Suspend your disbelief: Viktoria Binschtok & Michael Schafer on the reality of a new visual world
The subject of photography, in the eyes of, and in discussions with Victoria Binschtok and Michael Schäfer, can mean something entirely different than you’d expect.
The duo was passing through Chennai, on tour with their show With/Against The Flow — Contemporary Photographic Interventions, curated by Florian Ebner and Christin Müller, co-hosted by the Goethe-Institut and Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (IFA).
For one thing, Victoria and Michael are interested in issues related to the digital manipulation of images. Expectedly, they view the news with a great deal of suspicion.
In an attempt to get inside their minds, and to find out how much of the real world is truly believable, we posed them a few tricky questions. Here’s what they had to share...
How deeply does the idea of digital manipulation — of images, of information, and of reality — affect you at a personal level, as thinkers and as artists?
Michael Schäfer: Information, I think, has always been manipulated. But before the digital era began, the photographic or technical image was seen more as something like a proof of a fact. This notion is now under attack.
We might have to change our ideas about photographs and maybe see them more as information, like text. In social media, they become a central part of the communication, and as such, they can be opinions, jokes, wishes or lies…
The big shift in our visual culture brings uncertainty and doubt with it. While this is not necessarily pleasant, it may be healthy in the long run.
Was there a point when you completely lost faith in the news, and mass media? Today, how far can the truth of an image be distorted, and removed from its original? How easy is it to create manipulated information that is instantly, widely consumed?
Viktoria Binschtok: It has always been possible to fake photographic images, long before digitisation. Now, it’s just easier. In this sense, we could never ‘trust’ photographic representations — they are interpretations of reality. In my work, I am interested in how the medium changes the content.
Smartphones and social media, for instance, have brought up completely new images, and changed our relationship to photography enormously.
We have evolved from predominantly passive image consumers to participants of an exhibitionist community who share and rate images. This, in turn, has a major impact on our visual culture.
MS: For me, it is important to get my information from different sources. I try to find out which source has high credibility, but of course, one can never be sure. The manipulation of photographic images is becoming easier and easier.
One can hardly expect photographs to be the vessels of truth. (Have they ever been that?)
In my artistic practice, I try to make it clear that my images are manipulated. I do so in order to show the very nature of digital media — the software Photoshop was created to alter and merge images.
Was there a moment in your personal history, when a certain incident sparked off your particular interest in the way news and information is dispersed in the digital era? At what point did digital media really affect you, and move you to create these interventions?
MS: In the mid-1990s, I became aware that it would be possible in the near future to manipulate digital images in whatever way.
That caught my interest. I thought, and I still think that one of the fundamental qualities of digital images is their manipulability. We live in a post-photographic era — or to be more specific, strangely in a pre-photographic era.
Easy manipulation of images must lead to a loss of trust in them, a trust which was predominant since the invention of the medium. Now, we start to look at pictures again, like people did before there was photography. We read them as messages or statements, not as facts.
Tell us about your earliest experiences with photography, and how your work has evolved over time. Were there any art movements such as of the Dadaists, or the Bauhaus movement that influenced you?
MS: I was first trained as a photojournalist, but quickly moved away from this concept. Over time, I got interested in the news picture as a topic, as something that belongs to my visual environment, like every other thing or item.
I began to recreate this kind of picture by staging and digitally composing my own versions of certain images - to first understand more in detail their rhetoric, and second, to comment on them.
In recent years, the landscape of media images has shifted drastically, and so, I started to use video screenshots as source material for my images.
These might stem from GoPro videos taken by fighters in the Syrian war or smartphone videos from marchers at demonstrations. News images nowadays are less and less produced by professional photojournalists, but come from all kinds of sources.
I always show the difference between the parts of the images that I find appropriate, and those that I take in my studio. The image quality of the videos is very poor, and that of the studio photographs is very detailed. One can see these qualities clash within my pictures.
VB: I started to study photography in the mid-1990s. At that time, I got my first email account and platforms like eBay started. People began uploading and sharing their files with a worldwide crowd online.
