Corrupt Artefacts and Digital Ruins: An Interview with Anika Schwarzlose



10 minutes reading

Artefacts, the current series from German-born multidisciplinary artist Anika Schwarzlose (1982), looks at the distortions of cultural artefacts via digitalization and the current trend towards creating replications of realities. Looking at archives of ancient figures, architectural structures and sculptures, Schwarzlose collects objects whose purpose is dictated by their materiality and alters them in her visual reproductions. The project examines now-redundant artefacts while looking at how these objects have shaped cultures. In this interview, Schwarzlose questions our reliance on digital artefacts as an alternative to their physical representation as she talks with us about the project and contemporary culture’s need for digital preservation.

Your series centres on the shaping and preserving of collective memory, can you explain what this means and why you see it as an important part of society today?

One thing the images of the series Artefacts have in common is that they are so-called mnemonic devices – devices which function as externalized memory and objects at the same time. They are still autonomous objects and have an aura as things in themselves. But they also help us form a collective memory of our shared history. This collective memory is what constructs our social identity, our perception of our past and the way we decide about our future. The way memories are mediated, dispersed and archived has a great influence on us. Images and objects and their mediation have the power to enhance, corrupt, extend or replace memory.

The artefacts that are produced are basically transforming the picture of that artefact into a new image.

In what way do you think these objects affect memory? How does that influence what you decide to do with them in your own work?

These objects are prosthetic help for remembering. Each of them is made from a certain material; some are made from marble, others from concrete and that latest one from rope. The material always plays a very specific role in determining what these objects are good at recording.

For all of these objects and their capabilities of representing, their materiality used to play a big role. But what we do now is we only treat them as images. We photograph these mnemonic devices and share those images online. We remake them once more; we're turning them into another layer of reproduction. This kind of digitalisation has limitations and potential qualities. There are certain things that you can communicate very well in a digital representation and there are other things that you can't communicate at all. There are certain vulnerabilities. By treating the images as I did in my series, I tried to probe around to find out: what is this vulnerability and what are the possibilities?

What’s your process in the creation of these images?

It's a scanning process. I just used a really regular flatbed scanner and all these images I took from books, museum publications, archives, libraries. While I'm scanning them, I'm moving the images. This movement of course produces glitches and that’s also where the double entendre of the name of the series comes from. The digital artefacts that are produced, are transforming the picture of historical artefacts into new images.

Due to the alterations, the meaning of the artefact changes quite a lot. Did you intend to alter the audience’s understanding of it?

Exactly. The technique is so destructive that the image is quite fundamentally altered and in turn becomes something new. I took care to maintain a certain recognisability to every image - so that you can still relate to, what I described earlier, the materiality of it. Even if the content of the image, the object becomes almost unrecognisable. I think it's quite important that you can still trace that back.

Yes, there are traceable features that you are able to associate and make connections with...

Exactly-even though the composition of the image changes. For example, the Storm Flood Barrier from the dam landscape used to be a horizontal image but the way I treated it, is that I pulled the image down the scanner in wavy movements and I created a water landscape in front of this concrete barrier and turned it into a vertical image. In this case I invented certain parts of the image. Sometimes I did the opposite, I just removed a part of the image. There is one that is called Fragment of a Colossal Head. It's this big glitch in front of a blue-ish background. It used to be the whole part of the face but I just removed all the facial features - the eyes, nose, mouth. Then what remained is just the chin and forehead and then the glitch in between. It becomes unreadable as a face, but you still see it is some sort of a sand stone.

Was it the material that dictated how much destruction and glitches to cause, or did this just evolve through your experimentation?

It was really a lot of trial and error. I went about it quite intuitively - it was a bit like when you first pick up an instrument and in the beginning it reacts completely unpredictably. You have no idea what will happen but, after a while, you notice you like if it goes in a certain direction and then you experiment a bit more in that direction and at some point you just get results that feel right.

Your work doesn't focus only on photography, there is sculpture and installation included too. How do they all relate to one another?

I am very much working interdisciplinary. I have a really strong background in photography. I think I work with principles of photography – like reproduction, dispersion and copies. I'm just not exclusively active in the medium of photography - I do not only work with prints and photographs alone. I'm a visual artist so I'm definitely rooted in image making. Even when I work three-dimensionally it's still connected to photography-related subjects.

How do you see the project developing now that you have multiple collaborators participating in the project?

For me it's quite natural, I'm not really this type of a lone wolf artist. I'm always collaborating in one way or another. Sometimes with people from the non-arts sphere.

