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We Really Are In The Dark


Office – How did your collaboration first come about?


Asger Carlsen – Originally VICE called me up to talk about what I wanted to do for their photo issue, and I suggested collaborations could be fun. I especially wanted to do one with Roger. Ever since I saw his books, I was very fascinated by his work, and I always felt like if one day I could achieve something that had that quality, or that sort of universe… Anyway, VICE introduced us, and it was a good experience. We produced something like six or seven images for that issue, and we had a good response, so we had a couple offers from publishers and we agreed to continue the project and make it into a book, and feature the work in a few shows as well, around the world.


O – Were you already familiar with each other’s work? How did you know your styles would be a good match for one another?


Roger Ballen – Yes, a bit. I live in Johannesburg and Asger lives in New York, and I’m not familiar with everybody’s work out there since I live so far away. But I had seen his work, and it was very different than a lot of the photography I’d seen, it had an edge to it, it was surreal. It had strange, mysterious, enigmatic aspects to it that I identify with. I found it interesting and provocative.


AC – I think we have a mutual interest in certain things, we both deal with work that comes from a subconscious level. We’re not trying to make images that depict the real world, our subjects come from an inner place. We make images that come from our own minds, you know?


O –  Your work as individuals is often described as disturbing and dark. What is it that inspires those thoughts and feelings in people?


AC – I understand that people can feel uncomfortable looking at my images. I think for me it comes from a feeling of not fitting in. I mean, I was a commercial photographer before this, and I always had this feeling that I didn’t belong. I don’t really think about my work as having a dark element while I’m making it, but sometimes afterwards I do think that maybe I went too far. But the investigative process, getting somewhere else than what I’d originally trained myself to do with photography, it’s always been more important. So it might make others feel uneasy, but the fact that you can create that feeling with something so simple as photography, I think it’s an amazing thing. I think we both have an interest in the complex and the strange, that sort of thing. Roger has said “I am an alien,” and I can relate to that feeling. It’s always been like that, before I did photography, I had to find my own way of expressing myself.

RB – I’ve been at this fifty years, and it’s very clear to me that people are out of touch with their own interiors, their own personality, their own identity, so the pictures scare them, because they’re not able to integrate one part of themselves with another part of themselves. If they think the work is dark and disturbing, I don’t know what they feel about life itself. It isn’t a ride on Santa’s snowmobile. [Laughs]


O – [Laughs] So do you feel that you are visualizing things that people don’t typically have to confront?


RB – Well they confront it, they just repress it. They come across it but they don’t let it integrate with themselves, or they’re not curious about it. So they look at it and do their best to swallow it so they don’t see it again. I’ll state without any hesitation that what we refer to as repression is the biggest problem in the world today, it comes out as anger, aggression, hostility. All the negative things that come out of humanity are a result of people’s inability to be in touch with themselves. It’s probably a social thing, because the biggest fear that everyone faces is their own obliteration, and Western societies don’t deal with it well, they just supplant it with mass consumerism. The pleasure principle is not being in touch with oneself, it comes from consumerism, which is the evasion of the human condition, I guess. If you think what I’m saying is garbage just turn on the TV set in New York and go through the two hundred channels and see what’s there. See who makes money in society.


O – Do you think then that your art, which delves into those elements of the psyche that we as a society are afraid to grapple with, can be a positive thing to behold?


RB – There is the potential that it would help people shift into a more expanded consciousness and develop in some way. What I do and what Asger does is only a small part of the general art market, we’re tiny compared to the other major forces out there, but people who have the inclination can certainly expand their sense of self, that should be what art is doing to people. It shouldn’t be reinforcing what they know already, and it shouldn’t just be decorating a living room. That’s why Jeff Koons is one of the biggest-selling artists in the world. He gives people good feelings about their childhood, watching Popeye the Sailor on television when you were eight, it lets one reminisce about the good old days. And the more people that feel this, the more people drive that person’s art to higher levels, and then it becomes a socioeconomic reason for buying art, because it becomes an investment. It becomes a commodity, and loses its link to its original purpose. Words are another defense mechanism. If you can define an idea with words then you can get rid of it. You can package it and put it in a supermarket. But if the art is indefinable it is more powerful in the subconscious, the subconscious can’t figure out what to do with it so it turns it over, turns it over, turns it over, trying to come up with some relationship to it. You know, “This is happy,” or “This is beautiful,” well then it’s done already, let’s go watch a football game. So the work should have that aspect of not being easily placed. If it’s too easily placed, it has no impact.


O – Asger, you grew up in Denmark, but you’re now based in Chinatown in New York?


AC – Yeah, I am. The funny thing too is that Roger is from New York City, and he kind of escaped New York, and has been living in South Africa for thirty years.


O – It makes sense that you both spend time exploring different places, considering what you’ve said about feeling that you don’t belong.


AC – Yeah, I think we have that in common.


O – What can you tell me about your respective workspaces?


AC – I’m not really a photographer anymore, so I don’t go out and take pictures. I collect images, and a lot of this project that I’m doing with Roger, it’s images that I’ve shot here in my apartment, so I use my very small apartment, and it’s also where I have my office and studio. I shot all the images here that I provided to him, and the rest of the project is images that he has been providing to me. So it’s very little about going out and trying to depict the outside world. All my work I do here, my apartment is very important to me. I spend more time here than anywhere else, it’s insane how much time I spend here. My apartment has a really significant impact on me. Sometimes too much.


