This conversation took place in July 2014, over the virtual space that unites Macau and Lisboa. The original, portuguese version, of this conversation, can be seen HERE.
Sofia: We’re having this conversation mainly because of your exhibition, Tree, now held in Macau. Although I couldn’t be there, I find the way you are imposing installation and performance on the photographic matter very interesting. In an article about the exhibition, published in South China Morning Post, you named what seems to be the keyword for this project: contamination. Tell me about that contamination.
Isaac: The idea of “contamination” in this work, comes due to a problem that has been on my mind about Photography and my own work: Is it still possible today, given the level of profusion of visual information and the speed at which such information circulates, to “retain the look” of the other, and your own look, on the images we create? Let us assume, driven by a mere hypothesis, that is the result of a direct observation, the “act of retention” is close to a breaking point. I call this “the crisis of the look”. So what remains? Or, in other words, in what manner can images, or certain images, survive this crisis? A simple argument, frequently used in this debate, is the argument on the idea of the “strong image”. But, in this context, what is now a “strong image”? My quest is only to ask if, from the point of view of my own practice of photography, and the practice of photography in general, and given the classical definition of Photography as “the act of killing time”, would it be plausible to pass this idea to an installation, in the sense of “an action”. This “act” presupposes the existence of an effective relation between an image and its site specific reading – the space of the installation – a “combat mode” relationship, of a fair challenge between the one lending his eyes to the possibility of another look. Or, alternately, to a look as a vehicle of reflection and thought. For me, this “combat-challenge” is an attempt to, by means of such relation, overcome the “crisis of the look” or, at least, it matches my desire to leave it outside this crisis. Even if it is a paradox, I call “contamination” to the appeal to a mode of survival that is motivated by the experience of thought as a look “over a time that has already lived through its end.”
Sofia: Where you speak of “an action”, I speak of “a doing”, let me explain: in Kant’s Critique of Judgement, he distinguishes between agree and facere, explaining that “to do” is related to the artistic practice – it entails intention and finality; while “to act” relates to nature – a natural effect, with no intention. It seems to me that what you purpose is based on your intentions and ability to act, the spectator is able to do more than contemplate. But in such a context, where through installation you are setting an atmosphere that guides the experience of the spectator, what relevance do the images presented really have?
Isaac: I understand and respect the kantian stand, but here I do not make any distinction between the resolute nature of the categories. Nowadays, the concepts are expanding and acquiring different meanings and in the rhetoric of the aesthetic discourse, “to do-to act” is not that opposed to “to act-to do”.
Let me just add a final consideration about the idea of “contamination” because it pertains to your question. During the creative process, I wanted to embrace that idea in the editing process. I don’t know the exact number, but I must have gone through over 10 thousand negatives, some long forgotten. During that revisitation some images grabbed my thoughts but some failed to have that energy. So I started to separate them. It was like I was looking at something for the first time, something that had already lost the seal of ownership and was free from me. I then decided that in some way this idea should come through in the installation and that the images, though from different times and spaces, should “look at each other”. I thought that contamination, exposed through the installation, should give the spectator the opportunity “to act”. At the same time, I showed the final edition to a couple of creators – a music composer and a filmmaker – and asked them to create their own works parting from that body of images. This idea then culminates with a request to the visitor: that he/she chooses three of his/her photographs – which he/she thinks dialogue with what he/she saw – and “lend” them to this project in order for them to be edited and placed in the installation space where there’s a wall with 25 empty wooden boxes, the end place for the images that will be “lend” and chosen by those visitors wanting to associate with the exhibition.
Now in terms of your question. The relevance of the images chosen for the exhibition is that of having been chosen with the limits I set for myself. During the creative process, I decided these were more connected with the nature of this exhibition and with whom I am as a photographer, but what interests me is that these images are not definitive, they can disappear and be replaced by others. In fact, in a way this can be noticed in the installation. I was interested in some images that had to be left out precisely because they dialogue with each other and with the overall idea of the work. The idea of a work enclosed on itself is frightening. Between a void and an aura, there is a never ending field of action. More than the possibility to look at each of the images in this installation, the spectator has the choice not to see all of them and to interact with them.
Sofia: Meaning, it isn’t the photographs, those photographs, that make the exhibition, but the autonomy you are choosing to give to the work exhibited, in order for it to remain open, in an internal and external dialogue. You call for a very strong image, that of seeing the work being set free from the father, which makes me think of two, somehow conflicting, ideas: firstly, the “death of the author”, given you are suggesting to erase intentions of property and authority and hand in the autonomy to the artwork; on the other side, there is a kind of obsessive control over the format and the selective power, even if the interaction between the spectator and the work can be dynamic. Do you really think that opening the range of possibilities to the spectator will allow him/her an experience that is more suitable for the subject?
