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The “Photographic” as Lingua Franca – interview with the Tallinn Photomonth 2019 curators

The curators of Tallinn Photomonth 2019 main programme: Ingel Vaikla, Hanna Laura Kaljo, Post Brothers, Heidi Ballet. Photo: Helen Melesk

This fall Tallinn becomes overrun with exhibitions and art events revolving around the theme of photography, visuality, and its relationship with the body, the enfleshed. There are three international curator projects in Tallinn Photomonth 2019 main programme: curator Heidi Ballet navigates questions surrounding environmental change in the group exhibition When You Say We Belong to the Light We Belong to the Thunder at the Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia (EKKM). Hanna Laura Kaljo focuses on the body and its presence in the tides and shifts of the surroundings in Let the field of your attention…. soften and spread out at the newly opened Kai Art Center. And Post Brothers has taken a more direct approach to the materiality of photography in the group project at Tallinn Art Hall, Mercury, a visual essay created in collaboration with the artist Simon Dybbroe Møller. Joined here by the curators, we will open up the thought processes behind the exhibitions by discussing the phenomenon of visuality in the face of the current climate urgency.

Tallinn Photomonth is a contemporary art biennial dealing with visuality in a broader sense than just through photography. How did you conceptualise the criteria of visuality and visual mediation for your curatorial projects in Photomonth? Departing from your previous work, which avenues did it open up, and which restrictions did you find?

Hanna Laura Kaljo: The weaving of Let the field of your attention…. soften and spread out began from considering the neoliberal compulsion to perform and publicise – to be perpetually visible – and the subsequent states of disorientation and alienation that this may produce within an individual or a whole society. I resonate with feminist cultural theorist and psychoanalyst Luce Irigaray when she points to western culture as favouring brightness and visible productions, whilst not valuing, or even fearing the hidden. 

Looking further into creative cycles in nature, in plants for example, we see how dormancy, unfolding quietly within the depths of the Earth, is a crucial phase in the process of creative life. I wondered what this means from the point of view of the arts and could we embody this through an exhibition? As the show takes place at the interval between the autumn equinox and winter solstice, with the gradual decrease in daylight, I perceived an opportunity to frame the project as recovery from this pressure to be perpetually visible, moving through different registers of tangibility instead. The design of the exhibition, created by Tõnu Narro, and the programme of events, is in one way or another in dialogue with the shifting sunlight. The choreography of screenings, objects, workshops, performances and so on, does not allow the project to be accessed as a whole at once but experienced over time. Hopefully, this evokes a sense of something always remaining hidden, whilst maintaining its relationship to the whole.

Post Brothers: In many ways, our exhibition literally takes the claim by Photomonth to look “more broadly at developments in art and society in a world mediated by cameras, screens, and images.” But rather than just address how photography as a specific material practice has disappeared, or how it has become omnipresent, we are looking at how the very criteria of visuality has become photographic, no matter if we are talking about a painting, a bus ride, or a conversation. The epistemology of photography has been interpolated into everything. We even encounter the past through this logic, when we see a slab of black marble, we marvel at its photographic qualities, its affinity with a degraded negative, even if it is an object that’s been around long before any of us. The “photographic” has become the very terms in which all information is now mediated and organized.

Heidi Ballet, your project is situated in the context of the current realization of human influence on climate warming. Is there a specific burden the artists operating with visuality carry in terms of perspectives available to us in realising our own impact on environmental change?

Heidi Ballet: I think that the existential crisis that we are experiencing, the fact that our generation will decide whether livelihood on the planet will be sustained in the long term, is influencing all fields of humanities and non-humanities today, not only art. For me it is hard to define how it should be influencing art, and what art’s responsibility is in this. There is the idea in the scientific community that art can be used as a tool for raising awareness. While I support that view, I think art should be able to stay art in and by itself, without having to fulfil the role of being a communications office, its evaluation based solely on the dissemination of information. 

According to Amitav Ghosh, an Indian writer who wrote a book on the climate emergency, we lack the imagination of catastrophe when we think about natural disasters, since we think about nature in the way it has been portrayed in art, as peaceful and quaint. He says artists have a role to play in creating images so that we can at least imagine what the catastrophe that is ahead of us looks like. I think that these images don’t need to be only dystopian but can also be positive images of new ways of living together, with other species and with other forms of nature.

Personally, I am very interested in the psychology of the climate emergency. You see for example, denial, people who hold on to the fact that it ‘will not be so bad’, or people who are worried but don’t adapt their lifestyle, living in some kind of hypocrisy as if their flight is an exceptional case for some reason. For this reason, this exhibition is a test case to see how it would work if I were to keep the worry about the climate catastrophe psychologically as close as possible to the practice of making the exhibition. This means that the artists are not allowed to take aeroplanes and that we use recycled materials as much as possible. This is to make the psychological alienation between what one says and what one does, as small as possible, to not allow a double consciousness. It’s not an easy exercise.

