Liquida Residency Program: Cultural Contamination in Southern Italy

The first edition of the Liquida residency program - founded by Minimum and Baco - has come to an end. Torsten Schumann, the first photographer hosted by the program, will present his work in an exhibition which will open on Friday 25 May at Minimum. PHmuseum curator Rocco Venezia spoke to the main players behind this inaugural residency.

© Torsten Schumann, 2018

PHmuseum is always pleased to partner with established, as well as more independent, organisations who are offering real opportunities to photographers. Liquida is one of these positive examples: a new residency program based in Palermo offering one photographer, selected through an open call, the opportunity to spend one month in Sicily supported by a bursary of €500. German photographer, Torsten Schumann was the invited image-maker this year, chosen for his proposal that took its starting point from an extract from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's diary. We spoke with him, Simone Sapienza from Minimum, and Valentina Sestieri from Baco to better understand how the residency unfolded.

Ciao Simone and Valentina! Can you briefly introduce to our audience what exactly are Minimum and Baco, the two associations behind this residency program?

(Simone Sapienza) Minimum is a perimeter open to the new languages of photography and image, made of research, collaborations, and commissions. It was born out of a desire to host and promote the work of those who took part in its creation, while giving a space and voice to the experiences of artists external to it.

Located in a former warehouse in the historical centre of Palermo, Minimum is a place inhabited by images, machines, prints, ideas, books and projects. In the three years it has been open, we have collaborated with so many artists, curators, and organisations, including Adam Broomberg, Natasha Christia, Der Grief, Discipula, Alessandro Calabrese, Gazebook, ISSP, Una Marina di Libri, Leporello, Terra Project, Avarie, Alessandro Imbriaco, Dysturb, and Michele Sibiloni, among others.

(Valentina Sestieri) Baco is a photography lab located in a cozy apartment in the Kalsa neighbourhood in the historical centre of Palermo. Baco is a darkroom facility and a place to call on for curatorship services. Baco collects photo-books and believes in photography as a tangible experience as well as a visual one. It lives and regenerates itself in the constant dialogue and exchange with external people and realities.

What made you decide to come together and found Liquida in Palermo? What added value do you think a cultural initiative like this can bring to the city and its inhabitants?

(Valentina Sestieri) The residency program developed from the exigence to open us up to the outside and from the aim of bringing new views on the territory we inhabit, capable of triggering and updating the processes of exchange and cultural contamination typical of Mediterranean societies and more particularly of Palermo. We believe that the added value is in enjoying an external point of view, as it is a fertiliser for the enrichment of the cultural proposal of the territory.

© Torsten Schumann, 2018

When it comes to residency programs, the strength of a proposal is as important as the portfolio submitted by each photographer. Can you share with us the process by which you selected Torsten Schumann?

(Simone Sapienza) I do agree with you - the proposed project for a residency program is quite important. It needs to be clear, inspiring, unique, but also as feasible as possible in only a one-month period. In the final round of judging, there were five shortlisted out of more than 100 applications - it was not easy to pick one, even with an odd-numbered jury. However, the proposal submitted by Torsten was well connected with his portfolio and we could somehow imagine the strong engagement between his approach and the city itself. And we were right: Torsten has deeply fallen in love with Palermo and its streets, people, and situations, depicting a different shape of the city.

You can not really complete a project in four weeks, but we are actually impressed by the quality of his work, ever more week by week. I really liked his approach as a photographer - he almost represents a new wave of street photography, where you are not looking just for the decisive moment anymore. He is a kind of flâneur, with a faded documentary starting point (i.e. the ur-plant), then bumping into the daily life of Palermo, where he still makes empathic connections with objects and urban scenes where it looks like nothing is going on. But Torsten has been able to look further.

Hello Torsten, I know you had never visited Palermo before this residency and you were aware of having only one month to produce a new body of work in response to a completely new place and context. Can you tell us about your working methods, from research to the actual picture-making process?

(Torsten Schumann) Yes, I had never been to Sicily before but at the same time, I heard many positive things about Palermo from friends in Berlin, so I was amazed and very happy that I could visit the city with this opportunity. I was aware that one month is not much time to produce a new body of work and that was going to be an intensive experience, but I was prepared to give my best.

