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Brief Encounter

A couple of months ago I briefly met Brazilian artist Kika Nicolela in Sao Paulo. She spoke of her new project that was shortly to be exhibited at the Museum of Image and Sound (MIS), Campinas. Campinas is where she was born in 1976. It is also where she launched a call last year for family films that she intended to preserve and exhibit, using specialized digital equipment that is hard to find in Brazil. The general public responded generously, mainly supplying Super 8 footage from the 1970s that was often long forgotten and seriously deteriorating. The roll films were laboriously cleaned up and converted during an artist’s residency of two months in Toronto. Eventually, the original loans - and new, high-definition, digital versions - were given back to the donors, with an agreement that the new material could be used by the artist for her own exhibitions. The films were conserved, then, but were also poised for a new career within the context of contemporary art. The project interested me from various angles, and I was subsequently delighted when Kika explained it further in e-mail correspondence, and invited me to contribute a short text to this catalogue. 


We were both in Sao Paulo for an international seminar at the Porto de Cultura called Kidnapping Photography. A provocative title - but the seminar had nothing to do with innocents being snatched by gangsters or guerrillas and held for ransom! Rather, the main theme was contemporary art that involves using the photographs of others without permission. And it must be added straightaway that such ‘kidnapping’ has been going on for a long time, ever since technological breakthroughs around 1900 permitted the mechanical reproduction of photographs in all forms of printed matter like books, magazines, newspapers and commercial publicity, providing new source material for artists who wished to expand their palette. 

Different generation invent different terms. In the early decades of the 20th Century, there was a riot of Modernist neologisms: collage, found object, photomontage and readymade are some obvious survivors. In the mid-20th Century: assemblage and détournement (an everyday French word meaning corruption, diversion or hijacking, depending on the context, and used by the Situationists to try to differentiate their own ‘kidnapping’ from what had gone before.) The eighties to date: appropriation, or taking without authority. A familiar word in history books dealing with colonial conquest, for example, but from around 1980 it began to circulate widely as a key term in the lexicon of Post-Modernist art. To date: words like sampling and re-mixing register the influence of DJ culture on contemporary art, and now artists are regularly taking imagery from the internet, as well as from printed matter. In addition, though, I am surprised by the number of contemporary artists who are happy to describe themselves as collagists, taking us back to Cubism where we began! 

Kidnapping Photography emphasized illegality and my paper dealt with double appropriation. One: Brecht’s War Primer (East Berlin, 1955) is a book by German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht, mainly containing press photographs about World War Two that the author clipped from newspapers and magazines, and to which he added new captions in the form of four-line epigrams. Two: War Primer 2 (Göttingen, 2012) is by British-based photographers Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin. They downloaded images from the internet dealing with the so-called ‘War on Terror’ and pasted them into the English edition of Brecht’s War Primer (London, 1998). That is, they occupied Brecht, encouraging reflection on two world wars, two forms of photographic reproduction, and the history of ‘kidnapping photography’.

However, what made the seminar stimulating was the tension between work made without and with permission. For instance, Dor Guez is an artist from Israel (he doesn’t want to be called an Israeli artist) who spoke about an ongoing project that he calls The Christian Palestinian Archive. The archive is mainly scanned material based on family photographs supplied to him by a Palestinian minority historically linked to the Greek Orthodox Church that is generally excluded from dominant explanations of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and that Guez subsequently installs inventively in art galleries and museums. In short, he seeks to make visible those who are hidden from history.

Two alternatives, then, and Kika’s project clearly has closer links to The Christian Palestinian Archive than War Primer 2. 


All of the papers delivered at the Sao Paulo seminar dealt with still photography, but Kika works with movies. Nevertheless, still and moving photography have had a complex relationship over the last hundred years or so. The term photomontage, for instance, acknowledges affinities between cutting and pasting photographs and cinematic editing or montage; and the found object is close to the notion of found footage. Films based on found footage were made across the 20th Century, but we are currently experiencing something of a ‘golden age’, primarily because of the existence of relatively cheap digital editing software, plus contemporary artists who are keen to use it. 

An important international survey of some of this recent work was held at The Milwaukee Art Museum in 2004 with the title Cut: Film as Found Object in Contemporary Video. Various contributors were working with Hollywood feature films, like Scottish artist Douglas Gordon who ‘stretched’ Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) to make to 24-Hour Psycho (1993); or Candice Breitz from South Africa, whose Soliloquy Trilogy (2000) worked with ‘removal’, dramatically reducing three films of two hours or so to a few minutes, by just concentrating on the words and images of the respective stars – Clint Eastwood, Jack Nicholson and Sharon Stone. In contrast, Israeli artist Omer Fast’s CNN Concatenated (2002) used news programmes from American television as his found material, ‘arranged’ to challenge a supposed transparency. (My terminology comes from a stimulating essay in the exhibition catalogue called ‘The Editor’ by Stefano Basilico.)

