Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh in conversation with Kelvin Haizel: on Imaging, Imagining, Dreaming, and more.
Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh (IUB): What does it mean for you to be able to dream and/or exercise imagination in the context of your artistic work?
Kelvin Haizel (KH): My art practice revolves around the image (in both still and moving form) and just like dreams or imagination, gravity can give way to the free flow of signs in these spaces. The 1992 Hollywood film “Death Becomes Her” directed by Robert Zemeckis, and starring Meryl Streep (as Madeline), Bruce Willis (as Dr. Menville), and Goldie Hawn (as Helen) offers an excuse to respond. In the plot, both Madeline and Helen drink a potion which gives them eternal youthfulness, on condition that they take care of their bodies. But what they soon find out is that they became living corpses of themselves after drinking the potion. Their eternal youthfulness is only preserved through death. And since they no longer had Dr. Menville to run routine repairs on their bodies they became Frankensteins of their old selves. In the closing scene, they both fall from a staircase and break into several parts, and Helen’s severed head asks Madeline’s where she parked their car. Isn’t this potion akin to photography in its attempt at preserving life only by bringing death to its subjects (à la Barthes)? In essence, they enter a space where natural laws do not apply. They became photographs. They escape reality to where gravity has no hold on what is possible. And isn’t that exactly what dreams, imagination and even nightmares, afford the living? Perhaps it is the way dreams and imagination, like images, can circumvent the force of gravity, that offers the most liberating potential for me in my practice.
IUB: In a way, what you describe reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s novel ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ where a semblance of eternity is preserved in a painted portrait. How does this perspective you derive from mediums such as photography and cinema (with the literary example as well) shape your conception of time– literal, virtual, fantasy, etc?
KH: It is interesting you mention ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’. Although I am yet to read Oscar Wilde’s novel, I have treated myself to the 2009 British fantasy-horror drama film titled ‘Dorian Gray’ after Wilde. In this film, the young Dorian Gray’s painted portrait is not only a representation of him, but it also becomes the real thing that ages (affected by time) while Dorian himself remains youthful (the perfect picture). However, whatever Dorian Gray does affects his portrait. For example, when he cuts himself, it is the portrait that bleeds. This is to say that the picture is not just a dead or frozen moment in time; it lives parallel to, participates in, and affects reality. It is an eternity that lives in the temporal. Something even more exciting happens; Dorian’s scars prior to the portrait also disappears. Although eternity is, in a sense, a moment which lasts forever (unchanging), his is an eternity that goes through changes. It is as though the picture crosses over to the mortal world to edit itself— like an eternal God coming to die and resurrect. One could relate it to how pictures of today cross over from screens into our literal space as Hito Steyerl suggests. We could also turn to the contest between Zeuxis and Parrhasius for a second. Just as the judge of Zeuxis’ genius was signaled by a bird, Dorian’s decaying portrait was hinted at by maggots. Furthermore, in Zeuxis’ painting, the bird flies into an illusion of painted grapes, whereas in Dorian’s portrait one maggot drops from the portrait and lands in front of Dorian. In this sense, the portrait does not only pierce through the screen into reality, but reality also pierces into the eternal picture to affect it. Time in this regard is not conceived as moving from The Flintstones to The Jetsons, but in the more complex sense of heterochrony. I guess these are some of the things I pay attention to as I decoy images in my work.
IUB: Right, Wilde’s novel comes to terms with such immanently conflicting notions of time. Taking you up on the “decoys”, how exactly has this technique been employed in your work? Since your oeuvre involves layering various image forms, perhaps you could demonstrate through a particular work how this is achieved?
