Mirelle Thijsen: Your large size photobook 2005-510117385-5 (2009) and the two recent publications Menos-Valia [Auction] (2012) and AOI [COD.19.I.I.43] – AZ7 [S/COD.23] (2013) are striking conceptual artworks on found photography. In this question-and-answer e-mail exchange with you, I suggest we discuss your latest awarded book in relationship to the other two publications on found photography. We will elaborate on the way you use found text and images to reconfigure history, in all three photobooks. And we will reflect on existing quotes and ‘found text’ on your work in order to get a better understanding of your way of working.
MT: You started working with found photography in the late 1980s, even before Hans-Peter Feldmann started OHIO (1995) an art magazine compiled of photographs from private and institutional archives. Why do you call yourself a Brazilian ‘photographer’? In my opinion you are a ‘picture-editor-as-author’.
Rosangela Renno: I consider myself a photographer, even though I have been hardly photographing since the 90s. My background was in Architecture and Fine Arts, with an emphasis on photography. Then, black and white darkroom experience and analog technics were the basis of my practice and, above all, the consciousness of dealing specifically with the photographic universe and artist’s statements. I don’t see myself as a picture-editor because my publications are basically discussions on the photographic universe and discourse. In fact, I put everything in the same ‘bucket’, because I give the same importance to different supports: walls in an exhibition space, albums and books are treated as ‘sites’ or ‘territories’.
MT: Do you make photobooks or artist’s books documenting art-installations involving found photography? In other words, how did AOI [COD.19.I.I.43] – AZ7 [S/COD.23] (2013) end up at the Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie in Arles and being awarded ‘best historical ‘photobook’?
RR: Making books is very expensive in Brazil, and always has been. When I was not in the position to make artist’s books, I transformed some projects into chapters integrated in bigger and monographic books. One example is the book entitled O Arquivo universal e outros arquivos (The Universal Archive and Other Archives), launched in 2003 by CosacNaify, and conceived as a kind of ‘iconographic archive’ with different series and projects. It was put together as a photo-album; all the explanations and texts are collected in the end of the book, as keys referring to specific sections of the book. This book was included in the first Latin-American Photobook, launched last year, also by CosacNaify. And O Arquivo universal e outros arquivos is almost sold out.
My work is always based on series of photographs, sometimes extensively so and that’s why it functions very well in the format of chapters, in which the repetition becomes part of the structure.
My books are never to be considered just documentation on art installations; they are in general a reconstruction of a project shaped to the structure of a book. It means, dealing with its own specificity or creating a dialog with specific types of publications. For instance, the Last Photo has the structure of a magazine. An editor has been invited to make a journalistic contribution, who wrote essays and articles on issues related to the project.
MT: In all three publications you address the way institutions that record history function, and the economics of art, photography and library systems. Could you please explain how you do that in each of these three books?
RR: Oh… it’s hard to explain one by one, in writing… Each case is different because the photographs come from different repertoires, collections or archives. Every time I deal with a specific group of photographs, the way of dealing with them comes from my involvement with the very history or context of each collection. I use to say that I am more interested in talking about the stories of the losers, than histories of winners; about stolen photographs instead of stored collections; about amnesia rather than memory. That’s why each work (installation or book project) becomes different, because the approach to the series of images or objects differs each time, with regard to the origin, history, or state of conservation, etc. The Menos-valia project was different because I created my own collection of objects, buying photographs and photographic objects at different flea markets, only with the intention to be auctioned during the Sao Paulo Biennial. It was as such not a collection or series of objects that existed before, instead it was constructed for the exhibition and auction on purpose. My final target was the art market and the point of departure was the collection of objects from the (analog archive) “photographic universe in disenchantment”…
MT: How do you comment on and visualize the power relations, which are very much rooted in a cultural-historical context, and are very much dated, in relationship to the photographic records?
RR: I wouldn’t dare to discuss this matter! In general I prefer to ‘address’ issues from a visual perspective. No judging, but showing objects, inviting viewers to discuss, to create a dialog about the socio-political issues, through the objects themselves. The relations between the objects are powerful enough to activate the spectator’s opinion, don’t you think?
