Staged Realities, Altered Worlds

by Johannes Birringer

Nearly 70 exhibitions surfaced at Foto­Fest 1998, continuing tradition of hirer national encounters and perspec­tives that its organizers have introduced to Houston over the past dozen years. More­over, since their departure from a central­ized location, Wendy Watriss and Fred Baldwin have pushed the boundaries of the static notion of an exhibition site con­siderably. FotoFest now is a month-long series of explorations into urban territo­ries, historical buildings and ware­houses, communities in their relations to the city and a vastly expanded, interactive network of presenters (museums, non-profit art spaces, commercial galleries, corporate lobbies, restaurants). Not sur­prisingly, the visitor to FotoFest now needs a detailed map of the many loca­tions where photography can be discov­ered and where other "happenings" and performances are encountered that ex­pand the medium of photography and yet link image-making with new conceptions of urban development and the changing nature of our public spheres.

The polities of the festival thus break a strictly aesthetic frame; connecting (be making/display of images to com­munity projects like Project Row Houses and FotoFest's Literacy Through Photog­raphy outreach program, or to theater, fashion, skateboarders, lowriders and the entrepreneurial activities of devel­opers and restaurateurs. Watriss/Raldwin and their collaborators have distinctly changed the status and visibility of line art photography. The art of photography is repositioned towards engagement in civic process and transcultural exchange of ideas about how we live and how we imagine our realities al this late stage of modernity. Photography as a public art form contributes to urban revaluation; it can reflect change or mobilize identi­fication with troubled or neglected areas of our urban community. To that effect Watriss and Baldwin have actively sought to involve players from the downtown business world and city government in their elaborate festival scheme.

Even if one could not absorb all of its manifestations, FotoFest 1998 offered a remark­able palette of historical, rarely-seenphotographic art from Latin America (e.g. Geraldo de Barros's manipulated negatives created in mid-century Brazil shown at Sicardi-Sanders Gal­lery or Courret's Peruvian per-traits from the late 1800s) and diversecontemporary works — including installation and video —from Slovakia, Mexico, Italy, Germany, France, Brazil, Fin­land, Denmark, Venezuela, Africa, Vietnam, Japan and the United States. The interna­tional character of FotoFest is unmistakable, thus transforming Houston not only into a "meet­ing place” for photographers, collectors and curators but also into a space of experimentation, because one can exchange artworks, but not their con­texts of production. Unlike art biennials shaped by the com­manding vision of a single curator, Fotofest thrives on collaboration and the concerted efforts of many contributors and presenter who are free to make their own choices.

Although museums or commercial gal­leries may follow predictable courses and some invited shows arrived here via established links with the Mois de Photo in France (e.g. the astoundingly beautiful photographs and book editions of Pentti Sammallahtti), the 1998festival struck me as unusually open-minded and adventur­ous. "Two examples are Houston Com­munity College’s decision to feature an exchange of photographic perspectives on Vietnam and Vine Street Studios' spectac­ular orchestration of radically different types of work. The lack of a clear agenda worked in its favor; an all-embracing tone of playfulness and excitement on opening weekend gradually gave way lo the deeper resonances of the contrasts and contra­dictions of photographic representation. In the following, I will comment on a few critical conjunctions that deserve a much more in-depth analysis than I can deliver here.

Some of the most provocative exhibits were placed throughout downtown Houston including the Market Square historic District and the adjacent warehouse districts. Winter Street Art Center presented works from Slovakia’s New Wave photography that came to the fore in the late 1980s. Curated by Lucia Benicka, founder and director of the House of Photography in Poprad, Altered Worlds: Contemporary Slovak Staged Photography found a congenial environment in the cavernous warehouse off Washington Street. These richly imaginative and often surrealist photoscenarios also set the stage for my theoretical argument here which links the belated postmodernism of the young Eastern European photographers with the boundary-crossing installations of the South African artists shown at Vine Street Studios. Both share an intimate proximity to more overtly conventional, predominantly black-and-white fine art photography (Looking at the ‘90s: Young Mexican Photographers, Vine Street Studios) and straight forward photojournalism (Stories About Us: Photographs from Juarez, Diverse Works).

