COMEDY AND PAIN

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin talk to Kaja Pawelek

June 2015

Download PDF

Kaja Pawelek The exhibition Rudiments provides a kind of anatomy of violence: there is a performative set of actors, gestures and props involved in the theatre of war — real and staged, those from the past and those which can anticipate the future. It is serious, precise and ridiculous at the same time. Starting with the photograph of the bullets, just imagine the faces of two American Civil War soldiers, witnessing amazing and unbelievable moment when the bullets collide in mid-air, and disappear. It sounds unreal, of course, but like a comic performance as well, or a miracle happening amidst the lethal chaos of the battlefield. On the other hand, the cadets, juvenile protagonists of your film, are being trained to act not as individuals, but as a collective military body, although their gestures bring to mind rather an amateur theatre piece still. You observe those objects and acts in close-up, and reveal startling evidence and scenes from the backstage, formative moments when routines get formed and fixed.

Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin The object on the first photograph in the exhibition looks like a very large rock, but it’s an illusion. The reason it appears so big is that it is impossibly sharp. Every contour is horribly in focus. It’s an optical illusion because in fact we are looking at a lump of lead no bigger than a peanut. It is the result of two bullets that have collided in mid-air and fused: a highly improbable occurrence that happened sometime during the American Civil War and could be said to have effectively saved the lives of two soldiers. As you say, it feels more like a moment of slapstick, a scene from a Tom and Jerry cartoon, than a deadly battle scene. In a cartoon we can laugh because the threat of death is performed rather than real. Everybody instinctively knows that, although sometimes children can get confused.

This photograph brings to mind many of the themes we are curious about. The behaviour and misbehaviour of light as it plays tricks on our senses. The role of chance in the production of a work of art. The representation of human pain, narrowly avoided in this case by sheer luck. Also ambiguity and doubt about whether an event is real or performed for the camera. The story of the collided bullets is a useful parable for us, even if it is a little twee in the way that it invokes the lives of two lucky soldiers. Because, of course, there is the flipside of being a soldier, where autonomy is pummelled by the dehumanizing power of routine and order. Our short film interrogates this ‘collective military body’ as you perfectly put it. We witnessed this collision ourselves during the filming; naive young girls and boys encountering authority. It’s upsetting. The army needs everybody to surrender their autonomy, to its own hierarchy. And yet, at the same time, it is theatrical, as you say. Their uniforms don’t quite fit and they cannot even march in time.

KP Objects and bodies are potential transmitters of violence, but they also constitute archives, where violence is physically documented and stored, not only in the form of scars but mostly in traumas and physical destruction and deformation. Those can be also carried on through generations, reproduced, and re-enacted. I remember my fascination with a small, oval metal object preserved by my family, an identity disc of my great-grandfather from the Second World War. There are holes in the middle to facilitate breaking the tag in two halves in case of death on a battlefield. Luckily, that very object remained intact, but still it has violent potential already inscribed in its materiality.

AB & OC Exactly! Once the disc is broken it cannot be put back together. The precise material you’ve described, metal that is resilient enough to survive a battle but sufficiently brittle to snap in half, acts as a metaphor. The material embodies violence.

This certainly recalls the photographs of collided bullets but also the series of glass prisms that we have rendered in the same epic scale and with the same impossible sharpness. Nothing is blurred in these images. Every edge of the prism is highly focused, drawing attention to the minute imperfections within the glass. Technically speaking, we achieved this effect by photographing these objects many, many times at various focal planes and then combining them, almost like a collage. And in this sense it’s a fictional perspective.

One of the things that led us to photograph these prisms was Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five, which takes the !ire bombing of Dresden as the central event in the narrative. Also known as ‘Operation Thunderclap’, it took place in February 1945 over the course of two days, and approximately 11 square miles of the city were razed to the ground; a city which contained no notable military presence. One exception was the Zeiss Ikon factory, which produced optical equipment for German war effort. The Zeiss factory housed technical drawings detailing the production of lenses and prisms used in weapons that were seized by the invading Russian army after the war ended. They are now held in the archive of the Leica factory.

