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The Aesthetics of Witnessing: A Conversation with Alfredo Jaar
byPatricia C Philips

Discussed; Song, African music, New York, Angola, civil war, Rwanda, history, visual poetics, reading research, disparate economies, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Pablo Neruda, Ezra Pound, riotous visual culture, ethics, shockingly illuminated spaces, architecture and film, news stories, ideological positions, experience of witnessing, different strategies of representation, aesthetic strategies, ethical reflection, Philip Gourevitch, failure of representation, Corbis and Bill Gates, blinding, Montreal, control in public art, partial views, the capacity of culture.

Patricia C. Phillips: Alfredo, as I was walking to your studio today I thought back to the many conversations we have had over the years. We enjoyed many conversations at your studio on Warren Street that are continued here in your studio on Twenty-sixth Street.

Alfredo Jaar: Patti, actually you were the first person I met when I came to New York in 1982. We were both working for SITE on Spring Street. To meet you so early was an extraordinary occurrence and I feel very lucky that this happened.

Phillips: I would like to begin by talking about your most recent project on Angola. What prompted you to choose to work in Angola? There are so many incredible events, developments, horrors, and challenges in the world. What is it about the circumstances in Angola that you find compelling?

Jaar: I am irresistibly attracted to Africa. There is something about that continent that moves me deeply. I feel that I must devote concentrated effort and energy in order to expose what is happening there and to trigger some kind of reaction and solidarity. Since I finished my project on Rwanda that took six years (1994-2000), I have wanted to go back to Africa. The reason I decided to go to Angola is based on my collection of African music and not necessarily because of a particular event. As you know, I collect African music. I find African music incredibly creative and moving. I think it is some of the most extraordinary music being created today, in spite of the difficulties that African musicians have accessing materials and instruments.

An important focus of my collection is African music of Portuguese influence. This includes music from Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, and Cape Verde. I like the nostalgic sound of Portuguese music. When you combine this melancholic sound, which the Portuguese call saudade, with African music, the result is extremely touching and sad, but beautiful at the same time. About four years ago when I was organizing my collection, I realized that I had six different versions of a song called "Muxima." As I listened to these different versions, I realized they were recorded at different times in Angolan history. Listening to them, I could practically visualize the recent history of Angola: colonialism, independence, civil war, land mines, AIDS, and so on. I could hear all of these events in the music--through the same song. I thought that it could be an interesting device to use this music as a structural element to create a film about Angola. The discovery of this song in my collection triggered the idea of this film. 

Phillips: I remember hearing you give several different lectures based on your Rwanda project. In fact, I vividly recall a lecture you gave at SUNY New Paltz to open the 2001 conference Sites of Conflict: Art in a Culture of Violence. Music figured prominently in that moving and memorable lecture. But is this the first time that music has been so central to your work, providing both a concept and structure for a piece?

Jaar: I have used music in a couple of works and in a performance, but it never before had the kind of protagonism it does in this project. I've been interested in music since I was very young. I even dreamed of being a musician. But I first discovered the healing powers of music after my trip to Rwanda. As you know, the 1994 genocide in Rwanda was a tragedy that is impossible to describe adequately. It took me years to recover from what I saw, and music was a significant part of this healing process. And then when, for other reasons, my work confronted a crisis regarding the use of images--a subject that I have explored in different projects--I thought that perhaps I could use music, instead of images, as an element to structure the work. This is how the idea for the film began to take shape.

Phillips: Do you feel that music is more honest and dependable than images, with which you have developed a very skeptical relationship?

Jaar: Absolutely. I think that music is honest. When you listen to music, everything is on the table. You recognize the instruments, the tempo, the rhythm; the structure of a musical piece is transparent. Even if you do not fully understand the meaning of the lyrics, music communicates in a very compelling and undeniable way.

Phillips: I often think that music is embodied in a way that images generally are not. For many people there is a very direct and vivid connection between music, a particular moment, and individual and collective memory.

