Sep 3, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, August 25, 2019
When I was a kid, maybe in second grade, I was given a homework assignment. I was told to make a diorama of the water cycle. How many of you have had a similar assignment at some point in your schooling? It is a pretty familiar one.
I proceeded with it as instructed. I got some blue paint. I got some green paint. I got some brown paint and white paint. I got some glue and some little cotton balls. I got some construction paper. And I got a shoebox and set to work.
Well, actually, my mother and I got to work. Remember, I was seven or eight years old. I do not know about you but when I was that age homework really meant work, I did with my parents, at home.
Like most seven-year-olds, I was probably cranky towards and a bit unkind to my mother as she helped me assemble my diorama. I may have even resented her for making me do my homework assignment. Whatever the case, over the course of a week or so we transformed a plain shoebox into a model of the water cycle.
There was a large blue body of water--probably Lake Michigan since we lived near the Great Lakes. Water evaporated from it and then condensed into clouds--little fluffy cotton balls. After the clouds came precipitation. I almost certainly had fun portraying a grand thunderstorm with lighting and torrents of rain striking the Earth. From there, I showed how water flowed over the green and brown ground--painted in solid unmixed colors straight from the tube--into the rivers and then back into the lake.
There were a lot of things that my diorama did not show. It did not show the sublimation process. That is the process whereby ice converts directly into water vapor without converting into liquid water first. This mostly happens over the polar ice sheets.
My diorama also did not show transpiration. That is the process where plants absorb water from the soil and then push it out through their leaves as water vapor. Nor did it show infiltration. That is when water neither evaporates from the source, nor flows into a river, nor is absorbed by a plant, but moves deep into the soil. It seeps down and increases the ground water table.
Remember, this was second grade. Such concepts are a bit complicated for most seven-year-olds. I may not even be doing a good job of describing them now. Whatever the case, my diorama did not show other things. One of its most glaring omissions was its attribution. I claimed sole credit for its construction. Painted on the back of the shoebox were the words “by Colin Bossen.” A more honest attribution would have been, “by Colin Bossen and his mother Kathy Bossen, who by turns, assisted, cajoled, and threatened him until he completed it to her satisfaction.”
It also completely omitted the processes by which most humans get water. The majority of us do not get it directly from the lake, from the clouds, or from the ground water table. We have a complicated infrastructure of water treatment plants and sewer systems that transport clean water to our homes. And we have drains, toilets, and pipes that remove dirty water from them.
This summer, I found myself thinking about my second-grade water diorama, and all the things it omitted, when I was in Arles. Arles is a small city in the South of France. It is might be most famous for being the place where Vincent Van Gogh spent a year painting. His canvases of his time there include his famous bedroom with its blue walls, blue clothes, blue pitchers, blue doors, yellow bed, yellow chairs, and rich, textured, wooden floor. They include glowing night scenes, a cafe along cobblestones, with wooden chairs and crowds sipping cognac, coffee, absinthe, wine, or, well who knows, as adults and children stroll into the darkness. And they include well known images of Arles fading Roman ruins.
The heart of Arles remains the old Roman city. The Colosseum and the Amphitheater are still in regular use. They are surrounded by mazing Medieval streets, dense clusters of stone buildings bursting out into plazas and squares and interrupted by flowers hanging from balconies or in plentiful pots right outside two-hundred-year-old doors.
Arles also remains a city of the arts. It is the site of one of the world’s largest photography festivals. You might know that my father is a historian of photography and museum curator. My parents travel to Arles every couple of years to take part in the festival. This year, my son and I joined them.
It is an amazing festival. The exhibitions are generally located in medieval buildings that have been temporarily converted into art galleries. And it was in one of these--a fifteenth century Gothic church--that I found myself thinking about my water diorama. More accurately, I found myself thinking about the things that my diorama omitted.
The church has massive vaulted ceilings. It is made of stone. It has elegant arches. It is spacious and seems to go on and on. Inside of it was a huge exhibition of the work of the French photographer Philippe Chancel called Datazone. It was a terrifying collection of photographs. Chancel has spent the last several years traveling the world photographing sites of catastrophe. He describes his subjects as “traumatized ecology, chaotic deindustrialization, and the toxicity of modernization.”
He takes photographs of collapsed houses and abandoned factories. He takes photographs of piles of rubbish--mountains of plastic bottles and rusting iron. He takes photographs of tankers that have been run to ground. Their steel and valuable components are being stripped and recycled by workers who labor without any safety equipment.
