Travelling is remixing
European Souvenirs: a trip down memories’ lane
In the multimedia art production, European Souvenirs, the most divergent of archive materials are scrambled together to tell new, border-transcending stories. „Fuck borders!‟
By Nina Polak published in De Groene Amsterdammer in ducht (.pdf)
“The archive both registers and creates the event,” wrote Jacques Derrida in Archive Fever. He then goes on to defuse the concept of the archive being an objective historical source, arguing instead that archives are all about people, which make them subjective. We choose what we keep, how we want to keep it and where to keep it, thereby creating history as we know it. With this knowledge, new archives, with new tales, can be created from existing ones. So given a contrasting context, every document can represent something completely different.
This is something similar to the departure point of a project called European Souvenirs, which this summer brought together five media artists from five European countries, as they scoured through leading audiovisual archives all over the continent. They incorporated what they found in a live-cinema production that will be premiered in October in Amsterdam’s De Balie. The objective, according to commissioning party, the European Cultural Foundation, is to eke out new, inspiring European stories. It stands to reason that their current narratives would be derived from old ones. The project’s curators are the “remix experts” of the Spanish Zemos98, a collective comprised of VJs, DJ’s, animators, performers, musicians and filmmakers, all focusing on the reinterpretation of existing material. In the context of this project, they opted for both musicians and visual artists, so that the remixing could concentrate on both sound and vision.
Guided by themes such as “family”, “travel” and “borders”, this select group of five have immersed themselves in archives (including our own National Archive and the film archive of the Eye) and put together a collection of “ready mades”. These vary from the most personal of family letters and holiday memories, to emotive images of stranded refugees and tough border controls. In four workshops, in different European cities, they sought out collective and individual interpretations of the concept of “souvenirs”, and started putting together a production in which this varied cultural baggage was forged into a new entity.
In Seville, Istanbul, Warsaw and Amsterdam there were teams of artists ready to guide the makers (from the Netherlands, Spain, the United Kingdom, Poland and Turkey) in the creation of a collective form. These different places, the journeys themselves and the personal experiences of the five Europeans, were to serve as sources of inspiration. Surrounded by huge tables laden with computers, flanked by whiteboards covered in writing, handycams and projectors, they spent weeks, talking planning and experimenting – looking for the most significantly confrontational in the archive materials that they had accumulated.
Asked about their archive searches, Dutch participant, Farah Rahman explains that they regularly had to just make do with what they were given. “You’re often at the mercy of what archives can provide,” she says, “even if your search criteria are unambiguous.” The project trailer depicts an unexpected mix of images, masquerading as objets trouvés: newspaper clippings, nostalgic home video clips and mysterious sound bites. On the face of it, it’s a veritable hodgepodge, seeking unity in the idea of a European identity. The fact that the makers perceive such an identity as mainly comprising of layers and diversity must have caused practical problems in itself. It can only be hoped that the end result, the collective performance, transcends the abstract fragmentation. After all, we don’t really ascribe to the post-modern standpoint that the world is a collage.
Exactly what the end result will look like, remains somewhat of a mystery. But Rahman is willing to reveal that in De Balie we can expect to see three screens: a large projection screen on which the mixed images will be shown, and two LCD screens with which they will be enriched with extra content by means of data visualisation. There will also be cameras following the performers. Together with the necessary technical equipment (both digital and analogue), they will be on the stage, collectively editing their film. It’s been rehearsed beforehand, of course, but it’s just that little bit different every time. In addition to live music, the film will also show live animations as the selected images are quickly mixed together. The video footage can be edited on the spot, with live “scratching”, for example, not unlike what a DJ does, or used to do, with a vinyl record.
A recording of one of the try-outs gives us a taste of what to expect. Although it will undoubtedly be different to experiencing it in the theatre, it’s plain to see, even from the video, that it promises to be a memorable experience. A narrative collage in five chapters will be played out: sometimes abstract in nature, sometimes more concrete, but always something that transcends its fragmented character and draws the audience into a hypnotic mix of sound and dancing images. As well as colourful family videos, there are holiday scrapbooks and postcards, and politically charged fragments, rough party scenes and abstract renditions of souvenir-type objects. During a moving sequence of flickering African masks it’s almost impossible to sit still.
The overall impression is one that alternates between melancholy and energy, with the odd bit of eroticism thrown in for good measure. But thanks, in part, to its high quality and mostly very danceable electronic music and excellent sound bites, it’s hardly ever boring. Here and there the chaotic flow is punctuated by silence, while an individual anecdote is related. The transitions seem strange, to the extent they sometimes feel analogue and old fashioned, but this serves only to strengthen the feeling of nostalgia that runs through the performance. All in all, it’s a sensory, associative trip through collective memories in which you really do feel as though it’s all being created on the spot.
The makers are now in darkness, visible only as shadows as they sway in time to the infectious music. In Rahman’s opinion, the added value of the live element and being physically together on the stage lies in the emphasis that’s placed on the subjectivity of it all. “It becomes apparent that it’s about personal choices and stories.” The cohesion of the various stories represents the coming together of the five individuals. The manner in which the narrative is told correlates completely with the interaction between the protagonists’ highly personal artistic techniques. The fact that the borders between the materials and techniques are eroded, is a symbolic but welcome side effect. “One of the sentiments that actually surfaced during the creation process,” informs Rahman, “was Fuck borders!”
The very notion of a collective piece of audio-visual art like this (Wagner used such a term in a specific reference to bringing together several art forms via the theatre) makes one think of the work of American remix-pioneer Nam June Paik, who is generally regarded as the father of video art. His satellite project Good Morning, Mr. Orwell, which was broadcast in 1984, is the first example of the live mixing of reworked images. As is the case with European Souvenirs, Paik’s objective was to create an international product, and during his spectacular broadcast he mixed live footage of different artists performing in San Francisco, New York and Paris. The common factor in this media happening was television technology; Paik wanted to refute the dystopian 1984 sketched by George Orwell by focusing on the possibilities offered by progressive technologies, rather than the dangers. “But George, you were somewhat overdoing it”, chants a French singer about half-way through, “desire is not dead yet, desire is not dead.”
In response to a question about the story that’s being told in European Souvenirs – which is so emphatically positioned within Paik’s cultural paradigm of remixing – Rahman says that it’s mainly the new interpretation that emerges from the unusual combinations of old footage. “Putting shocking images of newly arrested and emaciated boatpeople refugees, and animations of drowning people alongside cheerful family films depicting happy, bathing holidaymakers speaks volumes about the double standards of borders.” The objective of the production is to charge the collective archive material with intentions that are different to what the original makers had in mind. The viewer plays an active role in the rendition of what’s being told and is challenged to find new associations between different European landscapes, memories and concepts.
The chaotic reiteration that this project promises to be, must include the inherent complexity of an abstract concept like European identity, which, from this production, will certainly not come across asstable. Borders are constantly shifting and changing, memories are always reinventing themselves and unity is taking refuge in being different, as if acknowledging the fact that no two stories are the same. Remixing, as the mission statement of the project stresses, is more than just the artistic heritage of an avant-garde concept of collage. It’s also more than the DJs’ sampling culture from the 1980s. Remixing is part of our culture and it influences the cross-fertilisation of areas such as education, communication, culture and politics. Borders are there to be visually crossed.
From this production the European identity will certainly not come across as stable