograph was taken beside the river Ganges near to the railway track where people live. Again, it’s an image of a contemporary city where the people seem to be living on top of, or have imposed upon them a pre-industrial world.
IS: This is the antithesis of your post-soviet, or decayed modernism, isn’t it? This image doesn’t even look like it is of a city.
HC: No, it doesn’t, although it has the signs of being near or around a city. I’m interested in the periphery of cities, like many other people. The middle of a city is always bureaucratic space, but what happens at the edge of a city where it spins out in lack of control, it becomes a much more human space, and a space that carries the signs of things that come in and out of the city. Calcutta, was originally a dumping ground that the British constructed, where there shouldn’t have been a city. It is a transitional space that has found a way of continuing to exist. It’s managed to survive because of the tenacity of human beings. If you photograph London it seems to become surprisingly ordered.
In this image in Calcutta, I am very drawn to the figure of the man who is a brahmin, and stands alone staring at the camera. This image contains many different people in different situations and statuses in relation to one another and in relation to this defined space. Another thing that interested me was that it was a long narrow space that follows the train tacks as they travel back into the photograph.
IS: In terms of its construction as an image, it’s a very classical composition.
HC: It was intended to be kind of ‘painted’. It’s also one of the first colour photographs that I made where I really felt that I was using the colour for something.
IS: Going back to the idea of the edge of the city, can you say something about the sculpture project that you are working on, again in the area of La Mina?
HC: The project is called Drawing on the City and it is my attempt to catch up on my own understanding of the part artists could play in making the city a readable space. I am working on this with London-based architects called 51%.
IS: It is a regeneration project essentially, which is a very current idea for urban planners to work with artists to regenerate space.
HC: Yes, and I think it’s a role artists can have. This is art on the periphery of the city. It’s also art that comes from what already exists, and is being lost, rather than introducing entirely different elements. The first project will be created by running horses over wet concrete slabs that will then be built as a wall into a space beside a river. It’s on an architectural scale, it's the size of one of the blocks of flats in La Mina, so it’s 300 metres long. The action will happen in collaboration with the people of that area, and it connects to the long-standing links between gypsy tradition and their use of horses in their daily lives, so it’s regenerative in that sense. The impression that the horses leave is similar to a photographic impression. I thought about Muybridge when I was thinking about it and his images of movement, so it’s quite photographic in that sense.
IS: It’s also hugely about architectural space and texture, which a lot of your photographic work is interested in...
HC: Yes, but it’s very difficult that photographs have texture, and that’s an essential problem of the photograph; how to give the photograph texture.
IS: But you’re saying the process of making the concrete wall with horses, references the photographic process because it’s about impression, and physical impression, and it’s physical impression on wet concrete as opposed to...
HC: Exactly, so it’s very similar processes, and similar interests but the result will be external, highly physical, architectural and in a way, a kind of a challenge to the local population to bring nature back to their environment, and to encourage nature to come back to their environment, although paradoxically, the act of making this work will involve horses, but won’t bring nature back. So it’s visual and physical reference to something in their culture, rather than being it. It’s not building a garden, it’s making an image.
But I suppose one of the things I’ve learned about it is, if I go and make a photograph in my studio like the salt, for instance, which is very textural, I’ve got to take the salt to the studio, I’ve got to build the environment in which to build it, I’ve got to photograph it.
When we’re trying to do a big public event resulting in a permanent artwork like this one, it’s quite similar to the idea of working in the studio and planning a shot in the sense that we have to bring all the materials to one place at one time to create it. This is different to most public artworks, because they are often constructed somewhere else and brought to the site. But this will be made in the place where it’s going to be.
IS: And it’s got a performative element to it.
HC: Yes, so it’s got to happen at a predetermined and set time and will be vulnerable in the sense that it will be in a public place and because the action itself must also include the possibility that the result could turn out in any number of different ways.
IS: Is it also vulnerable because it’s open to interpretation as to what it actually is?
HC: Yes, that’s another thing, that’s part of its intention really.
IS: Whether it’s read as art, or architectural or urban embellishment or...
HC: I think the structure of the performance and the structure of the actual piece, which is a series of concrete panels, which are regular, even and made a particular way, to some extent determines it as art.
IS: From your position as the artist.
HC: From my position. From a viewer’s perspective, would you know you were in the presence of art? I think that you would. But on the other hand, art has tried very hard in recent years to integrate itself into public life, to varying degrees of success. I don’t think this is an attempt by art to get into the life of the public. I think it’s a response to a public situation that can be expressed through art.
IS: It’s about creating urban space that is meaningful in that specific context, whether you want to call it art or something else.
HC: I’m not too worried about that. It’s also about the section of space around you, and it’s also a project that, in theory, you can walk through the city and understand it slightly different terms after you’ve seen that work. And what it’s supposed to do is generate altered perception of the space around you, and I hope that that’s what it’ll do.
IS: And when is that project likely to happen? HC: Well, it’s supposed to be happening now, but let’s see.
IS: This makes me think again about your interest in the aspirations of modernism, and the failed aspirations of modernism. In this instance you are working to create an architectural intervention in a difficult or marginalised urban space that aspires to a kind of utopian ideal that is for and about the people who live there. I am thinking about your photographs of the Mies van der Rohe pavilion, which is the reconstruction of a monument to modernism.
HC: It’s not like photographing a sky-scraper or massive blocks of flats, its dimensions are very human, it’s on a scale that is both architectural and sculptural, so that interested me in making photographs of it. And it was also one of the first things that I photographed in colour, where the colour was an absolutely integral part of the work. Without the colour, the work would be less. There are many more materials and surface textures in that one building than there are in later modernist buildings; concrete, glass, marble, granite, water, stones, curtains, the planting... It is pure modernism before the language of modernism was adopted for other agendas.
IS: But it is a reconstruction.
HC: It’s a reconstruction of an original space and it is a stage. It’s not a lived space. And it’s also not a place that’s becoming anything else. It’s a space that’s been preserved in aspic because it’s not even its original space. So it’s preserved as an idea of something, rather than the lived version of it. I could have made photographs about its maintenance or its failure, or its lack of integration with its surroundings, but I went with its more optimistic side. It remains optimistic in my portrayal of it, and it could easily not have been. It could easily have been the space of a failed ideology in a way. But I haven’t actually done that.
IS: Does that link up with the notion of the aspiration of something and the reality of something?
HC: I think it does, yes, definitely. The griminess of reality to some extent attracts me, I think, because I lived with it. I don’t feel capable of inhabiting pure modern space.
When I made the book of photographs spanning my work from the mid 1980s, Finding, Transmitting, Receiving, I did not construct the book chronologically, but in terms of different kinds of spaces, and the Mies pavilion is in the last part, which is called Pavilions and is specifically about ideal spaces. There are certain sorts of ingredients in idealised spaces, like water, which is often part of temples. I thought it was going to be about big, real spaces. In the end it was almost like a sort of catalogue of materials; the materials people use to describe utopian space, and the very subtle ways in which we follow ideals through materials.
