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I can go wherever I want

This text was written as a part of my masters degree from Malmö Konsthögskola, Johan Tirén.

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(I can go wherever I want.)

”Quant au soi-disant dispositif martial qu’on insaura sous l’instigation d’un grand niagaud à qui la garnison avait imparti tout pouvoir, il fut d’autant plus vain qu’il aggrava la situation.”

George Perec, La Disparition *1

I live on the fourth floor in Vårgatan 10b. The building where I rent a flat is joined to many other buildings, and together they form a pentagonal backyard. A tall concrete wall divides the yard, so that each separate building has its own small piece of the yard. The yards are closed to one another. Some of these small yards in the yard are very lavish, with plantations, trees and patios, while others are just asphalted. I never understood why they have divided the yard into these closed, smaller yards.

I sit in front of my computer and am supposed to write a text, a text that actually ought to have been over several years, when the work that it covers took place. Well, I haven’t written it earlier, or at least haven’t written it down before.

“‘Writing’ is given here to an entire structure of investigation, not merely to ‘writing in the narrow sense’, graphic notation on tangible material” *2

The text is an attempt at trying to present or go through my work, and my thoughts in connection to it. Occasionally I make digressions. These parentheses do not relate directly to my work, but I still hope that they say something about my view of art, and about the issues that I work with.

We leaf through a photograph album, look at pictures of what used to be. We try to inscribe the pictures in a story. We write a story with the pictures. We place the pictures in a context: people, years, places. How important is it that everything is correct? Was it in Stavsborg School? Yes, it seems so. There’s Lasse and Ronnie, Håkan, and a few of the girls, Anna-Karin, Petra. But the others, how come I forget their names so quickly? Didn’t they make a deeper impression on me? And Petra, was she really in my class, or is it just that she lived a few houses away, in the “green”, in Älta? An out-of-the-way corner of Nacka, a small nook between Tyresö and Stockholm. Älta with the terraced houses, middle-class and lower middle-class. A few kilometres from the high-rises in Stensö, where the school was, and the gravel pitch. Downtown Stensö with the high-rises, where Ronnie moved when his parents divorced. And on the outskirts, the villas, which would have fitted other parts of Nacka better. But the really well-to-do never lived in Älta – there are other places for them in Nacka: Duvnäs, Storängen, Saltsjöbaden.

Was it in 1930 or 1929? Was it in Hungary or Romania? Does it really matter? On the video, we can see hands that turn over pages in a photograph album. Two people comment, and me asking questions. The hands turn over the pages. “No, you don’t need to include this, you don’t have to film this.” The video camera, searching, a bit shaky, moves to the left, away from the photograph album. Films the table for a while. The tablecloth is white with a raised pattern. Plastic table mats on top with printed green leaf patterns. It almost looks like real dried leafs, such that we made in the junior levels in school. Pressed between the pages of the telephone directory and then enclosed in plastic. Preserved. Pictures are taken out from an orange cardboard box. Apparently it is a box for photographic paper. Or is it just me who add this piece of information because I know that it was an orange cardboard box for photographic paper? I know because it was lying in the bookcase in our house for a long time. New pictures, new comments, new attempts to get the story to make sense. Uncertainty. Disagreement. “No, something’s not right.” A short pause. “No, he can’t have died in 1912. M. wasn’t born yet then. The picture was taken in 1912, it says. He died in 1914.” I ask how he died. Those of you who have seen the video know that this is actually another scene, another life, earlier. “How did he die?” “Let’s not take that now. Let’s talk about it some other time.” In the end, there is not much more to say about the pictures. At least not now. What remains is to make notes, to write on the backs, what was decided: years, places, names. You can hear the pen, and in the background the sound of receding steps.

The video with the photograph album was part of my graduation exhibition, which dealt with aspects of historiography. What is history? How is a personal story written into a larger historical context? What is the place of a more subjective observer in relation to a more general historical account?

In the school edition of “Bonnier’s Swedish Dictionary”, with the subtitle, “Meaning, spelling, pronunciation, inflections”, the word historieskrivning (historiography) is not included. Instead we have to make do with the following explanation of the word historia (history/story):

Historia 1, (the narration of, the science of) what took place in the past, and the contexts of what took place. 2, story (or, joke), 3, event.

And the following explanation of the word skrivning (writing):

Skrivning to write.

But maybe it is in between the two explanations that art can have a function. Perhaps art has a place in the gap between “history” and “writing” in an incomplete dictionary.

At various occasions since 1999, I have interviewed my grandmother. My exam project takes its starting point in one of these interviews. My grandmother was born in Hungary in 1913. During the Second World War, she spent the years 1940–1944 in Finland together with my grandfather and their two children who were born in Helsinki.

