Interview in Winterthur on April 5th, 2007
Questions by Thomas Seelig
For your work, such as the recent “My Girls”, you make use exclusively of ‘found’ material. The question whether you see yourself primarily as a photographer or as an artist presumably does not bother you overmuch.
That is correct. I see myself first and foremost as an artist who is not tied to any one medium. That I have a special relationship to photography is documented, among other things, by the fact that I have a degree in photography, which is not something I would normally mention.
What special skills, if one can be that specific, does a work like “Girls” demand?
It has never occurred to me to ask myself whether I have any special skills. I use what I’ve got in order to get my job done, which is also the motor that keeps me going. What I’m aiming for is the creation of a group of works that I’m satisfied with. One of the preconditions for a work like “Girls” to take shape is for me to give my contribution the lowest possible profile. It is important for me to create the impression as if I hadn’t interfered at all. I am trying to produce a picture quality that is at least as unpolished as any run-of-the-mill snapshot. The special skill needed for this is to stick to a totally laid-back attitude. I’m not into being in frantic physical contact with my work but what I am very keen on is allowing scope for chance events, such as scanning errors and the like, and to integrate them into the finished product.
One of your early works is a group of images of Wynona Rider entitled “Ris kaktusanna”. What about this series title?
This would translate as “The Cactus Loft”. Originally I tried to realize the same basic idea as a prose piece, as a story set in a loft full of cacti. For my pictorial world I wanted a private setting as well and a strengthening of the private references. The work was to materialize not in a studio but in a living room. This was easier to do at the time because my work method was less exacting to begin with. The A4 prints were tacked to the wall in a loose pattern. Using lots of pictures I tried to present Wynona as a multilayered character.
What is it with you and Wynona Ryder?
What matters for me is the character. It’s not the person as such I’m interested in but their image. In those days I had only just begun to create a private girl friend for myself. It was – and still is – an indispensable precondition for me to find the character attractive, which was very much the case with Wynona, at least in some of her movies. In addition she is available on the Internet in a great selection of shots, at least compared to some other actresses.
This was back in 1996. In terms of the evolutionary history of the Internet, wasn’t that the Stone Age of search engines, so to speak?
You can say that again. Those were the days of the 56K modem … la-diddle-dee … la-doodle-doo… Downloading was much more time consuming then. It went on and on and on. Finding the images in the net, filing them, sifting them, selecting the right ones: it took ages. There was one photo of Wynona that summed up all my ideas concerning her. I mean, there I am, looking at the photos of thousands of actresses and then all of sudden it goes boom! The chase is on and I want more.
What distinguishes a “good” file both from a technical and a content-related point of view?
This is not a question for which there is clear-cut answer. A lot depends on the complexity of the shot. Technically speaking a file must not be below 100K. It’s not that there aren’t interesting pictures below that threshold but you have problems when it comes to blowing them up, regardless what format you’re going for. My work, you might say, crucially depends on the process of blowing up what I find; therefore my point of departure has to meet certain criteria.
Where do your files come from originally? Do you obtain them from commercial contexts?
In most cases I just don’t know. Occasionally you see traces of text that has been erased so that you would assume that the file has been lifted from a magazine. The majority is from fan sites of the respective actresses and has been posted without details as to their origin. If you use a search engine such as Google/Image, you hardly ever come across information like that.
What distinguishes such a fan site? Are mavericks at work there or are they simply rendez-vous sites for a community?
You get both of course but today you mostly find organized community sites with blogging functions etc. The pages are full of fan texts and fan photos. I only pay attention to the pics, the actresses themselves hold no interest for me.
It is exclusively actresses at the centre of your work. Models do not figure. Is this because actresses are already into playing in public something resembling a role? After all they’ve got an image, and impersonating characters and roles is what they do for a living. It’s much more straightforward. Models simply don’t have fan pages. There are hardly any private photos of them compared to the loads you get of actresses. That is a very popular genre and almost omnipresent. What is crucial for me in making my selection is the criterion of living in different spheres. I do not want to have to worry about meeting this or that star ever in person. You need to be able to cobble together your own private world without running the risk of banging into the real person. There is intimacy but there is also a safe distance.
As you work your way towards a character such as Wynona or Shannon, do you become a fan yourself as your title seems to suggest? Or is it love until further notice as it were?
I am only a fan in my artistic persona. On my computer for instance the downloads go into a folder marked ‘Work’ and not ‘Private’. I collect these images with a view to using them in my work.
In Appropriation Art in the early eighties Richard Prince and Sherrie Levine focused and reflected on collective images. They did this to analyze power structures and the concept of authorship. Do you see any parallels between Appropriation Art and your approach?
To be quite frank I don’t. For one thing I don’t appropriate these images to myself. I am interested – at least superficially – only in the private, non-professional arena and not in the public one. I only make use of cheap scans of images from magazines, whose artists and purpose cannot be established beyond doubt. Until these files end up in my hands, they’ve stopped off at countless homepages. In this sense there is no original for which it would be possible to identify a sender. We are talking about a common and garden copy-and-paste process that is applied thousands of times all over the globe every day. What is remarkable is how different my works are from the original.
What is the procedure like? How do you arrive at a shortlist of your images? When is the procedure completed?
One of my basic principles is to keep intervention down to a minimum. I would like to proceed as economically as possible. Downloading takes place in different stages. My Top-Ten folder keeps expanding and contracting; sometimes it appears ready to burst and at other times it slims down to three shots. I have to drop some really gorgeous shots because they would trump others. The whole process lasts about two months. It’s important to recognize the moment when something has reached completion: then I stop immediately. A work is completed for me when it is stashed away in its drum ready for shipping.
The technology you use looks quite sophisticated, yet you do not really go beyond such everyday tools as the PC or inkjet printer: a deliberate choice?
