WALEAD BESHTY @COPENHAGEN PHOTO FESTIVAL
Looking forward to finally meet the artist behind those shatterproof glass cubes shipped around the world in FedEx-boxes – beautifully banged-up works of conceptual art – I sat around waiting in the lobby at hotel D’angleterre. As it turned out Walead Beshty's iPhone was still in another time zone, but after a triple-espresso he did cover a lot of ground. From the abandoned Iraqi Diplomatic Mission in former East Berlin to the photograms Moholy-Nagy actually never did, and from Sol leWitt’s democratic instrumentalization of art to the phenomenology of dead shopping Malls. And back again. Sit tight, have another cup of coffee. Walead Beshty is a guy who knows his way around those hazardous ready-made means of production.
The first time I saw your work was actually in the Julie Stoschek collection of video-based art, and I guess “time” must be the common denominator. How do you see the connection between sculpture and photography in your praxis?
I try to consider each body of work on its own terms, discretely, so terms like “sculpture” or “photography”, in their broad sense, don’t really enter into my thinking. It’s extremely difficult to say what one actually means by “sculpture”, other than, in a provisional sense, it’s something that goes on the floor or a pedestal, and loosely applies to a certain history of the use of that term. And even in the case of photography it’s pretty hard to identify exactly what it refers to. So, to me those medium based distinctions don’t mean too much on their own, they are a bit too abstract.
Well, those two media still have fundamentally different histories. Photography probably has had a lot to do with time, whereas sculpture has been dealing mainly with space.
But, the opposite is also true. For example there’s a durational experience of sculpture as a thing you move around, and in the case of a photograph there’s certainly a phenomenological element. In particular, this is why I avoid those categories, because when we use them, we often ignore or obscure certain qualities of the objects they’re meant to describe. Regardless, these are abstract ideas. I’m not sure that it’s quite so easy to isolate concepts like “time” and “space”, and speak about them on their own. I’m more interested in the context those ideas are applied to, like, the conditions under which we experience our sense of duration, shift, or, how we understand certain “spaces” to be distinct from others. I try to think in specifics, and then maybe consider the broader, more abstract contexts in a speculative way. But the speculative aspects are always outside of the work…and these broad concepts are always too vague to discuss coherently.
How do you mean?
Like this general question about how time functions in art; I think that question is outside of the work, it’s a philosophical question regarding general principles. It’s not really about a specific object. In terms of media distinctions, like photography, it’s equally problematic. For example, I use c-prints, which is a negative printing process. This has a particular type of history in terms of how the mechanics, and in a larger sense, the entire apparatus has developed in relationship to use. There are simply certain kinds of use that it’s tailored for, and, each moment of its application redefines, on a micro level, the definition of the medium. Black/white might have developed in an analogous way, but its function, in a contemporary context, is still distinct. In essence a medium is defined dialectically by application and technology, each informing and changing the other. Between these poles, some sense of a medium develops. When we use categorical terms, or when we begin with such broad terms, we’re aggregating the historically evolving relation between technology and application, generalizing about it, smoothing it out. For example, a sunburn is also a photograph if we define it literally as “light writing”, right? Still, there are people who would call that absurd, who would qualify a definition of photography such that it would preclude something like, for instance, a sunburn. I find such questions useless, I don’t think there’s ontological dimension to media, and I think it’s a waste of time to try to assert one. On a semantic level, it’s curious to think of when these terms are applied, and when they’re not, but this is really nothing more than word games, and historical curiosities. Again, these are outside of the work. I try to think of the detailed applications that are instrumental to the way a particular type of technology has developed at a specific point in time. I’m occupied with, for example, the specifics of colour photographic paper, or in case of the black/white-process with gelatine silver paper, or even with JPEGs, which I’ve used in my work as well. I try to see each as containing their own set of qualities and attributes that are contextually determined; otherwise one runs the risk of obscuring the specifics of a particular material, or context with vague generalities.
How does this focus apply to sculpture?
