Der Greif: An Interview with Simon Karlstetter

GR-5

“When it comes to thinking about and working with photographic images nowadays, I think it’s crucial to engage with the ways these images are being produced, presented and perceived. It’s crucial also to engage with how technology informs and enables us to read and produce images”

Brad Feuerhelm: I have to admit that I am overly impressed with your organization and the levels of which you operate Der Greif. You simultaneously have an expanded on-line network that calls for curators, artists and writers to work together promoting the wider discipline of photography between these groups of people, for which, I can understand that there is a large amount of work being funnelled into the effort, the consistency and the overall flow of information. How big is the Der Greif family on the internal side and who got the ball rolling into this incredible beast?

Simon Karlstetter: Well first, thanks for your kind words about our organization, Brad! We’re currently four people in the core-team, including myself being co-founder and artistic co-director, Leon Kirchlechner as artistic co-director, Matthias Lohscheidt as technical director and Claudio Ricci as managing director. Sebastian Knittel is taking care of social media and implementing the content we get sent from artists doing artist-features and writing guest-blogs on our site. Andreas Bülhoff is the literature editor for our print-publications.

Felix von Scheffer and I co-founded Der Greif in 2008, at that time being solely print-publication and a local venture. Felix is no longer working with Der Greif, neither does Florian Kreier who took care of the literature-department from 2008 until 2013. Lydia Daher joined the literature-part for issues 4 and 5, Mira Mann for issue 6. So there has also been a lot of change going on so far.

We’re currently lacking female input to be honest. The reason for this is very simple: The four of us know each other almost for decades and we’ve been working together closely for the past 8 years. For now, our organization’s size is perfect, but of course we’d be happy mix our team in the future. I guess the fact that we’re coming from different backgrounds, the roles within the team are quite clear (at least most of the times) which makes it probably easier to pursue different tasks at the same time and enables us to develop new ideas and approaches. For example, with Matti being part of the team since issue 3, and him having a strong developer-background, it became easier for us to first develop a website that became a core element of the project and secondly to come up with a system that enabled us to deal with a huge amount of photographic submissions at a very early stage – both from a curatorial or selective aspect, as well from a logistical side. So I guess we try to use technology in ways that actually enable us to pursue all the different parts of Der Greif in a meaningful way. But at the end of the day it surely is a lot of work.

BF: Speaking a bit about the ethos of Der Greif, how do you look at coverage, what concerns are there for the international role that Der Greif plays? Would you consider the majority of the output strongly international in scope or more effectively a reflection on the European tradition?

SK: I guess there are several core aspects that form our ethos. I would describe these aspects as a general conceptual approach, which has a great influence on content. These aspects are an implicit part of every project we’ve been coming up so far. Coming to the international role Der Greif might play, from my standpoint it is important to foster discussion about these core aspects and to make sense of the fact that photographers from more than 100 countries regularly engage with our calls for entries and thus are practically part of Der Greif projects.

When it comes to thinking about and working with photographic images nowadays, I think it’s crucial to engage with the ways these images are being produced, presented and perceived. It’s crucial also to engage with how technology informs and enables us to read and produce images. The forms that we like to call »main transmitter« for images are: printed matter (magazines, newspapers, photobooks), screens (web: apps, online-magazines, smartphones, photo-editing software, etc.) and physical exhibitions. All of which have to be approached in different ways. Print – and mainly the book-form – comes with a strong control of presentation as well as reception through a strict form and »finalized« body of work, but the physical object has a relatively small outreach. On screens – and mainly online – there’s very limited control about how content is shown and perceived, images are fluid. Forms are varying and aren’t finalized, images are shared and are shown as components from entire bodies of work, works are extended in process. And all this comes with a possibly huge outreach. In physical exhibition-formats artists, curators and visitors experience a quite strong control of presentation and reception, but they’re spacialy very limited.