Contained Experience, Carles Guerra, 2009
Contained Experience, The Films of Hannah Collins
—This interview first appeared in the catalogue accompanying Hannah Collins exhibition at CaixaForum in Barcelona and Madrid in 2008-2009
CARLES GUERRA: I would like to begin by remembering the process that led you to produce film and video installation work. I know your large photographic works were already assimilating installation work as readymade genre, and also had a painterly aspect…
HANNAH COLLINS: The relationship between what you produce and how you construct it can be immensely variable unless you are a very straightforward artist in a particular medium. I started out as a painter, and later began making photographic works with objects. I didn’t start with photographic works. So I suppose I was more like a sculptor because I’d always worked with space essentially – physical space. So the question is which physical space? Where is the physical space exactly? Is it an abstract physical space, is it tied to a particular place? Is it tied to a particular time? Is that time critical? Those are the kind of questions I was asking when I began making photographic works, which were reconstructions of archive photographs. The titles of the photographic works, for instance In the Course of Time, Signs of Life and many others were all titles from German films. I’ve always had a kind of a relationship with film.
C.G. Your photographic work always had a heavy investment in the past.
H.C. When I came to Spain I noticed that people don’t talk about the past. Whereas in England they talk continuously about the past and they talk about it in quite a documentary way, particularly about the Second World War, which affected my family and many other families profoundly. So the effect of the past and how it’s represented in the present is something that in my life has been a key issue. In Spain, I suppose that the interesting thing about the past was that it was actually well represented through films like The Spirit of the Beehive (Víctor Erice, 1973) or LosTarantos (Rovira Beleta, 1963).
C.G. So your very first work for film is the video installation La Mina?
H.C. I made an earlier film about Bulgarian immigrants in Barcelona that was about 8 minutes long, a very simple film shot on Super 16 with a woman and her daughter who lived in Barcelona. It’s a very sad film and it was made about five years after I came to Barcelona. C.G. What else did you do before the video installation about La Mina? How do you remember your first contact with film production?
H.C. La Mina was the first time I tried to find a way to think in time and describe something altogether. Something I really like about film is that it’s like a complete object in time, with a beginning, an end and the middle. I ran a seminar with a British film critic once that was about the beginning and ending of films. For two days we just watched the first five minutes of films. If you look at John Ford’s films you know the first five minutes tell you the whole film actually. I quite like that feeling that you can contain something. My photographic works have something of that feeling. They are quite still and silent and long. And there’s a lot of time implicated in them.
C.G. What was the reason to go to the area of La Mina – at the time, one of the most deprived areas of Barcelona – to make your first important work on film? You knew you were going to be confronted not just with space, but also with people deeply stigmatized, just because they were living on the fringes of the city.
H.C. Yes, I suppose that until then I was involved more with other places than with other people. My photographic works were more successful when they were like empty stages. Working in film is more complicated than other art forms, because everything is contained finally in such a short period of time. I lived in the bottom part of Ensanche in Barcelona that is the area of the “mayoristas”1, and the gypsies of Barcelona buy and sell clothing there a lot. One of the things that interested me was that the gypsies never looked at me. That was the first time that I had actually lived somewhere where there was a population of people with whom I had no contact. I started to wonder about how one society could be constructed within another society. Obviously from the gypsies’ point of view I am excluded in a very powerful way, so it’s not only about me excluding them, it’s also about them excluding me. I wasn’t interested in classic documentary approaches. What was important was that I took my physical body to their territory, placing myself there at their disposal. This was a very vulnerable thing to do because I am an individual and that’s a very strong community. I couldn’t go into any houses, I could only be in public places. It’s very interesting how people who have never been represented on film will negotiate their relationship with the camera. And because the plate camera is slow, you have no real control of what’s in front of it. You can only set up. After nine months I was quite fed up because I couldn’t represent what I was thinking about. So I asked a collector if he could help me make film. He agreed and suddenly I had the kind of challenge that I had never been set before, working with 35mm film and a crew.
C.G. Can you talk about the nature of that structure? Is there a particular sense of time or is there any sense of ritualised life? How do the gypsies occupy this urban modern space in one extreme of the city of Barcelona?
H.C. One of the things I knew about gypsy culture was that the rituals to maintain that culture are really powerful and have an amazing ability to adapt to space. They have their own law court and it took me a long time to understand what that meant. But it’s just as structured and as rigid as our law courts. It takes place in open air always so anyone can join, essentially in the same way we go to a law court. If somebody murdered somebody in Spanish or British society there’s a law court, there’s a judge, there’s a jury. In gypsy society the two parties opposing one another stand in a particular way. The gypsy mediator who is somebody older and respected in the community enters that space in a very formal way, using a “bastón”2. He hears both sides of the argument. The point where it’s different is that the conclusion is a negotiation. What interested me is how the space and the ritual interact.
C.G. Somehow you were asking gypsies to enter into the cinematic time. How did you negotiate that?
H.C. Well, I did it at different levels. I didn’t want to make a simple piece of work. I could have filmed an event or I could have filmed a story or a relationship, but it wouldn’t have really been what I wanted to do. I wanted to do this very ambitious thing of making a whole picture of something. And what was excluded from that picture was only a kind of falling off the edges. I wanted to provide a real powerful challenge to that community to be represented. It left me less room for my own mistakes, my own inevitable mistakes. If I said OK, let’s try to film as much of your society as it is possible for us to film, it’s better than me saying: let’s try to film a death, a wedding and three judgment courts.
C.G. It’s a brilliant work but you are only representing their inner rhythms, their proper space, their own culture and not pointing at the possible conflicts with their environment or their closely related neighbors. You are avoiding a dialectical presentation of the actual state of affairs.
H.C. That’s true, but it was the first film work I did, and I think it was beyond the scope. The more conflict I allowed in, the less possibility of making the work. I accepted a compromise. We were filming in 35mm which is essentially immobile. Action can only take place in a structure and that structure is fairly immobile. You can’t move a 35mm camera around very quickly, and you can’t film without planning. You have to focus, you have to place the camera. That was part of the idea. That certain things like, for instance, the camera is always underneath people, never on top. The only shots from above are structural shots to show where things are. I determined some rules that I would stick to and that was one of them. It was such a difficult thing to do in the first place. Yes, the work can be criticized for the reasons you state. I do agree because it gives a kind of idealistic portrait of something.
C.G. I just mentioned that because you were producing that work at a time when Barcelona was undergoing a strong urban development. La Mina was a real border, mainly during the period around the ’92 Olympic Games.
H.C. Between 1992 and 2000, la Mina felt a long way out of Barcelona, and you got there by an old decrepit road that took you there from the middle of the city. Something really interesting about it was that there was a sort of allowed space around the city that has now disappeared. It was space waiting to be negotiated. One of the first things I filmed at the beginning of that piece was the gypsies using this space – which is beside the highway – to keep horses.
