Paradox of experience and documentation
Elīna Dūce: Barbara, it seems to me that you perceive art in a kinaesthetic way. It’s necessary for you to think, write and speak about art, to create and, even more, to curate it…. It seems to me that you find activity and process to be the most important realm in art and the result or some complete thought as possibly less important (although that sounds very categorical). Readers of the magazine Studija know you as an author of articles and interviews and that your creative work is closely related to photography and installation; at the moment, however, you are busy with a project called ArTransit – Performing Arts in Motion(1), of which you are the main curator together with Domenico Lucchini. This project is also related to movement, both literally and conceptually. What insights or discoveries have you arrived at while working at ArTransit?
Barbara Fässler: Elina, I think you have great intuition, that you can underline the importance of movement in my life and in my art. To be in continuous motion has as a consequence, as you rightly notice, that you never reach a conclusion. The process, which gives me impulses in my development as an artist, is more important than the result. I realise that my works evolved from a traditional idea of artwork as an object – like drawing, painting or sculpture – to more immaterial expressions such as digital photography or installations. This is a reaction to a limiting situation and space, towards a more immaterial expression like thinking, writing and now curating an event about ephemeral performing arts, on the other.
Even though sometimes you seem to have completed a thought, the goal achieved at that moment is in the end just a milestone along your way, a provisional sign, because you can continue creating any artwork or any text. For me, the different occupations you mention are not so fundamentally distant from each other. It all depends on your perspective. For instance, I feel that my approach or technique as an artist to writing or curating is the same I use to create my art. It is – like in this text, as well – a dialogue with the surrounding world, a meeting with reality, guided in part by chance. I wrote a text for issue No. 94 of Studija about the perception of coincidence, serendipity or situations you may encounter by chance and how they can be perceived, noticed and appropriated and how you can react to them; otherwise, they just pass by…. When I take pictures during my everyday walks, in part determined by the occupations of my daily life, I perceive a situation and I appropriate it first through the act of seeing, and then through the taking of photos. I also react to existing situations in my installations – as an objet trouvé. “Installation” means to develop an intervention with materials or artworks for a particular space, with the particular meanings it acquires through its history, its use, its shape, its colour. When I write an article, I’m guided by my interests, my personal perception as well. I will obviously write about an exhibition, or an artist, or an artwork, which excites me, which makes me vibrate in my body and mind. Of course, after the initial, superficial input and interest, I read everything I can find about the issue. I deepen my research and my understanding of the work of art in an attempt to understand it in more depth, and I become like an observer, a clairvoyant, an x-ray-gaze person, who aims to see through the things it encounters.
Let’s talk about ArTransit. According to its title, the project is related to transit. In this particular case, transit or movement serves as a means of approaching and meeting between different cultures. ArTransit is part of the Pro Helvetia programme Viavai – Contrabbando culturale Svizzera–Lombardia (Comes and Goes – the Smuggling of Culture Between Switzerland and Lombardy), and its goal is cultural exchange between Switzerland and Italy. It has to be taken into consideration that Italian is one of the four official languages in Switzerland, used among citizens of two cantons as well as among the many Italian immigrants residing in Switzerland. ArTransit is indeed an important project, involving six curators, five assistants, 26 artists, six playwrights and directors, ten actors and dancers, and two authors. The project is based on three axes: the Italian axis includes two theatre pieces (Learning to Know the Pain by Carlo Emilio Gadda of Out Off Theatre in Milan and The Last Journey by Enrico Filippini of San Materno Theatre in Ascona); the cross-border axis confronts performance artists from both sides of Gotthard Mountain as well as compares the relationship between art and technology; in parallel, this same comparison is demonstrated in an exhibition at Gallery in Milan and at the Swiss Institute of Milan. ArTransit compares the performing arts (on stage) to performance art (visual art), thus enhancing cultural exchange between generations, arts and cultures. For instance, we organised a special performance-conference together with participants from both Switzerland and Italy, dedicated to theoretical and historical reflection on the subject of performance both in theatre and art. Actually, both disciplines are very similar, notwithstanding the different spaces in which they are performed; they both are ephemeral, immaterial, they disappear immediately after they are consumed, and what remains is only a photo, video, a verbal documentation or a memory. Thus, performative arts are involved in the paradox of photography – they make present and show something that is not there anymore, non-existent at that particular moment, having ceased to exist. The artransit.ch website is constantly changing from the programme of the project to its documentation by publishing on-line the photos taken by MA students of Brera Academy in Milan and the video produced by CISA (International Conservatory of Audiovisual Sciences) in Lugano.
