An artist at work: here’s what no hypocrisy looks like

Sometimes we have to criticize with no solution in sight. Sometimes we have to promote change because the contrary just doesn’t fit our ethical frame. It’s not an easy thing to do when, in a social context, an artist’s work is expected to promote change, have “real” impact. In Renzo Martens‘ documentary Episode III. Enjoy Poverty (2008) the author sets out to explore the idea of poverty as a natural resource and as a possible commodity. The film is set in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In an article entitled Porn Poverty: The Emancipatory Power of Enjoy Poverty, author Sofia Gallarate describes the artwork as a critic of “the western mass media’s obsession with images of poverty and the misery of so called ‘Third World’ countries, exploring how that precise system of production creates economic and social inequality.” As I see it, Martens essay is a brilliant work: sharp, committed, sometimes chaotic, sometimes difficult to watch, but never does Martens forget he is very much part of the system he questions; never does he try to make it easier on him or on us. There’s no way out of this structure, meaning: there’s no way we aren’t all compromised, guilty, hurt by this never ending violence. 

The documentary raises particularly relevant questions towards the responsibility of the photographic medium in the relations between power structures. On that note, it succeeds in giving us some of the most complex examples for an ethical debate. For instances, one of the episodes showed in the first 20 minutes of the film depicts viewers in an exhibition in Kinshasa regarding black and white photographs or plantation workers. When Martens starts to interview the public, we rapidly see how things are going to unfold, because the paradox is right in front of us: although the photographs represent the struggle of the poor men who worked in the plantations, the public connects to the images in a romantic way, almost nostalgic. They are contemplating. They say: they’re beautiful! But are they? When Martens asks a woman if she thinks the people in the photographs are rich or poor, she pauses, then she realizes what he is trying to imply and answers with an heavy conscious: “poor”.

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As Gallarate writes, “[a]ccording to Martens, documentary and photographs do not only work as a medium that exploits poverty to create profit, they can also transform it into a possible artistic and fetishized subject which comes from the saturation of those images within the western media.” As every Nihilsentimentalgia follower knows by now, this hypocrisy and exploitation of the other’s differences through photography is something that interests me a lot. I think this dilemma highlights two major things: 1) that human nature is profoundly complex (see for example how Martens is able to relate and empathize to the people he interviews, but at the same time he never ceases to distance himself from his role as a producer of content; 2) that image workers (photographers, film-makers, etc) cannot avoid beautifying everything, thus flattening that complexity. 

But here too Martens does it differently, for the way he exploits the camera’s relation to suffering is so inherently critical (I remembered Lars Von Trier‘s The five obstructions), that one sees precisely how superficial photographies can be. In an interview with Joe Penney, published on Africa is a Country, Martens explains the phenomena: 

“(…)Episode III, doesn’t critique by showing something that is bad, it critiques by duplicating what may be bad. On the one hand it gives some critique within the film, oh, media might be bad, it exploits you, take possession of the means of production; on the other hand I, the guy in the film, does exactly the same thing, or maybe not exactly but pretty much exactly the same thing and in the end then just leaves. So the critique of the film is not so much in the action that the guy Renzo undertakes in the film, the critique of the film is the film as a whole, it’s the duplication, it’s the copy in a way of existing power relationships. And I think, this is on the one hand an artistic strategy that is well rehearsed in many other art pieces over the last century. You know in the old days a painting of a swimming pool would represent a swimming pool, it would represent an outside phenomena. Now, since a long time, a painting of a swimming pool deals with the fact that it is a painting of a swimming pool. It is more a painting of a swimming pool than just a swimming pool. And I think this film works like that. Most documentary films critique, or reveal or show some outside phenomena, like oh this is bad, or this is good, or this is tragic or what have you. In this film, it is not the subject that is tragic, like poverty in Africa, it is the very way that the film deals with the subject that is as tragic. So that’s why it’s a piece of art, because it deals with its own presence, it deals with its own terms and conditions, it’s not a referential piece. Its autoreferential.

