On occasion of Lucia Pizzani’s ‘Broader Implications’ Exhibition
Photofusion, London, August 2017
RO – What is the name of this exhibition and what is it about?
The name is ‘Broader Implications’. Basically it’s two series together one is personal inventory and the other is ‘Cesta Basica’ Basic food basket. Two series done to respond to the Venezuelan Crisis, with alternative processes, one with cyanotypes the other with photograms, and together with works by guest Venezuelan photojournalists.
Only one series in the show will have colour, and that’s the hospital series and the rest of the work is black and white, mostly protests and supermarkets with empty shelves. Showing scarcity and violence in Venezuela.
RO – Could you tell me in a few words what is the situation in Venezuela and how did it spark this work
LP – The situation in Venezuela changes every week.
Right now you can say without any doubt that it is a dictatorship, it has come a full circle because they’ve managed to do this fraudulent election process, which wasn’t even through direct vote, it was by candidates that they decided themselves within the government. It’s called the asamblea nacional constituyente so it’s like a parallel congress. So right now they can take any decision they want, change any law. It was supposed to be only for six months but now they say it can last up to two years. So you have all the social deterioration, people eating from rubbish bins and dying because lack of medicine.
The whole problem started because the government destroyed Venezuelan industry -there was a time when Venezuela could produce its own food, and even 80% of its own medicines- but everything collapsed when the government started controlling the prices. They price set by the government was lower than the cost of production, so they just stopped producing.. In other countries you get subsidies from the government to keep the agricultural production, but in Venezuela you just got the government forcing the producers to sell under their minimum production costs. They all went broke. I have family working with agriculture and they have seen how all the farms have been closing down.
The government used to have a lot of money because of oil, prices where high. They could just import all the food and medicines -they didn’t really care about what was happening inside the country- but when the oil prices came down they had to stop importing as much. The agreed exchanges with other countries like Uruguay and Argentina stopped -Venezuela gave them oil in exchange for meat-
It’s the same problem with medicines. Or even worse, as the government is not even accepting humanitarian help. That was one of the biggest demands of this protest that started in April. People asking the government to let humanitarian help get to the country -open a humanitarian channel so they could receive help from outside-. But that would make the government admit that there is a crisis, so they didn’t authorise it. They prefer people to die than to accept help.
RO – What is ‘Personal Inventory’ about?
LP – ‘Personal Inventory’ is a series I did in 2016 was responding to my own personal necessity of traveling to Venezuela and having to take medicines and food in my own luggage, for my personal use, but also for family and friends. I was invited to do a mural in this big exhibition that was homage to Carlos Cruz Diez, bringing in all these sculptural pieces from the UK. But then I thought it was crazy and purposeless to bring all these sculptures when I really needed the space in my luggage to take medicines and food. That affected me and I decided to produce a body of work responding to that reality and also a work that would be better in tune with the reality in Venezuela.
At the time I was looking at the images from Anna Atkins and the idea of the inventory so I decided to do my own personal inventory
RO I think the idea of visualising the crisis is really exciting. What were the first experiences that spiked this project?
We have been going to Venezuela constantly. Even three years ago I used to stay three or four months there, and saw the rapid deterioration, because I noticed each year the change was huge. The last two years I felt like I was adapting to the country because it took me days to come to terms with the reality. I was obsessed with people’s bags when I saw them walking on the street, wandering what they could be carrying. ‘Oh she has some harina pan to make arepas‘ and ‘Oh she has milk!’ and I asked myself why am I getting so obsessed with people’s bags.
That’s how it goes in Venezuela, people always look out to see what other people are carrying, and it’s like hunting. To find out where they are coming from, to see how they got hold of food, so you can go and get some yourself. The alternative is to pay the ‘bachaqueros‘ -the name comes from the Venezuelan Bachaco ant- they are people that queue and buy food, to sell it onward at ten times the price.
I made a video piece from footage taken from Youtube; it’s about two women fighting for food. It’s very low-fi; it’s originally shot with telephones because you are not allowed to record any of the queues or anything that would be considered evidence of the reality they live in Venezuela. The government has banned it, and you can go to jail if you attempt to film with professional equipment. So people do it with phones.
