Converting the Archive

Transcription of lecture on the occasion of residency
program ‘WORK’ by Osservatorio OMNE, curated by
Massimo Sordi and Stefania Rossi, Castelfranco, Italy.

Published in WORK catalogue, 2018

Link to full PDF including images referred to in the text

‘Thank you for the invitation and for the opportunity to be here and meet the group of OMNE-lab residents.

– F.E.R.V.E.T. archive (Castelfranco, Italy)
As part of the OMNE project, I will work on a project about the photographic archive of F.E.R.V.E.T., nowadays filed in Castelfranco’s public library. (Image 1, 2))
(F.E.R.V.E.T. stands for ‘Fabbricazione e Riparazione Vagoni e Tramway’, which can best be translated as ‘Manufacturing and Repairing Wagons and Tramways’. The company started in 1907 in Bologna and the activity at the site in Castelfranco Veneto started in 1908, with orders for the repair, overhaul, transformation and modernization of train wagons. In 1990, as a result of a crisis, sites in Bologna,Viareggio, Bergamo were closed and the production then concentrated only on Castelfranco Veneto. In 2011, the company went bankrupt.)

As a premise, I want to present a previous project that deals with archival material and by doing so, this lecture is going to be mainly a confession about the way I approach – and work with – archives and archival material. My work method is essentially a revision of the material and to emphasize the elements of interest. The result runs on the thin thread between correspondence to the archive and personal interpretation.

Working on an archive is to think of it as a large container of stories and within this huge quantity to look for specific stories lines, subjects or chapters, some more punctual than others, not seldom followed by further extrapolation. But also to seek for a route through the archive, a path that is already there, looking for elements of interpretation. This combined ways of working is particularly evident in the work I will present today, called ‘Ramya’.

– RAMYA (Amsterdam, The Netherlands & Oregon, USA)
So, this is Ramya. (image 3)
I met her due to the need for an apartment in Amsterdam during an internship in my last year of studying photography, 2001-2002. I rented her small attic for half a year. The name ‘Ramya’ for me was atypical for a Dutch person, as she was also atypical herself, her appearance, her house, her behavior: all seemed so exotic to me. Keep in mind that I was very young and until that moment, I had lived in a small town at my parents house, knowing little of the world. So, I lived in her attic but I needed to use her apartment for the shower and since she wasn’t there the first few weeks, I could snoop around her house.

This first series of images (image 4-8) are part of a small booklet I made in 2002, which collects the photographs taken by me during this six months of cohabitation. We had a strange relationship, at first there was this diffidence on the part of Ramya and I was overwhelmed by some sort of traction to photograph her and her house, which wasn’t logical compared to my generally reserved character. I felt compelled by myself to document this situation, this is the first result.

From this photos it is also evident that I, at that time still a student, was awkward with the camera as an instrument and portraying in general. And Ramya at first seemed kind but suspicious and looking back at this first portraits,I see her annoyance, boredom even. In the first months there were several occasions where she would invite me in and some minutes later she would retreat to her room to escape meeting me. After some months, she became more friendly and less silently, she started telling me all kinds of wild stories. It wasn’t till after I moved back home and continued my studies that I arranged the photos chronologically. It was surprised to see this clear unfolding of a relationship, from the first mistrust till the warm invitations to come over to have dinner, a friendship.

I asked Ramya if I could to use these photos for my public final exam exhibition and she accepted it to my surprise. I tried to show her the project but Ramya was not interested, she claimed she already knew her own appearance and therefore is not interested in seeing the photographs, but at the same time she was honored to have lent herself to producing my final exam material. It was a conclusion of an experience and a positive atmosphere that we had both crossed and created.

Our friendship continued through visits, phone calls, postcards and letters. I started to travel a lot and she used to do that, she was my inspiration in many ways. I would continue to photograph her every time we saw each other, sometimes in a more precise, more photographic way, sometimes just snapshots. (Image 9)

In our continuing relationship, her rough character emerged and began to describe itself through anecdotes and personal stories. The conclusion of this relationship is her sudden death in 2012.

Her family refused her inheritance and therefore Ramya’s landlord got stuck with the task to clear her apartment. Doing so, he found a lot of material that could be linked to me such as letters and photos, so he asked me to come over and help him clear her personal belongings. First thing I asked him was if I could spend some time alone in her apartment before we would clear it, so I could take pictures of her surroundings, just as I did when I first started living there. Maybe it was because he was an amateur photographer that he agreed. (Image 10, 11)

While we were sorting out her stuff together her landlord told me that he also photographed Ramya many times, but without her knowing it. He lived two floors down in the same building and for many years, he had photographed the bridge opposite their house and obviously also portrayed Ramya passing that bridge many times. (Image 11-15)

In some of his images, I discovered another face of Ramya, which was unrecognizable to me (image 16).
She had problems with alcoholism, and when she was depressed or in difficulty she avoided any contact and I never had been able to see her in those circumstances.

