Krakow Photomonth 2017

The War From Here

Exhibition review by Duncan Wooldridge

We are encouraged to perceive of it as a striking, spectacular occurrence, but war is not one eventful instance of violence: it is the layering of multiple small violations that accrue and erupt. Thus conflict is sustained until one side is so dominant that any attack it makes is no longer legitimated by the promise of a reciprocal threat. It is a longer proposition than the spectacle of conflict: it begins before a gun is fired, and is felt long after. The political theorist Carl Von Clausewitz infamously stated that war is the continuation of politics by other means: not just a means of getting your way through violence, and the sign of a political project that goes beyond typical coercion. It emblematises an antagonistic, immovable politics, getting its way.

If war is the continuation of politics by other means, then the reverse must also be true: in our everyday politics and interactions, instances of war are also played out. There is war in forms of nationalism and patriotic fervour that posit the supremacy of a nation amongst more than 200 others; and there is war in the gains we seek over each other in the neo-liberal workspace. Violence can be tracked back from the site of armed conflict, to our sofas, and our devices, and our material wealth. That we do not draw connections between our material wealth and the conflict or exploitation it requires is one of the great achievements of capitalism.

The War From Here, curated by Gordon Macdonald as one of the keynote exhibitions of Krakow Photomonth 2017, is an exhibition of five artists who approach war from a different set of proximities, setting it much closer to us. They choose to be distant from the ‘theatre’ of war: they seek not theatricality, but origins, traces, and consequence. As such, it is one of the most striking exhibitions of war in recent times, because it resists the ‘over there’ condition of photojournalistic tradition, stressing tangible experiences, scars, and roots of violence.

At its entrance, Sophie Ristelhueber’s Eleven Blowups teases and undermines the reportage photograph, and acts an initial disruption of our expectations for the image. Installed as large-scale prints directly mounted to the surface of a phalanx of walls, they problematise photography’s rhetoric of de-authored transparency. This is the image not as a window, but as blockade: montaged from multiple images of bomb craters, some of which are Ristelhueber’s own and others that are drawn from media outlets, a composite real is made that brings together the image’s connection to the place it depicts, with its place of reception and encounter.

Nina Berman works within a recognisable documentary tradition, but uses it to show the domestic manifestations of America’s war on terror, challenging the way that that country’s militarisation is figured in daily life as elsewhere. Her project Homeland captures the full extent to which life is laced with military simulation and rhetorics of American power. One image shows B2 Stealth Bombers passing over beaches of Atlantic City. They participate in a celebratory display of military might that is triumphalist but exposing of the silent, lingering threat of a secretive military industry. Berman also depicts the militarisation of labour, as ordinary Americans are employed to act as Iraqi ‘terrorists’ in emergency drills. The war’s relationship to home is revealed by Berman as a series of constructs that produce the image of state power at the same time as constructing personal-imaginary images of terrorists and otherness. Here, war is a fantasy that displays little concern for that which exists outside of an American sense of might: documentary is suddenly a form that has courage to show a view beyond the generic humanism of the eyewitness.

At the centre of the exhibition is Martha Rosler’s Bringing The War Home. Rosler’s montages directly equate the purpose and trauma of conflict with the luxury of the western home. Rosler makes clear that it is a largely exploited international labour force that extracts and forms the products of domestic luxury, which conflict maintains through its expansive project of installing democratic capitalist nation states. Rosler’s montages use the technical surfaces of the home (phones, televisions, pictures, and glass windowpanes) as openings to this conflict, as scenes that are mistaken as distant apparitions, but which are closely interlaced in a luxury that we have come to see as a desirable and freeing. Her later montages draw upon our various bodily postures with our mobile devices: laying upside down on a sofa, checking our pictures in our phone screens.

In a convincing and clear-sighted diversion from the usual obsession with war as a space of heroic individualism, Macdonald’s exhibition is unrepentantly social: it understands that war impacts upon a people, a multitude. As Ristelhueber, Berman and Rosler reveal how representations of war have been used to frame and limit our understanding, Lisa Barnard and Monica Haller evaluate the impacts of war through research upon the short and long-term experiences of conflict, whatever its ‘physical’ distance. Haller’s Veteran’s Book Project is structured around the first-hand encounter. 50 books present individual accounts from war, reclaiming the notion of the war veteran to include not just soldiers and military personnel, but also Iraqi and Afghan survivors. Each presents their own experience, an account that is always moving between the past and its impact upon the present. Some accounts are harrowing in places of course, but they are human and relatable first and foremost. Haller’s collection of a plethora of voices has a distinctive effect that repels the conventional desire to defer the war to some other place: it takes place between humans, as Judith Butler reminds us when she recalls the precarity of each human being as underwriting the necessity of the social. Haller posits that an array of voices can displace the dominant narratives of conflict and their contest the drive towards individual gain, and the illusions of a consequence-less accumulation.