The government is doing whatever they want. Their delegate for the ONU, she said a week ago that there is no hunger in Venezuela, that what we have is love.
It’s absurd. Shameless.
I like the idea of using the cyanotype, because in the end it is the absence of the object that would make the work. It was about working with the shadow or the absence/. Initially more associated with women. I wanted to go back and look at gender in my work, in my research. It is a homage to Anna Atkins. Also because I was working with women’s products, say for example nappies, mostly it’s women that will queue to buy nappies. Teenage pregnancy has also rise because people don’t have access to contraception. I wanted to focus on products related to hygiene, basic products of personal use. A lot of diseases that had been eradicated from Venezuela have come back, my own brother suffered a horrible disease. It could easily be treated but there was no medicine available at the hospital.
There are two currencies now, one for the black market and the other is the government-controlled Bolivar also the ‘legal’ dollar. The military are in control and they are getting rich.
RO – What is the connection with Anna Atkins?
I looked at all her work and in a way I found a formal connection with the objects I had chosen for my ‘personal inventory’ project because in the end it looks very like ‘maritime’ (?) for example the toilet paper can look like algae or condoms can be like a anemone, things that can connect formally with her.
I have been doing a lot of research about that period (Victorian?) I did a project on Beatrix Potter and did another project about the suffragettes. So I am always looking out for women of that period and what they achieved. Anna Atkins did all these books, hand sewn, each one assembled differently.
Anna Atkins probably made one of the first photography books, a whole inventory of algae. She used cyanotypes to register the silhouettes of different specimens. Her practice was about recording. But there was also something romantic.
I always work with the same technician in Barcelona; she’s been great at helping me with the technical side of things. We had this crazy weather this year in Barcelona, it was supposed to be very sunny but we had a storm, we had rain, and clouds. So in a period of five days we got very different gradients of blue, depending on how much UV light we got. Some prints are intense blue, and some are even pale yellow, it all depends on the light.
I had a selection of objects by then, based on my experiences and also shapes. Some worked great and some didn’t go as planned. There is the issue of the distance between the paper and the object. It is a process meant to copy things that are flat, so the tridimensionality of objects was a big challenge. How to make a trace of them. Q-tips where almost invisible, so I had to place a lot of them, the image suddenly became like the wings of a butterfly.
RO – When did you realise you wanted to make a mural?
This work begun with an invitation to make a mural for Espacio Monitor in Caracas, in 2016, as homage to Venezuelan Artist Carlos Cruz Diez. I had the specific dimensions of the wall, so I had the paper specially cut so it would fit on the world perfectly. I also wanted to use the corner, so the work would resemble an open book, the angle would give the work dynamism, it also made me think of grouping the images, there is a connection between images, a sequence.
The work also plays with the physicality of objects, and repetition. There are many formal associations, for example these shavers look like bones. A lot of shapes found in nature but from objects that are industrial.
RO- What was the next step?
When I did the cyanotypes I always had in mind trying photograms, I wanted to see what happened with the black and white. I was preparing a show for Berlin and I was sure I wanted to go into the issues around the Venezuelan crisis but I was working on a different series about snakeskins, on ceramics, and started to associate different ideas of the downfall, and skin, and women. I found that the best way of accompanying the ceramics which were black was with this black and white work,.
After working with hygiene product to talk about the situation in Venezuela, I wanted to work directly with food, it is a much more pressing issue, the lack of food and how people in my country are going hungry. The situation got to a limit I’d never seen before, when people have to go and eat out of rubbish bins. The key work to connect the cyanotypes with the video piece of women fighting for food.
I wanted to work with food and the best way was to focus on the ‘basic food basket’, which is a concept, some countries don’t even know but it’s very important in Venezuela and the rest of South America. I wanted to work from items from that list. The ‘Basic food basket’ is a list of items that a family will need to survive for one month, and in terms of economics, it is directly associated with people’s income – specifically the monthly minimum salary- and spending power, What should usually correspond to half a salary or less is now about sixteen minimum salaries. And that’s just to get hold of basic supplies. Families and friends have to chip together to buy and share what is available.