Jaar: When I was young, I would listen to a particular song all of the time for an entire year or more. I can't believe I was that obsessed! And my attraction to "Muxima" reminds me of that kind of obsession. In the film, which is also titled Muxima, we hear the song seven, eight--actually ten times. I hope that the song will be unforgettable for the audience--and will remind them later of the feelings and images evoked by the film. There are so many special things happening with music. I haven't theorized very much about this, but I intend to explore it further.

Phillips: Could you talk about your process with this film, but also more generally about your methodology? Your trip to Angola was self-initiated. I understand that you went there to look, travel, talk with people, but without a specific project in mind. It was a form of reconnaissance. This generally is the first step for you, is it not?

Jaar: I begin with reading and research. In this case, I had followed Angola's history as part of my larger interest and understanding of African history. I knew about the civil war and the AIDS crisis. I was also perfectly aware of the phenomenal developments in the oil and diamond trades. But it was by going there, talking with people, and seeing Angola with my own eyes that I began to conceive of the possibility of a short film. On the first trip I didn't film at all. I did, however, photograph places that I thought might be locations for a film. And then I started working on a possible script. Although it was very flexible and open, I wanted to make very precise points. For example, I wanted to somehow communicate that this fantastic wealth from oil has not had the effect we might expect. It has not trickled down to improve health and social services for most Angolans. There are sadly not many visible signs of this oil wealth, which amounts to billions of dollars annually, when you visit most of the country.

Phillips: There are two disparate economies: the economy of oil and the conditions of poverty that most Angolans endure.

Jaar: Yes, and the film tries to connect these economies in every frame.

Phillips: I know that, in addition to music, film has been a sustained influence for you. But I think this is the first time that you have made a film. Could you talk about your process, how you developed a concept and structure.

Jaar: I didn't want to give the spectator the kind of insulting stereotypical images of Africa we normally receive from the media, of course, and I wanted to show Angola in a unique and different light. I also imposed on myself certain directives that I called dogma. It is loosely based on Dogma 95, by Lars von Trier. (1) No actors, no special effects, no lighting, no special sounds, etc .... I wanted to show as little as possible while expressing as much as I could. We filmed twenty hours and reduced it to thirty-three minutes. I wanted to do a short visual poem and was thinking of the poetry of Giuseppe Ungaretti, who expresses so much with two or three words in a poem. I wondered if this was possible to achieve with a film.

Structurally, I divided the film into ten cantos. I was thinking of Canto General, the epic poem by Pablo Neruda that is divided into hundreds of shorter poems. I also thought of Ezra Pound's Cantos. Each canto in the film is a visual poem and, in order to keep it to a minimum, I used the additional structure of a haiku. As you know, a haiku is a very short Japanese poem composed following certain specific rules. In the film, each canto focuses on one or two issues, and I hoped that the clash of one issue with another would produce not one plus one equals two, but rather one plus one equals three, five, or more. This is what a haiku does--this is the power of poetry. I tried to do this with the language of film.

Phillips: Do you plan to return to Angola? I know that you did a great deal of filming while you were there, but after doing this film are there new questions, issues, or perspectives raised that you need to revisit or reexamine?

Jaar: The film had its U.S. premiere in May 2005, and I am still nervous and insecure about the public reaction. It opened at Grand Arts in Kansas City. I really hope the film will be able to establish a dialogue with its audience. Perhaps this reaction will suggest to me what to do next. There are many possibilities. I might expand the film, increase the number of cantos, and make a more complex feature-length film. Or perhaps I might do another kind of film. I really don't know yet. I have to see if what I have tried to accomplish is working. Who knows, perhaps the film is totally unreadable!

As you know, I have relied on text a great deal in my work because I am obsessed with clarity. Because I want to communicate something very specific with each piece, I've used a lot of text in one fashion or another. When I first designed the film, I was going to use text at the beginning of the film to introduce the audience to Angola and give a panoramic view of the country's problems. So I wrote a very comprehensive essay. I analyzed it for a long time, finally asking myself the question: if this essay is so complete, why do I need to make a film?

Phillips: And if the film communicates, why would you need the essay?

