The Blue Skies Project: Reimagining History and Trauma
A conversation with artist Anton Kusters about collective memory and making images about the Holocaust
Belgian photographer Anton Kusters has been working on his ambitious The Blue Skies Project for six years, having visited every single former Nazi concentration camp in Europe. His documentation process relies on location coordinates, incorporates numeric data, and closely follows good weather reports showing the days of blue sky above each of the 1,078 identified locations. In just three Polaroids, at each location, Kusters captured the open sky.
The result is a conceptual installation consisting of 1,078 mounted Polaroids of blue skies supported by a 13-year audio piece created by sound artist Ruben Samama. The installation will be accompanied by an open source mobile mapping app, and an online evolving artwork redistributing the original images.
“In its meditative nature,” says Claudine Boeglin, “The Blue Skies Project contributes to the fight against the erosion of memory. In its epic and metaphorical vision, it highlights the massive scale of a genocide without showing its atrocities, to remind all of us how quickly hatred could spark organized, industrial human annihilation. In a time of technological global monopoly and its fissures, the Blue Skies Project is a milestone between futures and memories.”
In the wake of a recent report saying knowledge and memory of the Holocaust is in a slight wane, the work couldn’t be more timely.
On Thursday April 19th, Anton is presenting his project live as part of an International Center of Photography Lab, and talking as part of the Blue Skies and Bad Dreams event on Sunday April 22nd, also at ICP.
Photo director and producer Monica Allende and Anton Kusters have collaborated for several years and are now seeing the project to its conclusion as an installation, and a book to be published by Lars Müller Publishers later this year. Monica and Anton sat down for a conversation.
Monica Allende (MA): The Holocaust is an extremely traumatic episode of history, which is often met with very polarized human emotions and responses. In The Blue Skies Project you follow an investigative process which focuses very much on data. Was it the intention to void the work of any form of emotive response to the subject? I’m very interested in your process and the focus on data.
Anton Kusters (AK): It actually started for me as a way to understand. When I visited the first camp, I had no idea that there were so many camps, even though I learnt about Holocaust in school and at university, I never actually saw it in the way that I saw it when I went to Auschwitz first. There, I naively said to myself “In order to try and understand, I at least have to visit every concentration camp.” In this way I created a ritual for myself in which I could step back from the actual place in the moment and — to safeguard myself against the many emotions — and reflect. I thought it was important to translate this into the work as well; to understand trauma through the endless repetition of its places.
I believed I should not be adding my emotion to a trauma of this magnitude. I felt it should be enough that the data, the history, speaks for itself. In my case, this relentless data, this endless repetition of personal and collective trauma caused utter helplessness that I couldn’t handle, but the ritual also allowed me to step back and think, and this work translates both those things.
MA: Of course. How many years ago did you start this body of work?
AK: It started in February 2012, so that’s almost exactly six years ago.
WW2 Nazi concentration camps 1933-1945 - last known locations
A map made by antonkusters
MA: Back then, the idea of reality and fiction, fake news and post-truth wasn’t so much in the discourse of visual representation … but of course now it is very much present. It makes me think that your focus on evidential and verifiable data, in a work about the Holocaust which heightens emotions and polarizes responses (and has even been hijacked by different groups with denial narratives) gives The Blue Skies Project an extra dimension; it is a work of investigative documentary. It’s almost as if the data is really “now” adding value. Noteworthy, is the fact you didn’t know that at the time, we weren’t then in the way that we are now with fake news and post truth.
AK: Yes. I wanted to break with the power of a photograph in the role of evidential specificity, like you look at a photograph and as a viewer you cannot help but think “Oh, this must be true”. Such responses are all the more fraught with doctored images, altered context and fake news factories.
I wanted to explicitly break away from evidential specificity. I wanted to make photographs that are so without context, without any guidance, or push for the viewer. The infinite sky above these sites is the huge context, the ultimate context. I wanted to anchor each image by etching very specific numbers of locations of the specific end points of an institutionalized genocidal system, in which it was the intention to destroy people, to ultimately deny their existence, and to make them disappear into thin air.
MA: You chose instant film rather than film, and for a body of work that is so taxing, having to photograph 1,078 locations spread all over Europe, so challenging to go and shoot, to then choose polaroids seems quite risky because of the format. The format implies “temporariness”, and we know Polaroids can fade away, that they’re difficult to preserve, that the quality is going to go. And galleries are always nervous about this form and this format. So, why did you choose instant film over a more stable film?