Being from a country that has a complex colonial history and, consequently, an endemic problem in addressing that very same question, I can understand Martens’ perspective too well, particularly when he says that it is impossible for him to be an agent of change. How can we forget where we came from? How can we forget our inheritance? As Martens says: “(…) I’m also defined by the education I have, by the racism and the feeling of agency that I’ve grown up with […] I am a representative of a world which allows people to die of hunger on one hand and allows other people to be terribly rich.” 

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As is expected, both Penney and Gallarate bring Sontag to the debate and evoke the idea of the aesthetization of suffering. We’ve talk about it often here: the idea of inauthentic beauty, of making something neat, harmonious, pleasurable, from something that is profoundly violent an unethical. There’s another crucial moment right in the middle of the film, when Martens asks one of the European photojournalist he is accompanying (and just after we see them photographing dead bodies): “Who is the owner of these pictures?” The following dialogue unfolds:

Photographer: I am the owner. I can use them if I want to make a vernissage, or a book. Not with any money … how do you say?
Martens: You don’t have to pay for that. Yes. And the people that are on the pictures. The people you have photographed … are they the owners of the pictures, too, or not?
P: No.
M: You are the owner. And the people on the pictures they own nothing?
P: No, because I took the pictures…
M: You took the pictures…
P: So I’m the photographer, the author of the picture.
M: But they organized everything that is on the picture. You just came and made the picture. They have organize everything.
P: What do you mean “organized?”?
M: Well the situation that you made the picture of, they made the situation.
P: But not due to me …
M: No, not because of you…
P: No, yeah, sure. But, it’s me that made of that situation a picture…
M: Right.
P: There is thousands of situations here. But it’s me. I choose the one that I think will make a good picture. And that makes that picture mine.
M: OK.

As Gallarate concludes, evoking Benjamin‘s The Author as Producer, “Renzo Martens acts more as a producer of a political discourse rather than as a defender of the Congolese people.” But is his production unethical? I think the clear answer is “NO“. Although it may be difficult for the viewer to sit and watch Martens convincing Congolese photographers (who work on photographing celebrations such as weddings) how to photograph extreme suffering, exploiting the kids’ exposed ribs, truth is the image of a poor African child “starving to death” has long been a commodity – don’t we all remember Kevin Carter’s controversial image of the vulture and the little Sudanese girl that wan him the Pulitzer Prize in 1994? Martens argues that the Congolese should take advantage of their situation and instead of letting outsiders come and photograph their really, take the matter in their own hands and put a price on that poverty. Chocking? Of course it is, but a conversation between him and an MSF doctor reveals how tricky the subject is. Gallarte resumes the situation: 

“The scene develops and the artist walks with the two photographers to a Médecins sans Frontier temporary hospital, where they plan to talk with the director and ask for the permission to let the two young men photograph their patients. It is precisely here that the provocation, as well as the controversy of Martens’ work reaches its peak; the MSF’s doctor refuses his proposal, stating that the idea of permitting photography for commercial purposes is legitimately unacceptable.”

The doctor also says that the difference between these photographers going into the hospital and taking pictures and letting a western photojournalist do the same is that the latter has the purpose to produce news, not “to exhibit suffering”. And this is the central argument of Martens’ film: does the media agents have such good intentions or are they actually exploiting their pain?

Representing mental illness

Note: if you don’t want to get personal, just don’t read this.

Mental health issues are always difficult to approach, be it in sociological or artistic terms. Both as a student and as a teacher, not a year goes by without crossing paths with photographic narratives that aim at questioning the stigma befalling the mental health issues. It’s true, they usually fail at it. Usually a student claims to know about depression and wants to represent it or someone in the family has a mental illness and they want to document its impact on their relationships. Why do they usually fail? Although I don’t have an answer for it, I think there’s always some truth in such failures. Maybe the problem has to do with representational schemes and how our artistic immaturity sometimes leads us to approach photography as if it were an illustration device. But maybe the core of the problem lies somewhere else: in our general disregard for things we cannot see?

