Uta Eisenreich with Michael Blass, Tatjana Sarah Greiner and Csilla Klenyánszki
My first question would be – just an obvious one – how an Irishman got asked to curate this exhibition in de Brakke Grond?
“I'm actually not Irish but from Newfoundland in Canada. I have been working in Cork for the past few years as a curator at the Lewis Glucksman Gallery there. My initial involvement with Time to Meet – the organisation which initiated ‘The Second Act’ – came from working on their festival in Antwerp in 2010, where I interviewed several artists for the accompanying catalogue, moderated their symposium and generally got to know many of the participating artists. The invitation to curate the festival at de Brakke Grond came out of the success of that earlier project and the willingness to explore ideas of performance and photography that were briefly touched on in Antwerp.”
What can you tell us about Time to Meet. Who are they, what is their mission?
“Time to Meet is a network of contemporary artists who have an interest in exploring the conditions of photography. They are not a group of photographers (although Time to Meet does include artists working with photography) but use a wide range of mediums to look at ideas of stillness, repetition, voyeurism, technicality and all those concerns which have arisen around the expansion of photographic-based practices.”
In what way does ‘The Second Act’ relate to previous activities by Time to Meet, for instance the symposium you chaired last year?
“This festival does proceed from previous activities by Time to Meet and a commitment to pursue some of the ideas around photography and performance that came up during the 2010 Antwerp exhibition ‘Sugary Photographs with Tricks, Poses & Effects’. The symposium that I chaired at Fotomuseum Antwerp as part of that festival (and that included Jörg Sasse, Philipp Fürnkäs, OHIO Photomagazin, Ohad Ben Shimon and Goran Galic / Gian-Reto Gredig) wasn’t explicitly about performance – it was much more concerned with ideas of objectivity and its disappearance – but the commitment to pursue and discuss photographic ideas in this way is a big part of ‘The Second Act’ as well.”
Why is ‘The Second Act’ called a festival, rather than an exhibition? What makes it a festival?
“It’s a festival primarily because it’s a meeting point, a moment where visual art, performance and the discourses surrounding these ideas come together. I don’t want to distinguish between the static exhibition and the live programme but rather to see these as equal partners, as co-existent within a set period of events.”
In what way are performance and photography tied together in ‘The Second Act’?
“It happens in several ways, and from both directions, as it were. There are performances that use and refer to the camera, and works in photography, installation and film that address the conditions of the live act and the theatrical stage. I’m thinking here of Peter Miller and Vesko Gösel, whose performance incorporates anecdotes about photography as a sort of competitive challenge between the two artists or Ryan Rivadeneyra’s lecture which draws on seminal images of performance art as a means of driving the narrative. Similarly, there is a video work by Christoph Meier that literally pans across the backstage crew of a set, albeit incorporating his own interventions and actions within the faux-realism of this approach.
The exhibition also tends to work through three overlapping sub-themes that refer both to the performative gesture and the setting of De Brakke Grond as an interdisciplinary space; the prop or ‘activated’ object, the body or actor, and the stage/backstage setting.”
A figure that seems missing in this list is the director/playwright. Connected to traditional theatre rather than performance, what’s his relevance nowadays – being the person that seems to know what the play is about and how it will end?
“I would say that it is the artists. Of course, the festival is specifically about the uncertainty and openness of the second act, and this informs the works throughout, but the artists still have a different perspective towards their work than the viewer. Uncertainty is something that can be manipulated or suggested (as in Meier’s work above) so in this sense that role of the overseer is shared out amongst the various contributors. I don’t claim to be the director myself!”
Where does the idea of combining performance and photography originate from?
“I see them as inextricably tied together, in the ways that camera-based practices (unlike painting, for example) are somewhat dependent on the surrounding environment, on the real, as subject matter. I would also argue that our ideas of live action, of the gesture or pose, have been strongly conditioned by the advent of the camera and the prevalence of photographic imagery in contemporary society.”
Would you care to think about ‘meeting’ as fundamental to performance and photography? The essence of ‘live arts’ – theatre, performance and dance - is that it’s a real meeting between people, things, ideas. I think that is also the essence of photography (the act) – even though ‘objectified’ photography tries its best to deny this actual meeting.
