Born in the city, I have always been fascinated by rural life. To satisfy my interest, I relied on artworks, films, photographs books and bike trips, instead of personal contact, for I had no family or close friends from rural backgrounds. This was one of the motivations behind the MILKproject: to step over the divide by way of an art project. Ieva Auzina and I followed in detail the lives of Latvian farmers by letting them track the routes of their daily routines via GPS and then talking with them about the visual results.
Beside the history of landscape paining, the seventies land art and conceptual art, the written word, in the form of books, was also an important source of inspiration for me, specifically where the appropriateness of our chosen work process was concerned. One of these inspirational books was Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans, a documentary of the life of poor white tenants working the Alabama cotton fields in the 1930s. The book is not so well known in Europe as it is in US, so I had to search the Internet for a secondhand copy. After six weeks, it finally arrived. The book was published in 1941, and the writer James Agee and the photographer Walker Evans made it, in equal collaboration. Now I was really exited, as this was something special. This was not just a book: it was also a technological experiment.
While working on MILK, I repeatedly turned back to this book, because I found several similarities in the way they had worked and our own. This writer and photographer lived for months among three tenant families, won their trust, took pictures, made notes, did their documentation. In the final book, this resulted in the photography and the text being equally important. The book uses what was for that time a relatively new medium in a new way. It was not just the mere addition of photography, for the combination of text and image had been explored before, but the newly employed sense of status for both techniques: the writing and the photography in balance.
The authors stress this at several points in the book, so that as a reader-viewer, you do not have a chance to forget it, and you are challenged to really try to give equal weight to text and image. It had a strong effect on me: it made me look at the pictures in a different manner, but also read the text differently than I otherwise would have done.
In MILK, we also based the project on the equal use of several documenting techniques: visualized GPS-tracking, sound recording and photography. We also present them in equal importance in order to document the lives of individual people. So what is so exiting and special about this?
The excitement lies in the fact that by doing this, you can be as realistic as you want, and still, none of the techniques used becomes transparent. Nobody will ever believe that what you show is totally true. Although recording the subject as realistically as possible, each technique gives a different point of view, showing that there is never such a thing as total truth, and clearly demonstrating that the medium influences the message.
This also impressed me as I went through Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. One of the most striking parts of the book is where the contents of the farmers’ wardrobe is described in total detail, their dresses and trousers, hats and shirts. They all have so little: only two dresses, only one hat... After reading these passages, I could picture them, I could even smell them. They took on a personality of their own. How realistic can you get? But then, scrutinizing the photographs, I still did not know which clothes had been described. The written word and the photograph do not match, although I knew they had been based on the same objects.
In writing Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, at several points in the book, Agee describes his fear of stealing something from his hosts and hostesses, and he even expresses a sense of guilt.
I also sometimes felt this way. When the people who participated in the MILKproject gave their GPS trackers back to us, after carrying it around with them on their daily routine, and I then downloaded the data into my computer, loaded it into our special designed GPS visualization software, I almost felt like I was stealing something. Something totally private, the exact locations and times of their activities, their lives, had been exposed to me. It indisputably showed how they spent their day, even more clearly perhaps than they might ever have seen it themselves.
But then I returned to the book, and realized that it was going to be the special combination of comments, photography and GPS-imaging that would prevent the project from taking over, from stealing. It was this that would transform the people into active ‘pencils’, drawing in their own landscape, instead of passive objects whose ways were being documented.
We showed the people involved the tracks they had produced and recorded their comments, and also accompanied them into the field to take the photographs and sound recordings of their daily routines. As Agee and Evans had done, we presented their lives with several totally different techniques. Seeing the installation that resulted, you can feel how it sometimes presents the same thing, but also how sometimes the comments and tracks seem to come from different planets, how single-dimensioned realism is totally disappearing.
At the same time, I felt as though I had never experienced anything more realistic, for I not only saw the portraits of these people, but I also saw the limitations of every one of the media we had used.
To realize the project, we invested a lot of effort to develop the technical means to combine all the data in a way that would make it clear that they are all equally important. The GPS images balance equally with the soundtrack and with the photographs. In addition, we had to subtitle the soundtrack, for it is unlikely that the languages spoken – Latvian, Dutch and English – would all be understood. This added another layer, once again undermining the realism of the technology, and consequently making the whole experience even more realistic!
This is how I learned from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Every time I started to doubt our aim or our means, I picked it up and found the enthusiasm and the curiosity I needed to go on.
But was going to pay off, to develop a multiple techno-method like this?
Now that the MILKproject is finished, I can proudly state yes, we managed. We developed a tool that is clever and sensitive, one that is realistic in a double manner, about both its subject and itself.
As we hoped and expected, this tool shows the story of landscape, space and people, in a way that would not have possible with another means. This keeps fascinating me, every time I go over it again.