Alfredo Jaar and Krzysztof Pijarski in conversation
This conversation took place in Warsaw in October 2014, on the occasion of The Sound of Silence, Alfredo Jaar’s exhibition at the Centre of Contemporary Art Znaki Czasu in Toruń. Originally to be published in Szum magazine, Krzysztof Pijarski would like to thank Adam Mazur for making this possible.
Krzysztof Pijarski: I want to ask a very basic question to start with: why art? Your formation is that of an architect, not a visual artist, and I am really curious to know how you negotiate art with your vocation.
Alfredo Jaar: Well, I always wanted to be an artist, but my father thought it was a bad idea. So he convinced me that I should apply to architecture instead of art. It was the early 70’s in Chile and to make a living as an artist was a real utopia, it seemed completely unthinkable. So he suggested “Listen, there are so many architects that are also artists, you can make architecture and you can be an artist on the side.” And he convinced me. It was a great idea. I am very thankful and it has greatly influenced the way I make art. I think that everything I do is because I studied architecture. And I use the methodology of an architect to make art: the way I approach the work, the way I look at the context, the scale, the light, the issues. So I am really an architect making art.
KP: What does it mean to be an architect making art as opposed to a visual artist making art?
AJ: For me context is everything, and most artists couldn’t care less about context, because they are studio artists. They create art in their studio and when the work is ready, they send it out into the world, and most do not care about where it will end up. Some artists don't even go to install the work, they don't care. I couldn't be more different than that. I do not create work in the studio, I work on projects. And I care about the way they are seen, the way they are installed, the way they communicate with a specific audience, and so on. For example, for The Sound of Silence, the work I am presenting in Toruń, we have created a different version, because the context was different. I have always described this piece, built around the Pulitzer Prize winning photograph from Sudan by Kevin Carter, as a theater for a single image. It is a real theatre, and this is the biggest one we have ever done. The Toruń space is so huge that we used a different scale for it, the Toruń version is 6 x 6 x 12 meters whereas the original measures 4 x 4 x 8 meters. We have also translated it into Polish as I am trying to engage my audience in a dialogue. That is what architecture does. Architecture looks at the context, it is not created in a vacuum. Architecture is not a response to the architect's imagination. Architecture has a function. You're making a building for a specific function, with specific parameters – a family of five will live here, and the son needs a separate entrance; and there is sea on that side, and there is a road here; and there is this building on one side and there is a little house on the other side. And that's how I make art.
KP: So then, what is art for you?
AJ: For me, and for my audience, art is a way to understand the world. I became an artist because I do not understand the world. Every project I do is a way to understand a specific situation, Because, for me, I need to understand the world before acting in the world. Like the architect. The same way the architect needs to understand where the sun is coming from. You cannot imagine doing architecture before knowing – “ah! This is east and this is west.” I need to understand the world before acting in the world. And that process of understanding requires an enormous amount of research. It can take years, and in that process I learn so much. It enlightens me. It gives me privileged access to information, to key players of a certain issue, of a certain situation, a certain reality. And I grow as an artist, and as a human being. I gain knowledge, I am the result of all this research I have done. And I want to share with my audience some elements of that research, the elements that I feel are the most important to share. And that is how I am an artist.
KP: And this brings us to another very interesting, or important, issue in your work: that of the way in which you share all this. While you say that art is a tool or medium to understand the world, what you actually do is anything but straightforward – you don't lecture your audience, you don't just tell everybody what you have learned, but you put in place a structure, where this experience of getting to know something about the world is not simply about reception. It's also about production, isn’t it?
AJ: That's a beautiful question, that's a brilliant way of putting it. Well, we have to understand not only the physicality of these realities, but also the means of production, the way we got there. And all this is part of the process, and it is a fascinating process to discover and to share with an audience. Because life is complex, it's not black and white, there are thousands of shades of grey and how are we to transmit all these things to an audience? It's almost impossible. I've always said that as an artist, I do not represent reality, because I think reality is impossible to represent. What I do as an artist, I create a new reality. How do I communicate the experience of another human being to you. How do I do that? There are no images or words that can do that fully. I can get close. But I can't actually bring the subject to you, have them tell you the story that they told me. They cannot share with you what they experienced. For instance, they saw their mother being killed with machetes in front their own eyes. So – how do I share that experience with you? I have to create a mechanism, I have to create a strategy of representation that somehow, somewhat brings up or evokes aspects of the realities that I learnt from that person. They are similar, but it is never the same thing.
