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Broomberg & Chanarin: Professors of Photography

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin of Broomberg & Chanarin have been working together for nearly 20 years. Their work has been exhibited around the world with solo exhibitions at Centre Pompidou, Fundación Jumex, and countless others. Yet, just as rewarding as their international influence, is their position as professors of photography at the University of Fine Arts Hamburg (HFBK) where the duo have been developing the next generation of artists growing up in the digital age. Collecteurs caught up with Broomberg & Chanarin to discuss the origins of photography in fine art, how popularity forms provenance, and why they just recently decided to split studios.

Collecteurs: In your teaching, what have you noticed most about the next generation of artists?

Adam Broomberg: Oliver and I have around 30 students, their age group is somewhere between 20-30. So it’s a generation that has grown up as digital natives. Their relationships to the digital landscape are very different to my emotional, political, financial, and critical relationship to it.

I get an ‘updated’ idea of it through them, yet I see it as alienated, almost strange. I’ve had my eyes opened by a lot of the students’ work, and their engagement and attitude towards the digital.

C: The age group 20-30 is interesting. Someone who’s thirty has been introduced to the digital age mid-way, whereas a 20 year old basically was born right into it. We’re mostly curious in what way we’ll embrace this change, the people who have been introduced to it midway, and if we’re actually able to.

Adam: I totally agree with you, and it’s going to change at the speed of light. Being nimble is really important, and that’s not what the art world is good at…

C: Nimble in what way?

Adam: You shouldn’t be set in your ways. Look at the German professorship legacy, where ‘It’s my way, or the highway,’ right? If you don’t follow my ideology and my practice, fuck off. Most professors usually want to build an elite team of people who are going to come out and be extremely successful in the art world—critically, as well as financially. Oliver and I have established a class that’s pretty much open to anybody as long as they show a level of commitment. We believe anybody can be a good artist.

You can see this in our practice, we don’t have a particular aesthetic, or a clear strategy. Our strategy changes 180 degrees every time we deal with a different project. There’s a red line running through, of course, dealing with issues of power and its relationship to photography. And as of late, it’s a lot about surveillance and machine viewing. But we don’t have a schtick, and neither would we like to impose one on our students. We want them to be agile, and foster a critical way of thinking.

Being nimble is really important, and that’s not what the art world is good at…

C: How has the digital world physically impacted the students’ practice?

Adam: A lot of students’ work is created in the digital realm, and/or about the various relations with that digital world. It’s shown to us in experimental form on a multitude of platforms that the digital realm offers, from a phone to iPads, to whatever. But when it comes to the crunch, they have this conservative impulse to make something physical. Like turn something into a print, or a sculpture, something that is identifiable as consumable—but not just consumable, as something worthy of exhibiting and collecting.

And it’s not just a financial impulse, they don’t have the confidence that the art world has embraced work that’s digital in its nature and worthy of having its own place within the art world.

C: So where and how does photography come into play?

Oliver: We started photography in a very traditional sense. We were documentarians. We used to have a camera and we’d go to places that we wouldn’t ordinarily be able to get access to. And we were drawn to the kinds of places that photography has historically been interested in. I’m talking about places of conflict.

We went to photograph a prison in South Africa… we were working in a psychiatric hospital in Cuba, a military base in Russia… these are really perfect places and they are very photogenic, extraordinary. They were very interesting experiences. We would never have been able to visit those places without having the cameras in our hands. We began in this very traditional photo-documentary kind of mode, using the camera as a form of witness in a way. And then gradually decaying, I think we were a little bit disheartened or starting to feel suspicious and questioning our role, in a way: What were we doing in these places? Why us? What was the flow of power between us and the people we were photographing? What role did they have in the production of images and how complicit are they in it? What is the bias built into the technology? When you pick up a camera, you’re not just picking up a tool. You’re picking up something that has some sort of ideology invested in it.

Those experiences led to a sort of inward looking, something more analytical, maybe a more conceptual attitude towards the medium of photography. We felt like we couldn’t just go around the world with a camera taking pictures anymore. We had to think about what it meant to be a witness. And what it meant to use a photographic tool, creating images. Looking at the history of the medium and thinking about the medium. So we went into a whole mind-fuck about the medium of photography that, in a way, led to a dead end, because you can end up forgetting, completely frozen, not being able to even take a picture anymore.

