“Both Tiane and I knew Bangkok as this JG Ballardesque, dark, crashed neon night eternal city-scape, a beast to get lost in, swallowed up by, and with some luck spat out again – it seemed the obvious place where we could do this as a group.”
Looking through the pages of 3AM published by Akina Books, its hard to believe it is the successful culmination of a month long trip to Bangkok by six photographers and their publisher. Deep individual introspection somehow seamlessly merges with a shared, almost intuitive ethos where the intimacy of close working under the heat, sweat and breath of night-time Bangkok’s urban fabric becomes fucked with before and after it is exposed to film and digital sensor. Layers of collaboration, experimentation and post-production permeate this project which appears to be an almost perfect example of when things just work out. Still, this wasn’t an accident, but the efforts of a team of people that just know their game inside and out. Here follows an email exchange with two of the group: Olivier Pin-Fat of AM Projects and Alex Bocchetto of Akina Books.
Sunil Shah: How did the 3AM project come about and what is the connection between the people involved?
Olivier Pin-Fat: AM Projects is a collective that I co-founded with Tiane Doan Na Champassak in 2011. We officially launched in 2012 at Unseen Amsterdam with our first book and exhibition entitled NOCTURNES. This was based on archival work. Our second project ABSTRACTS was also based on archival work. Again, with a book and exhibition during Offprint London in 2015. After this, I wanted to move away from archival projects, and so in conversation with Tiane, we came up with idea of doing a project where some of us work on a fresh project – with no particular aim at all – for one month in the same place and at the same time. Both Tiane and I knew Bangkok as this JG Ballardesque, dark, crashed neon night eternal city-scape, a beast to get lost in, swallowed up by, and with some luck spat out again – it seemed the obvious place where we could do this as a group. The photographers who came, the ones who could actually make it for that time and that time period are the names of whom you know from the book/project.
I’d been in contact with Alex Bocchetto from Akina Books for quite some time, and asked him if he was interested in this – as yet blank – project. He was. Although unrealised, here was a publisher, that was not only interested in publishing the yet unseen results, but who was also interested in joining us for one month on ‘the ground’ – in Bangkok – to get a better insight into our very different working methods and the emotive chaos of the place to further the publication/design process. So, this was very interesting for us.
Incidentally, 3AM is the official witching hour. The time when most of us would be coming off work. AM (as in the collective, means Ante Meridian), and it’s our 3rd project. The story of the book and design was an intensely collaborative affair between all of us and Akina.
This was something I quickly scribbled down when Alex messaged me towards the end and had fled the city to the Death Railway:
“As the carcass trans mutates into high rise glass, metal and shine-gleam, it also implodes into apocalyptic atomic hot rubble, discarded, abandoned crash sites under express ways, under bone shard hard shadow, littering and choking space as the body form also changes from one gender into another, hotel room walls like peeling skin and rot trapped in mirror shard…’my name is Fiona’…’my name is Celina’…. silicone breasts, penis like lipstick and high cheekbones. The dishevelled and discarded, the scarred, lurk on the circumference of a roundabout that goes around and around and around.
A mattress with pencil thin blue lines doesn’t quite float, nor does it quite sink in an abandoned hotel swimming pool. It is just there, suspended. Caught between surface, meniscus, depth and dark.”
SS: What previously brought the AM Projects collective together Olivier? Was it a shared aesthetic, technique or photographic approach? Also, I’d like to ask your opinion on the benefits of collective/collaborative working?
OPF: I met Tiane in 1999 only because I received a call from my agency at the time ‘VU’ (an avante-garde photo agency in Paris) which he’d just joined, telling me a young French photographer ‘with Asian origins’ was coming to Bangkok on his way to India where he was doing an assignment for a magazine. At that time, I’d already been living in Bangkok for 6 years. We arranged a meeting, and due to schedules etc, could only negotiate a meeting at the airport – Don Muang – on his arrival from Paris. We met again in Bangkok when he returned from his projects in India. We soon became friends.
