Where do I begin with the extensive creative accomplishments and adventures of Alec Von Bargen?
Artist/photographer/Humanitarian/Actor/Writer/Traveler - the list goes on and on. Born in New York City, he is based (sometimes) in Mexico and Milan, but no moss grows under this artist/traveler's feet. His mantra on social media is often “Up, up and away!”. From Ceylon, to China, the Philippines and Cambodia, to Sarajevo and more countries than I can count. But he doesn’t simply visit these places - he inhabits them, going deep into the culture and finding expression as a “social anthropologist of sorts”.
His numerous awards include being twice invited to exhibit at the Venice Biennale and now officially named a “Visual Advisor to the Venice Film Festivals Biennale College". He has exhibited in galleries and museums internationally including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the OCT Museum in Shanghai.
I first met Alec while at a residency in Akumal, Mexico in 2012, where he was the original founder/director. We have since reconnected several times in London and also in Shanghai while he was an artist in residence at the Swatch Art Peace Hotel, a highly prestigious artist residency in the heart of Shanghai.
I’m honored that you are sharing some of your story with us today, thank you for taking the time! I hardly know where to start with this interview, there is so much to cover!
The honour is all mine, Amy. This is the closest thing to catching up since I last saw you in London. It's been way too long. 2019 will definitely see us collaborating again one way or another, even if it's just sharing a tequila in some faraway location.
Maybe first give us a brief sketch of your upbringing and how it informed both your art practice and love of travel.
To be honest I was practically born into a suitcase. My father's job had us moving around quite often. As an expat, his contracts normally had a 3 year duration and then it was time to move on. I don't know any other way. I have never really lived in my country of birth, the languages I work with on a daily basis are neither my mother tongue (German) nor the language I grew up speaking (English) and since I left home at an early age, I've spent my whole life living as a foreigner. I remember once, upon arrival by ferry to Calais from Dover, the passport control officer asked me a few questions which I responded to in French. After a few minutes he handed me my passport and said, literally "An American, speaking perfect French, living in Mexico and traveling to visit his German family... I don't understand." I think that sums it up.
I have always been somewhat of a stray dog, a mutt, always seeking the next adventure and more than happy to start anew in a distant, exotic country at the drop of hat. I don't quite understand it either but I stopped questioning it a long time ago. I know no different and would have it no other way. My mother also influenced me tremendously. I grew up listening to her passionate stories of how she found snakes in her hotel bathtub in Bali, or how she fell in love with the overwater villages in Srinagar in the Kashmir Valley. I too wanted that. I was hooked.
You have had such an interesting creative life so far, including being an actor in film and television in both Mexico and the US. What was the tipping point for you when you went from being an actor to a visual artist/photographer traveling the world - how did that come to be?
It is true, I have been extremely fortunate. It is immensely difficult to be embraced and given work in one field, so for it to have happened in several has been a blessing... and to be passionate about them all is such a gift. That's not to say I don't work my butt off 24/7, but generally people need to be able to categorize you immediately in order to understand what you're all about... in my case it takes a little longer simply because I continue to wear so many different hats when creating and have absolutely no qualms about doing so.
As for your question, several factors played into my choice of temporarily walking away from being in front of the camera in order to create behind it. The main and most important is that working as an actor you need to be eternally present. Your time belongs to others and although the perks are many, the idea of eternally trying to please was just never something I could fully buy into. I love it, don't get me wrong and the rush of being on stage or hearing that magical word: "action" is like a drug, but that's maybe a 5% of your career, the rest of the time it's all public relations, ass kissing (excuse my French) and following orders. Not what I signed-up for.
Before studying performing arts, I studied graphic design, photography and art history, so the transition into the visual arts was easy. Now, after almost 12 years of having walked away from the acting life, I am being called by friends who are producers, directors even writers asking me to be a part of their productions. I recently finished Salim Nayar's (my Bro from a different Mo) new film Beginner's Guide To The Presidency and had a blast. It was such an honour and it's something I enjoy wholeheartedly. It all seems to have come full circle. Now I have the opportunity of working behind the scenes and in front without anyone questioning my authority as it's all something I've been doing since I was 16.
