a conversation with Anouk Kruithof
by Silja Leifsdottir
The dutch artist Anouk Kruithof’s art keeps changing; it´s vibrant, energetic, and sometimes chaotic. There´s an almost childlike spontaneity to her projects, a sense of humor, and a refreshing ignorance of all the rules that the art scene sometimes overwhelms us with. It seems like Kruithof strives to surprise herself as much as she aims to surprise the viewer.
When I first met Anouk Kruithof in 2010, she was working on an installation called Intercollapsing based on a book published in 2009, Playing Borders, This Contemporary State of Mind. This book was the first of her publications I encountered, a book of images of men in tailcoat suits in an office environment. The publication fell apart, into many pieces as I looked at it. It was frustrating, fascinating and beautiful all at the same time. The installation triggered a similar feeling because it was chaotic and stressful – the sort of situation I wanted to get away from fast, before something happened and everything collapsed. Still, I was too fascinated to make a run for it.
Leifsdottir: The photos of the men in this project exemplify your fascination for photography’s ability to freeze time at in-between moments, something that is noticeable in several of your works for instance in the series Becoming Blue (2006-09). I recently looked through one of your latest publications, Untitled (I´ve taken too many photos / I´ve never taken a photo), and it made me think of this study out of Fairfield University called ‘Point-and-shoot-memories’, which suggests that taking digital photos actually diminishes our memory and makes it worse. The action of taking a photo distracts us from physically installing the moment into the hardwiring of our brain. I don´t necessarily agree with all the conclusions in this study, but photography has of course changed a lot since you and I where children. We both grew up with analogue photography, where physical family albums where part of the project of ‘making memories’. Many of my memories are not rooted in my mind as actual memories of events, but memories created by looking at photos. Today all of these photos exist only on my hard drive (all those thousands of smart-phone images), and I never look at them. I know you take a lot of photos, not only in your capacity as an artist, but as a diary. How do you deal with your passion for photography in everyday life as compared with professional life? Do you think ‘point-and-shoot memories’ might be something to worry about?
Kruithof: Yes, I sometimes think I’m one of those ‘evil’ people you’re referring to (who take too many pictures), but I also think point-and-shoot memories can be very valuable. In a way I feel I’m the kind of person who is always framing the world. Ever since I was a child and was given my first camera, I lived my life through photos, even when they were analogue. Indeed, at that time, I took a lot of photos, had them printed at a cheaper pharmacy and then started manipulating them. I always edited them using cut outs and notes, and boom! An album was finished. I made many albums, and I always tell myself that when I’m old I’ll look at all of them in peace and quiet.
Digitalization, for example using my Iphone camera, makes the process even more intense. I take more pictures than ever before, but I love it. I always organize everything. I make annual folders, chronologically ordered, with names of what’s what and where, and so on. I even try to make divisions among all those photos: like the research folder such as texts and works I see in exhibitions and pages of books I want to read / look at but don’t want to buy, etc. Then there are photos with artistic potential in a separate folder and last but not least the holiday/love/fun/personal stuff folder… I often look back on it, and it activates my memory. I also use images for research purposes and look at this folder a few times a year.
However, I think I am aware of the problem you mention, and don’t want this ‘press the Iphone screen to frame the world’ to become an ‘empty container-service’. I’m conscious of the benefits and freedom this technological development gives me, and I want to use it properly and professionally. I’m extremely fast at editing and selecting. All I photograph with my Iphone gets scanned and minimalized. I’m not the sort who save everything on hard disks … no that makes me crazy … everything that gets saved must be good and kept for a reason, otherwise I delete it immediately.
Leifsdottir: So the thousands of photos you take create a kind of archive of your life, in a positive way, perhaps because you actively organize them and use them rather than just storing them. Is there ever a time when you go somewhere without your camera?
Kruithof: I never really worried about my memory before, but of course there’s always someone you know whose uncle or grandma suffers from memory loss and this makes you reflect around memory. It is more related to decay rather than to the effect taking photos with an Iphone has on our memory.
For what I want to achieve during my time on this planet, I need to take photos. I love it; I would never want to change a practice that has become an ingrained habit. I’m driven to take photos and I like having my camera with me at all times.
Of course I do have days – or rather, hours – when I tell myself ‘Anouk no camera’. I feel handicapped but I force it, for example, when I go to a spa or try to meditate, or take a walk in nature, or go dancing or when I’m tripping out on hallucinogens or swimming in the ocean (sometimes I still have my underwater camera with me) – basically when I want to have an inner experience, nature-wise or in a meditative, spiritual manner, then I exclude any form of technical device. And when I am in a good conversation with someone. But at all other moments, I need to have one with me. Is my ‘healthy drug’, which doesn’t cost me any memory loss.
Leifsdottir: Do you think taking so many photos all the time somehow changes the value of the singular photograph?
Kruithof: I’ve never thought a singular photograph had much value. It can, but very rarely in my view. I’m much more interested in conceptual projects or installations that treat photos as part of something wider and larger. Photos seen in combination make sense; they can be used to get somewhere. Even when I was young, single photos didn’t move me much. As far as pictures are concerned, the saying ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’ – well, I think it’s bullshit. Photographs show the surface of something, while a combination of words, as in a good written text, have the power to move something in the brain beyond touching the eye. I feel that the effect of text, or image-text combination and use of photos in the plural or in other combinations is bigger on the brain and emotions then the single photo is.
