As part of the OSL series, this transcribed conversation took place at OSL contemporary, 22 February 2020, on the final day of Bjarne Bare’s exhibition Breathing, Together. (Images of the exhibition can be found below the text.)
Sara R. Yazdani: Breathing, Together profoundly encompasses many layers. It revolves around photography in dialogue with its own mode of existence. I would say that it is also in dialogue with sculpture, painting, environments, objects and surfaces. There is a texture and material composite here, meaning that representation is not really at stake, at least not in the traditional sense. Breathing, Together involves fascinating textures, strange and mundane objects, and atmospheres. We enter a warm, but also distant and cold world. We are not quite sure where we are, or where we are going—it is a distant world in which when, who and where are tested. Are we in the present? In the past? Are we in the future? When strolling through the show, observing the surfaces and depicted motifs, we are (it seems) presented with a world evolving around human time, but also technical, material and geological time. Even though I am familiar with your former explorations of indexicality in photography, there are no actual ghosts here as in Roland Barthes’ idea of that-has-been in photography. (1)
I would like to begin this conversation with the motifs seen in Breathing, Together. We see a living plant against a very cold house, a gable and the folding of real rubber in continuity. We see historical objects, in gardens on podiums, as surfaces themselves; and there are cars, references to cars, jackets, abstract surfaces, racing cars; there is also a lot of skin, skin close to and distant, indicating material agency, which I find rather peculiar.
Bjarne Bare: I really value your observations on all this. First of all, to speak a little bit on the surfaces. My last book, MAR, was all about the surface as a carrier of meaning. And it's the same in a photographic print as any of the surfaces you see here. It functions as a mirror of what the surface of the image as print carries within itself as meaning. Within that comes the idea of abstraction, which is by nature subjective, since abstraction is essentially an abstract idea, and doesn't exist without a reading. Moreover, talking of abstraction, there is a piece that didn't make it to the show but which is still part of this body of work. It is a picture of a sculpture from a Japanese shrine. This sculpture is completely abstract, yet occupies a central place in the shrine. The image has been with me for a while, knowing that people with Eastern beliefs venture to praise this sculpture, while for us Westerners it holds no meaning. Through this I came to understand that photography is a highly Judeo-Christian medium, because it comes from a central perspective, much like iconography. Moreover, I realized that with this Judeo-Christian perspective, we also think of the human as the central perceiver of understanding. This also points back to abstraction as being relative to who is watching. It is all kind of intertwined, and really propelled my understanding of what a photograph is. It is also partly why I have had problems working with portraiture in the past, and still have. This exhibition is the first time I have dealt with portraiture directly, which is still distant in a way.
Specifically, there are three essential themes in this exhibition. The first and most significant is the idea of nostalgia, which is a very problematic and difficult topic to deal with as an artist. Yet I find this very peculiar, especially today, because what is making right-wing media so successful is that they play heavily on nostalgia. Moreover, nostalgia arouses very strong emotions in people. There are ideas, for instance that the French language didn't exist until after the French Revolution, before which there was no unified language in France. People came to use it to promote a sense of belonging, yet it was essentially a construct.
Nostalgia plays a very important role these days. At the same time, I feel that Europe's future lies in its history. There is this term often used in English, called nostalgia for the present, which is the notion of losing what you have before it's lost. I think that really defines our time, and the fear people have right now. What we are seeing now is only the very beginning of something moving towards a post-human state that we don't quite understand yet, but we are feeling it, and feeding it.
This brings me to the second theme of the exhibition, which is the philosophy of Franco 'Bifo' Berardi, a contemporary Italian philosopher. He is very prolific and developed a specific theory which he wrote of in 2016, in a book called AND. The title stems from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's philosophy on the Rhizome, introducing the idea of interconnectedness demonstrated in the picture of a ginger root.
