AN INTERVIEW

with William Jefrett at the Location One's artist in residence program in New York during Winter 2006

William Jefrett - In 2004 you presented a body of work called paisagem emprestada/borrowed landscape. Can you tell me a little bit about this idea of borrowed landscapes?

Mariana Viegas - Starting from the notion of Japanese Gardens - in Japan, a garden is designated a borrowed landscape - I decided to put together a group of photographs from different locations, enhancing the idea of nature-landscape-created areas.

W.J. The way you approach this idea of borrowed landscape is through photography and if I understood correctly is a kind of straight form of photography in the sense that it is a non-manipulated form of photography.

M.V. Yes, it's a non-manipulated process. But, at the same time, I would like the photographs to have a kind of manipulative feeling to them.

In that sense, the way they are composed and the way I approach some of the people in the images is done as if they had been manipulated or as if they have been directed some way.

I want to create that ambiguity in the photographic work.

And then, the fact that these images are placed together - from different sources - like, they come from different countries and from different experiences. Yet, they are not travel photographs, of course but, they are from different geographies and we can actually sense it.

So, the way that they are brought together - they are borrowed from their original place - and then brought together to create yet another landscape, and that one a pretty artificial one, in the gallery space, with the photographs on the wall.

W.J. Do you work mainly with film photography, as opposed to digital photography, or you also do some digital?

M.V. I don't use digital at all. I use the orthodox photography and I am really interested in studying the media that way, in a very unsophisticated way

I mean, I like the idea that a photograph is something en-layered and I have the felling that digital photography is something’Ķmore superficial.

The way that things come out in digital it's just different, like: there're no blurry areas, everything becomes very perfect, too perfect, I think.

W.J. In a given sense you are interested in artifice, but not through the manipulation of the images, more through kind of staging in the images.

Not through the kind of Photoshop style of intervening in the image but more through the positioning.

M.V. Yes, it's more about the way we are looking.

The way I'll be looking it's already an artificial way, in the sense that it's a relative point of view. I create an artificial point of view but I never create it in a computer, although I unveil that possibility: some of the images may have seamed that they had been built, or, may have seamed to be manipulated.

And I find that very important: to unveil that possibility, but not really bringing it openly into the work.

W.J. When you present the physical objects, they are printed on paper, using a sort of sequence and I wondered about the concept of documentary and whether the concept of documentary has any interest for you. Not necessarily in its classical sense of photo-reportage, but by stretching the imagination in some kind of larger, more amplified sense.

A lot of artists developed their careers about that sort of idea. Is this an idea you find intriguing?

M.V. I think it's very interesting to think about documentary in its first sense, in the very descriptive way. Because documentary tends to evolve to a more personal and almost fictional point of view and I think photography always bears with it the documentary, a kind of photocopy of the real. It's supposed to be so.

To be working with a media that at the same time is very documental, and, just by turning a little bit on the side or say, by looking a little bit closer, it becomes very narrative and very fictional it's very interesting.

Thinking about Bunuel's documentary Las Hurdes, at the same time we have a very straight, neo-realistic documentary yet we can't avoid seeing in that film a lot of surrealism influence, since the author is present. I am interested in that kind of approach more than documentary in the sense of an un-partial documentation of the real.

W.J And so, within this idea of the real, you interested in the way that the real is sort of transformed into the fictional

M.V. Yes, I think that it's worth looking at things in a way that they can be totally transformed - starting from the way that you are looking at them - and, in my point of view, that's pretty much what art is

W.J. Photography is a kind of segment in time that isolates a particular image.

I wanted to ask you about this idea of how landscape is a kind of body in transformation and the way in which there is a kind of rapport between: landscape as a body and the body in the landscape, and the body of the viewer in the landscape.

M.V. when photographing landscape and natural environment or so-called natural environment I am really interested in this matter of transforming and being transformed.

I like to look this understanding my presence there and I would understand my presence there, through understanding others people's presence there.

So, as other bodies have past that landscape frame and had left their imprint or some sort of marks or signs, or even possibilities of signs.

This makes me think about a photograph that I did recently on a trip to the Wild American West: this is somewhere in Arizona, and we are in a National Park and everything seams really wild and I do a photograph. And I framed it with a little bit of somebody that is hiding in some part of the image, like going away - hiding behind a tree or something, like, passing around the layer. Then, there's a little bit of a path that is made from asphalt there, too, while in the backdrop we see this amazing landscape of the Grand Canyon - which stands for the American wild landscape

But, even that kind of landscape became impregnated with so many signs and references, movie references for example and also this smaller signs like, the fact that there is a road which it is not anymore a path walk, but it is an asphalt road.

