continent. maps a topology of unstable confluences and ranges across new thinking, traversing interstices and alternate directions in culture, theory, biopolitics and art.
Issue 1.1 / 2011: 15-20

Rainer Ganahl's S/L.

Františka + Tim Gilman

 

The greatest intensity of “live” life is captured from as close as possible in order to be borne as far as possible away.

Jacques Derrida. Echographies of Television.

Rainer Ganahl has made a study of studying. As part of his extensive autobiographical art practice, he documents and presents many of the ambitious educational activities he undertakes. For example, he has been videotaping hundreds of hours of solitary study that show him struggling to learn Chinese, Arabic and a host of other languages. The stacked boxes of tapes are then presented like minimalist monoliths, dense archives of effort.

About fifteen years ago, Ganahl began photographing the lectures that he attends. At the time, he hadn’t seen anyone else doing it, so besides his spare selection of images of the speaker and the audience, much of the time the lectures would just pass into memory, undocumented, or recorded in writing alone. Since then, he has felt the transition to digital cause a significant shift in his process. At the same time, he has seen the habit become ubiquitous as others photograph, record, and videotape the lectures all around him.

In keeping with the theme of this inaugural issue of continent., can we propose each small grouping of photographs that result an isthmus stretching between two disparate bodies of mind? The first being the body of the lecture as spelled out in the title of each work – the experience of the event in all its constituent parts. The second is the body of the recipient, the listener, in this case an artist, who plays a minimal role just beyond the prescripted behavior of sitting and listening. He uses a gesture of documentation to draw a line between himself and the event, creating an artwork.

Františka + Tim Gilman: As we mentioned before, the theme of the magazine for this issue is "isthmus." It seems like a very good way into your work, and it leads us to ask what connection you see between your photographs of the lecture and the lecture itself?

Rainer Ganahl: The relationship is of course a concrete, pictorial one, or if you want a mimetic one but also an abstract one because the photographs carry the title of the lecture, the names of the lecturers, the site, the institution and the time of the lecture. Photos are fixed moments of time and can reproduce images displayed and reproduce visuals presented at a moment but they don’t come with time based recordings that video or sound takes are offering. What remains of a lecture is usually just the memory, some notes and all the announcements of it. In my case I end up with a visual product I declare as my artwork. It might not differ from any snapshot taken by any other student or member of the audience but I do this in a semi-systematic way with certain rules and procedures I have set up. While I am at a lecture I am mainly focusing on the lecture itself. Last night I went to one of Slavoj Žižek which demanded quite some concentration. I even was asking him a question at the end. I took photos as well but still didn’t lose track of the lecture. I didn’t walk around, I was not preoccupied by where I was sitting and what light I was having like some of the other photographing and filming people in the room who came and left, moved around and tried to capture him from this and that angle, from close and far. I just sat there and concentrated on the lecture and yet managed to take about 30 or so images of him, the public around me and of the film clips he presented.

Once the lecture is over the story changes: it all becomes a question of the images, their selection, their visual qualities, their labeling and archiving. The function of the images also change: not only do they stand for an intellectual event in a row of lectures that become part of my intellectual history within many possible such histories but they also have to function as art, something not everybody else with images of lecturers demands of their images. This is my specific claim as an artist to impose them as artworks. And as with all artistic propositions the offer can be accepted or rejected. I basically spend my life trying to do exactly that: making what I declare as art, offering something to anybody interested in it as my art, an offer that is not and will never be accepted as such by all people.

F+T: What are your criteria for selection, i.e. how do you choose which lectures to photograph, by lecturer, by topic, or do you photograph any and every lecture you can?

RG:As everything in my life, I go by my interest which is the result of many factors. If I am aware of a lecturer, read his books or appreciate his works my interest of attending his much higher than if I am not aware of it. I usually don’t go to lecturers simply based on their subjects—something that can happen of course, if the subject, the title of the lecture is promising or at the heart of my interest. Sometimes I also wait for years to get a change to photograph certain people but I do that in a very low-level “keep your ears up” mentality and not in a systematic scanning of all channels and possibilities. I do not go into philosophy departments and photograph everybody teaching there. I go with the flow—and unfortunately a great deal of great talks I also miss because I hear too late of them. Often, I also stumble into them by traveling, by getting emails from friends and by simply being in the right spot at the right time. Somehow you could look at my lecture par cours as some kind of loose intellectual flâneurism. If you know of interesting lectures and events, please, let me know.

F+T: Is your selection of images more of a production or post-production method? That is, do you take a lot of photos and select only a few images from each lecture, or do you take them very selectively? Do you have a particular methodology for the selection of images?

RG: This all changed a bit with the arrival of digital photography. In the beginning I had to pay a lot of money for film developing. Hence, I was taking either one role - 36 images - or half a role - 13 images - depending on who talked and whether they projected images. With the unlimited capacity of digital imaging I easily end up between 30 and 150 images of one event still depending of whether images are presented or not. In the first years of that project when I wasn’t fully aware yet of what I was doing, I printed at least 2 images of any lecture and sometimes three or even four, a choice that was also constrained by costs. But again, since I have a web site and since images can easily be selected and presented on my web site without generating remarkable costs I have now more and more pain to reduce them to less than ten or eight images for an event. Now, before I have them printed which really is expensive, I can present them already as artwork on my web site without any immediate costs. Thus the economic factor is at the end of the chain which enables me to be more ‘generous’ and include more images. Over the last years I have been mostly selecting at least four photographs for a lecture unit but recently also as many as ten. But so far only one set above four images has been actually printed and sold. What might sound even more shocking is the likely fact that if a curator or a collector demands me to reduce the number of images due to costs, I might compromise at this current stage if the images have not been yet printed or published outside my own web site. This means that to a certain degree any selection that has only seen publication on my web site and not yet been produced runs the risk to change in numbers of images included. Needless to say, I am the last one that finally makes a decision and I do honor all given earlier decision if those were final.

