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Virtual Studio 2020

Michael Safaric Branthwaite: Contemporary Witness

From mid-August to December 2020, British artist Michael Safaric Branthwaite will explore the place of Falstad and the layers of history from a distance using online archives and the specialist skills and knowledge of the staff at Falstad. He will work on creating links between the material culture of the past and contemporary debates. Below, he will share his reflections and present his artistic work in weekly blog posts.

Blog Post 10: 26th October 2020

As the residency draws to close I find myself looking back and as a result making one final work. This work, in particular, pulls together themes explored throughout the residency, whilst opening up some new ideas about what it might mean to witness events at the Falstad camp, firstly via the internet, but also as a secondary witness.

Dori Laub (in Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History, 1992) suggests that:

“Testimony is often a form of post-traumatic reconstruction of sometimes radical and incomprehensible events. As such, it is a site of trauma, and its documenter becomes an integral part of the occurrence and the event, Thus, a person who listens to the trauma will, to some extent, experience it himself; he will identify with the subject and allow a blurring of boundaries to make room for testimony.”

Whilst this refers to the witnessing of a phycologist it can be proposed that artists responding to materials are in effect witnessing the material again. I have alluded to this in the works about the picking up of leaves ( Blog 3) where the performative re-enacting was used to ‘get closer’ to the events themselves. In this latest work I have revisited this but instead of re-enacting I have tried to communicate what I find to be incomprehensible about this event, its dehumanisation and debauched transgression of basic humility.  By ‘stuffing’ as many leaves into my mouth as possible, I wanted to create something more like shock or wonder, much like the experience of reading about the Jewish prisoners forced to clean leaves from the courtyard using their mouths. When playing with the image I placed an image of Falstad Over my eyes, I had intended to do something more sophisticated, but I found the ‘blocking’ effect to resonate in some way. This may be something to do with blocking or withholding, possibly because we are reliving these events that sometimes seem so far away but at other moments, for instance when my mouth was full of leaves much closer. It may seem frivolous but I keep thinking of shaman’s becoming animals to get closer and understand them, but then the complications of victim and perpetrator make this an uneasy thought. Lastly, I set myself against a backdrop of the Lidar images of Falstad, for me there is an interesting visual conversation merging here, contemporary acts and witnessing, both artistic and scientific as well as an original photograph. The blocking of imagery and readings to me evokes how we are now dealing with heritage as an experienced phenomenon but also on a human level where the indicates experience can play a role in connecting us to our past(s).

Over the coming weeks, I will be starting to think about how all this work can be pulled together into a collegiate exhibition, printing the work off to view it physically and starting to group and test out different. This will coincide with writing a funding bid to print the work/ construct the lightboxes, something that always brings about more questions about the nature and purpose of the work.

Figure 1: Self-portrait as a Contemporary Witness.

Blog Post 9: 8th October 2020

A time for consolidation…

As the ‘contemporary witness’ virtual studio residency comes to an end I ‘am looking back over the work produced so far and reflecting on themes and areas of discussion, as well as catching up with unfinished series of work.

All the work has merit of some sort, but as I look over it some of the work, particularly from the early stages such as blog 4 now seem like idea generators that allowed ideas to develop about materials culture in my immediate surroundings and in documentation from the camp, the recreations of Erich Weber’s photos seem clearer in their content and offer a simpler way to deal with these connections whilst being more visually arresting, possibly because of the side by side comparison.

Figure 1. Erich Weber No.2, recreation of photo album pictures using household items:

Petar Krasulja’s journey which features throughout the blog but remains unfinished still offers an insight into not only the breadth and diversity of prisoners at Falstad but also the reach of the terror of the Nazi regime, personalised in the events of an individual, who’s life I can only imagine. However in this case his journey from Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia to Falstad and then his escape to Sweden form a conduit for the personal journey to represent wider historical issues.

The ‘transitional rituals’ or enactments still have gravitas in the way in which the Holocaust and WW2 are experienced, the uncanny connection of me doing these when the Tik Toc ‘dressing up’ as victims phenomena took place left these works in the balance for a while, but maybe the problematic question of dehumanising and rehumanising still gives 2 of the images creative and discursive potency. As with other works the simpler works on reflection have greater clarity and impact.

