Dennese Victoria and Swastik Pal for ‘Even though the whole world is burning

Even when the whole world is burning‘ is a projection showcase curated by Dennese Victoria from the Philippines and Swastik Pal from India for the 16th Edition’s festival programme.

Both first-time curators for a commissioned show, they are also photographers and Angkor Photo Workshop alumni; they had met in Siem Reap in 2012. This is their first collaboration together.

“We began the work of forming this selection by asking what has brought us here – why we’re still here, and why we take others along. We didn’t know what we were looking for but when the pieces came together, the picture that was looking back at us could not help but direct us to presence and to contact.” 

– Dennese Victoria & Swastik Pal

“Fragile Fragments” by Vinita Barretto
“Times Like These” by Atikah Zata

Can you tell us about the title ‘Even though the whole world is burning’?

Dennese: I have an email dated February 14 from Jessica (Lim) where she mentions the phrase, the house is on fire. And that never left me. Soon afterward I found a James Baldwin quote which goes “Everybody’s hurt. What is important, what corrals you, what bullwhips you, what drives you, torments you, is that you must find some way of using this to connect you with everyone else alive.”

So all of these somehow led me to return to W.S. Merwin’s poetry for comfort. I had loved him for To Paula in Late Spring, with its dream of being one day restored to a thing already lost. But then somehow, reading on I found the poem called Rain Light, which had “even though the whole world is burning” as its closing line.

It’s quite short, but there are so many beautiful things in there for me. The part where the mother says she is “going now,” but that “when you are alone you will be all right.” And then of course how it finally ends with, “see how they wake without a question, even though the whole world is burning”.

This year has been a terrible upheaval. But then even before this there have been so many things we have been made to endure. Using this line to hold the slideshow, you can read it in many ways depending on where you are and how you’re feeling.

One is that we are here, another is that there are things we still have. Is this the best use of our time? We cannot fully know. It’s hard to quantify, especially when talking to people who might not be interested nor open to understand. But the most honest answer perhaps is that we want to be here. And maybe I am now speaking for a few of the artists in the selection too, that with all the doubt and disappointment, we have, at this moment in time at least, chosen to stay.

“Untitled Morocco” by Ziad Naitaddi
“Aurelia’s Last 26 Days” by Sandra Hoyn

What was the starting point for the slideshow projection?

Dennese: I started by asking myself, why am I still here, especially with everything that is happening in the world right now, and being a person coming from a developing country. It is also about confronting myself; with all that I can do now, why is it this?

In the beginning, I was very anxious about doing the curation. I thought a lot about it, what it means to be a curator and do I deserve it in any way? Then I saw this article in the New York Times about how ‘Everyone is a Curator Now’, where I read that to curate is related to an old Latin word, which means to take care. If we just use this definition, that our job is to take care, then I can do this. I can take care of 24 people. So that was the mindset that I went with. It’s not about talent or what’s the best or what people should follow. We are meeting people, creating a space and asking people to come in.

Swastik: Initially we had a couple of thoughts – why are we still here? Why do we still keep coming back at it, even when it sometimes hurts, like in terms of what is going on. Then we thought, why not think of it like a commune where we fall together, we rise together. It sounds very utopian but the curation meant a kind of space where we can have a community. It doesn’t have to be with famous people. It can be with beginners or even accidental photographers. It doesn’t have to follow trends.

What I see at a lot of festivals are the same sets of people moving around and it’s difficult for a newcomer to get into the scene. I’ve tried to address that kind of situation in my selection because I wanted to give that space to someone with a new craft, even if it is sometimes not complete. Being selected can mean more to that person, and can be a catalyst or inspiration to do more work.

“The passage of time and what remains…” by Priyanka Singh Maharjan
“Repressed Memories” by Ārun

What was your working relationship with each other like? How do you complement each other?

Swastik: We had a lot of overlaps in common. Dennese told me, you’re a Gemini, I’m a Libra. We need some fights between us (laughs). The only difference would have been that maybe I had wanted to accommodate two more, and she wanted to include eight more in the show.

Dennese: We worked separately at first. I did my own thing, and he did his. He’s more realistic, I’m more like, “Let’s do everything!” In the beginning of the process, he was faster. For the first few people, I would do background checks on everything that they have done. It made the process very slow.

Swastik: But it helped in some cases. For example with Vinita (Barretto), the work we are showing is not from her submission but instead was from her Instagram feed. I wasn’t too sure in the beginning but I connected with what Dennese was saying. Besides the fancy part of being a curator, I like the idea of trying to take care of someone’s work. And with that care, we can make suggestions about what might work better. It’s a mutual collaboration.

