ARSENI KHAMZIN—Tell us a bit about yourself and where you are from.
GEERT GOIRIS—I live in Antwerp with my wife and our three children. I have a background in photography: first I studied in Brussels for four years, after that I went to the film and television academy in Prague where I met my wife, who is Norwegian and also studied photography. From Prague we moved to Copenhagen for two years. After our time in Denmark we came to Belgium; we’ve been here for sixteen years now.
I grew up in a little town in Belgium, and without having too many nostalgic or romantic feelings about it, I could imagine living outside the city for a longer period.
AK—What was the last exhibition or artwork that stirred you?
GG—The last artwork that really shook me was looking at Karen Willems playing the drums in a performance of Hold Your Horses, a “Grand Opéra de trash in 27 acts and entr’actes” by ChampdAction. They played a selection of protest scenes of this “opera” at the Time Canvas festival, hosted by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Antwerp. The interaction, concentration, and raw power of the players were incredible. Images from modern-day battlefields were projected behind the musicians: thermal satellite images of soldiers running while bombs exploded around them. The perverse images of soldiers fighting death in real-time, combined with the lamenting but powerful outcry of the music was a profoundly shared moment of indignation and despair. And I couldn’t take my eyes of this drummer, because she was completely holding the whole gig together, yet she was somewhere else. Looking at her was like looking at an ancient ritual being performed wildly, or a kind of exorcism taking place – very visceral!
AK—You’ve had a busy exhibition career in the last 15 years and you’ve participated in a number of publications, but only recently did you release your first major photo book, Lying Awake. What was your experience of working on the book?
GG—I’ve been thinking about a book for years – like any other photographer or artist, we all seem to dream about a book bearing our name on our bookshelf. But seeing the vast amount of photography books coming out, I got discouraged to add something to this pile, and thought it would be better be patient and take more time to mature as a photographer. I also wanted to be in control over the layout, printing quality, choice of paper, etc. so I only felt ready to produce a book once I knew the right people to help me with this.
A book is an ideal vehicle to present my work: it can contain a large amount of images, which is more complicated to do in an exhibition. I always feel the need to combine images together so the associative field becomes evident, and the overall approach – a way of looking, an ongoing perplexity – arises. One important step in my working process is to see if a new image “fits in” with older, existing works. I try to be consistent in the visual atmosphere or mood, without being too topical. When I can show a larger number of photographs, it removes the art from the object, and the emphasis shifts from an individual image to a story, a stance, or an action.
The book was published by Roma publications in Amsterdam. I’ve known Roger Willems and Mark Manders, the two persons behind Roma, for some time. I admire Roger’s elegant and discreet graphic design, and working on Lying Awake together was a rich and very smooth collaboration. First I made about 15 little books to play around with different rhythms and sequences until I found an order that made sense to me. This proposal I sent to Roger, who commented on the selection or sequence, so I would change a few things. We exchanged a couple of versions until we arrived at something we both felt good about.
AK—You released Lying Awake concurrently with an exhibition of your work, at M – Museum Leuven. Is it normally easier for you to understand your images sequenced in a book or arranged in space as physical prints or objects?
GG—As you mentioned, I’ve had a busy exhibition program the past years, so in terms of experience, I feel quite at home in an exhibition context. It comes naturally to work with a given space and to play with formats, monumentality, and alterations of the space to provoke a destabilizing effect, or to work with smaller formats inviting the viewer to move closer to the print. I can more or less anticipate how the photographs present themselves in a space. In a book, these decisions on format, surface, support, etc. are largely gone, and instead the sequence becomes important. I like the intimate space of a book. Seldom does one look with two or more people at a book. So it feels more like addressing the reader in a personal, complicit way. And this proximity is a very beautiful space to work in
AK—Your images come from all around the world. You weave together a mixture of surreal landscapes, baffling architectures, and ephemeral forms suspended on film. How do you choose your subjects, and how does your photographic relationship inform the way you move through the world?
GG—The choice of subjects depends. Sometimes they choose me instead of the other way around. In the series Resonance, for example, most of the photographs were made while I was traveling without a specific preconceived target, but with a camera. So when I came across inspiring people, places, animals, objects, atmospheres, or light conditions, I would react on these in an improvised way. As if the photograph was already there in front of my eyes, and all I had to do was to record it.