AK: The work also acts as a metaphor for what I learned along the way, the realities that I came across. It was crucial for me to introduce something that is sensitive to time, because of the relationship to our collective memory, and the acknowledgement that our collective memory is a living thing and not a static thing. Collective memory has to be taken care of, stewarded and revisited; it has to be engaged with by new generations all the time again and again. To make something static that is basically unchangeable — already perfectly preserved if you will — would not have been the right course to chart.
The temporal nature should be built into the work, and the explicit “assignment” to — whichever gallery or collector or museum or institution has the work — is that there is a crucial and necessary act of conservation needed. It’s perfectly possible to preserve instant film, but you have to take action to do so, and this power lies with the person showing the work. So it implies that there is always this current, this present generation that needs to explicitly engage, take care of the work as well. And in this way it refers again to the way I believe collective memory should be kept alive … by talking, not by building statues.
MA: The Blue Skies Project is not just one platform or one medium. This work is evolving to engage with different narratives. From the beginning, the idea of trans-media and collaboration was very much there, but it also has kind of evolved organically. One very important collaboration is with the sound artist Ruben Samama, and it’s actually a dialogue between sound and the grid of photographs. They are going to be two stand alone pieces that are in dialogue about the Holocaust. Why did it end up being sound and not for example virtual reality?
AK: Much depends on where you are in life and who you meet. I was in Tokyo and met Ruben at an event and we started talking. He was really interested in The Blue Skies Project but I didn’t know he made sound pieces and sound scapes. I thought he was a jazz musician and composer. When Ruben explained he made sound pieces I immediately told him that sound was something really important that I felt I was missing from the project. Sound gives you an awareness that is not possible with any other media. Sound, also, has a temporal character.
Ruben uses exactly the same data as I used to make my photographs, and he creates an audio program that emits a single sound — a soft ping if you will — for every victim. Depending on pre-defined factors, the most important ones being time and location, the pitch of this single sound changes. In the room, when you are looking at the immense collection of blue skies, you will gradually grow aware that these sounds fill the space as well, and you will realize that each sound represents a victim, and history will come very close to you. Again here the data drives the work, the length of the piece is almost 13-years long, which is the same length from the opening of the first concentration camp in 1933 all the way to the closing of the last camp in 1945, and in the same way Ruben doesn’t interfere emotionally in any way and lets the data speak. It has the same irreversible-ness as the obligation to handle and care for the Polaroids; you cannot “unhear” the sounds just like you cannot “unfade” the polaroids if you wouldn’t have engaged to conserve them.
MA: Trying to frame, trying to understand your personal interest and motivation to take on this subject, what was the trigger for you embarking on a journey to create a body of work revisiting the Holocaust?
AK: It started with my grandfather, Gaston. I became aware that WWII was a huge piece of history that brushed past my family, but it didn’t “take” my family — we were really lucky — and this huge thing brushed past really close, close as in the SS knocking on the door of my grandfather’s house in the middle of the night but him managing to escape. That opened my eyes to actually what could have happened if that wasn’t a “brushing past” but actually a “taking”. I only heard this story of that night in 1943 after he died. My grandfather passed ten years ago so I could never ask him why they actually came for him, because he wasn’t Jewish, and no-one has ever thought he was in the resistance, so to this day I still have no idea why they came for him. A mammoth moment of history just brushed past his front door made me wonder “If he had been taken, what would he have witnessed?”
I wanted to understand how I — two generations down the line and not having had any personal connection — could look, listen and witness.
MA: Of course. Once you found this personal link triggering your motivation you then had to start considering the visual representation of this work. Are you positing that traditional landscape (pictures of the land) are obsolete in the face of such massive carnage?
AK: I went to Auschwitz with no plan. It seemed I should visit their first place but I had no idea that there were so many camps at that time. It was too much for me and the only thing I could do was look up and see this all encompassing sky and I came back home with just one image, that one polaroid image of this infinite blue sky. It was for me a landscape of the sky, so the landscape tradition was actually a starting point.
I am still moved by photographs of empty landscapes that ask me to use my imagination and my knowledge to think back upon a traumatic event. So I wanted to take that “loaded landscape” concept and take it to the extreme, to the point of abstraction, and to make it a visual representation of that intended point of oblivion. Crucially though, I had to add the closely specified research onto the image itself; the geolocation data points anchor the moment of the image. Numbers are etched into the image itself. There, I think, is the departure from the loaded landscape concept, and the act of looking becomes a case of not of “what” we are looking at, but also “from where” and “how” we are looking.
