The project Collage Series / Women of Newfoundland & Labrador during the First and Second World Wars, started with an invitation from Mme Vicky Chainey Gagnon, Director Chief Curator of The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery Division, to travel to St-John's, NL, to make a research residency - on Newfoundland & Labrador Women at work during the First and Second World Wars - at The Rooms in the Archives Division. During the two weeks residency in august 2014, I carefully selected archived images to realize a series of 40 collages – from which 32 are presented at The Rooms in the Vitrines on Level 2, from January 15th until September 13th 2015.
Within the framework of this project I investigated the concept of collage along two principal axis in order to precise an aesthetic and procedural approach.
The first axis is related to the mechanical act of tearing asunder – i.e. the act of sampling – that is used in the collage process, no matter the medium, or even art discipline1. Then comes the act of rethinking and recomposing the images to generate a new narrative (a new whole).
Since I was working with archived documents - already scanned by the Archives Division staff - the second axis is more related to notions of realism and supposedly objective visual culture, to question the notion of authenticity of historical archives in this Ubiquitous Computing/Media world we now live in. This brought me to work with digital format, using software tools to reach the blending quality that I was looking for. Since the archived photographs all come from different types of equipments, dates, and stills, a great deal of effort is invested into creating an aesthetically coherent combination of images of different sources. First, for each collage, I selected a background - or environment-like images - in most cases they were pictures of landscape - taken during either between 1914 and 1918 or between 1939 and 1945. The selected background became the starting point of the collage's construction and composition. The other elements that I selected, extracted and recontextualized had to be modified to match the color spectrum and the grain of the background picture, so that the quality of the foreground image was not alien to the background, for the act of collage and combination can be more subtle. This blending approach comes from the intention to make a new image (which is a false reality) that seems as real, or as credible, as the original, in order to question notions of authenticity and evoke the role of remembering through storytelling.
Although the material used for the collages are of a documentary nature, the treatment of the photographic document is not. It can sometimes have the look of a documentary photography, but it is totally constructed. Since most of the reconstructed document respects notions and markers of realism, it may induce ethical problems. That is to say the problem of falsifying reality.
Indeed, most of my collages give a result that is not necessarily looking as a collage at the first glimpse. This is one precise aesthetic moment that I was looking for in this project. Indeed, at this specific short time, there is a collapse between the fake and the apparently real, where our brains and minds have to spend some time to figure out the limits of the collage, its veracity, its ability to cheat reality. This opens many poetical and aesthetic potentials.
This also reminds some parts of my former interest in narration. But this time, the narration is actualized in a real historical framework instead of being inscribed in a purely fictitious and poetic lineage. Here, the narration is more similar to notions of transmission and interpretation of history, maybe as in the case of storytelling. Of course, the actual story is somehow visually told, but also bent and transformed by its complex mythological charge – such as in primitive civilizations where knowledge was orally transmitted but also charged with metaphorical content. Such as eschatology and cosmogony myths marking a transition of an age to another – i.e. the end of life as we know it and the beginning of a new age.
However, here, this is done with great care: I mean without the intention to tend toward a literal and factual history, or even to fall in the trap of the “grand narrative” discourses. This new research and creation project proposes a mythical and narrative constellation anchored in the visual and photographic iconography of that time but without grand narrative or teleological interpretation.
The acts of digital collage and cut-out operate, in themselves, like metaphorical and procedural representations of the despoliation that occurs during war times, and the lives torn in the context of these strong cultural tensions and social transitions. Transitions that were also aligned with a new phase of industrial modernity. Transitions accelerated by technological advances, both industrial and logistical, perfectly representative of the economical and political contexts created by these wars, that literally remodeled the workers' – both men and women - work culture.
Also informed of the most recent writings on cultural heritage in the digital revolution, this new project also plays with, and questions, the place and the culture of museums and archival institutions. Two institutional models that have to redefine and reposition themselves in this digitally-altered historical information-base in relation with the new generation (Cameron et Kenderdine, 2010)2.
1- For example, the well known cut-up technique that William S. Burroughs translated from literature to sound (taped cut-ups), film and mixed media experiments.