INTERVIEW – A POTENTIALITY
We know your interest in the published material, for example in your series “Catalogue”, where you visually explore this material as a political space. Here they are newspapers but reread after a part of Susan Silton’s work “A potentiality long after its actuality has become a thing of the past”. Why did you focus only on the newspapers?
In all of these works, my abiding question is: how much time does it take to look at something? Using printed media—photographs or text—gives me a lot of control over duration. That duration gives space for consciousness of structures, including cinematic or political ones. With A POTENTIALITY, I was interested in documenting my actual experience of looking at Susan Silton’s graphic piece— the reprinted newspapers —which required adding the element of time to her work.
How did you conceive this re-work with the front pages? How did you choose them and how did you work the framing? The editing?
Over many attempts and iterations in shooting the pages, I discovered the most powerful and evocative images were those most fragmented by focusing close up—quite a surprise; I assumed we would desire legibility more. Viewers seemed to feel rewarded by having to work for meaning. I framed at least as much for negative space as for text characters. I wanted to look at the words in a dual structure, as alternating in what I might call ‘image-object’ and ‘meaning-object’. Sometimes it’s purely black marks on white; sometimes it’s a meaning that denotes a thing in the world. I love the play of imagery both on the screen and that which is simply in the viewer’s mind. Film theorist Denise Spampinato speculated about A POTENTIALITY that the “framing / unframing of the textual document may correlate with the dual urge to read very closely, but also to unread the text.” The timing is almost mechanical: it’s roughly the same for each image: 10 seconds. That’s the timing that the editing system assigned to each image and that seemed fine for a good look.
For the second part, you have chosen the opera The Emperor of Atlantis (1943-44) by Viktor Ullmann, libretto by Peter Kien. You make us hear only the 4th and last part. Could you explain this choice? And what interested you in the score performed by the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, conducted by Lothar Zagrosek? The voices?
The recording by the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig is one of only two I’m aware of. It’s not often performed. I used the Emperor’s Farewell section of the opera both because I was drawn to this strange love song to death, and the mad emperor, a thinly veiled allusion to Hitler, reminds me of our current president. Music critic Andrew Portersummarized The Emperor of Atlantis this way: “The plot is no cut-and-dried allegory but an elusive death-welcoming parable about a mad, murderous ruler, possibly redeemed at last, who says farewell to the world in a mock-Faustian vision of a natural paradise no longer spoiled by men; had his dream come true, all men would be dead. The Emperor of Atlantis, ruler over much of the world, proclaims universal war and declares that his old ally Death will lead the campaign. Death, offended by the Emperor’s presumption, breaks his sabre; henceforth men will not die. Confusion results: a Soldier and a Girl-Soldier from opposite sides sing a love duet instead of fighting; the sick and suffering find no release. Death offers to return to men on one condition–that the Emperor be the first to die. He accepts and sings his farewell.”
In this second part, you chose the absence of image, except the grain of the 16mm. Could you explain this choice?
Given the theme of the opera, I felt that there was no image that could adequately represent what was happening – it was for me literally un-imageable. A film empty of imagery was a kind of speechlessness. At the same time, the formal strategy of the piece was to forge a relationship in structure between the print dots on the page and the film grain itself as the base-level or ground-zero of representation. The film is the image – that’s what I want the viewer to attend to. Celluloid film is a moving image.
Between the two separate parts, there is no transition. How did you come up to this?
The two parts are exactly the same length: the silent newspaper shots hold the same durational space as the aria. In an earlier version they were simultaneous, but the music lost significance in the background. So, I slid the sound forward so that the image and the music each have their own dedicated time-space.
Why shoot in black & white?
Well, the newspaper is black and white. And black and white is the simplest form to both present and represent film grain—it’s iconic for small-format film.
To come back to the title, extract from the title of Susan Silton’s work, can one could see it as resonating with our present? A warning?
Yes, quite right. Silton’s title, which is from Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil is a warning that atrocities can happen again, even when the lessons of history are learned. The front pages of the Times of 1933 are eerily familiar in the present—with reports of right-wing violence toward other groups and hints of fascists taking control mixed in with all the other news. The present-time viewer remembers, when they’re reading the newspaper from 1933, the darkness that was then looming over Germany and the entire world.
Interviewed by Nicolas Feodoroff