INTERVIEW / CORRESPONDENCE
with the media artist Achim Mohné born 1967 in Aachen; studied at Folkwang University of the Arts in Essen and the Academy of Media Arts Cologne; guest professorships at the University of Fine Arts Münster, Folkwang University of the Arts in Essen, Indiana University, Bloomington and the ETH Zurich, among other institutions. He has been teaching at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Dortmund since the winter semester 2021.
Dear Achim Mohné,
Since I began teaching at the Bauhaus University in spring of 2021, I have repeatedly spoken of you and your work in my courses on the conception of photography. I was fortunately able to convince you to give a lecture for all members of the university in the context of the “Bauhaus Masters Lecture”, with the aim of conveying deeper insight into your interdisciplinary work and your many collective projects.
In the “Portrait in Transition” project module of the winter semester, I drew upon your work “0,000627 Megapixel — Citizen to be seen from mars”1 in order to show students the spectrum of possible strategies with photographic images. When teaching, I am most interested in, among other things, promoting experimental work with photography and expanding the apparatus playing field with relation to the “analogital” possibilities. The work “0,000627 Megapixel” contains a complete series of media strategies that precisely illustrate these playful possibilities in an exemplary fashion.
Here we should briefly summarise the process with which you transfer a digital portrait image into the material state of a ground installation in public space: in the process, a colour screenshot (from the documentary film CITIZENFOUR) is transformed into a rough black and white pixel image. Thus, a digital procedure with extraneous material that you found on the Internet and selected with a key combination. The original shows Edward Snowden in an interview with Laura Poitras. In the making-of video at your website, you wonderfully demonstrate your method, with which the digitally transformed pixel image is transferred to a sketch for a mosaic of 10 different shades of grey. The sketch provides the foundation for the ground installation consisting of 672 square floor panels, which were then respectively painted in the various shades of grey in a last step.
It is in the nature of rough pixel images that they are easier to recognise in reduced form on the monitor than in the enlargement. Transferred to the public space, this means that one can only recognise and interpret such fragmented images from a distance. However, because it is not physically possible to maintain the necessary distance from your installation, a digital technology must in turn be resorted to for visualisation in order to present your chosen portrait image in such a way that it is recognisable. A drone flight with a camera can be of help here, or the use of the Google Earth platform, which is (at least partially) updated every 3-5 years.
You already calculated with this possibility of feeding back artistic messages to information carriers like Google Earth/Street View in earlier projects. Particularly in the case of the portrait of Edward Snowden, this approach must be understood as a political gesture, thus raising the question of whether the software of the American company will integrate this visualisation computationally and intentionally or sort it out or censor it.
Censorship and data protection are thematic areas that cannot be clarified in one sentence when it comes to the Google company. The software integrates satellite images from external providers, which have in some cases already been pixelated prior to purchase. In this case, the censorship (e.g. of sensitive locations and buildings) lies with the security authorities of the respective countries. Each country in the world also has its own data protection agreement with reference to the high-resolution data that Google Street View wants to record and make available. Only faces and license plates are fundamentally filtered and blurred by an algorithm prior to publication.
When you were invited in 2017 to install the work “0,000627 Megapixel — Citizen to be seen from mars” on the occasion of the exhibition “Luther & die Avantgarde” in Wittenberg/Saxony-Anhalt, the anticipation of an image online thus played a key role in addition to the experience with the installation on public grounds.
However, it seems not to have come to this. At least, current accessing of the location shows no recognisable image. Of course I absolutely want to know, in as much detail as possible, what circumstances led to it no longer being possible to realise the visualisation of the work with the help of Google.
And, as a fan of the work, I would also like to ask whether another strategy of distribution is not necessary to achieve this goal. Whether it might be conceivable to incorporate supporters and private individuals into the processes of the visualisation of your portrait of Edward Snowden on Google?
