Australian artist Bronek Kozka’s photographs from the series Remembering what never happened are complex, presenting a somewhat disconcerting entanglement with reality and what we might perceive as being the situation, or moment, we are looking at. The images are large and detailed, a moment in time that, subversively historical (check out that huge mobile phone), unfold over the course of an evening, allowing us to bear witness to what appears to be a high society night of flapper frivolity.
Kozka is fascinated with memory, obsessed with it. As an artist, he creates moments, often through serial imagery, that play out a time in his life that define experiences that are also common to many – dinner at a suburban Chinese restaurant, awkward teenage groping in the back of a station wagon, uncomfortable family dinners – moments that, while not exactly ours, are familiar in ways that relate to our own experiences. In Remembering what never happened, memory, and its relationship to how we attach ourselves to certain moments in our past, is a principal motif for the work, acting as those fulcrum events that leave lasting impressions.
The digital dwelling
Central to all the images in the series is the house. Presented as the kind of contemporary, pastiche house, the kind that wins awards for architects – wanting to be a lived in space, humanised and an integral part of the narrative, the centre of everyone’s enjoyment. But it simply can not be any of those things because it is a fake. Constructed not from bricks and glass, but from digital bits and code, lit by a lighting effects program, rendered in 3D from a CAD drawn file, all computer generated, all from Kozka’s imagination. I wanted to say memory, but then it is a house from a party his parents told him about that he did not attend – he never actually saw the house to reimagine it. The house is a memory hand-me-down.
Even the development stage for the realising of the house was faked. Kozka, in collaboration with Melbourne architectural firm Cox Architects, employed the firm posing as a ‘real’ client. Following a period of ‘role-playing’, a design brief was developed based on the imagined desires of one of the (yet to be photographed) characters. The firm, who were in on the act, played along and made the house using 3D construction and renders.
Pictorially, initially, the images appear like advertising shots, perhaps for perfume, maybe for champagne, yet there is something compelling about the adumbration of the location, a place where face-to-face human conversations exist in a space designed for such things – around the pool, on the balcony with cityscape views, in spaces that inspire and encourage conversations to flow. And it could also be assumed that these conversations were overheard by others at the party, a synchronous event. Yet the opposite is true, the conversations existed as asynchronous, indeed the entire photographic images are asynchronous – each a discrete element of the scene following from the last, in the ultimate antispatial location.
The human experience of place is central to ways that people live in the world, a way of seeing the world mediated by the culture to which we belong. Author Tim Cresswell, in Place: A short introduction suggests that place is the internalisation of our world, positioning landscape as something the viewer is outside of and external to, while a place is something to be attached to, or inside of (Cresswell 2004). In Space and Place: The perspective of experience (1997) human geographer and philosopher Yu-Fi Tuan outlines this relationship between humans and the spaces we inhabit as personal experiences and constructed realities, grounding ourselves into a scene in relation to how we are positioned:
When we look at a country scene we almost automatically arrange its components so that they are disposed around the road that disappears into the distant horizon. Again, almost automatically, we image ourselves travelling down that road; its converging borders are like an arrow pointing to the horizon, which is our destination and future (Tuan 1997, p. 123).
This concept of place extends beyond the simple idea of viewing, to a phenomenological approach, a complex understanding of existence and experience – how we see, know, perceive and understand our world. Thus, being in the world, being in ‘a place’ is an acknowledgement of being human, our perceptual connection to that place, and that place’s extrinsic connection to us.
So how does one consider a place that is not real, a place that is a hand-me-down memory, constructed from bits and bytes? At a time when cyberspace creates cyber places, responding to human connections to virtual sites connected by glass cable, with no central or physical manifestation, requires a different way of thinking about place.
Perhaps it is in academic William J. Mitchell’s 1995 book City of Bits: Space, place and the infobahn that the most relevant and valuable ideas on place in relation to the digital realm, and the fake house, this digital dwelling, are to be found. Mitchell eloquently presents supermodernity as a network of information and binary code that globalises place as a virtual city interconnected by the information superhighway. Beginning with how physical infrastructure, such as fibre optic cable, is connecting our physical world, Mitchell then presents a new kind of place, one that is inhabited by humans, but does not exist anywhere other than in cyberspace. Borrowing terms from DNA science (‘Recombinant’ architecture) and computer programming language (‘Soft’ cities), Mitchell lays out a possible future for humans that includes both physical, but increasing more common, virtual places. Anthropologically, the virtual spaces create culture, they exist and they create communities. Yet we must ask, how can an environment with no smell, temperature or physical space, be considered in terms of its culture or indeed its ‘place’ in the world? The answer lies in how humans create social groups independently of place, and the fictional narratives created.
