The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
Hidden poetry and repetition.
I first encountered the Berlin-based artist Natalie Czech’s work in 2012 at Ludlow 38 in New York. Her solo exhibition, I have nothing to say. Only to show. urged me to set aside any notion of passive viewership, and while the show’s title seemed to suggest that her photographs were merely to be looked at, they did in fact say something. The images felt like words to be looked at, but also carefully read, in pieces and over time, returned to like one returns to a poem, picks it up, and reads it over again. Opening up the connections between photography and writing in such a way as to eventually obscure their distinction, Czech’s work plays the visual qualities of text off the textual elements in the photographs, activating and crystallizing a mode of perception that both undoes and reconstitutes reading and seeing.
In pieces like A Small Bouquet for Frank O’Hara, for instance, Czech asked several writers to produce a text in response to O’Hara’s calligram “A Small Bouquet,” in which words and lines come together to produce an image corresponding to the poem’s title. These new texts are composed around the original poem, which is highlighted and circled so that its embedded reproduction is detectable amidst the new sentences that make use of O’Hara’s words. In her ongoing series, “Hidden Poems,” and the more recent, “Poems by Repetition,” Czech mines texts from a variety of sources, purposefully seeking or subconsciously finding in them words and fragments, which through a process of selection, repetition, and erasure, coalesce into poems by Gertrude Stein, Robert Creeley, Aram Saroyan, Bruce Andrews, or Tan Lin, to name only a few of the artist’s sources. Sometimes Czech finds poems that reappear in other texts, replicated down to the line break, which feels miraculous. Photography comes after—it seals, within the image, a proposition for one possible reading among many, of one text through another. She’s talked about the poem transpiring through, stuttering itself into existence, into enunciation. But as a whole, Czech’s project is to open up this realm of possibility endlessly, radically suggesting anew the potential coexistence of any and all texts within and amongst each other. This interview took place between May and June 2014 through e-mail correspondence, shortly after the opening of her project Il Pleut at the Palais de Tokyo, in Paris.
Rachel Valinsky You’ve reactivated a project you started in 2012 for the Palais de Tokyo exhibition: tell me about Il pleut by Guillaume Apollinaire, which engages with Apollinaire’s eponymous calligram, and how the project originally evolved.
Natalie Czech Il pleut by Guillaume Apollinaire is a photographic work that reflects on the potential of writing and the possibility of changing one’s perception of an existing thing, of the seen and the read, and how each process generates new images in a constant activity of appearing and disappearing. I initially invited five writers who speak different languages (Vanessa Desclaux, Mara Genschel, April Lamm, Ashkan Sepahvand, and Oliver Tepel) to embed and recontextualize Apollinaires’s calligram in a text of their own, placing the component words of his poem in their texts in exactly the same spatial relationship as it is in the original.
For this really tricky task, each author received a specially prepared computer document, enabling her or him to check when and where to match the specific letter of the poem. When the text is written, the calligram loses its visual presence, even though it is still suspended and embedded in the new text. In a next step the texts were printed on the page of a booklet and photographed in front of different color gradient backgrounds. The color was selected by me or the author in relation to the content.
Apollinaire’s text is read like drops in five rays from the top to the bottom, thus allowing for the supplementary transcription using texts in different languages. In order to make the embedded calligram reappear, I highlighted it directly with acrylic paint on the enlarged photograph. That way, there is more room for the question of what actually comprises the picture: the photo, the text, the calligram both as text or as image, the highlighting, or the entire arrangement. To perceive the different aspects of the work you always have to blank out a part of it, and decide whether you want to read the texts, look at the image formed by the words of the calligram, or view the entire arrangement. The process of deciphering the respective texts (and perceiving them either as text or image) depends directly on the language level of the reader and viewer. For example, in Amilcar Packer’s contribution at the Palais de Tokyo, if the viewer does not speak Portuguese or French, he or she will perceive only the image of the rain falling, or a text in a text, or the image of a page. Some of the contributors even wrote their texts in a way that, if the reader doesn’t know the calligram or doesn’t read French, the figurative body of the calligram evokes a new image. In Genschel’s contribution you could identify my marking as the illustration of blonde hair strands described in her text.
RV How has the project changed for the Palais de Tokyo commission?
NC When I received the invitation to do an intervention in the building, I decided quite spontaneously to use the seven windows overlooking the main street and to transpose Il pleut by Guillaume Apollinaire onto them, adding more writers: Vincenzo Latronico, Packer, and Jacques Roubaud.