RB – I have an office where I do the administration, where I scan the pictures, print the pictures, store the pictures. So my office is like a second home to me. I don’t take any photographs there, but that’s where the rest of my creative efforts take place. I have one area that has a lot of objects that I’ve collected over the years, with pictures on the wall, my camera equipment, my photographs, so when I go there it really feels like home. It contains bits and pieces of my life.


O – Do you try to achieve something altogether new with each of your projects?

If they think the work is dark and disturbing, I don’t know what they think about life itself. It isn’t a ride on Santa’s snowmobile.”

RB – When you start a project you really don’t know where it’s going to end up, so I don’t really work with a concept that’s new, it’s just a continual evolution and progression. In some of the exhibitions I’ve got now I’m making sculptures, installations, video, and my work continues to evolve on different levels, I’ve got myself involved in other mediums. My core is still black and white photography, but it’s spread. It’s all about creating parallel realities that ultimately expand the core reality, so it’s been really interesting evolving in these other fields. Phaidon press is republishing Outland next year, with fifty or so unpublished pictures, so I’m going to make an Outland video. It won’t be a documentary, it’ll be more like the Asylum of the Birds video, strange, more interpretive.


AC – You know, I think with each project I’m getting more and more aware of where I want to go with my work, and what my real interest is in working with images. I realize that it has less and less to do with images, the ambition is something else. It’s much more related to an emotional state, or something that I’m trying to achieve emotionally. I came to this conclusion that for me, I could work with anything. If I can get to the point where I can express myself and outlive this sort of inner ambition, that’s a pretty happy place for me to be. I just happen to know how to make photography, that’s just my skill. But I am developing more of an interest in the form, and the sculptural element of what photography could be as an object. Now I’m trying to make physical 3D sculptures, that’s where I’m heading now. I’m presenting a show in Germany next year, it’s going to be a mix of sculptures and photography, and I will try to see if I can achieve the same image in the photograph as in the sculpture.


O – Asger, you say you’re trying to reach a certain emotional state through your art, and arriving at a place where you can express yourself. For you, is art somewhat of a selfish act?


AC – Yeah, I make the images for myself basically. I’m not someone who is trying to follow a trend, or adapt to a certain art market or anything. End of the day, I barely know why I’m making these images, it just seems to me the most logical thing to do. The best options of all the options when it comes to spending my time. There are different stages where you make the work, and you feel it’s coming together, and that’s a feeling of happiness, and then after awhile you get used to the work, and it becomes less important for me, and then it gets in a gallery or something and there’s some reaction from the viewers. But at that point I’m already over the feeling that I had when I created it. As an artist you change constantly, one day you feel happy, the other day you’re depressed. So the work can look different depending on the day. There’s never one static emotion.

O – So how does the process work for your collaborative pieces?


RB – Well Asger, for example, will make a picture of something in his studio, a woman or something, then he’ll send it here and we integrate it with cutouts from my photographs and place them in the image, or I’ll draw on it, and we try to enhance the image, enrich the image, intensify the image. Much of this is done digitally.


O – And are you communicating only via the art, or is there verbal discussion?


RB – Yes, there is discussion, but I’m one of these people, you know you can discuss until you’re blue in the face but it doesn’t help you very much. It’s a visual medium, so you and I can talk the greatest philosophy about taking pictures, but when we go and take pictures all of that stuff means nothing, we have to go back to creating visual relationships. Nothing to do with words. The discussions are general, and then you ultimately have to work visually, and make an integrated picture that is formally coherent and also hopefully has deeper meaning to it. That’s the key to art, strong compositional elements that have deeper meaning, that’s what it’s all about. Not sloppy form and meanings that we all know already. This is what we generally see in photography these days.


O – What is your relationship with the body, and with the mind?


AC – You know, in a lot of my images, because of my increasingly lazy relationship to photography, I’ve just photographed myself. So a lot of the images are just me. I have a really small workspace where I have a desk, and behind the desk is a white wall. So if I need something for the image, I’ll just undress and photograph myself. When it comes to my own body I’m super vain, I exercise all the time and try to eat healthy. I’m very aware of my condition and the state of my own body. But my work is not meant as a comment on other people’s problems, obesity for example or anything like that. There’s a process of making these images, and it’s extremely perfectionistic. They take a long time to put together, for one project it took me almost three years to make twenty-two images. In the context of photography, that is very slow. Not a high rate of production. [Laughs] They’re not trying to tell a story about anything too specific, they’re supposed to be free for the viewer to interpret. There is a sense of familiarity in the work, yet it’s also very unfamiliar. To me that’s an interesting place to be.


RB – Asger is much more concerned about body than I am, I’m basically psychologically driven. The mind is mysterious, it can’t be defined. It’s got its own world. I wouldn’t try to begin to figure out what the mind is about. The body is a little easier, because you can see it. You know, there’s a leg there, an arm there—but there are parts of the body that are similarly mysterious, you understand that if you get some sort of sickness. You never know anything about your liver or your spleen or your pancreas, until you get sick. These things are all pretty strange and mysterious. We tend to discuss these things like we know what we’re talking about but we actually don’t have a clue. We really are in the dark, if you think about yourself. I’m sitting talking to you, and I have no clue about how it’s all happening, how I’m being told what to say, how I’m putting these thoughts together, and where they came from. When you try to go back and understand the whole process of life you’re really left with your hands in your pockets.

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