Corinne Silva WANDERING ABROAD
rd First published online, 3 November 2012, by the International New Media Gallery on the occasion of the exhibition:
Corinne Silva WA NDER ING ABR OAD th
5 November 2012 – 2 March 2013 www.inmg.org.uk Exhibition curated by Edwin Coomasaru, Tom Snow, Lauren Rotenberg, Charley Lintern, Isabella Smith and Joy Stacey. Edited by Edwin Coomasaru. Assisted by Isabella Smith. All rights reserved. © International New Media Gallery, 2012. Texts © the authors, 2012. Artworks © Corinne Silva, 2012. Front and back cover: Detail of ‘Waterfront, Knostrop’, from Wandering Abroad, 2009. Wandering Abroad was commissioned by Leeds Art Gallery, with support from Arts Council England.
Corinne Silva WANDERING ABROAD
Edited by Edwin Coomasaru
p.3 Foreword Edwin Coomasaru
p.5 Reflections on Corinne Silva’s Wandering Abroad (2009) Lauren Rotenberg
p.11 Corinne Silva in Conversation Edwin Coomasaru and Charley Lintern
p.17 Corinne Silva: The Uncompromising Image Tom Snow
Published Online, 3rd November 2012 INTERNATIONAL NEW MEDIA GALLERY
The International New Media Gallery (INMG) is pleased to present its inaugural exhibition, Corinne Silva: Wandering Abroad. As an online museum, the INMG aims to place contemporary art outside the physical gallery, to situate it in an educational framework and foster both online and offline debate. The exhibition will be accompanied by talks and discussions at University College London and University of Sussex. Wandering Abroad (2009) draws attention to highly important aspects of current political discussion and recent history. In the film, three migrants speak of the life and murder of David Oluwale (1930-‐1969) and their own parallel experiences of racism and survival in Northern England. While Wandering Abroad offers complex and multifaceted accounts of diaspora, Silva also alludes to the potentially marginalising effects of urban redevelopment and gentrification today. The film explores the transformation of Leeds through juxtaposing old abandoned sites of industrial labour with recently built luxury residential complexes, many of which are still standing empty. Concerned with conceptions of social, cultural and economic dislocation, Silva’s work engages with significant points of contemporary artistic debate; issues made increasingly poignant in the light of the recent financial crisis. I would like to thank Charley Lintern, Lauren Rotenberg and Tom Snow, who have all contributed to this catalogue. Rotenberg’s essay is a reflection on Wandering Abroad: examining migration and urban renewal in Leeds and exploring the ‘imagined landscapes’ enacted through the film and its narrators. The interview with Silva allows the artist to offer a valuable insight into the intentions and thought processes behind the artwork. Our discussion of Wandering Abroad situates the film alongside Silva’s recent works, Imported Landscapes (2010) and Badlands (2008-‐ 2011). These two photographic projects are subsequently discussed by Snow, who argues that Silva’s images instigate a space of reflective examination, in contrast to spectacular nature of commercial imagery. I would also like to offer my thanks to Corinne Silva, who has been a pleasure to work with and very generous with her time. My thanks are also due to Isabella Smith and Joy Stacey, who have assisted in the curation of the exhibition. Finally, I must thank Dr. Ben Burbridge for the advice he has given me over the last year; I greatly appreciate it. Edwin Coomasaru, Director International New Media Gallery
Warehouse, Knostrop Cut, Aire and Calder Navigation.
Reflections on Corinne Silva’s Wandering Abroad (2009) Lauren Rotenberg
Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.
– Pat Conroy, The Prince of Tides London-‐based artist Corinne Silva proves not all who wander are lost. Seducing the viewer to embark on a river journey, Wandering Abroad (2009) is a poetic video tracing Leeds’ urban landscape and exploring themes of human mobility and physical environment, migration, colonisation and (in)visibility. The experience of migration is opened for viewers as we navigate along the River Aire, following the path of the invisible protagonist, David Oluwale (1930-‐1969), a Nigerian migrant who arrived in the UK as an illicit stowaway in 1949, struggled to integrate into society, and was eventually found drowned after a brutal assault by police twenty years later. The structure of the video lingers on views of old manufacturing warehouses and new urban developments to capture Leeds as a declining industrial city in the processes of regeneration and gentrification. In traditional documentary-‐style, the landscape footage is interspersed with interviews of three men, Gabriel Adams and Abiye Hector Goma from Nigeria and Arthur France from the Caribbean, who offer anecdotes of Oluwale and reflect on their dreams of “making one’s own way” in a place Arthur describes as “cold and very foreign.” As the title suggests, Silva redirects the colonial legacy of documentary and photography back onto the ‘Mother Country’ while also conscientiously examining how slippage between these mediums can open new modes of seeing and visceral experiences of landscapes. Combining the strength of the camera’s indexical proximity to the ‘real’ with literary devices, stabs of pathos, and a poetic overlay of upbeat African and Caribbean music, Wandering Abroad opens an imaginative space in between utopian dreams and socio-‐historic realities.1 The video shares similar impulses with works by contemporary artists such as Matthew Buckingham and Ursula Biemann that examine tensions between documentary’s status of the real and video’s constructed and inherently artificial form, as well as Steve McQueen’s strategic use of fragmentation and moving images to create new narrative possibilities that are not definitive or authoritarian. Wandering Abroad can be similarly aligned with Francis Alÿs’ cyclical narratives of land-‐based poetics that are also political, Zineb Sedira’s linguistic uses of photography and video to address issues of mobility and colonial legacies, and Yto Barrada’s interest in the intersection of botanical and urban landscapes, borders,