There’s a multitude of ways to understand any object; the history of sculptural production is one. I’m assuming you’re asking about the FedEx works, which initially interested me because they’re defined by a corporate entity in legal terms. There’s a copyright designating the design of each FedEx box, but there’s also the corporate ownership over that very shape. It’s a proprietary volume of space, distinct from the design of the box, which is identified through what’s called a SSCC #, a Serial Shipping Container Code. I considered this volume as my starting point; the perversity of a corporation owning a shape – not just the design of the object – and also the fact that the volume is actually separate from the box. They’re owned independently from one another. Furthermore, I was interested in how art objects acquire meaning through their context and through travel, what Buren called, something like, “the unbearable compromise of the portable work of art”. So, I wanted to make a work that was specifically organized around its traffic, becoming materially manifest through its movement from one place to another.
Due to the postponement of entropy undertaken by the shatterproof glass, I guess time is not straight forwardly linear: some company manufactures perfect minimal sculptures, and quite on purpose they get busted up along the way, to finally arrive in the white cube as a textbook piece of conceptual art.
Are you saying that entropy would lead to the destruction of the object eventually, and that ties it to conceptual art, as a kind of analogy to, in Lucy Lippard’s terms, “the dematerialization of the art object”?
If those boxes were made of plain glass, they would last one shipment only. But with the applied material the curve describing structural order is infinitely going towards zero. The objects are never dematerialized; actually they become more and more physical in a way.
All artworks have this limit built into them, a time when the transport of the work would risk its destruction. In the case of the Fed Ex boxes, it’s just more palpable; it’s on its surface. I do agree with you though, that the boxes become more physically defined because of this process. It emphasizes that physical qualities are dependent on context, which means that every viewing is framed by both time and place. But the object itself isn’t significant on its own, it’s contingent, so I think those works make this contingency palpable physically; you can’t separate the thing in front of you from this notion of contextual dependence. The emphasis on the parameters and conditions around the work, acts to balance the significance of the object itself. In other words, each object is unique, because it will travel in a unique pattern, but the object is also dependent on the parameters around it, and these are standardized across all the works in the series. From a certain perspective, each one is unique, but from another, the differences between them are not broadly significant, and this is also the case with the photograms. It’s an insignificant uniqueness. The significance is only provisional; specific to the narrow set of circumstances a single box has been subjected to. Regarding your question about time and entropy, there’s a sense of time that is implied by accumulation, for example if we think of the boxes as palimpsests, and, the explanation of time in scientific terms is that the direction of the arrow of time is indicated by the increase of entropy. Time is understandable as progressing in the same direction as the increase in disorder. That’s really the only way to evaluate it, because time is always relative, dependent on the observer, dependent on the perception of entropy. Cinematic time, or time in certain types of architectural spaces, like in a library vs. an amusement park, is always based on the perception of its passage; each instance manages the perception of time independently. I believe there’s something a-temporal about the FedEx works; different moments in time are equalized on the surface of the box. There’s an indexical kind of compression of past acts and occurrences, and when experiencing the object, there’s no way to separate those moments: there’s only the “here and now” of viewing plus this compression of every “here and now” before that. I guess the way this problem is evaded is in the awareness that whatever “here and now” we view the object in, we both know it is only one of many, yet it is still unique, and at the same time, no more “true” or complete than any other. In general this indexical confusion occurs quite a lot in my work. In the Transparencies – the x-ray photographs featuring those banded hazy colour fields – there’s a kind of compression of the travel that film went through. All of it goes into a single surface. There’s also this series of copper tables that I’ve been producing, where I replace a desk in the gallery for the duration of the show. Copper oxidizes really easily, and it’s a very soft metal. Hence, all the transactions that occur across that table – the gallery’s desk – become condensed on its surface. I guess the mirrored floor operates in much the same way. You might perceive it cracking while you walk, but all past actors are present on the same level. There’s a certain anonymity to each of these moments of change. In both cases, the scale and dimension of the surface of the work, the visual field, is dependent on a readymade condition. In the case of the floor, the footprint of the building implies how an institution has decided to divide the exhibition space from the office and from the transitional areas. And in the case of the table, it’s the choices they’ve make about what sort of furniture is in-keeping with their aesthetic identity. My gallery in London uses Paul Kjaerholm tables, whereas another gallery I work with had Ikea tables. Through my use of this readymade parameter, the galleries’ aesthetic dispositions change the form of the work in a literal way, without my needing to comment or make a statement about those differences. They are simply made present, without being defined.