C.G. That’s true, there was a strong notion of otherness attached to the gypsies, for decades.
H.C. That’s why they were willing to be filmed. They felt they needed to be represented for the first time. Gypsies recognized that they needed some other kind of representation. Their method is to choose a person with a task from the outside and then trust that person. That’s how they operate. In some way I became a mediator. It’s usually done through individuals, not through groups. The first thing we see in the film concerns some Eastern European gypsies who have camped on this urban wasteland where they keep horses. And it’s actually La Mina gypsies discussing how to get rid of these Eastern European gypsies.
C.G. So the conflict was among gypsies and within their own community?
H.C. Spanish gypsy culture has been developing for a long time and slightly separately from the rest of European gypsy culture. Other European gypsies speak Romani, and have recognized the Holocaust more forcefully than Spanish gypsy culture, although of course now the Holocaust is recognised and remembered. One of the things that was completely astounding to me once I started filming was that Spanish gypsies suffered terribly under the “dictadura” and I had never heard a single story about what had actually happened until they started talking to me. There was no recognition of it. I certainly didn’t know about it.
C.G. Once you become a mediator, especially with that community which in Spain had a somewhat subaltern status, you acknowledge they are considered different. Did they try to ask you what kind of specific representation you would work out in order to make this film?
H.C. I didn’t want to be only a negotiator, so maybe the question is: how could I make this work as an artist and negotiate the right space to make it? Also some things that I thought about beforehand – like pleasure – I think were important to include. It can’t just be difficult or harsh. It was important that I had other elements to work with, like music for instance.
C.G. You don’t want this work to have a political edge?
H.C. The act of making in art is always in some way political but it is essentially an art form, like a play or poetry. More like poetry than anything else, actually. It has a form and that form also needs space. That’s the difficulty that I faced – the form and what I was trying to picture needed to be negotiated together. And that’s the central point of the work.
C.G. I would like to discuss Parallel because I feel there is a continuity of certain issues. For instance you are again representing people who find themselves in a transitional situation.
H.C. It is a work in three projections. It happens in three co-existing spaces – physical, mental and time spaces. That work is much more of an overlay. La Mina has a beginning and an end and it is structured. I had a lot of difficulty editing La Mina and finding a form for it. When it came to Parallel I sort of predicated the form. I decided what form it would take before I made the work. It was about overlays, about memory. The fact that it was made with African migrants coming to Europe is not at all coincidental. This is the point but it is also within another series of issues that have to do with how time is negotiated in our minds. It’s a very crucial relation to social and political issues as well. How, for example, is Iraq negotiated in time? How do we renegotiate the last ten years? How do we think about it? Why is it that way? What sort of denying takes place? What sort of acceptance? In order to think about that I decided to work with three people, with very different experiences and with a certain amount in common. And it turned out that of the most recent group of people coming to Europe, perhaps African migrants might have the most different experience in a way. How do you transpose that level of difference physically when you find yourself in another place? It’s also a key question of globalisation as well. What happens when someone comes from a radically different situation and they find themselves by chance or by life forces in a different place? To what extent are they physically in that place? To what extent does their memory dominate their present? How can that be pictured? Visually, what could it be?
C.G. Somehow by working in La Mina and then doing this piece called Parallel you have traveled from location to dislocation.
H.C. With Parallel I was originally going to focus on Israel, because Israel is the land of migrants and in a way the focus of Middle- Eastern conflict. Then I met a guy from Cameroon who became the first protagonist in the work. He dictated the form of the work because he was the first person and had his own ideas about how he wanted to be represented. That dictated how the rest of the work went.
C.G. Let’s speak about the way you conceive the re-enactment of past events in your work. The feeling of documentary gets somehow eroded or jeopardised because very soon it becomes fiction.
H.C. I wanted to challenge the nature of documentary. That was certainly part of it. My aim was to remain truthful to experience but to give the participants of the work liberty to describe their experiences. The thing about documentary is that it has a series of formal constraints. Documentary is essentially a description of a situation that is truthful and faithful to that situation. So from my point of view I fulfilled that requirement in this work. And the constraints for how that was described came from the people in the work – Dewa the Cameroonian migrant has a very classic story. He stole away on a boat, survived for 21 days with two litres of water and has a very classic migrant story. He has a tremendous amount of strength and intelligence and he dictated how he wanted to describe his own situation. So he worked with an actor and they improvised until he found a way of doing it within his current situation. He was living in the park in Madrid and the re-enactments took place in the park. The actions didn’t take place in the theatre or in a recording studio.
C.G. By introducing a fiction in such a real space, like a park in Madrid, you are actually documenting something that’s invisible in a more powerful way. Could you not show that by other means?
H.C. Well, I wanted to avoid voice-over. But I found that it was actually quite difficult to totally avoid it because the protagonists’ ability to describe their situation in completely other terms, in other words through their body, through their relationship with somebody else, was limited by their experience. So there is in fact some voice-over in Parallel. For instance there’s a scene of Dewa with his father where he works out his relationship with him. One of the reasons that he left Cameroon was that his mother died. His father was very strict and didn’t want him to play football and he was a Cameroonese football player playing professionally from his local town. So he worked with another homeless person living in the park who helped him to reenact a scene with his father. A complex set of negotiations took place to allow that to happen. The other way he could have done it would have been simply to describe it. To say: “Ok, I had a conflict with my father, this is what happened”. In a way I think he got a lot of release out of re-enacting what had actually happened. That sets it closer to theatre.
C.G. I would consider that kind of re-enactment to be a part of contemporary documentary practice. Sometimes you need a performative trick in order to make visible something you know exists but there is no image or real object to sustain the representation. H.C. After La Mina I had a kind of structure that I could work with. I work with an actor, Andrew Saint Clair. During preparation for shooting he works by physically acting out experiences with people. He has a classical theatre training so it becomes part of the work. That was one thing that I decided upon in the very beginning. If there were situations that needed re-living then he would assist the person to do that. That became part of the script. The other thing about it is that the work is scripted. That’s a more major conflict with documentary practices.
C.G. It is not yet fiction though.
H.C. Well, it is scripted because in order to make a film you need to make a script. Otherwise you are stuck in the territory of capturing images which is exactly what I want to avoid. In other words: “Oh, let’s film that or that’s interesting, what’s happening over there, let’s do that”. I specifically wanted to avoid this kind of TV news reporting so I have set up a structure that does not permit it.
C.G. When watching Parallel I had the feeling that this story, the one from the Cameroonese man, acquires some pivotal role in the whole film.
H.C. The people that I am talking to are survivors, people who have managed to be where they are. I also decided to work with people between the age of around 28 and 35, they are all in that age group. So they all have a different sort of potential. I was 28 when I went through the experience of moving from one country to another and so it’s within my personal experience to some extent. I suppose I always work from my own experience.