migration and globalisation. While Wandering Abroad stresses the role of artistic authorship to reflexively acknowledge the work’s artificial form, Silva also constructs what she calls an ‘imaginary landscape’ – a highly-‐mediated space between the imaginative and the material that operates as a medium for questioning the notion of human separation that is so deeply embedded in the genre’s documentary and photographic traditions.2 The video opens with views of an old warehouse in Knostrop Cut, framed from a perspective similar to Victorian-‐era artist John Atkinson Grimshaw’s Knostrop Cut, Leeds, Sunday Night from 1893. Unlike Grimshaw who basked the sky and water in a golden light, suggestive of hope and optimism with the rise of industrialisation, Silva casts the desolate warehouse in muted colours to evoke a sombre mood that continues to build as the video meanders down the river, meditating on dilapidated historic buildings that stand as a monumental relics of a past era of economic prosperity generated through industrial manufacture. The massive Wilkinson Flax Mill, the last of its kind built in 1838 has now fallen into disrepair, and the Tower Works chimneys once used by Harding & Sons for manufacturing pins and needles is downgraded as a backdrop for new a commercial development. The chipped paint, bricked up doors and drawn window curtains of the Crown Hotel signal the accompanying decay of social life and contraction of public spaces, as this disused public house was once a centre of social life for workingmen in Hunslet. The empty Leeds and Liverpool Canal, train tracks and motorways – transport links that served as vital trade routes – are unnervingly quiet, while men in suits walk briskly along the newly refurbished waterfront, symbolising the city’s new source of energy as a capital for law and commerce outside of London. Yet the promise of regeneration, personified by the rushing waters in the city centre and signalled by the construction of newly-‐built skyscrapers and luxury flats on East Street, is threatened by billboard signs advertising ‘50% Lower Rents’ and dark, ominous clouds that foreshadow another cycle of economic decline. The pathos of the video, carefully constructed by the artist, evokes a bittersweet feeling. Intense contrasts between light and dark, chiaroscuro effects in the sky and water, not only recall the heightened sense of drama in 18th century Romantic British landscape paintings of J.M.W. Turner and John Constable, but also operate as pathetic fallacy echoing the oral stories of the interlocutors that are projected onto the visual imagery. As Arthur describes his dream of coming to the UK, for example, Silva presents posters of new housing developments that advertise aspirational living. Sturdy brick walls and steel fencing with signs warning against entry block off access to these luxury flats and upscale commercial spaces, mimicking Gabriel’s tales of social exclusion at the dance halls. Yet the upbeat music, at times interspersed between or added onto the migrants’s tales, punctures the sombre tone and adds a poetic layer of hope as one man, for example, sings nostalgically of travelling and his dreams of Africa. This combination of the camera’s indexical proximity to the ‘real’ with aesthetic and poetic devices present the landscape as both a functional and discursive site, an ecological space in flux and symbiotically shaped by material objects, animals and human interventions.3 It also complicates clear readings of Wandering Abroad as a strict portrayal of failed utopian promises, as the bittersweet journey also finds poetic beauty in everyday life while illustrating how ‘all that is gold does not glitter’.
The music and men’s voices establish a double narrative (oral and visual) that adds a psychological dimension, another layer that builds the artist’s notion of landscape as palimpsest – a more mediated mental and physical terrain. Importantly, interviews with each man are held separately within interior spaces that contrast sharply with the landscape footage, developing the tensions between visibility/invisibility that lie at the heart of Wandering Abroad. Unlike the idealised family and businessmen who are shown in public spaces, Gabriel, Hector, and Arthur are not visually represented outdoors and Oluwale’s presence is evoked only in the path his body flowed down the river and through the interlocutors’s stories. This points to how power shifts, socio-‐economic and political structures are played out in the landscape – in terms of land use and common lands, the freedom to roam, and the desire for people with spending power to occupy the city centre. These politics of space are also suggested in the title: Wandering Abroad emanates from the Vagrancy Act of 1824, a law that labelled “every person wandering abroad… in any public place, street, highway, court or passage… a disorderly person” and punishable by law to “the house of corrections … [and] hard labour”.4 Paradigmatic of post-‐colonial and post-‐modernist works, the video’s overlapping layers intersect to tell a different piece of a multi-‐sided history shaped by a collection of individual voices. Although initially introduced separately, there are obvious overlaps: Gabriel, Hector and Arthur all arrived to the UK via a long boat journey and confronted social and economic barriers, indicating a commonality of experiences in migration and hardships with integration.5 Silva plays with the easy slippage between individual/collective experiences; as the film progresses the specificity of each man’s reflections on friendship, solidarity, isolation, music and hope diverge at the same time as it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish who is narrating and anecdotes of Oluwale collapse into their personal accounts. Wandering Abroad reflexively questions documentary video’s viability as a medium to present factual accounts of incidents that unfold in a particular time and place. The cyclical rhythm of the video, a key feature of the work generated through the alternating oral recollections of each man, the repetitive rhythms of the water, and oscillating overlay of music blends the time/space of history – Oluwale’s drowning in 1969 continues to speak to enduring problems of police brutality, gentrification, hidden histories and immigrant dreams that resonate with today’s asylum seekers. The specificity of Leeds also dissolves as the city becomes as a synecdoche for global processes of change and the symbiotic relationship between landscapes of post-‐industrial societies and socio-‐economic, geo-‐political struggles. This collapse of time-‐space in the narrative structure highlights Silva’s artistic authorship in her selection of distinctive architectural landmarks, music, and framing decisions in the duration and angles of each slow-‐moving image. The video’s cyclical structure and use of fragmentation strategically construct a documentary that leaves only traces with nothing fully explained: the portrait of each speaker is unfinished, their relation to Oluwale ambiguous, and the exact story of what happened to Oluwale remains unclear. This multiplicity of layers severs a linear narrative and opens space for viewers to navigate through the fragmented terrain of oral stories, visual imagery, and music. It also pushes the landscape towards abstraction, fracturing it as a unified field and reassembling the landscape as a collage of vignettes, or short stories.
