My conversation with Montreal-based artist Kandis Friesen was far from routine. In the lead up to our chat, I planned to visit Friesen’s most recent exhibit, Tape 158: New Documents from the Archives at TRUCK Gallery, here in Calgary. But just before this the province went into lockdown and the gallery was closed to the public. Rather than an in-person experience of the show, I had to rely on documentation of the exhibition provided by Friesen: an archive of the archive. While looking and listening to the documentation on my computer, in the comfort of my living room, I was drawn to the intricacy and beauty of Friesen’s show: exploring the ghostly presence of history through video, sound, photography, and installation. As an artist from Canada with Russian Mennonite roots, Friesen’s work looks at the complicated role of the archive, and asks us to consider how identity, nationhood, and historical objects are formed through us, and with us.
Her multi-media work seems particularly suited for the isolation and uncertainty of a pandemic, though Friesen has opted not to put the TRUCK exhibition online, and the original show will never open in the gallery space. “Distance is how we often experience art,” she tells me, “distance makes us consider desire.” Her wifi connection was too spotty for a video chat so we exchanged emails and then followed up later via Zoom. The discussion ranged from archiving as an artistic practice to the transformative power of reenactment, to her recent show at TRUCK—which like the archive—continues to evolve.
Working with stories of exile in my family, I think of my own work as compositions that I build from their inhabitations of exile. I think about what that building looks like, feels like, in an intergenerational context.
Thinking about your recent show at TRUCK, I was struck by how your work looks at the documentation of time through archiving, isolating specific historical events, and examining them closely. As an artist, what draws you to the process of documentation? How do you view archiving as an artistic practice?
I think of time-based images as documents, and I’m interested in making time-based images that make you acutely aware that you are watching time; a constructed time. Whether working with found footage, or experimental animation, or the main two channel videos in this work—where I refilm an archival video document in the same place where it was made—all of these forms reference their own construction, and their own particular sense of time. All moving images are time-based, but with these it is difficult to ignore their time, or the frame of their temporality.
Your second question I can maybe answer in this way: archiving is my artistic practice. Making archives, accessing archives, collaging archives, dispersing archives, amplifying archives… Then analyzing their structures, how they protect or conceal information, who can access them, who they represent, how they structure time, and on and on. Like in every other part of our world, archives are a political and politicized space, and I am interested in how power structures function in relation to institutionalized memory and institutionalized time.
Art archives are many things. They’re collections defined by some kind of logic or system. In many ways, I grew up in a series of archives—some of them were quite cohesive and recognizable, as spaces of historic documents and information, and some of them were chaotic, intuitive, and much more opaque; requiring a different kind of reading and attention.
Archiving as an artistic practice is something I learned from many people in my family, I would consider archiving as a way of documenting narratives and ordering time through collections of information—sometimes didactic and sometimes extremely poetic and abstract. My father collected photographs of Russian Mennonite buildings across the former Russian Empire, and obsessively tracked down information about their villages, producing a book. My grandmother washed, dried, and folded plastic bags and kept them in drawers and on shelves, for current use or for the future. Both of these are extremely interesting forms of archives that I learned from.
Given our current circumstances, I was unable to view the show in person, and had to rely on your documentation of the show. In some ways, it seems fitting to refer to documents of the actual event when discussing your work. But I found this created some distancing, or inaccessibility to the “real” experience. In the installation’s central piece, Green Fields (2016-2019), you re-film the original footage from an unfinished videotape shot in a village in Ukraine, which you uncovered in Winnipeg, Manitoba. How do you approach this idea of accessing an experience, from a distance, in another time and space?
This is a really nice question. I wish you could have visited the exhibition, but I find our conversation quite interesting in this context, and relevant to the work, as you point out.
Distance is how we often experience art, and definitely how we’re experiencing most art right now—through a mediated material and distance. I’m very interested in what this distance does. Often it flattens the work, but I also think about it as translation in a way. What does translation do? We can access a part of something, and most of something. Maybe even everything but one word, and is that word vital or incidental to the sentence? We can access the poetry of another language: its wit, its harshness, its humour, whatever it might be.