You use shatterproof glass as a method of sculptural signification, but is it also something metaphorical?
I would be open to a reading that involved metaphor, but I would never want to offer one myself. That belongs to the agency of the viewers; they can analogize, turn things into metaphor or allegory. And you can never prescribe it, well, you could try to enforce a reading, but that would be fascist actually. Prescribing metaphor seems to be the definition of fascist aesthetics. It disrupts or ignores the site where politics happen with art objects, which for me is always in the room, in the negotiation of subject positions happening within aesthetic parameters. It’s very tempting to start asserting metaphoric relationships, but to even think in those terms runs the risk of destroying the open dialogue with the viewer, or not seeing that such things are dynamic in nature.
Obviously this is correct, and it needs to be said. Nevertheless “glass/broken glass” is one of the most pregnant set of metaphors around. Glass is either simply impenetrable, transparent – you might even catch a glimpse of yourself – or it’s shattered, and the shards of glass so sharp that you might cut yourself can never be unbroken. The technology of shatterproof glass playfully navigates this dualistic, cultural stereotype.
Back in the 1850s Oliver Wendel Holmes called the daguerreotype ”a mirror with a memory”. So, perhaps there’s also an association with photography at stake here, but again, I always try to force such things out of my head. If you think in metaphors, especially when producing concrete objects, you close down possible readings, or more exactly: producers who think in metaphoric terms limit their own understanding of what they’re making, and all the alternate readings and meanings that could develop from the work. It’s a basic mistake that artists, mostly inexperienced or uninformed artists, often make, and a problem that, early on, I worked hard to find a way through.
To me this FedEx scheme of yours focuses on the bias of Minimal art; the industrial fetishism that eventually led to process art. You’ve created a setup that accurately frames the speed of bulk in transport, but it might also be sort of revenge on behalf of a truly “specific object”, somehow proving Judd wrong?
It’s true; every movement this thing undergoes makes it more specific. No box cracks like any other. Before it gets shipped, all you see is the box’s form, but what starts to overwhelm the shape itself is travel, the accumulation of cracks being dependent on whatever pathway it takes through the world. But, again, the parameters the box operates within are generic, applied to each of the works. I’d say it’s a non-significant uniqueness, there’s no essence in the specificity, there’s simply specificity. I’ve made some copper-boxes too. They’re the same size as the FedEx boxes, but they’re shipped raw, no box, and the labels are affixed directly to them. Being relatively soft, they dent, and get pretty banged up, and because of oxidation they accumulate handprints; you know, if one of the people handling the box just ate French fries, their finger prints appear differently. Among other things, this came from looking at Judd’s copper stacks, and hearing about the difficulty they create. People touch them, viewers can’t help themselves, and it’s almost impossible to remove their fingerprints without remaking the work. I thought this was beautiful, a kind of mark that the work encouraged. But, anyway, it’s still about the invisible labour involved. I mean, FedEx seems almost like a teleporter: things disappear, and all of a sudden they pop up somewhere else. I wanted to pass something through this expansive system – which seems so total that no individual can access it – something that would register the forces at work between point a and point b. My photographic work is equally a response to a system that is wrapped up tight, or usually closed; there’s this idea that you generate an image and then simply transcribe it on a piece of paper. It’s supposed to be a direct flow, but really there are a lot of things that happen between a and b. I try to find ways into these black box systems. To get rid of this instrumental understanding, or at least to stop treating it as something transparent, I’ve attempted to put something in between, using that process of translation to define the work’s material form. Reading these systems against their grains, the actual transformation is where the work is made. But, there is yet another aspect: what’s registered in all those cracks is the desire for an object to be seen. A particular exhibition space asks for this work, and the transit is the answer to that request, every new demand altering the work. The boxes are a way to materialize that change of context. In this sense the marks are an analogy for the transformation of the object based on the accumulation of symbolic value. The more an object is shown, the more meaning it generates. Viewership is further dispersed, and kind of like FedEx itself all those thoughts form a social network building upon the object itself.