Your current work combines humanitarian and social commentary through the veiled lens of photography. Tell us more about your recent show Soliloquy, which is being show around the world
My work has always been rooted in social anthropology. I am obsessed with the human being. There is no doubt in my mind that the fact that I am an actor plays heavily on my way of approaching the work I do. I research like crazy, investigate, lose myself to foreign worlds and faraway conflicts. I want to know, need to know in order to feel, digest and produce. My instrument of choice is the camera but I always like to clarify that I don't consider myself a photographer. The images taken serve as the basis for my creations, whether they be installations, video or traditional prints. I spend months at a time traveling, documenting and then go back to my studio and the creating begins. Up until this point I had traveled by myself to places not commonly frequented by mass tourism but never to areas of suffering on a scale as large as South Sudan or Eastern Ukraine for example. I knew it was time to take my wandering one step further and to commit on a deeper level to my aesthetic discourse.
As for So.lil.o.quy, my latest series, it is a project i took to Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) 2 years ago. The proposal was to travel to 23 missions/projects in 10 different countries in order to create a book publication and museum exhibition inspired not only by the awe-inspiring MSF staff and the fundamental work they are doing on the ground in these places, but also by the context of the place itself and the conflicts the local communities are dealing with in each place. I wanted 10 countries, 2 in each geographical zone in order to obtain an honest diversity of colour, textures and realities, which together would mesh into the most perfect of fabrics. In theatre (back to my acting), a monologue is a speech given by a character which informs the audience. A soliloquy on the other hand, is when a character speaks aloud, to themselves, about their own conflict, often in search of solution. This is what I wanted to achieve. I have been a storyteller all of my life and with this series I want to tell a story... a story which involves all of us... through installations, video, audio pieces and images, I hope to walk the audience through the emotions I felt in each of these places, I want to take you by the hand and share with you the utter perfection of this world despite the damage we're doing to it. I never preach and I never point a finger, I permeate my raw emotion into each of my pieces and share them with as much generosity as possible.
This was a huge risk for an organization like MSF and I will never be able to fully show them my gratitude. To have been allowed as a visual artist to 'infiltrate' their complex and often times life-threatening work environment is probably the most humbling gift I have ever received. Avril Benoìt, the Director of Communications in Switzerland and her team had the vision and the trust to see beyond and I believe in great part, it is that trust that has inspired me go one step further by creating some of the most honest, poignant and personal work I've done in my career. The series itself has already won several international awards and will be officially launched worldwide next year. The book will be published this year with a few presentations planned.
Your focus is almost always about people, often those who are suffering from abuse in conflict zones. How and why did they become your subjects?
I could go on for hours but i'll keep it quick and simple. I trained to study people and their behaviour patterns. As an actor you are always finding material at the source: human beings. Nothing is more fascinating to me than how a person develops and reacts depending on where they come from and how they were raised. As for the conflicts, it is more the resilience, the strength and the sheer determination to deal with and overcome these conflicts which fascinates and inspires me. I don't go to these places to document the darkness, that would be easy. I can sit at home and find darkness all around me if I want. It's the beauty of the human being that shines despite the opaque nature of their reality that takes my breath away and makes me want to tell their story. I'm not sure if that makes sense. We live in communities where the world seems to crumble if the wind messes up our hair or if we can't get a signal on our phones. I've literally seen people lose it for less. Now, try NOT to be inspired by a man who has just walked 6 days on a foot which will later be amputated due to gangrene from an untreated gunshot wound after fleeing Boko Haram. Along the way his entire family was killed and their belongings burnt. Still, he sits patiently in almost 50 degree heat (122 Fahrenheit) and when I approach him he receives me not only with a smile but he moves a bit to allow me to sit and share the minimum shade protecting him from the scorching rays... and when I leave he thanks ME. That's why i'm inspired by those situations.
That is so deeply moving and such a lesson for all of us about putting things in context.
You have also looked at gender issues, subjugation etc. Would you elaborate?
Marginalization is a reality in all sectors of society. Marginalization not only by force but also by choice. I did a 3 year study which resulted in a series of 12 analogical, site-specific, multi-media portraits of marginalized women. I used images of real women I had encountered throughout my travels and completely erased any trace of context from their surroundings. I then used parallels and created analogies with famous historical female creators. The voice of the anonymous, marginalized women suddenly took flight and they had a platform from which to be heard. The exhibitions always became a conversation between each of these characters and due to the site-specific nature of the pieces, every show was completely different, giving each woman a protagonist role when required and at times allowing them to rest in silence while others took the spotlight.
