History, archaeology, and autobiography are forms of storytelling that move between scales, from ancient past to future, from private to public. In an intimate conversation, artist Ana Wild and curator Johanna Markert reappropriate and navigate between them. The exchange was one in a series of get togethers between the two, in which a relationship formed between fellows, colleagues, friends. The point of departure was Wild’s practice, touching upon bodies of knowledge that actively shape and reflect the ways in which we relate to competing cultural and national identities.
Wild’s new installation and sound piece Need Proof? Poof! will be shown in the first exhibition chapter of Gemini.
Johanna Markert: Ana, what are you currently working on?
Ana Wild: Lately I’ve been looking a lot at 3D scans of artifacts from the Bible Land Museums’ collection. They are presented as digital isolated objects, floating in an infinite space, removed from context and from reality.
JM: Looking at them makes me curious how the transfer from a physical object to a digital image affects the way we encounter them?
AW: What I find particularly interesting is that with the change of medium, our understanding of them changes. Imagine, those ancient objects were in use thousands of years ago. They might have been totally mundane objects, or at least common and serving a purpose: a pot to carry water, a figurine of a deity: objects that were touched, carried around, made, traded, and handled by people.
When they were dug out of the ground – and later put into a museum – they acquired the status of archeological objects. They became a part of a narrative constructed around a culture or an era. They are treated as pieces of a puzzle, placed one next to each other to construct a story through which we make sense of the past.
Archeology is a structure and it speaks of those objects in professional parlance, it is a system that constructs meaning and attributes it to those objects.
JM: You describe archeology as a structure in which those objects are allowed to exist, within a certain discourse. Does the interaction with a computer simulation of a physical artefact bring you closer to the object, or do you drift further away?
AW: We now see the same ancient objects turned into computer generated 3D images. You can interact with them at home, sitting alone with your computer, maybe at 3am, as a part of some personal nocturnal trip, alongside other tabs and windows. Our process of attributing meaning to them also has to change, right? We dragged them to the domestic sphere, replaced the professional code for an amateur fascination, and the tools with our mouse and browser. Now, is it still archeology?
These 3D artifacts, you can turn them around, spin them, you can zoom in so far as going inside them! You have a perspective that you would never have had. In a museum you see these objects behind glass, with tags of their origin and era, and the conventions allow you to classify them very quickly, to easily trust you can deduce from them how people lived, what they believed in, and so on. Here, this object is an alien artifact, and I am not so sure what I understand from it. Or at least I am confronted with this question. It calls for a certain elasticity of the understanding process.
JM: This elasticity you speak of is hard to grasp. We construct different systems of reference that hold those objects in place within a narrative that makes sense, and is meaningful. The notion of an archeological artifact as evidence, and means to follow the trace of ancient cultures, also speaks about the way we understand ourselves.
AW: We are trained to see history as biased and deployed. We know it is written through subjective points of view and in order to carry through agendas and ideologies. But did we get there with archaeology, to this immediate reflex of suspicion? Perhaps it’s due to the physicality of the findings, their factuality? Or the fact that the archeologist is not perceived as an »author« like the historian is. Also, the way those objects are presented has such a strong tradition, such strong aesthetics – it makes archeology harder to suspect.
In Israel, the aesthetics of archeological findings feels familiar and visually very present. It’s essential to the narrative of Israel as a modern state: digging deep in history (and the ground), in order to provide »evidence« for its narrative, to basically justify its presence in the region. It is very controversial, what kind of narratives are constructed around digs, and what is erased or pushed aside. Archeology is very political and politicized.
Some of those thoughts were already present and are echoed in Aleph, a performance I made in 2016, and later in Dance Dance Find Solution, an installation from 2018. In Aleph I used some images of ancient pots.
JM: This conversation started with depictions of artifacts that seem already removed from the physical objects themselves, and gain a certain autonomy. I remember one of our first conversations and you were talking about creating an atlas of images that explain the world. Very soon it became clear to me that when you speak of »images« this means more than just a visual image. What properties do images have to carry for you, in order for them to enter a piece?
AW: They usually need to have the capacity to become symbols or signs. In Aleph, the pot was abstracted from particular properties and became allegorical, for me to project meanings on it. I start by naming it, like I do with all the other objects throughout the piece. The naming turns into a more subjective projection, calling the information that I can draw from it. I say: »it’s a pot.« And then: »it’s an ancient pot.« Now we can start building a whole narrative on top of it.