Many of his photographs of water. They do not depict the clean water of the water cycle--the clouds and lakes that my diorama inelegantly displayed. Instead, they portray all of the omissions from the diorama. Water in Africa that has been rendered toxic after being used in oil extraction. Water filled with chemicals, glistening, thick, and black rather than transparent. Water in Flint that is filled with lead and rendered undrinkable. Water that has been packaged and sold in plastic bottles. These plastic bottles return to the waterways and pollute them--creating masses of floating plastic islands and then slowly dissolve. As they do, they place tiny pieces of plastic particulate in the world’s water supply. Water in Antarctica. Beautiful, luminous, floating clumps of ice. Massive, white fading into blue, crystal layer upon layer. Objects almost too gorgeous to imagine. Icebergs created by our warming planet as glaciers calve into the ocean. Not a sign of a healthy planet but a sign of a planet in distress.
In that building, created so that a congregation might gather and worship the most high, might connect with something or someone greater than itself, Philippe Chancel portrayed how humans have become disconnected. He showed how we have become disconnected from water and disconnected from each other. He showed the danger of forgetting, of omitting, the fullness of the water cycle. Clouds form over the polar ice caps. We need them to survive. Water travels through the Earth. Chemicals placed in the Earth will mix with water. We need clean, unpolluted, water to survive. He showed the danger of forgetting that we are dependent upon a human built infrastructure to have safe water in our homes. Flint does not have safe water. Newark does not have safe water. We have forgotten that we are dependent upon our collective infrastructure and we are destroying our cities. We need infrastructure to survive.
When I envision my second-grade diorama now I think about all of things it omitted. Each thing absent could have taught me a lesson. If my mother’s signature had been on the work it would have reminded me that I am always part of, connected to, the larger human family. My work, my accomplishments, are dependent on the work of others. None of us are in this world alone. If human infrastructure had been present, I would have been reminded that we are connected to, dependent upon, things like sewers and water treatment plants for our survival. We need them to live. And if the water table had been present, I might have been reminded that our collective human actions impact water, that our actions, for good or for ill, connect us to the whole of the planet.
And, this Sunday, this water communion, as we gather as religious community for the start of our liturgical year, as we mingle our waters, let us remember that we connected and dependent. We are connected to and dependent upon the larger human community. We are connected to and dependent upon the infrastructure we have built to bring us safe water. And we are connected to and dependent upon the planet, with its mass of water that gives us life.
There is always a larger truth. We are not alone. We are part of something greater, more beautiful, more complicated, and, yes, more fragile, than we can imagine.
Let us remember this truth, now, and always.
That it might be so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.
Jul 12, 2019
The entire reason why we’re in Arles is to attend Les Rencontres d’Arles. It is a three month long international photography festival, now celebrating its fiftieth year. Throughout the festival, the city is awash in photography. There are photographic images, photographers, and photography students. Street art of a very special kind springs up on almost every wall of the ancient city--digital prints of photographs wheat-pasted to the stucco, plaster, wood, and brick. Every little cafe or shop seems to have its own show. And throughout Arles there are major exhibits featuring some of the most important figures in the history of photography.
So far, we have been almost half a dozen shows. Yesterday I went to Germaine Krull & Jacques Remy, Un Voyage Marseille-Rio 1941 and La Movida, Chronique d’une Agitation, 1978 — 1988. Both were in or adjacent to the Cloître Saint-Trophime, a magnificent 12th century cloister featuring exquisite stone carvings surrounding a beautiful courtyard.
The Germaine Krull exhibition chronicled the voyage and exile of a group of French political dissidents and European refugees. They fled Paris on the eve of the Nazi invasion. They boarded a freighter run by Vichy partisans and eventually ended up in a penal colony in the North of Africa. The photographs themselves were not particularly interesting. They more-or-less looked like snapshots that someone took of their friends. But as historical documents they are incredible. They show the conditions under which important dissidents like Victor and Vlady Serge lived during the opening years of World War II. And they emphasized that the existence of stateless or semi-stateless refugees is not a recent problem. It dates from the instant that states acquired the necessary technology to demarcate people along the lines of citizenship.
As La Movida exhibition paired beautifully with Libuse’s exhibition. The bodies of work were roughly contemporaneous. And so was the subject matter. While there were many aesthetic differences, the primary difference was the political environment under which the photograph’s were taken. Most of Libuse’s photographs are intimate personal documents chronicling people on the margin’s of society efforts to privately find freedom under a totalitarian regime. In contrast, the four photographers whose work is featured in La Movida lived in a society where people were beginning to publicly pursue freedom after the collapse of a fascist state. Their work generally lacked the intimacy of Libuse’s. It captured the hunger for freedom that people have after freedom becomes possible—as opposed to the way people create free spaces, autonomous zones, in their efforts to privately resist.