While working at this project, we are going to implement this concept literally. Among other events, we will have two happenings in two different types of transportation: a special performance train running between Milan and Zurich on the Gotthard Route on November 15, 2014, and a performance ship that will start in spring 2015 to connect Italy and Switzerland on Lake Maggiore. The main idea behind using two mobile platforms for these performances is to show that culture exchange is not possible without openness to diversity and knowledge about our differences. Both physical and mental movement is necessary to break through from a static physical position and fixated and rigid frame of mind in order to embrace the awareness of diversity. As a result, this journey with images passing in front of the eyes and scenery flying past as if framed in the huge windows of the TILO train simultaneously gives us the real and ideal, a physical and mental experience, and movement that opens the flow of thoughts.
It is far too early to make conclusions yet, especially because the project was launched only a month ago (in September) and will continue until April of next year with theatre productions, exhibitions, dance and performance acts. Considering my answer to the question of what lessons I can draw from this ArTransit adventure, I can say that I was facing a paradox; from trying to bring together different cultures and finding footing for cultural exchange emerged an immense difficulty to embrace that diversity and its added value, instead of seeing it as a threat, some distant reality or insurmountable gap. People like to stay in their comfort zone. Huge effort is necessary to comprehend the linguistic and cultural differences, gender and sexual diversity and generation gaps, and let’s not forget the distance between city and countryside. On the Gotthard train the performance actors are confronted with troupes of secular actors from the neighbouring villages co-operating with students of theatre pedagogy from ZHdK (Art College of Zurich – Ed.). The train and its stops bring together two realities related to the same territory: contemporary art which is similar in all global cities, on the one hand, and folklore and the peculiar culture of the small villages located on the Gotthard Route, on the other. Cultural exchange is understood differently in this project by emphasising diversity, because often it is exactly the differences that stimulate the processes in our awareness and enrich our experience.
Zane Oborenko: When I initially heard that you will use a train in your ArTransit project, on the one hand, it seemed to me a completely natural choice from you, because I know you as a person who spends most of your life in movement from one city to another (you were born in Zurich, studied in Nice, and you live in Milan, but you frequently travel between Zurich and Milan). Notwithstanding the fact that you have a husband and four children, you find time and energy for further training, the creation of art, curating, written reflections on art and the teaching of art (in addition to your previous education, you have in recent years graduated from Milan State University with a BA in philosophy and from ZHdK in Zurich with an MA in art education). It seems like you are never in a state of complete stillness, and also your works are created as if on the way to somewhere, and mostly your works are photos. What would you do if cameras and digital photography had never been invented? And, on the other hand, I could not help thinking about agitprop trains, especially in the context of the recently-seen exhibition of Gustavs Klucis (Gustav Klutsis).
B.F.: Of course, Zane, that is how it happened. The idea about the performance train hit me like a bolt of lightning from a clear blue sky. How can you better bring together two distant cultures if not by a means of transportation in movement? And I agree that this has to do with both my way of facing life and also my working methods. Ever since I can remember, I’ve always been curious, interested to discover the world, to get to know different countries, learn languages and with a tendency to grasp ways of thinking that initially seem difficult to decipher. I have always continued my training, if only for periods without an institutional framework and graduation diploma, and it is only a part of this strong urge to get to know things, of the insatiable thirst for discoveries and of a profound need for challenge that touches the depths of my soul. This continuous vibration could of course be perceived as lack of peace, but maybe it’s the other way round – I cannot find peace without continuous stimuli, novelties, curiosity, in short, without food for my spirit and my thoughts.
You touched upon my role as an art teacher. My students have a permanent assignment to keep a notebook or diary in which they record their impressions of the external world using their preferred method: from writing to drawing, from photography to collage and painting. This notebook is like a seismograph of their perception and reflections, registering the various footprints of their walks. I think this exercise is difficult for them, because the complete freedom and impact created by this task is hard to stand at their young age. Indeed, the method of their diaries very much resembles my perception of life, my artistic work, my writing and my curating.
Let’s go back to the initial subject of discussion – to embrace coincidence, or something that arrives on our way. Lacan said, “The mushroom finds me.” The digital camera is important in this context. We can use the source material and experiment with it in the desired intensity in all possible ways, by recording our steps, movements and that which we would like to take with us. Taking photos turns into picking (in the context of mushrooms – Ed.), and we return to our thirst for information and knowledge like hungry hunter-gatherers. If photography didn’t exist, I would possibly be drawing, writing or have found a similar way to register these occasional encounters.