Because I used a slightly translucent mounted vinyl with the motifs visible on both sides of the enormous window surfaces, the images started to remind me of the stained glass windows of a cathedral.
I was interested in confronting the work against different supports and seeing what happens when it acts like the view through a window, which, because of the changes of light, remains in a permanent process of appearing and disappearing.
The images, softly illuminated by the daylight, look like light boxes when seen from inside the museum. The viewer has to look up to them, as if looking up at the sky, and they keep you somehow away from outside diversions.
RV Your work is often talked about as producing a double move between seeing and reading, of problematizing the simultaneity of those activities in the same way a calligram does. What moves me the most about it is the way you avoid the rhetorical blind spot of ushering between the two. I feel that you propose that we are always doing both, that the space and time we inhabit as readers, as viewers, is a space of memory, a dense world of texts and images, of ideas priming each other and coexisting in different forms. How do you work through this relationship between the textual and the visual, reading and looking?
NC As you say, one of the aspects of my works is the attribute that you can never read the whole text and look at the entire image simultaneously. My works propose different spaces and different entry levels, and allow various forms of perception and interaction. By this, I mean a space in between, which is difficult to define, one that touches a simultaneous reading and seeing in pieces or fragments and allows space for different associations. Since I see no hierarchy between the poem, the surrounding text, and the picture, I am rather interested in the similarities in their creative processes and in activating the boundaries of their respective mediums. What are the photographer and the writer able to do and where are the interfaces or superimpositions?
The work Voyelles (2013), for example, deals with these transitions as well as with multiple authorships. Each piece is a photograph of a letter, which in turn describes a photo that you have to imagine while reading it. The starting point for Voyelles is Arthur Rimbaud’s “Seer Letters” and his eponymous, synesthetic poem, in which he associates each of the five vowels with colors, sounds, textures, images, and smells.
When I started working on the project, I saw myself confronted with the desire to produce, and the impossibility of producing, a universally valid photograph that could evoke a form of synesthesia, similar to the stylistic device in literature where two or more senses diffuse, mix, and intermingle. What would a photo have to look like to taste a color or to feel a sound? Therefore I simply exchanged the roles of the photographer and the writer and asked different authors to do something that I as a photographer was not able to do: to write a letter in my name to themselves in which they describe a photograph that provokes one or more synesthetic experiences. Each author was assigned to one color and its vowel, which had to be accentuated, like in Rimbaud’s sonnet. Subsequently, the printed letters were signed by me and photographed against a gradated background in each attendant color. The authors became the photographers of these impossible images.
RV I’m thinking about Hannah Weiner’s clairvoyant writing, how she saw words and wrote them. You seem to have a kind of clairvoyant reading practice: you see poems where they are not, both bringing them into a text, and uncovering them from the text. Can you talk about your process, which feels like reading and writing at the same time, especially in the “Hidden Poems”?
NC The “Hidden Poems” series is an ongoing project, which shows photographs whose raw material basis consists of existing magazines, newspapers, or illustrated books. In the visible sections of text, I highlight individual words by using a pencil or marker pen. Read in sequence, the words form a poem that appears like a single thought, a snapshot of sorts, engaging in a dialogue with the remaining text and the adjacent illustrations. The “hidden” and “found” relationships between the texts are not intended to convey the idea of occult or secret messages, but rather the potential of different forms of reading, ones that bring to light “hidden” poetic constructions in quotidian prose, like a poetic epiphany unwittingly chanced upon from within the listless continuum of the everyday.
I see them more as a coincidental message or comment based on an unconscious impulse and dependent on the memory of the reader. A different reader could probably find a different poem in the same text.
People often ask me whether the starting point is the poem or the text. This whole project is based on a subjective process of reading and finding, but it doesn’t have a fundamental principle, that is, how the poems find their text and vice versa.
Sometimes there is a text that I like and then I let it rest until I read it again and discover a poem in it (for example A hidden poem by Jack Kerouac #2), sometimes I have poems that I would love to find in another text and I try to search for, and sometimes I just scan the single words of a text with my eyes, like an index or keyword search, until I match words that I connect with the poems in my memory or my sketch books.
RV In both cases, whether you are finding existing poems in other texts, as in the “Hidden Poems” and “Poems by Repetition,” or asking writers, artists, and curators to generate writing around other poems, as in Voyelles or Il pleut, there’s a kind of radical proposition for a total reorganization of syntax and meaning, a potentially endless proliferation of texts within texts or texts growing around other texts, like a semantic Russian doll. Yet your approach remains very subjective, it resists a kind of algorithmic logic.
