Re: The middle class
Having recently presented an intriguing solo exhibition at Galleri Riis in Stockholm, C-print talks to Norwegian artist Morten Andenaes about his ongoing project about the middle class composed of a seemingly disparate set of images while also getting his point of view on the ever popular medium of photography.
C-P: You pursued a BFA at the renowned School of Visual Arts in NYC. How did you find your time at the school?
M.A: My time there was spent getting as much out of their fantastic facilities as possible. I can’t say that the program offered at SVA was tailored to my interests, given the school’s focus on educating photographers eligible for work in the high-end commercial market - my interest always laid outside of the commercial aspect of photography. That being said however, one of the interesting and unavoidable facts of photography is its inextricable link to commerce, so going to a school where this was a large part of the curriculum taught me to appreciate the full reach of this system, and of course, as with any school, it’s the teachers you meet along the way who have a lasting impact on you, that matter. In my case there were two such teachers in particular, Darryl Turner and Barbara Pollack.
C-P: Would you say that living in NYC also has had any impact on your work?
M.A: I spent five years in New York City, and it’s difficult to enumerate the ways in which that city left its marks on me. Living in New York when you’re in your early twenties is of course bound to influence you in ways you seldom realize there and then, and laying aside for the moment the ubiquitous art and music scene, there’s a less noticeable way of thinking influence. I moved there in 1998. I didn’t own a cell-phone all the years I lived there, and though the Internet was up and running at that point, it was still not as integral a part of my everyday experience as it is today.
My favorite recreation in the city was to get off the subway at some random point and simply walk for hours on end, stopping in at any and every bookstore, to peruse the shelves on the lookout not only for new discoveries, but perhaps more importantly the links between various kinds of knowledge and ways of thinking. If there’s one thing I miss about living there, it would be this. Though I’m able to have a somewhat similar experience browsing the net from my home in Oslo, it’s not the same... I do think all of this is reflected in my work, in the sense that I’ve always had a great interest in bringing together all kinds of different discourses as a kind of anti-hierarchical and individualistic sum of knowledge.
C-P: C-print reflected about the medium of photography in a previous feature, namely its role today as opposed to the past. In a time where photography is more accessible than ever and little formal training seems to be needed to achieve a certain level of quality, I get the impression that staging and the choice of subject play an even greater role as a result. Your working mainly with photography, it would be interesting to know if you have any reflections on this matter.
M.A: Well, first off, I don’t know if I’m in complete agreement with the premise that we’re now in a time where staging and the subject play a greater role... The staged subject has always played a large, if not a dominant role, in the history of photography, and the idea of the snapshot which supposedly lays bare a slightly less ‘staged’ reality, is quite a recent invention. If one adds to this a deeper inquiry into the nature of the snapshot, and particularly this idea of it being a tool which captures slices of lived life, it has in my mind always been the case that the subjects; your children, your spouse or your friends, always to a certain extent composed themselves when the camera was pointed their way.
We can agree that less formal training is required today in order to use a camera. However, that too, is separated from the past only by a matter of degrees. My first camera, a Pentax k-1000 had only a manual setting; a light meter, shutter speed dial and aperture ring. After having exposed the film one could simply take it to the film lab and come back the day after to pick up an envelope of finished images. Obviously smartphones have opened up the space for many who never made pictures before, but the fact is that making use of a smartphone and all its editing capabilities requires a great deal of knowledge which we, media-savvy users that we are, simply take for granted.
C-P: Sure, I definitely find myself doing that. In your opinion, where would you say that the biggest change lies then?
M.A: Well, where I think the advancement, or the supposedly democratic application of photography has had the greatest impact, has to to do with the relation between two seemingly opposed ways of making images. On the one hand, the camera is being used for the purposes of self-affirmation. One could go so far as to say that even those images of us on various surveillance cameras around the city could be said to consist of composed subjects, because the very knowledge of the ubiquity of these cameras changes our behavior in the cityscape. So on the one hand then, we’re making use of the pose more willingly and less abashedly because, as postmodernism has taught us, identity is always a creation; I am who I make myself out to be at every turn.
On the other hand what we see more and more is the supposedly unmediated and unfiltered photography of the moment. This is obvious from the low quality jpg’s reaching us from various uprisings and civil wars in rather closed countries, but it’s equally clear from the much more mundane social media sites; here is my dinner, my happy Christmas, my long slender legs etc. These two versions of the photograph seem to be diametrically opposed as the staged fantasy vs. the documented real. However, it seems to me that they’re actually fundamentally looking for the same thing, and it is perhaps here that the shift from previous times lay. They are both mainly concerned with affirming the presence of the photographing subject, here and now. These images, both the staged and the supposed documentary are not meant as images first and foremost to be placed into an archive which can then later be retrieved, but rather as an embodiment of the new-agey idea of living in the moment. It would seem as if photography has shifted towards becoming a medium concerned chiefly with the consumption and dissemination of presence, rather then a medium which preserves and archives absence.
C-P: On a personal note, I’m quite drawn to photographs that have a narration. Or more precisely, those that allow you to envision a story solely based on a specific captured moment. I believe your work does so many times as in the cases of 'Property of Others', 'Them' and 'Sisters'.
M.A: I think it’s safe to say that I, and most people are drawn to narration, but we should be careful not to necessarily think that narration is something that is inherent in the image. No, it’s something we project onto it. In order to create coherence, our minds make narratives. That being said, narrative, and its relation to the photograph has been something that has occupied me a great deal, and as I progress, I get more and more aware of an impulse in me to make it more difficult for the mind to actually create coherent scenarios as to the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of a given photograph because I think this idea of a photograph as a slice of life, with a before and an after, is a misconception, or rather conceals something we should be aware of.
The images you speak of here, especially 'Them' and 'Sisters', play up the speculative nature of the photograph. Because of photography’s framing and simultaneous deletion of certain information in a given scene - it is open to all kinds of interpretations. When we look to images as slices of life, as ‘moments’ in the Bressonian way (editor's note: referring to French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson) of thinking where the photograph is just a split second for us to stop and wonder in amazement at the scene, what’s being missed, or glossed over, is the photograph's ability to show a kind of tear in the very fabric of reality. This fissure or uncertainty, opening onto some kind of void or inherent emptiness, is obviously something most people would rather be without. Narration then is perhaps a kind of self-protective measure, what comes to the rescue when confronted with something potentially devastating. It appears as a kind of certainty, and this certainty is what I’d like to challenge with an image like ‘sisters’. This image has a certain instability to it, something clearly out of reach, a blank that we as viewers must fill in order to go about our business.
I have always been very drawn to the visual grammar of melodrama, and soap-opera in particular. In the latter, a ‘tag-shot’ is a way to end a scene, a kind of cliffhanger usually right before a commercial in which the camera focuses in on a medium or tight shot of a character, for what appears to be a few seconds too many. Its success is dependent upon the face of the actor being able to evoke an uncertainty, of both the scene and their own reaction to the events just played out. Within the soap-opera however, as opposed to the photograph, events continue after the break: our anticipation is given a certain release. However, if we think of the soap opera as a continuous story, it, like photography is predicated on the impossibility of closure. It goes on and on for years on end, much like how a photograph, however pointed, allows for an infinite number of interpretations and alternative views...
C-P: Tell us a bit about 'Regarding the Middle Class', an on-going project of yours composed of a seemingly disparate set of photographs. Why the middle class?
M.A: I’ve been working on this loosely knit project for about five or six years now, and at this point, everything I do is incorporated into the project. Though it might seem as I say ‘loosely knit’ or confusing on account of its myriad modes of representation and subject matter, there is a very consistent thread running through the project. The release of my book 'SKYLDFOLK' in 2013 marked the end of the first section of this project, whilst 'enclosed circuit' and 'enclosed circuit x' in Stockholm both in 2013 are the beginnings of section two.
The works in the first section of the project are marked by a consistent yet undetermined point of view. The reproductions of scenes from everyday life, people and objects are sober and apparently neutral. The images mirror a gaze, an attitude and a stance which attempts to domesticate their surroundings, without admitting to this motive. Thematically the project has dealt with the constraints, both in the sense of responsibilities and ‘liberties’ imposed on the individual by both family and society, as well as the ensuing violent impulses such restrictions and straightjackets might cause.
This project was not something I set out to do - there is no clear starting point, and there is no end in sight. After many years of working, it dawned on me that what really brought the work together was a viewpoint, and a stance, both literally and figuratively taken vis-à-vis whatever was being photographed. The more I worked with this, the clearer it became to me that this stance, this way of ‘regarding’ the world, with all the different meanings of that term, had the potential to say something much more pointedly about the middle class than a simple documentation of a certain segment of the population and its markers of identity ever could. At some point it dawned on me that what I was doing, was treating my own gaze as a kind of inherited gesture, a social democratic original sin if you will, which subsequently would say something about the norms and ways of apprehending the world that I’ve inherited, not simply from my family, but as someone belonging to a larger ‘family’, a society.
