David Claerbout


Conversation with Daphné Vitali

Most of your works stand between the still and the moving image. You use digital technology to animate photographic imagery in order to renew the perception of time and space. When and how did your interest in the photographic stillness arise?

That would be around 1994-1995 after I had finished my Academy and I did postgraduates studies. I had a very academic training. In Belgium all trainings are essentially academic unless you choose for something that is new media, but if you would choose for sculpture or painting or graphics then it would be all very old fashioned. So, I had never worked with photography or film and essentially I had enough of wanting to be an artist. My whole academy period was a struggle to find an identity as an artist and I went through many different periods of different work. I was in fact a very good drawer; I was always the best in class so to speak. Then, when I was confronted with looking for an own kind of language, I had to abandon, because I found I had none. I felt very much lost. So, what I did is I searched for a number of years and then at the last year of my postgraduate -it must have been in 1995 or 1994- I decided I am going to stop producing objects of art altogether. The day I did that, I felt liberated. I started to put together on my studio walls all the pictures that I had used as a source material that gave me ideas. That was the first time that I worked with found photography.

My very first series was a series based on fitness books. I got fascinated with propaganda about health culture and the body and I was collecting exactly those pictures where the patients profoundly relax, coming to such a state of relaxation that they look depressed and I had singled out all those pictures of those depressed very healthy people. That was my first series somehow and it was titled “fitness, light exercises” or something like that. And from there on, I never actually took up a paintbrush anymore. I thought painting for me was false altogether, was not direct enough and I wanted to do something with existing photography.

So, today, after more than 15 years, I have an enormous digital collection and I have just lost it, last week, by accident, by stupid mistake. I erased the wrong hard discs and then I erased the back ups of those discs! But instead of feeling bad about this, I felt rather good. Actually it was time. I thought ok it had to happen one day, cause it’s always risky and I was always a freak with digitizing. I have been digitizing a lot of imagery as an archive since a very long time. So, all I have left now is my archive as very small thumbnails as small as you little recorder- so I said it’s enough, I will do it with that. So, essentially, I think that answers the question “how did your interest in the photographic stillness arise?” That was, in fact, out of the impossibility, technologically, I had no possibility to do something with photography because I didn’t know how to handle a camera. So I started working with whatever was available to me. Then, later on, you can imagine out of that, started to develop some sort of auto-animation, as if I saw a picture and I… I think I was always very sensitive to the hidden layers in the photograph. I kind of detested film and video because, anyway, they were too expensive, so it was a little bit pragmatic and I didn’t like them. Later on I started to like them because I could handle them, but in the beginning, it was too much for me so I stuck to photography. And I mentally started animating parts of the photograph and that’s how I discovered the in-between fields, in-between different media. And what interested me from the beginning was to be able to unite two media on one surface, which would be the projection. And what interested me more specifically about that, was to unite them in a way, which is without conflict. So this idea of non-war, or non-conflictive situations was always there from the beginning. Sort of not wanting to be involved with an accusing gaze, which looks for the weak point in the picture. I was looking for the point in the picture, which opens up for new interpretations and new stories. I actually always considered the photograph to be an orphan of a reality that is located in the past.

In your early works, narrative derives from silence, duration, contemplation and reflection. Tell us about this kind of narrative in your work.

I think it’s an appearance that in my early works -in the earlier silent works- the narrative is exclusively drawn from duration and contemplation or even reflection. In the later works –actually we could also refer to the third question, to the Bordeaux Piece as well- the narrative in fact also goes back to one of silence, duration and contemplation but is being eclipsed by storytelling, by film narrative. But in fact the film narrative never really takes over from the contemplating structure of the work. Dialogues are some kind of foregrounding, three actors play a game, they talk to each other, there is a story going on, and that becomes the foreground, but in fact, the background is still one of contemplation and one of long duration as the piece lasts for about 14 hours. So, it might appear that structurally that element in my work has evolved over the last 10 years but in fact it hasn’t. I am always looking for certain panoramic feeling attached to time. And in the Bordeaux Piece that would more notably be the length of duration of a day, making physical how filmic time is compressed and nervous. In other works, that would be played out in a different way, like in one of the pieces that is in the exhibition, in The Stack for example, which is from 2002. That would be 5 years into my career so to speak, the homeless person narrative is of course very literal, because the piece looks photographic, and as being photographic it presents itself with the silence that is in fact part of the nature of photography. So, this is of course an opportunity that I’ve had and that I’ve taken with both hands, to discover this rather accidental relation between photography and storytelling. If film were encapsulated in a photographic appearance, it would be able to play out different qualities. They are able to play out their qualities of the tableau because nobody expects the photograph to evolve in time. They maintain the potential of evolution in a story or in movement that film has, and they also provide the certitude of stillness that photography has. In that sense I used of course, consciously, older photographs as the starting point, because they were immediately recognizable as located in the past. So, these are pictures that had no future, they only have a future in the duration that we spend looking at them.

Bordeaux Piece is your first work that has the features of a conventional feature film. However, as you mention, the plot itself as well at the acting is not your central concern. Why did you introduce cinematographic characteristics in you work? What were you aiming at?

