We met Eduardo Cadava on the occasion of his seminar “Genealogies of memory and perception literature and photography” which started February 27 at the University of Athens and we talked about photography and its relation with literature, philosophy, history, politics and technology, about Benjamin and Emerson, about Allan Sekula, about corporatization of minds and bodies and visual propaganda, about the geopolitical contexts of photography and the democratic promise of the enlightenment.
This is the third part of the interview.
IL: Would you please name contemporary photographers whose work you find significant?
EC: This is another difficult question, since there are of course so many photographers whose work I admire, and for different reasons. Still, touching on photographers from around the globe whose work has meant a great deal to me over the years, I would say that I very much appreciate, in no particular order, the work of Luis Gonzalez Palma, Taryn Simon, Walid Raad, Marcelo Brodsky, Manel Esclusa, Cassio Vasconcellos, Fazal Sheikh, Susan Meiselas, Allan Sekula, Graciela Iturbide, Deana Lawson, Emmet Gowin, Rosângela Rennó, Joan Fontcuberta, Joseph Koudelka, Jeff Wall, and Antoine D’Agata. Closer to the Greek context, among many others, I like the work of Yiorgos Depollas, Petros Koublis, Angelos Tzortzinis, Yannis Behrakis, Enri Canaj, Aris Messinis, Giorgos Moutafis, and Dimitris Michalakis. These are all very different photographers—in terms of their subjects, their interests and styles—but, in each instance the work, whether it could be said to be political, activist, formal, even abstract, reflects on the nature of the photographic medium itself. What I have always loved about these photographers is their capacity to record and document while at the same time reflecting on the capacities and incapacities of photographs to record and document. In other words, what moves me in the work of these photographers is the way in which their photographs often become a means to think about what a photograph is or is not, what it can capture or not, what eludes it and what remains within it, even if only as an invisible trace. I always think that the strongest photographers allow us—beyond everything that they present to us within the surface of their photographs—to think about photography and therefore to think about the most important political, ethical, historical, and philosophical issues we have before us at any given time.
IL: How do you see photography developing in Greece in the last years and do you have sufficiently frequent relation with the country?
EC: Although I have been coming to Greece, here and there, for over 20 years now, it is only within the last eight years that I have been coming more regularly and only since the summer of 2014 that I began considering the photography scene in Greece more closely. It’s not that I wasn’t aware of this scene before, but I began to explore it in a more determined fashion almost four years ago. I taught a Princeton University Global Seminar on Modern Greek literature and photography in the summer of 2014 and, as part of the course, I not only took the students to visit several photographic archives in Athens, and especially that of the Benaki Museum, but I also invited three photographers to introduce the students to photographic projects in Greece and to collaborate with them on their own projects for the class. The three photographers I invited to work with us, all from different generations, were Yiorgos Depollas, Dimitra Lazaridou, and Petros Koublis. This course also coincided with the exhibition of works by the Depression Era photography collective at the Benaki Musum and, Petros, who was then a member of the collective, gave me a private tour of the exhibition. Although I had been introduced to the photography collection at the Benaki—which is of course a more historical archive that includes works by, among others, Nelly, Voula Papaioannou, Dimitris Harissiadis, Costas Balafas, and Ioannis Lambros—this was the first time I had been exposed to such a wide range of contemporary Greek photography. I also met with Dimitris Michalakis and the historian of photography Herakles Papaioannou the same summer and, since then, I have done what I can to not only learn about what is happening in Greek photographic circles but also to begin to inscribe myself into these communities, since, as you can imagine, I’m very interested in them. It also so happened that the Greek translation of my book on Benjamin and photography was published this same year by Nissos and so this also helped introduce me to these same communities.
It is my sense—and I hope to continue to deepen this sense—that there is a vibrant and intensely active group of Greek photographers who have been engaging the most important issues facing Greece today: the financial and social crisis that has so effected such large swaths of Greek society, the transformations that have taken place in urban and social landscapes because of this crisis, the intensification of migration and the influx of refugees, the increase in homelessness, the ruination of public systems, the collapse of neighborhoods, and the increased vulnerability of all kinds of bodies. It’s also my sense that there is a growing interest in approaching photography not simply from a sociological or documentary point of view but also from a more theoretical and philosophical point of view, which I find very exciting and welcoming. I would say that your journal, Aldebaran, is one of the shining lights in this effort and, for this reason, I’m very glad to be here with you talking about our shared interests.
