Interview with Uta Kogelsberger and Tom Leeser

Los Angeles and London, 2013

Uta Kogelsberger Uta Kogelsberger


Tom Leeser:: While driving around Los Angeles recently, we exchanged stories about how we both became artists. Each of us went pretty far back into our personal histories, noting that the impulse towards creativity and expression was evident in our lives way before we received any academic training. Can you talk about becoming an artist and your transition from your earlier work with sculpture to the work you’re best known for now- photography and video?

Uta Kogelsberger:: I think the impulse to make art was always there for me. From a very young age my sister could listen to music and play it back on her plastic children’s piano. I was never allowed to sing, but I was able to draw. In fact my musical ability was so dismal that much later at the age of 11 or 12 when we were asked to compose a piece of music at school I handed in a blank sheet paper and titled it empty music. I hadn’t heard about John Cage but I had heard about a Robert Ryman’s white on white paintings. ;I thought that if they can do this in art, I can do this with music. My music teacher at the time was rather progressive, he gave me 0 out of ten for the music, but 10 out of 10 for the idea. Around about the same time two other things happened, my art teacher at school called my parents and encouraged them to send me to a school that had stronger emphasis on creative practice. I thought that was a brilliant idea, but my parents were not so sure.

The other thing that retrospectively seems important before my formal artistic training was a school cycling trip to Holland. On the whole I have a rather dismal memory of that trip, the wind constantly blowing in the wrong direction, the rain and grey skies, but there was one thing that happened that pulled the carpet from under my feet. We went to the Kroeller Moeller Museum. The whole experience was pretty special, but it was the van Gogh section that really did it. I remember standing in front of these paintings that I had seen in reproductions and the experience of them in the flesh, the intensity of the color and materiality of the paint somehow made everything more real that reality itself. I remember getting back on the bike and thinking I have to be part of this. In retrospect it was like a drug-induced state of feeling completely at one with things. Suddenly everything made sense.

Now, of course, I realize that being inspired by van Gogh is terribly uncool, but that was what turned something I was good at into something that could become a life. After that, in a very ‘Sturm and Drang’ kind of way, I set up my studio in the spare bedroom, signed up for extra art classes, and started doing all the other things I thought artists do. My family was not well read in the arts and, as such , it took me a long time to figure out what that really was. I’m still not sure I know. Ultimately I don’t think we can decide if we are artists or not. That is really up to others.

Growing up in Brussels in a French-speaking environment meant that I was constantly surrounded by great cinema, be that on TV or the big screen. Truffaut, Louis Malle, Fassbinder and Bunuel films were what I grew up with. Wednesday afternoons we didn’t have school, and I would often go to the cinema. I remember seeing the Hitcher (not a French movie) on my own in a huge multiplex cinema, alone at 15. It scared the hell out of me, but I also remember all the other great films that came out at the time like Down by Law, Paris Texas, the Elephant Man to name a few.

Some decisions we take and others are made for us. On my Foundation course I was torn between whether I should be making a move towards sculpture or film, but I got meningitis and missed the introduction to film making, so I ended up signing up for a BA in sculpture and that was that for a while.

TL:: Then, explain how your practice transitioned from your earlier work as a sculptor to the work you’re best known for now—photography and video?

UK:: I remember a phase during my MA (in sculpture) reacting to the notion of talent and trying to make works that didn’t rely on talent—it was a process of trying to take myself out of the work. It was a very difficult thing to do. I tried to intentionally make work that wouldn’t ‘work’ and the more I tried to do that, rather than setting out to make work that would ‘work’, the more interesting the work became. I’m still really interested in failure as a strategy to move things forward. Some of my best shots happened after the shot I was trying to take and suddenly noticing something just because I was in that particular relaxed, but focused stated of mind that we get into when we are working.

The move from sculpture into photography was a very gradual one. It’s not like I woke up one morning and thought I was fed up with moving heavy lumps around, rather, over a period of 4 years my sculptural work became increasingly invisible. I was trying to make the object disappear. This led to me working with installation using light and space and the work became very much about perception and the subjective nature of experience. Ironically I wrote my MA dissertation about Bernd and Hilla Becher and the objective school of photography, found out that subjectivity was very much at the center of photographic discourse in the 1990s.

