Curator KATRIN BUCHER visited media artist PETER KOGLER at his remarkable studio in the centre of Vienna and talked to him about his many years of research into the changing media image.
KBT: You started working with the computer in the 1980s and very early on discovered serial reproduction for yourself and your visual language. What is your approach to it? And in what way have technical developments played a role?
PK: What interested me in the early 1980s was the medium of film. It incorporates the serial element, the seriality: If you unwind a film strip, you have a sequence of images. So there is a technical reason already for my interest in seriality. And secondly, of course, it is a constant in 20th-century post-war art, especially American art. Seriality was a defining feature of Pop Art – if we think of reproductions or editions and their technical means of reproduction – but of course also of Minimal Art, where repetition plays a key role in sculpture, for example. There, too, it is about the production process, the production of many identical units.
KBT: You have created vocabularies of forms, and from these entire worlds in which visitors can immerse themselves. Series, installations that one can walk through, for example, in the architectures that you have covered with your vocabulary of forms since the late 1990s. The experience is really like an immersion in film worlds. Again and again, a sense of being overwhelmed seems to play a role, bordering on overload, an accusation sometimes levelled at the entire media age today. To what extent do your works reflect this overload?
PK: I am in fact very interested in the amount of image information and how
we process this. We can observe how the daily flood of images has increased hugely in recent decades. And how the shift of incoming image information from the computer to the smartphone makes completely new demands on us. The permanent need to process and deliver information has escalated. It will be interesting to see whether this intensification leads to some kind of collapse in the coming years.
KBT: Yes, if not overload, then certainly a huge load at least. Your works are never accusing, quite the opposite. In your work, the sheer endless repetition of the image, the band of images, sometimes has a euphoric character. This appears beautifully in the swimming pool you designed for your French gallerists.
PK: Well, a swimming pool in the south of France is, of course, a special case… (laughs). In the exhibitions I do, I would speak of an accentuated ambivalence. When I started working in the 1980s, there was actually a kind of mood of optimism. There was a sense that digital image processing held enormous possibilities. In the first few years, the advent of the Internet was also associated with great euphoria. People thought that this was now really the democratisation of knowledge, ‘information for everyone’. Of course, 25 years later we have a totally different picture of these inventions in the digital age.
KBT: You have also made passageways that made something like a ‘pull of images’ tangible.
PK: Yes, passageways, corridors, labyrinths, these are all terms that we very easily associate with information culture. In these terms there is already a tension between euphoria and fear.
KBT: Which technical development has had the greatest influence on your work in concrete terms?
PK: For many years I used a reduced visual vocabulary: image motifs like the ant, the tube or the motif of the brain or the globe. Motifs that have a very universal character and are not tied to any specific culture. Then there actually came a moment when I started to open it up. I began to collect newspaper cuttings, etc. in order to build a kind of extended picture archive, so I collected everything that somehow appealed to me in terms of how it looked and its content. This is how the magnetic boards came about, where I filtered everything and put it back together into pictures and montages. In the process, I arranged them according to their associations with each other. So, it’s a matter of filtering, where the collecting and connecting of visual material creates meaning.
KBT: Once, in another conversation, we said that these montages are something like ‘watching yourself think’. Are they time recordings of thinking that feed on the existing information?
PK: Yes, it certainly has something to do with the visual present and reaches into various childhood memories. In my work, the method of montage does not follow any clear rules. It’s more like an attempt to identify through the process of montage how one chooses, how one filters. This raises questions such as: what appears frequently, what gets omitted? These are moments of self-observation.
KBT: In Faking the Real I am also interested in exploring how images and image compositions, image alterations guide us. What, for you personally, is a fake?
PK: You could, equally, ask the question from the opposite angle: does the concept of truth play a role in my work? I’m not so sure…
KBT: It’s not truth, though, but reality.
PK: In these terms we should always talk about the context – I am perhaps more interested in ‘the image in relation to..’.
KBT: What do you think of when you see the title Faking the Real?
PK: It’s strange, I don’t think of anything, really. Because what the Real refers to is not defined. Do you have a clear association?
KBT: For me, Faking the Real is a circular reasoning that has a lot to do with our present of the insecurity of the information age.
PK: Where the one determines the other…
KBT: Yes, and because we all know that there are different contexts, different realities, many ways of getting information, everything is unclear. The insecurity after decades of relativistic deconstruction, meaning that deliberate ‘faking’ almost seems to become the confirmation of reality. And here a development can be observed in art that has long anticipated the desire for fake, for appropriation, for optimisation and re-contextualisation. A development in which it perhaps even plays a significant part. In Zobernig’s Real series, for example, we see how the question of reality is posed and asserted on many levels.
PK: An image, a text, a quotation…
KBT: Exactly, or almost a copy after Robert Indiana, quoting itself several times and yet still an original – Zobernig examines a lot in it in terms of reference systems and consensus. In art, the fake exists on many levels. There is the classic fake that claims to be something else, that is, it pretends to be from a different originator. Here, perhaps, apart from Zobernig, I would like to mention from the exhibition The Center for Political Beauty, which pretends to be the state military and calls on people to hand in their weapons to them. Then there are works that represent the fake itself, such as ORLAN, who ‘sculpturally’ designs her body in such a way that she becomes a fake of herself and the collected beauty ideals of art history. In art, the question of consensus has been asked for a long time.
PK: In art, one is very much bound to approach concepts and attributions in a relativistic way. Duchamp’s readymade opened up the question of definition and, in doing so, also raised the question of consensus in relation to relative realities.
KBT: In recent years, we have witnessed a growing hatred of dissenters. We have seen that the non-consensus of information can become a general state of alarm and thus a
social problem. Here the power of algorithms – unlike your images – is not focused on meaning, but rather attention and profit. Can we therefore still escape from the pull of images?
PK: This is also about terms like alternative truth, fake news, which resonate in the state of alarm you describe. I think people are still willing to accept that there are different camps of opinion. But when scientific facts, verifiable consensus, are widely challenged, it becomes much more unsettling.
KBT: Because then democratic systems are questioned…
PK: Back to art: The problematisation of originality, the aspect of innovation was an argument for the potency of art up until the 1980s. Today, one no longer asks who invented something, but only: What looks good? What is manageable? And what gets the most attention? This question alone makes the fake or the lie an example of a successful image, as we know from statistics. An image generates 0.2 seconds of attention – Warhol’s ‘15 Minutes of Fame’ was therefore greatly understated