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Experience Photography: Interview with Ivan Vartanian about Goliga

Ivan Vartanian is the founder/owner of GOLIGA, a publisher of photography books and producer of beautiful limited-editions. Under the GOLIGA label, he also organizes exciting events, such as a pop-up restaurant “Say Cheese: The World of Martin Parr in 5 Courses,” “Daido Moriyama’s Printing Show” in which participants edited and sequences their own copy of a Moriyama photobook. Goliga events foster collaborations between photographers and participants to create a book, a photograph, or some type of experience particular to that moment. We asked why he started this and what drives him to do it.

Center: Ivan Vartanian

Center: Ivan Vartanian

Know Photography by Experiencing It

-You have done many inspiring events. Why did you decide to organize these events?

In 2010, I attended Marina Abramovic’s exhibition “The Artist Is Present” at New York MoMA. It was fantastic. She solved the problem of how to make an exhibition about Performance Art by recreating her performances within the gallery space. There were many performances happening simultaneously, so she had a troupe of performers to execute the production. It was quite impressive and made me think that it was possible to restage performances from the past. It was the perfect way to communicate the immediacy and energy of performance and to engage the audience.


Marina Abramović: Live at MoMA via Momavidoes on Youtube. Images courtesy of Marina Abramović and Sean Kelly.

Discussing photography is one way to learn about the medium. But, for me at least, I have always craved some other form of engagement with the work and with the photographers. In my role as an editor and publisher, I get to collaborate with artists to make things. It’s an extremely rewarding and creative process and I want to allow others to be able to experience that too, if only for a brief time.

The presence of the artist during the performance is key. During the time of an event or performance, the participant and artist are on equal footing and share a bit of time together. This transforms the venue space into an extension of the artist’s world. So, in a sense, the performances are a means for others to step into an artist’s world.

All the photographers I work with are very interesting and very intense people. I found that they are very interesting and very intense people. So if I could create a vehicle to bring the intensity of the photographer to the participants, creating a moment of one-to-one connection, it would transform how the participant views photography by changing it from something abstract or cerebral into something that is personal and immediate.

Putting Photography into a Performance context also disrupts the museum and gallery model of presenting work. Institutions are defined by their directive to archive, document, collect, and preserve; these are very important functions certainly. However, our post-digital world calls for something that goes between the hierarchy and dynamic that has become a conventional model for how people engage with art and photography. Also, the post-digital world has really pushed photography to rethink the difference between a photograph and an image. In working with materials and the physicality of prints and people, there is a whole other emotional register that is called upon, which makes the whole enterprise of putting photography in a performance context a fresh experience for everyone.

-How did you connect that passion with photography?

When I was working on my book with Ryuichi Kaneko, Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s & 70s (Aperture, 2009), I first learned about a bizarre exhibition that Daido Moriyama held in Tokyo in 1974. “Printing Show” presented photographs that he shot in 1971 while traveling in New York City with Tadanori Yokoo.

Instead of mounting exhibition prints on the walls of the gallery, Moriyama had a photocopy machine in the event space to duplicate his own photographs. The output from the photocopy machine was made into a staple-bound book. All of this happened within the gallery space. This was a time when Xerox art was buzzing in the art world and pop art was still in its heyday.

In 2011, I published my first limited-edition photobook, which was a project with Moriyama called ACCIDENT. I wanted to do some sort of promotional event to bring attention to the limited-edition and I invited Moriyama to restage “Printing Show” in New York. As things progressed, the restaging of “Printing Show” took on a life of its own and became a project independent from ACCIDENT (even though they are related in terms of chronology of Moriyama’s photography and are sister projects.)

Based on the success of the restaging at Aperture, the Tate Modern hosted another restaging in 2012, to coincide with the William Klein + Daido Moriyama exhibition that opened there. Through working so much with Moriyama, he has had a strong personal and professional influence on me. In tandem with working with him, I suppose I came to understand that Photography is something that happens in both the mind and the body. It is an experience.

"Daido Moriyama's Printing Show" restaged by Goliga in 2012, Tate Modern, London.

“Daido Moriyama’s Printing Show” restaged by Goliga in 2012, Tate Modern, London.

-How do the photographers react to the events?