More recent work using the Lidar scans focuses on how science might change the way we look at and see environment and history, we are no longer left with artefacts and imagery but now have new ways to recreate and build environments. How these are used and how we build new histories from them is tackled in ‘Falstad Reflections’ which explores the video imagery and songs that were sung at Falstad, whilst the application of the reflection filter is intended to bring the viewer into the work, maybe making them implicit in the creation of histories and narratives. The following ‘Interloper’ works in Blog 8 take this a stage further, embedding a ( distorted) version of myself within the work, here I become a performer in the making and dissemination of new discourses and narratives. In the coming weeks, I will be taking a more work-person like approach, finishing unfinished series of work and exploring ways to resolve minor issues as well as considering ways to display and disseminate the work.

Figure 2. Start of contact sheet to view all work in one place:

Blog Post 8: 23rd October 2020

Over the past 2 weeks, I have been thinking more about the visual language I have been using during this residency. Rather than taking on more ideas, I have opted to explore the visual potential within the work and let the work ‘do the talking’. This has resulted in the series of images below which are derived from the ‘Falstad reflections’ video you can view via my last post.

My first idea was to impose myself in some way over or in the videos, the idea behind this was to try and infer in some way my presence, maybe in the form of the voyeur or interloper. The distance and online engagement of this residency has made me more and more aware of how one can infiltrate and agitate via the internet. In these experiments, I was in some way trying to look back at myself accessing, processing and working with online materials. The first experiments involved moving image, with static images of myself being imposed over the Lidar fly-through in the aforementioned ‘Falstad Reflections’ this proved to be too obtrusive so I began to work with the still image of myself. One of the tools I tried in Photoshop was the healing tool, not because of its visual properties but because of its name, it was fitting given the nature of the Falstad as a humanitarian site (in its current form). Experimenting with this tool within the photoshop software the process of healing began to dismantle the image, the ‘glitch’ effectively introducing parts of my studio into my own image. At the moment I’ am still thinking through this, as there is something intriguing about the ‘internet viewer’ becoming complicit in the creation of meaning within the framework of the image itself.

Figure 1: Healing tool and green screen background.

At this stage, I was still working towards a moving image resolution but on testing these images over the ‘Falstad refection’s’ video the intrusions did not work, they became more of an interference and I decide to stay with the simpler original video.

At this point I wanted to continue with this imagery so have developed the work as lightbox images which will be exhibited as stills.  As the process of adding these images used green screen part of the image needed to be concealed via this method, a green background is used which is then omitted via the editing software, it created a level of what I perceived as authenticity, where the methods used to create the intrusions are exposed. This relates to the above thoughts on accessing and ‘performing’ heritage and how through this residency I have become conscious of myself as a performer in the wider framework of cultural memory.

Figures 2-5: Interloper.

Blog Post 7: 9th October 2020

Since the last post I have been continuing to read Nilssen and Reitan’s ‘Legacies of the Nazi Camps in Norway: Falstad 1941-49 and along with Browning’s ‘Ordinary men: reserve Police battalion 101 and Final Solution in Poland’. The later to explore how normal people can become perpetrators and how normality itself can become exceedingly abnormal.

The concept of the perpetrator has interested me for most of the time I have spent working within this field, it’s something terrifying and fascinating, and I think the one thing that is often bypassed or misunderstood is that we could all be perpetrators. This is not an evasion from the horrendous crimes committed, for me it is a contemporary response that allows us to think about how we might act in such circumstance, where we might act differently to how we would in ‘normal’ circumstances.

What might be more important is how we can use history to ensure such events are not continually repeated, as unfortunately, they have been since 1945. When Falstad became the Innherrad forced labour camp at the end of hostilities ‘The Authorities placed much prestige in avoiding revenge actions against those prisoners serving sentences or in custody for treason’. (Nilssen and Reitan 2020, p. 197) it seems this was largely successful but what I ‘am interested in is that ‘flip’ where prisoner become guard and vis versa.