KH: I’m glad you took the bait! My most recent work “Birdcall 961: Appendix C” (2020) which was presented at the maiden Stellenbosch Triennial earlier this year should suffice. In this project, a line drawing is made by cutting a path into an 18m wall of plasterboard and lighted with an LED light strip. It appears to be a light drawing (another kind of photograph). And the path is also not arbitrary, it is a transcription of the path made by the Ethiopian airline flight 961 as it hovered in the sky until it crash-landed in the Comoros Island (1996). The path indexes hours of movement plotted into a single moment. It becomes a bundle of times spread out before one’s senses. No longer a succession of unfolding activities. Unlike a ‘whatever-Wood’ film where centuries are compressed into two hours on the big screen, here, not even a millisecond is lost. The entire duration of the hijacking ordeal is encountered in a single burst of light. In principle, this could even be an experience that relates to, and at the same time surpasses, real-time processing given that while the light drawing is only a skeuomorph, it is also a bunch of codes which temporarily find their material expression in the LED lights and plasterboard in the exhibition. There are no delays, the codes transcribe duration without breaks, the moving image becomes one with the still, duration becomes an event.
IUB: Did this work involve sound?
KH: Indeed, not only sound but the tactile sensation of braille-as-image is also brought unto the same surface to complete and perhaps complicate the total picture. Siding with other senses to escape the “stifling hegemony of sight” (Bonaventure Ndikung)1, my approach to the image has always been, however subtle, to disturb this over-dependence on the ocular. In the work cited above, transcripts of the conversation between hijackers of the airplane and the pilots were translated into braille form and fixed unto the same surface occupied by the light drawing. In this way, sound finds its loudest expression in image terms via the silent tactility of the braille.
IUB: Fascinating. It seems to me that the image operations at play in Birdcall 961: Appendix C — whether as sound, felt, still, or moving— at once point to sources beyond themselves, in terms of the quasi-documentary approach, while moving beyond this kind of conformism to verisimilitude with the freedoms exercised in the artistic decisions to transform them into ambivalent image-things in their own right. Now let me zoom in on your work with moving images. The postproduction work Bangbang332 (2016) is a silent video where you summon a similar poetics by highlighting the tensions at play between still and moving images. Tell us about the techniques and methods used in this work as well.
KH: Sure, but please permit me to take a slight detour before I jump into this piece. In Thomas Nail’s attempt to offer a kinetic theory of the image, he dismisses the conception of the image as mimetic, a representation, a copy, and so on; to which I also subscribe. He proposes that the image is “the mobile process by which matter folds and reflects itself into various structures of sensation and affection”3. Essentially it is a folded matter. Image is then not extrinsic to material, it is, in fact, all material. My approach to the work Bangbang33 shares a similar logic. To produce another possibility of a material manifestation of the image received by way of digital technology. The piece is a 20minutes moving image developed from an initial 1.32 seconds 720p video, downloaded from YouTube. The otherwise hurried viewing of the latter is substituted for the delayed contemplation of the former. By increasing the duration of the video from 1.32 seconds to 20 minutes on the editing timeline, the moving image slowed down completely into what seemed like still frames pulsating into being. What would have been sensed in seconds now lasts 20 minutes and moves at a painfully slow pace causing the frames to behave at certain moments as if it is a still composition. Also, it remains a “poor image” per the class system of images as it gains weight in terms of file size (something associated with HD, 4K, and other higher classes of images). One could say, its digital matter had folded unto itself too many times through the duplication process the video goes through as duration expands. In effect, its weight inhibits mobility; both as moving image sensed on a screen, and as a digital file to share from one device to another. Consequently, Bangbang33 approached stasis as it gained weight relative to duration. To infer from Nail’s proposition then, Bangbang33 is paradoxically matter folded unto itself too many times, thus appearing both as still and moving image.
IUB: And so, in effect, this visual image is always in the process of becoming: it is both still image and moving image, and not any of them in particular. Let us move on now to the braille. How did this felt image come to factor into your system of montages and what does it give to your work?