This kind of signs make it a body in the sense of layers that are growing on, getting old in one sense, it's being transformed - maybe not growing old but being transformed, in the same aspect that we are being transformed with our experiences. Our body is being transformed with those experiences as well so, in that sense I fell that the whole thing is a body so it's an interactive platform and this is a little bit that idea of the body.

W.J. We talk about the relation of nature in one hand, and the idea of a certain kind of urban structure on the other. And, maybe the tension between these things and also the way that nature is constructed within an urban frame or on the edges of an urban framework and how this tension is sort of reproduced in a way in your work

M.V. The interest that I find while working with green areas in a city is that they try to be a little copy of this wild landscape that we bear in memory and that man tries to transport to the city. Like wanting to have a little bit of wild or wild-looking landscape near us. Take as an example Central Park: there are these stones and these areas with trees and lakes, even a waterfall. And while looking at them, they really seam to be like some very wild scenery but, in fact, they were copied from these to the city.

So, I think that the phenomena of green areas in the city is interesting as a point of resistance in a way and as a point of nostalgia, say memory. So, these two things I bear in mind as very intriguing, they are intriguing in my work, I think it over as well as I look at little pieces of nature: the community gardens and this kind of resisting green

W.J. Within that frame of thought, I want to ask about this people that are figures in these landscapes. They are often people that happen to be there, so in a sense the gaze of the photographer is cast toward them through the lens of the camera.

How do you think about your relation to that situation? Are there dangers of them as becoming kind of objects: the exotic objects of the camera or do you have the active gaze for them and they are kind of oblivious to a certain degree, often oblivious and sometimes not, I suppose. It seams often oblivious

M.V. Yes, specially when they are at a distance!

W.J. So, is there a danger of, somehow, these characters becoming exotic within this sort of idea of nature: they are making it more colorful, they become like elements in the landscape, is there a danger of that?

M.V. I don't see a danger in that, I think they are, actually, they become witnesses of something, they become, they sort of become myself, or the viewer, in the picture. The fact that they exist there, in the frame gets us more involved - involved into a narrative, by having somebody there.

It pulls you in some kind of frame or landscape and, the fact that those characters are not doing anything very defined or hardly are doing something, makes it more strange, it becomes ambiguous: What are they really doing there? Are these people that I know and decided to compose the image with or, are they just walker-bys?

W.J. and, do you work both ways: do you compose a scenario where you have actors whom you tell to be or it has to be discovered or encountered for the most part, people who happened to be there, whether or not they are aware of you?

M.V. Whether or not they are aware, it depends. There is like a security distance: so, if I am really able to describe their faces, if there's a gaze like now we are looking at each other, I can't avoid asking and explaining a little bit what I am doing and eventually they will tell me if they want to be photographed or not. If so I will just let then be there. So, when that meeting doesn't exist, I'm just waiting for them to be on a certain position so that they will eventually take part of the picture.

W.J. So, in a sense, the kind of composition of the image implies a narrative. But, the narrative is a very ambiguous not clear one because the narrative is carefully chosen and whatever the person happens to be doing may have not be related to how they figure within the selected image.

The photographic narrative is perhaps separate from whatever action they happen to be involved in. It's more quite like a pictorial narrative in a sense, a fictional narrative.

M.V. Yes, I suppose it's closer to an idea of a setting. So, sometimes I am choosing a set and I am waiting for someone to go there or eventually somebody comes out there or, I will just leave the set as a set and I will photograph it without people at all.

It's interesting when you put it that way because in fact the photograph has already a layer - the backdrop set - and from then, depending on how people are there, it becomes one sort of narrative or another. And it can be totally different, like: if they are facing me or if they are there, walking by or if they are with somebody else looking at them. All these relations suggest other narratives on top of this set.

W.J. Maybe we should take this specific example of Marvila a specific place, is that right, near Lisbon?

That particular body of work within your work has almost like a kind of anthropological element to it, in that particular one. The way people function in a situation, and I was kind of curious about that and this also relates to things we have been talking about earlier: a sense, this thing about gardening and space, specific green places within a certain kind of urban context or at the edge of an urban context and perhaps it will be the correct thing to say: at a peculiar instance.

