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The inhabited image – Workshop at ISSP Latvia 2016

Nov 05, 2016 - Federico Clavarino

»The inhabited Image« took place in Pelçi, Latvia, in August 2016, within the context of the ISSP Summer School program.

The workshop was an excuse for me to gather a bulk of thoughts about photography, flanêurism, and inhabited space, that have been part of my research over the past few years, and organise them into a structured whole I could then use as a map through which to introduce participants to these topics.

The idea was to propose a series of four short lectures, one every day, that would revolve around the theme of flanêurism. Each lecture would address a specific topic, which would be the starting point for a practical exploration. We called them “assignments”, but they were in fact just provocations, a set of limitations that were there to be explored, challenged, or even ignored. They would, in any case, be something to start from. Paradoxically, we often feel more free when we have to act within a series of limitations, as we are forced to become more creative.

Every day we would go through the results of our practical explorations, talk about them, see some more theory, and go out to work on a new assignment. We had a lot of points to start from but no real objective. Photography was used as a tool the participants used to think with.

I also decided that I would try to keep the didactics as horizontal as possible. I was acting as a guide, and I would impose a series of boundaries, but we were all aware that it was a pantomime, nothing more than a practical necessity: the participants were effectively in charge, they would shape the workshop through their work, they would propose changes in the structure of the daily routine, and every decision over the final exhibition was collectively voted.

The work had to be a group effort, and participants would share their individual experience but then renounce the authorship of the final results. The exhibition was meant to be an illustration of the process, and not a way for each participant to show off their individual work.

The first part of workshop (Walkscapes) was mainly about walking and about landscape as a cultural product. The lecture was a little history of cultural practices linked to the activity of walking. We started from cave paintings and ended up talking about contemporary artists like Richard Long or Robert Smithson. The practical assignment was a rural take on a Situationist Dérive. Participants had to experience the landscape by drifting into it, and use their cameras to make the process visible.

The results were wonderfully heterogenous. I remember this picture Rute Jansone took of a landscape containing someone looking at a landscape, a meta-landscape of some sort. Ignacio Fanti drew a map of what he perceived to be the road that took him to a particular spot in the forest, hung it on the branch of a tree, and photographed it. The picture was this odd object which mixed different ways of relating to space and place. Simon Brugner placed a screen capture indicating his position on his mobile’s maps application next to a photograph of his hand smeared in berries: two radically different ways of representing the experience of one particular place. Claudia den Boer focussed on openings and wounds within the landscape. She would use these dark areas to suck the viewer into the images. Andrea Grützner found monuments in the woods, visual anchors that would articulate the space around them, menhirs of some sort.

The second lecture (Species of Spaces) addressed the ideas of maps and borders. It was about how we construct space by dividing it. We spoke about barriers, distance, flatness, equivalence. We asked ourselves how it is we experience space and what the space inside a photograph is, but above all about how these two things relate to each other. This time, the participants had to try to challenge the barriers they found while walking. They had to try to rub themselves against the lines, both visible and invisible.

Andrea Grützner’s exploration started by enclosing a particular portion of Pelçi castle’s gardens, by using part of the gravel from a path. The resulting area, once photographed, took on the shape of a snail. Snails were the leitmotif of Andrea’s following experiments. She built a paper structure for them to slither across, then photographed its section and its transparency: the frailness of the boundaries she was setting. Andrea then placed a snail on the little path she had created and followed it along that thin line, photographing each slight movement of her bare feet and assembling the frames in stop-motion. This was later made into a flip book for the exhibition. Nathalie Vissers blindfolded herself and played with the limits of her perception, as well as those of the photograph’s frame itself. There was also a beautiful photograph Ana Lía Orezzoli took of a wooden frame with a red brick wall behind it that played with the idea of photographic space in a very interesting way. Arimasa Fukukawa used his own body as a space ants could move across, testing its surface while it moved and the edges of that tiny world constantly shifted. Claudia den Boer played with distance and montage in order to create a lake out of the edges of a puddle.