Jaar: Ultimately, I decided to let the film communicate solely through images and sounds. I decided that the text was unnecessary. I used the form of multiple cantos because I wanted a fragmented structure that suggests the difficulties in capturing the complexity of Angola. I could make ten films on Angola, but since I cannot practically do this, I thought that the fragments would suggest that this is a partial view--and that there is much more.
But I really struggled with the decision of leaving the text out. I even thought of another idea: with the introduction of each canto, I would include a brief text. For example, the title for Canto Six would have been something like: "Canto Six, or how to deactivate a land mine, one of 18 million." I was desperate to include this kind of information. But I managed to control myself! As you saw, there is no text whatsoever. I am eager to know how people will respond here. The film was shown in Windhoek, Namibia. We edited the film there, as I wanted to achieve a totally African production. Audience members understood everything--it was fantastic! But the knowledge of Angola in Namibia is of course radically different from what an audience here might know about Angola. As you know, only 15 percent of Americans have a passport, and their lack of knowledge about other cultures is truly dramatic.

Phillips: You describe this interesting moment or threshold in your thinking. We live within a reeling and riotous visual culture. Strategically, at one point you began to withhold or withdraw the image in your work. Now you are working with images again, but with great restraint. I don't think that your work attempts to control people's responses, but you think very carefully about what people might understand about the work. It seems to me that you are in a new place in your relationship to an audience. Do you currently seek a more open, perhaps less controlled experience or investigation of your work that, I believe, is demonstrated in Muxima?

Jaar: This may have to do with using film. As you know, I studied film while studying architecture in Chile. When I moved to New York I could do neither film nor architecture, so I ended up doing art that, in many ways, was a combination of both. But during all these years I have thought of myself as a frustrated filmmaker who just never found the means and opportunity to work in film. The extraordinary privilege of the filmmaker is that she or he has an audience in a very particular state of mind. In a movie theater, a spectator arrives mentally prepared to spend time with the film, sits in a comfortable chair, and there is one focal point of attention that attracts all the senses. The kind of attention that film commands is extraordinary, and I have always envied this power that filmmakers have to communicate with an audience.

This is why I was able to be more free than ever before. To view Muxima, people are encouraged to enter at the beginning and to watch the entire thirty-three-minute film. There is a schedule and the film will not be looped. As much as possible, I would like to create a real cinematographic experience. Working within the film language and context for the first time, I thought that I could give up the text and other elements because people have the opportunity to watch and listen to the film under ideal conditions--something that is alarmingly absent in a museum or gallery context. I observe people in museums and galleries all the time, and I am shocked at the speed at which they walk by a work of art. It is appalling! It is very frustrating. This is why I have created installations that encourage people to take time, to stop, to read. I can't force people to see, but I can provide conditions for people to slow down so that the work can engage them in a dialogue. I have been desperate to slow down people within the context of my installations.

Phillips: In so many of your installations you use architecture as an instrument for and of navigation. There is expectation, surprise, and delay. Much of the work has a sequential, progressive quality that is very cinematic and filmlike. There are determined spatial configurations, and light plays a dramatic role as well. Often people move from "twilight" areas to shockingly illuminated spaces that create a sense of disorientation. This has been your strategy for overcoming the "drive-by" experience that so many people have of art.

Jaar: Yes, and because attention without distraction is part of a normal filmviewing experience, I do not have to think about this in this new film project.
Phillips: And perhaps the music is part of this more open process. When we first discussed the Angola project, we listened to several versions of "Muxima" recorded at different times in the country's history. Although these versions did not convey a concise or factual history, they were evocative in their capacity to communicate historical conditions.

Phillips: I am pleased that you brought up your background in architecture and film and the ways that these theories and fields have influenced your work in the past twenty-five years. I'd like to discuss other aspects of your work. You have made significant choices about places to research and visit, whether it is a Brazilian gold mine, a Vietnam refugee detention center in Hong Kong, the Mexican-United States border, or the site of toxic dumping in Nigeria. There is significant research that precedes these projects, but why or how did you choose these sites instead of other places of crisis or disruption in the world?

