INTERVIEW / CORRESPONDENCE
with the Artist Volker Renner, studied applied cultural studies at the University of Lüneburg, diploma programme at the Hochschule für bildende Künste Hamburg, master programme with Peter Piller at the Academy of Fine Arts (HGB) Leipzig
Dear Volker Renner,
The exceptional circumstances of the past year and a half have truly evoked strange social manners and thus provoked both unfamiliar and limited perspectives in everyday life. I am currently trying to overcome my new dependence upon the daily checking of vaccination coverage, infection and reproduction rates. At the same time, I am happy about my new project with the PhotoArtBLOG and the possibility it offers to establish contact with photo artists and develop interviews with them. However, I have also hardly looked at objects of art and project works directly or been able to experience them in the museum space. So, I am currently asking myself how intensive my contact with art beyond pure online viewing on my laptop screen can even be?
Despite the possibility to also visit private galleries at times, I have extremely restricted my physical scope and my contact radius in the course of the lockdown and in the context of distancing rules. I have to confirm a certain voluntary aspect here, and the arrangement of art in the spatial concept of the White Cube interests in any case interests me less all the time – all the more important to me now is visiting art and photography book shops, looking at artist books and artist editions. In short: I like art that I can hold in my hands and take home with me.
I would like to thank you for recently offering me the opportunity to look at a selection of your artist book publications in your garden. I chose two of these, which I was able to look at closely at home and now have lying next to my laptop while writing this. Before I start discussing one of these publications in more detail, I should briefly mention that you have published twenty-four photographic book concepts since 2007. In the informative interview with Peter Lindhorst (Photonews 2015), you mention an “obsession with photography books”1; not only collecting these (which you do), but also conceiving of, producing and publishing these yourself. You thus invest an enormous amount of energy in this, in addition to your commission work as a photographer. For you, making books is a passion and at the same time a medium and a possibility for you to express yourself as an artist. For a long time you used your own photographic works in series for the book projects. As of 2018, you presented concepts that recontextualise digital image material from the Internet. Especially impressive to me is the current publication entitled POTENTIAL SIGHTINGS, which I would like to discuss in more detail and ask you some questions about.
Many artists and designers had to struggle for a time with how to pictorially document the 45th term of office of the President of the USA without constantly having to show his face. As the art director Malin Schulz reported in a lecture2, the ZEIT weekly newspaper also concerned itself with this visual dilemma. Many did not and do not want the repetition of the likeness of D.T. – much less a repetition of his term of office. We would like to forget the face but still remember what can be invoked by malign populism and extreme right-wing politics; what must not be repeated. It is thus likely no coincidence that you, as a German photo artist, have found a rewarding approach to this not entirely unfamiliar problematic of remembering.
The book POTENTIAL SIGHTINGS presents 480 blurry faces. The blurriness here is, however, not achieved with an image processing tool, like, for example, in the well-known image designs of Thomas Ruff (“Nudes”) or Heidi Specker (“Speckergruppen”). In your work it is thus not about the attempt to incorporate a painterly style into photographic images and to in this way position them in a time-specific exhibition discourse (see the group catalogue „Unschärferelation“, Hatje Cantz 2000).
Your collection of images should in contrast function in the chosen format of a book concept, which in this case offers an artistic treatment of a difficult political topic. In the process, of key importance is nothing less than the complete magnitude of radical right, racist and sexist politics in the USA, which have been successful in motivating many citizens to antidemocratic and criminal actions, extending to the dangerous zenith witnessed in the storming of the Capitol on 6 January 2021. An unknown host (database operator) subsequently established an online portal that compiled the material filmed and uploaded to social media by the participants themselves; with the possibility to report information on the persons shown to the FBI. In some cases blurry faces, but also clearly recognisable representations of persons were extracted and arranged into a photo gallery at the “faces of the riot” website. This in turn offers a link to the original moving images.
You primarily archived and recontextualised the blurry representations from this both astonishing and mind-boggling portal.
The particular blurriness seen here is mainly the result of the low quality of the material. You used the faces and excerpts as you found them, not modifying them, but had to convert the image data to your chosen print format (10×10 cm plus white space) and thus digitally extrapolate them. In this process, pixels are computed optically soft once again. Your images thus have no hard-edged stair pattern. As a result of the choice of paper and the offset print quality, the images also acquire a special surface feel and satin finish. They appear to lie almost like powder on the paper, as if they could be blown away by the next gust of wind. One thus has to hold the book as material in one’s hands to appreciate this quality. Any digital reproduction in the representation of the book would not do it justice, like my attempt to provide an illustration in the blog article.
What I personally like about the book is the insistence of the conception and the poetic handling of difficult and equally explosive image material. On the one hand, it is the number of faces (with reference to more than 5,000 online representations) that unsettles, and the particular representation of people who appear to have just come from a Halloween party. Contrary to the content and attitude of the images, you are nonetheless successful with this work in making certain that one enjoys holding the book as material and as a product of your conception, wants to hold it in one’s hands and look at it longer as a well-composed object.
