In conversation with artist Luis Camnitzer, Scene Gallery New York 2003/2015 mid-Atlantic

 

The original recording of this two and a half hour interview that, at times, wandered fabulously off-piste, is lost. What follows is a transcript of Camnitzer’s original questions from 2003, questions that were jettisoned as the conversation progressed. Dogra-Brazell answers these in retrospect, having returned to the US for a presentation of her films in 2015.

 

Scene Gallery, New York 2003

LC: How did your work evolve in terms of its relation with the viewer? How clearly are you demanding from the viewer that she fills the ‘gaps’? How was your work before in relation to this? Were there ‘gaps’, or what was your position vis-à-vis information?

JDB: In this case, I assume by gap you mean the notional space between sequential images or the degree of reduction in the films. Because I see this space as an autonomous interval where unforeseen relations occur, I cannot, and would not wish to, anticipate a specific outcome. Rather, I champion the possibility of a range of potential outcomes. I was pleasantly surprised recently when Urschrift, a film (with sound) that acts as the blueprint for an American 40s police procedural, found mention in a review of silent films in London.

My relation with the viewer has probably been fairly consistent. I flagged (at least, for myself early on) the complex dynamic of sequential images and, in many ways, this is what I still try to better understand and explore. Ultimately, in making the work, it’s a question of balance: avoid saying too little, avoid saying too much. In this type of scenario, the viewer has work to do. But so does the artist. We each contribute. As the tree said, begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

LC: What strategies do you employ in your present work to administer information for your purposes? Is there a narrow set of parameters within which the viewer is supposed/allowed to react, or is there total freedom?

JDB: ‘Strategy’ is perhaps the wrong word as it suggests the kind of calculation appropriate to an exercise rather than an experience. I start with the images or sounds, decontextualized and collected over time that, together, make up a film and determine what type of ‘information’ will structure it. After that, it’s up to the viewer. I try to keep the parameters as wide as possible but there is never total freedom in a reaction because emancipation is never achieved through design. Art is called art for good reason.

LC: Confronted with your work, I feel there is a strong concern in regard to ‘receptor aesthetics’. What role do your aesthetics play here? They are very apparent given the visual consistency of the work. Are they parallel, in a dialogue, or tools for stimulation? What is the interaction you hope for?

JDB: My early photographs have very limited or changing focus. My films – more akin to vestigial fragments when screened at a festival – variously employ rapid montage, a single scenario, interrupting voices, sound without visuals, stop frame animation, flicker effects and so on. No one could imagine they get the full picture. So, yes, my aesthetics, in this sense, are tools to stimulate different types of engagement. In this process, the visual consistency to which you allude is incidental.

LC: Colour seems to be very important, at least in some of your work. What is its role; is it another tool for evocation or is it a form of personal documentation? Or is it a way for aesthetic packaging?

JDB: My earliest memory from infancy was of a colour. Colour, we are told, helps us remember. For which reason, perhaps, I tend to use it sparingly and to a specific end. Sometimes, as in the photographic series The Impossibility of Storytelling, use of a particular colour can be motivated by enquiry. The red panel was a direct result of a challenge I set myself in terms of photography after wandering through an exhibition by Patrick Caulfield who, as we know, employs reds magnificently. Colour is not simply an aesthetic consideration. It is fundamental to the way we order our thoughts. I was recently sharing my excitement with a filmmaker here about a new piece that, unlike most of the films so far, will be in full colour. She pointed out that, somewhat perversely, I have chosen to show my hand at precisely the point where I am dealing with a subject – Tiresias – who goes blind. My earliest memory from infancy was of a colour. A colour that was also the word for an object.

Scene Gallery, New York 2003

LC: What is the role of literature in your work? Even if you declare the ‘impossibility’ of tales, they are half told. Are you pursuing wordless stories? Do you attempt to elicit a narrative reaction or one of a charged atmosphere? That is, what directives for decoding are you giving?

JDB: I’m not sure how a work could elicit anything other than a narrative reaction; at least, at some stage. We talk and write about film after the event and, when viewing even this type of work, are exposed to embryonic narratives or what Ruiz rather more evocatively called micro fictions that, in relation to the shot, struggle to draw attention to themselves. I suspect any initial and potentially disposable hints for decoding are implicit in the film templates I use.

LC: In what direction is your work evolving in terms of the problems you address? Are you  contemplating a total shift of aims and methods?

JDB: I espouse a kind of filmmaking that only finds justification incrementally.  I can’t jump the gun on this. And I rule nothing out. In terms of present preoccupations, I’m aware that I have not been as true to the premise of the ‘point series’ as I should. Oddly, one of the drawbacks of the experimental – as any – festival circuit is the temptation to create nicely rounded films that stand alone; which works against the spirit of a project made up of interchangeable components. This is something I will have to address.

LC: In an interview, you once made a great remark about photography as a ‘dematerializing agent’. I’m paraphrasing. But it somehow explains the great entry of photography into the arts during the sixties. In any case, it seems like a good tool to bypass objectuality in your work, to escape hard information and expedite entry into our minds. I understand that focus shifts photography into document but – and here comes the clincher – in your photographs, isn’t the persistent use of blurriness to solve this a cop out? Aren’t you in danger of elaborating a style?

JDB: You’re right, of course. Or rather, you would be right if I hadn’t stopped making photographs of that kind – not so much ‘blurry’, as with very limited focus – very quickly and around the time we met.  Appropriately enough, in the interim before moving to film, I found myself making full focus still life images; what Norman Bryson calls, the world minus its narratives.  So your mention of the document touches on a fundamental issue here.

Despite or because my sense of history is fairly acute, when it comes to my own practice, I do have resistance to the intrusion of what you call ‘hard information’. Documentary film and photography have always been a major research interest yet, when it came to Watch (With Mother), why did it take me over ten years to feel comfortable enough to use footage of an actual hospital – one ward of the long abandoned Maida Vale Hospital for Neurological Diseases  –  to make it? Having spent time there, just days before it was demolished, I had got hooked on the specific narratives of that building and, in a sense, two worlds collided. Because I knew it was very likely the only existing footage of the hospital, I felt a greater degree of responsibility towards it. I am aware of this contradiction in myself. Part archivist, part wrecking ball. I am interested to discover where it might lead. But, for now, film is as good a place to talk about history as the history. And I reckon, at least on some level, my films always do.