In this new video work (see below), I’ am trying to tackle this transition and the idea of abnormal situations. The work is made using two iC-ACCESS Lidar scans of the camp and its buildings, I chose these as when I was looking for images of the camp I found their colours already suggested something else, like looking at the world through a different lens or filter. The video then had a gradually increasing mirror effect added, maybe an analogy for the reflective event of switching from one side of the prison system to the other. This effect further distorts ideas of normality and expectation as the images shift from pure abstract pattern back into something that could be grasped as the camp itself. Music is over-layered of Volgalied by Léhar known to have been sung by one of the Jewish prisoners at Falstad, who was cantor by profession (one who sings and leads people in prayer in Jewish religious service).Whilst one stream of music is played the correct way another playing in reverse starts as the video begins to morph due to the Mirror effect. This is, again intended to bring about a critique or conversation about perpetrator and victim, as well as draw attention to the fluidity of this in the time as the Nazi camp Falstad became Norwegian forced labour camp Innherrad.

Alongside this, I have continued Krasulja’s journey,  this can be seen in the image below.

Blog Post 6: 26th September 2020

Over the past 2 weeks, I have been taking some time to reflect, as well as taking part in a panel discussion titled ‘travelling and stumbling’ organised by Artist Jeremy Hasting for the Walk.Listen.Create collective.

The panel discussion picked up on some pertinent pointers that gave some structure to how I might approach the ‘Virtual Studio’. The idea behind the title was primarily to get artists together who have instigated or embraced ‘stumbling’ in some way, the act of coming across or stumbling. This seems to embrace the work I have been producing about Petar Krasulja’s journey from the Banjica concentration camp near Belgrade to Norway and eventually Falstad. In my last post, I was discussing how I was using internet searches to map out this journey, however, there is an analogy here as without first-hand knowledge I am stumbling around the internet, picking up images that are only connected to his journey via the searches put into the search engines, ‘Belgrade to Vienna by River Boat’ ‘Vienna to Stettin’. What might this offer the work is something I have been thinking over, the internet and the information therein have a geology, the algorithms of the search engines seeking out certain words and phrases within this ‘landscape’. So, in ‘Petar Krasulja’s journey’ what is being presented is in fact not the journey at all but a critique of the way we find, view and access images. Any errors in the work represent the errors of the way we might create stories and ideas from the internet, the notion of digital and prosthetic memories are engaged through a conversation between the internet search which is in fact based on Petar Krasulja’s testimonies and results that come back when the search engines have mined the internet for information. I am drawn to this tension as it builds a bridge between events but also mediates the contemporary experience of how we are engaging with heritage and history digitally.

‘Petar Krasulja’s journey’ in development:

The panel discussion also led me to Sue Thomas’ book ‘Hello World Travel in Virtuality’ in it she mentions ‘Net Haikus’ a Haikus been a Japanese poem of only three phrases. I was drawn to this for two reasons, for arbitrary purposes I have been using 3 images for each image in Krasulja’s journey and it also fits the pattern of the way I have selected the text, often selecting it to be self-contained in some way and making some poetic sense on each of the images. My thoughts are now to examine how I ‘am selecting images more closely and refine the methodology being used to perhaps offer another level of context or refection over the web-sourced photos and texts in each image.

Social Media promotion of ‘Travelling and Stumbling’ & ‘Hello World travels in virtuality’ Sue Thomas, 2004 by Raw Nerve Books:

Blog Post 5: 11th September 2020

This week I have taken a step back and revisited some early ideas that focused on the material culture at the camp and the links with the former Yugoslavia. In both cases, the developmental work is still exploring the debates I set out to and integrating the experiences of the Falstad Camp, its link to other Camps Across Europe as well as the aforementioned material culture.

Figure 1: This figure shows a photo from an album belonging to the SS officer Erich Weber picture objects lined up and ready to be sent to new owners, alongside a recreation using objects from my house. It was interesting how unnerving this was to set up, in previous work I have re-enacted leaves carrying them from one part of my garden to another in my mouth but that did not compare to using my child’s toy, a vase my wife chose from above the fireplace along with other household objects. It felt that I was in some way placing them alongside the historic event, almost like they became tainted by it through mere visual association. Maybe it was easier in the enactments to involve myself whilst these images required the involvement of others artefacts and the idea of the private event was broken and spilt into the family home. The work here, although still in development made me consider who was buying these items (members of the Sicherheitsdienst in Trondheim, and to private buyers outside the camp) did they know what they were buying, is that an act and complicity in supporting the continued mistreatment of prisoners and ultimately where does that leave the objects. They may be inanimate but they are also witnesses and addressed as such by virtue of images of them being in an archived. It also, for me at least builds a map of a world where all objects histories are connected with the lives of individuals and by bringing them together the two histories are conceptually combined- and maybe the slightly preposterous recreation is an acknowledgement of grasping at, rather than achieving a true relived event.

