Constructed Aims. A Conversation with Sabine Schründer
I try to create an imaginary space in addition to the individual enfolded pictorial worlds presented, one in which several pictorial spaces either blend with or recoil from each other. I treat fear and threat as the principal sources or components of these imaginary spaces, and imbue my interpretations into them by orbiting spatial and psychological states of absence.
Sabin Borș: Your photographic art is an ongoing discussion of the link between the individual and danger, (self-)control, (in)security, intrusion… What made you choose this subject matter and how did it become the core issue of your work?
Sabine Schründer: It’s interesting you should say that about the core issue, because my focus is really about the dynamics that exist between systems and the individual – our constant urge to change, to escape from stagnation and isolation, to address the various challenges of Being. But you’re absolutely right. The need for security, self-control and intrusion are all elements of this, especially since we can no longer avoid issues such as fear and security policies. That’s why my approach to the question of security, control and intrusion in all of my works is at times remote and analytical and at other times more personal. In both cases the images are my interpretation of several partial aspects of current realities and the individual confrontation with the values and structures of modern society.
Sabin Borș: Isolation is a recurrent motif in your art. Although interaction is always direct, there is evidence of separation, deviation, anonymity, oblivion… What is your understanding of the relation between oblivion and our need to feel safe?
Sabine Schründer: Fear is probably everyone’s weak spot and hence a perfect target for politics and economics. We all have this need for security and I don’t mean wanting to live in a police state. I’m talking about the protection afforded by relatedness and faith — even if it’s “only” faith in ourselves. Despite our numerous daily interactions, we all have that feeling of isolation, a longing for the safe haven of quietude and confidence. We tremble at the fine line that bounds our sense of optimism and our fear regarding the futility of our own accomplishments. And then, there’s also a skepticism that accompanies a shifting consensus between the Self and the social.
Sabin Borș: Your search entails exploring the intangible. Your art is never about immediate, palpable danger, but rather about subliminal, more intimate fears. Do you think the intangible is more powerful than the discernible? Is the inner state more shocking than external conditions or is there a direct link between the two?
Sabine Schründer: The visible and therefore the tangible is a key source of orientation in the attempt to grasp real connections. The greatest challenge for me is to approach the non-visible, to tackle latent emotional states and express these intangibles in such a way that, although a statement is made, it is elusive and may leave gaps and questions in its wake. Perhaps it leaves something unsettled, a see-saw between intuition and evanescence. I have found that circling this indefinable is in itself a source. Focusing on the intangible, emotional, sensual and psychological is my method of visualizing real conditions. Other artists achieve this by producing documentary work. Valuable as that method is, if I work like that I always think: this is not my point, I’m interested in what lies underneath, in something that cannot be photographed. Of course there’s a connection between the inner and outer worlds. Fear and other disturbing emotions you are asking about are rarely triggered by external, tangible, explicable circumstances but often by the intangible, the absent and the inner unknown.
Sabin Borș: Your scenarios are always obscure but you construct them in such a way as to expose a grid of institutional manipulation. How do you see the individual-institution relationship today, given that politics relies on assemblages of truth, on its own cultural code in order to contain the individual?
Sabine Schründer: Marketing and institutional manipulation are subtle forms of control. Becoming conscious of this web of influence is not an easy task, since on the surface everything seems good and rich and modern and nice. Social pressure has relaxed but psychological pressure has intensified. The individual is now forced to take on more responsibilities. Social value is determined by initiative, project development, motivation and flexibility. This entails a permanent rotation in a present which is incessantly re-distributed through advertising, endless consumption and news-overload. This maelstrom is deliberately fired up — to keep people occupied, to hold boredom at bay and to detract from a fragmentary policy of information. It takes considerable awareness and attentiveness not to fall into the trap of all this madness and to think and act in an informed and autonomous manner.
Sabin Borș: Can absence be the source of a subjective threat? If so, do you think this absence is due to a material, physical or emotional need, or is it in fact an inverted, mirrored, infinite reflection?
Sabine Schründer: Maybe the unnameable is a more accurate description of this absence. This unknown in us sets threat and fear in motion. As I said earlier, I don’t believe that this intangible is linked to explainable physical or psychological conditions. Probably everyone has comprehensible material or physical topics that can cause confusion, but in most cases the threat can be contained. I think paralyzing fear is activated by the missing, the absent, the (knowledge) gap, which in turn of course impacts the physical and psychological state of the individual. This unnameable/ absent/ unknown can change, can decline, but in all likelihood will never vanish completely. This may be one reason why I circle around the intangible in my pictorial world.