This is a painting that used to hang in her house (image 17) and in reality I would liked to own it, but I arranged a good new owner in another good friend of Ramya. After her death, I was involved in the eviction of the house and all kind of other practical matters including inviting her friends at her funeral to come over and take something from Ramya’s apartment as a reminder. Partly due to that and because I was identified as ‘the girl of the photos’, several of her friends that came to her apartment that following days, to take a memorial, offered me pictures of Ramya and told me their stories.

In her personal belonging, her landlord and I found a videotape in which Ramya was portrayed when she was my age, involved in one of the many ‘self help groups’ that were popular in the 90’s. (image 18, 19)
In the video, Ramya was a student to become a teacher herself for this self-help-program. In the video she was acting as if she was the teacher and her teachers were acting is they were her students. In this video there are a number of very interesting elements for me. The video lasts for 4 hours and was shot over a periode of several days. It is interesting to see her clothes change and to witness the the evolution of this course of teaching, as at the beginning the teachers who supervised her were extremely critical and Ramya talks very doubtful but over time, her teachers start giving compliments on how she conduct the lesson.

Shortly after the discovery of the VHS-cassette we also the corresponding course-folder that, in the video, she has on the lap. Therefor one cannot only read what Ramya herself reads during the course but also one can read her notes, that in the video she is writing on the pages. Looking at both the video and the original course-folder at the same time, all sorts of layers of time, media and the message of the material that is thought intertwine. In a way, this set of video and folder was already a perfect work of art, just waiting there to be put into a presentation. (Image 20)

In 2002, when I graduated with Ramya’s project, I did not imagine that I would reopen this project after her death. The birth of the second evolution of the project is linked to the accumulation of material that I either found in her house or that friends and acquaintances of Ramya gave me. It just happened that, although in a scattered way, an archive of her life fall into my hands.
This archival material was already organized by chapters and contained materials that depicted many situation that played a crucial part in her life. What I found to be lacking was material that represented the moment when she had her name changed, leaving her given name ‘Anneke’ and adopting Ramya. This moment had marked a break with her conservative family, I found out because when contacting her sisters and brothers, none of them wanted to talk about that period.

So from this curiosity a real investigation was born. All friends of Ramya I had met so far, were friends acquired after this transformation, after this change of name. I did find out that she got the name from Bhagwan, later named Osho (image 21), an Indian guru and spiritual leader of the Rajneesh movement, his followers are named Sannyassins. Although Bhagwan spend most of his time in India, he spend 5 years, from 1981 till 1985 in Oregon, USA in a commune that was built by his followers, named Rajneeshpuram. It was there that Ramya met him and gained her new identity. I started looking for people who knew her before or during this proces and I did find some, but besides stories, no-one could provide me with actual testimonials, let alone images. Hence the initial need to reconstruct the missing part of this archive, the need to visualize suppositions and fantasies about the unknown.

The challenge of interpreting the archive was fully opened. On the one hand I felt the need to make important life events visible, staying close to reality, on the other side I had to produce some materials to fill the gaps. I started cataloging all the photos I could find about that Oregon community, in archives of newspapers, through people that knew Ramya that went there themselves, through a Sannyassins foundation in The Netherlands, through online archives, screenshots from documentaries etcetera. (image 22-27) The commune houses over 20.000 people in summer and the commune, according to local authorities, voilated several US laws. Shortly put, there was a complex legal battle that in the end, Bhagwan and his Sannyassins lost. So within the found material I was faced with two types of images: the extremely positive ones of the great community and those against that had derogatory criticism. Although both sides frequently used the same images, the context derived from the captions stated the total opposite, either in favor or against, so the original captions seemed of great value to me. From all these images and captions, I made a time-line in a poster, telling the story of the rise and fall of the commune in Oregon (image 28-29), giving voice to both the ‘in favor’ side and the ‘against’ side.

This immense collection of images was initially born to look for Ramya in these photographs, naively hoping I would find her face in the crowd. The problem is that the photographs taken from a newspaper or internet are grainy, they do not have a resolution high enough for a person in a crowd to be recognizable, but her presence is likely in many shots as in this where it could be the lady in front of the car (image 30) or even more plausible, because she had the habit of using a toothpick, the one on the bottom right; this opens up the possibility of interpretation and fantasy of finding Ramya in these photographs.