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The print-publication is at the core of the practice of Der Greif. All other parts of the organization – the website, exhibitions, talks, workshops – root in these publications. There are five crucial aspects that can be seen when reading a print-copy of Der Greif:

  1. 1. Submitting authors voluntarily step back from their original intention
  2. 2. Appropriation of the submitted works through Der Greif
  3. 3. De- and Re-contextualization of single photographic images leads to new ways of interpreting content and context and creates changes of meaning as well as different layers of reception
  4. 4. No classical narration: images and texts create a new holistic image. In the sequence, a dreamlike, associative »world« evolves that unites the images and texts
  5. 5. »Remix« or »Sampling« with the submitted images

To sum this extended answer up, I guess due to the fact that Der Greif is initially a child of the Internet and that the artists literally come from all over the world, the output that is showcased in any of our projects is highly international. And the issues we deal with are more or less part of every visual artist’s life nowadays. So we really try to emphasize discussion about the above-mentioned points.

 

“But I guess when it comes to the print-product, we really feel that any kind of conventional advertisement would destroy the whole publication, would also steal white space to fill or leave unfilled and in total would put it into a place where the physical publication becomes something way more random and less valuable than it is now”

BF: One of the more intriguing components of Der Greif is the guest room. This is a platform, which opens up a platform for critics, curators, writers, etc to engage directly with a large audience to put together curated exhibitions on the Der Greif platform. I was thinking the other day that this is something to think about…we are aware of the multitudes of photographers and artists that want to submit work and that would enjoy their images being featured on the site or in the magazine. On the other hand, the cache of critics, curators, etc seems to be a much smaller pool. Instead of asking how you find the artistic talent which is from a large pool to draw from, how do you select the critical side and do you worry that there might be a time when you have to repeat working with a known critic a second time due to lack of a larger pool of critics?

SK: With »Guest-Room«, there are several reasons why we started the project in 2015. One of the main reasons was to question our role as »curators« and »editors« within the project by inviting others to take over that position. Another reason was to experiment if there are ways – still related to our approach of decisively decontextualizing single images – to actually create something one might experience as an »online exhibition«. Due to the fact that there are quite strict limitations from our side – mainly technical ones related to displaying the selected single images – I think it is a very particular framework that »Guest-Room« moves within and I’m a little in doubt if the term »exhibition« actually applies to this particular or maybe any other form of presenting images on screens, that are always moving within quite strict frameworks of browsers and different devices to access the content. Maybe another term needs to be found that also makes sense of the fact that nowadays everyone is »curating« his or her tumblr-or-whatever-output which in the end comes probably closer to the terms of a »human filter«.

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Coming to the curators we invite to do a »Guest-Room« selection, we try to showcase different ways of accessing the very same framework. This is a »fluid archive«, based on open calls for submissions, combined with conscious »de-contextualizations« of submitted images as a counterpart to the randomly »contextualized« single images you find in your everyday social-media-or-whatever-feed. We also invite people who are closer to a »digital approach« and to working with images on screens as well as others that aren’t used to this practice. The main questions we ask ourselves are: First, is the invited curator going to create her or his particular interest and approach towards the project, second, do the submitting photographers have some benefit from submitting even if their artworks don’t get selected and third, does the invited curator have a particular voice to add something to the entire »Guest-Room« project? You’re right stating the fact that there are many more photographers or visual artists than critics. But I am personally not scared that one day we’ll we have to work with the same person again. Der Greif is a very fluid and constantly evolving project. That being said, I’m convinced that even if we’re to collaborate with the same person again, it would be in a different way. For now, I cannot tell you more, but Der Greif will change in the future (very drastically) – we try to keep Der Greif in constant movement.

A Process – Grid-Mounting and_

BF: A very simple question, what is the mandate for Der Greif going forward? I feel that this could become a physical institution very easily between your ability to find partners, your expanded network and the sheer volume of good will that people speak about you guys with. Is there a physical space in mind for the future that might expand on what you already have on-line?

