Chit-chat Els Opsomer eng

pieter van bogaert

(Un)readable worlds

Els Opsomer in Rotterdam, Jette and Veurne

in <H>art, 2014

(lees het in het Nederlands)

Els Opsomer is everywhere these days. In January the Film Festival in Rotterdam will screen her newest film: ‘Building Stories #001 – That Distant Piece of Mine’. In December Vers Brussel presented ‘Mbogo où es tu, waar ben je?’, a new sculpture on a square by the Boulodroom in Jette. And a new version of ‘Archive Building’, her ever-changing archive, is part of ‘Grenzen/Loos’ in Veurne. Time for a discussion about all those various aspects of what is always the same body of work.

For ‘Building Stories #001 – That Distant Piece of Mine’ Opsomer has made 16mm film recordings in Senegal. Over a five-year period she returned several times to the same locations. That distribution over time and those recurring locations are part of her Senegalese family. It is her way of digging into her subject. As a result of the long production period ‘Building Stories #001’ is completed after ‘Building Stories #002: Love Suffering Mechanical Disorder’ – her installation from 2008 for which she also shot on 16mm in Brussels and Istanbul.
‘Building Stories #001’ has a more or less parallel production history as ‘Mbogo où es tu, waar ben je?’ That work starts in 2007, when Opsomer explores the Brussels’ commune of Jette with the Congolese poet Kasele Laïsi Watutu at the instigation of Vers Brussel. She presented the preliminary result of this collaboration as enlarged photos of anonymous buildings in the Essegem social housing area. Her newest work is a stainless steel sculpture on the lawn in front of that same building. To the occupants of the upper floors the sculpture spells out the first words of the poem by Watutu. Passers-by on the ground see the work more as a bench, or a climbing frame.
The long production period and the multiple reading levels of her most recent works play an even larger part in ‘Archive Building’. There Opsomer presents images from her archive of 20 years in an ever-changing configuration. The current version in Veurne differs from the version she presented not that long ago at the Netwerk arts centre in Aalst. This is due to the fact that some images have been sold or replaced by others in the meantime. But Opsomer also asks the organizer of the exhibition to alter the presentation of the images on a regular basis.

Els Opsomer: ‘Archive Building’ is a way of sharing my archive with thousands of prints, mainly from slides. Each new presentation is assembled differently, creating new readings of my work. That is my way of showing my images as part of a larger pattern – the archive – without ever showing the overall picture.

What do you mean by sharing: ‘dividing into fragments’? Or rather ‘communicating’?
Opsomer: Both. I don’t always own those pieces from my archive. Sometimes they have different proprietors. That is one way of sharing my work. But it is also part of the communication. My images are often projected: as slides or as videos. This creates a distance. For ‘Archive Building’ I only use prints with solid identical frames, like pieces of a large puzzle. That way the images become literally tangible. The distance between the image and the viewer decreases. I give a definite shape to the archive, which is still intensely hybrid: it is an archive that keeps altering over time.

Time: then we talk about rhythm, jumping to and fro, about trying. ‘Building Stories’ encourages a similar feeling. Your film about Senegal is numbered #001, but it is presented after #002: the installation from 2008, confronting images from Brussels with images from Istanbul on two screens. And actually you had already made a prior film about Senegal in 2006: ‘_imovie_ 3 – silver lips for me’.
Opsomer: Those films come about in the same way as the photos. It is always about ordering things in new ways – looking, understanding and offering images differently. Time is an aspect, but so is the archive and opening up reading potential. The same images keep coming back, but the insights are always changing. It takes a long time before I can convince myself that a work is finalized. I presented the first version of ‘Building Stories #001 – That Distant Piece of Mine’ in 2012 and today’s version is rather different. Now the film is done, but I might very well draw images and sounds that didn’t make it from the archive for some other work. Some images, for instance, work better as an installation than as a film.

That is also the first difference between ‘Building Stories #002: Love Suffering Mechanical Disorder’ and ‘Building Stories #001 – That Distant Piece of Mine’. The first is an installation, the latter is a film.
Opsomer: With the film I had the same effect in mind as with the installation. It remains material that can never be completed: contemplative, with several storylines that cannot be grasped in a single vision.