To complete my project and to come as close as I found possible to this important phase in Ramya’s life, I went to Oregon and visited the land where the commune once was. Nowadays all that remains is the road that Bhagwan used to drive his Rolls Royces in what was called a ‘daily drive by’, where all Sannyassins would stand alongside that road, waving at him, throwing flowers. Going there myself was a logical action of completion. (Image 31).

From that point on, decisions for both the exhibition and the book weren’t difficult to make because all material were already cataloged and organized by story-lines thus chapters. For the design, by Hans Gremmen, the starting point was the first booklet from 2002, which is, in a way, now a bit outdated in terms of its modality and aesthetics, but I have used it as an introductory chapter, for consistency. The only change to the layout of the first book is the addition of photographs on the pages on the left, which I took at the house of Ramya a few days after her death, over 10 years later. (image 32)

This is one of the best portraits I’ve made of Ramya, even after her death. I named it ‘Hundred Kisses in Enraptured Red’ and it concerns the corner of the house where she used to put on her lipstick, but instead of using a tissue, she did it by kissing the flowers on the wallpaper. This wall reflects her character, there are white stains that show attempts of cleaning that were less successful, it shows care, negligence and abandonment of these attempts to clean which, to me, are a beautiful metaphor. (image 33)

These, opposed to my images, are a series of photographs made by Ramya. She made them especially for me after I left her attic, because I told her that I missed the view from her house.
She send them to me with a postcard and the wrote in a post-scriptum: “PS: included some pictures of places very familiar to you, made with my click-clack kodak”. (image 34)

To emphasize the different impressions that people had of Ramya, I asked three people who knew Ramya well to narrate what they thought was Ramya’s biography. Three completely different version of her life, as in three different personalities emerged, even though some facts overlap. I accompanied these texts with images as footnotes form my archive. (image 35) Also, I photographed the objects that her friends took from Ramya’s house and how they had relocated them into their own homes. I ended up published only one, of the plant that I took and brought to my house. (image 36)

In total, the book and exhibition can be looked at as a summary of a life composed from different perspectives, it is my version of her complex biography. On a broader level it reflects on the traces left by a person and the complexity of his interpretation, the influence and the awareness of both literal and figurative standpoint and the resemblance and lacuna between physical documents and memories. (image 37)

– The Spectators, CalamitA/Á (Vajont valley, Italy)
This project on the other hand is something totally different from the previous one yet also includes archival work, in this case connected to an investigation into the Vajont Catastrophe of 1963 in which almost 2000 people died due to the flooding of the Vajont dam near the city of Longarone.

I have been invited by CalamitA/Á, an organization that orchestrates a collective research on the 1963 catastrophe and its traces, to join the project and produce an archival work on two small settlements, Erto en Casso. Its inhabitants predicted the tragedy and have witnessed the flood happen ‘front row’ as they are located on the mountains overlooking the the dam’s reservoir. (image 38) In my investigation, I found an extraordinary archive, composed by a local geologist, Edoardo Semenza.
He passed away but left an archive of images that largely precede the disaster, and in particular this image (image 39) had been taken about a couple of weeks before the landslide and this geologist obviously highlighted the geological problems, and a slip of a small landslide is already visible.

This was instead taken the day after the disaster and shows the impressive landslide, 1.5 km wide. (Image 40) and in this image, above on the left, one of the two settlement is shown, effectively touched by the wave generated by the landslide, narrowly escaped being faded away. (image 41)
I’ve just started my research a few weeks ago. It’s the new challenge that I pose, or travel through an archive and through history. Compared to the proces with Ramya, this is actually a reverse route because there I had build the archive myself in small steps over time and in this case, it is open and available and the documentation concerning the Vajont disaster is already very widely used. I have to find my own path and make new images as part of my own extrapolation, placing the archival material into the now. As a start, these are three photographs that I took a few weeks ago, lookouts from houses that face Mount Toc, the mountain where the land-slide occurred. (image 42, 43). This is thus a first interpretation of translating my concept of The Spectators.

– F.E.R.V.E.T. archive (Castelfranco, Italy)
So back to Castelfranco, where in the municipal library and in a nearby warehouse lies my newest challenge. The F.E.R.V.E.T. archive. (image 44). The proces of sorting it out will take a long time but I have confidence, as I stumbled upon a surprising starting-point in one of the first folders I opened, which resemblances the proceedings of FERVET and my own work: Construzione, Ricostruzione, Ristrutturazione, Riparazione, Revisione”, translated ‘Construction, Reconstruction, Restructuring, Repair, Revision’. (image 45)
This is my intension, to restructure the scattered and contaminated archive, to convert it into a exhibition where both the physical aspects of the archive as its content, with all of its containing stories, get reconstructed.

Thank you.’