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,
I worked together with hot young fashion designer Sander Bos to photograph his Master collection at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp. Amazing work, beautiful silhouettes...
He asked me to photograph his collection in a "typical for anton, not so typical for fashion" kind of way. I very much obliged. We did a studio shoot the first day, and an exterior shoot the second day... below some selects of the latter. Great fun.
I suspect you'll be hearing a lot about him in the not too distant future :)
May 8, 2017Read More
April 23 - September 24, 2017Read More
Recently I did an informal talk at my friend Evelien’s place in Amsterdam. She organised everything and hosted at her place with Po, cat extraordinaire. 8 friends at the table, cooking and having dinner together, and afterwards one of us talks about his work.
I had mentioned before to her how I missed being able to talk to friends about what I’m currently doing, what thoughts are going on in my head, the projects I’m tackling behind the scenes, the way I try to stay afloat financially, how to produce my own work, what scares me, what makes me confident, if the ideas I’m having are actually good or not. You know, things you normally only reserve for your inner circle, if even that. It's cool to appear confident after all.
So Evelien said “hey what if we create a formula that’s casual enough so that friends/colleagues/fellow professionals from different fields can get together, cook together and drink wine together, in general find out how everyone’s doing, and then after dinner one person gets up, connects his/her laptop to the tv and talks openly. A limited group, 7-8 people max. Oh, and you should be the first one to do this, by the way. Just so you know. Next time you’re in Amsterdam, you’re on.”
No pressure there :)
Renate was going to cook Bombay Eggs for dinner, and we decided to name the event “Eggs & Photos”. The condition would be that always at least one dish should have eggs as an ingredient., and that the friend-speaker should have prepared a three hour talk at the minimum (just to mess with their minds). The concept was born.
I’ve written before about having a group of people that are instrumental to me being able to gauge different aspects of my work or my process, but now I got the chance to talk about everything all at once to everyone all at once. Basically an unedited look behind the scenes into the running engine that is my mind.
It was different than any talk I’ve ever given. So much better and more liberating. I can’t say exactly what prompted this, but I ended up laying everything out there, no taboos. About (the lack of) money, securities and insecurities, storytelling, the choice of only making autonomous work, collaborations, cameras, images as objects, books as objects, connecting to people, drinking coffee and what not. The resulting discussions were extremely interesting, professionals friends bouncing off ideas and feeding off of each others feedback. Actual constructive dialogue, as it were.
Usually the outside world knows you through your images, your publications, your social media, and to a lesser extent your lectures or workshops. All of which is admittedly a very narrow connection. But now, I could talk about a complete picture of what’s behind all that.
It’s one of the most important things I’ve always missed as a professional photographer: constructive professional peer/friend feedback and discussion. I always imagined this to be the core reason why photo collectives existed in the first place, not for the pooling of resources or the collective strength or the brand or the notoriety or whatever, but the open-behind-closed-doors discussion of everyone’s work in every possible stage, from concept to full on production to putting it in the world out there. No taboos, no holds barred. Genuinely people interested in thinking and discussing - with a strong professional background, not necessarily related to photography - with zero alternative agenda.
So it turned out, while preparing my massive three hour minimum “tour of what’s inside my head” presentation, that I didn’t even know that I was actively working on 9 substantial projects simultaneously (and a whole lot of concepts of course). Two have already been “put in the world” so to speak (Yakuza & Mono No Aware), but they do need constant working on nonetheless (e.g. I’m working on an exhibit for both of them as we speak). Because my work is autonomous and long-term, whenever a project is put out there (even if you’ve worked on it for years already), it would be considered “just the beginning”.
So I’ve come to look at my current projects as my nine lives: if I manage to get each and every one out there in the world, that would be 9 versions of myself out there, each with its own idiosyncrasies, mistakes and imperfections, its own beauty and ugliness, its own successes and failures. But it will be out there, alive and independent, making a mark, and I’ll be proud.
The one thing I can’t wait for? To be invited to the next Eggs & Photos, as an audience member this time, to return the huge favour.
November 22, 2016Read More
As you might have noticed, for some time now, friend photographer Ivan Sigal and I have been having an open conversation with each other on Instagram (and on our respective blogs). It's great fun, and even though we had no idea where we were going with this starting out, we sense we're doing something that we both need to do.
The exchange of thoughts, thoughts about images, thoughts in general, images about thoughts, images in general. Here there is no new work to be promoted. No cool status updates to be done. In a way, through our dialogue, we're gaining – and at the same time offering – insights into our own thinking, our own preconceptions, our worries, our incessant looking for maybe not even answers, but just understanding a little more. If there ever were a true behind-the-scenes: these are things that actually occupy much of our thoughts and shape our work, without being our work.
And the kicker for me: up until we started doing this I had no idea I was actually hugely missing doing this. It feels like writing letters by hand in a pre-digital age. The tempo, the time required. There's something quite unique about those regular short bursts of introspection for writing and the accompanying simultaneous dialogue.