However, the similarity to agitprop trains surprises me. Of course, the train is a means of transportation that moves on rails – it follows its obligatory route, so to say – but it meanwhile also serves as a space for socialising, occasional encounters, for discovering vitality; it is capable of transporting goods but also knowledge. In this sense, the basic idea of agitprop and performance train is similar – to connect different cultures, taking into consideration that old revolutionary Russia was a huge country in the first years of the Soviet Union and constituted so many peoples and very different cultures that spoke different languages and did not communicate with each other. Moreover, people did not have access to knowledge, and the train naturally became a means that brought knowledge and information and connected cultures and people. In this sense we can compare both trains, but not in the sense of scope and main message. The ArTransit performance train does not bring any message, and it does not have any propagandistic intentions. Like all pieces of art, it wants to stay as an open musical scorebook, a temporary structure, a dynamic and complex constellation offering passengers textual, visual and sound stimuli. Every spectator is creating and telling their own, personal story from their own position of direction, tone, composition and sense. In this sense, the performance train is a direct antidote to the agitprop trains of revolutionary USSR.
Z.O.: Over the course of the years you have created a huge, peculiar archive, which might be difficult to manage by now. The archive theme can be found both in your graduation paper at the faculty of philosophy and now in your ArTransit project with performances, the only tangible and to a lesser or greater extent trustworthy documented proof of which is video recordings and photos. Is the topicality of your theme rooted in your urge to make order of and analyse more profoundly that which invited you to make a recording, that which does not exist any more?
B.F.: After I graduated from Ecole Pilote Internationale d’Art et de Recherche at the Villa Arson in Nice, my artistic work of painting and sculpting (with a focus on the object of art) developed into the technique of art that interacts with the external world, scrutinises it, picks some parts of it and appropriates those parts through a video or photo camera. And then the problem of how to manage the collected materials appeared. I collect pieces of reality that deeply affect me, and later on I extract parts of these materials, which I then bring forward in my work. This is why I developed my interest in the theme of archiving also as a method of research, analysis, selection and composition, which in the end turns out to be a hermeneutic process. Each archive is constructed according to special selection methods, and its content is in the continuous process of evolution. The parts included in the archive and selected to survive bear the same importance as the parts that are excluded and condemned to oblivion. In my thesis of theoretical philosophy, which is by now published as a book in both Italian and German (2), I researched the claim of objectivity of August Sander, the main protagonist of the “New Objectivity” of the Weimar Republic of the 1920s, and his archive of photos is based on this idea. By carefully analysing his images and his approach to his subjects, I discovered that such a claim founded on positivism is very distant from the feasibility to implement it. Absolutely objective representation, or, to be more precise, an absolute truth does not exist in photos nor in archives and not even in science. Any knowledge can be refuted and any object can be perceived from another perspective. In that sense there are many viewpoints and many truths.
The ArTransit project is a logical continuation of my artistic evolution from material art approach to immaterial and mental art practice. Performing arts and performance art are time-based and ephemeral, which we consume in a short time. The only possibility to preserve at least part of them is to document them, and that is why from the very outset we integrated into the project the documentation of it. Students follow the process of the project, take photos and produce videos, and it is possible to follow the development of the project on the artransit.ch website and how it is changing from a program to a documentation over the course of eight months. Of course, we are aware that video or photo cannot replace being present at the event; however, they leave a permanent trace as an interpretation of the authors of documentary photography and video. I like that it is possible to gradually follow these testimonials until the project fades away. At the moment, a sensual approach perhaps prevails over an analytical approach, but we will possibly move to an analytical phase at the end of the project. At least I hope so.
Z.O.: Your performance train has not left the station yet, but it is in action already, creating associations and links between different cultures through time. Not accidentally, a train is often a metaphor for history, and I like to think of your train as a magical place where completely different rules start to take over – perhaps even unreal, just like in Hitchcock’s films. In addition, the narrow, isolated space of a train or boat, from which one cannot escape just whenever one feels like it, creates favourable conditions for engagement and for getting to know that which in other circumstances we would not think was possible. The train and the ship move due to technology, but they are also affected by various unexpected external conditions, like strong wind, which are independent of the human mind.
B.F.: For the moment, indeed, the performance train has something phantasmagoric about it. It exists in our heads. I have been working for the ArTransit project for one and a half years, and sometimes it seems to me that I am with huge effort creating a sculpture from air. What will happen in reality on this train will only be discovered on a certain day and time, when we will all be in movement on the train car finding ourselves among others who boarded the train voluntarily or under constraints; we will be on a journey following a certain temporary itinerary, and we cannot predict what impressions it will leave on us nor what conclusions we will draw from it. It would be wonderful if it happens as you say – that the common destination and the closed space help us to focus on the individual performances and enjoy them profoundly by fully participating in order to evaluate the similarities and differences. We cannot try it out beforehand, so we cannot be sure about the result. What will be, will be. On the first attempt. A gigantic improvisation, a jam-session in action. Who knows if we will succeed in putting together all that we have planned and what seems eclectic, unstitched and contrasting at the first glance.
