This body of work comprises individual frames of old Austrian news reels from the late 1940s. The films were found in a box on an ostrich farm in Malmesbury, and have, through exposure to heat, and probably some moisture at some point, decayed in the most bizarre and unusual ways. The degradation of the emulsion of the film has created strange transformations, often eating around shapes, resulting in terrible mutilations of the human form. I have been going through miles of film, isolating individual frames. At first I attempted to scan the selected frames, but the scanner could not handle such tiny source images. I then attempted projecting them onto a screen and photographing the images. This also proved unsatisfactory. I have recently settled on photographing them on a light table with a friend’s digital Hasselblad, and have finally found the results pleasing enough to be able to enlarge the images to the size I wanted.
The films themselves deal with Austria’s economic recovery after the war, so there is a lot of footage of industry, factories, workers, politicians etc as well as footage of parades, ballroom dances, exhibitions and other leisure activities.
I spent many months splicing sections of the film up and combining them with each other and with bits of other films. I took a needle and scratched on individual frames, sequentially, to create a kind of animation. Other sections of film I degraded further using bleach, and worked on others with a koki pen. The images on the wall would be accompanied by these video projections.
I toyed with the idea of working on the images on photoshop, incorporating text etc, but decided that the images were beautiful and strange enough in and of themselves. They have something of the feel of a Francis Bacon painting: figures smudged and contorted into unsettling shapes, grimy and infused with analogue ‘noise’. I think they speak, in a strange oblique way, of something of the human condition. They resonate strongly with the notion of mortality, and since this is a theme that runs through much of my photographic work, perhaps this is why I was drawn to them.
If I were to attach a theoretical underpinning to them, I would write about submerged histories that, despite every effort to bury them, insist on breaking through the fog of indifference to our pasts.
In the case of Austria and Germany there was a conscious obliteration of the past, with the help of the Allies, after the Nuremberg Trials. No attempt was made to understand why it had all happened. Goering (the only one who was willing to explain why) was not given the space to speak.
And so, with the end of the trials, Germany simply restarted, at Year Zero, to borrow a phrase from Rossellini’s bleak masterpiece. Every possession and scrap of clothing belonging to the Nuremberg trialists was burned and the ashes of their bodies were thrown in unnamed secret places. The past was obliterated.
But these submerged stories, consciously buried and never spoken about by what was, by the 60s, the older generation of Germans, resurfaced in the most unforeseen and violent way in their children who were part of the student left, and particularly the Baader-Meinhof Gang, who believed that the fascists not only walked among them, but still controlled everything. The way to expose them, they reasoned, was through violence. By violently provoking them, their true nature as fascists would emerge.
Similar things happened in London in the 70s, where the buried history of 700 years of oppression of the Irish began to surface in terrible ways with a spate of IRA bombings that revealed that there was long-standing bitterness in Ireland regarding their history and England’s role as a colonising power.
So when the films flicker on the screen and these violent bursts of decay and mutilation disrupt, momentarily, the footage of serene vistas of ballroom dancers in great halls, or scenes of Austrians diligently rebuilding after the war, or viewing fashion parades, I cannot help but ponder that these are symbolic of the violent eruptions of memory that threaten, at any moment, to burst through our cosy narratives of progress, happiness and prosperity, especially in those corners of the globe like ours, whose histories are so entwined with power, destruction and hubris on the one hand, and phenomenal technological progress and economic growth on the other.
The voices of the spat-upon and shat-upon and lied to will always burst through the complacent fogs of indifference.