Interview: Joan Fontcuberta, Landscapes without memory

 Joan Fontcuberta, Orogenesis Pollock, 2002. I first came across Joan Fontcuberta's Orogenesis series when I picked up a copy of the Landscapes without memory book in Arles last year. The series is deceptive; these aren't photographs but computer-generated images created by software renderers that are designed to produce 3D images based on cartographical data. Fontcuberta decided to explore the possibilities of the technology by feeding it misinformation: instead of giving it a map to read, he fed it the visual data contained in famous paintings or pictures of different parts of his anatomy. The results are these "landscapes without memory."

The thing I like the most about Fontcuberta is his ability to explore philosophical questions on the nature and contemporary practice of photography while remaining engaging and frequently hilarious. I did this interview with him for the Landscapes without memory exhibition which has just opened at Foam in Amsterdam (until 27 February 2011).

Marc Feustel: How did you first encounter photography and what was it that attracted you to the medium in particular?

Joan Fontcuberta: It was in high school. Our art history teacher was a photo amateur and set up a darkroom for his pupils. The magic of photo processing immediately fascinated me. My father ran an advertising agency and I was also very curious about the world of models, photographers, filmmakers and so on. During the holidays I spent time watching and learning at the agency. Later on I joined the creative department of the agency and worked there for three years. At the same time I was studying at university: sociology, communications, semiotics… With that background what used to be an exciting passion became a more serious thing: a way to understand my physical and cultural environment.

MF: You have said that photography should not only be taught in fine art schools from an aesthetic perspective but in the context of philosophy as a tool for critical thought. In your view, is this critical thought something that is lacking in contemporary photography?

JF: I have noticed a perverse phenomenon in contemporary art: artists abdicate their discourse to critics and curators. Their work then just becomes an illustration of someone else’s discourse. Maybe that is the price they have to pay to achieve some form of recognition in the art scene or market. Luckily there are exceptions. Presently I am very curious about ‘found’ and ‘trash’ photography and could mention the names of Joachim Schmid, Penelope Umbrico and Erik Kessels. There are many other intelligent, radical voices in other approaches as well… I am optimistic. Regarding critical thought, Marcel Proust said: “Le véritable voyage de découverte ne consiste pas à chercher de nouveaux paysages, mais à avoir de nouveaux yeux.” (“The true voyage of discovery does not consist of searching for new landscapes, but of having a new pair of eyes.”

Joan Fontcuberta, Orogenesis Derain, 2004.

MF: The images in Landscapes without memory are created by using three-dimensional imaging software designed to render landscapes based on maps. Can you explain a little about the process for making these images and how you discovered the software that you used to make them?

JF: I used several 3D renderers (if you search Google you will find dozens of them). I discovered them in the Banff Center for the Arts, in Canada, in 1994, where I was invited to lead an art residency on the concept of “The Transient Image”: an international gathering of visual artists exploring the mutations of technological image making. There I learned about virtual reality technologies and became fascinated by the possibilities they offer to build illusionary spaces. It was an ironic paradox that a center located in a national park in the Rocky Mountains, surrounded by such magnificent virginal nature, went to that much effort creating virtual models of invented nature. In any case, all this software functions on the same principle: cartographic data is translated into a 3D relief. However, I deceived the computer and instead of inputting a map, I input a masterpiece of landscape painting or photography. The software is constrained to output a landscape, whatever the input. It must produce an image within a vocabulary of limited terms: mountains, volcanos, valleys, rivers, oceans… And this is the point: a landscape is recycled into another landscape. This subversion unveils another gesture: we make computers to produce hallucinations, we push technology to let its own unconscious emerge.

MF: Since the New Topographics, landscape photography has occupied a growing space in the world of fine art photography. But contemporary landscape photography seldom depicts the beauty of 'natural' landscapes, like the work of Ansel Adams for example. Is there still a place for photography that celebrates the beauty of the natural landscape?

JF: This is a debate about beauty within aesthetic categories. Of course there is a place to celebrate the beauty of the natural landscape—as currently happens in postcards and calendar plates. The question is which kind of beauty are we interested in? Should art just provide visual pleasure or should it rub our eyes with sandpaper to disturb our conscious and provoke a reaction? The philosopher Eugenio Trías believes that the sublime substituted beauty, and that the sinister has then substituted the sublime. This notion of sinister derives from Freud’s “Umheimlich” and refers to a sense of distortion and oddity. I wonder if we are now experiencing a mutation towards a new, hybrid category. I have in mind a sentence by Picasso: “The ugly may be good; the beautiful will never be”. He meant that something considered beautiful conforms to a standard taste, whereas something considered as ugly may confront our present sensibility and bring out a new one.

Joan Fontcuberta, Orogenesis Turner, 2003.

MF: Contemporary landscape photography often focuses on the tension between man and nature. However what we are seeing in this series appears to be ‘pure’ nature, with no trace of man whatsoever, and yet these images are entirely artificial, a man-made fantasization of nature. How did you develop the approach to this series?

JF: Many of my projects deal with landscape, or how landscape should be understood today. For instance, in Securitas I borrow keys from people and project them onto photographic paper. The result is a horizontal line simulating a mountain ridge. It is a minimalist idea which epitomizes the essence of landscape as related to safety and property. Thus landscape can be defined by ideological and political approaches, rather than aesthetic ones based on a resemblance to nature.

Now let’s go back to the roots of landscape as an autonomous genre. Until the seventeenth century, natural space was just a subordinate background for portraits or historical scenes. The birth of landscape inverted the established visual order of things, giving priority to that which had been traditionally considered merely as escenography. Landscape painting has only been recognized quite recently, when artists achieved the right to contemplate nature without the justification of human anecdotes. To contemplate nature without, let’s say, being seen. In my Orogenesis landscapes nobody looks at us, they are brand new and consequently exempt of human experience. On the other hand, they constitute a sort of postmodern statement: they illustrate that the representation of nature no longer depends on the direct experience of reality, but on the interpretation of previous images, on representations that already exist. Reality does not precede our experience, but instead it results from intellectual construction.

An additional concern in Orogenesis is artificiality and more precisely artificial nature. Let’s ask ourselves the question: could a natural nature exist? The answer is no, or at least, not anymore: man’s presence makes nature artificial. Until the sixth day, Creation was natural, but at the seventh it turned into an artifice.

MF: With the proliferation of digital technology, more still photographs are being made than ever before, despite advances in other media like video. Do you think that people would still be as attached to photography if it were no longer perceived as a document of reality?

JF: Yes, certainly. Photography is dissolving into the magma of images. It is losing its historical specificity, but is beginning to fulfil other functions. I just published a book titled Through the Looking Glass about cell phone photos and their circulation through the Internet and online social networks. Teenagers are not interested in photographs as documents but as trophies. When Martians finally invade the Earth, green lizard-shaped aliens will emerge from their spacecrafts. They will fire at us with laser guns but we won’t hide nor protect ourselves. We’ll take our cell phones and we’ll photograph them to prove that we saw them, to prove that we were there when they arrived.

Joan Fontcuberta, Orogenesis Weston, 2004.

MF: Interestingly all the images in Orogenesis depict incredibly dramatic, over-the-top landscapes. Is the software capable of depicting an unremarkable landscape, like an empty field or a barren wasteland?

JF: Sure. However if you keep the default settings the software is endowed with an unconscious model oriented towards spectacular landscapes, something that should make us reflect on its inherent ideology. There is a glorification of the mountains as symbols of spiritual achievement and purification. I exaggerate that feeling because the resulting wild and imposing landscapes must be read as a parody. Somehow that excessive sense of drama leads to a sense of kitsch, or is reminiscent of the ahistorical landscapes of computer games through which players travel in search of predetermined adventures.

MF: Can you explain a little about the significance of the title ‘Landscapes without memory’ and the absence of memory in these landscapes?

