by Daria Tuminas
28 August 2017
Daria Tuminas speaks with Radical Reversibility founders: Martine Stig, Hiryczuk/ Van Oevelen and Frank der Stok. The interview is included in the first RR publication designed by Hans Gremmen and available on the Manifesto page.
Daria Tuminas: Where does the collective’s name Radical Reversibility come from?
Sjoerd van Oevelen: It’s a term art historian Yve-Alain Bois coined about El Lissitzky – the famous avant-garde artist from the Soviet Union – in a 1988 issue of Art in America. According to Bois, ‘radical reversibility’ was a characteristic of many of El Lissitzky’s works, as they presented multiple perspectives in an image. These multiple perspectives were not interesting per se. What was interesting was the effect they created, namely the viewer’s feeling of movement between them. The never-ending switching or reversing of perspectives is what connects our current research.
DT: Radical Reversibility aims to reverse the paradigms of contemporary Western visual culture. What defines this culture for you?
Elodie Hiryczuk: Primarily, linear perspective. Today, images are mostly lens-based. People see the world through a camera and forget there are other possibilities for producing images, which don’t follow the logic of linear perspective. Radical Reversibility is still interested in using lens-based media but in a manner that questions the homogeneous space these media normally create. We would like to introduce other ways of looking.
Martine Stig: Linear perspective is related to the dominance of the anthropocentric view on the world. In Western culture, the human being has long been the measure of everything; therefore, the dominant visual perspective was at eye-level. With the advent of new technologies, Google Earth or drones, for example, we are getting used to views from high vantage points or to multiple perspectives. The ‘eyes’ are not connected to a human body any longer, and this needs to be addressed.
DT: The concepts of top-down perspective and multiple perspectives also existed in the Medieval Period, so they are not necessarily tied to new technologies, are they?
Frank van der Stok: Yes, that's true; these concepts can be seen from a trans-historical perspective. The trans-historical idea is very important. We recognise that people from different disciplines and different times have been investigating the same phenomena in which we are also interested. We are, in a way, radical not to have a linear or causal approach to history. We prefer to present remarkable interrelations that are overlooked or undiscovered. For example, our first presentation featured a large reproduction of a multiple exposure image called In the Studio (1923) by El Lissitzky. The reason we included him in the presentation as a like-minded artist and alongside contemporary works is because he was a pioneer of letting go of gravity and the monocular way of looking.
EH: I was once visiting a temple in Japan. People there don’t say that the building was built in 1500; they say this temple is 517 years old. That presupposes an idea that something is lasting in time and is not enclosed in the past. We propose to see the work of, for example, El Lissitzky, as lasting as well. It still has an impact. We want to build on ideas and things, not to replace them. Thus, we also refer to past concepts from art movements, science, and philosophy.
DT: What non-Western notions of the image have you applied to your works?
EH: We discovered the Japanese concept of Ma. There is no English equivalent for this word. It is best described as the space between things: in-betweenness. You can find it in almost every aspect of Japanese culture. In flower arrangements, the space between the flowers is of equal importance to the flowers. We try to find Ma in an image.
SvO: Untitled (1940) by the Japanese photographer Shoji Ueda is an example of Ma in a photograph. It shows a man on the left and a woman on the right. If you look carefully, you can see sand in the middle. The human subjects are located on opposite sides, forcing you either to look at the right or left figure. Gradually, you start to feel that the middle ground, this in-betweenness, is the main subject. We also introduce the concept of Ma in our works.
MS: Trying to find alternatives for linear perspective, I studied Orthodox icons and their use of ‘reverse perspective’. What used to be seen as a deficiency might reflect a current worldview: it places God at the centre rather than the subject. I also looked into Arabic ways of depicting reality. What the Western viewer might consider to be geometric patterns also represent a particular worldview. They depict the world but not in a mimetic way. I don’t openly refer to this research in my works, but it greatly determines my ideas.
DT: Are non-Western cultures simply using alternative conventions?
EH: Yes, of course, but we need to be aware of the fact that Chinese and Japanese people, for example, have studied the Western way of looking and even adopted it on a grand scale. At the same time, in the West, we don’t know much about their ways of looking and how different they are to ours. It’s important to get inspiration from other cultures. The future is also there, not only here.
FvdS: At its core, our collective is interested in finding non-anthropocentric viewing models, where human measurements and viewpoints are no longer the universal points of reference.
DT: Could you talk about your individual projects under the umbrella of Radical Reversibility?
MS: I am busy with an artistic research project called Vertigo, which is being carried out under the lectorate of AKV/ St Joost, Breda. I am researching the influence of new technologies on our perception of space and our representation of space through film and photography. Let’s take the satellite view as an example. Since the introduction of Google Earth and consumer drones, we are very used to it, but can we also see it apart from its usual context? In my film Planar (2017), shot from a single high vantage point on a rooftop in Genua, I play with the references of this high-angle view. Using a long lens, I scan the city surface in black and white, which evokes surveillance footage. The camera’s movement is sometimes reminiscent of drone recordings. Hard shadows give a sense of Film Noir suspense, but there is no story, no mystery, no secret. There’s not even a clear sense of space. The film neither rewards you nor fulfils your expectations. I am also working on a series called Profiles (2017–ongoing), which attempts to redefine the human profile. At eye level, a person is recognisable by his or her facial profile, but what happens to the shape of this profile when seen from above? For this series, I invite people with an interesting physiognomy to my studio. I start by photographing at eye level and slowly shift to a celestial view, playing with the new shapes that occur.