Belonging, community & fictional narratives
Putting the (fake) house aside, the other core component of the work is the role of narrative in presenting events and circumstance. What makes humans unique from other animals is our ability to gossip about each other and to transmit information about things that do not actually exist. Take, for example, a group of 50 people – a medium sized organisation. Within this group, there are 1,225 possible relationships between individuals, and even more complex multiple person relationships (three or more people). One of the principle reasons a group this size can function is through gossip and the telling of stories about each other. These can be simple stories that reinforce relationships, help people to cooperate, cause people to fight or simply to understand where they are. However, there is a limit to the size of a functioning group, and sociologists generally agree that this maximum is around 150 individuals. Beyond that, and people are not able to intimately know, or effectively talk about all the individuals in the group (Harari 2011)
In order to create communities, make cities, and build civilizations, we create fictions, social contracts or imagined realities. We hypothesise common myths or stories about things that are constructs – laws, religions, things that are not tied to any singular event or interaction between individuals in small groups. In effect, we create narratives to help us cooperate, become a society and to flourish.
Many of us are read stories from a young age, and our early existence in (and of) the world is formed through a relationship between things we experience, to the stories we are told. Through this, we set up vast imagined realities and situations that imprint on our perception of life – through play, and the acting out of our childhood stories, we develop our sense of place and belonging, and how we exist in groups and establish relationships.
Stories are complex and they are powerful.
So what ‘never happened’….?
The notion of narrative, and the imagined realities is evident in all the images in Remembering what never happened, however in Dispute the ambiguity of this also creates the kind of tension that is the strength of the work, essentially, just whose story are we looking at. Who is in dispute with whom? The women in the background look both indifferent and engaged at the same time, and the man and women (perhaps the obvious antagonists for this image), with their backs turned and their eyes shifting, could easily be ‘in dispute’. However, the image shifts into complexity when we consider the formal photographic devices; lighting, composition and time. The overwhelming blue suggests calmness, but also a subtle awareness of something changing as it (the light) changes from blue to neutral the higher it is in the image. The framing is meticulously constructed, no one is in contact with anyone else, all individual (presumably single?), the central figure being the women in the rear in the short skirt, contrasted with the foreground women – three against one, the attractive, well-dressed man gazing into the distance (perhaps the external city-scape view is more compelling than the beautiful women?) Is there someone else we cannot see? Finally, the timing is still and staged, that moment when the four guests are all looking somewhere, it is not so much a new moment, but rather a paused moment, one where I can study the scene, like an anthropologist, and since no one is looking at me, there is no sense of urgency or anxiety. Everything is so nice and so comfortable – but it is meant to be an image about dispute. I am so confused! But then that is the strength of the image, maybe the dispute is with me, as the viewer, and my own recollections of discomfort at the party where I just did not fit in – we all want the beautiful people to like us, and cringe at the idea of somehow being (politely) snubbed.
The confusion is perhaps the best part, and it lies in how the work was made. Following the role-playing at the architect’s, Kozka then exhaustively photographed each of the characters, using either friends or employing professional models, with either a blue screen or a black / white background, in various poses and expressions, looking in different directions and, crucial to the project given that none of the final images had been visualised, alone.
In the 2014 Electronic Arts’ game The Sims, the publisher claims that ‘You create’ and ‘You control’, ‘… create any Sim you can dream up. Plan their lives, pick their friends, make enemies, and watch their hilarious stories unfold’. (origin.com)[i]. In a process more aligned with playing a game of The Sims, rather than taking a photograph, Kozka set up a workstation with three monitors in his studio (the only real place), and selected a scene from the virtual house, which was then photo-realistically rendered. One opposing side monitors he placed all the images of two characters, then, using their expressions, gestures and attitudes to inform and realise a story, he constructed the image.
