Photographs of a Crime Scene: Eulogy for an Unfinished Monument (2010) Vesna Madzoski
- Published in the publication for the project Passages Through (The Unfinished Monument)
“Photographs can capture the shrapnel of traumatic time.”
– Urlich Baer, Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma
“No, murder is more subtle: it consists of following someone step by step, of erasing his traces along the way, and no one can live without traces. If you leave no traces, or if someone takes it upon himself to wipe them out, you are as good as dead.”
– Jean Baudrillard, Please Follow Me
It all started with an invitation, a friendly gesture from a representative of a museum from a far away land. A gesture that meant something, a gesture of recognition and support at the early stage of our walk through the art world. A gesture that was enough to push us to start working frantically on a project, believing fully in the support we were offered. What followed were several months of dreams, conversations, arguments, questions, and possible answers. The shocking awakening came just two weeks before the scheduled building time of the exhibition: the entire project was canceled without particular argumentation, merely a cynical remark that life was full of surprises. And then the story unraveled – we were caught in the net of internal institutional games and power plays, and realized that as artists we had no legal rights to question this decision or fight back. As it seemed, we were supposed to function in a world where promises are easily made and then revoked, where responsibility ceases to exist. Naive as we were, the initial anger was replaced with moments of doubt. We searched for our own mistakes, for proof that we were the ones responsible for this kind of ending. We internalized the guilt, like every victim is prone to do.
We left the project behind, our lives resumed somehow and lessons were learned. Nevertheless, after some time, it became clear that if we were to continue further, we had to find a way to materialize this unlived experience and give it an appropriate form, so that we could deal with the traumatic event we had obviously been subjected to, though unaware of its consequences. In retrospect, our task transformed into a search for ways to overcome trauma. Hence, the photographs.
The essence of the project was an installation; a structure which was developed for the particular space of Studio K. This structure was to host works of other artists who we wanted to present to this museum’s public. Conceived as such, this project would not have been possible anywhere else. Because the project was never realized, all we were left with was the structure’s model. It stood there like a skeleton of an unborn being, a monster that had been aborted before its strange body could ‘infect’ the world. And so, we proceeded by having a camera enter into the structure’s place of origin so as to give us proof that it had really existed, that the pain we felt was there for a reason. Hence, the photographs.
The resulting images seemed to come from another world, mesmerizing images that seduced us the very moment we saw them, while simultaneously confronting us with our wounds. They were a remainder of what had happened, a materialization of moments from the past which we will now have to relive every time we look at them, a reminder of the time when we had no agency and no power to influence things. A time, however, when we still had the agency to react and the power to create. Hence, the photographs.
On these photographs, we encounter the shadows of the past. We see reality not as it would have been, but as it is lived in a dream. On this surrealist stairway we have to walk whenever we look at the images, things are covered in fog and mist; things are obscure, hiding and unreadable. But still, whenever we look at the photographs, we remember, and we know exactly what we see.
The best crimes happen in fog, at night
If we were to talk about a crime, the first task is to define what kind of crime we are talking about and ask what kind of violence could possibly occur in the neutral, clean and protected world of a white cube. What kind of violence could occur in a museum, a space which is never associated with illegal activities, but rather with sublime beauty and veils of fantasies; a space intended to educate us about the crimes that take place in the ‘real world’ and to evoke sympathies for those who suffer; a space in which we encounter visions of others in peace and in silence. Nonetheless, the existing invisible and immaterial traces of the symbolic violence from our memory made us painfully aware that violence does occur in the space of the museum and this awareness led us to our own, private investigation.
The crime scene we were confronted with was perfectly clean, without bloody stains or visible traces, everything bleached, removed for good. But a good detective arrives at the crime scene fully equipped. Once a magnifying glass, today the main tool is the more sophisticated ultraviolet flashlight, which reveals any traces of blood or other fluids that may remain on the sheets and white walls. We turned on the camera, a pinhole camera with no mediating lens in between, and witnessed the discovery of the traces of a removed body, the traces of a fragile skeleton, surrounded by shadows of stains. As detectives, we were able to discern a multiplicity of such traces left by possible villains.
It is important here to acknowledge the different levels on which violence occurs and to distinguish the different domains in which this violence operates. If, following Žižek, violence can take three forms – subjective, objective and systemic – the traces present in the pictures demonstrate each of these forms: the subjective violence we had been subjecting ourselves to every single day we worked on the project; the objective crime hidden in the messages we had been receiving from those who held the power and who refused to reveal the truth behind the production process; and, perhaps most importantly, the systemic violence that remains hidden and undetected as it has come to form such an integral part of our daily reality.