It also seems important to me to mention that the photos you present immediately animate one to study the moving images at the “faces of the riot” website. Although the viewer is of course completely free to choose to do this or not.
I in any case spent quite some time viewing the perpetrator material.
The shameless procedure of filming oneself, family, friends and allies in the context of an illegal event of this kind and of presenting it online in itself demonstrates monstrous stupidity and audacity. Equally astonishing is the composition of the mob, which appears to include all age groups (with the exception of toddlers) and skin colours – a mob in which the members of various extreme right-wing, subversive groupings prepared to use violence could be clearly identified. Just as disturbing are the recorded verbal commentaries and interjections of the people filming and being filmed.
Your book thus provides the opportunity to bring the still images and the blurry grimaces to life virtually and to animate them online. This is reminiscent of currently popular business ideas, like those offered by the platforms artivive.com or paper.plus. Yet, it is not primarily your intention that your book be viewed in connection with the “faces of the riot” website. However, naming the image resource and the related blurb on the back cover of the book remain deliberately placed references within your presentation.
When one considers the themes of your previous artist books, this publication seems to be special. Your current visual work seems like a warning call that could hardly have been formulated with words. Not to be compared with the content of other smallest editions originating from you, which have often been composed with a great deal of humour. How did you reach the decision to use “faces of the riot” as an image resource? And how were you able to decide on a selection in the work process, given the many online images, or why were there finally 480 faces you wanted to show us?
Dear Birgit Wudtke,
I think that I, like many people, was in a state of media shock during the term of the 45th President. The omnipresence and the constant questions of what will he do now, what comes next seemed to never end. It is not without reason that books like George Orwell’s “1984”, Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America” or Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism” once again experienced a Renaissance. The election of Joe Biden was an enormous source of relief for me, but, as recent history has shown, the story was not over yet, and led to the storming of the Capitol, an attack against democracy and second impeachment proceedings.
The “faces of the riot” Internet site was generated with the help of facial recognition and put on the Web by private persons. The material originates from the participants themselves, who wanted to boast and present their actions in social media like “Parler”. With facial recognition or “face detection”, an algorithm searches for facial patterns. The created data are entered into a database and are then compiled on the “faces of the riot” site into a manhunt grid. Those who recognise a face should report this to the FBI. The portal seems like a contemporary pillory and is laden with controversial content and interpretations. Who was involved, who was possibly only a journalist, who is hunted and how?
In the book it was less about taking up the idea of the pillory again, and much more about giving the horror a face, and particularly a not immediately classifiable face. Many of the selected images seem alien-like, and that is how this entire storming event appears to me. How many science fiction films are there in the Hollywood tradition in which the Capitol is attacked by extra-terrestrials? That it would be a wild mob and become reality remains inconceivable. There were several aspects of the theme that interested me. On the one hand, the sheer atrociousness, but also the bewilderment relating to the events and the history that preceded this.
There is usually a more humorous aspect when I otherwise work with found material. It might be the photographically failed vacation memories of a slide archive or the cover photos of Heimatromanen (folkloric pulp literature with a focus on old-fashioned country life), which are lent a different kind of absurdity with sentences of dialogue.
The events dealt with in POTENTIAL SIGHTINGS remain absurd, but it is in this case a societal, not a humoristic aspect. The project is a visual contemporary document that documents the rupture and the division of a society.
When “faces of the riot” went online, I was interested in several mechanisms.
The images shown are generated from the material of the perpetrators that was uploaded to the “Parler” network. The ostensibly closed system of the sympathisers was then hacked and there was a shift from them boasting with their deeds to their being hunted.
Because this is an artist book, we are less bound to a more conventional appearance. Instead of page numbers, we decided in favour of a cryptic pattern of stripes that results in the suggestion of the American flag on the edge when the book is closed. An image results when all stripes come together. The indifference of the people shown feeds into the horror that results from the revealing of the source.
Following the long and intensive time i spent with the faces, it quickly became clear to me that the idea should not be to reproduce the actors 1:1, but that the goal instead had to be a more diffuse picture of the dismay and horror. The horror that the collection arouses lies not only in the pictorial representation, but also in the mentality, the mass conviction for which the images stand. Shown could be anyone. Simultaneously, one starts to look at the images differently and tries to recognise or interpret something and is not provided with the clear face of the alleged perpetrator, but instead with a diffuse picture of dread, in which painterly aspects can also sometimes be found. These are all people in the photos. Part of a mass that constantly goads itself on, whipped up by the most varied groupings and agitators. The spark of false information that leads to the storming of the Capitol was ignited by a longer process. The agitation is a targeted attack on democracy. It is thus an abstract image of evil, or the picture of a danger, lashing out all around itself, caused by false information (“the stolen election”). The picture of a mass psychosis.
1 Volker Renner interviewed by Peter Lindhorst: “Das Nächste bitte!”, Photonews 2005, https://photonews.de/blogphotonews/das-naechste-bitte, called up on 15.06.2021
2 Malin Schulz in the lecture: “Was ist Tabu”, https://creativemornings.com/talks/malin-schulz-was-ist-tabu-uberlegungen-einer-artdirektorin, called up on 15.06.2021