Boundaries and genre definitions, however, cannot be so clearly drawn. The Mexican artists in particular confound our assumptions, as their choices of content and print type may look familiar. However, familiarity is not a helpful critical issue at the end of a long century of the medium’s evolution. The question whether any form or content of photography can alter reality beyond the codes of realist representation, that is have an impact upon or reflect dialectically on our existential conditions, can be posed in very particular contexts. For example, the community development at Project Row Houses (featuring Danny Tisdale’s An Artist for a Change platform during FotoFest) or the border town of Juarez/El Paso whereStories about Us was created by journalists evoking the immediate and alarming consequences of their local circumstances. One could also ask whether photography is a particularly resonant medium in locales that have just undergone major political transformations. In the exhibition context of the medium’s primarily aesthetic existence, Altered Worlds does not address the question at all. The title, I take it, refers to the manipulation of image content and surface, leaving the subtext open to speculation, in the same way in which we can only guess, observing L’ubo Stacho’s Infusioninstallation at Wagon Works Building, what the artist’s internal sources for this disturbing self-portrait may have been. BothInfusion and the diptychs (from the Spiritual Journey series) that hung on the corridor walls like ghostly clothes on a washing line, speak of the transfer of energies and imprints. The diptychs are created by pressing the print face down onto moistened cloth; the depression leaves an inverted copy, traces of image, behind, but it also affects the paper. The deteriorated emanations of Stacho’s images have a striking corporeal dimension that most other works at FotoFest lacked. It made sense that this Slovak artist was given a separate space.

The show at Winter Street offered mesmerizing works by seven younger Slovak photographers. Many studied at the Prague School of Film and Television and share an interest in staged fiction and theatrical mise en scene. Most of them work in color and utilize paint, pastels, mixed media and special lighting effects (luminography), and the work has the quality of carefully arranged or fabricated collages.

In contrast with current trends in digital photography, the Slovaks don’t explore computer manipulation but theatrical and ritual processes that deeply resonate with a poetic vision mixed with joyful humor and gothic fantasy. These fantasy scenarios, as in Pavel Pecha’s My Intuitive Theatre (the toned silver gelatin prints could also be called theatricalized landscapes) or Vasil Stanko’s Windows and Head series (hand-colored silver gelatin prints), link their inherent theatrical surrealism to the dark humor we remember from Czech, Hungarian and Yugoslav films of past decades. The photographers work with actors and stage their private mythologies, but the narrative content of these theatrical tableaux remains obscured. Surprisingly, the emphasis on the subconscious and on abstract symbolism (e.g. Kamil Varga’s Spirals series that borders on the mystical) moves the work entirely beyond its immediate political and social context; there are no allusions in these photographs to any of the momentous events that have changed the former Communist countries in Eastern Europe. On the other hand, we can surmise that such radical changes leave scars, and as the traumatic past itself loses its contours, the process of remembering is pushed more deeply into the unconscious.

And yet, like their contemporaries from Mexico, chosen from different regions besides Mexico City by four independent native curators, the young Slovak artists challenge our assumptions, not only about photography’s relation to geographical and national culture/identity, but also about tropical or thematic content. Content in Altered Worlds is defined by the compositional elements, and there are pointers, of course, as to how we can read the overtly bleak, sepia-toned landscapes in Pecha’s Intuitive Theatre, or the imaginary neon birds that float in Robo Kocan’s constructed nature (e.g. Hitchcock’s Birds and Disenchanted Castle, Cibachrome prints form 1995). The actors in Pecha’s stagings seem trapped and immobilized in a script they have not written or are sick rehearsing, while Stanko’s nude performers are shot in full movement. Yet the collages Stanko fabricates tend to transform the moving bodies into odd poses, splattering them like cut-outs across the black print, ogten upside down. The overall effect, also visible in Varga’s, Peter Zupnik’s, Rudo Prekop’s and Miro Svolik’s works, is that of dream-like cartoons. Svolik’s landscape portraits merge fragmented human and animal physiognomies with natural shapes, except that the torso’s extremities (Two of us and the time, 1944-1995) stick out of the frame like limbs of a marionette and play havoc in our desire to integrate the body or read through the body. The fictional dimension of these fragmented scenes seem at the furthest remove from the socialist realism that may have once dominated the permitted representational codes in the Communist East.