JF: There has been a common strategy in contemporary art focusing on landscape as depictions of territories where a tragic event occurred in the past. The place is presented metonymically as a remnant of the event itself, it wouldn’t interest us without the history behind it. So usually landscapes exist because they hold those layers of memory. However, Orogenesis displays landscapes beyond the influence of time, frozen in an uncertain geological age, without any trace of culture or civilization. There is no echo in them, no voices or shouting that have vanished into the continuity of life and oblivion. There is nothing to commemorate there, nothing to remember. A kind of ‘degree zero’ terrain. Thus, they are landscapes without memory—well, with the exception of the memory of art.

MF: Humour is less obviously present in this series, but in general it appears to be an important aspect of your work. What role does it play in your photographic practice?

JF: Let’s go back to classics: “Castigat ridendo mores” (“One corrects customs by laughing at them”): that was the Latin motto for comedy. I belong to a Mediterranean hedonist sensibility—which might be the contrary of a Calvinist one. There is an illustrative folk saying: “Good girls go to Heaven; bad girls go to everywhere”. Humour is not only an ingredient to enjoy life, on the same level as good weather, wine, sex and fiesta as the cliché goes. A great deal of contemporary art is too solemn and boring. In my work humour is like a filter trying to put forward serious proposals but in an appealing and exciting manner. Laughter is a revolutionary impulse, the great antidote to the poisons of the spirit. As Nietzsche said: “We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once. And we should call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh”.

Seasonal picks

As the French art world shakes of the last of its summer tan, here's a list of some of the exhibitions to look out for in Paris this autumn, including (shock, horror) some non-photographic selections: Harry Callahan: Variations, Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, 7 Sep. - 19 Dec.

William Kentridge: Breath Dissolve, Return, Marian Goodman Gallery, 11 Sep. - 16 Oct. I don't know how I did this but I managed to miss the Kentridge exhibition at the Jeu de Paume this summer so I will not be missing this.

Takashi Murakami, Château de Versailles, 14 Sep - 12 Dec. 2010. After Jeff Koons last year Murakami is the next to tackle the most famous French château with as much kitsch as he can muster.

Gabriel Orozco, Centre Pompidou, 15 Sep. - 3 Jan. 2011.

Anonymes, l'Amerique sans nom: photographie et cinéma (Walker Evans, Chauncey Hare, Standish Lawder, Lewis Baltz, Anthony Hernandez, Sharon Lockhart, Jeff Wall, Bruce Gilden, Doug Rickard, Arianna Arcara et Luca Santese), Le Bal, 18 Sep. - 19 Dec. (Review of this show coming soon on eyecurious).

André Kertész, Jeu de Paume, 28 Sep. - 6 Feb.

Larry Clark: Kiss the Past Hello, MAMVP, 8 Oct. - 2 Jan.

Thibaut Cuisset: Syrie, une terre de pierre, Galerie Les Filles du Calvaire, 12 Oct. - 6 Nov.

Moebius Transeforme, Fondation Cartier, 12 - Oct. - 13 Mar.

Duane Michals, Galerie Thierry Marlat, 26 Oct. - 18 Nov.

Mois de la Photo, November. 30th anniversary of the biennial month of photography in Paris. Expect more photography than ever all over the city.

Eikoh Hosoe, Galerie Photo4, 5 Nov. - 4 Dec. Organized by yours truly.

Prix Pictet, Galerie Les Filles du Calvaire, 13 - 27 Nov. The sustainability photo prize is holding a preview exhibition at Filles du Calvaire this year.

Paris Photo, 18 - 21 Nov. Annual photo mayhem.

Review: 10 years of in-public

Street photography is a strangely controversial photographic genre. When I started blogging, I was a little surprised at how divisive it seemed to be within the photo community and its ability to get people worked up, whether they were in the 'for' or 'against' camp. As with many other photographic genres 'street photography' is a pretty broad appellation. There is no dictionary definition of it but a fair assumption would be that it refers to photographs taken in the street (I won't wade in to the debate on whether those photographs have to be 'straight' i.e. not to have undergone any manipulation, as that is a blogpost in and of itself), which seems to allow for a fair bit of artistic license. And yet, street photography seems to find itself in a bit of an artistic ghetto, often being, or feeling, completely ignored by the art world. I have already added to the recent debate surrounding Paul Graham's essay The Unreasonable Apple on this subject, which, although it doesn't deal with street photography specifically, is a good place to start to get an idea of what the fuss is about.

To use a musical analogy, I sometimes think of street photography as the jazz of the photography world. A genre that requires great timing, a strong sense of improvisation and that appeals especially to men with beards. Arguably the progression of street photography over time has mirrored that of jazz pretty closely. Jazz went through a series of creative explosions in the 50s, 60s and 70s through which the genre was constantly radically redefined. Since then, it is generally perceived to have been unable to reinvent itself and people think of it as an old-school genre rather than a contemporary one. I think much of the criticism that is levelled at street photography follows a similar line.

I am like Switzerland in my position on street photography: neutral. I'm not instinctively drawn to it, but I definitely don't think of it as irrelevant or unworthy of a place in the art world. So I was intrigued when Nick Turpin recently sent me a copy of his latest book, 10, 10 years of in-Public celebrating ten years of in-Public, the street photography collective started by Turpin that is now twenty members strong. This seemed like a good opportunity to see a broad cross-section of what is going on in street photography, with ten images from each of the group's members. I won't name them all here, but a special mention has to go to fellow bloggers Blake Andrews and Jeffrey Ladd.

It's always difficult to review a book that covers as much material as 10 as it is never going to be entirely coherent with this many different voices being represented. For me the real strength of the book is that it makes a strong case for the continued relevance of street photography today and more importantly for how diverse a genre it can be. To go back to my musical analogy, yes this is a compilation album, but its more like one of those artfully put together Soul Jazz numbers than a 'Now That's What I Call Music' #472. You get work from right across the spectrum: classic be-bop images, fizzing hard-bop, free jazz, to the more spacey ECM ("most beautiful sound after silence") style ... thankfully I didn't spot any easy listening shots in here.

There are some attributes that are common to much of the work in this book: a sense of humour, a penchant for the surreal, but the overriding impression I got was one of a real diversity in style and approach. For my money, street photography really comes into its own when these moments captured on the fly can be woven into a broader tapestry of some kind, not necessarily a narrative, but tied together in a way that transforms them into something more than a collection of well-composed moments. This isn't the case of all the photographers in the book, but when it is, as in the case of Trent Parke (whose recent book Bedknobs and Broomsticks sold 1,000 copies in three days), it can be really rewarding.

The book includes an essay by the Guardian's Jonathan Glancey and interviews of all the photographers by the photography writer David Clark. Rather than posting several images, you can get a nice preview of the contents of the book in the slideshow below put together by Turpin. 10 is recommended, if nothing else as proof that street photography is alive and well.

10 years of in-Public, London: Nick Turpin Publishing, Hardback, colour and black-and-white plates.

Rating: Recommended

A dirty word?

As a lot of readers out there will be aware, a recent essay by Paul Graham, The Unreasonable Apple, has been making some waves (ripples?) in the photography/art world, and of course in our beloved blogosphere. I apologize for wading in on this discussion so very late, but it seems to me that there are a few points that have not been raised as yet. The main thrust of Graham's piece is that, "there remains a sizeable part of the art world that simply does not get photography. [...]  [P]hotography for and of itself—photographs taken from the world as it is—are misunderstood as a collection of random observations and lucky moments, or muddled up with photojournalism, or tarred with a semi-derogatory ‘documentary’ tag." This is a question that is unavoidable to anyone interested in photography who has stepped beyond the confines of the photography-only community.