I say about the pot: »… it was used to carry water,« and » … it proves the existence of a people.« First we agree there was civilization here, and a second later this pot already proves the existence of my people. So, it’s picking up and reproducing the structure of how we deduce a historical timeline, narrated as we please. All while looking at the same symbolical pot which triggers our imagination but remains very promiscuous, allowing me to name it as this and then as that.
I am drawn to a type of images that can be used as signs in a variety of contexts. Some of those images are recurring, they appear in multiple works. In many works there was a bonfire, each time made from different materials, used differently each time. The symbols are arranged in systems which allows them to signify or stand for other things. It’s underlining the fact that what I am busy with, is creating structures.
JM: What strikes me as a recurring element is that you are looking for objects that have already undergone a process, over time, in which their meaning or function has been overwritten. It seems like you are dissecting them to reveal and add new layers of meaning. A vocabulary is established – visually through images, but also through gestures and words that you tie together only to break those ties again and put them together anew until they create their very own contexts. Those are productive contexts. They multiply, leave traces that are allowed to exist simultaneously.
At the same time, I feel like there is a fragility in that, because meanings become malleable. They are constantly on the verge of disconnecting, losing themselves, and you’re afraid of it all falling apart. Does this resonate with you?
AW: Definitely. I thread together a lot of connections, clusters of images and subjects. It is a kind of methodology, placing these things together to see what universe or world can be written on the base of these clusters. I am condensing things, to gestures, to symbols – and arranging them in a choreographic or musical composition, which is also an apparatus, a system of meaning attribution and production. But this threading is always intentionally a bit frayed or loose. It also has to do with the fact that, as you say – a lot of those images are borrowed, appropriated. They have a history; meanings were attributed to them already. There is something a bit cheeky or audacious in appropriating images in such a way, and its a quality I enjoy. I am not interested in iconoclasm, in shattering their meanings, but rather in incorporating them into my compositions where we can understand them anew.
JM: And also placing yourself within them.
AW: Yeah, a more extreme example of that would be a piece I made in 2015, La Traviata and the beginning of the end. I wanted to make a contemporary adaptation of an opera. I wasn’t interested in restaging the whole operatic apparatus, but in seeing what the pathos of this art form can do in a contemporary setting. How can it be used as a tool for us to understand something about our contemporary time, and the way we relate to history.
The set-up was three objects on a big white stage. The objects propose ways in which we see history, or ways in which history is inscribed. The three objects were Saudades do Brasil – Claude Lévi-Strauss’s book of photographs he took of tribes in the Amazons; a Venus de Milo replica; and the twin towers.
In the performance, we walked around the objects while naming them, kept naming or making statements in different ways, exploring the wide range of relations we have to them. Some statements could be made about more than one of the objects; they become interchangeable. We threaded lines between them and tied those lines to ourselves. That was the base of a choreographic composition, which grew complex throughout the performance.
JM: So you use different registers of language and you build a stage, a setting with words that then collide with each other, such as names, adjectives, and ways of relating to them. You load and unload them as you perform the gesture of naming and placing them. Why La Traviata?
AW: Because La Traviata is an archetype of an opera … it’s a historical artifact, much like the other objects in the piece. And then it’s also just a very beautiful opera. The story is based on La Dame aux Camélias (1852), where the notions of the private or the personal in contrast to the public, are potent.
For me, this theme of private/public speaks of history writing. It captures a movement between scales: between your personal history, your subjective perspective – and the communal and public one, the established narrative. I think this movement between scales is a strategy through which we understand history; how you tend to feel that some histories are yours, when they are in fact inherited through your belonging to society, a nation, a family, et cetera.
There is a very different way of narrating history in those different scales, the personal perspective and importance, compared to an imagined us. I guess there’s something in those rhetorical tools that I’m fascinated by. What is this us and we? And why do we need it? It’s from that need, that the operatic pathos and catharsis are derived from. The »Operaesque scale.« This us and we can be very dangerous and repulsive, and yet at the same time it’s so powerful and comforting.
JM: In what sense?
