What’s the red thread between the 1989 Monday demonstrations in Leipzig, the extras’ rebellion at the Cinecittà Studios in the ’50s, a Black Friday event, and social distancing measures? In his latest cycle of works, the German artist and filmmaker examines the power structures in group dynamics, social behavior, surveillance and mass manipulation.
Interview: Adriana Blidaru
Adriana Blidaru In light of the current situation, there has been an ongoing conversation about surveillance and big data, using personal information in order to track and curb COVID-19. On one hand, authorities are encouraging people to allow them to use their data to create heat maps, so they can track and predict patterns in behavior in order to understand and anticipate the circulation of the virus—but on the other hand, of course, this only adds to longstanding anxieties around privacy rights. A lot of your work feels relevant to this situation: I'm thinking specifically about Transformation Scenario (2018), a video-essay that is structured as a dialogue that tackles head-on the complex and paradoxical question of how and when we should use big data for prediction and prevention, and what the consequences of doing so might be. Can you tell me more about the position of your work in relation to this issue?
Clemens von WedemeyerI think what you said is true: it's a conversation that has been going on for quite some time, but I believe that this current situation is aggressively pushing this development further. In a way, this virus functions as an incubator for the digital transformation of society. We are being pushed faster into a dynamic that already started a long time ago; just this week, I heard that Google and Apple want to work together to create an app for phones to enable contact tracing, and together they would cover nearly the whole population of the Earth with their software. So what interested me in Transformation Scenario was the idea that there will be a unification of different data. We have to ask what would happen if you had access to all the data you wanted—and we can make predictions through the use of algorithms. As Matteo Pasquinelli has pointed out, “weather forecasts are using algorithms which can also be implied on all kinds of data, like predicting crime occurrences in certain areas of a city.”
I've been interested in group dynamics and social behaviors for a long time. I made a video as a student in 1999 called Mass, and another one called Occupation in 2002, about a film crew filming two-hundred extras waiting for their cue while held together for many hours by a rectangle marked on the ground. I was interested in the relationship between crowds and power after reading Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power (1960). I revisited this book a few years ago, and it's still relevant, so I thought that it would be interesting to rethink what Canetti wrote in the light of our times of big data. Of course, his theories were grounded much more in the analyses of fascism and the rise of mass societies in the 20th century, but I wanted to start from 1960, when his book was actually published, and see what happened afterward, leading forward with my own interest in cinema, social behavior and images of mass societies.
ABI found a surprising similarity between Mass, where you used found footage from a 1920 USSR political demonstration, and the work 70.001 from 2019, where you used algorithms to digitally reconstruct the 1989 Monday demonstrations in Leipzig. Though created twenty years apart, the videos similarly depict your ongoing fascination with group dynamics and mass manipulation. Can you describe the arc of your interest in crowds manipulation over time?
CVWMass was originally inspired by a dream I had. But when I was starting with video, I used for the first time a computer program that allowed me to stack and superimpose images on timelines. I did it so often that this crowd of humans turned into a gray surface. As an experiment, it was also a comment on masses and violence: there's this movement within the montage that moves towards the individual, and then back into the crowd. It’s as if the individual has to be pushed back into the crowd. I was using images from 1920s street fights between communists and police or fascists.
After that, my focus shifted a little bit more onto cinema itself—and as it did, I found myself interested in the role of extras. In Occupation (2002), I directed extras to stand in a rectangle throughout the night. Then, for the film Rien Du Tout, which was shown at the Berlin Biennale in 2006, I worked with Maya Schweizer, and we looked at extras who rebelled against a film director. Then, in 2013, in Italy, I made a film called The Cast, about a famous extras' rebellion at the Cinecittà Studios in the ‘50s, during the shooting of the film Ben Hur. Back then, the film industry had to develop certain techniques to achieve desired effects while lowering production costs—for instance, using mirrors and a few models to create the illusion of crowds. So in The Cast, extras within the film industry became an image for the unemployed who actively fight their way into the image. And now, Transformation Scenario also starts with extras: the female voice that I'm using in the film is actually a figure that works in a film company. By developing algorithms for digital crowds in order to simulate behavior in the background of films, she discovers that these behavior algorithms can be used for other situations. This is very much related to older works of mine. Somehow I was always interested in how the constructed background of a movie gets into the foreground of the story.