KH: It was initially a gift from a friend which took my interest in that direction. In 2016, while developing a piece with sign language at the Disabilities Department at KNUST4, I became friends with a young woman who was visually impaired. She told me she woke up one morning to a mild headache and ignored it as a familiar sensation. On her way to lectures that day she collapsed and woke up completely in the dark. Having learned to live with it, she recognizes me by my perfume anytime I am close by and always feels my hand to verify my presence. Towards the end of my sign project with them, she gave me a medicine package with braille embossment and read it to me as an indication of how she ‘sees’. It was the first time I had noticed that this pattern of raised dots which shared the same surface as the printed text, did not conform to the syntax of the printed information. That was the moment of epiphany for me, realizing that the braille contains ‘folds’ directed at expanding possibilities for symbolic communication. The interest for me now is how it can complicate notions of visuality that privilege sight as it cohabits pictorial surfaces. Even overlapping in most cases. The network of relations it brings to the picture always requires one to learn anew. If anything has been more transformative in my approach to the image, then all credit goes to this gift I received. It is this transformative potential in the gift that manifests in these montages as you describe them.
IUB: Now, what can you say about the potency of dreaming and imagining— particularly if we consider that we presently inhabit a world in lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic?
KH: We find that the consequence of this pandemic has transformed our entire social space. Sociality has instantly become a taboo in the realm of the physical, leaving us to regroup only online. We experience one another as pictures. Indeed, we have all literally been translated into pictures. The emergent consolation to this loss is to Zoom in groups, and the way we have learned to cope is to #challenge ourselves to imagine ways to stitch, collage, montage ourselves, and transition from one still or moving picture composition to the next. #dontrushchallenge #fliptheswitchchallenge to name just two. For me, imagining anew is a prerequisite for a post-corona world. What we are left with, is to join Pinocchio in dreaming it was real again. But given that the world that transformed us into pictures might no longer exist, we are compelled to invent another reality, another world. If we think of this pandemic as a portal, as novelist and dissident writer Arundhati Roy has described it5, a portal could equally return us to the world that existed prior to the crisis. COVID-19 is something like a solvent, an acid that is dissolving the old world. However we emerge out of it, it will be interesting to consider in what ways we will continue to learn to live as pictures.
*** This interview forms part of the virtual project Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh is collaboratively developing with LABO148 titled New Cartographies: Letters from the “Whole World” (2020) on the theme ‘to dream, to imagine’. See more on https://www.labo148.com/nouvelles-cartographies/
Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh is an artist, curator, and writer based in Kumasi and a member of the Exit Frame Collective in Ghana. He was a co-curator for the 12th edition of Bamako Encounters: Biennale of African Photography (November 30th, 2019 – January 31st, 2020).
Kelvin Haizel investigates the contemporary condition of the image by complicating its received notions via photography, video, braille, installations, and objects. His installation titled “things and nothings” showed in Mali, at the 11th edition of the Rencontres de Bamako, Biennale Africaine de la Photographie, entitled Afrotopia in 2017. In the same year, he was invited as a guest curator to the maiden edition of the Lagos Biennale. Haizel won the price for young contemporary photography “A New Gaze 2” presented by Vontobel Art Commission in 2018, in Switzerland. He has exhibited extensively across the African continent and in Europe, his most recent being the Stellenbosch Triennial ‘Curators’ Exhibition’, 2020. Haizel holds an MFA degree in Painting and Sculpture from Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. He belongs to two collectives; blaxTARLINES and Exit Frame. Haizel blogs on http://kelvinhaizel.blogspot.com .
1 See Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, “Of a Photographic State of Being: Delivering the Photographic from Photography”. Streams of consciousness: A concatenation of dividuals. (Berlin: Archive Books, 2019)
2 Banbang33 was featured in the exhibition Spectacles. Speculations… curated by Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh in 2018. See more information here https://iubeezy.wordpress.com/exhibitions/spectacles/works/ .
3 See Thomas Nail, “What is an Image”. Theory of the Image. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019)
4 Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Ghana.
5 See Arundhati Roy, “The Pandemic is a Portal”. Published by Financial Times. April 3, 2020. https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca