Art During the Age of Surveillance

written by Željko Kipke

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When asked to explain the fact that his series of large portraits of colleagues from Düsseldorf’s Kunstakademie is not much different from their identification card photos, German artist Thomas Ruff gave a provocative answer. He told the journalist[1] that he belonged to the generation of photographers which was raised during the period of great German hunt of terrorists and left-oriented political groups and individuals. In such an environment, during the 1970s, when almost all public places were cross-linked by surveillance cameras – he clarified – they could do nothing but look as neutral as possible, imitating the expression of their faces on their identification card photos. They believed this strategy was necessary because of the vigilant cameras which looked for a possible villain in every individual.


At his Budapest exhibition ‘Retrospective’ in Műcsarnok, opened at the end of last year,[2] besides his enlarged digital colour prints entitled Portraits, the German artist exhibited a series of black and white portraits. The series from 1994/95 was entitled Other Portraits. In a brief commentary, the artist said they represented a number of imaginary faces. In fact, he made use of the software[3] which is commonly used by the German police to reconstruct physiognomies based on witness descriptions of accidents or misdeeds. Bearing in mind that Thomas Ruff does not deny his interest in cameras of state administration and the repressive situations they imply, and that he doesn’t miss an opportunity to speak out loud – using art as his language – about the relationship between control networks and ‘government voyeurism’, we could say without any doubt that he has not ignored the mechanism of witnesses and their memories. Although witnesses do not seem so reliable, the fact that they have witnessed a crime makes them inevitable elements of police puzzle. Accordingly, machines can’t do the entire job – part of it depends on people’s experiences.


Through his shots of famous Düsseldorf houses and courtyards – equally enlarged – and with a certain irony, the artist raises the issue of voyeur strategy in one’s immediate neighbourhood. A series of green-tinted photographs entitled Nights was the result of night shooting with the use of technology adopted by the military in the Gulf War. Surveillance and photographing of the backyards of the artist’s friends in 1992, also done at night, was a reaction to similar army night actions in the Middle East. Using sophisticated equipment, the German photographer temporarily turned the streets of Düsseldorf into a war zone. But his repertoire of topics which have something to do with anonymity and voyeurism is not necessarily connected with the army and police. The Internet, by all means, is a rich source of material for the curious author. In the same way, newspaper photographs also inspire him.


His series entitled Nudes from the beginning of this century is composed of pornographic images taken from internet. These provocative, mostly female figures in low resolution have been enlarged to the point of almost losing their recognisability, thus turning the author’s story about anonymity and exhibitionism into something completely new and different. An expert in his work could notice how close his results of internet operations and Richter’s painting preoccupations are. One should keep in mind that the latter artist was (and still is) a very powerful person at Düsseldorf Art Academy and wider. As a student there, and later a professor,[4]  Ruff could not avoid Richter’s influence. In fact, the less articulate the contours on a painting or photograph are, the more need there is for memory and reconstruction of figures and events – in other words, the more doubt in photography as a suitable measure of reality increases. Or, as the German artist would say – the more pronounced the need is to add text to photograph or animated picture which would clarify the situation shown. In his series entitled Newspaper Photos Ruff showed to what extent the illustrations printed in newspapers are sufficient in themselves, without any text. Magnifications of these photographs were necessary for him to draw the audience’s attention to the picture without text or any explanation. Faces of famous politicians, space voyages or social happenings are commonplace in the pages of the daily press and don’t need to be explained. But a great number of the magnifications that were exhibited were difficult to recognize without the text which originally followed them. A very simple and economic act – to rid an illustration of its text – is a good example of the artist’s thesis about photography as a medium which reflects only a small amount of reality. If we would like to increase the amount of reality that photography expresses – says Ruff – it would be necessary to know the person in the photograph or witness an incident or mishap recorded for a newspapers article.[5]