C.G. As you are unfolding your work I feel there is a certain sense of remoteness, far away spaces that come close to you through the film practice. This brings us on to Current History which was actually filmed in Russia.
H.C. The work in Russia was to some extent an attempt to resolve what I understood about this huge, distant place. The parents’ generation was there when Soviet Russia was developing, and for a time that was a major pivot on the World. When that collapsed, in a way it was an opportunity for me to resolve how I understood the East of Europe to really be. Parallel has a general feeling about it. Whereas the aim of Current History was highly specific and it had to do with going to a small, relatively inaccessible place – which is relatively free from immediate change. Nijzni Novgorod, where I shot the city parts of Current History was a closed city for 70 years. Beshencevo, the village where I shot the majority of the scenes was relatively distant from Moscow’s influence. Anyway, somebody invited me to their house and that allowed me a completely powerful kind of access. The person that I worked with needed to describe his own background. He lives in Paris now and he is someone who comes from a Russian intellectual background. It turned out not to be my own drive to make a piece of work but his.
C.G. The last thing you said is quite interesting. Because you would think that your work might have an aesthetic potential in contemplation, it might have a political potential sometimes, but now you’ve actually said that the film is also like an object that helps you to elaborate a particular situation. You are always filming people who are caught in such transitional situations, in such unstable situations.
H.C. Well, I’m not sure that the people that take part in Current History want a more comprehensive understanding of their lives! I wanted to make a film about several different things – about weather – cold winter, a white place where life is conditioned by weather. It also allowed me to make work that was about the exterior and the interior in a very polarized way.
C.G. There’s always the coziness of the interiors and the vastness of Russian exteriors.
H.C. The village is a sort of powerful mental unit within Russian society. There was a series of stories by Isaak Babel that I started to read and what’s interesting about them is that they are two or three pages long, incredibly short stories. They are very contained, very specific, very powerful descriptions of situations. They are almost like the scene of a script, each one in a very kind of clear way. They tell you about a series of events but they do it in a multi-layered kind of way. I wanted to get that richness into the work. I had the Babel stories, I was in a village and I had a family I could work with.
C.G. Now we should tackle some issues that are common to the three pieces or even aspects of the work that do not relate to film. When you started producing your big prints it was also the time when Jeff Wall was emerging, it was some kind of a parallel practice to yours. How do you see that moment retrospectively?
H.C. At the time my own discoveries were maybe more allied to sculpture. Like the first photographs I made with these big cardboard boxes that I got from the street. I made these invented spaces that were not possible in the real. So the photograph was sort of an event; it was a sort of interesting human scale. I think the illusion of somebody like Jeff Wall is very intelligent.
C.G. But he brought into photography a very powerful sense of cinematic production.
H.C. Yes, but he did that later, actually in the beginning he was setting things up. Although I do think Jeff Wall has done some incredibly powerful poetic work. The image with the light bulbs, “After ‘Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue” (1999–2000), is a fantastic work.
C.G. Your work appeared on a parallel track to Jeff Wall’s practice but it looked at least to me as a little bit slacker, loose. Wall’s pictures contained action whereas yours were more like the scenery for a possible action.
H.C. I’m more interested in a poetic possibility and in that sense it probably links historically more to Artaud’s poetry or to films of Buñuel. I recently saw Buñuel’s film made in México Los olvidados (1950).That was a film that for me epitomized some of the kind of things that I wanted to describe, concerned with fragile human relationships. And it’s not described plastically in Jeff Wall. His practice is theatrical at that level and mine has never been that. I don’t re-invent a relationship or place – I find and describe the situation or place sometimes in different terms.
C.G. This could be the connection between Current History and some works by Chantal Ackerman. I’m particularly thinking of D’Est (1993). At some point there’s a similar climate, a similar weather. In both films there are hardly any relationships between people.
H.C. Yes, slow I would say. Look at the way that Chantal Ackerman filmed the Eastern Block, which was in a Stasi vehicle. She’s a filmmaker and she understands film and the power of film to sort of answer back. There’s a multiplicity about D’Est that I really like. When I made La Mina I had never edited something on multi-screens before but I worked with a fantastic editor and we found a way to do it.
C.G. One difference we could try to work out is the one between those big photographs you produced in the eighties and your current filmic practice. The big photographs allow you to enter the space, because they were hung in a way that they almost touched the floor. The photographic space and the spectators’ space are shared. The film, I don’t know why, feels like it’s still creating a different time from the one of the spectator. So it doesn’t really allow the same experiences you allowed with the big tableau-like photographic works.
H.C. I think it’s true. Film is essentially dynamic. Current History achieves this different sense of time quite a bit as the two images meet in the middle, creating another kind of imaginary space. What happens between those two images creates a kind of ambiguous place all the time throughout the work.
C.G. The images of Current History always refer to the same places. The one on the right is always the interior and the one on the left is always the exterior, isn’t it?
H.C. The left screen is always the city and the right always the village, so one could think about this as the exterior and the interior. There is also a kind of common space. I think of it as kind of memory space, a sort of compressed space of many different times. It’s very similar to the big photographic works where what you are actually looking at is beyond the edges of the picture. You know the picture represents other experiences. That’s why it has that bit of silent slow feeling, partly due to the way it is made. There is also another important period of time between the taking of the photograph and the printing of the work – this unfolds into a long period of time because the big prints take days to print. I had to be in the dark for a day. So during that day I could re-negotiate; some trees would become darker, a road greyer, a person less clear; and a lot of very precise kind of distinctions take place. So you are talking about many different times contained in one image. I think that’s also true in Current History, that you have these imagined times – you know they are there, but you don’t see them.
C.G. But it could also be true of Parallel because of the overlapping of time zones, past time and present time.
H.C. It’s more theatrical and overlaid. With Parallel the editing is between experiences. So Dewa had to imagine himself to be in the bottom of that boat. He then had to think of what his mental state had been at the time he was in this imagined place and to re-live it as an action. So on camera, what I tried to create was some kind of empathy that allowed you to be there with him at that time. But at the same time it was a harsh experience because you don’t cut to when he got out of the boat, to the continuation of the imagined experience. You cut to the present, whatever that present might be. In editing there were a variety of possibilities for the present, which are limited in his case: there in the park, or in the street or in the station. That cut between the physicality of that other experience and the physicality of being in the street, that is the precise moment of the overlay. Whereas in a photograph that never happens.
C.G. Thank you, Hannah.
H.C. Thank you.
— Barcelona, February 2008
1 Wholesale clothing stores located around Comerç St. and Trafalgar St. in the city of Barcelona.
2 A walking stick used by the oldest member of the gipsy community as a distinctive mark for his authority.
Five texts, Sprengel Catalogue
Five texts written for Sprengel Catalogue, Hannah Collins, 2015
— These texts first appeared in the catalogue accompanying Hannah Collins exhibition at the Sprengel Museum in Hannover in 2015.