Ten years ago I spent a month in a mental hospital. Every time I say that out loud one of two things happen: either a silence follows or “the issue” is avoid. As I see it, these are good indications of how we, as a society, keep ignoring our mental struggles. Let’s face it: there’s a huge stigma around it because mental illness (for the majority of people) equals weakness. In that sense, men have it even worse, because they used to be seen as the providers. It’s the same with alcoholism: most people address it as a failure, a weakness, not as a disease (I remember a particular debate in Britain that got a lot of attention back in 2012; there’s also this brilliant post by Pete Brook).

People who claim to have “a scientific mind” tend to be the first to cast unfortunate judgments upon those who suffer from such problems. Yes, I know this too well. Families also struggle with everything, being that this “everything” can be summed up in the way they deny language altogether: not saying the name of the illness; not saying words like “mental hospital”, etc, etc. The stigma also underestimates the impact of mental illnesses, but what it is most likely to do is ignore the problem all together. It’s as if the suffering, the anguish, the hallucinations, etc., weren’t proof enough of the existence of something like an illness. It’s as if people were expecting to see physical traces of it: some blood, some swelling, some skirmishes, who knows? For instances, when I entered the hospital I was already incontinent, had lost too much weight and had mobility problems. Do they count as symptoms? They do, of course, but still “the scientific minds” like to relate them to specific deficits (vitamins, for example), managing to ignore the core of the problem, once again.

Being that I was studying photography at the time, over the years that followed that summer I often thought about how to represent that experience, meaning: how to represent the profound struggle with myself and others that had led me to that hospital. I know now I was asking the wrong question, for that struggle is not representable and what can be transferred to the aesthetic dimension is something of a different order; it is transient, abstract, it’s about shape and color, not semiotic language.

David Nebreda, Après huit séances d’incisions sur la poitrine et les épaules, il atteint à une certaine tranquillité, l´hommage et le tribut étant alors accomplish, 29-7-1989.
© David Nebreda, Après huit séances d’incisions sur la poitrine et les épaules, il atteint à une certaine tranquillité, l´hommage et le tribut étant alors accomplish, 29-7-1989.

For example, we could consider the above photograph by David Nebreda (yes, I know, him again) as an illustration of how mental illness impacts the human body and how one could represent that. I know a lot of people already think Nebreda’s work is about his schizophrenia, but I couldn’t disagree more. It’s not about HIS mental illness, HIS schizophrenia, but about something that is universally understood as suffering, particularly about the space between disappearance and presence, about the struggle to exist, in all its plenitude: exist! It is about vitality, originality, presence, dynamics. As I see it, what makes his way of doing authentic is its truth, and this truth (of an ethical nature) is present as an aesthetic quality. 

© Sofia Silva, 'Three Entrances', from the project 'The Orchestra', 2011
© Sofia Silva, Three Entrances, from the project The Orchestra, 2011.

When I was asking the wrong question I did the photograph above. Although I see some truth in it, I recognize it fails as an expression of the state of transformation I was trying to allude to. I think for an artist (or an image-maker) finding a language of his/her own is the most difficult of things. And that language, that style, that expression needs only follow one star: truth. I’m not talking about “being true to oneself” or about “truthfulness” in a pure ethical way but, instead, truth as an aesthetic dimension. I guess that sums up my definition of authenticity: truth as as aesthetic quality…

A new pair of eyes

Extreme fatigue can change your perspective on things, but so can euphoria and melancholia. I guess our perception on what is or is not part of our conceptualized reality is heavily influenced by our biological and psychological conditions. Having said that, most of the so called altered states of perception tend to be transient, not defining the way we go about life.

As 2017 approached, I found myself experiencing a sort of change that may well be of a different kind. After spending nearly three months in a state of extreme tiredness, I’m now ready for a new chapter and what is most surprising about finally taking a break and spending some days away from work is that my perspective on reality is going through a deep change. It’s as though a new sense of pleasure is changing the way things look, smell and feel. For example a bird, the sort of animal I’ve never used to pay much attention before, is now a source of delight. 