Reflecting further on the question of visual representation and situatedness – where is the body located in this equation? Hanna Laura Kaljo, you’re building your curator project around the notion of recovery. Has being overwhelmed with visuality alienated us from our bodies, I mean the feeling that myself is located in the body?

HLK: Dancer, teacher of the Alexander technique and craniosacral therapist Miranda Tufnell and installation artist Chris Crickmay, whose book A Widening Field: Journeys in Body and Imagination was one of the key reference points for the Kai exhibition, write something I know to be true from my own experience: “the body is the ground from which all our knowing of the world begins. (…) In the rush and pressure of our everyday lives we easily become numbed, cut off from our bodies. (…) To move out of our heads and into the sensory world of the body awakens us not only to sensation but also to a slower, deeper landscape beneath the surface of everyday awareness, a landscape of feeling, memory, impulse and dream.” Connecting this with the theme of our time – ecosystem collapse and a call to recover a way of living consciously in relationship to ourselves and others – it is within this inner landscape of feeling and dreaming where new energy for conscious action may awaken. The Kai exhibition presents practitioners who work with visual art and with a focus on inner perception and the body. Danish artist Marie Kølbæk Iversen, for example, is researching experiences of trauma, fright, and different vernacular and shamanist methods of coping or reacting to these experiences, while Sandra Kosorotova works with the theme of burnout and draws from therapeutic methods to create the conditions where difficult emotions can be shared, held and transformed through communal creative activity.

PB: I think in many ways visuality has brought us closer to our bodies, or at least to understand the body as such is contingent on its apprehension, and a fragmented collectivity of different interconnected forces. The “body” as most would perceive it, is a relatively new concept, a function of the very alienation that you are speaking about, and certainly an outcrop of photographic representation and control. Our exhibition considers how this apprehension and understanding of our bodies today is organized through this photographic logic. Our opening image is a photograph of a birth by Heji Shin, which points to certain traditions of photographic representation in sex education, and also makes visible a moment we’ve all experienced as bodies, but rarely consider directly. Another integral part of our show is an event programme called “Lifeblood Film Club”, which, like a book club, is a chance to share video and film works and speak about them, a sort of casual form of education and fandom. Each of the videos we are presenting specifically addresses the relationship between the camera and the body and considers how the photographic has allowed us to examine the parameters and problems with the human body in particular. Simon recently did this series before in Copenhagen, where he focused on animals in photography and moving images. Now we are continuing his exploration of photographic tropes by considering the human body. For instance, we will show an iconic work by the Canadian video artist Kate Craig, where she used extreme closeups to scrutinize parts of her own body and to explore the relationship between the self and the flesh that we inhabit. As a contrast, in both the exhibition and during one of the evenings, we will screen the music video for the American RnB singer D’Angelo’s song Untitled (How does it feel), which is a looped single long shot of the singer’s naked upper body. Apparently, the singer worked out incessantly to temporarily mould his body into the most muscular and artificially chiselled specimen, an example of the body conforming to the standards of the photogenic. In many ways, he rendered himself into the perfect cross of a moving and still image. So here, we are addressing how the camera and the photographic have had a profound influence on how the body is seen and understood.

How important was it for you to take into account the physical, environmental and political location of the Photomonth biennial? How did this location work itself into your curator projects?

HB: I love to dive into the local context to see how the things that I am thinking about live in the place where the exhibition is taking place. With the help of the Photomonth team I managed to do quite a bit of research in collaboration with Estonian researchers (Francisco Martínez, Marika Agu, Tanel Rander – P.K.), and this research is an essential part of the exhibition. One such example is environmental racism, the fact that globally minorities, and not the native population, live in the most polluted areas. This is also true in Estonia where you see that in the city of Narva a Russian population is living under less than optimal conditions. 

Another dynamic that I like to compare globally and locally is how the nation state mythology is built. In Estonia there seems to be an interesting link to trees based on an identification with a pagan forest religion. The question I pose myself then is whether this means that people are also more aware ecologically because of this identification. There is also the environmental movement of the end of the 1980s (Public demonstrations against the mining of phosphorite in eastern Estonia known as The Phosphorite War – P.K.that is now labelled as eco-nationalism, or a covert independence movement. With the current rise of global environmental movements, I think this moment at the end of the 80s forms an interesting precedent to see how climate care has been politicized before, and maybe we could learn something from studying its dynamics. 