M.V. Marvila is an area that, if you go there, you think it's already outside the city but it's still in the geographical map of Lisbon. It is what remains of something that was once rural and kind of between rural and industrial landscape. There are a lot of buildings that were built for people that were brought from other areas, it's a kind of co-ops, programs, social housing.

So, this people living there are people that arrived in the city coming from the countryside, and this is where the anthropological part, I think, would be starting: It's for me interesting to describe a little bit with the work this mix of people that were coming from different places. They arrived between the 60s and the 80s, some of them from the Portuguese ex-colonies in Africa and some of them were from very rural, countryside areas, northern Portugal.

So, they come to the city, an in twenty years of mixing at this point, maybe ten years ago or something like, there was all this construction in this area. And these are sort of neighborhoods that are connected through roads. In order to move, people that want to get from one neighborhood to another walk or they take the bus and from then they walk and they form these system of paths along the green surviving areas.

They use these areas that are not built yet as walkways and as gardens as well, as vegetable gardens. Far away from the idea that we would use a garden, they use it in a sense of recovering something that they lost. They are bringing something that was already there with them, as they come from the countryside and want to continue this in the city. They want to know where their food comes from, and they want to have that relation.

It was very interesting to document this very resistant part of the city, very far away from the center, from what you would see normally and from the city itself and its businesses.

This work was divided in two parts, one is a small film: a documentary film about a vegetable garden. It's all set in a vegetable garden and with its people. At some point they start to sing because they are very happy having a party there at the local vegetable garden, like at home.

The second part is photo series, and this was more about the generation after, urban kids. These are kids that are going to school by walking these pathways and they are very urban looking. And they will never be growing vegetables in their lives, I am sure. They are very much into Nike-Adidas brands and within the consumer society frame. But they are living in this area which mixes these two worlds and, that is I think, the anthropological interest there.

W.J. in your other work - borrowed landscape - you do you mix things from different geographical areas but this is more of a kind of a self contained by the nature of the project itself

M.V. Marvila project was part of an event, an invite. Artists were asked to work with notions such as public space, nothingness and emptiness. In my point of view, there was a relation to growing up and being an adolescent. Growing up in a place that has a lot of communication systems, these paths, that are not designed in the map of the city.

This helped me to bring up something that was not there, in the map, so it's kind of empty, yet it can be photographed and it's pretty much part of people's life.

W.J. Again, we find this kind of tension or parallel presence of green space and the urban one, or partially urban, on the other hand and their relationship.

We talked one day about this idea of the allotment garden movement and, there's something about all this that's similar to that and yet it doesn't seam to be so directed or charged. A strange idea how you can employ the gardens, gardens in the sense of vegetable gardens and not rose gardens

M.V. To start with, I think it's not so organized!

Like, the allotment gardens is a movement from I suppose Holland or Germany and these are stripes of land with little cabins where you keep your tools and you go there on weekends or every time you have free time and you grow everything, but you don't really go just to be there. It's just to grow things and come back to the city, it's not a hangout place. It's placed outside and yet it's not public and I think that's very interesting and I bring that again when I work in the community-gardens in New York City. These again are like, private places yet they are open to the public, and you can see then all around the city through iron net fences.

So, the funny thing in these gardens in New York City is that people really want to hangout there, they meet there and so there is this relation of not only to grow vegetables but also to have nice flowers and just taking pictures there or maybe just taking a nap or reading a book or having some tea outside.

W.J. Now I will ask you a couple of things about your background and your experience. You do come from more general work that is more documental perhaps than what we have been talking about, where there's a pure documentary interest and I just wanted to know more about that.

M.V. I have done a lot of work as a set photographer.

W.J. That was my next question, and so you can address both of them, but I have seen that you have done a lot of more general documentary work and also this work as a set photographer. And of course set photography is quite different from documentary in a sense

M.V.¬ÝIt is. It is and it isn't!

W.J. But there are also quite distinct from the other body of your work, so I am kind of curious whether that as an experience informed or if they were just things that you happened to be doing, but I suspect they are not.

M.V. At some point I was doing some freelance work in photography and I would actually re-do it some other time having the opportunity. This work that would be on the verge of being documental, it's documentary but yet it is a little bit slower than documentary.

I will try to explain this idea of slowness in photography or maybe an idea of silence versus noise or music. When you really want to be very documental and very straight documental you would be describing everything and you would be playing some kind of instrument by doing so, like some kind of noise would go and lots of information would be important in the image.

My documental photographic projects were a little bit more silent. So they were approaching some of the work that I would be doing afterwards. They were all connected and I never disconnected my work as a freelancer with the work as an artist, it's all melted and coming from the same source.