Fast forward to late 2010. I met Tiane in a bar, and I started proposing a project I had in mind. An ‘alternative’ model to what we’d known and grown up with (the agency/gallery structure etc). My idea was to create a loose, almost alternative/underground affiliation of ‘like-minded’ people, that once in a while would come together to work on a singular and very specific project – out of which we would publish in book form working with publishers we respected and exhibit in galleries (which we’ve done thus far with each project). The stress would be on ‘looseness’. The emphasis on alternative visions/signatures…. people who are somehow pushing boundaries in one way or another. No contracts, no rules, everyone could keep their former representations (galleries/agencies – whatever), but the accent would be on something experimental. In many ways, I’d already started pushing boundaries with my work in 2003 by destroying negatives and working with the salvage, and I think Tiane had too but in a very different way to mine. So, it was a good starting point, and an obvious one for me to talk to him about. He of course agreed with the concept.
Our next step was to find the other members. We were looking for people with extremely distinct and singular voices. So, we started with what we knew – our past – (Agence VU) – and wrote to Gert Jochems. He seemed interested. Ester Vonplon of Galerie VU was next. Then Aaron McElroy. Finally, we found Daisuke Yokota. This was the original ‘crew’ if you like. It’s now very different to what it was back then.
The group is now much larger, and very amorphous. People are free to decide if they want to participate in a project or not. Concerning the Bangkok project, many weren’t. The next project I might skip for example, and it goes on.
The group is like a door frame minus the door.
So, AM projects is all about aesthetic diversity as far as I’m concerned. Signature signals. When I look at 3AM it’s so clear to me whose work is whose, of course I’d say that, because I’m so close to it, but stepping back, raven view, which I sometimes do, it seems glaringly apparent. I don’t see a shared visual uniformity/conformity taking place. And yet….and yet…. something unites, something is welded, the works of each person make total ‘sense’ aesthetically when liquidised like this – is it the diversity or the similarity? No, it’s simply the parallels and collisions – a nebulously shared sensibility expressed in very divergent ways.
Benefits? Actually, it’s an enormous pain in the ass. 🙂
But worth it (I think). Tiane and I found ourselves doing 90 percent of everything when our former director left us for another job. It takes a lot of time, a lot of coordination, a lot of energy, just to get things moving. We’re all highly independent creatures with our own solo projects, representations etc, etc, etc. But results like 3AM – for me – is proof that it’s all worth every second of labour. It’s without a doubt our most potent project for so many reasons (in my opinion). So, the strengths of course lie in the out-put, the variance of visions, it’s multi-faceted projection/exorcism. That’s always exciting. And that’s key. If not, why bother? Seriously.
“I went with Laura looking for gay go-go bars and assisting her to shoot in brothels and demolished hotels, I shot with Daisuke in backstreets at night (he was photographing with some weird infrared hunting device) while Hiroshi was using a document hand-scanner to capture surfaces and the intricacy of bed-sheets, lingerie and curtains, later on we found out he also scanned bodies. I spent the nights with Olivier wandering the dark corners of Chinatown.”
Alex Bocchetto: It sounded like the craziest and most fervid project I could jump into, so I did. Also at that moment Akina was on hiatus and I had nothing to lose. I personally had a friendship relationship with most of them already and published the first books by Daisuke (Yokota) and later on by Thomas (Vandenberghe) so I knew the crew was right.
Once in BKK, the sweat immediately started flowing. We all started on Chinatown, some of them already with clear ideas about what to shoot for, others open to work with the flow of events. Thomas’s idea was to look for intimacy in a city where everything is sold and bought. He fell in love. Daisuke and Hiroshi (Takizawa) went for another district and found their place in the psychedelic grandeur of Grace Hotel in Little Arabia, off Sukhumvit. Tiane was splitting his time between photographing in a go-go bar and wondering through the city at night with a huge flash capturing the intricate web of concrete bridges and buildings. Everyone was on his own personal search and we would meet at night, the HQ always shifting between Bar 23 in Chinatown, a quiet corner of Nana Plaza and the (now defunct) space of NACC where at the end of the month they pulled off an impromptu multimedia exhibition of the work in progress and a party which lasted until late.
During the month, I stalked each one of them, jumping in and out of different projects, ideas and moods. I went with Laura (Rodari) looking for gay go-go bars and assisting her to shoot in brothels and demolished hotels, I shot with Daisuke in backstreets at night (he was photographing with some weird infrared hunting device) while Hiroshi was using a document hand-scanner to capture surfaces and the intricacy of bed-sheets, lingerie and curtains, later on we found out he also scanned bodies. I spent the nights with Olivier wandering the dark corners of Chinatown. Meanwhile I also shot a rough “making of” video which was shown in NACC.