I have already more or less answered that…
I must say that today I’m still working on some narrative works which have in common with one another, that their interest lies far outside from the realm of film narrative. Their real goals -of works from Bordeaux Piece on- lie radically far away from storytelling. And in fact are almost ironic -or perhaps even cynical- comments on filmmaking, on sequential montage and storytelling. So, Bordeaux Piece is a work that ridicules the work of actors through the 75 repeated films per day… very exhausting job having to repeat the same lines, and the quality of the film becomes less and less until in fact, is almost completely disintegrate in the early afternoon when actors become to be very tired. So that was all part of the idea. The idea was that the fresher moment, which is the early morning we started filming, from 5 o’clock onwards when it was still dark. Actually we started filming right before the sun would appear and then the acting is still relatively fresh, the light is amazingly beautiful in the morning, because you can see the evolution –you can almost physically feel it- and in the evening as well the light becomes very spectacular. All of a sudden it’s straight into the lens and you don’t see the film anymore but you just see the sun and there she really takes over. But the most boring parts are the parts that are shown during exhibitions of course; because institutions are open from let’s say 11 a.m. until 5 o’clock in the evening or 6 p.m. So, a real purpose of the piece was to show the most exciting parts that would never be part of the museum shows. In such a way, it is not only critique on film but also on exhibition making, in a sense. So, it’s best shown privately if you want… It’s best shown to the people who own the pieces.

In 2000 you realized your first Internet based work. You offered the viewer a choice of three flowers -a pink amaryllis, a yellow gerbera or a red rose- to download and install on a computer. The flower begins in a full bloom and progresses to full decay. In this work you put real time temporality into a digital environment. You used the internet as a means to explore the real and the virtual. Did the internet offer you new ways of experimentation with time? Do you intend to investigate further the opportunities that the internet offers?

That internet piece is called Present and it in fact emphasizes on the internet as a gift-based economy. It’s a free economy in which you can download most of the items for free: knowledge, images, music, etc etc. So, I thought the piece should have something to do with the idea of giving. And as viruses are the most polluted gifts in the internet, I thought I wanted to make a friendly virus. A virus that would be implanted on your computer, would live its life, and then would just leave a little seed which then would in fact be a link to the internet. But that friendly virus never actually came into existence because when I talked to the technician –and therefore I think the internet piece is a failure- we were not allowed to make a virus. Because a virus it would mean that as the owner of the computer you wouldn’t be able to find back the seed. I did not want the person who downloaded to be able to see what’s going on or to be able to find where it has hidden itself. I really wanted to think to work as a virus without the intention to destroy something but only with the intention to live on your desktop and you could not erase it before it has lived its life. So there were certain things that instead of doing an official project for Dia Center I should have done a real virus .. who knows how to make viruses! But anyway the intention was there.

So, “Do you intend to investigate further the opportunities that the internet offers?”

I have lost interest in the internet somehow. I don’t know why… Maybe I became much more occupied with my own complicated installations…

You are among contemporary video artists who play with the concept of time, exploring its dimensions. Do you find yourself in close artistic dialogue with any of your colleagues? Where does your artistic interest in time lie?

Every artist would tell the same story, but I find that my work on time has become very fashionable with others, who refer to time for no reason… : ‘take your time’, ‘time after time’ and so on…. What I mean is that it seems there is something in the air about time, about slowing down, about speed, about capitalist production and the machinery which has no purpose except to accelerate all the time. And I remember that yesterday I spoke several times with some of the people that interviewed me and I don’t know why I repeated that and I will repeat it again, because I think it belongs to the same occupation of modern human being, to consider the benefits of a far and better future not as a goal but as a way of working or living. In this line of thinking time becomes an arrow that unavoidably moves forward and at the end of the horizon is the future and today we work for the future but in fact the promise lies in the future and not in today. And I think in my work I have always tried to unify a presence in the past, a presence in the now and a presence in the future. And I have tried to unify them in one surface, which is the video screen, if you want, or anything that I am busy with. Indeed, it is probably in the air that time is of importance to contemporary artists and to many of my contemporaries, except that I would be very unhappy if my work would appear moralizing. I dislike the discourse on slowing down and deceleration, because what those discourses do, is they still take ‘speediness’ as their reference and then they slow down from there on. So it becomes therapeutic or it becomes a way of making the whole system crashing down, falling apart and disintegrating, referring Arnout Mik’s work for example. It is very much a discourse that is in the air except that in my work, I think, you will never find trace of the disastrous –the tragic. So if I work with deceleration is probably more deceleration of the perception itself, of how you observe. So I still think that you do not perceive the same work when you spend 15 seconds or when you spend 5 minutes. I literally try to include a changing factor even in the photograph that is not moving, that is not evolving. So that it becomes your own perception that is starting to do the work. And you may call that a certain kind of deceleration, but is certainly in opposition to the zapping culture. And it’s certainly an opposition temporal montage, which is always a step ahead of you. It’s always a step ahead in time and space. Therefore, I understand that my work sometimes is associated with melancholy or with slowing down because is the spectator that is being thrown back into her own perception.

30 September, 2008