Interview with kara lynch
NOTE #1: A version of this interview was first published in the catalogue of the exhibition GhostBusters II (Haunted by Heroes), a two person show with Delio Jasse and kara lynch at Savvy Contemporary, Berlin in August/September 2013 curated by Nadine Siegert and myself.
NOTE #2: INVISIBLE is a long-form audio/video project that asks the question: what if the transatlantic slave trade never happened?
NOTE #3: The Archivist’s Vault: It is the present. Haunted by the past and doubtful of the future, The Archivist excavates the vault. She dusts off relics cataloging each artifact. From this vast inventory she selects series for the viewing public.
NOTE #4: The interview is structured in two sections. For the first, a set of questions was emailed to the artist, and returned with answers. In the second, a continuation of this conversation is published, which consists of an edited version of a Skype type-chat between us, which took place on Monday 29 July 2013.
STORM (S): Gascia Ouzounian has described your project INVISIBLE as “a kind of haunting, and it is itself haunted; a presence marked by loss and absence”. In the context of the exhibition GhostBusters II, could you perhaps elaborate on this aspect of your work?
kara (k): I sometimes talk about conjuring and clairvoyance in INVISIBLE. This happens at a micro level in the writing and envisioning of the backstory in that I don’t always know where these characters and their voices are coming from… for instance I’ll find an image of a group of beads that are in the collection of an ethnographic museum in the Netherlands, and set out to write. I’m never sure which of the characters will grab onto this image or these objects. I start writing, and proof there’s the archivist describing them. This is also how I began making sense the photograph of Laura and L.W. Nelson’s lynching that set off episode 03. On a macro level, the installations and performances are meant to transport us. This capacity lives within the structure of the piece. So in artistic terms the conceptual frame of each installment, its form and content is an attempt to reach into this past/present/future that haunts to move us. I guess that I rely upon these hauntings and traces of pasts to breathe life into the piece.
S: Central to INVISIBLE is the image or presence of Laura Nelson. To what extent is she haunting you/us?
k: Laura Nelson is the guiding force for episode 03: meet me in okemah. Her story is at the center of it. And this episode has the strongest public presence within the larger project. Her lifting off, floating, flying while sinking also guides INVISIBLE as there is something there about resilience, resistance, quiet, horror, beauty, holding us accountable to her story and ours.
S: You have made deliberate choices regarding her representation or ‘presence’ in the work. Could you perhaps briefly mention your main strategy here?
k: In general I refuse traditions of the figure within my practice. This has to do with the overburden of representation that black folks have, the hyper-representation that we experience, and that our image is over-determined before we even put our own hands to it. In the world of art definitions my strategy is abstraction. In INVISIBLE this is explored through voice, embodiment, 2nd person address: YOU, duration, spatially locating time and temporally locating space i.e. installation/performance. This is my list so far, I leave the rest for curators and critics to develop.
Laura Nelson is very specific. I am captivated by a photograph of her lynching taken by an itinerant photographer at a bridge at the edge of a town in Oklahoma in 1911. It is also a photograph of ‘a lynching’ in that it includes a group of people on the bridge. They pose for the photograph and they have come to see an event. This photograph documents Laura and L.W.’s murder and it documents the N. Canadian River, the Old Schoolton Bridge, this group of people, and it documents this moment. It’s also to my knowledge the only extant image of a woman lynched in the USA. This does not mean she was the only one, but because it’s the last remaining photographic image, she stands in for all the others.
I’m captivated by Laura Nelson. Just like I refuse representing figures, I refuse a viewer/audience the opportunity to turn away from this photograph saying “oh that’s horrible”.
I’ve been looking at this photograph off and on for over 10 years. And I’m only at the beginning of understanding something in it. What do I see? What does Laura Nelson have to say? What can she tell us? For me, Laura Nelson and her image in this photograph proposes: What is a life? This is what I really want to share and express.
