Read the conversation of curator Eric Lawton and artists Gustavo Balbela, Elsa Gregersdotter, Andrej Lamut, Ida Nissen and André Viking of the exhibition A Forged and Delicate Future, which was realized as part of the PARALLEL – European Photo Based Platform, and was on view at Capa Center.
This interview was conducted virtually on July 14, 2021 and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Eric Lawton Let’s get to the heart of the matter. Are you a pessimist or an optimist?
André Viking You have to have a good balance of both.
Elsa Gregersdotter It’s hard to say I’m a pessimist, but I think I am.
Andrej Lamut Generally, I would say I’m a pessimist, but for some things I can be quite optimistic. But if I had to decide definitively, yes, I’m a pessimist.
Ida Nissen I think it’s both for me. As an artist, you have to be an optimist. You have to keep trusting in what you create day after day. On the other hand, If I start to question things too much and question myself too much, I would stop making work altogether, which would make me a pessimist. Over time, I’ve also learned that when collaborating it’s best to trust your instincts and not to rely too much on anybody else in creating your work. Communicating a personal vision is just so difficult. In that regard, I have to make the work myself, which I guess makes me a pessimist.
Eric Lawton I should clarify this question. This could mean your work, or it could just mean the state of the world in general, or how you feel about the direction of the world.
Gustavo Balbela I’m totally pessimistic from a personal perspective as well as regarding the state of the world. I also agree with what Ida said, and this particular image comes to mind — I feel like I’m in a plane that’s on fire, and I’m trying to escape from the flames but there’s nowhere to escape. Even though it seems hopeless, and I won’t be able to save my life, that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try. The fire is growing and the plane is falling, but the work must continue. I’m trying to communicate something very important and develop a mechanism for critical thinking — to fully understand the ultimate failures of our leaders. Nevertheless, I’m still pessimistic the work can lead to actual substantive change in the world.
Eric Lawton Gustavo, I think your work is compelling because you present the world and your series as this chaotic environment, as opposed to trying to make sense of its disorder. Instead of contextualizing patterns or perspectives that will make it more coherent or more understandable, your project is much more about leaning into the chaos and transforming it into something even more disordered — which is an unexpected solution to today’s problems, whether it’s the failure of government or any other type of colossal incompetence.
Gustavo Balbela Yeah, that’s very interesting to hear. I had never really thought about it like that because actually, that’s quite the opposite approach I take in most of my other work, which is mostly straight photography. Most of my photographic practice relates to the urban landscape in a very ordered way. I search for a clean and ordered framing of the city as a means to making sense of it. However, in these collages, I’m trying to do the opposite. I’m giving up on order and trying to see if I can make something in a completely different direction.
Eric Lawton That brings up a good question for everyone: why did you shift away from straight photography or purely lens-based photography that depicts a real live scene without any manipulation? Everyone here is either using text or an archive, whether it be a physical thing that you’re taking from the world or you’re using text you received or found.
Elsa Gregersdotter I think that text can bring another dimension to the work, so when you put text and image together, they can show something unexpected. I think it’s nice to play with them.
Eric Lawton In regards to text, which a lot of you are working with, you’re playing with the idea that when we read multiple objects, signs and symbols as humans do, we try to make connections between them. Visual literacy is encoded in our DNA to find the connections — what happens when that 1:1 ratio doesn’t exist? Most of the time, when we view visuals and text the automatic conclusion is captions or the literal conversion of image to words. But what a lot of you are doing is playing with the concept that the text doesn’t fit the image, but either contrasts with it, or opposes it, or adds nuance to it, rather than taking on the literal meaning of the caption.
Ida Nissen For me, working with collage grew naturally into my practice when I started to cut out the photograms that I worked with in the darkroom. It sort of just developed naturally, and I think I liked working with layers and the spontaneity of combining different images and materials and seeing what would happen when I put different images together. Cutting is, in a way, a type of editing. I’m working through things when I physically cut them, which is why I could never work with a laser cutter, for instance. Even though a laser cutter could take ten seconds, while manually it could take ten hours, I wouldn’t be satisfied with the outcome. It’s all about the process of doing, even if it’s quite tedious. I find it rewarding. It’s a way of working through my thoughts while thinking about shapes and layers as I create.
