A Skype conversation between New York, Vienna, Zurich and Maastricht. An interview with Anouk, Alina, Christof, Christoph and Christophe on working with image archives in contemporary photography publications, related to the artist books ‘The Bungalow’ published by Onomatopee and ‘Miklós Klaus Rózsa’ published by C Press and Spector Books.
Christof Nüssli: The third Chris is missing.
Anouk Kruithof: A funny group, I think… its almost unbelievable that all these versions of the same name are included.
Alina Schmuch: Yes, maybe even every version that exists?
Christoph Oeschger: Hello?
AS: Hi Christoph, now we can start! We thought about the issue of there being an overwhelming amount of images produced constantly, both in private but also in various professional fields. Images are stored in archives for many reasons; as a collection of memories, to prove that something happened, to evaluate the material to gain knowledge, it's impossible to see and get the grasp of an entire archive at once, because it consists of too many images. There needs to be a filter, the images have to be selected and read.
Christophe Clarijs: We are interested in describing what this filter can be. Working as a designer on 2×1, I find it really interesting that you share one designer for both books. Christof Nüssli did the graphic design, and more. Perhaps there is a similar strategy to how we deal with image archives. That was a trigger for us to ask you to have this conversation together.
AS: It comes from an interest in reading image archives and wanting to make them accessible by activating the images and bringing them into the form of a book to materialize one part of the whole. But it’s also a similar strategy in a formal sense; to treat the images less carefully as material, not to simply reproduce photographs in a publication as if to put the pictures into nice frames; but to work with them as material for something new.
CO: In the Rózsa book, the content we took from the archive is not just material. It is very important to note that what the image shows and where it is placed on the document are entirely related, because the image has a very strong relationship with the file and vice versa —both to what happened and where. We actually decided for ourselves to use them in the same way as the press would. And then there were pictures for which we couldn't find the information of where they were taken, what was shown on the images or which date they were taken, so we had to throw those images out of the book. It is not just material we could sculpt very freely.
AS: I don’t mean there is no precision. It is simply about not being afraid to touch the image. You attempt something that reacts with the image, because it is not about singular images but a series and the information in relation to the image.
AK: I think there are certain parallels in the methodology of working with archives. We cannot deny, of course, they were made in a certain time period.
AS: Anouk, can you tell us more about your book The Bungalow and your collaboration with Brad Feuerhelm?
AK: The origin of The Bungalow is simple to describe: it is based on the collection of vernacular snapshots by Brad Feuerhelm. I was drawn purely to the imagery. I decided to start working with the images, appropriating them into my own visual language, to actually mix them up. I’d never worked with an archive of anonymous images before, images with authors that we can’t retrace or photographs that we have no idea of the context for. There is a deliberate mixing of the origin, the original context, the moments in which the photos were taken. To do something like that as a strategy very much relates to how people now deal with the massive amounts of images we are constantly encountering. With this in mind, I thought to work with the images and develop new chapters or certain subgroups. The collection becomes more fictional, so I absolutely agree with Christoph Oeschger, that in terms of content the books are very different from each other.
CN: Well, we used the same typeface!
AK: The act of layering to create new compositions is something we can find in both publications.
CN: Yes, I can see the layering of images as a method. As well as using pictures to work with and by doing so in the end we create page spreads as a new image. Of course, in our book we have more text, but if you don't speak German the text level becomes a picture as well.
AK: Often, if you work with text from archives as an image, such as when you appropriate a newspaper clipping, then rather than making an attempt to read the text the audience first takes in its aesthetics as an image. It refers first to a certain period in time, don’t you agree?
CO: In our case, the actual idea for the format of the book came from the fact that we needed a context for the photographs. To return them to their political and historical context we decided to use the files. But I also agree with what Christof said; people who don’t speak German see the censored text as an image. With the documents as backgrounds in the new compositions they very much become images. There is a truth to what Anouk says also, we deliberately relate the photographs to the time and context they are from because we want to reveal the workings of the police at that time.
AS: You also did some performances with reading the text from the files right?