Your hard-shaped boxes address the moment where straight-up ABC art, and the spatial inauguration of pure phenomenology, gives way for the undetermined specificity of a process often involving soft materials and worldly time. Minimal in outline your works seems to even more accurately register processes that are truly open-ended.
Yes, they accumulate these marks indefinitely, or as long as the object travels and is still seen as art. It has always troubled me that art often appears as though it was dropped from the heavens, as though fully formed. At times, this sort of thing is related to the aesthetic autonomy of an art object. Minimalism often has this aura. Despite creating an indeterminate or relational experience – akin to Michael Fried’s reading of the temporally unfolding experience with a minimalist work – the object always has a completeness to it; it is clear, it is complete, and then the exhibition happens. This makes the object seem like it has no history, that it’s always new, so I wanted to compress this, to make the production and reception of the work intertwined. It’s actually sort of like this interview: we spoke in person, but then we edit, go back and forth changing things, refining, and yet, the readers have no idea about this process. They read the interview as though it’s a continuous thing, as though it happened all at once. That’s the conceit of this text, when really it is a compression of multiple times, and multiple places; from our original conversation in Copenhagen, to our later dialog, via email, me being back in Los Angeles. Anyway, this whole idea of ABC-art and phenomenology, that there are primal forms, seems like myth-making to me. How on earth is a cube an original form? We even know the exact origins of geometry and Cartesian understandings of space, yet somehow this is repressed. I suppose that’s one relationship to minimalism: an interest in opening up the understanding of modular forms, or rereading the origins of such forms. In terms of production I do find some similarities between my work and what you mention, except that I always try to think of production as kind of a readymade. Applying means of production that are already in place, I do not try to directly interfere with how they work, but simply try to use them in such a way that they manifest themselves. To think of any shape or object as socially bounded is a deliberate opposition to the notion of originary forms, because social structures always change. It’s important to me that process is socially grounded, and in fact, I tend to favour things that play with structures affiliated with power, to point at their indeterminacy, whether it be the functioning of state power, like the photographs or x-rays, or corporate power, with FedEx. Most importantly I acknowledge the ubiquity of some tool that is widely available, that most people have some contact with, and then I reapply it. Hopefully this allows it to be on display without any sort of didactic judgement. I tend to see these potentially repressive readymade systems as having liberatory potential, by using errors or gaps in their workings.
Is the anticipation of the now much-discussed cracks and marks anywhere near the conceptual chance encounters of Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings?
