Robert Anthony puts the Questions to Roelof Bakker.
RA. 1.What role does your own mortality and your knowledge of it play in your life, your art?
RB. I was a dark angst-filled teenager, obsessed with the idea of suicide; the possibility of leaving it all behind seemed an appealing option. I listened to Joy Division and romanticised Ian Curtis’ death. Their music inspired me to write lyrics and songs. The writing helped let off steam, made me see new possibilities. I realised I wasn’t afraid of life, but I was afraid of myself, afraid to be myself.
Loss has had a big impact on the direction of my work. I have had to come to terms with it, to learn to accept it and to move forward. Death, after all, is about life. Every death is a reminder to make the most of life. ‘Still’ (2010), a photography and video-based project looking at ways to breathe life into vacated spaces, was inspired by the unexpected death of an ex-partner, someone who had tried to push me to take photography seriously. ‘Still’ kick-started the direction of my art projects; the final stage of this experiment was anthology/literary art book, also called ‘Still’ (Negative Press London, 2012), a collaboration with twenty-six writers and the first book for my press Negative Press London.
I spent seven years working on a series of photographs and short texts exploring aspects of death, walking around cemeteries in the UK, the Netherlands and Belgium, allowing ideas to develop whilst taking in my surroundings. I haven’t shown this work, but the photographs have helped me with my writing, they are a useful source of reference. Elements of ‘Green’ (to be included in ‘Unthology 7′) were inspired by a photo essay about cremation, as well as a brief text which I wrote to accompany the photographs.
RA: 2. You mentioned to me that “I started writing as I wanted to take photographs that I couldn’t take with a camera, to write stories or feelings that I felt my photographs could not express.” What is a photograph that you cannot take with a camera in your opinion? What feelings seem absent to you from photography in general — that is, is there a category of emotions that are not expressible visually? Do you use photography to write stories you could not write with words? (I agree with you in your judgment and would be hard-pressed to define what it is that differentiates the realms of words and non-words, but I wonder what you think).
RB: Stories offer the freedom to go anywhere, to any time in history and to visit places or moments I wouldn’t be able to travel to and record with a camera. I love this idea that I can use anything I see, feel, read, hear or remember, to mix it all up like a collage to create something new, to fill up an empty piece of paper with lines of copy stacked on top of one another, that together make up a story, a sculpture of words.
What excites me about photography is that every image is a story, or a multiple of stories. It’s entirely up to the viewer to decide what they make of an image, what they want to read into the composition, how it connects to their life. I would never say, “This is what you should see in this photograph.” I only describe the process involved and how I felt when working on a project. I’m not into highly conceptual photographs where the photographer/artist is didactic and is trying to tell a story in a contrived awkward way, Jeff Wall’s staged big production photographic works, for instance, don’t touch me at all.
I think, for me, it would have been impossible to express in photographs the feelings of loneliness, emptiness and alienation as the words in the sparse text of ‘Blue’ do. Photographs record the physical, the material, the surface of emotions, the exterior; stories describe and express deeper feelings, emotions, moods, intentions, what’s really going on inside. Both of course, should be cropped to leave room for the viewers’ or readers’ imagination.
RA: 3. I saw (from your website) that you are enamoured of vacant spaces as am I. What attracts you?
RB: Vacant spaces are blank canvases waiting to be painted on by brushes of the imagination. I prefer vacated spaces to abandoned spaces, as these are often vandalised, their soul having been ripped out mercilessly. Vacated buildings are great places to discover traces of past lives and activity, like a note hidden behind a radiator, a stain on a carpet, the contents of a drawer. What’s behind a closed door? I like this idea of surrendering to a space, to let it guide me on, to be absorbed by it and become a part of it. Rooms may become mirrors of the state of my mind or reflect events from the past. The disposability of memory and material things is a theme that runs throughout my work. Technology, buildings, ideas, jobs, skills, people: everything becomes obsolete so quickly now, as life is getting faster and faster. Vacated spaces are time warps that offer the chance to stand still, to reflect and question what it’s all about.
Vacated spaces are also about absence, loss; their stillness is like death, the silence can be a killer.
RA: 4. What are your influences, both literary and artistic (non-literary)?
