Curriculum Vitae

Interview with badatsports (transcript).

Episode 136: Ampersand International
About Lying to Curators and Strange Effects of Silence.

Brian Andrews [BA] and Marc Leblanc [ML], San Francisco correspondents of (contemporary art talk) went down to Ampersand International Arts to check out the show How Fast is your World Changing. They talk with curator/artist Lori Gordon [LG] as well as participating artists Hope Hilton [HH] and Markuz Wernli Saito [MWS] and gallery owner Bruno Mauro [BM].

photosSound file (53MB)

Excerpt and transcript from interview recorded at ampersand international arts on March 25, 2008 where Returning The Negatives was part of a group exhibition. Broadcast at badatsports on April 6, 2008.

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contemporary art talk

BA: Isn't Markuz a lier? Maybe we need to talk about his fundamental dishonesty here. And maybe weather or not that actually precludes you from being a good earthling... or if honesty doesn't really matter on that.

LG: Lier...!?

ML: Maybe we should just introduce the piece here. The sort of ethically dubious nature of your photographic activities in Vietnam.

MWS: Yes, this is the lier here. Until last year I lived for five years in Japan. Quiet a Buddhist country. So I got familiar with the concept of the buddhist form of lying... now what is that about? Buddhism is really different from Christianity in that there is a way for the lie, it has a place. It's not just doomed, it's not just a sin per se. Not that it is in any way endorsed but there is in cases where you want to preserve relationships a responsible lie has its place. This is the starting point of my installation here [at ampersand gallery] where I put up an enlarge letter and where I confess that I lie: I lied to the curator in Saigon where I did a residency last year for almost two months in October and November. I was invited and initiated a participatory photography project.


Coffee and tea farmers in southern Vietnam participated in an unusual game...

My background is in photography as well; we have a good round of photographers here [at the exhibition]. I got really into photography while living in Japan and I noticed that often what's happening behind the camera is much more interesting – to me at least – than what's in front of the lens. Connecting to the environment, connecting to people around you can be really decisive in getting a good shot. In gaining a certain trust. There is this certain awareness that whenever you take a photograph – at least in public space, outside the studio – you are a kind of performer [and not only a photographer]. So there is something performative in me. Anyway, I started increasingly to use photography [as a tool] to do instigations and interventions in public space. I realized that I am really interested in building relationships or establishing connections that didn't exist before. It is about instigating unlikely relationships. That's what I tried to do [as well] in Vietnam. You got imagine that you are invited as an artist into this residency and you find yourself in a small town - where they grow coffee and tea mainly. And what do you do as a foreign artist? It was supposed to be a community-based art and cultural project and so I decided to do a very simple activity. I wanted to reach out and I wanted to work with local people I don't know. Encounters on the street, people I met on the market, in the coffee shop. So we distributed a total of 60 disposable single-use cameras and we decided to work with 15 local participants...


...and took photographs and notes six time a day.

Of course there were some issues with the participants. We met this 16-year old boy. He stood in front of his house and in fact he was encouraged by his three sisters and his mom to participate in the project. They were really psyched about it. But the boy was more on the hesitant and shy side. Eventually he agreed and took the camera and he started to enjoy it. The week after when we were supposed to meet him again we were not able to talk to him at all because his father came in between. His father got really suspicious about the project and that maybe ties in with Jessica's installation where we have this word piece on war experiences in Vietnam. And suddenly I found myself confronted with history where the father was suspicious that we were spies. That I would be possible an American informant for some sort of an intelligence office and we were supposedly after his family... So it took us three weeks of talking to this boy's father to convince him that this is just a small benign art project. The last week it turns out that he gained total trust and the father took on the camera on himself and started shooting away with the camera.

After the four weeks into that project I invited them to join me to a small exhibition where the participants could choose what they wanted to show to the public. They could select out of their photographs – they took between 200 to 300 photographs each during these four weeks. This event was also the first time all participants met since they didn't know that they were part of the same project. The intrigue of it was that there was an opportunity for unexpected conversations where the participants shared their experiences of being part of something bigger than themselves. This worked out quiet well and was a slightly empowering aspect of this project [Shadow Followers].

But – and that ties now in with the show here at ampersand gallery – the framework of this residency was quiet problematic. Initially was totally excited to be invited to this residency despite the fact that it was self-funded. There were nine other artists participating. On the other hand the curator and artistic director was payed to organize this whole thing and to set everything up. For the final of event of this event we noticed that there was a DJ and caterers hired and it was a very high profile event backed up by a coffee-exporting coffee company which used this to spread goodwill among the coffee-growers. More and more coffee consumers pay attention to fair trade labels and start asking what is fair trade about. It is not about a fix price guarantee but it is maybe also about doing something for the community. That's where this event came into place and I realized that most of the funding went to the curator in Saigon and to certain suppliers to this cultural event but not to the participating artists who did a lot of legwork. The day before I left Vietnam I got suspicious when the curator in Saigon asked me for the photo negatives from my project that I kept to myself. Initially I wasn't sure what to do and no local participant asked me for it so I just held on to it. The curator was interested in the negatives and in the heat of the moment I knew no better reply that to say "well, I came them already back to my participants of course... I got nothing left except a few contact sheets..." So I left the curator with a certain disappointment since she had great plans to do a wonderful project catalog and website. But I didn't feel good about this kind of appropriation. I also didn't know what the company involved would do with this artistic material.

MD: Yes, I understand.