We have rendered some of these technical drawings on copper plates coated in beeswax and candle soot. They are of course very, very fragile and cannot be touched. These materials are used in the process of making etching plates. It’s a system that was invented in the fourteenth century to decorate body armour and later for rendering technical and scientific diagrams. As you say objects (and materials) are potential transmitters of violence. Organic lumps of lead; shards of pure optical glass; lines drawn into wax and soot; and yes, the human figure is presented here as material too. In the case of the cadet, the body is disciplined and compact. In the form of the clown, the body is cushioned and somewhat grotesque.

KP Do you see a relation between performing pain, watching suffering of others and violence in everyday life, and public reception of conflicts and war?

AB & OC There needs to be a comic frame present in order for us to laugh at pain, just enough distance between us and the event so we wince but laugh, almost out of relief that the violence is not being performed on us. This is slapstick at it’s most effective. Schadenfreude is universal and signals a pleasure that comes with witnessing somebody else’s pain and suffering. In some circumstances, this suffering can even be funny. Slapstick relies on this. The word itself is derived from a strange object; two pieces of wood held together by a metal hinge. The wood can be slapped together to make the sound of a slap. It’s the first known sound effect and was used in Italian commedia dell’arte. We used this in our film with the cadets. In one scene they practice slapping each other. Of course, they never actually hurt each other. Rather they are performing pain. It’s incomparable, but think about the imagery produced by ISIS, for instance, a hostage being decapitated. It’s the performance of pain cho- reographed for the camera and taken to the extreme. And if we didn’t assume it is horribly real, if there was a semblance of a comic frame, it would actually be a piece of slapstick.

KP Well, maybe because slapstick is also somehow connected to pathos, that element of seriousness is actually crucial to build up slapstick comedy. It is needed to heat up and then dismantle viewers’ emotions; it must be highly real and unreal at the same time. ISIS is clearly using highly pathetic visual language of propaganda — destruction and violence in a symbolic, ‘barbarian’ style; it’s aimed at evoking archetypical associations we have, constructed and enhanced by movies or novels, and of course by the media.

Why did you bring the Bouffon to the cadet’s camp?

AB & OC As far as we understand it, the Bouffon originates from a medieval figure, a marginalized character, a dark clown who was mostly ostracized by society, apart from one day of the year when he or she was invited to the royal court with explicit permission to mock those in power. The character was really brought to the performance and comedy world by Jacques Lecoq and his inquiry into performative approaches to comedy. He created classroom exercises that explored the burlesque, commedia dell’arte, farce, gallows humour, parody, satire and slapstick. There is an interesting passage in E.T.A Hoffmann’s introduction to The Master and the Margherita where Bulgakov and Hoffman agree that irony and buffoonery are expressions of “the deepest contemplation of life in all its conditionality...”. This is the role of the Bouffon in our film; she is temperamental and vulgar, naughty and mocking, rude and disrespectful. The inverse of military culture that’s about discipline and order, hierarchy and obedience, accuracy and vigilance. We choreographed the collision between these two worlds, by planting her like a counter-intelligence agent, or a traitor. But her remarkable performance relies on her acute observation of the gestures and modes of utterance that she witnessed during the week that we were filming in Liverpool. When you get beyond all her clowning around, the Bouffon is essentially toxic, at least in relation to the values of the military. At times, during the production of this work, we have both felt the spirit of the Bouffon enter our studio and cause some chaos. It felt particularly transgressive inserting this character of the Bouffon into a cadet camp populated by children. She is so vulgar and overtly sexual. By the end of our film, the Bouffon is crying and we’re left wondering if this could be one authentic moment. The performer, Hannah Ringham, was improvising throughout. She accompanied our film crew for days, gathering a kind of vocabulary of gesture through observation, which she subsequently incorporated into her performance. In the early scenes, her movements were more vulgar and ridiculous. But as time went by, she became overwhelmed by the oppressive atmosphere. Her compassion and empathy for the young cadets finally caught up with her.

KP The Bouffon reveals also her other nature, when she plays the role of a human puppet and constructs an intimate alphabet of gestures, a series entitled after Goya, but formally resembling imaginary existence of Bellmer’s surreal doll.

AB & OC In the final months and after the Second World War Alfred Hitchcock and other British filmmakers were working upon a film about Holocaust, in which they used films provided by the British army film unit and the Allies , who were documenting the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and Auschwitz, among others. It shows some of the most gruesome footage of the camps we’ve ever seen; piles of bodies and mass graves; volunteers carrying corpses from one place to the other. The film was not screened at the time, as it was considered too frightening.

