On April 19 I'll be presenting The Blue Skies Project at the International Center of Photography on 250 Bowery in NYC. For the first time I'll be able to talk about the project, the representation of trauma and witnessing today. I'll also talk about the 6 year journey and show (reproductions of) all 1,078 polaroids. I'm taking along Ruben Samama, friend and collaborator on this project: he created the amazing accompanying 13-year long sound piece for the installation.
More information: www.icp.org/events/icp-lab-the-blue-skies-project
Location: ICP Museum, 250 Bowery, NYC
Date: April 19, 2018 @ 6.30pm
I'm part of a group exhibition organised by VONK ateliers and Z33 House for contemporary art , in which they focus on how the artist's studio looks like in all its shapes and forms. We're even collaborating with an architect studio to literally build concept ateliers, where we will be working (semi-) publicly over the course of 6 weeks.
In my case, I'll be executing a crucial part of the in-progress Blue Skies Project: on a custom built massive wall I'll have the chance to work to find the exact layout of the 1,078 blue sky images for the actual installation that will be made later this year. Come visit me... I'll have drinks at hand :)
More information: www.z33.be/blog/2018/3/21/the-artists-studio
I just came across these medical images of 2015 that were made of my neck. It's one of those moments the doctor tells you that you're actually too young to be worn out like this, but also that it is irreversible at the same time. Quite a mixed bag, feeling secretly proud that you're considered too young for something, but then sad that you're worn out.
The reason for all this apparently traced back to the camper van and my travels for The Blue Skies Project. Initially, I thought using a van was the best way to complete the journey, thinking I had absolute freedom this way and didn't need to worry about finding places to stay in – what I thought would be – the middle of nowhere.
Initially, I just couldn't find a comfortable position to drive, and for the life of me I couldn't figure it out. The seat was infinitely adjustable, trucker-style, so it should have been perfect. But I couldn't drive for more than 45mins at a time without needing a quick rest, as my right arm started to hurt more and more. It turned out that it wasn't the seat, but the position of the steering wheel that put a tremendous strain on my neck (in vans and trucks they're more "flat" as in horizontal, as opposed to regular cars).
In the beginning I endured, thinking that it was just me and that my body would have to get used to this new way of driving. But it didn't get better, and after a year the pain became unbearable. Painkillers didn't help anymore, and eventually I couldn't even lie down, let alone sleep. I was desperate. My doctor prescribed me more powerful medication, which finally offered some relief, and scheduled a CT scan at the hospital.
The diagnosis was quickly made: neural foraminal stenosis, the narrowing of the opening in the vertebra in my neck through which the nerves to my right arm pass. Turned out, a common thing among... truck drivers. Physical therapy brought a little relief, but not enough. I got scheduled for treatment at a pain clinic, where I was to receive three deep injections into my neck with intermittent pulsed electrical stimulation of the affected nerve.
I could barely lie down on the operating table by then, but had to be fully conscious throughout the procedure. It was really straightforward. Local anaesthetic, then they inserted the large needles while checking a live x-ray screen to accurately position them. The electrical stimulation that followed was incredible. The pain seemed to flow out of my body and the pulses offered an instant relief which I hadn't felt for over a year. Even though it was a weird to have three huge needles in my neck, I kinda wished it wouldn't stop.
A single session did it for me, although it did take a few days for my nerves to register the procedure and stop sending my brain all these panicked pain signals. I was in the clear. The specialist said that this treatment was not designed to solve the problem, but it would take away the pain symptoms. The longer they stayed away, the better. Could be 2 months or two years. Whenever the symptoms returned, the same procedure would be repeated until eventually ineffective, at which point surgery would be taken into account. In the meantime, targeted physiotherapy (Lorenzo you are amazing) and daily exercise would be key and the best chance to stop the progression of the stenosis. I don't think I've ever trained that hard.
Fast forward two and a half years to today, and the pain hasn't yet returned. I've also become good at sensing when I'm going too far and straining my neck. I learned to stretch regularly.
