Viktoria Binschtok, Connections

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by Hatje Cantz (here). Hardcover, 23×29.7 cm, 200 pages, with 110 color illustrations. Includes essays (in German and English) by Jens Asthoff and Wolfgang Ullrich, and a conversation between Ullrich and the artist. In an edition of 750 copies. Design by Vera Rammelmeyer, mischen. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Published in conjunction with an exhibition at the Oldenberger Kunstverein, February 2 through April 24, 2022 (here).

Comments/Context: Often when trying to interpret a photograph, we fall back on the idea that its “context” can give us some valuable clues to its potential meaning. By context, we can mean many things: who (or what) made the image, when it was made, where it was made, what its original purpose was, and where we found it (or where it was published or who gave it to us), among other possible attributes. In a sense, we are attempting to derive insights from the surrounding and supporting information, rather than what the image itself might be communicating, which of course presents its own dangers and pitfalls – we can misinterpret (or amplify or underplay) this context, and thereby confuse ourselves. The artworks made by the Pictures Generation artists, as an example, rooted themselves in examining the powerful subtleties of context found in various mass media presentations, and then decontextualized (or recontextualized) those same images in conceptually resonant ways to change our perception of them.

But that was then and this is now, and in our 21st century digitally networked world, the idea of context has become much more fluid and uncertain. Essentially all of us are now both creators and users of photographic images, both “senders” and “receivers” in an endlessly complex motion diagram of dissemination and distribution. Images ceaselessly swirl around from place to place, stripped of nearly all of their original context by the very process of digital recirculation. What’s perhaps even more mind-twisting is that a different kind of “context” is now being created entirely algorithmically, with structures, patterns, and connections between images made by seemingly anonymous software and presented to us in the deadpan matter-of-factness of search results or recommendations. What we might naively think is “random” is anything but, and yet, we don’t really have any window into how those behind-the-scenes choices and interpretations are now being made.

Viktoria Binschtok is one of a small number of contemporary photographers who have pushed themselves inside this transformation as it has been taking place. Of course, many photographers have used digitally-sourced or -scavenged imagery from the Internet as the basis for their work, but far fewer have then gone further to conceptually explore (and then artistically reinterpret in a process-centric manner) the implications of how images are now being fed to us. Binschtok has been probing this leading edge for at least a decade, and this photobook catalog from a recent museum show in Germany provides a succinct update on her recent projects, with one blast from the pre-iPhone past included as an artistic time-capsule starting point.

Binschtok first came to our attention with her smart 2013 photobook World of Details (reviewed here), where she paired Google Street View images of New York (in black-and-white) with photographs she made in the same exact locations (in color). These recreations highlighted the many subtle differences to be found between the two modes of seeing (automated and human), and likely sowed the seed for the next step-wise idea in her artistic thought process.

Instead of continuing to recreate GSV images, Binschtok decided to move back in the chain one step, to the initial search point. Using her own photographs as inputs to Google’s image search function, she gathered up images that the algorithms suggested were similar to her own, and sometimes, the visual echoes and motifs the software offered up were decidedly odd or unexpected. She then restaged and rephotographed these appropriated images, which she displayed with the originals in meticulous pairings and gatherings of two or more pictures. The approach ultimately became two adjacent but distinct pathways, in the form of her Cluster and Networked Images projects.

With images searching for images, the logics of visual proximity and interconnectedness get abstracted, with “seeing” becoming something more like a flow of associations and correlations. The first cluster Binschtok made came in 2014, when she took an image of the white page spread of her weekly daybook and used it an input; as companions, the search engine suggested a nesting image of a white computer with an infinite number of telescoping computers visible on the monitor and a white paper pop-up holiday card with a stylized tree divided into five folded sections. These links are both perplexingly strange and visually understandable at some level, which leads to the friction found in nearly all of these works by Binschtok – we can easily puzzle out the formal or thematic connections, but often the connective tissue that brought the algorithms to these conclusions is a head-scratching mystery.

This catalog features many of these clusters, as both full spread isolations of single images and installation shots of the component images hung as groups. In many of the clusters from 2014 and 2015, the associations follow patterns of color and form. A set of grey urban stairs with green tiles, a blue sign, and a skyscraper in the distance is matched with a desktop arrangement of a cutting mat, some Legos, and a clipboard, the colors and geometries having surprising affinities. The same might be said for an image of a woman in a pink dress who leans up against a window near a zigzag pattered tile wall, her scene paired with an up close picture of a hand (with grey painted fingernails) holding a bottle of pink nail polish and an image of some gifts in boldly patterned wrapping paper and ribbon, the ensemble of three images having surprising visual congruence. These kinds of unlikely but somehow astonishing non-literal and non-hierarchical connections happen between a Snow White apron, some pills, and a selection of baseball cards on a table; the letters on the back of truck, a Chanel No. 5 perfume box, and the numbers on a clock radio; and a woman carrying balloons, a box of colored yarn, and an arrangement of three plexiglass squares. In each case, the visual syntax creates a dialog between the accumulated images, with sequences, themes, and analogies emerging from unlikely, and sometimes almost ridiculous, sources.

More recently, Binschtok’s clusters have evolved spatially, becoming Networked Images that have more physical arrangement that links the content of the individual photographs. In one pairing, a yellow cab near white lines on the street connects to a roll of yellow tape, the white line from one image aligned perfectly to continue into the other. In another, a fallen woman has the jumbled drapery of her red dress transform into the splashing pour of red wine in a glass. And in a third, a woman’s blond hair seems to fall directly out of the strands being pulled through a pasta making machine. Even an old blue couch gets in on the action, the curve of its arm rest becoming a swoop of blue toothpaste. In these and other arrangements, every act of seeing connects to many others, with one image resulting in another, and another, and another, like chains of association.

The catalog also includes an earlier selection of images from 2004 that Binschtok made on a trip to Japan. In each image, she has captured exactly three different people (no more, no less) talking on their mobile phones in the same frame. With a kind of “decisive moment” serendipity, the pictures feel like the kind of unconsciously aligned situational moments Garry Winogrand might have found had he been alive for our smartphone age. Since there is no obvious relationship between many of the people in the images, most of the pictures document an “alone together” urban reality that we all now find familiar – each person is both physically present but off in the virtual world provided by his or her phone, with one foot in each reality simultaneously. Even back almost 20 years ago now, it’s clear that Binschtok was wrestling with how this newfangled digital world would change the way we interact; since then, the sophistication of her varied approaches has continued to increase.

I’ve seen Binschtok’s individual clusters at various art fairs over the years and I’ve always wondered how people who don’t know about the complex algorithmic transformations and conceptual switches taking place behind the scenes can understand what’s going on. Without that backstory, the works must just look like cryptic formal exercises made by an artist with a quirky sense of almost deadened visual humor. But maybe that lack of context reading is also somehow valid, especially in world where input and appropriation become freely interchangeable, and feedback feeds in all directions. Maybe in the future, full algorithmic dominance will flatten everything out to a dull predictability; until that time, forward-facing artists like Bischtok will have plenty of raw material for constructing deliberately thought-provoking confusion.

Collector’s POV: Viktoria Binschtok is represented by Klemm’s in Berlin (here). Her work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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