What has moved me about the Depression Era collective in particular is its collaborative spirit and its pedagogical impulses. It also declares itself as not simply Greek but European and, in this way, asks us to think not only about the relations between Greece and its various geopolitical contexts but also about the relations between Greek and European photography. I like that the collective includes not only photographers and artists but also writers, curators, and researchers. This mix permits a dynamic and transformative engagement with the issues most central to the collective’s concerns. I also have been impressed by the MedPhoto collective, some of whose members are linked to the Depression Era group. Including photographers such as Pavlos Fysakis, Dimitris Barounis, Yannis Karpouzis, Dimitris Kechris, Nikos Markou, Dimitris Rapakousis, Lina Manousogiannaki, and Thalia Galanopoulou, the collective seeks to take much of the energy of the Depression Era group and to create a multidimensional project that includes exhibitions, educational projects, activist interventions, and a forum for discussing the role and place of photography within the worlds of contemporary social and political life. I have also been interested in some of the photographers participating in the Athens Photo Festival, including Chloe Kritharas Devienne, Elena Nassati, and Theodor Papadakis.
In my capacity as the President of the Executive Board of the Slought Foundation in Philadelphia, I recently had the chance to speak with Pavlos Fysakis, Dimitris Tsoumplekas, Yorgos Prinos, and others linked to the Depression Era group and I have invited them to curate an exhibition at Slought in the spring of 2019, against the backdrop of Allan Sekula’s 1999 “Waiting for the Tear Gas” project, since it too addresses the devastating consequences of abstract global capital, which have included, then as now, an intensification and deepening of humanitarian crises around the globe. I am hopeful that these collaborations will enable me to become acquainted with an even wider community of photographers, artists, curators, and critics, all of whom can continue to introduce me to what seems most urgent and pressing within these circles of thinking and activism. I would hope that I can contribute to these efforts as well.
IL. Beginning first from the fact that School is a Factory, 1978-80, the work of Allan Sekula from the end of the 70s, was among the exhibits presented in the context of Documenta 14 in Athens, and then at the same time your friendship with him, would you like to talk to us about his work and the importance of his thought? He was always putting himself into the current of critical realism, even as he was influenced intensely by Marxist thought and conceptual art. How did his work function as an intermediary between the term “financial globalization” and photography but also between contemporary geographies of capitalist society? I have been particularly moved by the critique he exercised through his work on the university, on the centers of education and learning, arguing that they are an important part of the production, circulation, and distribution of commodities in capitalism.
EC: It is difficult for me to speak about Allan and his work, not simply because we were friends for nearly thirty years—and there is therefore an intimacy that would be difficult to convey or share here—but also because his corpus is so absolutely rich, diverse, significant, and, to be honest, massive. Still, I will try to say a few words in response to your question. First of all, one of the things to remember about Allan is that he was not only a photographer but also a filmmaker, curator, activist, and, importantly, a writer, and it is impossible to think of his work without thinking of all of these activities together. He was not only one of the great producers of photographs, in other words, but also one of the great readers of them. For him, the photograph was always an occasion for thinking and analyzing and he worked in the conviction that, if read properly, photographs could open up an entire series of questions about power relations and hierarchies, about the commodification of human life, the flows of global capital, and the politics of representation in general. This is why, for him, the photograph was not, as the saying goes, “worth a thousand words”—and this despite the fact that he would often say a great deal about this or that image—but, rather, was “worth a thousand questions.” This insight is what makes his writings on photography and his critical photographs so powerful: they are always asking us to rethink our relation to the images that not only surround us but which also work to either inscribe us within systems that steal our freedoms or to enable us to counter these same systems.
From the beginning, he was always interested in at least this double project: first, to research and record the world of labor and its transformation in the face of global capitalism, and, second, to reflect upon and transform our understanding of documentary photography. His photographic project had at its heart a desire to rethink and renovate the documentary genre across the mediums of photography, film, and the critical essay. Whether we consider his early work on factories and schools, his early performances enacted as part of the California anti-war movement, his photographs of the LA riots after the Rodney King verdict, his work on the WTO riots in Seattle, his documentation of the Prestige oil tanker disaster on the Gallic Coast of Spain, his permanent interest in corporations that would cross borders to seek cheap labor, his effort to reveal a link between the symptomatic practices of abstraction in the architectural design of the Bank of Canada in Ottawa and the histories of extraction, dispossession, and exploitation in the nickel mines of Sudbury, Ontario, or, of course, his monumental Fish Story, which, combining his interests in the maritime industry, labor, and globalization and following the movement of commodities and capital across the seas and the ports of Hong Kong, Rotterdam, Los Angeles, and New York, was also the point of departure for his last film, The Forgotten Space, in each instance we can register a deep engagement with documentary’s capacity to present and obscure what it presumably seeks to convey to us. This is to say that one of Allan’s virtues was his great sense of the capacities and incapacities of the technical media. In the face of the photographic medium’s uncertainties, though, Allan was never afraid of taking positions, of involving himself, directly and concretely, with whatever segment of “reality” he chose to engage in order to see if he might interfere with or even transform the violent forces of ideology. It is precisely his insistence on exploring and clarifying the work of representation in order to analyze the ways in which ideology works and to contribute to what he might call a culture of resistance that distinguishes him from other photographers of his generation.