The sun is shining today, even though I'm told that it was the coldest night of winter last night.
Last week I finished scanning 1,078 polaroids in high resolution, and today I compared the reproductions that I made to the originals:
A sigh of relief. Many more sighs will be needed, but little steps like this make me confident to move on, damaged and all, looking at the faraway horizon ahead and the adventures it holds.
I'm a month in, etching the victim numbers onto my blue sky polaroids with an old 1951 typewriter. Every mark on the image is permanent, and I was dreading the fact of making any mistake along the way. I did several hundred successfully, and then the first one popped up. A simple case of accidentally switching around two digits. The only way to correct is like you would imagine the good old days: repeatedly backspace with the typewriter and make sure the correct digit is impressed even deeper over the incorrect digit. It reminded me from when I was a kid, playing with an old typewriter found in the attic and writing pages of probably meaningless text, the act of writing meaning more to me than the content at the time. I remember wondering how people could estimate the last word to fit on a line without having to hyphenate. Or how they could hyphenate at the last possible moment without losing or leaving too much space. That eager anxiety popping up again and again at the end of every line was fantastic.
And then came the kind of "automatic" typewriters (yes I sound really old now but I promise I still feel 18. No wait, make that 25) that would have a crude single line LED screen right above the keys fitting approximately 2-3 lines of text, automatically printing a line as soon as the proper length and hyphenation was determined. Or god knows which algorithm was used; probably nothing too fancy, but I was curious nonetheless. And what a miracle that was at the time, it allowed you to backspace and correct on that tiny screen without having to literally use white-out or cross out. Literally a "word processor" in the purest sense.
Fast forward to today and here, anno 2018 I'm going back to those days making a completely analog project again, in the most "dangerous" way possible. Dangerous as in that I have no possible backups for the originals, because they are polaroid images. There is simply no way to go back into a darkroom and make a new print. There is no negative that can be re-used. Gone is gone, any damage is permanent, images are irreplaceable. It's REALLY scary. To put in terms of today: imagine that you have your original RAW files on one hard disk only, no backup whatsoever, and that every time you would make an edit in Affinity or Photoshop, you would not be able to undo and you would have to save the work at every step.
I think the invention of "Undo" and "Save As" is vastly underrated.
Yet at the same time I feel eerily familiar working this way. Boxes and boxes of carefully protected polaroids, all labeled and in order, like a librarian with index cards to organise something much larger looming behind. Every time I take out a polaroid, I need to exercise a certain caution, a way of handling to minimise the possibility of any damage or degradation. I really like it that having a certain touch is required again. It's so much more than working digitally, it has so much more to it and kind of sets your mind free in ways I can only now appreciate after a decade of digital-based work where I would disappear into my screen. Really love that type of work too, but it's a different thing.
Now I appear to be growing calluses on my fingertips because I have to hit the keys to the Olympia really hard so the letters etch into the emulsion layer. Yesterday I broke a steel rod and had to do an emergency MacGyver repair. It made me realise how hard I'm actually striking those keys. Poor typewriter. At 874 polaroids numbered and 204 waiting, I'm almost there.
At the same time, I'm engaging in an attempt to keep the polaroids safe by scanning every single one along the way. A high res scan of 1,87GB, comparable to a 350 Megapixel image. I'm almost at 2TB now, and working right at the edge of what my RAW editor can handle.
This mix of working digitally and analog is really a nice place to be, I've always felt more in control in my digital darkroom than my analog one, yet I loved the latter so much more. Ahh the days inside making prints. Since I stopped with my darkroom I've always missed the analog-ness and the uniqueness of the original. It's something I feared I had lost, but now regained with Blue Skies. Actually doubly so, because I have no negative, only one original print.
