Adam Gibbons: I'd like to talk about your work Make No Mistake About This , 2007. I'd also like to discuss your use of moving image more broadly, especially its relationship to sculpture and the sculptures that you make.
Wolfgang Plöger: The starting point was the text itself. I downloaded some of these last statements of the death row prisoners when I did an image search with Google some years ago. It took me some years to find a way of dealing with them. I had them in my studio for a long time and I kept coming back to them. These statements are very emotional and strong. On the one hand I looked for a way of showing them. On the other hand I did not dare to print them or to write them on a wall.
AG: I wanted to comment that film is designed to be exposed to light, from which it takes an indexical copy of whatever is in front of the camera. As you've described, in this work you wrote some of the last words uttered by prisoners on death row in Texas directly onto the film. One of the characteristics of incarceration is that of invisibility, keeping something, the perpetrator of a crime, hidden from public view. By inscribing onto the surface of the film that constitutes Make No Mistake About This , this invisibility is disrupted. I wondered if you could comment on this act of making visible?
WP: There is a conflict between the film material, where you can read the text, and the projections, where it becomes an abstract flickering. Maybe I found a weak point of the medium itself.
AG: It's almost too much?
WP: Exactly, it can be quite Kitsch in a way.
I was in an art school recently giving a talk and one of the students, a woman, was really condemning the work. She said, "it's really stupid, you just take this text and that's it, it's too easy". She found the work a little bit unserious in that way, that all I do is write it down and then it's my work. It meets with a lot of contempt with regard to the emotional situation of these people, the moral situation of these people. She felt maybe it was kind of an abuse of them and what they're feeling. (And of course) I can understand what she meant. It's quite easy to see it like this, it's quite easy to take something like this and show it with images and you can cause quite a scandal. And maybe that was my problem with the text, that it can affect or it can get people quite easily.
AG: In the pamphlet accompanying the exhibition at Kunst Werke you stated that you found the prisoners' final words on the website for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. If they pursue the link, the audience can find out the details of the crime committed by the accused. They can even see their photograph. The idea of the Internet as a possibility, a potential source of work, is one you've touched on elsewhere. Was it your intention that the prisoner should be discovered in this way?
WP: When I realized the first pieces that had to do with death row inmates some years ago, I called the whole show Meeting Tom . That title was close to Peeping Tom . And that described how I felt at the time about getting all these images and information from the Internet. I felt a little bit guilty. But now, after some years, I find it quite normal to do so. That's in a way the typical use of the internet.
AG: Although the work implicates prisoners everywhere, the prisoners you focus on are all in the United States.
WP: Someone asked me once whether the work is specifically related to the United States. Of course until some months ago, while Bush was President, it was very easy to criticise America for a number of different things, Guantanamo Bay for instance. But at the same time I'd say that whereas many states have the death penalty, they also provide this information. If you take the example of China, there are all these people executed without any information for the public to look at. Nobody even mentions their names, there's nothing from the trial, there are no last statements... It's not a direct criticism of America.
Just recently I recognised, that these prisoners and death row inmates became this quite abstract community for me. I haven't contacted these people, I hardly know anything about them, they are just the images that I've been using to make some installations in different ways.
AG: So you used images of the inmates, too
AG: They're from the Internet?
WP: They're all from the Internet and they're different sizes but very low resolution. I enlarged them just by copying them, so I had one copy of A4 or A3 or even bigger of each prisoner and then I reproduced them by drawing them, using transparent paper. 30 or 50 times, I don't know, it depended. If you see [the drawings] next to each other they look the same, but of course there are slight differences. With the small ones you can still see what you draw but the huge ones become so abstract you can hardly see what they're about; its only dots and dots and dots and dots. So I reproduced them and then I made an animation from the drawings of each prisoner.
AG: Do you have a purpose for this?
WP: The idea was quite simple; to stretch a photo into a film piece. But I didn't really film them frame-by-frame. What I made was more like a slide show. I filmed each drawing for about 4 seconds, then the next one and so on. So every 4 seconds it went "tack" and you always had the impression that the plot would go on; it's slow motion but you always expected something to happen, a development.
WP: Yes, I used to have the tendency to do a lot of different things at the same time, that weren't really related to each other. I mean there are moments when something relates to everything else, when everything just fits like a puzzle and then... it's really hard for me to explain. I can't bring it to a point and say "this and this and this goes together, that's the main concept of my work. But you need five sentences to say "this is what I'm doing" and if you can't then you always run into difficulties. I try to ignore it. For a while it bothered me, but now I try not to pay attention to it and it's fine.
AG: Now you just have a studio with lots of rooms and you can put different things in different rooms.
WP: The sculpture in there, the film in here. Maybe that's how it works.
AG: And then with the text, the writing on the film, that again behaves differently.
WP: Of course.
AG: It doesn't indicate plot or movement or progression, like you say it works against that principle. You called it 'failed film' before.
WP: You know something's happening, you have this text and you want to show it or not show it. I went from working on a piece of paper and then filming it, to then making marks on the film. Suddenly the focus is more on the length of film and on its relationship to the projection.
AG: Similar to the portraits of prisoners which you animated, the words don't have an apparent progression because of the illegibility of the projection. Using the loop as an installation method, they become even more self-contained in a formal way. Referring back to the point we've already discussed, of issues of visibility, to what extent does this metaphor extend for you? Or is it more about a feeling? Or is it simply a device for installation?
WP: These last statements are very time-based, of course. The moment that the prisoner stops talking, he is dead. That gives even another meaning to the endless film loops, as if the whole installation could fix this moment of speech and avoid the execution.
AG: Coming back to the installation, you looped the film in a primitive and very sculptural manner, emphasizing the length of the film and the space in which it was installed. Was this only a practical solution to installation?WP: I use a lot of film loops in my work, so the idea for the installation came quite easily. The first time I showed the piece, I presented the loops on the ground. That made it even harder to read the text. And the film loop on the ground became a physical border. The technique is very fragile, so visitors were very aware of their position in the exhibition space.
The loops became very sculptural in that show, yes. I liked it. And it made sense, because I wanted to emphasize the presence of the length of film as a ribbon of text. Without the projections, it almost looked like a Fred Sandback piece.
Wolfgang Plöger lives and works in Berlin, Germany. He is represented by Konrad Fischer Galerie, Berlin.
Adam Gibbons is an artist and curator based in Berlin, Germany.
Exhibition view: "Make No Mistake About This", KW, Berlin, 2007.
Photos by Matthias Schormann
All Images © Wolfgang Plöger
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