Now back at work and seeing the daily news, everything seems too distant, as if my concept of reality got reduced to a very small circle that comprises only those who are near to me, as well as my beliefs, dreams and responsibilities. This is obviously troubling in many different aspects: 1) for once, the events happening all around the world seem to be reallocated to a fictional dimension. Such a feeling is unsettling, not only because it questions my social identity, but also because it makes it hard to think about the historical, political, economic and social dimensions that tend to define one’s place in the world. Trump’s existence, per se, seems improbable – see the problem?; 2) but this also brings a new light on my nearest environment, highlighting different spaces of affirmative action, as if suddenly a new giant field of possibilities has just opened.

Writing a thesis is a crazy lonely process that I wouldn’t want to repeat. Although it is rewarding in many different aspects, it can also bring about a way of thinking about things that is (too) disconnected from others’ reality and a clash may well settle in once that scheme of logic starts to lose its ground. Now coming back to social media and going through some general discussions about photography and the visual field, I struggle to adapt to this “new pair of eyes”.

Take for example this news from The Guardian about a photographer who captured images of unknown Amazonian tribe. Do people think it is acceptable that curiosity drives our decision making process? On The Guardian, one journalist says that Brazilian photographer Ricardo Stuckert had “a moment of luck” when his flight took a detour and he spotted this tribe. The same news also quotes the author saying “I thought, ‘You have to photograph this, it has to be preserved’.” But what exactly does this sort of imagery help preserve? Really, how does this approach contributes to an antropological study about “their way of being”?

© Ricardo Stuckert.
© Ricardo Stuckert, 2016.

In another article, a multimedia journalist named Dan Collyns calls Struckert’s photographs remarkable and then goes one to recount his own experience with indigenous people, letting us know how Peru’s official policy of “no contact” has been able to protect and cushion tribes like the one shown in Stuckert’s photographs. But can we, on the one hand, promote this “no contact”/”no invasion” policy and, on the other hand, promote this sort of imagery? How is Stuckert’s decision to make these photos public not an act of exploitation?

When I read on the news that the photographer accidentally stumblled on these photographs I can’t help but laugh and remember the sort of excuses lovers often give one another to avoid confrontation. He may have spotted the event by chance, but everything else after that is product of his conscious choices, not randomness. Did he have to show the images? Do we need to see them? Should we promote the idea that young photographs should go out and photograph people in their private lives?

But besides me having a difficulty in understanding why no one questions the need to make these photographs public, what this new pair of eyes struggle most is with the hundreds of journalists calling the photographs spectacular, as if there was something absolutely new in the photographs, as if the world had just waken up to another way of living…

⁞ ‘Real Life is Elsewhere’ ⁞

white mirror didactic© Sam Durant, White Mirrors, from the project Scenes from the Pilgrim Story: Myths, Massacres and Monuments, 2006. Inkjet print, 42 x 36 inches.

9_pilgrim39© Sam Durant, Natural History Part II, from the project Scenes from the Pilgrim Story: Myths, Massacres and Monuments, 2007. Mixed media; Dimensions vary; Photo credit: Scott Massey.

excerpt of THOSE WHO MAKE HALF A REVOLUTION ONLY DIG THEIR OWN GRAVES: THE SITUATIONISTS SINCE 1969, by Christopher Gray.

May 1968 and France on the verge of anarchy… An atmosphere of martial law in Paris and hundreds of factories occupied… one hundred and forty American cities in flames after the killing of Martin Luther King… German and English universities occupied… Hippie ghettos directly clashing with the police state… The sudden exhilarating sense of how many people felt the same way… The new world corning into focus… The riots a great dance in the streets…

Today – nothing. The Utopian image has faded from the streets. Just the endless traffic, the blank eyes that pass you by, the nightmarish junk we’re all dying for. Everyone seems to have retreated into themselves, into closed occult groups. The revolutionary excitement that fired the sixties is dead, the ‘counter-culture’ a bad joke. No more aggression, no more laughter, no more dreams. “To talk of life today is like talking of rope in the house of a hanged man.”

Yet there were thousands and thousands of people there. What has happened to us all?

