I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing
Gilles Peress’s first photographic project, in 1971, was of French coal miners in Decazeville. Beginning about the same time, he started to document the Troubles in Northern Ireland, a project he has continued to work on for 25 years. His images of Turkish immigrant workers in West Germany in 1973 documented the calculated decision by Western European governments to organize, and import cheap, Third World labor, a strategy that changed the face of Europe. Peress has sometimes worked as a journalist to help finance those projects that constitute his personal search—a search to understand his own history—French citizen who watched countless movies, studied philosophy, and was educated in the principals of Rousseau and Godard—and how his experience collides with the larger landscape of history and society. His book Telex: Iran (Aperture, 1984) defined a new standard of photographic bookmaking and made clear how the personal life of an artist influences his or her perceptions about everyday social reality. Over the last five years, Peress has concentrated on a series of linked projects—books that include Farewell To Bosnia (Scalo, 1994), Le Silence (Scalo, 1995) and exhibitions at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC, The Art Institute of Chicago, The Museum of Modern Art in New York, and Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, in which he orchestrated his images of civil war in Northern Ireland, hatred in Bosnia, and genocide in Rwanda into photographic installations. In these intense presentations, which are inspired by Peress’s passion for photography as a language and his belief that the medium is freer of the codes embedded in spoken or written language, he installs his photographs in sequences that aim to move viewers to take a stand on the pressing question of our time: Is man good or evil? A subject that most of us would rather have answered for us, or duck entirely. Determined in his search, Peress has defined a vision that uses photographs to change how we connect with the world and acknowledge our social responsibility toward it, and how the medium’s real power can challenge traditional photographs, books, and exhibitions.
Carole Kismaric It was almost thirty years ago that we met each other. Do you remember?
Gilles Peress 1975, yes. I should remember, but I remember very few things from my past.
CK Do you mean recent past, or past past?
GP The past past. If I don’t have a picture, I don’t remember anything.
CK Well, it’s good you’re a photographer; if you make images, you don’t have to remember.
GP Why I shoot pictures doesn’t have to do with memory; it has to do with time.
CK Time in what sense, time passing?
GP Time passing, yes. I remember watching a film with my father when I was 18 years old; it was an old film, and I thought the actress was really beautiful. I said to my father, “Wow, she looks great.” He said, “Well, you should see her now, she’s an old bag.” It started a real anxiety about time for me, about the fact that time passes, and it started a need in me to make objects, to make things that stay.
CK It’s so weird that you would jump right to the heart of photography and its relationship to death, how it “stops” things from dying. Did anything engage you instead of photography? Did you recognize the instinct to want to make something? Did you try to write, for instance?
GP No, even when I was a kid I took pictures, made films. It had to do with my mother who was shooting pictures of me and making 8mm films, and I started to do it myself.
CK So track your need to make images—from watching the film with your dad, to high school and college. You weren’t making pictures then, were you?
GP In high school I was busy making chaos. I was a bad kid. Rebellious. I still remember a confrontation with my father about my deliberate choice of being for pleasure, against work and duty. My father’s idea of work was to do things he didn’t want to do. I’ve always done things I want to do. My parents had just come out of the war. When I was a kid, my father had two jobs. We lived in a one-bedroom apartment, and his nostalgia was about regaining the luxury he had lost. His father had had money, and he thought he would never have to work; he wanted to be an archeologist. So, for him work became centered around duty and pain.
CK It sounds as if your father worked to survive, that he had no choice.
GP Maybe, but what I questioned was the role work played in society and a person’s relationship to work. It may have been a decadent thought, but I believed then, and I believe now, that one must do what one wants to do, not what one feels he has to do.
