Kunsthaus Bregenz, 2018 (photo Markus Tretter)

Sunny Talk: In digital materiality all things get a second chance: A conversation between David Claerbout and Thomas D. Trummer

Trummer, Thomas D./Kunsthaus Bregenz (ed.), 'David Claerbout', Kunsthaus Bregenz, 2018, ill. (exh.cat.)

Thomas D. Trummer: David, what were your impressions when you first entered the Kunsthaus Bregenz? Do you remember?

David Claerbout: That the spaces were not as frightening as they looked in the photograph. I believe I have repeatedly made this remark over recent days, about the absence of mechanical noise. There is a homogeneity in the sound, including the noises from the street or the sound of the temperature being regulated, as if filtered. Until a voice is raised inside the building and you realize the acoustic dampening is quite terrible! That is when the Kunsthaus Bregenz signals that it is not a place for talking.

TT: Yes, the acoustics are noticeable, especially because the echo isn’t dampened. The sound makes the size. It stretches out the space. In response, people tone down their behavior.

You know what’s really striking is that everything is done for a very discreet reason. Nothing is immediately obvious, and when you think you’ve found something obvious, you are proven wrong later. The place has ever more surprises, like yesterday when we did the projection test for The Pure Necessity on the glass panels outside, which is a bit of an experiment. I was rather enchanted with the result, especially when considering how projections on a public square at night often feel like publicity, yet here the image becomes broken up and penetrates inside the building, undoing any inside-outside rhetoric. There is this sense that, on one hand, there’s a lot of discipline in the building, but there’s also a certain generosity. Usually an architect commissioned to design an exhibition space does not understand an artist, and that creates a culture where the artist has to go against the architect. That is not the case here. You do have a place with a lot of atmosphere. When working in here I sometimes have the impression that Peter Zumthor sits there in the heavens, above the non-existent top floor, and looks down with his long grey beard, satisfied [laughs]. The building turns out to be very malleable. Very knet- bar. How do you say, you could manipulate it into your own work, which came as a surprise to me.

TT: How did you react to the malleability of the architecture, the artistic elasticity of the hard spaces?

As most artists do when working in here, I decided to show one work per floor, to exploit the abundance of space, and the acoustic resonance that this building thematizes, somehow. And you know what? We’re in the year 2018, and available space is under pressure. Go to any biennial. It’s once more packed with interrelated ideas from a catalogue, rather than autonomous works. One work of art can be positioned, in analogy to the nineteenth-century salons, shock- ingly close to the next, being simultaneously the catalogue info and the work of art.

At the Kunsthaus Bregenz this is not possible, simply because you’re not invited to do otherwise. It really invites you to think about the relationship between plenitude and void around you. Even the exaggerated echoes seem to have a certain purpose. Well, that’s enough compliments for Peter Zumthor already!

TT: How does this emptiness feel to you. Isn’t it also “heavy?” Zumthor built enclosures out of bare concrete; air stands in them like a mass. At the same time, the illusory meets the concrete, which is an ambiguous word in English.

True, especially with Olympia on the upper floor, by merging the projection with the concrete and no objects in the space. It’s uncomfortable. And it does suggest an incomplete exhibition. One has to listen to the walls, somehow, when making an exhibition here. You can see the interventions that artists have made, what went through their minds, and that’s the memory of a space.

TT: How do your works come about? How does your memory work, and how do you develop ideas?

Well, I don’t choose the ideas—I have the impression that they choose me. I was working on something else when I must have looked at the Jungle Book animation, and from one moment to the next the idea for The Pure Necessity was born. I was going to rid the Jungle Book film of as much human resemblance as possible, including dialogue, dance, the rhythmic structure of the film.

TT: The result is a kind of zoological documentation in the form of a cartoon. Not a remake, more of a summary that focuses on the question “What became of Baloo?”

The animals portrayed in the Disney animated film are over sixty now, bored to death with nothing to do all day, spending their time in quasi-real time in a jungle or in a zoo, sleeping, eating, drinking, maybe fucking, although I left that out. I didn’t want it to become a piece about obscenity. But boredom and waste of time are considered to be obscenities in their own right. On the other hand, when I choose a motif, such as for The Pure Necessity, it has to be one that has a place in collective memory. And so the idea was born, and after that it’s a matter of pursuing it with vigor, without stopping. It is rare that I really regret starting some- thing, but when I saw the effort that went into it, I had second thoughts. But I should add that labor, and the intensity of working, is fascinating when you actually don’t notice it in the work.