In earlier times, in systems that contained censors and censorship, artworks were judged in a public and open manner, demonstrating an act of violence that everyone was forced to accept. Though often used against their creators, artworks managed to survive, in a way preserving the right to speak out for future times and revealing the crime and violence that had been performed on them. In today’s societies of perverse violence, however, power remains invisible, as objects and events are aborted even before they are produced or developed. As a result, we are left with volumes of sketches and proposals of objects that have never been produced, of events that have never been realized. There is no remaining work to express the violence that has been performed, nothing is left with which to point a finger at the perpetuators. This is perhaps the reason for the current deadlock; it seems to have become impossible to critique institutional organizations, let alone the ideological system to which they are integral.
We live in a world where, according to some, the current state of affairs is best represented in the form of a Möbius strip, in which outside becomes inside and exit becomes entrance. The dynamics of capitalism similarly leave no means of escape, warning us of the danger in using a similar model in our examination of the crimes. The model of fluidity in which the victim easily becomes the villain presents the danger of relativising the responsibility for the crime and of obscuring the real origin of violence. If, following Benjamin, it has become necessary to smash the kaleidoscope of phantasmagoria in order to see the real forms of reality, it has become necessary to cut the Möbius strip as well; the cut that will break the course of inevitable violence and reestablish the parameters according to which it becomes possible again to judge the guilty ones.
Walking around, walking through, walking above, walking under
Since the original project was never realized, today we can only talk about intentions. The quotes in the textual part of this publication function as guidelines and offer a glimpse of these intentions. The original invitation from the museum was based on our previous practice in which we created a space for the critical reading of current positions and politics in contemporary arts. The aim of Unfinished Monument was to examine new possibilities of presenting contemporary artworks and to question whether the current museum infrastructure and practice of exhibiting has succeeded in developing the suitable tools for this. We looked for ways in which to create sensory excitement in the museum’s visitors similar to the one visitors of the French salon must have felt on their first visit there. We wanted to bring murmur back to the exhibition space and stimulate visitors to think about and discuss the works they see. Because we believe that when discussing works of art we actually talk about ourselves.
The skeleton of the project was to be a staircase built out of three Möbius strips, cut and inserted into the space so as to create the experience of a constant movement. The structure was also meant to accommodate various artworks, created in different mediums, forms and shapes, and placed where they are seen or heard best. It was meant to offer a chance for a walk, for a stroll through the walls of a building inhabited by fetishized objects. It was meant to open new passages for its various levels and unexplored possibilities. Perhaps based on our naive belief that it is still possible to reform the system without negating or destroying it, that it is still possible to create new ways for things to exist in a system that is unaware of its perpetual crimes.
At this point, the question one has to ask in our confessional society is how to talk about a crime, how to narrate trauma without getting into that confessional trap of satisfying the Other once again and confirming its omnipotence and invincibility? The dilemma we faced was how to avoid becoming pathetic, while simultaneously making sure we were not silencing our own voice. How were we to discuss all of this without showing the correspondence and angry emails, without analyzing the hypocritical language of received messages, without acknowledging the vulnerability and precarious position of artists today, without getting involved in this game with invisible rules and manipulating ghost-like hands? How were we to do this and at the same time overcome the trauma and fight back?
Our answer was to keep on walking on the staircases we created, to continue our stroll and try to repeat what was lost, firmly believing that artworks are more than simple fetish objects of profit and exchange. Art can be a place for confrontation, symbolization, affirmation and catharsis; it can be something that is “description without place”, in the words of Wallace Stevens: “This is not a description which locates its content in a historical space and time, but a description which creates, as the background of the phenomena it describes, an inexistent (virtual) space of its own, so that what appears in it is not an appearance sustained by the depth of reality behind it, but a decontextualized appearance, an appearance which fully coincides with real being. (…) it extracts from the confused reality its own inner form…” (in Slavoj Žižek, Violence, 2008). Exactly this power to abstract, to abstraction, makes it possible for human beings to relate to the thoughts of others, to find themselves in the works of others.
What followed was a creation of a different standpoint, our attempt to give new life to our aborted project and offer a different view on events through the act of making and sharing those photographs. Photographs that silently represent our attempts to resurrect this haunting object from our memory, this object we cannot ever reach, but only infinitely approach. They are a materialization of a dream that will hopefully prevent our freelance wandering ghosts from staying trapped in the shadows of our own imagination.