Berlin trip – window photography

During our trip to Berlin in half term, we were offered 3 briefs. I chose to focus on the one titled ‘Through the window, outside in/inside out’. Here I was to explore the window as an intermediate space of communication between exterior and interior, as well as its materiality and reflective properties.

I felt drawn to this in particular as this dialogue between exterior and interior could be used as a metaphor for the interior and exterior self, something I am looking to explore further in my FMP. Here I have segmented some of the photos I feel most successful that I took during the trip, according to the theme I feel they best espouse: materiality & reflection, looking in/out & framing, concealment, distortion, openings, with some text discussing each in turn.

Materiality & Reflection

I was particularly interested in this reflective quality of windows. At once, we are seeing through and also back at ourselves/our reality. It creates a new reality, one that only exists at that particular perspective, a fiction. It is therefore fleeting and ephemeral. Something the camera can exploit and frustrate. In this too, in the process of capturing that reflection I was often capturing a reflection of myself, a self-portrait that was not the primary intention of the photograph. These were intriguingly anonymised though, as I held it up to my face to see through the viewfinder, my face is obscured almost completely by the camera itself.

The reflective quality of glass in windows was apparently a central interest for Walter Gropius in the design of the Bauhaus school in Dessau, where he made use of spiegelglas (mirror glass) to enhance reflectivity, which we visited on our trip.

I was also interested to discover at the Bauhaus museum the photographs of Marianne Brandt, who was a student and then faculty member leading the metal workshop at the school. Here she had a series of self-portraits using a spherical reflective surface, choosing to make her face visible, which reminded me of a similar sketched self-portrait by M.C. Escher. These distorted reflections are interesting, though I do wonder if she was more interested in the materiality of the metal than the exploration of self here.

Looking in /out – framing

In review of the photos I had taken that could fit under this theme, I found that I did not like the aesthetic of many of them. I found the framed view wanting. Here the selected group lend a certain eery sensibility. I think from the mode of surveillance/observation that this takes. All of them seem to be off kilter for me as a viewer, and there is something particularly sinister with the harsh highlighting in the first picture, of the man at leisure. It reminds me of Hopper somewhat.

Concealment

When we toured the Boros Collection during our trip, we were introduced to the work of Peter Piller, who works from an archive of collected photographs from print and digital media, and in this case from the collection of a home photography retailer operating before Google Maps (who took aerial photos of in residential areas to sell to the residents). One of the series from this collection that we saw comprised 9 photos with houses where the window blinds were shut.

Sleeping Houses (with closed blinds), Peter Piller 2000-4

I found it interesting how he effectively analysed and catalogued these collections, identifying patterns in behaviour and in the stereotyped language of media imagery. Another series showed people washing their cars in front of their homes. I was interested to explore this for myself, and so took photos of windows that were obscured from external view in some way. Particularly interesting for me was the sense that these sleeping buildings were left derelict, or were more susceptible to graffiti. But too that the means of concealment/shuttering often provided intriguing colour. I especially like the colour scheme of the final photograph, with the sub-bleached pale mint green colour on the blinds, marrying with the mottled pastel pink effect of the distressed white-washed brick walls.

Distortion

I like these photos for giving a sense of dislocation. The exterior is not visible, reduced only to a blurred white light, and there is little detail in the interior to provide context here either. It subverts the purpose of the window for seeing in or out, and makes it more of an abstract form in itself – we see the window itself. The surrounding light (or absence of it) is in contrast to that which illuminates the window – we see the window as having a primary function of illuminating the interior, bringing the light in. But in each case this purpose is also somewhat undermined by dirt, or blinds, or colouration of the panes. I am most pleased by the depth and shade occurring in the first photograph here, the most abstracted, with the simplicity of just one pane of glass.

This dislocation was also explored by an artist I saw at the Kindl gallery in Berlin, who made a site-specific in the Kesselhaus there. She covered the 3 windowless walls with true-to-life floor to ceiling prints of the windows that are seen on the fourth wall of the Kesselhaus. When we observe these prints, we are simultaneously seeing the exterior, but not the exterior we would see were those windows in fact real.

Panorama, Bettina Pousttchi (2019)

Openings

I was also interested in windows where the distinction between interior and exterior was less clear – when the window is open or broken. A broken window implies some sort of violent act (whether human or not), in the act of breaking the glass itself, but also violating that boundary of exterior/interior. But whether cracked or open, it would still for us be defined as a window all the same.

Unit 2: Dérive context

In conducting formative assessments this week within my tutor group, I became aware that I had neglected to fully contextualise my projects thus far in unit 2, and so I am keen to rectify this! Rather than something we complete as a first step and move on, we’ve been encouraged to begin there and return to recontextualise as we progress. I believe I have recontextualised as I went along, reflecting on the direction(s) my work took, but that the broader initial context has gone unseen, so I shall focus on that.

Dérive was one of the strategies created by French Letterist art movement, which was later subsumed by the Situationist International group (and more recently adopted by artists such as Wrights & Sites). A strictly urban endeavour, the notion was to ‘drift’ while walking, subverting the usual way in which humans behave in the urban environment, in order to better reveal the ‘psychogeography’ of the urban landscape. This refers to the precise effects of the built environment on the emotions and behaviour of the people within it, and by studying this the Situationists hoped to better envisage and be prepared for their ideal city.

This notion is interesting to me as I have come across before how building design can have a direct impact on people's wellbeing - e.g. whether you have a window and what you can see out of it can have a measurable effect in length of hospital stays.

These art movements were anti-capitalist and anarchist, building on the teachings of Marxism, and sought to reawaken the consumer to authentic experience (so that they might not continue to merely be passive receivers of mass media/commodity). A direct result of their interventions (so called situations), was the Paris uprisings in 1968.

Something that I found to be relevant to some of my ongoing research for the upcoming Future project (i.e. a future where work may mostly be done by machine/AI and the human worker is obsolete) is that the Situationists thought work in advanced capitalist society would become increasingly absurd. As technology progresses, and work becomes more efficient, the work itself will by nature become more trivial. 
In researching this context, I found myself tunneling through wikipedia through link after link of related pages that sounded of interest to me. This reminded me of a game I had played at university around 2007, where you had to get to a destination wikipedia subject page from another (unrelated) subject faster than someone else, e.g. from polar bear to ice cream truck. Very good for long library essay writing sessions... The parallel here with the dérive strategy is quite marked, and I was intrigued that there should now be a dérive app to help you navigate out in the real world, but not a dérive equivalent for the now hugely extensive online world.

It could be fair to say that the Situationists politicised an act that had first been popular in French society in the 1800s and particularly espoused by Baudelaire – flaneur. Though the flaneur too walked aimlessly in an urban environment, they were perhaps more attentive to the other people they encountered, hoping to be an observer of society.

Strangely, I came across this term – flaneur – in a book I am reading, On Photography by Susan Sontag:

Gazing on other people’s reality with curiosity, with detachment, with professionalism, the ubiquitous photographer operates as if that activity transcends class interests, as if its perspective is universal. In fact, photography first comes into its own as an extension of the eye of the middle class flaneur…The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoiteuring… the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes… The flaneur is not attracted to the city’s official realities but to its dark seamy corners, its neglected populations – an unofficial reality behind the facade of bourgeois life that the photographer ‘apprehends’, as a detective apprehends a criminal.

It’s interesting that this class tourism rooted in the notion of the flaneur would find it’s expression later in the works of the anti-establishment Situationists. But then this aimlessness for them served a purpose (unlike the flaneur for whom it was more like a hobby).