Wandering Abroad is a large piece of multiple fragments, a collection of snapshots, and it is here that video slips into photography’s domain. As the slow-‐ moving video lingers on particular scenes, the very still and quiet video adopts photographic qualities since each shot is carefully constructed with strong uses of line, balanced colours and perspective, and strategic contrasts between dark and light. Static gaps in music and long, meditative pauses produce the freeze-‐frame, still-‐image quality of photographs while the video’s time-‐based protocols also act on each still-‐image, releasing its bond to a singular moment in time and expanding its narrative potential by multiplying the imagery. This further develops the politics of (in)visibility, interrogating how photography and video may dictate certain modes of looking. Shots of the wind blowing through the trees, movement of clouds, alternating paces of calm, rippling and rushing waters open the possibility of a multi-‐sensory experience of landscape, as viewers can almost hear the sound of the wind rustling through the leaves, sense the heavy weight of the dark clouds, feel the dynamic energies of the water and motion of drifting along the river. The lulling pace of the river journey, with its hypnotic and soothing sense of the water, draws viewers further into the seductive imagery. This more affective, embodied experience of the landscape induces different modes of seeing and a visceral sense of person/place that is unlike the cold, distant gaze of early landscape photographers such as Francis Firth and Timothy H. O’Sullivan. While Silva directly references photography’s colonial legacy with her use of large photo plates and themes of migration to ‘foreign’ lands, Wandering Abroad reflexively inverts the function of photography as a tool to survey, categorise and contain, suggesting its uselessness as a medium to communicate information. Instead, the artist stresses the work’s materiality, where slippage between photography and video, along with accentuated aesthetic elements and poetic devices highlights the artist’s presence in the construction of this landscape and invites viewers to do the same. The practice of survey photography – a lone experience of traversing and bearing witness to the land and its people – becomes a collective process of construction and interpretation, opening spaces for imagination within representations of the real. Lauren Rotenberg writes art criticism and teaches 19th and 20th century art at University College London.
Photography’s indexical quality is famously explored by Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (London: Cape, 1981). 2 For analysis on the illusory separation of humans from the landscape, see Rachael Ziady DeLue and James Elkins eds., Landscape Theory (London: Routledge, 2008); Robin Kelsey and Blake Stimson eds., The Meaning of Photography (Williamstown: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 2008); Anne Whiston Spirn, The Language of Landscape (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998). 3 For elaborations on functional and discursive sites, see James Meyer, ‘The Functional Site’, in Documents 7 (Fall 1996), pp.20-‐29; Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another: Site-‐specific Art and Locational Identity (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2002). For notions of landscapes in flux, see Barbara Bender ed., Landscape: Politics and Perspectives (New York: Berg, 1993) and Contested Landscapes: Movement, Exile and Place (Oxford: Berg, 2001). 4 Vagrancy Act 1824: An Act for the Punishment of idle and disorderly Persons, and Rogues and Vagabonds in England (Published n.d., Accessed 25/10/2012, legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/Geo4/5/83), Chapter 83, Section 3: ‘[E]very person wandering abroad, or placing himself or herself in any public
place, street, highway, court, or passage, to beg or gather alms, or causing or procuring or encouraging any child or children so to do; shall be deemed an idle and disorderly person within the true intent and meaning of this Act; and it shall be lawful for any justice of the peace to commit such offender (being thereof convicted before him by his own view, or by the confession of such offender, or by the evidence on oath of one or more credible witness or witnesses,) to the house of correction, …for any time not exceeding one calendar month’. Passed in response to people sleeping on the streets of London, this pre-‐Victorian legislation has been deployed against people in public places targeted by authorities, including gypsies, prostitutes, suspected witches, fortunetellers, artists and beggars. While many aspects of the law are now repealed, the Vagrancy Act still remains on the statute books. 5 Gabriel arrived a year before David in 1948 as an illegal stowaway from Nigeria. Arthur arrived in 1952 from the Caribbean island of Nevis, a British colony, and so had legal status to settle in the UK. Hector never met Oluwale, having arrived years later as a doctor from Nigeria with the right to work in England. Despite this, the similarities of their experiences speak to enduring commonalities in the struggles of migrants.