Ginger is a root that grows underground and is interconnected; you can picture it by its shape. In Western thought and the ways in which we raise our children, we think of the root as a well, but the root is just the foundation. From here we raise a child like a tree; you reach the top and then it's over. This endpoint is not very helpful in developing a healthy society. The main theme of Berardi's philosophy as expressed in AND is that we used to communicate through conjunctions. Think of a crossroads where you meet people physically. Through these physical encounters you often met people you didn’t necessarily look the same as, or agree with, but you expanded your horizons. Whereas now we communicate through connections, and these connections are often based on algorithms, or popular beliefs. It's unfortunate, because we are moving towards a tribalistic state, which is bringing us back to a more primitive societal structure.
The third theme for the exhibition is an engineering term, coined ‘tribology’ in the ‘60s by an engineer named Peter Jost, who was commissioned to study the economic loss that the UK occurred annually, based on friction within materials. Tribology is defined by material wear within man-made systems in motion.
SRY: Tribology is certainly seen among your motifs. Tribology (2019), for instance, appears as a Möbius strip, a form that goes back to the historical avant-garde’s investigations of form and the relation between art and life.
BB: Absolutely. Friction doesn't really exist in nature in the same sense. Friction in machinery, and in man-made systems, depends on movement and materials that are not necessarily made to move together. I titled this image of a tire after this term... I have been thinking of it in societal terms. and how all the problems, or most of the problems we see in the world today, within nature, and also among the political beliefs and religious conflicts are man-made systems in motion, which we can solve if we study why such frictions appear? So, those are the three underlying themes at play here.
SRY: I would like to return to your take on nostalgia, certainly conceptualized, if not even politicized in your work—the fear of losing cultural identity and national values, so much discussed today, unfortunately even in Norway under the problematic idea of “norske verdier”. Recently, I read this really interesting article in Wolfgang Tillmans’ What Is Different?— a publication containing interviews with activists, scientists and critical journalists, edited by Tillmans—which discusses the evolution of such fears. In an interview between Tillmans and the author and journalist, Carolin Emcke, she mentions the far right-wing construction of a fear of the refugee crisis, the loss of European values (she writes about Germany, primarily) and the manifestation of an impression of a “permanent state of emergency”—a permanent crisis. (2) The dogmatic rhetoric she mentions—the “act now” or our nation will be “wiped out”—are so apocalyptic, racist and dangerous. The far right-wing construction of such fears, their social media methods, language, and so forth, reminds me of Gregory Bateson's Steps to an Ecology of Mind, in which he unfolds interconnections between the social and natural ecologies in the world, between weeds and bad ideas; how bad ideas grow, spread and circulate like weeds, symbiotically.
BB: I think this also goes back to abstraction, because abstraction is about perspective; some things are abstract to you, some things are not, depending on who you are and where you come from. And this is where right-wing beliefs stem from as well; they are afraid because things are abstract—it's just about perspective. I like to think about my images in the same way, as they could function as a reverse form of memories, where memories are small fragments in the brain, that when you wake them up, they create an emotion or a memory. And like those images you were mentioning earlier, you don't know if they're in the past, or the future.
It is very important for me that these are not only timeless, but also not necessarily tied to a specific place, because people with different cultural beliefs, or different ideas to me can have these as triggers, and hopefully they can create a dialogue within their own lives that I cannot necessarily control. Further, I believe images that raise questions, rather than giving answers, are more important. Photography carries this didactic burden that we are supposed to say something with an image, which other artworks don't necessarily do; but if a photograph can raise a question instead, I think it's a much more powerful medium in that sense.
SRY: I mean, there are many layers of temporality going on here, especially in Riverbed (2017-19), in which geological time has taken shape.
BB: Well, you mentioned the term ‘human time’ earlier, which I think is interesting, because we often forget about that. Everything is centred around us. And that's why I think the ideas of post-humanity are interesting.
SRY: Absolutely—against the Anthropocene.
BB: Human time is very short and very relative. Photography is tied to time as well, because it's a capture. But what actually is that capture, and what is that time that a photograph is made up of?