CK So, that was the rebellion …
GP Yes, that was the rebellion. You have to imagine the emotional landscape of France in the fifties. It’s after the war; it’s like an austere, neo-realist movie in black and white that suddenly switched to color in the mid-sixties. One of the “bad” things I did was I let my hair grow long; I dyed it red. I wore striped pink and pale blue angora sweaters. Of course, my father decided this was all uncool, so he cut out any allowance. My friends were in similar situations. We had to steal; we had to do anything to go on with our lives. It was a fairly chaotic time. I was also obsessed with movies. I played hooky and started watching movies at two o’clock in the afternoon.
CK What movies are we talking about? French New Wave movies?
GP The Westerns, B movies, Italian neo-realist movies, Fellini, Antonioni, Godard, on and on.
CK It was a rich time; films became more than a mere escape or entertainment. They were a new visual language, no?
GP In France, it was much more about a dialectic between words and images. Especially since a lot of French culture and art in the ’50s was about the tension between words and pictures.
CK Meaning language …
GP An addiction to words, a drunkenness from words, sometimes an obviousness to the discrepancy between words and reality. This is why most French people read books and talk about ideas all day long, and on the other hand watch films that describe experience in non-categorical ways. It’s a bipolarity.
CK What do you mean by film as non-categorical?
GP The function of the French language is to create categories and categories of knowledge, and in some ways the conversation between you and somebody else is not a free-flowing exchange. Instead, you put ideas into neat, little categories, little cubicles—a kind of double-entry Louise Nevelson sculpture—that sits between you and another person. And, because for the French there is an intellectual competition, the person you’re speaking to, instead of directly responding to what you’ve just said, moves the ideas around, adding new ideas. Film describes a continuity of experience, not separate categories or concepts.
CK Is experience more “real” in film than in other forms of representation?
GP In a film, there’s always a specific description of reality, in the form of buildings, apartments, details, a frame of reference of what the “real” world is. And, private, sometimes destructive experiences, drift through that specific reality. In the sixties, Godard had a big impact on how people thought about reality. He addressed the issues of my generation better than anyone.
CK Godard understood the blurred line between truth—call it “reality”—and fiction—call it private experience—better than most image makers. Was this the major idea that inspired your generation?
GP Yes, but it had more to do with being young in the sixties and the absurdity of the French bourgeoisie, the status-quo. Godard shaped ideas into narrative forms that were disruptive and destructive. He validated, in real time, our experience in confronting the old world.
CK You also had access to magazines and photographs, didn’t you?
GP My father got Paris Match and Life. I looked at them. But to be honest with you, I don’t remember magazine stories or pictures being that suggestive to me. The only one I really remember, because I connect it to other things, was Dien Bien Phu. And, at the time, I was also listening to radio. There was an accumulation of material reaching me so I could reconstruct the drama of what was going on in Vietnam. You see, part of the problem back then was that you never had enough information, there was enormous censorship. The Algerian War was really a mind trip; phrases whispered in dark corners. You didn’t know anything tangible. Somebody could tell you, “A few weeks ago, there was blood running in the gutters in a Paris neighborhood.” You never saw it; it was never shown to us.
CK But there wasn’t an easy apparatus in place for the stream of information that we’re experiencing now. You didn’t have television playing 24 hours a day; you didn’t have the media needing stories, let alone competing for ratings.
GP For me censorship was and is—with all that has happened to me—still the biggest issue.
CK It occurs to me that it is censorship that drives you to know the subjects you photograph. Take anything you’ve photographed. You are insistent on collecting all the information possible; it’s an insatiable need to know and tell all.
GP Because I don’t trust the media; the whole political education of my generation was to not trust the media. By the time I started in photography in 1971, I had no illusions about what the media could or would do. I always felt the need to go and see for myself, then to reconstruct for myself what the experience was.
CK How did your studies affect your photography?
GP Initially, I went to the same school as my father, the Political Science Institute, and then I studied philosophy. It was a time when the Structuralist movement was defining itself. I found myself studying with amazing people. With Balibar, who co-authored Reading Le Capital with Althusser. With Foucault, who was developing his theory of sexuality. At the same time, I was becoming politically involved in real-life situations, and it is that education I cherish. Out of all this, I began to understand how you structure thought processes, how you structure work.
