Witness Objects

An appropriation of objects which have played some role in conflicts ranging from WWI to the Siege of Sarajevo - part of the extensive collection at the Historijski Muzej Bosne i Hercegovine (History Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina).

 

The objects were witnesses to a timeframe of events associated with war, designed to perform, protect or survive violent acts. They are symbol, artefact, evidence and memory in physical form. Their temporary modification into pinhole cameras has given them an unexpected new function, transitioning them from passive object into an active tool. The object has the ability to record, survey and witness. Scenes depicted have tentative yet symbolic connections to the object/camera. The work references the repetitive and cyclical nature of conflict, the blurring of fact and fiction and the untold stories that go undocumented.

 

In the case of the old Yugoslavian military helmet, the aperture for the pinhole has been located at the point of a bullet hole. Nothing is known about the circumstances of the puncture, although it is likely that the wearer was killed by the wound. The Helmet becomes part of the mythology of the unknown soldier, representing those that were lost in battle but whose bodies were never found. The helmet becomes a symbol of the death of Yugoslavia - the pinhole plate resembling a crude plaster. To the right, the camera's first image - photons replace the trajectory of a bullet reflecting off one of the many towers occupied by snipers during the siege of Sarajevo. The images contain fact and fallacy: a bullet has punctured a helmet - a tower depicted was an infamous sniping position, yet the timelines and the contexts are muddled and lost to us. Their story denotes the universal and repetitive nature of conflict.

 

The USA Vegetable Oil can has served three functions. It is an object associated with survival, oil to cook food with, a watering can to sustain vegetation, then a camera. The first image ‘observed’ allowed the object to ‘meet its maker’ - the highly sensitive US embassy building which resides opposite the museum. We are reminded by abundant signage that to take a photograph of the embassy is forbidden - photography is dangerous, loaded with its own aggressive actions, to load, to aim, to shoot, to capture. This image is no threat but a small act of disobedience.

 

The infamous Icar tin can, its canned beef contents (or whatever it was), renowned for being ‘unfit for human consumption’ has also become an observer of things. It references itself, the sarcastic art monument, also a stone’s throw from the History Museum. It again symbolises survival but also highlights the anger and frustration felt by many during the siege of Sarajevo, and the feeling of abandonment by the international community.

 

The humble stove or furnace is a symbol of creativity and innovation in the face of adversity. Adapted from scraps of metal, saucepans and pots, the furnaces were central to survival in the besieged city. It is probably the most famous example of many of the improvised DIY technologies developed through survival instinct. Yet as Guardian writer Justin McGuirk accurately attests in his considered article of 2011, ‘…it is the design culture of an aberration, a temporary phenomenon within a historical blip.’ For the vast majority of its existence, Sarajevo has been a particularly potent centre of tolerance and diversity.

 

These temporary camera/exhibits are to be used with reverence by participants to make images of their choosing. It is hoped that in doing so, they might perhaps consider more carefully, what might be photographed, given the strange new realisation that the camera itself is a participant and a witness to events both known and lost forever. What do you think it has seen?

This work is the result of a series of explorations, participatory workshops with students from the Technical high school of graphic technologies, design and multimedia, Sarajevo, and has been partly supported in part by the Arts and Reconciliation: Conflict, Culture and Community Research Group (artreconciliation.org) Funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council and led by King’s College London and partners at the University of the Arts London and London School of Economics and Political Science.

Luke Watson, 2019