I tranquillised myself by thinking that a residency is also an opportunity to try something new and experiment with my approach. In previous projects, I learned in shorter periods which working method fits me the most for each occasion. I think that the method of creating a work is beside the personal preferences closely connected to the field or the kind of photography each of us are close to - in that sense I am very interested in everyday objects and situations within urban spaces.

Usually I try not to have a closed concept before I start to take photos, especially if I am visiting a place I still don't know. I try to trust and leave my subconscious free whilst taking photos, and I am trying to avoid judging or discarding a possible image before taking it. During the residency we had weekly editing sessions. This has been a very new, intense, but at the same time enjoyable, process that helped me to analyse what I was doing and helped me decide which place to visit next to make new pictures.

© Torsten Schumann, 2018

The proposed project you submitted has, as a starting point, a very specific experience, recorded in Palermo’s Botanical Gardens by the German poet and natural historian Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in his diary. Can you share with us the whole idea behind the body of work you realised during your stay?

(Torsten Schumann) In 1787 Goethe recorded in his diary that, on that precise morning, during his visit to the Botanical Gardens in Palermo, he had come to the conclusion he might, after all, find an actual manifestation of the ur-plant. The concept of ur-plant, or archetypal plant, encapsulates every conceivable characteristic of every existent plant, with all their similarities and differences.

Up until that point, Goethe had viewed it as a purely conceptual model. In my opinion the ur-plant has something in common with photography: just as the ur-plant is a simplified model or approach to gaining a better understanding of a complex world, I also consider photography as a model that helps us understand complexity - in this case, the complexity of a vibrant and multi-faceted city such as Palermo. Beyond their function as a model, both the ur-plant and photography are able to convey something about what they do not directly depict. Throughout the course of the residency, I tried to embark on my own quest to find the ur-plant.

I began in the Botanical Gardens in Palermo and continued the search for the ur-plant and different kinds of evidence within the metropolitan area. Although I wasn't directly photographing the historic architecture, in my search, I was aiming to portray the cultural diversity of the city within its people and objects.

It seems in your pictures that the majority of the human presence is only partially revealed and each image is also consciously referring to something else which is not directly in the frame. Can you explain this approach in more detail?

(Torsten Schumann) Whilst making a photo, I take the objects and people I am portraying away from the original context. Often, my photographs won't reveal the real motive of the situation depicted, neither its original environment. I want them to be like fragments of a dream. I believe if my photographs have a surreal appearance, it's mainly because the frame, instead of being limited, rather opens up our imagination by asking questions.

The reason why I rarely take photos of peoples' faces is almost the same: I believe that when peoples' faces are not clearly visible, our attention and imaginative process won't focus on the particular individual but rather raise questions about general behaviours, and more generally speaking, the relationship between people and their environment. I am interested in these little details also because I consider our world to be so complex and the small things can also tell us alot about people, time and place.

© Torsten Schumann, 2018

To conclude your stay in Sicily, this Friday 25 May you will have a show at Minimum with the work realised over this past month, how do you rate the whole residency experience and more generally, why do you think photographers should apply to residency programs like Liquida?

(Torsten Schumann) If I am thinking about an answer to this question I spontaneously would like to loudly cheer everyone. I have been amazed everyday by this residency, particularly the lovely, and always very professional, people from both Minimum and Baco, whom I now consider to be good friends. A residency program is a fantastic time to learn and an opportunity to try something new. It has been a very intense experience, which allowed me to focus on working on a new project, meeting new people and for sure opening my mind. So I would definitely encourage everyone to take part in these kind of initiatives. Thanks so much!

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Liquida - Palermo Studio Residency is co-founded and co-curated by Baco and Minimum, and is made possible thanks to Ballarak and Farm Cultural Park. Liquida is supported as media partners by PHmuseum and YET Magazine. Discover more on their website or follow them on Facebook.

Torsten Schumann is a Berlin-based photographer. His book, More Cars, Clothes and Cabbages was published in 2016 by Peperoni Books and his work, Off Keel was shortlisted for the UNSEEN Dummy Award in 2016 and for the Kassel Dummy Award in 2017.

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