For Whiteout I travelled to Antarctica with the intention to photograph this optical weather phenomenon. Before my departure I read about this condition, and the total disappearance of references like shadow and horizon made me very curious. This work – an analogue slide projection for two large format projectors and a dissolve controller – developed out of reading the journal of two explorers crossing the Greenland icecap, so here the starting point was a text.
And in Continental Drift I tried to recreate a state of perception where the outside world seems to fall apart and disintegrate. So I looked for specific locations like caves, cliffs, etc. where an acute sense of vertigo or claustrophobia took hold of my body. I tried to photograph these sites not in a documentary way but rather as symbolical or psychological images.
I can affirm that photography changed my perception of the world – I seem to see a kind of ruin everywhere around me. Something unidentifiable advancing. Only wild nature, resisting colonization by humans, seems still intact and solid.
However, it doesn’t seem all that dark and depressive all the time. Photography also gave me a license or alibi to visit peculiar places and meet inspiring people, so it shaped my personality through experiences that might have remained concealed if it wasn’t for photography.
AK—Do you ever work in other mediums?
GG—So far I’ve only worked with analogue still photography, in the broadest scope of the medium – from wall-covering, monumental prints to computer-controlled, large-format slide projections. Currently, I am taking my first steps in real-time-based work. I am experimenting with slow-motion digital cinema. But it is still in an experimental phase, so I haven’t got anything to show yet. But I am very excited by the complexity and possibilities of working with sound and moving images.
AK—Can you talk about the blast images? The ones where you detonate explosive charges in various places?
GG—These photographs were made in Groenenberg, a public park outside Brussels. I was invited to participate in a group show held in this venue, and the curators initially proposed that I hang my photographs inside the castle that stands in the middle of the park.
Instead I wanted to work with the public character of the park. A lot of people go there to relax, so not only those with an interest in visual art would see the photos, but all the park visitors.
When I talked to some people in the park, most of them came to this place because they like “nature.” To me, this notion of nature was at least ambiguous; the whole park is cleverly planned and planted to generate a visual effect. This landscape uses different theatrical devices to generate different readings and perspectives. I wanted to highlight this planned and semi-controlled space, so I arranged five different explosions with the help of a professional pyrotechnician. I photographed these blasts, and placed the finished prints in the park on the exact location where the camera had stood. As the exhibition opened three months after the photo shoot, the landscape had recovered; no signs remained of this intervention. So the viewer experienced a kind of déjà vu; looking at the print there was proof that something had happened on this spot, but it was an act of belief, as nothing remained of this short blast.
AK—Your interventions, still lifes, landscapes, and portraits create an alien, ineffable view of the world. Many questions are put forth about the nature of space, time, and light. Yet, flipping through the book, the resulting narrative often reads as very personal. Do you consider Lying Awake to be a personal story?
GG—Without wanting to be explicitly autobiographical, I try to say something about our times. And the only way I can say something sensible about it is try to come close to how it feels looking at it from my own perspective.
AK—With the shift toward a reliance on web-based and digital media, what do you think the future of photography holds as far as books and other printed matter?
GG—I don’t think digital media will make books obsolete. Digital natives spend so much time in a more or less virtual world, that tactile qualities become even more important. Some of the young students I work with are very much interested in books, vintage prints, etc. Not only out of a nostalgic longing for the original, I think, but also because it is so different to them than seeing photographs on a monitor screen.
Apparently, the narcissistic longing to make one’s own book still overrules having your own website. So for a lot of aspiring photographers, it seems as if the really significant way of stating your authorship is to publish something physical on paper. Digital media has made book production quite democratic, so we witness an abundance of zines, books, booklets, and I think this evolution might continue for a while still.
AK—If you could share a piece of advice with photographers trying to find their way forward, what would it be?
GG—In an interview for Electronic Beats magazine, Hans-Ulrich Obrist asked Milan Grygar a similar question. Milan Grygar answered dryly, “I don’t like giving advice.” I like his short, sardonic answer. I can see how it belongs to the concept of freedom and positions of anti-authority that artists from this period took up. However, I think times have changed, and young people are more influenced and under the spell of market-demands and unreachable role models than ever. So to artists in need of some encouragement, I would say – even if I risk sounding paternalistic – be calm, just work as much as you can. Your own language will show up eventually.