HLK: The curatorial process for the first exhibition at Kai and this historically layered, formerly closed-off coastal part of Tallinn has been guided by listening and intuitive perceiving. How might we evoke an atmosphere of openness to depth and dormancy, suggested by the metaphor of the submarine and the season in which the show and the biennial is taking place? I took many walks in the area and dialogued with it to understand where we meet. The design of the exhibition is one where the architecture of the space is a collaborator, whilst we pay attention to how light moves throughout the days and months. Being positioned directly by the sea also has an effect, as I referred to tidal movement in the choreography of the exhibition – the appearing and disappearing of works creates a movement where the public is invited to gather and disperse in a sort of ebb and flood.

PB: Given that the Art Hall is at “Freedom square” and has an important role in the visualization of culture within the context of the public sphere and the state, it was important for us to use a populist logic that would be familiar to everyone visiting. We also decided to parody the statues on the facade of the building (classic figures of artistic and intellectual labour) by enlisting a selection of mannequins by other artists to join them in a sort of “group photo”. Addressing the mannequin and window displays as a demonstration of capitalism and its adherence to and use of photographic desire, the single pieces can be experienced in their own right while also being part of a genre, thereby invoking thoughts about standardized bodies, identity, individuality, style and the collective. 

We’ve also used this exhibition as a chance to do research on certain traditions and experiences here. For example, we learned at the Museum of Photography that there was a regular clandestine exchange of photographic technology through Tallinn. We are hoping they will lend us a pair of cameras that are almost exactly morphologically and technologically the same but were produced in the East and West respectively, which has a nice reference to the logic of the copy in the photographic, but also shows this type of trading across the iron curtain and is somehow emblematic for Estonia and similar countries and their histories. 

What would be your golden rules in your professional work as curators – in terms of making choices about with whom, how, and where to work? Are there principles you stay true to in the field of contemporary art; is it possible to stay true to any principles? 

HLK: A golden rule would be to not rush, rather to take time and be attentive to how an idea or a collaboration wants to grow or change. It’s about relationships. Over the past eight years that I’ve worked curatorially, I have tended to dive deep and really get to know someone, be it an artist or a place. These days, as is true for Let the field of your attention…. soften and spread out, I’m drawn to practitioners and projects where we move beyond critique or survey into embodiment and transformation. I think it’s important to have inner principles, whilst also remaining open to what serves in the moment.

PB: Curating above all is a form of ideological critique and an assertion of different forms of knowledge within the public sphere. I also feel that political or aesthetic engagement should always have a certain humour or absurdity to it, as that allows for defamiliarization and a shock to previous terms of engagement. My golden rule has always been about assisting artists to do things they could or would not do otherwise, in places or contexts where they haven’t done such things before, to provide them support as a collaborator, and to critically consider the secondary information that mediates between the artist, objects, and the public. Over the years, my projects have moved from simply trying to illustrate a concept or theme, to taking the logic of an artist’s work or motivations and exaggerating that to the extreme, so that every decision made within the project is part of this language. In this exhibition, I am messing with standardized curator/artist roles by following Simon’s research and collaborating with him directly, thereby emphasizing the unique knowledge production artists provide.   We are also doing something I’ve always avoided curatorially, which is to instrumentalize artworks within a contrived overriding frame. But by playing with this cliché in such an outrageous way, we hope to make it clear that this only one way to read the works and inspire new readings into the artists’ practices.   

HB: I think as a curator you should stay true to the idea that art is a field to test borders, and that there are no rules, with this I mean that I think in terms of choosing artists and themes there should be no limitations at all. What I think is important as a principle for everyone is to respect the people you invite, and to be professional. I take my role as a facilitator very seriously and I think it is my responsibility to create the best possible circumstances for the artists to create the work, within the possibilities of the budget. Apart from this, I think everyone makes their own set of rules. I personally have a hard time making a thematic exhibition and talking about something that interests me without thoroughly understanding it, and understand how the issue that I talk about works in the local context. But I don’t think everyone should do that and I also don’t recommend it; it creates a lot of extra work. I also try to work with a balanced mix of artists when it comes to gender and nationality. And often I try to add one element that is performative or humorous to break the seriousness a bit, but let me tell you honestly that I am not sure whether this time I managed this part so well, I hope the exhibition doesn’t turn out to be too heavy.

Hanna Laura Kaljo is an independent curator with a base in London and Tallinn.

Heidi Ballet is an independent curator based in Berlin and Brussels.

Post Brothers has curated numerous exhibitions and projects around the world and lives in Kolonia Koplany, a village near Bialystok, Poland.

This text first appeared in Estonian Art magazine edited by Annika Toots and published by Estonian Institute.

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