Sabin Borș: In the context of (in)security you speak of the “illusion” we embrace to negotiate our fears. Why “illusion”?
Sabine Schründer: Dangers are frequently abstract in nature, but perceived nonetheless as a genuine threat, particularly when they become more defined as a result of political action, and thus more real. In this sense individual fear becomes a powerful political tool. Threats and fears of this kind are primarily cultivated by obscure scenarios. Institutional manipulation breeds “phantom fears” that are, of course, conjured up by the media. This fear could also be portrayed as a constant, albeit subjective threat that seems to emerge both from within and without. Consequently, safety cannot really be achieved. It’s an illusion, a constructed aim with a numbing effect. Depending on the individual’s perspective it can also be comforting. The illusion of security then becomes the most precious asset in the negotiation of fear.
Sabin Borș: Your images are based on several associations and connotations, yet these often take place outside reality. How do you define reality?
Sabine Schründer: Different realities — the political and the social, for example — are partly co-dependent, colliding with or permeating each other. If I were to create an image for this, I would visualize these individual realities as more or less transparent layers that, as existent planes, intersect each other at varying angles. The result is then a vastly complex grid formation that is incomprehensible to the individual in its entirety. Everyone is at a different points in this formation and therefore perceives elements of the whole from the point of view of their own substantiality. Because they’re concealed by the individual’s own perspective, many layers remain invisible and can only be surmised. This does not alter the existence of a giant, ever-changing formation. Confrontation with the given circumstances and conditions to which every individual is exposed can and does occur. Even when circumstances change and the individual is in a position to contribute to ‘progress’, it is ultimately their own perception, knowledge and point of view that can be altered; that is, their individual substantiality. The experience of this particular substantiality forms the basis for the direction and type of associations and connotations you mention. There is, of course, no right or wrong in this context, and although they may be strong and trigger subjective emotions, these perceptual displacements have little to do with reality as a whole and do not contribute to it directly. Perhaps just as dents in a plane.
Sabin Borș: What really intrigues me in your images is the apparent calm, the apparent clarity, which is always disturbing. You remove the original context and create images that combine subjective and institutional control, identity and politics, but you place them in direct relation to nature and its seeming serenity. Although nature never reveals its turbulence in your images, it forms a contrast to subjective, institutional, or political unrest. What is the reason for creating a nature of contrasts? How does nature shape reality and vice versa?
Sabine Schründer: At first glance we don’t associate manifestations in nature with political or psychological issues. This has great potential. I’m not interested in portraying nature as such. I use places and landscapes as a location for my condensations. Nature as a familiar, untouched space is where I identify irritations and reinterpret traces of human intrusion. I present images of silence and absence, and by means of slight shifts and adjustments, attempt to remove or readdress the basis of this silence – which could also be a mental state. Insecurity in the seemingly familiar is then linked to the unstable conditions of reality. The very fact that I manipulate images and partly reconstruct them resonates with aspects of intrusion and control.
Sabin Borș: You speak of “aesthetic temptation” and “subliminal discomfort”. In between you create lucid, calm images of almost implacable restraint. How do you see the relation between hostility and hospitality, terms you have not used but that could explain some of the linkages you construct?
Sabine Schründer: Yes, maybe these phrases could be used to describe my images and what they cover. A formal and aesthetic clarity makes it easy to remain in the pictorial world and to engage with it. But when questions are insinuated and left unanswered or suggest something disturbing, we eventually turn away in irritation. It sounds mean but I see this as a personal transference of the social conditions that surround me. A glittering façade is valuable at first, yet it dissolves and reverses upon itself once you penetrate or become part of it.
Sabin Borș: Why do you annul the points of reference in your pictures? Why distort and suspend surveillance? There is no surveillance in your work, only split seconds and anonymous junctures. At the most, surveillance is acceptance of and compliance with a prevailing suspension.