I suppose so. Sol LeWitt’s work has always been important to me, although the Wall Drawings were less on my mind when thinking of the boxes, than they were when I was working on the photograms; the issues of seduction, and the politics of the site of reception. But I think his influence is in the boxes as well. In that sense, his Wall Drawings are still a high-water mark for me, because of the way this work is absolutely democratic about its production. It doesn’t reject the idea of beauty – it has all that big painting stuff – but it’s completely open-source about how it’s made. There’s no wilful concealment of why one shape goes with another, but still it has a kind of seductive engagement. And to me this seems the real politics of that work, what’s so politically salient about it, because usually power functions by concealing its means of production, and thereby its very functioning. That’s normally what makes it exotic and sublime; the alienation effect it creates where one views it as a decontextualized utterance. I realised that LeWitt somehow got around this problem with painting, and that so much within photography that was really bothering me had to do with something similar: all those plexiglas objects being reliant on the exoticism of capital, the incompressibility of industrial production. You know, how the hell do they make those things so big? Plexiglas, metal-back frames, this is industrial building material, basically; it makes the work almost architectonic, giving it an air of monolithic permanence. Accordingly the photographs are impersonating the authority of monumental architecture, depicting the same sort of spaces as the international style exhibition spaces they were designed for in the first place. Instead I try to make photographs that have a motivated relationship between scale, form, and the viewer’s body; the size of the paper dictating the actual forms present there. But, most of all I was trying to undo the assumption that pictorialism is somehow natural to photography, because there’s absolutely nothing about it that necessitates vanishing points, or any other such pictorial structure. A friend of mine asked me, “Why is contemporary photography so boring”. I answered, “I don’t know, but what about crumpled paper photograms?” And he said, “Yeah, Moholy did that.” My friend happened to be Moholy-Nagy’s grandson. But Moholy-Nagy never did, and I had been wondering about that. Even though there was so much discussion within the avant-garde about anti-picture making – Duchamp and the anti-retinal, or the push towards materialism of the monochrome with Rochenko’s last paintings – when the constructivists used photography it was often depictive, conventional. There were reasons for this, of course, but none that are interesting to me. Rochenko’s own photographs were super-iconic, very heroic looking, and it’s the same with El Lissitzky. Their photographs were hyper pictorial. And this is all very strange. It seems like a missing link in photography, and it prompted me to actually make the work that my friend thought Moholy-Nagy made. I didn’t know about people like Gotfried Jäger at that time. And I’m glad I only found out about those works later, since to me the photogram isn’t about some absolutist idea, like a zero point or something. That seems like a false ontology to me. What constitutes photography is always very contingent; there’s no such thing as a definition of a pure state. You can talk about it relationally though; about what it is at a certain point in time, how a set of forces defines it in a certain way. There are only provisional cases, so I made the crumpled paper photograms simply to find out what they would look like.
Due to the exhibition title Science Concrete, I take it your method is somehow inspired by Claude Lévi-Strauss’ ad hoc anthropological Science of the Concrete, prescribed to deal with mythic thought. Is our time and place somehow mythical too?
I came to Lévi-Strauss thinking about the question of direct opposition within art. I tried to find a way out of a dead end, i.e. allegory and symmetrical opposition, which it seemed to me a lot of political artists especially in the States fell into through the course of the 70s and 80s, when working with a kind of binary, anti-authoritarian practice. The irony is that much of this work spoke with the voice of authority, justifying this act by claiming it was to a more legitimate end. In effect, many artists simply replicated what I came to see as the fundamental problem in the relation of aesthetics to power. If you want a didactic message to be trafficked, art is not a very efficient way to do it, but it’s a useful place to reinvent existing modes of address, to test and consider possibilities for other modes, which are less problematic. Basically my complaint is the overemphasis on dominance, all this talk of totality, of repressive power as a sort of inescapable force, in terms of the state apparatus or whatever, simply reinforces this mythic power. The power of small, individual producers – those who would apply tactics as opposed to strategy, to use the formulation of De Certeau – is missing from the equation. Going back to The Savage Mind by Lévi-Strauss, was interesting to me because his concrete science is actually another kind of oppositional mode. To use bricolage, and détournement – mythic thought being part of this methodology – is to take bits and pieces of the dominant and re-script them, changing the way the elements are linked together. What’s important is to use the logic of what immediately surrounds you, not to deal in abstraction and with ideological premises, but to deal in the concrete. That was all very inspiring; it gave me an understanding of why I was working in the way I was at the time of that show.
Mixing shredded photographs with concrete to shape blocky abstract forms, seems rather subjective and – determined by the lingo of Minimal art theory – a downright “relational” way of making sculpture. Do you have a soft spot for the “real” thing?