Where is the proper vantage point upon places freighted with violence, trauma and historical distance? Does averting the camera’s gaze upwards offer us relief, denial or a necessary distance giving room to assimilate? Those are important moral and ethical questions that I want to ask in this work.
MA: What were your main influences in thinking (and imagining) landscape as you have in The Blue Skies Project?
AK: Obviously there are so many artists that I look up to, literature, visual arts and photography, and I’ve always been moved by people who offer a deeper insight by fragmenting and bringing together different aspects of a subject and make you think. The Holocaust, the most researched topic in the history of mankind, really felt impossible to me to try and represent visually, so I started reading a lot, and I was crucially helped by Martin Barnes, who helped me find my voice and led me to authors like Ulrich Baer, Susan Sontag, Vilém Flusser, Judith Butler, Eva Hoffman, talking about trauma, photography of trauma, second-hand witnessing, analyzing to the core. These things strengthened my belief that what I was doing was okay. Because the doubt, the doubt was so enormous it was debilitating. Who am I to talk about this trauma now? Two generations down the line? This haunting blue landscape that I saw the first time above Auschwitz represented on one side what the sky is to many, and on the other side it represented that last point of that final solution, vanishing into oblivion, Paul Celan talks about “a grave in the sky” in that most beautiful and haunting poem Todesfuge.
MA: Skies aside, what are the psychological/emotional associations with the color blue? The idea that these skies are not just skies, they have to be blue as well?
AK: For me the first reason to have a blue sky was not actually for the color blue as such, but for the fact that when you have a blue sky, you have the infinite sky; if you have clouds you can only see so far, so the reason to ask for a blue sky was to have landscapes that go on forever and represent the impossibility to understand, or to capture fully what happened and that trauma. And, of course, I understand the other connotations that blue as in something that is calm, that gives the feeling of serenity, safety and of clarity, but it was not the goal to have a specific connotation of the color blue in the work. It’s about the relentless endlessness.
MA: And at the same time it has added a challenge to your process. Did it reduce the possibilities of what you could do?
AK: It really was very hard, I had to factor in all these variables to be able to connect all the places not only with each other but also with the weather, and I realized soon enough that blue skies don’t happen all too often, which tremendously complicated things, so I would be traveling with 4 or 5 weather apps like an inverse storm chaser or sorts following the openings in the cloud covers or waiting until there was a completely sunny day over an entire region. And I could only keep this up because it became kind of imposed ritual to me, something outside of me forcing me to follow a system that was not me and that I did not have a choice. I started to look up at the blue sky and having conversations with it because maybe it was the last witness or the only witness, or the witness that had actually seen everything happening below, and I kept asking why.
MA: Like the instant film the sky itself is temporal, a blue that is only going to be there for a short time and then it will fade again.
AK: Yes and everything is actually me following the data that imposes a certain kind of way of working and a certain kind of — again — ritual, but I’m pushed, forced by the data which is available, and I am not adding to it in any way.
MA: You have an idea of a platform evolving into a mobile app, open source in which others would be able to adopt the code. It would be such an important research project if this could be made available to others to do similar mapping projects. Is this something that could actually happen?
AK: The research was by far the most massive aspect of the work. I started to build upon the data made available in the publication by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, correlating it to the German encyclopedia by Benz & Distel, which sometimes goes into even greater detail, and using them both to compile maps with specific locations as much as possible with exact locations and approximate locations, adding dates, adding numbers, and this data all came together not only in the images and the sound but also in an open source map which I hope I can eventually translate into a mobile app.
The app has the simplest of premises: it would give you a subtle notification every time you would be in the vicinity of a former concentration camp — because one of the realities I was continually faced with was that today more often than not there are no visual remains left at all. So a notification, nothing more, nothing less, a slight interference into your daily life, “Here was this trauma”, just enough to jar. That was very interesting to conceive.
If I am lucky enough to find funding — it will be open source. Two things. Firstly, the app platform itself, so that other people could use the same “system” for other trauma maps in other parts of the world. Secondly, the data will be open, so others can use it for new work about the Holocaust.