Jaar: When I started to work as an artist there was no Internet. This made life more complicated. I have always been very interested in the news and how different news stories communicate the reality of the world to us as citizens. This fascination with the mechanism of news came to me from my father, who could not start his day without reading the newspaper. I learned from him how to critically read a newspaper. I was always fascinated by the different ideological agendas of newspapers and magazines--to discover the subtle or more obvious differences between different reports about a same event.

Like my father, I would begin my day in the studio reading two, three, sometimes five newspapers, depending on how many I could afford that day. Prior to the Internet, we had to buy the papers, some of which where only available in the United States a day or two after their publication.

Phillips: And you read in three languages.

Jaar: Yes. I would encounter news stories that would attract my interest for different reasons. The access to images was also very limited. There were few images illustrating news stories, or the same images were published by different newspapers, often to support distinctly different ideological positions. I found this really fascinating. This was parallel to my discovery of New York, which I found incredibly exciting but incredibly insular. As I got to know the art world, I was shocked by its provincialism. I decided early in my career that I wanted to bring the news of the world to the art world. I wanted to construct bridges to link the almost fictitious reality of the art world with the realities of the real world.
When I began reading about the gold mine at Serra Pelada in Brazil, there were no images. No photographer had ever been there. I just read about this vast crater in the rain forest surrounded by one hundred thousand miners. Roughly at this same time, I received a Guggenheim Fellowship, and this allowed me to travel to Serra Pelada. This was the first time I decided to go see a place I had read about in the newspapers. Once I got there, I realized there was nothing equal to the experience of witnessing something rather than reading about it. From this moment on, I decided to be a witness as often as I could.

Why did I go here rather than there? Each case would need close examination. After weeks of killings, reading the most outrageous reports in the newspapers, and observing a general disinterest and neglect of the international community, I felt that I had to go to Rwanda. It is not just a matter of witnessing, but it is about being present and sharing with other people who have left their homes and families to be there. It is about being part of a developing network of support and assistance. You simply react as a human being. This is how Rwanda happened for me.

Phillips: I don't know if I have heard you talk so vividly about the process of witnessing, but I think it is a central feature of your work. The idea of bearing witness invokes a kind of gravity and weight that is vividly palpable.

Jaar: It pushes you as an artist. There is no way to translate what I see into an artwork. It is absolutely impossible. The challenge is enormous, and it forces me to come up with different strategies of representation. This is why I describe my work also as a series of exercises in representation. How do we translate this lived experience? I've always thought that we cannot represent this reality. Instead, you create a new reality with the work. Because I have faced and lived a specific reality, seen it with my own eyes, it demands a certain level of responsibility. This is not fiction! So I create little realities for the art world that are based on lived experiences. These experiences have changed me. I am who I am because I have been here and there. And the work is what it is because of where I have been. I cannot think of a better education--not only as an artist, but as a human being. It is an extraordinary challenge for me as an artist to communicate these experiences. I think this is why each project looks so different. I don't have a particular medium or format. I use different aesthetic strategies based on my response to a particular lived experience.

Phillips: Yes, but there is a familial character to the work that is connected to a restraint that we discussed earlier, as well as an idea of what it means to work responsibly with particular subject matter, situations, and lived experiences. You make choices as an artist and human being about what to investigate, where to go, and what to do when you get there. And then there is the difficult choice of what to make or produce. You often go to sites of extremity, crisis, and conflict that too often are depicted in a stereotypical or sensationalized manner in the press. So no matter how different the media or formats you use, all of the work reflects a highly calibrated process of editing and refinement. I don't want to overlook this character that connects work over the years inspired by so many different places.
You talk frequently about responsibility. What are the other issues raised by the work? As human beings, we seek to understand what it means to do our work--and the consequences of our work. Art is always a process of ethical reflection. What does it mean to do our work ethically, if imperfectly? I know this is a dilemma for you--the fact that all work fails in some way. How do you keep your bearings as you move between sites of extremity and the pleasures and frustrations of the art world? What are the distractions and dissonances because of this for you? Actually, let me be simplistic and graphic. I often show and discuss your work with students. Every now and then, a student will question the fact that you go to witness the horrors of genocide in Rwanda, for instance, and return to New York to make money from selling your work based on other people's suffering or trauma.

