AR: Michaels Pohl is an emerging multi-media artist based in Berlin. I was recently introduced to his work by a peer, but because Pohl is Berlin-based (I live in Brooklyn myself), the only way I could access his work was on the internet. I usually prefer to see an artist’s work in person, but when I discovered he sources most of his imagery/content from the internet, seeing a computer mediated version of his work made sense and was oddly intriguing as a viewing experience. It seemed appropriate.
The first images I looked at were great abstract photo-collages of seascapes and strange satellite forms. Bizarre, beautiful and painterly, these images had the appearance of being materially specific (man-made forms and water) and yet geographically and functionally non-specific. I looked at them for a long time and found myself wondering what I was actually looking at, and where the imagery came from.
AR: Can you talk to me about how the internet informs your work and where the Seascape series comes from?
MP: The Seascapes works all originate from one photo piece, Princess of the Stars, which was of a Philippine ferry that capsized during a Typhoon in 2008. Princess of the Stars was initially conceptualized in 2010 as part of an installation, but I later decided it was just the photo I needed. That is the first work I made with an image found on the internet. The found photo shows the ferry upside down, floating in the ocean. I then simply turned the photo around again, so the ferry’s name was upright again.
From this point on I began collecting images of sinking boats and ships of all kinds from the internet. I got more and more interested in the stories behind all those incidents, but also realized there was a graphic quality to those images. After a while I developed a method where I use multiple copies of the same image, which I sometimes flipped or mirrored for collages. The first ones were more abstract, whereas my more recent collages resemble strange flying devices, spaceships or drones. You can tell you’re looking at something man-made, but due to the collaging and the low quality of most images –( I like to use very compressed images like cellphone photos, I don’t want them to be crystal clear )- it is often hard to tell what the picture actually shows. I like that.
Also, I do all the collaging by hand with photo prints of the images, so that they become more physical in the end and every cut and move I make is visible in the work.
AR: It’s interesting that you choose images with low resolution or poor quality, such as cell phone images. These images obscure clarity and can blur the line between what is real and imagined, mirroring the nature of information on the internet where fact and fiction can be interchangeable. In the Seascape series you take the effect of low res pictures one step further by clearly altering and manipulating the images, using cuts and collage to create palindromes and unidentifiable objects that jut out of the sea. In another series Unknown (Caught on Camera) you also explore nebulous information and imagery produced by low res imagery, this time focusing on strange clustered lights in dark settings. The images seem like strange fiction. There is a strong psychological element in the work that relates to cinema and film noir; it also makes me think of bad websites with fake UFO pictures. Can you talk about where this imagery comes from and what you’re doing with it?
MP: A lot of the images that inspire me for these works come from the internet. I continuously collect images online, going on a kind of hunt for certain “genres” which get archived and categorized. I have a number of different categories of pictures I am interested in, not all of which end up in artworks. And I have a certain interest in blurry, pixelated, poor quality images, I find them kind of beautiful.
Actually, the Seascapes series got me interested in low quality pictures specifically in the first place. When I started collecting pictures of sinking ships I realized there just were no high quality versions available of a lot of the images I found. They might not exist at all, or they never made it to the internet. So I decided to work with what I found and realized the low-res images were actually not taking away from but enhancing what I was doing with them.
For the unknown (caught on camera) works it was a little different; I found these two chipboard panels on the street somebody had drilled all these holes into. Originally I just wanted to use them to build a shelf, but after they sat in my studio for a while I realized I had to somehow work with them. So I put tube lights behind them just for a test and by that discovered the light made the little hole patterns appear just like these UFO pictures on bad websites you mentioned (I already had a collection of these, too).
As a second step I started to take photos, and later videos too, of the back-lit holes, trying to understand and then imitate the looks of the images I had found online. Although my photos are not low-fi at all, they still manage to evoke that mysterious feeling where you don’t know what to think of an image – if it’s real or fake or what it is actually showing, which is exactly what one thinks when looking at the vast amount of UFO sightings documented on the internet. Every single picture is blurry and intangible, yet it feels unlikely every one is a fake. That is what interests me here.