TT: It’s striking that animals are gaining more attention in the arts, in philosophy, and in the humanities. There have been several major exhibitions on the topic, including at the Jewish Museum in New York. People today feel more responsibility for other living beings. Rightly so, not only is exploitation being criticized, but also ready-made images, such as the clichéd roles of animals in fairy tales, in children’s cartoons, and in conventional cinema. Plants are also judged differently, as in Emanuele Coccia’s work La vie des plantes: Une métaphysique du mélange, 2016, right?

Yes, I recently tried to explain to an elderly person what the concept of the rights of plants could be. And this person reacted, “What? We haven’t even solved the problems of the rights of humans, let alone animals, and you’re already talking about the rights of plants?” In my translation, that means that not everyone is willing to drastically reconsider the ontological order, or to reverse the dominance of foreground over background. In film it’s obvious that this is going to be a struggle.

TT: You see plants as actors. They come into the focus of attention from the surrounding area, out of the silence.

My actors are situated in the background. And this is how we come to make a case for the rights of plants. Weeds and plants are not very vocal. That is why I prefer them. In my work I try to offer a retirement home for abandoned products deemed inefficient. The timing inherent in the run of a film reel reveals that it, too, is only tolerated when efficiently used. The lens of the camera, in turn, originated from a time when the eye was considered as a device for hunt- ing, for forward gazing, scanning a faraway horizon. But okay, the mind’s eye can see in a panoramic scale. Between the wide and the forward I would prefer the wide open, and in film that is still problematic, because of the aforementioned reason.

TT: If the lens stands for the eye and the forward-looking gaze, what about the devices that are no longer interested in hunting, as Vilém Flusser wrote, but in information?

The lens has as its subject the human eye; it will be interesting to see what happens after the omission of the lens by new technologies. The “image after the lens” will be made from 360- degree data, it will be an image generated by a wide variety of data, which, like the Internet, can be seen as an ever-expanding sea of information, which is not something you can observe using a hunter’s eye. Vision without a lens brings about a new awareness for materiality. Surface, skin, the new state and order of objects, are redefined just like photography—redefined materiality by the way it was writing with light, omitting the warm hand of a creator. The new materiality is something I have tried to approach through very simple phenomena that would previously have been understood as analogue, such as wind, light, plants. None of what we see in Olympia is real. We only have as a reality the analogy with the passage of time, but we also have an analogy with ideological time. The truth of an image is that none of it exists. What comes out of it is what I would call a third material, beyond the duality of existent and non-existent materials. Something entirely artificial, but nevertheless aching to connect to sensorial memory.

TT: In Olympia we encounter two projections, one in portrait format and the other in landscape format. While the large landscape format shows the stadium in a knee shot, the portrait format on the right shows details and close-ups. We see a tree in a forecourt, sculptures of masculine fighters, leaves on the ground and plants sprouting from porous floor slabs. They are intimate excerpts, and simultaneously evidence of the materiality that you mentioned. These “still lifes” seem unreal, and their illusion seems strangely inadequate compared to the overall situation. They give an initial indication of the constructedness.

The vertical screen in Olympia shows a succession of fifteen details in real time. I introduced it so as to enjoy the artificiality of the image and the reality of time passing, together. In the details, the weeds don’t look as convincing as they would from a distance or when seen at a certain pace, so we become disenchanted because we get to spend too much time with the artifice . . . Nevertheless, the knowledge that something grows, born in virtuality, does not disenchant; it cannot disenchant us because when we spend time with an animated object, we spend time with the illusion of life; very few of us would wish to kill it.

Elsewhere I mentioned dark optics as the future of camera registration, and the changes it brings, which I am afraid we are all underestimating. This change announces itself like an unavoidable technical evolution, as did the transition from analogue to digital, but has far-reaching consequences that will make photography a clearly closed historical chapter. When I work with dark optics, I try to work as closely as I can with my opponent.

TT: Who is the opponent?

A reduction in diversity of the perceived world, perception through information. Perception made to measure. During the age of the lens, we perceived an analogy of our surroundings, automatically. Photography functioned as a checks and balances system, at least conceptually, because it was something you would “capture,” you could—theoretically—subcontract the purpose of a picture to a mere accident of having been there. It made the photograph self-justified. That is gone now; photography is entirely up for negotiation. It is hard to grasp the pervasive- ness of this evolution. To me it is on the order of a nuclear assault.