Those objects were made out of the photographic works I had produced in preparation for the exhibition, but didn’t want to show. I don’t believe in the idea of success and failure, but there were works that I knew just didn’t do what I had wanted them to. So, those shredded pieces you are referring to were the first works I made based on this idea. The three sculptures were cast in quasi-architectonic forms, from old print boxes and the like, but in the time since, I’ve continued to rework the series, and that process, because I had a problem with how I dealt with those ideas in that specific work. This line of work, called Selected Works, reflects the fact that even though I always end up not showing a lot of the work I produce, I still need to account for the discarded pieces in some way. I like to think of the entire process as sort of an ecology in itself, which extends way beyond objects. The final products are not alone important. I feel a need to include the by-products, all of which never make it to the final show, and to figure out a way they can reach the exhibition site. What I had ended up doing during the course of the Science Concrete show was shredding this “discarded” work in the back room of the gallery, putting the paper on huge drying tables in the middle of the room. All I do now is shred the works, soak the paper and put it into 4 by 8 foot panels to dry. So, really, after those first objects I refined my approach, made it simpler, but every show of mine has something in it that I’m trying out for the first time. It’s best to experiment in public; it places the thought processes behind the work into full view, allowing access to how the approach changes over time.
With all due respect, I believe this final solution of yours makes far more sense as it sort of returns the photographs to their initial form.
I suppose so. They become like big photographs; grey pictures made of thousands of other pictures. But, the initial form of the work made sense to me at the time, so I suppose my perspective changed. It’s difficult to evaluate these things absolutely from within the practice, and really, it’s not my job to say. I just came to understand that the way I was approaching that work ceased being useful, this prompted me to change my approach.
What were you initially looking for during all those trips to the abandoned Iraqi Diplomatic Mission in former East Berlin, and what did the x-ray exposure of that one batch of film help you finally discover?
Previously I had done a lot of work where I was attracted to contemporary ruins, and at the time this place to me seemed the ultimate form of ruin. But it also suggested a confrontation between the abstract rules of law – this expansive system of international sovereignty – and the minute, the particular, in this case the banal office building sitting in Pankow. Initially I found out about it by reading an article describing how the authorities had to let a fire burn out because they couldn’t figure out whom to ask for permission to put it out. In setting foot on the site without permission of the foreign state the German government would violate the Vienna conventions. So, even though the building was, on an experiential level, part of the same landscape as the structures that surrounded it, it was actually a completely different country on a legal level. This made it a kind of hole in the contemporary fabric, a hole in Germany basically, and a completely indeterminate place. Of course individuals, squatters, teenagers, and the like, went there all the time but the state was barred by its very definition. I kept coming back because I knew that there was something important about it, something I didn’t quite understand. It seemed there was an important lesson that troubled my ideas about aesthetics, but this realization was at a nascent stage at that time. So, the x-rays did quite a few things, actually. Those works opened up a lot of doors for me in terms of how my practice in general would develop, and they turned out to be very important in the question of how to deal with the medium of photography, in particular the ubiquity of the pictorial image. I mean, it seems almost perverse that most photographic artworks are still couched in, well basically late 19th century and early 20th century aesthetics, like the U.S. Geological Surveys, or Neue Sachlichkeit. Furthermore, it was precisely the border between national sovereignties that the x-rays marked, those boundaries creating the strange isolation of the aforementioned building. The x-rays mark the point where one’s role as a citizen subject radically transforms, and your rights change. In other words, it marks the immaterial transformation of the individual’s relationship to the state in the crossing of territories, from a naturalized citizen to an alien. While this is invisible to the naked eye it was something the photographic film saw, and that’s why the works are called Travel Pictures. They render this transition in depictive, and most importantly, in a non-figurative way. This different kind of imprint of movement was what I had been looking for the whole time. You know, I went back five years in row before any actual work came out of it. That was how long it took for me to abandon the way I previously had been making work, which was very much about negation, about denaturalizing meaning. I was caught up in this very traditional avant-garde idea that the only thing you can really do is to take the dominant symbolic order and undermine it, thereby rejecting certain kinds of meaning through pure negativity. Being politically sensitive to the dominant instrumentalization of aesthetics made it seem like that method of working was the only option. The x-ray works pointed out a way to produce meaning in positive terms, which didn’t just re-animate all sorts of problematic constructions simply in order to knock them down provisionally.