For example, Liliane Koch and Christopher Kriese, two young playwrights, will give a performance of continuously reciting the solitary vermin-type of texts inspired by Franz Kafka’s The Castle in order to manifest the feeling of tension caused by excess as well as to question the idea of linearity with a continuous flow of words, which grows to exhaustion and speaks about internal cramps and the external control of an elusive power. Julia Geröcs and Corina Zünd will in reality control the tickets of the second-class carriages. These two aspects of control are officially representing the state, the law and formality, on the one hand, and a kind of alter ego, internal voice, monologue or never-ending discourse of internal suffering, on the other hand, while creating a contrast with the impeccable uniform of an official and the role. In the first-class carriage we will follow the thoughts of Enrico Filippini, a translator and journalist who worked for the daily La Repubblica in Rome. During his Ultimate Journey (L’ultimo viaggio), before dying he entrusts to his daughter Concita that he has actually known very little in his life. In his piece Awareness of Pain (La cognizione del dolore) Carlo Emilio Gadda will turn against the narcissism and selfishness incarnated by the most dreadful pronoun – I. The protagonist lives in an isolated villa-prison together with his mother, and they have an ambiguous relationship of love and hate. Gadda is on the search for some other place and tries to overcome the appearance. The other first-class carriage will be occupied by Emilio Fantin and his nomad group’s work Ateneo dynamico (Dynamic College), which, as we read in the description, “takes into account themes, analysis and visions in order to challenge paradigms and consolidated convictions”. And two dancers from the troupe Arnaboldi will, on the contrary, show all the ways of sitting down and how the seat can suddenly change its function and significance depending on the contact with our body.
During the linear route of the train, the internal discourse and movement of performers in the corridors of the carriages will be at times interrupted by short events outside of the train, like in the stations, in the middle of a meadow, in front of a church and elsewhere. With the help of theatre pedagogy students at ZHdK, the performances of Alpine horns, secular theatre troupes, martial arts practitioners, choirs and folklore groups will be seen when the train brakes or stops. In this way, another meeting of two distant but connected worlds is created: contemporary art through the performance acts on the train comes closer to the antique expression of popular culture, to folklore songs, dance and theatre of the rural villages. Maybe the magical and surprising aspect of the performance train can be found in the internal discourse, existential doubts, fundamental insecurity and existential journeys, in movement when slowly passing by old values, consolidated by traditions that seem to persist because they have resisted universal doubts, scepticism, various crises, fears and, after all, death. Mobility versus immobility, volatility versus attachment, immateriality versus matter, internal versus external. In the best case, the train highlights and helps to perceive and become aware of differences and shades without any interpretative assumptions. The windows of the TILO train paint the internal landscapes of the participants like a huge tableau vivant, consisting of many small pieces of a mosaic, vanishing as soon as they appear and remaining only in our memories or memory cards….
E.D.: A similar project-action(3) was carried out in Latvia in 1998, during which a train journey was documented, and nowadays people who did not witness this event can “feed” themselves with subjectively documented crumbs or fragments. On the one hand, it seems too bad that documentation was not more extensive, but, on the other hand, maybe we should follow the approach of the artist Tino Sehgal? He consciously avoids documenting his performances (he does not take notes during performances and does not even draft contracts when he sells them), thus increasing the significance and value of his performances and creating a unique and unforgettable experience for their participants.
B.F.: I suppose Tino Sehgal’s choice and radical attitude presumes the construction of a strong image, which in fact needs a well-done marketing operation that makes his performances appear as a rarity and desirable to participate in. Without this huge communications work and construction of a sort of myth, your event will disappear from the earth as soon as it has vanished, if you don’t document it. Of course, any radical choice is like playing poker. You can gain huge attention or you can disappear, or you may be invisible until some historian finds your traces, but if you don’t leave any materials, the only possibility could then be to talk to a direct witness…. Any documentation participates in the paradox of photography. It shows something that doesn’t exist anymore; it’s a presence of an absence. But personal memory, as much as a photographic or filmed document, just shows an aspect, a detail or a vanished part of the event. I think it is important in this context to have presented very clearly that an “objective” documentation doesn’t exist and that any trace is just a shadow from a particular point of view, which means a unique interpretation.
Translator into English: Laura Zandersone
(1) ArTransit is one of the opening events of Milan EXPO 2015, which takes place from September 2014 to April 2015. Other curators: Domenico Lucchini, Guido Magnaguagno, Heinrich Lüber, Liliana Heimberg, Simone Frangi.
(2) Barbara Fässler, August Sander, Fotografia, Archivio e conoscenza, Postmediabooks, Milano 2014 / Barbara Fässler, Fotografie, Archiv und Erkenntnis im Werk von August Sander, Edition Atelier, Bern, 2014.
(3) The goal of the Agitprop art train “Ventspils. Tranzīts. Termināls” (author and curator Kristaps Ģelzis) was to bring artists’ ideas for the improvement of the city environment to Ventspils, and the last carriage was used for an exhibition of already finalised offers for solutions that had to be delivered to its destination.