Proportional Exchanges. A Conversation with Vera Hofmann

Interview by Sabin Bors

In the Photography Series

Each image is an extension of a prior intellectual examination. Each examination, or image, is then a fluid and proportional exchange between intuition and intellect.

Sabin BorsI would like to start this conversation by discussing your approach to art, given that you’re employing so many means of expression and so many different subjects, from technology to politics. How would you describe your art and your relation to the subjects you discuss?

Vera Hofmann: The various means of expression I embrace correspond to my interest in all of these topics. My artistic approach stems from an open realm, out of which I scoop thematic possibilities I consider valuable towards a discourse. Mainly the topics I explore are situated within a socio-critical and political context, paired with personal experiences. So there is a stream of personal works about death, cancer, remains of people, home and belongings, and another stream which is about intuition and aesthetic constructions. (The latter is a rather long-term occupation of mine, one that I revisit from time to time) And then sometimes there are little discoveries on the side that turn into works, like the piece Something went wrong. But what has mostly driven my work lately is a concern for economical, political and environmental issues.

I consider the starting point for a new work to be always the topic, followed by choice of medium and form. I am educated as a photographer but I am more and more integrating video and installation into my work, as evidenced in my new collaboration with Sabine Schründer, called Benten Clay (www.bentenclay.com). I am currently rethinking my role as an artist, as I question the relationships between the personal and the political in terms of responsibility, which, from my point of view, are capable of contributing forms of output that matter. It is an opaque area of investigation, one that, I guess, will become clearer over time, if only intermittently.

Sabin BorsIn Vakuumresonanz you started from a white room and no concept. Why did you refuse the concept? How does a concept influence a work of art?

Vera Hofmann: Of course the statement of having no concept was in a way totally conceptual. I rented this studio for 3 months knowing I wanted to use photography as a final medium for the work. In it, I allowed myself to let anything happen that could possibly happen. At this time I was researching energy, alternative medicine, oscillation and quantum theory. To learn that in a vacuum—the so-called nothingness—existing molecules start vibrating and building matter was very intriguing to me. The conclusion of my research at that point was that the basis for all human life, for diseases, for communication, for natural principles and so on is oscillation. The possibility that everything is connected with everything was totally new to my mind, which was purely trained on rationality. So, inspired by that, I set up this field-experiment condition. To that extent, it was a conceptual approach. Every step that came after this decision was a free flow. I did not refuse the concept but rather a direct subject and message. This series does not want anything. It is just there. And people can pick it up or not. So for me it was an important lesson in letting go of control.

Sabin BorsYou sometimes rely on photography to help you seize a lapse of time that speaks of memories, present… Does photography relate to an act of intuition when you build the conditions of your works, or is it the extension of an intellectual instrument? What does a photographer see in her/his subjects?

Vera Hofmann: I am not a collector of  random material which is then adhered to a theme. Every photograph I make — or let’s say display — is specifically created with a current subject in mind. As such, each image is an extension of a prior intellectual examination. Each examination, or image, is then a fluid and proportional exchange between intuition and intellect. What a photographer sees in contrast to an artist from another field? I guess what all artists have in common is an urge to bring to life their particular aesthetic, that is, their perception; their universe of thoughts, their sensorial activity and emotions. This universe is then both sharpened and bound by the conditions of the output medium. Photography is always an image or a copy, a reproduction — even so-called concrete photography. Through photography I look to re-present possibilities of being.

Vakuumresonanz, 2009, exhibition view. Image © Vera Hofmann. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.
Vakuumresonanz, 2009, exhibition view. Image © Vera Hofmann. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.

The executional quality of repetition depends on the attitude, attention, molding and amplitude of gesture.

Sabin BorsHow do photographs construct a subject, and how do you relate to them? What stories do your photographs tell, and how do you position yourself in relation to them?

