Thursday, July 27, 2017

Conditions For an Unfinished Work of Mourning: Beauty [as] An Appeal To Join the Majority of Those Who Are Dead

A bit unwieldy, but it might be the working title for this project. The phrases are drawn/reconfigured from a line in Ariella Azoulay's book referenced below, and from (I believe) Benjamin's essay, "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire."

Starting to look at the scans I got back the other day - of the cyanotype(d) material. Lots to sort though, both in terms of material and also making sense of the mess of reading I've been doing (all at once, without ever finishing any one thing before jumping over to something else - in a back and forth way) around the stuff behind and between all of this. Doing some thinking with a few Ariella Azoulay essays and one of her books, Death's Showcase: The Power of Image in Contemporary Democracy. I came to this book as she takes up Benjamin's Work of Art essay in particular, and some of this has led me to find some sources I hadn't come across before dealing with Benjamin's particularly complex use of the term "aura" - so many thoughts floating around out there about this. I've been finding the ideas in Miriam Bratu Hansen's essay, "Benjamin's Aura" quite useful, thus far.

So, I'm just/still looking. And made a quick video study as a means to help.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

nothing is one [of a kind]

Video Still (Every Cyanotype in Progress)
Every Cyanotype (Cyanotype)

Back in my home studio now, I’ve got a minute to try and sort through what exactly transpired during my time in Spain, and what the project is becoming. I’ve tried to sort of break it down, a bit, below…

I. The Yew (Cypress) Tree and the Routes of Exile

The initial framework centered around the yew tree as a point of departure (its various mythologies and ecological significance and, in particular, its toxicity and relationship to death and mourning), but this quickly shifted as the species proved difficult to find and the initial site we visited – a cemetery that purportedly contained them (at Antonio Machado’s tomb, see my earlier post), in fact did not (they were cypress trees, of course). 

This turned out to be just fine though, as my projects tend to develop in meandering ways – one initial concern leads to another, the unexpected always playing a role. It was a concern with our current political situation in the U.S. (and its global impact) that instigated my desire to closely consider the poisonous nature of the yew tree in relation to its prevalence at sites of mourning. Absent the physical specimen of the trees themselves, these notions of grief coupled with toxicity remained at the forefront of my thinking as I began to learn more about the routes of exile that cross back and forth across the France/Spain border through the Pyrenees Mountains – specifically those routes closest to the coastline, where the majority of my work took place.

Video Still (Cementerio de Portbou)

After this initial unsuccessful attempt at locating a yew tree, we drove from the location in Colliouere, France along the coastal highway to Portbou, Spain. This was a deliberate route, as a secondary concern for my project had to do with the very specific historical residue contained within and around Portbou as the site of Walter Benjamin’s ill-fated attempt to flee Nazi persecution. There is a specific route in this region that is known to be the path Walter Benjamin took in 1940 when attempting to cross from France into Spain, and then onto Portugal where he would have continued onto the U.S. As is well documented, Benjamin committed suicide in the Spanish town of Portbou after being told he would not be allowed entry and would be returned to occupied France the following morning.

France/Spain Border
Driving down this intensely twisting roadway high above the Mediterranean from France to Spain, you inevitably encounter the abandoned border control station – a modern ruin covered in graffiti situated high upon the mountain directly adjacent to the routes of exile above and below. When we encountered this site (unexpectedly) we immediately stopped and were compelled to pull over. For myself, there was a very palpable sense of history piling up on itself here – the very distant past of course, but also that of modern conflicts and their disturbing relation to present-day scenarios. This border and its crossing as well as the ruins within (both physical and mythological) took the place of the yew tree (for now).

Video Still (France/Spain Border)

II. The Cyanotype Process and Site Specificity in Relation to “Uniqueness”
Shadow of Francoist Monument (Cyanotype)

Not an analog/digital thing – at least not in terms of any sort of fetishization of process. Much more to do with thinking around (see below) the problematized nature of photographic representation, and assumptions of veracity (as related to/troubled by indexicality – more on that, to come, to be sure). If I’m continuing to think of landscape as a situation that is simultaneously embedded (frozen) within a physical (physiological?) location and in a continual process of transformation (geologically, politically, culturally) – all of these dictated by the place-ness – then I need to (re)consider the (photo-graphic -> light-writing) means that are most appropriately suited to producing images of/in/around specific situations. Which leads to questions of -> what are/should the images be of, or, what can/should be depicted? Is recording a situation the same as documenting it (a distinction that has preoccupied me for ages, it seems)? Much of this stems from a feeling that I had exhausted all approaches that felt authentic to me in terms of how I made images with a camera in the landscape – and I suppose to be honest it wasn’t just those approaches, but possibly also an exhaustion of looking (and seeing) in a particular way – perhaps these are the same, or at the very least embedded within one another. There’s a lot jammed up into this, of course – a century+ of photographic history; romanticized aesthetics of landscape as well as contemporary responses to just that; mythologies around (mostly, always) men and their supposed rugged individualism as associated with their forays and adventures into various territories and topographies; etc…

Lister Route (Cyanotype)

In short – it wasn’t going to work for me to continue making pictures of dirt and trees with a camera (at least not as a sole means to an end). So, I thought of the cyanotype. One of the earliest photographic processes, it’s both alarmingly simple and irritatingly difficult to work with – of course, this all depends on what you want from it. I just wanted some imprints, of sorts. But even that is tricky, as it depends on whether it’s important that the imprints are visible or not. They’ll always be there, if you physically put something on top of an exposed piece of paper or cloth or whatnot coated with cyanotype solution (which is exposed by UV light, either natural or artificial), but if you don’t work quickly enough, or aren’t able to based on the circumstances, the UV light may immediately expose the material disallowing the imprint to be visible. Which might be alright. Just depends. You’ll still have something that contains a shade (or a variety of shades) of Prussian Blue that was impacted (whether visibly or not) by whatever kept the rays of UV light from accessing the material for a particular period of time. And that can be any sort of thing  - an object of various dimensionality and translucency, or even shadows or wind flipping the material around. Tons of unknowns and un-measurables, though – the intensity of the sun, the opacity of the stuff, etc.

