Returning The Negatives

Returning The Negatives: Comments.

A shared act of redress and closure that looks at failure, appropriation and responsibility between artist, community and commissioner. Fifteen locals in Bao Loc, Vietnam were asked to document everyday things they found important for one month. San Francisco gallery goers, in turn, were enlisted in the respectful act of mailing the negatives back to the picture-takers.

Returning The Negatives was a way to come to terms with the power structure underlying the community art project Shadow Followers was part of. As the artist I opened up my process of finding closure to the visitors of ampersand international arts. By openly declaring my own wrong-doing (committing a white lie) within an art system that is often entrenched with self-interest and egos, I invited the gallery audience to actively engage in a ritual of returning 59 rolls of photo negatives to the actual creators and proprietors in Vietnam.

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Excerpt from Lyn Bishop's blog on art, culture and collaboration.
commentsLyn Bishop, Sunnyvale

Shadow Followers

A mosaic of prints and profiles of each local photographer allowed their stories to unfold on the gallery wall [photo Lyn Bishop]

On Friday night (March 21st, 2008) the exhibit How Fast Your World Is Changing opened at Ampersand International Arts, 1001 Tennessee Street, in San Francisco. The opening reception was a lively event showcasing the work of Harrell Fletcher, Christine Hill, Hope Hilton, Jessica James Lansdon, Jennifer Delos Reyes and Markuz Wernli-Saitô.

In contrast to most of the gallery openings I've been to lately, this exhibit featured work that directly requested the viewers to take an active role in the work. It was less about gazing and more about participating, and as such, blurred the boundaries of a traditional art viewing experience. Curator Lori Gordon sets up opportunities that intentionallydeviate from the viewers expected experience.

Of all the interesting work presented, there were three pieces that I found myself continuing to think about: Hope Hilton's project Walk with Me, Jennifer Delos Reyes's piece Choral Society (for Lori Gordon), and Markus Wernli-Saito's project Returning the Negatives. Each one of these works asked me to engage in the experience in an almost invasive way, allowing me a participatory role in the outcome.

Returning the Negatives by Markuz Wernli-Saitô is perhaps the piece that I connected the most with. Wernli-Saitô spent 5 weeks working with a village of tea and coffee farmers in Bao Loc, Vietnam, providing villagers with a one-time-use camera, and requesting that they photograph their days in two hour increments. The villagers were the photographers. The artist meet with them weekly, encouraged their efforts, and formed a lasting relationships with the community. In his presentation at Ampersand, he created a mosaic of prints and profiles of each photographer and allowed their stories to unfold on the wall.

Shadow Followers

Gallery viewers finishing the project by returning the negatives to each of the individual photographers in Vietnam [photo Lyn Bishop]

In these photographs taken by villagers, I was taken back to my Global Fusion travels, seeing again the organic details of daily life of another's culture that feel so familiar to me. Wernli-Saito asks gallery viewers to assist him in finishing the project by requesting us to return the negatives to each of the individual photographers in Vietnam. In carefully prepared packages, Wernli-Saitô provides the materials; negatives, a contract stating we will post the pre-stamped and addressed envelopes (even providing us with the nearest mailbox, at Tennessee and 20th), a pre-printed personally addressed letter to the individual, and a postcard for us to write our own personal message. In this act, the project takes on a sort of pen-pal format, where we are granted access to the photography that describes their daily life, and in return, they receive back their negatives with a note from us, the viewers. In this act, the artist completes the project by returning ownership of the original film back to it's creator.

What do you think about art that involves you in the act of creation?

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“Your project was so well thought thru and executed going back full circle to the originators. it must feel very fulfilling.”
commentsMichelle, Moraga

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“You really do inspire me. And I think it was just so much fun for people to get a chance to really participate. You could see how carefully they followed the wonderful directions.”
commentsMD, Emeryville

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“Looks very cool, Markuz. I like the idea of having gallery visitors mail back the negatives.”
commentsKane, San Jose

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“This project is so great. Did you hear back from the curator? I'm interested to know how / what she thought.”
commentsJean Marie Casparian, Amherst

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“I looked at the photographs with a lot of joy. Among them are a few very precious images. What impressed me was that so many photos showed truly happy people. It is maybe a cliché that people who live in very modest conditions tend to be happier. But these photos demonstrate that small village communities are still socially intact and harmonious. Your project description brought up certain images in me but seeing the actual result was really remarkable.”
commentsThomas Sturm, San Francisco


How Fast Your World Is Changing
Returning The Negatives was part of How Fast Your World Is Changing, an international group show that took place between March 21 and April 25, 2008 and was curated by Lori Gordon. HFYWIC offered works with a profound interest in the viewer as participant, as well as concept of reciprocation. Harrell Fletcher, Christine Hill, Hope Hilton, Jessica Landsdon, Jennifer Delos Reyes and Markuz Wernli Saito each have a practice invested in connecting with others — for art and life to intersect, inclusive of one another. If the title of the exhibition alludes to the idea of change within the boundaries of the gallery (some of the pieces did evolve over time), it also reflects on our general sense of reality.

ampersand international arts
Founded in 1999, ampersand international arts is a contemporary arts space dedicated to championing and nurturing emerging and mid-career artists and creating a critical conversation around their work. ampersand promotes intercultural dialogue and collaboration between artists, curators, & arts enthusiasts, cultivating an understanding of diverse aesthetic and cultural perspectives.

THANK YOU: LeNgoc Son (project assistant), Nguyen Tan Dat (translations), Phan Chi Mai (translations), MD Dundon (editing), Sadao Kawamura & Dung Tang Tan, Fujifilm (cameras & photo processing), Thomas Sturm (scanning), Marianne Erni, Pro Helvetia — Swiss Council for the Arts; Bruno Mauro. Shadow Followers was part of The Bao Loc Project, curated by Sue Hajdu (albb Saigon), 2007.