Visual art exhibitions and events with a platform for critical writing
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By: Margareta Kern
This blog tracks the development of my residency with the University of Bath's Department of Social Science and the Institute of Contemporary Interdisciplinary Arts, March-June 2010. I will explore work, labour, particularly focusing on intersections between artistic and sociological/anthropological work and the relationships of host and guest (artist/subject;participant/observer; researcher/researched). Gallery space and the University will be sites of process, engagement and collaboration for me - a working GUEST...
# 10 [8 May 2010]
"Photography between Labour and Capital"
excerpt from the essay by Allan Sekula, in Photography/Politics Two, pub 1986
"Why stress these economic realities at the outset, as if to flaunt the 'crude thinking' often called for by Bertolt Brecht? Surely our understandings of these photographs cannot be reduced to a knowledge of economic conditions. This latter knowledge is necessary but insufficient; we also need to grasp the way in which photography constructs an imaginary world and passes it off as reality. The aim of this essay, then, is to try to understand something of the relationship between photographic culture and economic life. How does photography serve to legitimate and normalise existing power relationships? How does it serve as the voice of authority, while simultaneously claiming to constitute a token of exchange between equal partners? What havens and temporary escapes from the realms of necessity are provided by photographic means? What resistances are encouraged and strengthened? How is historical and social memory preserved, transformed, restricted and obliterated by photographs? What futures are promised; what futures are forgotten? In the broadest sense, these questions concern the ways in which photography constructs an imaginary economy."
# 9 [1 May 2010]
CLOTHES FOR THE JOB
Love the flying suit designs...
All from the book "Clothes for the Job" which was published by the Science Museum, 1985. The clothes is in their archive collection, which I hope to visit soon...
Just got hold of Allan Sekula's 'Performance under Working Conditions', and there is so much in there that connects to my residency project - theatricality, performative and photography... and the place of the socio-political in relations to those, so pleased to have it come my way...
# 8 [30 April 2010]
impossebility of telling...
I wanted to write more, so much more, but my temporary job has been so non-stop that I feel like a zip file, all packed full of information, impressions, encounters, thoughts, notes, images...it wil take some time to decompress it all...and find words that make sense of the whole experience...
But should the words do that?
Leah Wild, sociologist I interviewed, and whose lectures 'Sociology of the Body' I enjoyed immensly (I hope to post excerpts from our interview here at a later date) said that language is not adequate to describe the fragmented experiences of our lives as through language we try to explain, make sense, and follow its own logic. While I agree that language imposes its own rules and regs, (Foucault, and semiotics and post-structuralists sprint through mind at high speed) I also wonder how to use words, eg in the blogging style of writing, to translate-process-create stories, of our artistic practices. Also, feel more and more that it is in this tension of 'making sense' that my artistic labour lies. What has the residency been about beyond the immediate concern with work and labour? Can it be told yet? How to tell it?
The fragments - the instances - the moments of encounter - short relationships - spaces shared, exchanged - access to all areas - this is not North nor is it West - I have been working for 10 years - hand shake - hierarchies - structures - routines - access to all areas - labour valued and labour under valued - educated guest - educated guess - chance - event - knowledge - knowledge - knowledge - action, change, impact - comitment - political position - value - retribution - experimentation - performance - corridors - photography - economy of value - ethnography of value - making sense - making a living - living in making - the visible - the invisible - the told - the untold.............................................................................................................................................................................................................................
# 7 [10 April 2010]
I was just alerted to a wonderful series of photographs by Irving Penn called 'Small Trades', which were on show at the Getty Centre, New York, January this year.
I really like the performative in these images, the way their working clothes become costumes, and their tools their props, while they 'act out' their profession.
His portrait photographs, but unfortunately not this series are currently on at the London National Portrait Gallery, until 6 June 2010...
As per Getty site: "Working in Paris, London, and New York in the early 1950s, photographer Irving Penn (American, 1917–2009) created masterful representations of skilled tradespeople dressed in work clothes and carrying the tools of their occupations. A neutral backdrop and natural light provided the stage on which his subjects could present themselves with dignity and pride." More info and images on http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/penn/index.ht...
And Getty Centre has just had an exhibition titled In Focus: The Worker presenting a photographic history of working people across many cultures. http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/focus_worker/...From the info on their site, it does though seem to be still rather focused on depicting workers in a traditional sense of a word, manual workers, who have been a much photographed subject in the history of photography - makes me wonder if that is because the painting in its history has largely depicted the aristocracy and a privileged class. Been given an interesting book recently, which was published as part of an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery a few years ago, "Below Stairs", about 400 years of painting depicting servants - will post couple of images that I like from that book soon, as I particularly like those where the servants fell asleep, and this sleep could be construed as a form of protest, though I know that in fact it depicted exhaustion. But, it did make me fantasise what would happen if workers simply fell asleep at their work place... http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/exhibitions/below-st...