I am not sure of the moment that I stopped being someone who sometimes travelled to places and began to move in a more reflective mode and to think of motion as a vital part of my art. As a traveler I developed an ability to adapt to diverse circumstances into which was incorporated a wider sense of home, to reach a destination as an exercise of will, and to navigate through the unpredictable.
The ability to adapt came at least partially from the accommodation of my father who suffered from severe paranoid schizophrenia and whose lifestyle was dislocated. Over many years I focused on surviving the time I spent with him. I followed his twisted and fragile connections with everyday life, as I tried to appreciate the meaning and repercussions of his re-arranged connections. I used my mental agility to follow loops and knots of his mind and cleared time to prepare prior to meeting him and more time recovering. These periods were challenging.
One Christmas day in the cold hut in the Sussex countryside where he was then living, we sat on broken chairs and ate sardines out of a tin. He found this a satisfactory way to spend Christmas in the company of a loved one. I became more comfortable with a very basic existence than with anything more elaborate. I was able to see more clearly when everyday clutter was at a distance. When, at the age of twelve, I went to see his doctor in the hospital at Harrogate I was warned of the futility of any idea of communication in the future. I had been standing by my father who had been committed and tied to a bed.
In contrast, my mother was always working. At two in the morning I almost always found her writing neatly on the ever present galley proofs. Faced with my father’s illness, my mother worked her way up through Penguin, in an era when paperback books were revolutionising reading. She became the managing editor.
On one occasion my father sat in the park outside my studio in Hackney and asked me if I ever wondered where he found the strength to continue, whereas I often felt that much of the agony was reserved for those supporting such a sick person. Travel was the way to distance myself from the problems associated with my father, and also to encounter a sense of peace, or to face the world on different terms. I needed to reach a place that was not tied to my own history, class or age.
Travel would have seeped in through my genes. My grandfather, on my mother’s side was a direct descendent of Joseph Banks, the scientist and botanist who accompanied Captain Cook on the Endeavour. The voyage to Australia and New Zealand lasted from 1768 to 1771. My grandfather Rodwell Banks, was an engineer working in the development of early aircraft, he was a pilot himself; he was in charge of engine production during the Second World War and developed fuels for the successful land speed record attempts on the salt flats of Utah. I was familiar with these events from his photographs of the era that were kept in a brown envelope. He left a trail of overwhelming achievement.
I knew almost nothing about Joseph Banks other than that he was a man consumed by nature who had recorded and gathered plants from the other side of the world. His small engraved portrait hung on the wall in my grandparents’ flat, but I imagined Australia in its entirety as a series of plant drawings. Banks’s journey itself was too long, too distant, too unfamiliar to imagine.
My first important journey as an artist was to Istanbul. I wandered through Eastern Europe shortly after the Berlin Wall came down. I made a large format photograph of a tree covered with memorial plaques outside a former Nazi prison. Beside it a new young tree had been planted. I found a huge, stunted tree that grew beside a giant steel factory. Outside Warsaw was a gypsy camp where homes were dug out of the ground. There, smoked food in plastic bags hung from branches.
My journeys have just a skeleton of intent. I experience a lightness that I never feel near home. The photographs begin with chance encounters. I return to the sites to allow a series of references and relationships to develop. The process is not immediate, the opposite of imagery made in the moment. The results reveal themselves slowly. What leads to the image is a journey – people encountered on the way, places stumbled upon, the radio in the car, snow that caused delays, an accident caught in the wing mirror – everything that couldn’t be photographed. The picture is a result of chance and circumstance.
The journey would be meaningless if nothing were made. The lightness of travel needs to be reflected in the lightness of the imagery.
The streets of Hackney in 1984 looked very different in their appearance to today. They were more deserted and darker. My studio at 10 Martello Street became my home when I moved on from my early marriage and had no-where else to go. I confronted my own company and intentions head-on. The re-invention was harsh. My studio was uncomfortable and cold, and only the caretaker remained in the building at night as you were not allowed to live there. There were no other residents.
In a hulking old brick building on the corner lot opposite the studios was the All Nations, a flourishing West Indian club, that was only open from midnight on a Saturday. Guests poured out between six and seven am on Sunday mornings. Each week, the unlit street below filled with smart cars and couples in formal elegant clothes. I dreaded Saturday nights as the noise interrupted my sleep, already broken with anxiety. The rest of the time the neighbourhood seemed as empty as a desert. During this period I frequently wrote short sentences about events in this environment. This relieved my anxiety and became a part of my working process.
Broadway market, the nearest street with any shops, then reminded me of a harsh, remote Eskimo town. The bare metal shelves of the local supermarket opposite London Fields contained just a few cans. I eventually encouraged myself to go out and explore where I lived – a rough mixture of East London poverty and 70s alternative lifestyle. Through windows and occasional broken panes of several squats you could see the posters pinned to the walls. Printed Indian bedspreads hung as curtains in faded pinks and blues. Small workshops re-cycled all kinds of things. Grubby mechanics mended cars in deep dark spaces. I began to collect material that I found lying around the back streets. Cardboard boxes and plastic wrapping piled up on my studio floor. I gradually developed the idea of transforming them into flattened surfaces by photographing them together.
The first photograph included a television borrowed from the caretaker and my own mattress. I invited two friends who didn’t know one another to take part. I lit the scene with care. My aim was to create a momentary place on a real life scale. The temporary combinations seemed to liberate each from its origins.
The pictures included less and less, until I arrived at only cardboard packaging. I saw piles of cardboard carefully left to be collected by homeless people as darkness fell. The piles in my studio resembled the piles on the street – the valued materials amassed by the local dispossessed. The cardboard arrangements appeared endless as if they continued beyond the edge of the image.
For me photography served several purposes: as preparation and thinking, as documentation and eventually as a means to record the staged environments. The cardboard was a protective shell. I drew a picture of a shell for my first and only tattoo and an image of my tattooed back became the invitation card for an early exhibition.
My quest to resolve my relationship with my father continued, he had been diagnosed with severe paranoid schizophrenia. As he deteriorated he became itinerant. At one point he was a patient of R. D. Laing, I lived in a world mediated by Laing’s treatments which endowed my fathers paranoia and visions with legitimacy. I had to adapt to a new reversed order of thinking. I learned to adapt to these other realities, both individual and social.
My father carried his food around in a bag which also contained bundles of his letters, some of which were written to people he never actually knew. At home when I was a child we had a copy of Roman Vishniac’s book of photographs of the Polish ghettos, my father resembled a figure from the ghetto. His family were orthodox Jews emigrated from Poland to England in the 1920s. On arrival they had changed their name from Zabolsky to Collins in an act of reinvention. My paternal grandfather had once owned cinemas in the North of England but by the time I was growing up all that remained of a fortune were a few old documents and redundant investments in funds like the Dresden Municipal Rehabilitation Fund. The carefully amassed money had slowly seeped away and any fortune had turned to dust with the passage of time. My father’s illness had begun when he was a student at Cambridge, he then often couldn’t sleep for fear of death. Marriage had stabilized him for a few years but the schizophrenia took a permanent hold. He had started a magazine called Politics and Letters with Raymond Williams, the author of Culture and Society, an important book about the nature of Britain’s postwar possibilities. My early childhood contained a sense of optimism, which was to be overshadowed by illogical events and anxiety. Williams’ writing and career flourished while my father succumbed to madness.
