JM Ramírez-Suassi: Fordlândia Interview

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“The photobook is a balance, at least its the intention, between this utopia (or maybe call it heterotopia, a concept made up by Foucault) and a life experience…”

 

Fordlândia is an incredible book. IT is an imagined place where the 20th Century’s technological and capitalist utopian visions collide with the reality of the 21st Century in Ramirez-Suassi’s poignant and sculpted images. Perhaps Fordlândia is a state of mind, a state of desire and a state of post-script. JM was kind enough to bounce emails back and forth over the work and we cover some interesting territory in between. He is a lucid thinker with the gift of making incredible images. This book is on my list for the year and I encourage you to get a copy as there are not many and I believe the book itself will eventually reach a mythical status.

 

 

BF: With Fordlândia, one of the major points of interests for me, apart from your beautiful photographs was the idea of place. Fordlândia represents a strange mythological geography in the popular consciousness that has its roots in the early twentieth century empire of automobile maker Henry Ford who established Fordlândia, Brazil in the Amazonian rain forest as a plant for harvesting and producing rubber for his automobiles. The town of Fordlândia and was abandoned by Ford after less than one decade of operation due to insurgent rebellion of the conditions of the town and difficult work. It was a teetotalling community in which alcohol, women and distraction were outlawed and banned. Coupled with a poor results and an uprising, Ford’s capitalist utopia was left with only 90 inhabitants of the proposed 10,000. The town is now marked with the veil of ideological (capitalism) failure. And yet, it persists as an idea and as a place. In making this body of work, you propose an unbiased examination of Fordlândia through fragments of the place or its people-disembodied hands hold plant identification badges and makeshift and decaying structures illuminate a once-powerful capitalist idea. In constructing a visual mythology of Fordlândia, what were the restraints that you placed on yourself in conveying the essence of its past? Did you deliberately decide to keep the location semi-ambiguous? Is it important for you to consider Fordlândia as an idea more than a place?

 

JMRS: Fordlândia, the place itself, is widely documented, therefore to provide more images of what is left of this place won’t contribute more to all which has been said and done already. Photography doesn’t need to be a document or memoir, these are facts we all know. This is the reason I considered Fordlândia, since my first trip, as an idea more than a place. This belief helped me break free, since every undertaken trip was like going back to the past as well as an escape towards utopia, an idea in which to root, once again, the lost myth.

 

The photobook is a balance, at least its the intention, between this utopia (or maybe call it heterotopia, a concept made up by Foucault) and a life experience- the latter being an assortment of relationships of strength that enabled me to weave images from different origins and heterodox contents, some more poetic and others more prosaic. This is one of the reasons that makes the location less important. In fact, there is only one photo in the book that can be recognized by someone who’s been there: the water tank photograph, shot from the inside of the factory. This water tank is an icon in Fordlândia, but for me it represents a ruin.

 

 

It’s ironic to think about it now, since what meant to be an escape from the present history of neocapitalist civilization to an unpolluted world, took me to the ruins of early capitalism in the form of Fordlândia. The photobook presents a strongly fragmentary structure, articulated in 9 sections. 9 is the last number in the series of figures and it announces, at the same time, an end and a new beginning. For this reason the figure 9 is associated with rebirth and simultaneously with the idea of death. What is very present in the book and in most of my photographs, and following an obsessive compulsion, is the idea of ruin. Fordlândia is a utopia and a ruin because it is a projection of the past in the future, an antithetical and specular idea of present time’s escape. It is a mysterious entity which, placed between the objective and the subjective, becomes part of a social imaginary. On a grand scale, Fordlândia is a phantasmagoria, which can abduct its viewer and, with great effort of imagination, make him feel transformed into the world’s sole inhabitant.

 

BF: I would suggest within your summary that hat we are also looking at with your work, particular to the terms of phantasmagoria is the idea of the aesthetics of necrocapitalism. Necrocapitalism for me is associated with the ways in which progressive economy-based utopias fail and deliver impermanent ruins-ruins unlike the great Mayan temples, the Coliseum of Rome or the Parthenon in Athens, which were chartered under differing historic ideologies.

 

The phantasmagoric character of necrocapitalism suggests that at its very foundation, hyper-capitalist economies assume a velocity something like a fire which reaches an apex or tipping point of its energy and when finished begins its decline towards ember and ash. With necrocapitalism, the ultimate result is that death and ruin are the inevitable aesthetic utopia for “progress” and acceleration and we see this in your work and the mythologies presented. In esoteric terms, can you expand a little bit on your interest in the symbolic use of the number 9? Would you also be willing to illuminate our readers about your background in photography? You bring up the word document. Do you have a background in if documentary practice?