Crown Hotel, Hunslet.
Waterfront, River Aire, near Leeds City Station.
Corinne Silva in Conversation Edwin Coomasaru and Charley Lintern
Edwin Coomasaru: How did you seek to represent migration in Wandering Abroad (2009)? Corinne Silva: I wasn’t seeking to represent migration in any way as a whole. I wanted to talk about the specific story of David Oluwale through the voices of African and Caribbean migrants in Leeds; forming multiple narratives as both David’s story is discussed and their own stories emerge. There are many layers and different experiences – I think that’s a way of being able to suggest the complexities of immigration. Each scenario and situation is absolutely different, but there are some shared themes of the alienation, separation and aloneness that David Oluwale encountered, and that present day asylum seekers continue to face. These themes are also reflected in the dual narrative of the film, which is about regeneration in the city and its often marginalising effects. That relates not only to migrants, but to people who don’t have the economic means to occupy these new glossy city centre spaces. EC: Since hearing the stories of the interviewees is crucial to the work, why did you specifically choose to speak to Gabriel, Arthur and Abiye? CS: Abiye Hector Goma was previously the chair of the Nigerian Community Leeds, so he was a very natural choice. Gabriel Adams was somebody Kester Aspden, a friend and author of Nationality: Wog, The Hounding of David Oluwale (2007), had interviewed before. He was just wonderful. He discussed his understanding of what had happened to David, and his parallel experience of arriving in England only a year earlier, also stowed away on a ship. But he’d obviously gone a completely different route. He’d put his head down and worked hard in a foundry for forty years, married, had kids and a nice semi-‐detached house in a cul-‐de-‐sac. Arthur France is a big figure in the Leeds African-‐Caribbean community. He was very involved in the music scene, one of the people who first brought carnival to Britain. I think they complimented each other very well because they all talked about the music. Reading through my notes the other day I noticed that somebody had said ‘music preserved us’. Charley Lintern: I noticed some of the music was from the ‘40s, like the West African Rhythm Brothers. You then have the story – the murder – occurring in the
late ‘60s, and the contemporary narratives and visuals. What relationship between past and present are you suggesting through this form of historical trajectory? CS: I wanted to make these criss-‐crosses all the time, drawing connections between past and present, so that the film is always moving. As the language of the film is about moving down the river, it’s very rhythmic. There’s this real sense of something being constantly in motion. What I wanted to do with this work, and all my work, is to make a space for this consideration of past and present and through that, for potential futures. CL: So how did you intend this work to affect your viewers? It seems to ellicit less political provocation than quiet contemplation. CS: I always think of my pictures and film as a ‘wash’, washing over you -‐ it’s visceral. It’s not just aiming to work on an intellectual plane, or with a very forceful political intent, but rather leaving the viewer with a trace of something. I don’t want to prescribe meaning. Of course I’m constructing something, but in that construction I want to leave space for the viewer to have agency. For me, that feels much more powerful. Roland Barthes talks about the pornographic image and the erotic image. It’s the same thing, it’s about not showing, and what you don’t quite see lingers more and feeds you’re imagination, makes you inquire. I see my still photographs as acting ‘filmically’ in that they suggest there is something beyond the frame. I construct sequences of photographs, purposefully allowing this accumulation of pictures to build up whilst still not actually giving a whole lot of information – reminding the viewer to imagine what is between each picture as well as above and below, behind and beyond the frame. CL: When you were discussing Imported Landscapes (2010) at the Brighton Photo Biennial (2012) conference, you said its impact was supposed to be ‘quite quiet’.1 Do you think Wandering Abroad uses a similar technique? CS: Yes I do. There was a certain bittersweet quality that I wanted the work to have. I didn’t know how that quality was going to materialise, but it was both a melancholy and joyfulness as you encounter the steadfastness of somebody like Gabriel. EC: At the end he says, ‘so, that is the life, I’m happy because I think God gave me a lot of knowledge that I didn’t have from the book but I have from experience. See, there’s a lot of things that we’ve gone through in life, you know, but I know my way of surviving’. CS: That’s just so key for me. All of the work that I’m doing feels interconnected by this lone figure in the landscape, trying to find their way in a hostile environment. What was important in this film was the contrast of documentary language and the suggestion of the ‘imagined landscape’ of Britain that some migrants have. Many have an image of what the ‘Mother Country’ is going to be like, particularly migrants that have come from countries previously colonised by Britain. 12
EC: Abiye Hector Goma says, ‘we try our best to tell people that all that glitters is not gold’. Why did those words resonate for you? Why did you include them? CS: Because that’s the recurrent story I’ve heard from people, particularly economic migrants. For the project I did before this in 2006, Róisín Bán, I interviewed people from the west of Ireland who had come to Leeds. They were talking about living in Leeds nine people to a room; guys working in the building industry, digging roads, working in really harsh conditions to send money home. But then also saving money up so that when they did go home for their two-‐week annual holiday they’d have a new suit and money to flash in pub; buying everybody rounds, they’re talking about how wonderful it is in Leeds. So it’s very complex because it’s about pride, isn’t it? It’s about not wanting to tell people how you’re living, how your suffering to try and improve your life. And I know it’s the same with the young Moroccan men whose shanty houses I’ve been photographing in southern Spain. They do exactly the same. Their family would be ringing them all the time from Morocco, not realising that they were