It happens Interviews

An explosion of images for an eternal present

In a world dominated by immediacy, our relationship with documenting and evidencing our experiences change

Interview with Joan Fontcuberta

Photographer

By December 2020December 15th, 2020No Comments
Photo by Lorenzo De Simone

In a crisis, in no man’s land

One piece of good news among the many bad ones: there are smart people around us who are committed to serve the world. Douglas Rushkoff – that you can follow on www.rushkoff.com – is one of them and he warns us that “What used to be called the art of governing became a constant attempt to manage the most diverse crises”[1]. We have been going through a one-year long crisis and, even though it became clear to everyone that this was not an unexpected emergency, we still seem surprised, thus unprepared to seek solutions. A pandemic “happens” to break out and even a year on there does not seem to be a clue about what to do. We are lost and even causes and effects, that used to be very distinct from one another, are now confused.

Our future and our past seem compressed into an infinite and ever-changing present- “a present that requires the abolition of the past, as it’s transient, and the future, as it’s unimaginable”[2]. In a world dominated by immediacy, Forward suggests to stop; at least long enough to flick through these pages or to listen to Joan Fontcuberta’s words, following his advice to retrieve an historical perspective that makes sense again of what caused our current reality and that gives us the strength to consciously inhabit that “no man’s land, between the horizons of experiences and expectations”.

[1] Rushkoff D. Presente continuo. Quando tutto accade ora. Torino: Codice edizioni, 2014.
[2] Fontcuberta J. La furia delle immagini. Note sulla postfotografia. Torino: Einaudi, 2018.

 

You followed different artistic and intellectual paths during your career- artist, theorist, philosopher and teacher. Does Joan Fontcuberta still take photographs today?

I never stopped taking photographs and I don’t think of myself as a philosopher or a theorist. I’m a humble artist, a creator of images. I’m extremely curious; in fact, curiosity has been the driving force of my entire work. During my artistic career I devoted myself to teaching, to historiography and delved into the creation of the images of visual culture, as I believe these were never separate disciplines but rather they were connected to the centre of creation. What I mean is that history provides a canvas to begin creating from. I cannot create anything from nothing but I need to know the context I’m in and what past preceded me. Therefore this historiography work was essentially a way of utilising some knowledge to carry on. Paul Virilio used to say that the invention of the ship is the invention of shipwrecks and that the invention of the locomotive is the invention of derailments. I would add that the invention of creation is the invention of sharing what one creates. It isn’t possible to create without explaining and sharing. We don’t create for ourselves but for others, thus the teaching part is implicit. I don’t conceive creation without a reflection on my goals and on the context I’m creating in. Ideas are never spontaneously generating from nothing, instead they are connected with all currents of thought, so it would be completely unproductive of me to disassociate from this framework and claim an isolated and individual geniality.

Does photography help you keep track of a lifetime journey? In other words, how much can we trust photographs to retrace the journey that got us where we are?

You used the term “trust” in your question, but what is trust? What can we trust? How do we build trust? My entire philosophy is based on suspicion. I support doubt as an assessment system, to avoid dogmas and prejudice; therefore I would say that nothing is reliable. We should fight the concept of trust and always remain in a constant state of uncertainty. For this reason I believe that representing reality through photographs, or any other mean, is always a speculative reconstruction; as such, it does not represent anything more than one possible model among many other ones. I could state that photography had a fundamental role throughout the XIX and the XX century, but if the question is whether it offers a reliable model then my answer is that nothing is reliable, let alone photography.

Representing reality through photographs, or any other mean, is always a speculative reconstruction.

If photography is an instrument to create reality, can we trust the reality it captures?

The question recalls different currents of thought and philosophical beliefs. Nowadays our lives are impacted by concepts of quantum physics that contradict the principle of reality, which means that during this interview, for example, I am looking at you through a video, but once I close my computer and stop seeing you on the screen you will still continue to exist. Your existence is independent from my role as an observer, though according to quantum physics reality varies depending on the observer’s experience. Therefore, based on this new philosophical stand, what is the point of talking about reality? Firstly we would have to agree on what parameters we’ll use to assess it. According to other philosophical movements there are no facts, only experiences. In other words we can’t know anything about reality apart from the fact that we are observing it. They are all elusive concepts. There is great fluidity.

What happened with the switch from analogue to digital and how will the transition be from digital to algorithmic formulas?

There is a progression of immateriality and a change of pace going from experiences to calculations. The world created by artificial intelligence is increasingly reminding us of certain maths and algorithmic formulations. We are heading more and more towards a world where language is no longer an additional element but where it became the world itself- one made of images- in the same way a world made by algorithms substitutes the tangible reality of the computer. I believe we are seeing a sequence of various digital revolutions. The first of these was in 1989, which is the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall, with a resulting new international political framework- Francis Fukuyama talked about the end of history- but it’s also the year in which Photoshop first appeared, taking us onto a new visual framework. This new visual framework rejects the relationship centred on imitation that art had been maintaining with photography until then. We also saw digital cameras and domestic scanners first make an appearance in that same year. A decade later we got social networks, the Internet, mobile phones, instant messaging, CCTVs and facial recognition software- a series of technological novelties that applied to a new visual culture. Then, another decade later, we mastered algorithmic calculations that, thanks to artificial intelligence, succeed in substituting the camera and the eye as central elements in a new configuration of visual culture. We are therefore in a phase where the automated, generative and summarising images have taken over the old framework of images, making for perfect human quotes. Images start to become the language of machines. Machines communicate with one another through images without paying attention to us. That’s why I’m saying that there will come a time when we’ll have to try and regain power over those images that got out of our control.

We are therefore in a phase where the automated images have taken over the old framework of images, making for perfect human quotes.

Is the “fury of images” changing our relationship with documenting and evidencing our experiences?

The concept of “documenting” shifted throughout the history of photography, but it’s evident that photography was most consolidated as a documenting tool from the nineteenth century until the second half of the twentieth century. Nowadays instead this desire to document and evidence is one of different functions. It doesn’t mean it completely disappeared but that there are simply other types. Let’s think, for example, about the ludic dimension: today we often take pictures simply to have fun. Photography is also utilised to take note of something. For example, due to the covid-19 pandemic, restaurants no longer provide menus at the table and they ask customers to take a picture of the QR code with their mobile or to photograph a board displaying the daily specials. Once customers placed the order they can delete the image. In this case there is no desire to document, but the goal is simply to photograph in order to capture visual information that memory cannot hold.

Photography is acquiring a richer experiential role in our daily life: it’s no longer just an evidencing tool but we also use it to communicate. A long while ago photography was similar to writing in that it was subject to the competency of the expert; instead today it’s a natural language that we produce effortlessly. We simply need to press a button on our phone in order to take a picture and if we’re not happy with the result we just delete it and retake it. Through trial and error we manage to progressively improve our ability to create images that capture adequately what we mean to express. The role of photography as an appendix to our communication system is increasingly important and definitively has more value than its original documenting function. In many cases the act of showing a camera, the theatricality of that gesture, has a bigger meaning than the content of the image itself. For example, the act of photographing a singer during a concert is a sign of approval, of celebration, and it means being part of a community that worships that social idol. Photography is truly expanding its scopes and functions.

Photography is acquiring a richer experiential role in our daily life: it’s no longer just an evidencing tool but we also use it to communicate.

We are led to manipulate and alter our image and that of the world around us. Is it possible that all this might contribute to make us lose our own life journey identity?

Perhaps our identity has always been lost. Photography was an orthopaedic element that helped us grow and invent an identity. Today we are observing the selfie phenomenon, the confirmation that we create a mask to put on in front of others. In the past this same mask was made by someone external to us, whether it was a photographer or an artist. Now instead we have ownership of our image and decide how we want to see ourselves and how we want others to see us.

I consider this a form of empowerment because we are no longer subjected to an interpretation that a power, an ideology or an economic system dictated. We can have ownership of how we portrait ourselves- and that’s obviously an achievement- but deep down these new masks, selfies, don’t cease to be constructions based on fashions and more or less standardised forms of social appearance. The fact that I style my hair in a certain way and put makeup on in a certain way means accepting an aesthetic standard, so I adapt my image to feel accepted by society.

How do you think the Covid-19 pandemic is contributing to the dematerialisation of images?

There was a real global reclusion during the pandemic. In many countries citizens had to stay home for months on end without going out, apart from essential reasons such as grocery shopping or health needs. This reclusion into our homes reminds me of Plato’s cave, being confined in a place far from the reality of the social world that we were used to inhabit. We only had our screens, a parapet between us, inside the cave, and outside reality, which we knew existed only through the screen. As a result I believe that the pandemic was one more confirmation of what we could call “the dictatorship of screens”.

Nonetheless, a series of collateral phenomena unfolded, which were also very interesting from a sociological and anthropological point of view. An example is what some experts call “inverted intimacy”. The pandemic forced people to speak to the public from an intimate space such as one’s home. The screens have revealed and still reveal a series of data that would normally be confidential.

We were living a phase of massive production of images. Did the pandemic somehow slow that down?

During this period in Barcelona I worked on a project called “Mirades del confinament” (“Lockdown views”) where I asked those who wished to collaborate with me to send images that would be representative of how they spent that time. To me sharing pictures meant sharing experiences and I built an archive with 64,000 pictures. Next year I will make a big wall panel to try and see what type of pictures people sent me. This will allow for a reliable sociological analysis to take place. For example, several people got into cooking and photographed the bread or the paella that they made. I don’t believe that the production of images was reduced because images are so accessible that we take pictures in a second and we see them as a natural act, like talking. Perhaps pictures aren’t so visible that they reach a public domain, but they are useful as ludic, communication, love and relationship acts. Nowadays we really express a lot of emotions through images.

Perhaps pictures aren’t so visible that they reach a public domain, but they are useful as ludic, communication, love and relationship acts.

Attempts are currently being made, using advanced technologies, to capture even the last private thing we have: dreams. What do you think about that?

On one hand they are exciting and poetic journeys, but on the other they are also very dangerous because being able to visualise thoughts makes us prey to those higher up, the government and terrorism. We live in a time where even the most concealed part of ourselves might get exposed. Poetically speaking art has been dealing and still does deal with the representation of dreams, from fantastic art to surrealism. Gregory Chatonsky, a French artist, instituted a bank of dreams at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The Psychology Department of the University asked everyone to send an account of their dreams for a psychology experiment. Chatonsky managed and curated the database with thousands of dreams on record. These belonged to people from different backgrounds, gender and walks of life. He processed the data utilising an algorithm that searched for the more frequently repeated words and then used the Google image search tool to associate those words with set images. These were then placed in a video format as a graphic sequence. Thanks to that database he created a sort of storyboard that randomly displayed every possible type of dream.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century Hegel took a sort of philosophical selfie in line with the times: the image portraits him and his reflections on the culture of that age. That image is The Phenomenology of Spirit, one of his most beautiful works. Master, do you believe it is possible to take a picture of our today, on the “meaning” of our time here in the West? What technique would you employ to capture it?

I’ve tried to do this at times and always failed, but these mistakes teach you to be more cautious. I would say that the dangers we are facing are about our loss of humanity. Defining what “human” is becomes increasingly complex, as we create more and more robotic technologies, human artificial intelligence that will soon become so similar to us that we won’t be able to distinguish between what is human and what is cybernetic. Therefore- without trying to provide an apocalyptic view- I believe that we should start to think critically about whether we are really heading towards the abyss or if we are able to steer these miraculous technologies towards a more human, more democratic, freer and better educated world.

Your last research and work focuses on randomness. Why is that?

The progress of humanity has always relied on foretelling. Dinosaurs became extinct because they couldn’t predict that the fall of a meteorite thousands of kilometres away would result in a change of their natural habitat. What humanity has always done is try to anticipate the risks to its survival with the use of prediction techniques. In the past there were oracles and prophecies, and whenever an army had to go into battle they would consult the Gods. Once modernity came along the magic of predictions was provided by science. Newton, with the so-called determinism, explained how the world is governed by a mechanical system and if we know the values of each element in that system we are able to predict the future. After that came algorithms, statistics and artificial intelligence, able to extrapolate data and tell us about all the cause-effect relationships.

Nevertheless, suddenly there came the coronavirus, which no one anticipated- or that no one knew how to anticipate- and completely weakened our trust towards this culture of predictions. This is the reason why I am so very interested in the existence of randomness. It’s something that quantum physics defines as being part of nature itself, meaning that oftentimes there are random factors governing how matter functions. Furthermore, over the course of history there were several cultural movements that fought against the concept of randomness, aiming to completely eliminate it, or that did the opposite, leaned into it and generated shapes that the human imagination wasn’t able to generate. That’s why I currently have a strong interest in this topic in relation to photography, also considering the fact that the camera device is a chaotic system. In photography literature we refer several times to memory, truth, time and death. I believe that we should also delve more into randomness and the unexpected.

Written by Argenis Ibáñez and Rebecca De Fiore

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