For the book – I'm working with Teun van der Heijden – we're following the same thought process of marrying digital with analog. As we all know, no book leaves Teun's hands without also being a worthy physical object and having a well defined position in his mind of what that book should be. And the Blue Skies book has a set of unique hurdles to overcome, the simplicity of a blue sky polaroid being so abstract and unforgiving. The step of going from digital to analog in reverse and all over again. My publisher (who I'll reveal soon) is a wonderful man who's completely on the same page. His approach is equally unique and extremely thoughtful. I'll be in good company in his catalog, knowing that he deeply understands the work.
Today is break day. I tend to go deep and disregard my body along the way and I know I shouldn't be doing that. No stress in my mind though. But then again, who knows what dragons lurk in the subconscious depths of the soul?
Have a great weekend,
After 5 years of on and off journeys to a thousand concentration camps, the cleanup started in the boot of my car. Everything that had been in there for such a long time could now return either to my studio, my storage or simply back home (hello coffee maker).
I actually started off my Blue Skies journeys not by car, but by renting a camper van from dear friends. It allowed me to be quite flexible – or so I thought – in looking for places to sleep. I wouldn't need to plan ahead where I would end up every night, which was a logistical challenge given the fact that I had no idea how fast or slow any given travel day would be. Travel was very complicated and had to be very fast and flexible, because I had to literally drive behind the good weather and breaking cloud cover.
But slowly, changes on different fronts were happening, making my life easier. Google's My Maps became vastly more powerful and allowed custom maps to appear in its iOS app, effectively connecting my location research to my GPS navigation. I didn't have to manually bridge between the two anymore, constantly manually entering GPS coordinates dozens of times a day.
Weather apps were also improving rapidly, I now had access to weather apps that used the European satellites and allowed me to see live infrared cloud patterns over the continent. This proved to be a crucial layer of information for me. Now if only that could have been overlaid over the Google Maps app.
And then – finally – the data roaming in the EU became standardised (gone with the preposterous roaming charges, the mobile networks desperately trying to squeeze out the last little bit of profit before conceding), so I could finally get rid of the bunch of different SIM cards I was forced to use in a mobile hotspot.
The final thing that made my life easier was the possibility to book rooms online on the same day, have all my reservations at my fingertips and easily change if circumstances would arise. I had started out with AirBnB, but that became quite cumbersome and it still was very hard to find same day reservations. In contrast, using booking.com streamlined everything in a wonderful way and openend up rooms for same day reservation even in the most remote parts of Europe. I still am super annoyed though how they constantly push you during every single reservation no matter where you are ("last room available!", "booked 23 times in the last hour!", "hurry" etc etc).
All these unconnected advancements made it much cheaper and more efficient for me to travel by car. Using only 1/3rd of the fuel of a camper van and literally allowing met to work out of my boot, I had finally found the most affordable and efficient way to deal with traveling for this immense project.
Now 5 years later, cleaning out the trunk, I noticed my foldable camping chair that I had always taken along with me. As you can imagine, traveling to more than a thousand WW2 concentration camps wasn't a particularly "light" thing to do, and I ended up looking for every possible way to rest my weary mind. I found that stopping randomly at large fields or meadows at the side of a road and just sitting there for a while staring in the distance, helped a lot to keep things in perspective. My little camping chair became crucial to me, my sanity-keeper.
To this day I keep it in my car, and it reminds me to once in a while just stop and let go.
I'm writing this as I start work at my "new old" atelier. I'm still close to my home studio, but I desperately needed a bigger space to produce the actual artwork for The Blue Skies Project, which requires quite a large wall to preview. I was fortunate enough to rent a classroom in an abandoned primary school just a few miles from home (thanks Vonk!). I'm joining other artists already there, and there's a good vibe going on. Plus the light in my classroom is just perfect :)
So I've got a busy six months ahead of me, and for now the walls are still empty: there's quite some research to be double-checked first, and some important dossiers to be made and submitted.
And then there's my fear of forgetting. So this lovely setting won't only be to find a good work rhythm, but also to recall things that happened during my blue skies travels along the way, things that I'm afraid I will forget... if not already.