The thing I found quite confusing is that, at the same time of this intellectual journey into the exploration of the medium of photography, I was also amazingly liberated by the camera that was on my phone. I just used it as if it was like drinking water. It was so intuitive, so easy, so convenient. That’s the thing I feel confused about. Right now, Adam and I are both in this moment where we have been experimenting with all the new digital cameras made by big camera companies like Hasselblad, Nikon, Fuji and they have been lending us their new medium format digital cameras and I’m suddenly feeling an excitement again about taking photographs. I’m yearning for that experience that the camera allows me.

Adam: Ever since its inception, photography has struggled to gain a kind of traction or acceptance in the fine art world. There are many reasons for that, but any good financial analyst would say it’s a technology that is about multiples. If you make a copper plate engraving, you can make 50 before the copper plate eventually starts to erode. A bronze cast can deliver perhaps 12 editions, and that’s it. So there’s a physical limitation. A photograph from a negative can be produced forever.

It was only in the ‘80s that galleries started talking to photographers about making editions. Now, that always felt like a total artifice, imposing a kind, natural model of art form. You’re imposing something from the outside, in order to make it rarified. And this idea of being rare is really important. I think it’s changing. Previously, an artwork’s importance was always defined by its rarity…

C: That type of rarity is changing, yes, but I think it still plays a role. I’m actually not sure if we could ever humanly distance ourselves from idolizing the rare. We would need to invent an antonym for ‘special’ that is equal in value. Is rarity about number, or access?

Adam: Rarity is there for collectors to collect. Many German families have astonishing collections and occasionally open them to the public. It is about owning something, but also about making it rare by not exposing it to the public. Rarity in number, but also in access.

Now with the digital age, that’s totally being undermined. It is sending the art world not into a panic, but a struggle to embrace that change.

This reminds me of McKenzie Wark’s piece in E-Flux, ‘My Collectable Ass’. He speaks about the provenance of a piece that was informed by its rarity. Nowadays if a lousy digital photograph is taken of a piece of work and is distributed on social media, the value of the piece goes up. So it’s actually popularity—as opposed to rarity—that now informs provenance. I’m not saying that popularity is necessarily a good thing. Otherwise Kim Kardashian would be at the forefront of things…

In the digital world, there are various ecosystems. So popularity within a certain ecosystem is very valuable. Firstly, because it’s democratic and also a lot of people have access to those images.

I grew up in South Africa where there was no contemporary art museum. The only time I got to see work was in books. The first time I sat in front of contemporary art in physical form was when I was 16 years old, at the Pompidou. Basically, I was shocked. I kind of lived this in reverse, I experienced work almost vicariously, almost in a digital form, but still had a relationship to it.

I want to say to my students: you don’t need to do that last conservative gesture. The work needs to stay true to itself, as much as the engraving needs to be an engraving. It needs to stay within the digital realm, and we will educate the art world if we have to. We’ll have it be accepted as a critical and collectible piece of work.

This idea of having a relationship with a piece of work is defined by people who aren’t in touch with the millennial generation, who do identify themselves as collectors. They just don’t have the money to spend a million pounds on a piece of work. They are open to the idea of collecting in a different way, as opposed to having the object just for them inside their bedrooms.

Nowadays, if a lousy digital photograph is taken of a piece of work and it’s distributed on social media, the value of the piece goes up. So it’s actually popularity—as opposed to rarity—that now informs provenance.

C: So how do you function as a collective? You both have a very similar voice, have people told you that?

Oliver: Well, we’ve been working together for such a long time, twenty years. For many years, we shared a studio but we no longer do. It’s really quite lovely. We’re really enjoying the space from each other. Adam has his place in Berlin and I have my place in London. There’s a lot of communication going back and forth all the time. There’s a little bit more room when you’re not right on top of each other, which is good.

C: Why were you both so drawn to these challenging environments, like the psychiatric hospital, prison, or the military base?

Oliver: Those places felt like a kind of a laboratory for human emotion. When you go to a psychiatric hospital in Cuba, it could act as a kind of microcosm of everything that was going on in that society. Politics, gender-politics, economics, history; layers and layers. Everything was kind of condensed and concentrated in these kinds of places. That project was called Ghetto and we were interested in looking at ghetto as a community. We were looking at communities that are somehow contained. Just looking at society and how society structures itself around certain institutions like death, and school and marriage and health… We were interested in these kinds of state-sponsored institutions that govern the way the society is structured. We were really good at getting access to these places. In a way, we are not particularly good photographers, but we are incredibly good at convincing people to let us in. We did this documentary film recently, it’s called Rudiments and it’s set in a cadet camp in North of England.