S: You have previously described INVISIBLE as a ‘forever’ project, an episodic, process based work that you continues to develop and explore, and that it is responsive to the context that it is shown in. Central to it is a science fiction narrative, propelled by various protagonists. It is an exploration of history, and living of the future in the present through time travel. It is centrally concerned with the invisibility of blackness, what you have called a “conspicuous invisibility” – how does the work address this?
k: I think this is answered above when talking about abstraction. I think it’s really important that the projects shift viewership into audience and participant and that whether in video, sound, or physical space you have to contend with your body.
S: The work will be shown for the second time in Germany, a place with a complex and extreme history around race, nonetheless with a remarkable absence and silence of and around discourses of blackness (and whiteness!). How do you think the work operates here, or what would you consider an important impact here, as opposed to it being shown in the USA? Here the ‘invisibility’ of blackness is perhaps different, or perhaps just more pronounced. Is it possible that something can be ‘more’ invisible in one place than another?
k: Yea, this is why I think it is only the Archivist who makes an appearance in Germany. You know she’s presenting these artifacts that she’s found in the Vault (sounds very old world, don’t you think?) which gives it some stature that someone is obsessively rooting out material and finding the exact means of exhibiting it to a public that may know nothing about the subject: Diaspora, the Americas, Black Americans… I’m being playful here but you get the idea. The link is the colonial project. Because woven into the ‘what if: the transatlantic slave trade never happened?’, ‘what if: conquest and colonialism never happened’. I’m specifically looking at the Americas – the New World, yet, INVISIBLE has a lot to gain from a closer proximity to the European colonial project and to a context that comes with real people from various countries, cultures, histories, contexts within Africa and what European gathers, plunder, research, appropriate from, deny about, and contribute to this colonial project.
From the very little time I’ve spent in Germany and the conversations I’ve had and some of the research I’ve done it seems that there are so many ghosts, so many questions about memory, lots of looking this way in order not to look that way, lots of blind spots and amnesias both conscious and unconscious, collective and individual. There’s a lot to excavate here.
S: To what extent will we be haunted by Trayvon Martin?
k: I suppose Trayvon Martin is the name we know in the place of all the others we don’t know. Like Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi or Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas or James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas or Laura Nelson in Okemah, Oklahoma. I’m mostly interested in those who survive, like Trayvon’s parents, and the stories they tell and what we listen to.
S: The exhibition GhostBusters II could refer to an exorcism . Could INVISIBLE also be read in terms of an exorcism?
k: The Archivist brings ‘Juneteenth – Fugitive / within our gates’ to SAVVY Contemporary. In this she is trying to recreate a ritual space used by ‘the cult’ that she’s uncovered in her research. She does her best to get everything in correct order, she is scientific and exacting. However, there’s only so much information. She’s working with fragments so like all most archives she’s grasping to fill in the blanks. This ritual space is in the form of the Kongo Cosmogram (The crossroads) and in the center a staging area for the water cure. The cardinal points of the Cosmogram are like looking into water wells, each one with separate properties, and most powerful as a whole. Like the cult, the Archivist also believes that somehow traversing this cosmogram that she’s made at humanscale will get us one step closer to the conjure, to the ‘answer’, and since she’s scientist type: the truth. The cult re-enacts these rituals to gain back their memory/stories. Is that an exorcism? Or the opposite? Maybe both. Ha.
PART II: EXCERPTS FROM AN ONLINE TYPE CHAT
k: maybe i can ask you a question?
k: ok not sure how to put it exactly —
S: put it the way it comes out
k: some ways that i think about haunting are through a writer/scholar, Avery Gordon who talks about structures of power and invisibility and hauntings
k: and then someone like James Baldwin who talks about trauma being unspeakable in a sentence like: ‘my memory stammers but my soul is a witness’
k: and i’m wondering what you understand of the range of haunting within GhostBusters II?
k: here’s the Gordon quote i carry with me:
k: “Power can be invisible, it can be fantastic, it can be dull and routine. It can be obvious, it can reach you by baton of the police, it can speak the language of your thoughts and desires. It can feel like remote control, it can exhilarate like liberation, it can travel through time, and it can drown you in the present. It is dense and superficial, it can cause you bodily injury, and it can harm you without seeming ever to touch you. It is systematic and it is particularistic and it is often both at the same time. It causes dreams to live and dreams to die. We can and must call it by recognizable names, but so too we need to remember that power arrives in forms that can range from blatant white supremacy and state terror to ‘furniture without memories’.” – Gordon, Avery, Ghostly Matters, Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997. p. 1).