Sometimes we do not have access, we do not speak the language, and all we can see are the shapes of the letters or characters, or maybe we can sound something out that we can’t understand but we can maybe pronounce. This too, is the basis of my practice—translation, transposition, bringing something from over there to over here, and translating, transposing, transmuting it in the process. Proximity can be overrated, somehow valued as closeness to the real thing. Distance offers very different perspectives on what the real thing might be. It can ask what the thing is at all. It can ask what language or structure is framing the thing, and whether we have access to it or not.
Distance also makes us consider desire. This has a long history within colonial frameworks and ethnography. The auto-ethnography present both in the original video and my re-filming of it—is definitely part of the work. When I first saw that beautifully degraded video tape, showing me that small village in rural Ukraine, hearing our language mix with Russian amidst the lush landscape and broken gravestones, I wanted so badly to know where this was, when this was, what they were saying, why this video was made. Because I am not fluent in either language, I had this long delay in accessing translation, in locating the village or the people, and in understanding the historical context in which it was produced.
The diasporic condition is to experience such distancing on a regular basis, in some form, and my work, I think, is about inhabiting this distance, understanding its portability in a way, and working with the unknown-ness of it. Svetlana Boym talks about exiled people often making installation art of their own lives, through what she calls a “diasporic intimacy”, that is not opposed to uprootedness and defamiliarization but constituted by it. An attempt to cohabit with doubles and ghosts. Working with stories of exile in my family, I think of my own work as compositions that I build from their inhabitations of exile. I think about what that building looks like, feels like, in an intergenerational context.
Your video text work Nichevoki Nichevo (2018) features different voices, moving from subject to subject, and resisting any easy summation or theme. What was your intent with combining these different voices and texts?
This text is a collage, and it moves back and forth across grammatical tenses of time—past, just past, present, just happened, about to happen, future tense, future past tense, now. I wrote it after I had made the images for the exhibition—a series of video installations projected on walls and within sculptural forms. This is often the writing process in my work: I need to make the images in order to write into them. When I traveled to this village to make this installation, I worked with several women there to make the videos. They helped me find the locations, they made us tea and borscht, and we talked.
In the original video, a woman asks questions to the Russian Mennonite villagers, and she asks them about their lives. This is 1991, just after the Soviet Union fell and Ukraine became independent, and now people can speak about the difficult things they couldn’t say out loud before. It’s just on the edge of that moment, so the apprehension is still there. She asks them about their lives, their childhoods, their experience with state violence and exile, their languages, their way of life, their pain, their experience of the war. So while we were taking breaks from filming, we talked, and I asked these women the same questions as in the video, telling them that I was repeating this format like an echo. Except now, when I asked a question, say, about “the war,” it became several wars: the current war had already been raging in Donbass for two years, just five hours away, and WWII’s effects were still strong, with leftover bombs still buried in people’s backyards. I started collaging their stories together, mixing their temporalities just like we do when we tell stories orally.
I also traveled around Ukraine during that month, and I started to interview archivists wherever I went. I asked them about the shift in archival infrastructures from the Soviet to post-soviet eras, what the effects of the war were on the archives, what they had to say about the construction of historical memory in Ukraine. I transcribed these interviews, and started collaging them in too. Then I began to do research on events or references in all of these conversations, and I started collaging this research into the text as well. In the final video installation, I decided to take the voices out of the audio track, so that the focus is on the images, as they flow in and out of sync. This video text, then, becomes the voice of the work. It includes a lot of the stories and histories that the people in the video speak about, but again, transposed, translated and shifted into other registers, through other filters and focuses.
You document an oak tree in Oak of Khortitsa (After Courbet) (2018) as it continues to grow in a public space surrounded by the people living in the area. This piece also seems to reflect on the living history of the oak, still used by Russian Mennonites to take acorns for planting, creating new oak trees around the world. Can you discuss how your work highlights this living history?