I had a vague idea of what they were up to, but it took some 6 months more to see the final images they produced: Olivier, Tiane, Laura, Thomas were shooting analogue and even if Daisuke shoots digital, his crazy way of post-processing takes time (re-photographing, chemical intervention). I’m glad I followed them to BKK, otherwise I couldn’t understand the mood of the metropolis we were trying to make (no?) sense of.
At a certain point, I had these 5k images in different languages and media, when the horror descended upon me: how to put it together, how to crystallize on paper the mood of such a chaotic and multi-shaped tesseract of a city? In November 2016, we were invited to have a slideshow/DJ set during Paris Photo at the Silencio Club, so there was a deadline. This is how the book edit came about: music. I started with Aphex Twin and the dark “drone” claustrophobic images of Tiane, mixing them with hotel interiors of Daisuke, which get weirder and weirder. Repetitive deep beat. The images get closer and closer. Sound of Breaking Glass. Hiroshi’s scans going deep inside the fabric, a red curtain, the grey room, Daisuke restlessly walking in an anonymous hotel room. Bright diamonds trans-mutating into Olivier’s post-gender bodies, struck by lighting, short sequences. Title: 3AM, our peak hour. Cut. Music mix: ‘Be My Baby’, Shirelles. Change of mood. Images overlapping each other, flashing for a second. Subliminal lust, endless blue bridges, techno music.
A symphonic approach based on music, repetition, an island of meaning and blinking sequences in a subliminal sea of chaos, was the way I found to hold the material together. The slideshow we showed at Silencio laid the foundation for editing of the book. Valentina Abenavoli jumped into the project and we started the editing proper for the book. She found interesting the way the images overlapped in the slideshow (an idea which comes from my lack of video-editing skills) and pushed the idea forward translating it on paper and creating unexpected connections between the different bodies of work.
One of the shared ideas about the book project was to create a collective body of work disregarding authorship and the importance of the single image. Butchered and sewn back together. At a certain point, we were referring to the book as “the beast”. We pushed the anti-authorship idea to the extreme. Despite being some of the most anti-commercial moves a publisher can take, I am happy we did it that way. The book was criticized because some collectors couldn’t tell which images belong to whom. And that was exactly the idea. Like any experiment, it can fail or succeed, it’s up to the reader to judge and enjoy.
SS: This project has so many layers and I think it’s the openness to experimentation, and as you describe ‘looseness’ Olivier, that allows it the freedom to take its shape outside of too much conventional thinking. I think in working with Alex, this approach is extended into the book production, in fact it seems essential the project should play out in this way.
Olivier, coming back to you, was there ever much concern about the editing process from the artists or where you all happy to let go, once the edits were passed onto Alex? When working with others who have such individual visions, surely there are moments of indecision, conflict and antagonism, but perhaps there is also an attitude within the group that embraces all of this too?
Alex, I think your role as observer in BKK seems crucial to the project, such that your presence is incorporated into the book not only as editor but as having some degree of mnemonic and temporal presence. It seems to me this project is not merely a depiction of the underside of BKK but an entwined subjective mesh of practices and experiments that make intuitive sense. As a viewer, the idea that these works were made by different artists, perhaps frustrates less as the relationship between the images works so effortlessly well.
OPF: To answer your question, no, we would never edit one another. Without sounding like some Masonesque / templar crusader ‘secret society’, why would we? We respect each other’s voices. Everyone is free to express as they do, and we all have total faith that ‘other’ person’s output will be special and unique, as in ‘of them’.
Within the group (I mean AM projects), there is no ‘control’ with a capital C.
Tiane for example started with colour facades, later he switched to a darkened grey/black… Daisuke exhibited enormous Xeroxes in NAAC, none of which are in the book. This is all part of ‘our process’ – and I think Akina’s too…. a kind of ‘nothing is true, everything is permitted’ credo.
We all bring to the table what we have.
“Most of the sequences we used are about getting closer to something, or the repetition of some monotonous act. Walking alone naked in the room. Stripping. Fucking. Getting closer. Going inside. Again.”
AB: “entwined subjective mesh of practices and experiments that make intuitive sense”,
Yes, that was the idea, BKK has no narrative at least for me and we never had an idea of imposing one. It’s a cyclical consumption of time. Exploitation works both ways. Both customer and seller are exploited in a never-ending circus. But of course, the book is not about sex working. It just happens to be an unavoidable theme. I was fascinated about how many different approaches there were while photographing the same subject and having sex workers as models. Olivier for example (Oli correct me if I am wrong) incorporated the transition and fluidity between genders in his work as well as the dereliction, Laura had incredible portraits and an instinctive eye for the subject/photographer relationship, she gets close in a peculiar way and the eyes show the connection. Thomas’s experience and the fact he was looking for intimacy (which he found) is interesting and unique. This is coherent with his own photographic practice which knows no boundaries between photography and daily life.