MA: It’s interesting sometimes we have in our collective memory a visualization of history through fiction in films, in which they are quite historically accurate, but there is always a hint of fiction. One example is Dunkirk, the film, in which the blue skies appear above the town of Dunkirk, while the skies were in reality thick with smoke. Also in film, the last scene of The Death of Stalin is Beria’s ashes being thrown to the wind. I can’t get past the thought of incinerator smoke filling the skies above many of the sites to which you went. War and genocide is a corruption of nature. Are your blue skies a nod to nature uncorrupted? To nature devoid of murderous ideology?
AK: I think yes you’re right, I don’t think nature has a murderous ideology; I think nature can be murderous, yes, absolutely, but ideology is something that belongs to mankind. But your question is interesting because it shows exactly what collective memory is actually going towards and that it is sometimes emphasizing a point to the degree that it distorts or generalizes. For example you say you were “imagining the incinerator smoke filling the skies above all those sites”, this is actually only true of the six extermination camps that existed near the end of the war. You had a massive institutional system of forced and slave labour that existed since 1933, so that is nine years before the decision was made that camps were not enough anymore, and at the Wannsee conference the decision was made to create extermination camps, which are different than concentration camps.
The extermination camps are the most horrific incarnation, thousands of people murdered every day, day after day, being incinerated, being denied existence, something that is impossible to comprehend, the magnitude of this unspeakable trauma. But we cannot forget that for nine years before (and longer before that) there was a progression that led to this. For almost a decade leading up to that there were more than a thousand concentration camps, more than a thousand ghettos, and many thousands of other kind of camps. The latest estimate gives us a number of 40,000 camps across Europe. This was not hidden. There was fear, intolerance, exploitation, injustice and slave labor all over the place. And then, in 1942, annihilation was added to the equation.
MA: Going back to the association of how we could perceive this meaning of blue skies and heaven as kind of synonymous. What about the notion of the afterlife in Judaism? In Christianity, we’re happy to think of the skies and the heavens as synonymous, pretty much. Jewish belief in the afterlife is more elusive. What’s your understanding of Judaism’s philosophy on the afterlife and how this riffs on the idea of the heavens, as could be interpreted in your images?
AK: To be honest, the work is not about religion, I mean, of course you can look at this work as a religious person and you can have the connotation of heaven and afterlife and good and bad and, but religion itself is not something that I’m trying to reflect upon in this work. It definitely is possible because of the abstract nature of the work that it leaves this openness to reflect and to contemplate in a religious way, but for me the work speaks more of metaphysics. In the sense that the abstractness of these landscapes, these places that refuse to be contained in meaning, is what I’m after.
The victims are part of those places, places designed to destroy the possibility of experience. The victims are inseparable from those places, victims being the ones who perished but also the ones who survived, they are inseparable from those places in a metaphysical way, and when I looked up at the blue sky in those places, was I then also looking up at, talking to every victim as well? Was I witnessing the event’s vanishing? This abstracted trace became my metaphor, my representation of trauma and catastrophe.
Anton Kusters (1974, Belgium) is a visual artist working with photography, book and installation. He is the author of YAKUZA and MONO NO AWARE. Stemming from an initial documentary approach, Anton is concerned by the limits of understanding, the difficulties of representing trauma, loss of the experience of place, and the act of commemoration. His focus lies on investigating other ways of seeing, mechanisms of memory and remembrance, and the significance of viewer placement and subject-position. Anton has a Master’s degree in Political Science at KULeuven (BE) and is co-founder of BURN Magazine. He lives and works in Belgium and Japan.
Monica Allende is an independent curator, creative producer and educator. She is the artistic director of GetxoPhoto Festival, Bilbao and is collaborating with WeTransfer as a creative director. She was the director of the 2017 FORMAT International Photography Festival, Derby, England. In recent years she has been producing multidisciplinary projects with artists and digital platforms worldwide. Previously, Monica was the Photo Editor at the Sunday Times Magazine. She is a visiting lecturer at the London College of Communication, has taught numerous workshops and served on juries worldwide including the World Press Photo and the National Portrait Gallery’s Taylor Wessing photographic Portrait Prize. She is the recipient of the Amnesty International Media Photojournalism Award, the Picture Editor’s Award, the Online Press Award and Magazine Design Award for Best Use of Photography.
Anton Kusters and Ruben Samama will introduce this profound journey and share details from their collaboration on The Blue Skies Project in a live presentation at the ICP April 19. and will join a panel of poets, thinkers, historians, and artists to reflect on new ways of looking at history and trauma on April 22.