HOPE & FEAR — an exhibition by Danish Artist Charlotte Haslund-Christensen
At Houston’s FotoFest, Charlotte Haslund-Christensen investigates humanity’s hopes and fears and launches her appeal ‘to global solidarity, community and respect.’
Danish video artist and photographer Charlotte Haslund-Christensen’s work has taken her around the world to six continents and countless countries. She has exhibited extensively both in Denmark and abroad, including New York, Paris, Pingyao, Warsaw, Helsinki and Casablanca, bringing her astute interrogation of the history and role of lens-based media to a diverse array of audiences and viewers.
It is no wonder, then, that Haslund-Christensen took to the road once again for her latest major work HOPE & FEAR — a large-scale video project four years in the making that points the camera lens at everyone from teachers and street hawkers to police officers and artists in seven global capitals. Haslund-Christensen’s discovery that, despite our differences, we are all very much the same, can be intuited but it is the tenderness and awareness of others that audiences discover in themselves through the work that is HOPE & FEAR’s true gift.
With HOPE & FEAR’s run at Houston’s FotoFest continuing until November 9th as part of the Danish Arts in Houston initiative, Denmark In New York caught up with the Artist to hear her original take on the universal message behind her work.
Denmark In New York: In a time of growing anxieties around the world, HOPE & FEAR seems to tap into that very tangible sense of disquiet shared by people here in the US, in Europe and beyond. At the same time, it speaks to a very human need for hope — for thinking that, in the end, everything will turn out all right. How did you conceive of this project and what did you take away from it?
Charlotte Haslund-Christensen: Yes, we live in a global climate of increasing fear and polarization, something I see as largely generated by mainstream media and further fueled by social media. There are obviously vested interests in fear, and going against them has always been one of my main motivations as an artist — also in HOPE & FEAR.
I’ve been lucky enough for fear not to be part of how I’ve met the world. Maybe because in face-to-face meetings with people — despite any prejudices or preconceptions we might bring to that meeting — something else is at stake. I often think about how we make broad generalizations about others — based on nationality, ethnicity, religion or gender — then almost always have an exception to the rule based on someone we’ve actually met or know. Real contact, as opposed to people spouting hate behind a keyboard. That’s the kind of contact I want to have, show, and hopefully create between the people on screen in HOPE & FEAR — and between them and the viewer.
As an artist and photographer I’ve travelled widely — also far beyond my comfort zone. I think when I initially embarked on HOPE & FEAR I imagined that culture — or region — would play a bigger role in people’s answers to the questions ’What is you biggest hope?’ and ’What is your biggest fear?’ But the responses people gave were — for me — surprisingly universal. Of course, there are regional differences, like not being able to afford healthcare in the US or China, or the very present consequences of climate change somewhere like Mongolia. But what I discovered during the four years it took to make HOPE & FEAR is that maybe the biggest universal factor is the stage we are at in our lives.
Children everywhere have a wonderful sense of open possibilities — and big dreams! As you can see in HOPE & FEAR, they all believe they can be inventors and world champions. Just as you can see that no matter where they are in the world, teenagers often become a bit more self-obsessed. But as people tell in the work, when they have kids their focus shifts — they have great hopes and equally big fears about the life their children face. Then as people age, they develop another perspective. They have more experience, a broader view, and want to give something back. I met a lot of really inspiring old people while making HOPE & FEAR.
What also struck me was that given one shot to say what they feared not a single person I talked to mentioned terrorism. So I guess in answer to your question, with HOPE & FEAR I hope to provide space for reflection by offering the people in the work and the viewers the space to speak and listen to each other.
And in response to the second part of your question, you’re right — we have a very human need for hope. But right now I’m far from sure everything will turn out all right. Unless we take a stand, choose the direction we want to take, and actively oppose forces in the world that are invested in divisions and the fear that creates them.
I hope HOPE & FEAR can be my small contribution to that movement, because by making a video installation where people from different parts of the world express themselves simultaneously on three screens, I hope to create a sense of community and a conversation we can all be part of. Where people’s words — and silences — show them listening and responding to each other. I invite the viewer of the work to be the fourth person in a conversation where they never know who they’ll meet.
2. HOPE & FEAR is a video project featuring people from 7 countries on 6 continents and projected onto three screens. What criteria did you use to select the countries and cities you eventually filmed in?
