Interview with DER GREIF
by Lisa Stein
Awarded Photography Magazine of the Year 2014, DER GREIF is a print-publication, online-publication, curatorial team and joint project for and with photographers and writers from all over the world. A printed and ad-free magazine at its core, DER GREIF combines and presents photography and poetry in a holistic piece of art. Following the launch of its latest issue, the Photocaptionist interviews the founder of DER GREIF, Simon Karlstetter.
Lisa Stein: The first thing one notices paging through DER GREIF is the incredibly diverse range of photographic images presented alongside its literary content. Could you tell us a bit more about your selection process? What is your conception of ‘good’ photography, of ‘good’ writing?
Simon Karlstetter: There are two people involved in the selection process for an issue, Leon Kirchlechner and myself, Simon Karlstetter. All of the photographs we work with are submitted through an open call. We revisit every image several times, either together or individually. We then start discussing what we have seen. Even though we receive a huge amount of images–for Issue 9 it was around 10.000–there are certain images that leave a lasting impression, which become like ‘core-images’ in the process of creating an individual issue. I would not go as far as saying that we are the ones who judge between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ photography; that would be rather boring. It is actually a selection based more on our own interest in (contemporary) photography. It is about ‘seeing’ rather than ‘judging’. Based on what we see and which images persist we begin to tighten our selection, which allows us to begin creating an issue.
There is certainly a wide range of photographs presented alongside the literary content in every issue. What I find particularly interesting is the surreal potential of photographs that might be revealed when they are put into a new context. With regard to the literary content, we work with Andreas Bülhoff—currently a PhD Candidate at Goethe University Frankfurt—who has been our text editor since Issue 7. Initially, we discuss what the ‘core-images’ trigger in our minds. Andreas then makes a selection from the literary submissions, which he sends back to us. This selection is based on links to either particular images or our previous discussions, which can be of a philosophical, political or aesthetic nature. We then meet up to combine the selected poems with image combinations we have created. Finally, we start sequencing the created image-text combinations in order to create additional links between subsequent pages.
LS: None of the DER GREIF print issues appear to have a theme. Do you have a concept in mind before you begin selecting individual works; is there a pre-existing narrative? If the aim is to create a new narrative how do you go about constructing it during the editing process? How do you ultimately choose what photographs and texts work together?
SK: The theme develops during the selection process, so there is no pre-existing narrative. We do have a concept in mind, but this is applied more in terms of how we approach the combination process. The ultimate selection is at times a very intuitive, at other times a very conceptual process, and follows longer discussions about what this or that image-text combination might evoke in the reader. For instance, does it work on both a conceptual and aesthetic level? Does it create links between the combined works rather than just ‘lists’ of images and texts placed next to each other? The actual sequencing of the created image-combinations comes last.
LS: Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the print issue is that images are not accompanied by captions; works are not ‘explained’ or ‘justified’. Rather, individual photographs are published alongside lyrical texts. How do you think your curatorial approach changes the way in which both image and text are perceived, and how might you hope they inform one another? Would you say there is a ‘directing’ on your part, of your readers’ gaze and thought process?
SK: Since the images in our print publications have been taken out of their pre-existing context, captions would not really make much sense. We still link each image to its author and title in order to maintain a connection to the original ‘source’. On a meta-level, this practice addresses the potential of those photographic images to have multiple meanings as opposed to ‘just’ the one intended by their author. We show them in a new context, allowing certain details to emerge, whereas others might become less obvious or important. We are not looking to illustrate images or text; rather, we try to find positions and combinations that create an associative picture-as-a-whole. The fact that we work with both the composition of the combined images, and the way we place the images on the page is in fact a ‘direction’. By placing small compositional and structural elements referring to certain details depicted in some of the images, we stress the relations between images and texts even more, but constantly add meta-layers of disruption by reminding the reader that he is currently looking at a printed piece of paper.