Really they are films in which to stray off. More like an outing than a story. There is little to hold on to and in your case that is a good thing: it is another way of stretching that readability. This was also true of your Palestine images in ‘Time Suspended’ and in ‘_imovie_1’ (2004). In fact they require instructions – and in the flap text of the book ‘Time Suspended’ you do supply them – to understand what a Jewish settlement, a Palestinian refugee camp or a checkpoint really is. The same thing holds true for these images of the Senegalese women. European or Senegalese viewers will read them differently.
Opsomer: Everybody has their own perception and with my images I respond to that. I start from my own point-of-view and for that reason I call this a film for a European audience. My perspective is one I share with a great many European viewers. I can look at these images of women by fishing boats for hours on end. Why are they standing there? What are they doing? No one can explain this to me. These rituals keep repeating themselves. But I don’t really need to understand that in order to feel connected with the images.

The images are indeed fascinating. But at the same time I wonder: what are you doing there? How long have you been standing there? Remarkably few people look directly at you in the film. Hardly anyone seems to notice that camera, or the white filmmakers behind it.
Opsomer: Sometimes we just left the camera running and abandoned it. We just let things happen. That is also part of the culture: letting other people do their thing. The specific locations allowed for it as well. In Dakar this would be more of a struggle. There we filmed from rooftops, shifting the attention to the city and to people’s buildings. I film the places I know. Similarly to my photos I like to revisit places where I have been before.

Your new work in Jette is a blown-up text. But it can only be read from the upper floors, unless the sun is high enough to cast a shadow on the ground. As a result this is a work for a very local audience: for the inhabitants and regular passers-by.
Opsomer: At the same time I wanted to make it tangible, something that might be used. I was marvelled when kids came to sit on it straightaway. Inhabitants also came to tell me from which apartment you had the best view. You get loads of instant reactions when you work on a square like that.

The inhabitants in Jette are the first who can read your image. The women in Senegal are the first to understand their images. The city images in your archive are mainly identifiable to the inhabitants of those cities. But there is always another level of readability: a generic one, beyond the actual situation. The images last, they are always supplying different meanings.
Opsomer: That’s what we call appropriation. By looking at an image you give meaning to it. You connect to it in various ways. The ever-changing readability arises by allowing the spectator to associate things with it. In those cases it might even be better if you are not familiar with the actual situation at all. Too much information is an inhibition to the way the images work. Buildings are a major factor to this effect. They are additional characters. This story is less about me than previous work; it is more about the location. In that sense it is more of a shift.

That shift is also reflected in the sound of ‘Building Stories #001’, which creates a distance. No captivating African beats, but rather wayward distortions. ‘Mbogo où es tu, waar ben je?’ works differently. There the shift is a way of bringing together: the call for the African buffalo in that Brussels’ commune. In ‘Building Stories #002’ the shift is situated in the confrontation of two cities on two screens: Brussels and Istanbul.
Opsomer: The theme is always the multitude we find in ourselves. The noise over the images takes a great deal of effort on your part as a spectator, but it also draws you in. You are at the heart of it. Africa is not that far. You are there.

Or do you mean: you are here? ‘Here’ being the movie theatre where you see the images of Africa. As a result of the interference in the soundtrack the movie theatre, the medium, becomes part of the situation. That way the reality of your filming becomes part of the reality you present in your film. There is an additional track, a duality also to be found in the images, in which you toy around more than usual with the tension between fore- and background, between the characters and the architecture.
Opsomer: I need that tension in reality. Things should not be too harmonious. For the first time I film a lot of people in ‘Building Stories #001’. Though these people really work in the same way as the buildings in ‘Archive Building’. I film characters as architecture; they are emblematic of the world. There lies a new challenge: showing characters as an abstraction, not as a portrait.

‘Building Stories #001 – That Distant Piece of Mine’ will be presented during the International Film Festival Rotterdam. 22 January to 2 February.
‘Mbogo où es tu, waar ben je’ is a permanent installation by the Essegem Boulodroom in Jette.
‘Archive Building’. Until 9 March in EMERGENTgalerie, Grote Markt 26, Veurne.