# 6 [7 April 2010]
RESEARCH IMAGES OF WORKERS IN BOOKS & ARCHIVES - PART 2 Collective portraits
I was particularly struck by the formal portraits of teams of workers - looking at their expressions, and the order of who stands where - does this order reflect the hierarchical structures each work place has? (even in the open plan offices, which are meant to hint at some sort of flat power structure, I think in many cases just mask true neo-liberal capitalist motivations...)
Some time ago I found archival photographs of shop keepers in Hackney, and I like that they have a sense of the occasion, when workers have to stop working and come out of the workplace to be photographed.
The first 2 images are from a book written by Volvo's then president, published in the 1970s. It being 70s the assertions in the book such as 'women are equal members of team' etc, show self-conscious assertions how women are equal and important, at the same time as the photographs of them at work looking lots more eroticised then men's ones... (the images in the previous post).
The last image I took is from an exhibition of archive photographs in Novi Travnik - a place which holds interest for me due to family connections, and its factory built by Tito in socialist Yugoslavia in the 1950's making weapons for export, mostly to Iraq and Kuwait. My grandfather worked there for a few years before moving to Germany as a migrant labourer or 'guest worker'. It's uncanny how it all connects... This image shows workers of the factory probably celebrating a state national day, gathered together under the sign 'Zemlja se voli, onoliko i koliko se radi!' The land is loved, as much as how hard its people work.' In the socialist context the connection was highlighted between loving the country and working hard while in the capitalist it was the teams working together in a good and fair place of work, promoting fairness and hapiness though being part of a wholesome working 'culture'. Both are promotional, the Volvo book more so as the photographs were taken particularly for that purpose...
The book was kindly lent to me by Peter Cressey, sociologist at the University of Bath, and we've had many intersting chats about 'industrial relations turning into human reseources', the language of 'managing labour' and the links between Universities and employment...
# 5 [7 April 2010]
RESEARCH IMAGES OF WORKERS IN BOOKS PART 1
A collection of some of the research images from books on workers, industrial relations, labour, globalisation...
# 4 [7 April 2010]
...on the way to work I noticed that a morning sun has melted frost on the grass, where the building opposite no longer cast its shadow.
the shadow moved by the sun.
I leave my shadow on the landscape... on the way to work...
# 3 [24 March 2010]
CLOTHES FOR THE JOB
Today was 10th day of my temporary job, though it feels like more time then that has passed. Maybe this sense of having been here longer is there because I have stretched it out to 3 days a week, and so this is my 4th week. It has been an interesting process of being part-time away, as I still go back ‘home’ and have a chance to reflect on what has happened during the time at the University of Bath. These comings and goings have given me valuable spaces, so that I can emerge myself fully into the new environment and then pull back and re-group my thoughts, impressions…
I wear a specially made ‘workwear’ to my new job, which was sewn by my mother. I drew a quick sketch of how it would look then gave her the drawing, and from that she made a pattern and then the suit (in fact to my delight she made two identical ones). She runs a made-to-measure sewing business from her home in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and I have worked with her in the past on the projects Graduation Dresses http://www.margaretakern.com/projects/GraduationDr... and Radionica http://www.margaretakern.com/projects/radionica.htm.
The suit started off as a boiler worker suit, though my mother made it a lot more elegant, which has given it a more indeterminate look and I am pleased about that turn.
I have made my own logo and a label for the suit.
It is completely white, like a blank canvas.
In the morning, I put on my work suit, like it is a layer of me that I am pulling on.
The changes in me are subtle, I know that I am going to a particular place, and a specific actions will take place. I am going to work. I am going to be in public, seen and noticed more then I usually am. The whiteness of the suit in a strange sort of way makes it more noticeable.
I think of the ‘high vis’ jackets and how it in fact makes those workers even more invisible – remembering that wonderful project of Stephen Gill who photographed the workers http://www.stephengill.co.uk/portfolio/portfolio#id=album-30&num=content-674.
I go to lectures and sit in class with other students, who are dressed casually, though again even their clothes could be argued is uniformed on some level. We are all unformed from one point of view. But, some are more then others – and across the University those who are uniformed are: cleaners, caterers, security guards, lab technicians, builders, sports people and me (I might have missed some workers, so hope to expand my list!).
Whilst my new work uniform takes away the dilemma of what to wear in the morning, I am beginning to miss wearing colourful clothes (have noticed that in the time I am not at my ‘guest’ job, I tend to go all colours of the rainbow).