MWS: I felt used. Providing my time, providing my a concept but was not in the know what I really worked for. That's where the project starts in San Francisco. I decided to invite the gallery visitors to send the negatives back to the individual participants in Vietnam. The curator in Saigon will get a confirmation with signed contact sheets signed by the respectively gallery visitors ensuring there is a happy ending. Also confirming that I as an artist lied lied but are willing to make up for it. There is a deviant slant in this installation but since we formulated the letter politely it can make everybody involved think about the implications.

MD: So that's what we saw [on opening night] was viewers filling out this special form in order to mail negatives transnationally. Now that you have gone through a residency program like that and you felt when you were in it the very peculiar place that an artist is put in. How do you feel about it? Or would you do a residency program again?

MWS: You know I was thinking it would be nice if we could reverse the whole thing. If we could invite 15 Vietnamese people, bring them over here and ask them to document the life here, maybe of the Vietnamese community in San Francisco's Little Saigon...

MD: That's where I live!

MWS: So do I! So I ask myself isn't there a possibility to reverse the whole setup? This is what I am thinking these days about residencies of an outsider in a foreign community.

LG: Markuz, can you describe for the audience what they see at the installation, what the whole packet is? Can you explain and what they see on the wall and all of that?

MWS: My installation consists of mainly two parts: one is a quiet traditional display of 300 photographs, postcard-sized prints and I made basically a wall paper. The 300 photographs are divided into 15 columns, each for one participant who created them. So every photographer has 20 images on view and there is a short description on who these persons are so visitors can better relate to the life context of these individuals. The other part is a simple table with two chairs and there are shoe boxes containing envelope packs with negatives and a greeting card. Here I invite the visitors to chose a set of negatives/contact sheet that they like and sign the greeting card inside a pre-addressed and stamped envelope. They also sign the confirmation sheet on the contact sheet which are all collected over the duration of the exhibition and we ship those to the curator in Saigon. So she will be surprised later in May...

MD: Do you think that's gonna be her only reaction, being surprised, or...?

MWS: It is hard to say, I don't know. She hasn't been really responsive so far. Since I am not in direct contact with her anymore I suppose that through other people who know the two of us there will be some kind of response. Gallery visitors are invited to get onto my mailing list to get into that feedback loop and I will tell them what happens after the exhibition.

MD: Is this the first time you have done a project in this specific way? But perhaps not the first time you worked with a community and studying a kind of relational systems that can happen with the creation of art.

MWS: This kind of mail art thing is the first time that I do this.

BA: A lot of that narrative of why that sort of lie existed is not really advertised in the work and the letter. It is rather formal and that all what we get as the viewers. It feels more like... you don't have this economic history if anything, the economics and politics feel almost colonial in a way: that the outside artist comes in and not only take we their natural resources, we are taking their photographic resources now... But there is this sort of inversion that seems to be taking place. So for me it felt much more wrong, this kind of interpersonal kind of wronging that was done. Also when you look at the photographs, there is 300 photographs there, but I would say about 238 of them are people. So it is all these one on one relationships that you see over and over and over again in there...

MWS: Yes, and this is something really beautiful. In the beginning many of the participating local people were hesitant to photograph family members. It took them some time but they started to trust me and my interpreter that we don't abuse the photographs. They felt like sharing a good part of their lives which are the people around them. From our outside perspective you can see that social life in Vietnam seems to be very family-oriented and social ties appear to be much closer that over here. Houses have unlocked, open doors and neighbors wander freely around various houses. While we tend to live in seclusion they seem to have bigger social units especially in rural areas. That comes nicely through in the photographs.

BA: When they weren't taking photographs of their family what else would they photograph? To me it was amazing, you know, when you provide this ability to photograph to this community. It was almost only people, it wasn't the landscape, it wasn't this other elements of their lives. It was very much about documenting people...

MWS: I must admit though that here in the gallery we have a selection. A total of maybe 1500 photographs have been taken. And I took the right – and this is a certain appropriation on my part of course – since I am interested in people and relationships my tendency was to chose people's pictures. So it's subjective there.

BA: Excellent... Lori, what was your overall intention with this show?

LG: There is a cohesive string running through everything, that brings it all together. And it's very directly inviting the viewer in. This is not a passive show. You can come in here there is a lot for you to do and there is a lot for you to take away for yourself as well. And that is really what I wanted to. I wanted people to immerse themselves with this work and get involved with it: go on a walk, sing in a choir, send a letter to someone in Vietnam. That's going on. For me that's really precious. From that point of view it was a huge success. Maybe you guys want to say something to that?

MWS: For me the key work is conversation. This year leading up to this exhibition Lori and me were in an ongoing conversation. I wrote maybe two or three proposals because I kept on changing my concept because I could have a real dialog with Lori. I was able to file two months ago a whole new proposal because there was stuff happening and emotions I needed to address and to share. This conversation was possible before, during and hopefully after the show as well.

HH: It felt like we were all working together to make the show as simple to look at as possible while being really dynamic.

LG: Yes, and just to speak lastly to that Bruno has created ampersand as he calls it a lab: it is so much more than just an exhibition space. I mean this is a place where there is the opportunity and possibility for that flexibility, for that experimentation, for that discovery. Even in the moment maybe. That is rare as well.

BA: Maybe we should ask Bruno about that... This is Bruno Mauro from ampersand!

BM: Yeah, big deal... Well, I just feel I am privileged to be around with all you guys, so I am learning all the time. This very show I knew that Lori would somehow going to succeed because I was hoping she finds something healing and magical and she found the route for it.

ML: Thank you for listening to I want to thank Markuz, I want to thank Lori and I want to thank Hope and Bruno for sitting down with us today for talking about the show.

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