KP: What has this to do with critical thinking? Because one of the ways you are being described as an artist is as somebody who practices, but also proposes to his audience, critical thinking as a way of approaching the world. What would that be, or mean, for you? How it does it manifest itself in your works?
AJ: This has two components. First the communication aspect, and then the content aspect. First, on the communication level it's important for me to understand, to realize that I'm trying to communicate with someone I don't know. Someone who speaks another language. Someone whose baggage of intellectual information is different from mine. So I have to be aware that I have to use a strategy of communication in order to be able to engage that person in a dialogue. That is the first important component – to be aware that communication is not to throw a message, communication is to get a response. If there is no response, there is no communication. So you have to understand the mechanism of communication. And if you do that, then you start to incorporate into the work something I call points of entry, so that people of different intellectual levels can enter the work and communicate with it. That is one point. Now, regarding the content – how do you stimulate, how do you trigger critical thinking? I ask myself that question for every project, because every project has its own specific responses to that question. I do not use the same formula. In each work I give myself an objective. And this objective will trigger the conceptual construction of that work. So, depending on that objective I will create and introduce all the tools, all the mechanisms, all the strategic moves that I need to make, in order to achieve my objective. In the case of The Sound of Silence – to use an example – I try to give the facts as objectively as possible. Without giving any opinion. I'm not saying it's good or bad, I'm just offering fact after fact. And the lament that goes through the whole piece – “Kevin, Kevin, Kevin Carter” – is a way to space the content, to give it a tempo.
KP: Like an incantation.
AJ: Like an incantation. Well, I decided to focus on this name because it was the only name I knew. I didn't know the name of the little girl that happened to be a boy. I didn't know his name. I knew the name of Kevin. Kevin is there, but in every Kevin I'm really looking for her name, or his name. It is an incantation, almost like in a Greek chorus. You know, people have a very short attention span and you have to work with that, so I decided to create a circular structure, punctuated by Kevin’s name. This rhythmic return helped me to divide the story into different chapters, to build up a character, a story, until it's climactic event.
KP: You described this piece as a theater for one image – did it start with the image? How did it come to be an issue for you?
AJ: I am an avid reader of news, I read an enormous amount of information every day. I start my day by reading the papers from around the world, in different languages. Because context for me is important, it is everything. And I feel everything is connected. Something that happened yesterday in India is connected to something that happens in Italy, or in Poland. Everything is connected. And I am very curious. Curiosity moves me. So, it is very natural for me to read the news every day for hours before I start my normal journey. And when that image came up in 1993, I saw it in The New York Times. And it shocked me. It was one of the strongest images I had ever seen. It was a strong statement about hunger in the world. That's how I saw it, so I saved it. I read the story and I thought – wow, what a way to capture the idea of hunger in the world. Because you have to understand that people think that situation occurred just like that, and this photographer was there and he took this picture. No, no, no. You do not take a photograph, you make it. Not incidentally this is the title of a piece that accompanies The Sound of Silence in Toruń – a 1x1x1 meter cube of 15,000 posters inscribed with this phrase that people can take for free. But back to Sudan: so, there were hundreds of refugees walking towards the feeding center. There were many vultures in the area. When Kevin saw this scene, he positioned himself in such a way as not to see all the kids, not to see all the vultures. He positioned himself, so that he could make that image exactly the way it is. He could have positioned himself in front of the vulture or in front of the kid, on the one side or on the other side. He could have shown all the kids coming up, all the kids leaving etc. etc. He positioned himself for that specific image. He made that image. We know he wanted the wings to open, but the vulture wouldn’t open hers. That was what he wanted, but he managed to do this other image.
KP: Which was held against him. When he said that he was waiting for the vulture to open her wings it seemed like another argument against the photographer as predator.
AJ: I was fascinated by this image and I saved it. It was archived in my archive, and nothing happened for one year, and a year later I read that he wins the Pulitzer Prize. For a brief moment that news re-enlivened that image in my memory. And that's all. What triggered the piece itself is the fact that shortly after the prize he committed suicide. And then I thought – I have to do something about this, because it's an extraordinary story. It is an extraordinary image and an extraordinary story, the fact that he killed himself. He couldn't take it. It's the story itself, with all the elements that made me create this piece. I wanted to share that story with the audience, and use it as a model, as a pretext to think about an image. Because images are important, images are not innocent. As an artist I've always said that I think that artists create models of thinking the world. And so in this case, I created a model of thinking one image. That's what The Sound of Silence is about. It is a theater built for a single image. What does it tell you? It tells you – this image must be very important. He built an entire structure of this size just for a single image. And even access to this bunker is controlled. There is a guard, there is a red light, a green light, what the hell is going on? Why is this image so important? This image is perhaps the most extraordinary image ever made about hunger in the world. There is not a single image like this. And of course, I have my own opinion about this image: I think we are the bird, Western society is the bird, but I do not express this idea in the work. I just give the facts.