MT: What is it exactly you want to communicate with ‘The analysis and appropriation of historical and archival material’, Your attention for the ‘genesis of photography’, and ‘the loss, death and resurgence’ of images: ‘What did they mean then’ and ‘what do they mean now’?RR: In my case, because of what remained inside the archival boxes, in AOI [COD.19.I.I.43] – AZ7 [S/COD.23] (2013) I am talking about the loss of the patrimony; it’s a specific case. It’s a book about the loss of, about absence, about amnesia. If we cannot guarantee the existence of these original documents, we won’t have anything to scan, to digitalize, to store in a ‘cloud’. In Brazil, there are people interested in stealing this type of material to put it on the black market of collectibles because they know the institutions are not prepared to safeguard them.These originals are just paper on cardboard but they are the basis of every digital archive. I understand your questions because, as a European, you never needed to think about an archive that can simply disappear by way of theft, do you agree with me? Unfortunately, it’s something that happens frequently in Brazil. And the institutions are always afraid of new actions of these people who are looking for documents not being looked after, waiting for a good opportunity to steal again, to steal something that can be transformed into money on the market of collectibles.
MT: Let’s look at the ‘materiality’ which is so present in your projects, and that all have a high level of socio-political charge. You work with negatives, from historical photographic archives belonging to the communist newspaper El Popular, You work with nineteenth-century images taken from national libraries. You work with neglected glass negatives from the photographic archives from the Penitentiary Museum of Sao Paulo. You work with semi-anonymous photographs, those produced for institutional, journalistic and legal purpose. You work with photographs, some of which are out-of focus, and taken by other artists or amateurs. You work with images, some of which are turned over, and text from archives. You work with historical slide projectors, out of use. Why is your work so much about the expression of subject matter, not necessarily about beauty or documentary? And what is the nature of a found photograph?
RR: I don’t think about the ‘quality’ of being ‘found’ photography, per se. I think about the quality of being a testimony of something that is being neglected, forgotten, stolen, on the edge of non-existence. Again, as I mentioned above, the notion I deal with is the affirmation of the existence of the document, of its testimony, of its ‘past past’.
MT: You make no attempt to produce an ‘artistic’ image. We see modest, insignificant or damaged pictures. It’s all about the act of making visible, through a gradual metamorphosis of ‘culture’s leftovers’ and a strong focus on detail. What is it you try to provoke with these imperfect historical images in AOI [COD.19.I.I.43] – AZ7 [S/COD.23] (2013)?
RR: I don’t like to aestheticize materials, matters. It has to be shown with the qualities they have at the present moment. It’s the best contribution they can offer to us, to our present and our future. The real state of the matter is the potency of the object.
MT: Both in size, layout, print-run and concept AOI [COD.19.I.I.43] – AZ7 [S/COD.23] (2013) and 2005-510117385-5 (2009) are similar. Why is that?
RR: I have the intention of making at least a trilogy of books about our patrimony thefts.
MT: Yes, you wrote that AOI [COD.19.I.I.43] – AZ7 [S/COD.23] (2013) is part of a trilogy. To what extent is it part of a narrative continuity?
RR: As long as these kinds of robberies exist in Brazil, there will be a narrative.
MT:In the introduction of AOI [COD.19.I.I.43] – AZ7 [S/COD.23] (2013) – a numbered edition of 500 – we read 27 albums containing photographs and miscellaneous documents are maintained in the Pereira Passos/Malta Collection, as part of the General Archives of the City of Rio de Janeiro (GACRJ). Containing pictures by the official prefecture photographers, Augusto Malta and his sons, between 1903- and the1950s. In the 1990s the albums have been restored and placed in special boxes. Since they have been stored in GACRJ’s air-conditioned warehouse. In June 2006 employees responsible for the collection noticed the disappearance of valuable pieces from the collection, including 19 albums of the P.P./M. Collection. In your photobook we see a ‘reflection of the original albums, notation and ordering’. About 20% of the photographic content of the remaining albums has been reproduced. Let me start with album 02: Photographs of Brazilian Traction Light & Power Company Lim. Rio Division (1928). We see, in chronological order, perforated plates from the albums, pencil notes and a collection stamp, negative number, page number, description of the location photographed, all handwritten. Sometimes even the screws to fixate the album. We see half a photographic plate reproduced or a blank page, showing the image in verso. Sometimes we see rough edges of scuffed album covers. The collection you draw from is preserved in a digital image bank showing civil society and urban development of Rio from 1865-1978. But somehow things disappear: end up at historical document and antique markets. I wonder…
RR: Everything that disappeared from our institutions became private material, in private collections. Only those that lost the ‘quality’ of a selling object to be sold were sent back to the institutions or abandoned or went to our poorest flea markets.