NC The focus of my work is really to show that it is not a computer-generated program that writes the lines or finds the words in the texts. Instead, it mainly tries to reflect the subjective experience of reading, of interpreting a written or visual form. In this respect, I see my photographs as a captured moment, similar to the archiving of an artifact.
RV In “Poems by Repetition” you seem to be shifting gears slightly. Many more of your source texts are already embedded in a kind of dematerialized technological apparatus, like using a Kindle in A poem by repetition by Hart Crane (2013), where the source text is an e-version of Tan Lin’s Seven Controlled Vocabularies, or an iPad in A poem by repetition by Gertrude Stein (2013). Rather than focusing solely on print media, the “Poems by Repetition” use sources drawn from graphic design, advertising, pop music, and more. How does this relate to the found poems themselves, or to the strategies of repetition you are employing?
NC The series “Poems by Repetition” is inspired by Gertrude Stein’s “Petition for Repetition,” in the play Saints and Singing, which closes with the warning, “Do not repeat yourself.” I focused on poems characterized by different rhetorical stylistic devices of repetition. In contrast to the “Hidden Poems,” here the poems only become completely apparent and readable through the depiction of the same photographed text and objects.
Repeatedly stringing together the individual photographs in one group allows me to somehow write the poems by means of photographic reproduction and to use techniques of repetition that are similar to those used by the poets when writing. The result is a doubling of repetitions. At times, I photograph the motif several times, with altered framing, exposure time, mirroring, or format size. At other times, the same picture is reproduced or I take photos of the same text displayed on different reading media.
The repetition of the “same” gives rise to memories, echoes, beats, and rhythms akin to the stilted eloquence of stuttering, or to the rhythm of a song and its refrain. This is why I mainly selected motifs that have a relation to music. The photographed texts in the “Poems by Repetition” series are not only found in books and magazines, but also in consumer products whose images have already been reproduced multiple times for advertising purposes in the past, like Kindles, iPads, LP records, musical instruments, and so on. The poem is embedded within the text, but also resonates with the history of the photographed objects themselves.
Sound is obviously a fundamental component of poetry in general. When a poem is read out loud, it leaves its two-dimensional space and becomes only fully tangible through its sound. How could you, for example, experience Aram Saroyan’s visual poem “ney / mo / money” without hearing it? Some of the “Poems by Repetition” also allow associations to other sorts of noises or sounds, like the sound of a cash register drawer evoked by the cover of Pink Floyd’s song “Money.” You are also made to hear breaths and pauses. In A poem by repetition by Bruce Andrews, you can see and hear the ticking of three seconds between the different lines of the poem: “Find it / Never have / Have it.”
RV When I’ve seen your work, the “original” poems you’ve located are always displayed alongside the resulting photographs, whether in your books, or on the wall in the exhibition space. In this latter case, the poems begin to feel like wall texts guiding the viewers in knowing what to look for, or knowing what they are reading. They become explicative of the work, but also trace the provenance of the words, as would a museum wall label. How important is it for the reader/viewer to know that he or she is looking at a poem by Robert Creeley, for instance? And how does the display of the full poem play in the context of the questions of authorship you raise in your work?
NC To show the original poem next to the work is relevant in my opinion, if it is shown in the context of an exhibition. Of course, it is important for me that the poems can be read or deciphered without the accompanying wall text. The works function whether the wall text is there or not.
Nevertheless, there are different elements that make it necessary for me to show both side by side. For a start, I simply like for the viewer to be allowed to experience the poem first on its own so that he or she can choose how to approach its embedded presence in the work. But I am also interested in the different reading experiences. How do I perceive the poem as a whole with its original form or syntax, and how does it read differently when I have to excavate it from within the photograph? I have a feeling that poems need to be reread, as they resonate differently with every reading. I believe that this shift in discovering the poem is also essential when you start to read the poem a second time within the image and its surrounding text. The textual flow of the poem is broken, due to the effort of looking for the next highlighted word and the attempt of exploiting its context. I often compare this process to stuttering. It’s a renewed formulating, a variation, a way to start over with or from within the same text.
To put it differently, I am not only finding or writing poems by means of photographed objects or texts, I am also bringing these different things together, and to return to the parallel with music that I made earlier, allowing them to resonate with one another, alongside one another, and to play off of their different histories. And this is also perhaps the reason why it is so important for me to name my sources, name the poet, show the poem, make each element explicit somehow, so that their dialogue and interaction becomes more potent as well.
