Ann-Christin Bertrand, a C/O Berlin curator, states that photography is no more about “having a print, framing it and putting it on the wall”. What is it then and how it will look in 10 years? Ann-Christin Bertrand answeres the questions of “Bleek Magazine” regular critic Olga Bubich
In many people’s minds Berlin is firmly associated with a rich multicultural art scene, it is a place where most original concepts can find realization and where the notions of diversity and equality do mean what they stand for. In the photographic sense since 2000 C/O Berlin Foundation has been a popular city location that hosts critical-minded courageous artists who work with the medium of photography both in its “classical” and experimenting aspects. In the “Facts and Figures” section at the Foundation’s official site one can learn that the venue has already held 108 major exhibitions attended by more than 1 million visitors.
Having an occasion to talk with Ann-Christin Bertrand, a C/O Berlin curator, during her short visit to Belarus as a special guest of the “Month of Photography in Minsk” in the interview for “Bleek Magazine” Olga Bubich addresses such issues as the Foundation’s strategy and prospects, current and future trends in photography, unexpected conceptual dialogues between the projects of recognized masters and emerging talents that can be found at the examples of C/O Berlin exhibitions.
Bleek Magazine: Let us start with your own history of joining Berlin art and culture scene. I know that before becoming a curator at C/O Berlin in 2010, you had worked in Paris and Vienna at such important venues as Musée d’Orsay, Kunsthalle Exnergasse, Arte Metropolis and Galerie Karsten Greve Paris. What were your main responsibilities there and what made you finally choose Berlin?
Ann-Christin Bertrand: When I finished my studies in Paris, I decided to stay there. So I started working in France and had a great chance to work at Musée d’Orsay, Galerie Karsten Greve and other places. I spent seven years in Paris and in between – one year in Vienna, Austria. After such a long time abroad there came a certain natural moment when I asked myself if I really wanted to stay in France or if I wanted to move back to Germany. At a certain point I realized that I had a lot of text work, research, project management, communication – all these were the different fields I was working in – as well as a lot of art critic I dealt with. Writing texts and going into subtle meanings was difficult for me, as I spoke French fluently but it was still not my mother tongue, so I often felt an inner frontier of not really being able to go further. Since I really love working with words and texts, I finally decided that it would make more sense to continue in Germany. I chose Berlin as the most international city, moreover in 2008 it was a really good place in terms of the art scene.
Having worked in such serious professional institutions in Paris I learnt a lot and this experience somehow came all together in my position as a curator at C/O Berlin. Here we do everything from A to Z: my knowledge in project management, in communication, in how to work with images, how to write about them, how to guide visitors and give lectures matched all together and became demanded. And these are just the things I love and I actually dealt with in different institutions where I had worked before.
I must say that photography has always been my favourite medium. My grandfather was a photographer and photography played a huge role in our family. During my studies I was also always focused on photography, for example I wrote my Master thesis on “cinematic thinking” – the influence of cinema on photography, which later became a topic of the Talents Program and so it was always… (laughing)… a kind of destiny! I really felt I was always moving in this direction.
I studied a wide range of disciplines from art history, fine arts and literature to media sciences. But I must admit that my main interest was always linked to more contemporary periods where I especially liked working in the areas where one medium was crossing with another one and where the boundaries were expanding.
Bleek Magazine: So, at C/O Berlin one of your key responsibilities is curating international contemporary emerging positions which your team discovers through the C/O Berlin Talents program. Founded in 2006, it aims at supporting young photographers and helps emerging talents to get into the spotlight in the competitive art world. The most obvious questions that many readers would be interested to ask you deals with the criteria of the jury’s choice of the winners, but before you speak about this, can you, please, tell me how your team decides on the choice of the Talents program topic? I assume that since this choice undoubtedly determines the general direction of the submitted projects, it also significantly shapes a further development of photographic field for both photographic practice and theoretical research. Among the recent ones there have been “memory” and, as you have said, “cinematic thinking”… How did you choose them and what topics will follow next?