S: Ok, too many thoughts for me to try and be coherent
S: In short I understand the notion of ‘haunting’ as complex, and almost completely removed from a pop cultural association of GhostBusters’. I also understand it from the perspective of personally being haunted by my own history and legacies, of what it means to grow up in an Afrikaner home, with a particular relationship to the Apartheid regime, understanding a relationship to land, race. Also what it means to be South African, living in Germany.
k: i just looked up Walter Benjamin’s Angle of History — our friend The Internet gives his description of Klee’s Angelus Novus looking fixed at the past facing it and being thrown and hurled into the future by the catastrophe
k: it’s interesting i think this is the first time i really have grasped this
S: It’s wonderful
k: and this links to what you are saying about your personal haunting
k: land, race, power, home
k: I’m thinking that Nadine’s (Siegert) proposal is that somehow our (the artists and curators and exhibition space) practices are grappling with and excavating these ghosts
k: that’s the busting part
S: Do you think it is a process of making visible?
k: really i think it’s all visible
k: you know it’s about looking and seeing
k: i don’t mean to get mystical exactly
S: I am also interested in how we look a lot but also see so little
k: yes absolutely
k: i think this is what i was getting at in answering your question about strategies around using Laura Nelson’s image
k: what do we really see
k: some part of me was really clear that in order to do anything with this image
k: i had to do a lot of research about Laura Nelson’s story
k: not so much to find out ‘what happened?’
k: or to be an expert or anything
k: but because the photograph points us to the fact that she does have a story
k: and that her murder should not be the only story we know
k: at the same time i also had to honor the looking and looking and seeing and looking some more that i do with this image as research
k: just like going to the archive of the Oklahoma Historical Society
k: and that’s what could send me off to Okemah, OK to the actual site of the bridge to just stand there almost 100 years later
k: not sure at all what i’m looking for
k: what i’ll find
k: pretending to be an ethnographer or anthropologist or researcher
k: asking lots of questions of librarians, archivists, local people — like the older women who open the Okemah Historical society a few days a week or the mayor of the all black town of Boley, OK who talked to me just because i passed through
S: Do you have any idea how this image of her might have circulated closer to the time of her murder, or how it was ‘seen’?
k: the image was possibly circulated as a postcard
k: and the way these itinerant photographers worked is that they would go to an event
k: take photos and then go back to their studios to process them and people could come and buy a copy
k: so this lynching was an event much like a baseball game
k: or a picnic
k: or a parade
k: something to write home about if you were there
k: in the collection ‘without sanctuary’ of which this image is a part
k: there are postcards of other lynchings that have been sent to family members
k: i remember one of them at least where the person sending the postcard has drawn on the front to show where they were standing in the crowd at a lynching
k: this was very ordinary
k: i think that
S: so there are very possibly images like this still floating around in family albums
k: yes definitely
k: i don’t remember all the circumstances of how the collectors who put together this collection of American Photography came upon all these images
k: but probably auctions, flea markets, estate sales, as well as historical societies
k: then these same images were used by anti-lynching campaigns
k: to turn it around from everyday to a daily shame on the nation
k: and these campaigns were really strong
k: i mean in some ways this is a kind of link to the German context and possibly the South African one
k: how do we remember
k: what is reconciliation
k: how do we memorialize or commemorate
k: and come to terms with violence
k: and shift somehow
S: it is how one image could mean two opposite things
k: yeah, and these opposite things seem determined to erase each other
k: that’s where i say i’m not interested in soliciting a response of ‘oh how horrible.’
k: i’m interested in getting to feel/see/hear also the every day-ness of that violence
k: the ‘oh how horrible.’ is the same as saying ‘that’s not me.’
k: when lynching in the US was a totally destructive everyday occurrence it was very necessary to get people to say ‘that’s not me. i don’t want that to be me.’
k: since the law was not protecting people
k: so i totally understand the use of these images by anti-lynching groups
k: to show the horror
S: of course!