Now that we've been at it for a while, we've decided to contextualise it a little...
Ivan wrote a perfect abstract that encapsulates very well what we're doing:
#image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters, posted both on Instagram and on the participant’s respective websites. It is an experimental public dialogue that sets simple rules, and allows the trajectory of the discussion to proceed in inductive fashion, image by image, and text by text.
image_by_image is constructed as a weak or fragile narrative, based on associations of word and image, of fragment and concept, of reuse and reflection, of frank acknowledgement of struggle, doubt, skepticism and humility before the power of ideas and the claims of images. It is rooted in philosophies of anti-authoritarianism and a mistrust of grand narratives.
The rules of image_by_image are that each participant posts no more than 1x per day and no less than 1x per week, and that each post have one image and a maximum of 2,200 characters of text. It has emerged that the images are often fragments or details other images, or rephotographed through screens, lightboxes, scrims and other surface textures. The images work at several levels - as notes, as referents, as counterpoints, as punctuations, as divergences.
Our emerging practice with image_by_image is to enliven the consideration of images in social media, explore their meaning in dialogue with concepts and our shifting understanding of them through associations across time and history. It is a rebuttal to the assertion that images in social media are necessarily one-dimensional pictograms. It is also a way of stripping back social media speech to the simple level of the exchange of ideas, rather than the mimicking of self-broadcast through the social media tactics of sensation, self-promotion, and aggressive projection.
Over time, themes have emerged on image_by_image based on the common concerns of the participants. We consider history, memory, memorialization, travel, tensions between narrative and conceptual images, the processes of making art, and the challenges of our respective projects. We traverse the psychological geographies of Nazi Germany, the former Soviet Union, Japan, Europe, and the United States, as well as the tenuous journeys of migrants and personal memoir.
Starting to work with friend and musician Jan Swerts on a new project. Built on quite the promising premise, which I can't disclose just yet, I think this collaboration will amount to some interesting stuff over the next 12 months...
By the way, his – undoubtedly excellent – new album "Schaduwland" (land of shadows) is set to be released in October.
The Hinzert concentration camp was established in 1938 to construct the Westwall. There were 27 sub camps connected to the main camp. Originally, it was a police detention camp, and officially came under the control of the SS-WVHA on February 7, 1942. Hinzert was unique among concentration camps in the sense that it had an autonomous Gestapo (secret state police) interrogation squad inside the camp (which was uncommon, as the concentration camp system was run by the SS, an entirely different organisation).
Hinzert was originally built for 560 prisoners, but in reality continually housed between 800 and 1,200 prisoners during its existence. In total, estimates are up to 20,000 prisoners. Official camp records accounted for almost 300 deaths. This death count was extremely low because Hinzert was not only a small camp, but most of the time it also acted as a transit camp, with prisoners arriving there only to leave to another destination a few days later. But even so, researchers have found the official death count to be too low, with a more realistic figure being an estimated 1,000 victims.
On November 21, 1944, the Hinzert camps came under jurisdiction of the Buchenwald concentration camp, and was dissolved on March 2, 1945 when U.S. troops reached the city of Trier.
The journey to Hinzert 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 1,075 concentration camps that have ever existed, as part of an 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.
These 360 books weigh 396kg. At this point, I was happy that my table was holding up. All of them individually signed and wrapped, and everyone here at home had chipped in to prepare and pack in just one day. The next morning we drove two full cars to the postal center to bulk ship everything.
Things went really smooth... and these were just the pre-orders for May 1st. Needless to say I'm ecstatic. Hopefully this third edition of YAKUZA will go the same way as the previous ones.
Seeing all this weight on my table reminded me of something else too. The feeling that over the past years my focus has slowly been drifting into "taking care of the things that I have", versus focusing on "making new work".
What's on my table now (the projects that I've completed), versus what's on my horizon tomorrow (the projects that I'm embarking upon). I know there's tremendous value and importance to taking care of each of them... and personally I couldn't function adequately without either one. It's a case of grass greener on the other side: whenever you're on one side, you tend to long for the other side.
A part of me wishes it could stand up and boldly claim "I'm one hundred percent focused on tomorrow", and I guess, in a way, it's true: always looking for new opportunities, remembering things that catch your eye, things that you care about and want to talk about, things that happen along the way. I've got folders and notebooks full of opportunities to be taken. That's fine, and they're a treasure.
But it's the part that comes right after: shaping the idea so that it becomes a project, becomes possible, becomes reality, leaping out from a thought in your mind to something that's actually happening, and that people will be interested to see, hear, or read about.
On top of that, the landscape of storytelling has changed so much in the last few years, the language of photography completely being rewritten as we speak, it's not a case anymore of what we - as visual storytellers - can or cannot do. It's become a case of how much we are willing to adapt, unlearn old things and learn new things along the way.
Alongside all that daily struggle of adapting and making happen and moving forward, there's just one thing we must always do: keep our horizons distant.