This work frames this specific oak tree as a kind of living monument. Estimated to be around 900 years old, it has been worshipped and venerated for centuries by people that have inhabited the region. Pre-Christian traditions of worshipping oak trees were common across much of Europe until the modernist era, and it lingers as a practice, even if less communal or direct. In Ukraine, old oak trees are often marked with small plaques or fences, and deeply cared for. The area of Khortitsa, where this oak is located, is a particularly important site in Ukrainian history. The Zaporizhzhya Cossacks built their fortress here, and defended their autonomous territory from the Russian Empire. When the empire finally won, they quickly colonized the region with outsiders, and invited the persecuted and landless Mennonites from Prussia to settle the land. This is how we ended up in Ukraine in the 18th century, what was then the Russian Empire. It was the first instance of Mennonites participating in a colonial process to gain stability and safety, a process they would continue through colonization across the Americas.
The Khortitsa region got folded into our collective narrative of place, and when we were mostly from this land, the tree became this very powerful symbol of our history, of rooting us to place, even though we are a diasporic people without a specific homeland. So when people return to this place, it’s common to gather acorns from it, or leaves to press and keep, and that there is a hyper diasporic forest of this tree spread across our sites of migration. In terms of colonial processes, changing a landscape from the local ecosystem to a colonial one is often a key tool in occupation; something like 80% of plants in some regions of the prairies are from Europe, as one example. So while this planting of oak trees in our diaspora is a beautiful act in many ways, it is also a small echo of this dynamic.
In terms of contemporary Ukraine and its diasporas, I find the Khortitsa Oak in its present state to be a very specific kind of ruinous monument. The oak lives near the Dnieper River, on which Stalin built a huge hydroelectric dam in the 1930s. This flooded the land above the dam, and raised the water levels in the region, and the oak’s roots started to rot from below. In the 1990s, the city put up huge posts with hanging ropes to support it, meant to evoke a ship’s masts, so that it is now a tree drowning on dry land supported by a ship-like structure holding it up while it dies. It is an incredibly sad but also deeply resonant monument to the history of trying to care for public memory in Ukraine. It is a cycle of attempting to mark an old and urgent history that was stolen by the empire, erased by the Soviets, and left to die under neoliberalism. And what do we have left? We have monuments like this that tell the history of the history. This oak—with it’s rusting masts, concrete patching, wires, fences, and ropes—is maybe the only monument that actually reflects this region’s history with depth, nuance, and care. It is decidedly an un-nationalist monument in this sense. It cannot be resurrected; we must instead build from its decomposing state.
I often talk about this Russian Mennonite act of planting trees in our diaspora as a material-conceptual project. It is similar to Joseph Beuys’s 7000 Oaks (1982) work at Documenta 7, which saw 7000 oak trees planted across Germany, and eventually internationally, each with a basalt marker beneath it. It was made into an expansive monument through trees and rocks, a direct act of landscaping, of planting and caring, of extended time. The tableau vivant video itself accidentally mimicked Gustave Courbet’s painting The Oak of Flagey from 1864, which honoured the ancient tree in his home region in France. The honouring or worship of old oaks and other trees is still practiced in many parts of Europe, and it is a pre-Christian, pre-nation-state tradition that connects people to specific land and histories.
My projection of the video inside a wooden box, set on stilts, is a nod to the early Constructivist ethos of architecture as a media-transmitter; [Vladimir] Tatlin’s writing and work in particular. As the Constructivist idea of an art object or tool as a comrade, this tree is a comrade of sorts, and it is being broadcast in a sculpture that gives it its own cinema. It is maybe a new way of honouring both this tree, and the way people have tried to preserve it, even if these attempts are doomed to fail because of the Stalinist dam upstream. It asserts that, not only do we need to consider what we mark as history and monument, but the tools and structures we use to do so are also of utmost importance.
For your previous installations and shows, you often re-contextualize objects to create a new object or experience, such as woven flags, archival photographs, and plastic bags. Do you often begin with an existing object or place in mind, to create something new?
I feel very young as an artist, because I’ve been making art as my main work for about ten years. And it is only now that I can look at my work and see that I am not only citing specific objects, places or histories as starting points, but that I am also citing myself, citing my previous work, that cited a previous work, that cited a specific architectural detail or story or object. I am citing histories that I am tangentially written into or out of, stories from my grandmother of the Russian revolution, or photographs from my great aunt’s childhood exile in Dushanbe. I am starting to see my practice as a kind of expanded literature, as a form of writing into the world, including art histories of women in my family, cultural histories, linguistic histories, conceptual frameworks and material histories. I almost always start with something that already exists, and rework it—transpose it into the world again somehow. I wouldn’t call this “new” thing new, but just another version of the thing before it.