living in a plastic shanty with no running water. But Abiye Hector Goma is saying something different. He’s saying that despite telling people of the real hardships, many people still want to believe in an imagined landscape. I think that we all live in hope. EC: I found the motif of water and the river particularly important. Not only for its allusion to the history of colonialism and migration, but it also made me think of a quote by Hans-‐Rudolf Wicher: ‘culture can no longer be represented by the metaphor of the timeless and suspended complex whole. A much more fitting allegorical expression for a new view of culture is a river … its liquid nature as a process’.2 If the river is a metaphor, do you feel it points to syncretic cultural exchanges that are a part of migration? CS: There is always a process of hybridisation occurring. Of course hybridity is a very problematic term because nothing ever begins as ‘pure’, which is why I say a process of hybridity. But I agree, a river is a potent metaphor for that process. I think about landscapes as being in constant motion and flux. People shape landscapes as much as landscapes shape people. The idea that many people had of Leeds and Britain was projected onto this place. Which is also about aspiration. EC: This idea – of aspiration – is also encapsulated in the film’s shots of planned or partly-‐constructed urban developments. CS: Yes definitely. It is also very quietly suggesting questions about regeneration or gentrification which is tied in with aspiration and an image of city living that has been sold to people; but is now obviously emerging as rather unsuccessful. There are not many people in the film at all, but then when Abiye Hector says ‘for some people coming to Britain is like striking gold’, there is a shot of a very nice, neat and wealthy looking white family waking down the riverside alongside lovely landscape gardening. It looks like it could be a commercial for a new development. CL: Do you think it was significant that you placed the interviewees within domestic settings that felt very separate from the shots of the city landscape?
CS: Yes. They are shot on video as opposed to being shot on high definition, in order to have a very different, intimate feel. There is juxtaposition between the homeliness and familiarity of those spaces, with the gloss of the new city centre buildings, which are absolutely about the facades. In every sense they are about facades – many are very poorly constructed and often flood when it rains. There are also so many unoccupied buildings, even several years ago they didn’t attract the kind of people they hoped for, which has only been made worse by the economic crisis. In fact there is no infrastructure in the city centre; there is no doctor, nursery or paper shop. But it is about selling the idea of a city, to boost confidence and to encourage investment. EC: With reference to Badlands (2008-‐2011), you have described Almeria as ‘a microcosm of a rapidly unravelling neo-‐liberal fantasy’.3 Can the residential developments depicted both in Wandering Abroad and Badlands be thought about in connection with the recent global financial crisis? CS: Yes absolutely. When I started Badlands in 2008, we were just entering into it. What was interesting for me about that work was the way it changed through the unfolding of the global economic crisis. When I began working there I was really thinking about how the ‘castles’ of the gated communities belonged to a privileged elite living in controlled fantasy environments, while there was so much ‘human waste’ beyond their walls. But then the more I worked on the project, the more I realised that those people living in so-‐called ‘castles’ are equally suffering under global capitalism, and are equally victims of it. Those people aren’t the 1%; they have saved all their lives to retire and buy a second home in a gated community in Spain, where they can have year-‐round-‐sun, cheap booze, and be ‘safe’. They are equally aspiring for the ‘good life’ but now find themselves with properties that they can neither afford nor sell. So I understand that the situation is too tangled to make strong statements such as ‘this is the rich versus the impoverished’, or ‘this is the elite versus the marginalised.’ I hope Wandering Abroad also makes that clear. I didn’t want to make overly simple juxtapositions; the whole process is far more complex than that. EC: T.J. Demos has recently written that some of your work lays bare ‘the logic of privatisation and walling’, which you counteract by disseminating your images outside (as well as inside) the physical museum.4 Does this relate to your interest with working with us at the International New Media Gallery? CS: I want each project to have multiple lives and be able to be seen on multiple platforms. Wandering Abroad was made as a room installation for Leeds Art Gallery. It was a huge eight metre wide screen in a conventional black box with surround sound and really high production values. But then it has also been shown at a conference for Refugee Week, it has been screened for Black History Month, and has been shown at several universities. It is also going to be projected onto a gable end of a building in Leeds next year. Each of these platforms has enabled different discussions and even different elements of the film to emerge. I want the work to have life beyond the physical gallery, so having it on the web and contextualised 14
through the International New Media Gallery is really exciting. I could be really precious and say that I don’t want it to be seen on a tiny screen or watched on somebody’s phone but I have to trust that the film can carry that. I trust that the work can act as a foundation for discussion. Edwin Coomasaru and Charley Lintern are History of Art MA students at University College London, specialising in contemporary art.
Corinne Silva, ‘Panel Discussion: Photography Beyond the Gallery’, Brighton Photo Biennial Opening Weekend Symposium, University of Brighton, 6/10/2012. 2 Hans-‐Rudolf Wicher, ‘From Complex Culture to Cultural Complexity’, in Pnina Werbner and Tariq Modood eds., Debating Cultural Hybridity: Multicultural Identities and the Politics of Anti-‐Racism (London: Zed Books, 1997), p.39. 3 Corinne Silva, ‘Badlands’, in CorinneSilva.com (Published n.d., Accessed 29/09/2012, corinnesilva.com/badlands-‐statement). 4 T.J. Demos, ‘Spaces of Global Capital: On the Photography of Jason Larkin and Corinne Silva’, in Photoworks, Issue 19 (Brighton: Photoworks, 2012), p.12.
