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Alias in Krakow

First time curators Oliver Chanarin and Adam Broomberg discuss how their latest project plays with the concept of concealment of identity

Photomonth in Krakow is one of the leading photographic festivals in Europe, with work showing in spaces all over the city as you are taken through the beautiful Polish city, sometimes into a gallery, a disused factory or apartment block. The festival has two strands, Alias - curated by artists Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin and Show Off - which showcased contemporary Polish photography. Alias was a project involving artists adopting a heteronym or another persona, collaborating with a writer to assume an alternative identity, creating not only a mystery as to who made which piece of work but also an open platform as you viewed the work without preconception.

Participating artists included Jeremy Deller, Gabriel Orozco, Alec Soth and Rut Blees Luxemburg alongside writers like Jennifer Higgie, Lynne Tillman, Brian Dillon, Ekow Eshun and Fernando Pessoa. There was also a central exhibition at Bunkier Sztuki exploring the nature of assumed identity in art. We caught up with first time curators Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin to find out more about their concept.

Dazed Digital: How did you come up with the concept for Alias?

Oliver Chanarin:
We were invited to curate the show and we were really unsure about what to do. But what we wanted to avoid was collecting together a bunch of well-known photographers and presenting their latest body of work.

Adam Broomberg: Or just presenting work that we liked.

Oliver Chanarin: Work based on our particular taste... There’s a relationship to looking at art, which is you go into a gallery and look at the name of the artist, then you read about what the work is, and then you look at the work. We wanted to somehow disrupt that and also offer the artist the chance and the liberation of not having to be themselves or be consistent in their work.

Adam Broomberg: You walk into the shows we've curated in Krakow and you don’t know who the artist is so you actually just end up looking at the work as well as taking part in a theatre, I hope it gives people a sense that they are partaking in it rather than just being a spectator or a consumer.

DD: And you wonder how much is true?

Adam Broomberg:
That’s a really good point, reality and photography has a troubled relationship  and here we are trying to celebrate the idea of fiction.

Oliver Chanarin: There was a critical moment when we had to decide whether the real artists would be named or wouldn’t and there was a lot of back and forth about it because some of the artists are well known and obviously from a promotional point of view the organisers wanted to be able to promote  the festival through the artists. But we were very clear that you would never actually connect the artist with the work. And it becomes a sort of a game of who did what.

DD: What came first the idea for the central exhibition for the artists at Bunkier Sztuki or the concept for the commissions?

Adam Broomberg:
The more we researched the more we understood how many people had done this and we realized none of us had seen an archive or a survey of this strategy so this is a very incomplete attempt at one  but it’s one of those things, people come up to you and say, well what about this project, what about that project - there are so many things, it’s so immense as a theme that this is almost just a gesture towards some future exhibition  that could be more complete. But it began with the idea of the commissions and initially our proposal to them was that we would produce every single piece of work in the whole festival but we realised it would be a lot more interesting to involve other  people so that’s how we  developed the idea of the commissions. And then when we decided to do the survey show we realized that we needed a lot of help and we put together a curatorial team Francesca Astesani, Natalia Grobowska and Emma Astner as well as working with the literary editor Liz Jobey.

DD: And the Alias?

Oliver Chanarin:
We worked with a writer Jennifer Jarman who is currently at Goldmsmith’s doing a masters in creative writing, together with her we developed this strategy of having these two kind of captions for each piece of work where initially you see the name of the fictional character and the biography and then you have a sort of footnote at the bottom which we have been calling the reveal where you divulge the real name of the artist.

DD: How do you make the distinction between heteronym and pseudonym, what really is the difference?

Adam Broomberg:
Heteronym comes from Fernando Pessoa the author who named this strategy and inhabited over 70 personas. He called them his non-existent acquaintances but each one had a very thorough biography.
Oliver Chanarin: A pseudonym is just literally a change of name. 
Adam Broomberg: But I think the key thing is the complexity of embodying a persona, exploring the idea of biography.

DD: And in some cases having an alternative identity as an artist is a necessity in order to say what you want to say…

Oliver Chanarin:
And Ahmed Sharif is a great example of that. A you tube anti-Mubarak activist working on Youtube. Literally about five minutes before we went to press on the book, he came out and announced that he was Ahmed Sharif and we were able to put that in the catalogue, thanks to the revolution in Egypt.

DD: And did you know the artist who was killed in the protests?
Adam Broomberg:
Not personally but he was associated with the gallery we work with there. The Townhouse.

DD: There is a strong concern for politics in your work, was this a concern with the curating of these shows?
We realised quite quickly that there were artists that were using the heteronyms for very different reasons, gender issues, political issues and we wanted to try and represent different kinds of uses.

Adam Broomberg: And it has also been associated with a certain period of modernism in Europe and we wanted to show that it is very active in Africa and very active in the Middle East and we felt that was important.
Oliver Chanarin: With the commissions there was a strict formula that you would invent an artist but in the Bunkier Sztuki show we opened things up to include some pseudonyms and other sorts of collectives so it’s a less strict definition of the Heteronym than in the commissioned part. There was always kind of this balance between being true to our concept but also making something that was a rich experience.