Yes. Here too it’s the private aspect of my work that is important for me. Having found your ‘girl’ in your immediate neighbourhood you can download her, print her and pin her up without leaving your four walls. In this respect I behave like a fan. What matters for me is for fans to come away with the impression that this is something they could do just as well themselves.
Do you allow yourself to be inspired by tools and materials?
In a way my printer makes certain suggestions that are to do with its operating temperature. I want it to be quite obvious that I’m using an average printer for home use. I like the temper of my printer and take the different colour shadings in individual prints into account in my work.
How does the public react? Do they mainly see the feel-good factor in your work or do they also cast a glimpse into the abyss?
Reactions on the whole are very positive because at least the first impression is that of agreeable pictures. This can suddenly tilt into melancholy. Gradually it dawns on you that an intense preoccupation with a virtual person has its downside, namely a loneliness that may not be easy to bear. It may look possible at first to integrate this into your life but in order to really come to terms with loneliness, to settle down to it for good requires what I would like to call “the right frame of mind for waiting”.
How do you interpret your own experience? Are you simply more radically hooked on pictures than the average fan? In an interview you mention in this context “the other man”. Who’s that?
“The other man” is my alter ego, the artistic persona I referred to earlier. I make this persona real by endowing it with basic emotions, moods, character traits, etc. that I am familiar with from myself and by piling it on as much as I can. “The other man” is the guy who under pressure from loneliness obsessively surfs the net in pursuit of eligible actresses and does so with professional panache. If “the other man” has a certain literary aura, this is no accident. He actually hails from the unfinished story I mentioned a while ago. In The Cactus Loft “the other man” is the central character, a kind of alienated “mystery man”, who is almost suffocated by his loneliness without suffering visibly.
Your subject/object positions swing to and fro like a pendulum. Do I catch a whiff of nihilism?
I won’t deny that but what is more important for me is the pleasure involved in taking risks: to transgress borders without a fail-proof system to protect you against the consequences.
Was boredom a factor in the creation of a work such as “Girls”?
No, it was born from the urge to create. Loneliness, yes, but a very quiet loneliness. Creativity and loneliness, that’s about it.
So it’s a case of a reduction to creativity and loneliness. In your work titles have a special significance. Does the central possessive “my” in “My Girls” indicate a wish on your part to possess the female macho-style?I have created this female in an utterly private context. I do not possess her. She exists in my imagination only. No bodily contact is envisaged or implied. I would not introduce her to friends as “Natalie” but as “My girlfriend Natalie”, and the whole thing is designed to have a warm, generous, proud and positive aura. The term ‘macho’ is not really one that generates a great deal of warmth. The title’s naïve, simplistic ring is deliberate. After all, this is not a relationship based on a deep commitment but a simple, merely platonic one. Surely if someone opts for this kind of relationship instead of a real one, it’s bound always to remain second-rate; it hasn’t got the potential to develop. It means you’re turning your back on life in the conviction that you’d never be able to cope with a real relationship, you’d never understand what it’s all about, you’d never stay the course; you’re simply clueless.
Is there a reason why you’ve left the “white Anglo-Saxon girls” in favour of Mindi?
Indian women very quickly have me on my knees. Mindi is outrageously beautiful and even if most of my girls are white, this time I found her and felt a strong attraction for her.
Does tempo play an important role in your work? What does your work routine roughly look like?
The whole cycle takes quite a long time and is very meditative. During research and selection I try to pace myself to the same tempo that I then maintain during the actual production process. The entire procedure requires undisturbed concentration and is very private. I hate showing stuff before I’ve really put the finishing touches to it. The table in my studio, which measures 3 by 4 metres, is my most important tool, if you can call it that. A mere notional unevenness in its surface would make it impossible to join the individual prints together. During this stage no one is allowed to disturb me.
How important is beauty for you or, to rephrase the question, would it be possible for you to put someone ugly at the centre of your work?
No. Part of the procedure is for me to fall in love with that person, however briefly, or at least to be able to make a serious effort to do so. This initial stage is decisive. It is probably for this reason that all the girls are likely to have similar mindsets or to belong to a similar type. What is ideal for me is beauty with slight blemishes, slight imperfections. After all I want you to believe that this is actually my girlfriend. For her to be able to credibly play that role, the pictures must not be too well known or too perfect. The selection process enables me to control that very well.
Can you envisage creating a male character after all these women? Would that be a challenge for you?
The thing is I wouldn’t be able to fall for a man. This would be an obstacle that is very difficult to overcome. I would worry that as I synthesize the character I might inadvertently leave a hole. Perhaps I could try tackling this in collaboration with another artist, either male or female. That would be interesting.
To date you have created four girls. What next?
After Mindi it occurred to me repeatedly: “You can call it a day now”. This was not the case after the first three groups. I did not have the feeling the work had come full circle. Now I do have that feeling. One could add something but there is no pressing need to do so. However, I just happen to have started flirting with Keira Knightley. It is now clear that I will do a fifth girl.
How would you describe the trajectory of your work from Wynona via Shannon and Natalie to Mindi?
The technique has improved a lot in many small details; so has the selection of the pictures. I have learnt to cope much better with the problem of how to enhance the private aura. Even though I’m using professional photos, I nevertheless advance the claim that they’re private in nature. After all, it so happens that I’m quite a decent photographer. With Mindi I felt the strong wish to make it all even more gentle and tranquil. The inkjet and the colour disparities have again added a certain level of noise that brings irritation and aggression into play.
It’s great that I feel motivated again to start over with the experience of that unspeakable, bitter-sweet sadness. I think it’s great that four great blocks of work are already in existence and that I can attempt to become even more subdued, even more minimalist in a fifth one. I would like to conclude with a feeling of “This was it”