East Street, Leeds.
Leeds and Liverpool Canal, Leeds City Centre.
Corinne Silva: The Uncompromising Image Tom Snow
In recent years photography has attempted to overcome alleged crises in representation, negating commercialism and refuting photographic limitations founded on the convictions of a televisual, spectacular world.1 Rather than succumb to set parameters, photographers and filmmakers today have attempted to restore the representative possibilities of their mediums, beyond the apparent ends of photography, in order to reimagine the capacity of documentary and other photographic forms to offer faithful representations of their subjects.2 Classic accounts of photography begin to imagine an image-‐drenched world, where the photograph falls victim to its own depictive powers. Roland Barthes for example, considered that the meaning of photography was ‘too impressive,’ and was too ‘quickly deflected; we consume it aesthetically, not politically’.3 Advertising imagery or secular propaganda rendered a society that ‘mistrusts pure meaning: It wants meaning, but at the same time it wants this meaning to be surrounded by a noise’.4 Photography then, risked the configuration of its own prohibitions through an internalised set of prefigured conventions and affects. In the end, Barthes writes, ‘Photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks’.5 The photographic work of contemporary British artist Corinne Silva engages urban and rural topographies, collating past, present and future human landscapes. Silva’s research-‐based activities can be seen to incorporate a set of new possibilities associated with lens-‐based practices today, suggesting photography’s ability to offer uncompromising visual reflections through a rejection of sensationalism. Works rarely feature human figures; instead human presence is measured firstly through the invocation of subjects, and secondly through the co-‐optation of the viewer. The photographic project Badlands (2008-‐2011) initiates a visual dialogue between two migrant groups impacting on the landscape of Almeria in Southeast Spain, interconnected through agriculture and leisure industries. Migrants from northern and sub-‐Saharan Africa construct ‘bricoláge shanties from salvaged plastic’ and other repurposed detritus,6 whilst northern European plastic-‐pioneers construct Donald Trump-‐style golf courses and other equally soulless domestic units. Photographs of contemporary villas show a range of pastiche architectural styles, walled-‐in as though jealously guarding their borrowed innovations from the desolate dusty setting. Other images show domestic innovation of a different kind. A sub-‐category included in the series are labelled Temporary settlement – or Shaded settlement if close to a tree – which picture detached slum dwellings constructed
from materials including plastic, tarpaulin and wooden crates. More photographs depict walls of waste plastic, piled high and awaiting recycling (or re-‐appropriation as building materials). Off-‐set against images of luxury leisure compounds, complete with fibreglass modelled “rocks” similar to the ones found in Disneyland or on film sets, serial comparison of the two social spheres is in the first instance obvious: they are worlds apart. Episodes of domesticity, leisure and agriculture are all figured more as encyclopaedic or archival than overtly descriptive images. There is a sense in which the pictures relate to the deadpan photography of Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963), as indices in the landscape rather than dramatised portraits. However Silva’s pictures are more inert than Ruscha’s drive-‐by photographs, in part through the instilling of a static camera position, alongside the frequent negation of perspective. Instead of claiming the rejection of stylisation, I want to suggest that these images are forthcoming in their utility of documentary modalities. It would be naïve to suggest a total de-‐aestheticisation of the image. But through a denial of the spectacular, and an appeal to a kind of anti-‐monumental composition, Silva’s photographs are staged in such a way as to evoke a universality that calls for a reflective or subjective examination of the space articulated. Of course, these photographs should not be claimed to operate under same kind of conditions that constitute, for instance, Ariella Azoulay’s designation of the ‘citizenry of photography’.7 Rather than compel the viewer to address desensitisation centred on the addressees of photography, Silva’s pictures omit human presence and instead ask the viewer to reflect on a series of images in relation to an index of human residence. Each image, whether set against the dimensionless blue sky, or unremarkable dusty earth, is universalising and anonymous. Recalling the standardized photographs of industrial landscapes by Bernd and Hilla Becher, Silva’s images represent an impulse to record rather than illustrate architectural innovation or any whimsical geographic landscape.8 Here we might say that the uncompromising image is one that utilises pre-‐existing photographic vocabularies, whilst simultaneously departing from an objectivity often associated with the documentary-‐type image. Attention is drawn away from the larger setting of Almeria and towards specific pictorial instants concentrated through the crop of the photograph. Questions are posed with regards to the gaps or interstices in visual narrative, where attention is directed towards a series of instances as well as intermissions. Amongst the most rarefied photographs featured in Badlands are those labelled by Silva as ‘empty lots’. These images picture vacant plots of land, ready, we might suspect, to be incorporated into the new precarious topographies of Almeria. In relation to other images, these contain a kind of extra-‐vacancy; human presence is not some much absent as it is anticipated. Elsewhere the utility of plastic as a building resource suggests scavenging to be necessarily in submission to the waste products of the elite. A world shaped by the prosperity of plastic, something Barthes incidentally described as ‘the quick-‐change artistry of plastic’.9 The ‘empty lots’ however are found spaces. Matching deadpan labels (that simultaneously act as parodic descriptions) designate the natural landscape as a development opportunity. 18
Castle II, from the series Badlands, 2008-‐2011, c-‐type print, 101 x 81 cm.