The result of this, perhaps ironically, is that no one seems to really like each other. In each of the images, people are talking, smiling, laughing, but what is missing is some sense of connection. What could be causing this? They are in an amazing location, they are all attractive and accomplished (not or), and they appear to be the kind of people whose lives others aspire to have. Yet the melancholy is increasing pronounced the more the narrative unfolds. Despite everything they have, they are, each of them at different times, looking at something else – searching, seeking, longing. An attractive man is talking to an attractive woman, but looking somewhere else, an attractive woman is talking to an attractive man, yet her mind is on something else, the central story seems to be one of longing. The only image where this is not explicit is A successful older man talks to an attractive woman while standing by the pool, yet the woman is looking off into the distance, he is central to the frame but she is off to the edge, moving away and increasing the already significant distance between them, and his body language, combined with his deadpan expression, all tell a story of disassociation rather than connection. We presume, through the title and first impressions, that the older man is attracted to the woman and attempting to impress her, yet nothing in the image’s reading leads to this conclusion.
The staged tableaux
Of course the idea of the staged tableaux is a familiar trope in contemporary photography. I’m thinking here of Canadian artist Jeff Wall (b 1946), whose work is a combination of scenes from everyday life; like spilling milk, or a surreptitiously raciest gesture of giving someone the finger, through to unreal scenes played out in complex staged environments. Wall’s photography makes methodical use of the pictorial devices of framing, time, subject and operator. Wall operates on two specific areas – one being that the artifice of the photograph is made explicit through the unreal nature of his stories, this is sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle, and an acceptance, maybe even a reliance, on the possibilities made available through digital post production. The second is the meticulous staging of an event or moment that seems less than staged, almost casual in its appearance. Combined, these two areas of concern in his imaging create a complex relationship between the photographer as operator and viewer as spectator. We know we are looking at something, we suspect that something is not quite right, but only once we really peer into the image can we see what we suspect, that the scene and the unfolding is just not quite right.
Realism, although a clear strength of the medium, is not really Wall’s aim, employing actors and digital manipulation, he creates images that challenge our perceptions of photography. In Dead Troops talk (a vision after an ambush of a red army patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, Winter 1986) from 1992, he creates a desert scene from an ambush in Afghanistan, using actors, staged lighting, set building and digital effects. Montaging the same actors into different locations, the dead soldiers appear to be talking with each other, either unaware or disinterested in their own deaths. Like a museum diorama, the scene looks authentic but is clearly a fake.
Take this one step further - does it matter that we know it is a fake? The title claims both - dead troops talk, which they generally do not do, but we also get the real event data, right down to the date. So if the event really did happen, is not Wall’s photograph simply a play on what happened, adding that extra dimension of what friends and family wish dead troops can do, and that is not be dead?
Kozka, an admirer of Wall, takes this notion of the artifice in a slightly different direction, by staging a scene or moment in time while completely doing away with the need to find or even physically construct a location. The house, the digital dwelling, borrows its realism from Kozka’s memory of being told about a house, and transforms this, through what is clearly desire and Kozka’s ‘dream home’ (maybe he was not role-playing with the architect). Borrowing from Wall’s casual approach to the picture, and the representation of fake moments, events or locations, Kozka sets up a scene in which everything is fake; the location, the story, the people, even the view, combined and constructed to create ‘something’ that never happened, yet holds within its imagery a compelling memory or desire to wish for memories like this.
In staging Remembering what never happened, Kozka has reconstructed an imagined reality in which to explore collective memories. Yet the house does not exist, the actors where never there, the entire event manufactured – a story that never really became a reality for Kozka. But that did not stop it from becoming a fiction for him to use to create an imagined reality, one that plays out an event in a way that explores our own anxieties and trepidation, and ultimately contributes to our ongoing myths about who we are, where we are, and just how do we belong.
Dr Shane Hulbert
Associate Professor of Photography
Deputy Head of School, School of Art
Cresswell, T (2004) Place: A short introduction. Blackwell, London
Tuan, Yu-Fi (1997) Space and Place: The perspective of experience. University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota
Mitchell, W (1995) City of bits: Space, place and the infobahn. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Harari, Y.N (2015) Sapiens. Harper Collins, New York
Wall, J (2007) Jeff Wall: Selected essays and interviews. The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Origin EA website
[i] The Sims is a life simulation game, currently in version 4, and one of the best-selling video games of all time. https://www.origin.com/en-au/store/buy/sims-4/mac-pc-download/base-game/standard-edition?utm_campaign=origin-search-au-pbm-g-sims4-p&utm_medium=cpc&utm_source=google&utm_term=the%20sims&sourceid=origin-search-au-pbm-g-sims4-p&gclid=CLrZpouev8sCFQsDvAodXU0O6w accessed 14/03/2016