Much of the contemporary Mexican photography assembled by the different curators impressed us with a high degree of self-consciousness, not only in relation to the history of international photographic genres but, more significantly, to the stale tradition of documentary or ethnographic photography identified with Mexico’s image of herself in the north. The genre of portraiture is used, but with odd twists, as in Javier Ramirez Limn’s series, Family Reconstruction (platinum prints, 1996), introduced by a wall text that (ironically?) promises a Freudian fantasy scenario: “In an old downtown hotel, I decided that my mother would be my lover and my father a stranger.” The portraits of the nude family members are disconcerting and display a strange sense of real discomfort on part of the subjects. In contrast, Daniel Weinstock’s series, Under the Same Sky (silver gelatin prints, 1994-1996), confidently restages dream-like scenes with brightly lit characters foregrounded in dark landscapes. The scenes revisit and mock the illogical choreographies of magical realism, and they appear as calculated and clever as Maruch Santiz Gomez’s image-text collages that combine small black-and-white prints with proverbial wisdom borrowed from Nahuatl culture. Santiz is from the Chiapas region and presents the material objects and sayings of the local village tradition quite literally. However, the Nahuatl language and indigenismo attitude she uses tend to essentialize and exoticize the local culture to first world audiences. This creates the kind of irony of perception dominating those photographs in the exhibit that allude to well-worn conventions of representing indigenous culture or Mexican iconography to the cosmopolitan centers (e.g. Carlos Jurado’s miniature Calaveras and skeletons in his elegant, painterly photo-still lives, or Daniel Mendoza’s series, San Miguel Aguasuelos).

Maya Goded Colichio’s Mexico City prostitutes undress for her camera in bleak hotel rooms. These images are a familiar sight were it not that some of the women are quite old and display an astounding sense of grace and dignity. The street-boy nudes by Pedro Slim, on the other hand, are photographed provocatively out of context (in the studio). These dark-skinned boys look straight at the camera; some pose in their jeans and strut their masculinity, yet the camera, in a haunting recapitulations of colonial history, tends to emasculate them. Their skinny bodies, reflecting the markers of race and class, cannot quite muster the machismo that their awkward gestures and the Calvin Klein-like outfits pretend, and the similarity to fashion poses creates a devastating ambiguity. Katya Brailowski Plata’s large Cibachrome prints betray anxieties that have the allure of dramatic fiction. Her scenes have the look of film stills derived from Mexican contemporary cinema, a genre continually threatened by the overbearing prescence of the Hollywood industry.

Disco music is part of Hidegard Moreno Oloarte’s photo-installation, Essay on Reality (1997). Placed in the corner of a corridor, her wall of lorn, layered and dis­torted faces of young people has a trance-like effect, a hard-edged, unsentimental but hallucinatory evocation of today's Mexican urban youth culture. Oloarte's composition has a very contemporary feel to it. It is also convincingly inclusive, depicting the racial diversity in Mexico in its fully distorted and distorting appear­ance. Edgar Ladron de Guevara's prints are stunning, blurred abstractions, giant close-ups of laces touching (The Essential Kissseries, 1995-1996). Other Mexican artists examine the textural surfaces of the body (animal as well as human) and, in the case of Marianna Dellekamp, its sensual and erotic immersion in water. Dellekamp’s romanticism is the exception in this exhibit; most of the work of the young Mexican photographers tends to be hard edged and devoid of postmodern playfulness and cynicism. The earnest explorations and personal visions of their culture at the end of the century also avoid exploiting the mythical tradition connected with the iconography of pre-contract Mesoamerica. Rather, Laura Barron’s landscape, introducing a deserted, bleak vista that contains floating signs in the upper portion of the image – computer-generated sketches of small labyrinths or ornaments that look like private hieroglyphic commentaries. I take these superimposed signs to be marks of resistance. Their presence demystifies the purported realism of the medium of photography and at the same time twists the iconic role of photography as visual-cultural memory. In these paradeisos,mem­ory is absent. In many of the other works, it is evoked as a construct^ fiction or kitsch, or it abstracts the documentary paradigm to the extent that the portraits become distorted mirrors of our own pre-conceptions of ethnic and cultural identity.