Vera Hofmann: I photograph states of being that oscillate between personal narratives and abstractions. Some of my earlier works are biographical. I started with Souvenir, in which I constructed a purely personal narrative nestled within a theme of broader interest, cancer and death of a family member. The following work Was bleibt/What remains is a documentary that observes the left-overs in a house after someone has passed. Those two are stylistically very different even though they deal with similar subjects. The first one is loud, a direct personal display. The latter is subtle, reserved and observing, leaving space for others’ stories or subjectivities to infiltrate the gaps. My role in Vakuumresonanz was purely process-oriented. I used my gaze as subject, but this time emptied of a particular theme. What emerged was a  photographic series free of any directed meaning on my part, one that the viewer continued through the particularity of their own read. In my current works I am concerned with examining the conditions of society by taking a more detached standpoint. In Neoplex I combined photographs of different styles – documentary, performance-like scenes and set-ups— in public spaces to offer an impression of a trembling status quo in times of financial crisis. There will be a new body of work with Benten Clay called Age of an End that addresses my interest in working in the fields of the political and the economical. Our approach within these fields is to extract and negotiate attitudes by assigning roles towards conditions, and by interweaving facts with abstractions to build a complex net of perceptions.

Sabin BorsI see Vakuumresonanz as a series of instances, a series of attempts to picture that which escapes the repetition, that which threatens our inner security, precisely because it overflows us. Does repetition secure an intimate space, or does it, on the contrary, bestir the urge to keep repeating the same lost or missed acts?

Vera Hofmann: In this work I used everyday mass-products like sticky tape, IKEA shelves, chair, table, chains, transparent foil. I dis-embedded them from their daily routine, displaced their purpose and created something that escapes practicality but reveals something beyond. Every instance in Vakuumresonanz is singular, a momentary emotional condition on trial that cannot be reproduced or repeated. Thinking about your question is really inspiring but finding an absolute answer is perhaps not relevant to me. Fragmentarily speaking, the executional quality of repetition depends on the attitude, attention, molding and amplitude of gesture. The same applies to a definition on output, which can be perceived as something lost or won; a threat or safe ground. It could be said that repetitions show tendencies whilst a single action states a thesis. This could be a reason why so many actions remain in the loop of repetition – even of failure — because superficially, as habits, they are easier to prolong. I put a quote at the end of the Vakuumresonanz book from Peter Licht, A German writer and musician, a rather cynical coeval, saying “We proceed step by step. We are afraid. Because: WE DON’T QUITE KNOW EITHER. Unless we find repetition. (Ahh, that’s it)”.

Taken from the Souvenir series, 5 lightjet prints, 90 x 72 cm, Alu-Dibond, acryl, 2008. Image © Vera Hofmann. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.
Taken from the Souvenir series, 5 lightjet prints, 90 x 72 cm, Alu-Dibond, acryl, 2008. Image © Vera Hofmann. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.

Continuous propaganda has shaped our attitudes and our thoughts, gambling on our trust.

Sabin BorsOne of the recurrent themes in your art works is isolation, loneliness, helplessness… How can art expose this so that it unveils the alternatives?

Vera Hofmann: In my work these feelings might be somehow intrinsic. But they are not themes that I negotiate explicitly. One of my early pieces, Souvenir, is a different case, that’s true. That was a personal outcry. On the contrary, the work Neoplex is an attempt to enable the audience to overcome a state of stagnation and get prepared for self-empowerment.

As an artist it is difficult to answer these “how can art…” questions. I don’t want to fully foresee or trigger the impact of my work. But I hope the audience can sense an honest approach and an authentic attitude. This relation in itself bears the potential for transformation into alternatives.

Sabin BorsI know that Souvenir is much more than a “subject” for you. It deals with a disturbing event from your life, that you used to expose the harsh realities of the pharmaceutical industry when it comes to treating cancer in Germany. You mentioned that medical mainstream practice is disputable in many cases, and that there’s a strong pharmaceutical lobby preventing alternative medicine to be established in mainstream practice. Could you please detail this?

Vera Hofmann: I don’t deal with these facts directly in Souvenirthat is rather a personal narrative about the death of my mother from cancer, but I do use the introductory text of it to raise some awareness towards this topic and I am happy that I can share some thoughts on it here as well.

In North America and Europe cancer is the third largest cause of death. Most of the drugs used in chemotherapy derive directly from “mustard gas”, a chemical weapon from World War I. Chemotherapy is extremely toxic, it burns the body, kills healthy and cancer cells alike, damages organs, combined with other severe side effects. Even in small amounts all forms of artificially created radiation increases the likelihood of cancer. That means that oncologists use treatments to cure cancer that cause cancer. There is no proof that people live longer with chemotherapy than without. Three out of four doctors would refuse any chemotherapy on themselves. Patients are also put to the knife and the cancer is cut out, even though surgery increases the chances of the cancer spreading to other parts of the body. Cancer is a multi-billion dollar business for the pharma industry. You can find interesting material about the global players involved, about the background of the German pharma conglomerate IG Farben for example, their major role in World War II and later involvement of their managers in the European commission.