AR: With this work you make the origin of the photos transparent by incorporating the source of the photos (the chipboard panels) in your installation. The viewer can see the relationship between the back-lit board filled with a constellation of holes, and the blurry photos that resemble UFO sightings found on the internet. To me, in a broad sense, this series puts into question the veracity of imagery we find on the internet. It emphasizes the how easily we can manipulate imagery and information. Do you intend to question the authenticity of what we see and read on the internet with this work?
MP: Absolutely. I actually don’t want my works to be so focused on things happening on the internet, but that is just the place we store and see most of our images and videos nowadays. But I am very interested in the question how images are used to create truth. In an essay, the Austrian artist and researcher Hito Steyerl brings up the shaky, blurry cellphone footage of the war in Iraq shown on CNN as an example for our generation’s “problem” with images: More and more pictures are being made but at the same time carry less and less information, but the blurriness, pixilation, shakiness etc. gets interpreted as a sign of authenticity. Nobody questions a black and white cellphone video of a warfront explosion. That is why it’s perfect material for TV news. The photos and videos of unknown sightings I collect are technically very similar, but the footage of so-called UFOs is always immediately mistrusted. That is what draws me to them, because for me, it adds another layer to this relation between what we can make out of a photograph and the idea that it actually depicts reality, that it proves something. The unknown (caught on camera) installation also includes a little booklet with “actual” pictures I collected from the internet, giving the viewer another reference to relate the photographs I take to. For me this makes it feel like the viewer can read the “story” of the work both ways, either explaining or mystifying the images.
AR: The term “post-internet art” has become common term in the last few years, referring to art that reflects our new relationship to images and objects inspired by the internet. How do you position yourself within this movement? Do you think of yourself as a post-internet artist?
MP: I only came across the term very recently, and I find it to be very ambivalent. I don’t really believe my work fits into what people associate with this label. But I do investigate the possibilities of using the internet as a resource and for production, and many of my works would not have been possible without it. While in art school my practice was very site specific, or maybe situation specific. I believe this is still the case with my newer works, but the context usually exists or is accessible online. But it doesn’t really make a difference to me anymore where my inspiration comes from, whether it’s from online, a book, a found object, the architecture of a gallery or photographs taken by me. Therefore you could call my practice post-internet, because I don’t consider the internet as something special or different from anything else in regards to my practice.
AR: What artists do you feel you have an affinity with and what kind of influence do they have on your work?
MP: A few artists that come to my mind right now: Cory Arcangel, Kim Asendorf, Christian Jankowski, François Lemieux, Nina Canell, Peter Schloss. A very diverse group. I don’t know if or in how far you could say they influence me, I just like what they do.
AR: The way you play with your subject matter often transforms it into something greater than the specific image; it becomes symbolic. For instance, in the Ad Nauseum video piece, a ship is crashing endlessly against a huge sea. This video is installed within a concrete, urban space and the juxtaposition of the image and its setting makes me think of what Chris Hedges calls the myth of human progress.Two forces are feeding into a loop of self-destruction: a persistent industrialized world and one of its consequences, super storms. The ship is caught in an infinite struggle against the waves with the delusion that it is moving forward, when in fact it is stuck in the same spot. And so there is something funny, tragic and awe inspiring about piece all at the same time. By re-contextualizing and looping the video of the ship you create a powerful, uncanny effect. Is the uncanny element in your work intended to function as a critique of the industrialized world? Or is this just my interpretation?
MP: I try not to put too much “meaning” into my works. I don’t really want to say concrete things with them; I basically just want to make them. For myself it is totally unclear whether it is the boat or the sea who “wins” in these videos. I am fine with what you see in them, because I believe the viewer is the one who “finishes” the artwork, but there is no “message” I want to evoke. Then again, I believe the world right now is an uncanny place, and so my works might be an attempt to somehow deal with that feeling.
AR: Your work is constantly shifting conceptually and aesthetically. Would you say there is an overarching approach to the way you work?
