FOAM Blog repost #2 A Call from the Wilderness, or What Gets Lost and What Gets Created by Ken Schles
Far from it for me to second-guess policy concerning the Eurozone’s economic crisis or make statements on Dutch economic policy or policies that affect regional arts funding in provincial areas. I am not Dutch and have no standing in a political world I admittedly know little of. I have, however been the recipient of the largesse afforded to me by the Dutch government and, vicariously, by extension, the Dutch people. And for that I am eternally grateful. For without that support it is highly doubtful that I would be sitting here now and writing to you today, wherever you live, be it in Amsterdam or Brooklyn, Guangdong province or Bursa.
Thirteen years ago, when I was still plowing the Internet with a 28.8k dial-up modem, I got a message from across the sea. It was eleven years after I published my first book, Invisible City, eleven years after the death of my older brother and some years after I had seriously given up trying to show my work in galleries here in the United States. The commercial galleries at the time were not interested in the “difficult” photographic work I was offering. My work didn’t fit in with what traditional photographic galleries were exhibiting—and the “regular” art world seemed locked into capitalizing on other, more saleable media. We were in the aftermath of the culture wars here in America but they still dominated the discussion. Either you were for certain kinds of work or against art. Intellectually and conceptually there was little room for much else that was new or that wasn’t easily commoditized. I knew of few opportunities or possibilities to find an audience for the work I was making but I continued to work, for the most part, in isolation. However, there was that message from the wilderness. I wasn’t sure how to reconcile it—it didn’t fit in with my American experience. I had long since stopped trying to reconcile what I was producing as an artist and trying to figure out how it might be received, as it often necessitated a lengthy personally delivered preamble that was just as often misinterpreted: But again, there was that email from across the ocean. The world suddenly and unceremoniously was opening up in ways that were inconceivable to me and technically impracticable only a few years earlier.
Wim Melis and Ton Broekhuis, from Noorderlicht in Groningen, a small foundation in a small corner of a small country had emailed me to see what I had been up to in the years since I made my book Invisible City. Together, with the guidance of the Dutch photographer, Machiel Botman, they were curating an exhibition provisionally named “Wonderland.” This exhibition was, as Botman put it:
“…about photography that does not conform and often comes into being against trends; photography that involves little money and is above all a reflection of the photographer’s personal world, surroundings and sometimes family and friends. Photography that comes into being in the shelter of life and often remains a well kept secret. Wonderland is about small and usual things, the photos showing an intimate and personal existence that seems, at first sight, to take place in a rather dark world. At second sight, however, the viewer can discover a meaning or emotion hiding behind a picture. It is up to the viewer to be amazed at the value of the seemingly small, unequivocal and everyday.”
Their approach constituted a turning point in several ways. For one, it was a turning point in the way that photographic books were being accepted and publically thought about. And for me, it was a turning point in that I was beginning to develop connections to people outside my provincial New York arts community, and have my work seen outside the United States by an interested and supportive audience.
I went on to finish and exhibit that eleven-year project initiated by the deathbed realization of my brother, who thought that much of his life’s assumptions turned out to be little more than a fool’s errand. That project, a visual deconstruction of societal violence on the nascent cusp of a yet to happen 9/11, was given central space in the Wonderland exhibition. The Geometry of Innocence was soon published by Hatje Cantz (Ostfildern, Germany, 2001). I went on to show that work at C/O Berlin and in Cologne and in art fairs across Europe. Which is to say that for not much more than a plane ticket, some wall space in an old church, a bit of paint, some float glass and a promise, Noorderlicht launched an important phase of my career as a working artist, exhibitor and bookmaker. And for that I cannot repay them enough—or the Dutch people, who, through a small amount of their tax money gave hope to a struggling artist from across the sea.
Hope and time are two elements that artists need to survive, but they cannot thrive without patronage or without an audience. Noorderlicht has provided me with hope and time on many occasions and helped me to extend my voice and find an audience. I’ve shown in three of their festivals and exhibited in their gallery on three other occasions. They’ve commissioned new work, and have asked me to give artist’s talks for which I am most happy to oblige. They have, most recently published my fourth monograph to much international interest and acclaim. But they have given thousands of other photographers a voice as well and brought the world and the best of photographic practice to provincial Groningen. They have been at the forefront of bringing non-western perspectives to an oft-time jaded western audience saturated in it own media generated assumptions. Could they do more? Certainly. And I hope that they might. But their future is at stake.