SRY: There is also technical time, which is nonhuman as well. Today, technical operations are much more complicated than in the analogue era. The archive today, as the media archeologist Wolfgang Ernst pointed out, is based on algorithmic operations and processes. (3) There are, in other words, many dimensions of time going on here. Moving on, could you perhaps say something on the two abstract works in this particular show, Totality #2 and #3 (2017-19)?
BB: I like the way you call them abstract. People refer to them as abstract, although they really aren’t. Totality #2 and #3 are images of LED panels. This interest stems from my previous exhibition, a show with photographs of pegboards that also had this grid as a background, as we see in Totality #2 and #3. My idea of the grid stems from early modernism, where the grid was introduced to pictorial thinking in which the perspective was challenged—only through removing the perspective can you reveal the past and create a new form of visual communication (4) (which was what abstract paintings turned into, in a sense). Of course, with Totality #2 and #3 the grid is linked to the logics of the digital.
SRY: Absolutely. It's the basis of it.
BB: The grid also explains how the camera records: I photograph digitally, a technology which entails a composition of grids with red, green and blue sensors that read information. A while ago, I came across this LED panel in Mexico City. I went up close to it, and became obsessed with just standing really close to it and seeing information change very fast. As it was fleeting through, I felt it was a nice image of how the digital info-sphere functions, how it just passes through us really swiftly, specifically then placing it next to the depiction of the frieze in the corner up there, which is a pre-photographic, flat, image mode. Much slower of course, but time is very relative, and the relation between the two was important to me because there was time, future and past and all that, in between.
SRY: Your work, I would say, puts emphasis on the material agency of the image surface: racing cars, rubber, national landscapes, sand, hair. The textuality of skin, rubber, sand, and so forth, in these works is appealing. For instance, the driver sitting in the racing car, the textuality of accelerating old red skin on adrenaline against the glossy car surface (of course, acceleration is also in dialogue with the fast flow of images and circulation, ideas and politics).
My point is that a diagrammatic thinking of images may be interesting when unpacking your work. I take the term from Gilles Deleuze, who in his book Foucault writes that we can't really understand the world if we don't think of material connections between humans and objects, and also between objects and matter themselves, such as the plants, rubber, teenage hair, and bare red feet seen in Breathing, Together. “The diagram”, Deleuze writes,
“is no longer an auditory or visual archive but a map, a cartography that is coextensive with the whole social field. It is an abstract machine. It is defined by its informal functions and matter, and in terms of form makes no distinction between content and expression, a discursive formation and non-discursive formation. It's a machine that is almost blind and mute, even though it makes others see and speak”. (5)
I think this serves as a complex and difficult, but also interesting perspective to think about photography, including in this particular show.
BB: Photography is a machine, as well. The digital info-sphere is very interesting here, because humans need to exist within systems, and we create all these systems for ourselves to exist within. While they are very abstract to us, we rely on them. I think that the more we are developing, and with this machine, driving forward and accelerating the system—back to the racing car driver—we are creating an environment that is going to be very abstracted from the history that we are trying to cling onto. I don't think people are ready for this, although they are driving it very fast.
What I see is people accelerating this development very, very fast, and there needs to be a clear dialogue as to where we are going, because more and more people are falling off the train as it steams through, and it's getting less and less democratic. I think it needs an understanding of the archive, or as I understand you, this abstract machine, everything being interconnected in a sense. Like you said, a chair is not a chair until you have to sit on it, but it was also created out of an idea, and every object we are surrounded by comes out of some initial abstract idea that makes sense through human thoughts. While there is a beauty in that progress, it might be accelerated too much sometimes.
SRY: In the midst of the diagrammatic processes taking place in Breathing, Together, we encounter certain atmospheres. There is a coolness, but also warmth. There is distance and closeness at the same time.
BB: I think so. I mean, that also relates to my working format. I found this scale to be interesting, and I have stuck to it for the past six years. The artist Elise Storsveen actually mentioned it to me once when she was in my studio at the Art Academy in Oslo. She said that she knew several photographers, up close. She said it was funny, because she saw that every photographer had a specific distance to their subject matter. I never thought about that before. It was striking, but made total sense; when I look at other photographers’ work, there is always a certain distance to their subject.