Eric Lawton André, you mentioned in past conversations that your work is therapeutic to make?
André Viking Yeah, for me, it really depends on the project. I think straight photography can be good in some cases, but in this project, Hello, “Soul Mate” is more about a therapeutic experience, rather than simply going backwards in time. I’m looking at my past and trying to understand the relationships between my family members as well as understanding myself.
Eric Lawton How does that process work when you’re comparing images and text — are you looking for the literal translation or are you looking to blur the boundaries between them?
André Viking I’m looking at different perspectives and deciphering how the text adds depth to the images. The images were discovered first and then I found the letters some years later. All the layers are very personal. Getting to know parts of my parents’ relationship, my father’s relationship with my grandparents, and so on made me understand my father and our relationship more.
Eric Lawton Do you think it changes your memories?
André Viking I think memory is a funny concept because it can be a collective memory; when we look at images and we talk about the past we can agree on what happened, but nobody really knows exactly what happened. If we look at an image and I say, for example, I do remember this concert we went to, it’s kind of a built-in memory just by talking about it. But every memory is somewhat different. And it’s actually funny — if tomorrow you talk about a memory, years later the story could change — as time goes on, the more you forget about what really happened. So there are so many aspects to memories that I think are very captivating and that’s what I’m trying to investigate with this project.
Eric Lawton For your invasive species project, Andrej, you’re taking physical items, preserving and mixing them, and ultimately changing them into something new. Do you think the process itself is important, or are you more focused on the end result of the work?
Andrej Lamut No, this is my point exactly. For me, the process is one of the most important things when I’m creating. I also believe that the way we create and the medium we use to present our message is very important. That’s why the medium cannot be a message alone by itself, but it can support your idea or your concept. In this particular project, I wouldn’t be able to print on this specific paper without the invasive plants comprising the paper itself. The whole point of the project would just collapse without them. It wouldn’t hold any water. That’s why I think a medium can be a strong, supportive column for the work.
Eric Lawton The idea of searching or focusing on the process of making the work without necessarily finding a solution is sometimes hard for people and viewers to understand, because so much of our world is made up of black and white solutions.
Andrej Lamut Finding questions is more important than finding answers. If you can intrigue the viewer into asking, What is this? How is it all connected? Why this particular paper? Why this plant? It can be more powerful than presenting the end result of some equation. That’s more important than saying, This is my answer to this question. I believe that raising questions, What are you actually looking at and why? is more important than any answer. That type of art is much more powerful.
Gustavo Balbela I think my approach is proposing a question to myself — How can I try to make a little bit more sense of the world that doesn’t seem to make any sense at all? My work is in a way an answer, but an answer that I realize is incomplete in nature. An answer that is not even satisfactory for me — it’s an answer that I hope keeps raising more questions. In that sense, I completely agree that proposing questions is way more important. We’re full of answers that do not satisfy us, although they present themselves to be satisfactory. I’m totally in agreement, although from a slightly different perceptual perspective.
Elsa Gregersdotter Yeah. I agree with Andrej that the questions are more important than the answer.
Eric Lawton Elsa, Your work feels more personal in terms of taking from your lived history, and I know you’ve talked about how the work can act as a means towards questioning your own identity. Do you think that the answers necessarily have to be there?
Elsa Gregersdotter No, they would be boring and black and white. I want to be more open, more in the grey. I’m more attracted to an answer that you don’t really understand completely.
Eric Lawton Why was it important for you to choose two actors who weren’t the intended recipient of the comments that you actually received, which comprise the subtitles for your film? Elsa Gregersdotter I wanted to see what would happen when the comments crossed generations, because they’re a bit older than myself. For instance, one comment is about an influencer — what happens with that word when you look at a woman in her sixties? I wanted to play with that dichotomy.