Isaac: I wouldn’t go that far. The photographs make the exhibition, but not only them. I would say what makes the exhibition is the relation, full of possibilities, people establish with the images that are integrated in the physiognomy of the space. What I suggest is not really an “effacement” of the author – because the trace is there – but an extension of the way I experienced the installation in the autonomy of the other, given his/her choice not to look at some of the images and appropriate them as a selective, exercise of memory. The possibility to overlook some images and through a range of options establishes new relations. The spectator’s reactions tend to highlight that aspect, meaning: although I’m aware that I am the one who created the images, that is as an original selection and pre-set format. In the end it is very interesting to see the experience of the spectator being able to explore other meanings in his/her relation to the work. My proposal is to further investigate otherness. The door is slightly opened to an interactive proposal that goes beyond a deferred act of looking that is imposed by the totality of the visible.
Sofia: I was trying to avoid making this reference and evoke other names in this conversation, but the way you describe this extension of the space of the author to the space of the spectator and your reflection on otherness make me think of Marina Abramovic’s latest performance in London, at the Serpentine Gallery, where I find that by insisting on the opening of the field of possibilities she is actually imposing control over such field of experiences. I’m not saying your example is the same, what I question is if, instead of offering the world to the spectator, the interactive nature of a work is not a practice that ends up constraining the freedom of the spectator’s aesthetic experience. How are people reacting to your exhibition?
Isaac: My main concern is not to obtain a certain reaction, in that sense I can agree there would be some kind of control force involved. My quest is for the opening of the spectator’s field of action, presenting him/her with a proposition that stands between “yes”, or “no” or a “maybe”. I’m more interested in that “maybe” because, as I’ve said before, it gives the spectator “time and space” to act. This “maybe” or, if you will, I insist, the possibility to find different paths parting from mine, is the way I try to “offer the world” to the spectator (to quote your phrasing) liberating from the more conventional ways to look at an exhibition. In this sense, I confess, the reactions have been surprising. People ask questions such as: How does one see this exhibition? Which section do I start from? My response is that the order is arbitrary. I think this installation – that is accompanied by a “map” – urges, because of something I call “positive provocation”, to repeat the entering process, more than once and in a different way. Because this work has a different psychological time, people are free to start from different “endings” and stop at different “beginnings”. People say they need to come again one more time, preferably on their own, which I think is symptomatic and at the same time gratifying.
Sofia: Some time ago, we exchanged some words about our frustration with the way people are creating and showing art. I was pleasantly surprised by this exhibition, precisely because it proposes something new and you didn’t confine yourself to installing a bunch of photographs on the wall hoping someone can make a more or less linear understanding of them. What was the moment that triggered this exhibition?
Isaac: I’ve been thinking about what Photography means today and what is its role in our contemporary society, a reflection I hope to further develop. I’ve been thinking seriously on my work, or about what it could be. You and me, every one of us, we see lots of things. In museums, galleries, virtual sites. I feel that, in some way, our eyes are tired. Tired of looking, tired of the “photographable”. I only think everything is photographable from the moment the “photographable” wins over the weariness of looking, from the moment there is “a way of looking”. I counteracted the way of looking with “a way to make visible”, because although I’m sure about what this set of images “say”, the look of the other does not necessarily imply the same “references” and the same care, particularly because the images exhibited allude to other significances beyond their apparent meaning. But, today, as a creator, this is not satisfying enough. The excess of the visible has in itself an excess of light that obscures. Maybe, this is what you were previously referring to as “the obsessive control of the format”. I wanted to protect this body of images from that linear reading, from that excess of the visible. I thought, I assume that “yes, I want, wish for people to see this work”; but in order to achieve this, I had to assume a personal rupture with the way I’ve been choosing to make things visible. I think this is the role of the form in Tree. From the conception of the space to the organization and presentation of the images, going through the boxes where people leave their feedback in the form of a word, to the lightning design itself. I wanted that, in the end, people could retain a memory of the way they experienced the exhibition. Altogether, these aspects culminated in a call for intimacy in the experience of the exhibition, and that is the moment you call “the trigger”.
Sofia: That idea of an “intimacy in the experience of the exhibition” is, by itself, an impossible premise when we’re dealing with photography. It seems to me that you are going through a process of reflection that is common to those who mature with photography, for it becomes inevitable to think about the medium, even if the value of auto-referential art is tendentiously instrumental.
