Wavepool – You often delve into personal territory in projects. Were you ever hesitant to do so? What is beneficial about being vulnerable?
Brendan George Ko – I am always hesitant about working with personal subjects because it is very easy to alienate an audience: either by the subject being so personal that only the artist and those involved are able to relate to it, or that it becomes excessively self-indulgent. The subject starts off personal but the real work is making it relatable to what it is to be human.
The benefits of working with a personal approach is that you work and speak about the work from an honest place. I find when you place yourself so deep into the work it is no longer about art, it is about sharing something intimate and meaningful with others. In addition, I find the only way a project could go on for years without losing its steam is that at the core of the work is the passion to share a message.
Wavepool – Do you have to make compromises so that viewers can access your experiences?
Brendan George Ko – What I see in a project is always going to be different from what others see. From each step in my process I am in dialogue with someone, that is either someone who is serving as a consultant or just having conversations with my peers. It is an entire process of removing myself from the work in order to (attempt to) see the work from the outside. Knowing what is working and what is distracting from the message I am trying to convey.
I remember in grad school every piece I had in a project had to come with a justification, a complete analysis of why it was important and what was its function to the other pieces. It goes beyond killing your darlings, it is about finding the balance between yourself (practice, intention, and sometimes ego) and the clarity of your message to the viewer. At the end of the day, it’s not killing your darlings, it is killing the author, you have to let go and let that baby grow on its own, the work has to speak on its own (no statement, just visual language and curation).
Wavepool – Can you talk about the relationship between fact and fiction and how they intersect in your work?
Brendan George Ko – We watch a movie and form a relationship to the character, we see his or her situation and our emotions are provoked. We are watching something that is a fabrication of fiction but the writer, director, and performers are all portraying a truth of being human. Life inspires art, and like the question Omer Fast often brings up in his work: what happens to creditability to actual events when they become a memory and what happens to memory when it is translated into a story. I think fictionalization could be used to serve the truth if its intent is telling the truth. People don’t like being lied to especially when they believe in a story, but when something is true that cannot find its way out on its own nature then fiction could be used as an aid. Storytelling dramatically changed when it went from an oral tradition to the written word because honesty in a voice was lost to the empirical nature of the document.
Wavepool – Photography is vital to your work but other mediums regularly come into play as well, such as video, installation, writing, etc. Can you talk about the importance of combining materials?
Brendan George Ko – “Some travel into the mountains accompanied by experienced guides who know the best and least dangerous routes by which they arrive at their destination. Still others, inexperienced and untrusting, attempt to make their own routes. Few of these are successful, but occasionally some, by sheer will and luck and grace, do make it. Once there they become more aware than any of the others that there’s no single or fixed number of routes. There are as many routes as there are individual souls.” – Robert M. Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, 1974)
The stories themselves are not fixed to any particular medium, and though photography is a great supplement to storytelling it has its limits. In 2009, I was creating work for these letters I had received from a crisis center. At first I photographed the rooms the letters were written in with their authors absent. I found the photographs and the letters were two separate entities, with one being cold and lifeless and the other being vibrant and painfully alive. It wasn’t until four years later that I figured out how to merge the two seamlessly and animate those letters from their tomb. The result is Rooms, a series of videos with models acting as stand-ins in the rooms the letters were written in. Accompanying the video are the letters being spoken via professional voice actors that added not only life to the stories but texture and believability.
Stories are not fixed in one particular medium and the challenge (what I call “visual strategy”) is finding a medium that is able to resonate best with the subject matter. Being able to work with other mediums is the similar to becoming technically proficient: the artist becomes less concerned with technique allowing him or her to focus on what it is they are trying to say with the work.
Wavepool – What are some of the limits of photography in storytelling?
Brendan George Ko – Photography is a monument: it arrest time and creates “moments”, it lacks voice and movement, and it gains its definition in its lack of change. There is an installation piece by Kerry Tribe called, H.M. where a loop of 16mm film runs through two projectors and over time the film is slowly being destroyed. It makes you realize that anything that moves, that holds the ability to change eventually dies, and dies in a speed that is reminiscent of life. When the frame stops (thus creating the photograph) it is haunting because it is a ghost, something that has passed, but is there before us and unable to interact or speak.
I find there are approaches in photography tell a story that work through a series of photographs. But the most effective storytelling with photography involves text which (in my opinion) always exists alongside and never emerged with photography. One ultimately diminishes the value for the other, never as equals to the viewer’s attention because we read text differently from images. Now I don’t want to make this sound like I completely lost faith in the medium, I find its indexical nature of photography its greatest aspect to storytelling. It grounds stories to the real in the same way that photographs are grounded by their referent (the very light that create them).
Wavepool – Who are some other artists that you think approach storytelling in exciting ways?
Brendan George Ko – There are three specific works by three different artists/film-makers that come to mind. The Casting (2007) by Omer Fast, Fast’s work is often about slippages of the truth and how the distinction between fact and fiction are lost to the subjective nature of memory. To quote Fast, “I’m more interested in how memories become mediated into stories”.
Following Fast is Thin Blue Line (1988) by Errol Morris, which recreates an event from multiple accounts. Out of any documentary it deploys the most amount of theatrical staging that coat the truth with fictional aesthetics. To spite the fictional treatment of facts Morris’ intent is to recreate a moment that has passed and the only document is eye-witness accounts with as much precision as possible.
And lastly, Sherman’s March (1986) by Ross McElwee. What can I say about this documentary, it is just about my favorite thing: it is about McElwee trying to make a documentary about a Civil War general who “brought the South to its knees”. What ends up happening is the viewer is taken on a very honest and intimate journey through McElwee’s life in the early 1980s (think Adaptation (2002) as a documentary). Going back to Pirsig, he said that it isn’t about the destination but how you arrive. The process is often absent from the finished work, but I find what someone went through to make the work more fascinating than the arrival.
To see more, please visit Brendan’s website.