 

 

JMRS: The current period of neoliberal globalization could be distinguished as necrocapitalism, which implies that the financial growth and economic accumulation are inseperable from the growth of global production of death and, needless to say, of ruin. This, undoubtedly, has intruded in the way in which artists capture and represent their skills. During these days of lockdown, I can’t stop thinking about the uncertainties and terror felt by millions of people daily and how governments, through this suffering, paralyze and shatter society.

 

” The current period of neoliberal globalization could be distinguished as necrocapitalism, which implies that the financial growth and economic accumulation are inseperable from the growth of global production of death and, needless to say, of ruin”

 

From the first minute of the pandemic, artists began to document this reality. A reality that has invaded our homes, I believe, in the way Mark Fisher denominates the ” aesthetic agony”, which is inherent to necrocapitalism because it’s direct, real and immediate. However, I believe that these artists, in one way or another, try to collectivize our grief, something that, as time goes by, will turn into oblivion, since our first reaction after the trauma will be oblivion. Fordlândia9 is not focused on this perception. Gabriela Bergarche-Cendoya mentioned to me that she considers F9 a political book, which draws my attention since it also seems to be yours. It is true that the story of Fordlândia shares this “inevitable aesthetic utopia” which you refer to because it has intellectual and mental conditions, but, as a photographer, I cannot forget that the emotional interpretation of Fordlândia is based on reality, rooted in real elements that are transmuted becoming part of, what I previously called, the social imaginary and, certainly, with an aesthetic load added to it: it is true that I built up Fordlândia but, likewise, Fordlândia also built me up. This is why I spoke of phantasmagoria because, in a way, Fordlândia reflects externally internal transformations.

 

The photographer’s eye always mingles with the “scenery”, inhabited by its memories, done in a fluidly manner, since the essence of subjectivity is the fluency of the form. I gather that whoever observes my photographs won’t be able to recognize the place or be able to locate it. In very few occasions they are recognizable, even the characters are completely unknown and, more so, inhuman. But the shapes, through memory and emotions, will always disclose the internal world I built up as a photographer. You may say that F9 works as an allegory of its own, so the book gives the impression that, instead of being submitted to me, it imposes its terms and forces me to accompany it throughout a series of Amazonian adventures.

 

 

Previously you referred to the Coliseum and the Parthenon. These ruins are products of history and fortuity. They take us back to a period of pure forms. The ruins I’m interested in are the ones that are isolated in space, to some degree invisible, living in indifference, the ones nobody shows any concern. In every photograph I shoot, I try to reveal my presence. I’m not physically present in them but it must seem as if I were-As if I were Isak Borg, the character of Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. In dreams he sees images of his own past life and, hidden, he gazes at the repetition of his life presented as it were a phantom. I’m not being a documentary photographer in F9, I merely find myself directly questioned by the world being created around me. No, I don’t gaze at a distance or in perspective. I don’t use long-range lenses, on the contrary, I get very close to what I’m shooting so the feeling of location is lost and the moment appears in all its splendor.

 

BF: This in effect creates the aura of subjectivity that we have become aware and adjusted to with any sort of practice vaguely resembling the documentary as recounted by single point of view authorship. When I mentioned your work in the context of the realms of the political it is such that I do not believe that it is possible to distinguish historical character of name/site like Fordlândia from the empirical clutches of capitalism. After all, despite your focus being overly relegated to permissible images outside of the context of title, you have invoked a particle chapter in the beginning of capitalism with naming ford and his Brazilian plant and I have done the same with my own book Dein Kampf in -though my invocation was a direct denouncement of ideological savagery of the returnal. The parabolic structure of both of our decisions to commit to a tile such as we have commits a certain amount of emphasis on unpacking “what’s in a title”, both illustrate a type of cynical refutation perhaps? Do you find your use of the title and the very few images of Fordlândia as cynical? If not, what lens do you view it through. Somehow, I feel pessimism in your words, but not in your images. Can you suggest a position within? Where noes narrative differs from authorship in your case?

 

 

JMS: I find your approach to cynicism interesting. For the cynical there is only the idea of a return to nature, the return to our original impulse, where the merchandise fetish, even if it takes on the form of an artwork, understood as a trade produce, is a God worthless to be worshipped. The cynical point you mention is correct as long as it is understood that cynicism becomes a critical proof of our thoughts. If it doesn’t, try to adopt, at least, a critical and reflective expressiveness of thought, for there would be no reason for a photograph reader to waste his time dwelling at the fallacious appearance of images, under the pretext that nothing human is unaware to him.