Relatively speaking, as an art form photography is still in its infancy. This has several implications: firstly, a certain, potentially justified, inferiority complex or sense of exclusion within the photographic community vis-à-vis the art world; secondly a broad spectrum of reactions from within the art world ranging from a wariness or even disregard of 'straight photography' to a seemingly even-handed "who gives a shit what the medium is as long as the art is good"-ness. So where does 'straight photography', "photographs taken from the world as it is," stand?

My instinct in these kind of discussions would be to look at the data (past lives are to blame for this). How much is 'straight' photography represented in major art fairs versus other disciplines, how much does it sell for versus other types of photography and media, how many modern or contemporary art museums show 'straight' photography exhibitions? Sadly this is not information that is readily available to me, so I won't be winning this debate with some beautifully constructed Excel charts and will have to rely on my avowedly limited personal experience.

While I think it is an overstatement to argue that photography is somehow ostracized from or maligned by the rest of the art world, I believe it has yet to consolidate its standing. Until very recently the Tate Modern, one of the biggest contemporary art institutions in Europe, did not have a curator of photography. The Centre Pompidou in Paris does not do more than one pure photography show per year (this kind of unwritten rule doesn't apply to other media). My impression is that many modern or contemporary art museums are still reluctant to present straight photography exhibitions. Where I disagree, reluctantly, with Graham is in his plea for the art world to look up and take notice, giving straight photography its due. Ed Winkleman says it best: "anyone who had been promised that the art world was going to be fair should demand their money back." The phenomenon of artists being widely celebrated (and even a little bit rich) in their own lifetime is relatively recent... I believe Picasso was the first to orchestrate this... and as photography has only been accepted as an art form over the last four decades or so, it seems normal to me that it is still struggling to find its place.

In terms of the commercial art market, photography is everywhere: you won't see a contemporary art fair without a healthy dose of our beloved still images. But, my impression is that straight photography — as opposed to the photography of Jeff Wall or Thomas Demand mentioned by Graham — has less of a place in contemporary art circles. There is a sense that being a photographer does not carry the same weight as being an 'artist.' The word 'photographer' implies craft rather than concepts or ideas, key measures of values in contemporary art, and craft has become a dirty word in the art world synonymous with pottery or glass-blowing (to quote Blake Andrews). Some photographers have even attempted to rebrand themselves as 'artists', presumably to escape the photographic ghetto. One measure I think will support me here is price: I'm pretty sure that if you compared the price of straight photography to the price of 'contemporary photographic art' for lack of a better term, you would see a pretty significant disparity, even between individuals with similar visibility and at a similar stage of their career. If anyone's got an account with artprice or one of those services, feel free to check this out!

Let's say that you accept that straight photography is lagging behind the leaders of the art pack (insert your preferred reasons here), what should be done? While I understand his point that the only thing you can do is to make the 'best' art possible, I was truly surprised by Winkleman's idea that if you "get out there and make better art than anyone else around you ... the world WILL notice." This strikes me as more than a little naive for such a consistently intelligent commentator on the art market. Does anyone truly believe that the art market (or world) is a state-of-the-art machine, constructed to ensure that the better art is, the more it gets noticed (see a previous post on this)? Just take a look at the world of consumerism: products don't sell more because they are better, there are a million other factors that determine their success: advertising, marketing, lack of competition, pricing, demand, the total irrationality of the consumer, etc.. The art market (I am taking the liberty of equating the art market with the art world here, including public institutions and not only commercial galleries) is precisely the kind of market which is riddled with imperfections: it's tiny, full of different hand-made products each claiming to be totally unique and it's ruled by a handful of major players with a controlling market share trying to sell to a handful of buyers who have all the money. And even if the art market were a utopia where the best art would rise to the top, where exactly is this universal yardstick on which the quality of art is being measured?