My cardboard environments were incorporated with language that described their relationship to the human body. I printed the enormous pictures at night using long strips of photographic paper. During the many hours I looked at the negative image projected in front of me, I mentally inhabited it, creating what seemed like a darkened world in parallel to the world of illuminated spaces. Here I found a connection to surrealism and the irrational world of dreams – a world intimately related to the body. The process mirrored my everyday relationship with my father, whose logic escaped me. Eventually the work acquired its own internal logic, but it began from a point of rupture from the more conventional daily life.
Signs of Life came about as the result of an invitation in 1992 from the British Council and make a series of works for the 3rd Istanbul biennial. Istanbul’s position on the boundary between East and West was highlighted after 1989 when the Berlin Wall had been pulled down. The city seemed porous. An assortment of strange objects appeared on the wide streets, propped up against trees and walls, separated from their origins as if drifting, washed up following a flood. The crowds at the bus station were intense. There was evidence of massive cultural change on the streets, but it was as if a slow, languorous opera was being staged in the surrounding theatre of the city.
A tanker on the Bosphorus Strait floated into view at the top of my camera frame. In a street market on the east side of the city a Soviet made lifeboat sat fully inflated on a cobbled street, an icon of St Francis was propped up against a nearby car tyre. In both images I recognized an emptiness that I had found in the cardboard in my studio. Again these images of the actual fabric of the city allowed me to think of reproducing the surfaces at a scale that related directly to the body.
Things appeared to hover around the periphery of my visual field, sometimes in one position, sometimes another. Nothing was fixed. I was witnessing so much transition and was in transit myself.
Back in my studio I thought of the rolls of thin photographic paper as a skin. The analogy was limited as after the punishing process of development the printed surface of the paper reached a degree of permanence unlike our skin which is in a state of constant growth and decay.
Simultaneous erosion and accumulation seemed to be a defining characteristic of Istanbul in 1992. One scale was personal, intimate and human like the piles of luggage in the Kurdish bus station or the rubbish lingering on the street corners in the old districts. On another scale these transitions were global as East and West cultures touched, buildings were knocked down, repaired, adapted or proudly left standing. Crowded, juxtaposed, old and new, structures seemed randomly positioned. Strange empty spaces emerged in the vacant lots where buildings had once stood.
The layered walls of Istanbul had been peeling and crumbling for centuries. I imagined the walls as a surface on which 35mm film was projected on a continual loop. Sometimes the film ran backwards and giant discarded stones were hauled back into place where they had first been positioned only to fall again at later time. In an area of old factories I saw the blackened walls of a tannery covered with a thick greasy layer. They looked as if they would collapse if cleaned. In the last decade these same walls have been restored. The regeneration of the city is complete and total.
Signs of Life is a marker of a period when transit and travel were different. In less than a generation the ease of recording information has made our sense of place more superficial. The surface of the world has changed irreversibly. The force of globalization is also one of eradication.
When I first arrived in Barcelona I did not have a studio. I worked in my flat on the third floor with no lift. The building had never been restored, improved or redecorated, though it was built from good materials – marble, wood and brass. The windows on the staircase still contained the original bright coloured panes. There were old water tanks, with rough wooden covers and faded canvas on the roof. A continuous drip feed filled one tank and then the next. When the last was full the water spilled over and ran away. Some occupants were well supplied, others often ran out.
The staircase remained solid though neglected. The wear from generations covered every surface, the walls were battered by the years of moving furniture. The centre of each discolored marble step had been worn. As I was climbing I thought about how time volume and weight interacted. I started to explore how to describe traces and volumes without depicting weight.
It was quickly apparent that it was better to work with light materials, and things I would then use for other practical purposes. My materials became the things that I had to carry up anyway like food and water. The first pictures were of cooking eggs suspended in water. I found a lightness that had never previously been available or which I had never seen. The opening up of relationships with material became, a priority. As I found ways to suspend and remove weight, balloons appeared as grapes. The water-filled, almost weightless lettuce leaves had a place in the studio for a short time.
The attempt to picture spaces using less cumbersome means was reflected in my need to move works around without complicated or costly arrangements. I simply rolled the pictures up to pack them. The emphasis was more on the image and less on the object. I wanted to get closer to the more ephemeral and transitory nature of dream imagery.
I am making a new work about the sculpture of Noah Purifoy. Purifoy, an African -American originally from Alabama went to live and work at Joshua Tree after a career spent in Los Angeles. When he went out to the desert Purifoy was over seventy years old. He spent the following fifteen years creating sculptures, covering a desert site with his structures. These were entirely constructed from recycled things on a number of different architectural scales. Visitors can freely enter the remote site down a dirt track through the scrubland. The sculptures tail off into the infinite space of the surrounding desert. In the background are the distant mountains. Just as I started to photograph the sculptures a rabbit shot out from beneath me. There are no restrictions to the site. It invites the visitor to take personal responsibility for viewing. The site will inevitably return to nature in due course. The impermanence is poignant.
The photographs portray a number of sculptures that appear weightless as if suspended in the air, though they are in fact heavy and cumbersome. A large white work made from packing cases is an ode to Frank Gehry. This structure, the size of a large room, standing on thin legs is both absurd and beautiful. In contrast, a collapsing, tangled, black metal heap lies as a ruin nearby. While the white structure floats, its black counterpart creeps across the desert floor. To the edge of the site is a long wooden scaffold. I thought of it as a rodeo stand, only to discover its gallows humour – the structure has been copied from a Clint Eastwood Western. At night it hovers like a ghost. Wind whistles through its skeletal form. In different lights it interacts with the sky above.
Purifoy grew up in a sharecropper family in the era of the Jim Crow laws. He was unusually well educated with four degrees. His move to Los Angeles in the early 1960s coincided with the excitement at the time. Walter Hopps had then organized both landmark Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters exhibitions in Pasadena, Purifoy was influenced by both. Purifoy became at various times a furniture designer for an up-market Los Angeles department store, a social worker, teacher and a cultural organizer. In 1965 was present during the Watt’s rebellion when the district was largely burnt to the ground. There was rage at the entrapment of the ghettos. Afterwards Purifoy and his colleagues roamed the streets picking up the shattered parts of buildings and the melted neon signs. From this negativity and ruin re-purposing and recycling became his working method.