Your dead malls swiftly becoming contemporary ruins seem to somehow resemble Robert Smithson’s search for modern monuments in the suburban terrain vague of Passaic, New Jersey. But given your head-on approach to the ones still alive your style seems more slapstick than deadpan. What’s the connection between the living and the dead?
Victor Gruen – the Austrian emigrant responsible for designing the first enclosed mall system – actually wanted to replicate the mixed-use space of the Ringstrasse in Vienna. But, not only did he not succeed in exporting that European idea of urbanism, which he felt was lacking in middle America, he actually destroyed the very thing he was trying to transport, witnessing malls invade his native Vienna. I find the malls interesting because they display the idealization of the city prevalent at the time they were built; they present the image of urban life, as a microcosm. As those ideas of urbanism die, no longer being contemporary ideas, the mall dies too.
The dead mall photographs are sort of objective, whereas you feature the ones still alive in a very colourful way.
Oh, I see. You’re comparing the dead mall photographs, American Passages, to the Phenomenology of Shopping. As for this last project, I was trying to work around the idea of the photographer as flaneur – a person who stands back and watches, separate from the crowd yet part of it – this whole Baudelairean thing. Phenomenology of Shopping is my engagement with the mall structures in the dumbest way possible. That is: “Where does my body fit?” And so it does combine with the idea of détournement and dérive, always engaging directly with its object, but in an absurdist way. What the images show is my body inserted into these sets of display architecture, which are almost like pictures themselves in the sense that they ‘re objects meant exclusively to be looked at. One way to deal with a façade is to put weight on it, literally. I always thought of this work as performative, because when considered solely as photographs, they really aren’t all that interesting. It was the act that structured that work. In contrast, American Passages were made with sensitivity to the history of urban landscape photography. There’s some relation to, say, the Neue Sachlichkeit, the Düsseldorf School, and New Topographics too – the sublimity of seeing an urban landscape devoid of people, which happens so much in Struth, in Gursky, although a little less, and also in Ruff. Everybody talks about how malls destroyed downtowns, but in terms of context the real question is how malls operate on the basis of this kind of idealized urban notion. The malls themselves were abandoned because that projection of an ideal city only had a certain life span, the significant anomaly being the huge tax incitements to keep them open; you can actually make money by owning a dead mall. That’s why these things are still open. And so, to some degree they start being taken back by the community. You’ll see lots of old people walking around, because those places are climate controlled, relatively safe, and usually there’s no public space where you can congregate. It’s totally bizarre, but the dead malls are becoming the only type of vernacular space that’s not about commerce; they have become, in certain communities, the downtown and public park that the malls themselves had supposedly destroyed. They‘re almost post-apocalyptic, but at the same time they’ve become more alive with civic life than they ever were, simply because there’s no other way left to monetize their use. First territorialized and now de-territorialized. People are playing chess, and doing all sorts of things that really are the antithesis of mall culture. Although all of this is purposely absent from the photographs – I was thinking instead of the conventional landscape form – that life is what initially drew me to them.
Could you in more detail describe your abstract concretism of colour photography?