TT: In art-historical terms, Olympia is part of the tradition of pictures of ruins. The symbiosis of nature and culture was particularly influential for pictures in the eighteenth century. Transience causes the disintegration of human creations, and nature conquers the spaces that have been wrested from it. Wild nature and fading culture become similar in essence. This romantic thought of enriched memory becomes bizarre when it is pro- jected into the future. The result is thinking in the future perfect tense. It will have been. Nostalgia is prophesied for the future.

Longing for the ruin is tempting, as Albert Speer did with his Ruinenwerttheorie. Another example would be that of Sir John Soane with his presentation of the Bank of England in a thousand years, imagining a point in the future from which one can look back fondly at past glory. This is pure imaginative time travel, being able to bridge unachievable distances into the future and back to the past denotes confidence and power. It is a play with biological duration and imaginative duration. The irony may be that since romanticism, architecture evolved largely into a theatrical pose, lasting only as long as the play . . . 

In my Olympia, however, the glory of the ruin is excluded, since watching the work means watching in real time. The pace of Olympia excludes reverie; it excludes jumps forwards or backwards. We can still speak about aspects of the past and the future, but the unfolding of the work in real time prevents nostalgia. As a side note, I believe that the difference in time perception between the modern and the postmodern eras lies in the postmodern being obsessed with the present, while the modern era examined the boundaries between large volumes of time. Modernity was marked by maddening differences in pace.

TT: Olympia is devoid of people. You assume that no one will enter the stadium for the next thousand years. The emptiness, the abandonment of ruins is its characteristic; it makes it mysterious. Our everyday experience seems contrary to it. In fact, we are living in a visual jumble; images surround us, sightseeing and buying incentives are the trophies of the modern-day hunt. This not only applies to things; we are also reifying ourselves—just think of the constant self-examination in social media. Selfies are the result of the competition for recognition and displacement. Being the focus of other people’s desire is their aim. In The Quiet Shore we see people from varying distances and angles. They are not self-portraits; they are attentive, yet they seem unobserved by us, focused on an event that only gradually becomes accessible to us.

The Quiet Shore was a continuation of Sections of a Happy Moment and of The Algiers’ Sections of a Happy Moment. It is a closure for that series. For the first time I was aware of working in digital materiality, and its permanent transitory state, which in this case was temperature, water, ice, crystal, silver, flesh, sand, and concrete. These materials transition into one another. The figures observing the scene with the splash “are” the viewers, and, as you say, no one is in selfie mode; they all look outward. The state of the water by the shore, which is far too quiet for any image, is as if the sea has adapted to the stillness of the photograph. It has become so quiet that it has taken the shape of a mirror or ice—which in turn is contradictory to summer by the beach.

And while the existence of photographs with people of flesh and blood does not require a second thought about their substance, the longer you observe The Quiet Shore, the stronger the doubt about the certainty of beings and objects alike. As was the case in Sections of a Happy Moment, people turn to stone because the certainty of the photograph fades as one continues to observe. The analogue era of the photograph was defined by surface, like a skin, a celluloid, chemical transformation on a surface. All I try to say is that this ontological certainty has been abandoned by the virtual, but that we, living things, reformulate a new ontological order, with or against our will.

TT: What does this ontological order of the future look like?

If analogue photography was all about light “caressing” a surface, as one would touch skin and presuppose that a body or an organism is underneath, it may be interesting to note that 3D image making is still about skin, but this time around it defines all bodies and objects as empty underneath. So, if photography was a temporal vision of a permanent body and object, 3D image making discards the permanence of that body and object. Does this mean that all objects have become emptied-out zombies, shells without fish?

Then, the difference between analogue photography and 3D image making becomes this: an eye—or shutter—was used to open up to a permanent world, and then to close again. Now this is changing into a permanently opened eye—a stream of information—that can only perceive its immediate surroundings. So much so that nothing really exists but the immediate proximity, or it is at least limited to that which technology allows you to perceive. Existence becomes a proposition of a temporary kind.

TT: In Being and Time it was opening through which we become aware of being. Heidegger spoke of the “clearing.” At this point, the world is opening up, so to speak, without closing—giving without taking. The Kunsthaus Bregenz as a building behaves like a luminous body. It is a space that makes similar experiences possible. These effects are based on architectural features. Technical precautions, such as enclosing the building in translucent glass panels, allow nature to become alive, to present itself, to reveal itself. Zumthor avoids directness. Light flows in, but we can’t see outside. Strangely enough, this very diffusion assures

us of our own existence, our bodily existence, one that does not scan, but absorbs. Slowing things down plays a major role, as does withdrawal, similar to some of your works.