I often think of my work through sound, as it was the only art form valued in the culture I was raised in. Everyone was in a choir, singing as soon as you could stand. So I think about resonance, of singing something again in a new key, or with new instrumentation, a different choir, or a change of lyrics. Maybe it’s translated into another language, sung within a different architecture, so that new tones and reverberations are now louder or muted. Maybe it’s sung alone for a while, or the choir grows too quickly and there is dissonance as the song is learned, changed, carried somewhere new. This is also about portability—what can be carried? How can something be written in the world if we have to move again? We make it portable, wearable, singable, speakable, we make sure it is grafted onto something else, so that it can grow in that new place. So my approach to transposition is also a kind of grafting.
I often start with a thing that is not considered important in the world, and I make it important through its citation. Once something is cited, it becomes the reference for the new thing; the new thing has a traceable path. These paths always exist, with or without me, I’m just interested in amplifying them through my own work, changing them through my processes, honouring them through publishing them—making them public in the world, more legible, while also asking: legible to who, how, and why?
In your video work Saksahan (2018), you document some remaining fragments of Russian Mennonite architecture in a Ukrainian village, pointing to the ongoing absence of this community, many of whom were exiled and executed during the Stalin repressions and after the Second World War. How do you navigate the relationship between documentation and history in this work, and in your work overall
Saksahan (2018) is a sculpture built for the transmission of this specific video footage, which moves slowly from a pointing hand to a close-up on a Russian Mennonite brick. This footage is an excerpt from the original archival footage which I re-filmed. The sculpture is a kind of tool, that makes it possible for the brick to be projected onto the floor of the gallery space, in actual size. It makes a ghost of the brick that we can see, as we watch it appear again and again on the floor in front of us.
This sculptural tool again draws on the Constructivist notion of tool as comrade, which I link to what is called folk art, or traditional or decorative art. In traditional art, the “art object” is classified as an “object adorned with art:” an object that is “functional”, like a wooden spoon, as opposed to a “nonfunctional” object, like a painting. Constructivism is intimately tied to folk art, both in theory and practice, and breaks this ideological divide, or fuses it together. I am deeply interested in art that refuses this dichotomy—as if thinking, philosophy, use, and decoration can somehow be separated in this world.
Saksahan is the name of the river closeby to the village, and is derived from the Turkish word for “magpie,” nodding to the history of the region. Sand from this river was used to produce the brick in the video. The disintegration of the local village architecture, made using these bricks, is a central theme in the text video, Nichevoki Nichevo, where the bricks continually return as subjects. They are walls, they are components, they are objects, they are rubble, they are sand: a continuous actor in the video text-script or theatre set of the installation.
The ways in which architecture holds history, through marks or auras or disappearance or changing forms, is the way I navigate the relationship between documentation and history. In Nichevoki Nichevo, one line speaks from a child’s perspective, of his father being taken by the secret police in the middle of the night:
When his father was taken,
the way they dragged him through the corridor,
left all these traces and marks on the wall.
He can’t paint over it, he can only add to the collage.
I saw those marks, I was in that hallway, and I was told this story directly—his man could not alter this wall because of what it held, even though additional marks would arrive and he would eventually not know which ones were from the night his father was taken or from last week. The video installation is quite simple, and focuses on this brick as some other work might focus on this wall; it is all important and can just as easily be ignored, like every time he walks down that hallway and out the door.
Throughout Tape 158, you explore how relics of the past, whether from nature, like the oak, or human-made, like the crumbling monuments of Lenin, inform public spaces and the public’s understanding of history. As a contemporary artist, how do you view this tension between past relics and present or future histories?
