Friday, 1 June 2012

A Call from the Wilderness

The Geometry of Innocence © Ken Schles

Far from it for me to second-guess policy concerning the Eurozone's economic crisis or make statements on Dutch economic policy or policies that affect regional arts funding in provincial areas. I am not Dutch and have no standing in a political world I admittedly know little of. I have, however been the recipient of the largesse afforded to me by the Dutch government and, vicariously, by extension, the Dutch people. And for that I am eternally grateful. For without that support it is highly doubtful that I would be sitting here now and writing to you today, wherever you live, be it in Amsterdam or Brooklyn, Guangdong province or Bursa.

The Geometry of Innocence © Ken Schles

Thirteen years ago, when I was still plowing the Internet with a 28.8k dial-up modem, I got a message from across the sea. It was eleven years after I published my first book, Invisible City, eleven years after the death of my older brother and some years after I had seriously given up trying to show my work in galleries here in the United States. The commercial galleries at the time were not interested in the "difficult" photographic work I was offering. My work didn't fit in with what traditional photographic galleries were exhibiting-and the "regular" art world seemed locked into capitalizing on other, more saleable media. We were in the aftermath of the culture wars here in America but they still dominated the discussion. Either you were for certain kinds of work or against art. Intellectually and conceptually there was little room for much else that was new or that wasn't easily commoditized. I knew of few opportunities or possibilities to find an audience for the work I was making but I continued to work, for the most part, in isolation. However, there was that message from the wilderness. I wasn't sure how to reconcile it-it didn't fit in with my American experience. I had long since stopped trying to reconcile what I was producing as an artist and trying to figure out how it might be received, as it often necessitated a lengthy personally delivered preamble that was just as often misinterpreted: But again, there was that email from across the ocean. The world suddenly and unceremoniously was opening up in ways that were inconceivable to me and technically impracticable only a few years earlier.

The Geometry of Innocence © Ken Schles

Wim Melis and Ton Broekhuis, from Noorderlicht in Groningen, a small foundation in a small corner of a small country had emailed me to see what I had been up to in the years since I made my book Invisible City. Together, with the guidance of the Dutch photographer, Machiel Botman, they were curating an exhibition provisionally named "Wonderland." This exhibition was, as Botman put it:

"…about photography that does not conform and often comes into being against trends; photography that involves little money and is above all a reflection of the photographer's personal world, surroundings and sometimes family and friends. Photography that comes into being in the shelter of life and often remains a well kept secret. Wonderland is about small and usual things, the photos showing an intimate and personal existence that seems, at first sight, to take place in a rather dark world. At second sight, however, the viewer can discover a meaning or emotion hiding behind a picture. It is up to the viewer to be amazed at the value of the seemingly small, unequivocal and everyday."

The Geometry of Innocence © Ken Schles

Their approach constituted a turning point in several ways. For one, it was a turning point in the way that photographic books were being accepted and publically thought about. And for me, it was a turning point in that I was beginning to develop connections to people outside my provincial New York arts community, and have my work seen outside the United States by an interested and supportive audience.

The Geometry of Innocence © Ken Schles

I went on to finish and exhibit that eleven-year project initiated by the deathbed realization of my brother, who thought that much of his life's assumptions turned out to be little more than a fool's errand. That project, a visual deconstruction of societal violence on the nascent cusp of a yet to happen 9/11, was given central space in the Wonderland exhibition. The Geometry of Innocence was soon published by Hatje Cantz (Ostfildern, Germany, 2001). I went on to show that work at C/O Berlin and in Cologne and in art fairs across Europe. Which is to say that for not much more than a plane ticket, some wall space in an old church, a bit of paint, some float glass and a promise, Noorderlicht launched an important phase of my career as a working artist, exhibitor and bookmaker. And for that I cannot repay them enough-or the Dutch people, who, through a small amount of their tax money gave hope to a struggling artist from across the sea.

The Geometry of Innocence © Ken Schles

Hope and time are two elements that artists need to survive, but they cannot thrive without patronage or without an audience. Noorderlicht has provided me with hope and time on many occasions and helped me to extend my voice and find an audience. I've shown in three of their festivals and exhibited in their gallery on three other occasions. They've commissioned new work, and have asked me to give artist's talks for which I am most happy to oblige. They have, most recently published my fourth monograph to much international interest and acclaim. But they have given thousands of other photographers a voice as well and brought the world and the best of photographic practice to provincial Groningen. They have been at the forefront of bringing non-western perspectives to an oft-time jaded western audience saturated in it own media generated assumptions. Could they do more? Certainly. And I hope that they might. But their future is at stake.

The Geometry of Innocence © Ken Schles

Laurie Anderson gave a brilliant commencement speech the other day here in New York for the School of Visual Arts. Her words seem appropriate in relation to the discussion at hand. She talked about the "work" and "play" one must engage in to survive in today's culture sector. That one has to constantly reinvent one's self. She talks about "what it means to create reality."  During the intermission of Phillip Glass' opera Satyagraha, she, along with other fellow art activists in the lobby, put to the audience words borrowed from Glass' libretto, "When your government breaks, when do you stand up and when do you stand silent?" She asks important questions about making and producing art in today's society. (And I think it important to remember here that the Glass opera she quotes from was itself a work originally commissioned by a Dutch government entity, the City of Rotterdam). She talked about her disrupted foray into government-backed art when she was the first and only artist in residence for NASA (she was booted out after a US government witch hunt on arts funding killed her program). She further reminds us that art both offers and necessitates freedom-no matter the source of funding. All of which brings to mind the challenges faced by my beloved Noorderlicht.



I hope that you can offer your own words of support to Noorderlicht here or simply offer your Facebook likes here. In a multicultural world of many voices we need to support programs that organize and bring meaning to our complex image-based culture. Go see their programs if you can (learn about them here, here and here). Buy their books (here, here and here). Not just because they will take you on journeys you might never have the opportunity to otherwise go on, or give you insight into things you might otherwise not have been fortunate enough to contemplate. Not because Noorderlicht has been "about photography that does not conform and often comes into being against trends," but for more practical and selfish reasons. That which is allowed to die cannot be easily rebuilt. Sure, you will never miss what you never knew, but what you never come to know or get to explore will yield a life that encompasses fewer possibilities. Laurie Anderson mentions the workaholics who don't make room for that random unexpected call that might take you in a new direction. Let Noorderlicht be that call. It might just change the way you look at the world.

The Geometry of Innocence © Ken Schles

Not to change the emphasis of this entry, but I want to share a gift with you. The Photobook Club, operated by faculty from the University of Coventry in the UK, put together an appreciation and exploration of my first book, Invisible City. It's an eBook formatted for the iPad. Learn more about Ken Schles: Invisible City, A Digital Resource through the video they made and find download links here.

The Geometry of Innocence © Ken Schles

The Geometry of Innocence © Ken Schles

The Geometry of Innocence © Ken Schles

The Geometry of Innocence © Ken Schles

The Geometry of Innocence © Ken Schles

The Geometry of Innocence © Ken Schles

The Geometry of Innocence © Ken Schles

Ken Schles (Foam Magazine #5/Near)

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