I think you’re right. There is a parallel in a sense that there is a delay in the phenomena that come to you in this building. Why is this delay significant? It’s probably significant because everything else is supposed to be direct, and when we want the solution to a problem we always demand it to be as immediate as possible. It’s the same with vision: we want it to be as immediate as possible, and this is really not the case in this place, or in my work.

TT: How do experience and memory relate to each other? And is there a need for a timelessness that preserves both?

If you allow for a little bit of time, some things just fall into place on their own. I experience this to a highly satisfactory degree with this building. Initially, it appears to be a lifeless glass cube, unman- ageable, and then little by little the qualities start to show. The Kunsthaus Bregenz is a place in which you have to spend time before a second wave of qualities show themselves. Without this patience, it is just another city marketing building from the 1990s, acting as a postcard.

Maybe the following is not directly related. There is an odd relation between movement and memory. During movement—for example, with moving images—you are prevented from re- considering what has happened. The opposite is true as well: in memory you are prevented from picturing movement.

This leads me to something else again: the Kunsthaus Bregenz is not a building for the art of its time. When I remember Oscar Niemeyer’s pavilion in São Paolo, now this is a place that envisions large individual sculptures. It can only do that, and is very good at it. Therefore, one can see what the final destiny of that place will be: one day it will house artifacts or art from around the time of its construction. The Kunsthaus Bregenz refuses this. It is not contemporary with the art of its time, and I believe this impresses the artists that exhibit here.

TT: Your film Travel, which begins with the scene of a clearing and leads us through a forest for a few minutes, past a pond and finally out of the forest and into the open, took a very long time to create. It is a testi- mony less of the art of the time than of the history of technology or the question of material in the age of its immaterial productibility. The scale and source is music, itself a time-bound form.

The idea for Travel dates back to 1996. I thought about it for seventeen years before I started to produce it. My idea came from a soundtrack, which, to avoid confusion, is therapeutic music from the 1980s to which I bought the rights. It helped one to relax and fall asleep maybe. The beauty is that, for cultured people, this will obviously irritate more than it will relax. Then we have these images of the forest, which are completely imagined. None of it has been made using film or video. I had seventeen years to think about them and simply visualized them entirely in 3D. It is probably the length of preparation time that allowed these generic images to be very precise. After seventeen years, every branch of a tree or ray of light was in my head.

TT: Why?

The work needed to be done very precisely, because the narrative is very vague. The soundtrack ends in ascension, rather uplifting, despite the 1980s synthesizer sound. The visual part, however, descends into disillusion and the banality of suburban woods. By the end of the film, the crystal-clear images and the narrative proposition are broken, although visuals and audio re- main intact and clear. That breaking happened unnoticeably. This simple, generic scene turns out to be one for which you cannot find a conclusion. We—my team and I—worked for a very long time on Travel, almost three years. Since then, three years has become the new norm for the things that I do. It took about a year to render out.

I realized while working on Travel that people will not make film using lenses much longer— maybe another fifty years or so. In the future, when we make an image we will start by speaking about an image, agreeing on the image, making sure there’s no conflict in the image, and, after auto-censorship, release it to the world. That’s the difference with the camera. The camera as we know it has a history of contingencies, of things that happen unintentionally and that were not supposed to be revealed. The analogue camera therefore served as a healthy check, often preventing the experiments in political modernity from getting out of hand. People do not yet realize the importance of the invention of photography as a checks and balances system during a highly inflammable modernity.

TT: This means that not only the background elements, the still lifes, be- come actors, but the image as such. However, not for the sake of the image, but to make it a field that allows observation and at the same time is a common denominator of social agreement. The space for deviation, for dissidence and contingency, for art, if you like, thus becomes narrower.

All I’m trying to say is that we’re going back to the state of the tableau. One should realize that as you go back to the state of the tableau, it means that you’re saying goodbye to a world of small and bigger accidents. That you are entering into a radically controlled environment.

