I was introduced to the work of Helene Kazan when I walked into Momenta Art during a discussion for the exhibition Frames of War — titled after the book by Judith Butler and curated by Natasha Marie Llorens — and saw seated in front of me three women panelists. (I should point out that the exhibition has both female and male artists in it, and there was a later panel of all men.) I was immediately conscious of how unusual this was and reminded yet again of how little women’s voices are heard in discussions of war, how little impact they have had on the recorded history of war. In my own experience, having read extensively on the Holocaust in Europe, I have found that the history of it as both historical and personal recording is primarily written by Western white men. There are, of course, notable exceptions, but the elision of the female voice is so extreme that the history seems to me faulty and inaccurate even as it has been accepted for over half a century as the truth.
What made me curious about Kazan, who was part of the panel discussion, was that she uses a strategy to present her work that is somewhat academic, yet she is situating it an art context. I also found it interesting that she had worked previously on large-scale sculptures and films but that this work had led her to a strange hybrid between performance art and lecture.
We have all seen the many permutations of the arguments for and against political art over the years. There was a wonderful moment during the panel when Llorens was asked by someone in the audience how this kind of work could be effective when it was isolated in such a specific context, and without skipping a beat she pointed out that the art world is also part of the world. It was also clear to me that Kazan, whose projects are now “research driven” in some way, still believes that it is the visual, the image, that will convey the information she wants to get across. I was struck by the faith she has in the power of the image when we live in such an image-saturated culture; many claim the image no longer has a serious impact. Her work focuses in part on the tension between the image of a possible and perhaps desirable future contrasted with and living alongside an image of experienced past destruction and anticipated future catastrophe.
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Susan Silas: In 1989, as the Berlin Wall was coming down and the shape of Europe was undergoing a dramatic transition, Lebanon was in a state of civil war. Can you talk a little bit about your early piece “Masking Tape Intervention: Lebanon 1989” and the still image that was the seed for the short film it inspired?
Helene Kazan: The still image, which reveals the everyday interior of a beige and brown tiled kitchen, was taken by my father in April 1989 using a Kodak Instamatic camera. He took the photograph soon after hearing news of a War of Liberation against occupying Syrian forces in Lebanon during the Civil War. This would only be a few weeks before my parents made the decision that we as a family would finally leave Lebanon.
The image was part of a series of photographs he took of each room in our flat. Finding them much later, collecting dust, in a plastic bag hidden away at the bottom of my parent’s bedroom cupboard, I was immediately struck by the image of the kitchen. On the left-hand side of the image is a large window. The large window is crosshatched with what initially appear to be window pains, but when you look closer it becomes apparent that the crosshatching is actually masking tape. The masking tape was put onto the window as a way to stop fractured glass from entering the room if a shell landed too close. The practice of using tape to stop glass shattering from an exterior violent force remains common — in fact I was sent a photograph in 2012 of windows that were taped in much the same way as Hurricane Sandy was about to land on the shores of New York City.
In this photograph, the tape on the window is the only visible difference in the architecture of the home that alludes to the external, violent political situation at that time and is a clear register of that perceived threat. In much the same way, the photograph itself is another register of the potential risk felt in that situation, as it bears witness to an exact moment of insecurity regarding the future as authored by my father. Despite its apparent emptiness (and perhaps partially because of it), the photograph becomes the materialization of an imagined future catastrophe, as the exterior invisible threat permeates the concrete block walls and taped glass windows of the house, ready to occupy our home.
Helene Kazan, “Masking Tape Intervention: Lebanon 1989”
I decided then that the tape not only performed an intervention in the space at the time the photograph was taken, but its effects could be twofold, by being reproduced as an intervention that could describe that space to a viewer anew. And so the process of reconstructing the kitchen using the one archive image began, to create what you see today in the first part of “Masking Tape Intervention: Lebanon 1989,” which is a stop-frame animation consisting of over 15,000 images, reproducing the kitchen over the space of a day, from sunrise until sunset.
SS: Related to “Masking Tape Intervention: Lebanon 1989,” you produced a work called “Living the Edge” (2012), using similar formal strategies, creating another stop-motion animation, but the threat is environmental (flooding) rather than political (civil war). Are you more interested in the tension between a threatened catastrophe and a “normal” future and how we represent it to ourselves, or is the specific cause integral to your thinking?
