Interview with Andrea Stultiens and Vrouwkje Tuinman, December, 2011
Reasons to Smile is Andrea Stultiens and Vrouwkje Tuinman’s contribution to the project, Transitions, a collaborative work, involving nine artists (Andrea Stultiens, Theo Baart, Jason Bernagozzi, FUA Krew, Gregory Halpern, Cary Markerink, Juliana Muniz, Oscar Palacio, and Dan Varenka) which examines city planning, urban sprawl, high unemployment, and poverty within the city of Rochester (home of Kodak). Started in 2010, Transitions is a collaboration between the Visual Studies Workshop and Fotodok (The Netherlands), and consists of a series of exhibitions and a set of six cahiers designed by Kummer & Herrman. The cahiers were designed to look like a box of Kodak photo paper, yellow-orange cover stock with a sticker pasted across the spine, connecting the front and back covers, linking the fate of Rochester with the demise of Kodak. Over the course of several weeks, Andrea, Vrouwkje, and I had an email conversation that covered surrogate families, time travel, and a found box of photos.
David Schulz: How did you get involved with the Transitions project?
Andrea Stultiens: The initiators of the project, Theo Baart and Cary Markerink, were looking for a photographer of a slightly different generation and with a different approach toward documentary photography and invited me to become part of it.
DS: I loved the way Vrouwkje’s verbal narrative concerning the box of photographs you found in Rochester related to the visual narrative that you assembled with your own photographs in your volume of Transitions. There is something very fluid in the ownership of images—”I see them everyday and that makes them family” (Vrouwkje Tuinman, Reasons to Smile)—as if the only prerequisite of ownership is access or exposure to something. Maybe ownership is the wrong word, although I think it accurately describes something about your photographs in terms of commitment. How would you describe the relationship of your collecting physical photographs to your digital practice as a photographer?
AS: Ha! There are a few different issues to respond to here. First, thanks for the compliment. Photographs and ownership. I think ownership is a good word to do some very straight talk about the medium. One of the things I play with in my work is the unmasking of mythology in photographic imagery. I see the photograph as a useful tool in relating to a specific context, as long as we are transparent about the method used. I always respond in my photographs to an existing reality. So who owns the image I make? The subject? The photographer? The producer of the technology? I don’t believe there is an answer that flips to one side or the other. We all own it and have rights to it. But then, as an author, I use the images I make (or find) to say something, and this is what I own. I am committed to the message (that in itself is layered) and take full responsibility for it. On the other hand, the photograph itself can say many other things when someone else re-contextualizes it. I think this is something that is addressed nicely by the images you read about in Vrouwkje’s text. My photographs are taken in Rochester. They are Kodak moments that I found in a town so imbued with the history of photography because of the presence of Kodak. In the publication, they follow the text concerning the experience of seeing and interacting with images that have little context yet are very familiar at the same time. Hopefully they continue this thinking process as they interact with Vrouwkjes words.
As far as my ‘digital practice’ as a photographer is concerned, I only went digital during the work on Reasons to Smile, and it was not by choice. One of my cameras broke when I was working in Rochester, the other was stolen days before I was returning for the second time. Suddenly, I was dependent on the recently purchased digital camera. I have not yet figured out what it means exactly for my practice. There is definitely a shift from the material aspect that is very present when working with film, to the virtual, where an image exists on the screen as soon as I turn on the camera. Additionally, my photography seeks out a tension between the physical artifacts of history and the images I create, which are virtual. In one of the books I made for the installation at the Visual Studies Workshop, I printed digital files from a friend who photographed Kodak collectibles to sell on e-bay for a friend of his. The digital files of physical objects, sold online… It keeps shifting. All nice to think about relating to the mythology I mentioned before. I recently started a big archival project about Uganda (HIPUganda.org, Facebook.com/HIPUganda). It is in an early stage, but the internet (especially facebook) gives me the opportunity to start to see how I can engage people with their history through images. I give them an opportunity to ‘own’ it by dealing with their photographed past. First, I thought the project would be exclusively online. But I already have a strong feeling that we (the Ugandan partner and me) also need to produce exhibitions in the future. Here, the history would become literally touchable and more real via exhibited prints and the original material objects that are the basis of most of the photographs.
DS: Who are some of your poetic influences?
AS: Oh, that is a hard one. Everything I see, good and bad, is an influence. Next to everything I’m able to identify, there are the works of others where I can’t pinpoint what it is that makes me like them. Maybe those are the real poetic influences.
DS: Can you describe what you exhibited in Rochester as part of this project, and how you feel it relates to the cahier that you produced?
AS: In the exhibition I showed various collections of vernacular photographs as well as photographs I made in print-on-demand books (vernacular in another way). Also, I exhibited some image sequences and single images on the wall as well as some 4 x 5 inch slides (of various objects) that had been cast in resin.