CK But what you’re describing is a reality constructed with words, not images.
GP Yes, the problem in that period was that language started to disconnect from reality. In the failure of the pro-’68 period, I felt an unbearable gap between language and reality. For me, by about 1971, the choice was simple: either you committed suicide; or you went into drugs or religion; or you went towards advertising. That gap between words and reality was so great that you had to deal with it in one way or another.
CK I don’t really understand what the gap was.
GP Language, especially political language reached a momentum of its own. It was like a self-starting engine that couldn’t be turned off. It started, at the time, to look to me more and more like an intellectual disease. Through language you actually could reinvent a reality so convenient that you didn’t have to check in with the world’s reality. I would ask intellectuals to get involved, but they went right on writing and saying the things that were convenient to their self-perpetuating systems. So, for me, photography was a survival way out. It allowed me to deal with reality without using words, and without using all of the emerging codes.
CK That’s insane …
GP Well, when you think about it, from 1966–71 our cultural values changed. In the context of the Vietnam War, and in opposition to the Algerian War, the lack of censorship and the availability of images, there was a brushfire of politicizing that turned a whole generation to the left. Intellectuals couldn’t stay insular; they had to join in—not only as individuals, but by making contributions in their fields of knowledge. It was a time of cross fertilization—between psychoanalysis, Marxism, sociology, ethnology, philosophy, epistemology, linguistics. It was productive at the beginning; but because it upped the ante, intellectuals had to compete. By 1971, language entered into a momentum that reached the point of madness. It closed in on itself. In the end, it was about a reconstruction of the world, an idea of the world. For me, photography was the one thing that allowed me to stay sane. It was a minimalist tool that allowed me to go out into the world and formalize what I saw and experience it without using words. Because I was involved in real situations, involving real problems and real people, and because of the anxiety I had about time, the visual education that came from cinema, and the fact that I was comfortable making pictures, photography was something I could rely on in the middle of intellectual chaos.
CK It’s interesting that your personal history conspired to prepare you for the moment when photography as a medium was in an ascendancy, when it became the interesting tool of its era.
GP From what I saw around me, there was nothing that showed the ascendancy you may have experienced in the US. In France, there were no photography schools, books, few exhibitions. I didn’t even know who Cartier-Bresson was. I didn’t relate to photography as an interesting tool.
CK When I got involved in photography in the 1970s, there were no books or schools either. You learned about the medium by looking at photographs. It’s lucky that we got to help define and shape the medium, to think about it as an original experience. Then it took a nose dive, and the ante was upped with an endless stream of information and ways to create that information, not just respond to it.
GP But, you have to consider that photography has been in a nose dive since the beginning of the century, from the moment the Lumière brothers invented cinema as a descriptive mode. Personally, I have always had doubts about photography as “photography.” Part of my problem with how photography was considered in the US and later on in France was that photography ended up in a ghetto that it’s never really escaped. The one book that was extremely important in defining what photography was about for me was La Photographie Un Art Moyen by Bourdieu.
CK What was so important about the book?
GP It laid down one of the main intellectual theories that so many people have used since. Photography is described as an art in the middle, halfway between craft and Art. It’s about photography as a means for people who come from the lower classes to have access to an artistic form without receiving formal training. And, it’s also a means for people who come from the upper class and are maybe too lazy to get formal training to maintain a position in society. If you ghettoize photography as “photography,” you limit its conception as a means. I’ve always seen photography in a continuum—content on one side, art on another, and politics on the other. What’s interesting about photography is when it locates itself at the convergence of various forms of expression and reality. I was never interested in what was happening within the defined territory of the medium, but instead, in the no-man’s land between photography and other genres—literature, cinema, painting. To be honest, I think the problem again is the creation of categories, since once you accept and you function within categories, anything that comes out is predictable because the code and the language have a momentum of their own and a tendency to repeat what has been said before.