To formalize what I am saying here a bit further: if Allan did not consider photography to be realist, if he did not believe that it could offer definitive testimony, that it could provide unequivocal evidence, he also did not believe that photographs only lie. Instead, he believed that we need to understand photographic evidence not in terms of its relation to what it presents, but instead in terms of the debate into which its testimony is entered, what he calls in “Dismantling Modernism” its “presentational circumstances.” Evidence is therefore less related to “objectivity” than to political interest. The photographic trace by itself confirms nothing. It requires interpretation, contextualization, and an engagement with what Thomas Keenan has called a “battleground of fictions.” In his words, “Because there is a trace, there is a battle. Around the image, a debate can begin—we decide what it says; it does not, it cannot. This is what the word evidence means: ‘everything beyond the imprinting of a trace, is up for grabs.’” This is why the photographic trace is always a challenge, a provocation, a demand for responsibility—and for what Allan once called a “counter-forensics,” a forensic work of interpretation that could work against efforts to reconstruct and present objects in a determinate and fixed way, a means of engaging images that knows they have something to tell us despite all the uncertainties surrounding them.
Perhaps I can turn from these more general remarks, though, to a few words about Allan’s School is a Factory, which I believe demonstrates what I have just said. I was glad to hear that Documenta 14 had included this particular project, especially because I think this relatively early work has so much resonance with Allan’s later work. In the process of trying to understand the way in which educational systems transform their students into commodities that can circulate within the global corporate market, he offers us a training manual on how to read images and rhetoric historically and politically—he “schools” us, that is, in the art of reading in general.
As you perhaps know, the title of the piece comes from a 1976 text of Joseph Brodsky’s that the writer later published in a collection entitled Less Than One. The phrase appears in the title essay of the collection and the line in which it appears reads: “A school is a factory is a poem is a prison is academia is boredom, with flashes of panic.” Brodsky’s identification between schools and factories, prisons, institutions of higher learning, boredom, panic, and even poetry (as a figure for the textual and visual rhetorics with which schools can move its students toward a kind of subjugation) provides Allan with a kind of template for his photo-essay on the relays between education and corporate desires (it is perhaps another instance, too, of the relation between photography and literature). Like Allan, Brodsky is attentive to the disciplinary and ideological character of educational systems and also clear about the role and place of photographs in this formative process. Brodsky’s rejection of this system has its analogy in Allan’s effort to reveal the various means whereby the educational process is meant, in the strongest Althusserian sense, to inscribe students within a series of institutional apparatuses that support corporatism and capital and, in so doing, interpellate them into a global system of labor. This is why, for Brodsky, a person is always “less than one,” which means never one, never just one. This is also why what is at stake for Allan is the possibility of an art that would, in his words, document “monopoly capitalism’s inability to deliver the conditions of a fully human life,” of an art “that recalls Benjamin’s remark in the Theses on the Philosophy of History that ‘there is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.’” “Against violence directed at the human body, at the environment, at working people’s ability to control their own lives,” he goes on to say, “we need to counterpose an active resistance, simultaneously political and symbolic, to monopoly capitalism’s increasing power and arrogance, a resistance aimed ultimately at socialist transformation.”
This is why, in an essay entitled “The Politics of Education and the Traffic in Photographs”—an essay that is a kind of companion piece to his “School is a Factory” project and which appeared in his book, Performance Under Working Conditions—he explains (and I quote the relevant passage at length): “We have been led by the champions of corporate liberalism to believe that schooling and the media are instruments of freedom. Accordingly, these institutions are seen to fulfill the democratic promise of the enlightenment by bringing knowledge and upward social mobility within reach of everyone, by allowing each individual to reach his or her own limits. This ideology hides the relentless sorting function performed by school and the media. Both institutions serve to legitimate and reproduce a strict hierarchy of power relations, tracking individuals into places in a complex social division of labor…School and the media effectively situate most people in a culture and economy over which they have no control, and thus are mechanisms by which an ‘enlightened’ few promote the subtle silencing of the many…School and the media are inherently discursive institutions, sites within which discourse becomes a locus of symbolic force, of symbolic violence…All dominating power functions semiotically through the naming of the other as subordinate, dependent, incomplete as a human being without the master’s discipline and support. Clearly such relationships can be overthrown; the discourse of domination finds its dialectical antagonist in a discourse and practice of liberation. Like home, factory, prison and city streets, school and the media are sites of an intense, if often covert, daily struggle in which language and power are inextricably connected.”