“You’re completely right. ‘The Second Act’ is not simply about inert objects or documentation but about this point of intersection, where the photo becomes inadequate to conveying a time-based act and the possibilities that open by acknowledging this ‘incompleteness’. Similarly, how does one represent performance? How do you capture that moment – not simply as a succession of still instants – but the subjectivity of the audience’s responses, the spontaneity (at times) of the interaction between performer and viewer, and, of particular interest to a curator, between different works and media.”
The festival aims at locating the state of 'indeterminacy', what does it mean?
“It is the moment where the action could go either way. In theatre, the 'second act' is the middle section, between the establishment of the scene and its resolution, where one is unsure of the narrative direction. This had strong parallels to photography, where the chosen image depends on the act of selection, of snatching a singular instant from a much larger field of space and time. The image then does not communicate or concentrate a narrative but is inherently partial and open-ended, and therefore open to interpretation.”
Is it about the (performative) act of taking pictures, rather than the pictures themselves?
“I see the two as working together. While there is work here that is mainly concerned with the way we take pictures, or the way we select them, this performative aspect can also be communicated through the subject matter of the artwork. So, for example, Alwin Lay’s video and photography here exemplify a certain activation of the still-life object (itself a grand tradition of photographic practices) by displaying a thoroughly singed pineapple or a lamp that spits out sparks or fire. The work therefore carries the suggestion of a performative manipulation, albeit one that need not portrays the artist himself.”
How would you define ‘expanded photography’, and can you give some examples?
“For me, it refers to works that are specifically concerned with the conditions of photography. So, for example, a video work that utilises ideas of stoppage, repetition or stillness, could have more to say about photography than photography itself. Similarly, there are performances that use photography as the basis for a loosely narrated lecture or that incorporate the documentation of the action into the action itself. The Peter Miller and Vesko Gösel work would be an example here, but also David Sherry’s two films, that present a recurring gesture of that artists running for the tram or bus and repeatedly just missing it. This notion of repetition, culminating in a sequence of moments of anguished realisation (despite it being a deliberate gesture), has a very strong relationship to notions of photographic staging, rehearsal and timing.”
What issues of contemporary photography would you like to stress as being essential to our times?
“The critique of the photograph as an objective document, the ways in which its meaning and context are manipulated (and how this is accepted as a particularly postmodern condition of a ‘truthless’ society), the ways in which concrete or deconstructed art (whether that’s photography, theatre, performance or film) seems to imply its own truthfulness even as it opens a whole, wider range of manipulations and staging’s.”
What does this exhibition tell us about ourselves and our times? In theatre, ‘The Second Act’ is about a state of crisis, about encountering obstacles, uncertainty, a plot thickening with no sight of any dénouement. Is it also an adequate metaphor for the state we are in? Right here, right now? With shifting certainties about who are our friends and enemies. Iceland, Greece, Japan, even cucumber and sprouts have manifested themselves as surprisingly dangerous.
“Don’t forget Ireland! Of course, art is particularly attuned to time of crisis, as a means of articulating events that often seem out of control or inexplicable (as in the economic crisis) but one should remember that artists also exist in this same environment as its audiences. For me, what’s important about ‘The Second Act’ is that the work is either specifically selected as conveying the state of indeterminacy or is being made in relation to this theme. The works are not divorced from such moments but have a sense of feeling out the terrain, questioning it (and their own practices), posing new hypotheses. I would have no interest in a show entitled The Third Act, for example, where all the work would see these issues as resolved.”
In theatre, the second act is the period of a performance where the action remains unresolved, where the narrative can still go in either direction. It is the state in-between the set-up of events and their tidy conclusion, and, as such, carries connotations of uncertainty, indecision and apprehension. At this stage, the actors are caught in flux, against seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and, likewise, their dilemmas are projected onto the audience, unaware exactly where the performance will lead, and how these situations will be overcome.
It is a moment known only too well by visual artists. Somewhere between the conception of the work and its realisation, the potential for sudden changes, unfamiliar digressions, deviations from one’s expectations, come to the fore, often producing an artwork distinctly altered from the initial idea. It is also a productive stage. Like those theatrical groups who utilise workshops and improvisation to shape the structure of the play, the artistic gesture is open at this stage to accidents, interruptions, and experimentation. Things can take a drastic turn, without warning or notice, and it is this moment that The Second Act seeks to capture, to extend and to explore. The festival therefore locates the point of indeterminacy and holds on to it, seeing such periods of deliberation and openness as essential to creative arts practices.