Because it brings people into the artist’s world, the photographers feel very engaged. This is especially true with young photographers who want new ways of showing their work and connecting with an audience.

-What is it like working with various institutions to produce these events?

The events that I produce can seem quite chaotic to institutions, who are quite procedural and fixed in their methods of handling art and audiences. Moreover, whenever I start a project, because I rarely repeat things I’ve done, it’s not always clear how things will work and how much money is required. So when an institution is involved, Institutions can get quite nervous. But that nervous energy also fuels us to explore new ways of doing things. It’s a nerve-wracking process, especially when you remember it will be a live event and there is little to no room for problems on the day.

Photography is Limitless

-How did you come up with exciting ideas?

I’m so pleased to hear you think my projects are exciting! How the ideas develop really depends on the nature of the project and the photographer and the nature of my collaboration with the artist. It usually begins with my wanting to work with a certain photographer and then I initiate a discussion. Sometimes that process can take a matter of days. Other times, it can take over a year. But the ideas themselves come together rather quickly and as we work through the logistics and detailed planning, the materials and the audience’s engagement takes it from an idea to an actual experience.

I have more ideas than I know how to do it. So choosing which idea to pursue is probably the first step. And allowing the idea to take root and find a form happens on a physical as much as a mental level. So by the time that I am ready to work with a photographer, I have a catalog of ideas and connections already active in my head. The exciting thing for me is how the collaboration will result in something that I never thought I would ever do, such as producing a pop-up restaurant (I don’t know the first thing about cooking), working with acid solutions, or designing a kaleidoscope. The open and seemingly endless property of this work is energizing, to say the least.

Photography is limitless. You can do anything with the medium. So why not do it?

Instant Parr organized by Goliga. Visitors pick up the photos and make a book. Martin Parr will sign it in the end.

-You are always catching the core essential part of the artist.

For Martin Parr’s restaurant event, he is well-known for taking many photos of food. The director of Amana showed me their new photography studio for shooting food and immediately I thought of Martin. A few months later, when I saw Martin in London, I suggested, “Let’s do a food night in Tokyo.” His response to that was, “You know, my daughter is a chef, right?” That is how that project kicked-off.

There is a little strategy too. Martin Parr is a great photographer, great person and very influential in the photography world. It was important for Martin to come to Japan and see young photographers and take back that information and excitement and share it with the Western photography community. So, in a way, the folks that I bring to Japan become ambassadors for Japanese photography.

Dessert served at "Say Cheese! The World of Martin Parr in 5 Courses" A pop-up restaurant produced by Goliga.

Dessert served at “Say Cheese! The World of Martin Parr in 5 Courses” A pop-up restaurant produced by Goliga.

-Is there a fear to do new things?

Oh sure, but that’s part of it. If I knew the outcome every time, it would be quite boring. It’s only because I don’t know what is going to happen that there is a zing of excitement and an adrenaline rush for the photographers too. That said, I can drive my staff crazy.

With any project I’ve ever done–whether it is a book publication, limited-edition, event, or exhibition–there is always a moment of acute anxiety that shows up on the face of the person I am working with. “Is it going to be okay?” To which I respond, “I think so! Hopefully.”

-How did you overcome it?

311 (Tohoku earthquake, 2011) was a life-altering experience for me. Ever since, I’ve had a “carpe diem” (= seize the day) approach. One of my biggest fears is that I won’t get a chance to execute all the projects that I want to do before my time on this planet comes to an end.

After 311, I knew that the fears that I used to have was just a waste of time. It is really important to contribute to the society and help people. I believe in Akaaka-sha (Japanese photo book publisher) and young photographers. I ask myself “What can I do for them?”

Because GOLIGA projects are quite particular and new everyone just wants to make it work. With the right vision, the right attitude, right energy, we can lift a mountain. Or that’s how I feel most of the time.

Artist, Nerhol cutting printed paper one by one for the book "Compilation Tokyo".

Artist, Nerhol cutting printed paper one by one for the book “Compilation Tokyo”.

Japanese Photobooks function as media, not as archives

-How did you first get interested in Japanese photography?

I used to work at Aperture Foundation. One day, a copy of “Hysteric Daido,” which was a book published by Hysteric Glamor, came to Aperture’s offices. It was a large book printed on thin, glossy paper. It was even difficult and awkward to handle with its softcover binding. But I thought, “Wow! What is this? What on earth were these people thinking?” It was so different from anything that I have seen and, certainly, it was totally antithetical to everything Aperture was about.