 

“I find your approach to cynicism interesting. For the cynical there is only the idea of a return to nature, the return to our original impulse, where the merchandise fetish, even if it takes on the form of an artwork, understood as a trade produce, is a God worthless to be worshipped”

 

 

Is it possible to be a cynical as you shoot a photo? Yes. Cynicism is a great resource because it prevents us from dwelling on ideologies that contribute to establishing a moralizing and vulgar discourse like the one Ford had. I’ve read almost everything there is about Fordlândia. I believe that Ford’s real intentions were not only commercial and economical, since he ignored his own advisers and executed his project, even though he knew it would be a failure. Thus, for what reason he endeavored in a social experiment in the heart of the jungle, in a place so distant and disconnected of the world? Did he have in mind a society subjected to the rules of Presbyterian Puritanism? Doubtless to say, this made no sense to the natives and the experiment only lasted for a few years. So according to this, I believe the title of the book is correct. Fordlândia is a metaphor of the condemnation of civilization, or, more so, of certain forms of civilization responsible for human evils. In order to describe this, perhaps, I would have to contextualize each one of the photos of the book, which would take me a long time. As an example, the last photo of the book was taken at Fordlândia’s cemetery, still operative nowadays, and it symbolizes, in a certain way, all that’s been said. We can see a gravedigger with a cross over his shoulder. He’s collecting old crosses and piling them under the shade of a tree. Two pages before Saint Matthew’s 15:13 verse, warns us of the end: “Every plant that My Heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up”. As a photographer I stand in this no man’s land called Fordlândia, amid it’s past and present. Fordlândia is a manifestation of a time loop: myth and present do not annul each other, as a matter of fact, they feedback each other. Fordlândia is not only a romantic refuge, it is also an ideal that introduces an idealistic element to my critical and cynical position regarding the present.

 

BF: I think one could wager a plausible differential between cynicism and pessimism and that in between, I personally oscillate in reverie, but not solely on the conviction that I cannot invest in some understanding of spiritual matters, the earthly bound heart does inhabit great strides when running from its organization and therein lies the condition for which I personally view these matters. What you mention about the myth of a place in a timeless loop, or at least perhaps the loop of the twentieth century and its confusing reinvention of time culled from suffering it is somewhat didactic, but permissive.

 

If we were to wage war on the opposing conditions of Judeo Christian modernism, to speak of a utopia found through economy and secular formation, we could consider our atavism purposeful, but always drawn from the same water that inhabited part of Ford’s intent from the little I read. Teetotalling, a land without women, With the only transgression against god be slovenly or poor discipline. In this the tendency to thwart capitalism in our view, only heads towards a skinned need when it considers work, gods work or utopianism at all.

 

 

I love the respect you have given Fordlandia as something eternal, or perhaps stateless and timeless. In this, we are either eternal or damned, purgatory or bust. By incorporating an idea of its representation in the spiritual or economic matters of photography lies that ugly turn towards materialism, no? Criticism be damned. Definitive judgment is reserved for the lunacy of the asylum….

 

JSM: When I said that photography can be cynical, obviously, I wasn’t referring to a cynical attitude, understood as a scoff or negativism, I meant as a critical posture photography should take when facing events. We are all made of stories. And to shoot a photo is nothing more than trying to tell a story, while you experience a torrent of memory and emotion. Or reverie. I know about the interest demonstrated by Werner Herzog to tell the story of Fordlândia, which doesn’t surprise me, since his films and documentaries are mostly epic stories where major universal themes take place, through images of sublime beauty. I ignore Herzog’s approach to the story of Fordlândia, but I imagine it to be ironic, like most of his non-fiction work. Ford built a house to himself in Fordlândia, at the so-called “Villa Americana”, and it is by far the prettiest house still standing along with a rickety hotel. However, Ford never went to Fordlândia. He had a phobia of tropical diseases. I am certain that small details like this, will make Herzog tell Fordlândia’s story through the prism of irony or cynicism, which are based primarily on the contrast of different points of view, to doubt or to question, what is and what is not real (isn’t this what photography is all about?). To Herzog, Ford is clearly another Fitzcarraldo, who chased a dream and failed. One of Ford’s famous saying is “failure is simply the opportunity to start again, this time more intelligently.” If you think about it coldly, this saying is terrible.

 

On one hand it closes a period of history, that of utopia, of reverie and, on the other hand, it opens up to the XXth century capitalism to the present day. To designate with this name (capitalism, necrocapitalism and now catastrophe capitalism) the forms of representation, exchange and identification mediated by the universe of goods. Yes, Fordlândia stands stranded in time, in this time loop, but human beings are not capable of living in a world without reference points. We cannot avoid neither the allegorical metaphors nor the images. The presence of a place like Fordlândia is so intense that you might believe you’re inside the ambit of a myth. Moreover, materialism, human consumption have never been at risk of extinction, it is and will always be a form of identity. So this turn you say I take might have an ironic point. In the book it is manifested, for example, in the photos lacking of narrative, they merely show the texturality, the materiality, the lack of sense of our world and of time passing by.

 

 

Fordlândia 9

JM Ramirez-Suassi

Self-Published

(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm and JM Ramirez-Suassi. Images @ Jm Ramirez-Suassi.)

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