Images Are Consuming Us!

Excerpts from a conversation between cultural studies scholar Alice Grünfelder and Irene Sauter which took place at the end of November 2009 in Zurich. 


Alice Grünfelder: Your origin is in minimal art, and as you say, you continue to feel a strong connection to it, but in the recent years phenomena external to art are increasingly infiltrating your work. In "Enjoy Your Meal – An Everyday Sculpture", for example, you had guests served an excellent dinner while exposing them to diverse sequences of film.  These images – predominantly images of war taken from European and US television news programmes, hard cut, and including offset, short sequences from advertising and entertainment – were projected in a space without sound on four metre high walls. Regardless of where the guests directed their gaze, when they looked up from their exquisite meal, they were always confronted with what were at times rather stark images...


Irene Sauter: During the Vietnam War, Peter Weiss wrote that people were by breakfast-time spreading hundreds of "new" dead from the morning news onto their toast with marmalade, or he wrote something to that effect.  I presented "Enjoy Your Meal" at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam, where I spent two years "exclusively" doing art. Before that, I had already been working eight days each month as a picture editor at a broadcast news' station.  This regular, repetitive and intensive confrontation with news images had already made an enormous influence on me, one from which I was unable to withdraw after a certain point.  I had to begin to work with it.  The surprisingly high aesthetic quality of images of current events taken by photographic news agencies frightened and fascinated me at the same time.  

While I was working in Berlin, I felt more like a "guest worker" among the journalists. In Amsterdam I lived in a nearly hermetically isolated world of artists.  The war in Kosovo was in its worst phase at that time, and most media's reporting of the war reporting revealed less and less rationality to me as the situation in the Balkans came to a head.  In which absurdly packaged way were we supposed to digest this information? 

In "Enjoy Your Meal", I had wanted to unite these two worlds.  In the process, this action really wasn't fair to some of my artistic colleagues who had come from war zones or regions that had been shaken by war, such as the Balkans, Belarus, Indonesia, China, etc., or from Argentina, which was at that time sliding into a major economic crisis.  Significantly, however, the greatest response and constructive criticism came from precisely these colleagues. 


AG: When they see documentary works like this, one critic or another may quickly drop the term "Betroffenheitskunst" or "shock art".  


IS: In recent years, electronic visual media – with their enormous range of possibilities – have increasingly come to take the place of language.  We live in a society shaped by visuals. "The Century of Images" has been proclaimed and people are developing a growing need to comprehend the contexts regarding the images in the broadest sense.  For many, the internet has already achieved the transition from a text to a visual medium.  And of course, artists are also reacting in that they're working with the special potential of this media, and for example, are using it artistically to convey their outrage about the consequences of globalisation, neo-liberal economic policy, war or misuse of data.


AG: Can you name an example?


IS: I find the work shown at the Biennale in Venice in 2007 by American Emily Prince – who is still young – impressive in the simplicity of its artistic means.  On a large wall, she traced the outlines of a map of the USA. Then she filled the space that had been created with passport-sized, drawn portraits of US soldiers who had been killed in Iraq, the photographs of whom she found on the internet.  In the meticulously drawn portraits she preserved the face of each soldier about whom she could get information about. In addition, she also writes something about his likes or characteristics.  In this way, something similar to a final, individual dignity is returned to the dead, the images of whom the American military keeps under lock and key, and whose coffins may not be photographed. With this type of memorial, the artist is taking a silent, but effective position on the current politics of her country.  

This work leads us to an interesting interface: While one critic relegated the genre to classic portraiture, another classified it as – in her eyes – dangerously close to journalism. 

This work is liberating for me. The artist isn't standing "between two worlds" anymore. Instead, he establishes a connection between these different worlds and observes which respective levels of communication are sparked and how communication is transformed as a result.  


AG: Nevertheless, documentation has already been booming in art for a few years.  

In your work PULL, you renew your use of images of war, but stop the machinery of moving pictures and as a result, you interrupt the manner in which we are accustomed to utilising images. You've taken stills from these sequences, made photographs of them and then printed them individually on simple paper towels.  


IS: Yes, this material was necessary so that the person viewing the photos would also perceive them physically by taking the printed paper towels and holding them in their hands.  With this work, I wanted to show as well, that photos are quite capable of, as Susan Sontag writes, simultaneously being documents as well as art, even when they are taken out of context. 

In her comparison of aesthetic and documentary images, the philosopher Juliane Rebentisch challenges that documentary images can also be art, because at the moment  the documentary image becomes art, it becomes divorced from its content and is an aesthetically independent form.  Rebentisch says that an artistic photograph actually detracts from the actual subject, whereas a documentary photograph has absolutely nothing to do with subjectivity. What makes art is the interruption of automatic understanding, of our daily seeing and thinking. 