(Vrouwkje’s writing is also present in the exhibition. During a slideshow on a digital photoframe, she narrates the photographs as she handles them while they are being photographed.)
DS: Vrouwkje, how does the parallel structure of image and text found in this project work for you?
Vrouwkje Tuinman: I was intrigued by the order in which the photos were placed in the box. This order (of which I wasn’t previously aware that Andrea had changed slightly) gives a certain coherence to the whole set (which isn’t a set at all) and gives an opportunity to make connections. When writing, it doesn’t matter anymore if anything I write is ‘true’. However, I did some research as to the background of people and places, in the few cases that was possible. Still I made a deliberate choice to make myself, the narrator, one of them, compiling one story instead of tens of stories.
The imagery influenced me literally—for instance, there are photos of a boys summer camp in the collection, and a photo taken at Dozier’s, and a photo of a guy trying on a father christmas suit. This is what I wrote. It also influenced me in a figurative sense by getting me to think about a discarded photo that finds a new context in its being discarded.
DS: There is something very strong about the proportion of images present in Reasons to Smile (both visual and verbal) to an implication of absence. I think it has to do with how you’ve linked your “Kodak moments” to the history of Rochester. By referencing history with the visual moments you’ve created, I had an awareness of a vast breadth of human experience to which I had no access. As a viewer, this almost feels sublime. I think there’s a similar experience with Vrouwkje’s text as it references the box of photographs. How do you view your specific accounts in the face of history?
AS: Well, history is a sort of accepted official story of the past. That particular story, as far as I’m concerned, needs constant revising. I am adding material to keep doing that, the revising… The images (and their materiality) come from, but also constitute history.
DS:There’s a fantastic quote that I just read in the context of a new book published by JRP Ringier by Mandy Kahn and Aaron Rose called, Collage Culture. “I have gathered a garland of other men’s flowers, and nothing is mine but the cord that binds them.” (Montaigne, Essays). One of the “fathers” of the Enlightenment, Montaigne believed in an individual’s ability to reason and relate in this world, and in believing so, was a strong advocate of democratic principles. This seems appropriate here in light of this project’s relationship to history and of how the subjects of history view themselves. Do you feel your work facilitates viewer awareness of their own history?
AS: This installation was part of a group show, where everybody was responding to Rochester’s past and present. I have worked with, and made exhibitions about site-specific histories before though, and I heard people say numerous times that it was remarkable that it took someone from outside to show them their history. These comments were not so much related to the medium used, or the way the material was shown.
What is important for me in general when installing an exhibition is that I am creating an environment in which visitors can discover and make their own version of history. Photographs are unfixed in their meaning. I am very aware of that, and play with that fact this way. There is no way in which it has to be experienced, no one story I am telling. I usually present too much, so you will have to choose what to see, which way to go, which elements to consume and build a story with. This doesn’t mean that I don’t have a story to tell. It’s just not a fixed one, not every element is needed to construct a version of the story..
DS: Do you feel that you are an activist?
AS: Pfoeh, an activist. I never thought of it that way because I do not have another agenda than giving an opportunity to think for yourself, make the connections that are important to you, based on your context. But maybe I am. An activist for awareness, against keeping people away from information that informs their present from a historical perspective. This is less problematic in Rochester than in Uganda.
One of the stories within Reasons to Smile involves the Selle Collection at the Visual Studies Workshop, introduced to me by Andrew Eskind, which consists of endless rolls of film, with endless numbers of people photographed by street photographers working for Joseph Selle in San Francisco in the 1940’s and 50’s. During my first trip to Rochester, I met a photographer named Allen Keppen who’s business it was to photograph people at parties while wearing a sign that says “I had a good night” and post the images on his website—ihadagoodnight.com. I thought it was interesting to connect the Selle Collection, as it is called, with Allen’s work. But that’s not activism, that’s just trying to make sense of our obsession with photographs.
DS: What draws you to help people discover or activate their own histories?
AS: My own interest in history, I guess. This is as cliché as it comes, but it already was my favorite course in primary school. Never had to study for it because I just liked the stories and wanted to remember them.
DS: How does viewer response of your work facilitate more of your work?
AS: It completely facilitates most of my work. Almost everything I do is a collaboration, or a combination of collaborations. That is part of what makes it so exciting. But it starts with me posing a question and finding people and photographs that either help me to answer that question, or wrap it in a story that can be shared. From there the trajectory is different with every project. But I don’t think any of the work is ever completely done. After I published it or made an exhibition, it starts to lead its own life. This is another thing I love. I am only involved in one specific moment of the social biography of my photographic images.