Jaar: This kind of question comes up all of the time. I expected to be confronted with it when I returned from Rwanda, so I wrote my own personal manifesto. Interestingly, the reception of the project was very positive, so I never had to use it. In a way, the question is: are we allowed as artists to create art out of suffering? Or should we let these tragedies sink into invisibility? Why can't I resist their invisibility in the media and offer my own reading, my own image, my own outrage, my own accusations about this tragic situation? To create these works is not only to put Rwanda on the map but is also a modest way to express solidarity, to create, as I did, a memorial for the victims of genocide in Rwanda. Now, how many gestures of solidarity have you seen? How many memorials to Rwanda have you seen? This is a memorial for one million people. What is this worth?

Why should an exhibition about Rwanda cost less money than, say, an exhibition about "the tree in eighteenth-century painting"? How much does a film or a rock concert cost? Thousand of times more than my little Rwanda Project. Why can't I dedicate time and resources to this subject? Why can't I dignify this subject with resources? Tens of thousands of people have seen the Rwanda Project in dozens of cities around the world. If only a small percentage of the viewers are affected, this still is a few thousand people who will look at Rwanda and Africa in a different way and perhaps express their solidarity. How much does this cost? How much is this worth?

These are just a few of the possible responses to this question. Regarding this question of ethics, I always cite Jean-Luc Godard. He said that "it may be true that one has to choose between ethics or aesthetics, but it is no less true that, whichever one chooses, one will always find the other one at the end of the road. For the very definition of the human condition should be in the mise-enscene itself." (2) There is no way to escape ethics. Whatever aesthetic decisions we make about our work, about our strategies of representation, they also reflect an ethical position. Accepting this, I think it is important to confront this unavoidable choice in the work from the beginning, as part of its structure.

Phillips: It is interesting that, with a few exceptions, there is little sustained institutional critique of the media. On the other hand, when Philip Gourevitch goes to Rwanda and writes about what he saw, there was no ethical challenge. (3) Is there something about visual art that makes it very vulnerable to these critiques? Does this tie in with our very challenged and challenging relationship with images? Why are visual artists often challenged, if not condemned, when other people go to Rwanda and produce work?

Jaar: If you take the case of Gourevitch, he probably spent the same amount of money that I did in Rwanda and the result is a book. I am relatively sure that he does not confront these kinds of challenges to his ethical stand regarding writing about Rwanda. I think that one reason we are challenged is that artists do not have a good reputation. People do not respect artists in the same way that they respect intellectuals. I think that people place intellectuals above artists.

Phillips: Alfredo, I consider you a public intellectual, but generally when people identify a public intellectual, they look to writers, scholars, and academics. Generally, art is not seen as a form of intellectual work, in the same way that art production often is not understood as research in the university. I find it troubling that this physical and material evidence that artists develop and produce generally is not perceived as part of the intellectual culture.

Jaar: As a critic you have helped the general audience see and understand art as intellectual work--that visuality communicates intellectual ideas. The role of the critic is absolutely fundamental, but I do not think that culture today gives critics the kind of space and means they need to enlighten the public with their analysis of visual work. The daily press creates a significant part of the general landscape of our culture, but it does not provide a space for critical ideas. We read the late Susan Sontag, Noam Chomsky, the late Edward Said, and dozens of other intellectuals, but more often we read their work in European and Latin American publications. They have columns and ongoing forums to express their opinions. The press in this country does not have respect for these and other intellectuals. It does not offer the space. It is shocking that we do not find them here. I think this is a key element why artists and critics are seen in such a poor light. It is pathetic. This is why I feel very privileged to speak and read a few languages.

