Oral history interviews: as shocking as a Peter Kennard photomontage

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The exhibition ‘Unofficial War Artist’ recently opened at the Imperial War Museum London and has sparked some thoughts on the parallel between photomontage in modern-day art, and memories in oral history.

Peter Kennard, prolific contemporary artist, uses a variety of techniques to render global issues shocking to an anaesthetised modern audience. My interview respondents use descriptions of contemporary news to render memories of the Cold War intelligible to an inexperienced interviewer (me).

Kennard’s art renews our perspectives on pressing problems and ethical questions, from global wealth inequities to nuclear proliferation. Many of us are numbed to such concerns because of daily harassment via superfluous media outlets. Yet we remain uninformed where soundbites, bias and news fatigue conspire against meaningful interpretation. How does Kennard cut through this saturation? How does he force us into viewing those topics from our own or another perspective?

Amongst various artistic methods, including installation, he uses photomontage: collaging with photographs. As the Tate says: shocking, haunting and unsettling, the photomontages of Peter Kennard live long in the memory. By juxtaposing images, of war or weapons or poverty, with everyday objects or culturally accepted images, he generates an immediate discord; described by John Berger as an unmistakable visual texture. Nothing stands out more, for example, than a horse and cart carrying nuclear missiles: collaged onto an iconic countryside landscape oil painting by Constable.[1] Haywain with Cruise Missiles (1981). Original Photomontage, Tate collection Photograph: Peter Kennard

So where the parallel with memories in oral history? In my interviews respondents describe experiences of the 1950s – experiences I may have no parallel for. Desiring to inform, engage and often better educate me, I am finding respondents rely on juxtaposing contemporary issues and images alongside memories. The result of these juxtapositions can be as shocking as a Peter Kennard photomontage: arresting both me and the interviewee back from the 1950s to our mutual present.

Frequently this shock is intended to tell me that ‘nothing has changed’; for example the opinion that Trident is as much a waste of money now as the nuclear development programme was then. Respondents create an oral texture in the interview revolving around their interpretation of history as a repetitive experience. This is particularly clear where politics is concerned – many express disappointment or disillusionment with contemporary social inequalities to better capture the idealism of the 1950s.[2] Just as Peter Kennard lit upon photomontage as ‘a critical, social probe’, respondents collage together their spoken memories to the same effect – critiquing both the past and present.

The unexpected image of the CND symbol breaking in half a nuclear missile reminds us that weapons are not necessary or infallible – people have the power to break down authoritarian systems.[3] A respondent voices list after list of humanitarian crises, from Nepalese earthquake victims to sunken immigrant ships to the Cuban Missiles Crisis. One image evokes change and possibility, the other evokes the never-ending turn of world events. Both demonstrate that the ‘shock’[4] of the past is forever with us – and that to see or hear it we must be constantly critical of the present.

[1] Haywain with Cruise Missiles (1981). Original Photomontage, Tate collection Photograph: Peter Kennard

[2] Idealism in their words.

[3] Broken Missile (1980). Photographs on paper and ink on card, Tate collection Photograph: Peter Kennard

[4] I can’t go into Walter Benjamin’s philosophy of history here, but it clearly underpins these thoughts. See: Walter Benjamin, Illuminations edited by Hannah Arendt

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