Chorus: A talk with deads, 2015
Jochem Hendricks and others
Jochem Hendricks discusses the “Revolutionary Archive”
Jochem, for years now you have had an extensive archive of police photographs in your possession, consisting of numerous files with negatives and contact princes as well as a crate with 16mm and Super-8 films. In 2011, you started consistently drawing on the archive materials and processing them. Why did so much time elapse between finding the archive and starting to work with it?
Sometimes you have to be able to wait! Many of my projects have had very long lead-times, often several years in fact. Yes, of course you need patience and the confidence in the material and the idea underpinning the piece. I often walked around the two crates and looked at the materials there. I never doubted that it had the potential to be something exciting. It was simply that for a long time I was not sure what. I simply knew something was lacking, and it was Magdalena Kopp who was then the missing link. That was clear to me the moment I met her the first time.
How should we imagine your stance towards this material? These are strong images without doubt and they are also politically explosive to a certain extent. But that is all historical, as these are anonymous found objects with a strong temporal link. Do you consider yourself a documentarist?
No, I’m neither a documentarist nor a sociologist, political scientist or historian. I am an artist and my focus is on the present. Of course I’m interested in all these things and references, they belong to the material as it were. My work involves extracting the various levels from their actual contexts without erasing them, however! By working on them with artistic , I transfer the archive from an historical into an art context.
All of that remains very theoretical. SO what is the artistic effort involved, what do you actually do in your studio?
Actually? Well, I have an archive here that I view through the eyes of an artist and with his thoughts. An archive of very strong images that were not taken by me and that have a sensitive background because the material was compiled by the police. The content of the images is down to earth, historical and for very many people relates to their biographies. My task is to absorb those factors, transport them into the present, where many analogous events occur…
Arthur “Weegee” Fellig:
You are alluding to the current protest marches, the assassinations, political acts of violence, etc. the world over?
… yes, at present they’re simply everywhere! There’s Occupy and Blockupy in the West, mass demonstrations in Brazil, in Hong Kong, in Egypt, in the Middle East, in Africa…
… from where, thanks to the social media, a flood of images comes on an unprecedented scale. Do you see the “Revolutionary Archive” in this context? Is there a reference to everyday politics?
That happens automatically. A viewer at my exhibitions has the images in mind anyway, as do I. But the archive is simply the raw material and the surface of my work. I want to transcend the initial material, and the actual event is meant to become the archetype. Meaning what I focus on is precisely not archiving or historical analysis and certainly not on nostalgic mnemonic objects or putting my finger on the good or the evil.
Many artists rely on archives, be they existing ones or ones they create themselves. Is the archive of interest to you as a mnemonic system, a system of order?
Not really. I tend to find collectors of materials suspect and I definitely am no archivist. I’m happy if I manage to keep a handle on storing my own works and don’t lose anything. Which constantly happens… No, what drives me on is the potential innate in this police archive, not the implicit system of order. Even if it is amazingly thorough. Art is an open game with no fixed results, and precisely for that reason I don’t champion some special hypothesis. I want to maintain the political element, but not let it dominate the artistic part, my objective is to strike a balance.
Back to the artistic practice. What’s the art component, but do you contribute?
Let me put it this way: I find the right people and take decisions. I set up a team of able players whom I then coach and motivate until we reach a result or the project fails. That’s how I tend to work. For the “Revolutionary Archive”, meeting Magdalena Kopp set things rolling, and that was about eight years after I came across the collection. Then, my first basic decision was to reverse the sides/perspectives and have an ex-terrorist, a potential “victim” of police work, become the “active player” handling the material. In this way, the two sides interact illicitly as it were…
… and what goes to make up the quality of the photos?
Thanks to Magdalena Kopp’s efforts, these amateurish snapshots become high-grade art photographs. She brings to the project not only a spectacular biography, but her skills as a photographer and as a veritable dark-room magician. Magdalena is so key to the project that she is always mentioned as the co-producer and jointly signs the photographs with me. We select the negatives and cropped sections together and Magdalena produces those marvelous gelatin-silver barite prints in the dark room we have set up in a Montessori school near her place. I had Cartier-Bresson in mind, and it’s not a great leap of faith to end up with Günther Förg.
Your photographs are often out of focus, wobbly, and yet successful anyway!
The path from found archive material to the claim to art is a long and ambitious one.
Perhaps it’s clearer that way: By enhancing the images I strip them of a bit of their political/historical surface and insert them into an art context. The photos are always classically mounted in passe-partouts and framed ready for museum display. I can also influence how they function in exhibitions by how I choose and arrange the images and films in line with criteria such as narration, contrast, formalization etc.
We should definitely dwell a bit on the subject of films. Magdalena Kopp presumably does not play a role there?
No, not actively, but we viewed them together and discussed them at length. The films are as important as the photographs. Both address the same topics: demonstrations, surveillance, evictions, terrorist bombings, department store arson, exchanging hostages, etc. Sometimes the photos and films were shot on the same day and on the same occasion. One red thread running through all the archive material and my project: the constant, redundant image discourse among all involved, in all the different variations: Photographers photograph photographers and cameramen and vice versa, policemen photograph or film demonstrators and they shoot back, people photograph one another, or reciprocate. For an artist that is of course marvelous material!
Does your treatment of the films differ from that for the photographs? They are related media, but do differ significantly in key areas.
In my exhibitions, the films assume the physical side to things, as it were. Films are per se more overwhelming than photographs. And I emphasize this with the presentation in large, closed and dark rooms with projection screens that run from wall to ceiling, each seamlessly abutting the next, surrounding the viewer. If the budget were to be there, I’d even put projections on the floor and ceiling …
Do you really think that you will be visible as an artist as a consequence? That your work will simply because it is exhibited in galleries and museums be perceived as art?
Well, I’d retort by asking: Why does it get exhibited in museums? Of course the question then is: Where’s the artist and where’s the art? Now, I develop the idea, structure the setting for the project, fine-tune things select and combine the people, elements and levels, like a movie director as it were, and transform them into a new whole. With each exhibition and each publication anew.
Is it even important to be visible as an artist?
I ask myself the same question.
Well, in terms of art theory that’s quite ambitious. You disappear as the producer, as it were, and yet claim to be there as the artist. The photos and films were not taken by you, neither are they ready-mades nor are they pieces made by assistants in line with your instructions. Magdalena Kopp is the co-producer, but not the co-artist. I can’t really pigeonhole this, it’s as blurred as the one or other of the photos…
If meant serously, artistic work does not rest on solid foundations. But art is not just analytical, it always has to do with emotions as well, with physical and psychic stimulation, especially if there’s a strong visual portion, like there is here. Which is why the films are presented as a large physical installation but the photographs as intimate portrait formats. And of course the enjoyment of images is also at work here.
Unfortunately I didn’t catch any of your shows and ask myself whether your approach can actually be conveyed to others. Does the “Revolutionary Archive” also make sense to young people? And don’t the older ones simply get bogged down in memories?
The response was, at any rate, always unusually pronounced. Depending on the generation of viewers, biographical, historical and contemporary contexts are called into play, memory and the present are then related to each other. This in itself serves to exaggerate things to the point of archetypes. Here, a prime example is the first presentation of the “Revolutionary Archive” in 2011, that took place exactly during the social unrest in London and in other English cities – at the time when Tottenham was on fire.