S: it’s extraordinary… and this is then how the image of Lauren is also haunted – and this ghost of its previously life, have to be
S: understood or seen too…
S: But what would be the tipping point, of this image (of other lynching images too) having a new meaning?
S: I will try and explain
S: How does this image travel from being ‘celebratory’, and ‘everyday’ to one of horror?
S: how does our visual lexicon get adjusted? What are the historical and social the processes involved?
S: I think I know the answer here, but just worthwhile for me for a moment to think about it…
k: well in this specific case
k: Laura Nelson has to become a person
k: not an object
k: or a beast of burden
k: well i don’t know whether this is the or
k: but i’m thinking that the viewer has to put themselves into the image somehow
k: i think maybe the strategies of the anti-lynching campaigns were to provide narratives
k: at the same time as strangely de-personalizing
k: the victims
k: but narrative was really important because my understanding is that these images accompanied booklets with statistics and with stories
k: describing the lynchings
k: this is the biggest challenge for a project like INVISIBLE
k: is that i’m trying to engage with a past/present/future violence and resilience without set narratives
k: and possibly without narrative structures for the viewers
k: this challenge of abstraction: voice, embodiment, 2nd person address : YOU, duration, spatially locating time and temporally locating space i.e. installation/performance.
k: btw there’s a good book that takes on these questions about lynching and representation — i’m slowly reading it: Mary Turner and the Memory of Lynching by Julie Buckner Armstrong
S: Thank you, I will look into the Armstrong book
k: yea um here’s a quote from Armstrong p. 127 from a chapter entitled Brutal Facts and Split Gut Words where she’s breaking down strategies used by Communist Party USA and NAACP and CIC or Commision on Interracial Cooperation from 1900s on
k: “… the strategies for representing lynching remain relatively consistent throughout NAACP, CIC, and CPUSA material: each group deconstructs lynching in some way. They divide violence into bits of data or excerpts of stories so that each can be multiplied exponentially. They aim to break down violence, spread it then, and diminish its power by revealing its true name…. disconnected from its source and from public memory, her (Mary Turner’s) story evokes emotion as partial narrative…. the three groups learned in practice the fragment’s potential to signify horror. The accumulation of details becomes a reason to take action, whether responsibility or revolution.”
S: I realized that we have given a lot of attention to the image of Laura Nelson in this conversation – are you ok with this?
k: yea i’m ok with talking about Laura Nelson —
k: i think the thing is that she’s not the only haunt
k: in the work she’s just the most visible at this point in the process
k: that said folks who come to the Savvy installment will not find her there
S: but she is still present…
k: yea, she’s pretty persistent —
k: anyway my thoughts about the ‘forever’
k: is that i feel like i’m really at the beginning of this project
k: i know so little about it still
k: 10 years in
S: incredible! but wonderful too
k: i mean sure i do other things, have multiple artistic practices and pay the rent by teaching so it’s not like i’m 24/7 for 10yrs on this…
S: I think the time does not matter somehow
k: yea so i knew when i came up with the structure
k: of episodes and installments
S: but I also really love that you are so process driven
k: that it gave me the space to move and explore
S: very rare
k: some kind of structure for imagination
S: and we still have to talk about the art market!
k: because if i remember correctly — i started this project with a complete sadness about my lack of imagination
k: or lamenting how depleted my imagination seemed to me
k: you know beaten down by history somehow
k: yea well the art market — ha it’s not so interested in me and i’m not so interested in it I suppose reciprocal ambivalence
S: sorry, I seem to have interrupted some interesting thoughts around the structure of imagination the project provides you
k: I’ve always understood myself to be an artist with a day job
k: whether filing papers at a law firm or running media literacy and production classes for high school students and adults in the 90s
k: or ‘associate professor of video and critical studies’ at a small liberal arts college in New England in the 2000s
k: who knows what in the 2020s
k: INVISIBLE is not going anywhere
k: like i said still learning the project
k: finding it
k: finding imagination