HK: At the time of making “Living the Edge,” I was exploring the idea of taking a photograph as a preemptive act. By a preemptive act, I’m referring to Brian Massumi‘s reading that “preemption operates in the present on a future threat, in such a way as to make that present futurity the motor of its process.” I started to think of photography itself, much like using tape on windows to stop glass shattering, as a small-scale action that takes place in the home in order to protect it and those within its architecture, but which somehow induces that future threat into the present. So, in the case of the photograph of the kitchen in Lebanon, somehow the act of taking the photograph induced the moment of departure into the present. What is being depicted is an empty home.
My research along these lines led me to look at the use of photography in the UK and US as part of home-insurance policies. Insurance companies now sometimes ask that a photographic image inventory be produced as part of those policies. The images share a similar non-aesthetic characteristic with my Lebanese home archive. The purpose of the inventory is to provide evidence of all the contents of your home and help jog your memory about items that can easily be forgotten. But with no specific protocols in place to deal with issues of fraudulent image production, it means they can’t really function as evidentiary documents, but instead underline a lack of trust in human testimony.
Helene Kazan, “Living the Edge” (2012)
So, in answer to your question, when making this work I was interested in the different conditions under which the home comes under threat. “Living the Edge” was an experiment I carried out alongside a paper I wrote on floods, flood insurance, fracking, and rights of water in the UK. It wasn’t until later, in “A Domestic Image of Preemption,” a multimedia installation I did for Exposure 2013 at the Beirut Art Center, that I brought the idea of environmental disaster and conflict together under one roof. There is no doubt that the threat of environmental disaster will come to affect more people in the future. As we observe the changes that come through the Anthropocene era and understand the effects that humans have had on the planet, we can then ask how the risk of these changes will be distributed between those who can or can’t afford to protect themselves. And what, therefore, can we come to expect, in the future, as the security of our homes?
SS: I have just spent the week in Miami participating in an exhibition and conference about the relationship of artists to the Anthropocene. Most of the works focused on the effects directly to the environment, so I find it especially compelling that yours focuses on what will happen to the domestic or lived space. I wonder if thinking more carefully about this would help people imagine the consequences of their current behaviors, something you are doing by placing that imagined future into the present frame.
In the two works we have talked about thus far, we have examples of domestic spaces that the occupants are presumably forced out of, one on account of war and the other on account of natural disaster. I want to start with the first example, in which the occupant becomes displaced and his home or territory is occupied by another. Your sculptural work “Drawn Territory” would seem to me to address this type of occupation.
HK: My understanding of the Anthropocene is that we need to rethink the distinction between nature and ourselves. Conflict affects our environment, and vice versa. So yes, I am trying to highlight where the everyday effects of this are and will be felt. These risks are present, and who they do and will affect and who gets to or can afford to be protected themselves from them is really what I’m trying to question.
“Drawn Territory” and the installation works that go back to Art of Occupation [an exhibition Kazan curated] in 2008 are all experiments in physically drawing in, occupying, and negotiating space. They precede the film works and chart my move from a more formal artistic practice to the research practice I’m trying currently trying to develop.
SS: When you talk about a research practice versus a formal artistic practice, what does that mean to you? And why have you shifted in this direction — is it to do with practical efficacy? Can you talk a bit about how a piece like “Drawn Territory” functioned and compare that to a work like “Cartography of Risk,” and is “Cartography of Risk” what you would call a more research-based work?
HK: Yes, “Cartography of Risk” was an assemblage of research material, brought together for Forensis at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in 2014. Certainly I see it as research-based work. The move from the more sculptural installation work I was doing to the research-led practice I’m developing through the PhD I’m doing at the Centre for Research Architecture (CRA) at Goldsmiths in London now came exactly, as you say, because of an issue of efficacy. Although I very much enjoyed making the work, I realized through exhibiting it that it really wasn’t communicating what I was intending it to. It simply came down to frustration. After practicing as an artist for a while, I started my master’s at CRA to come to grips with this frustration. Now the practice and the research feed each other and produce something new.