All these developments inspired me to do my first conceptual work, 'Globes', in 2002. For my work, ‘World of Details’ from 2011/12, I used GoogleStreetView footage, and for a couple of years, I worked with image search algorithms, in order to visualise a cross-section of our current image production, which has changed significantly over the past decades due to globalisation and digitisation.
What does art mean to you, really, in the age of digital algorithms? Would you ever consider spending your time to see paintings in a museum?
VB: I’m interested in art in general, it does not necessarily have to be photography, so of course, I do spend time in museums.
I have just come from Venice, where I visited the Biennale. It was mainly video, painting and performance that critically grappled with our current crises.
This year, the winning Pavilion from Lithuania, for instance, presented an impressive contribution to global tourism and eco-political indifference, in a musical performance.
MS: I love to go to museums and see art in a real space. I also create my pictures in a way that you have to see them in real to appreciate, and understand them. They are not made to be viewed on the internet.
Do you see yourselves as pioneers of the form of photographic interventions? How do you view works of other forms within photography — for instance, fine art photography and even commercial work?
MS: There are not too many artists who work in a similar way. I see a lot of nostalgia for analog photography within younger generations of photographers, and I think this is not very exciting at all, in most cases.
But regardless of that, I am interested in all kinds of dedicated photography. To view and discuss images is, at its best, like a philosophical exchange.
VB: I wouldn’t call myself a pioneer. Back in the 1970s, artists such as Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince and many others began to engage with photography in a conceptual and media-reflective way.
At the time, mass media was mainly television and print, whereas today, I’m primarily concerned with online images. I see myself as an artist who works with photography rather than a photographer. Nevertheless, I respect all other genres.
Can social media have the power to really change the world for good? How would you describe your ideal conception of what our immediate future holds — looking at the next few decades of the digital era.
VB: Not only social media, but algorithms of large corporations in general, decide which information might be relevant for us.
So, we move on a personalised path through the information jungle of the internet. Of course, that also has an influence on our life offline. I think, there is no way back from this dependency. But each of us has the opportunity to consciously and critically deal with information.
MS: I see social media as a tool, and as such, it has the power to change the world for good. It might be used for that, or also for the opposite. It all depends on society and politics.
I would love to see humans come together, stop war, stop poverty, try to preserve nature, and push back climate change.
It does not look like that at the moment, and that is frustrating because we have the capacity I believe, and for sure, digital technology could help a lot.
Give us an overview of your experiences with photography enthusiasts and viewers in India. How enthusiastic have you found Indians to be, towards all and every manner of tech-oriented discussions?
VB: The participants at my workshop in Chennai were very open-minded and interested in my work. The intensive exchanges also enriched me a lot.
MS: The people I met during my brief stay in India, so far, were very curious and interested to exchange ideas and opinions. I was glad that we were talking about the content of images, and not at all about technical aspects.
To me, most encounters were pleasant, and I was surprised to meet so many like-minded people with regard to social and political concerns.
Does the name of the show also point one in the direction of being completely numb, when it comes to withstanding the flow, or constant barrage of information all around us today? Could the quality of being ‘with or/and against’ also imply emotional numbness, disinterest and a conditioned sense of passive existence?
MS: For me, the title means that we start out working with means available to every consumer: the internet link, and screenshot, for example. We plunge into this flow of mainstream visual information. But then, we take things further, and turn around in order to ask questions, or to develop a critical view.
How would you qualify the emotional content of some of the images in your works? How mixed are those emotions for you, and how would you describe such emotions in the context of social media?
MS: In fact, a lot of my images are emotionally charged. The emotions of the characters in my images carry the critical content of my work.
WITH/AGAINST THE FLOW — Contemporary Photographic Interventions by Viktoria Binschtok & Michael Schäfer, curated by Florian Ebner & Christin Müller was on display at Lalit Kala Akademi, Chennai until December 1.
— Jaideep Sen