I try to avoid the term “abstraction”; it really doesn’t describe my work. Normally, when people talk about abstract photography, it’s because it looks somewhat like a certain type of non-figurative painting, which in turn looks sort of like early abstraction, that historical movement with specific concerns – Mondrian for instance – which was actually about reducing a pictorial kind of image to structure, literally abstracting it. But after that point “abstract” became shorthand for “non-figurative”, I mean, Pollock isn’t really an abstraction of anything. At least calling his work “abstract” privileges a certain type of reading emphasizing the performance of the dripping, meaning that the marks are abstractions of his gestures. This minimizes other readings, like the materials he used, or the compositional elements of his work. It emphasizes Pollock’s performance, which is missing or outside of the view of the audience, and diverts attention from the actual thing. Really, abstraction implies that a work is about something that the work is abstracted from, and which is now absent. Instead I tend to favour the term “concrete”, or “literalist”, because it’s less misleading in the case of my work. My work is not “about” something outside of it – the performance of making the thing is absolutely banal, stupid – rather my interest is in the thing that’s right in front of you. I never think of it as a sign for something else, and I initially began doing this type of work in an attempt to make a non-abstract photograph, one that refused the over-emphasis on representation. Really, the work is not about some missing occurrence or object withheld from view, like conventional representation.
I guess my clumsy euphemism highlights the problem of describing your distinctive use of this medium. How do you actually make those works?
With the Multisided Pictures I fold the paper into a freestanding form, and based on touch – the processes of colour photography require total darkness – each side is exposed to a colour. If the form has six sides the piece will be called Six-Sided Picture. Initially the colours were all the ones embedded within the development of the technology: cyan, magenta, yellow, red, green, and blue, but with the curled pieces I stopped using RGB, realizing there was actually no need for it. I had thought that RGB incorporated the way we see, i.e. the red, green and blue cones in our eyes, but this seemed unnecessary as my understanding of the work changed. In case of the Curls I use the easel outlines left behind by others in the darkroom. It’s a horizontal enlarger, which means you project against a wall instead of at the ground. Using the existing magnetic framing I let the paper hang of the wall, so that its weight, how it curls and what not, will dictate how the shadows are cast. I expose it to three colours; taking it down and putting it back up between each exposure, all of it blindly.
The ever-expanding reach of digital photography is quite an addendum to Walter Benjamin’s famous assumptions about the aura of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. How does your material investigation of this somewhat outdated chemical apparatus deal with the instancy of digital processing?
Actually, I do have a body of work specifically trying to look into the materiality of the digital. I’ve taken some JPEG-files and dropped them into Text Edit, and then used the automatic functions of the word processing programme, e.g. rewrap text, spell check, etc., to reorganise the text. Finally I dropped the result back into Photoshop and printed it. The resulting file can be used in whatever way a digital file might be output; I’ve used them as wall coverings, as endpapers in catalogues, as posters, etc. What’s more important though, is that the analogue printing process isn’t necessarily an anachronistic one, because so much digital photography still has an output through chemicals. There’s still a specific application; people use c-prints, lightjets and lambda prints. But there’s something very tricky about digital, you know. According to Brecht one can be certain anything modern is always misused, or misunderstood, because it’s so hard to experience what it really is, until you see it falling out of favour. And Hollis Frampton said something similar about film, which became much more interesting to him, coincidentally, when video happened. By contrast it made it possible to see what film actually was, how it functioned, which was only possible when it became one technology of moving images among others. I think there’s some element of that in what we’re discussing here, but at the same time digital, at least until now, has always acted as an emulation of other media. Like in Photoshop, you have exposure curves. There’s absolutely no reason why a digital image should have a curve attached to it, or a continuous tonal range for that matter. There’s no correlation, no necessity to it, but digital simply performs under the metaphor of chemical based photography, and that’s the reason why it’s generally used in an uninteresting way. It’s very hard to get distance on it, and I think it’ll take a hell of a lot of time before it’s used in a compelling way within art. That requires some self-awareness about the medium that doesn’t seem to be available now.
How does the history of photography shape our understanding of history in general?
I suppose it does. I guess it’s the things that have been photographed that exist in the historical imagination. And given the recent proliferation of images being in some sense an inscription of history – we’ve far more of this sort of history available to us than we previously did – maybe historical time is changing. It’s like a cone that expands; far more things are remembered. If you think of all these moments held on to or arrested, the observable moment is simply larger, and considered in this way, it seems like time is slowing down.