As in all his work, Allan here focuses on questions of the production and erasure of lives and labor, on questions of the politics of representation, on ideology as a system of representation and reproduction in which real relations are transformed into imaginary ones, and these imaginary relations come to have a material force and existence. As you know, School is a Factory was made while Allan was teaching at a southern California community college and part of its force has to do with his own inscription within the very network of institutions he wishes to analyze and demonstrate. Allan knew that the success of the corporatization of minds and bodies—with its spectacle of commodities and visual propaganda aimed at luring students and workers into the world of capital—could not exist without photographs or photographers, so his photographic project passes through its own bureaucratically organized process of assembly in order to work against this same process in a gesture of counter-forensics. This is not a detached analysis, in other words, but a provocation. The questions he asks about institutions are asked from within and, with them, he seeks to analyze the relations among intellectual labor, cultural capital, and the rise of a managerial class inextricably linked to the politics of education. There would be much to say about the portraits he offers of students taking classes in welding or keypunch operations, of computer programmers and mathematics teachers, about the sets of disembodied hands holding a miniaturized model of a school in front of an art museum, an abandoned shopping center, and an industrial park, about his evocation of the imagery used by some of the photographers of Neue Sachlichkeit and U.S. government information manuals, and about the final image in the project, which shows hands holding a hammer and chisel, seemingly ready to begin chipping away at a building labeled “Administration—all of which work to unsettle the truthfulness and objectivity of the photograph—but I think I have already gone on longer than I had intended here. Nevertheless, I hope what I have said can at least be the beginning of a response to your questions here.
IL: Would you like to give some information on the seminar you will be teaching at the University of Athens that will begin February 27?
EC: Yes, I would be glad to say a few words here. I will be teaching a postgraduate seminar this spring semester in the Political Science and Sociology Department Tuesday evenings 6 – 9pm. The seminar will trace the history of the rapport between literature and photography by looking closely at a number of literary and theoretical texts that differently address questions central to both literature and photography: questions about the nature of representation, reproduction, memory and forgetting, history, images, perception, and knowledge. Reading texts by Nadar, Baudelaire, Bergson, Breton, Proust, Kracauer, Benjamin, Barthes, Carson, Ritsos, and Derrida, we will be interested not only in explicit discussions of photography—of which there will be many—but also in the ways in which these texts again and again have recourse to the language of photography. For these writers, photography provides an entire vocabulary for what Proust calls “the optics of the mind”: the flashes of insight and intuition, the light and shadows that enable and interrupt perception, the workings of memory as it tries to seize or fix an image, and in general the various ways in which we perceive or represent the world around us. We will also try to account for recurring motifs within this history. Why is it, for example, that many of these texts—in particular, those of Baudelaire, Proust, Benjamin, Kracauer, Barthes, and Derrida—associate photography with meditations on the relations between death and memory? What is it about death and memory that enables us to think about photography? Why do figures of photography so often call forth hallucinations, ghosts, and phantoms? Why is it that Baudelaire, Proust, and Kafka insist that writing can only take place in dark rooms? In what way is citation within a literary text a kind of photography? If photography is another name for the relation between light and writing, between referents and mirrors, can we begin to read the relation between photography and literature in texts such as Plato’s allegory of the cave, Ovid’s story of Narcissus and Echo, or the myth of Medusa? Guided by these questions, we will throughout try to think about the relation between vision and language, images and history. The course will be conducted in English, but written assignments can be submitted in either English or Greek. It is open to the public, but I will ask auditors to make a commitment to attend every session. I’m very much looking forward to the class.
Eduardo Cadava teaches at Princeton University. He is the author of Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History, Emerson and the Climates of History, La imagen en ruinas, and, with Fazal Sheikh, Fazal Sheikh: Portraits. He also has co-edited Who Comes After the Subject?, Cities Without Citizens, and The Itinerant Languages of Photography. He has recently co-translated Nadar’s memoirs, Quand j’etais photographe into English, and his book Paper Graveyards: Essays on Art and Photography is forthcoming from Princeton University Press. Words of Light has appeared in Greek translation with Νήσος under the title Λέξεις φωτός: Θέσεις για τη φωτογραφία της ιστορίας.
The first part of the interview here.
The second part of the interview here.
*κεντρική φωτο: Πάνος Κουφός