SK: We have done installations and physical presentations related to the print-publication already at the very beginning of the project. In 2014, we did the first exhibition project which actually was more of a performance (A Process) where we experimented with how the different »spaces« I was talking about earlier – print, physical and virtual – can interact in a meaningful way, making sense of their different characteristics concerning accessibility, speed of distribution and limitation. This year, Lars Willumeit invited us to re-enact the performance, entitled »A Process 2.0« during the opening weekend of Krakow Photomonth. We’re going to do an experimental show at SITUATIONS at Fotomuseum Winterthur, opening September 16. Issue 9 was published during Les Rencontres d’Arles with a performance at COSMOS where photographers who are published in the print-publication did analogue remixes using the proof-prints. So there are examples of how Der Greif projects take place in physical spaces. We definitely think about the necessity and accessibility of a space where Der Greif projects can take place. But at the same time, our organization isn’t bound to a particular place – even though we have a studio to work in. I think more about partnerships with other institutions, organizations, in order to maintain a certain flexibility. I’m not particularly sure whether it’s going to be easy or not, but there are definitely future plans and as I said before, we’re planning a bigger shift for the next year. So this might all come into place here.

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BF: I always wondered what institutions like yours do to archive materials, letters sent by artists, books, little pieces of information from exchanges with careers in the photographic world. Do you maintain a physical archive outside of the electronic, and if so, have you organized it as it is extremely valuable research material?

SK: Yes, we maintain and keep a physical archive, but I guess due to the fact that we aren’t publishing photobook-reviews or recommendations for exhibitions or anything like that, we don’t receive a huge amount of physical material. But even if it is not huge, over the past years we’ve collected quite a lot. We should maintain and archive it in a better way than we’re actually doing right now – this task is ranked very high on our to-do list.

BF: In the world of click-bait advertorial funding, advertising of related products…cameras, etc…the very notion that your output is Ad-free says something about the integrity about your work, the value of your partners and your overall ethos of contributing a product without having to pander to sponsors or relate web-traffic numbers piecemeal to an agent. Are there times when you think it might be easier to look into the financial possibilities for the magazine? The idea to not have sovereign control of the content must be the deciding factor of rejecting this or is it simply a matter of the state of publishing these days?

SK: There are and there were times when we thought about ways of how to differently monetize the project. But I guess when it comes to the print-product, we really feel that any kind of conventional advertisement would destroy the whole publication, would also steal white space to fill or leave unfilled and in total would put it into a place where the physical publication becomes something way more random and less valuable than it is now. Considering the fact that there is only one issue per year, we are convinced that content and quality are more important than quantity or short-term money-related issues. We were actually able to achieve what we achieved, to formulate our ideas in full extent – both conceptually and visually – and to create a print-product that comes in the costume of a magazine, but is content-wise probably closer to a photobook. The control over display of content is also a reason why we decided not to include ads on our website. So there surely is the control of the content as a deciding factor. But on the other hand, we’re convinced that those decisions reflect back on both the project and our partners sharing our vision – maybe this is a bit out-dated as it surely takes more time than just going into the established directions. But I guess a great example is our partnership with Longo, our print-partner, based in Bolzano, Northern Italy. We got to know each other at Polycopies in 2014, they printed issue 8 and »Guest-Room: Katrin Weber« in 2015 and since this year, they’re our prime partner. The quality of the print-product is probably the best advertising they can get: People interested in photography and print can see and experience the superb work they’re doing instead of flicking through a magazine plastered with ads that nobody takes a closer look. I guess with a print-run of 4.000 copies we aren’t super small, but it’s still a niche product. So why bother with ads when you can find solutions that are more suitable and beneficial for all parties involved? Let’s be honest: there is neither much money nor a real »market« in the photobook-market where producers are consumers all at once. So I guess our decision in the end always comes back to integrity and quality. But when you’re passionate and clear about your ideas, you’ll always find ways to realize them. (Wow, that was cheesy…).

Thanks Brad, for taking your time and for your interest in Der Greif!

 

 

Der Greif

 

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