Marianna Christofides Interviewed by Alessandra Ferrini and Elisa Adami, in July 2013
This is the 2nd part of our July Showcase. Click here to read our review of Marianna Christofides’ work while in residence at Gasworks, London.
AF: What was the starting point of the research you have pursued while at Gasworks?
What has inspired and motivated your research?
MC: I have started from a collection of different maps of Cyprus that I have compiled over the past few years and depict the island in diverse contexts. In general, the main idea behind this project is based on the concept of trying to deterritorialise and reterritorialise documents and existing images of the world – that is on how documentary material can be renegotiated and reconfigured.
Cyprus was extensively mapped as a British colony in the late 19th century, from 1878 onwards, but also by the Venetians some centuries before. For me this interest in maps resides in a very personal experience as I grew up in Nicosia, a divided city. It is a city which has basically two interpretations of its cartography, always depending on which side undertakes the mapping. The ‘other side’ is always mapped as a blank space. The reciprocal white territory proves to be an imprint of a void, a mapped blank which still manifests an exposed mastery of space. It’s about the half and its negative, one could say it is a “minus mapping”- two sides that co-exist but cannot create a single image, except in the mind. For me maps are in themselves boundary layers, they conceal and at the same time reveal all the stratifications and folds that make up time. On the other hand on a map there is no centre and periphery. This absence of perspective provides me with countless paths that I can follow. So, the paradox that a map is a border, which simultaneously provides the freedom to travel across its surface by inciting constantly new, open-ended and not predetermined journeys across its surface was the starting point for this project. Specifically, I was drawn by the inconsistency of the maps that I collected – in terms of the accordance on a geopolitical level, the scale and the way different places were put together. It appears as taking a loss on the scientific nature of a map, just for the sake of sparing space. This is not really the case of course, but it is the impression that comes through when one sees all these different locations patched together to fit on a sheet of paper – like collated remnants.
AF: Could you expand on the way you have developed your research and on the work you have produced for the Open Studios event?
MC: I had all these thoughts in mind and when visiting the National Archives (London) I started looking at the different mappings and visual descriptions of Cyprus from that time (19th century). I guess I am interested in this time, as back then there was still a connection between the cartographer and the locality. Unlike today, there was a relation to the human scale, everything was measured within the capacity of human scale. There were surveyors going to these places, putting up poles in the terrain and taking measurements physically – a connection to place that also implies the existence of stories.
Very often my work evolves out of accidental encounters with sideline narratives, rather than out of the main corpus of history. While at Gasworks I have moved along multiple paths, on the one hand I was visiting the National Archives and looking at these records while on the other I was elaborating on my collection of maps. Then I have also come across a very personal collection by a British soldier who was stationed in Cyprus between 1958 and 1959. I had the luck to acquire these whole lot of correspondences and photographs from that time, which give an unvarnished personal perspective on historical events. Meanwhile, at the archives I was following different paths, one of that concerning the erection of the first Government House in Nicosia in 1878 and the whole story – perhaps fictional, or partly fictional – that was created around that instance in history. This has to do with how this building came into being. It was actually a wooden construction prefabricated here (England) and then supposed to be sent to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). However, at Port Said (Egypt), it was decided to divert it to Cyprus as it wasn’t anymore needed in Sri Lanka because of a stone building that was taken in use. To add to this story, in Cyprus, governors and officials were complaining all the time about the building being completely unsuited for the climate. Having found these anecdotes, always in very similar wordings and very brief, I thought it would be interesting to follow this story in the archive. And then the most striking thing for me was that, after about two months going through all these documents, records, despatches and correspondences in the different departments and offices – from the colonial office, to the war office, the treasury, confidential despatches, official letters and telegrams – I ended up with very little information about that incident. The Governor’s House and quests concerning it were listed in indexes or registers but then the actual documents were almost always missing, as if it were a “malignant” element within the official language. I could not retrieve the main documents, the only trace I found was on the backside of a map which shows a hand-drawn plan of the site with the adjoining barracks and huts that were going to be installed – it reads ‘Ceylon/Nicosia’. The word Ceylon is crossed out, cancelled. That’s the only implicit proof I discovered. Also, in a letter the Governor writes that there is a story being told about the fact that the building was supposed to be for another colony. Then, he himself carries on and questions the factuality of this whole story as well as the very high price it cost and how this decision was taken.
EA: What has drawn you to this story?
MC: I think it is the fact that this story is at the border of official history, a footnote in history. But it is also the way political perspectives are manifested in this building and how a single building becomes the carrier of all these notions.
You already spoke about the correspondence by the British soldier. We would like to ask you why you have focused on this particular story and chose it as inspiration for your work.