Figures 2 and 3: The above image shows the mapping out of a journey made by Petar Krasulja from the Banjica concentration camp near Belgrade to Norway and eventually Falstad. At first, I was interested in the geographical extremities of this journey and that they almost map on to the furthest points of what is now the European Union which grew out of the aftermath of the second world war. There is something timely about revisiting the EU as an idea in the age of political extremes and these two points, Belgrade and Falstad encompass a representation of the physicality of the EU in their connection and distance apart as well as both sitting politically just outside EU membership for their own internal reasons. But on top of this is Krasulja’s story, a Yugoslav Serb he was sent to Norway as slave labour. This work was initially intended to be made of video of clips sourced from the internet, to build up a contemporary, virtual journey purely from online sources. However, when reviewing the online material I kept turning the volume down, almost like the silence let my mind image Krasulja’s journey, by chance I started taking screen grabs and placing comments from one of Krasulja’s quote underneath so I could keep track of the ‘virtual’ journey. In the end, this has become the methodology of the work- Krasulja’s text accompanied by the collected still images offered me a more silent aesthetic where both realties could more comfortably exist. This work, along with the others will continue to be developed further over the coming weeks.

Blog Post 4: 4th September 2020

This week my attention was diverted to the news of users of the social media app TikTok pretending to be Holocaust victims. I immediately knew the motivation for my performance/enactments was diametrically different but it gave me pause of thought. What were they trying to do, and what was I trying to do, this is firmly rooted in intentions and strategies of audience engagement. Whilst the TikTok posts seem driven by a desire for ‘likes’ and hence a shock or otherwise jarring post may get reactions, my work is founded in a desire to find ‘equivalent’ experience of a museum visit by enacting the information online. It does, however, pose questions of what materials work online in terms of audience engagement, and without the decorum and sanctum of a memorial or other site this material can, and evidently will be used for individual purposes. The advent and expansion of digital heritage seems to be offering the scope for wider engagement and at the same time allowing for more periphery uses that may be at odds with museum and memorial sites original intentions. Personally, I feel this give more weight to the need to engage in a range of creative and other practices to present projects that whilst exploring the limits of prevailing paradigms relating to traumatic histories.

As a result of this, I felt the need to review images of material that was sent to me earlier in the project and renege with the concept of building a bridge between contemporary experiences and the events at Falstad.

Figure 1: This sketch up is a broken bottle top from an image in the Falstad archives grafted onto a bottle in my kitchen. I was interested in not only contemplating the objects themselves but also bringing them together to unite their histories. I have touched on this before with the enactments, but feel that the more material I explore the more human the events at Falstad become, maybe a form of emancipation from the timeline, but rendered in a domestic setting.

Figures 2-3: These are further experiments that unite the two experiences that I am trying to bring together, referring back to the project title ‘Contemporary Witness’. I have purposefully left kitchen items, food etc, on the bench as I want to stress the circumstances these connections are been made in, and that the witnessing is an event in itself.

Figure 5: In this experiment, I have brought the aesthetic of the archaeological record of the objects (Figure 4, above) into the work as well as the asymmetric reflection. Here I am working around ideas to capture origin and destinations of memories, with maybe something slipping into the reading of the work as to how memories may be blurred or combined when our mind reuses them (Sun et al. 2017).

This experiment as with the above images uses photoshop to cut and paste places items, in this case into my kitchen draw. Much like the enquiry in the previous works the personal is mixing with wider contextual issues regarding how and where we are creating memories; and how these moments in traumatic pasts might to experiences and processed via the digital in our own homes.