LS: Continuing with the notion of narrative, while every issue of your magazine could be regarded as a completed artwork Thomas Elsen writes that DER GREIF ‘does not present a final result’. This is a very interesting point with regard to the ongoing discussion about the essence of photography, and how we might re-think the photographic image: not as a possible masterpiece in storytelling but merely a small particle in the universe of images, which is expanding everyday. What is photography to you? Do you think DER GREIF contributes to the contemporary debate about what photography is, and if so, how?
SK: I think photography has become something rather fluid, which is related to the different ‘spaces’ photographic images inhabit nowadays. We are surrounded by them and cannot escape them; they influence us, they inform us, they sometimes annoy or disturb us. As these images are mainly produced and distributed on screens and online, they are in a constant flux of randomly created contexts in our image-feeds, of meaning, and of content. They cannot be kept in one single ‘frame’ any more, if photographic images ever could. Especially younger photographers are very aware of this fact and are starting to work with it deliberately, by showing ‘work in progress’, by allowing themselves to re-shape, cut, crop their images. I hope we contribute to a contemporary debate, and I hope we do so by working with and in between those virtual and physical spaces, which continue to grow together. By addressing those issues in the execution of our projects–like (Un)filtered Scenarios, currently on display at Fotomuseum Winterthur’s SITUATIONS, as well as online–we try to understand the ongoing dynamics between technology, social interaction and artistic practice and how this changes the perception of what photography, the photographic and the photographic image are nowadays.
LS: Collaboration appears to be an important aspect of your work; not only is every print issue based on the collaboration of independent photographs and texts, and what might emerge from these combinations, but a large part of your online presence is made up of collaborations between DER GREIF, photographers, curators, writers and editors—for instance, the ‘Artist Feature’, in which an artist who was featured in your printed magazine blogs for one week and ‘Guest-Room’, a monthly exhibition curated by personalities from the international photography scene. You also recently started a long-term collaboration with YET Magazine by curating a spread in their latest issue. Could you explain why combining different approaches, styles, people and concepts is important to your publication?
SK: I see DER GREIF as something fluid as well and I would really like to emphasise this fluidity even more in the future. The web and the way we access it, communicate through it and work with it still enables us to establish relatively new artistic, curatorial, spatial and exhibitional strategies that enhance collaboration. At the same time, it enables us to have constant access to all those different approaches, styles, people and concepts that exist simultaneously. DER GREIF reacts to this development by incorporating it into not only its practice, but also by trying to show how differently a contemporary photographic practice can be. The creation of a DER GREIF print publication was highly collaborative from the very beginning, and I suppose we only enhanced this and incorporated it as a basis for all our projects so far. In the end, we are all just standing on the shoulders of giants, so why shouldn’t we gather in order create something that actually questions the role of a single author, curator and artist?
LS: Staying on the topic of collaboration I would like to ask you about ‘A Process’, an exhibition ‘performed’ by DER GREIF between March and May 2014. For the duration of the exhibition you made your creative process—the curation, de- and re-contextualization of submitted works—accessible to the public by transferring your work into a gallery space. In a sense this was also a collaboration, not only with photographers and authors, but with your audience, who were encouraged to engage in an intense discussion throughout the course of the exhibition. Can you tell us a bit more about how involving viewers changed your experience of working; for instance, how did their ideas and comments influence your decision making? Would you consider making your work public again in the future? Finally, how do you think it changed the way the work included in the exhibition was perceived?
SK: Looking back at ‘A Process’, it was an intense project because it was very time-consuming and it involved a constant re-thinking of our own working process. For us, it was crucial to put ourselves into this direct confrontation with the visitors—both physical and virtual—in order to create new viewpoints. Their sheer presence influenced our way and experience of working. When working in the studio you are ‘safe’, but we couldn’t ‘hide’ in the gallery. The interaction with the visitors forced us to constantly switch between working and analysing. Their ideas and comments brought new perspectives on how the project had developed so far. Lars Willumeit invited us to re-enact ‘A Process’ during the opening weekend of Krakow Photomonth 2016 in May. This opportunity was important for us as ‘A Process 2.0’ was more involved in a photography-related discussion. Which also involved talking about the images that were part of ‘A Process’ and they way we presented them. I personally see them move somewhere in between precious, printed objects and single images as we encounter them everyday in the web, and they actually have their digital counterpart on the project website. Maybe they are like artefacts and reminders of the fluid state photographic images inhabit nowadays?
