‘We are treating the Occupy movement as a landscape, and October as a representation of it, particularly of its global nature’, Thomson & Craighead tell me about their commission for the 2012 Brighton Photo Biennial. Since they are working in Scotland and I am in London, our conversation takes place on a sunny morning through Skype. Their voices break at some moments, their faces becoming briefly pixelated, evoking the precarious intimacy constructed by technology. This is, fittingly, one of the cornerstones of their artistic practice, through which they have been exploring the behavioural and communication shifts produced by the irruption of the internet on a social scale since the early 1990s. ‘We are not trying to provide any sort of interpretation and we certainly are not aiming at being “objective”, whatever that might mean … October could be perhaps best described as encouraging a specific mode of attention.’
October, a 13-minute double-channel video, has a circular structure playing on an endless loop. It depicts two distinct phases of the Occupy movement. The first part gathers footage of what was dubbed the Global Day of Action, when the number of protests scattered around the world peaked on 15 October 2011. The second part gathers documentation of the eviction of hundreds of Occupy camps from all over the planet, which took place the following month. The second screen shows a digital compass that reflects the exact location and distance to the artwork of each of the images that we see, thanks to complex software. The compass, projected on the floor, places the viewer at the centre of the action, providing a powerful element to convey the global nature of the event. This sense of (dis)location is perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the work.
Every image that we see in the piece has been found by Thomson & Craighead on the internet, uploaded by the people that recorded them. The material that Thomson & Craighead use is called, in technological jargon, ‘user-generated content’ or UGC. Their amateurish quality is the best token of its subversive potential: with the means to broadcast information now available to most individuals, the roles of the witness and the participant, of testimony and activism, have become increasingly intertwined, offering a kaleidoscopic vantage point from which to look at major-scale events. What we see in October is the Occupy of the ‘occupiers’, not the Occupy of the BBC, CNN or The International Herald Tribune. Has the act of recording become one with that of protesting? Is image-making the new method of uprising? These are only some of the questions that October throws at the viewer. With the majority of images currently coming out of Syria being recorded and made available by the rebels themselves, such questions are only going to become more pressing in years to come.
Technology remains the core concern here. Not just on a formal level but on a metaphysical one too. In October, Thomson & Craighead represent two types of transversal, or rhizomatic, flows. On the one hand, the artists mimic the key strategies used daily by millions of web users. By repurposing online found material, they are replicating actions such as sharing (YouTube, Facebook), re-blogging (Tumblr) or re-tweeting (Twitter): engaging in the endless circulation of information within the internet, where authorship, attribution and crediting are burdens, ghosts from a bygone past. On another level—as Alison Craighead explains—they are also representing how the Occupy movement itself mimics the particular structure of the web: ‘When you send a message through the internet, you can redirect it to and from different IPs to make it very difficult for the enemy to track and locate you. In Occupy they rotate their leaders constantly and they communicate their messages to far away points through various types of codes, so they are actually adopting the way the network works, its structure. By being so undetermined, the movement becomes really difficult to supress.’
October shares some similarities with a group of previous works by Thomson & Craighead, particularly the trilogy of ‘desktop documentaries’ formed by Flat Earth (2007), A Short Film about War (2009/2010) and Belief (2012). These works all seem to illustrate the human transformation from consumer to prosumer, fostered by technological progress and its increasingly all-available tools (the web, the camera phone, the blog). In that sense, they embody a rather recently found sense of empowerment, of agency. Instead of being swallowed by the deluge of information, prosumers contribute, and by this gesture place themselves outside the traditionally passive sphere of information consumerism. Interestingly, October depicts not only the Occupy revolution but also ways in which technology itself—the very tool by which capitalism managed to metastatically grow and to conquer the world—has also been the catalyst of its (potential, perhaps eventual) downfall.
October is a compelling watch, and sends one on an emotional rollercoaster ride of sorts. The first part oozes optimism and enthusiasm. There is a free-floating sense of hope and energy towards political change. But this is literally crushed in its second part, when we see the eviction of the camps, a set of images which definitely possess dramatic overtones. Thomson & Craighead have already expressed their interest in the documentary genre, especially the style known as ‘cinema verité’, in which the camera is always acknowledged as a means to capture the truth is its very essence. Although Thomson & Craighead reject the idea of using the work to send a subjective message, they are aware that the very structure of the piece contains a bias in itself.