Blog Post 3: 28th August 2020

These works respond to ideas about repeating and reliving memories as a reflection on Nilssen and Reitan’s statement:

“Transitional ritual, where the past moves from being the past that is a constant part of the lives and experiences of the living, circulating and being passed on through direct contact, to a new situation, where the past is managed, preserved and developed through books, memorial practices, museums, monuments, art projects and archives” (Nilssen & Reitan 2020:89)

The idea of creating new situations for the past seems both relevant and developmental to this ‘virtual’ residency. So my thought has moved towards what is happening as we remember, in this case so of the events at Falstad. Last week I started to explore works that relived events I read about as a means to ‘get closer’ to them. This week the term ‘Transitional ritual’ seems to frame these actions in some way; maybe a moment in time when living memories and the COVID crisis form an ‘obtuse nexus’ where we begin to witness not just the events but their transformation in personal, national and international consciousness.

Figure 1: This reworking of the Stomatol Toothpaste image uses more editing and compositional effects to blend the written memory with the re-enacted images. The multiple layers are an attempt to represent re-reading and the multiplicity of memory, but could also act as a metaphor for the fading of memory and the fact that it might only exist as a reading at some point in the future. Maybe the re-reading by way of repetition of this passage over and over again shows the fragile nature of our connections with the past and how we reach out to our collective histories.

Figure 2: This is another variation of the Stomatol image, as well as being compositionally different in this work I wanted to explore repeating the image, maybe it’s an attempt to get somewhere that keeps repeating, much like the re-reading. There is something about this that makes me consider how many times these events have been recited, from the statement taken after the events by those immediately in contact with the prisoners right up to myself. Each and everyone one would have a context and enquiry that was quite different, and I wonder how we can make these memories part of the future and how we deal with ‘now’ as they move into the past.

Figure 3: This work again carries over the idea of filters and blurring the boundaries of facts, remembering and in my case re-imagining. The concept of removing information so the viewer needs to engage and infill with their own personal agenda appeals to me as it also reflects the situation I ‘am in and trying to convey, that of a voyeur or interloper in the linearity of cultural memory.

Figure 4: This final work carriers over the concerns mentioned above, but the more graphic style layout for me seems to reference books and journals, that in this case have somehow morphed into a shifting memory or archival statement. Maybe it could be read as the actions being performed have metaphorically been absorbed into the actual event memory, forming a historical trajectory to the present; September 2020 in a backroom of a terrace house in Stockport near Manchester in the United Kingdom.

Blog Post 2: 21st August 2020

This week I have been responding to some of the feedback to the last works, namely the quote of where the toothpaste excavated from the site might have come from along with another work that followed this.

The quote from Ingeborg Angell Hoff:

“… the clothes were full of lice and fleas. But Fien, you know, she never had lice, and Lillemor neither, but I, I got them. And then it was my birthday. The engineer Harbo had managed to smuggle in a tube of Stomatol which he gave me as a birthday present. And that Stomatol, I used on my flea bites, you know, because… look here, I still have marks from flea bites! And I sat there smearing it on, and it smelled wonderful, you know. The eyes began to water, the skin felt cold and lovely. And then Lillemor said: I am so fond of you, you know, but if you receive another tube, I am going to move over to Fien. Their eyes were watering too, you know, and the smell was intense.” Read the original Norwegian wording here.

One of the first things to get my attention was the description of being in love in such an environment but also the action of rubbing the toothpaste into an insect bite, it being both pragmatic and practical. This led me to consider performative ‘acts’ that could be documented and enabled a sense of reliving some of the events at Falstad. There seems to be a direction forming in my conceptual development that involves the physical and re-enactment, I speculate this is a response to the ‘distant’ nature of this residency as well as a will to somehow experience what life in the camp may have been like without having a response to the physical site. Although I will in no way experience this in a way those in the camp did these ‘ersatz’ may lead to more contemporary realisations and connections with the events that happened at Falstad.

These works (Figure 1 & 2) use documentary photography of myself applying toothpaste to insect bites, whilst the text was added later to try and create a sort of context. In figure 1 I was simply trying to combine the two elements, whilst in figure 2 I wanted to overlay and make a composite of some sort. This composite is an attempt to bring two actions together, one historical and the other an attempt to connect with it. As well as this being aware of what I was re-creating certainly brought the event into perspective, how would have this felt like as an act of desperation to get a little more comfortable, with something someone risked to bring in because of their compassion for others. This contrasted dramatically with my situation of being able to go to the medical cabinet and get actual remedies for insect bites, this way of connecting with past events led to the next work.