KP I think it was also a political decision, stemming from the shift in the position of post-war Germany, and from the creation of a Cold War order...

AB & OC One of the striking features of these images was the presence of human limbs: arms and legs; feet; hands; heads. The parts didn’t seem to add up to any whole body. And in Goya’s Disasters of War series there is again the haunting presence of human limbs, strewn on the ground, hanging from trees. You see this with Hans Bellmer too; his dismembered doll that refuses to idealize the human body. In fact, he initiated his doll project to oppose the fascism by declaring that he would make no work that would support the new German state. Represented by mutated forms and unconventional poses, his dolls were directed specifically at the cult of the perfect body then so strongly prominent in Germany. We decided to make a series of photographs with our Bouffon, her head is obscured and the form of her body is distorted in such a way that we were left with just body parts. The eye tries to find the presence of a person, but the shapes are unfamiliar and disorientating. You know, this Bouffon is rude and crass, as we’ve already said, but we also love her, and in these photographs she is our muse, they are intended as an intimate and tender portrait.

KP It seems that the music score and the drummers provide a connection to yet another research you are pursuing — about the history of Yiddish theatre, linking Tsarist Russia and Hollywood, but also your long-term engagement with Brecht’s War Primer?

AB & OC Brecht and the composer Hanns Eisler started working on an opera called War Primer when they were both living in exile in California during the Second World War. They never completed it. For a while, we have been threatening to finish this opera and we were reading about the history of music in relation to war, which goes back to the figure of the little drummer boy, a boy as young as seven, who would march ahead of the troops. His drum was used in battle to command the troops. Different rudiments signalled attack, retreat etc. It was also used as an auditory illusion, to give the impression of a bigger, more threatening army. For centuries, the drummer boy was considered to be sacred. It was un-gentlemanly to kill the drummer boy, even if he was your enemy. That changed during the Anglo-Zulu war in South Africa and the drummers were not spared. In fact, they were targeted. We were also interested in the use of the drum as a tool of censorship. For instance, there is a vivid description of the execution of the Nihilists, the Russian revolutionaries who assassinated Tsar Alexander II. Thousands of drummers flanked the route of assassins as they were marched to the gallows in April 1881. The drumming persisted for the duration of the event, only pausing briefly whilst the sentences were read to the assembled crowd. The swells of drumming effectively muted the voices of the accused, preventing them from shouting their ideology to the onlookers. In this instance, the instrument was used as a political weapon.

Contemporaneously, the drummers in every army were also the ones who metered out the punishment, which made them powerful and sometimes much-reviled characters. In the show, we have collected porcelain figurines of drummer boys, which we have defaced with clay to create a kind of hybrid soldier/Bouffon. But we’ve also inserted real drummers into the gallery space. They work in teams of two, like a comedy double act, and their job is to maintain a constant drum role for the duration of the exhibition.

KP One of the returning themes in your work is the mechanism of subordination to authority: one’s willingness to expose, to hand over the control over one’s body, testimony etc. This can be seen in Trust, a project in which you photographed people on an operating table, just seconds before they underwent anaesthesia, and you couldn’t believe they all agreed, similarly to the prisoners in the Ghetto, to give testimonies while being photographed. That question returns over and over again in your works: why are people willing to give up control over their lives and give part of it to strangers in quite peculiar, quasi-voluntary gesture? You often referred to Janet Malcolm’ book, The Journalist and the Murderer, in which she describes the case of real, legal consequences of testimonies given by a man accused of murdering his wife to a reporter who was writing a book about him, as well as the aftermath for both parties. This again brings up the topic of trust and betrayal in documentary, and entitlement to make judgments over other people’s lives. You decided to challenge power relations by performing more subversive gestures (and risk) yourself, to focus on the use of the medium, and to work with found footage from various archives.