I don’t consider these objects or materials as being in or of the past. They are very contemporary in the sense that they are present. The tension for me is in their legibility as “present,” and therefore their relationship to possible pasts or possible futures. This tension around presence is key. The monument bases that held Lenin statues are still present—for the most part, they have not been torn down. They have stood there since 1992 or 2015, whenever their Lenin was taken down. Some of them have been repurposed, some removed, but most are still standing with nothing on top, and this makes the monument base into the monument itself. This is super interesting to me. It implies a very specific temporal state—it is waiting, possibly for a new figure, or memory, or symbol. But this waiting is not useless, or a purgatory, or an in between state. The waiting is its presence, it is fulfilling a function of pointing towards the future in the present while holding its past. It is remaining as a very important question: is the structure that holds the history as important as the history itself?
In his beautiful essay In The Shadow Of Monuments (1995), Mikhail Yampolsky talks about how most monuments are made of stone and metal—the stone representing innate, geological time, and the metal holding the figure in a transmutable but strong, steady form. We cannot touch this figure, we stay distant so that we can see it in its totality. With Lenin’s multiplied body gone, we are left with the base, a geological form which we can approach and touch; the geological time without a figure, the stage without an actor, the base becomes the body itself. That it remains is a very powerful thing, especially five years into the very intense debate about the 2015 decommunization law in Ukraine. Asserting that everything communist must be eradicated, the law demands a definition of: What is communist? Soviet monuments to veterans of WWII? Soviet public housing? Soviet public infrastructures? The very idea of communism? And the central question remains: what happens when we erase material traces of the past in our infrastructures of public memory and public space? This is a huge and important question, in colonial Canada and elsewhere.
The placement of each work in Tape 158 in the gallery space is purposeful, creating a contrast between video works, and the tactility of photographs and text on screen. What was your approach to creating the space for Tape 158? Did you approach this show differently than your previous shows?
Most of my work is either portable or ephemeral, often site-specific, and exhibitions like this are kind of new for me. A few years ago, I made a plastic bag multiple, and it was distributed at art fairs, book stores, museums, corner stores, and thrift stores as its main sites of exhibition. My first solo show was a series of huge minimalist erased drawings on concrete, made by cleaning sections of public sidewalks with soap and water. For years, I mostly made videos that screened at festivals, with the odd gallery installation. I started making exhibitions in galleries and museums over the last few years, and it’s fun and quite specific work. This show is also specific, in that it seemed to demand a clear structure, one that could shift but has distinct parts. The works are simple, but need to be composed in relation to each other and the space; an architectural montage. I am slowly planning to mount an exhibition of the entire project, including the earlier iterations of Tape 158 that I’ve never shown, in Winnipeg, spread out between a gallery and the small exhibition space at the Mennonite Heritage Archives building, which houses the original Tape 158 video document.
The architecture of this building is really unique, with high angles, real wood paneling, interior stucco, and thin carpet. I would love to bring my archive back to its source in another context, and to connect archives and arts structures. I’m really interested in non-governmental archives of all kinds—how they function, who accesses them, what they do or don’t do with their collections. Making this type of exhibition would pose a lot of questions of how local histories are told in separated narratives, including colonial histories and diasporic histories. Like many immigrant communities, Russian Mennonite history has been sculpted to have a particular shape, and it excludes very specific histories: how some Mennonites were involved in running residential schools, whose land we took when we immigrated here, histories of Mennonite and Métis mixed communities, etc. I see this exhibition as a structure within which to have deeper conversations about the construction and composition of our histories, how we can change these constructions to reflect our actual experiences, and how important and necessary it is to do so.
Like in every other part of our world, archives are a political and politicized space, and I am interested in how power structures function in relation to institutionalized memory and institutionalized time.
As part of your show at TRUCK, you included an exhibition text by artist Indu Vashist, “Object Constancy.” Given the evolving nature of Tape 158, you are currently writing a response to Indu’s text as part of a separate project, Extended Indefinitely, a continuation of the archive in a different form. How did this new project with Indu develop and how does it fit within the archive?
For me, writing is a studio practice, and it helps me work through different forms. I’ve been folding in writing in the past couple of years and I’ve been thinking about how research informs my thinking. Thinking about writing in the context of Nichevoki Nichevo, I was considering how I could fold in multiple voices and amplify them so that my presence and subjectivity is present in the text, as I am constantly folding in conversations, academic research, and historical documents to show construction and form.