The question as to whether the reader knows that it is a Creeley poem or an Olson poem (or the work of an unknown poet) I can only answer in an indirect way. My concern has always been to highlight the fact that every poem itself is an abstract image and doesn’t need any visual illustration. In fact, the whole project is based on this obvious distance and separation. The visual and textual clash of different authors (designers, text authors, poet, illustrator, photographer, and so on), how their creations suddenly stand in relation to each other, and what happens when their voices start to communicate to each other—this is what makes the work fascinating for me.
RV In bringing these different voices, authors, and media platforms together, you open up the potential for each discrete text or image to generate new associations, to communicate beyond itself through its context. To me, this is also in conversation with many practices in conceptual art and writing, which circle around strategies of appropriation and recontextualization. Kenneth Goldsmith talks about this in the essay he wrote for your new book, I cannot repeat what I hear, where he relates your work to that of K. Silem Mohammad and Flarf poets, for instance. Where do you find yourself in this conversation?
NC It’s difficult for me to categorize my work in these ways. That said, the strategies of conceptual and appropriation art of the 1960s and ’80s have certainly had a great influence on my work, just as it has been very inspiring for me to discover the connections between my work and conceptual writing practices.
As a visual artist reading experience, visual presence, and concept have the same value for me and cannot be separated. I understand each piece in a series as a single image and I deeply believe that the more you read each image or text, the more you get out of it.
When I was studying photography in art school I internalized the classical predefined rules and key features for making a conceptual photographic series work. Respecting all these requirements would have meant using mostly the same formats, framings, procedures, as well as using similar sources or always marking the texts in the same way for the “Hidden Poems” and the “Poems by Repetition” series. But this would have gone against the nature of the works themselves. What I am interested in, rather, is engaging with a plurality of aesthetics, approaches, and techniques, and seeing where my source material leads me, how it in turn influences my decision to do a cutout, choose a certain segment or show an object with a background, and so on.
In order to be sensitive to the needs of one’s projects, it is necessary to define your own rules and subsequently to divert even from those conventions or strategies that you feel closely related to. I am interested in introducing a reading process into photography and I am always curious to find out what is possible. For this very reason, I am actually thankful not to come from a literary background. This gives me more freedom with my own ideas, and my projects then become a way to learn more about poetry, to experiment with its forms, and to see what the encounter between the two mediums of literature and photography can generate.
RV Who were some of your earliest artistic influences? Poetic influences? I’m particularly interested in when you started reading poetry in English, rather than your native German. Most of your work is in English (with the exception of the commissioned texts).
NC When I was in school I was mainly interested in philosophy and film. It was not my art teacher but my philosophy teacher who convinced me to apply to art school. One of the first artists whose work in photography impressed me was Jeff Wall. Every detail of his photographs seemed to have a meaning. I can also clearly remember first coming to terms with the relationship between text and image while holding Joel Sternfeld’s book On This Site in my hands, and suddenly understanding how text can change the perception of a photograph. Later on, I was mainly interested in Marcel Broodthaers as well as many artists out of Lucy Lippard’s Six Years, which became my bedside book. My introduction to American poetry and its possible connection to photography came much later. Primarily it was through the German poet Rolf Dieter Brinkmann (1940–1975), to whom I also dedicated my first “Hidden Poem.” Brinkmann lived in my former hometown of Cologne and once compared a poem to a snapshot. His interests laid in bringing the structures of cinematic perception into literature. He was deeply influenced by the American avant-garde and was the first to introduce the Beat Generation to a German public with his anthology Acid. Neue amerikanische Szene.
Though I am very interested in and inspired by German poets, I mainly look to American poetry for my work. I guess it is the use of colloquial language—the directness, the density, and the relation to the visual—that attracted me at first to the American poets and led me to want to discover more. I am often amazed by how such small groupings of words can communicate with such strength, and open up to such a cosmos of connections and interpretations. I am fascinated even by those poems that are the most elusive, the most difficult to grasp. I see my work as a way to both get closer to poetry, to certain specific poems, but also somehow get a certain distance or perspective onto them.
Rachel Valinsky is writer and curator living in New York. Recent projects include Itself Not So at Lisa Cooley and In and Around Collaborative Projects Inc. at Spectacle Theater. Her writing has appeared in East of Borneo and Millennium Film Journal. She is the author of art&education (Zurich: Luma Foundation/89plus) and a co-founder of Wendy’s Subway in Brooklyn.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.