AB & OC It is interesting that you use the word betrayal, because deception is central to our practice. When we were posted with the British Army in Afghanistan in 2008 we produced a series of abstract photograms that could be interpreted as a betrayal of our code of conduct as embedded journalists that we were pretending to be. We took on this guise to gain access; it was very telling that the military were more afraid of artists than they were of journalists. Similarly, we worked closely with the Israeli Defence Force, pretending to make a sympathetic piece, which only later revealed its critical nature. Unsurprisingly, there came a moment during the filming of the cadets in Liverpool when our presence became problematic. We were asking the cadets to demonstrate falling to the ground and marching with their eyes closed, the very inverse of what a soldier should do, and the cadet Sergeant on duty intervened. Later, we were teaching the cadets how to slap each other in the face without hurting each other, a trope of slapstick comedy, and again the cadet Sergeant intervened. Finally, we were asked to stop filming entirely. A big part of our work is about access. It’s always a negotiation and a kind of seduction. Our projects often rely on collaborations that begin with a lot of enthusiasm and excitement on both sides and quickly change to mistrust and finally betrayal. On the day when we were leaving the cadet camp both them, as well as us, were quite relieved.

KP There is an interesting moment in a documentary about the performance duo Yes Men, when they claim that their deep mistrust towards power structures has been inherited from their parents, American Jews of European decent. So, in a way, it’s a deep-seated heritage of the 20th century. I wonder how much your identity and childhood spent in South Africa has influenced that strong objection to speak on someone else’s behalf and fulfil official commissions?

AB & OC You know, our families originate from the same shtetl of Eastern Europe. Both our respective ancestors fled anti-Semitic pogroms. Both of us have family members who perished in Auschwitz. And then the experience as South Africans living in Johannesburg and London in the 1980s, when we were teenagers, while the 1990s, when we were at university, was confusing, even a traumatic period for us both, in very different ways. Through this shared history we’ve developed a mistrust of power and misuse of authority; a kind of allergic reaction to social conformity; a fear of crowd mentality. Watching those young cadets marching around the parade ground of a military base in Liverpool, it was impossible not to think of Elias Canetti. He speaks about the rhythm of crowds, how every human being walks, and since each person walks on two legs that hit the ground alternatively, a rhythm develops. We thought a lot about that sound, and his analysis of the crowd, how it forms, and how it breaks; how a peaceful protest can become a violent protest. No matter how amateur those cadets were, there was something frightening about them when they occasionally hit their stride. We’ve also been reading about the history of pogroms in Russia at the end of the nineteenth century that pushed our great grandparents onto boats to Cape Town. They were ferocious and could be sparked by the smallest incident, a man is asked to remove his hat in public, a small thing could set off a wave of ethnic violence that had the force and momentum of a forest fire burning up oxygen. In this case, the oxygen was racial hatred and the violence would travel along every road and tramline until it had completely incinerated itself.

On a trip to Rwanda which took place about 6 years after the genocide, we met a researcher who was interviewing both Hutu perpetrators and Tutsi victims and she claimed not only to have developed the formula for genocide (an understanding of the perfect storm of various conditions that could lead to such an event), but she also remarked that victims of genocide have one of two very polarised responses when encountering injustice. They are either very outspoken critics of the abuse of power, or they hide in fear of retribution or undue attention from the state. Our respective families reacted in different ways, but certainly, that inheritance, as second-generation genocide survivors, feels very real and palpable.

KP In one of the recent interviews you said that since you work together, you can’t just pick up a camera and take a picture, you have to have a conversation about it first. This is a declaration of a working method that is clearly not based on catching reality red-handed. There is a lot of research, analysis and establishing diverse connections. Those connections are non-linear, they’re sometimes based on coincidence, or involve almost miraculous intersections of reality and fiction. Part of your work actually remains invisible and non-material. However, since it’s very narrative and performative at the same time, the audience can reconstruct it on their own. I can imagine archaeologists digging up parts of a B52 bomber in Mexico, Israeli security trying to destroy your film, waiting for the informants who could tell you something about Egyptian surrealists under a hand-written sign in Cairo, or your recent meeting with the cadets and the military in Liverpool.