Dear Birgit Wudtke,
You are right. Only “ruins” of the ground work are still visible at the moment between the old prison and the administrative court in Wittenberg on Google Earth. As you say, the work consists of 672 ground panels painted in various shades of grey, which corresponds with a camera resolution of 0.000672 megapixels. Even such poor resolution is completely adequate to identify the person. In the current update, one can no longer really recognise the likeness of the famous whistleblower. The squares still show through only very weakly beneath a meadow. No wonder: the ground work was not maintained and has now been outdoors in the urban space for five years. However, there are now various representations of the intact work online and on the virtual globes. It is still visible in the Apple Maps system, as well as at Bing and others. At Google Earth, the image was documented at four separate times (2017, 2019, 2020 and 2021) by satellite. It is possible to directly trace this through the time-slider in the program from GE, symbolised by a clock in the top tab. One can follow how the work is increasingly disappearing. The earliest image is quite beautiful, because a tree in full bloom stands directly next to the ground work; from a bird’s-eye perspective it appears as if Edward Snowden is “hidden in the bush”. The second update is the clearest, almost as precise as if it were digitally manipulated. One can hardly believe that the pixel photo has really been installed on location. With the third update, which took place in the third year after the installation, a certain (photographic) blurriness is apparent, which is due to the dirtying of the plates, among other reasons due to leaves, earth and bird dung. To return to your question, I thus see the basic concept, namely the distribution and making visible through GE, a parasitic strategy, as highly successful.
About the present condition I can only say: a deliberate decision was made to literally let grass grow over the matter. The direct neighbour, the administrative court of Wittenberg, did not want the project from the start, but the project could nonetheless be realised thanks to the endurance of the curators. The duration of the artwork was negotiated as “open”. Unpleasant was finding out in December 2021 that it had been dismantled without my knowledge. It has now been taken apart and is waiting for a new home. It will be relocated this year to a Gymnasium (academic high school) in Wittenberg on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the invention of letterpress printing, as well as of the first printed bible. The work has without a doubt polarised residents of Wittenberg. When several opponents (in the administrative court) were successful in achieving a decision to have the concrete slabs removed, a citizens’ initiative quickly formed to ensure its preservation, now with the support of the mayor, who was committed to ensuring that the famous whistleblower would remain present in the city. I am pleased that my original idea of suggesting Snowden as a kind of “timely Luther” for the “Luther city of Wittenberg” met with acceptance and a sense of identification among the populace, because there are various parallels between the two system critics. In addition to this, the residents of Wittenberg saw that the work would only remain interesting when it continued to remain visible for satellites, because visualisation through Google can only take place when this is the case. The artwork only remains alive for me as long as it is also subject to observation by the new seeing machines.
With reference to your question about other possibilities for distribution beyond the ground work itself, I have not as yet been active, because I see a danger of watering down the concept. I am not looking to reach the art audience here. I want to leave the art information bubble by using a new “public space”, namely the virtual globes, comparable with the principle of graffiti, which uses the urban landscape as a voice. As an artist, I do not install and invest in a gallery space, monitored and contractually guaranteed, but instead give up control. The reception of the work cannot be controlled in the usual, determined way. On the one hand there is a risk, but also a knowledge gain on the other. As far as further distribution is concerned, I would thus like to let this happen on its own. This has been partially successful in the REMOTEWORDS project, carried out since 2007 with Uta Kopp. A city district of Johannesburg was thus named after a short message of Niq Mhlongo and REMOTEWORDS: MABONENG (place of light). This happened democratically, almost in a grassroots fashion, in that the word was initially adopted by the populace and later used “officially”. What is thus of absolute importance to me is interdisciplinary distribution across systems. In the case of Wittenberg, for example, the cooperation with the whistleblower network, or the sponsorship of the work on a square in Dresden that was named after Snowden. I see these aspects as immanently important but am sometimes less interested in distribution in the context of art criticism or its discourse.
The medial interposition of the Google Earth system you addressed, which functions as the information carrier for the artistic statement, is continued in my current projects. In the last few years, this primarily refers to 3D, a new dimension of immersion, which continually poses new questions: how do we see public space through the eyes of Google Earth? How do artworks in public space change when seen through the satellite eye and simulated by algorithms? How does our perception of nature change through the representation of nature within the virtual globes? How does the view of cities change when this takes place virtually?
Google Earth is after all nothing but a simulation of the three-dimensional world, constructed by an AI that merges satellite photos and geometric surveying. I take parts of this screen 3D world and transfer its two-dimensionality back into sculptural objects. This might involve models at 1:100 scale, as with the city views, but also sculptures that are just as big as their “role models” in GE, thus at 1:1 scale. The virtual world is brought back into the real habitat: from reality to virtuality back to reality.
