Pablo Lerma in dialogue with the students
of the M.A. program
"Photography Studies and Research"
Students: The NS Documentation Centre of the city of Cologne is a memorial, a museum, and a research institute at the same time. It deals with National Socialism in the city of Cologne from 1933 to 1945. Working with an archive suggests a form of visibility, accessibility and confrontation. What do you want to make visible and accessible with your artistic intervention? What are the advantages and strengths of your artistic intervention compared to the work that the NS Documentation Centre can achieve?
Pablo Lerma: So, thinking about that I was going to the NS Dok for the first time, get to know everyone there, I was surprised by the history of the building itself. It’s a Gestapo- Building that now holds an institution that is known as a memorial place. And that for me creates the first contradiction. How can a building which was used to be a Gestapo-Building, a building where they keep the original cells with the inscriptions of people who were captured there, a building that has a courtyard, that has been quote-on-quote beautified with these mirrors―where more than 400 people were killed―can be called a memorial? A memorial for whom?
A memorial for [the totalitarian] power or a memorial for the oppressed commu- nities? And that is how I started rising lots of critical questions.
The aesthetics of the place are quite particular. Not only the fact that it used to be a GESTAPO-Building. If you visit the space and you see how the walls were treated; it seems like they started to decay. The walls were painted with this yellowish stain, so it seems like pipes have been leaking for a while. The way that the vitrines and all the displays at the exhibition have been built resemble: Second World War. It’s metal, it’s quite harsh, and for me it’s unpleasant to encounter the content in the way it is displayed.
The NS Dok has a permanent exhibition on different floors, which are built through the gaze of power. When you try to tackle into the oppressed communities, the only way of accessing materials that are displayed in this permanent exhi- bition is through this “power” side. For me, that was quite shocking. Going into this room, where are all these different testimonies―police reports, testimonies of homosexuals, of Jewish, Gypsies, of disabled people―are displayed, and the way of making them visible is through the “power” side. For me, it is not a positive representation of those communities. It is not counting on them, on how they want to be represented in a moment that changed the history of humanity.
Students: How do you deal with the fragmentation and the missing parts that are inherent to the logic of an archive?
Pablo Lerma: The archive is in a process, as many other archives. They receive a lot of materials. Working in an archive is time consuming when it comes to digitizing and introducing information into the database. Furthermore, they are in a very delicate moment because a lot of people already passed away. People who had connections to the camps or the National Socialism Era, in relation to those specific materials. It takes a lot of time and research to find out the connections between documents, papers, images. It is so time consuming just to digitize an album, imagine if you have hundreds of them. Imagine if you must collect or correlate documents with those albums and find out who that person was and how you can enter the right informa- tion into the data base. But at the same time, the NS Dok is not a regular archive.
It is a place that holds part of the history of humanity. So, I think there is somet- hing about visibility and representation that must be said about that.
Students: Please describe your collaboration with the NS Documentation Centre― working in and with the archive. Did you have complete artistic freedom in developing your work, or were there guidelines and/or clear limits set by the museum?
Pablo Lerma: I just got this proposal from Photoszene last year, and for me it’s always tricky to understand these types of proposals because they don`t run any sort of open call. What I was told is that they have an international committee, and they pro- pose the work of an artist, they have a conversation with the institutions that they will be working with, and the institution finally chooses the artist, based on the previous practice. That for me as an artist starts from a point of being completely blindfold―because I have been chosen by someone, but I did not choose them. So, for me it is something that I embrace in the process: I have been chosen by this institution, there are certain expectations about my work. Those expectations are not communicated to me―and I think that becomes part of the entire process. From the beginning I questioned the process: Do I really want to do this work? Because if I would have to choose an institution, I would not have chosen the NS- Dok based on my previous projects and current interests. I am not interested in the National Socialism Era; I am not interested in the content in general. I think it is quite triggering and it can be problematic to work around the materials that they have. But at the same time, I thought this could be a challenge for me to step out of my comfort zone. So I said yes and started visiting the NS Dok. Right after the first visit, I started having a lot of questions. That is the way that I mostly drive my projects, through questions: Hopefully, I am not trying to provide any answer to my audience but just provide questions to reflect critically on the materials that they are looking at.