The project we will show next year is a continuation of what I’ve exhibited in Sweden at Skånes Konstförening, but it’s a collaboration with another artist from Zagreb (Petra Milički) a young art historian from the Netherlands (Suzie Herman) and the audiovisual artist (Brian D McKenna), but also a university and different organisations are involved. We aim to develop an image data base that can function as a work of art and as a research tool in the same moment. It's very much in the making, we've just got the research grant so now we're spending the next two months working it all out.

Now that you're collaborating with people, do you still see these style of images being created or is there a different direction you are taking?

We will work further with these images but what I'm personally still very excited about is a different technique that we're going to use. Brian McKenna and I have been traveling during the summer through the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium where we started recording monuments. Real life monuments. The technology is called photogrammetry. A photography based 3d modelling technique that at the moment archaeologists are very excited about. I think there are even several projects which are attempting to record religious artefacts and historical and cultural heritage in the Middle East. As the war wages on regions like Syria or Iraq – these scientists are very concerned to find a way to preserve things.

I think that if we are busy recording and archiving our surroundings in that way, the question becomes, are we getting a little more comfortable losing originals?

We already made a couple of models of monuments and looking at our results, and looking at the results of other archaeological projects using the same techniques, I bump into really severe limitations. For example in our images we photographed quite large objects from the ground - so we couldn't get a top view, that means they don't really have a top. There is always information missing, and this is when the software invents visual information.

It creates something that it thinks should be there...

Yes - you get some artificially generated noise and this is incorporated into the model. Or you get gaps; missing information. When I looked at our results – on the one hand they are quite beautiful, on the other I would really call them digital ruins. They are quite impressive: there is a lot of potential in recording our surrounding environments in this way.

But, I find myself thinking: isn't there also some danger to this? Isn't it maybe a bit cynical to focus on the visual preservation of the cultural heritage while you allow war to wage on in this country, because we can just come over, capture what is important to us, put it in a databank and… what then? And this recording: it is nice to have them, but they have nothing to do with the originals. They are very, very limited depictions. In the end, it has nothing to do with the original cultural heritage.

Now in many places in the Middle East, as the monuments and cultural artefacts are being destroyed, there is no longer an authentic representation out there. So isn’t it the case that the digitalisation is becoming important, because this might well be the only representation the culture has left?

That is the very positive part of this project, that it allows in a relatively easy manner to produce documents, I agree. On the other hand, I think that if we are busy recording and archiving our surroundings in that way, the question becomes, are we getting a little more comfortable losing originals?

There have been studies showing that, since our communication functions primarily via visual representation of certain objects and certain subjects, the fact that certain species of animals are becoming extinct right now is actually not phasing people that much, because all we would ever get to see of them anyway is their visual representation. Often we will not travel to the place where these animals live. We will not see them in nature. So, to us, it actually makes no difference, because we have a huge database of all kinds of visual content representing the world around us.

I see this as an exciting part of our social and cultural development but also a dangerous part as we become very comfortable letting go of physical surroundings in favour of their digital representations. For me this is a fascinating phenomenon.

How do you see people’s attitudes towards these objects change when they become digital?

I think my generation and younger, when we think of really important cultural artefacts, whether paintings or sculptures, we don't really think of the time that we went to go and see them, but we rather think of a multiplicity of versions and reproduction that an image search would give us because that’s how we experience those things. With certain monuments you can see the consequences of that kind of perception very literally, for example with the so called Spomeniks in ex-Yugoslavia.

A lot of architecture that remains from the socialist past of ex-Yugoslavia is very much deteriorating. The Belgian photographer Jan Kempenaers documented a lot of those monuments and published an aesthetically beautiful, really gorgeous photobook of them. These images proliferated online very quickly for a number of reasons, one being the fact that they are clear geometrical shapes and they are really pleasing to look at on a screen. These images just went completely viral, and everyone knew what these monuments looked like all of a sudden, but people didn't know their context and their meaning. What happened is that the object became pictured and the picture became sort of 'meme-ified' - it spread like a meme. When an image turns into a meme it’s the same as when you repeat a word really, really often; it loses the content, it loses the information, it rather transforms into a sounds and rhythm.

That’s also what happened to these kinds of objects. They were translated into images and they proliferated like crazy, and all of a sudden there are all these versions. Their background and meaning seems to almost dissolve. It’s very difficult now to talk about what the individual object meant.