KK: You seem very occupied with history or rather histories. I sense that with you it is not a matter of single events, but rather to give a voice to different interpretations of the same events, different memories…
MH: I often work in the intersection between documentary and art, where the subjective narrative becomes a reflection of, or counter-narrative to, the so-called official construction of history. To allow a space for different interpretations of the same event as well as dealing with the stories from the periphery – perspectives that are too often neglected or relegated to a footnote when it comes to writing history.
I am interested in mapping discourses or histories as a way of deconstructing the linearity to emphasize how historical periods consist of a sort of layering of several pasts. Michel Foucault describes the writing of history as being closer to archaeology in The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969) where the approach to historic material is a mapping of discourses, which are often non-continuous, and not about looking to reveal the truth of single events – and I feel this reflects my interest and working methodology in my practice.
KK: Speaking of history, time and working methods, I remember you once said that you use a lot of time, as in several years, on each of your projects. This is unusual. Could you tell a little bit about your process and why you think a considerable span of time is needed?
MH: Time, research and long processes are indeed core elements in my practice. My projects usually extend over 2-5 years, and several of them are continuously on-going. I work predominantly in contexts other than the location where I am permanently based. The artistic process is to me a long-term commitment to people and places in order to listen carefully to their personal narratives, to get a larger understanding of a specific historical and cultural background (which is not necessarily stemming from my own cultural background and experiences) before making a visual and textual interpretation.
In 2008 I found myself in a situation as an artist in a self-organised residency in the Occupied Palestinian territories. After two months I realised that I had fallen into the same position as many people and artists do when facing a difficult situation, and particularly direct confrontation with an occupying force, and I felt the need to react immediately – what I call automated response. It also became clear that as a result, my visual and textual output was a direct response to the violent situation in the area. This became a turning point in my artistic practice, and I decided to challenge my perspective and position by spending a significant amount of time in Palestine over the course of more than three years. This led to a change in my art practice, where time and long-term engagement have become crucial for me in order to develop substantial works.
KK: You mention “personal narratives”, and this also strikes me as crucial in relation to you practice and you way of telling stories or Histories. As an example, your projects from Poland, “Decembers“, where you show the video “Decembers – narrating history” at Fotografisk Centers exhibition ‘Bending the Frame’, depend very much on the personal narrative as – maybe or partly – opposed to more official history-writing. This also seems in accordance with your long-term engagements in places and people, I would guess. Could you tell me more about this way of storytelling and working from the personal perspective?
MH: Collecting personal narratives through interviews is always a starting point in my projects, along with visits to archives and sites, and other forms of research. In recent years I have used oral history interview techniques as a method of accumulating information relating to personal stories, a site, and historical or political matters. It allows the material to unfold through different voices and from different perspectives. Often these interviews lay the ground for the way I make use of narrative forms and fictional writing – as a tool to address personal stories in the context of socio-political matters – and Decembers – narrating history, which is being shown at Fotografisk Center, is a good example of this methodology in my practice. The montage film, Decembers – narrating history presents a fictional female activist who follows the development of the Solidarnosc movement beginning in 1970, while being in the periphery of the events. The off-screen narrative re-writes the history of these periods based on a consolidation of voices, developed by using interview material and recollections from a large group of women. The material has been re-interpreted and is now contained within the voice of one female character in the film. This allows me to shift the emphasis; and to create an alternative version of history that differs from stories concerning the main protagonists of written history, focusing instead on the memories of ordinary people.
KK: And how does this personal storytelling, in your opinion, change or make an impact on our understanding of the official narratives, History as such?
MH: Oral tradition and personal accounts have always existed as so-called history from below, histories perhaps not so recognised in the writing of history previously, but which have become, during the past decades or so, significant in the writing of more complex and layered histories or mapping of discourses. For me, the personal accounts are important to bring forward as examples of historical events witnessed from the periphery – as an attempt to fill in gaps in the construction of our image of a specific period or historical event and to supplement it with aspects of daily life. What previously existed solely in the oral tradition has the possibility, through a re-contextualisation – be it artistic, anthropological or historical – to become an equal component in the writing of histories.
KK: In addition to the personal narratives, you sometimes also use archival material as in Decembers. Could you comment on this and on the relation between stories, found footage and your own imagery?
MH: The archival image is always essential in my practice, but often as research material or the foundation for a script. It can also function as a way of understanding the power positions, to see what is included in the official archives and to compare it to what people keep in their drawers. I am particularly concerned with the stories that are slightly displaced from the iconic moments – material which the archives are often full of, and which the photographer in the frozen instant thought important to document, but which has later become a form of surplus in the historical mass. In Decembers – narrating history, the mix of discarded images with no chronology is my way of creating my own imagery through an associative use of the material. The personal accounts that I have collected and from which I have created the script, never truly correspond with the archive images in the film, but through merging the two elements it becomes a new linear narrative. I find the gesture in the process interesting, and enabling a playful investigation of authenticity, where the aestheticizing contributes to new displacements of the subjective material, but also to a reinterpretation of a part of a certain time, filtered through the eyes of an artist.
In the later project, We will meet in the blind spot (2015), the use of archival images complements new cinematic imagery in corresponding to personal accounts told by a Filipino community in the EUR-area south of Rome. This is another example of how I make use of already existing images in relation to creating new ways of thinking around formats of presentation, the cinematic and the documentary.
Coming back to Decembers, the overall project consists of three film works, a temporary museum based on their personal objects, a booklet and prints which have all become documents attesting to the women’s previously untold stories, and are now inscribed in a subjective archival narrative. I am also currently working on a new publication as part of the Decembers project titled The Archive Index, which will be published by Hours Edition in 2017.