One example of this is the current project “Low_Poly_Tree”. It represents the likeness of a young tree that consists of around 300 polygons and stands as a steel sculpture with the dimensions of 2.5 x 1.4 x 1.3 m next to the tree that served as the GE role model. Its surface reflects the environment, thus also the young tree opposite. Important to me here is that the immaterial algorithm that “created” this tree materialises here, so to speak. Only through the transfer back from 2D to 3D (from the screen to the object) is the absurdity of the simulation perceptible.
This thus involves a complex intermedial process: Google surveys and photographs our cities (without asking us) and creates a computer game (called Google Earth) that provides the illusion of a three-dimensional world. This is achieved through the process of depth sensing (Lidar). I work with photogrammetry: I in turn dissect the Google images into individual images and compile them in new spaces with the photogrammetric process, which are then printed three-dimensionally. I thus do not work with the Google data directly, but rather with their images. Like with the Snowden project, the recovery, the reclaiming of the Google information is important to me. Here too, this involves a repurposing of the Google system. In the process, I attempt to undermine the Google copyright with the manual principle (screenshots), and at the same time to use and critique the medium.
I often represent these city models simultaneously in various media. For the Biennale de L’Image Tangible in Paris, visitors could experience the venue, the Atelier Basfroid, as a model at 1:200 scale, as a 4K video simulating a stroll through the surrounding streets or, if not actually in Paris at the time, virtually tour it as a Mozilla space. At the same time, a QR code serving as a link allowed both visitors in the exhibition space and visitors outside of it to meet and communicate in the virtual space of the same model. A piece of Paris could thus be experienced as sculpture, video and VR, all defined by the algorithm and the associated glitches.
More films of capturing Google Earth 3D spaces are the so-called “Information films for political education”; short videos that take politically and ecologically volatile places as a theme, like the Hambach surface mining or the “Niederaußem” power plant supplied by it. These are areas that are wonderfully referred to in the USA as “area 51”, meaning forbidden places, access to which I provide, at least virtually, through the models. They also serve as agora, as places for gathering and communication, especially to discuss themes and problems that their very existence first make relevant.
The tours are realised videographically and linked with informative texts originating from NGOs, Greenpeace, NABU and similar reliable sources. In artistic terms, I was charmed by the typical 3D aesthetic, which is still clearly ascribed to the “fantasy world of gaming”. In the videos, however, this is combined with political and ecological “hard facts” and is therefore “documentary“ and thus not to be localised to any genre. Although the highly glitched worlds clearly represent a counterpart to photographic documentarism, which makes a claim of authenticity, they are ultimately based on precisely this. Photogrammetry, the process being used here, is thus clearly a child of photography, which is at the same time both truthful and dishonest.
In the “The Wolf from Königsforst and the Girl” project, I attempt a similar amalgamation of documentary and fiction: it is a virtual forest, the Königsforst of Cologne, also generated from Google data. A wolf was in fact spotted in the real Königsforst a year ago. The virtual wolf was integrated into the setting in the form of a historical toy, an Elastolin figure, just like “Little Red Riding Hood”. The figures are generated with the photogrammetric process as a 3D model. The users walk through the forest and listen to information about the resettlement of the wolves, but also abstruse variants of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale, as well as the theories of Freud. The texts, which are read by avatars, originate, similar to in the short films mentioned above, from authentic sources, like from the Landesamt für Naturschutz (State Office for Nature Conservation) or are excerpts from psychological essays. There is a clearing in the middle of the forest where the wolf and the girl stand opposite one another. The “moral of the story”, characteristic for fairy tales, is subsequently proclaimed. I see a kind of expanded cinema in this experiment, a form of bringing together diverse media, visuals, sounds and narratives. The project changes constantly and serves as a virtual lab and playground.
I see this project as a search that is typical for me, with the goal of illuminating the media syntax and semantics of photography-based phenomena. This is because new challenges arise every day for interrogating the expanded photography. Key is to understand digital imaging, computer-based visuals, automated seeing machines, non-human photography, and many other so-called post-photographic parameters, at least in part, also meaning to “grasp” it in the literal sense. This is in any case what I am attempting with my work.
Lead picture: 0,000627 Megapixel — Citizen to be seen from mars / Achim Mohné / Luther und die Avantgarde / Wittenberg 2017