In the video, which is the starting point of my exam project, she relates a few days in September 1944, when she flees from Finland, where she came from Hungary together with her husband and children. The story seems largely commonplace, and the flight is not described as dramatically as one would imagine. To a large extent the interview consists of a description of their journey, by car from Helsinki to Turku, further north to Rauma, then by fishing boat across the Baltic to Öregrund. The story is interrupted by more detailed descriptions, or memories, of events and experiences of the journey that the interview covers.

(Margit Miklos, born in 1913 in Hungary. For me she is grandma, or when I was a child, anyu. For a long time I thought that her name was Anyu, the same way as my name was Johan. Miklos comes from my grandfather. Now it strikes me that I have never tried to find out what her name was before she met grandfather. Her name is connected to him, to his name, Miklos. Anyu. Granny. Margit?)

In addition to the interview and the video with the presentation of the photographs, my exam project consists of a third video, which links the two first narratives to one another. The third video was shot on the sea between Finland and Sweden. It is night and most of the time we only see whirling snowflakes. Sometimes snow crystals land on the camera lens and begin to melt slowly. At times, the picture becomes sharper, and the lights and details of the buildings that we pass become discernible. The picture changes from the abstract to the descriptive, from the indistinct to the distinct, from the sharp to the blurred. The documentary character dissolves. What is told is only part of the story, and what we see only fragments of what was. But with the help of these fragments we might be able to interpret our own age, comment and reflect. In what kind of society do we want to live? Who do we have room for here? Do we really have a greater right to live here than anyone else?

In his novel “The Question of Bruno?” Aleksandar Hemon provides us with yet another interpretation of the word “history” by quoting the first edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica (1769–1771):

”History, a description or recital of things as they are, or have been, in a continued orderly narration of the principal facts and circumstances thereof. History, with regards to its subject, is divided into the History of Nature and the History of Actions. The History of Actions is a continued relation of a series of memorable events.”

In the exam project, the relation between memory and historiography is a pervading issue. What situations do we remember, or what do we choose to tell, to remember? What pictures do we show, and what stays in the drawer? “The History of Actions is a continued relation of a series of memorable events.” But what events do we regard as memorable? What makes something worth remembering? What years, what names, what events are never noted down on the back of photographs?

(I guard an exhibition. Outside the gallery window I see people passing by. Naturally there is much that is more important and more interesting than an art exhibition. What would the world look like otherwise?)

Later, I look at old photographs of myself. I get the feeling of looking at a dead person – someone who does not exist anymore, other than as a picture. The subject transforms into an object. Or with Roland Barthes’ words in Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography:

”I can have the fond hope of discovering truth only because the Photography’s noeme is precisely that-has-been, and because I live in the illusion that it suffices to clean the surface of the image in order to accede what is behind.”

Or with Barbara Kruger’s words in an interview with Jeanne Siegel:

“I think that the exactitude of the photograph has a sort of compelling nature based in its power to duplicate life. But for me the real power of photography is based in death: the fact that somehow it can enliven that which is no there in a kind of stultifyingly frightened way, because it seems to me that part of one’s life is made up of constant confrontation with one’s own death.”

Perhaps this feeling has something to do with the moment that has disappeared. The moment when the picture was taken is gone and will always be gone. Only the picture of what was remains. And soon this picture will have replaced a memory, become a memory.

There is a black-and-white photograph that my mother must have taken. I sit on my father’s shoulders. It is winter and father has fallen through the ice on a marsh and only the upper part of his body can be seen above the ice, and then me sitting on his shoulders. I don’t remember this event other than as a photograph. When was it? Where was it? I think that many of my memories exist as similar pictures, as memories of photographs. The photograph has become the memory.

(I’m getting a new passport. I’m sitting in the photo booth, and turn my head at an angle according to the instructions so that I can see my ear reflected in the black windowpane in front of me. In my last passport I looked straight into the camera. It was not necessary to turn one’s head like this. But times have changed.)

(I come home late. I watch Eurosport. It’s snooker. Kim Hartman comments. O’Sullivan wins. It’s a fantastic game. I zap between channels, and via BBC World and CNN I come to stop at Fox News. The broadcasts are surprisingly alike. On Fox News some expert comments on the development in Iraq with the words, “If they’re nasty with us, we’ll be nasty with them”. At the bottom of the screen, the latest news run as text: three Japanese kidnapped, one chopper missing, terror alert elevated.)

In this way we are presented with photographs and texts, or filmed stories for that matter, in the news, as if they were objective accounts of reality, as a kind of facts or vehicles for truth. There is, of course, something that has to be questioned, or as Barbara Kruger further notes with respect to photography in the interview with Jeanne Siegel:

“And also the thing that’s happening with photography today vis-a-vis computer imaging, vis-a-vis alteration, is that it no longer needs to be based on the real at all.”