Cloth Left 2 Days at Cementerio de Portbou (Cyanotype)

Other aspects on my mind both prior to implementing the process and during were the particular properties of the cyanotype’s Prussian Blue; the late 19th century practice of botanist Anna Atkins who made hundreds of cyanotypes of natural forms over an entire decade (so many layers to even this seemingly simple fact, tied up with the much delayed acknowledgment of the importance of her work and [sometimes] problematic categorization of her project – more to be sorted through on my end around much of this); and the emphasis on individual cyanotypes as unique, and “one of a kind.”

Echoing my initial sentiments above, my use of this process has little (to nothing) to do with the production of an image that cannot be reproduced. I’ll concede, I guess, that if we’re being self-consciously literal it’s true that it would be impossible to exactly replicate an “original” cyanotype due to its very nature as a cameraless image reliant upon the variables in place during its timed exposure.

Steps to former Hotel de Francia (cyanotype)

But what does that really matter, when we really know that nothing is one of a kind, and everything is reproducible? There’s nothing more important about the actual substrate that served as the vehicle for the chemical solution in the cyanotypes I made than any other substrate a reproduction of the cyanotype might be printed (or projected) upon. I continue to reject the idea that certain things are inherently more valuable simply because of their uniqueness (yes, there’s the aura convo bound up in here, obviously – Benjamin’s aura from both the Work of Art and Little History essays will be drug around through all of this eventually..). These are really only notes to myself, but I guess I should say also that none of this is to suggest that exquisitely hand crafted works or particular material qualities are not relevant and important to an appreciation of individual works/objects, it’s just that it seems particularly irresponsible to continue placing primary import on these qualities as a means of determining value (cultural, monetary or even personal).

[Perhaps this was a it goes…]

III. The Politics of Representation and Mythologies of (Male) Genius-or-somesuch

Francoist Monument and Cyanotype in Progress

The most difficult aspect of entering into this project is sorting out how to do so respectfully and honestly. What is most clear to me is that none of this history is mine (Spanish Civil War; WWII; Routes of Exile <->; Spain/France border; Walter Benjamin; Port-bou). So there’s a need to be super careful about the extent to which I draw on the specifics of these histories as an outsider. Particularly as an outsider based in the U.S., during a very particular period in global politics. Of course, I’m drawing parallels (or at the very least lines that meander nearby, really not side-by-side) between this very specific period in European history (and its present-day repercussions) and present-day crises around immigration and border politics.

Top of Francoist Bunker with Cyanotype in Progress
Francoist Bunker (Cyanotype)

So, it’s tricky. And what makes it even trickier for me as a female artist are the ever-present ghosts of men who dominate these narratives as well as (much of) the discourse around particular kinds of work within the landscape. There is much to sift through in terms of the emphasis on Port-bou as the site of Walter Benjamin’s suicide – it’s culturally significant, hugely so, but as is etched in glass on the Dani Karavan memorial to Benjamin at the Portbou Cemetery,

“It is more arduous to honor the memory of anonymous beings than that of the renowned. The construction of history is consecrated to the memory of the nameless.”

Excerpt from Walter Benjamin’s “On The Concept of History”

Hundreds of thousands of nameless people crossed the France/Spain border during and between the Spanish Civil War and WWII. This innumerable body occupied my mind as I worked within these spaces just as much as the singularity of Benjamin – it was an uneasy space.

Cementerio de Portbou with Cyanotype in Progress

And then there was my own body, positioned within these spaces awkwardly attempting to obtain markers of some sort – usually in relation to those pre-existing within the landscape itself (elements along the footpaths; roadway debris; the concrete of abandoned bunkers; shadows of fascist monuments; dirt/air/sun…). It was a pretty grueling experience in the blazing hot sun, balancing equipment on precarious slopes. The process was videotaped, and with no regard to any sort of idealized image. I let myself work (and be recorded) in deliberate relation to the bullshit macho imagery of so many men whose mythologies are bound to some sort of rugged ideal (I couldn’t get Smithson out of my mind, for instance, and it was kind of driving me mad because really I wanted to think more of Nancy Holt). So that was another part of it all, for me. I’m needing to sort through the video footage to see how I can use that element.

Video Still (Cypress Tree Beside WB Memento Stone at Cementerio de Portbou)

Video Still (Top of Francoist Bunker)

Video Still (Stair Ruins at France/Spain Border)

IV. Memorials and Sites of Grief

The key spaces I worked in were all tied to this. There were markers related to the paths of exile; monuments erected by Franco to assert his dominance; bunkers that served as shelter or refuge (during different times) for soldiers (mostly the Nationalists) and those being exiled; numbered stones demarcating borders; abandoned former border buildings (some contained in archival images of the period of exile); and of course, elements within cemeteries.

Francoist Bunker, Exterior (with Francoist Monument in Background)

Francoist Bunker, Interior (with cyanotype materials)

This too, will see me doing more digging.

The uncomfortable ambiguity around all of this is the only tangible thing I’ve got, for now…

Stair Ruins at France/Spain Border (Cyanotype in progress)