SS: I find it curious that you have chosen to make a metaphor for risk out of your presentation process, while presenting a report on how risk assessment functions in a country like Lebanon. In the “Cartography of Risk” you speak about how insuring against risk is a way of colonizing the future and mention Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, who claims that colonizing the future is a key and imposing feature of modernity, enabling cultural production. I was struck at that moment by the obverse — the insistent destruction of the past by ISIS, a group that despises modernity and wishes to return to some imagined idyll. In any case, I wonder how you came to the decision to create a quasi-performance out of your lecture presentation in this most recent work and how that differs from a more standard presentation of the information. Much of the performance focuses on the business of speculating risk and how images are used to project and predict a specific version of the future. For example, the risk assessment report, by using as its front cover the image of a destroyed housing block in Lebanon in 2006, following an attack by Israel, reactivates that image of the past as a potential future. And I wonder how much you think that the constant depiction of this future disaster shapes how the future unfolds?
HK: The decision to produce the performance in the format that I did was to experiment with the theories and practices of risk speculation that I’m looking at. How can the prediction of a future create or induce that eventuality, shaping the milieu it engages in? I get quite nervous speaking in public, so I’ve started using the stress felt during the presentations as part of a playful experiment which tries to understand how you can control a specific eventuality or event. So, I see each part of the presentation as a variable I can control: the script is written, the environment is determined as much as possible, the audio/visual material I refer to is set to run in a combined film format. Before the live performance, I rehearse the presentation three times, and this gives me an average timeline. For the performance lecture itself, the text I read is projected to one side, showing the audience the three rehearsed timelines and the decided mean. On another wall is a projection of the film, which is running to this set timeline, so the mechanics of the presentation are visible to the audience. It’s by no means the same as the environment of risk I’m talking about, but it is a way of applying a sense of urgency to the presentation, which reflects the urgency in the subject matter.
It’s mostly worked so far. There are always minor hiccups that show you can’t really predict what will happen, but it certainly shows how the future can be shaped.
The presentation itself maps various expert methods of calculating risk, which aim at producing the best forecast in order to sell a calculable danger to clientele. Through the frame of the home I make visible a relationship between these expert perceptions of risk, experienced for example through finance and the real-estate market, and risk felt as a tangible, bodily threat, experienced within the home. I go on to show how this double articulation of risk (abstract and affective) breeds a tension which is articulated and registered in the material of the architecture of the home itself and contributes to constructing or deconstructing the home as a site of security.
At the beginning and end of the presentation, I place next to one another two images of a perceived future in Lebanon. One is the image from the risk assessment report of the destroyed apartment block, predicting a future conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, next to a life-size architectural visualization showing a luxury apartment block still to be built in Beirut. In this work I argue that these two images are connected on an axis: one an image of risk, the other an image of opportunity. Although both are uncertain, both require you to not only observe and believe in the future they depict, but go so far as to ask you to invest and gamble on it. By this process, the images not only represent two different potential futures, but in their mode of production become a form of reality that is felt and affects the present situation. So, in answer to your question, I think that the power and potency of these images not only shape the future that they are predicting, but more importantly they effect the present they are situated in.
In the business of speculating risk or the lack thereof, a relationship is formed between the institution creating that specific image of an unknown future and the client that invests or gambles on it. In the formation of this relationship an exclusive contract is created which aims to protect those within its frame. The problem comes in the creation of this contract or frame. While the dissemination of these images of the future comes to effect the present, there is a wider issue of access to the protection they promise. What takes place is a hierarchy of the importance of human life, for those who are able to invest in their own future protection and those who are cast outside of the protective frame, left feeling the effects of what is being imaged. Here, in a way, we come full circle. These ideas are firmly rooted in the work of Judith Butler; in Frames of War she writes about a grievable life as a life of value, and the precarity of a life that is valued less. I wouldn’t want to speculate on whose life in this context is more or less valuable, but certainly the accounts of how many Syrian refugees have been surviving this winter in tented camps in Lebanon makes clearly visible how the effects of certain risks are unequally distributed.
Frames of War continues at Momenta Art (56 Bogart, Bushwick, Brooklyn) through March 23.