Barbara Kruger’s comments refer to the technical possibilities of manipulating a photograph, that, today, there does not have to be a link between a photograph and some kind of reality. Possibly, in this connection, one might ask what makes a photograph a photograph. However, I believe that even if we imagine a photograph that has not been technically manipulated, it can still not be said to be the bearer of objectivity. The picture will always be stamped by the conditions at the time it was taken and the choices that the photographer made. Moreover, our reading of it will always be coloured by the context in which it is presented and the experiences that have formed us as receivers of the pictures.

To critically analyse and examine the sender, to be sceptical about the images that are shown to us in various contexts, is thus possibly more important now than ever before. I think that we must find alternatives to the established news services in order to get different perspectives on the same event. I also think that we have to try to see some of the stories that are not being told. We must ask ourselves what stories will never be running across the bottom of the screen on the BBC, CNN or Fox News.

(We’re in Denmark. I’m taking part in a demonstration. I’m not completely comfortable in this situation. The slogans are inconceivably one-dimensional. Someone is making a speech that I don’t sympathise with. I find myself between signs and banners with simplified messages. This is how it is, and such is still the form of manifestations and demonstrations. Yet, I argue, it was better to take part than to stay at home. The demonstration ends. People return home. Has anything changed? We could have been so many more. Diversity would have been a strength. Why weren’t you there, with or without signs).

Occasionally I have taken part in events where the line between politics and art has been indistinct. Some might have seen these projects as art, while others have seen them as political actions. On these occasions the question whether it was politics or art has not been very important to me. For me, the content, the issues, the reflections and discussions have been central. At the same time, I cannot disregard the fact that form and content depend on and affect one another. Our reading of a project is affected by its look. The form becomes a tool to use. A means to communicate with.

One of these projects, drifting somewhere between art and politics, was “More People Mediate” during the EU summit in Copenhagen in 2002. We tried to build an alternative information and exhibition venue. Cultural workers took the initiative to the project, but it also involved political activists who had no previous connections to the art scene.

The background was that we wanted to question the media coverage of previous summits. We believed that in the past the accounts from them had been one-sided, with too great a focus on the violence at some of them. We thought that the issues that were raised in connection to the protests around the meetings were often neglected in the news. Instead the established media spread an image of violent riots that were seldom inscribed in a political context.

(Runo and me are being searched by the police again. This is the third time in two days, but never in connection to a demonstration. From our perspective it is incomprehensible. This time we have to take out all our stuff from our bags and put it on the street in front of us in a long line. Clothes, notepads, wallets. They flash their torches in our eyes. Write down the colour of our eyes. Write down how tall we are. Write down our addresses. Write down our names. They check the phone numbers that Rune has called on his mobile. Passers by look on interestedly.)

Our idea was that during the EU summit the information centre would be a place where people could find information about demonstrations, actions and lectures, but also about the official program of the summit. To this end we also set up an archive with background information in the form of press cuttings, books and films. The archive grew as anyone who wanted could hand in anything that they thought was relevant. In the course of the summit, people continuously provided the archive with information of what had been going on during the week. We didn’t reject anything that was handed in. The archive was based on the subjective contributions of the participants, and contrasted with the so-called “objective” picture of the summit in the established press. In one perspective, the information centre worked as a meeting point, where discussions and lectures were held. Another aspect was that by attempting to give as many-facetted a picture as possible, without in any way claiming that it was complete, it shed light on and questioned the notion of objectivity in news reporting. By constructing an alternative information centre we wished to problematise the official picture of these meetings and the reports from them.

It is impossible for me to see an image, or a text for that matter, as something objective. Objectiveness is an impossibility. How could we hope to see everything?

(I’m asked a question, something about how I see art and politics. I say that for an artist today it is impossible to be neutral. I say that it is impossible to be neutral, in the sense that one will always support one political direction or position through one’s neutrality in one way or another. And it is very probable that it is the prevailing power structure that one will support. Remaining neutral is also taking a position. In this sense, all art has a political side, whether the artist admits it or not.)

Perhaps the politics in my work have been most evident in various collaborations with other artists, such as the project with the information centre, or a project I did with Pia Rönicke, where we wanted to raise questions about democracy and citizens’ involvement in decision-making. The starting point was a discussion about Vesterbro, an area in Copenhagen where we both lived when the projected started. It was clear that Vesterbro was changing. The restorations and renovations of worn flats in the Copenhagen Urban Renewal Project had a great deal to do with these changes. One-room flats were joined into two-room flats. In the long term, the rents will rise. When the one-room flats disappear, families and well off singles will move into the area, while low-income, one-person households become fewer. In many ways the modernisation and raised standard are of course positive, but we ask who will carry the cost of the improved standard. We wanted to shed light on the change in the urban environment, both on what we saw as positive changes and those that we saw as problematic. At the same time, by reflecting on our local environment, we wanted to discuss the question of participation in local decision making in relation to the political situation in Denmark. In what way do the changes in Vesterbro reflect Danish society at large, in which the debates before the general election in 2001 were dominated by a rhetoric hostile to foreigners, and sometimes even by pure xenophobia?