The problem why mostly all patients still agree to voluntarily be intoxicated is rooted in the psychological pressures of fear and despair that accompany the deadly diagnosis. In this moment of shock the patient agrees to anything that is said to prolong his life for a little bit. Continuous propaganda has shaped our attitudes and our thoughts, gambling on our trust. Another problem is time. It is hard to find alternative healing methods with the clock ticking. There are alternatives with astonishing success rates but they are hard to find and carry out as an individual. You have to face incomprehension and hostility from doctors and society, not to mention the lack of infrastructure to support these methods. I just heard of a groundbreaking new cure, yet it is treated in the typical way: as slander of persons and method, as untruthful media campaigns, law suits etc. Anything is done to put it down. Why doesn’t the industry start researching it? I am sure they do, but then they lock it in their safes because these cures are easy and organic. There is no money to make, no patent to be registered. The only way I see it is to get informed while you are still healthy. And to spread the word.

Taken from the Souvenir series, 5 lightjet prints, 90 x 72 cm, Alu-Dibond, acryl, 2008. Image © Vera Hofmann. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.
Taken from the Souvenir series, 5 lightjet prints, 90 x 72 cm, Alu-Dibond, acryl, 2008. Image © Vera Hofmann. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.

Art has to enter the streets and the homes. It needs more visibility. It has to interact with citizens and politicians, publicists and scientists.

Sabin BorsHow can art re-negotiate these conditions? How can it reinstate public control over these situations?

Vera Hofmann: When we talk about political art or socio-critical art that is made to have an impact (outside the art world) then I guess we need new paths, or at least to rethink previous ones. Art has to enter the streets and the homes. It needs more visibility. It has to interact with citizens and politicians, publicists and scientists. Artists could do something like non-art and citizens could do art. Moving away from the classical white cube production to new formats and collectives, new scopes and fields of action. This has happened several times before in art history and I see some new clusters sprouting. I think what the curators of theBerlin Biennale are trying to do with the current “show” is an important step towards a broader acceptance of the necessity for new ways within and beyond the art world, market and aesthetics. It hopefully inspires a couple of artists and people from other professions to rethink or expand their practices.

Sabin BorsNeoplex is a very complex work about the financial crisis. The 5 newspapers you made offer a good insight into the evolution of the crisis, but you also involved a second layer in the discussion, mixing media and Internet information with your own interpretation. Where do the two views converge? Do they actually converge?

Vera Hofmann: The photographs on the wall as well as the act of assembling text and photographs into the form of newspapers are both acts of interpretation. Initially, everything descends from one substance, meaning the same actuality of time and partly the direct same space of the participants. So, yes, they converge. I am reflecting, interpreting and selecting, adding, subtracting, sharpening material out of the available common media pool that builds the base of my subjectivity. On one hand I believe in the physical manifestation of information, and on the other—by slightly re-writing a traditional mass-media product— I raise doubts about its content and use on both sides of the spectrum, its rendering and its reading.

Sabin BorsWhen you made Neoplex in 2009, you spoke about the degree of indifference in your generation. Lately there’s been a great number of situations that rely on public action, especially among our generation. Do you see a change in the public attitude and reaction to the events?

Vera Hofmann: I can only answer this questions from my, a German, point of view, relating to what I read, see, discuss and experience as I haven’t been traveling to countries in upheaval. – Concerning the financial crisis, there were a lot of actions done by my generation, mostly in Greece, Spain, Portugal, France, Ireland and England (and the U.S). These countries have high and rising unemployment rates amongst the youth; even above the incredible European average of 22%. There is a very urgent need behind their involvement. In Germany, almost traditionally, public action is still restrained. Maybe due to our being lulled into a false sense of security and a feeling of being better off than others, which is admittedly true, but as far as I am concerned no justification for silence. Yet the generation after mine, the ones born in the 80s and later, the Digital Natives, are a lot more active than the 70s. I can see a transformation from helplessness and lethargy into at least some awareness and small steps of action. The Internet helps but real action has to follow, as it happened in the Arabic countries. Thankfully there are movements like Occupy with new extra parliamentary approaches and skills to address a young crowd. I hope they have enough stamina to durably attract people’s attention and to generate positive press. As long as the media is tied to the power elites (and are deliberately not covering events of protest or deleting self-made footage off the Internet) it is hard to raise mass awareness.