October is about the early stages of an important protest movement and the technology that made it possible to happen and to spread to the global world. But it is also about the ocean of images that resulted from it. In 1977, Susan Sontag coined the term ‘image world’ to explore the rise in the production and consumption of images, and how this was in fact supplanting the three-dimensional world due to what she perceived as a weakening of reality. Thirty-five years later, Thomson & Craighead show us how a large group of people have reclaimed agency in constructing and inhabiting this reality by means of image-making, combined with other strategies. This is yet another twist to the politics and ethics of the image, but it is one that at least appears to give us a much needed sense of hope.
This text was originally published on the issue #19 of Photoworks, with occasion of the 5th Brighton Photo Biennial Agents of Change: Photography and the Politics of Space. October-November 2012
All images courtesy of Thomson & Craighead.
This interview was published on the 10th of November 2010 in the issue # 6 of THE LAST OBSERVER, the free weekly newspaper and incremental catalogue of The Last Newspaper exhibition at the New Museum, New York.
IS THIS TRUE OR NOT?
‘The Last Observer’ London correspondent Lorena Muñoz-Alonso meets Wolfgang Tillmans, whose table top installation ‘Truth Study center’ is featured in ‘The Last Newspaper’.
A door buzzer is activated on a busy street of East London on a rainy Saturday evening; I push and find myself in Between Bridges, the non-profit gallery space Wolfgang Tillmans opened in 2006 to show artists that “are overlooked in the London scene”. (The current exhibition is by Gerd Arntz, a fairly unknown German artist and activist of the Weimar era.) I climb the spiral staircase to the studio and Tillmans welcomes me upstairs and offers me tea. He is tired but talkative, having just returned from Nottingham, where he has been installing his works for the British Art Show 7. His studio is a huge open space, full of desks and wooden tables, where newspapers and magazines pile under the neon lights. “Last year at the Venice Biennale I had four table works. And I had a whole room table installation (Space, Food, Religion, 2010) at the Serpentine Gallery show. But having The Last Newspaper and the Nottingham show opening in the space of three weeks has reactivated the Truth Study center project in a very significant way”, he says while pointing to the build up of world-wide printed media that towers on every surface of the studio.
What is or are the origins of your Truth Study Center works?
The project started in 2005 with a show in London at Maureen Paley which coincided with the publication of my third book for Taschen, also titled Truth Study center. It was a contradiction, somehow, because the contents of the book had nothing to do with the tables. That first show included sixteen tables. Then, in 2006, I had a big mid–career survey in the U.S., a show that toured between Chicago, Los Angeles and Mexico City which included a twenty-four-table installation. In 2007 I had a show at the Kestner-Gesellschaft in Hannover where I showed thirty tables, which then become part of the exhibition at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin. So there have been two very big installations so far. The U.S. installation was altered from city to city; I was adding and adapting the contents depending on the context.
So the way you can work on the tables is quite quick and reactive?
Yes, pretty much. The tour was a year and a half long, and they were heady times in the American political arena, so it was interesting being able to incorporate all that to the work. There was a particular piece that was then published in The Guardian called ‘Ten easy steps for a fascist America’ by Naomi Wolf – a very heavy statement indeed. It was very striking and beautifully illustrated, so I made a table incorporating that on the spot. That table piece is again in The Last Newspaper exhibition. Americans don’t really like foreigners to criticise them. They are good at self-criticism, but the moment it’s a foreigner who does it, they can get defensive. But Wolf is American, so that couldn’t be accused of coming from European prejudices.
Installation view of Wolfgang Tillmans’, Truth Study Center (NY), 2010. Wood, glass, and mixed media. Courtesy the artist and Andrea Rosen Gallery, © Wolfgang Tillmans. Photo: Benoit Pailley. Courtesy New Museum.
How did you begin the process of incorporating the table as a new element in the vocabulary of your practice?
It actually started in 1995 with a show at Portikus in Frankfurt where I used five flat cabinets to show images I had published in magazines. Also in the Turner Prize show in 2000 I used the same idea of laying out elements on a flat horizontal surface, so it was already settling within my practice then. While I was editing the Truth Study center book I came to this really obvious realisation that all my work happens on a table. A table provides a space for a loose arrangement, where things are laid out in a certain way, but can be easily rearranged. On a wall you have to pin or tape the stuff, but a table is more fluid. There is clarity and complete contingency at the same time.
And why did you start using newspapers as raw material in your work?
I had worked with found newspapers before, in the ‘Soldiers’ series (1999). I have to confess I am a bit of a newspaper junkie and have collected them since childhood. I often think that a day’s newspaper contains the essence of the whole world. But I guess that around 2002–2004, the years post 9/11, a clearer picture of the world we live in emerged – all the insanity that surrounded us – after what had seemed like the less politically charged 1990s. I was enraged and concerned and spending a lot of time reading media and thinking about all these different claims to the truth, ‘the big truth’ which was the ultimate justification behind all that violence and those wars. I realised that all the problems that the world faces right now arise from men claiming to possess absolute truths.