Ann-Christin Bertrand: I do a lot of portfolio reviews, juries, etc. and this gives me an idea about certain tendencies in contemporary photography. New topics and tendencies come up by themselves. On the one hand, we try to catch them and introduce as topics for our Talents program. So to say, we feed ourselves from new tendencies to be inspired to find new topics. And on the other hand, it is very interesting to see among hundreds of applications extremely various ways of how a particular topic is treated and thus the Talents program itself becomes again something which inspires others.
Most often I am the one who proposes a topic and then at our program meeting we discuss it through in a very democratic way. Our decision combines inspiration from what is already going on with the program’s highlighting and enhancing existing tendencies, which are further reflected in young artists’ new projects.
In 2013-2014 the program’s topic was “Photography and Memory”. This year we had the topic “Photography Expanded”, which implied that more and more artists today are crossing the borders and using photography as one medium amongst others, presenting photography in a more “installative” way. Many artists make installations, video, performances, sculptures out of photography or sculptures reflecting topics within photography. This year’s topic brings us a lot of interesting and very site-specific projects where photographers really work with particular exhibition spaces. It is not anymore like “we have a print and we frame it and put it on the wall and that’s it” but it is much more photography thought as a starting point for the development of a final work instead of being the final product itself.
Bleek Magazine: ..or photography seen as a tool you can use in a combination with other tools which together can better reflect your conceptual idea…
Ann-Christin Bertrand: Exactly!
Bleek Magazine: So “Photography Expanded” is the topic that you are going to have for these two years, isn’t it?
Ann-Christin Bertrand: Yes, it is. A future topic might be the topic about new ways of storytelling because it is also something I have been observing for a long time. With the Internet and social networking you have so many new ways of storytelling which are very interesting in terms of new ways of documentary photography and film documentaries. For example, when artists use already existing found footage materials or consciously mix fiction and reality. In such a way they discover new ways of narration combining very different forms of the medium and already existing materials – with new ones.
Bleek Magazine: That is true, many artists today come back to the topics of memory and past and start working with their own or “lost and found” archives. However, digital photography is developing fast with the act of photographing being substituted with the act of mechanical digital manipulations, like we all can see at the example of growing interest in glitch art where the field of creative experiments seems to be endless! What do you think about these two tendencies and in which way, in your opinion, photography is going to develop in the upcoming decades?
Would the photographers’ interest refer to the study of collective past through the work with the accumulated visual archive or would the artists follow the technological boom and make use of virtual instruments to create more new and unthinkable experiments?
Ann-Christin Bertrand: I think that these two tendencies would always exist next to each other. I find it very difficult to predict what photography will become. Now we are at a very crucial point since digitalization has contributed significantly to the development of the medium! Nowadays among numerous institutions there is a huge discussion about how institutions that present photography can actually catch up with this rapid change. On the one hand, I can personally observe a very strong tendency to highlight the process and the aspect of materiality, for example, as you have said, in working with archives, questioning and rethinking their meaning. On the other hand, there are artists who keep on experimenting with digital technologies and traditional printing processes. I really think that photography is like a toolbox and this box is just getting bigger. Artists today just can look into the box and choose what they need for their artistic project.
I do not think that either of these tendencies will dominate. I really believe that both at the same time have their right and their value. Maybe in future there would be more people crossing the borders between these two approaches. It is my impression at the moment and it is also what we observe within C/O format “Thinking about Photography” which exists especially to highlight such tendencies, to really question the medium and its future. What we do is to observe the change and give it a platform for further development. But what I really think is that we need to stop thinking about photography the way we always did. This need even goes so far that some institutions start asking if we can still us the term “photography”! They assume that it might be more correct to use the term “the photographic” instead, just the way we say “sculptural” instead of “sculpture”. So, there is undoubtedly something really interesting going on, but at the same time there is nothing completely new.
It is enough to look into the history of photography, e.g. in the 1920s and 1930s with Bauhaus, and the experiments done with photography then, like the “Neues Sehen” which came up when a small format camera from LEICA came on the market. Do you remember what happened then? All those photograms and all those experiments in the laboratory! The same turn occurred in 1960s and 1970s with the rise of concept art which also brought people to a completely new understanding of photography. And these were always periods when experiments helped to examine the boundaries and characteristics of the medium. The history shows that photography and our understanding of the medium were always influenced by its technical development and changes in people’s understanding of photography as art. And those kinds of periods are what is happening today as well.