Phillips: Your relationship with images and strategies about representation has always been at the heart of your work. You think clearly, ethically, and theoretically about these issues and ideas. Could you talk about Lament of the Images (2002)? It is a disquieting and complex project architecturally and spatially. And light is a powerful agent in the work. There are concisely selected texts about the increasing controls of visual culture along with the withholding and absence of images. In some respects, you did this as well with Real Pictures where the images--the Rwandan photographs--were withheld. They were stored in archival boxes, each with a description on the lid of the photograph secreted within. I am fascinated by this very complicated relationship that you have with images. With your background in film, architecture, installations, and photography, perhaps it is unsurprising that you would focus on the perilous nature of images. You did encounter a crisis of images after Rwanda. How has this changed your work?

Jaar: Rwanda required me to shift my perspective quite radically. If I spent six years working on this project, it was trying different strategies of representation. Each project was a new exercise, a new strategy, and a new failure. I would learn and move on to the next exercise that also would fail and so on. Basically, this serial structure of exercises was forced by the Rwandan tragedy and my incapacity to represent it in a way that made sense.

Phillips: Serial exercises that are inadequate or fail yet inform the next project are an intriguing way to think about process. There is a long history in art of beholding images, so it is striking when images are withheld. And yet this process of withholding in your work actually creates very vivid effects about the absence of images.

Jaar: These exercises were a response to the dimension of the tragedy and my incapacity to communicate this to an audience that, in most cases, did not want to hear about it. I was at a loss. I spent almost a year before I started to create these works. And then I felt that I had to keep trying new strategies, but was always frustrated with the results. It is true that after the Rwanda project, I gained a new insight on images and photography. I was never the same again as an artist. The dozen or more projects that I have done since Rwanda do not use images--until this most recent work in Angola. I am suspicious and disillusioned about the uses and misuses of photography in the art world, the press, and the world of entertainment. And to make things more complicated, I don't think that the general public is well educated regarding images. Generally, we are taught how to read, but we are not taught how to look.

Phillips: To bring critical capacities to what we see--or the kind of discernment that you learned from your father about reading and analyzing three or four different newspapers--must be developed.

Jaar: How do you function as a visual artist in this system where the reception of images is innocent--and never critical? All of my works after Rwanda became exercises in representation. Lament of the Images was an exercise. I described it as a philosophical essay on the failure of representation.

I had read an article in the New York Times about Corbis, a photo agency owned by Bill Gates, becoming the largest photo agency in the world, purchasing millions of images from different international photo agencies and signing contracts with the most important museums of the world. Then he bought the Bettmann and UPI archive that has some of the most significant images of the twentieth century. Today I think he owns one hundred million images that he will archive in an abandoned quarry in Pennsylvania. Although he plans to digitize this vast collection, the process will take about five hundred years to complete!

A year or two later I was in Cape Town, South Africa. I visited Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was a prisoner for almost thirty years. It was a sad and curious experience because the tour guides are former prisoners. After I finished the official tour, I asked to visit the limestone quarry where the prisoners were required to work. I learned about the work and how sunlight reflected off the white limestone damaged prisoners' eyes. So I connected Gates's quarry with the quarry where black men were blinded. Several weeks later, the war in Afghanistan started and, like everyone else, I read about the purchase of all available satellite images by the United States. We all were blinded by this decision. So I decided to connect these three stories.

Phillips: The texts richly reverberate.

Jaar: Because of my poor English, I asked my friend David Levi Strauss to compose the texts for me. As you know, he is one of the most brilliant critics and thinkers on photography today. I wanted to complete the piece by offering a final "blinding" experience to the audience. So the next space offered a large illuminated screen that simply contained light without images, but a very powerful light that left the audience temporarily out of sight and shocked into blindness.
We are living today in a paradoxical situation. There has never been so much access to information and images. Our landscape is saturated by images. But at the same time, we never have had so much control of images by private corporations and governments. I wanted to speculate about this situation. Lament of the Images is a modest philosophical essay on our relationship to images today.

Phillips: You mention that you try to maintain a balance in your work between projects for galleries and museums, public projects, and teaching and pedagogy. Is there a recent public project that you feel was successful or where you learned something or observed consequences that you might bring to future projects?