The works by the South African artists at first seem strikingly different from the Mexican photographs. Four of the live South Africans exhibited present their work as installations or constructions that include still photography or cinema, but the emphasis is on sculptural support (Zwelethu Mthethwa’s barbershop dress­ing table in Vanity at Frankies, 1997;Pat Mautloas recreation of the living and work spaces of migrant workers in If You Scratch, 1997)or on narrative dimensions proper to the time-based arts. Penny Siopsis' My Lovely Dayis a weaving to­gether of the artist's home movies (made by her mother, accompanied by a layered voice-over narratives mixing personal his­tory with memories of her mother and grandmother) and an homage to a small movie house owned by her grandfather in the 1930s. The daughter of Greek immi­grants, Siopsis composes a very complex visual tale of identity in South Africa, ironically distanced by the almost surreal homeliness and innocence of the children at play in gardens that look while in the overexposed, bleached movies. The chil­dren are yet unaware of the system of apartheid in which they grow up, but the film never lets us forget it, as it suddenly shifts to a military parade.

William Kent ridge's video installation is placed in a room opposite Sue Williamson's photocollage Truth Gamesthat reproduces nespaper photos and truncated lines ("ordered lo lie," "covering up," etc.) from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Hearing. Inside the room are rows of stiff wooden chairs set before a screen on which Kenrridge's ani­mated drawings are projected. Composed between 1993 and 1996 based on his unique and painstaking technique of in­numerable small alterations (adding and erasing) of a few charcoal and gouache drawings, Felix in Exile and History of the Main Complaint were perhaps the most stunning works shown at this year's FotoFest. The animated hints, part of a larger series, chronicle I hi lives of IWU pro­tagonists, the industrialist Soho Eckstein, a massive figure dressed in a characteristic pin-striped suit, and Felix Teitlebaum, a melancholy, naked figure apparently modeled upon the artist himself. A third char­acter, a black woman surveyor ob­serving the scene with a theodolite, appears in Mix in Exile and seems lo stare back, like an apparition, when­ever Felix looks at himself in the mir­ror. Sitting in his room, Felix opens a suitcase from which many pages of paper escape and float away, trans­forming themselves into landscapes which in turn seem to metamorphose constantly
In a quiet and haunting manner, the films dramatize and complicate the relations of land, history, memo­ry, guill and forgetting, drawn in simple, starkly expressionist lines that gain their provocative complexity through the con­stant metamorphosis: landscapes turn into dead bodies outing with blood, and bodies slowly dissolve into landscapes again and arc erased. Eckstein lies on the operating table, and the medical CAT scans show the marks of the repressed horrors of violence. Kent ridge has found a personal, metaphorical style of drawing the history of forgetting, capturing the underlying horror, frame by frame* of what the surface of the new South Africa pretends to hide in the political expedien­cy of the so-called reconciliation process. The lines of remembering are drawn to be redrawn.

Matters are equally complex and dead­ly serious in Stories About Us, the work of a group of 15 photojournalists who live and work in the border town of Juarez, shooting for the daily newspapers. Curated by William Tuman, the nearly 60 color photos and the political context of the testimony they constitute were the subject of a recent Aperture publication, Juarez: the Laboratory of Our Future, fea­turing a passionate eyewitness report by Charles Bowden. At FotoFest the images had to speak for themselves, accompanied by small captions with factual data. In addition, a panel discussion was arranged to address the facts and realities of life on an economic frontier overshadowed by unregulated growth and exploitation, lowwage jobs, drug traffic, poverty, environ­mental pollution and violence. The pan­elists (several human rights activists andJaime Bailleres, one of the exhibiting jour­nalists) expressed their critical opinions openly, analyzing the damaging impact of nafta/gatt and of the new global econo­my on the social landscape of underdevel­oped regions transformed into maquila-doras — the assembly lines of cheap labor for the powerful industrial states.

