continent. maps a topology of unstable confluences and ranges across new thinking, traversing interstices and alternate directions in culture, theory, biopolitics and art.
Issue 5.2 / 2016: 64-68

Oliver Sann

a continent. inter-view

(image by Nina Jäger, continent.)  

Oliver Sann is a photographer. He is also Assistant Professor at the School of the Art Institute, Chicago. Since 1996 he has been in active collaboration with fellow German artist Beatte Geissler. The two moved from Berlin to Chicago in 2008, at the height of a set of economic, cultural and high-technological crises, the reverberations of which continue to propagate. Geissler and Sann’s work concentrates on inner alliances of knowledge and power, their deep links in Western culture and the escalation in and transformation of human beings through technology. It is work on the threshold—dividing document from formed realities—on the border between factual occurrence and the imaginary or fictional bringing-into-being. Their work scrutinizes the inherent idiosyncrasies of media and technology—within the collaborative space of an artist-duo—and interdisciplinary research spanning science, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, political science and contemporary art. Geissler/Sann have been recipients of grants from the Elisabeth Cheney Foundation and the Graham Foundation in Chicago. In 2014 they published their book Volatile Smile with Verlag für moderne Kunst which explores the impact of technology on systems of global commerce through essays and photography. How did you get here?
OS: I flew. What technical systems are operating on us right now?
OS: You are operating an iPhone, we both speak into a Zoom H2 Handy Recorder, plus there's a lot of surveillance in the house itself, and a lot of technology around us. I hear some music from the Kanzler—Angela [Merkel] is kind of greeting us over there. There’s a lot of technology around us right now, right? [Bells ringing very loudly][1] 

Here is some significant technology. Bell making is certainly a form [of technology]. What part of the technosphere do you rely upon the most?
[More bells, interrupting the interview]

OS: Well, that's my answer, I think it's actually the best I can give. That's the sort of technosphere I do rely on. [Bells ringing] It is a form of technology that is very old, and one of the results of the technosphere, and we all rely on that, just like architecture, everything around us, our entire civic society…. [More bells] It’s really hard to say—depending on how you understand it. Paul Edwards, the author of A Vast Machine,[2] pointed out the fact that we always understand that a particular technology we are encountering supposedly is, or makes up, the technosphere, but the technosphere has existed from the beginning of the existence of tools. The Neolithic Revolution is where it technically starts. Therefore, my entire existence is plugged into the technosphere, as is anyone else’s.

Right now, if I have to pick a part of the technosphere that I want, then I would definitely pick the part that is concerned with health care. That is really important and that’s what I want the most. It is not the particular iPhone or anything else—it is an all-encompassing area that is hard to define. And its very character is that it is invisible to us. We just don't really realise—because we never grasp it fully—because the human being is not capable of getting an overview as such.[3] If you ask me about technology as such, then that’s a different thing, but that’s only just a small niche, within the technosphere.

Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann, view from Willis Tower, 2011, Chicago. Courtesy of the artists.

Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann, view from cab south on LaSalle, 2012, Chicago. Courtesy of the artists. What is the technosphere? 
OS: Oh my god! Hard to define – it is the historical, all-encompassing result of our existence as humans—ultimately, all of everything that started off as tools, through industrial revolution, and all these different definitions that are available there.[4] We are trying to figure it out right now...  Please pick one image that resonates with your idea of the technosphere?[5] 
OS: All of these images in some way represent a technology. The mistake is to think that it is something we control, or can control, individually. The one defining thing is that it is bigger than an individual; but how big it is, nobody can say. It is the same with the Anthropocene. We are trying to figure out what we can't, which is overwhelming in a sense. Notes
[1] EDITORS’ NOTE: Everyday at 12:00 and 18:00, the Haus der Kulturen der Welt Carillon plays computer-controlled musical pieces in the exterior courtyard and the portions of the Tiergarten park which surround it. The Carillon happens to be quite close to the courtyard near to where this discussion took place. From HKW: “The carillon was presented to the City of Berlin by Daimler-Benz AG to mark the 750th anniversary of its founding. The initiative was based on an idea by the musician and composer Jeffrey Bossin, who has since been giving regular concerts on the carillon. The tower was intended as a memorial to the carillons in the Parochialkriche and the Garnisonkirche in Potsdam, which were both destroyed in the Second World War.” Haus der Kulturen der Welt. “Carillon.”

[2] EDITORS’ NOTE: Paul Edwards writes, “How did ‘the world’ become a system? What made it possible to see local forces as elements of a planetary order, and the planetary order as directly relevant to the tiny scale of ordinary, individual human lives? How did the complex concepts and tools of global thinking become the common sense of an entire Western generation? How has systems thinking shaped, and been shaped by, the world-scale infrastructures that have emerged to support knowledge, communication, and commerce? How did global thinking become a bumper-sticker slogan?” Paul N. Edwards. A Vast Machine. (Boston: MIT Press, 2010), 3.

[3] EDITORS’ NOTE: Brian Holmes writes of the Willis Tower Trading Centre in Chicago, “the empty rooms of the photographs contain the rigidly modular architecture of contemporary financial power: imposing black rectangles of blinkered vision, the trader’s secret world of screens. On such screens took form the simulated environments of the housing bubble, where inhabited spaces became fictional signifiers of an impossible wealth, before their owners went bankrupt in reality and left them behind as the residue of an historic crisis.” Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann. Volatile Smile. (Nürnberg: Verlag für moderne Kunst, 2014). Abandoned financial infrastructures reveal an uncanny contrast between the vacuity of their operations and their physical remains. Once tools in the hands of most powerful actors, now deserted, diminished into ambience…. A tender pulse remains suggesting their bygone purpose. These miniscule material traces linger, imbued with just enough memory to reveal their prior function and inner processes. Such artifacts scavenge narratives of power and struggle, manipulations and growths—“globalised financial non-places” that cyclically leave behind these dry, empty moltings.

[4] EDITORS’ NOTE: Sann brings our attention here to the origins of seemingly complicated technologies... the primitive state of tools, and how they have evolved into the parasitic and mutating systems which constitute what we are calling here the technosphere—invisible and sometimes intangible. Tools (if there was ever such a simple idea or thing) are conceived of as early figurations of human technology, and have now spatialised and extended far outside the material bounds of individual objects. Many of our earliest human tools carry the memory of warfare, and the abstraction of contemporary conflict transcends primitive weapons as tools for sovereignty and control through complex networks of spatial dominance.

Geissler and Sann, in addition to the abandoned infrastructures and housing presented in their Volatile Smile project, have previously compiled a series of photographs called “Personal Kill” (2007). This collection depicts the interiors of buildings intended for urban warfare-training in the United States. In this series, we see that the city is not a setting for warfare—not a neutral space to be navigated—but is an intricate system that activates and negotiates as a weapon in itself. Cities are developed/controlled through the intensified militarisation of police forces; racial genocide executed through paramilitary operations, infrastructures of public and private spaces maintaining control and accessibility to its citizens.

[5] EDITORS’ NOTE: During the discussions, interviewees were asked to pick from a set of somewhat random images. This collection of different phenomena served as a prompt for thought on the forms of appearance and the visuality of the technosphere. You can view the set here