One extremely troubling reality is that women, most of the time, are the silent victims of the power playing of men. Their role unclear, many times even to themselves. I wanted to bring dignity and light to an otherwise endless conversation in shadows... I wanted their gazes, their silence, their undoubted strength to shake foundations. I wanted the audience to listen rather than constantly trying to tell the woman what she should be saying, or feeling, or doing. It had to be the truth of the women... the 'Veritas Feminae'. I was fortunate enough to get important female figures from the international art world to write for the book and even the main sponsors of the series, two strong women, Chiara Grosso and Orietta Lunghi from FourStars in Milan were fervent advocates of the series and what it stood for.
In my new series 'So.lil.o.quy', the gender issues and subjugation are presented in a whole new light. I find it deeply troubling and despicable how something so painful can still be so alive, well and universal.
One of your exhibitions was at the Swatch Art Peace Hotel in Shanghai after you had a 6 month residency there. Your exhibitions are often large format but in grid patterns or multiples - how did that way of showing your work evolve?
It was quite a shock when I received the invitation on behalf of The Swatch group and The Swatch Art Peace Hotel to be one of 16 selected artists to live and work in Shanghai for 6 months. I have to say that it was probably one of the most productive times in my career. I didn't actually present the work I produced while there at the Swatch Art Peace Hotel as I was invited by the then Artistic Director of the OCAT Museum in Shanghai, Mariagrazia Costantino, to present not only the exhibition but also the book launch at the museum. I was truly fortunate and the presentation extremely effective in that setting. I was however invited back to the Swatch Art Peace Hotel 2 years ago for a month in order to prepare and present a solo show in the exhibition hall of the hotel (a beautiful, 700 square meter space) which Swatch and the SAPH were kind enough to produce, promote and embrace. The site-specific show was titled 'Split' and it was much more conceptual with all of the broken-up images creating the yin and yang of the current indecision and identity crisis of the human being. How sexism, classism, raciscm and most ism's are suffocating and dividing us as inhabitants of the same space.
Also in 2015, Swatch invited me back to exhibit with them at the 56th Venice Biennale. I don't think one could ask for more from a residency or a working relationship with such a well established, iconic brand as Swatch.
As for dividing grid patterns and multiples, the aesthetic choice stems from my incapacity of seeing memory as a linear concept. When I remember, memory comes in waves of broken-up fragments. It will never be a clear, precise, concise and immaculate image. "The last time I saw you was in London... or was it Mexico... no, it was London... we had dinner at the Spice Market... or was it lunch... were we alone... no, I think others were there... but i'm not sure... you were wearing a beret... no you weren't... I remember thinking it was the first time you didn't have a hat on your head... but it was raining... or was it summer...?!?!" See what I mean? To me that's how memory works, therefore the grid gives me the liberty to add to my recollection of the facts.
In the past 1 1/2 years alone, you have been part of exhibitions and/or won awards in Berlin, Iceland, Hong Kong, London, Paris, Milan, Sweden, Myanmar, Brooklyn to name a few. In your bio you said:“Am I exhausted? At times. Do I complain? Almost always. Would I change it all? Never!” How do you keep going even when you might feel tired and fed up?
I don't know any other way. I have never seen this as a job... this is simply my life. One day i'm documenting tuberculosis victims in the northern part of Kyrgyzstan and the next i'm doing jury duty at the Sarajevo Film Festival or walking the red carpet in Venice. I must say that going from one extreme to another so often and with such ease helps to put everything into perspective. I understand clearly what my priorities are and what I want to achieve. I no longer waste time trying to impress but instead use my time to complete whatever is lacking in my existence. Is it ideal? I'll never know, but what I do know is that I am utterly appreciative of the trust and the support given to me and I will be doing this until I must bequeath my space to someone else.
Your history of being both an artist in residence (Shanghai) and the director of a residency (Ondarte in Mexico) gives you a unique double sided view of how residencies work. As the director of a residency, what were you looking for in applicants, and what advice would you give to our readers about their project proposal and how to have the best possible experience at a residency?