AW: For years I have been trying to get to the bottom of this. At some point I was calling it »feelings-washing« (like brainwashing). Feelings-washing is essentially a rhetorical tool working on an emotional and very charged state. It’s a scale of thought and emotion that feeling-washes you: washes your feelings with feelings that are not fully yours.
This is probably practiced to an extent everywhere in the world. But what I wanted to really figure out is my relation to it in the Israeli context, growing up and living most of my adult life in Israel. It’s really strong there. Since my early childhood I was very suspicious towards the us, but of course I didn’t have the tools to make sense of it. Intuitively I just couldn’t place myself in the us and always felt a bit embarrassed by it. Yet always maintained a perverse need for it and an envy for how easy it was for others to take part in it.
»… there is something in this tension between repulsion and enjoyment from the us that has been present my entire life.«Ana Wild
My grandparents had strong ties to the Israeli military. My grandfather was a high ranking officer; my grandmother volunteered in the »Association for the wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers.« Their son Yuval, my mother’s older brother, was killed during his military service in the battle over Green Island in the Suez Canal. So, the national commemoration (my mom would cynically call it »the commemoration industry«) was always very present in my grandparents’ house.
My mom, who was a left-wing activist, was very skeptical and detached from this »industry« and this contributed a lot to how I related to it. It was inherited. And maybe the fact that I did it as a child, without fully understanding why, is what left me with this open question as an adult.
In primary school, I and one other girl in my class had relatives who died as soldiers. On the Soldiers Memorial Day, the teacher would say things like »Ana, in your family this is probably a very important day.« I remember feeling a bit disgusted by this, that my family’s tragedy became nationalized, a public event, something to talk about in class. It was also embarrassing because to me it just wasn’t an important day, I didn’t have any real authentic sadness of my own. Yuval died years before I was born and apart from those situations, he wasn’t a part of my life. I wasn’t fully internalizing the actual personal tragedy of my grandparents until much later in life, when I could suddenly see my grandmother as a mother who lost a son, rather than a Em Shakula (אם שכולה), »bereaved mother« in Hebrew. In Israeli society, the mother who lost a child at war, the Em Shakula, is a mythological figure.
But in childhood, being eight or nine, I had only my unmediated raw feeling of repulsion by how the teacher would impose this tragedy on my family, alongside a tiny bit of pride for having a personal story … there is something in this tension between repulsion and enjoyment from the us that has been present my entire life.
»I mean, criticality is important and I am privileged to be able to practice it, yet, I find that I inflict upon myself a constant state of fragmentation, of inability to identify wholly, of loneliness.« Ana Wild
I don’t want to commit to it too much, but I am thinking now that there’s probably a connection between this experience, and my attraction to forms of pathos and epic drama found in opera or musicals. Because they enable this ultimate cathartic us that I yearn to enjoy.
Even though I have always been very critical toward collective catharsis, the curious thing is that it still seduces me, I feel an actual need for it. I seek to articulate a critical stance towards the us, but I have an urge to sometimes just indulge in this collective identity, enjoy the simplicity and power of identifying with a nationality or group.
I mean, criticality is important and I am privileged to be able to practice it, yet, I find that I inflict upon myself a constant state of fragmentation, of inability to identify wholly, of loneliness.
I think that maybe by keeping oneself away from the us, remaining critically outside of it, one might feel as if they are deprived of something? Actually, the dichotomy of either being inside or outside of the narrative doesn’t work for me. My relation to this problem is more complex, which is why the tools to deal with it have to be more complex.
JM: I feel, this complexity and struggle of identification is rooted in confronting yourself with its sheer epic scale. Someone who captures this for me is Anne Carson, when she writes, »Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.« 
On a very fundamental level, there is an urge for immersing yourself in experiences of collective sadness or happiness in order to externalize, distance yourself and cope with those emotions. I am wondering at what point the back and forth between detachment and attachment allows for criticality. Catharsis, understood as a rhetorical tool which promises to reach a state of purification and clarity doesn’t do this justice. My suspicion towards this simplifying understanding of catharsis articulates in asking, »then what?«
As you are saying, it is more complex. And the way you describe the desire to indulge in this collectivity is maybe also bound to the desire to empathize.
AW: I think this catharsis is a kind of understanding, of things falling into place, even if they don’t really do.