How openly do the images speak? If it has become fashionable in academic and artistic circles to promote "border art" and "border theories," how are we to interpret documentary photographs of the "street shooters" from the other side of the Rio Grande? Are Julian and Gabriel Cardona's pictures of stabbed and mutilated men, or Manuel Saenz's shot of the decom­posed body of a murdered maquiladora girl, or Bailleres's gruesome close-up of a rotting face too graphic, too fantastic, ornot graphic enough? Is Jaime Murrieta's photo of young street prostitutes not prop­erly framed or out of focus? Or is Saenz'sstunning photo of Spider Man, a young masked Mexican climbing up the metal border fence at the Puente Negro to cross into El Paso for work, too dramatic and beautiful?

Stories About Us
includes Aurelio Suarez Nunez's magical nighttime photo of thousands of small lights held up dur­ing a Catholic mass in a dark cathedral, side by side with J. Cardona's bland pic­ture of a contaminated river and Saenz's more eerie shots of toxic fires blackening the sky over an illegal dump or of inno­cent children playing in front of a smelter(owned by the U.S. company Asarco) that belches poisonous fumes.

The content of these images cuts into us like a knife, like the many photos of wars and famines and poverty we see all the time. The truth in the images cannot be doubted; reality here, on our border, is not staged, nor do the images draw for­mal or stylistic attention to the construct-edness of their subjects. Yet nothing is explained in Jaime Murrieta's low-angle shot of a beautiful, young woman in white clothes, dried blood streaked across her face. Everything is ambiguously presentin Bailleres's macabre shot of the road to Lote Bravo, an empty desert where dozens of murdered citizens have been found In the left foreground we see a plastic clown’s head stuck on a fence post, smiling at us under its big eyelashes.

The real-life of the subject matter at­tacks our conscience, while we also notice that the whole package of Stories AboutUs, like the clown's doll on the fence, is staged and calculated to achieve an effect. Someone framed the police photos and the forensic evidence and sent the show to the north where its audience gets stuck in a moral dilemma. The theatrical maneu­ver, however, is not directed at the artistic market; rather, the show managed to posi­tion itself in an international art exhibi­tion that would be reviewed by the inter­national press. The attention it would draw may help its political objective, to create awareness, to disquiet the Mexican government and local authorities, and to pressure the foreign-owned corporations to clean up their act (e.g. the Greenpeace interventionist strategy).

This legitimate activist objective, grounded in the visceral experience of the photographers and their unwaveringcommitment to testify to the devouring violence on the border, utilizes FotoFest as a platform. It does not necessarily diminish the aesthetic, formalist preoccu­pations of art photography, but it reintro-duces the truth — claims of the docu­mentary medium at a point in time when they seemed tired and compromised by the daily sensationalist stagings of vio­lence on television. The crucial political dimension, however, lies in the relation of the border to the U.S. mainstream imagi­nary. The occurrences depicted in these photos burn the skin of this country. Ex­ploited and disposable labor, on the other side of the border river, must here be looked at not as objectified, distanced, -threatening or fantastic aliens but as frag­ile and endangered human life: the work­ing-class neighbor and his pregnant wife and the children from a town near you. The borders, after all, are porous, and the relations between globalized capital and localized labor will burn many of us whoend up on the wrong side of downsizing. The graphic violence from the "laboratory of our future," in other words, cannot beseen as political propaganda associated with the pathology or the myth of the borderland.

Stories About Us
is a passionate, dra­matic, uncompromising and horrific ex­hibition, and the poorly paid, unknownphotojournalists have risked their lives in their effort to create testimonies of the shocking normality of violence and de­spair they witness. Such documentation of civic disorder is not easily consumed by U.S. audiences, except if they were to con­tinue to imagine the border as a danger­ous extremity. The denial of the central history of the frontier of economic vio­lence comes at a price, and our ignorance condones nothing. Photography, in this sense, is our most political time-based art: it continues to perform the ritual of staging what we cannot want to see. Very much like Kentridge's History of the Main Complaint, Pecha's My Intuitive Theatre or Barren's empty landscapes, the Juarez photos play with denial. With the full strength of their allegories, they put the clown's doll on the fence, smiling at us. Yet these images from Juarez don't belong in a context where we can exchange courtesies. •

Johannes Birringer is a Houston-based choreogra­
pher/filmmaker and artistic director of AlienNation Co. His most recent performance was called North by South.