Sebastian Stumpf in Conversation with Christin Müller
c.m. — Many of your works originate in the public space. Does this mean you are interested in using your presence to interrupt the existing flow of movements or in detecting gaps in the urban planning system?
s.st. — I don’t think I’ve used my presence to interrupt a sequence of movements in any of my works to date. Rather, I try to keep the situation in which I take photographs and my own movements so open and casual that the space isn’t controlled in the way it is, say, on a film set. Passers-by, traffic, the important things in life take their course—just as they do in Bruegel’s painting of the fall of Icarus. Then there’s a brief disruption or aberration, which may be over again the next moment.
I’m interested by open spaces in urban situations, when the urban development plan isn’t fully resolved or has a blind spot. For me, these empty spots and places of transition have the potential of the unexpected.
c.m. — Do you see yourself as a figure who represents the observer?
s.st. — No, although possibilities for identification probably do exist, whether because the body in my pictures is usually seen from behind, or the movement often leads at first into the image space. I also think that it’s natural for the observer to develop a sense of movement for these actions, because they derive from basic everyday forms like walking, standing, lying, etc. and can be performed with a certain matter-of-factness. On the other hand, simple movements are executed in somewhat absurd or exposed situations, and there is no hint that anyone should be induced to behave in a similar way.
All the same, the act that is experienced as an aberration also seems to occur as a kind of reflex or lost instinct in our collective memory of movement—in the sense that many people may well feel or have felt an impulse at some point to jump off a bridge, climb a tree, or ignore a physical boundary.
c.m. — The titles of your groups of works and publications such as Leaving White Spaces, Never Really There, Leaving Again, or a way point to a vanishing from the image. What do you aim to achieve with this abandonment of the image space?
s.s. — First of all, as regards the alternation between presence and absence, we can make a distinction between site-specific projections, which have originated in various artistic spaces since 2004, and the works created in the public space. The concept, codes, and conventions of the White Cube as a pseudo-neutral, hermetic, disembodied space, which is at the same time meant to serve artists as a space for action, have always bewildered me and have triggered in me a kind of impulse to be active. It was a conflict. I wanted to show my works there and at the same time I felt uncomfortable.
The concept of public space, too, is showing signs of becoming domesticated. In comparison with a concept like “Street”, it suggests something artificial, imposed. In combination with privatization, commercialization, and the creation of megalomaniac urban structures, for me the space within the city creates another form of pressure to act. There the body is more like a small particle. In my works disappearance also takes place, as you say, at the level of the image: movements are often directed towards the edge of the picture or into its depths, even beneath the surface of the image or an element of the image. Despite my serial method of working, something abrupt is retained, a kind of delayed punch line. These moments of transition may reveal certain essential qualities and problems of spaces and their images.
c.m. — How do you deploy moments of repetition?
s.s. — In general, I am fascinated by repetition and variation as a basic principle of working with the camera in a typological way. One primary motif is photographed or filmed using comparable parameters, so that even small differences are perceptible. The absurdity, comedy, or even (dys)functionality of a situation also develops though the serial construction. In the case of the video projection Bäume (Trees, 2008), for example, you can see all possible kinds of small ornamental trees in a variety of urban contexts at different times of day and in different seasons. My movement consists in climbing up to the highest possible point in the fragile structure of the trees before anything snaps. In this way you can also see how the trees change shape in response to the weight of the body.
I’m less interested in any unique, spectacular action than in a constantly repeated activity, where the purpose is first and foremost its performance. Sometimes I have to invest a lot of time in doing this and plan several visits to one place, especially because in many cases you can’t repeat every movement as you wish in the urban space without attracting unwanted attention.
c.m. — You have worked in different places, including Tokyo, Los Angeles, Lyon, Berlin, London, and Ahmedabad. What is the connection between the places that are the points of departure for your works? What particularly interests you about them?
s.st. — Until now this has really been quite a small section of the world, mainly Western-influenced cities, in fact. I deal with a certain uniformity and the consequences of rationalization. The current shaping of these urban spaces results, on the one hand, from the modernist tradition and, on the other, from globalized and commercialized strategies of urban development.
c.m. — Why is it important for you to take analogue photographs and enlarge them yourself? And what made you decide to work digitally in your video works?
s.st. — The postures and positions of the figures in my photographs are often improbable—despite the ordinariness of certain movements. It’s therefore important for me that observers can see, merely by looking at a work, that it involves a momentary constellation of body, space, and camera, and not a montage or something like that. The simplest way of doing this without the need for further explanation is to use a totally analogue process. The material offers a certain degree of resistance. The number of shots is limited, and I have to wait some time to see the negatives. This results in higher levels of concentration and the potential for chance and minor aberrations. The video works, by contrast, are created digitally because using the analogue technique here would complicate things and get in the way of the casual feel I’m aiming for. All the apparatus and organization that would need to be involved—both in shooting an analogue film and in presenting it in the exhibition space—would be too intrusive for me and have a negative impact on the result.
The necessary constraint of the analogue can probably be seen most clearly in the photo series Zenit (2016), which is shot at the end point of an urban expansion. The figure in the image stands in a precise spatial connection to the architectural remnants of a rocky coastline, which have been reshaped by the ocean, and at the same time its position relates to the horizon, the limit of our perception. Some of these places are only accessible at specific low tides on two days a month, the shots are very dependent on the wind and weather, and I had no chance to check in these locations whether the spatial set-up and my movements went together with the image. So it was a very lengthy process, at times like doing absurd five-finger exercises in the face of the huge expanse of the ocean. Zenit consists of just eight pairs of images, but it took me from 2010 to 2016 to produce the whole work.
c.m. — For your videos you specify that they must be relatively large and it’s imperative for them to be shown as projections. What are your reasons for this, and what parameters are important?
s.st. — The projection formats differ according to work and context. For videos that are site-specific I project the sequences I have taken in the exhibition room in their original size on the wall of the same room. So projection space and projected space coincide. With video works which I create in outdoor spaces, what is important to me about the projection is its quality as an image without a surface. As a bright, shining image, a projection creates a different illusion of space and reinforces the experience of immersion and transgression. Thus the size of the projections results from the physical relationship to the viewer and to the dimensions of each individual exhibition space.
c.m. — To what extent do you see your work in the tradition of performative photo and video works of the 1960s and 1970s? What has changed today?
s.st. — I don’t necessarily see my works within a tradition, one reason being that for me there is no inevitable continuity with regard to the way in which historical and contemporary works are understood and categorized. Of course, there are some artists from the 1960s and 1970s who have influenced me, as well as certain individual works—for instance the early series by Hiroshi Sugimoto or films like The Right Way by Fischli and Weiss, in which two protagonists move through a wild landscape in a very particular manner.
What has changed above all today is the perception of photography. The new possibilities for producing and manipulating photographic images mean that it is still open to question how an image was made and what role performance plays in the creation of the image. In my view that has something to do with one’s own artistic requirement for authenticity or verisimilitude. And that gives rise to certain questions that I am trying to probe in my works.