I feel as though I usually stop a few steps before the actual subjects to photograph them, and I isolate them. When I started working on this scale, I have this one to one relation, which plays on the abstract idea of the photograph, because while the objects are seemingly real, for me they are completely abstract. That said, I think I am digressing away from your question now.
SRY: The reason why I was asking you is, as already touched upon, because that distance and closeness is very interesting.
BB: An empathic distance?
SRY: Well yes and no, but also, wandering through the world seen in Breathing, Together, we feel connected, and then we don't, due to a coolness, which is slightly harsh. There is both a sense of belonging and nonbelonging—a tension.
BB: I think there's too much photography which is perhaps too empathic in that it plays on your emotions directly, which is a deceit in many ways. As a photographic tool, you can stir up emotions, but I don't think it's always a very honest approach within the medium. I see it often used as a tool to create an emotion within the viewer that I find problematic.
SRY: It is a matter of the affective dimension of images. I don't mean in terms of human affections and human emotions, however. If following a Deleuzian take on materiality, as Gregory J. Seigworth and Melissa Gregg put it, affect goes beyond the lived emotions and feelings; it is the name given to a force that passes from “bodies to other bodies,” sometimes human sometimes non-human, alongside or beyond our conscious knowing and human emotions. (6)
BB: Surface wear is also a part of that, I think. Surface wear and traces of use and history are portrayed with the introduction of an ironic affect in the black and white image of the nostalgic couple, which I titled The Nostalgic. Here we have this crumbling couple trying to embrace each other.
SRY: Yes, materially, in-between human and nonhuman bodies, I think that is what make your work, such as The Nostalgic, peculiar; how image surfaces conceptualize forces in nature, bodies and objects, materially speaking.
BB: We always like to place human affection upon non-human objects, and every time we watch a nature film, we're really sad because of a cub dying, or a tree falling over. We like to place human affection upon these objects. The affect within nature itself is pretty sad and destructive, because there is no affect—it's just life moving on.
SRY: I mean human emotions are also something very much triggered in the media landscape or the news landscape today.
BB: This is why the digital info-sphere is interesting in relation to nature itself and how they may be closely linked. If you remove the human element, they are very much the same. They're just two driving forces that move forward.
SRY: With the affective forces of images in mind, I think I would like to say a little bit more on the archival dimension of this show and your practice, which also of course relates back to time and temporality. I have a particular work in my mind here, the historical object we actually see in Shape of Time (2017-19)—a relic of the past.
BB: This object comes from the archeological museum in Mexico City, which is a fantastic museum in itself. I got fascinated by the object, which is more than 5,000 years old. There was something really hopeless about it, in its expression—very paranoid in a sense.
I thought about the passage of time through this object that I was standing in front of; it was so peculiar, and so fragile. At the same time, I was reading this book by George Kubler which was published by Yale Press in the early '60s, called The Shape of Time. So I titled the piece as a reference to that book. The book was really important to painters such as Ad Reinhardt, who were diminishing representation in their work. George Kubler questions our understanding of time through the objects that we keep in museums, and our understanding of progress through these.
I thought there was something there that could represent my idea for this project, and also the idea of time and photography, as well as belonging. I didn't want to give it too much context, because as an object itself, what does it really tell you? And how true is archeological research? Can we really trust it? I think that is important for the photograph as a relic as well. When the photographs became part of museum discourse, which is also fairly recent, museums existing before photography, the photographic distribution of the archive is seemingly new. I also find it interesting that Richard Serra, for example, refuses to photograph his work in colour. It has to be black and white, which is a reference to old archival practices, because we used to see shape for what it was more than reading colour. That, of course, is another discussion. I was interested in placing The Shape of Time and The Accelerationist (2018-19) together because I think his emotion is similar to the racing car driver. They have the same scared face in a way.
SRY: I like the way you chose to display it on this extraordinary wall or installation; it reminds me of being in the archive or the storage in a museum. And it hints to the archival fever in the 1990s. This is when, among others, Hal Foster wrote that archives and museum walls were on fire, and history departments and modern museums were in flames because of the appearance of digital technologies. (7)
BB: Rather than seeing it as a potential.
