Manuel Vason’s artistic practice explores the relationship between photography and performance. The artist considers the capturing of a moment an act of creation, a ritual that contributes towards the illusion of immortality and an act of exchange between the person in front of the camera and the one behind it. The collaborative nature of his practice shapes a unique hybrid art form while also developing new vocabularies for art practice and art theory. His collaborations to date have become known as some of the most iconic images of performance.
Work produced during the ‘Becoming an Image’ collaborative actions workshop led by Manuel Vason during the 3rd Thessaloniki Performance Festival, 4th Biennale of Contemporary Art, 2013. Instructions issued to participants: Choose a single garment from what you or the people next to you are wearing. Using a table as a plinth transform your body into a sculpture that pleases you. Transform the action into a photograph. Fold the photograph into an origami.
Becoming an Image (2013-ongoing) is Vason’s first body of work which does not emerge from a series of collaborations with individual artists but rather from a group environment, in which Vason leads collaborative actions. At the 3rd Thessaloniki Performance Festival, which was part of the 4th Biennale of Contemporary Art in Greece in October 2013, he provided the framework for the artistic ‘event’ by issuing the participants of his workshop with various instructions but then allowing the performance to unfold in unpredictable ways. The point of departure for Vason’s project is the concept of the ‘Act of Exchange’, which involves exchanges between participating artists; between different practices, cultures, languages and ages; between different mediums of expression; between the artist and the location where the actions is taking place; and between the work produced and the viewers. The images produced become a form of skin with which to cover surfaces and three-dimensional objects. In the process, ideas are transformed into actions and then into photographs. Finally, the photographs become objects which aspire to provoke new ideas.
Work produced during the ‘Becoming an Image’ collaborative actions workshop led by Manuel Vason during the 3rd Thessaloniki Performance Festival, 4th Biennale of Contemporary Art, 2013. Instructions issued to participants: Choose a specific detail of your body which identifies who you are. Ask the person next to you to point out this detail with his/her tongue. Transform this action into a photograph. Present the image created into a transparent container immersed in water.
Yet the objects produced are not the sole aim or outcome aim of the artwork. Rather, the subject of Vason’s investigation is the artistic process itself, which is identified with the word ‘becoming’. The artwork undergoes constant transformation while also confronting its audience with a requirement to engage and comprehend it always anew.
Work produced during the ‘Becoming an Image’ collaborative actions workshop led by Manuel Vason during the 3rd Thessaloniki Performance Festival, 4th Biennale of Contemporary Art, 2013. Instructions issued to participants: Select a handle you particularly like. Hold the handle in your mouth and think of a specific door you would like to open. Transform the action into a photograph.
Manuel Vason in conversation with Photomediations Machine’s curator Joanna Zylinska
JZ: Photography seems to play an important role in your practice. Rather than being a mere documentation of a live act, something that is said to freeze and thus annihilate the action, it seems to be endowed with a much more vital force, being elevated to a role of an active agent in the performance itself. Could you comment a little on how you see this relation between performance and photography?
MV: My point of departure is that if you are interested in experiencing a performance, you should encounter it live, in direct interaction with its presentation. By no means do I intend to create images which have the arrogance of replacing or standing for the live performance. My practice is informed by the sense of frustration I experienced every time I had been asked to document a live performance. With all my good intentions and extensive dialogue with the performer artist, I never pretended to be able to create a document capable of replacing or standing for the live event. Therefore I decided to transform my frustration into a propitious drive and to experiment with an alternative form of photographic documentation.
I have tried to document the live action working with a performance artist before and after his or her presentation in front of a live audience. I would take a photograph using a large 10×8 Polaroid camera, allowing the performance artist to present the action by responding to the ‘instant’ image. Through this, I have treated the performance artist as a collaborator and have shared my photographic decisions with them (decisions with regard to the point of view, frame, focus, lighting, composition, etc.). I have arranged to stay at the performer’s house with the aim of developing more intimacy and trust between us. I have facilitated the creation of performances for the camera in site-specific locations, with the aim of distancing my collaborations from the ‘white’ wall of the gallery or the ‘black’ background of the theatre.
Recently I have been working on a new book project where a new performance is presented in two images: in the first image I will be the photographer and in the second I will be the body photographed by the performance artist. I think performance and photography share the concept of ‘presentation’. Both art forms tend to exhibit, both art forms aim to provoke an emotion in the audience. But the two art forms have a different relationship with time. While photography tends to encapsulate time, performance tends to develop with time. Instead of insisting on the differences, I tend to mix the two art forms with the purpose of creating new forms of extension or parallel existence.
JZ: I wanted to ask you about the specificity of the photographic medium for you and the forms of mediation it creates. What is it about photography that pushed you to set it up in this relationship with performance? (Why are you using photography and not, say, drawing – which could probably do the job of representation in a technical sense, even if less accurately?)
