conversations – Interview by Anika Meier – 25.07.2023
JURGEN OSTARHILD: "CODE IS CONTEMPORARY TEXT"
Blockchain and Post-Photography
Photographer Jurgen Ostarhild’s 40-year career boasts an impressive resume of noteworthy gallery shows and portraits of cultural figures, fashion brands, and celebrities. Despite his roots in fashion photography, Ostarhild’s motivation for creating goes far beyond the lens of a camera. The artist has delved deep into dissecting the 0s and 1s that comprise a digital image. Through the reimagination of his imagery be it with Photoshop manipulation or hex codes, Ostarhild pushes the boundaries of what exactly a photograph is. NFTs, blockchain technology, and the Web3 community have driven his pursuit of digital art even further and it seems that he has only just begun.
In conversation with Anika Meier, Ostarhild discusses the fiction of photography, being haunted by inspiration, and poetry as visual art.
Anika Meier: You are known for the photographs you took of Kate Moss and Martin Kippenberger and, of course, for your action fashion photography. How did you get into photography and start as a photographer?
Jurgen Ostarhild: I was always interested in taking pictures with cameras because my visual motor skills are very limited. Also, photography was an easy way to make money without a degree. I came from a skateboard, snowboard, and surf culture and tried to convince the late bourgeois French fashion editors to adapt to my attitude about showing clothes in action.
I guess in the early 1990s, Paris was ready for a fresh look at street style photography, which included remote locations like beaches, glaciers, or a volcano. Shooting all these wild things, I was always aware of technical changes in cameras, i.e., new super-fast autofocus systems. In 1992, I discovered Photoshop. This is where I could augment my reality, i.e., make snowboard jumps bigger or have a BMX bike jump off a building on Broadway.
AM: Has your perception of the medium of photography and the role of the photographer changed over the course of your 40-year career?
JO: Yes. Back in the 1980s, I used my camera as a tool to get in touch with people. I used to say, Hey, you look great. Can I take your portrait? Photography was an easy way to make money without any formal training.
I have always been aware of technical changes in tools such as cameras. I discovered Photoshop in 1992 and got my first digital camera in 1996. In the early 2000s, I used Photoshop to build my own realities. Back then, I believed that photographers did not add anything "new" to the world by taking pictures of their reality. On a fashion shoot of Jean Paul Gaultier clothes, you only show the Jean Paul Gaultier reality. With Photoshop, I was able to create my own reality.
AM: How do you define reality?
JO: Reality is what I WANT to see.
AM: Now back to the topic of how photography has changed over the course of your 40-year career.
JO: Studying Vilem Flusser, I learned that photography produces technical images. Vilem Flusser says that photographers are functionaries of their cameras. With the arrival of the iPhone, cameras didn’t need functionaries anymore. I guess this was when I stopped using cameras. For about 10 years, I showed just the hexadecimal code of my pictures as black and white text images. Only in 2019, when I discovered the Blockchain, did I tend to take snapshots of reality again. This reality–Timothy Morton called it hyperobject–was something new to my world. It made me expand my camera–Flusser calls it an apparatus–into a virtual machine, aka an orchestra of algorithms.
My work cycle COLORHUE STATE produces snapshots, or data constellations, produced by the Ethereum blockchain. Fun fact: www.colorhuesate.xyz produces "portraits" of data or color constellations. Some of them look better than others. So I can still say that you look great.
According to the phrase from Vilém Flusser from 1981 "The gesture of photographing is the most primitive programming and coding gesture”, I still do photography, I just updated the programming and coding gestures to contemporary technology.
AM: When did you consider yourself an artist?
JO: In the year 2000, when the gallerist Jérôme de Noirmont asked me to do a show in his gallery in Paris. The gallery was opened by Jérôme and Emmanuelle de Noirmont on October 6, 1994, and aimed at offering people a chance to discover world-renowned artists whose work was then either totally or partially unrecognized in France. Jerome de Noirmont at the time represented Jeff Koons, Bernard Venet, Shirin Neshat, Bettina Reihms, George Condo, and A.R. Penk.
AM: ÜBERBABES was your first solo exhibition at Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont in Paris in 2002. I’ve read that you considered them transgender proto-avatars. What does this mean? If I am informed correctly, Jeff Koons was at the opening.
JO: In 2000, some of my themes were about bodies and identities. I no longer saw reality in bodies. Genetics, cloning, and plastic surgery allowed each person to reappropriate and reconfigure their own bodies. Back then, I blurred emerging questions about identity as well as transgender identity by using Photoshop to visually sample all differences (sexual, ethnic, and physical). ÜBERBABES is fiction that looks like photography. These portraits are the result of resampling hundreds of portraits I took in my studio in Paris during castings for my commissioned work.
Jeff Koons did not come for the opening; he came for a private view with the gallerist, Jérôme. When Jeff was asked to sign the golden book, he wrote "Nice Gallery, Jeff Koons". I guess he didn’t get my thing with Photoshop back then.
AM: What was your thing with Photoshop?
JO: For me, Photoshop was just another technical extension of my camera to depict my reality. This reality existed only in my head. With Photoshop, I was able to make my reality look like a real photograph. Mixing pixels on screen like DJs mix music. Taking parts of images and resampling them into new ones.