F+T: How do you feel the act of photographing the lecture affects your reception of the contents of the lecture? And your recollection afterwards, do you remember the lecture more having photographed it, or just having sat and listened?

RG: As mentioned above, I get very little distraction from photographing since I can multitask well and do not obsess about the quality of the image: I photograph from where I am and listen with my ears and not my eyes. I am not sure whether the images serve as a mnemonic devise to the content of the lecture if there are no images involved but they at least remind me that the lecture existed, the title of the lecture and the name of the people and institutions involved. The titles of the hundreds of lectures I took during the past 15 years can also be read as an essay of theoretical life in that period. This will be come more and more visible as time passes by. These images age much better than I do.

F+T: You mentioned at the outset of our discussions that you started this practice some time ago and have seen the practice of photographing lecturers become more commonplace. Why do you think that this shift has taken place?

RG: The answer is very simple. Photographing is now free of any charge and hence omnipresent. You buy a phone or any other personal digital assistant and it has a camera integrated in it whether you want it or not. There is no need to develop images and there is no hassle to keep images, to distribute images, to organize images and save them. It is all virtual, not creating any costs and doesn’t require any efforts. You don’t spend twenty dollars for photo-developing anymore, you don’t need to walk anymore to your pharmacy or your photo shop to drop off and return to pick up and pay. You don’t need to go to the post office to send somebody a picture. You have a program like Photoshop already built into your camera. Photographing is now a thing for everybody—with functioning cameras made for two year olds. It is technically now nearly impossible to make bad images. The image quality is virtually guaranteed by cheap, high performing, mini-computers packed into miniscule cameras. With all these technological changes, we are undergoing now a cultural paradigm shift that includes permanent recording (not only still image taking) of everything. I wonder even whether babies are just born to be photographed—at least a process where the first photograph is right there. What is interesting now, is how the law is trying to catch up. I am experiencing and expecting more restrictions on photographing and recording—something already in place in many museums and in certain galleries—as the recording devices become more and more invisible and undetectable. It is an interesting cat and mouse play and will end up with some of us that are photographing the world around us in court. The world has become very transparent and everybody is contributing to it with social networking technologies—like twitter and Facebook—that are designed to monitor and communicate every step we make in our lives.

F+T: Why did you start the practice? As a way to remember, or to capture the experience of the lecture and the environment there?

RG: A couple of years earlier I started to photograph my own reading seminars as part of my art work with results that surprised me positively. I really liked these images of students and people discussing heavy non-fiction with me. The reading seminars justified this kind of pictorialism. Then in 1995 I had the chance to attend an entire seminar by Edward Said entitled “The Representation of Intellectuals at Columbia University,” which really gave me the idea to start this series. Why not also photograph these lectures I visit all the time since this really is a way of representing intellectuals?

F+T: The constellation of images and the title seem like a kind of portrait, do you agree? If so, is it a portrait of the speaker, of yourself, or of the event?

RG: Well, to follow up on the previous question the lectures are more than just portraits of lecturers since I include not only the speakers but also the audience, an audience that is not named or specifically highlighted as is the speaker. So if we stick with the metaphor of the portrait we would have to extend it also to the environment, the class room, the lecture hall, the arrangements of seats or benches, tables, lecture stands and other stuff typically seen on my images. Often the walls are decorated or even tagged with graffiti or posters and other stuff. There is a big difference between a small seminar room at the English Department of Columbia University, full with books and cabinets and a lecture room at a Paris or Frankfurt university that accommodates 50 to 150 people. We should, maybe, also distinguish between lectures that are one time events—mostly open to the public, free of charge or paid—and events that are weekly, closed to the public and held mostly in universities that can cost fortunes or be paid by the State as it is still predominantly the case in continental Europe. All this, of course, is not necessarily announced in the title of the lecture and is subject to information that isn’t visible on the images.

To a certain degree we see also portraits of a general privilege when it comes to the public of certain institutions that are highly selective and extremely costly without forgetting that most of the lectures are dealing with theory, art, philosophy and other highbrow subjects. In general, I would say we see very little if we don’t know already what’s going on, who the lecturer, the institutions, the context are in which we subsequently can zoom into variants like sexual, racial, or age-related make-up without ignoring clothing fashions, hair styling, body mannerisms, gadgets and stuff.

F+T: Do you see a relation between this body of work and your other work, for example your language studies?

RG: Everything I do is “unfortunately” related. I say unfortunately because this makes my work not so easy to grasp. The relationship to the language studies is relatively clear since both are originally grounded in the domain of education and knowledge production. Nearly all my work comes across that nexus where knowledge and power are addressed. I was at one point wondering what the relationship was to some of my earlier indexical work where I was happy alone with footnotes from books painted on the walls: I came to understand that both are just different manifestations of knowledge and information.

F+T: Do you foresee continuing the series indefinitely, or is there an end to it?

RG: I think that I will continue this series indefinitely or to be more precise, as long as I go listen to lectures and want to learn something which brings me to your previous question: What do the reading seminars, language studies, historical research and lecture hopping have in common: I learn something.

 

Further Reading

Rainer Ganahl’s website

William Kaizen. “Vulgar Politics.” art&education. April 2009. Web.

Smith, Roberta. “Rainer Ganahl: ‘Language of Emigration & Pictures of Emigration.’” New York Times April 23 2010. Web.

References

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