So hence the name…
Of course it would be very desirable to have a completely neutral ‘Truth Study center’, but that will never be possible. So even though it has this big title, it is not claiming to be delivering truth, but rather looking at all these different, opposed truths. But it is not at all saying that everything is relative or subjective. I do think there are certain truths that are not negotiable, that some events and attitudes are wrong, and I am straightforward about in the work, which I think is precisely what makes it interesting. It takes a moral stand on the one hand, but on the other is always aware of its absurdity and of its extreme limitations. So it presents all these issues, like the impact of AIDS denial in Africa or the question of the existence or not of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – the whole war came about from a single question: is this true or not?
Are the tables fixed in their arrangements and subjects?
The tables are, or can be, pieces in their own right. They do not always have to come in the same installations. But it’s the same as with a wall installation, when I think a grouping really works, I try to maintain it. But the working process is quite flexible and not set in stone.
Detail of Truth Study Center (NY), 2010. Wood, glass, and mixed media. Courtesy the artist and Andrea Rosen Gallery, © Wolfgang Tillmans. Photo: Latitudes.
So you color–photocopy all the newspaper that are on the tables, which is already a process of translation in itself…
Very much so. That is the essential part of the visual composition, because we have been talking a lot about content but of course if the table works were not interesting to look at, they wouldn’t have an artistic justification. I use the color photocopy because of aesthetic reasons, but also because the color copy is amazingly permanent, as opposed to newspaper. I couldn’t use the original newspaper cause it wouldn’t look good after a year. But media-wise there are also real things, like a lottery ticket, a bus ticket, a vegetable wrapper…
You have a very strong relationship to printed matter. You have even said: “Everything I do happens on paper”, which I think is a simple but very meaningful realisation, with a lot of implications…
I have a double interest in The Last Newspaper show. Not only do I use newspapers and magazines as material, but also my work is heavily featured in printed media and I use media as both generator and distributor of my work.
What are the main subjects of your tables in The Last Newspaper?
There is one table about soldiers and war, one about religion, another about the depiction of war, games and violence on the internet. I also have some images of airlines and the experience of flying and there is one about Americans’ attitudes to food. There are a lot of critical messages there, but you could find all of them in very mainstream publications. Information and criticality is there for everyone, which is also one of issues I want to highlight in this work.
Detail of Truth Study Center (NY), 2010. Wood, glass, and mixed media. Courtesy the artist and Andrea Rosen Gallery, © Wolfgang Tillmans. Photo: Latitudes.
Is this series your outlet for political expression?
There is definitely a bit of that. I use these works to make statements on subjects that I feel very strongly about but that I can’t or don’t want to tackle in my photographs. At the same time, though, the reason why I started to work with images from the very beginning was because I wanted to be involved with what was going on the world. Questions of taste or of beauty have always been politically charged for me. Do you find two men kissing disgusting or beautiful? That is a question of aesthetics but also of politics. I’ve always had this very strong awareness that every freedom that I enjoy as a gay person has been hard fought for by many people before me, and that gave me a great sense of public responsibility. I think every person counts. I might be very traditional in that sense, but I really think it does matter.
The Last Newspaper is on view from the 6th of October 2010 till the 9th of January 2011 at at the New Museum, New York.
THE LAST OBSERVER is edited by Latitudes
Wolfgang Tillmans’ work is currently part of The British Art Show 7, touring throughout 2011 across the UK:
Nottingham Contemporary 23 October 2010 – 9 January 2011
Hayward Gallery 16 February – 17 April
Glasgow 28 May – 21 August
Plymouth Arts Centre 17 September – 4 December
For a brief period, just as the 70s were turning into the 80s, there was a promising and shining female photographer making her way through the New York art scene. She was called Francesca Woodman (1958-1981) and since her early death she has been a fascinating cult figure for art lovers all over the world.
Her body of work has been subject of some exhibitions during the last couple of decades, like the extensive show held at the Fondation Cartier in 1998, but hopefully the beautiful monography recently published by Phaidon will succed in task of bringing her closer to her expanding audience.
