I’m a novelist whose pastime is art, which as distractions go, and novelists can be extreme aficionados of distraction, threatens often to overrun my writing time completely to the point where often I feel I should just call myself an artist and be done with it. When I was writing my first novel I distracted myself by making books with other people: I became an editor and co-started with Line Madsen Simenstad, a Norwegian journalist, Broken Dimanche Press, a self-avowed avant-garde platform that would publish literary books by artists and visual books by writers. We would be political – a tongue in cheek social democratic stance prevailed – and be European wide in outlook. We called the endeavour after Yves Klein and his one day newspaper – Dimanche – that appeared on newsstands throughout Paris on Sunday 27 November 1960, a beautiful constellation of conceptual and performance art intervention and design, all wrapped up in the form of the humble throwaway newspaper. Our plan was to make newspapers and celebrate the Everyday through ludic, artistic and academic interventions in this most commonplace of publications.
Dimanche, Yves Klein, newspaper cover.
BDP started with a journal The Kakofonie, but that quickly started to take different forms (a PDF download, a poster, a video selection, a bookmark etc) but never a newspaper. Next came our first book: an anthology You Are Here. We found kindred spirits in the designers FUK. We won the Charlemagne Prize. We made many books with some great artists and writers. Exhibitions. Projects. Tours. Readings. But five years later and we had yet to make a newspaper.
In September 2012 I was in Milan putting on an exhibition of LGB art derived from that novel I finally managed to finish in between distractions, The Readymades, when I got a phone call from Richard Mosse. He was in Denver, I think he said, just off a plane and had been reading my novel when the idea came to him that maybe I could travel with him to the Congo when he was making The Enclave. I could try and do something similar to The Readymades – use found material, witness testimonies to war crimes, art historical intrigue and gossip – to compliment the fictive landscape as portrayed in his Infra series. I could help him make his catalogue, his book, something beyond the pale. I said yes, sure thing. Three weeks later I was with him carting beer coolers full of expired infrared film through airports and up and down mountains. We arrived into Goma sometime passed midnight, the streets eerily deserted; even to me who was there for the first time, it was clear that the town was under curfew, in lockdown because of recent grenade attacks and the proximity of the rebel group the M23’s enclave. There was a UN battalion in heavy armoured vehicles. Gun towers along every fence. The roads where barely what you could call roads, made mountainous from the lava from the Nyiragongo volcano, glowing red in the background. The place suffered a kind of doom laden inevitability that kept me from asking myself what I was doing there and now two years later, thinking about this first entry into Congo exhausted from 15 hours of travel, I’m left thinking how funny the places are to which the creation of books can bring you.
I don’t really know why I’m drawn to this unit we can call the day, the Everyday, and which the newspaper is the representative form. The newspaper is a durational publication and yet it has a stake in history, its details make up the small details that become building blocks to historiography. Our lives are made up of the day and everyday routines are what ground us to this earth and yet they slip away, get lost so easily: what must it take for you to remember this day in ten year’s time? Borges’ unfortunate Funes, a character I think of often, has a memory of a recall scale 1:1: he takes a whole day just to pass over the memory of one day. A heavy burden and yet so much art and literature chase exactly this burden, to remember, to recall, to dwell and resurrect from the tides of amnesia crashing against the defenseless shores of anamnesis. In The Readymades I invented an art collective, a roaming group of artists called The LGB Group – who have adopted their own reality and have embraced the world with a modicum of success – and their interest, what they strove to exalt in their art was this thing, unit, aspect of life, that they called the Everyday.
Richard Mosse climbs a mountain on the Rwandan-Congolese border,
October 2012. Photograph: John Holten
In A Supplement to The Enclave it becomes fascinating to read the conversations between Mosse and his collaborators, even to me who knows all three well and was there for much of the recording and events discussed. One fascinating part of these conversations is how one sequence of The Enclave toward the end is referred to in both conversations, indeed Ben Frost says it may be his favourite at one point, while Mosse states that it could be ‘the crux of the piece’. It’s a complicated scene of disjunction, the soundtrack is made up of a loud hammering and arguing voices, a fast rhythm grows: it seems it’s made up of the very disparate elements that make up the chaotic thing that is life. When I was there we developed the idea of luring the viewer into the enclave with long panning shots that would lead the spectator into new spaces. And what does the viewer find when they enter this space? During their first two trips together in the Congo, Mosse and Tweeten had developed a method in which they worked with the present participle verbs of the world of eastern Congo that they encountered, and in so doing they hoped to capture a diurnal impression – such a word seems strangely inadequate – of this land and its people suffering an on-going, shifting war and who are almost incapacitated by a western infrastructure of well meaning NGOs and the UN’s biggest peacekeeping mission. To shelter, to move, to give birth, to die, to bury, to eat.
Mosse: A very complicated scene.
Tweeten: To me, I love that scene, because it’s
the most chaotic.
Mosse: It’s a complete disjunction with the
Tweeten: I love it because it’s the real version.
There are these different versions of violence
throughout the piece: there’s the
simulation of violence, there’s the sound
of violence, there’s the visual aftermath
of violence, but then there’s also this moment of
violence which is the lives these people
(the refugees and IDPs) are forced
to live which means having to move all
the time to escape war. Which is being
born into these conditions. Which is eating
food on the go, lacking resources and
access to education. these sort of things
which go into making a violent sort of existence,
violent in terms of the everyday
struggle to survive. And to me the chaos
of that whole scene – there are all these
things going on from daily life, birth,
death, eating food – perhaps it’s cliché
but at the same time I think it’s really interesting
because it’s so disjointed.
It’s very hard to capture a place, any place whether it’s familiar territory or another continent, this is the challenge laid down by realism. There are layers, many layers to be peeled back, starting with oneself and your own blinkers that you may not even be aware exist. Georges Perec was aware of this when he tried to explore himself and his surroundings by examining what he called the infra-ordinary: literature doesn’t need to worry about the grand themes of a Hegelian geist moving ineluctably toward its own concrete manifestation, played out in characters and environments woefully predetermined. Rather the ordinary give and take of the everyday holds worlds entire and reading Perec you realise this. Just as in Joyce, who set an entire episode of Ulysses in an newspaper office and whose modern day Ulysses is a newspaper adman, we find that the unit of the day is chosen as the form to fit the universal into, made up of all those tidbits of throwaway life. I spent a lot of time with Mosse wondering what the literary equivalent could be to his infrared photographs. One possible suggestion could be Perec’s infra-ordinary, all that is opposite to the extraordinary. One night after many Tembo beers I started to discuss this with Mosse out on a mosquito plagued terrace on the shores of lake Goma. Mosse uses beauty and reaches toward the sublime, yet The Enclave is composed pretty much of everyday stuff, it may not be his everyday or even his everyday when in the Congo, but having been there with him, running behind Tweeten as he entered into these spaces with the Steadicam, I can attest that it’s run of the mill stuff, even the shocking scenarios, or those that come out in the art gallery as extraordinary; even soldiers and their maneuvers, strutting with guns is normalised (sadly a lot of men join the army or rebel groups just to gain a gun and what that offers them), and even, sadly for that matter, invading a town (around six weeks after my wearied midnight arrival into Goma, the M23 invaded the town which Mosse captured in film). It’s not staged, or even extraordinary, it’s the opposite: terribly mundane, a murderous mundanity in some cases, and Mosse captured it with his tools of choice, an infra red film that sought to look below surfaces, of the visible spectrum of light and the surface of our own expectations of what the journalistic everyday should be.
You could say one goes to the Congo to fail, in a way, which sounds like an indictment, but I’m not talking about the honourable intentions of charity workers, peacekeepers, journalists (and one thing I noticed very quickly was a strange form of possessiveness over Congo and its troubles, more than just a concerted interest). The non-Congolese there all had an opinion and were very proud of the place, in a kind of displaced, paternalistic way which was somehow unsettling and which comes up often in people who have spent time there when responding to Mosse’s work. I failed in one aspect of what I went to the Congo to do, but I also think I will return to finish that aspect of writing a fiction borne out of the place. Like Tweeten talks about how he had to return, twice, thrice, in order to find a working method that was in tune to how the place works and what it means to go there and make work in it.
What then of editing a newspaper out of Mosse’s work set in the Congo? It feels, having travelled there with him and Ben and Trevor, working with his fixers and drivers, negotiating with the rebels captured in his film, making some very good friends as well as battling with the all that the place propositioned, this form matches the dream I’ve cosseted since I started to work with artists. Working with Mosse, Tweeten and Frost has been a truly unique experience, a game changing experience in the creation of an artwork. After five years and many books and exhibitions, as well as a trip to the Congo, I’m very happy that I finally made what I hope is the first of many newspapers.
A Supplement to The Enclave by Richard Mosse. Photograph: FUK Graphic Design