The more the sculptural installations disappeared the harder it became to document them. There was one particular piece that I shot over and over again over a period of two months, and another that only worked when the sun was out at a certain time of day and period of year. Bearing in mind that this work was shown in London really nobody ever got the chance to see the work properly. Bit by bit the photographs became part of the work. Then there was this one image that I shot from my flat of the city below (I lived on the 15th floor then) at night in a heavy fog and it made the whole city look like a space shuttle that had just landed. I had that photo knocking around for a very long time and always knew I wanted to do something with it. It was during a period when I was suffering from really bad insomnia, that I started shooting at night.

I often think of photography as working with ready-mades and it is just about capturing them from the right perspective with the right lighting, a kind of mise-en-scene. I am also very interested in the materiality of the photograph and the fact that an image is not necessarily a photograph. I think this has become a rather important question to remember.

TL:: If we combine your interest in the “materiality” of the photograph and readymades with your statement—“an image is not necessarily a photograph”—a conflation of formal sculptural concerns with photography and video’s inclination towards representation and narrative emerges. (Stan Brakage said that all film is narrative and James Benning has said that all film is documentary.)

You also bring up the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher. Their images are often associated with minimalist tendencies and historical research. The photographs of “Framework Houses” and the industrial architecture from the Ruhr Valley are displayed using their signature stylistic device of the grid. Their gridded photographs invoke an objective point of view but they also provoke viewers to focus on form through a “lens” of historical narrative.

I notice that “Off Road” has a similar tension between form and narrative that can be found in the Becher’s images. Can you ever really resolve the formal and narrative tensions in your work? Maybe there’s an unresolved in-between space that the work must inhabit, a space between subjectivity and objectivity? Given that, is it really possible to have the “object disappear”?

UK:: Your question strikes me as a rhetorical one. If formal and narrative tensions were resolved a work would answer all of its own questions. It seems to me like that would make for a very dead work, the kind of work that tells us what to think. Usually we don’t like to be told what to think, but we prefer to come to our own conclusions—however temporary they may be. Maybe that is exactly why these in-between spaces are so important.

So the short answer to your question is yes; the work does occupy an in-between space. On the one hand it juxtaposes contextual, narrative and formal concerns, coherence and incoherence and—of course—also not to forget; the piece consists of 6 different elements that all talk different visual languages. This is why the work can do so many seemingly contradictory things at the same time. For me, if a work is to maintain interest it needs to unravel on many levels, so that, as a viewer, you are constantly being pulled back and forth between narrative versus narrative, formal versus formal, narrative versus formal to arrive at a position of engagement.

The long answer to your question is much more difficult as it is a question that you can’t really answer. Even though I may not be able to explain what gives the work a tension, I can probably try to describe it.

So, in respect of ‘Off Road’ maybe the question of the inherent contradictions is best addressed by mimicking what the work does—having a close look at the location. Coming to Grover Beach from Europe was like arriving on another planet. This huge area of Sahara like sand dunes covered in this thick soup of a fog, with the high density of traffic. Traffic on a beach? And not just one car, but thousands? There is something inherently confusing about this kind of use of such a magnificent landscape, something ostentatious or even excessive. In the nature reserve of the area there is a wooden build path that leads you through the dunes which limits all human access to the dunes. The dunes become something to be looked at from behind a fence, like the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. In the state vehicular recreation area you can drive your motorhome over the very same dunes that 5 miles south you are not even allowed to walk on.

I found this contrast fascinating. It genuinely baffled me. A kind of wonder, that comes from a lack of comprehension. I really wanted to understand what is happening here, maybe in a similar way to a child wanting to dissect an insect, before it even understands what the consequences of such an action may be. What drives these people to want to drive their cars so much? Why would anybody want to spend all this money on such a futile activity? Why would you invest so much energy getting all packed up, to drive for hours only to drive again? …and that in thick fog? Especially coming from England this last factor seemed to be the most baffling. Not to mention this seemingly individualistic activity that paradoxically has created these strong and lasting social ties. All the while there was something completely exhilarating about driving down the beach in my car, getting stuck in the dunes, no roads or regulations, it all felt very risky and adventurous, liberating, freeing.

So more specifically in response to your question; it is really these contradictions that are already inherent in the location that kept drawing me back to the place. Every time I went back something new struck me. I think one element is the futility of it; so many resources invested into something that has no inherent purpose. It is often these seemingly most futile actions that make life worth living. And it is these inherent contradictions that also come through in the formal structure of the work. The different parts of this work are an attempt to express the complexity of this situation, but more about that later.