The conventions of photobook making at the time was centered around the idea of faithfully reproducing the “original” print. The photographer would generate exhibition-quality prints and the publisher’s job was to manufacture a facsimile of those images in the form of a book/catalogue. What I learned in studying Japanese Photobooks, particularly of the 1960s & 70s, was that there often were no “original” prints. The reproductions in the photobooks were the final form of the artwork. It took the photobook from being a secondary (to the artwork) object, to being a primary object in itself. That was mind-blowing and has influenced everything I have done since then.

Silkscreen prints of "Compilation Tokyo" lined on the shelf.

Silkscreen prints of “Compilation Tokyo” lined on the shelf.

-How did your time at Aperture affect you now?

I learned the so-called “rules” at Aperture. When you want to break the rules, you have to learn the rules first.

One editor, Melissa Harris was doing books that were pushing the bounds of what could be done at a dedicated photobook publishing house. Under her, I was part of the small team that produced the first retrospective book on choreographer Merce Cunningham. That was truly amazing.That project in particular had a huge influence on me. That’s how I learned about John Cage, Fluxus, Chance Operations, the whole works. Dance photography is amazing. Melissa taught me by example what it means to be an editor. She was responsible for the Sally Mann’s book too. Through the process, I learned how the artist and editor get to make things happen.

Aperture bought in the publication rights for a photobook by Michiko Kon. The originating publisher was Korinsha in Japan. The publisher at Korinsha liked me for some reason and offered me a job in Tokyo. And that’s how I wound up moving to Tokyo in 1997.

-Were you interested in Japan?

No, not really. I was just interested in Japanese photography. When I first arrived in Tokyo, I was totally useless to Korinsha. I couldn’t speak the language. I was really immature as a professional. I was hired without much direction.

On top of which, their decisions in how they selected books was quite idiosyncratic. Everything seemed to hinge on personal taste. They were publishing Nobuyoshi Araki, Takashi Homma, Kyoji Takahashi at that time. Editors with such autonomy were quite different from the monolithic order of things back in New York. In its own way, the climate at Korinsha was far more emotional and tempestuous, in terms of its editorial direction.

-How is it to be working in Japan as a foreigner?

It’s quite interesting. Challenging in some ways and rewarding in others. As a foreigner, I don’t fall into any particular camp of the photography community here. In some ways I am an isolated outsider. But it also means that I am able to work with anyone. I also think Japanese photographers are comfortable to do different things. And I get the sense that people expect the unexpected from me. Recently, I’ve been approached to do several projects and common to all of them is their search for something experimental and unconventional. Perhaps that’s how I’ve come to be known, for better or for worse.

Silkscreen prints drying on shelves. They are for the book "Compilation Tokyo"

Silkscreen prints drying on shelves. They are for the book “Compilation Tokyo”

-What do you think about the young Japanese photographers?

The current generation of photographers is made up of a lot of lone wolves, independent souls that want to stay independent. That’s a good sign. It means that they are better photographers who avoid trends or movements. The second photographers start to form groups, things can get a bit stale quickly.

I think there are many opportunities here. There are many interesting photographers and a keen audience ready to receive something new and exciting, even more so than in Europe and the State. Japanese people are quick to be excited about something new in photography. That is great.

Make sure everyone is happy.

-What is your focus when executing a project?

When I do an event, the main question is “How do we make 200 people happy?” Even for the people who are helping me, I have to make sure they feel engaged in the project.

-Are you going to expand these events? What are your future plans?

Probably, it’s the same. I do events every 6 months so the next one will be in September, Tokyo and the next one will be abroad. I take two to three months to plan and then another two months to work hard and push things through to completion. The rest of the time, I am working on limited editions, publications, and other projects too.

I hope what I do inspires people, make them feel like they can do new things in photography. At the same time, hopefully, I can help expand the audience for photography.

-Yes, you are really inspiring! Looking forward to joining your new event.

Interviewed on April 25th, 2013. text by Rasa Tsuda.


Marina Abramović: Live at MoMA via Momavidoes on Youtube. Images courtesy of Marina Abramović and Sean Kelly.