In contemporary art, photographical elements are often integrated into installation works or being used as a means of archiving. VOP interviewed Anselm Franke, curator of the Taipei Biennial 2012  to talk about the topic of the biennial, ‘Modern Monsters / Death and Life of Fiction’ and specific photographic works that will be shown in the exhibition.  (中文版訪談請見VOP第六期 : 反叛〈怪獸的歷史想像辯證 : 專訪2012台北雙年展策展人安森法蘭克〉)

Interview by Sylvie Lin / Photograph by Wei-I Lee  (訪談 / 林心如 . 攝影 / 李威儀)

VOP / Please talk about your past curatorial experiences.

Anselm Franke /  Originally, I used to work in the fields of theatre, film and television with artist/filmmaker Christoph Schlingensief ; he passed away in 2010 and represented Germany in the Venice Biennale in 2011. From 2003 to 2005, I collaborated with architects in making exhibitions. We didn’t look at the architecture as design but more as planning processes and political geographies. What was important for me in my collaboration with architects is that it is a way to think political questions and the organization of the space. Since 2003, most of the projects I was involved with were collaborations. We shared a common interest in ‘borders’, not only physical borders (of the buildings or the states) but rather social and political borders and borders of the imagination, the way images take part in creating limits. The way we are now trying to use the figure of the monster for the 2012 Taipei Biennial also has to with this interest: the monster is always a limit figure or a liminal figure. There are various forms of monsters, beyond the borders of the human, of the normal, of the laws of reality, etc. Most of these borders and limits appear to us more or less “given” or even natural. The curatorial task is to open up and de-stabilize this understanding, to show how limits are constructed, what is the role of culture, technologies and non-human factors in their making.

Another important experience is that I’ve worked with film for a long time. In 2005, with Stephanie Schulte Strathaus, we founded the Forum Expanded, a section for art and film within the Berlin International Film Festival/Berlinale. Since then, every year, we organized sections on artists’ films, and filmmakers who do installations in the context of the Berlinale.

VOP / Please talk about your ‘Animism’ project. Is it connected to the Taipei Biennial 2012 in certain ways ?

AF / ‘Animism’ was conceived as a project to question the story we tell about modernity. What is modernity? What are normally the sort of images and stories that we connect with this idea? ‘Animism’ used to be a concept used by European anthropologists to describe what was at the opposite of modernity. If you are not modern then you are animist. We used the concept as mirror not to look at the so-called ‘animist’, neither did we intend to make an exhibition ‘about’ animism. Rather, we used the history of the concept to look back at the ideas of those who called others ‘animist’. Again, it’s very much about borders. Because the way European scholars described the animism of peoples in South America, Africa, Siberia, Japan…was always as the absence of the same distinctions that modern people do, such as between a pure subjective inside and an objective nature that follows all the natural laws.

In animism, you have a different relationship to things, to nature; you don’t treat them as just “dead matter” that is indifferent to humans. Therefore, it is also about borders: it’s about drawing certain distinctions differently, and this concerns literally everything: everyday experience just as much as the definition of what is a ‘subject’, a ‘self’, or a ‘legal person’. Then, when other people make those distinctions in a different way, you call them ‘pre-modern’. So modernity is always about borders, and what we were trying to do is develop a curatorial ‘frame’ that de-colonizes the imagination, and shows how these borders are implemented and policed, but also how they can be conceived differently.

Based on this question of modernity, we try to elaborate in the Taipei Biennial what many people around the globe now perceive as the urgent need to break free from the ‘frame’ of colonial modernity and its narratives, its way of describing the world, and the need to tell different histories of modernity, to break open this modernity question and its notorious self-reproducing mythologies, to re-describe our immediate histories under terms that do not automatically reproduce those ‘borders’. This is part of what we are trying to do with the monster ‘Taowu’ proposed by David (Der-Wei) Wang as a means to write modern Chinese history. (Editor’s note : See Wang Der-Wei, The Monster That Is History. History, Violence, and Fictional Writing in Twentieth-Century China)

VOP / How did you get to know the work of David Wang ?