The Paris May Days were the end for the SI. On the one hand, the police state pressure on the French left after May made any overt action virtually suicidal. […]

The presence of the SI never made itself properly felt in either England or America. The English and what could well have become the American sections of the SI were excluded just before Christmas 1967. Both groups felt that the perfection and publicising of a theoretical critique was not sufficient: they wanted political subversion and individual ‘therapy’ to converge in an uninterrupted everyday activity. […]

Henceforward the dissemination of situationist ideas in both countries was dissociated from the real organisation that alone could have dynamised them. 0n the one hand this led to obscure post-grad groups sitting over their pile of gestetnered situationist pamphlets, happy as Larry in their totally prefabricated identity. On the other, the more sincere simply went straight up the wall: The Angry Brigade, very heavily influenced by situationist ideas (translate Les Enrages into English … ), destroying themselves at the same time as they took the critique of the spectacle to its most blood-curdlingly spectacular extreme. […]

9_pilgrim18© Sam Durant, Male Colonist (cornstalk), from the project Scenes from the Pilgrim Story: Myths, Massacres and Monuments, 2006. C-print, 60 x 48 inches.

9_pilgrim16© Sam Durant, Female Indian, Male Colonist, from the project Scenes from the Pilgrim Story: Myths, Massacres and Monuments, 2006. C-print, 48 x 60 inches.

What then remains of the SI? What is still relevant? Above all, I think, its iconoclasm, its destructiveness. What the SI did was to redefine the nature of exploitation and poverty. Ten years ago people were still demonstrating against the state of affairs in Vietnam – while remaining completely oblivious of the terrible state they were in themselves. The SI showed exactly how loneliness and anxiety and aimlessness have replaced the nineteenth century struggle for material survival, though they are still generated by the same class society. They focused on immediate experience – everyday life as the area people most desperately wanted to transform.

Rediscovering poverty cannot be separated from rediscovering what wealth really means. The SI rediscovered the vast importance of visionary politics, of the Utopian tradition – and included art, in all its positive aspects, in this tradition. […]

What was basically wrong with the SI was that it focused exclusively on an intellectual critique of society. There was no concern whatsoever with either the emotions or the body. The SI thought that you just had to show how the nightmare worked and everyone would wake up. Their quest was for the perfect formula, the magic charm that would disperse the evil spell. This pursuit of the perfect intellectual formula meant inevitably that situationist groups were based on a hierarchy of intellectual ability – and thus on disciples and followers, on fears and exhibitionism, the whole political horror trip. After their initial period, creativity, apart from its intellectual forms, was denied expression and in this lies the basic instability and sterility of their own organisations. […]

Look, after so many, many pages, let’s try and be honest, just for a moment. I feel very fucked up myself, and I know it’s my responsibility. Yet whenever I go out on the streets my being somehow reels back appalled: these terrible faces, these machines, they are me too, I know; yet somehow that’s not my fault. Everyone’s life is a switch between changing oneself and changing the world. Surely they must somehow be the same thing and a dynamic balance is possible. I think the SI had this for a while, and later they lost it. I want to find it again – that quickening in oneself and in others, that sudden happiness and beauty. It could connect, could come together. Psychoanalysis and Trotskyists are both silly old men to the child. Real life is elsewhere.

9_pilgrim34© Sam Durant, Still Life (speaker, bowls, bread), from the project Scenes from the Pilgrim Story: Myths, Massacres and Monuments, 2006. C-print, 40 x 50 inches.

9_pilgrim32© Sam Durant, Still Life (head, jug, electric parts), from the project Scenes from the Pilgrim Story: Myths, Massacres and Monuments, 2006. C-print, 40 x 50 inches.