As Haller also suggests that we need to place the human back into the field of conflict, Lisa Barnard explores the military strategy of drones (or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, UAV) operation, one manifestation of a technological war without the human (at least, this is what is claimed by its manufacturers and agents). The industry of war’s technological development – what Manuel De Landa calls the ‘machinic phylum’, feeding technological development that makes it to the consumer thereafter – seeks to displace the human in the place of machines, with a simplistic comparison between machinic efficiency and bodily fatigue. Barnard shows that the human effect remains.

As Adam Greenfield argues in his book Radical Technologies: The Design of Everday Life, the adoption of machinic and technological systems produces human effects in each of its manifestations. In Barnard’s work Whiplash Transition, an opening is found in the 40 minute drive between the military base and a drone pilot’s home. Whiplash transition is a term used by UAV pilots to describe the rupture between the locked-down enclosure of the drone mission, and the all-too-nearby comforts of the American city. In her installation, Barnard draws potent connections between the machinic vision of military devices, or the flying patterns of drones in strategic formations, and the fantasy-world of Las Vegas. In another part of the installation, a shipping crate displays a map of an arms fair on its top side: the uncomfortable meeting of armaments and basic human needs (food service counters, restrooms and cafes) is starkly revealed by the diagram.

Photography, with its concern for a slice of the action, is a common agent in the compression of war as something distant and unthinkable. The War From Here is an extraordinary call to see how it occurs right in front of us. Photography is capable of something more contextual, more critical, more enduring and penetrating. In this, one of the most convincing exhibitions about conflict and its reaches, we are called to see how war is something that surrounds us.

Duncan Wooldridge is an artist, writer and curator. He is also Course Director of the BA(Hons) Photography at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London.

Image credits:

I-Opening of The War From Here at Bunkier Sztuki/Krakow Photomonth 2017, curated by Gordon Macdonald featuring Lisa Barnard, Nina Berman, Monica Haller and Sophie Ristelhueber.

II-Lisa Barnard, Lawnmower, from the Mapping the Territory series © Lisa Barnard.

III-Lisa Barnard, Object #3, from the Primitive Pieces series © Lisa Barnard.

IV-Lisa Barnard, American Flag, from the Not Learning from Anything series © Lisa Barnard.

V-Nina Berman, Bomb Iraq, Times Square, New York City, from the Homeland series, 2003 © Nina Berman | NOOR

VI-Nina Berman, Stealth bomber, Atlantic City, New Jersey, from the Homeland series, 2007 © Nina Berman | NOOR

VII-Monica Haller, The Veterans Book Project (VBP), library of 50 books, print on demand, page length varies, 2009–2014.

VIII-Monica Haller,Page spread from book by Ehren W. Tool, 2010.

IX-Martha Rosler, Cleaning the Drapes, from the series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home, 1967–1972 © Martha Rosler.

X-Martha Rosler, Gladiators, from the series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home, New Series, 2008 © Martha Rosler.

XI-Martha Rosler, The Gray Drape, from the series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home, New Series, 2008 © Martha Rosler.

All images courtesy of Krakow Photomonth.

Thomas Sauvin


Essay by Gordon Macdonald

Beijing Silvermine, naturally and without artistic pretention, documents the experience of ‘ordinary’ people stepping out from the shadow of The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, as China accelerated towards becoming the world’s second largest economy and its people began to experience all of the consumer pleasures that go along with such wealth. The subjects of the photographs are pictured posing with refrigerators, telephones and TV sets; they are lying on the beach in Speedo trunks and visiting theme parks.

