Adam Carr for Mousse Magazine
Issue 45

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The works of the art duo Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin are based on the assumption and questioning of different professional roles and practices, from photojournalism—which they undertake as a necessarily risky activity in Afghanistan—to a type of archaeology of modernity and “humor” that traces back through the strata of events in a given place. Adam Carr met the artists to talk over the opportunities that have led to many of their works, which often involve aspects of exhibition and publishing at the same time.

Adam Carr: Let’s start where you started. How did you become interested with the visual arts? When did you first meet? I remember I asked this question when we first met a few months ago, and I was surprised to hear that though you are both from South Africa, you didn’t really meet there properly.

Oliver Chanarin: We met in Wuppertal, South Africa on a camping trip. I don’t think Adam and I said two words to each other, but several years later I was living in London and Adam come to study at Saint Martins, mostly to avoid military conscription. He called me because he needed help constructing a flat pack Ikea bed his brother had given him. That’s how it started. Neither of us had studied art or art theory and our practice came out of philosophy, politics and a sort of idiotic curiosity. About 10 years after that, we discovered we were cousins, distantly related, which is not so odd actually since our grandparents all came to South Africa via the same Lithuanian shtetl.

Adam Broomberg: It’s a puddle of a gene pool. My mother taught at a kindergarten run by Olly’s late grandmother, a formidable character who was infamously the first woman to trade on the South African stock exchange. The last time we saw her she was well past 100 years old, sitting in a Jewish old-age home in Johannesburg, staring blankly into space. When we got up to leave, I stroked her hand and walked off... after about a hundred paces I heard a booming voice yell “Cheerio Broomberg!” I want that carved on my tombstone.

AC: What was the first project that you worked on together?

AB: It was a book and show called “Trust”. It was shown at the Hasselblad Center in Gothenburg and published as a book: a clumsy meditation on the absolute authority of the camera. Its various chapters charted the subjects’ inability to compose themselves, beginning with people absolutely absorbed in video games and ending with people under general anaesthesia. As a body of work, it testifies to how the camera has always been so tied up with power and is in fact a part of its arsenal. Somehow people unfailingly agreed to be photographed, no matter how vulnerable they were. I’m sure it would be impossible now to repeat that project, which was made almost twenty years ago.

OC: It wasn’t a great book but I most clearly remember the last chapter... those portraits of men and women going under general anaesthesia. We man- aged to obtain access to the operating theatre at Guy’s Hospital thanks to a close friend who was an anaesthetist there. Later he gave it up to become a performance artist, so he understood where we were coming from. We spent two months going to Guy’s, interviewing patients during the pre-op and asking them to sign a consent form to have their portrait taken while they were asleep during their operation. What really shocked us was that not a single patient declined to be photographed. They were all so vulnerable and scared. When you are in any institution you give over so much authority to it. It dawned on us that we were aligned with the institution. Over the years we’ve found ourselves in lots of comparable situations—embedded with the Ministry of Defence in Afghanistan, or giving a photography workshop to Israeli Defence Force soldiers, or gangs in the Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison—where our role is repeatedly somehow unclear to both those in power and to the subjects, for whom the camera seems to offer some kind of salvation, a false promise. We ’ve somehow managed to harness that ambiguity, that duplicity, and it’s become a central theme of our work.

AC: Something you said before, Adam, about your early way of working— which you described as a classic documentary mode of photography—is connected with an interest I have had regarding your work, which I have not had the opportunity to ask you about before. Your work seems to have shifted from the “photographic world” to the visual art world, if there is ever a separation between the two. A related question is about your books. When does a work settle as a book and when does it become something for an exhibition? I mean in the traditional sense of a presentation of objects in a gallery space. Though of course there is a whole history of artists who have treated the book as an exhibition space, or the exhibition space as a book...

AB: There was certainly a definite shift at one point. Our doubts and uncomfortable shuffles have always been motivated by well-timed texts that somehow find their way onto our paths. One memorable text during this particular shift was The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm, in which she repeatedly expresses how baffled she is that people continue to confess to her as if she were a psychoanalyst, knowing all too well that she is a journalist—she is confused by their willingness to lay bare all of their dirt. Even though she’s now notorious, people still can’t help themselves. We share her scepticism with the medium and the one-way flow of power. Unlike her, though, we are not out to exploit that flow.

OC:Books are more democratic objects. They are affordable, which makes them very different from art-world objects. And more intimate too. We always advise people who buy our Holy Bible to leave it in the toilet. That’s the best place to really engage with it.

AC: It was interesting to me, during one of our previous conversations, to hear that you first made the book of Holy Bible on the wall in your studio, so to have it framed, isolated and presented within the context of an exhibition space comes back, in part, to how you envisaged it initially. I wanted to ask you to expand on something you mentioned before about the different guises you sometimes have to assume to achieve your works, which meddle with different modes of representation, and in fact, different genres... I am thinking here about the project you did in Afghanistan, which was less about documenting the war but more about exposing time spent there, in both a political and economic sense, and perhaps questioning the genre of war reportage. The project was as much a conceptual exercise as it was a political one (though of course the two can and do overlap). The project certainly speaks a conceptual language in its underpinning of process, performance and presentation, that could be seen to link back to artists synonymous with the birth of Conceptual Art...