About the editing, the Daisuke self-portraits are maybe the most “narrative” device we used. It’s insomnia, self-loathing, loneliness. The hidden part of the never-ending circus. The whole book plays with unbearable closeness: Tiane photographed from the bridges only the buildings he could touch with hands, Hiroshi tried to get as close as it gets with his scans of fabric, bed-sheets and people alike. Most of the sequences we used are about getting closer to something, or the repetition of some monotonous act. Walking alone naked in the room. Stripping. Fucking. Getting closer. Going inside. Again. Even the most abstract sequences of a transfigured world dripping blue by Daisuke have a progression.
Also with our printer, Ufuk, we worked this way. We asked him to have a paper that would make it feel like experiencing the tropical sweat and humidity. We wanted to feel the heat. The cover is in a material called “soft touch”. It’s plasticky yet soft, with a highlight of super glossy varnish on top. The paper stock is uncoated, the touch again was a very important factor but also color reproduction. BKK is visually loud. So Ufuk did something which shouldn’t be done: varnishing on top of a coated paper to achieve the result. It took us some 40+ tests with different paper and varnishes.
The sense of touch was important, the whole book is a map of nerve endings and impulses as seen from within.
Now, I don’t know what you will do with this information, but that’s also a thing about AM, when the door is open, expect flooding.
Expect poison from standing water.
OPF: I had no particular aim in actual fact. I was almost retracing old and very well worn dark steps that I’d been circumnavigating like a prisoner does in the yard, from 2002 – 2012. 3AM was my first time back in 5 years. Instead of being prey – being vaporised – in these windowless rooms or cathedrals of mirrors, I was now predator with camera waiting for the ‘subject’ to vaporise. This schizophrenia between my past and present was interesting for me. I was stepping through the past into the present but with familiarity. I was the only one who didn’t exhibit at NACC in Bangkok, not because I hadn’t been working, but I needed – I felt – to get back to Italy to process my film, print etc. I threw soil from our garden into my tanks, Italian soil, possibly as some kind of relief gesture to be out of the surreal or what used to be so dangerous for me – and I’m not sure why many of my images have this ‘bullet rain’ effect on the emulsion of film, but I suspect it might have something to do with it. I don’t know, I won’t be able to repeat it again. Nor do I want to. Spilled cards, an entire deck, you try and gather them up in one, off the table top with both arms.
I ended up printing about 400 odd photographs for this project, Laura the same. When Alex and Valentina visited us, we had to use the garden to lay them out, the drive way, the grass, etc…. the table option was insanity. I have no idea about the others’ edits/work aside from what I’ve seen during the book process and what is in the final book. But I’m sure it’s substantial.
Going back to this ‘AM’ aesthetic briefly, I really think it’s imagined by others. Alex mentioned Daisuke may have had the most narrative to his work. I agree with him. Receiving so much personal work from 6 different people must have been overwhelming to say the least.
“Instead of being prey – being vaporised – in these windowless rooms or cathedrals of mirrors, I was now predator with camera waiting for the ‘subject’ to vaporise. This schizophrenia between my past and present was interesting for me.”
SS: It seems then perhaps, that 3AM (and AM Projects) is a retreat into the manifestation of a collectively imagined world, a world where a pure sense of freedom exists in which to examine all aspects of the self, or whichever aspects are in need of being extracted, purged, regurgitated or thrown up from within by all those involved. I am sure BKK and the places and spaces worked in, provide a particularly apt place in which to set this up. Performance seems to be a huge part of this, and leads me to recall how much of photography is performative, not just the taking of photographs, but the introspection the photographer has with himself or herself, the relationship to the people being photographed, the processing and production, the edit, the finishing, all consists of a set of feelings and decisions, a trajectory, an energy that is maintained and transformed throughout, right up until this moment now, when you are re-telling the story to me, the energy that will be transferred to the reader of this article to take away with them. It doesn’t stop.