It's hard to maintain that balance. 99 percent of the time you probably must look close, take care of the day to day, the realities that are in front of you NOW. Adapt. Make it happen. Move. But every once in a while, you need to climb a tree or a little hill and look into the distance, at your horizon. Enjoy the moment. Is it still far. Is it still like a dream. And don't forget to look back also, see how far you've come. It's always much further than you think. Plus it kinda puts things into perspective.
And then climb back down, adjust course if necessary, continue.... and enjoy. It's all about the journey after all.
In a way I feel very much that now after 5 years I've only just started out, just traveled enough to consider myself actually starting out – if you know what I mean. I used to climb up my tree, look out and only stare forward in the distance and dream and look at an horizon so far and vague that I could barely make out what it was. Recently I started looking back as well. Perspective. Makes me realise that it's all worth it.
The horizon's still far, but that's okay. Horizons always look so good. I guess they're meant to be.
I had an hour long interview on Belgian national radio (vrt - Klara) last week about my life and my projects, and how I approach both of them. Talking about jumping, insecurities, doubt, luck, happiness, working hard. I'm sorry, it's in Dutch...
Enjoy jour day today,
May 15, 2016Read More
The Mittelbau concentration camp was the last main camp created by the SS-Business Administration Main Office (WVHA) and the only one not named after a specific place. It officially came to being on October 28, 1944, but its origins stretched back to the foundings of a subcamp of Buchenwald, code-named "Dora" on August 28, 1943.
In a system of 27 subcamps attached to Dora, most of the prisoners worked in the construction of underground and aboveground facilities, the most known a conversion of tunnels into an underground V-2 factory called Mittelwerk. About 6,000 of the 40,000 inmates were directly working at the production lines of building actual V-2 rockets, at a speed of approximately 20 ballistic missiles per day.
During the last phase of Mittelbau's existence, large numbers of starving and severely ill prisoners started arriving from Auschwitz and Gross-Rosen, which had been evacuated shortly before. This marked a significant change in the death toll of the camp; the influx was so high that the arriving new prisoners could not even be registered, and the crematoria could not handle the dead. Prisoners were sent elsewhere on transports and death marches, which only worsened the problem.
About 20,000 people died at Mittelbau during its existence. On April 11, 1945, elements of the U.S. 3rd Armored and 104th Infantry Divisions reached Boelcke-Kaserne and shortly thereafter discovered the Mittelwerk tunnels and Dora. Operation Paperclip (the operation to exploit German science and technology) had its origins here when the U.S. forces were able to capture and remove large numbers of missile parts and personnel.
Mittelbau-Dora 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 1,075 concentration camps that have ever existed, as part of an 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.
The Wewelsburg concentration camp was the smallest autonomous main camp within Germany. Prior to this, it was a subcamp from Sachsenhausen. Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler used it for his personal building project "Wewelsburg", a renaissance castle to become a large ideological-religous center for the SS. He exploited concentration camp labor for the necessary renovations and expansion of the castle, following the principle "Vernichtung durch Arbeit" (destruction through work). He had to not only camouflage the camp from the Allies, but also from the SS-Business Administration Main Office (WVHA), who did not regard the project as "vital to the war construction work" and could cut off economic support. When US troops arrived in the city on April 2, 1945, they were surprised to find a concentration camp there.
Wewelsburg 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 1,075 concentration camps that have ever existed, as part of an 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.
From the 21st of March to the 25th I'll be teaching the photography students of LUCA School of Arts in Genk (BE) during a special project week.
We'll be dealing with many behind-the-scenes things like self publishing, how to deal with a long term project, how to connect to and grow your audience, how to run it like a business,... and of course how to work your @ss off and get lucky.
The Bachelor and Master candidates will also be shooting an assignment during the same week, and we'll be mounting a pop-up exhibit on Friday with the results.
As of now, you can pre-order signed copies of the upcoming third edition of YAKUZA.
Great news... as of now, May 1st 2016, the third edition of YAKUZA is available to order.
Many of you who missed out on buying the first or second edition, have emailed me throughout the years (yes, it's been *that* long) to please let them know if I'd ever have a chance of printing a third edition... and I've always promised that I'd try hard to make it happen... and here we are. Finally.
The design is ready, and the book is scheduled to go in print in two weeks. And I'll be able to ship books starting May 1st. Of course, I'll keep you informed with a printing update along the way... so you won't miss a thing.
I'm happy to finally make this book available to a wider audience, and at the same time maintaining respect for all of you who bought the first and second editions (frankly, without you all, I simply wouldn't even be here...).
Not so long ago my brother and I took a cab home in Tokyo. I filmed the passing view in a really basic way, and I'm pretty sure the cab driver pokes his nose at a certain point. But every time I watch it, it always seems to evoke something, calm me down, and make me lose track of time.
Music credit: Homeward Angel by Moby.
Kind words by Ben van Alboom in De Standaard dS Weekblad for the opening of my exhibit in Antwerp: