"...archival photographs are essential for transmitting history and experience to new generations, because stories that contain images generate empathy, and will reach younger people in a more emotional way."
Unseen Platform: What is Provo, and how did you discover it?
Marcelo Brodsky: The Provo movement was a social and political activist movement that emerged in Amsterdam in 1965 and lasted until 1967. There were many different protagonists who identified as “Provos”: artists, writers, performers, and young activists who wanted to make Dutch society more free and open-minded. Many of the Provos’ initiatives influenced the ideas that later exploded in Europe, Latin America, Asia, and the USA in 1968.
I first learned of the Provos while researching Amsterdam for my project 1968: The Fire of Ideas, which looked at the protests that happened in cities across the world at the end of the sixties. In the Spaarmestadt Collection of the Nationaal Archief, I found an image of a smoke bomb detonated by the Provos in Amsterdam’s Vondelpark in 1967, which I used in my final series. This photograph inspired me to read more about the Provos and their acts of street activism.
The source images for PROVO come from the Amsterdam City Archive. How did this opportunity arise? Why is the use of archival photographs important to your work?
I believe that archival photographs are essential for transmitting history and experience to new generations, because stories that contain images can generate empathy, and will reach younger people in a more emotional way. Images have a growing role in language, and narratives without images are likely to be ignored, so we need to understand how to communicate complex ideas with them. I am passionate about the growing relationship between visual culture and language, and how they are merging to become just one thing.
I have a long relationship with archives since I ran a large picture agency (Latinstock) for 30 years. This is my area of professional expertise, so when I was participating in the jury of World Press Photo in Amsterdam last year I knew about the City Archives. I met Anneke Van Veen, who is the curator for the Provo collection, which includes images from Cor Jaring, Auke Boersma and other photographers. I visited the archive to search through the original contact sheets – the images are very strong, just as the Provo movement was.
It’s important to note that I always credit the original author of the photograph in the caption of the artwork, as well as the archive that the image came from. Therefore, the images are licensed for an art project rather than appropriated. I never work with low res images downloaded from the web.
Can you explain your process?
Once I’ve selected the images I want to tell the story with, I go through the process of licensing them for an art project, getting the high-resolution files, and printing them in black and white on cotton paper. Then, I study each image and its context: what is going on in the image and why, and how it connects with the political and cultural movements of the time.
Next, I’ll choose some phrases to write over the image, either from the original caption or from my own research. I then introduce colour, by hand, to activate the image. I work on the photograph as if it’s a canvas, marking details and strengthening texts that I consider to be important until I’m happy with the result. In the final artwork, the image has been resignified – it leaves the archive and becomes a visual and textual piece that tells my interpretation of the story.
You identify as both an artist and a political activist. How do you conflate these two roles?
Art is a form of activism, social engagement, and communication. The centre of my work is language and how to communicate ideas in an emotional way.
Coming from Argentina, I have a personal history that has been immersed in social conflict, dictatorships, political action, and change. My brother, Fernando, was one of the 30,000 “disappeared” by the state during Argentina’s Military Dictatorship (1976-1983). Many of my school friends were also victims of state violence and terror because they stood against this bloody dictatorship. My artwork has been affected by, and dealt with, these issues. Art and life evolve together; we create based on our experiences.
I was very much affected in my early youth by the murder of Che Guevara (a fellow Argentinian) in Bolivia in 1967. I was also influenced by the ideas of 1968, which imagined and fought for a better world, for a more equal and just society. My recent series 1968: The Fire of Ideas deals with the influence of this movement on my generation.
Parallel to this, I am a board member of the Memorial Park and Monument to the victims of the Argentinian dictatorship in Buenos Aires. This is mostly an activist role but is also related to art and education. We have an exhibition space, public art, and a memorial with the names of over 9,000 victims written on granite. It is a public memorial with art at its center – performances, exhibitions, and discussions take place, and people throw flowers into the river to commemorate the victims who died there.
You have created work about revolutionary and political events around the world. Your consistent artistic style suggests these protests share fundamental characteristics, would you say this is true?
My work about 1968 has taught me that street activism has many different motivations, but is generally related to local conflicts and change. There is also something universal about younger generations claiming better rights, democracy, and more freedom. From the Provos to Tlatelolco, each case is different and completely local – but at the same time, they are entirely interrelated. The spirit of the times, the zeitgeist, was present well before the internet and social media.
I identify with many of these movements, and if I were there at that time I would have probably been in the streets with them – in Chicago, Rio de Janeiro, Prague or Amsterdam.
There are no limits in art. We can identify with each other, learn from one another, search in the images that have been created in each situation, and understand history through the traces shown by the photographs.
Text by Jenny Willcock, Unseen Platform