My response to Purifoy’s work was immediate and powerful. I was moved by the fundamental questions he posed to ask about his role and place in an era of profound cultural, social and political turmoil. This was apparent through the absurdity of some structures, he did this with great attention to the detail of their surfaces and the combinations of the materials. His interaction with nature was self-evident as I wandered the site. As light fell, works that had seemed wedded to the earth become ethereal in the nocturnal gloom. There is an inescapable reference to the Southern rural conditions of his past.
I travelled the West Coast recording the voices of those who had taken part in the defiant expressions of the 1960s. The recordings have been mixed to form a soundscape to be heard in conjunction with the photographs. Purifoy’s contemporaries are all over seventy years old and many have died. Those who could talk covered a vast array of subjects and styles. African-American artists spoke with the power of poetry of imagining their African heritage. Performers spoke of happenings. They had even created a birth canal, dressed as the Statue of Liberty and pretended to be shot. Black Panthers spoke of their vast organizational task as they demanded change and of the freedom they felt when they began to carry guns. Those from the South spoke of seeing a newspaper image of Emmett Till in an open casket, this picture radicalized a whole generation. Others remembered segregated washrooms and buses. Filmmaker Ben Caldwell spoke of the desert as a place of refuge and safety, revisiting a sense of paranoia that suggested a powerful link to our present culture.
5. THE EDGE
I was particularly aware of daily life on the outskirts of Barcelona when entering or leaving the city on the newly created ring roads that had been built for the 1992 Olympics. By 2000 Chinese-owned warehouses occupied large lots on the industrial fringes of the city. Other everyday routines were being lived in this contested, ambiguous and expanding space.
I entered the barrio of La Mina and eventually I even felt at home there. The Mexican film-maker Alejandro González Iñárritu, who later made Biutiful in these same outskirts told me that he had a similar reaction when he came to the city. In the older, outer reaches people lived unsentimental, harsh and exacting lives. The atmosphere was also surprising and enchanting. There was an alchemy that could transform the most difficult moments. I witnessed imagination, desire, longing and loneliness. Children made drawings of animals, cars and friends on the pavement with a piece of chalk. Young and old men danced with precision around a fire. A man played a guitar in the corner of a vast plaza. The huge public spaces of La Mina amplified the beauty of any human gestures, which were visible from far away or from any of the many windows high above. Small individual figures could be seen moving with intention, isolated in the vastness.
My photographs could not neither communicate nor transform sufficiently the language of this periphery.
La Mina, a series of brutalist housing blocks raised in 1973, challenged my sympathetic reading of metropolitan Barcelona. The beaches that stretch north towards the Costa Brava and France remained undeveloped and abandoned. The beaches accommodated an aging electric plant that emptied warm water into the sea. Fishermen and vagrants lived among old workshops and small cafes where owners had survived serving simply beers, cigarettes and some basic stews. Some had never been into the city. Alongside them was La Catalana, a decayed village area where local gypsies kept many horses and people grew vegetables. The village was cut off from the outside by surrounding developments. The only road passed under a railway bridge and behind the massive route out of the city towards France. After the bridge lay the six housing blocks of La Mina. The large community of gypsies were moved there from Somorrostro, a sprawling shantytown that had been their home since migrating from Andalucia twenty years before.
Photographs of Somorrostro show an intricate semi-urban area, built from re-cycled material, running beside the beach. Carmen Amaya, the most famous of gypsy dancers, whose powerful, severe appearance came from an earlier Barcelona and had been brought up in the shacks. In Los Tarantos, a film made by Francisco Rovira Beleta in 1963 when the beach areas were home to the gypsies, Carmen Amaya plays a powerful matriarch fills the screen. Nominated for an Oscar as best foreign film, Los Tarantos displays a deeply sympathetic reading of gypsy culture. Rival families play out a version of Romeo and Juliet against the background of the vibrant city.
For a year I remained on the street, because as a woman I could neither enter houses nor be seen with the gypsy leader Manuel Fernandez Cortez who slowly introduced me the community. I took photographs with a large format camera but the fugitive nature of the subjects was frustrating. I had recorded nothing of value, the pictures are a mixture of vacant lots, edges of the scene, people with their backs to the camera warming themselves by fires and entire families who glared back at me. The invisibility of a whole culture was the characteristic I wanted to negotiate. I was neither directly reporting nor recording. I had to find another way to work to look beyond what a still camera seemed to offer.
Over a year I worked with a Manuel to gather a group of participants to develop an as yet unspecified film. As I was negotiating a relationship between the film crew and the community I was also negotiating my own relationship with their leader, whose life could not have been more differently defined from my own. I learnt that jealousy could be a valued and useful emotion, that time could be made to stand still, and that status was clearly shown by small and important gestures. Manuel appeared at my door with a collection of fingernail- sized fossils carefully laid out on his palm. In the space of a breath he had annihilated any sense I might have had of his lack of knowledge about a deep history.
Over a few months I found funding, built up a crew and got to know some fundamental principles of filming. The community controlled the action and imagery itself. My first attempt to film complex relationships was made on 35mm film and the director of photography was the son of the cinematographer for Los Tarantos. He had been on the sets in 1963 helping his father and knew how to work with gypsies. At the time when Los Tarantos was made there was a trust in the power of film as a unifying force. This was obvious in every scene. Mistrust arose in the intervening years. It was as if the brutal architecture was reflected in social relations.
The single permanent testimony to the gypsy community in La Mina is a bust that stands in the middle of the main plaza. It portrays Cameron de la Isla, the most famous of all modern gypsy singers who died nearby in 1992. First hearing the rasping voice of Cameron was one of the reasons I had such utter respect for his culture. Though the statue seemed hideous, it took me months to realize its importance. It stands as a symbol to the artistry, ruthlessness and belief in the gypsy way of life. It was an act of significance to place the statue at the centre of La Mina. Each time I doubted the possible relevance of making a work within another culture and particularly among the gypsies, I only had to walk past the statue.
Through the film the community held up a mirror to themselves. I filmed from a low angle at all times, except when I went to the top of the imposing blocks. The film was simultaneously presented through five channels. The drama was sustained through the five shifting parallel images. I recently sat with Manuel and reviewed some of the relationships that continued beyond my time in La Mina. The housing blocks are now being pulled down, the Chinese warehouses have expanded, and an annual community memorial event remembers the holocaust. Tio Emilio, who carefully described his community’s relationships to death, virginity, marriage and money as well as his career in spaghetti westerns alongside Sophia Loren has died and the Church of Philadelphia with whom I battled when it came to filming, has gained more ground.
Filming the edge from the centre turned out to be as elusive as putting together sheets of cardboard or locating a violin player in a room full of mattresses. The work claimed its own territory when it was taken from the periphery into the clean white space of the museum.
Amazon Conversation, The Fertile Forest, 2014
A Parallel Universe
‘El chamán se convertirá en un jaguar cuando muera.’
The shaman will turn into a jaguar when he dies.
¿Cómo se convierte en un jaguar?
How does he turn into a jaguar?
¿Él vuelve a su casa?