KP: And why did you make it a story about the photographer?
AJ: It's not the photographer, it's about the image. And of course in order to build the story, I had to use all the elements I had, and those were all the elements I had. And also there is of course some kind of identification with Kevin Carter, because I also go around the world trying to document certain realities that I want to share with an audience, but I do it in a different way. I'm an artist, so I have the freedom to act in very different ways. Only an artist like me can go to Rwanda, take three and a half thousand pictures of the Rwandan genocide and put them in black boxes so no one can see the images, because I'm an artist. He is a photo journalist, he's doing a job. So he doesn't have the freedom that I have. I wanted to tell that story and let people think about all these issues that this story raises, not the image, but the story.
KP: This is something I wanted to venture into a little bit more. You have worked in a lot of media and a lot of situations, and you have adopted very different strategies to construct situations that are later called your works of art. But at the same time there is one medium that you have given a lot of thought and a lot of space to, and that is photography. You've just mentioned your Rwanda project, and I want to go a little bit further into this, because sometimes your work is described as – and I'm quoting here – ‘bearing witness to the impossibility of presenting the unpresentable.’ I think this is a very false diagnosis, because it puts you into the field of the sublime.
KP: I have never read your works as addressing this kind of thing. How I always saw it, was that you were trying to work around the implied directness of photography, this mantra about the indexicality of the photographic image. Along the lines of what you’ve already said, that photographs are not taken but made. How do you do that, to arrive at this kind of, call it affective, empathic, or empowering response? You once dubbed your own strategy as “experiments in withholding imagery.” I would like you to elaborate a little bit more on that – how has your thinking about photography evolved?
AJ: There is definitely a pre-Rwanda and post-Rwanda experience. And the experience of Rwanda, which lasted six years, radically altered my way of looking at images, and my way of using images. And my way of thinking about images. I think the Rwanda experience is responsible for what I do today. And The Sound of Silence is actually a piece that was done after Rwanda, and I think, I can see many effects of Rwanda in The Sound of Silence. That is the first thing I can say. All in all I spent six years working on this subject. I experienced the third genocide of the century, I witnessed it, and when I came back to New York I had this enormous amount of material – 3500 photographs and hundreds of hours spent talking to people – but I was forced to realize that I could not use it. I realized that all the photographic strategies that had been used by artists and by the media would not work. That was the most terrifying discovery. That If you want to do art as you have been doing it until now, until the genocide – forget it, it's not gonna work. It was the most extraordinary challenge I've given myself as an artist, as an intellectual, as a human being. And I'm thankful for that. I had of course what you would call a block, an artist’s block. For many months I was depressed by what I had witnessed, and I was depressed because there was no way forward. It wasn't a matter of taking these pictures, printing them and framing them, and putting them on the wall.
KP: And why did you think this would not work?
AJ: Because I realized it would not stop the genocide. It was a failure of politics, the way the Rwanda genocide had been represented in the media. And when I tried to imagine what I could do with these images and these stories as an artist, and I looked at what other artists have done with images, and what I have done with images, I knew it was not going to work. The Rwanda genocide deserved more, deserved better. So I gave myself a challenge, and took a risk. In retrospect I think it was a tremendous risk, because I could have not found a way out. Or, lacking other options, I could have become a cynic, using these photographs or this information in way that I knew wouldn't work. And maybe I could have ended up with these beautiful, framed pictures...
KP: And maybe they would have even been successful.
AJ: Maybe, who knows? Which would have been even worse for me. So I decided to go slow, to build a body of work around this. Not a single work, because I knew I was bound to fail if I were to do only one, so I decided that they would all be exercises. Exercises in representation.
KP: And why were you convinced that one work wouldn't do it?
AJ: Because this was too immense to fit in one work. It wouldn’t fit in ten books, it wouldn’t fit in a hundred films. So, I thought, if I needed to I would do a hundred works! And I wouldn’t call them works, no.