LS: Would you ever consider planning an exhibition that was not a performance of an ongoing process, or do you believe that the constant movement, of people, image and text is fundamental to who DER GREIF is? The magazine seems to be a work-in-progress in the best possible sense: a constant ‘re-thinking’, or ‘re-imagining’ of what photography is or, more importantly, what it ‘does’. Returning to the discussion surrounding the essence of photography do you believe that your print issue, your web platform and exhibitions such as ‘A Process’ might undermine, or destabilize the traditional art institution and pre-existing ideas of what photography is by shifting the emphasis from established to emerging talent, from exclusivity to inclusivity, from stasis to constant flux?
SK: As I see DER GREIF as an experimental organisation, I don’t think we undermine anything; on a basic level I think we try to understand how the artistic practice of producing, distributing, presenting and perceiving images, texts, audio or other cultural products is drastically changing, and we include those changes in our practice. In order to understand these changes, I think it is important not to take anything for granted, to see how technology changes the way we interact on all levels and how immediate this interaction is becoming. And this is something that is fuelling and changing the way we perceive, and re-shape what we think ‘contemporary artistic practice’ or ‘contemporary photographic imagery’ is. Both are no longer stable, as we are increasingly perceiving our world(s) and realities as unstable. I think, if any ‘traditional’ institution or idea is being destabilized, it is due to the fact that they are not reacting to the fact that things are no longer stable. I hope that projects like ‘A Process’ or ‘(Un)filtered Scenarios’ add to a necessary discussion, and might fuel a different perspective as well as generate possible reactions rather than answers.
LS: Being the Photocaptionist we had to ask: your print issues are based on the combination of independent images and texts; would you ever consider working with artists whose practice incorporates both photography and literature? Or do you prefer the random association between unrelated works, which interact but do not wilfully affect each other?
SK: We are constantly re-thinking our practice and the way we work with images and text. And this also involves major changes DER GREIF might undertake in the future. As all our projects are based on open calls, this would involve a bigger shift. I personally prefer neither one or the other. But a major change lies ahead of us. I think 2017 is going to be exciting!
LS: DER GREIF Issue 9 came out in July. In your words the issue featured‘ idiosyncratic combinations of both photographic images and poetry with an uneven twist’. What exactly was this ‘uneven twist’? Finally, your most recent issue aside, what is next for DER GREIF? Are there any further developments or new, exciting projects on the horizon?
SK: I was talking earlier about this ‘image’ created in the mind of the viewer, the one that is evoked by the way we combine images and texts. And this is the uneven twist. It is a twist in perception and these kinds of twists are always kind of uneven, aren’t they? With regard to the things we are working on at the moment, I would like to point out the following: on September 16 we started a projected together with Fotomuseum Winterthur at their SITUATIONS space as part of their new cluster ‘Filter’, entitled ‘(Un)filtered Scenarios – An Experiment in Distributed Selection’. The project is running until November 27 of this year and we are quite curious to see how it develops. We had some problems with the database, which is why there has not been too much going on so far. But I think the next weeks might become quite exciting! We are also nearly ready to relaunch our redesigned and restructured website within the next week(s), and a new venture that we will be presenting during Paris Photo is on its way, too. Keep your eyes open! And thank you very much for your interest in DER GREIF and the projects coming along its way!
Simon Karlstetter is an artist, musician and cultural entrepreneur who lives and works in Augsburg and Munich, Germany. He is the founder and one of the artistic directors of DER GREIF.