All I can say is that directing a residency is a nightmare!!! We artists are complicated people. I'm joking. The main issues I had with directing the residencies is that in my case, the 'walls' of the residencies never belonged to me, so I was more of the 'artistic director' and when that happens, you can try to establish certain rules, regulations and goals for both the artists and the residency itself, but if the owner of the place doesn't feel the same way, or sees it just as a business, or isn't at all interested in the arts... well, I think you know what I mean... and the 'artistic director' will always be the fall guy. Not much fun if you ask me. That said, I am obsessed with collaborations and profoundly inspired by creative souls. I am still in touch and collaborate with most of the artists I've met in residencies.
As far as what I look for in applicants, it's basically the same thing I look for in my friends and people I share my life with. Coherency. As artists we are on a continuous journey in search of our own voice as creators and all I can expect is that you be coherent, true to yourself and transmit through your discipline of choice honesty and depth. It may sound conceptual but to me it's palpable and uncannily evident. Artists are complex and needy and have a tendency to initially protect themselves behind what they know instead of what they do. A true artist's strength lies in their transparency when working. If I can see your soul in your work then I want to get to know you. Simple as that.
As far as project proposals, all can say is that I'm a freak for quality control. I find rebels without a cause tedious... be a rebel, but let me in on the anarchic sentiments. Have pride in yourself and what your presenting as it shows immediately and honestly, research what you're submitting to.
The one, basic tip I give every creator that comes into my life, whether it be a filmmaker, an actor, a photographer or a performance artist:
STOP WASTING TIME TRYING TO IMPRESS THE WRONG PERSON. Do your research. Know to whom you are writing and know what they like, who they've supported before, what artists they represent, what awards they've given and to whom, what the institution stands for... etc. It's not that difficult. That's part of our job description now. Submitting your gorgeous series of abstract photography to a gallery that specializes in watercolor miniatures is a waste of everybody's time.
Where have you NOT been to but are longing to visit and why?
Two places come to mind... Easter Island (with a stopover in the Atacama desert) and Bhutan. Bhutan mainly because I've traveled all over Asia and it's the one place one can still go to and feel like its culture is somewhat being protected (albeit the 250 usd a night tourist fee)... also because Tibet was always my number one spot but that has long since become a pawn for the Chinese. The Potala forcefully surrounded by karaoke bars and noodle joints isn't what one wants when arriving in 'Shangri-la'. As for Easter Island, well, the remoteness, the unique landscape and frankly, someone needs to figure out who and how exactly they carved and buried those monumental sculptures all over Rapa Nui.
What is coming up for you next, and where might people see your work besides your website:
I'm fortunately busy for the next couple of years. As for the film work, I will be participating in a talks and round table at the Internationale Kurzfilmtage Winterthur, Switzerland and then I'm part of the official jury at the 2018 Soria Film Festival in Spain. As visual advisor to the Biennale College Cinema of the Venice Film Festival, I will be traveling to Venice this week to present three feature films we produced and which will premiere at this years festival: DEVA by Petra Szőcs - Produced by Peter Fulop and co-written by Nagy V Gergő (Hungary), YUVA by Emre Yeksan - Produced by Anna Maria Aslanoglu (Turkey) and ZEN SUL GHIACCIO SOTTILE by Margherita JJ Ferri - Produced by Chiara Galloni (Italy). In October and January I return to start working with the new teams of filmmakers on their films.
As for my art, this year will end with the 'So.lil.o.quy' book launch, a exhibition in London and then one in Berlin. Pieces from my new series were selected for the 161st Royal Photographic Society Exhibition which kicks-off in September and then travels for the next 12 months throughout some of the main museums and galleries in the UK. District Gallery in Manila, headed by Nasser Lubay and Jesse Lucas have kindly invited me to present some of my pieces with them at the Art Fair Philippines in February and then we kick off the 'So.lil.o.quy' launch with exhibitions being planned in cities worldwide, including Mexico City, Milan, New York, Zurich, Hong Kong, Sydney, among others.
Finally I direct an artist collective, Krema Kollettiva, which is based in the city of Crema, Italy, which brings together a talented group of artists from different disciplines (dance, film, sculpture, painting, photography, writing...). We will be gathering again in 2019 to see what everyone is up to and what inspiration is brought to the table.
Thank you so much Alec for your thoughtful answers and fascinating life and work. Hope to see you soon!
You can see more of Alec’s work on his website: www.alecvonbargen.com
and Facebook: Alec Von Bargen