AJ: Yes, exercises. I decided to do a series of exercises in representation. They would all fail. One after the other. There was no doubt about that, because you cannot convey this thing. And yet I decided to do it and hopefully learn from each exercise to maybe have more tools for the next one. And the next one, and the next one. So that when I reach exercise number 10,15, 20 or even 30, I hoped to have learnt a lot, and perhaps even arrive at a moment of beautiful communication with my audience, where I would be able to convey what I have seen, what I have witnessed. So that's how I planned things. It sounds very rational, and it is. I had a very Cartesian education and I need to make sense, so everything I do is like this. I'm not a spontaneous kind of artist, I have to think, I need to understand first. So that's what gave birth to this project.
KP: This opens our conversation to the crucial role of the audience. But before we get to that I wanted to wander off in another direction. You said that context is everything for you, so I would like to ask you to elaborate a little bit on the two strands of work you're doing. The work that would be your own, in the sense that it comes from you, that is autonomous so to say, and the work that you do on invitation – what you term public interventions. The latter you refuse to show in exhibitions later on, is that right? How do you understand those two fields of your work, their mutual relationship in, or as, your practice?
AJ: The public interventions are closer to architecture than to the art world. What I do in the space of a museum, in a gallery, is architecture on a very intimate scale. Which is not bad, but I prefer to get out in the city, in the landscape, to intervene in the outside world. In that sense, the language that I use in public interventions is very different from the language I use inside a museum or gallery. Also because of the audience. When you work inside a museum or gallery, you have a public, an audience that is converted to the language of contemporary art. This is an audience that understands what this is all about, and they know how to read it. But when you work outside, you engage people in a dialogue, people who sometimes have never been to a museum. People who do not understand the language of contemporary art. You're forced to use a different type of language. So for me it's a fantastic learning experience, and my language, as an artist, my tools of communication, are renewed for every single project that I do in public space, in these public interventions. And so I grow as an artist, and actually, what I do inside the museum is informed by what I learn outside of the museum. This is very important for me. And it's also a way for me to extend my audience to a public that is beyond the insular, little art world in which we live. I do want to reach a larger audience, and my public interventions allow me to do that.
KP: And how did you start doing them?
AJ: Very naturally. I started while still in Chile, with Studies on Happiness (1981). At the time we were living in a context where I felt the gallery and the museum space were too small. And I thought that it could be interesting – in the middle of the dictatorship – to go out into the streets and ask people the seemingly naïve question of whether they were happy, and by doing this to speak about that dictatorship. After I moved to New York in 1982, I was offered very early on the opportunity to continue my public interventions, for example in Times Square in 1987 (A Logo for America) or earlier when I got a grant in 1986 and rented a subway station for another project (Rushes). I enjoy doing them. They keep me alive in a way. Sometimes I feel the art world is a world of fiction, where everything is fake. It's not that I reject it, I participate in our little art world. But I feel that I breath fresh air outside, and that's why I do these public interventions.
KP: Have you ever withdrawn from an invitation?
AJ: All the time. I'm really privileged. I receive a dozen invitations per year. Lately I’ve been getting even more invitations, 15 to 20 maybe. And I can only accept one or two, so I have to refuse most of them. Just for technical reasons, because I don't have the time. I always decide according to what I see, the people who invite me, the conditions, and of course I try to select the location and the issues that I feel I can deal with. I have to reject many invitations, unfortunately.
KP: I was more curious about whether you ever had this kind of situation that you wanted to do something, but it didn't work out. In the sense that you said "yes, this can be interesting", but then you started and it turned out to be impossible, because for example you realized that there is no way for you to access that place or that situation.
AJ: This has never happened. Once I take the challenge, I try to close it, to do it. I've done a lot of interventions that were disasters, that did not work, but if I commit, I will actually realize it.
AJ: It is a problem, I don't know how to resolve it actually, because people are increasingly interested in these projects and there is only one book published about them. On the one hand people want to write about these works and on the other, when I have a retrospective, an exhibition, they want to show them and I tell them – how do I show this work? I don't know how to represent this work. And I feel that to hang five images and a text that explains a public intervention does not begin to convey the real experience. In a lecture this is not such a huge problem, because it is almost like a performance. I can surprise people, create suspense; I can tell a story, narrate the process that I went through before I arrived at a solution. The work becomes alive. But to reduce it to just a few pictures on a wall...is a bad idea.