People look at me when I enter library, class rooms, coffee shops, I get looks which pretend not to be looks, quick glances, sideway glances, unable to locate me, curiosity about who I am, where did I just come from, what is my role here...
And in my new job I play many roles and in this performance I am highly visible, the environment observes me observing them. The looks are circular… and even placing each other into the categories is circular… In a way my blank sheet suit provides a more ambiguous space where it’s harder to pinpoint who I am, except that I am a GUEST.
My appearances in the suit though have been only one part of my performative action - I have spent a large amount of time speaking to people, engaging in interesting discussions, which I plan to include and reflect on here bit later on... It has been a rather complex intervention thus far, I am not entirely sure I can grasp all its meanings yet...
The suit, when not worn, hangs in the gallery space – when worn, the space where it hung casts a shadow with words stencilled in ‘the artist is at work’.
# 2 [22 March 2010]
Introducing the GUEST (part 2)
These are just some thoughts behind the creation of a character, another persona, that of a GUEST for my temporary job as an ‘artist in residence’ with the University of Bath's Institute of Contemporary Interdisciplinary Arts, and the department of Social and Policy Science.
The residency has been born out of a previous, and now on-going project, on the ‘guest workers’ in Berlin. Last year, 2009, I spent 2 months as an artist-in-residence in Berlin, where I researched and interviewed the ‘guest workers’ who came to Berlin in the late 1960s from the former Yugoslavia (and many other countries like Turkey, Italy, Portugal etc). I focused on the women ‘guest workers’ as I discovered that they formed the majority of workers on the large factory assembly lines of the West Berlin’s electronic and telecom companies such as AEG Telefunken, Osram, Siemens etc. This conflicted with the predominantly male image of the migrant worker in the national narratives and imagery, of both countries Germany and the former Yugoslav countries.
Whilst visiting the ‘guest worker’ women in their homes, for the first time, and as a total stranger (winning trust due to shared cultural background, and also desire on their part to tell their story, which up until I visited them has not been told, the reason for which are complex and to do with the marginalised position of these guest workers during socialism), issues of the ethics and the political positioning and commitment of the artist as ethnographer and historian, grew more important.
I reflected briefly on those in my presentation at the Tate Britain’s conference recently http://www.borderlineproject.org.uk/ and on my guest workers blog http://guestworkerberlin.blogspot.com/, but I also feel that I have only just scratched the surface. In a way my residency in Bath is on one level an attempt to address those questions, by embracing the residency as a mirror of that process - the ‘hyper visible’ GUEST, rather then assimilatory artist-ethnographer and an attempt to reflexively scrutinise processes of collaboration and participation.
Bit more background info on the residency can be found on ICIA's page:
# 1 [22 March 2010]
Introducing the GUEST (part 1)
A trouble of not writing the blog from the first day of my job is that I have accumulated so many notes and thoughts that the very burden of them prevents me from starting to write. Paradox, hey!?
The inherent paradox of writing a Blog, on the other hand, (which I reflected on in my previous writings on the project Clothes for Death http://www.a-n.co.uk/artists_talking/projects/sing...), is that it is a public space for what usually are quite private and sensitive insights and how to negotiate these spaces in myself, inner-outer, private-public, what do I want to share and in what way?
I’ve been also pondering about the constructed nature of blogging, and its relationship to ‘documentary’ modes of images making – I see the parallel where both on the surface seem ‘naturalistic’ and spontaneous, but in fact, like everything else are edited, constructed and on one level fictional. It is the fictional that has been intriguing me more and more, in relation to my practice and to the practice of anthropologists/sociologists/ ethnographers (hope they don’t mind me bracketing them so closely). I recall a conversation with an anthropologist, who told me that when he is doing ‘fieldwork’ he almost becomes another person, more outgoing, listening intently to what others are saying.
I can relate to that space and the persona one adopts, as in some of my work I directly engage with people, either to photograph or interview them. This 'guest' space has allowed me to adopt an inner new position, and from this new space, listen more intently. It is as if I park my usual everyday self, with its insistence on self-referencing aside, in order to truly hear this person, for who and what they are, without ‘me’ in the way. Working for example with my mother and grandmother, on some of my previous project, this positioning created a space for listening them and allowing them to be who they are, in a way pausing the learnt reactions, accumulated from the past. Perhaps, it is a way of pausing time, the past, and letting the present in.
It may sound deceptively easy when written like this, but the boundary of the ‘ethnographer’ self, ‘artist’ self, and all the other ones, ‘daughter’, etc, are fluid, and in constant negotiation. It is these negotiations of power, (mis)understandings, language, translation, and ultimetly representation, that I am interested in.
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I am a London-based artist using photography, video and performance to tease out connecting threads between personal spaces, narratives and socio-political forces.