MV: I trained as a photographer before I encountered performance art. I have experienced a large number of live performances through my camera and sometimes I consider myself a live artist working with photography. I adore the conflicts and correspondences between the two art forms and I believe it is possible to practice in an ‘in-between area’, a hybrid art form. I’m also conscious of the power of the image and the possibility of communicating without any need of formal translation.
JZ: In the ‘Becoming an Image’ project you have instantiated a series of collaborative actions that have resulted in some stunning images. Did you have a certain idea of the kinds of ‘image’ that the participants were supposed to become?
MV: The Collaborative Actions are the result of the Becoming an Image workshop. During the first part of the workshop all the participants are asked to pull together a number of topics, personal drawing, statements, photographs, text, references, etc… All this material provides the basic ingredients for our actions. During the workshop my role swings between that of a leader and a participant… I do realize that sometime my inputs have a different weight but I love to produce and respond to material that is not mine.
JZ: What role did the instructions you gave to the participants serve in in the project; what were they aimed to do?
MV: During each workshop I have a really small amount of time to build trust and intimacy among the participants. The instructions are practical recipes for mental and physical actions. The true fortune of digital photography as a medium is the possibility of obtaining quick results. During the first few days the participants are bombarded with tasks in which they have to engage on their own as well as with the other participants’ bodies. The process requires commitment but the energy that follows is invaluable.
JZ: Are photographs more than a record of what happened then in this project? Can we go so far as to describe them as nonhuman participants of your actions?
MV: I hope these images function as agents. I hope they trigger the imagination of the viewer, I hope they provoke sensations, I hope they trigger future actions. The bodies in these images are equal to the bodies of the viewer. I believe we can all identify with these images and look at them with an active spirit of participation.
JZ: You highlight the notion of ‘exchange’ as shaping much of your practice, including this particular project. What kinds of risks and openings do you as an artist take in this kind of exchange?
MV: The reason why I do this kind of work is because I’m convinced I have been contaminated by the practices of all the artists I have collaborated with till today. When I exchange with another artist I do expose my own practice to the influence of my collaborator’s practice. The starting point of any collaboration is wiping out your expectations and the same time establishing what you are not prepare to compromise on. The benefit of this process is to solidify the principles of your practice while new alterations can also be introduced.
JZ: What kinds of gifts did you receive from the participants in this process of exchange? Were some of those gifts more unexpected than others?
MV: I would describe as gifts all those magical memories and experiences I collect during every workshop. Those gifts mark what I do, what I want to do and why.
JZ: I wanted to talk a little bit about the relationship between facilitation and control, and thus between hospitality and violence in your collaborations. This question arises out of my own interest in ethics – which I see as an opening onto the alterity of the other, into his or her in/humanity, in letting the relational exchange unfold beyond the control of the ethical subject. However, any ethical relation, i.e. any relation with otherness, is always potentially marked by violence – in the sense that there can be potentially too much proximity, too much love, too much creativity, etc. To make this relationship truly ethical we need to keep working not towards the elimination of violence (as that would be an impossible fantasy) but rather towards what the French-Lithuanian philosopher Emmanuel Levinas called ‘good violence’. Could you say a little about the role violence plays in your work?
MV: I don’t consider all violence as negative. I think violence is a human characteristic and, if repressed, can end up becoming even more dangerous. I think we should introduce the positive connotations of violence, transgression and contamination. Collaborative relationships exist in a constant attraction/repulsion mode: the condition is always unbalanced even if the aim is to reach the point of perfect equilibrium. This mechanism produces energy and if the energy is a channel towards some creative output then I think it is beneficial. In fact even destruction can be beneficial. I encourage diversity because I consider it closer to our intuitive being and in opposition to our rational inclination to control.
Collaborating artists at the 3rd Thessaloniki Performance Festival – 4th Biennale of Contemporary Art: Alexia Falla, Andreas Pashias, Antonis Dalkiranidis, Christina Georgiou, Lela Ramoglou, Maria Kremeti, Olga Brouma, Thalia Zachariadou.
Manuel Vason was born in Padua, Italy, in 1974. After having assisted some of the most celebrated fashion photographers of his generation in Milan, New York, Paris, London and Los Angeles, he pursued an MA in Fine Art at Central Saint Martins at University of the Arts in London. The focus of his research then shifted from the body as a subject to the relationship between photography and performance. In 2002 Vason published two books: Exposures, about the body in Live Art (Black Dog Publishing) and Oh Lover Boy, documenting a two-year collaboration with artist Franko B (Black Dog Publishing). In 2007 Vason had his first solo exhibition Encounters, which was accompanied by a 230-page catalogue (Arnolfini/Cornerhouse). His practice is constantly evolving, with the artist integrating different mediums and collaborative methods into it.