SRY: Absolutely. With The Shape of Time, it is pertinent to take a small historical detour around a concept introduced by André Malraux in 1949. It was in his important work, Musée Imaginaire, that he argued that a radical transformation of visual art had occurred with the arrival of photographic reproduction. (viii) Writing on photographic reproduction during the middle of the 20th Century, Malraux viewed photographic media as a form of art that would dismiss the world of sculpture, painting and other traditional art forms. Up until the 19th Century, a work of art was “essentially a representation of something real or imaginary, which conditioned its existence qua work of art.” (8) The reason for this was simply that artworks of museums and collections began to be reproduced by the camera, and were hence transformed into new types of images that could leave the museum. Exploring the photographic reproduction of masterpieces such as Rubens paintings, sculptures of Ibero-Phoenician art of the third-century B.C. and the ceramic form of Byzantine folk art, Malraux moreover noted that mechanical reproduction eroded the medium-specificity of an artwork. When turned into a photograph, the ancient objects lost their colours, texture and dimension, and sculpture also lost its volume. (9) However, in the museum without walls, the photographic reproduction of an object provided it with new features of originality: “In the process, they have lost their properties as objects; but, by the same token, they have gained something: the utmost significance as to style that they can possibly acquire.” (10)
BB: It also points to the inherent abstraction of photography, because the loss he speaks about is the loss of our actual experience of an object. But he also speaks about the potential that more people see it. So, there is a loss, but within that loss there's also a bigger potential.
SRY: Objects, as Malraux notes, now set into new relations, made available beyond the walls of the museum. It was a question of object circulations and relations. This has, of course, changed with the digital mode of existence of photography. I mean this was back in 1949, yet obviously very, very relevant today, but has radically changed with the shift from analogue to digital technology. The digital archive is something completely different because it's now-
BB: It's now accelerated.
SRY: Yes. It is algorithmic too, meaning that when we deal with the digital archive we have to involve the forces of other types of protocols and documents that are operating as programmable data below our sense apparatuses, as Ernst writes. (11) Your installation activates these concerns, the archival and temporal logics of photography today.
BB: Yeah. That's why I had to construct this wall because I wanted it to be an institutional gesture in a way from the back, where it feels like an archive. If you've ever been to a museum vault, the way they store artworks is usually on a similar grid-like field, often a metal structure. While on the front I wanted to use this material called polycarbonate, which is made for greenhouses to filter light. More effective than glass at keeping in the warmth, it isolates, but it still lets UV rays through. I felt that in relation to the landscape here, but also when you look through it, you get this pixelated view of what's on the back, which is also digital in a way. So it encompassed elements of all that. I felt this gesture of the wall became more and more important as I thought about it.
SRY: In other words, there is a hot environment evolving here, right now.
SRY: I would like to talk a little in regard to the title, Breathing, Together. Who is breathing? Or what is breathing. What is togetherness? Who and what is bonding with what and whom? The title reminds me of a great article I read by the philosopher, Elizabeth A. Povinelli, entitled Acts of Life, in which she stresses how the world is getting hotter and hotter. Published in the summer issue of Artforum in 2017, she writes about the machinery of capital extraction, industrialism and consumption, of our refusal to get a grasp of the situation, and how temperatures are rising and chemical hot zones spreading. (12) We are definitely in a time and crisis in which we (she puts it) need to think about with whom and what we bond, who and what we tie solidarity with. (13) She, then, underpins a bonding that is not necessarily human—but bonds with and between riverbeds, humans, plants, rubber, and the simplest, such as teenage hair and soles of feet, like the motifs we see in your latest works.
It moreover seems like breathing reflected in 'Bifos' later work, Breathing. Chaos and Poetry in which he asks how to deal with the world’s chaos, our current crisis, inspires you. (14) It's a book on therapy and togetherness, based on the suffocation of not being able to breathe. So it's about breathing. Breathing, living, moving and existing.