Because I faced many impossibilities in the project, I thought: “The only thing I can do here is embrace these impossibilities, embrace the lack of time, embrace my distress and discomfort looking at these materials and propose a project that will use an action as an intermediary, a metaphor to explain what I encountered when
I look at these materials”. I sat down with the members of the NS-Dok a couple of times. I said: “I don’t want to engage with the content, I don’t have any interest in the photographic materials here, or the archive itself, as a photographic archive, I am interested in the container. What I want to do is to empty the depot completely and make it visible to the audience”. By saying this, I was embracing the fact that I won`t be able to do it, embracing the fact that there won’t be enough time. For me, that was a performative act while thinking about the accessibility or inacces- sibility of the materials. The first answer that I got was: “NO! You cannot do that. We must be very protective, there are lots of laws of data protection in Germany. You cannot disclose information or identities of people that were related to the camps.” That is not my goal. I know I don’t have time to open every box and show everything―but I just want to open the boxes. Anything you find there is just like using a data-space of speculation that we build as an audience. When you see
a closed container, you are speculating, you imagine what you might find inside. Right in the moment you open it, you can see if the materials inside are what you have imagined. In this moment of speculation and perhaps confirmation or disappointment, you can understand the reasons why a box should be opened, and things should become visible. It’s not only about one box, there are hundreds of them. It’s also about the quantity of materials, that the audience can be expo- sed to. That was my first proposal, followed by an initial negative response from NS Dok.
Through many meetings and conversations, where I‘ve been proposing changes to the project in order to find a common ground with NSDok, I realized this project was forcing the institution to reflect on their archive and the materials they hold. I always embraced this entire process as part of project and reflect on it. After many months of back-and-forth dialogue, we are getting to a point of common understanding for this collaboration to be fruitful on both sides.
In addition, I proposed a publication that will operate as a reader to the project, parallel to the performance of opening the boxes. A publication where I will photograph all the boxes in the depot. So, it is just like a visual index of containers, where there is no information about the materials inside, because they only visual reference will be a zenithal image of the each box. Then there will be a list of plates, where you can see that picture number in the archive.
Students: For ethical reasons, the archival stock of the NS Documentation Centre is to be handled with dignity. When working with such an emotionally challenging subject, one certainly must set personal boundaries. Besides the emotional stress, working with this archive and showing an “artistic intervention“ to the public, puts you in a position where you have an enormous amount of cultural responsibility. As an artist―how do you deal with such issues and how did this project affect you personally?
Pablo Lerma: I am not German; I do not have any direct connection with German History. I don’t have any background related to the country. But I cannot deny the fact that I must position myself. And for me this is key: I cannot make work that only speaks about aesthetics, without positioning myself and my experience in relation to the content and in relation to the institution that is commissioning me to do this work.
I spent much time at the depot downstairs, just opening boxes and asking lots
of questions. That was when I started to feel like certain frictions in the project. I was always emotionally exhausted after I spent a day at the NS Dok. I would go through hundreds of pictures and family albums from Nazi-Families or families that had a relation with the regime. After a few visits―opening lots of boxes, looking mostly at Nazi materials, and feeling emotionally exhausted and drained― I was going back to my hotel and thinking to myself: Why am I doing this? What can I get from being in this position at the NSDok. So last summer, when I visited for the last time, I decided that I did not want to engage with the content anymore. For me the priority was on the container: the institution as a container, the depot as a container within the institution, and the box with materials inside the depot as another container.
Students: The project A Frame of Darkness is about the retelling of lost stories of people from the queer community. To what extent is the focus in the current work also on making visible the voids caused by the war on the victim's side or, in particular, on reflecting history and its cruelty through emptiness?
Pablo Lerma: I started working with archives in the US a few years ago, thinking about queer representation when I became a father. I started this project called Greenfield.
The Archive, that I did with a found archive in the US. All the images there belonged to a few photographers in a town, and they all displayed white middle class families in the US from the 30 ́s until the 60 ́s. All the time, my question was: Where is my family in this collection of images? Me, as a gay father, with a husband and kids: Where are we in the history of photography? How have we been represented? And when you are in a position of privilege, where you can always see yourself everywhere, you don`t ask those questions.