Then there is the question of freedom in American politics. I am fascinated by the agency of the concept of freedom, by how it becomes a tool for power and for implementing policies that would never pass if they weren’t implemented under the guise of freedom. I think it’s a question of packaging and I have an equal amount of awe and distrust in response to that.

The way freedom is defined and lived out is by definition contradictory. So in the case of Grover beach for example the freedom to drive on the beach impinges on those people that own the houses on the edge of the beach as well as the wildlife. At the same time the SVRA sustains much of the local economy and those people for instance that own restaurants would probably have to close down if it wasn’t for this activity. If one subscribes to a definition of freedom that also includes financial freedom then the shop-keepers freedom is enabled through State Vehicular recreation area.

Doubtless my interest in this question of freedom is also a personal one. I have never had much appreciation of authority in and of itself. I think I recognize is a similar attitude towards authority in the locations I have been working with like the ‘Off Road’ area. Maybe that is why they have a magnetic pull on me, because here on the surface of things is a group of people that don’t conform. We all conform to some extent, even when we try not to conform we try to conform to a group of people that doesn’t conform. Any gathering of people has a set of rules, be they unwritten. So in the case of Grover Beach underneath the chaos there is a set of unwritten rules that are strictly maintained and that need to be maintained mainly so the place doesn’t get shut down.

An important part of my working process and the seemingly objective quality of the work surely is related to the privileged position of being an outsider. As non-national without a vote in the US, ‘Grover beach’ is simply a matter of curiosity. I don’'t have to assume responsibility for it. I don’t think I would have been able to make this piece if I was American. This is a position I really appreciate. I can just look at it and let it happen.

My life has been defined by being an outsider. I grew up as a German in Belgium and then moved as non-German, non-Belgian to London where I am a non-Brit. Like my work, I am in one of these in between spaces; I have no voice. I am not allowed to vote in national elections in any country. Not because of my disrespect for authority, but because of strange voting regulations these countries have put in place.

But this lack of identity comes in very useful. My work relies very much on the people I encounter and my encounter with people. The fact that people aren’t immediately able to place me opens a lot of doors. Many of the people I interviewed opened up in a way I am sure they wouldn’t have if I had a different background. I am sure that the fact that I am a woman traveling on my own also facilitates this way of working. Probably, the fact that part of my practice is a sort of ‘derive’ by car—at times I travel for months on end and have no fixed address in the States—also makes me a person of interest.

I’m assuming that when you talk of formal and narrative tensions you are referring to the formal qualities of the central projection which is very submersive, seductive, sublime. It draws you into that space, especially when it is projected large (life size) you are placed into this space. Viewing it on a monitor is a very different experience; it becomes an object whereas when experienced as a projection you are placed in the location.

And yet being in the actual location adds another dimension, the actual sound, temperature, wind etc. As such what I am doing is providing an interpretation of the location. Everything there is to say is already out there. There is nothing to add really. Rather it is a question of translating. Making what I see tangible. Noticing it. Visualizing it. Pulling it into focus. Maybe making connections that aren’t necessarily apparent. There are certain formal structures that dominate the video, but they are already there in the world. It is not about imposing, rather it is about noticing that they are there and all I am saying is look at this; how strange is it that these things exist? This is where the process is similar to working with ready-mades.

I knew this work needed to be about motion and duration before I even began, as the scale of the location is so integral to the absurdity of the space. Whereas a photograph is all about precision, about capturing exactly that frame that will talk about everything that has happened before during and after the exposure, video is much looser. There isn’t the clarity that one can get from contemplating a single moment for as long as one wants to. This is why the central projection is not only slow, but also why it has a narrative that builds on itself.

Then again, I approached the work very much from the position of a photographer, placing the camera in strategic locations, waiting for the action to happen. Though the core of the footage was there after the first three visits to Grover Beach, I kept adding to the piece over a period of 4, maybe even 5 years. The work was edited down to 22 minutes from something along the lines of 36 hours of footage. Through this very tight edit the ‘action’ takes on the feeling of a choreography as if I had specifically asked the cars to drive at a certain speed, yet this was purely achieved through smooth editing.

I wanted the work to have a similarly disengaged feel as when you are shooting through a field camera. That disconnectedness from the ground resulting from a shift lens, so it was important that the camera movement—when there is some—seems to animated by some mysterious motion. This disengaged motion echoed the similarly disengaged interaction between the machines (cars) and the landscape. It also contributes to the sense of removal, the almost anthropological perspective on the location. For me it was very important not to judge this activity or the people that frequent this beach but to allow them to speak for themselves.