AF /  I read a lot of books about the relation between historical experience – especially history about violence – and fiction. Violence is something that is difficult to remember. It destroys memory and cultural continuity itself to a certain degree. These memories come up in fiction. For example, you could say there are many great American novels for the past thirty years. They are not so much the bestsellers but those that take a certain tradition of novel-writing. They deal with American histories of slavery, of racism, etc., things that are very important in the collective memory but very difficult to address, other than through fiction : it’s not about the facts, the dates and so on but the way they form and haunt people in the present that needs to be described through fiction.

This sort of interest in the relation between history and fiction was something that I shared with couple of writers and artists. The task is to read fiction against the grain, not as make-believe, but as a form of documentary of that which escapes positivist historical accounts. In 2006, we have also made an exhibition around the question, it bore the title ‘No Matter How Bright the Light, the Crossings Occur at Night’. David Wang’s book was something I came across in this continuous research and interest. Also, I found there is a big need here to analyze and narrate Chinese modernity in its own terms. That is what is so valuable about David Wang’s attempt. He writes a kind of a history that has a certain proximity to Benjamin, Derrida or even Bataille. But he doesn’t use this as a theoretical framework. It’s something that is familiar but it doesn’t imply reading Chinese histories of violence, external and internal colonialism and modernization. Instead, he uses the frame of this ancient mythology. That creates a certain image of the contemporary situation in relation to the past, which is very strong. It’s more about an image created in the imagination. We are not making a biennial about literature but about the imaginary in a wider sense. The idea is to make an exhibition that shifts between fiction and historical analysis, just as the identity, or face of the “monster” in this exhibition constantly changes.

Chang Chao-Tang, New York, USA, 2011. Copyright and Courtesy the artist

VOP / Among the artists who will present photographical works in this biennial, we find the Taiwanese photographer Chang Chao-Tang (張照堂). How do you understand his work ? What works will be shown and how will you present them in the context of this biennial ?

AF /  He is one of the several chroniclers of post-war Taiwan. The amazing thing is that his work covers a period from the late fifties till today. So it’s basically more than half a century. It was important for us to have somebody whose photographic work can mirror a lot of different periods in Taiwan’s history. In his work, there is something that people are familiar with yet you can always find some moments of strangeness particularly in his photographs.Also, there are periods where he is more experimental. I first knew him through the catalogues of his works. Until I met him personally, I learned that he was a journalist and a reporter. Photography was always a side activity for him. This characteristic of being in-between, not being the sort of artistic photographer per se is interesting. You can sometimes read the images as almost journalistic images and then as totally aesthetic images. What I like in his work is that you can move between these poles of extreme. Then you have this sort of images that are very well-known, like the image of the self-portrait without a head, with just a shadow on the wall. It is an image that allows many possible readings. When he was experimenting photography he was also reading Sartre, so there is all this existentialist influence in it, which is interesting in terms of the global importance Sartre had at the moment. These are the moments when the images of Chang Chao-Tang open themselves to different readings and place Taiwan in such a context. It becomes local again because his images sometimes have this sort of universal look of the ‘Family of Man’ exhibition. I like this movement in his work.For the Taipei Biennial, we will make a selection of all the five decades. We’re still working on the presentation but basically we will show them in a sort of condensed overview. There would be a lot of images together. What we are thinking about would be more like Peter Brook’s style. Images will be grouped based on their motifs and in blocks. There is no strict chronology but more jumping among motifs, like this movement I just described : making something very specific localized, and this attempt of universalization, this movement between ‘reportage’(Editor’s note : The French term means ‘report’ in English) and aesthetics. We try to make movements between these categories rather than going from 1959 to 2006. But of course, there will be dates connected to all the images.

VOP / What are other photographic works in the biennial ?

AF / A part of the photographic works in this biennial is based on archive photos, like the project of Maryam Jafri and that of the Otolith Group. Each of the two projects consists of around fifty images. Maryam Jafri’s project is called ‘Independence Day’. It’s a collection of photographs from the moments of the founding of new states during the period of de-colonization, mainly in the 1960s. When we look at the images today, there is a historical distance of what has happened since. A project like this certainly takes on a very particular reading in Taiwan. We found it interesting to see how meaning changes when the images are being shown today – when we have a slightly different view on the expectations that ‘independence’ carried back then, before the historical experience of neo-colonialism and ‘globalization’. What is also present in these images when presented today is what happened after them – in terms of the histories that ‘power’ has written, but these are stories we normally don’t really know how to tell well. You can’t help but asking yourself in front of these images: What story do I have? Do I have a narrative for the past 50 years, for its aspirations, disappointments and novel monstrosities? And it is interesting to show those images here in Taiwan, with its undecided status.

