The Innocents Abroad

Elisabetta Benassi, The Innocents Abroad 2011

Venice Biennale: Nine microfiche machines in a darkened room. The machines are automated and retrieve hundreds of press photographs from the 20th century. The screens displays a photograph for a moment before moving on to the next retrieval. The busy machines clatter in their work.

When they stop you see a photograph of some topical moment from the 20th century. But you see the back of the photograph, not the image itself. You see the press agency’s description of the photograph on the other side, the caption, the copyright data, the credit. You read, you don’t look.

It’s history through captions, the victory of text over image. The captions attempt to explain the missing images, and you try to imagine what they might look like. Photography is dependent on the written word in a ways that painting or drawing is not. It’s almost always accompanied by text of some sort, titles, descriptions, critiques, as if the purely visual is unreliable.

The project is about photography, even though no photographs are directly seen. For a start, the backs of these photographs are now photographs themselves and they have their own beauty: the old typewriter fonts, the mysterious scribbles, the fading paper.

It’s also about photography’s relation to the archive, the record of history and knowledge stored in countless photographs in museums, libraries, government departments. The room of microfiche machines is like a busy office, searching relentlessly through the files, it’s a parody of the bureaucratic process.

Look at these still shots below and see if you can imagine the picture on the other side:

DIRECTS ADVANCED STUDY Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer. the new director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, N.J., is shown here in front of a blackboard full of mathematical formulas at the institute. Dr. Oppenheimer, a professor of mathematical physics, served as wartime director of the Los Alamos laboratories of the Manhattan Project when it developed and produced the first atomic bomb.

CLEVELAND TRACK STAR BREAKS WORLD SPEED MARK. Cleveland, Ohio – Jesse Owens, Cleveland High School student, ran the 100-meters in 10.3 seconds Saturday afternoon, one tenth of a second faster than the world record …

RAISING OF THE USS OKLAHAMA  With the stricken battleship Oklahoma almost half-righted, the work of cutting away loose gear begins. Cables stretched over wooden A-frames to Ford Island were used to right the ship which was sunk during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, December 7, 1941

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Click here to see Elisabetta Benassi at the Biennale, with her installation: www.youtube.com/watch?v=GQ8cem-CX_Q

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