I don't want to forget. It's been hard enough travelling all this distance over the course of 5 years. I've seen jaw-dropping monuments and commemorations at times, but I've also witnessed the most anonymous places with no trace whatsoever, empty landscapes and busy streets alike that have witnessed it all. It saddens me more than anythings else. I've collected stuff on scraps of paper all over, brochures, receipts, notes on my computer, in my phone, images everywhere, information in links online and in books and encyclopaedias.
I have to consolidate all this data, and I thought it would be a good idea to keep a diary of my atelier days at the abandoned school. Regularly set some time aside to talk about what I'm doing, what I'm remembering and don't want to forget, which project or what particular aspect of The Blue Skies Project I'm working on at that moment, and what I've come across in my rummaging.
The main things I'll be doing are obviously making the Blue Skies artwork and book. I'm talking to museums and I've just started book design with Teun, plus Ruben is working on a stunning audio piece. Both dear friends. Lots of exciting things going on.
I can't wait to get started. As soon as I've consolidated all the research – which will take me the rest of the year – I can finally dive in making the artwork.
Measuring about 10x2m, the thing is going to be huge. It scares me. I've got no idea if I'll ever be able to complete construction without some serious logistical and financial help. We'll see... plus who knows what will happen along the road.
I realise I've been in very deep for a long time now, and probably most of what I've been saying just now makes no sense to you whatsoever. I have quite some explaining to do, I promise things will become clear along the way...
Here's to blue skies and favourable winds,
The Natzweiler concentration camp is the only one that was built by the nazis on French territory. It was set up on May 1, 1941, in the Alsace after it had been annexed by Germany the year before. The site was chosen because of the proximity of a granite quarry. Approximately 52,000 prisoners were registered in Natzweiler and the subcamps, and the mortality rate was quite high due to the harsh working conditions: about 20,000 prisoners died of exhaustion, hunger, illness and maltreatment. The main camp had at least 42 subcamps at any given moment, with a t total of 56.
There were medical experiments at Natzweiler, mainly for the effects of mustard gas, typhus, and hereditary diseases. For this purpose a gas chamber was built outside the camp, and bodies were sent to the anatomy institute at the Medical University of Strasbourg.
The camp was evacuated on August 31, 1944, before the advance of the Allied armies. Most of the 7,000 remaining prisoners were evacuated on foot to its many sub camps, and were transferred to the control of Dachau in April 1945.
The journey to Natzweiler-Struthof is part of a series of journeys that I'm undertaking to photograph the blue skies precisely above the (last known) location of every single one of the 1,074 concentration camps that have ever existed, as part of a photography/book/installation project called The Blue Skies Project. The project has proven quite immense and almost impossible to hold on to single-handedly – with staggering logistics to match – but I'm hanging in there.
So much has gone into my current Mono No Aware + Yakuza exhibit – it's the largest one I've had in my career to date – that I thought it might be a good idea to describe some of the things happening behind the scenes.
I was invited for a first conversation with Gerhard (the director) about 13 months ago. A simple premise: "next year is a city-wide celebration of the 25th anniversary of the city's relationship with Japan (Hasselt has an exquisite Japanese garden - the largest in Europe), your images often have a connection to Japan, might we find common ground?" As Hasselt is my home town, everything seemed like a very nice potential fit. Gerhard had seen Yakuza exhibited before, and Mono No Aware at Ingrid Deuss in Antwerp. In the larger whole of the city wide celebrations, it seemed logical to display both bodies of work, and to focus on the newer, mostly unseen work of Mono No Aware. They would each get a separate space in the building.
As Mono No Aware only ever had been partially exhibited, a lot of production would still have to happen. And I was unsure about impact the huge space of the cultural centre would have on my work. My first sketches started out to try and make the space drastically smaller and more intimate. rooms within rooms, literally creating an environment which could be completely controlled. A natural instinct I suppose:
As you can imagine, this proved to be too expensive... I had to find a way to work with the space instead of against it. Because I've extensively used Japanese rice paper and goza mats in installations before, maybe they'd come in handy this time as well. Even though the sketches were very basic, they were excited to go for the key elements of high walls, circles, rice paper, goza mats and colour. I could start making a production dossier next.
