Emil Rønn Andersen
Interview with Emil Rønn Andersen
by Paola Paleari
Iconic futurist and media theorist Marshall McLuhan was prophetic on many levels. Back in the Sixties, he was already able to see all technologies, including electronic media, as environments: man-made tools that tend to become imperceptible as they progressively reshape their makers.
“As technology advances, it reverses the characteristics of every situation again and again. The age of automation is going to be the age of ‘do it yourself’”, he stated in 1957. Just as much as the machine was fragmentary and centralist, automation technology is integral and decentralist in depth. “Automation creates roles for people, which is to say depth of involvement in their work and human association that our preceding mechanical technology had destroyed” – he added, a few years later, in his renowned book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.
In the field of photography, the ‘mechanical medium’ par excellence, talking about automation might still sound like a point of no return. On a large scale, it would imply accepting one of McLuhan major postulates – which is that photography, as all other media, affects society not by the content delivered over it, but by the characteristics of the medium itself. On a personal level, what does a photographer has left, if s/he let go of the content? What happens to the photographer’s role, when the medium itself is let ruling the roost?
Copenhagen-based photographer Emil Rønn Andersen works precisely on the sharp edges of these questions, providing open stimulating answers that I’m happy to share with an audience of non-Danish speakers (not so much English material about him can be found on the web).
How did you start working with photography?
I have been experimenting with the camera since I was sixteen years old, playing around with analog photography earlier on and later working as an apprentice for a commercial photographer. I did that for four years, and then started studying at Malmö Art Academy, in Sweden.
When did you undertake your personal artistic research?
I attended the Art Academy in Malmö for my BA and afterwards obtained my MFA from the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, The School of Time-based Media under the guidance of Gerard Byrne.
For me, working in the commercial field has been an education in the craft. I have acquired an understanding of production within this domain of photography, that I still apply to my own projects today on different levels.
As a young person working with commercial photography, I was full of naive expectations; I remember for example being frustrated with the lack of language to describe what we did and why. A big part of the decision making derives from a clouded pool of norm-driven behavior which is rarely articulated or reflected upon. This frustration ultimately made me apply to art school in hope of discovering a more developed vocabulary in relation to the image.
What do you look for in your artistic practice? Is there a major discourse that you carry on through different projects, or each project is different?
My recent work is essentially revolving around the same intention, which is, inventing and developing a specific technical arrangement – let’s call it a system – that fabricates images. I’m very interested in the possibilities and implications of automation, in my own studio and outside the studio. I hope my work is to some extent exemplifying nuances in a broader discussion of how we are rearranging our position in the world in relation to current and future technology.
I find it interesting how we have shifted from tool-orientated to system-orientated processes, where we manage systems instead of being in direct contact with a tool and a material. This change is not breaking news, but it is more evident than ever, and applied to new domains every day. Technology is not adapting to the world we live in, but rather adopting one of its own. I’m basically interested in what kind of world this might be.
When you say the word ‘automation’, I immediately think of robots. But I guess it’s not only about that…
Surely you can bring robots into the conversation, but the point is not so much the robots themselves. It’s more about the implications of their use.
One way to explain my approach could be taking indoor climbing as an example. It started as a training facility that simulated natural rocks with the purpose of making it possible to climb in the city, in preparation of what some would call ‘real climbing’ – in mountains, cliffs, boulders and so on. After a while, this sport became very popular, also among people that never went climbing outside. The strange thing is that suddenly these facilities started to evolve, applying weird geometrically abstract forms to the walls instead of imitating natural rock shapes only. This meant that people started to climb slightly differently – the moves and the grip had to adapt to these new shapes.
This relationship between the simulation (the indoor climbing facility) and the abstraction (of the natural rock shape) is an example of how a simulation retracts from its origin and becomes an abstraction in its own right. You can use this example to understand how technology evolves. My key interest in applying automation to production, is less about simulating conventional photography, and more about unlocking the abstractions that unfolds from this process and experiencing their implications.
How do you apply this scientific approach to automation into your photographic projects?
I try to be non determined in relation to a fixed outcome. Currently I am working on creating a context-aware image. If I find something more interesting along the way I’ll change course.
An example of the application of automation in my work is Automate and Perish, which is the title of a series I realized for an exhibition in 2014 at Danske Grafikere Hus in Copenhagen. It is composed of 156 photographs of the same subject, a still life composition made of a metal ball, a copper plate and a mirror tube. All the images were automatically produced by what would later become the system I am currently working with. A mechanical arm equipped with lamps modulated the objects with light. I located the objects in the centre of the studio and the system did the rest: the arm defined the lightning set-ups on the command of four scripts, and the camera automatically captured an image every time the arm was in a specific position along its path.
At that point of my research, the system was not totally controlled and the result was still more or less random. Whereas now, I can control every color, almost every pixel, simulating all kinds of archetypical environments used in photography: the beach, the cityscape, the green screen, different colour gradients and so on. I instruct the system on which background and lighting setting I want, I start it and then I collect the files once it’s finished its sequence.
Have you actually find out what are the effects of this ‘mimicking system’? Which new opportunities have you opened up by simulating the process of studio photography?
I’m in the middle of developing the system, so I can’t predict any final outcome – which, in my mind, is the most exciting place to be. Even if it’s just an intermediate step, anyway, it can already have some practical consequences. For different reasons I’ll have to let my future work be the answer to that question.
On a more abstract level, can your work be seen also as a self-reflection on the photographic language?
Yes. Referring back to the example of the indoor climbing facility, all I have done at this point is to simulate the natural rock.
Both the mirror objects of Automate and Perish and the torso I later used in another series have a practical function, in the sense that they served as subjects in the process of calibrating the system to anthropomorphic and artificial shapes. Function aside, the objects come across as rhetorically loaded in my understanding, since they appear descriptive towards the way they are photographed. So yes, I think the work reflects upon aspects of photographic language.
To summarize, when you are mimicking one technology with another, you realize that the slightly different execution allows for different behaviours and perhaps completely different functions, too. I’m just exploring those different behaviours, and showing fragments of the process that lies behind the development of a technology.
Emil Rønn Andersen, born in 1986, has a BFA from Malmö Art Academy and graduated with an MFA from The Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen in 2015. Emil has exhibited in Denmark and internationally. He works in Copenhagen and New York.
Paola Paleari, born 1984, is an art critic, editor, an independent curator. Her main interest is the photographic medium and its relations with the visual art practices. She is Deputy Editor of YET magazine, a publication dedicated to international photography, and member of artnoise, a web portal and curatorial collective dealing with contemporary art and culture. She is currently living in Copenhagen (DK).
This interview is part of Focus On CPH, written by Paola Paleari for YET magazine. Focus On CPH collects interviews and essays on photographers, editors, curators from the Danish contemporary art scene. The Italian translation was realized by the author herself.
The original version of the interview can be found at this link.
In the picture: Emil Rønn Andersen, Automate and Perish, Danish Graphic Society, Copenhagen (DK), 2014.
© Emil Rønn Andersen, 2014.