CK That’s why you’re such an anomaly in photography. It’s rare that people have the courage to create images that have depth, or to juxtapose them in ways that create original meanings.
GP I want to add that although I take painstaking care to understand and to make good pictures, good frames, that’s not ultimately what’s important to me. I never was interested in making good pictures. That’s a normative process that sooner or later sends you back to classicism and academic perfection. It’s one of the least interesting concepts when it comes to what I call “the search.” And, the search really has to do with connecting to reality and the process of living. For me, photography’s not about finished images or even a finished book or installation. It’s the process by which I understand and I formalize relationships with the world. For me, it’s a very humble process. One of the most humbling realities in the process is the multiplicity of authorship. I am an author; the camera is an author; the viewer looking at the picture is an author; reality is an author, and reality has a way of speaking the loudest. When I started to look at photographs, I was extremely disturbed by the univocalness of the transcription of reality which essentially seemed to be reduced to one punctum, in the center of the image. The job of the photographer was to eliminate any contradicting elements that could disrupt that one meaning. When I looked at reality, I saw contradictions, confrontations between different meanings, different processes, different individual histories, all occurring at the same time.
CK So, what did that lead you to do formally to describe your subject’s contradictions?
GP At a practical level, I’ve always tried to break the frame in little, physical ways, to reflect those contradictions. And, to go back to the notion of multiplicity of authorship, very early on I gave up the notion that a photograph represents me speaking to you. It is not for me a closed text in which I deliver you a message that can be inserted into a neat category. A photograph is an open text in which half of the message, or half of the text, is in you and how you read it.
CK A dialogue.
GP It is a text that is an interestingly structured conversation with other characters interjecting themselves into the text. It’s not only me offering you a text and you reading it; it’s also realityoffering you a text and you reading it; it’s the camera and the process doing the same. All this inscribes itself in the tension between memory and history.
CK It’s memory, experience, everything outside the frame, too. You’re saying that a photograph is never an answer, a resolved statement. In fact, it opens up more than it closes down.
GP It’s always an ongoing process of questioning reality and questioning each of the authors towards an understanding of what is really out there and what is really inside you. That is the necessary territory. When you as a viewer look at one picture rather than another, it’s the same. You look because you recognize an interaction between your inner world and the outer world. This is an imaginary territory that’s being mapped.
CK Personally, how do you define your subject matter? Originally, you photographed what couldn’t be pictured about culture, as it relates to the past, the present, and its effect on the world. But, there’s been a shift; your subject is more specific, an experience of evil, horror.
GP As long as I’ve photographed, my subject has always had to do with a struggle of individuals in a historical context. And, about how individual memories interact with history, how individual perceptions interact with the larger landscape of history. And, if I’m being candid with myself, I bring to all this my own historical baggage.
CK And, what’s the consequence?
GP Well, I was born just after World War II. My family was a mixed bag of the Middle Eastern, partly Jewish. My parents had to hide during the war. Like any kid, I saw war images. Discrimination, oppression became part of my baggage. Death, violence. One of the books that was my bible when I was a teenager was Georges Bataille’s Eroticism. Before I encountered the Structuralists and the Marxists, I thought Bataille structured human affairs in a very interesting way. According to him, all human actions stem from the angst provoked by the consciousness that we are separated from each other and from the world around us. All our actions try to bridge that gap, to understand that original unity. And, we take a variety of courses. Religion is one.
CK Psychoanalysis …
GP And, art is another. In that context, eroticism also attempts to bridge the gap. Death also carries a connotation of unity. And, then, as you start to combine them—art and religion; art, religion and death; art, religion, eroticism, and death—and if you add to that the theme of photography and death, you get a powerful aesthetic. If you try to reconstruct history as a continuity, then try to bridge the gap between memories, personal memory, and selective history, you have other layers. All of these elements operate in the process I go through.