Jaar: The Montreal project was interesting but difficult for me. I accepted this opportunity shortly after I finished the Rwanda project. I was offered a space to display images in windows in a prominent former Parliament building called the Cupola. The images were going to be lit from behind, transforming the windows into light boxes. But after the Rwanda Project, I knew it would be difficult for me to use images. I accepted this project because it was a challenge. I often put myself in these difficult situations. I don't know why, but this is how I function best. I visited Montreal several times, and I discovered next to the Cupola a homeless shelter that offered meals to 3,200 people each month. The shelter had a moving dignity, and it was also invisible. When I asked about this, people told me that it was invisible just like the homeless in the city. They sent me to visit two other shelters near the Cupola. It became clear: people suffer the tragedy of homelessness in invisibility and silence. I began to talk with the women and men in the shelters. They talked about the fact that they felt invisible. Often they asked for money on the streets, they told me, not only because they needed it but also because they sought a public recognition of their humanity. They wanted people to acknowledge their presence, through a smile, a hello, but they were over-looked, as a garbage can or a lamppost is ignored.

At the same time, I started to study the Cupola, which had burned five times in its history. Each time the city decided to rebuild this national monument. After the fifth fire, the Parliament decided to move to another building. So the Cupola stood abandoned. In a moment of lucidity, I connected the fires in the Cupola with the situation of the homeless in Montreal. I thought: Why don't we put the fire back in the Cupola to call attention to the fifteen thousand homeless in a city as prosperous as Montreal? Why don't we "burn" it again so that people can see the plight of the homeless in the city? My simple solution was that as people entered the shelters to eat or sleep, they could hit a switch to trigger a hundred thousand watts of red lights illuminating the Cupola to signal their presence in the shelters.

I submitted my proposal to the people at the shelters. They appreciated that I was not exposing them through photography. They liked and approved my idea. These red lights connected to the shelters were my way of sending a distress signal to the city--of making the homeless visible without pointing at them directly. Of course, the red lights also recalled the fires that consumed the building many times, but metaphorically, I was trying to suggest another kind of fire, one that immolates and consumes society itself. This project was part of a photography biennial, so the piece had another theoretical meaning. Each red light was, in fact, a portrait without the person in sight. For six magical weeks the issue of homelessness became prominent in Montreal. We wanted the Cupola to become a permanent monument of shame, and other shelters wanted to join us and get connected, but six weeks later the mayor cancelled it. Like all of my projects, it failed. We did not give the homeless a home. We did not resolve their problem. We gave them a brief, hopeful moment when they regained their humanity, when people started acknowledging their presence, smiled at them, when the press also contributed to the dialogue, but eventually they returned to their status as homeless. With these projects you change so little...

Phillips: There are so many vagaries regarding reception, perception, and control in public art. It is a very fraught process.

Jaar: Absolutely. As an artist and architect, I meticulously design each detail, but you lose control because it is in the public realm. It is difficult to predict what a project may provoke. One night, I observed a group of drunken men waiting half an hour for the red lights to appear. It was an uncharacteristically quiet night, but suddenly the red lights brightened and then disappeared. The men began to cheer. I was saddened and frustrated that they applauded the lights, but did not acknowledge what they represented. I was very frustrated. You lose control. You cannot predict what will happen when your work is in the public space.

Phillips: In conclusion, I want to try to make some connection between control and theatricality in your work. This theatricality seems to be very strategic. I think of your project at Skoghall, where you built a museum of paper in an industrial community constructed around a major paper mill that essentially drove the economy of the town. But Skoghall is bereft of culture, and for a moment you gave them a kunsthalle. You built the paper museum, organized a one-day exhibition, and then had the structure set on fire. The timing, temporality, and duration of this project--as well as its denouement--had a theatrical character.