I work a lot with the idea of an understanding that isn’t solely an intellectual process, but takes emotional processes into account, and empathy is an important notion and a tool for understanding things in this way.
In empathizing with something, you express a certain desire or will to understand it. Or, sometimes the reason to empathize is because you understand it, even if it is not complete understanding, on the cusp of understanding. Empathy can be a form of latent knowledge, that is not grasped or articulated intellectually.
I was reading a lot about Afrofuturism and Ethnofuturism lately.
In this quote from Esther Jones appears a notion of empathy as an action, rather than something that just happens to you involuntarily because you are human. So it becomes also a question of agency.
JM: I think the question of agency is key. Sometimes I have the feeling that empathy is mistaken as compassion. Feeling compassion towards someone can be an experience of lacking agency – sympathizing, but often feeling helpless at the same time. To think empathy as an active tool in the sense that it translates back into your actions, how you relate, frame, and justify them is profoundly different, yet by no means less problematic.
»The Young-Girl is the underdog and a feminist by default. She is also a subversion of perceived weakness.«from »Preliminary Materials for the Theory of the Young-Girl« by Tiqqun
AW: I am then thinking also of a disposition: a stance or even a figure, that embodying it allows this agency. I keep going back to a figure of »the Young-Girl.« It appeared in »Aleph« and it is on my mind while I am developing new work.
The mythological Young-Girl is for me the embodiment of defiance towards authority, power, and the past. The Young-Girl is the underdog and a feminist by default. She is also a subversion of perceived weakness. I work a lot with dispositions; a really important moment for me in the conception of every work or research is the understanding of the disposition. It’s different from a character. I don’t do characters, but it does set the tone of the work.
JM: For me, the disposition of the Young-Girl is the place where those conflicted ideologies compete. On the one hand you acknowledge the weakness and status of a young girl by identifying with it, on the other this identification is used as a tool to transgress and subvert it. It is not about neglecting or overcoming what the image of the Young-Girl reverberates – power relations between genders and generations – by erasing is, but you put yourself right in her shoes and thereby let her speak and act. Can you elaborate on the term »disposition« by naming a few dispositions that you are currently working on?
AW: The disposition is a way to place myself in relation to knowledge. It defined my attitude toward it, in terms of how I read and study it; as well as how I bring it to my work; its capturing the flavor of the piece, its temperament. Another disposition I have on my mind at the moment is of a »graceful punk.« It’s still containing some youth of the Young-Girl, it’s also a dropout, marginal and anti-establishment, loud and fun-loving, while being graceful, precise and articulated. I want to channel punk heroes who are graceful and intelligent like Patty Smith and Cosey Funni Tutti.
In my current work, I think a lot about the future. The future as a site of narratives just like the past is; as a colonized territory; and the futurity as a device for nonlinear being in time. There’s this recurrent image in Afrofuturism, of describing the Middle Passage as alien abduction. Thinking from there, black bodies of people who were abducted for slavery, and their offsprings, are in a sense sites of a science fiction narrative.
I find this to be a really inspiring image, in how it thinks the past and destabilizes the imaginary of the future. How it subverts the narrative of a victimized body and its future potentials. There’s a notion of subversion and of active participation, of rewriting history not in order to make peace with it, but in order to rewrite futures.
I am working now on two installations derived from the term Canaan-Futurism.
The term is deliberately ambiguous and antithetical, striving to destabilize and subvert the perceived linearity of Israeli identity and of its past, present and future.
Canaan-Futurism is an index of thoughts, sounds and images of Levantine, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, sweaty, radical, feminist, transgressive, poetic, refusing closure, non-western, non-Jewish, non-holy, fresh, understanding history, looking at archeology, engaging with technology, fragmented, embodied, hopeful, angry, sci-fi, punk, pop, Israeli future[s].
- Aleph, 2016, created in collaboration with Leila Anderson, Video photography by Vittoria Soddu
- La Traviata and the beginning of the end, 2015, performed by Leila Anderson, Micheal Burditt Norton and Ana Wild
- Home Mountain, 2014, performed by Leila Anderson and Ana Wild, Video photography by Oded Rimon
- Anne Carson, Grief Lessons – Four Plays Euripides, nyrb 2006, p. 8