Yet, it was kind of tricky sometimes. But all this is like a school. It's very interesting to start with documentary and portrait as I was doing both and do also set-photography.

All this came to be like a study of what I would later be developing as an artist. So, it was like a preamble and also it was like a pretext to be working with the tools and not being so exposed.

Things - images - had a very wide spread, they would be printed in magazines or they would be for example, with the movies, in newspapers and posters. At the same time they were much more anonymous than the work that I do now. Now when I do a photograph, it will be there and it's my responsibility and not the producer or the newspaper's edition. So, there was a kind of anonymity that was interesting to that kind of work and that helped me to grow inside.

W.J. Coming back to current work, I am kind of intrigued by this idea that photography could be understood as a sort of instrument of knowledge perhaps: a kind of tool of knowledge rather than a kind of mechanical reflection of something.

I mean, people tend to’Ķ it's popular to think about Photography as if it was almost like a mirror for reality reflection and, because it's a mechanical process it sort of does lead itself to some degree to that.

Perhaps that's how it's used in its most colloquial sense but it's also interesting to think about it as a sort of instrument of knowledge and it strikes me that that's more the way you're going and I am curious about that.

M.V. There is, of course, an instrument and a technical sensibility if you want to put it that way. It is impossible to photograph without having a camera in front of you and having all that process going on. And there's a moment when the film is not yet developed and enlarged when you actually don't know what was going on, there's a gap there. But, apart from that, the way I am looking at things is with a touching eye. In that point of view, it's not the camera that is there it’Äôs the touching eye kind-of-thing.

However it can be described there're many different ways of talking about that. So, what really interests me is point of view, the way that you have something in front of you and how you want to go around, walk around, walk back and fourth until you have it as a toll, like things become tolls in front of you, and then you can compose with those that. So a tree becomes really like a plain tree, something that you can go around and it becomes different, it becomes: a tree on the left or a tree on the right or in front of you. So this is more like doing a construction within a learning process than just framing

W.J. I guess there's a sort of sense in isolating a moment in the time you are segmenting - and you used that word: gap - in the sense of gap between the image and any other images, the possible potential images which you are not choosing for whatever reason. And I don't think that what you are after is a sort of idea of the decisive image in a classic photographic idea, but a kind of sense that slowing down, in the way you read the image and this is related to the process of isolating.

The phenomenological isolation of selecting an image is one thing but of course, the image that results from it, the actual photograph in this case, is another and that also has a kind of sense, a sense of gap.

Your images invite us to reflect in a way in which this kind of idea of photography as knowledge or as a metaphor - or whatever you want to call it - exists. By slowing things down in a sense, whether is through video whether is through photography they invite the viewer to another rhythm of reflection, in a sense and I suppose has to do with viewing the images where something is effectively constructed in a sense, even though it's no through manipulation, in this case.

M.V. I think that when the images are edited they become, there is a period of edition in a photographers work or in my work and it goes from the moment where I forget what I did, kind of that gap - between being a printed thing, and the process of looking and kind of, asking that image: does that image have space enough to be shared? or if there is space enough to be filled with things, other things? Again, if it can be composed by each of the viewers or if it just falls. And that's the editing process.

W.J. As a way of ending we could come back to where we have started: this idea of landscape and, given what we've been talking about, the question is: what is landscape from your point of view? Although I suppose the motive of the question is: to what degree is landscape itself somehow this kind of way of formulating knowledge like photography itself? To what degree is it a construction, a selection and so on

M.V. Precisely, landscape can be so many things because it is such a descriptive word: you could talk about urban landscape, you could talk about mental landscape, psychological landscape and you could even talk about memory landscape and go on to more strange areas. It is such a wide representing thing

W.J. But it is a consistent factor in your work, I think. It's an ongoing presence and that's my motive is that: how you think about landscape in terms of how would you defined if you were asked

M.V. I would leave it open as a question rather then taking the step to describe it. That lead us again to the idea of the bodies: a body which is something that is very organic so it's very transformed and being transformed in different layers, physically and mentally, historically and depending on the references that you're picking up in the moment you describe it. So, it is something that will always remain in a kind of lab-thing, in a kind of composition process. It's more in the process and in the question, than in definition.

W.J. So, in that sense, an element in your work asks the question what is landscape? - as opposed to a proposition that could say landscape is X or whatever. Well, it is a good way of ending

Dr. William Jefrett is Curator of Exhibitions at the Dali Museum, Miami