Jaar: In the case of Skoghall, I was shocked to discover that a community could exist for thirty years without any visible cultural or exhibition space. How do you represent the absence of this space for culture in an entire community? I found it hard to believe that people could live without the intellectual and critical stimulus that visual art can provide--to question, to speculate, and to search. It blew my mind. I sought a spectacular way to deal with this lack. I created an exhibition space for twenty-four hours and then burned it away. I wanted to offer a glimpse of what contemporary art is and what it can do in a community. Then by "disappearing" it in such a spectacular way, I hoped to reveal its absence.
Yes, it was obviously a theatrical strategy. I studied theater for many years. I even wrote plays and was a terrible actor. I am interested in theater as a discipline and communicative device. As an artist and architect, everything I do is to facilitate the reading of the work. In this case, the theatrics of a project are just that. They respond to the needs of the piece to communicate specific ideas. I hope that any theatricality is understood as just one element in the language that I need to communicate an idea. I am sure that I sometimes fall into an excess or suppression of the theatrical. The work is either too much or is too dry and obscure. You always walk a fine line between excess and constraint. I never know if I reach the perfect balance between information and spectacle.

Phillips: But you recognize that the ideas and sensations can richly resonate.

Jaar: For the outside observer, the Skoghall project may seem more spectacle than information, but for the citizens of this town, I can assure you that the spectacle was all about the visual materialization of their lack of cultural life. The spectacle made this lack physical and visceral. I am proud that a year later, when Sweden created a countrywide register of significant buildings, Skoghall nominated my short-lived structure as its most important building. The after-effect of this project has created a movement among concerned citizens to seek funds to build a real kunsthalle in their community.

Phillips: I think of you as neither pessimistic nor optimistic. Alternately, I think of you as both pessimistic and optimistic. It is such an understatement, but you do not deal with frivolous topics in your work. How do you keep your sense of resolve and your freshness in the work in such challenging circumstances? You deal with subjects of tremendous gravity. It would be understandable if you became discouraged. In a recent issue of The Nation, ninety-three-year-old Studs Terkel wrote a testimonial to Pete Seeger on his eighty-sixth birthday. They have retained an incredible sense of conviction and commitment to progressive ideas and work through their long lives. How does this happen?

Jaar: I don't know how to answer this almost existential question. I was thinking of Gramsci, to whom I recently dedicated a trilogy of projects in Italy. He wrote about the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will. I still believe in the capacity of culture, like Gramsci did, to make a difference in our lives. It is only through cultural productions, actions, and programs that we can improve our lives and the lives of people around us. I am very critical of the role of politics and disillusioned by the role of most of the media, which is in the hands of a few corporations that have transformed it into a business like any other. I still believe, because we have no choice, that the world of culture is the only space left in the world today where we can speculate and suggest new ways of understanding the world--the only place where we can dream. I have seen enough to be a pessimist, and I am a depressing character [laughter], but I think we have no choice. Hope or nothing.

Phillips: This is a good way to end, but let me present this brief coda. What do you think of the artist interview, this frequently used genre of "art writing"? Can the interview be a fruitful and effective form of critical exchange? The interview has become a ubiquitous form. Every museum publication has critical essays and an interview with the artist. Interviews proliferate in art magazines and journals. And here I am doing one with you! It is a curious but insufficiently examined phenomenon.

Jaar: I generally don't like interviews. Often there isn't enough knowledge in common between the interviewer and interviewee. I accepted this interview because of our twenty-five years of common history and relationship. You have followed my work for such a long time. Only when there is this deep knowledge shared by the participants, perhaps some illuminating truth can be shared with the reader. When there isn't this trust and shared knowledge, then it becomes more of a play between actors, where the interviewer seeks to display her or his knowledge and the respondent also plays the game of presenting her or his best image in the face of poor circumstances. I enjoy reading interviews when the given conditions enable a truly shared and honest exchange.

The conversation took place in Alfredo Jaar's New York studio on Tuesday, May 3, 2005.

(1.) The Dogma 95 manifesto, written by the Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, promulgates a set of rules with the aim of establishing an anti-illusionist cinema. To read the manifesto and related texts, see

(2.) Jean-Luc Godard, quoted in Susan Sontag, "Godard," in A Susan Sontag Reader (New York: Vintage, 1982), 235.

(3.) Philip Gourevitch, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda (New York: Picador, 1998).

This was first published in Art Journal, Fall 2005