Eric Lawton I noticed that they’re all backhanded compliments. Is that a conscious decision to only choose comments that are on one hand positive, but on the other hand, negative?
Elsa Gregersdotter Yeah, I think they’re really funny when you try to say something nice, but it ends up being a rude comment.
Eric Lawton They actually felt a bit cruel to me. It’s surprising that you say they felt humorous, but I can imagine receiving them at the time didn’t feel funny.
Elsa Gregersdotter Yeah, no. But also the one thing I always remember when receiving comments about myself is the bad part. When people are talking about you, you always remember the bad things and never the good things. But those comments are like both. But yeah, the negative ones are always worse.
Eric Lawton Ida, in your work, you talk so much about biography and how you build your own persona through material. How did you make the decision that this object or this thing that you’re placing in the darkroom is a good vessel for the ideas and topics that you want to address? Ida Nissen Th at’s a good question.
Eric Lawton I remember you mentioned that in your piece, the orchid’s symbolism referenced your name.
Ida Nissen Yeah, exactly. It’s tough with direct representation. With symbols or objects, it’s really important that they are suggestive rather than a direct interpretation. I’m not in favor of simple interpretations where reference A equals symbol B. My goal is for the works to contain symbols that act as an atmosphere for the work, constantly changing and adapting, rather than giving the work a specific dogmatic agenda and recognizable framework. All of the symbols evolved from my own interest and search related to my heritage and as well as other things I’m drawn to.
Eric Lawton Does the attraction stem from a sort of gut feeling that you can’t necessarily describe, but it comes out of you nevertheless?
Ida Nissen Absolutely. There can be an instant feeling of an image that triggers something within me on a subconscious level. I just run with it because I find it intriguing and then I start combining it with other pieces.
Eric Lawton Andrej, for the invasive species project, how did you decide what constitutes an alien form? It’s an abstract concept, but also something that’s known collectively through movies, comics, etc. How did you make that aesthetic decision? Andrej Lamut Sometimes it can be a stereotype or an archetype, something we all believe looks alien or out of this world, or something that our mind connects to something out of earth in space. In my process, I take the time to inspect a specific plant, tree or something and find one representative angle or detail that catches my photographic eye. And then I try to find suitable lighting to really enhance this alien look or something that can be out of this world. The process is about the way of looking and then zoning in on something that could be interpreted as alien. It’s more about my perception and how I depict this motive. It can even be something really banal, like a chestnut, but if I make it appear alien through the process then in the viewers’ eyes it can look alien.
Eric Lawton Were there any specific references in the back of your mind, like movies or art? What were you thinking about when deciding what the abstract alien aesthetic should be?
Andrej Lamut It’s hard to recall, but for sure there were some quick references. For example, the images I sent you from the darkroom — it really looks like the popular coronavirus illustration that we’ve all been staring at for the past two years. It’s all about the lighting — you can transform something as simple as a chestnut into something scary. But in the end, it’s about perception and our collective way of looking at things. We can connect with art on a personal level based on our own background and histories.
Eric Lawton In terms of choosing content, Gustavo, how did you decide what made the cut? When you chose your imagery, were you specifically looking for chaotic visual representations of governmental failure or were you scanning everything and then deciding what looks good after the fact?
Gustavo Balbela That’s a tough question because I’m not sure how to describe my process of selecting the individual images. I’m not necessarily going for a chaotic nature in the clippings themselves. Sometimes the feeling is there, but other times it’s not. The groupings and pairings aren’t more chaotic than the images themselves. I think the chaos emerges more from the montage of different elements, whether it be images or texts. I’m more interested in what they attempt to represent in the first place or in what they attempt to convey.
Eric Lawton So, the intent of the newspaper or the photographer?