Charlotte Haslund-Christensen: The 250 people in the work don’t represent ‘the whole world’ — as if anything could! But I’ve tried to represent as much regional diversity and as many languages as I could within my means. As a visual artist, I only have my work to take me places — one of the reasons HOPE & FEAR took four years to produce. I don’t have a Hollywood budget, so I’m reliant on arts funding, artist residencies and international exhibitions of my work to take me where I want to go. And for HOPE & FEAR I wanted to go to the contemporary hubs of major cities. I was lucky that my work as an artist took me to Beijing, Buenos Aires, Cairo, Copenhagen, Dar es Salaam, New York and Ulan Bator, and was able to film HOPE & FEAR once I was there.
I think the work is actually more symbolic than representative. In this age of social media, I’m often asked by curators to come and make HOPE & FEAR locally. But for me that misses the point of the work, as well as underestimating the viewer. Because wherever in the world HOPE & FEAR has been projected or exhibited — in public space or a gallery context — I’ve seen people identifying with and being moved by what the people they meet in the work say or express without words. Regardless of whether their own city or country is represented. Which I love.
3. You are a photography and video artist and are accomplished in both media. Tell us why HOPE & FEAR’s medium (in this case, video) is so important to the project’s execution and the way it communicates to viewers?
Charlotte Haslund-Christensen: I choose the medium of my art projects carefully, depending on the focus of the work. As an artist I’m often motivated by challenging the media’s use — now as in the past — of cultural stereotypes and whatever they define as ‘the Other’ — define as the majority and minority. Many of my previous works address the political role of photography, also historically. NATIVES: THE DANES, for example, challenges the colonial gaze by turning the Western anthropological lens on Europe. And in WHO’S NEXT?, mugshots of members of the LGBTQ community were shot on location at Copenhagen Police Station — the last non-digital mugshots to be made in the city.
I’m still passionate about still photography — here August Sander and Fiona Tan’s work based on his portraits are obvious sources of inspiration for HOPE & FEAR — but there were many other reasons why video seemed right for the project. Video was, first and foremost, an obvious choice in the contemporary media landscape, but I also wanted to make a work that could be projected in public space as well as in galleries, so it could reach a broader audience.
But most of all I wanted to give people a voice — a chance to speak out in their own language and say what they think is important. I wanted to listen. I want people to listen. But also to look. Which is where people looking wordlessly at the viewer comes in. It can be a pretty intense experience to meet someone eye to eye without speaking, not only for me as the artist, but hopefully also for the viewer. Plus, I’ve really fallen in love with sound. People’s voices, but also the unconscious level — in our image savvy age — at which sound still works, still makes it possible for us to listen to where people are — and offer a more affective point of entry to other people’s lives and worlds.
I think I also found the idea of creating a conversation important because less than a decade ago many of us might have struck up a conversation with strangers. Nothing major — just passing the time as we waited for the subway, for a coffee, or for the rain to pass. But now — and this is true of everywhere I was when making HOPE & FEAR — smart phones have taken over. People seem glued to their screens, having conversations with people who aren’t there instead of talking to the people right there in front of them.
4. You speak about the universality of the questions behind HOPE & FEAR. What do you hope audiences will learn from the project?
Charlotte Haslund-Christensen: To not be afraid, something that might be easier if we asked ourselves where our stereotypes and prejudices come from. I also hope HOPE & FEAR makes people curious — and reminds them that we can — all of us — start right here, right now, simply by saying hello.
Hardly anyone I approached on the streets of the six continents where I filmed HOPE & FEAR said no. Some people were genuinely in too much of a rush or just too shy, but most of them — all of them were in big cities — were genuinely happy to be asked. Their generosity and openness in telling a total stranger on the streets their biggest hopes and fears was for me incredibly moving — and gives me hope.
I once heard a saying along the lines of make friends with people who aren’t your own age, hang out with people whose first language isn’t the same as yours, and get to know someone who doesn’t come from your social class. For me that’s a good rule of thumb, because as I started out saying, we live in a media-driven age of increasing polarization, something we have to make a conscious effort to go against.
HOPE & FEAR includes people of all ages, from all walks of life. For me it’s an appeal to global solidarity, community and respect.
5. Before we conclude, perhaps its relevant for us to turn the camera lens back on you and ask: What is your biggest fear and biggest hope?
Charlotte Haslund-Christensen: That’s actually something people often ask me when I do lectures or artist talks. And like everyone who generously shared their time and thoughts with me in HOPE & FEAR, my answer can be different depending on what kind of day I’ve had, what’s going on in my life, and what’s going on in the world we live in. But right now my biggest fear is war — something I’ve experienced first-hand as a photographer and artist — and the consequences of which I know all too well last for generations.
In terms of hope, I want to stay alive long enough to do everything I think needs doing in life. And in the words of the woman whose statement ends HOPE & FEAR, I hope we can find the hope and trust we need to help us meet the challenges facing us, together.