Lars Bang Larsen: With a crisp idea and a crystalline appearance, HELLO is one of those art works that lingers in one’s mind. The first version was shown in 2000 at Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery at the group show The Pyramids of Mars1 and up till 2011 you have created a dozen versions of the piece, specially created for each new venue. What is HELLO?
Aleksandra Mir: HELLO is a photographic daisy-chain linking people who have met in varying circumstances, spanning a wide geographic, historical and social spectrum. It involves the famous from all possible arenas – sports, politics and entertainment – but also their fans, family, friends, enemies, including my own family and friends and their further relations. Collectively, these images form an unbroken chain of human encounters where new stories and subtexts emerge with each new image added to the chain. It is a simple idea, but with all its variables, the project’s complexity expands enormously and easily becomes a lifetime commitment, theoretically encompassing the whole photographed population on Earth.
There is an interesting tension between HELLO’s linear format and what one could call its networked premise: it links people and re-connects events; it is open-ended seeing that it has no obvious beginning and no logical endpoint; and like the network it upsets – or eclipses? – time, by bringing together different histories and events. The research process for HELLO was networked, too, seeing that each version of the work demanded that you be in touch with many people, and dive into numerous archives to it piece together. I remember how one critic got the piece entirely wrong and thought you had been ‘cutting and pasting’ to bring about the work’s many meetings. But there is no cheating, no collaging – HELLO is entirely based on existing and un-manipulated photos that you have copied and appropriated. You have credibly described the work as an immensely labor-intensive process, as a physical work of uncovering precisely that forgotten hardcopy image required to link two others: ‘I thought of myself as a worm creating a small tunnel of oxygen in a world of otherwise dark compact soil’ 2. Can you talk about your love for burrowing through archives, and the method or approach that you have applied in HELLO?
I started spending time in physical archives before the advent of the internet. It was simply the only way to do research. But today, Googling this or that every minute, I am even more assured by the uncontested value of the physical archive. The immediate access to the immensity of the internet fools us into believing that we can find ‘everything’ when in fact, we are merely able to scratch the surface in a really dull and predictable way. An internet search engine can in a split second generate an image of two celebrities or friends at a party, given someone posted just that generic type of image of course. But to find a rarity, an image that has been sitting in a folder, in a box, on a shelf, down a basement, in a library of an institution across the world where I physically am located is something else. If I can get myself through all those layers and find an image which nobody has asked about for decades or even imagined it could exist as all human memory about it is lost, an image that has never been scanned and transferred to digits but that maintains its clarity, texture and colors of its day, comes from a completely different sort of desire, and if successful, becomes an extraordinary achievement comparable to finding a treasure.
It sounds like a meta-statement about photography when you say that HELLO encompasses the whole photographed population on Earth. What is the ethos, or perhaps better, the aesthetics of the meeting that HELLO creates in its massage of the degrees of separation between people? And what role does photography play in this, as a medium and social practice?
When in 1989 I arrived to the School of Visual art in New York, one of the first people I met was a cheerful and slightly goofy student who would just hang out outside the main door to school on 23rd street and say Hello to every random person who entered the building. When he greeted me, I asked his name, and he said, ‘My name is Happy and my project is to meet everyone alive in this world.’ It was funny, but I did not take Happy very seriously at the time. Everyone I met was new and craving to connect and make friends so it did not seem too strange what he was doing. The next 3 years in school was spent on intense learning. I had a world of art to experience and to catch up with, I had to figure out how to survive in NY. I had a million things to do every day. I forgot all about Happy. I learned about photography and started to appreciate it as proof of its time, its making, the minutia that it can carry and the biases of the photographer. By now I have travelled the world and I built a career out of looking at and creating images. And nearly 25 years later, I think of Happy very often, imagining that he is still out there somewhere, consistently and economically, with Zen like tranquility pursuing his project. A conscious influence or not, it would be hard not to give him some credit for my work with HELLO. His initial greeting at school a blessing.
I understand that you have stopped making new versions of HELLO. How come?
Because of pragmatic limitations, a lack of time and resources. After wholehearted devotion to this work for years, I wanted and had to do other things. I also felt that the interest around the work dried up and that my point had been proven enough many times. I had had a good run with residencies in Sydney, San Francisco and Zurich, I had stretched my communication to the max and involved everyone I knew into the work. Strangers were sending me rare images in the post. But after a quite painful cancellation at the Whitney Biennial in 2004 where I was first granted, then denied access to the in house archive based on a legal debacle, I decided to put the work to rest and not fight for it anymore. In 2011, the curator Michelle Cotton approached me with the idea of creating a new version for Colchester, the ancient small Roman town where she was about to open a show in a newly opened art centre. Her enthusiasm and generous budget allowed me to rethink how the work could develop. We hired a professional researcher who had specialist historical knowledge and who would access historical archives not just of photography, but also prints and paintings on my behalf. We stretched HELLO 500 years back in time, it fell over the photographic cliff and you suddenly would have to trust a stone carving as proof of a meeting between two people you only knew from the history books. The second half of the chain was based on contemporary locals, most of whom I would personally meet by taking the train as often as I could to Colchester. The craziest image is an ultrasound pregnancy scan of two twins ‘meeting’ in their mother’s womb. This definitely pushed photography over the edge in another way by allowing us to capture and look at things our bare eyes could not have done without this advanced technology.
I don’t know if you’ll agree with me when I say that in the family of contemporary art, Alan Ruppersberg’s work Where’s Al (1972) is a close relative to HELLO. Ruppersberg’s piece consists of a number of polaroids and index cards that relate the story of an artist who invents his own disappearance and the unexpected consequences for the friends who conspire to help him. It seems to me the two works share concerns about the nature of the memorial, the division between public and private, the parallelity of lives. But one can also ask: in HELLO, where is Al... eksandra? Do you appear in any of the versions of the work? And how do you see your role as an author in this work?
I have appeared in almost every installation of the work, as a cameo of sorts. I would credit this strategy to Alfred Hitchcock who was always well known to me for appearing in films he directed, or even the mind-blowing ‘Where is Wally?’ universe created by illustrator Martin Handford. But the most important reason for my cameo is that whenever I would get desperate for a connection that would not present itself in images no matter how much research I had done, I would simply stage a photograph and use myself as a link in between people that could not have met otherwise. There is always the option to fall back on Happy’s original proposal.
1 The Pyramids of Mars was curated by Will Bradley, Tony Webster, and Lars Bang Larsen, and toured to the Curve Gallery in London’s Barbican Centre, and to Trapholt, Denmark.