Figure 3: In this last action I was acting upon Julius Paltiel’s statement about picking up leaves in the courtyard, Jews were forced under threat of violence to move on all fours and collect the leaves in their mouths and collect them in a pile. ( 137. “In spite of everything. Julius Paltiel – Norwegian Jew in Auschwitz”. Oslo: Aschehoug, 1995.)

In this recreation I wanted to ensure the scene was domestic with UPVC door frame and other elements in it, it is not an attempt to belittle and exemplify the historic event, but a record of an experience that could instil the denigration involved on a personal level. To make it I used time-lapse with a camera on a tripod in my back garden, much like the Stomatol toothpaste works the act of doing made me consider some sort of connection beyond recreation. I then moved some leaves from one part of the garden to another, recording the depositing ad hoc as the camera took an image every 5 seconds. For the blog I have chosen 4 images that perform as a sequential narrative of the actions. The fact I had a choice to do this and that it had a clear start and end made me consider the victims’ relationship with the camp and how time may have felt, this is not something I consider the work to successfully capture so I will be remaking it. And it is interesting to note the personal feeling of dread I feel in doing that, and maybe wondering how many times this event has ‘re-existed’ in people minds as they engage with the Falstad camp.

Blog Post 1: 14th August 2020.

Over the next three months, I will be working on this research project to develop new works and line of enquiry based on the Falstad Camp and its online archives as well as other materials and conversation with the staff. I will be based in the UK using the vernacular resources around me to explore our relationship with history in a digital age.

As with all projects it needs to start somewhere, with this one starting in the unlikely location of my bathroom. Having been looking over several images of archaeological finds at Falstad I came across 3 tubes of toothpaste, I imagine these belonged to the perpetrators, at the time it only briefly caught my attention. Numerous objects have been found during the archaeological investigations so, at least at first establishing any hierarchy would be futile. However, a subsequent trip to the bathroom and seeing my own tube of toothpaste instigated many questions, how could you clean your teeth in such a place, surrounded by such events. To me at least there was something altogether human that linked me to Falstad, the tubes of paste and their history. It’s a human story and maybe we always think we would act in the role of the hero rather than tackle the intense personal and ethical dilemmas that individuals faced during this traumatic time. It is also worth noting that during reviewing this article it was brought to my attention that a prisoner recalled toothpaste being smuggled into Falstad, and using it on Flea bites, challenging my initial assumption and also further confounding that objects can have many different stories and narratives.

The first works you see here are the beginning of a series that will further explore how the events at Falstad based in this case on the excavated material, maybe enacted and experienced through the conduit of digital culture. I will be continuing this line of enquiry using other materials and narratives derived from my vernacular environment in and around my own home or places I can access within the Covid-19 guidelines; the restrictions been both a set of limiting parameters and an opportunity to explore new creative avenues.

Figure 1: This image was the first attempt to bring the two above mentioned situations into the same ‘arena’.

Figures 2-3: In these experimental works, I was trying to bring the two elements together using simple photoshop painting tools. I like the casual nature of using this method, but the spray style effect also reminded me of how the ground can be marked out ready for digging. Maybe there is a deeper metaphor developing regarding selecting and finding that can be explored further in future works.

Figure 4: Here I tried a blanket overlay, I was thinking back to a previous work for the ‘Finding Treblinka’ exhibition which used a frosted glass cube to obscure an object on top of a plinth. The obscuring acting as both a metaphor for the effects of time and how the information we have to construct our contemporary version of history is always clouded and often conflicted. The yellow colour was chosen intuitively and partly based on the aged newspapers and documents I had seen in the digital archives at Falstad.

Figure 5: In this last experiment, I was exploring some documents with imagery archaeological trenches, the idea of somehow revealing parts of the image and hiding others resonated with the notions of finding material culture. Finding fragments like the tubes of paste only gives us part of the story, we have to construct ideas and narratives around it. This seems particularly pertinent concerning revisionist tendencies on social media, given the paste was likely left by perpetrators and is evidence of life at the camp.