The cadet camp, in a way, teaches kids how to be soldiers. They learn to march, they learn to play the military drums and the military trumpet, the bugle. They learn to polish their shoes and march around, it’s all about learning how to be a soldier for these 11-year old kids. We were really curious about the cadets and we got in touch with the camp and they let us come to their big annual meeting where all the cadets all over the country would gather. What we didn’t tell them was we were going to come there with an actor, who is an expert in playing the bouffon. The bouffon is an archetypical medieval character, like a clown, who usually would be invited to kings court and be allowed to ridicule the king. The bouffon is a medieval character who has the permission to ridicule power. We brought the bouffon with us and got her to teach the kids how to do the opposite of being a soldier. We started giving these workshops in the cadet camp trying to reverse that idea. Eventually, they kicked us out and said “what the fuck are you doing, we are trying to teach the children discipline and how to be soldierly.” To be honest, that’s what it’s always like, whenever we are given access to anywhere, we always reach this moment when the institution says “we don’t want you here anymore, you are off message, you are not representing our institution the way we want to be represented”. We had that experience when we were embedded with the British Army when we were in Afghanistan for our project “The Day Nobody Died” as well.

C: In the past years, your work has shifted towards technology and surveillance, still addressing the discourse of power, and the built-in racism in machine viewing.

Adam: We did two projects, one on polaroid and another one about Kodak and it’s predilection to white skin.

Famously, Jean-Luc Godard was invited by Samora Machel to Mozambique to develop a new television session because they didn’t have one. He refused to bring Kodak film because he said it was racist, and it was.

If you look at school photographs from that era, where it was pre-civil rights movement, and you had a few black kids in school pictures, you would literally just see the white of their teeth and their eyes, because the film was just exposed for white kids. So when Kodak’s two biggest clients—the chocolate and furniture industries—complained that they had trouble photographing dark chocolate and furniture, since the film wasn’t expansive enough to include the light and the dark, things changed. They developed a film called Kodak Gold.

Now, we’ve been doing a lot of research about the machine gaze. We’ve been looking at the Carl Benz School of Engineering, which has this huge area, with self-driving cars, or Teslas. We’re working with Cambridge for a show. We’re also working with Kettle’s Yard and their robotics and machine viewing departments. What became clear, to our horror, is that there’s a racist bias built into machine viewing. Much of it has to do with the overwhelming majority of programmers being young white males. It’s just total madness.

You can vaguely understand the naivety of the ’50s and ’60s in America—like Kodak Film—but the fact the we’re still continuing the same kind of political agenda… it’s crazy.

Above: A Broomberg & Chanarin surveillance work titled Spirit is a Bone, 2019 (For Collecteurs). A Limited Edition Blockchain Print + Blockchain Digital Artwork are available as part of Collecteurs Kickstarter campaign.

C: You referenced this in your 2013 exhibition To Photograph the Details of a Dark Horse in Low Light at Goodman Gallery, which brought up the argument that prejudice might be inherent in the medium of photography itself.

Adam: Exactly. My nephew is studying computer science at this amazing school. When I asked him if anyone speaks at their school about the ethics of programming, he said no. That basically amounts to saying: I’m going to teach you engineering and I’m going to teach you how to build a bridge, but I won’t tell you the bridge might be used by soldiers.

C: The same that happened with Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, when raw data of like 87 million Facebook users was used…

Adam: Exactly, and that’s very much an engineer’s claim: ‘We’re just a platform.’ I just don’t buy that whole college boy thing…  

C: And Zuckerberg got away with it, meanwhile Cambridge Analytica filed for bankruptcy.

Adam: He totally got away with it. Not only that, but he also joined the game by recognizing that they’re more than a platform delivering content. Then he moved 1.5 billion European users to California, where data laws are much weaker than the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) law that came into effect in Europe. The whole financial and ethical aspect was just turned upside down, and this is where I think a lot of thinking needs to be done. What are the ethics of Silicon Valley?


Text:  Lara Konrad and Evrim Oralkan
Photography:  Shane Lavalette for Collecteurs


The Museum of Private Collections


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