There is also the notion, expressed by Jörg Colberg, that photographers are just wasting their time worrying about what photography is, that this navel-gazing is causing their self-inflicted ostracization from the art market. The suggestion here seems to be that if they just got on with making photographs they might be taken more seriously. I tend to agree with Blake Andrews on this one: I see this kind of internal debate and questioning as positive signs of photography's health. And even if it bores you, it is by no means restricted to photography: take the major debate over the death of painting in the 1980s for example. Questions on the boundaries of art, on what art is and what it isn't, are not exactly new, indeed they are a natural and necessary reaction to any major artistic development.

The idea that Jeff Wall, Cindy Sherman, Thomas Demand and James Casebere are "being taken seriously because they are producing images without worrying themselves sick over whether it’s photography or not" runs counter to the history of art. I am currently editing a book on Impressionism, which features a number of letters by Pissarro, Gauguin and Monet. What emerges from the correspondence of these artists with their dealers, friends or their family, is just how deeply uncertain they are about the new things that they are attempting to do with painting and what reaction they will receive amongst critics, collectors and the general public.

My suggested course of action is that we worry even harder about all this stuff, about the nature of photography and about the quality, relevance and importance of individual photographs, and hopefully some of that "better art" will come out of it.

Naoshima: Paradise on Earth?

Chichu Art Museum, Architect: Tadao Ando, Photographer: Mitsumasa Fujitsuka

For this post, I am allowing myself to stray from our beloved photographic shores, but I assure you that it will be worth it. Last Friday I attended a conference at the Palais de Tokyo given for the opening of the exhibition on the Benesse Art Site Naoshima project. This was a pretty star-studded affair: super-architects Ryue Nishizawa and Kazuyo Sejima of SANAA, Hiroshi Sambuichi, Patrick Bouchain (I was half-expecting Tadao Ando to appear from a hole in the stage), with a guest appearance by Christian Boltanski.

Benesse Art Site Naoshima is a fantastically crazy project that was begun by Tetsuhiko Fukutake, the CEO of a publishing company, in 1989 as part of a promise to develop the island of Naoshima. The project is now run by his son, Soichiro Fukutake, who shares his father's eccentric vision of how to conduct business. Benesse (derived from the latin to live better) is Fukutake's modest attempt to "create a new independent country inside of Japan" which could be considered to be "heaven on Earth". This is a man who clearly spends very little time thinking inside of boxes.

Benesse House, Architect: Tadao Ando, Photo: Tadasu Yamamoto

The project began with a series of architectural commissions by Tadao Ando on the island of Naoshima, including Benesse House and the Chichu Art Museum, and has now been extended to the neighbouring islands of Teshima, Megijima, Inujima, Ogijima and Shodoshima, and to other architects. Fukutake might sound like a megalomaniac who can't get enough expensive toys to play with, but seeing these projects outlined it is clear that Benesse is much more than that. At the center of the project is a desire to rethink the relationship between art and architecture and to experiment with new possibilities in this field. Fukutake also believes that "culture is superior to the economy" and that the latter should therefore serve the former (6% of his business's capital goes to the Benesse Foundation). There is a genuine attempt to involve the inhabitants in the developments of these projects and to give them the right to veto anything they don't like. The project is helping to redevelop the area, to give the aging population of the region more and better opportunities to earn a living and is even succeeding in attracting the younger generation from Tokyo to settle there. Christian Boltanski, who is preparing a museum of heartbeats as his contribution to the project, described Benesse as a utopic project, "in the important and rare sense of the term."

The only dampener on what was truly an inspirational few hours, was that the exhibition includes a number of Naoya Hatakeyama's fantastic prints, notably of the Chichu Art Museum, and nobody bothered to tell us (or him!) about it.

I would recommend going to the exhibition (although I have never really been blown away by architectural scale models), but, if you can, skip that step and just book your tickets to Naoshima right away. Next summer the first edition of the Setouchi Art Festival will be held on Naoshima and the neighbouring islands... sounds like a pretty good opportunity to me.

Go'o Shrine, Hiroshi Sugimoto: Appropriate Proportion, Photo: Hiroshi Sugimoto