There are a number of striking parallels between the innovative artists in Cut and Kika Nicolela. All use found footage, digitally transformed. All embrace the idea of the artist as editor. And all are sensitive to the fresh possibilities presented by the migration from cinema or living room, say, to the art gallery or museum - 24-Hour Psycho hangs in an art space so that the viewer can walk around it in a way that would have been impossible in a cinema in 1960, for example. This dimension of Kika’s work at the MIS is particularly impressive, revealing her sensitivity to the rich, new possibilities provided by the rooms of a former palace. 

Beyond The Family Album

Artists and critics have shown little interest in domestic photography, still or moving, until quite recently. The turnaround is in part due to the widespread influence of one book: Camera Lucida (Paris, 1981) by French literary theorist Roland Barthes. Barthes wanted to discover the essence of photography by systematically analyzing the small number of photographs by professionals that moved him. However, he comes to a halt halfway through the book, feeling that he is going nowhere. He then re-starts, switching his attention from professional to domestic spheres. Famously, the book concludes with his conviction that he has found the essence of the medium in one anonymous family photograph of his recently deceased mother that means so much to him personally that he refrains from reproducing it.

Domestic photography was also seriously scrutinized by Feminists in numerous countries from the seventies onwards, often inspired by the slogan ‘the personal is political’. A famous example from Britain is Beyond the Family Album (1979) by Jo Spence, a portable exhibition of family photographs and extended captions, mounted on cheap laminated panels that mocked the high production values associated with major art institutions. Her main aim was to investigate her own identity by exploring the class and gender antagonisms that are either absent or muted in the albums that are generally presented as a celebration of domestic harmony. The exhibition was first shown at The Hayward Gallery, London, in the Feminist section of a survey of contemporary British photography, but its portability has facilitated continuous showings in less prestigious venues. Spence died in 1992 and has never had a major retrospective in Britain. However, the enduring significance of Beyond the Family Album and related projects was acknowledged by radical Spanish curator Jorge Ribalta who recently organized an inclusive solo show at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona in 2005 called Beyond the Perfect Image.

Today there is a less condescending attitude towards domestic photographs, and many artists use them, informed by varying agendas. For instance, Floh (Göttingen, 2001) is a limited edition book by British artist Tacita Dean made up of anonymous family snaps found in flea markets in Berlin and elsewhere. Dean has no interest in the provenance of the photographs. Instead, the selection and editing of found images are guided by the artist’s subjectivity. Scrapbook (London, 2009) offers a useful contrast. The book is a collaboration between Irish photographer Donovan Wylie and Timothy Prus, director of The Archive of Modern Conflict, London, that houses all forms of vernacular photography. The core of the book is a scrapbook kept by the photographer’s uncle during the recent ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. Now, though, the original scrapbook is supplemented by materials bought on eBay by Wylie and Prus to create an impossible document that transcends sectarianism.

In many ways, Kika’s work is different from the above examples. She is not mourning like Barthes. She lacks the strident Socialist Feminist agenda of Spence. Her foregrounding of home movies made in her hometown during the decade she was born signals a fascination with the origins of her found footage, unlike Dean. And in contrast to Wylie and Prus, she has no obvious interest in recent political history, even though her source material was created under a military dictatorship. Yet why do I persist in believing that there is something deeply political about the project? 

Writing in Berlin, I am reminded of visits across the eighties to the East, when that half of the city was still under Communist control. I regularly enjoyed the hospitality of a chimney weep and his family who made very clear their cynicism about the so-called German Democratic Republic. At weekends we would stay at their little house and garden on the outskirts of the city, a modest - yet utopian - space where the grim reality of dictatorship could be temporarily forgotten. At that moment still and moving cameras came out to record family life. Here, too, the personal was political, I would argue. Kika’s re-presentation of home movies from seventies Campinas touches me in a similar way. 

David Evans is a British writer and picture editor, based in Berlin. Recent publications include the anthology Appropriation (London and Cambridge, Mass., 2009), Critical Dictionary (London, 2011) and The Art of Walking: a field guide (London, 2013). 



essay published at the catalogue of solo exhibition TRACES, Museum of Image and Sound, Campinas, 2013

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