André Gali, who wrote one of the essays in 'SKYLDFOLK' put it very aptly when he described my project as a sociological study of my own gaze. Through my own way of viewing the world made manifest in the photographs, and the subjects I choose such as courts of law, Norwegian owned hotel-chains, typical holiday destinations, prisons, family and more, we are constantly reminded, despite all notions to the contrary, that we still very much live within ideology. At the same time, what the images and the project as such makes clear, is the impossible nature of attempting to analyze a system which one is a part of, or conversely, a system which is a part of you, of your way of thinking. I am not an outsider saying something about say 'the poor' or 'the exotic' as is the traditional stance for the documentary photographer - instead, I’m an insider, unable to get outside of not only the images, but the whole system of thought which spawned this specific world view.
C-P: In your exhibition 'enclosed circuit x' last year at Galleri Riis in Stockholm, you presented 'FUCK', a series of photographs depicting a gun against a green backdrop. There are just slight alterations in the positioning of the gun in the different shots. In spite of there not being any trace of mobility, there’s an undeniable sense of menace in the images. As if someone is just about to grab the gun and put it to use. I’ve noticed that guns and rifles occur also in your previous work. Where does this interest stem from?
M.A: No doubt guns and weapons have been a consistent area of interest for me since the very start of the project. The way I deal with them however, from the early images of air-rifles and other supposedly non-lethal weapons to the very real Heckler & Koch handguns against the green screen, has changed considerably. This difference can also be seen as the difference between the first part of the project, and the second part. One of the defining characteristics of the images in part one is the ambivalence inherent in the stance taken vis-à-vis the subjects. Ambivalence is more than just a word or an image having numerous interpretations, it is to have numerous conflicting feelings about a given situation, object or person. I also use the term in the sense of something unintelligible or unreadable; a stance taken towards the subject that can’t easily be accounted for by the viewer. The apparent neutrality with which the images show people, objects and situations, is in fact a very manipulative distance where my motives, or reasons for showing the thing in such a way remains fundamentally undecided. This forces responsibility of interpreting the image onto the viewer.
With the weapon images such as 'air rifle', 'the other room' and 'shafted', what we’re confronted with are images of essentially harmless objects, air rifles and an axe shaft. They are photographed in such a way that they appear as you say about the guns from the 'FUCK' series, to be laid out for our grabbing them.
The way all the images of weapons are laid out for the taking would probably register as a slight increase in the temperature of the palm of your hand if measured scientifically, adding a very physical dimension to the experience of the photographs.. I’ve always thought of images as kind of pure surfaces of projection, where we can safely fantasize about different kinds of scenarios in order to live out thoughts we might not dare to in ‘real’ life. So these images tend to function like private fantasies where we get to fantasize about killing our neighbor or whatever, and yet, if someone asks, we can simply say that we’re enjoying them as aesthetic objects in and of themselves - we can so to speak, have our cake and eat it too. We can have our private fantasy, and rest assured that we have an alibi if we do not want the fantasy to become public knowledge.
With the series 'FUCK' consisting of some 34 images of a handgun resting on a green screen, the status of the weapon and its relation to the term 'ambivalence' has changed. Ambivalence, rather than having to do with the distance in the photograph or as an analogy of the dynamics in an interpersonal relationship, is now in section two of the project more systematic. Violence and fantasy are no longer just implicit as destructive potential or unfulfilled desire, but become an injunction and public spectacle.
So whereas you as a viewer were allowed to fantasize in private earlier, these images with the green screen background basically force you to imagine, as you do, someone else or yourself picking them up and doing something with them. One of my thoughts about these images is that when someone tells you to fantasize (which is why I see these images as akin to hard-core pornography rather than the erotica of the earlier weapons) you basically hit a dead end. There is something at the same time potent and very impotent about these images. If we only saw one of them, we might feel differently, but seen as a collective, as an ordered series, they have some strange madness of reason...
C-P: 2013 seems to have been quite a busy year for you. 'enclosed circuit' was not only shown at Galleri Riis in Stockholm but also in Oslo at the gallery's other premises. The year also saw the release of 'SKYLDFOLK' which you mentioned before and on top of everything, you had some of your works showcased at Art Basel. What are you currently working on?
M.A: At the moment I’m simply working, reading and writing which is nice. Last year was fairly busy as you say, but now, luckily, I have studio-time again. I’m currently in the early stages of thinking about a new exhibition to be shown in November 2014 at Galleri MELK, an artist run space that I’ve showed at earlier, and a show to be held at Galleri Riis in Oslo some time in 2015. In addition, I’m working on something for this year's Art Basel with Galleri Riis, and a collaboration with FotoGalleriet, Galleri Melk and the Journal Objektiv to be shown at Paris Photo later this year.