Initiated by Time to meet, an international platform for contemporary artists dedicated to photographic practice and its themes, The Second Act encompasses screenings, performances, lectures and an extensive exhibition of work across the entirety of Arts Centre de Brakke Grond. As befits its model of interdisciplinary practice and collaboration, Time to meet has invited projects from partner organisations and institutions, collectives, performers, filmmakers and visual artists. The Second Act therefore posits the notion of ‘expanded photography’; the incorporation of film, video, performance and installation alongside photography as mediums concerned with the representation of ‘reality’ (and the inevitable failures of this ambition). As such, these ‘non-photographic’ components of the programme can be seen as ways of approaching the photographic image laterally, either through reference to the specific conditions of the medium or through themes that have been generally accepted as intrinsic to photographic practice. Here, photography is not (only) a medium, but a distinct way of experiencing one’s surroundings.
Props and Propositions
Anton Chekhov’s famous quote that “one must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it" finds expression in several works in the exhibition that explore the state of apprehension and indeterminacy through the familiar genre of still-life photography, imbuing seemingly inert objects with a sense of narrative or activation. In Alwin Lay’s image The Black Pine (2010), the still photograph alludes to another, absent series of events, occurring beyond or before the camera’s intervention. A singed and scorched pineapple sits upright in a glass vitrine, the product of an unseen, unexplained incident. As in Lay’s video works here, the everyday object becomes a prop for artistic intervention, arranged and choreographed in order to effect a radical transformation. And, similarly, that moment is never revealed; in Water Glass and Lamp (both 2010), the culminating moment is endlessly deferred by the circuitous loop of the film’s structure. The denouement happens off-screen, out-of-frame.
Performing Photography (and Photographing the Performance)
If Lynch’s work presents the object as a proxy or stand-in for the performance itself, then another significant theme of the festival arises in the performative gesture and its representation. This tension between the live action and its documentation via the photograph or film often leads to an uneasy truce, a compromised recording of a prior moment. As a means of circumventing this dilemma, Vaast Colson collates photographs of his performances, taken by audience members without his knowledge or permission at the time. His Chouchou series (all works 2009) therefore can only be a partial representation of his practice, a secondary version that, while evocative of the original act, never indicates its precise nature.
While the notions of the still life and the performative photograph (or vice versa) represent two, albeit overlapping, themes to the festival, then the third key aspect to The Second Act finds a theatrical analogy to the stage production itself. The term is quite elastic, however, as works here encompass the mediated spectacle around current events (and their representation), as in Ben van den Berghe’s lightbox image El Refugio (2011) of the Chilean mining site that transfixed televisual viewers worldwide, to work that explores the conventions of theatrical performance itself, such as Anne-mie van Kerckhoven’s Shanghai Demoire (2007-08) and its collaged composites of female nudes and ritualistic Chinese masks.
No Third Act Required
While the festival can be seen as divided into these distinct themes, perhaps most important are the ways in which the disparate works overlap and intermingle. The Second Act presents a space (of exhibition, live art, film, talks) where one freely crosses from one narrative into another, where individual artworks affect and influence one’s reading of the next. It aims to project the moment of uncertainty onto the experience of the festival itself, through unexplored (even unintended) digressions and passageways, from the photographic image to the impromptu performance, the immersive installation to the interpretative lecture. It transforms physical space into temporal experience, opening up one’s individual experience to the possibilities of indecision, irresolution and exploration.
– Chris Clarke, 2011
Vlaams Cultuurhuis de Brakke Grond
Thursday (opening) 19:00
Curator: Chris Clarke
Time to Meet is an ever-changing nomadic platform by and for international artists, dedicated to the exploration of the photographic medium. Time to Meet aims at bringing together artists from various backgrounds, through exhibitions, publications, lectures and other events and thereby wishes to stimulate a lively debate between artists and audiences on photography and its related themes. The Second Act follows on from Sugary Photographs with Tricks, Poses & Effects, a festival that took place at eight locations in Antwerp in 2010. Time to Meet has organized a range of projects in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany since 2006.