There’s also the unending queues for government issued products, where they give people food. This will only happen if you are lucky to not be on a ‘black list’ -even your neighbour can tell on you- You’ll get a bag called the ‘clap’ from the government with not much more than bit of pasta, some cooking oil, sugar and rice. Disgraceful. Some people have resorted to donations but at the end you get people eating out of rubbish bins, or stealing. Crime has risen because people are desperate. That what drove me to work with this list of items.
All of these photograms are original, I developed them chemically in the darkroom. It was a challenge as the objects where organic and fleshy. Eggs, for example where a big challenge to reproduce through a photogram. They ended looking like a galaxy, it was a complete surprise. A lot of things I cut and sliced, like I was doing an x-ray. Some other things I was closer to drawing than I was to photography. I was using shredded meat, to create arrangements, even with the pasta it became like drawing.
The rice was very purposely put in this position, in this kind of soul-genital-light-candle. It was food becoming something else, an allusion to the magic-religious that’s so present in Latin America. I wanted to get away from a straightforward representation and build something that was different, it became purely geometrical, or cosmic. The images have many layers of interpretations. It can be purely formal, also political. There is a connection with Venezuela’s geometrical abstraction, and through them to surrealism and the work by Russian constructivists. Formal connections, but also political connections, they make the work relevant.
RO – Finally -> Why did you decide on the photographers you invited?
One of the things when I was asked to put a project together for Photofusion was to consider the history of Photofusion itself, because it was a cooperative of photodocumentalists so I think it makes sense for a place like this, to incorporate an element of photojournalism. It would also give a different kind of contrast to this work, putting it like something that you normally would see together, work that is more formal with images tha you would only perhaps see in a newspaper or magazine.
I’ve been looking at these images a lot -mainly on newspapers but also online- and know some of the photographers directly, one of them lives in London. So I thought it would be great to bring these images in as a context of the work. Both types of images are documenting, but they are doing it in different ways.
My work is also a piece of reality but done in a different approach.
RO – What do you think is the outcome of this dialogue?
I’m not really sure yet. I think the different nature of the two types of images generates a conflict between them, almost like a breach. And it is there that I want to experiment. Like oil and water. How to mix things that don’t usually mix. I think the show is just a part, there’s also a public programme with projections and conversations. They will make sense.
RO – Do you think the inclusion of these images turn your work from formal into a political statement? Of ‘denuncia’
These images allow me to connect to reality. In Spanish we say ‘tirando un cable a tierra- having a ground wire. It is something really important because At the moment the country is changing every minute. Trump is saying he could even attack Venezuela. How to keep up with something that is so current and so ‘grave’. It is a huge crisis. Engaging with it is also part of my responsibility as Venezuelan.
It is my way of being participative and collaborative and inviting other people that are there in this fire everyday, while I am here.. a breach between London and Caracas..
RO – Collaboration
We had several meetings with Betty Laura Zapata. I saw her images and she saw my work. I met her through a collective of photographers that we are both part of called Photofeminas, Latin American women working with photography. It was developed by a Venezuelan that lives in Hong Kong, she put us in contact. I knew she had done a series on hospitals during the crisis. She graduated from LCC and showed her work at The Photographers’ Gallery.
RO – Why did you think these images would work with your cyanotypes?
It’s a matter of colour, but also a matter of cause. It is associated with the idea of medicines and the lack of medicines. I had made work with bill boxes and then you see a photograph by her and you see the empty shelves. Both works complement themselves. Carefully. You don’t want to over do it.
The other photographers it’s been more email back and forward. I asked them to send me ten images and I sent them mine. Some images are really powerful, but we needed to create a more elaborate context to show the scarcity. One of them is a pool of blood on the street. One of the photographers wanted to really get involved beyond sending in images. Come over to London..
More than a curating exercise y has been a process of collaboration between us. There’s different levels of involvement, five different photographers each with their own way of working.
RO – One image that jumps out?
One for example is a police shield and a hand trying to break it. And there’s this stain on the floor, very close to my way of working, the difference between shape and background.
Interview recorded August 2017