While researching at the NSDok, Iunderstood that most likely lots of those albums where printed and given away by the regime, because most of them have images of military men or pictures of Hitler printed on the first pages. You can see there was a mechanism of propaganda even related to these family albums. But even the photos which are not aesthetically related to the regime, still relate to a military life. You can see that members of those families went to the military. They were still Nazis. While encountering all these pictures I was wondering: How many materials do they have from the oppressed communities? And that’s where I started to look for pictures that are from Jewish families. But most of the materials the NS Dok holds are related to the oppressors, not the oppressed communities. And the reality is that most of these oppressed communities―especially the Jewish community―lost part of their history in those decades. I don’t hold any right to make any work related to the content of that archive, but at least I can use my position and experience as an artist to reflect critically, to open questions.
Students: In general – why do you think it is important for artists to work with archives?
Pablo Lerma: I am not an archivist. I do not preserve work. Because I am an artist, I always approach archives from an artistic research perspective. I feel that I can be looking for the open spaces in those archives, in those collections, where critical reflection can happen. And I think that is why it is so important that artists can work with archives, because we tend to think that archives are these solid places, where knowledge is collected – and displayed afterwards. Especially there is this process in archives, where a certain degree of validation happens, because an institution decides that certain materials are important enough to become part of the archive. Then these materials get validated and thus become powerful, they make things visible in relation to communities and history. But the reality with this process of validation is, that institutions are run by people – and people are not objective, they are subjective. [...]
[...] And people apply rules, that we can call norms, a normative standard, but there is no such a thing like a standard. Because that means that you are placing a set of knowledge as a standard, and anything that is not a standard falls out of the rule. Someone already is choosing, why it is a standard, what is the norma- tive, to evaluate what belongs into an archive. But as a person, when you are an archivist, but also when you are an artist, and you look at materials, you put all of your experience into these materials. That means, the way of interpreting these materials can be completely different. So therefore, you need artists to look at materials with different experiences, different backgrounds, different perspectives. And it makes me think about this quote of Derrida on Archive Fever, that I always use when I am teaching my archival practices class. It says that: [...] As is the case for the Latin archivum or archium (a word that is used in the singular, as was the French archive, formerly employed as a masculine singular: un archive), the meaning of “archive”, its only meaning, comes to it from the Greek arkheion: initially a house, a domicile, an address, the residence of the superior magistrates, the archons, those who commanded. [...] On account of their publicly recognized authority, it is at their home, in that place which is their house (private house, family house, or employee’s house), that official documents are filed. The archons are first of all the documents’ guardians. They do not only ensure the physical security of what is deposited and of the substrate. They are also accorded the hermeneutic right and competence. They have the power to interpret the archives [...] (Archive Fever, Jacques Derrida). Interpretation, plays a key-role when looking at the materials in the archives. But usually the word interpretation is missed out of the equation when we think about archives and we question what has to be visible or not. So that is why I think it is so important that artists are invited to work archives bring different approaches to any material that has been hold in any archive or institution. [...]
The work of an archivist, the material, and the institution they are already at a higher position than the starting point of an artist, when they enters an institution.
The way of labeling that―its difficult, because when you work for example― as I have been working in the last years, on queer representation―you need to embrace a speculation, and this kind of speculation, is a no-no for archivists. Archivists are all about facts, about truth. How can you tell something that you don`t see? How can you tell something that you cannot prove? [...]
That’s a space that I want to have and allow myself when I work with an archive, a space of speculation, of critical reflection. Not giving answers, but just generating
The archives and the archival materials have to be on the move all the time. Because what happens in a hundred years, when someone else is looking at those pictures? They have to embrace change. Otherwise they become completely anchored in history, petrified in time. You cannot move them anymore. So I think one of the goals of the artist, is to make them move―or at least try to move them, because sometimes they weigh too much, even if you push, they don`t move. [...]
This Interview was carried by: Miriam Bajorat, Manuel Rieder, Jessica-Vanessa Weber, Elham Ahmadi, Laura Pecoroni