RB: I have picked up all sort of artists, filmmakers, writers and musicians along the way over the years. Here are some whose work I admire and have helped shape me: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Bas Jan van Ader, Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff, F Bordewijk, Francis Bacon, Vincent van Gogh, Truman Capote, David Rose, Eugene Atget, Derek Jarman, Andre Kertesz, Joy Division, Bill Brandt, Walker Evans, Kris Kristoffersen, Martin Crawley, Kate Bush, Francis Alÿs, Jean Genet, Neil Bartlett, Barbara Kruger, Nicholas Royle, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Bertold Brecht, Kraftwerk, Jenny Holzer, Scott Walker, Anton Corbijn, Pete Saville, John Berger, Piet Mondriaan, David Robilliard, Jean Cocteau, D H Lawrence, Jane Wildgoose, ee cummings, all the contributing writers to ‘Still’.
“Certain Trees”, an exhibition about the book, poem and object at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in 2006 has also hugely influenced me.
Otherwise, the city I live in continues to inspire. I walk and cycle every day and there’s always something that makes my head turn. I made a film, Wanderlust, about my love for London and the magic moments I experience when I stand still for a short while and take the time to watch life unfold in front of my eyes: beauty, passion, love, kindness, humour, pain, hate, anger, squalor, life and death, it’s all here on my doorstep.
RA: 5. If you’re a reader, what are you reading at the moment? If you listen to music, what’s on your current playlist?
RB: I haven’t finished reading all the stories in ‘Unthology 6′, I am an incredibly slow reader, so I’m casually working my way through. Otherwise, I’ve been reading essays from ‘The Past’s Threshold – Essays on Photography’ by Siegfried Kracauer, a Weimar Republic intellectual; Author David Rose generously sent me a copy. I picked up ‘The Walk’ by Robert Walser the other day, loving his beautiful, often very short, poetic prose. A book I have come to treasure is a photo book by Tommaso Tanini, ‘H. said he loved us’, a book about betrayal in a totalitarian state. I tend to carry a copy of ‘Placing Stones’ by artist Martin Crawley with me; it’s the third publication of my press, Negative Press London, and I love sharing its delicate beauty with random strangers in cafés.
Music: a mixture of vinyl and CD: Deftford Goth, Songs; Dustin O’Halloran, Lumiere; Kate Bush, Director’s Cut; Scott Walker, Fire Escape in the Sky. I also listen to BBC Radio 6.
RA: 6. Are you old enough to remember a world without the internet? If so, what do you miss, what do you love?
RB: I am lucky to have analogue roots, to have lived through a simpler, less complicated, more human, tactile time. Having that background helps put current technology and related fads into perspective. I despair how dependent we are on technology, when often all that’s required is a bit of common sense. Everyone has a brain, an enormous computer, why do we so gladly surrender our limitless capabilities for the sake of convenience? Of course my life is also ruled by technology, I’m part of the 21st century after all. As a freelance designer and photographer I spend a lot of time on computers, there’s no escape. It doesn’t make me happy though, this feeling of being tied down to machines, being married to machines. It’s given me freedom and it’s taken it away at the same time.
RA: 7. If you could live in a different time, when would that be? A different place? To each of the above: why?
RB: I can only imagine living in the time I’m in now, as that’s where I am and I cannot change it. I’ve been thinking for years about where to put myself. I have lived in London for over thirty years and I love this big cheesecake of a city, but I wonder where else I could be happy. Somewhere smaller and less frenzied does appeal, perhaps a seaside town will tempt me one day. I get nostalgic for Holland sometimes, but I feel like such an alien when I’m there, it would be hard to move back. I don’t really know where I belong, I’m an outsider here and an outsider there, perhaps that’s the best way to be for an artist.
RA: 8. As you asked me, what are your current and future projects?
RB: I’m writing a series of colour-coded stories, three of which are published by Unthank in consecutive editions of Unthology; I hope to place more of the colours elsewhere. With creative consultant and artist Michael Atavar, I’m doing an ongoing writing exchange. I’m designing an artist’s multiple, a box of photographs with text – a personal war memorial. Otherwise, I’m editing a some video pieces and am working on publications for Negative Press and continuing photographing other artists and writers. There’s a small exhibition in my home town Arnhem in the Netherlands of photographs from a project called Beneden (below), running till the end of the year.
‘Blue’ by Roelof Bakker and ‘Shadows’ by Robert Anthony both appear in ‘Unthology 6.’
‘Unthology 6′ is available from the Unthank Books Online Bookshop, Wordery, Book Depository, Foyles, Waterstones and all good bookstores.