CN: Well, in the book you are able to read the text to understand what goes on in the images. There is a story for the reader to discover, starting in 1971 and ending in 1989. The text is a vital part of understanding the content of the book and how it was put together. We invited three authors to contribute readings of the text and asked a lot of people to give us their files and we created a performance or a reading of the material with these original authors. It happened three times in Zurich and three times in Germany.
Excerpt ‘Miklós Klaus Rózsa’:
CANTONAL POLICE OF ZURICH
Was seen at many general meetings and demonstrations. During these operations he wears an official press armband of the police. Tries to pick out the plain-clothes policemen and to photograph them. Takes pictures of faces of individual police officers. He documents police violations in detail and thereby obstructs police work. Participates in setting up barricades. Works in a photo store on Kasernenstrasse. Has been observed photographing people on the street from an upper floor. Is a Hungarian refugee and was almost naturalised. Propagates violence against property and advocates the destruction of the State.
CO: We also decided to invite them to give the language more weight, because you can learn a lot from these files. The idea came from our awareness of the documents as a functional part of the book and our concern that they would be simply read as images. We wanted to demonstrate the information they hold, before people would think they were just boring files, to activate them and show their actual importance.
AS: What is so specific about the language that is used; can you explain your interest a bit further?
CN: In part, our interest is in the very bureaucratic tone they have and of course they are testaments to the political mindset during the Cold War back in the day. The way they described their enemies fascinated us. Nowadays, what they wrote can seem very absurd but there is also a lot of humour in it that comes from how the authorities didn’t understand what was really going on. They are still surveillance files, so we all know they are serious in the end.
CC: I am curious about how the context of the photographs, which is specific to Zurich and a certain timespan, perhaps even an aesthetic one, becomes universal and codified when paired with the documents. We’ve grown to have a certain familiarity with government files now this kind of data is being leaked on the internet.
CN: I can completely see that, but in the end it’s what you do with the book that makes it either specific or open for interpretation. For us, it is mainly about the context of Zurich or Switzerland at that time, but you can make connections to what is going on in the world now. We can’t force what parallels people will make. The same thing happens with Anouk's book; we don’t want to give the readers a recipe for how the material should be read. Perhaps the two books are a base for something that opens up a lot of new worlds. In The Bungalow you can go deep into the material, but you can just as well slip quickly through the images.
AS: Do think that you are in any way also aestheticizing this very loaded time and it’s political actors when you show these images in an art context?
CN: Yes we do. A process of aestheticization always happens when you work with material in the way that we did. But our goal was always to keep the project political and we think we managed to do so. But we can’t make people refrain from reading our book in an aesthetic way only.
AK: On the other hand, there are currently numerous artists working with archives, some without much regard for the content. I recognize a certain exhaustion of the format, towards which I’m rather critical. I assume there are so many artists and books transforming an image archive, because our whole culture’s public archives are growing so rapidly.
CN: Of course, now this shared archive is accessible but before it just wasn’t. I'm tired of the trend, but in the end if you do it well there is still space for what it can offer. We started both of our books with an archive and the intention of doing something new with it. To transform its material, so in the end the books aren’t so much about the original archive anymore.
AS: I was wondering if it is a political act for you to make this book? Or at least to make these images accessible?
CN: For me it is. There is a political “Tragweite”.
AK: Oh yes, “draagwijdte”!
CN: The photographs, especially the police files were only open to the person who has the document. We made the content accessible to the general public. Then we decided to make the whole book accessible online. (https://issuu.com/cpresszurich/docs) The point being that when we published the material, we really wanted to make it freely accessible.
AS: How far can or should art or graphic design be political?
CC: Yes, and what are the difficulties of such a practice? How can we find new forms for these topics?
CN: Maybe I can answer with a quote by Hans Haacke: “it is uncomfortable for me to be a politicized artist… the work of an artist with such a label is in danger of being understood one dimensionally without exception… all artwork have a political component whether it’s intended or not.” I agree with him, everything can be political.
CO: We see the difficulties in the translation either way, where the message often gets a bit lost and we wouldn’t reckon everything which runs around under the name of contemporary political art to be political. We don't have an answer for these big questions. We see many difficulties and traps but we’re trying to find a way to transport our message in the most appropriate way.