BB: It's so important and it's something we forget; it’s something also inherently analogous. Breathing together is also a term used in couple therapy. Couples who struggle, who have lost communication need to stop, slow down a little bit and remember to breathe, to work together to resume the relationship. That's why I felt I had to add that comma to the title. I like your observation of that. It's very central, who is breathing together with what, what is togetherness?
BB: And it's something we need to think more about because we're not only breathing together with humans, but with everything that surrounds us. It's very banal in a sense, but everything is in there. It really concerns everything. It concerns time too, as breath is also time. So yeah, they're intertwined.
SRY: Breathing together with our surroundings is a very nice thought to finish this conversation with —the air, bodies and things that exist in our milieu, the forces we are existing together with in order to live.
(1) Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections of Photography, trans. Richard Howard (London: Vintage, 2000/1980), 76-78.
(2) Wolfgang Tillmans, “Interview with Carolin Emcke,” in Jahresring 64. What Is Different, eds. Wolfgang Tillmans. Series ed. Brigitte Oetker (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2018), 106-112.
(3) See Wolfgang Ernst, “Underway to the Dual System,” in Digital Memory and the Archive, ed. Jussi Parikka (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).
(4) Rosalind Krauss, “Grids”, October, Vol. 9 (Summer, 1979): 52
(5) Gilles Deleuze, Foucault, trans. Seán Hand (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988/1986), 34.
(6) Gregory J. Seigworth and Melissa Gregg, “An Inventory of Shimmers,” in The Affect Theory Reader, eds. Gregory J. Seigworth and Melissa Gregg (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2010), 1-2.
(7) Hal Foster, “The Archive Without Museums,” October 77 (Summer 1996): 97.
(viii) André Malraux, “Museum Without Walls,” in Voices of Silence, trans. Stuart Gilbert (London: Paladin, 1974/1954).
(8) Ibid., 14.
(9) Ibid., 21.
(10) Ibid., 44.
(11) Wolfgang Ernst, “Media Archaeography: Method and Machine versus the History and Narrative of Media,” in Digital Memory and the Archive, ed. Jussi Parikka (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).
(12) Elizabeth A. Povinelli, “Acts of Life: Ecology and Power,” Artforum (Summer 2017).
(14) Franco “Bifo” Berardi, Breathing. Chaos and Poetry (South Pasadena: Semiotext(e), 2018).
Sara R. Yazdani holds a PhD in art history from the University of Oslo, Norway. Her fields of research are modern and contemporary art with a particular focus on the relationships between art, media, technologies, theory of the Anthropocene, avant-garde art studies, media ecologies and process philosophy. Yazdani is also an art critic and her work has been published in Artforum International, Mousse Magazine,Kunstkritikk, Art & Education, Objektiv, as well as in a number of journals and anthologies on contemporary art.
Bjarne Bare (b. Poznan, 1985) lives and works in Los Angeles. He received his B.F.A. from the Academy of Fine Art Oslo (2013) and M.F.A. from UCLA, Los Angeles (2017). Bjarne is the co-founder of MELK, an artist run space in Oslo promoting new Scandinavian Photography since 2009. Through his work as an artist, gallery director and publisher, Bjarne Bare maintains a profound interest in the development and current state of the photographic image, as well a theoretical curiosity concerning modes of perception in the reading of the photograph.
His works have been shown in museums such as the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Lillehammer Kunstmuseum, Preus Museum and Sørlandets Kunstmuseum as well as Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, Palazzetto Tito, Venice; UCLA Broad Art Center, Los Angeles; Three Shadows Xiamen Photography Art Centre, Xiamen; Kunstnernes Hus, Oslo; and OSL contemporary, Oslo; among others. Bare has published several books, which have been included in libraries and collections such as the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA); Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA); The Getty Research Institute; Sächsische Universitätsbibliothek Dresden; University of Bergen and his artworks are found in the collections such as Preus Museum, Kistefos Museum, Wienerberger Contemporary Photography Collection, and The Ekard Collection.