A conversation with Kurt Caviezel

Image, Apparatus, Programme, and Information

Wolgang Brückle and Mark Durden

in conversation with Kurt Caviezel

For fifteen years Kurt Caviezel has been amassing millions of images from his studio in Zurich by taking screenshots from the thousands of worldwide netcams – or webcams, surveillance cameras, IP cameras – that are now publicly accessible online. Since he takes his pictures from a live image stream feed, his work is distinct from appropriationist practices drawn from the internet. Every time he grabs a frame, he gets a new and original picture that would not otherwise exist. The netcams’ surveillant recording of the world must stand for the ultimate degree zero in documentary. But by ordering and ​​ arranging pictures according to the discovery of recurring patterns and behaviour, Caviezel turns this machinic vision into poetry. One group, collected from the same camera over many years and registering changing light and weather conditions, concentrates us on the view from on high of a bus stop, billboard and a single figure waiting. The street scene is relatively empty and each person is shown to be standing in a similar position by the road, a recurrence that creates a sense of eternal loneliness and expectancy.

© Kurt Caviezel, Error (45), 2010

Many images attend to the unexpected comedy or beauty of mistakes and aberrations in the recording equipment – the cameras that are still recording when window blinds are closed, when lenses are being cleaned, or the pictures showing all the spider webs that have been spun in front of cameras, the insects, birds and birds’ tails that have unwittingly got in front of the lens, as well as the ways in which dust, water, snow and ice have obscured and transformed views.

"This area is under video survaillance" © Kurt Caviezel, Message (21), 2016

One series, humorously entitled ‘Self-Portrait’, includes the shadows cast by the cameras and the structures they are attached to, a succinct reminder that this is a detached and fundamentally inhuman vision. Another series captures the handwritten phrases held in front of the camera by one individual to unknown others, setting up a somewhat comic collision between such basic and primary modes of communication and new technological channels of distribution.​One is hard-pressed to find anything intrusive in this collection of anonymous images made public before Caviezel’s turning them into permanent pictures. Never, it seems, has photography come closer to confirming the notorious complaint that all it does is mechanically register the world. But then maybe the question of agency has also never been trickier before. In fact, we will never stop wondering to what degree Caviezel’s imagery is reminiscent of the curiosity of the private eye or of an omniscient God-like perspective on the world.

Parts of the following interview were made in Caviezel’s studio in Zurich on 17 Nov 2016,

and more questions and answers were added in a subsequent email conversation, which

was translated from the German by Wolfgang Brückle.

WOLFGANG BRÜCKLE and MARK DURDEN In the title of your 2015 book, The Encyclopedia of Kurt Caviezel, it is ambiguous as to whether Kurt Caviezel is the author of the book or its subject. Was this deliberate?

KURT CAVIEZEL Yes, indeed, the ambiguity was intended. While I considered other project titles in the beginning, with The Encyclopedia of the World, The Encyclopedia of Netcams, The Encyclopedia of Images among them, I was dissatisfied with their one-dimensionality. In what we may call a poststructuralist turn in my perspective, I wanted to point to the practice of picture-making via the web: You are visually live on location, but your body is at another place. This photographic ambivalence is new and I wanted to make it evident in the title. I am indeed both the author of the book and, to a certain extent, its subject.

WB / MD You had proceeded differently in your previous project, Red Light from 1999. In a series of black and white photographs, you used a film-based process that was already in the process of becoming old-fashioned. You also seemed to follow a more traditional conception of the observer’s status and point of view. You took snapshots from an apartment window, using a long lens looking down on people in cars waiting at the traffic lights, and you used the classically voyeuristic premise of the blow up to present often intimate moments and gestures. The title’s suggestion of the illicit further reiterated the transgression of the photographic act. Was there a particular curiosity that drove you, and do you feel your role was different then?

KC The setting was different when I worked on Red Light. It did, however, share characteristics with netcam photography. I took my traditionally analogue photographs with my own camera, which was mounted on a tripod. I was constantly present and had the option to turn the lens where I desired. Thus, I was able to observe fifteen to twenty cars queuing in front of the red light. The rectangular windscreens framed quasi-pictures which reminded me of negative or film strips. These strips would pass before my camera in the rhythm of the red light, and I made my pick from the flood of images by turning some of them into photographs with my 1000 mm telephoto lens. There was less distance to the action than with netcams. Things were happening right before my front door, and so I felt culturally closer to the information I was collecting. More cultural knowledge on my side was implied. And I was in a position to choose the angle of the lens.

© Kurt Caviezel, Red Light, Hands 1, Hands 4, Hands 6, 2000

WB / MD It is our impression that the sequencing of pictures is critical. It calls attention to patterns and highlights the mechanical and repetitive nature of certain human gestures: hands pointing, people yawning, pinching the skin on their arm etc. Your grouping and ordering seems to create a comedy out of human behaviour by showing how routine and mechanical our spontaneous gestures are. Could you comment about this editing process and its effect?

KC I was interested in the small gestures during waiting time in these semi-public capsules. What do people do when they don't have anything specific to do in their un-private living room on wheels? Are they aware that they are not alone? Where are the drivers' limits of privacy? What is probably the result of my enquiry is a little anthology of waiting, classified in a typology of gestures. However, gestures can change their meaning when photography isolates them from their original context. When you contemplate twenty photographs of yawning people, this gesture will start to change its essence, and there is a moment where you start to wonder if they actually are yawning. They may all be screaming or, like in a big chorus, collectively engaging in a song. Such effects undermine the individual gestures and unveil a collective sub consciousness. This can be very comic although there is also a kind of lucid melancholia lurking behind it.​​..

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Interview published in ArchivoZine 19 / New Media, In the Age of Visual Culture

Kurt Caviezel visual artist

Mark Durden is Professor of Photography at University of South Wales, Cardiff, Wales, UK.

Wolfgang Brückle is senior lecturer for photography theory and visual culture at the Luzern Academy of Art and Design, Switzerland.

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