With this exhibition you called for the participation of the public, for them to send photographs with which you would then make a new Tree with universal associations. Is that it? I couldn’t help but notice that you mention notions usually assigned to authorship, using words such as “property”, “signature” and “author”. Where does the need for that rhetoric come from?
Isaac: I don’t agree that the fruition of an intimate time with an object such as this exhibition is an impossibility. I’d never thought about what maturing with photography could be. In any case, yes, there will always be a place for a reflection upon the medium that I find important and necessary.
Yes, I’m inviting people to send me photographs that are their property, to work upon them. It’s not a call for photographers, but a shout out for everyone who owns photographs. My proposal is to challenge the readers of these images to locate in them traces of their subjectivity. And after finding those traces, they go to search in their own archive – it looks to me as if today, everyone owns a photographic archive, even if unconsciously – an image that appeals to that relation.
The images within this exhibition don’t demand an enclosed and objective reading. The premise for the invitation is that people authorize me to work on those images, in case I feel the need. The end result will be an open session for the installation of the images received – at least 25 –, in the physical space of the exhibition. I’m asking people to think about the images in terms of memory and their biography. Once again, I associate this idea with the notion of “contamination” we were talking about earlier. On the other hand, when I speak of propriety, authorship, signature, that is not fundamental. I don’t hold that question in terms of a rhetoric on photography. It’s solely a way to say that even the vagrant is left about in the desert for a reason. Someone left it there. And that has a story that I’m interested in. Suddenly, I thought it could be interesting to unite the brunches, those personal stories, to the same trunk, to this tree of Photography, infinite and immense, and see how a dialogue between things coming from such different places and experiences, could work in itself and with me. I’ve already received some images and the results are surprising.
Sofia: I see the idea of this tree as a kind of otherness within you, I mean, the part of the “collective identity” that participates in your “individual identity”. When I speak of the impossibility of an intimate experience in a photography exhibition is not in relation to your show but in general, because it’s my opinion that photography more rapidly deviates than brings closer: it is part of the universe of representation, it is plain and rarely does it survive by appealing to any other sense than the visual one, even if it has a very unique potential to evoke memories. After this collective experience of reuniting stories and the exhibition is over, is there any project in mind?
Isaac: A cultural sociologist, whom I’m very fond of, McLuhan, talks about Photography as being a hot medium. To my knowledge, some contemporary art critique that is less prone to reflect on contemporary Culture, tend to overlook, as I see it unfairly, his thoughts about the media, although McLuhan has only dedicated a small part of his reflection to Photography as a medium. In any way, I still find it his thoughts on the media as an extension of the body relevant, although he only focuses on his “socially structuring” character. I mention this because you referred to as characteristic of Photography. In his book “Understanding Media”, McLuhan defends that Photography is a “hot medium” because it “extends a singular sense and in high definition”, understanding “high definition” as a “state of high saturation of data”. This author says that “visually, a photography is distinguished by its high definition”. I am particularly interested in this issue. It’s worth to notice that the “state of the medium” is not definitive and can be “overheated” or “cooled down”, depending if we’re facing a “hot culture” or a “cold” one. It’s a discussion worth developing.
Some days ago, while visiting the space of the installation, someone was telling me that this exhibition is “a provocation”. I responded that I agreed. In my opinion, what is happening in the Photography domain is an overheating that is maybe tending to a cold cycle. It’s an open question. But here I find a connection with our conversation at the beginning about the need to “retain the look”, very much because of that “data saturation”. I wanted a composer to work on a music score based on the images – music may be a cold medium – in order to make way for that synesthetic experience. We can argue about all of this and that is why I find a need for a necessary discussion. But, of course, further ahead when he refers to Photography as a “Brothel with no Walls”, McLuhan says that “no one can enjoy a photograph on its one” and that the work “The Balcony” by Jean Genet was inspired by Photography. For all we’ve talked about, this is where my provocation, a positive provocation, comes in, because there is a space and time, or it could be, for in a first encounter to enjoy a photograph in solitude, with all that it implies.
I would like to take this work to Portugal and to other places in Asia. To be able to work on this idea and develop it. I don’t think the process is over. I will read and reflect upon the words left behind and the images that were given to me and work on that material, on their stories. Maybe the result will be a “Ode-Manifest-to-Photography”. Perhaps, it will be possible to develop this work in the form of a book. For now, no new exhibitions. Probably in two or three years. I feel the need to look at it again, after some months of absence.
Sofia: I agree this work is provocative, but fortunately that’s not the reason it was born, lives or breaths. And even if some of my questions may reveal my pessimism towards the process of interaction in art, I feel that your questioning can only potentiate change.
Thank you very much for being so prompt and for your patience in accounting for your creative process.
All the best to you Isaac.