I’ve known Indu for many years, we have a friendship. Just before she wrote the text, she had returned to India just after the India Citizenship Act had been implemented. She writes from within this time, of just before and during the first protests against the violent law, against the fascist state structures. She writes about moments of unknowable ways of speaking, of this uncertain tension in the present. When the mass protests started, she was confronted with this meeting of internal and external, the individual and the group, making new formations and amplifications. She anchors these elements in her text by drawing lines from my video text, using them at the beginning and end of her text, citing my work in her own. The lines she cites have to do with temporality and presence, and how we define the beginning or ending of an event, the start and stop.
There is a reference from a man in my video talking about how the war is over but the bombs are still in his backyard, and he has to protect the yard because the bombs could go off and invoke the war again, seventy-five years later. So it became this idea of collaging temporalities, instigated by her reference to my video. I was thinking about the Tape 158 exhibition being in a state of storage and being displaced from its audience due to the pandemic, and I was talking to everyone at TRUCK about how we wanted to activate the exhibition outside of the gallery walls. I resisted just posting installation images on the internet, because the images were not the exhibition: the show is about a body in space. Indu’s use of collage in her exhibition essay led me to really respond to her engagement with that form, moving in and out of space, telling a story within a story. I liked the idea of literature as transposition, how it is able to transport you to other spaces.
The printed exhibition handout features Indu’s essay on one side and an image of the oak tree from Oak of Khortitsa (After Courbet)(2018) on the other, you can see the tree trunk decomposing and patched with concrete, with different parts of the tree falling off, wire grafted onto the tree, holding its limbs together. It made me think of collage as a type of grafting, taking one material and giving it life in another context. This idea became clear when I was holding the exhibition handout, and made me realize I wanted to respond to her text, and in a sense, to the tree as well. So I thought we could create a new structure outside of the exhibition as it is, in storage, circulating the show through writing, and through a new conceptual form. This was the decision to create Extended Indefinitely, a kind of extension of the original exhibition as a new work or project. TRUCK is hosting two of the video works from the Tape 158 exhibition online, and will assist in publishing my and Indu’s collaborative and collaged texts, in whatever form they may take, both online and in other forms of circulation.
What are you working on beyond Tape 158? Are you continuing to add to this archive, or are you beginning a new one?
Tape 158 began as a collaborative project in 2010, and resulted in many works, including a beautiful and funny collaborative video with artist Nahed Mansour in 2012, Tape 158: Document 2B. It will probably just continue to be material I work with in some way, and maybe someone else will want to work with it again at some point. Archives are organized in several ways, but one format is a “fonds.” A fonds emerges from a certain person’s or organization’s collection of research or documents being donated to the archive, usually at the end of their career or their death. I think of Tape 158 as a fonds I’m slowly building, that will one day be donated back to the archive that the video came from, which is the Mennonite Heritage Archives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Treaty 1 Territory. In some ways, the archive is my audience, my destination, and my exhibition space—I’ve just expanded it out into more public spaces.
Interestingly enough, my next large project responds to an archive’s architecture in Odessa, Ukraine. It will be part of a solo exhibition and series of site-specific works at the Museum of Odessa Modern Art, in 2021-2022. It deals with the history of the building, which was built as a choral synagogue with a pipe organ, and then became a Jewish workers club, and then a cinema. It was occupied by the Nazi-Romanian armies from 1941-1944 during the brutal Nazi occupation of Ukraine, and after the war, it was eventually converted into an archive. It’s now completely falling apart, it’s crumbling walls held up by these huge buttresses, still functioning as the public state archives building even though it is dangerous to enter and use. It is a kind of non-ruinous ruin; a disintegrating structure that is still in active and urgent use. I’ll be creating a series of works in sculpture and sound—ephemeral monuments that are site-specific to the history of Odessa, and the history of this building, which are intimately linked.
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me about your work, and distance, and time, all things I will be thinking about a lot as we grapple with the pandemic. As an artist in Canada working with and against existing forms, histories, and texts, is there another artist or artistic work you’d suggest be featured in Public Parking in the future?
Nahed Mansour is a brilliant artist working with history, archives, and structures of narrative, culture, and power. She recently showed Little Egypt Doesn’t Dance Here Anymore at Hamilton Artists Inc ,and it’s an incredible body of work.