Gustavo Balbela Both. Sometimes I’ll have images that are related to news that interest me purely as reportage. And sometimes that won’t even be transparent in the image. It might be the fact that the news itself doesn’t really make any sense, which is the viewer’s experience that I’m trying to put forward. When I’m editing, there’s always something in the image that seems to help me communicate my internal struggle. So I try to go through both of these approaches.
Eric Lawton One word that comes to mind in your projects is absurd, which a lot of the artists in the show explore.
Elsa Gregersdotter Absurdity is important to me because you always need the counterweight. I want to have a little bit of dark and a little bit of fun in my work just like in a tragic comedy. The most fascinating parts are when you don’t know if it’s really fun or tragic.
Eric Lawton In your film, I think viewers are stuck in that haze of not knowing if it’s a joke or not.
Elsa Gregersdotter No, viewers don’t really know what to think, which is why I like it.
Eric Lawton How do you know when you’re done? Is there a moment when you can say definitively that now you’re finished? André Viking I’ve never had this feeling of completion in any of my projects. I’m still looking for it. I think I have to accept that it’s all one long process instead of finalizing things one by one. However, I’ve heard that when you make a book, it feels like the project has finally ended.
Andrej Lamut It’s true at least when I made my book. When you make a book and you walk out of the printer shop with your book binded and ready to sign for the edition, then you finally feel done. That was the only time I had this feeling of being finished, because it couldn’t be changed anymore. But even then, the feeling is fleeting because you still have to make exhibitions and speeches. When I don’t feel like working on a project anymore, I’d also say I’m finished. When you don’t have the motivation to return to a previous project, then it feels complete. At that point, you can still do exhibitions and presentations but you don’t have to engage the topic in a creative way, then you know you’ve moved on.
Ida Nissen Yeah, as Andrej said, it’s when you stop feeling the urge to ask the important questions, which is the whole point; that’s when a project feels finished. But even then it’s never fully done. Making work is a continuous project that will never be one hundred percent clear and defined. You also never want to overwork a project, which can happen if you reach a certain point. Then you have to step back a little bit and consider everything together. This is especially true for collage because images can seem never finished but the overall work can feel complete.
Eric Lawton For most lens-based artists who deal in straight photography, once they click the shutter they’re 95% done. Of course, you can edit and make post-process changes but the most important part is already complete. But for collages, especially in archival work, when you’re incorporating many different pieces there’s less of a clearly defined finish line.
Gustavo Balbela Yeah. I think in my perspective, approaching collage as a stranger since it’s my first time incorporating the medium into my practice, I operate a bit more like a straight photographer. I work on a piece for a couple days, maybe a week at most, and then I get tired and move on. It still feels very much like an experimental process where I’m trying to answer specific major questions and making various attempts each time. Th en I step back and wonder if I’m satisfied with the answers proposed. If the question no longer interests me, then I can feel finished. I can revisit old projects but if the questions don’t move me, then I focus my attention on something else that does.
Elsa Gregersdotter It feels like you are never really done. You can always make it better. But when I see my work in a venue or exhibition, then it at least feels done for that specific room. However, you can always end up changing something or tweaking an aspect of the work.
Eric Lawton Was there a specific event or something momentous in your past that you wanted to reflect on specifically in the artworks? This could be anything ranging from personal to collective events.
Gustavo Balbela My project definitely has been impacted by the pandemic. In the beginning stages, I was really affected by the lack of sociability. The fact that I wasn’t making pictures outside was a key factor in moving into the collage dimension. It’s not specifically about the pandemic per se but rather it’s a reflection upon the global and structural failures as a response to it.
Eric Lawton Has the process of making this series changed your thoughts on the future or made you more of a pessimist?
Gustavo Balbela I’m not sure. It’s certainly changed the way that I look at newspapers and the news in general. It made me more aware of the challenges we face and how important it is to develop a lens for critical framing.
Eric Lawton Although you all work with completely different subject matters — ranging from invasive species to the failures of government, or even reflecting on your past and different family traumas — I think there’s something cohesive in the way that you all use existing material. From found physical archives, you transform them into something new. Did you sense any similarities within each others’ works?