Taken from the Neoplex series, 5 newspapers with 8 pages each (unique copies), 40 X 56 cm, newspaper holders, piezo prints, various sizes, 2009. Image © Vera Hofmann. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.
Taken from the Neoplex series, 5 newspapers with 8 pages each (unique copies), 40 X 56 cm, newspaper holders, piezo prints, various sizes, 2009. Image © Vera Hofmann. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.

Sabin BorsHow do you see the relation between society, media, and the political today?

Vera Hofmann: That is a big question which we could talk about for a long time. Trying to put it into a simple formula, hoping not to sound too generic here: almost every relationship in our society is led by power and dependencies. And as long as there are certain interest groups having the means to control others, they will do so. Paul Sethe, a renowned German publicist said in 1965: “Freedom of press is the freedom of 200 rich people to express their opinion.” Media companies are well, let’s say, cross-linked with the industry and politics. In secret and closed political circles, such as the Bilderberg conference, no mass media coverage is allowed, yet chief editors of major media players are regulars. Society is meant to consume and swallow whatever the power elite produces and distributes, be that in socio-economical or ideological terms.  There is however alternative media, and thanks to the Internet it has become accessible to almost everyone. But large chunks of society are not willing and able – due to different, partly legitimate reasons — to further investigate beyond their daily newspaper or infotainment TV broadcast. Media and politics are bound together by money, power and pressure. They have been working well together to build a society that believes itself to be a weak player. But the pure fact is the opposite, society is a powerful force in terms of voice, the exchange of ideas, presence and consumer behavior.

Sabin BorsHow does individualization and alienation relate to this?

Vera Hofmann: I assume you mean with individualization not a positive individualism in terms of freedom, autonomy and free thinking but a critical separation among society paired with alienation, e.g. in reference to Marx. Such a loose and disturbed formation is easier to manipulate and to control. And to control society is one of the major functions of a state, free people are seen as incalculable and as a potential threat. There is this very old leadership principle: “divide et impera”, divide and rule.

There is this strong strive for individuality on the one hand but a very narrow scope of action. A high degree of ideological conformity in society echoes in education, institutions, media and with the intellectuals. Our so-called experts, whom we follow cult-like, are massively indoctrinated to help securing the status quo instead of using their privileged position for free research, practice, thought and speech. Amongst other things of course, but to a large extent out of a lack of togetherness society watches civil rights and social security being cut, working conditions becoming unbearable, etc. I am still wondering why and to what extent the individual is willing to accept unfair conditions and what it needs to overcome the fear of noncompliance, the feeling of political marginalization and estrangement from each other. I think that without new ways of personal, local and global interaction and actively lived relationships and collaborations society cannot make significant changes.

Taken from the Neoplex series, 5 newspapers with 8 pages each (unique copies), 40 X 56 cm, newspaper holders, piezo prints, various sizes, 2009. Image © Vera Hofmann. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.
Taken from the Neoplex series, 5 newspapers with 8 pages each (unique copies), 40 X 56 cm, newspaper holders, piezo prints, various sizes, 2009. Image © Vera Hofmann. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.

Sabin BorsReady-mades are now ready-media. How can contemporary art surpass current conditioning? How can it break its boundary conditions?

Vera Hofmann: Do you see ready-media as an already existing media object transformed into art because it was found and claimed as art by the artist? Or further, that appropriating found footage or questioning this material by again creating another media product means still staying within the same reality and conditioning? My impression is that a lot of contemporary art today is focused on interpreting reality with the means of existing media formats and devices, as a critique or else, from within. But if the aim is, if I understand you correctly, to even go beyond that, it needs a more esemplastic, yet unclassifiable, maybe utopian, approach.

Do you see the human also as an extension of today’s media? You say that the human is a ready-made by being both organic prefab and the object of art. I don’t see that as new. I think that is a reciprocal condition as it has always been in the respective state of (technological) development. The media age is the new industrialization, therefore ready-mades are now ready-media. I would be interested how art would look like beyond media.

Sabin BorsIn one of his essays, Boris Groys states that the new is not utopian. How would you interpret this statement, and how do you see this?

Vera Hofmann: Not having read Groys, I would say that under the premise that the new is possible and currently existent in reality and the utopian is a hard to reach wishful thinking future scenario, this sentence is virtually self-evident. Both the temporal and contextual gap is insuperable.

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