The Otolith Group’s project in the biennial is called ‘Daughter Products. It’s basically from the family archive of one of the group members. It shows a delegation of Indian women who are communists. You see them in different settings, visiting other countries. It also belongs to this internationalist moment aspiring a different kind of universality that is now largely dead: you see them in China, Russia and also in areas that were not socialist. It is very much complementing the ‘Independence Day’ project of Jafri. It shows another moment of aspiration when a certain scheme of modernity was still working, like the idea of progress, division between the socialist and the capitalist worlds : these are ghosts from the Cold War era that are not quite silent ghosts which are being spoken about in this project.

Daughter Products, (ca.1952-1962), 2011, by The Otolith Group. Copyright and Courtesy the artists

The biennial will also show Joachim Koester’s work. His work is not so much about what you see, but what you don’t see in this reading. In all his work, he sets up a certain research, like a historical research. Then the research or the story and the image become two components ; there is a tension between what you know, the story you tell and the image you see. For the Taipei Biennial, his research is about opium. One part of the story is trying to find the traces of opium trade in Calcutta which was the main base for the British-East India Company for the opium trade. He found almost nothing except a building called ‘Nanking Restaurant’. You see a photo of this restaurant. Another photo is the poppy flower with which we make opium. Along with the series of images, there goes a text describing the sort of relation between the terror in modernity : the colonial terror or the terror of opium that were part of the history, and its relation to the delirium of smoking opium. What he is interested in is the technology of photography on the one hand and the inscriptions into the mind on the other hand. What are the dreams that you dream under the influence of opium and what is the kind of the shape of dream that has to do with what you see and don’t see in a photograph? The work consists of very few photographs and a text.As for Luis Jakob, he makes collections of images, like series of collages made with found images, It is called ‘Album’. He has created about ten such ‘Albums’ ; each one consists of about fifty pages. They have certain focuses such as the expressive body. The pages will be shown in a long series on the wall. It’s this kind of catalogue of gestures, but the gestures bring every attempt at classification to its limits – they are ecstatic in a certain sense, and can help us understand the body as a social body, as a collective body. But there is never any specific story. You are left to your own associations and finding different connections between motifs.

Joachim Koester, Calcutta, Copyright the artist, Courtesy Taipei Fine Arts Museum

VOP / Today, many artists don’t work solely with one medium. Regarding photography, it is often integrated into installation works or as a means of archiving. For you, what is the role or place of photography in contemporary art ?

AF /  For me, where photograph becomes always interesting in relation to artistic practice is this ambivalence that you can read it as an indexical trace of something, as a sort of document, but also as the exact opposite. The tradition of the latter would be the surrealist magazine called ‘Documents’(Editor’s note : The original French title means ‘Documents’ in English)founded by Bataille and his friends. Rather than confirming an evidence, the way they used photography reveals to the viewer something in all photography that disturbs the very idea of reality and its ‘order’. It’s always about putting everything into question. Today, many conceptual photographic practices can also be traced back to certain photographic traditions. For example, some people claim that Chang Chao-Tang is conceptual artist. His pictures in the 1970s represent a certain conceptual photography. I still think that there is a lot to explore in terms of this conceptual photography : creating a context for an image and perceiving how the image changes in it. We can think of photography’s role as similar to that of the imagination: it is not to settle and fix the fleeting moment or the imaginary, but to make the settled and fixed strange, and imaginative again. This is where the politics of art is to be found: in the conditions of fixation and change.

Anselm Franke is an independent curator and freelance writer based in Berlin. He worked in the fields of theater, television and film and has collaborated with Christoph Schlingensief who represented Germany in the Venice Biennale in 2011. As a curator, he owrked for KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin (2001-2006) and was director of Extra City Kunsthal Antwerp (2006-2010) and co-curated Manifesta 7 and the 1st Brussels Biennial. He is the editor of several publications and artist books, and a contributor to e-flux journal. Since 2005, he has been co-curator (along with Stephanie Schulte Strathaus) of the Forum Expanded of the International Film Festival Berlin.