This is a vast and complex project by French archivist/artist Thomas Sauvin, though definitions become tricky and maybe moot here. In order to understand Sauvin’s truly monumental undertaking, it is useful to look at the process through which he has managed to collate and catalogue the discarded snapshots of China’s capital city. Silvermine is the result of more than four years work collecting, digitising and ordering what now amounts to over half a million negatives and transparencies retrieved from a Beijing recycling dump. The material has been recovered from the rubbish bags of Beijing citizens in several stages, and while it involves various different people, it is clear that it would no longer exist as photography were it not for Sauvin’s intervention and orchestration. The photography – presumably thrown out because the original owners have moved to digital photography, have died or moreover no longer see the value in keeping negatives – is recovered from the tip by an ‘illegal recycler’ and taken back to a small lock up where the necessary equipment for silver nitrate recovery is sited. It is kept in large rice bags waiting to be submerged in acid baths, which strip out the silver nitrate, leaving the film clear and the images lost. This is where Sauvin intervenes by buying the film at a Renminbi per kilo price. The recycler, one would imagine, has no time to follow an interest in the images, their content or their history. By the look of his dingy workshop and description of his working day, he cannot afford such pursuits – it looks a bleak day-to-day existence, and Sauvin must be an oddity to him, paying to save him the work of extracting the precious commodity that is his livelihood. Sauvin’s idea of the value of the material is, of course, more culturally-based, and he takes them from the ramshackle workshop to the more salubrious surroundings of his studio for initial interrogation on a gigantic light-table.

Sauvin chooses only snapshots and separates out those images that could have had commercial use, before taking them to the small home of his scanning technician, whose job it is to scan the pile of negatives and transparencies. Having completed the scanning, he then delivers them to Sauvin on a hard disc some weeks later. This is where Sauvin’s intervention, and the work of viewing, ordering and cataloguing starts in earnest. It is evidently a task of truly overwhelming proportions considering the sheer scale of the archive and the rigour he brings to it, but one which would be hard to stop short of completion. Indeed, Sauvin has envisioned the end of his pursuits, saying “I’ll stop collecting negatives when there are no more to collect. I get less and less of them every month and it is quite likely to be over soon. Eventually this project will witness the death of analog photography in China.”

Surprisingly, the real shock of Sauvin’s Silvermine is the familiarity, not the exoticism. The poses, leisure activities, clothes, home appliances, relationships, landscape, expressions, vehicles, theme parks or food do not differ all that much from the photographs found in a typical British family album from the 70’s and 80’s. It is sometimes the case that collections and studies such as these can slip unnervingly towards a cut-priced anthropology, where western eyes are cast over foreign cultures, at worst resulting in a bizarre form of neocolonialism. But, thankfully, there is everydayness in this project.

Sauvin also makes the archive accessible to Chinese artists to view, reassess and use with the aim of producing their own interpretations of the material. Notable Chinese artist LeiLei, in collaboration with Sauvin, is one such example. An animation, the images flit unremittingly from one to another, sometimes pointing out the happenstance, which occurs so regularly when this many photographs are collected from one place, or sometimes the oddity within individual photographs. It is all set to the soundtrack of the collected white noise of the city – electric hum, helicopters, road traffic, dripping, screeching, overwhelming sound – which, with the pace and intensity of the images filling your peripheral vision, leaves you spinning. Every so often in the film, titled Recycled, a print of one of the images appears, held at arm’s length by LeiLei, up to the landscape in which it was shot, leaving you in no doubt that you are looking at photographic constructs, and the edited extracts of peoples’ lives. Having watched the film a few times now, I have had to limit myself to one viewing a day for fear that my brain might combust as a result of its greed for the visual information the film is feeding it with – I feel like a compulsive eater at an all you can eat buffet. It is a completely enveloping sensory experience.

This archival project is not without context – comparisons could be made to Evidence by Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel; the epic Pictures from the Street (Bilder von der Straße) by Joachim Schmid, In Almost Every Picture by Eric Kessels (et al) or the magnificent Sputnik by Joan Fontcuberta – but Silvermine seems markedly different and unlike any archival project to have come before. There is a certain generosity to Sauvin’s non-curatorial approach and commitment to collecting and cataloging every image he possibly can. And, though some images necessarily creep to the top of the pile and become emblematic of the archive, Sauvin seems to treat every picture as equally important to the overall project. Silvermine, funded by the London-based Archive of Modern Conflict, seems genuinely to be about saving an important history that is in danger of being consigned to oblivion. If only the discarded images of every city could benefit from this process, but it is certainly well past the point of no return for analogue photography and far too late to start somewhere else. Maybe the next Silvermine will be made up of hard drives recovered from discarded computers, as digital files will surely soon be made redundant by the relentless march of technological change.

Thomas Sauvin is a French photography collector and editor who currently lives in Beijing. Since 2006 he works exclusively as a consultant for the UK-based Archive of Modern Conflict, an independent archive and publisher, for whom he collects Chinese works, from contemporary photography to period publications to anonymous photography. A glimpse into this collection is presented in the photobook, Happy Tonite (2010). Sauvin has exhibited at Dali International Photography Festival, China; Open City Museum, Brixen, Austria; Singapore International Photography Festival, Singapore; and FORMAT International Photography Festival, Derby.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Thomas Sauvin