Mari Bastashevski, State Business, Apropos, 2010-15
“There ain't no answer. There ain't gonna be any answer. There never has been an answer. That's the answer.”
So proclaimed Gertrude Stein, the often-equivocal American writer and art collector. The Russian artist Mari Bastashevski’s project State Business alludes to this Steinian quest for answers. Documents, photographs, maps, and correspondence are pieced together here to form an abstracted account of individuals trafficking and selling weapons; small groups of people with registered companies in far-away lands; arms stockpiles; dodgy airports funded by Western democratic governments: an array of improper activity. This is an international affair, which implicates people from both the West and the East within a network of political deviance. In two images we see players in this business eating at a grandly decorated dinner table: one can only imagine the type of conversation being had.
There may be, at times, little to be construed from this evidence, but its implication is that in the very act of attempting to coherently document this activity, one approaches a void of information. The correspondence from Hong Kong Commercial Limited—with its offices mysteriously located in Vietnam—provides a price quote for a large number of assault rifles, missiles, and rockets to the office of an Azerbaijani Government General. As Bastashevski notes: 'The documents portray exchanges between a company Mick Ranger had set up to trade with Azerbaijan and the Azerbaijan defence entities.' Ranger is currently serving a three-and-a-half-year prison sentence for arms dealing.
Bastashevski collaborates with a number of professional researchers—whom the artist won’t divulge by name—in order to source and verify as many of these documents as she can. Organizations such as SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) and Small Arms Survey are sometimes able to corroborate or exchange information. She also gathers material from Ukrainian customs databases and ex-government officials who have little to lose, it would seem. 'It’s a painstaking process', she says, one that involves countless hours spent scouring the Internet, interviewing investigative journalists in the locations she visits, and keeping a somewhat assiduous eye on Twitter feeds like the one written by @YourAnonNews.
A curious logic forms when sifting through this mass of documents. One can dig out meaning from a place where it is available, but never quite explained. This is the logic of the Internet in some sense, but also the way in which Bastashevski seems to work; mimicking the complex relationship of information and its ever-present apparition, disinformation. In doing this, what Bastashevski articulates is both the inherent problems of exposing the legitimacy of something in the age of mass information, but also that the very project of documentary photography—even before the Internet and networked culture—often leaves this fact unacknowledged. Historically, documentary photography offers a number of alternatives to the notion of photography as truthful (for example Hippolyte Bayard’s faking of his own watery death in 1840, or Joan Fontcuberta’s more recent suggestio falsi), but there nonetheless remains a popular idea that the medium is laying bear some profound revelation in the house of fact. In riposte, Bastashevski chooses to present this material as akin to, rather than actual, evidence. As the artist declares: 'Each image represents a government institution, a broker, or a business and is made with the permission of that entity. And when permission is denied, usually due to security reasons, I ask at what distance it can be permitted: at the reception? The entrance? From 10 meters away? In a sense, each photograph is directed by that entity, and is a constructed self-portrait. This isn’t something I would be able to convey through any other medium.'
This is essentially documentary rhetoric, where one answers a question with another question, an answer with a statement, and so on. This method of working seems not only to reflect the trail of documents Bastashevski discovers, but also the way in which documentary photography seems to revel in the seriousness of its own intentions. In this way there is a layer of irony present in the work, which seeks to both reprove the portentousness of the documentary photography canon, while also allowing it to hold an expected tone of formality at its surface, for effect. As Bastashevski declares: 'The precision is still there. As long as you can assert exactly what answer you are not getting you got your answer—to gauge the extent of the information void.'
This essay was published by Aperture, New York, in 2014.
Mari Bastashevski, State Business, Excerpt Chapter II, 2012-13