KP: Maybe this is a good moment to talk about the audience. You once said that Duchamp freed you. One way to understand this statement would be to think of something you called the “power of decision,” the power to name what art is, which Duchamp acknowledged, and thus also to transcend the borders of received notions of media and traditions. And it seems clear why this would be important for you. On the other hand – and this aspect I find incredibly interesting in the context of your work – for Duchamp the category of the viewer was paramount. When he talked about the ready-mades, for example about naming, or inscribing a ready-made “with all kinds of delays,” or when he talked about “posterity,” he meant the viewer, the audience. It is not enough only to name something a ready-made, there has to be an audience that receives this message. This also plays very beautifully with what you said is important for you, that there has to be this response from people, and about the fact that you always try to build points of entry into your works. How do you assess this? If you say that you need a response, how do you measure it, how do you even imagine it? This seems very difficult to do.
AJ: Well, I learn from the reactions of the audience, and everything I do is because of what I've learnt from the reactions of the audience. When I have an exhibition I am always there, I'm anonymously listening to the reactions of viewers, talking to people, asking questions. The work is not finished when it is shown. Maybe this is the moment when it starts a new phase, it's most important phase which is the phase of communicating with the audience. It's a beautiful moment. I think that artists should always try to use the moment of exhibiting their work as an opportunity to learn from it. That's one way for me to asses the success or failure of a piece I have done, to ask myself: is it communicating, what is it communicating, and how is it communicating. That's about the reception, and regarding the making, I'm always trying to imagine – in a very didactic way – children, adolescents and students, and then adults, and then intellectuals; all these categories. When I create a work of art I ask myself – OK, a seven-year old kid comes to see the work. What is he or she going to think? Or, sitting in my studio with my assistants I ask them – what will a seven-year old think about this? We try to modify it, to adapt it, to make sure what he or she might think will be within the parameters of what we are doing. We don't want them to go in any one direction. The work is open, of course, but we want them to at least understand what I'm trying to do in the most basic terms. So we will modify it. And then: what will a twelve-year old make of it? An adolescent, a student, a critic, an intellectual, someone who doesn't understand anything about this, and so on. By imagining what people will think, we try to incorporate certain points of entry for everybody, that don't compromise the essence of what we're trying to do. What we are trying to do is what we are trying to do. But if I can facilitate some points of entry, I will do it. Because communication is key.
KP: When you said that you sit down in your studio with your assistants, and the people you collaborate with, this is something that makes me think of you coming from architecture. Artists are not so ready to say that they take advice from their assistants. I mean, it's always a singular name that signs the work. On the other hand, architecture is by definition a collaborative process, even if in the end there is one signature underneath the project. Is this also important for you?
AJ: Oh, very important. It's a process that I enjoy very much, and I have had architects in my office, and I have had technology specialists, and I have had writers, and so on. People who bring different points of view to the process, and they help me to understand and conceptualize. And I give them full credit. When I'm giving lectures, I always speak about "we, we, we, we," even though I'm the known name, the known face of what we do in the studio, but my collaborators have a very important role to play. I am very thankful, and hopefully they learn from the process, too. And maybe – when they leave the studio and have successful careers of their own – they may even use the methodologies that we have used in the studio.
KP: And what is the dynamics of your studio? Do you have a large turnover, or do you rather stay with the same people for a long time?
AJ: Thankfully I stay with people a long time. When I find someone I like I ask them to commit for at least three to five years. Because the learning experience takes six months to a year in order for them to really fit in, to understand the dynamics of the studio, understand my needs, etc. I dedicate a lot of time to them, to make sure that they work properly, so once I get there, I want them to stay for a while. Most people stay for quite a few years.
KP: And you also teach, yes? What is the most important thing that you try to teach your students?
AJ: I teach a lot, too much. But I teach them that they have to start thinking. Forget about making, but start thinking. And I tell them – being an artist is 99% thinking and 1% making. When I start my semester somewhere, because I move around different universities, I tell them – OK, do me a favor, stop making stuff. I don't want you to make stuff. We gonna have a semester of thinking. And then at the end of this long process we'll see if we make something. But for the moment, let's start thinking. That's the most important thing I can teach them – to think. How to think about the world in which we live, how to think about what's important. How to think about focusing on specific issues, and how to learn whether there is anything important we have to say about a certain topic, has it been said before, who has said it and how have they said it? And then to help them find what has never been said, and what's important – to teach them how to say it. So that is a process of thinking, thinking, and again thinking. And only after this very long process of research and discussion, perhaps we arrive at one point where finally we have been able to articulate a good idea, and we have found the best way to articulate it physically, for an audience to actually experience it. And then I let them make something. But before that, it's just a thinking process. So I teach them a model of thinking, because that's what I believe we do as artists. We create models of thinking the world.
KP: This seems to be a perfect reprise of your practice and our talk – Thank you!