Leifsdottir: An obvious question concerns your relation to the photo book as an artistic medium. So far you’ve made nine books and about six or seven folded zines, posters and so forth. Your book Lang Zal Ze Leven / Happy Birthday to you was praised by Martin Parr in The Independent and was selected by Alec Soth and Antone Dolezal for PhotoEye best books of 2011. This book was made during a residency at a psychiatric institution. Over the course of 3 months, you interviewed ten patients about their wishes for their birthdays and then celebrated it the way they wanted. The project resulted in a ten-part publication, each part celebrating the birthday of a particular patient. This book is full of fantastic details. For instance, there are post-it notes in the persons favourite colour, you need to lift up to see the image behind – a picture of a cake bearing a photograph of the celebrant reproduced in the frosting. I like the short quotations from each patient – some sad, others hilarious – and subtle three dimensional collages from the birthday parties that had been initiated by you and celebrated according to the wishes of each patient. Even though the book’s seemingly childish design might initially put readers off, it reflects your humour, genuine interest and care for the people you interviewed, tailoring the “insane” grapich design to the place and concept of the book.
The books appear as artworks in their own right. Often the book as a medium is used to create a narrative, but there’s rarely a clear narrative in your publications. I see them more as installations. What is it about the photo book you find so inspiring?
Kruithof: Making an artist book is an intimate and solitary process; that’s what I like about it, and since I like to work, I can always be busy with a book for instance, when I don’t have a show coming up. Making a show in a space or making work out of the pages of a book, the two processes go hand-in-hand in my case and they constitute my artistic practice. Bookmaking is an alternative form and liberating in the way that you don’t have to deal with the artmarket, frames of institutions, pressure of a gallery etc. It’s free and flexible. A book circulates in the hands of people in a slower, more organic and wider way. A book is the sort of thing that can be viewed at any time. There are no opening hours and no moment when the attendant kindly asks you to leave. This reinforces the sense of intimacy and offers the space for concentrated reading. Making good books is difficult, therefore it is fascinating and always a challenge.
Leifsdottir: Talking about the narrative and the singular photograph; I find myself increasingly interested in the kind of photography that is part of a larger installation, where the photos participate in a dialogue with other objects. The moments when a singular photographs, all by itself, triggers that ‘wow’ feeling seem to be far between. You usually present your photos in a larger context, and you allow viewers to become active participants in your installations. This adds an additional layer of meaning to your exhibitions. One of your latest, Within Interpretations of a Wall at Stedelijk Museum in 2014, presented a selection of works revealing your fascination for and exploration of ‘the wall’. Striking and beautiful in its apparent simplicity, a wall represents a lot more than just an architectural element. Your walls can represent boundaries in the human psyche, but perhaps also unexpected changes in contemporary society. Can you ever imagine yourself making an exhibition with more traditional narrative photographs that tell stories all by themselves?
Kruithof: Not likely, but I don’t think I have any restraints in how I work, so every outcome is possible over the duration of time. To me, the final form of a work and it’s presentation all depends on the content. I always choose a form that correlates with this idea, so I don’t close a door to anything. The way I think and make my work is consistent, but the formal outcome is as wide as the universe.
Leifsdottir: It’s also quite hard to picture you ever making a body of work only in black and white. Your relationship to colour strikes me as a somehow unavoidable – it is an intense relation that’s important to you in everyday life as well as in your art.
Kruithof: I filter life through colour. Its broad pallet is brimming with strong mental qualities. This is most of all the case with indeterminate hues. While I mainly work with photography, I tend to manipulate, filter, order, and work with colour in ways that might seem to make more sense if I were painting or drawing. The book Happy Birthday to You is printed on dirty mint-green paper because that was the colour I saw on most of the walls and in the isolation cells in the mental institution where I was doing the project. This colour is supposed to have a calming effect on patients, although I think it might just be a placebo effect. When the institution was being set up, it was decided to paint most of the walls this colour. So in this case, the specific colour adds something to the project’s content. In Becoming Blue I used blue because of its art historical and psychological meaning.
I deliberately remove colour as well. The combination of black and white is a statement in itself. Part of the series A Head with Wings is in black and white; a huge part of Happy Birthday to You also, even though the images are printed on dirty mint-green paper. I also made a wallpaper diptych Der Ausbruch Einer Flexiblen Wand (hart/weich) in black and white. I choose colours for specific reasons. Organizing things in colour is a strategic way to create order within chaos, mostly because I’m always overwhelmed with material. I take too many photos and I’m an obsessive collector of books. I always have too many things on hand. Working with colour or non-colour calms me somehow. It has a meditative effect on me and adds a specific aesthetic quality to the work. You might notice this more than I do, since for me it feels natural to work this way.
And by the way, I have no favourite color. It depends. Always.
Leifsdottir: People today experience a great deal of stress and anxiety, in part due to the paradigms of failure and success, rules and barriers. To me this is the core of your practice: you use your energy, humour, playfulness and aesthetic sensibility to address serious topics. While addressing them, you can also make us smile and think that while our concerns might be serious, important and sometimes difficult, they are never impossible to solve, as long as we don´t forget how to let go and play. I’ve been following your feed on Foam’s Instagram, and it appears you have a new book project underway. Could you tell me something about it?
Kruithof: Yes. It´s my tenth book, and probably the largest one I’ve made to date.
It’s called Automagic and is based on photos and texts from 2003 to 2015. I started working on this book in May 2011, and I hope it will be finished by May 2015, but I’m not sure yet. It will be the most personal book I’ve ever made, it might automagically appear.