That’s where the visual language of the piece kicks in and maybe that is also where the parallel to the Becher’s work can be drawn. On the surface of things all they are doing is pointing their camera at a specific set of circumstances in a seemingly objective way, yet when we encounter their photographs they are unmistakably Becher photographs. Maybe it is in this translation that the photograph becomes something else, something that exceeds the location. To think of an analogy, you can give tomatoes, garlic and some spices to a group of chefs, but it is in the combination that they become a memorable meal.

The formal narratives are what make the work the work. This is probably why I react very strongly when somebody who is making work about celluloid ends up projecting it through a video projector—unless of course it is integral to the thinking. There has been too much talk of post-medium condition. The result is that we seem to have forgotten that by definition an idea needs to attach itself to something, whether that be text, image, object, projection etc. The minute you are using these media you are deciding how to use them. Those formal decisions we make will decide how the work is received.

In response to your comment about my interest in the materiality of the photographic image; a photograph is not just an image, it is also material: it is the way an image is printed, the paper it is printed on is it grainy or fine, the size the surface and so much more. I cannot count the times I have been knocked sideways by an image that I encounter in an exhibition that I previously thought I would be indifferent to when I saw it on a screen. Ultimately the work only becomes what it is supposed to be when it is exhibited in the way it was supposed to be seen. It is only then we can know it.

Looking at a photograph on a computer is a bit like reading the synopsis on the back of ‘The Brothers Karamzov’ and thinking you are able to make a judgment about its literary value by doing so. It would be reducing the work to the mere content, yet is clearly the use of language and the way the narrative is presented that makes the book a classic.

TL:: I was drawn to your statement: “freedom is a fantasy that is also instrumental in sustaining the political system that houses it.” Is your work and practice attempting to disengage the political and expose freedom merely as a phantom of desire?

UK:: What exactly do you mean by disengage the political? Disengage it from what?

TL:: I'm using the word “political” to point to an activist practice or theory designed to influence or “activate” people on a collective or individual basis. Of course there are other ways to use this word, but for this discussion I'm referring to this definition.

I’m digging deeper into the nagging question of tension within the work, between your formal and narrative concerns. I perceive your motivation to be favoring a reconsidered aesthetic over any anti-aesthetic form of agitprop. We chatted earlier about this. You responded by saying “If formal and narrative tensions were resolved a work would answer all of its own questions. It seems to me like that would make for a very dead work, the kind of work that tells us what to think. Usually we don’t like to be told what to think, but we prefer to come to our own conclusions—however temporary they may be.” An activist approach tends to engage the viewer in a direct discussion whose purpose is one of activating a response that leads one to either consensus or dissensus. Allen Sekula, The Journal of Aesthetics and Politics and the Otolith Group are artists that I tend to consider within a context of a hybrid practice, one that places an emphasis on narrative over form and is derived from an amplified set of activist strategies. Many activist strategies can be framed didactically as “being told what to think” but your work “disengages” from this linear approach and tends to reside in a more open “in-between”and indeterminate space—one that Ranciere might put forth as a place that conflates politics, labor and art. James Benning's work also tends to operate in this way for me. Your use of the word freedom seems to resonate in this way too, exposing an experience of the word that is more poetic than political.

UK:: I prefer to think of things as “as well as” than an “either or”, so work can be political and at the same time use a visual language to communicate on a different level than a piece of journalism would do. If I wanted to transmit information, to educate, then language would be my medium of choice. Allowing difference creates a much more dynamic environment than attempting integration. This is not to knock the importance of information.

In other words I am not trying to present a particular opinion or perspective on what is happening at Grover Beach. Yet the work looks at a set of concerns that have a political background. As mentioned earlier I am really interested and fascinated by the underlying mechanisms drive the SVRA, how the notion of freedom is promoted and established in the US, the relationship of that to North American history, how freedom is intrinsically linked to a sense of American national identity, how this notion is constantly renewed and reinstated in order to justify a political system, how the notion of freedom has been claimed as a uniquely American tendency or character trait, the dynamics of the community that has developed around Grover Beach, an alternative, alternative community that develops first and foremost around a set of shared interests, how certain values are maintained through this activity (family values keep coming up in discussion), how a location that seems to be a physical manifestation of uncontrolled capitalism at the same time through the shared interest (according to its users) cuts through social boundaries (everybody is the same once they cross the boundary of the park).