The other thing I was reminded of in La Movida exhibition is that I am now old enough to have lived through periods that are now historical. I was an early teen—almost precisely the age my son is now—when the late photographs in both Libuse’s exhibition and the La Movida exhibition were taken. Looking at them I was also reminded of my friend Todd Sines’s photographs of the 1990s techno scene in Detroit--another moment that is both increasingly historically distant and important.
Jul 11, 2019
We spent the majority of our first day in Arles with Libuse Jarcovjakova. She’s an old friend of my parents and for years she’s met with my father’s students in Prague to show them her work and give them a lecture or two on photography. Today was not much different, except that we were in Arles rather than in Prague.
After breakfast we all gathered in the hotel’s conference room and Libuse gave her talk. It was more of a dialogue between her, my father, and Judy Walgren than a formal lecture. I imperfectly transcribed a few of the things she said. She began by talking about the difference between social documentary and personal documentary photography. She said, “When I am doing some social documentary photography, I have done some research... Personal documentary, I use it like self-help. Sometimes I was involved in very complicated situations. I used photography to get some distance for myself and to make some sense of the situation.
Another short note, it is mostly about very ordinary life. It is mostly about something that is very close to you, which is very obvious. Doing photos of such normal ordinary things seems like it might be boring but photography changes things. Life is changing so fast that this ordinary thing will be very important. You don’t need to have some extraordinary adventure. You just need to be present to every day, normal, ordinary life. That is very special.”
One of my father and Judy’s students asked Libuse a question about selfies. This was her response: “I spent five years in West Berlin from 1985 to 1989. There was an exhibit there last year of my work. In the exhibit there were over forty selfies. Living in West Berlin in the 80s I felt very lonely. The selfies were something that helped me to find myself. I was never thinking about my looks. I just wanted to document. I hate myself in many of them. I am just ugly there. I felt horrible. I had no money, no friends, no language. It was a historical moment. But perhaps a good example of what the selfie can do.”
Immediately following her lecture we walked down to the church in the center of town where her exhibition is. It is one of the best exhibition spots in Arles and they had something like two hundred of her images--stretching from the mid-seventies to the late eighties--on display. I bought the exhibition catalog. The images form a remarkable archive of people on society’s margins in Communist Czechoslovakia.
While we were there Libuse gave a second talk. Again, I imperfectly transcribed a few of the things she said. She began by talking about taking photographs in the factory where she worked as a teenager. She said: “At the factory they didn’t care that I was taking pictures until they realized that I wasn’t taking photos of the heroic worker. That was what the Communists wanted. I was taking pictures of people goofing off, sleeping on the job, not working.”
She continued: “In those days, I was very adventurous. I was regularly moving into groups of people that were totally different from me and trying to be accepted. Step-by-step I worked with them and that opened doors. With Vietnamese and the Cubans I taught them the Czech language and I was living with them. They suffered from racism. We teachers were the only Czechs who would spend time with them. And so they wanted me to photograph them. And I took the photographs. I was inside their community. It is necessary to have empathy to join a group like this.”
Reflecting on her body of work she observed: “I had the good luck that I didn’t work on assignment. I had a free hand.”
In response to the question: “What made you ready to show the work?” Libuse said: “Ten or eleven years ago I was unknown. I was always unknown. When I went to my studio I felt a sadness. I had all this work that I hadn’t shared. And so, little-by-little, I began to share my work with some professionals. Then a professional wanted to see both my journals and my images. I felt like it was too personal. I felt like it was gossip. But then I read somewhere that the most personal is the most universal. And I shared more of my work. And I got feedback, especially from young people. They felt like they were reading their own stories.”
In response to the question: “How do you feel now?” Libuse said: “Every morning when I wake up I’m totally empty. I’m very happy. I know it is amazing. People are approaching me and I am know that I have touched their hearts. It is very important for me now not to be in the archives but to be making new work.”
When one of the students asked her how she got her start, Libuse replied: “I am from an artistic family. I got visual art as a heritage. Being in touch with visual culture was very important. My father was a painter and so was my mother. My father had a big personality. I decided I couldn’t be a painter because of him. So, at the age of 13 I got my first camera. At the age of 15 I started to study. Everyone hated my work. And I was very shy about showing it to people. That changed when I started working at the factory at the age of 19.”
When asked, “Were you influenced by punk at all?” Libuse said: “I had almost no influence of contemporary photographers. I knew Robert Frank and Diane Arbus. I had never heard of Nan Goldin.”
That was the last question that she answered during her talk with my father and Judy’s class. After that my family, Judy, her son, Libuse, and Libuse’s niece and grand nephew all went to lunch. We had dinner together as well and then went our separate ways for the evening.