Speaking Nearby: Anthony Luvera in Conversation with Chris Wright
Published in Anthropology and Art Practice
Edited by Arnd Schneider and Christopher Wright
Anthony Luvera (AL): I first began working with people who have experienced being homeless around 2001. Since then I’ve worked with hundreds of people in cities and towns across the UK, including London, Colchester, and Belfast. Over this time I’ve accumulated a large collection of material made by the participants, created independently and in collaboration with me, including photographs, writing, maps, and video recordings. Recently I’ve been preparing to continue this work in Brighton, and I’m excited by further exploring the potential of using still photographic images with sound recordings.
While I was working in Belfast to create Residency, I made a number of audio recordings. But in doing so my intention was to record something of the conversations I had with the participants about representation and their experiences of photography, rather than to conduct interviews that focused directly on the stories of their lives or their issues with accommodation. I wanted to try and find out something about how they felt about being inscribed as homeless and to get a sense of their view on the process of working with me.
A number of selections from the collection have been shown publicly in different contexts in festivals, conferences, exhibitions, and publications. For a recent exhibition in Dublin, part of an international photography festival called PhotoIreland that was curated around the notion of diaspora, I presented work about a particular individual called Ruben Torosyan. The installation included photographs made by Ruben, an Assisted Self-Portrait, Polaroids, and hand-drawn maps related to our working together between 2004 and 2009. Ruben and I chose the selection of material and devised its arrangement for the wall for an earlier exhibition in London in 2009 at a festival called This Is Not A Gateway.
At the time that this work was created, Ruben was sleeping rough in various places across London. Sometimes he’d sleep in offices; he would go in at the end of the day, hide himself somewhere on the premises, sleep there overnight, and then get out first thing in the morning. Ruben would draw maps in order for me to find
him. These maps served an important purpose at the time in enabling me to locate him and now serve to represent something of the process of our working together.
With much of the material in the collection, in many different ways, I know something of what the participants were trying to communicate in the photographs they made. But in making the collection available to others, it is not always pos- sible to convey their intentions or my understanding of them, and this information might then be disaggregated from the images. I’m interested in how using some kind of oral recording could serve as a way to address that separation.
Chris Wright (CW): One of the things students often do when they start to use audio recordings within anthropology is say they are going to interview someone, and that’s often the death of actually generating any useful material. People have suddenly got to think about what information you want; then they try to second-guess that. It’s often far more useful to set up situations where people can talk much more open-endedly, rather than try to conduct something you describe as an interview.
AL: So much of what I do involves getting to know people, spending time together, talking, and listening. I’ve always been interested in the problems of documentary representation and in exploring the potential of finding ways for participants to express aspects about themselves in the work I make. A statement once made by Trinh T. Minh-ha about not intending to speak about her subjects but rather to speak nearby has always stuck in my mind.(1)
In recording conversations with participants, I want to hear the individuals speak about their experiences and points of view. I certainly don’t see these recordings as interviews in a formal sense, even though I may ask questions or guide the conversation toward certain ideas or topics that I am interested in hearing about.
CW: Your work seems to throw up questions about what it means to document someone and their life. Lots of contemporary artists appeal to an idea of documentary, but with the particular content of your work, is there a necessary tension between documentary and evidence?
AL: There’s definitely a tension between the notions of documentary and evidence. Both have a slippery relationship to each other and in turn to ideas of truth, authenticity, and the real. This tension is what drives my work in some respects. Critiques directed at documentary over the past thirty years or so, by writers and artists such Martha Rosler, Allan Sekula, and Abigail Solomon-Godeau, that call for a critical, self-reflexive use of the medium and its contexts interest me a great deal. Perhaps there can’t ever be a perfect form of documentary, and I’m certainly not striving to find one. I’m just interested in hearing and telling stories about other people and to try to say something about the process of undertaking this work at the same time.
CW: An ethics of witnessing is apparent in your work, and ethics is a word that provokes some artists into a strong denial of the kinds of responsibilities that come with it. But you make a very clear set of decisions about the way you witness, in terms of what it means to bear witness. There are a set of ethics involved in producing the kind of work you do—in the process—but also a set of ethics in what becomes of that work afterwards, what happens to the archive.
AL: I was once asked if one of the methodologies I employ is to form long-term relationships with people. I never embarked on this work with this in mind. I don’t think, Right, I need to know this person for a long time, and then strategize to make this happen. Relationships develop and grow and change, and that’s all part of the process of knowing anyone. I am still in regular contact with some of the participants I have worked with since 2001, while I have lost contact with many others. Part of what I’m interested in is not only to try to mediate something about the experiences and points of view of the participants who take part in my work but to also try to say something about the process of working with them and the material they entrust me with and the questions I ask myself along the way.
The kinds of questions I feel compelled to ask in my work are inextricable from certain ethical considerations. What does it mean to give consent? Can consent ever be truly informed? What implications could arise when the work is presented in a particular context? How can I maintain the participant’s intentions for their photographs in the collection when I no longer have direct contact with them? What are the ramifications of authorship in a practice that uses photographs made by other people?