Sabine Schründer: As I said earlier, I don´t see surveillance as the primary aspect of security. For me it’s above all the institutional handling of fear and threat, both of which are abstract. More specifically on the subject of surveillance: it’s no longer a definable action or something we can prevent, but a prevailing CONDITION, a ubiquitous symptom of our culture. Surveillance is a given, especially as it not only refers to surveillance in the public arena, but as a means of institutional monitoring and manipulation of invisible layers or channels. What disturbs me is precisely this condition and the invisibility of control. My strategy is to transfer this anxiety by deleting points of reference. By asking questions and making attributions more difficult to discern. The information my images present is fragmented – the missing is conjured up or completed by association. The viewer is thrown back on himself by the elimination of presence, which in turn is recast by security cameras.
Sabin Borș: Society is based on specific structures that contain the dynamics of social relations. How can the individual break away from these dynamics and reinvent their own context?
Sabine Schründer: Although occasionally it might be difficult, each person has the possibility of altering their perception and attitude towards conditions that are given. This could well be the key to the autonomous redesigning of social relations. Our own substantiality can change at any moment and if we confront external changes with curiosity and awareness, and avoid lapsing into bored compliance, we can succeed in organizing our own social context. Often its a question of small changes within a small circle. In our interaction with others, but also in terms of balance between the possible and the impossible. I enjoy working with others, whether its through artistic collaboration or teaching – I consider the energy and inspiration that emerges from conversations, discussions or simply being together to be of the highest value and elementary to the realization of any form of change or evolution.
Sabin Borș: One of the artistic elements that I appreciate most in your work is the anti-narrative approach, your attempt to reinforce the notions of the individual against the backdrop of the grand social and political narratives. On the other hand, this secondary narrative form gradually seems to be consolidating the grand narratives. How can art develop these narratives without reverting to the same narrative pattern?
Sabine Schründer: I make use of different worlds of thought, an internal network of information, ideas, realms of experience, and fictions. My world view is, of course, influenced by what interests me, the books I read, the topics in my environment or the music I listen to. Ultimately it’s all connected. Confining the scope of a topic is often simply a sensorial adjustment in the search for new images and the struggle that this entails. So a photograph can be stored away for years. I don’t know what to do with it, what it means or what it’s about. I look at it again and again, reject it and then one day I see it from another perspective, work on it and delete or add information. Suddenly there’s a link with other inner spheres: contexts arise that I missed before and I know it will work, that it will connect to a greater whole. Every artist has their own inner world, so that there is little danger of embarking on a beaten track, even though people sometimes have similar approaches and techniques. On the other hand, when a particular technique is transferred or copied onto a new work as a superimposed stylistic device, it remains simply a technique. It will deliver an image, but one that has neither depth nor direction.
Sabin Borș: Your work does not show threat or fear as such. It indicates the space and the spacing in our fictions. Time is merely an interval, an interrupted spatial context. What is behind your emphasis on the spatial nature of threats and fears?
Sabine Schründer: In his essay The Place of Painting, John Berger states that “absence lies between time and space” (John Berger, Essay The Place of Painting, 1982). Each of the images presents a space the viewer can enter. The image has a place, not the photographed place but an imaginary space we occupy while observing a particular image. This place could be very far away — a space of absence. When hanging the pictures as an installation — something I consider extremely important for many works — I try to create an imaginary space in addition to the individual enfolded pictorial worlds presented, one in which several pictorial spaces either blend with or recoil from each other. I treat fear and threat as the principal sources or components of these imaginary spaces, and imbue my interpretations into them by orbiting spatial and psychological states of absence.
Sabin Borș: You create elliptic constructions imagined as “a speculative space”. How do these blanks provide the key to a new interpretation and re-contextualization of social realities?
Sabine Schründer: Wealth, consumption, and data overload feign abundance and prosperity, and are frequently accompanied by a sense of inner emptiness, isolation and loneliness. So I see the creation of identities on new social platforms, for example, as the construction of a blank space. That’s my perception and I describe it in images that to a certain extent orbit these spaces or gaps. Digitally added blank spaces and the use of only a small number of images form a counterpoint to the daily media flood. Their connection in the installation produces a web of notions and codes to be deciphered by the individual, whereby no directions are given or interpretations offered. Ultimately these disconnected narrative structures are linked to the fragmentary consumption of information and knowledge. The Ellipses series is currently confined to a few images but I´m still working on it. The unfolding pictorial and information spaces are infinite and I find it exciting to create more images that express something but do not impart information. In the final analysis I’m interested in aspects such as isolation, emptiness, data flush, hermeticism, conformity and control – as I see it, the key aspects of social realities.