MT: Here we have a somewhat similar narrative. Provenance of the images reproduced in your book 2005-510117385-5 (2009) is the Collection D. Theresa Christina Maria (private library of Emperor D. Pedro II) donated by the emperor himself to the Biblioteca Nacional in Rio. This book consists of documents and photographs that were stolen by a gang in Rio, during a period of strike of the employers at the National Library between April and July 2005. About a hundred photographs of the 750 that were stolen were retrieved. Your statement on this theft is showing the material – that afterwards was partly returned – in the book version, in order to emphasize the amount of information that was stolen from the institution. So we see the mutilations, traces, and a transparent image recto, of verso the photograph of Brazilian military marine ships at the end of the 19th century, almost invisible, like a phantom, visualizing historical amnesia. I wonder, is this a constructed archive, a fake archive, or both? Or are we dealing with pictures as historical evidence?
RR: The 100 photos sent back to the National Library is the only testimony to the theft. All the rest disappeared inside private photo collections that you and I will never see again. You can consider it as a ‘special collection’ inside the National Library, not suitable for research, not suitable for exhibitions, not good for anything but my book about the stolen prints.
MT: I like to make a comparison between your way of re-vitalizing ‘contaminated’, discarded and safeguarded photography and the way the American photographer Susan Meiselas works in her long-term project Kurdistan in the Shadow of History (2008/ 1997) as well as The Bam Project by the Iranian researcher Parisa Damandan. Are you familiar with their work, which is very much contributing to collective memory? Central in your work, and that of these women photographers/visual historians, is questioning our way of constructing history in order to understand the past and the present and to invite the reader to undertake critical reading between the lines.
RR: I know only recently the book and the photographer Susan Meiselas. Actually, this year I participated with her in a seminar in Mexico City. Wonderful woman and photographer. I bought the book last April, it’s in my library, where there is only room for very special photobooks. And I am not familiar with the work of Parissa Damandan.
MT: Another concern of yours is the selection of ‘found text’ fragments. What has been your concern in the selection of text quotes for Menos-Valia [Auction] (2012)?
RR: Wow!… I have spent two months collecting special quotations about collections and collecting, assemblage strategies, collaborative projects, auctions, art market, all issues involved in my project.
MT: Menos-Valia [Auction] is most of all about the economics of art. This publication, of remarkable high quality printing, is documenting the process of purchasing found objects at flea markets, fixing them up and reselling them at an art-auction, choreographed for the occasion. Each of 74 lots has a double page. On the left indicating, original selling price, provenance, price per lot, hammer price after auction, and the profit as well as a description of the object sold. The surplus value of a singular object that changed ownership during, what you could describe as an artistic performance, but happened to be an auction held in an institutionalized art space. On the right page we read a lot number and see a picture of the photo-installation. In the field of ideas, you say, the project is anchored in ‘Ruin-ology’ a practice well-established in the area of aesthetics and ethics. What does that mean?
RR: It’s an invented expression by a great Cuban photographer. Only Africans, Brazilians and poor people in the Caribbean, as well as those in Asia, from Kurdistan to India, have spent time understanding and studying the modern ruins…
MT: Has the publication Menos-Valia [Auction] (2012) been financed with the revenue from the auction?
RR: Yes, I earned enough money for that.
MT: Quite a few critics and art historians have been writing on your work. Some provide excellent descriptions of your oeuvre. I would like you to comment on some quotes I collected:
“Her interest in intertextuality, where she incorporates text and images both taken from mass media, reflects also her attraction for the stories of the non-winners, all those whose identities get lost in the midst of generalised anonymity.” (Veronica Cordeiro, 2011).
“The ironic name Universal Archive, which she has given to her vast collection of found materials, reflects the notion that society can often best be represented trough precisely the kind of objects which it does not want to have bear the responsibility of its likeness.” (Dan Cameron, 1995).
“Changes over time transfer the record to the status of history; in the absence of the object, place or person it verifies, it gradually assumes a life of its own.”(Adam Geczy, 2000).
“[…] what do we do with all the records, which are returned to a state of namelessness, and limbo, remaindered from an age of science and classification now in discredit?” (Adam Geczy, 2000).
“What we know less of is precisely what our history has chosen to know less of.” (Adam Geczy, 2000).
RR: Thank you very much! You did a great selection! I had even forgotten some of them…
MT: In sum, your work is a repository for what people, and the state, wishes to forget. Why do you make photobooks on this matter?
RR: I think it’s just an obsession… I have great faith in the photographic image; it shows us something that is not in the photographic realm. It connects us with something spiritual. And I always wanted to fight against all forms of amnesia.