I have also worked with the experience of coming to Copenhagen. Copenhagen was a new city to me, and Denmark a new country. Perhaps it is easier to notice problems such as xenophobia and homophobia when one comes from the outside to a new environment, where the conventions are partly different than what one is used to. It is very probable that it is easier to notice other people’s prejudices than one’s own. By saying this I want to say that xenophobia and homophobia are of course not specifically Danish phenomena, something that becomes obvious if one considers the political development in several European countries in the end of the 1990s and beginning of the 21st century with the successes of right-wing extremist parties. But it was still obvious to me how plainly this spirit manifested itself in the rhetoric of the political parties, from the social democrats on the left, via liberal Venstre and the conservative party, to Danish People’s Party on the extreme right. I saw how this rhetoric was used unreflectingly in the press, and how it found its way into the everyday jargon in the pubs and cafés as jokes about homosexuals and immigrants. From my own situation in Copenhagen I thought a lot about notions such as integration and segregation. Now, a couple of years later, I think that I can see similar formulations becoming accepted and used in the Swedish debate. Perhaps it is time to ask what kind of society we live in when the ruling party introduce a term such as “social tourism” and propose that refugees be DNA tested. Perhaps it is time to ask if this is a society in which we want to live.

Allow me to end by returning to historiography for a while with a scene that comes back several times in Theo Angelopolus’ film Ulysses’ Gaze. The scene shows a dismounted statue of Lenin being transported on a barge. It has had its day. Other statues will be raised in its stead. Angelopolus’ film is a journey through the Balkans and shows the search for another film, the first film shot in Greece and the Balkans by the Manakis brothers. Their film shows working women weavers, but this fact seems to be of less importance; what is important is that it was the first film, the first gaze. But was it really the first gaze, or are there other film reels, other pictures that have never been mentioned in history, never shown, never seen? Perhaps the search is more important than the answer.

Meanwhile other statues in other countries fall. We see it on television. Live on the BBC, CNN or Fox News. But the screen is so limited and we can’t see what is happening beyond it, beyond what is considered worthy of a place in history.

This is the result, a reconstruction after the event and a retrospective. Fragmentary and full of gaps. But aren’t all flashbacks, all memories a form of construction, reconstruction. A way of ajusting what was to what is. A way of telling a story so that it becomes intelligible in today’s society. At the same time, history is a way of making reality intelligible, a way of inscribing the present in a context.

(Now I have my new passport. I try to find my old one to compare them. It turns out that my ear shows just as much in the old one. The angle of my head is roughly the same, just facing the other direction.)

(I’m in a bar. Perhaps Katarina is there, Magnus or Elena or Emma and Runo, maybe Luca. If it is in Stockholm, Fredrik and Jenny are there instead. In Copenhagen, Mia, Tarje, Christian, Kristina and Danh. I tell a story. Add or take away. Widespread laughter.)

I sit on the train between Malmö and Stockholm. It’s winter and dark outside. We pass a burning farmhouse. It lights up the night. The snow around it is tinged with yellow, orange, red. The farm disappears behind us. It is as if nothing has happened.

(Malmö 12 April 2004)

Notes:

”La disparition” is written without the letter e, and is thus extremely hard to translate, although it has been translated to Swedish. In my Swedish text I quoted the translation by Sture Pyk, which is slightly different from the French original used in the English translation printed here. Here is the Swedish translation of the quote: ”Att utlysa undantagstillstånd som man nu gör på inrådan av nån dårfink som lyckats samla all militär bakom sig omöjliggör naturligtvis alla tänkbara förändringar”

From Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s preface to On Grammatology by Jacques Derrida.

Sources:

Angelopoulos, Theo, To vlemma tou odyssea, 1995, Swedish distribution Triangelfilm, 1996

Barthes, Roland, La chambre claire. Note sur la photographie, 1980

Hemon, Aleksandar, The Question of Bruno, 2000

Malmström, Sten, Györki, Iréne (red.), Bonniers svenska ordbok, Skolupplagan, 1982

Perec, Georges, La disparition, 1969, Swedish translation Sture Pyk, 2000

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, tranlators preface, from Of grammatology by Jacques Derrida, 1974

Stiles, Kristine, Selz, Peter (red.), Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, a sourcebook of artists’ writings,
1996