Generally I am interested in the cycle of things and to see photographs and visual documents as objects that have travelled in time. Similarly to places, images have their constitution date, the period of their effect and impact as well as a due date, when their function has, so to speak, lapsed. This pattern can be followed in images, beginning from their production, distribution, use and going then on to their disposal. My work acts like a regeneration, by relocating imagery from the past in a present-day context, I’m perhaps continuing a line – an obscure line whose circumstances are kept adrift. But it is perhaps because of this, the inability to pin them down that they leave space for a story to begin. I would like to redefine the temporal element associated with specific artefacts and at the same time undermine the legitimacy of documentary material as an unmediated record of reality. For instance, the British soldier’s ephemera were discarded and sold on the internet. I did not know beforehand exactly what they contained because it was a bulk of material and footage. However, this was also the interesting and challenging part, to see what was concealed in them, something that could not have been mentioned in the seller’s description of the item.
AF: What other lines of research have you discovered in this process?
MC: There were many other lines that emerged and I was often tempted to take another route and sometimes I did take it. I guess to traverse a story in this way implies accepting and making use of intersections, refractions, even abrupt shifts in direction. One other example could be the timeline of images that I wanted to explore and expand in space by enlarging details on photographs, normally gone unnoticed, by trying to discern the local people working at some archaeological and reconstruction sites in Cyprus part of foreign excavation expeditions in the late 19th and early 20th century. This piece is actually composed of two “timelines”. The one made out of images from the photographic collection of the British soldier is more about concealing the human presence. They are all photographs of the military camp. In my composition I tried to cast aside human presence and concentrate on the surroundings, on nature, although there are signs of the camp which are not apparent at first sight. On the other “timeline”, I have taken archival imagery to unveil human presence, bring people and their labour to the foreground.
EA: In which direction do you wish to continue, develop and deepen the research undertaken in London? Which are the paths you would like to expand on?
MC: Working with diffused traces on physical objects and going through these correspondences and records with all their regresses, resumptions, translations, revisions, polishings seems like following entwined lines on a map. One of the interesting things that I found out while working at the archives and looking at this collection of documents, was the way they were compiled and brought together, which seems like a constrained compilation from an outside. Different documents are brought together under the umbrella of one title, one subject matter, knowing that they actually don’t belong together. In a correspondence between two parties, each party holds the correspondence by the other, but all letters don’t usually come together. However, here you have all relating correspondence and this can cause an unsettling feeling, since you are looking at something that does not really belong together – one actually realises that they have turned into relics of a bygone time. So, perhaps this is what I would like to take into consideration when translating the outcome of my research in a visual work.
AF: To expand on this, we would like to know more about your way of working with archives. How does your research usually evolve and what kind of strategies do you put in place in order to translate your research visually?
MC: I mainly work with neutral images as for me there is a palpable presence of ambiguity in them. It is all about the open narratives that they carry and how documents can be renegotiated and reconfigured. Often the structural elements I employ remain mostly associated within an open, non-restrictive modality, which has its reference in specific places, surpasses however a topographical conditionality. The starting point is often a factual place or documental material, by a process of working and re-working it however, this starting point outpaces its initial limitations, whether temporal or spatial. So it is about transcending these constraints. And also, for me, the technologies of reproduction that I use are often about a transfer from one medium to another medium and what this translation implies. Of course, this is also a shift in temporality. If one uses a magic lantern slide from the 19th century and then puts it in another context, like a 35mm slide projection sequence, this shift in materiality denotes a transference in temporality. The different technologies of reproduction mediate to disclose a document’s capacity to recast its frame of reference. This also has to do with not being sure about where to place things – this “double-take” on things fascinates me. You look at something and you think you have registered it, but then something is not quite satisfying or persuasive, it seems out of place and so you’re prompted to look up again, to identify perhaps the reason that caused this unconscious disturbance.
EA: Do you think that there is also a shift in meaning? And do you think that you are losing or gaining something in this translation?
MC: Yes, it is definitely about meaning. It is a “let-loose-process” in which something else is gained in its place: taking material from the past and placing it in the present is not so much about looking back but more about creating a line, remembering the continuity of events which actually projects into a future. It begins to have its own existence as something else.
AF: To expand on this question, we would like to ask you if you think that there are any issues in translating research into practice and how do you go about negotiating the gap between the two?
MC: Insofar as I take as a starting point for my research diffused traces on physical objects to reveal references and analogies between biographical, cultural and historical trajectories, the projects often offer in their composition and articulation an experience of place that is detached from spatial and temporal constants, the anchor points to that are missing. It is an attempt of how with and against the paradigm of, let’s say, cartography, an image of place is brought to sway, initiating an atopic description that accounts the absence of an actual location.
EA: Is it more about a difference in finality?
MC: Yes, it is not so much of a teleological approach with a predetermined outcome. I see this ‘unfinalised’ process as “gestures caught up in their becoming of speech”.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Born 1980 in Nicosia, Cyprus; lives in Cologne, Germany. Christofides studied Visual and Media Arts at the Academy of Fine Arts Athens, the Slade School of Fine Art London and is holder of a postgraduate degree from the Academy of Media Arts Cologne. She has exhibited internationally, and has represented the Republic of Cyprus at the 54th International Exhibition of Contemporary Art LA BIENNALE DI VENEZIA, Venice (2011).
Marianna Christofides’s residency at Gasworks was made possible through the generous support of Train, The University of the Arts Research Centre for Transnational Art, Identity and Nation.