The power of the images created by Francesca, full of magic and mistery, is best experienced rather than put into words, but one can safely could say that few photographs have ability to penetrate move one’s innermost self in such a beautiful and uncanny manner. Francesca was young and full of ideas, influenced both by the Gothic and the Surrealist aesthetics and by current conceptual art practices that explored the role of the body in space, as seen in Bruce Nauman, for example. Her work is haunting, as if inhabited by ghosts. One is tempted to think that Francesca’s subject was the romantic idealization of the girl becoming woman, but when reading her own words one discovers that she was much more intrigued by the representation of the persons and objects in the space and the nature – the possibilities and limitations– of photography itself.
Despite her youth and precocity (she has been defined as the first child prodigy of photography), her style didn’t come out of the blue. She was absorbing and learning from contemporary photographers such as Duane Michaels –with whow she shared the love for bluring bodies in movement, surrealist twists and the use of ambiguous sentences to complete the pieces–, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Ralph Gibbons and Deborah Turbeville, whose ambivalent career, both commercially succesful in the fashion field and in the art scene, was a strong reference point for Francesca.
“Am I in the picture? Am I getting into it or out of it? I could be ghost, an animal or a dead body, and not just a girl standing on the corner…” Those appear to be kind of questions Francesca was asking herself as she created her work and found her own identity. Born to a family of artists (George Woodman is a painter, her mother Betty is a ceramist and sculptor and his brother is a video-artist), she was raised in the perfect enviroment to start experimenting soon. And she did. She was given a camera at the age of 13 and started taking pictures right away. Her Self-Portrait at thirteen, probably her first intentional artistic photo, is already interesting and misterious and heralds much of what she would deliver over the next ten years.
Indeed, most of Francesca’s pictures depict, well, Francesca. And very often she is naked in them. She has been criticised by some as some egocentrical teenager wanting to show off, which is surely not the case. The genre of self-portrait is historically essential and fascinating, and only a few years later the hundreds of self-representations by Cindy Sherman would grant her a place in art history and fame that endures to this day. As Francesca herself used to say: “It is a matter of convenience, Im always available”, which is a fairly good reason for a starting photographer than wouldn’t always find models when she needed them. Besides, that uninhibited use of her own body, not always well received at the time, was groundbreaking and opened a road also travelled by others like the aforementioned Cindy Sherman, Ana Mendieta, Hannah Wilke or Marina Abramovic amongst many others.
Francesca was born in Denver, Colorado, were she grew up. She later moved to New York to study Photography at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), but one of her strongest influences was Italy. Her family was infatuated by that country (hence her very Italian first name) and took her there to summer trips every year, and thus becoming fluent in that language. Later, she won a scholarship and spent a year in Rome to continue her artistic education. While she was living there she took some of her most famous photographs and also befriended a group of local artists, who used to gather at the Libreria Maldoror and who encouraged, stimulated and gave her the chance to have one of her first exhibitions (which took place in March 1978). There, at that old bookstore, she found the old maths book that subsequently became Some Disordered Interior Geometries, her first (and last) artist book she made and published. Her method was based on pasting her pictures scattered through the pages of the book, building an interesting relationship of contrasts between the geometrical theories and diagrams contained in the book and her erotic, self-questioning body of work.
After her return of Rome, Francesca settled back in New York and only a week after the publication of her book, killed herself by jumping out of the window of a tall building in the Lower East Side. She was 22 years-old. Her death seems difficult to understand, given her youth, her talent, her good prospects for the future and the support of both her family and friends. But who could really know what was going on in her mind?
Her work was coherent and almost too mature for a girl of her age. She seems to have entered the art world fully-formed, with a body of work that had no loose ends. In the brief stracts of her diaries published at the Phaidon book she seems a bright, creative young girl infatuated by Gertrude Stein and by culture at large, but never she seems depressed or going through a self-destructive delirium. However, in a letter to a friend, sent in 1980, she wrote: “My life at this point is like very old coffee-cup sediment and I would rather die young leaving various accomplishments . . . instead of pell-mell erasing all of these delicate things…”.
Thus, we could interpret some of her pictures as desire to die young, meant as a positive thing (as in the Gothic tradition), or maybe as a wish to just dissapear from this world. She was obsessed by angels (one of her most famous series being called On being an angel), and maybe she dreamt of becoming one. Or a ghost. But we will never know what made her give up on life and her fascinating art. Her haunting body of work –which shows her dissolving, jumping, exploring life and death– and her early suicide are the perfect ingredients to build a cultural myth. The legend is already sorrounding her ghost, as it does with Sylvia Plath or Diane Arbus, other female geniuses that chose to die in the zenith of their creativity.
Legend or not, there are much of us who grief everyday for the amazing and moving images to come that she deprived us from.
Bibliography: Francesca Woodman by Chris Townsend. Phaidon (2006).