٠ Sandro Ferreira, memory code: 6174 ٠

portefolio SandroF4© Sandro Ferreira, Não lhe digas para onde vais amanhã (Don’t tell her where you’ll be tomorrow), from the project “6174”
Set of a hundred booklets, with dimensions identical to those with speeches of some dignitaries of the Portuguese dictatorial regime: “Estado Novo”.

portefolio SandroF6© Sandro Ferreira, from the project 6174. The left card reads The useless, the right card reads The miserableportefolio SandroF5A series of 126 “lobby cards”, corresponding to the 126 films that the soldier Manuel Rosa Simões had seen since his arrival in Angola until his departure for the Metropolis. Ironically, the first film was “Les Miserables” and the last “The Useless”, setting the tone…

From 1961 to 1974, Portugal became involved in a war in its colonies, a war of subversive naturesubversive war is a war conducted within a territory by part of the inhabitants of that territory against the authority in it established, aided and reinforced or not from the outside, and in order to withdraw that authoritarian control, performing a transformation more or less wide. in Military Newsletter No. 15, Military Region Angola, August 15, 1962

Much of the research/exploration of this event converges to the advances and retreats, political questions, numbers, guilty and innocent people. The true human/animal/social essence of the event is confined to fiction literature and some published journals, often revised. Moving away from the issues widely teased I try to penetrate the internal memory of the war’s day-to-day of a generation that lived haunted with the fear of leaving for a country distant of their roots, risking their lives. In exploring these memories I gather a number of factors and situations that made the day-to-day of the oversea soldier, some did erase memories of home, others did revive memories (aerograms cinema, alcohol and sex).

The memories of war veterans, after so many years, can be divided into two branches, namely, the memories that fade away naturally with time and memories that need to be deleted. The work presented here lives in both branches of the forgotten or erased memory.” Sandro’s statement

The video tells the story of a soldier that was ambushed in Angola, while carrying the “Practical Handbook of Radio and Television” in his pants pocket. Trying to jump off the car he was ridding in, he got shot in one leg. One of the bullets hit and went through his leg and another bullet hit the book and was lodged inside it. Playing with the question of the impossibility to repeat events such as those in the context of war, I tried to recreate the situation of the bullet lodged inside the book. As the way we retell our memories is never the same, also the bullets that were lodged in the replica penetrated by different sites.

portefolio SandroF2© Sandro Ferreira, 7.65 Practical Handbook of Radio and Television, Edition of 8 books, 466 pages, with a bullet inside, 2011, from the project “6174”

portefolio SandroF1© Sandro Ferreira, Carta de Portugal Insular e Ultramarino de 1962, jogo

portefolio SandroF 4© Sandro Ferreira, Antecipação de um regresso a casa (Coming home earlier), from the project “6174”

Sandro was recently chosen for the EDP emerging artists’ award, in Portugal. He will be exhibiting new work, latter on this year, in Oporto.

┐ Paola Zaccaria, Medi-terranean Borderization └


“At the end of the 1990s, as a result of the diasporas produced by new wars and new forms of colonialism, boats, rubber dinghies, and wornout ships started sailing in the direction opposite to that of colonial times: people emigrating from North Africa steered toward the closest Mediterranean shores, especially to the Italian island of Lampedusa, the southern gate to Fortress Europe. The reaction of the European nations in the Mediterranean region has been to erect a series of virtual yet impenetrable walls and borders, all created in the name of sovereignty, thus violating the international agreement on human rights ratified by the European Court in 1951. (…)

Activists and artists have begun to focus their attention and work on borders, national divides, and class and gender inequalities, and by now it is clear that migrants, rebels, oppressed women, and “mongrels” who keep on moving, notwithstanding the erection of walls, offer a perspective through which “citizens” can begin to perceive postcolonial, neopatriarchal violence. In doing so, these “others” inspire the disruption of dividing lines. Together activists and border-crossers teach how to resist passivity and produce el mundo zurdo, lateral or “left-handed” knowledge/understanding/conocimiento. Translinguistic and transcultural artivism shows the exclusion of diasporic migrant subjects, atravesados, oppressed women, and rebels from the still-patriarchal nation-state formation, but at the same time this artivism is a tool to make visible the invisible: the illegals, the violated, the multitudes on the move, the new European fronterizos, or “clandestines,” in Italy bring attention to the politics and poetics of borders.”

excerpt of the article Medi-terranean Borderization, by Paola Zaccaria, in Signs, Vol. 37, No. 1 (Autumn 2011), pp. 10-18