André Viking I saw some connections between myself and Elsa’s work. She mentioned using humor as a way to add contrast and how text can add another dimension. Humor is a very important part of my project as well. It’s therapeutic because it adds another layer of meaning whereas certain images can be mostly read as one-dimensional. It’s important to remember the good times. If a traumatic image or idea is too overwhelming, there’s no entry point, which you actually need when connecting with audiences who are introduced to your work for the first time.
Eric Lawton Humor’s a notoriously hard element to integrate for artists.
André Viking For sure, it’s a difficult balance. In the text fragments from the letters my father wrote to my mom and his grandparents, there was actually a lot of humor. I felt that it was important to showcase that unexpected emotion because we can use humor to collectively deal with trauma.
Eric Lawton Has your family been receptive to the project?
André Viking Yeah, they’ve become more open-minded as the project’s developed. I think it’s actually been more difficult for me, which was a surprise. In the beginning, I only had the images and actually made a dummy book mock-up out of the images. And I just felt something was missing from the story. Once the letters turned up it became more interesting. They include love letters, full of intimate moments between my father and my mom. On one hand, it’s a bit out of my comfort zone to show something so personal. But on the other hand, because it’s so personal and because it wasn’t made for an exhibition or to go up on a wall or anything, that’s why it works. It was made for families and they were the original intended recipient. But with this project, viewers can take in very intimate moments between families without it being exploitative.
Gustavo Balbela I think that theme of shifting context is something I see in common between my works and others. My series is all about moving things out of their original place — from the images and text in newspapers to the collaged wall. Things that normally wouldn’t be placed together are brought closer so viewers are forced to consider the new connections. I feel that most of us are doing that, obviously with different tones and objectives but in terms of our processes, there’s something similar in the gesture of changing contexts.
Eric Lawton It’s a unique ability that artists have — making connections where others see none. Was there any impactful literature or music in the development of your projects? Gustavo Balbela For me, there’s an important song lyric (It’s the deep mystery, it’s the like it or not) from Tom Jobim’s Águas de Março from which I used in one of the pieces [ Curitiba, PR, Brasil ] and it came from the bossa nova movement.
Eric Lawton I love bossa nova.
Gustavo Balbela Yeah. I came to love the genre a lot more recently. The music is tied so closely to Brazil’s history, up to this day. There’s a lot of strange connections between the genre’s movement and how it emerged in the pre-dictatorial period. For instance, the house where some of the major musicians from bossa nova used to compose or jam and work on their music was across the street from where the first dictator lived. There’s a lot of those contradictions that emerge. I was also influenced by Bertolt Brecht’s War Primer, a classical example of montage where he worked with newspaper clippings from World War Two and wrote short poems to accompany them. Finally, I want to mention Serge Latouche’s The Farewell to Growth, which opened my eyes to the absurdity of our times. It’s a powerful book in realizing how nonsensical the most mundane things are.
André Viking The book that inspired me, and was a great introduction to fragmentation was If Not Winter by Anne Carson. The book, a translation of Sappho poems, was compelling because of the way Carson translated mostly old poems from ancient times that were partially destroyed. You only have fragments of text, never the full picture, throughout the book. Th at stuck with me because you have to envision what the rest of the missing parts were.
Ida Nissen For this project, I’ve been focusing on craft as a collective memory that can travel through generations, so I’ve been reading a lot of old craft books and folk-art traditions.
Elsa Gregersdotter Poetry has been inspiring — reading short, short words that have a lot of content packed in. I’ve been looking at the Swedish poet Elis Burrau and the artist Helga Härenstam. She plays with words and images in a really fun way.
Andrej Lamut For me this project was a bit different because it came from such a light bulb of an idea. So I don’t really have a specific reference point. It’s more about the process of looking at these plants and walking around them — taking them from the site and bringing them home. It’s about observing the actual object that I’m photographing more than channeling anything else.
Eric Lawton Thank you all!