Ghost House II.2 selected for Royal West of England Academy Open Photography 2011

My photograph Ghost House II.2 has been selected for the Royal West of England Academy Open Photography 2011 (http://www.rwa.org.uk/curpro.htm).

I’m particularly happy to go back there because I was selected for their very first Open Photography exhibition in 2008, when I had no exhibiting experience and no formal art qualification. I think it is good and too rare that a prestigious gallery is brave enough to give their chance to unknown photographers and to select work purely on the quality of the picture, not the applicant’s CV.

Ghost House II.2

MA Digital Arts – Midpoint Review Presentation and Evaluation

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Instructions

Hello fellow MADA 1st year students !

For optimal results, please watch the visual presentation on you tube before reading the written evaluation. (You just have to read this post linearly from beginning to end.)

Thank you !

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Visual presentation

I am of course interested in your thoughtful feedback as an artist/academic with cultural references, but also in your instinctive reactions as an individual. This is why I am asking you to watch the visual presentation before reading the evaluation of my project. I want to recreate the conditions in which a random passerby may see an artwork on the internet or in a gallery window, without knowing anything about it, without having even looked at the title yet. This person may not know anything about contemporary art. They may be walking down the street and notice a picture, or have randomly found a video on youtube. What will this person see in the art work? Will the image grab their attention? Will the image awaken feelings/moods/questions in them, despite the absence of cultural context? Making artworks that are able to establish direct communication with the viewer, without the need for explanations or comments is a big concern in my practice. This experiment is designed to find out in which measure I have succeeded or failed so far.

In the visual presentation, you will be shown excerpts from 2 videos, stripped of title, music and context. These videos are made from edited footage, but have no special effects yet. I would like you to watch these videos candidly, without a priori. For the 6 minutes of the presentation, please try and forget (temporarily) about the academic context and watch them not as coursework, but as your Friday night movie or a museum on holidays. This is the closest way I could artificially recreate the situation described above. Please focus on your subjective experience as a viewer. Do the images grab your attention or fail to do so ? Do they create any feelings/moods/reflexions in you? If so which? Do the 2 videos have different, identical or similar feelings to you ? Please tell me anything that crosses your mind.

Watch the visual presentation on youtube

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Please do not read anything below until you have watched the visual presentation and followed the instructions !

Thank you !

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500 word auto-evaluation

Evaluation

My project is about the relationships between places and individuals, observed through 2 main viewpoints:
1) how the physical world is subjectively perceived by individuals, and intersects with their inner world.
2) how space influence individuals’ psyches. This may take a more political aspect by exploring themes of imprisonment and deprivation of private space.

In the theoretical research, I got mainly interested in:
1) Documentary-type (i.e. not staged) photography, both through its link to Surrealism and in its contemporary form. Surrealist documentary aims to physically reveal “surreality”, the higher perception where dream and reality merge. In contemporary practice, the concept of subjective documentary, that says more about the person that makes it than about the documented subject itself.
2) The concept of “chronotope”: the way space is intrinsically linked to time in the context of memory.
3) Manipulating the viewer’s perceptions/feelings using moving image techniques.
4) How much the meaning/impact of an artwork comes from the raw images themselves, and how much comes from the critical comment accompanying them.

In practice, I have mainly edited raw footage shot in abandoned buildings last summer (in prevision of the MA), aiming to use editing techniques in order to create specific atmospheres that would trigger specific feelings.

Work plan

Issue 1: I come from photography. I have lots of references in cinema but know little about video art. In photography, striking symbolic images stand by themselves. In cinema, such atmospheric images come in between bits of informative narrative. I am still unsure about video art as a language: is it a succession of symbolic sequences deprived of narrative ? Or am I missing something ? Do I want to make pure visual video art or do I want to tell stories (even ambiguous ones) but do not know yet how to do it ? Do moving images without narrative get boring for the audience ?

Issue 2: So far I have only used unstaged/documentary type footage. I planned to incorporate staged images, mostly in order to depict dreams. How do I make the staged images ? I am concerned about them looking kitsch (due to lack of budget), too litteral or too didactic (textbook symbolism).

Issue 3: How can I use new digital technologies (rather than pure traditional still/moving image) to serve my purpose, not just for the sake of being modern ? The main idea is to make immersive installations that make the world of the moving images more real to the viewer than traditional projection on a screen. I have not studied the practical/technical feasibility of installations at all yet.

Issue 4: Can I use the still photographs in an innovative way ?

Other practical tasks:
1) start using special effects on the video software
2) shall I try making my own soundtracks or continue using work from a proper musician ?

Further theoretical research:
1) the mechanism of memory
2) dream symbolism

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Constructive comments

After reading this project evaluation, please submit your comments as a student/artist/academic as well as your comments as an individual viewer (as requested in the visual presentation). If your experience on these 2 different levels differs sensibly, please make sure to state clearly on which level you are commenting, since I won’t be able to request clarification of ambiguities while you are commenting on my work. Thank you for your help and cooperation!

For your information, the titles and commercial/critical blurbs usually accompanying the 2 videos were:

Video 1: Disciplinary Institutions

In “Disciplinary Institutions”, I explore places used to make undesirable and/or helpless people disappear discretely such as Magdalene convents (used to imprison women), mental asylums and workhouses. I am interested in showing how the long gone inmates keep imprinting these places long after they are dead, and the malevolent aura still cast by those buildings.

Video 2: Ghost House

The Ghost House series was shot at several abandoned houses in Ireland, whose last occupants probably left 10 to 30 years ago. Traces of their lives and aspirations, and of the disillusions and hardships
that made them leave their homeland, remained in the form of scattered personal belongings.

Do those blurbs influence your perception of the images ?
If so, do they:
– help you get interested in the artwork (while the images alone left you cold) ?
– change your perception of the images ?
– confirm your intuitive perception of the images ?

Mark Ellis: Protect and survive

In his series “Protect and Survive” (this was the name of a 1980s UK government leaflet telling people what to do in case of a nuclear attack), Mark Ellis takes pictures of bunkers that would have been used if a nuclear attack between the UK and USSR had happened during the cold war.

I love how the documentary nature of the photographs is contrasted with the very cinematic look of them, mixing dramatic shadows and almost technicolor tones. This is the look I aim to achieve in my Ghost House series because I love the ambiguity it creates, causing to viewer to wonder whether this is documentary or staged fiction, and to feel awkward about this uncertainty. I think this look is a particularly clever choice is Ellis’ series because it touches on the subject of State propaganda, a domain where the ambiguity between truth and lies may lead to the most serious and deadly consequences.

The Ghost House Project (Genesis)

The Ghost House project started in summer 2007 when I found by chance an abandoned house near our rented holiday cottage, and decided to explore it. Inside I found personal belongings left behind by the previous occupants (household items, clothes, many religious objects and even drawers full of letters). I did not touch or read the letters, I felt it would be indecent, but read the stamping dates and sender’s address on the exposed envelopes. From those and also from the design of the clothes and items, I deducted that the last occupants either died in the 70’s or left to join family in America. I began to wonder why those houses were never cleared after their last occupants died. It seems those people either had no descendants (I later heard of a tradition of “bachelor-farmers” in Ireland) or their descendants had emigrated (mostly in the USA) and had no desire for a small old fashioned house in the middle of nowhere in Ireland (in the 70s, Ireland was not yet fashionable as a get-away-from-it-all holiday destination … ) Then I wondered why the local authorities did not clear away those houses to make something useful out of them, or at least keep them in shape for future use.

A dear friend is the son of Irish economical migrants and studied the history and heritage of Ireland. From discussions with him, I started to understand that the locals did not see the “Ghost Houses” the same way the outsiders did. They were all but invisible to them. During the Famine of 1845-1850, out the 8 million Irish, 1 million died of starvation and another million emigrated to escape Death. The population was abruptly reduced by 25%. During the Famine itself, the living (or rather surviving) were so underfed they were too weak to bury the dead, therefore the dead were lined on the shore to be washed away by the sea. One can only imagine what a trauma it was to see those Ireland beaches filled with rows of corpses, and to abandoned your loved ones to be washed away. Yet the surviving could not afford any weakness if they wanted to try and survive a little longer themselves. Then the Famine ended and empty houses scattered the landscape, reminding the survivors of the people they knew who died or emigrated. Yet, even after the Famine, conditions were still harsh and people could not afford any weakness. The death of 1/8 of a country’s population in 5 years is such a major trauma it could not be “dealt with”. To go on with their daily business and ensure their own subsistence, the survivors both during and after the Famine learnt to ignore the dead lined up on the beach and then the empty houses. It is as though the country had developed a form of collective amnesia as a form of self protection. Like the way victims sometimes wipe out from their conscious thoughts the memory of a traumatic event, but at the unprecedented scale of a whole country. Today still, it is considered impolite to mention the Famine in daily conversations. It is just Not Done. The Famine may be discussed in political and academic circles, and artworks made about it, but it is never discussed by ordinary people, despite the fact that all families were affected by it. The Famine may be present in the conscious thought as an abstraction belonging to the realms of Politics, History and National Identity but on the human and emotional levels, its consequences are so huge that it was never “dealt with” and the collective amnesia is as strong as ever.

The Ghost Houses I’ve visited may not date from the Famine, but they are reminders of a recent past where, economically, Ireland was mostly rural, poor and lagging behind the rest of Europe and where many people still emigrated to the UK and America to find work. Today’s Irish people see themselves as citizens of a modern, booming “Celtic Tiger” and do not want to be reminded of this recent past. So their eyes scan over the landscape without registering the Ghost Houses who become all but invisible to them. The Ghost Houses are not even “eyesores” like abandoned buildings might be in Britain, they are invisible. The contemporary Irish people deliberately ignore the Ghost Houses and build themselves brand new houses right next to them that project the right image of success and modernity with which they identify. The Ghost Houses stay lying there, waiting to be explored by artists or bought by rich foreigners in quest of picturesque.