AB & OC Our project Dodo is a good example to illustrate the working method and the strange intersections between reality and fiction that you refer to. The film version of Joseph Heller’s novel, Catch-22, was the most expensive movie Hollywood had ever produced in 1969. It was shot over six months in San Carlos, then an unscathed desert coastline in Mexico. The crew constructed a full-size airstrip; they assembled 18 original B52 bombers, effectively forming the sixth biggest air force in the world. We discovered that one of the bombers was buried on set after a stunt crash during filming — you can see it go down in the background as Martin Balsam and Jon Voight discuss the vagaries of the price of eggs. We decided to travel to San Carlos to exhume the so-called “Mexican Plane”. We went with archaeologists from the University of Mexico City. When we got there, we found only fragments — aluminium shards, rusty nails, rabbit droppings. But the setting was significant. San Carlos was a sleepy, quiet place until the crew arrived in May 1968 — back then, the coastline of the Sea of Cortez resembled Pianosa, the Tuscan island where Heller set Catch-22, which was why it was chosen as the location. But after the crew wrapped up and returned to Los Angeles, it left behind a road, control towers, derelict villas and a fully operational runway. The film created a town, and San Carlos, as a whole, is now this hideous victim of American colonisation. It’s been totally ruined by tourism and the drugs trade.

We decided to perform another form of archaeology, contacting the Studio to gain access to the footage from the gargantuan shoot left on the cutting-room floor and then archived by Paramount Pictures. We finally did gain access to 11 hours of never-before-seen footage. These moving images, filmed in 1968 and left in the chest at Paramount, suddenly became charged documentary evidence of destruction of a once pristine coastline. We turned a fiction &ilm about the Second World War, set in Italy in 1944, into a nature documentary set in Mexico in 1969, a film about the coastline and wildlife of San Carlos as it stood on the brink between isolation and urban development. Stranger still, when we got back from the archaeological dig, we recalled the dodo, the first species to be made extinct as a result of human activity. Four centuries after its last sighting, not a single intact skeleton or credible image remains. A little like our Mexican Plane. Only one egg survives in the whole world. While we were sitting in a bar in Mexico City, a quick Google search revealed to our shock that this egg rests in a tiny museum in a small town on the East Coast of South Africa. So we photographed the egg and named the exhibition in its honour. This pretty much explains the oddity of our working method.

KP Nature appeared in Dodo, but also in To Photograph a Dark Horse in a Low Light; you mentioned the South-African biologist Eugéne Marais and his book The Soul of the White Ant as an important source of inspiration. The bullets you photographed could also be easily mistaken for stones. Does nature have any significant meaning for you?

AB & OC Only as evidence of social and political manoeuvres. When we spent time in Israel and the West Bank we were taken on a tour of the numerous pine forests grown by the Jewish National Fund just after occupation in 1948. We were escorted by the head of the Department of Architecture, Zvi Efrat, whose PhD thesis showed how these forests had been deliberately planted on the sites of former Arab settlements. So a tranquil forest became the scene of forensic investigation when he nudged a large boulder with his foot explaining that what looked like ancient rock was in fact rubble from the more recent evacuation of the villages. Nature can’t help but render even a conflict zone innocent, a trick Israel apparently learned in Europe after the Second World War.

KP So, deception again, as well as manipulation. I wonder about the relation between the working process, which involves relations with people, conversations, narrations, and then the final work, which is sometimes more like an essence, a gesture, a detail. More like a residue of often quite adventurous time, definitely full of intense thinking. Still, form seems very important to you. I have an impression that you also consciously remove — or avoid — any emotional or sentimental aspects in your works. The montage of all the traces and threads is entirely up to the viewer.

Was there any particular disturbing, maybe forcefully or involuntary entertaining aspect of the conflict situations you have participated in? A moment on the verge of tragedy and comedy?

AB & OC There have been many. Conflict zones lend themselves to visual comedy. Trying to land a small six-seater airplane on the border of Chad and Sudan was particularly harrowing when rebel soldiers started firing on the runway. There is nothing you can do but laugh. Getting access to Darfur in return for airtime for child soldiers’ mobile phones. In Afghanistan in 2008 driving with young British soldiers on patrol around Helmand Province and seeing them attach tourniquets to their arms and legs before entering the armoured vehicles. Sensibly, they were worried about driving over IEDs and bleeding to death if they lost a limb. There was nothing funny about that, although their passivity in the face of unknowable danger felt surreal and totally absurd.

KP What’s your score in the empathy test?

Oliver: I scored 44. My age. Halfway through life, if I’m lucky.
Adam: I cheated.