CK So, where are you in the process now? If you started out being a rebel …
GP What’s interesting is that the world doesn’t stand still as I’m going through my process, or maybe it does and that’s the issue. I believe that when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, we may have shifted from one world to another. If I have to define pre-’89—from the beginning of the 19th century until 1989—there is an agreed perception of the historical process which had to do with dialectics as defined by Hegel and Marx. You have the pure being, the pure non-being, and history—one class in a struggle with another, and the consequence is history. There is also the notion of process and progress in one form or another, at least a sense that we were progressing as human beings. Underlying this were Rousseau’s ideas about the nature of man—that he is essentially good, and if something wrong happens you just have to fix it, and you can fix it.
CK And, “progress” is less important?
GP No, progress is part of it. Progress is revealing the innate goodness of man.
CK But I thought you were saying that Rousseau’s concept of man is our sense of what he is inherently worth. All that has to happen is for that worth to be revealed, as opposed to man making himself “progress.”
GP Yes, but the process of man revealing that goodness, and coming back to paradise, is a dialectical process. Underlying all of these ideas is the vision that at the end you’re going to get to some sort of unity, some paradise, and that history and that struggle is progress. With the end of the Cold War comes the end of a major dialectical relationship in our world. East versus West, which means that when it comes to our world there were two perceptions, and two theories confronting each other. Individuals on the one hand, and history evolving from this progression. But the issue is whether since ’89 we’ve shifted from one dialectical form to another, from a Marxist world to a Nietzchian world, a world where it’s each man for himself, a world based on a bipolar dialectic—similitude and difference, with no mediating terms.
CK Meaning reality gets defined as a polarity?
GP Right, a reality with no third term—such as progress or history, with all the subsequent equations you can make—chaos and order, good and evil, similitude and difference. In this current polarity, there is no system that represents progress, process, or history.
CK So, in essence, this shift signifies the destruction of everything that has come before.
GP Not really. It’s merely a different interpretation, a different perception of reality, a Nietzchian world, where you are confronted with very simple choices. Are you for good or for evil? You are either on one side or on the other side. It’s chaos or order; are you for looking for the similitude in all human beings, or are you for seeing the differences? Are you for tolerance or for intolerance? It’s really the question of our time. Today, the world is different than when I started my personal process. Still, there is a continuity in the work I’ve done before this cut; my work may have changed in nature, but it’s because the world has changed in its nature. It has caused in me an urgency to look at reality. As it is. And more. To peel off layers from my eyes, to see.
CK The universe that you live in is the universe of these ideas. But you’ve always struck me as being “objective.” You don’t walk around with an agenda. In fact, you are compulsive about discovering the “reality” of your subject with an intensity that most people don’t dare.
GP I don’t know, maybe I never had a strong sense of self, of me as an actor in the movie. I feel a situation, but I don’t necessarily inscribe myself into the center of it. Maybe this is why you perceive me as working from no agenda. But to be realistic, I am subjective; everybody is subjective. Objectivity means to be honest about one’s subjectivity and to continually question one’s perceptions so you look at reality from as many different angles as possible. This is how one comes closer to some kind of objectivity.
CK When I say objective, I don’t mean intellectually objective. I mean objective about the activity, the work itself. It’s not about passion or expression; it’s more like a need, like eating, sleeping. A need to know. Something fundamental, not intellectual.
GP It’s still, for me, a very simple choice. Do I stay on this side of the wall of the mental asylum, or do I go over to the other side? If I didn’t do what I do, I would go to the other side. Remember the choices presented to me and my generation, because what I’m doing is inscribed in the historical context of my generation.
CK So, work and making photographs is your way of surviving.
GP It’s totally about survival. No doubt about it. No question. But I don’t think about those issues at all. I’m just doing what I have to do, putting objects together. There’s not much to think or talk about. There’s much to do.
CK But what about your own relationship to the process of making photographs and books and shows. A lot has happened to you in the last five years.