AS: Christoph, I had the feeling, when I was working with the photographic archive of the demolition experts for ‘Script of Demolition’—that through curating the material I also distanced myself from photography and taking images myself. Now it’s hard for me to go back to that practice. I was wondering if your approach to photography changed after you worked on the “Rózsa-book”?
CO: That's a hard question. From the start, when I started working with photography I used archival images as well, but I combined those with my own images. I worked with a group of people that claim they had photographed UFOs, but I couldn’t see them. So I combined my portraits with their photographs and made interviews about what they see in their own pictures. I used to work with both my own and archival footage. But still I feel when I take pictures myself I don’t have as much distance as when I work with archival material.
AK: That’s kind of interesting, though, so it has another value. In how far you can work with it, distort or layer it.
CO: I wouldn’t layer my images on top of each other. I know I just did it in the book, but with my own images I would be lost. I really combine a lot of materials with each other, but I still have a kind of hierarchy and that was strange to realise.
AK: Yes, it is strange! For me it’s different. I still see imagery, with its surface qualities, as being very freeing to work with. There is an equality across archives, whether it is a found archive; a historical one, images of anonymous authors or if I did the images myself. There are less and less boundaries in the hierarchy. So I like that everything blurs. This is part of the big ocean of all imagery of our cultural archive that is, in the best case, accessible for everyone. It’s good how it has become so democratic now that everyone’s imagery is out there being used and rethought.
CN: I think it’s very much about the fact that the photographers are scared of what they did and what will happen to it. That’s also why photography books normally look very boring, because you can see how scared the photographer was about his image. One or two pictures on each page and a lot of white space to balance the composition.
AK: But that is a very designer point of view.
AS: No, I totally agree!
CN: It is a designer point of view.
AK: If you make a photo and you want to tell your story with that photo, documentary photography is an obvious example…
CN: That’s right. I don’t say this approach is totally wrong, but often the problem is that people can’t get over their own image.
AS: The time is over when you would treat an image as carefully as possible, print it on glossy paper and that it works out. It’s really uninteresting in a lot of cases.
CN: It depends on what kind of work people do. I don’t think it’s really over. There are still very interesting things going on with those kind of publications.
AK: In the fields of journalism and reportage photography still is interesting when it’s not manipulated, when there is a need to support the facts then it is valuable. Even in this time, but that’s not the field that we are working in.
AS: Maybe it’s not only about manipulating an image formally, but giving a context to it. There is no need to treat the image poorly, because you want to make it formally very interesting. But there can be something that reacts with the image, because the image itself can deal with it.
CN: You still always have an image in the end. You can say that each spread is an image. And now the next question would be – if now somebody takes this image and does something with it, then we would maybe also have a problem with it, because we once again think it is the perfect end-point for that image we made. The image is not the end product. The end product is the spread in a way.
AK: Or the book as a whole.
CC: Is that the reason why you didn’t use page numbers in the Rózsa book? As well as printing it on A4 like the original documents must have been.
CO: Yes, we didn’t see any need for page numbers. We see the whole book as one from the beginning to the end. We also often compare our work to that of a filmmaker who works with existing material.
CN: The book is held in the format of the police files, which are A4 and the color is also based on the color of the files as well as on the pictures. Rózsa took mostly black and white pictures in this period. We only converted around 3–5 pictures from color into black and white.
CC: Where does the red colour from the inner cover of Rózsa’s book come from? I noticed you used this vibrant colour in the exhibition as well.
CN: The red and black of the inner cover can be read as a dedication to the use of these two colors in a political context. It’s like a…
The Skype connection is interrupted.
AK: Nüssli is gone!
CN: I was saying the difference between an image and a film is the book. A lot of images form the book around a certain narrative.
AK: It’s a new narrative.
CC: To me the design of both publications seems to be about showing the process of working with the images in a visual sense. In the end it’s not simply about reproducing the images, but finding the most suitable context for them, also visually. Inserting the text documents into one publication and then keeping the references to the interface of the Mac OS in the other. It seems an intentional choice that the context where the images are produced is shown. What is the importance of the interface in your work?
AK: The interface is a visual demonstration and translation of my thoughts on “screen-reality.”
CC: You also use the words “screen reality” in the e-mail conversation and the cover of The Bungalow, for instance, brings a lot of these elements together.
