In the mid-1990s David Claerbout began making work at the intersection of photography and cinema. Using their porosity and their differences he creates stunning spatio-temporal paradoxes. But listening to him, he seems to be in a state of conflict. In this interview, conducted at the same time as his exhibitions at Galerie Untilthen in Paris (18 October– 22 December 2018), Annet Gelink Gallery in Amsterdam (until 5 January 2019) and at the Abattoirs de Toulouse (until 10 February 2019), the Belgian artist, born in 1969, talks about the fundamentals of his work, which aims to go beyond the ‘totalitarian’ nature of the image.
——— Your recent exhibition at Galerie Untilthen, organized around Riverside (2009–2018) and Radio Piece (Hong Kong) (2015), places sound at the centre of your work. This aspect has never been discussed though.
How important is it to you? I’ve only made four or five works on sound and hearing but whether its visuals or sounds, I’m always looking for phenomena pushing towards the sensory trash can. Radio Piece (Hong Kong) is the more literal of the two because it takes up the theme of real estate and buildings to say that the head—the space between the two ears—must become a true space of refuge, one in which we can live. The sound of the work was recorded with a binaural system that is equivalent to virtual vision. I always perceive ideas in a dichotomy. On one side the visual and on the other the sound. For the first, I had the idea of uninterrupted movement, in this case a long travelling shot behind, starting from an image hung on the wall, passing through a room and a window before showing the building’s facade, a building in Kowloon’s old vertical slum. For the sound, it had to be a journey in several parts of the building, inside but also outside. What interests me is the spatialization of sound, its movement, while the body remains motionless.This refers to the curse of the image that can take us a very long way, in our head and in time, but always immobilizes the body. The image suggests that certain biological processes are temporarily forgotten and that everything that passes before the eyes, sight, which is the dominant sense. This is a question I often think about: in the face of visual domination, how to address the other abused or forgotten senses? Is this domination also at work in one of your photographs, Orchestra (2011), which shows the conductor and the audience turned towards the lens? They’re photo- graphed at the moment when the orchestra is supposed to start playing but doesn’t because of the spectator looking at the image. The scenario seemingly can’t take place as long as the spectator is there. I question the nature of photography as the time of its ‘disappearance’. Indeed it is experiencing an eclipse as painting did with invention of photography. The latter lived 180 years. Conceptually it can’t continue.
Why? It’s lost the shared authenticity between the one who looks and photographs and what is photographed. The image’s virtualization has broken the link and reintroduced a thought image, whereas photography had made it possible to stop thinking about the image and introduced an unprecedented speed of the image. With digital technology, the image is again like a painting.
From the beginning, photography has been
a thought image. By definition, photography is permissive. It has no programme. It can receive anything. Photography was a truth. It has become a proposition.
You said you were looking for phenomena pushing towards the sensory trash can.
What do you mean? After Bordeaux Piece (2004), I really understood that I was trying to give a voice to the background, to the elements that didn’t belong to the film, that didn’t have a role, like in this work that uses the same scenario at different times of day, the movement of shadows or everything that made up the decor. I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with cinema, more hate than love. I oppose the image’s totalitarian nature, which can only serve as the foreground, while our eyes are made to search further. My entire work’s project is to use sensorial residues to try and collaborate with my enemy, the image, and to find what will never have the opportunity to exist in the foreground. I’ve always been a healer of the accidental image situations.
For example? Since the very beginning of my work, I’ve been working on old photographs, like Ruurlo, Bocurloscheweg, 1910 (1997). The village in this 1910 image had changed, but the tree was still there. I could film it and embed those moving imaged in the photograph. I’ve always hated working with analogue tools, like photography or moving images using film, and I quickly felt that digital technology would force us to question our relationship with the image. Virtualization involves questioning everything, abandoning all belief in the image. It reintroduced speech to the image.