GP It’s been a process of understanding. That’s the only value it has to me. I’ve learned some things about the limitations of my education. Contrary to the Rousseauean ideas instilled in me, that man was essentially good, after Rwanda and Bosnia I have been left with a strong sense that we’re in a fifty-fifty situation, that man is fifty percent good and 50 percent evil. And, that if God exists, there is no real division between God and Satan, that maybe God is also 50/50. So, you’re left with a choice: You’re either for or against. That’s where I’m at. Now, how do you make that choice? Action is how you get out of this impasse.
CK And, so the projects, your books and shows, are your way of acting. They’re what you’ve managed to formalize out of your experience, what you’re putting out there for the viewer to find him or herself in relation to.
GP Everyone has to make his own choice. At this point, my projects are definitely not about cherishing images. They are open texts, and they offer choices of meaning. They’re about the choice that underlies all perception.
CK The last five years have been anything but easy doing for you. Everyone talks about the publishing world, the art world, the commercial world—and the ability to use the system. You’ve been more of an antagonist to the system. Magazines, for instance, think you’re trouble because you can come back from an assignment with hundreds of pictures that suggest complex, not simple, ideas. You insist on investigating a subject in a way that goes beyond the media’s needs or its interests. Why?
GP They don’t understand the logic I have to follow. It’s the process that determines the parameters of what I do. I am not trouble; reality and its complexity, its intensity is the problem.
CK Let’s talk about what I perceive as a transition for you over the past five years. Slowly you have been finding a way—through sheer persistence and very little support—to make these objects, these ideas, so they reach a larger audience. Whether it’s an installation at The Museum of Modern Art or your latest book from Scalo, there seems to be a shift in how an audience is responding to your work. People are starting to listen. The books are being reprinted. I remember five years ago when you were worn down to a frazzle, when nothing appeared to be yielding.
GP I’m still worn down to a frazzle, I’m half dead. I can hardly hear you. I don’t have such a sense of myself, my identity, how others perceive me. I just do what I have to do.
CK I believe you 50 percent. I believe that you do what you have to do, but I don’t believe that the perception of what you’re doing doesn’t matter to you. Unless the fact that people are beginning to connect with your ideas doesn’t provide relief.
GP You define relief as something that comes from the outside, not the inside.
CK No, I’m speaking of the feeling inside, a response to the outside. The personal intersecting with the social, if you will.
GP There’s no relief because the issues are so large, and I’m so weak. It’s always a battle to move things forward in the absence of a support system.
CK I wonder, though, if pain is an essential part of creating the work?
GP Pain is not something I have an investment in. Pain has to do with having very little money. It makes production difficult. It means you have to overextend yourself, to compensate. I don’t count on anything coming from the outside. If I ever did, I would give up. Go to the other side of the wall. The great thing, and the terrible thing, about photography is that it’s an accumulation of infinite details, and I pay extreme attention to every one of those details, from the technical properties of the film I use to my developer. I control every detail because every detail bears on the overall meaning. Image-making is incredibly important, but it doesn’t stop there. I’ll even go to the printing press. It’s great because printing is a craft and it sends you back to the physicality of things. I’m much more comfortable as a craftsman than as an intellectual.
CK It never occurred to me that making the image is more important than any other part of the process, including looking at the picture. But is one act more pleasurable than another?
GP Photography is pleasure because it’s really about transparency. It’s the moment when the camera puts you on the other side of the viewfinder, because you are what you shoot. It’s a meditation. Shooting pictures is pleasure, and since the process it is about asking questions, it gives you incredible insight into what’s out there and what’s inside you. There is a back and forth between each side of the viewfinder. Laying out those pictures and making an object with them …
CK Is that where the intellectual part comes?
GP No, I never think, never, ever. Laying out a book is just as instinctual as shooting a picture.
CK I can understand that because while I don’t make images, I look at pictures in archives, trying to find the ones that should have life in another context. I’ve always thought that spotting one picture amidst hundreds of others is like shooting a picture—it’s about selection. Then you get to put one picture next to others to create an original sense of reality. Speaking of reality, what’s up for you now? What does the landscape look like? Don’t you have any new books coming out?