MP: Ideas can come from everywhere. I tend to take notes or do quick try-out versions of things that come to my mind. From there, it takes me weeks, sometimes months to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Also, I try to follow the ideas I don’t really understand , that I can’t put into words, where I can’t figure out what I want to do with them. I do a lot of sketches, models and simulations, but in most cases, works only get really “finalized” right before they are exhibited.
My work seems to be all over the place to a lot of people, and sometimes to me. I follow certain threads for a couple of months or a year or two, and then I switch to another. I regularly come back to some things, like the Seascape works. I started that series in early 2012, and every couple of months I return to make new ones or rearrange older ones. Older bodies of works, like the whole group of “institutional critique” pieces I more or less dropped, but I can see how ideas and concepts from those works make it back into new work.
AR: As you said, your ideas and work definitely spans a wide range of topics, but there seem to be a few common threads in your work too. I’ve noticed a sense of the absurd and in some cases an interest in contemporary legends. I’m thinking about awkward, futuristic drones, ufo’s, super storms and radioactive dogs in particular. The internet creates a strange landscape of seamless spaces by compressing geography, erasing the chronological nature of time and combining the impossible. It lends itself very well to contemporary myth and tall tales. Am I right in thinking these things interest you?
MP: I grew up watching shows like The X-Files and all kinds of sci-fi movies, and also reading a lot about all kinds of mystery topics, so yes, I developed an interest in these kinds of stories early. Today, with the internet, it has become rather easy to find stories such as the one about Auditor the dog, or websites about weird flying things, alien invasions and such. So every now and then I browse the web for those wacky sites where they collect all that stuff, just to keep myself entertained.
I don’t recall where exactly I came across Auditor, the strip mine dog, an actual and very real animal. He used to live at the Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana, a highly poisoned area, puzzling people about how he could manage to survive there. I found some short newspaper articles about him and some extremely low quality pictures online, which made me wonder, because apparently he was a local celebrity in Butte. So the fact I could find out so little made him a mysterious creature in my eyes. For years I kept coming back to these pictures because of their strong atmosphere. Eventually I started turning the whole thing into an artwork by collecting whatever I could from the internet as source material, thus not only incorporating the story of Auditor into my project but also how much of it I could access from my laptop at home as a defining factor of what to work with. I had the found pictures printed in original resolution, some of them being less than an inch wide, also I collaged a booklet out of all the texts I could find about him and made an 3D-animated flight video around Berkeley Pit using Google Earth material.
AR: You approach new ideas with playful curiosity, not imposing a predetermined structure or aesthetic, instead allowing an idea to evolve organically. By doing this you embrace risk, and this is where art has the opportunity to be truly dynamic and exciting. What ideas are percolating now? What’s next for you?
MP: My latest project uses photographs of cars I took off eBay, pictures taken by people who want to sell their car, so they have a special feel to them. I print them on glossy photo paper, which then gets crumbled and fixed with glue. So there are two very different things coming together, the exploration of a certain category of images, and the act of turning the paper sheet into a three-dimensional object. I try to somehow put these together and make it work. Besides that, I have a couple of other projects in the making, some of which might actually become online-only works. So apparently I won’t get away from the internet in the near future.
Michael Pohl lives and works in Berlin, Germany. He studied at Akademie für bildende Künste Mainz, Germany (with Prof. Ullrich Hellmann) and Kunstakademie Münster, Germany (with Profs. Maik & Dirk Löbbert). He has received several residencies and grants, among them Citè des Arts International in Paris, France and Künstlerhaus Schloss Wiepersdorf, Germany. His work has been shown in various solo and group exhibitions in Germany, Europe and Canada. His first solo exhibition in the US at Pehrspace, Los Angeles runs through February 21st.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS: Sarah Elise Hall is a New York-based artist and writer. Her work has been exhibited with Janinebean Gallery (Berlin), the Drabinsky Gallery (Toronto), MUSE CPMI Center for Photography and the Moving Image ( New York), Islip Art Museum, ( Islip, NY) and Galerija Zvono ( Belgrade). Her work has been reviewed in Toronto’s National Post and Toronto Star, New York’s Huffington Post, and included in Michael Petry’s book, Nature Morte, published by Thames & Hudson Press.