Shaded settlement I, from the series Badlands, 2008-‐2011, c-‐type print, 101 x 81 cm.
T.J. Demos, in a recent essay on Sliva’s work, has usefully likened the luxury living units and manmade golf oases to a ‘post-‐natural fantasy-‐based manipulation of the landscape-‐become-‐simulacrum’. The slum dwellings are described otherwise as ‘an informal architecture of survival, based on an ecology of found and recycled materials and a by-‐any-‐means-‐necessary way of living’.10 As geographical composites, the Badlands series describe a disproportionate distribution of wealth and raise important questions regarding uneven infrastructural development.11 As Demos observes, visual comparisons between the two kinds of images are, ‘notable for [a] juxtaposition that brings into view the crisis of economic inequality’.12 Thought of as singularized inquiries into the landscape however, a further comparison may also be pointed out. Despite the inequalities evident throughout the series, each subject is treated with the same impartiality at the hand of the artist. In light of the current economic crisis, the kind of muted isolation portrayed in each instant of domesticity, agriculture or leisure is rearticulated and repeated in the equanimity of the photograph – which in turn works to complicate initial visual comparison. Here we realise that the walls surrounding the gated communities are providing shelter only from the immediate terrain, and not from the larger on-‐going economic crisis in Spain and much of the western world. A plastic that forged itself on economic prosperity, as it turns out, has fallen short in an insatiable plastic economy. Walls become as worthless as waste in their capacity to offer shelter from financial upheaval. Maria Lind and Hito Steyerl have suggested that the ambivalent nature and uncertainty of the documentary-‐type image have led to the most innovative forms in contemporary art practice, ‘hovering between art and non-‐art […] between the aesthetic and the ethic’.13 Considered in their relative autonomy therefore, Silva’s images give rise to no immediate aesthetic drama. On the contrary, her lens is used to mediate rather than to sensationalise. Philosopher Jacques Rancière has suggested that a ‘politics of aesthetics’ is not merely an aestheticisation of the political, nor the result of messages of sentiments an image might portray with the intention of representing social groups, conflicts or identities. ‘It is political because of the very distance it takes with respect to these functions, because of the space and time it institutes, and the manner in which it frames this time and peoples this space’.14 That is, a delimitation of space that takes into account what is visible and what is not according to the logic of a visual medium, determining a politics of aesthetics as a form of experience. In Silva’s photographs then, we can suggest an interpretation of photography as a medium that interrupts and fixes an instant, but does not seek to expose beyond its own limitations and terms of exposure. Images presented by Silva require a kind of participation, obliging the viewer to engage their knowledge with the visual information offered, establishing the inherent foreclosures of the photographic image are matched with the inscription and reception of its reading. As art historian Yates McKee has suggested, ‘every image is a kind of text that requires both looking and reading, or rather looking as reading, regardless of whether an image contains or is accompanied by text in the narrow sense of the word’.15 Another set of works by Silva respond to the topographical uncertainties along the Mediterranean through photographic interventions set in the landscape itself. For the project Imported Landscapes (2010), a number of photographs were made depicting the northern Moroccan coast from Tangier to the border of Algeria. These photographs were then mounted on billboard advertising space across 20
Resort town of Al Hoceima placed in former industrial zone, Cartagena, from the series Imported Landscapes, 2010, c-‐type print, 179 x 143 cm.
Installation, Murcia, Spain 2010.
Murcia in Spain. Other contemporary practices have engaged with continuing injustices regarding civilian status and travel-‐injunctions determined by passport restrictions imposed on Moroccan passage to Spain. Take for example Yto Barrada’s Life Full of Holes: The Straits Project, which has focused on human anxiety and risk regarding illegal passage across the Strait of Gibraltar.16 Silva’s work however, once again departs from the immediately confrontational. Bypassing direct political antagonism, the placing of one landscape in another works to couple certain geographic similarities including climate, flora and fauna across the dual locations.17 The mounted photographs are subsequently re-‐photographed, producing an image of one photographic landscape in another photographed landscape. Here, we might suggest a kind of double-‐intercession. In the first instance we note a seemingly casual visual intervention. In the second however, a more critical juxtaposition may be considered. Images of the Moroccan landscape are mounted on space usually reserved for advertising. Thinking back to the logic suggested in relation to the ‘empty lot’ images included in the Badlands series, Imported Landscapes further complicate the traditional role of the photography in relation to the space of advertisement, exhibition and land acquisition. One photograph, showing the installation of, New suburb of Tangier placed in former mining region La Unión, Murcia, contains a figure looking back towards the billboard as he walks his dogs. As mentioned, it is rare for Silva’s photographs to feature human figures. This picture on the other hand works to demonstrate the anticipated effects of visual strategies deployed throughout these and other works. Intrigue is evident from the figure’s twisted body position, as though he has repeatedly returned his gaze to the image as he continues his journey in confusion. The man pictured assumed the image to present future development proposals for his area.18 He, like the viewer in general, is confused yet captivated. Rancière has further suggested that visual emancipation comes only through our active engagement with the image or aesthetic world: Like researchers, artists construct the stages where the manifestation and effect of their skills are exhibited, rendered uncertain in terms of the new idiom that conveys a new intellectual adventure. The effect of the idiom cannot be anticipated. It requires spectators who play the role of active interpreters, who develop their own translation in order to appropriate the ‘story’ and make it their own story.19 Testified to in this photograph then, is something like Barthes’ pensive image; an image that causes the viewer to think and reject a passive non-‐participation that might be associated with the quick-‐fire, subliminal space of advertisements and other spectacular imagery. The photographic forms identified in Silva’s practice do not negate the political. Rather, the rejection of sensationalism resists the kind of anodyne seductions imparted on the overtly aestheticised image. Here Silva restores faith in photographic forms, constituting an image that speaks to the mobility of the viewer and allows reflection on a number of representational dilemmas. It is in this sense that Silva’s photographs impart the political, not through an evocation of sentiment or aesthetic conviction, but through a sensitive negotiation of medium and skilful 22
manoeuvring of contemporary visual culture. In the end, it is not so much that aesthetics or the photograph have reached an impasse, but that through an aesthetically indulged or image-‐drenched world, there is an intention on behalf of the artist to cause – and obligation on behalf of the viewer to draw – important distinctions between looking and seeing. The spectator then, ‘is not some passive condition that we should transform into inactivity’. But, as Rancière suggests, ‘It is our normal situation’.20
Tom Snow is a research student at University College London and a freelance writer.
See Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (1967), for a neo-‐Marxist account of a world in submission to ‘spectacle’. See also, Hito Steyerl ‘Documentary Uncertainty’, in Re-‐Visiones, Issue 1 (Published n.d., Accessed 15/10/2012, re-‐visiones.imaginarrar.net/spip.php?article37) for a discussion of contemporary documentary and media forms. 2 See Maria Lind and Hito Steyerl, ‘Reconsidering the Documentary and Contemporary Art,’ in Maria Lind and Hito Steyerl eds., The Green Room: Reconsidering the Documentary and Contemporary Art (Berlin: Strenberg Press, 2008), p.12: Lind and Steyerl present a range of historical and recent examples of how documentary forms have come to prominence in contemporary art, ‘Historically, the documentary is a form that emerges in a state of crisis: it is no coincidence that many documentary art works remind us of quests for suitable forms and provide methods for discussion of social content’. See also, T.J. Demos ed., Vitamin Ph: New Perspectives in Photography (London: Phaidon Press, 2009). 3 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Richard Howard trans. (London: Vintage Books, 2000), p.36. 4 Ibid. See also, Roland Barthes, ‘Photography and Electoral Appeal’, in Mythologies, Annette Lavers trans. (London: Vintage Books, 2009). 5 Roland Barthes (2000), p.38. 6 Corinne Silva, ‘Badlands’, in CorinneSilva.com (Published n.d., Accessed 11/10/2012, corinnesilva.com/badlands-‐statement). 7 See Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography (New York: Zone Books, 2008): Azoulay seeks to show how contemporary photography that focuses on crisis areas or zones of conflict necessarily engage a tripartite relationship between people photographed, photographers and the eventual receptors of photography (see particularly, Chapter 2, ‘The Civil Contract of Photography’). 8 For example see Sarah E. James, ‘Subject, object, mimesis: the aesthetic world of Bechers’ photography,’ in Diamuid Costello and Margaret Iversen eds., Photography After Conceptual Art (Oxford: Wiely-‐Blackwell and Association of Art Historians, 2010). 9 Roland Barthes (2009), p.117. 10 T.J. Demos, ‘Spaces of Global Capital: On the Photography of Jason Larkin and Corinne Silva’, in Ben Burbridge and Celia Davies eds., Photoworks, Issue 19 (Brighton: Photoworks, 2012), p.12. 11 Regarding uneven geographical development and the compromising of land-‐rights under the acquisition of capital, see David Harvey, Spaces of Global Capitalism: Towards a Theory of Uneven Geographical Development (London and New York: Verso, 2006). 12 T.J. Demos, p.12. 13 Maria Lind and Hito Steyerl, p.16. 14 Jacques Rancière, Aesthetics and Its Discontents, Steve Corcoran trans. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009), p.23. 15 Yates McKee, ‘“Eyes and Ears”: Aesthetics, Visual Culture and the Claims of Nongovernmental Politics’, in Michel Feher ed., Nongovernmental Politics (New York: Zone Books, 2007), p.330. 16 See, Anthony Doweny, ‘A Life Full of Holes,’ in Third Text, Vol. 20, Issue 5 (Routledge, September 2006). 17 Corinne Silva, ‘Imported Landscapes’, in CorinneSilva.com (Published n.d., Accessed 11/10/2012, corinnesilva.com/imported-‐landscapes-‐statement). 18 Corinne Silva, in conversation with author, 6/10/2012. 19 Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, Gregory Elliot trans. (London: Verso, 2009), p.22. 20 Ibid.
INTERNATIONAL NEW MEDIA GALLERY
Published on Nov 3, 2012
Published on Nov 3, 2012
Catalogue for the International New Media Gallery exhibition, 5th November 2012 - 2nd March 2013. Edited by Edwin Coomasaru. (c) Internation...