GP On the table is a second book about Bosnia.
CK How is it different from the first one?
GP Farewell To Bosnia was pretty much embedded in the chaos and fragments of war experience. This book is about more melancholic issues. Peace at a distance seems wonderful and easy, but reality’s a messy business. It’s that moment where you have the time to contemplate what happened. What was the blood spilled for? It’s about what you couldn’t do, couldn’t see because you were running on adrenaline, surviving. It’s very much like being hung-over the day after a party. You trashed the house and you have to look at the consequences. Out of that different perception comes a very different understanding of what happened. Peace is a current, complicated issue. In Northern Ireland, the Middle East, Bosnia, wherever. How do you make peace? It’s not a given that it’s going to work. And there’s the Ireland book; I hope it’s going to be final this year. There’s a reissuing of Telex: Iran, and a couple of small books. I’m trying to have as few commitments as possible.
CK You mean jobs?
GP Jobs, invitations, whatever. I’ve always wanted the process of bringing ideas to the public to come from the logic of the work, not from a commitment I have to meet. It’s very hard to achieve a fluid flow of ideas with publishers and museums pressing you to deliver.
CK Well, it’s about serving the institution, not the ideas …
GP I have to add that I have a different perception of museums and institutions than the one I think is operational. I don’t believe that museums are there to survey the medium. I see museums as places of exchange and dialogue on vibrant, emotional, relevant themes.
CK So, are you engaged in a battle for the soul of museums?
GP I don’t have a sense that it’s a battle.
CK Well, it may not be a very articulated battle, but museums are definitely changing. I do feel that for the first time there is a way of working with existing institutions, using them as a setting for an exchange of important ideas, largely because of the void in our culture now, the absence of authentic meaning.
GP Yes, but the important issues are about production and the flow of information.
CK What do you mean?
GP Well, take cinema or TV You have the distribution vehicle, the TV channel or the chain of theaters. To be able to bring the film or the program to the screen, you have to produce content, and in TV and the movies there are ways of financing the development of ideas as well as ways of distributing those ideas to a public. No such possibility exists in what we do. The only financing structure I have is my wits. Museums make it clear that they are distribution channels and are not willing to take on the role of producing content. Everything has to be delivered as a finished product. So, there’s a need for the creation of a production center that supports the process sooner and more efficiently, before the product is ready for distribution.
CK Like Hollywood?
CK This is an idea you’ve talked about as long as I’ve known you. But aren’t we talking about an idea that threatens museum culture? Forget about whether we need it or not, that’s not the issue. Maybe this is just another kind of censorship?
GP No. There’s a problem with museums’ organization, not with individual curators. Museums came into being at a time when there was a strict division between art forms. They function from within known categories of culture and from the ghetto of photography. This infers a limited perception of the medium and how it relates to other mediums and to reality. I believe there is a need for the creation of a new kind of museum, one where there are no categories or divisions of mediums. When Andy Warhol uses photographs, where do you start? Or Chuck Close? Photography exists in a continuum, and museums should be willing to respond to ideas, not just tools or classifications.
CK Are you asking for a shift from the objects themselves to the ideas?
GP Yes. It’s something that is happening in Europe already where museums are social institutions which serve the society at large. In such a social contract, private interests matter less. In this country, museums represent the convergence of private interests of wealthy collectors who are looking for legitimacy for what they have collected, and they band together to create a receptacle for their investments. Here’s where the really big shift could be. The impetus for creating a space or institution that deals with society will come not from the people who are into objects and collecting, but from people who are committed to moral issues. The problem is that most of those people are already stretched thin—take the human rights movement. It’s really not a priority for these people to create an institution which might allow a citizen to have a private, self-based experience with the moral and social ideas of our time. That’s the gap that if closed could really change things, because right now, everything is on the outside.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
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