Does he come back to his house?
Usted podrá ver las huellas.
You’ll be able to see the footprints.
¿Qué tipo de huellas?
What sort of prints?
Huellas de Jaguar por supuesto él camina a la casa.
The prints of the jaguar of course as he walks to the house.
¿Y qué le pasa a su esposa, es mucho más joven que él?
What happens to his wife, she’s much younger than him?
El chamán regresa para su esposa. Ella va con él.`
The shaman comes back for his wife. She goes with him.
Usted es como un cuadrado. No! Una serie de cuadrados.
You are like a square. No! a series of squares.
In the Course of Time Diary, 1996
Diary 1995, In the Course of Time, Hannah Collins
— This text first appeared in the catalogue accompanying Hannah Collins exhibition at the Chisenhale Gallery in 1995.
Up and around I go, faster and faster, blue, red, green, yellow flashing as I screw tight shut my eyes, opening them only to glimpse the flashing towers and grey tarmac ground below. Later on, light on my feet and giddy, I am thinner, fatter, taller, smaller in the tinny, curvy, shiny, rusty mirrors inside.
Next I am going round and round, as if about to die, rough hard rock is driving a devilish old machine finally stopping on the raw last phrase of an American hit of a few years ago. I glimpse up at the Palace of Culture tall and stern behind before climbing into a dusty jerky ghost train ready to meet the ghouls as they leap from the walls ahead. The crazy, creaking scraping car slaps against the cardboard walls, a cranky skeleton grins from a rough wooden box, a bony maiden rattles a few glass jam jars lit by a lightbulb flickering, illuminating the narrow winding way.
Back outside, rough and raw and ready, a few young soldiers wander by trying their skills at the crooked rifles, sharing cigarettes, laughing and joking happy and at home in the age and decay.
2. White, blue, grey, black (modern thing)
Pale fingered plastic cloths hang heavily on six small square tables, wood upright chairs sitting hard around them. In blows blustery snow through cracks in doors and windows and the deep blue light outside fills the room. Paper streamers hang from corners curling life against the cold. Breath hangs above bread laid ready on the table and grey rising steam fills the air above the white soup cooking on the small heavy metal stove.
Off the dark brown corridor is the brown wooden bathroom. Old string hangs from a white tank, barely visible lit by a bulb hanging loosely against the dark brown stained walls. Torn newspapers are piled on the floor and flowered linoleum is creased, cracked and re-nailed. Water drips very slowly into a small basin caught below in a pale plastic bucket.
Back in the restauant the waitress with blue veined hands has left a silver space packet slowly keeling over, the top cut open and the spoon dug into the light dry white milk powder inside .
The passages are white and high: the rooms are numbered, hidden and difficult to find. Amongst the mirrors and high swirling staircases no seething passions are contained - only the cool and pale beauty of the possibility of being alone. The corridors are like a fairy tale exploring the labyrinth of the imagination with its liability to disguise evil and beauty.
Along the street later on the same snowy afternoon alone I am reminded by the little monument and a small rose bush like the one in the garden where Beauty meets the Beast is planted underneath. All day in the maze of wild and open streets I am reminded of the alone, by the little monuments commemorating single deaths quietly persistent in their presence.
Dreams and imagination are agents of faith. Signs of saving as well as signs of retreating from death.
The skies are pearl and white in the early morning light. As a white car bursts into flames at the side of th road the bright orange and purple of the flames flashes against the white of the car. Sounds of horns are hung in the morning air as traffic moves into the city along the flat sandy road. Low flying aeroplanes taking off from the nearby airport leave pink trails above. Down on the ground a pile of golden pumpkins waiting to go to market are piled up close tumbling and falling into a little stream filled with rainwater.
5. The Hunter’s Space
The sun rises and hovers over the woods. Little mice run through the undergrowth. The hushed voice of some singers floats across the air with the songs of morning birds and in the distance is the sound of passing cars.
A faint path through the vertical trees marks the hunter’s space. The hunter carrying flowers searches around the flat grey stones overcome by nature’s abandon in a mass of peaceful green. In this most absent of crowded places the visitors search their childhood experiences and their souls keep company with my end of century mind. The hunter moves through this overgrown space in the quietest of ways allowing the breeze to lift his spirit gently.
The sun beats down and the flickering heat is visible. It always seems to be noon and the buzzing of insects nearly drowns out the other sounds of humans lost in the landscape and the sea.
In the circle of the city the still air is old and lifeless where the heat gathers and seems to tremble as if listenning to the eruption of an earthquake from below. Forgotten and abandoned workshops overheat, burning away the seething furnaces they house. Back in the streets the port turns to become a market, the beach a parking lot and the crumbling walls stand still as people permanently moving home walk on.
From a nearby hill top people survey the citadel before they re-join their bus on its journey on. Standing by the water below a man told me a story in which the river has dried up in the moonlight and the people walk across.
Round staircases swirl up and up into vaulted towers and luminous liquid breath bursts from hidden attic spaces. Footsteps or white misty breaths send animals scurrying and chattering is instantly silence. Bright of day meets fear of night as snowy sheets tumble from cupboards, chests and drawers. Dust in clouds and out of cloths pour in through my mouth and down into my stomach seeming to touch my mind floating lightly above.
Outside the sun rises and hovers over the woods and a faint path through the vertical trees marks the hunters’space.
All day the travellers had been with a feeling of distance and of silence. The passers by they stopped to ask the way neither looked at them nor greeted them with smiles. They had the sensation as if in a stange country across which ran a curtain they were unable to draw back and behind which were many secrets.
As the travellers drove on they saw in the distance a castle at the entrance to a beautiful wide open valley. They arrived at the foot of a steep path upwards and leaving their car they climbed to the entrance on foot. Greeted by the guardians of the castle they were taken inside. They went through several heavy doors, each of which was unlocked and then locked behind them and they began to feel like ghosts, young amongst the older and more established spirits of the place.
After hours of trying to use a telephone only to hear a crackled faint and very distant sound they retired to their room where they lay silent in the darkness adrift and out of contact with their source. Outside through the curtainless windows they could see the ever changing skies and they could hear the wind blowing a new day down through the valley.
Nightcircles day and day chases night on a wide flat white horizon. Deep blue afternoon becomes black brown night inside long wooden sheds. Outside empties slowly of all signs of life as the last trunks cut from the forest are pulled sliding up the open white ice paths.
Frightened but sensual a big black horse snorting solid white breath stands still in a shed. Small animals chase around his heavy feet, their eyes blind in the night. Straw thrown like waves across the hard ice floor lights up as spikes of stars in the darkness. Brown hens scatter beneath heavy, hairy black feet.
Rough thick long hair brushes cobwebs and dust. Bright eyes gleam frightened at the invading light. Sounds of the horse are strong and mellow, dying to clear cold open outside. The last black figures thickly wrapped disappear into the open emptiness leaving chained dogs barking alone in the hilly wooden street.