FvdS: As a curator and editor, I will be contributing to the Radical Reversibility digital platform with a series of case studies using ‘ultimate reversing’. Each case study will take a trans-historical, intercultural, and interdisciplinary point of view, and I will write essays in an open, associative manner. Since we are all very interested in conducting research through images, each text will depart from visual references. I will look into reversed causality, reversed chronological orders, and will go after things that have been erased or overwritten. Many things that have taken place out of our sight; but these things are potentially as important as the newsworthy and spectacular. One example of a case I’d like to work on is Erased de Kooning Drawing by Robert Rauschenberg (1953). It is a Willem de Kooning drawing that Rauschenberg requested to erase completely. The final image is very interesting – there are still many marks, one can see a picture frame and the paper’s surface, so it’s not like nothing is left. The reversed movement from production to deconstruction and, eventually, to erasing was an important gesture.
EH: Sjoerd and I work as a duo. Our contribution to Radical Reversibility is The Detached Gaze, an artistic research project, and the name of our blog, for which we investigate our perception of space in relation to photography, painting, and philosophy. A recent outcome of this research is the work Junipers (2017), a diptych that belongs to the Shadow-Light-Reflection series (2011–ongoing). The viewer can recognise the subject matter as a scene from nature. However, the image is an abstraction in the sense that it is a space your eyes keep wandering through without any particular focus. We often present images from different viewpoints next to each other as diptychs, triptychs, quadtychs, etc. to create a more 'haptic spatiality'. This relates to the Ma I was talking about earlier. Of course, you don’t see the space between the images, but you feel it in the shifting of perspective. Instead of showing a panoramic view from one spot in a conventional sense, we try to convey the experience of being and moving in a landscape. Ideally, we’d like to get rid of the individual eye of a photographer and reach out for some kind of meta-position of multiple eyes looking at the world. It brings to mind the Curiosity vehicle that is mapping the Martian landscape.
SvO: We want to see whether it’s possible to add a sense of space in photography, to charge the image, as it were, with more than one ideal view. A significant reference for our practice is the work of Albrecht Altdorfer, a German painter working in the fifteenth and sixteenth century. He often worked on small paintings that he 'emptied' little by little in an attempt to peel away all symbolic layers and reach out to the deeper meaning of the painting itself. A tree, for example, would no longer be a religious symbol – it would be just a tree. As artists, we are trying to do the same – to peel away the connotations that have accumulated in a photograph.
EH: That’s why the images and landscapes that we show are not spectacular per se. Of course, they are interesting to look at, but the viewer's attention is deviated from the subject to the process of looking itself. Ideally, a viewer of our photographs develops a ‘detached gaze’ that doesn't focus on anything in particular but instead expands the vision and its periphery.
DT: How do you work as a collective?
SvO: We do everything together. It’s quite democratic. We simply make to do lists and then we divide the tasks. Regarding the planning and curating of the upcoming year ‘s programme, we are all equal editors and curators. We don’t want to be a foundation or anything hierarchical; we want to be a cooperative, developing in a dynamic and organic way. Hopefully, more artists and practitioners will participate. Our structure is open and flexible. We will be changing with every presentation; the four of us won’t be exhibiting works all the time.
MS: We are independent artists and researchers, we share a conceptual interest, we like to exchange ideas, and we also want to create a sustainable way of working. We use the platform of Radical Reversibility whenever a project fits. We mentioned three research models: trans-historic, intercultural, and non-anthropocentric. They are not present to the same extent in all of our research. Nonetheless, we are all interested in reversing, playing with expectations and emphasising and deconditioning how we look at the world.
DT: Will Radical Reversibility function both as a digital and physical space?
MS: We have a digital platform, radicalreversibility.org. We organise shows and live events at partnering organisations here and abroad. We commission artists and writers to produce new works and texts. Each exhibition issues new editions: small and affordable works made by commissioned artists. For our first presentation at Unseen Co-op, we showed editions by Hiryczuk/ Van Oevelen, El Lissitzky, our first guest artist Stephan Keppel, and myself.
DT: What do you get from collaborating?
EH: A collaborative project pushes you to make your private research public. It provides a reason and a podium to bring to light the things you normally do outside your studio. Moreover, your work becomes the subject of a new discussion; it helps to grow the collective knowledge and to exchange ideas and sources.
FvdS: Collaboration provides a framework for your research, otherwise you always have too many other things going on, and you never have the opportunity to dive in. Furthermore, a collective helps to create interdisciplinary relations. We can present people from different disciplines or even from different times and places. A collective can also partly function as a gallery and develop a cultural business model in combination with public and private funding.
SvO: Through collaboration, we create a platform. Such a platform is attractive and open for people to engage with because it always creates new energies and opportunities.