TT: If we think about Dürer’s Young Hare, then this is unquestionably an attempt at control. After all, this picture shows the rabbit seen at an angle from above, sitting. It is the human gaze, or, generally, that of its enemies who are superior in size to it. At the same time, Dürer depicts the animal as free. The space around it is not clearly defined. The hare is extracted from nature, almost like some of your figures, as if this could make it fit into a larger context. It is in a laboratory of the gaze. In spite of the realistic depiction of the fur, for instance, and the astonish- ing naturalness that made his portrait famous, it seems strangely sealed in a freeze frame. Perhaps Joseph Beuys was alluding to this when he “explained pictures to a dead hare.” Beuys treated the hare as if it were alive, led it through a small gallery, and communicated in gestures but without words. He thus reversed the process of image making, which results in a killing, a nature morte. The visitors in attendance had no part in his contact with the animal. Beuys controlled not the picture, but the watching.

What are we really talking about when referring to the history of images and the technologies they were produced from? Does it include the pictorial achievements of Albrecht Dürer or the van Eyck brothers? If so, do we consider their exquisite rendering of fur or a reflection in a mirror—unlike anything ever done before—as steps in the larger history of immediacy, and was it the desire for unmediated presence that led to the invention of photography? Pictorial immediacy relies on the illusion of presence without human intervention, but outsourced directly to God, so to speak. This Christian-messianic residue is what gave birth to photography, so that an image would no longer be man-made, because man-made meant that though man had made it, it was divinely channeled. In secular times, however, ways had to be found to produce the illusion of immediacy that would no longer possess the warmth of a hand.

TT: That’s probably why some digital images look so cold. They lack sfumato, the evaporation and soft veiling in darkness. Because object and space are skin, as you said, the transitions are lost. Space is filled with things, not with shadows, spheres, or opaque objects. What do you think about space in the digital age?

If the availability of time has become scarce, like a rare and precious asset, what about space? Can mental space be the solution to a crisis in the availability of real estate? So let’s take the space in between our two ears, “acoustic real estate,” and treat it like real estate. That is the idea behind the Radio Piece.

I set out to work with binaural sound, registering audio the way both our ears are placed, with special microphones implanted into a dummy head that register 360-degree sound. It is a technology that is not very often used, because sensorially it can be very confusing and it can upset one’s spatial awareness. There is a single backtracking camera, uninterruptedly back-tracking through different spaces. The way the audio-space interacts with the visual space is very confusing. So there’s a back-and-forth response between different concepts of what a “room” is. Is a room the space between our ears? Is it situated in the image, or is it actually the room around our headset? I filmed it in one take, stopping after the first take we did. But I had spent five years thinking about it before I set about making it, and it never occurred to me before that we could work so fast.

TT: How did you arrive at the subject?

Hong Kong? The vertical slum, as it was called, has a firm place in collective memory as a place where there is not enough space to live humanely. You had an apartment the size of a mattress. The walls were closing in on human values. Where else do you live? Do you live in your head? So, what happens when the walls close in on you so much that you’re almost forced to live inside your head?

TT: We settle between the ears, under the scalp, a nice idea. This idea locates imagination as if we could measure it in cubic meters. But there is also a mental occupation of space, indoctrination, for example, or ideologies and fixed ideas, which are entered into the cerebral land register. What do you think about politics?

Oh, I can hopefully be clear about politics. The problem with politics and art is that it reduces its value of art to the category of fashion, by which I mean that when the urgency or vogue has gone, you’re left with very little matter. The realm of the political is everything that is debatable in a conflict of words and means, by way of everything visible, tactile, everything disputable.

TT: Still, there are political subjects in your work.

In Olympia, the political is an icon that is slowly being overgrown. I have a profound contempt for the search for the political in art; one can only find it without searching.

The tendency to politicize art probably indicates that an aestheticization of the political arena is occurring, which is a highly explosive situation; so one should worry not about the political in art, but about the art in the political. It probably indicates that both the aesthetic realm and the political realm are at a standstill, and therefore ritualistically cross over into one another’s territory without any consequences. I call this situation “pre-incorporation.” Mark Fisher called it the Kurt Cobain phenomenon. Revolutions may seem to succeed one another incessantly, but without transformative power, as if the dangers of revolting against a status quo would be unbearable and therefore the revolution itself had to be made replaceable.

If the motif in some of my pieces is political, surely the aspect of duration will eat away at the motif, as is the case in Olympia. In the Oil Workers piece, which is not in the exhibition, the motif may be Nigerians working for an international corporation, sheltering under a bridge, waiting for the rain to stop, but it is duration that eats away and digests the substance of the rain and the oil in the title of the work. The motif of exploitation by a foreign oil corporation distances itself in favor of another materiality that did not exist before, but which reveals the hollowness of digital materiality, and therefore exposes the oil workers as zombies.

TT: Thank you.

David Claerbout ©2024