Over the next couple of months all elements of the production had to be dealt with, and in the dossier I would end up including the following things - in no particular order:
- a collection of installation views of previous exhibits (so I could reassure everyone that I did indeed know what I was doing)
- a list of assumptions specific to the organisation and location
- the overall concept of the exhibit and its installation + whatever is tailored to the space/organisation/event
- synopsis of each project
- a cv and bio, publication tearsheets
- a visual overview of the installation elements needed
- a complete edit of all the images of the Mono No Aware project (and Yakuza too of course)
- current status: what existed already and what not (production-wise)
- a general timeline
- a budget proposal (artwork production, framing, installation production, artist fees)
- transport requirements, storage requirements
- personal thoughts and questions
- exhibition histories of both projects
- specific production sheets for the lab, the frame maker, etc.
As soon as the budget was approved, I could start production... First setting in motion the things that would reasonably be expected to take the longest or have insecure delivery dates, i.e. ordering the custom made goza mats and rice paper in Japan and getting them shipped to Belgium and through customs. Thanks to my brother and sister-in-law this all went without a hitch.
A schedule of days reserved for the build up was spread out over 3 weeks in April, starting on the 3rd, and the opening being on the 23rd (with a private viewing on the 22nd). The first week would be used for construction of the walls and the painting, while we started sewing the mats. The second week the system to hang up the rice papers would be tested, and on the 18th all the artwork would be delivered and everything would come together.
2D and 3D
Most of my time went into designing the actual exhibit, while communicating with the technical staff along the way as to where they might foresee problems installing, visitor flow, or anything else.
In this specific case, the exhibition space doubled as the foyer of a theatre (seating 900), so I needed to take this reality into account. As a bonus, this also meant that most probably many more people would see the exhibit, literally passing through it on their way to watch a play or a concert.
3D helps me to get a grasp on variables that I can't see in 2D. However, I still always start with sketching on paper, then printing and cutting out all the images and laying them out on a floor plan / wall plan, slowly moving to digital along the way.
In the meantime, things start appearing in the press, and my control strips arrive from the lab. More work to be done. Images are to be printed on different media and across very different sizes (from tiny 8.5x11inch to massive 9ft wide posters), and every digital file needs to be dealt with individually.
Erwin, head technician, tells me it's time to deliver the wall colours: I verify each color with its corresponding color code so the paint can be mixed. The walls need to be painted about 10 days in advance so they can dry thoroughly and self-adhesive posters (or anything else that needs to be stuck) can be applied safely.
All in the while, the tech guys are building the walls. Also a test shoji screen is made at a 1:2 scale. Paint is delivered and painting begins.
And then they deliver the outside banner.
The final stretch
Time for the final stretch. In the last week, everything comes together as the artwork all gets delivered on the same day:
- framed images from the framer
- posters from the lab
- vinyl letters and stickers from the lab
- printed huge rice papers from the lab
- the custom shoji screens
- already produced works from my storage space
I print a paper for every single wall, with a visualisation and all necessary measurements. They remain on the walls until final inspection, so everyone working on a wall has all information at all times.
Sewing goza mats
One of the longest works of this exhibit was the stitching together the goza mats. Everything needed to be sewn together by hand in specific patterns for specific parts of the exhibit. Almost 200 mats in total, it took us four full days with a team of 6 people. Without my family I would've never been able to pull this off. Thanks a million everyone...
Then the posters are installed, the artworks are hung, the rice paper is cut to size and the vinyl letters are attached: we're nearing completion.
At the very last moment we have to hang the final rice papers from the ceiling, which takes a full day and a half. A few hours later, the vernissage.... and all stress melts away.
I'm so incredibly grateful to be able to work with my family and such dedicated and professional people, and an organisation that believed in the concept in the first place. Needless to say, you must come and see... it's totally worth it, I promise.
As a final bonus, here's a video walkthrough.
Have fun, and see you soon,