Nevertheless, both Rebentisch and Sontag ask the same explosive and always current question of when it makes sense for media to show pictures of misery, because the misery of the world is such that it cannot be eradicated from the distance of a documentary image.  Sontag even goes as far as making us all into voyeurs whether we want to be or not, perhaps except for those who are directly involved with people suffering during a disaster – doctors for example. Journalists who are the first of their trade to arrive in an area affected by a natural disaster often begin their reports with letting the victims speak directly to the camera. These people often say they haven't had anything to eat for days.  If Sontag's inquiry is taken seriously, then shouldn't at least nine of ten reporters drop their equipment immediately and begin organising some food? 

What do we actually do with this routine triggering of emotional reactions? Violence and suffering – sandwiched between advertisements and entertainment – tend to be served up more readily as a form of consumer good rather than information, even if genuine journalistic intent motivated it originally.  For most people, these images provide a titillating shudder that satisfies their lust for the sensational.   The short half-life of the shock nevertheless barely lasts until the next day.  


AG: But isn't that merely a human attitude? In 1755, Voiltaire had already written about how shaken he was emotionally when he heard news of the Lisbon earthquake. He wrote that it triggered a wave of emotional shock in Europe, and that he vacillated between pity for the earthquake victims and concern about himself, and that since the disaster, he would not dare to whine about his own colics.   A short time later, he then said that he should nevertheless not neglect his business. 


IS: ... and back then, the good man certainly didn't see a single photograph of the earthquake, because photography didn't exist back then, and nevertheless, he was deeply moved, simply by reading the news. Back then. Some time ago, during a long ride in the car I heard a feature on the radio about famine in Somalia, which is not reported on by televised media for the trivial reason that there are no moving pictures of it.  The reporter strikingly described the scene that unfolded as food was being distributed in Mogadishu. A father who did not have a proper container for his soup simply held up a plastic bag, but the bag had a tiny hole in it.  After the distribution the man immediately ran to his family with his body hunched over as he held his free hand beneath the bag, trying to catch the valuable food that was dripping out of the small hole. Although I did not really "see" a single picture, as I listened, my brain seemingly produced such strong internal images that, later, when I remembered this scene, I asked myself where I had seen it.  In the meantime I know that communications researchers call these inner worlds of images "imageries", and that these can be somewhat stronger than televised images that are broadcast and quickly lose their power because they are repeated and seen so often. As a result, these touch us less and less, let alone remain in our memories. 

After this experience I asked myself even more often, "How much visual information do we actually need?" And, "Do we actually really begin to act after we've been informed about something?" "And if we consume more information, then are we likely to act sooner?" I'm afraid not.


AG: That would mean then, going back to the word in order to limit the misuse of images, in order to prevent the further brutalisation of our senses, in order to prevent this kind of visual overkill?


IS: If there had been photographs back then, Mr. Voltaire, at the first sight of the images of the earthquake victims, would've certainly, in addition to the pity that was already there, spontaneously reached into his coat pocket, grabbed his purse, shaken it out, and sent the entire contents to Lisbon that very day.  It's known that the readiness to make donations after natural disasters, for example after earthquakes, skyrockets immediately after the first images of victims are broadcast.  Pure printed information de facto doesn't manage that. Because images activate our memory, and with it, related moods and emotions.  They affect us directly and immediately, because our brains process them more quickly than text. Frequently, the first contact with an image determines if we will have sufficient interest in further information about it or remain immune to it. Never before have images been given so much space in news reporting as they are today.  Yet every major potential can have devastating effects when it is reversed. And this destruction is already taking place in several areas. Perhaps, Richard Serra is right when he maintains that, for example, televised images consume us, rather than the other way 'round. 


AG: Let's get back to your work. Because information also plays a central role in the book editions. 


IS: In recent years, general questioning has been taking place that originated from the debate about how the media handles information. That inquiry is, namely, how we actually access information, take access to information for granted, how we then exploit the information and how through it, we also define ourselves in the broadest sense. 


AG: Why, of all things, did you pick books as a medium to do that? 


IS: I wanted to give the viewer a very specific feeling, and a book seemed to be the suitable object with which to achieve that.  It is universal, archaic, the prototype for information per se, and – I find – still one of the most wonderful means of communication the world has to offer.  Everyone who can approach art has also already reached for a book at some point. They've opened it and read in it. So I can take the physical experience as a component of communication and incorporate it in my work.  

And a book has a captivating simplicity that allows me to make my way back to the periphery of minimal art again. 


AG: So you could say that you're on your way back home to minimal art?


IS: Yes, you could say that. (laughing).




Photo: Henning Bothe


Translation: Taryn Toro


copyright 2009-2010 IRENE SAUTER