Ten days before the retrospective exhibition of the German photographer opened in Budapest’s Műcsarnok, Dubrovnik artist Slaven Tolj went for a walk along Zagreb’s streets wearing a black, opaque motorcycle helmet on his head. This was his reaction to surveillance camera footage broadcasted on Croatian television and in the daily press with a comment that the person wearing a helmet was one of the assassins of the owner of Nacional weekly magazine. According to an article in Jutarnji List[6], the artist said that an hour of walking while wearing the black helmet did not draw the particular attention of passers-by. In contrast to Ruff, who avoids giving explanations of photos and illustrations, Tolj, who carried out his action as a part of big urban project – Operacija: Grad 2008 (Operation: City 2008) – cited the explanation which accompanied the surveillance camera shots in the newspapers. In other words, he promptly accepted a role in a police puzzle and played a ‘villain’ on the streets of Zagreb. This provocative walk entitled Volim Zagreb (I Love Zagreb) was meant to recall Zagreb’s conceptual tradition – the action of Zagreb artist-provocateur Tomislav Gotovac, to be more accurate, who at the beginning of the 1980s walked through the city completely naked, kissing the city’s asphalt and shouting a similar phrase.[7] The meagre or non-existent reaction of passers-by, in regard of the Dubrovnik artist’s walk, is probably the result of the heavy media exploitation of the surveillance camera recording. Thanks to its numerous repetitions, it became more of a movie: its connection with reality thinned – to use Ruff’s words – so that it became more interesting as a media creation. Thanks to the low resolution and face hidden behind the black helmet, the vast audience was inspired to come up with various speculations. We should mention here that the Zagreb artist-provocateur (T. Gotovac) dedicated his actions to renowned promoters of the movie medium and that his action on Zagreb’s streets thirty years ago was dedicated to American director Howard Hawks. On the other hand, Tolj’s provocation would have remained almost unnoticed if there had been no media reaction, in other words – if there was no illustration or accompanying text in the daily press.


Every author has his own reasons for his point of view. There is no such thing as a wrong premise in art and each one of them is capable of creating unimaginable dimensions. The relation between Ruff and Tolj is a result of various circumstances. Both artists walked through a city. The first did it in Düsseldorf, at night, armed with sophisticated night-shooting equipment. The other hid his identity behind a black motorcycle helmet and was followed by a photographer who recorded his one-hour walk around Zagreb. Both show great interest in the invisible network of urban mechanisms. Their actions took places in different times – with a time separation of almost 16 years. But, Ruff’s photographs found their way to the Budapest exhibition almost at the same time that Tolj executed his city operation. Budapest’s Műcsarnok is, finally, that magical place where the destinies of these two artists, one from Germany and other from Croatia, will meet at the beginning of 2009. On the website of the above institution there is an announcement of a big retrospective exhibition of Slaven Tolj[8], right after the retrospective exhibition of Thomas Ruff.

[1] Philip Pocock. The interview was published on the website of  Journal of Contemporary Art

[2] 12 December 2008 – 15 February 2009

[3] Minolta Montage Unit

[4] 2000 - 2006

[5] See interview for Journal of Contemporary Art

[6]  Zagreb, 5 December 2008 (page 2). The assassination took place on Wednesday, 3 December.

[7] The action Zagreb, volim te (Zagreb, I Love You) took place in 1981, starting at Trg Republike (Republic Square – today Ban Jelačić Square) and ending on Ilica with police intervention. The urban ‘scenery’ and its mechanisms are important elements in artistic strategies of both Croatian authors – T. Gotovac and S Tolj. The latter, regardless of his Zagreb walk, is loyal to Dubrovnik, while the actions of the other have mostly been carried out on Zagreb’s streets.

[8] 21 February – 29 March 2009. Michal Koleček, former curator of Czech gallery Emil Filla, and today a co-curator of many cultural institutions, among which is the Lazareti Art Workshop in Dubrovnik, signs the conception of travelling exhibition entitled Retrospektive bez naziva… (Retrospectives Without Title…; Retrospektív cím nélkul… in Hungarian). He introduced the Croatian artist to the Budapest audience as an author very much determined by his birth place and his work place; an artist who carries the history and social manners of the citizens of Dubrovnik throughout the world. He announced him as an artist who reacts quickly and intuitively, and who tries to deal with his own past. This refers, first of all, to his highly impressive action under the title Društvo & Priroda (Society & Nature), during which he hit his shadow on the wall with a pair of reindeer horns, completely naked in front of a Zagreb audience, until he collapsed from exhaustion. The artist’s explanation was that these horns were a legacy of his grandfather – by breaking them during the action in 2002 he was trying to cancel his family legacy, their history (the horns were actually intended for Mussolini), and their patriarchal connotations as well. The Czech curator and Ernst Museum have acknowledged the fact that there have been two years since the artist’s last exhibition in the Czech town of Ústí nad Labem and that a ‘correction’ of the set-up was in order. They have augmented the conception of Tolj’s new acquisition. The exhibition was announced on Műcsarnok’s website by one of the photographs of the artist’s recent action entitled Volim Zagreb (I Love Zagreb). During the exhibition this action was set-up on two TV screens. On the first screen there was a video recording of surveillance camera which ‘shows’ the assassin of the owner of Nacional weekly magazine. On the other, there was a recording of Tolj’s one-hour walk through Zagreb’s streets, when he put a black helmet on his head and played the bad guy. Because his model (Tomislav Gotovac) took off his cloths, while he was masked, the Dubrovnik artist will talk about the difference between social and cultural context of two periods.