OPF: In a sense, yes, the group also split up during the one month to stay and focus on different parts of the city, or their respective ‘states of mind’. But isn’t all photography/art a retreat into an imagined world (minus the ‘collective’ part)? I see 3AM more as a fission as opposed to a fusion. I also see AM projects in the same light, which is why, in my opinion, we’re able to eventually as a group pull things together (usually at the last moment). BKK for us – I mean AM – was our first project together in a time-space and physical space that we collectively co-inhabited. It’s very interesting you mention this idea of performance. I think out of the 6 of us in BKK, Daisuke was the ultimate performance artist, his was a pure, fragmented and extremely reticulated self-biography, almost as if he would or could be lacerating himself on stage for the viewer’s pleasure. He photographed himself here (BKK) like none of us else did. Looking back, I think there’s a terrific violence and nihilism to my work for example, subjected upon my ‘subjects’ (they all look like autopsies or if not, mutations). These are projections that occur during my film processing. In Laura’s case, something deeply profound and incisive is occurring. Tiane is all concrete and building facade in this work. Interesting too. He gives us the city’s fabric. A road block if you like. A no entry sign. A signal of the loop. Thomas’ figures look as if an atomic flash has just hit skin, all over-exposed and blistering white. There’s much sensitivity there. Hiroshi’s are from the crab nebula as far as I’m concerned. Brilliantly mad/genius. This precis is just my opinion. But you’re right, photography is hugely performative, and when someone takes their clothes off in front of you, most of the bullshit seems to fly out of the window (if there’s a window for it to fly out of). It’s a revelation. It’s an otherly intimacy.
Maybe Alex has something to say about the process of building the book?
AB: We had so many options. There were some 8k pictures which more or less belonged to 10+ different “series” and styles. For one year, I didn’t touch them. The first step was memorizing them. Started playing around. I printed a selection of them and tried to make sense. It was total chaos, until patterns emerged. I divided in name folders like “Royal Blue”, “Black Drones”, “Body scans”, “brothel portraits”, “banana”, “Sukhumvit dereliction”, “endless concrete” and so on.
It was overwhelming but I let them grow in my mind, forming connection and playing with the tarot here and then, they were all over my house and I would bring them during trips. As I said it was hard to start since we needed a structure to organize the material. We needed to build a city so I started to treat them as the map, Chinatown with dead ends and winding paths, then as an Archipelago. Island in the chaos of a dark sea. Or the room of a derelict hotel haunted by ghosts. There were sequences which had a progression and an internal narrative but we didn’t want to build a linear book. I started with “island”, more or less laying down the chosen images as I was creating a map of moods and places and styles.
During all the time, I kept contact with all of the crew and we were constantly talking about ideas and possible ways of organizing the work and listening to the feedback.
Once I had the deadline for the Silencio slideshow, I asked Daisuke and Olivier for some music for the DJ set. I wanted to play songs that we were listening back then in the hotel, at the bar 23 or at the one-night-show at NACC with Francois and Jeff. I started with Aphex Twin, one of Daisuke favourites, he had just released the “Cheetah EP” which was perfect to set up the mood with its a repetitive slow deep beat. Tiane series of black buildings was perfect for a beginning. Daisuke had many series of hotel images, ranging from the “check-in: haunted but almost real” to the “check-out: totally fucked-up”. Instinctively, there was a progression from reality to a subjective psychedelic state, which I used. So I mixed song after songs, mood after mood: from Aphex Twin to The Shirelles of Be My Baby, blending in concrete bridges with the classic 90s Rave sound of Network 23 “Rabid City”: “This is network 23, the network which means business”. Then Jonnie by Powell which was going hand in hand with Daisuke psychedelic neon images ending with “Baby” by Donnie and Joe Emerson. The editing ended up playing as a bipolar spectrum of high and lows to dance with. The 3AM book has a hidden soundtrack.
And then the book… one month later we met with Valentina, Olivier and Laura during Christmas, one year after the first trip, and while talking about the book, Valentina started the Indesign and didn’t go to sleep, by the morning she was already 50 pages in. She kept the slideshow structure of images overlapping. And it was still an archipelago symphonical structure with themes and developments and movements and it worked. That’s the way we work: I have an analogue workflow while she is almost completely digital. It’s a ping-pong between the images on the floor and her memory of folders. One year after those first 50 pages, we were in Istanbul at the printing house Mas, we finished the editing, adapting it to the physical needs of an open spine book.
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Sunil Shah. Images @ AM Projects.)