Bleek Magazine: To me it reminds Hegel’s ideas given in “The Science of Logic” where he argued that science exhibits itself as a circle returning upon itself but at the same time beginning at a new level…
Ann-Christin Bertrand: … but at another level. Exactly! I really think that it is like this, indeed.
Bleek Magazine: And now coming back a bit to the strategy that underlies the organization of exhibitions at C/O Berlin. In one of your interviews I read that in recent years to have a positive impact on young photography exhibition attendance C/O Berlin is trying to combine emerging talents shows with those of already well-established artists, such as Peter Lindberg, Annie Leibovitz, Martin Parr, Larry Clark, Stephen Shore and others. How does your team approach the issues of “combining” these two groups of artists – the young ones and the “classics”? Do you look for conceptual resemblance, allusions, meaningful dialogue the shows may have? Or is the approach more formal? Can you give a few examples of the most unexpected and intriguing parallel shows that allowed to add new meanings to both the shows?
Ann-Christin Bertrand: It is always a very sensitive process. The history of C/O Berlin exhibitions shows that you either present very opposite positions in order to highlight the confrontation, which makes you understand each of them better, or you can just arrange thematically linked exhibitions.
One great example is the “Blow Up” exhibition dealing with Antonioni’s renowned movie where he was questioning the mediums of film and photography. It was shot in the period of concept art appearance and thus became so famous and important within both, the history of photography and the history of cinema. Parallel with that exhibition we were showing Lore Krüger, a Jewish photographer and a Florence Henri’s student at Bauhaus. The third project exhibited was of Niina Vatanen’s, a young Finnish artist, who in her most recent series “Archival Studies” worked with a photographical archive emphasizing such aspects as photographic surface and materiality, as well as the way we look at photography. So all three exhibitions were extremely different and brought together very different generations, but somehow were all linked by the aspect of questioning, examining and analyzing the medium of photography itself. So the nice combination turned out to be really nice.
Another example was Sebastiao Salgado’s exhibition “Genesis”. We showed it on the entire first floor whereas in the upper floor we presented the exhibition “Distance and Desire” from the famous Walther collection, that has the biggest and most important collection of African photography. The exhibition questioned how Africans were and are presented, the stereotypes brought by white people who bring photographs from their trips and thus establish a certain “colonial gaze”. The whole exhibition became somehow an interesting and critical comment towards the Salgado exhibition. It revealed how our ideas and our way of looking at the third world countries could be questioned. So these are a few examples where the combination of various artists or exhibitions really worked well together.
Sometimes of course these connections cannot be found. But it does not matter at all for us, since photography is a very diverse medium and we are always interested in showing this diversity.
Bleek Magazine: Can you name a couple of young authors to whose success in your opinion the C/O Berlin has contributed greatly?
Ann-Christin Bertrand: Yes, for example Tobias Zielony who is now at Venice Biennale at the German Pavilion and used to be one of our first “talents”. The same with Florian Ebner who is now the director of the photographic collection at Folkwang Museum in Essen as well as a current curator of the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. There are many of them, actually. For example we have just had Viktoria Binschtok in our new exhibition format “Thinking about Photography”. It worked really well for her, she received a lot of invitations from different institutions to take part in other programs. It also depends if the artists are really keen on making a career, because sometimes for various reasons they have no time to work on their projects so much, thus they do not go much further. As a curator, I am still in constant contact with most of our “talents”, and whenever they need, we help them with references and recommendations. So, in general, it does not even stop with the exhibition and catalogue – it is often a relationship that continues afterwards. There are always some occasions to stay in contact – invite them to have a workshop, to give guided tours etc.
Bleek Magazine: And my last question would be this: among the “Facts and Figures” we see on the Foundation’s official site one number seems to be especially striking… Did you really count all the 26 934 screws used to hang the pictures?
Ann-Christin Bertrand: (laughing) Of course, we did not count every single screw, but we took one “typical” exhibition, counted all the screws there and multiplied them by the number of exhibitions we have had since then. That is how we arrived at this number. But we are not so obsessively precise, of course, as people might think about Germans.
© Bleek Magazine. Interviewer: Olga Bubich.