While all these things are driving the work, the work is not trying to answer any questions; rather it is looking at this location to highlight the inherent dynamics. It does so by pointing the camera at what is already going on. And the form of the piece echoes the complex, multi-layered nature of the location. Here is this geographical location that is cut in two. North side SVRA, south side Nature reserve. One unlimited access, the other no access at all. This division is enabling two kinds of beliefs. There is a set of Institutions in the United States that are put in place to enable this kind of activity; one the one hand protecting the land on the other enabling a hobby or passion. So I am just as interested in the fact that the state has put an infrastructure into place that enables this activity as I am by the activity itself.

One of the people I am interviewing talks about the US as being one of the most radical capitalist systems on the planet. He claims that the SVRA is a social manifestation of this system. Now this may or may not be true, so for instance the place operates on a first come first served system. Whoever gets there first chooses his site, and fences it of with caution tape. It's like an act of claiming a land for himself; a conquering that is reminiscent of the pioneer spirit. The whole activity bears testimony to this sense of entitlement. Then again at the same time it comes with an etiquette that everybody who passes the gate becomes part of the group, becomes family.So there is a real spirit of community, hospitality and generosity which contradicts his claim of uncontrolled capitalism and without which I never would have been able to make this work.

These ‘controlled pockets of freedom’ in part exist so individuals can go to live out a fantasy of freedom. That is slightly different than calling freedom a fantasy. I don’t feel qualified to make big statements about freedom. I am more interested in the dynamics created by desire and desire as a political tool particular in the case of this very specific location. In this case desire is tied up with a notion of freedom.However here the notion of freedom is packaged. It is marketed. You can buy it. You can consume it. It becomes a commodity. It is a construct. An entire industry (the car industry) is based on it and this town depends on it. And it even has it off springs that re-enforce these values such as road movies and literature. Ironically it was Louis Bernays (Freud’s Nephew) who first understood the powers of desire in advertising and applied it to promoting cigarettes to women as torches of freedom.

But back to Grover Beach; what I mean is, the location contains set of conditions that correspond to one version of an interpretation of freedom. The way this site functions is through a make believe. So for instance for a weekend ‘I’ will believe that this piece of dune that ‘I’ have fenced off is mine. A lot of it has to do with control, empowerment, and danger. So, there is a the sense of adventure of being in a natural environment, yet people are mostly arriving with their RV’s where they have all mod cons (showers, toilets, microwaves, TV, Internet etc. depending on the funding available to them). Then there is the driving element; driving at 70 miles per hour over some dunes feels very exhilarating and a little bit scary, so there is the element of conquering your fear and rising to a challenge, which feels very empowering and when you have a somewhat risky encounter it releases bursts of adrenaline, getting rid of all that tension you have acquired over a the working week in a matter of seconds.

It is interesting to a European to see how the notion of freedom was changes when it moved over to the United States and it became very closely associated with financial independence and means. It’s a very pragmatic approach to a philosophical question. I am not sure I am in a position to judge which approach will bring you closer to an actual experience of freedom.
Stuart Mills—strangely as an Englishman—was very instrumental in setting the basis for a North American definition of freedom and of course his essay ‘on liberty’ was written specifically with white males in mind. It’s interesting when you take this thinking back to Pismo Beach, The amateur Rocket Festival or the big sandy shoot. All these events are really rather male dominated. I am not sure what that means but it is an interesting fact that here freedom needs to be made visible in a shared public way in order to achieve its value. So for instance when you jump or drive up a particularly steep hill you usually do it in front of an audience.

At Grover Beach freedom of speech is very much visually manifested in the T-shirts that people wear (what it says on them) and the logos on the RV’s Weekend Warrior, Attitude, Blaze’n, Stealth. They are all expressions of power and testify to a sense of entitlement, a claim to, a right to occupy, to be somewhere. In this sense I think the activity that goes on at Grover beach sometimes reads like an extension of the pioneer spirit and destiny manifest. The central projection starts like a pilgrimage, a migration, except of you don’t know what people are migrating to or what they are fleeing from. Now that the whole of the American continent has been occupied there is nowhere else to go. If you wanted to go any further you would have to drop into the Pacific Ocean.