AK: Photos have become pieces of evidence of entities. By this I mean that a thing that has been recorded only exists because the photo shows us it’s there. For many a photo is proof that what is depicted exists for real, even without physically and consciously having seen the object in reality. Seeing, in the physical sense, has been degraded because of this; seeing is the only sensory process while the others are sensory experiences. This way, a photo stands on its own and has become a principal object.Whereas in the past we arranged loose physical objects to make a still life, nowadays you can use photos as stand-alone objects, because they have become, as I said, independent entities. Instead of the physical environment, the computer screen provides the frame in which you play with objects. By making a screenshot of this compilation you create a digital still life.
AS: You really show the whole process. It seems like a very personal process of working with the images. Especially in conversation with Brad. I always imagine you in this dark bungalow working obsessively with the images.
Excerpt ‘The Bungalow’:
On December 6 2012, 11:34 PM
Anouk Kruithof wrote:
Yeah. The sooner I have them, the better. I am in the bungalow isolation on an almost island in the South of Holland. It feels so good to have this space and no one around. I will pump this 5 books I want to make like a tornado oh yeah! I need to go somewhere else to download your images...Dropbox? Sure we’re going for it!!!!!!! Xxxxxx like crazy!!!!!!
Sent from the third dimension
On December 10 2012, 11:13 PM
Brad Feuerhelm wrote:
Don’t get tooooo isolated out there. It will be über-productive. Just start cutttttttting
On December 10 2012, 11:56 PM
Anouk Kruithof wrote:
<photo.jpeg> a message from isolation
On December 11 2012, 11:21 AM
Anouk Kruithof wrote:
Ola Brad, yes I downloaded them all, can you let me know if more is coming?
AK: Indeed you see that it’s a process space. I like that openness. It’s very straight forward and also honest. You see what happened to the photos. You understand the chapter about the staged bondage photography.
AS: Specifically these images are very dark and sexual. Maybe you can tell us a bit more about the concept of censoring certain elements in the collection. What is it about for you?
AK: In the world there are very few people who have such a big vernacular collection and most of them are white men. So if you look and work with these kind of images, then you have to think about the white male gaze…
AS: Can you explain the term of a vernacular collection, Anouk?
AK: It is a collection of everyday life photos taken by amateurs. In this chapter you see analog photos from the 80s, 4 x 5 inches of fictional bondage scenes. Of course, they are sexually loaded. If I think about that sensitive moment, in which a woman gives herself and her body and her sexuality over to someone else’s power to create that imagery; it is highly questionable. By cutting out these bodies I think they become even more sexy, when you leave space for the person who reads the imagery in a certain sexual way. On the other hand it’s also a certain release from how the woman’s body is used all the time in photography. It also has a certain anger and frustration in it. I hope that comes across.
AS: I had the feeling that you are in this dark world of images and that you have to deal with them as a viewer.
AK: I probably share the darker side of imagery with Brad and am fascinated by the mystery around them. It’s not an accident that I chose his collection. I guess I can just dive into it and feel shaded. But I’m also intrigued by them, because they are so highly questionable. When you make your own photos then you can create whatever you like to create. At the same time you are educated and you know way too much about photography. You know that it is such a powerful, almost mean tool to abuse subjects with. You are too aware of what you are doing to produce images like these.
AS: Maybe one last question to you Anouk. You are also working in your installation on similar topics as those in your photobooks. How do they relate to each other? I had the feeling that it’s often about a certain mass of images.
AK: It’s true! It’s more and more about a mass of imagery which forms the source and then gets worked out or transformed into either photographic sculptural situations or books. Subject matter I think that can change and evaluates over years and it also depends on where I am, that I reflect on my environment. At the moment I deal with issues like stress, power relations and anonymity.
CN: I am very sorry, but I have to leave now.
This text is an edited transcript of an hour-long conversational interview. It is the starting point for further contemplation of the specific practices in which artists, graphic designers and photographers collaborate and attempt to deal with the vastness of images present in contemporary visual culture, with artists books, exhibitions and lectures as possible outcomes. Alina Schmuch and Christophe Clarijs are current participants of the Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht, where the preliminary encounters and the sharing of interest in these topics took place.