OC: You wouldn’t think of Robert Capa’s image of a Republican soldier dying as conceptual, but recently unearthed interviews with Capa reveal that he was too scared to put his head above the trench wall, and made the photograph blind, holding the camera above his head and snapping randomly. Who would have thought that the quintessential photojournalistic image, made by our “brave” (male) proxy with a perfect sense of timing, was actually a forerunner of techniques like chance or accident applied by conceptual artists using photography? Our work in Afghanistan is conceptual, in that it could be distilled into a set of instructions and executed by anybody. But it was also an extremely dangerous undertaking, driving around Helmand Province in a “Snatch” vehicle we had turned into a darkroom, risking being blown up by an IED (improvised explosive device). That element of risk was part of it too... we had to be present, to be in danger, for the performance and the outcome to have any value. And there was nothing conceptual about the danger. It was very real.

AB: It’s the documentation, the film that follows the McGuffin, the box of photographic paper, from our studio in London to the front line and back, which is more important than the works themselves. The film functions to analyse the logistics and the banal ecosystem of a conflict zone. It also demonstrates the most infuriating element of the project: how art can lie to and expose power.
Books are more democratic objects. They are affordable, which makes them very different from art-world objects. And more intimate too. We always advise people who buy our Holy Bible to leave it in the toilet. That’s the best place to really engage with it.

OC: Our recent show “Divine Violence”, where each chapter of the Holy Bible is framed individually, reflects the process of its construction more honestly than the bound book does. We poured through over 10,000 images to make the 720 individual works. We didn’t do it in a linear fashion, as the book suggests. It was much more chaotic and accidental. The exhibition, which looks much more like a massive collage, is a more honest rendition. It was overwhelming walking in there, whereas the book tends to tame the work. You can close a book, put it away. But you can’t escape the claustrophobia and confrontation of an exhibition of that work.

AC: Your recent exhibition at Jumex in Mexico revolved around these to of the Hollywood adaptation of the novel Catch-22, which again was much about assuming other roles—archaeologists, in this case—together with a team of professionals. Could you explain the project and some of its starting points?

OC: There’s a phrase in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, “Be furious you’re going to die”, which became our motto, because the project traces a series of extinctions. Hence the title “Dodo”, which was the first species to be made extinct by human activity. With the help of the Jumex Foundation, we got permission to return to the location where the film version of Catch-22 was shot, in northwest Mexico. Almost nothing in recorded history happened in this desolate place until May 22, 1969. The peak of the Tetakawi (Goat’s Breasts) Mountain was the only landmark along a deserted stretch of coastline. Now there is a highway along the narrow space between the desert and the Sea of Cortez, a favourite feeding spot for a variety of whales. A sequence of discordant buildings lines this path: hotels, holiday bungalows and weekend houses for families from nearby Hermosillo or retirees from Canada and the United States. A weak, corrupt or perhaps just indifferent local planning department has left this stretch of real estate looking ill considered and haphazard. However, in 1969, before all this, San Carlos resembled Pianosa, the diminutive island off the coast of Sicily where Joseph Heller set his satirical Second World War novel.

AB: This single event came to define the town of San Carlos and its surrounding landscape forever. The transformation began with the construction of an enormous runway, 6,000 feet long and 40 feet wide, large enough to accommodate eighteen B-25 bombers. Years later, the runway was commandeered by drug cartels and then destroyed by the Mexican military. In 1969, the smooth black tarmac ran perpendicular to the ocean, cutting cleanly through the scrub like a prehistoric message. Stunt pilot Frank Tallman had been responsible for assembling the fleet and reported that each plane was purchased, repaired and made sky-worthy at an average cost of $10,000. There were so many planes on the set—some of them whole, others in pieces—that it was considered the sixth biggest air force in the world at the time. The director of photography David Watkins insisted on shooting in the middle of the day, when the sun was at its apex. Thus actors are silhouetted and the background is burned out, giving an effect of perpetual limbo that echoes the strange dislocated mood of Heller’s narrative. With just two hours of shooting per day, the production quickly went over budget and off schedule. Yet little of this abundant material made it into the final cut. Most of it has instead languished in a sealed box in the Paramount Studio archives ever since. The box contains 4,891 strips of film, some as short as several frames. Time has done its work, and these fragments have inadvertently become the record of a landscape that has changed beyond recognition. Thus material from a fictional film set in 1944 in Italy is transformed into a nature documentary set in 1968.