In the 20th century, photography was considered the undisputed medium of reality. Since Photoshop, photography has lost its claim to truth. In the 21st century, codes and data take over this sovereignty of truth. This is another reason why I started to depict my digital images as code.
AM: As a fashion photographer working for brands such as Givenchy and adidas and for magazines, I assume you are aware that technology is something you have to keep on your radar. You were early in creating entirely computer-generated faces.
JO: Apple Macs were never computers for me. Macs and Photoshop have been just a new toy to replace the photo laboratory. Building these faces required all "handcrafted" Photoshop files with 30 or more layers.
At the time, my work was influenced a lot by dance music and DJs with a "French touch". In some way a DJ mixes music, I mix the pixels that make up every digital image. The band Cassius, from the orbit of Daft Punk, also wanted to remain anonymous as Daft Punk. For a portrait of the duo for Jalouse magazine in Paris, I sampled their faces so that they were unrecognizable for the public but recognisable for people from the music world. House music in France is called "french touch", I guess because clubs in Paris have never played Punk or NewWave. They went from Disco directly to "french touch".
AM: You were also early in finding a way to make your digital artworks available for collectors to purchase. What was your solution for what you called iGALLERY?
JO: If you buy digital artwork, why print it, hang it on a wall, and watch it fade in slow motion like flowers? The basic idea was that digitally produced artworks should stay digital. It’s exhibited, sold, collected, and stored all digitally. Since we could not sell a link to a website, like with NFTs today, I developed a physical item, a credit card-sized "access card" with a login and access code.
AM: And how did collectors respond?
JO: The press loved it, but collectors were reserved. Unfortunately, it was only printed, which did not make it to the web today. The physical pieces really sold well. A collector from New York bought four pieces for his bathroom because the aluminum on which they were printed did not rust.
AM: How do you see yourself today? Your practice is not constrained to one medium or to fine art.
JO: I am always curious about any medium that can publish, sell, and archive my visuals.
AM: From fashion photography to working with hex codes, that has been quite an evolution when it comes to your thoughts about images. What fascinates you about hex codes?
JO: Fashion is kind of boring. It took me many years to understand Jean Baudrillard.
"Fashion is always retro, but based on the abolition of the past: spectral death and resurrection of forms. It has its own topicality, which is not a reference to the present but a total and immediate recycling. Fashion is paradoxically outdated.”
Code is contemporary text. The representation as code is another manifestation of reality. A new layer is added to the relationship between an object, its description, and its representation.
Also, being a confessed dyslexic, I am pleased to produce text images by the copy-and-paste gesture. It's maybe the artist's gesture of the 21st century. Kenneth Goldsmith called this "uncreative writing".
AM: And hex codes brought you to the blockchain? Is that your new paint and brush?
JO: Yes, as a matter of fact, each hash of a blockchain consists of the 16 characters of the hex code. Each hash consists of 64 digits. A hex color consists of six digits. So in one hash of a block, there is information for ten different colors (10x6 = 60), and the rest of the four are deleted.
No. Paint and brushes, the same as combustion engines, are 20th-century tech.
AM: Your series POEMS FOR DAMIEN HIRST are concrete poetry and at the same time, poetry on the blockchain. Why did you decide to translate Damien Hirst’s famous SPOT PAINTINGS into concrete poetry?
JO: POEMS FOR DAMIEN HIRST is a collection of poems about color, truth, and poetry. In my research on the truth in color, I depicted color fields in hex code. Only Eugen Gominger, the father of concrete poetry, saw in these text-based artworks a certain poetry. Concrete poetry means, in short, that the visual is more important than the content. A six-character string, depicted as a circle, can be read clockwise, anticlockwise, and upside down, exactly like a color spot.
AM: You look everywhere for inspiration and seem to translate the world around you into an artwork. What does your creative process look like? You, for example, turned a photograph of the sky over Berlin into a hex code painting. You do not limit yourself to one category, such as portrait or landscape.
JO: I never look for inspiration. I am haunted by inspiration. What you call a creative process, is a vehicle for me to get rid of the visual impacts that bombard me everywhere. Once an impact is translated onto my reality grid and saved in a folder on my server, I can relax.
I guess being dyslexic is part of this process. The family name of my ancestors was Israel. Thinking about reality and the real, one day Isreal popped up. It became a bold print on T-shirts.
The image of the Berlin sky, called HIMMEL from 2014 came back into my mind when reading the name of Skye Nicolas. Around 2014, I depicted my digital photographs as hex codes. I was exploring different typefaces and their relationships with each other in a two-dimensional space. Once, the constellations of the letters were similar to the gray Berlin sky.
And yes, I cannot limit myself.
AM: Whenever we speak, you say, Oh, I need to show you this; I will come back. What are the three artworks of yours you think everyone should know?
JO: UBERBABES, POEMS FOR DAMIEN HIRST, and COLORHUE STATE.
These works show most clearly the three phases of the development of my work in the post-photographic period. Digital images that look like photos but only show my reality. The text works, which show the code of the digital images, were then created in the search for the real truth. Finally, when I studied the basics of blockchain, I realized that they are made up of the same building blocks as my code images. Nothing was easier than making colors out of code again. I don't see the color images as abstractions but as concrete representations of the given data.
AM: Thank you, dear Jurgen!