Sabin Borș: What is your interpretation of the terms effect, affect and defect?
Sabine Schründer: For me these terms are a mutually dependent combination of concepts, a continuous cycle of processes and conditions, which are interdependent but whose naming is interchangeable depending on the starting point of your explanation or what attitude you have towards these conditions. For example, depression and anxiety are the effect of a highly competitive society; in their original form an affective disorder and at the same time a (psychological) defect — both for the individual and for society as a whole, given that depression is the most common mental illness in developed countries.
Sabin Borș: You also speak of creating digital identities. How do you see the relation between the digital and the analogue, and how do you interpret this?
Sabine Schründer: According to Alain Ehrenberg, the ideal individual is measured by personal initiative. This is interesting in terms of new social networks: the individual’s initiative is often equated with or derived from their activity on these platforms. Frequent posting means you are present and recognition comes from comments and “like it” posts. The individual is constantly in motion, is located and locatable in this virtual whirlpool, always “connected” and bent on being creative and pro-active. The characteristics of analogue identities and those of social platforms have become standardized. And our society, which demands more and more self-initiative and self-organization, has ultimately promoted both the importance and the significance of digital identities. Digital identities make self-expression, self-idealization and digital recreation possible, and at the same time allow an illusion to emerge, precisely in areas where the digital is far removed from the analogue identity. This gap between the digital and the analogue is fascinating, of course, and my idea is to get closer to this divide with my images. After all, this continuous merging of the two identity worlds eventually leads to conformity, standardization and indifference.
Sabin Borș: In describing Ellipses you mentioned that a person – and a persona, if I might add – is defined by “precast options of personal categorization (…) created solely by economic interests”. This statement reveals a psycho-political rather than a bio-political approach, where marketing strategies become an inexhaustible source of existential design. How do you interpret this inner, almost physical and visceral propensity for existential design that defines current societies?
Sabine Schründer Our present globalized society is determined by uniformity and homogeneity, and according to Bernard Stiegler our brain is being modeled for consumption (and not necessarily by products being oriented towards the needs of consumers). Permanent exposure to customized advertising, for instance, and the endless construction of new shopping centres makes it impossible to escape consumerism. Self-identification is no longer a matter of personal opinions and values, but is based more and more on things and symbols, that spread across the entire analogue and digital network. It´s a form of ego extension achieved by joining the standardization club. Visually and topically utterly boring and psychologically frightening! By the deliberate shifting of desires and values from social to consumerist topics, the masses are made to feel assuaged, carefree and dependent. The invisible mountain of information and data “hidden” somewhere is getting higher and higher, but we can never reach the summit and see the world from a distance. On the contrary, this mountain serves as a transparent control instrument and in terms of the future is culturally totally worthless.
Image 1: Federn, Piezoprint, Alu-Dibond, framed, 59 cm x 72 cm, 2007 / Image 2: Tunnel, Piezoprint, Alu-Dibond, framed, 59 cm x 72 cm, 2009 / Image 3: Trepper, Pigmentprint, Alu-Dibond, framed, 30 cm x 35 cm, 2010 / Image 4: Wand, Pigmentprint, Alu-Dibond, framed, 110 cm x 133 cm, 2010 / Image 5: Mann, Piezoprint, Alu-Dibond, framed, 59 cm x 72 cm, 2007. Images © Sabine Schründer. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.
About the Artist
Sabine Schründer (*1973) is based in Berlin and works mainly with photography and video on socio-cultural topics, in particular the place of the individual in society, how society works in predetermined structures and the dynamics between groups and individuals. Her projects received the highly renowned scholarship “Stipendium für zeitgenössische deutsche Fotografie” of the Alfried Krupp von Bohlen and Halbach Foundation, the Aenne-Biermann award, Reinhard-Wolf award and was nominated for the Körber-Foto award. Together with other visual artists she founded Loris– gallery for contemporary art 2007 in Berlin. Her multilayered works are exhibited regularly nationally and internationally including the Museum Folkwang in Essen, the House of Photography in Hamburg, the Contemporary Art Center Vilnius, Museum of Art Arsenals in Riga and the Nikon-Salon in Tokyo. Most recently she started the corporation Benten Clay together with the German artist Vera Hofmann, in which they produce mixed media on various aspects of power and threats to human kind.