Sometimes I get tired of the usual composition, of the trained way of seeing. Lately I tried to make photographs that not only depict nothing in particular, but also guide the attention of the viewer around, showing nothing.
The colors guide you in one direction, the focus in another one, and the composition a third. Its only value lies in the movement of the viewers eyes, in the choreography of the gaze.
These things became annoyingly good at generating visually rich images. They are still bad at guiding attention, but perhaps that’s part of their beauty.
Where do people go, when the whole world seems foreign? Where do they find places for themselves? A space to be and not just react.
I find it not easy to fotograph, since I’m aiming to create a portrait of the space, not of the person. More and more they begin to seem inseparable.
With big thanks to Laura and Vanny.
As part of the Critical Zones exhibition in ZKM Karlsruhe, Hanna Jurisch and I offered workshops to experience the Critical Zone in a more direct way. We called it “Kritische Zone riechen und sehen”, or, translated, “Seeing and smelling the Critical Zone”.
The Critical Zone is all about the processes of living, about living organisms and their entanglements. The difficult thing about dealing with the Critical Zone is that our usual mental models that describe the space we live in seem inadequate and insufficient: top-down maps may show geographical features but are frozen in time. Worse yet, they don’t show any chemical, biological, mechanical processes of living, or any living organisms at all for that matter. They capture a specific point of view, not a point of life (point de vue vs. point de vie as Bruno Latour would say). Sure, maps might sometimes show a single tree, but not the other things that make the tree alive – the water level, the rain, the chemical exchange between tree roots and bacterial colonies, the parasites and the birds that hunt them and so on. There is no future nor past in a map, there is no illness, no movement, no birth or death in a map.
It’s not a problem of scale, as it does not change even if we become very local, if we zoom in closely on one specific point. Here an example:
On the left you see the changes to Dubai over a time period of 1984-2016, taken by satellite, looking down on earth from the outside. This is as an extreme example of terraforming and land development, fueled by vanity and the political will to build funny looking shapes into the ocean. And even with this being the extreme example, the timeframe of thirty years is a large one. A casual observer drinking tea in the orbit and looking down on earth would not notice the change brought by our processes of life.
On the right, a flock of common wood pigeons landed in front of my house in Karlsruhe, February 2021. The polar vortex broke in February, covering large parts of US and Europe in ice and snow. The wood pigeons moved from the woods to cities to find a bit more warmth and food. They move as individuals, until they get spooked by an arriving bike driver, and fly away as a flock, as a superorganism.
This slice of life may be human scale, but it still shows just a point of view. The text description above is needed to turn it into a (very limited, admittedly) point of life.
So Hanna and I decided to cast aside the hyper-global medium of maps and hyper-local medium of video, and searched for a new way to get attuned to the processes of living, of all the tiny interwoven actions happening within the Critical Zone. We arrived at similar but distinct approaches.
Hanna would take the workshop participants for a walk and let them gather material, human-made and non-human-made alike. Gather everything that grew around the museum or was discarded by people. All the unseen, unintentional objects in the surroundings. Like a dog that sheds hair, processes of life shed bottle caps, pieces of glass, feathers, drinking straws, leaves, bark, empty vodka bottles, screws, scrunchies, moss and concrete.
All the gathered material would later be arranged into sculptures and new taxonomies by the participants.
My own approach was to try and capture the scent of the world around us.
I let participants gather fragrance materials from within their homes – basically everything that has a smell – and use these to create perfumes. Old coffee grounds, earth from a flower pot, fresh leaves, stale bread, or a mushroom found in the garden – all that was welcome, all that we would mix together into a perfume. A perfume of our own – very local – part of the Critical Zone.
I see these perfumes as true ‘scent maps’ of one specific point of life. Not only were the materials gathered by a person who (most of the time) somehow decided to have them in their lives, scents are also seemingly immaterial witnesses of material processes of life. Most smells that surround us are organic in origin, are witnesses of transformation of matter through living organisms, often unseen by us humans. Smell is a process.
One other thing I particularly like about smells is the sensory parallelism. Sure, some particularly smelly molecule might be overpowering others, but most of the times what we perceive as a scent is a combination of many different scents, many different organic molecules stemming from many different processes of life. And we perceive it all at once – something that is impossible to achieve by mapping the Critical Zone in the usual, top-down way.