AC: The show was set into different environments. The parts of the plane were displayed in such a way that they seemed to mimic a display akin to a natural history museum, and the larger space was taken up by an operating plane propeller, which seemed right at home, since the exhibition space is a former factory. Also, something you said earlier made me think about your work as a comment about the politicization of technology... This is perhaps most apparent in your piece The Polaroid Revolutionary Workers...

OC: Like the Dodo, of which there is no single whole skeleton in the world, our archaeological finds were a minestrone of various bombers. Apart from the propeller, the various other components are laid out on a small plinth and hung on the walls in a small separate space, using the nails for the set construction. Many of the objects found by our archaeological team are undoubtedly parts of the B-25 bomber. These were collected, photographed, measured, catalogued and eventually displayed at the Jumex gallery. The effect, as you say, is similar to a museum display, albeit an undisciplined and unruly one. But there was a second group of objects that may have been part of the plane, though it was hard to be sure. And the objects in the final group were definitely unrelated, such as the thousands of pellets of dried rabbit shit that we found at the location. We decided not to discriminate, so the objects are displayed without hierarchy. The curator dubbed it archaeology with a sense of humour.

AB: The gallery at Jumex is vast, and we decided to install just two other objects in this large space, a propeller from a B-25 bomber and a cinema-scale screen. There was also a double reversal of intentions here. A mechanical intention—propellers usually suck air, but we had it turning in reverse, filling the space with air and making the cinema screen bellow and drag in the breeze. And then a metaphorical intention—by turning a fictional film into a nature documentary, we upset its original function.

OC: The Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement is something very different, but again technology is the central protagonist. In this case a very special camera, which we used to photograph plant specimens in South Africa.

AB: The story goes that in 1970 Caroline Hunter, a young chemist working for the Polaroid Corporation, stumbled upon evidence that her multinational employers were indirectly supporting apartheid. With the collusion of local South African distributors Frank & Hirsch, Polaroid was able to provide the ID-2 camera system to the South African state, to efficiently produce images for the infamous passbooks.

OC: The camera included a boost button designed to increase the flash when photographing subjects with dark skin, and two lenses which allowed for the production of a frontal and profile portrait on the same sheet of film. Along with her partner Ken Williams, Hunter formed the Polaroid Workers Revolutionary Movement, and campaigned for a boycott. By 1977 Polaroid finally did withdraw from South Africa, and the international divestment movement—which contributed to put an end to apartheid—was on its way.

AC: What are you working on currently?

AB: Brecht spoke about his work as a series of attempts, the word in German
is Versuche.

OC: It’s a nice word because it leaves open the possibility that a work is never finished.
ab: One of the attempts we are working on is a contemporary opera. The idea of making an opera began while working on our recent project War Primer 2, which is a book that physically inhabits the pages of Brecht’s remarkable 1955 publication, Kriegsfibel or War Primer. The original is a collection of Brecht’s newspaper clippings about World War II, each accompanied by a four-line poem or “photo-epigram”. It is a practical manual, demonstrating how to “read” or “translate” press photographs, and it reflects Brecht’s unease about the way such images of war were being distributed and interpreted. Later we learned that Brecht hoped to transform his book into an opera, and he invited Hans Eisler to set his photo-epigrams to music. There are 85 photo-epigrams in all, but Eisler only man- aged to write 15 compositions before they both returned to East Germany and abandoned the project. Brecht died in 1956 and the work was never completed.

OC: The term opera is misleading though... we envisage a large-scale installation and performance presented in a gallery space, rather than a theatre. In the spirit of Brecht, who famously collaborated with workers’ musical groups in East Germany, we are keen to perform the original Eisler compositions with a military youth orchestra, and we will be interrogating these young cadets on their personal notions of war (and peace).

AB: Another project we are working on is called Schtik Fleis Mit Tzvei Eigen which is a Yiddish insult meaning “A Piece of Meat with Two Eyes”. It’s a phrase that my grandmother called my mother every morning of her life, apparently. For this we began experimenting with a technology known as non-collaborative portraiture, which reflects some startling new developments in the romance be- tween photography and the state. The camera we are using was designed for facial recognition purposes in crowded areas such as subway stations, railroad stations, stadiums, concert halls or other public areas, but also for photographing people who would normally resist being photographed.

OC: Any subject encountering this type of camera is rendered passive, because no matter in what direction he or she looks, the face is always rendered looking forward and stripped bare of shadows, make-up, disguises or mood. So far we’ve produced a series of portraits in Moscow, where the camera has been developed. The success of these “portraits” is determined by how precisely the machine can identify its subject: the characteristics of the nose, the eyes, the chin, and how these three intersect. Nevertheless, the pictures cannot help being portraits of individuals, struggling and often failing to negotiate a civil contract with state power.

AB: We recently encountered a strange collection of objects housed in a provincial museum in Istanbul. They are contorted bits of metal that are the result of two bullets having accidentally collided on the battlefield and fused. We’ve begun a photographic catalogue of these coincidences, each one effectively having saved two lives.

OC: A bit like the two of us.