ABI guess you don't really think about the background until someone sheds a light on it. Sound often functions in the same way: it's something that we don't pay close attention to. but you use sound very strategically in your works. You made an acoustic exhibition titled “Every Word You Say” at the Kunstverein Braunschweig in 2014, but it's also evident in recent works like 70.001 and Transformation Scenario, where sound really activates the digital simulations of crowds, making them come alive.
CVWIn Transformation Scenario, I used sound to shift perception to another area. We used sounds of animals—a lot of buzz from bees, for instance, or sometimes, when you see crowds walking or running, we actually used the sound of horses galloping. But with sound, it's also possible to enhance a smoother way into digitalization. Eyes can often tell the difference between a real image and a constructed image, but the sound in your ears blurs that line, between artificial sounds and familiar ones like animals or human voices.
ABIn what way was using the animal sounds intentional? Was it something about the specific animals, where you were drawing on scientific or symbolic associations? Or did you simply want to tap on an instantly and instinctually recognizable sound?
CVWIn doing research for the film, I talked with scientists in Berlin who were programming a robot fish that could both lead a school of fish and integrate into it. That really sparked an interest for me, because in this research, animals functioned as a replacement-figure for human behavior. When I talked to one scientist, he told me they were using algorithms that were originally developed for computer games, which is a simple model of different zones of behavior. In Transformation Scenario, this model is applied to images of consumers shopping during a Black Friday event. This might help to show how behavioral models and algorithms could serve as universal tools: you can use them for fiction, as well as for real objectives—for example, to plan escape routes in buildings or simulate the exit strategies after confinements following a virus outbreak.
ABRight. After all, technology is just a tool—it's not inherently good nor inherently bad. There is also an interesting tension between abstraction and figuration of crowd-representation on screens. How do you negotiate your work between these two states?
CVWTransformation Scenario was always meant to be the first in a series of videos that dealt with this specific topic. So, after that, I made the film FAUX TERRAIN (2019), which is about one individual, influenced by several crowds, both contemporary and historical. It is a psychological approach. 70.001 takes a bird's eye-view of individuals as agents in a large group. As the voice in Transformation Scenario says: “Human are defined by their relationships.” Abstraction evolves from the fact that while large companies and states can get useful information through behavior patterns, there's often no need to examine the individual, or even individual psychology, but rather how or with whom one is doing something. If something doesn't fit into a learned pattern, then the alarm system goes off.
ABFAUX TERRAIN was also really interesting for the way in which you again combine reality and fiction, mixing tangible historical moments, like the footage of the yellow vests movement, with a fictional narrative that you create. Can you tell me more about this balance between documentary and fiction, belief and representation in your films?
CVW I choose a film-form depending on the subject. In FAUX TERRAIN, I didn't work with a cameraman—I did the shooting myself—and didn't have a script, really. I wanted to be on the opposite side of writing a script, to see how the story unfolds. I'm not interested in genre per se; I only use genre to work with the previous configuration of the viewer. I don't really care if it's documentary or fiction. Well, sometimes I care—if it's necessary to prove something as evidence, for instance—but, ultimately, for me, there's actually no real gap between them. As soon as something is represented onscreen, one is confronted with another belief system: that of the work itself.
Clemens von Wedemeyer (German, b. 1974) is an artist working with film and media installations who lives and works in Berlin. His exhibition “The Illusion of a Crowd” is currently on view at KOW, Berlin. Adriana Blidaru is a New York-based curator, editor and writer. She is founder and editor-in-chief of the online platform Living Content.
Works in order of appearance: 70.001 (2019), Transformation Scenario (2018) and Crowd Control (2018). Image courtesy of the artist and KOW, Berlin.