“Fragments of The Dying Man” by Deb Choudhuri
“Das Palavras A Pele” by Cecilia Sordi Campos
“To Search the Secret of the Forest” by Pietro lo Casto

Your curation is a mix of experienced and beginner visual artists, what is the common thread that runs through the work?

Dennese: It felt as if they are trying to converse. It’s not that they are all deliberately doing so though. The common thread is that they were able to make us believe them.

So there is honesty in the work?

Dennese: Maybe. As a curator and as a person, there is a fear that I can be misled. I would like to believe, but I can be misled. The people we have selected have the quality of making us believe in them. Also you can feel that they were really looking and really reaching out, that they were there at the places they were photographing and not just passing through.

Swastik: There was a conscious effort on both our parts to accommodate more feelings than just the craft. For example, we have this film by Demie (Dangla). It is unusual where she opens with blurred visuals similar to many of contemporary Asian films. Initially I didn’t know where it would fit in the slideshow but to have something like that – abstract visuals and her friends talking about the pandemic – was rooted in reality, especially in this year where we are all stranded. It felt important to have that kind of voice in the slideshow as well.

We’ve been seeing a lot of visuals every day for quite some time. I’m saturated, and it takes a little bit more to get excited by any visuals or project now. Somehow the 24 works that we’ve selected sparked that excitement in some ways. All of them exposed the surroundings around them. Some shot their villages, some their homes. Most of them shot about their own personal space and beliefs. I’m not interested in who gets first in class and sometimes I feel photography is like that. I want a space where everybody gets accommodated, and not just the celebrities.

Louise (Far) is one of my favourites. Her work deals with a commune where people live and work together, that kind of lifestyle is tough in the capitalist world but it inspires me. So I was looking at that kind of relations where people are trying to take care of each other. That was one of the common themes that I was looking at, I was trying to look at things from a community perspective.

“Mother of the Fairytale” by Louise Far

What was the experience like curating for a slideshow projection?

Dennese: The wonderful thing about the slideshows at Angkor was the people attending. It’s like cinema; there’s a screen and your work will be there, and the people sitting around it. That would have been the gift that we can’t give them this year since it is entirely digital. I was kind of obsessed with that and wanted to give them more.

There’s this website that I wanted to make as a sort of landing space, a temporary exhibition. I had been hoping to find a way to extend the presence of the slideshow somehow, so that more people could find it. And I thought this could do that in a way that was more quiet, and which left you alone to really hear and be with the work itself.  Secretly I was also wanting a way to later introduce some of the people whose work we liked but were not able to select. (Ed’s note: the website will be unveiled at the end of the festival as an extension to the projection. Stay tuned for more information).

We also wanted to work with the answers to the How have you been? field on the open call form.

(Dennese and Swastik are also putting the slideshow together) We were worried about the sequence or if the photographers would like it, if the people whose work we admired would like it. Now I try to remind myself that it was in an Excel file that we first saw most of these images – in .zip files, in random order, and yet we were still moved enough to select them. So I try to remind myself that I don’t need to be too much in control, to go back to that original encounter, to know I can let go.

Swastik: I met one of the participants from the Alumni Curates project (featured in Instagram as a series of takeovers), and she remarked that it would have been so nice if all 55 works are featured as a slideshow projection. Maybe the more established photographers will move on from the slideshow format because they want to explore other forms. But when you are just starting out and you see your name and your work on the screen, like a film, it can feel like a dream.

But, when I see the slides that have been created, little layouts that we did not really for the slideshow, but just to help us decide, they look so beautiful that it makes me aware of the limitations of this format. I feel like touching the prints and making real layouts.

“About Time or the Impossibility of an Island” by Marylise Vigneau
“The Other Horses” by Nad-e Ali

What would you like the audience to take away from the slideshow?

Dennese: The best would be that they miss the world. And if they can take just take one thing out of it, I hope that it follows them for a long time.

I’ve shared this early on with some of the artists in the slideshow – with the whole selection I hope to make people feel again, better if it would make them miss people again, make them bolder, make all of us want to go out and journey again despite everything.

Swastik: I feel that the photography industry is like a small cake and everyone wants a piece of it but there’s not enough to go around. This has led to some negativity with people not helping each other. For young photographers, this might mean they are scared to dream. I would like for the audience, especially young people who are just starting in photography, to use the show to dream a bit more and to feel a little less scared, that there’s a little space for them in this industry. I want them to be inspired. I would like that to happen.

Interview by Tan Lee Kuen