Part three (People are Strange) delved into the spaces that exists between individuals, that “fear of being touched” Canetti wrote about in his famous essay on crowds. We talked about strangers, neighbours and random encounters, and about photography as a tool to both reduce and produce distance. We saw examples that went from classical street photography to portraiture and performance. “The stranger” was the starting point for the next assignment, and as usual participants managed to address the topic in interestingly diverse ways.

Arianna Angeloni centred her work on people living and working around the castle and on the places they inhabit. Her photographs are of the type that make the use of the word “beauty” unavoidable. She mixed portraiture with photographs of places, everyday details, notes written by the people she met, and drawings she made herself. Grace Gelder approached a woman called Agatha, and asked her if she could wear her traditional outfit, literally stepping into her shoes. The process created a human exchange that wouldn’t have taken place without the excuse of staging a photograph. Marco Frauchiger realized he was the stranger in Kuldiga, and decided to turn the camera towards himself, making self-portraits in local bars and stores, in which part of his control on the image was surrendered. Constanze Flamme produced a beautiful book, the result of an experiment of hers in which she would ask people to embrace in the street. The photographs she took broke the act of embracing into pictorial fragments that would draw attention both to their gestures and to the space between their bodies.

The last chapter of the workshop (Hauntings), was mainly about places, as opposed to spaces. It had to do with how memory shape places, but also with haunted images and historical refuse. We talked about poetry, Walter Benjamin’s concept of history, Bachelard’s poetics of space, the photographs of Atget, Michael Schmidt and Takuma Nakahira, the films of Andrei Tarkovsky and Michelangelo Antonioni. This time, the task was that of inhabiting a place for as much as one could. Participants just had to pick a spot they liked and stay there.

There is an image Claudia den Boer made that is very special. It’s an underexposed photograph of leaves, taken deep in the nearby forest. Her eyes, with time, would adapt to the low lighting and she could see more and more, but the camera could not. This very simple fact is conveyed in the image through digital noise and chromatic aberration. Words fall short of Ana Lía Orezzoli’s very poetic and softly lit images of Pelçi’s schools surroundings. Ignacio Fanti chose a very reduced space in the school’s basement, where boredom drove his restless spirit to play with an object he found there, a mat of some sort; he would throw it in the air and take pictures of it, bringing it to life into unpredictable shapes. One of the most interesting events of the week got to its conclusion during this last assignment. We refer to it as the “hole story”. The story goes that on the second day Simon Brugner dug a hole in the ground as long as his arm could reach, as part of that day’s assignment. He photographed the hole and the mound of earth he had dug up, equivalent to his arm’s length. The thing became more interesting when on the fourth day Arimasa Fukukawa stumbled across the hole, sat down next to it, and started interacting with it, at first just by contemplating it, then by filling it with water and finally by covering it up again with earth and planting a flower where the hole once was. Simon Brugner secretly spied on all of Arimasa’s tributes to the sacred spot he had created, and documented it photographically. They ended up using a local xerox machine to make a zine with these pictures.

The material gathered during our four explorations was then edited collectively for the exhibition. We decided we would use the chronological structure of the exercises as a guideline for the layout, from left to right. We visited the exhibit venue and used small prints to decide what went where, then made a small maquette back in the classroom and used even smaller prints with different sizes to get to a final design. The photographs were printed accordingly during the night. The show also included Andrea Grützner’s flip book, the “hole story” zine, Constanze Flamme’s book, and a video by Ignacio Fanti. The following day we used A3 sheets of paper to verify the sizes and positions of the prints, and went on to mount the exhibition.

We also worked on a video that was projected later that night, and that documents part of the process. We thought it was going to be the best way of communicating our collective effort, rather than showing slideshows of individual work. As everything else that took place during the workshop, it is the result of drifting with some kind of purposeful randomness, this time through the files of a computer, through all of the documents that we had collected during the week, like rags scattered along the edge of streets.