I do feel a sense of representational responsibility, but I don’t see the consideration of ethics as a burden. In many ways I see it as productive force.
CW: Do you feel you draw on a model of ethnography?
AL: Not specifically. However, I am very interested in many of the debates and practices coming out of ethnography and visual anthropology that examine the power relations involved in making and showing representations of other people. I’m also particularly interested in how the processes of working with subjects/participants can be represented and how understandings of reflexivity can inform the process, production, presentation, and reception of work conducted in these fields.
CW: Anthropologists often come in to contact with people who have very different notions of what a document is, what it means to document something, along with different ideas of how representation itself functions. But they often fail to think about what implications those have for their own representations. Our ideas of documentary come out of particular genealogies of thought and practice. Anthropologists sometimes fall back into using that word as if deciding to document something is somehow more value-free or that it exists somehow outside of representation—there is representation and then there is another category which is documenting.
AL: In trying to represent something of the process of making Residency, I recognized a difficulty in making the selection of documentation images that feature in the body of work. It seemed to me that they would still serve as a depiction that would narrate from a particular point of view, despite the fact that the images were made by a number of people ranging from passersby on the street, friends of the participants, the participants themselves, as well as me. The representation of the process of documentary representation would still subject to the vagaries of representation itself!
It seems to me that some of the work that is being done in anthropology and the questions it asks of representation can be useful in that it’s subject to different kinds of influences than documentary photography and art practices. Especially in relation to the gallery system—and the impacts this can have on a photographic practice both methodologically and ethically. I’m really interested in thinking through how contexts I present work in can be used. I’m not averse to using a gallery, but there are a whole set of issues that come with this particular context which weigh differently to presenting work in an environment like the London Underground, a public square, or a disused retail space.
CW: Your work constantly questions what a document is; you’re constantly pushing at that category.
AL: One of the things I’m constantly thinking about in my work is how process can be represented and how the contexts in which the work is shown will affect its reception by an audience. It seems to me that work which self-reflexively under- takes to explore the process of representation requires a different set of criteria for handling and judgment than an approach that might be described as being more traditional or that which is made for the commercial gallery system.
While I was working with Ruben, over a period of time, he produced a set of self-portraits taken from a frontal view and a side view. To an audience with some knowledge about the history of photographic representation, these images may be seen to resonate with the kinds of anthropometric studies made by the pioneer of composite photography, Francis Galton.(2) But Ruben’s intention in making these images was to see how his body was changing and his health was deteriorating. I don’t have any recorded descriptions by Ruben about his intentions in making this set of images, but this is an example of the kind of gap I mentioned earlier that I think could be useful to explore through sound recordings.
CW: Are sound recordings part of what you refer to as your archive? Particularly when you think about the ways in which an accent often forms part of people’s identity and sense of attachment to a location.
AL: I think you’re right. Accents, other sounds, and ways of speaking often do situate people in various ways. I consider all of the material that I have gathered, including sound recordings, as part of the archive. Most of the audio I have recorded up until now was done without a specific intention of broadcasting or presenting it. I’ve seen it more as being part of a broader process of recording my exploration of the photography work I undertake with the participants. However, I think taking the use of sound recordings further might enable other dimensions of the work to come forward—not only in terms of recording the participant’s intentions, descriptions, and ambitions for the photographs they make but also to represent the dialogues we engage in and to depict other dimensions of who they are and our process of working together.
CW: Of course, when we start to think about photography as a social process—it is as much about those kinds of conversations, oral histories, and relationships as it is about a particular kind of object—then the ways in which that process appears, or not, in an archive or collection is fundamental.
AL: I didn’t embark on this work with a fixed idea of assembling a collection or an archive. As the work has developed over the years, a sense of guardianship for the safekeeping of the photographs, negatives, and other pieces of ephemera related to the participants and our working together has grown stronger. At the same time, it became evermore apparent to me that the collection in parts and as a whole might be able to usefully contribute to discussions about issues related to homelessness. That’s really how I started to think of it as a collection. These are some of the ethical concerns that come with doing this kind of work, and I think they need to be taken up by artists as much as anthropologists.
(1) The Vietnamese-American film-maker, writer, composer and academic, Trinh T. Minh-ha released her first film, Reassemblage, in 1982, created through ethnographic field research conducted in Senegal over three years. In this film Minh-ha critically reconsiders traditional conventions and techniques of ethnographic film-making through the use of nonlinear narrative, experimental soundtrack, and disjunctive editing. In the opening narration to the film Minh-ha states, “I do not intend to speak about / Just speak near by.”
(2) Sir Francis Galton (1822–1911) was, among many other things, an anthropologist and eu- genicist who devised a technique called composite photography. Images were produced by superimposing and combining multiple photographic portraits of different individuals to make one photographic image to represent a sort of natural kind—criminals, patients with tuberculosis, and so on. The intention was to arrive at a composite that could generalize the facial appearance of his subject into a type. Galton hoped his technique would aid medical diagnosis and even criminology through the identification of typical criminal face, but, after many experiments, he concluded that such types were not attainable in practice.