Marble and Sand
Interview by Niccolò Fano forCALAMITA/À
Aglaia Konrad is a photography based artist living in Brussels whose work has focused mainly on metropolitan urban space. She has been advising researcher at the Jan Van Eyck Academy in Maastricht and is currently teaching at the Hogeschool Sint-Lukas in Brussels. She had presented her work in solo exhibitions in Siegen, Antwerp, Geneva, Graz, Cologne and New York, among other cities, as well as in international group shows such as Documenta X (1997), Cities on the Move (1998-1999) and Talking Cities (2006). Her work has been documented in several exhibitions catalogues and monographic publications such as ‘Elasticity’ (2002) and ‘Iconocity’ (2005). For her book ‘Desert Cities’ (2008) she received the Infinity award for the best photo book 2009 of the International Center for Photography, New York. The book ‘Carrara’ (2011) won the Fernand Baudin Prize 2011. Before the trilogy Concrete & Samples (2009-2010) she made the film Sculpture House (2008, 12’05”) based on a house built in 1968 around Liège (BE) by Jacques Gillet, Felix Roulin and René Greisch.
CALAMITA/À: Thank you very much for your time and for agreeing to this interview. For those who are not familiar with your practice, please give us an insight into your work and background.
Aglaia Konrad: I started quite late and never went through an art education, I am self- taught. In my 20’s I worked as a secretary in an architect’s office in Vienna; I was extremely interested and intrigued by the subject of architecture, our built environment and cinematography, an interest I still have. It was during this period that I bought a camera and started taking photographs; later, I believe in 1991/1992, my interest moved towards our globalized world and relating parallel developments and realities. I did my research on the spot by spending two or three months in big cities. Research on the spot is crucial; from home one can look for and study what is known, what is unknown or newly developing can only be discovered by seeing it for yourself. You see, I was never interested in examples of ‘glossy’ architecture or the latest and the hottest, what I was interested in was scarcely covered. I started to go on residencies, scanning the city with my camera; I photographed what intrigued me: transit spaces, bus stations, train stations, airports, infrastructures. I photographed the outskirts of the city, where the working class lived. During these trips most of my movement was done with public transport, a way of moving that allows me to be very flexible and see places you wouldn’t be able to point a taxi driver to. Getting from point a to point b took some time as I frequently got off the bus when spotting urban spaces and elements of interest.
A/À: What is the role of travel in the research and development of your work?
AK: I would say that without travel my work would not exist, the city in itself is my studio and things in that respect have not changed dramatically with the advent of the internet. Regardless, a big part of my work developed before internet existed. In a way, what usually interests me is not the architectural structure researched online but the building next to it that you only find when there in person. After so many years of working in and around cities I somehow ‘know’ how to read, walk a city and learn on the spot.
A/À: Desert Cities, shot entirely in Egypt, deals with the urban periphery and suburban architecture around large cities through the depiction of architectural structures and newly constructed developments. What pushed you towards Egypt?
AK: I was in Cairo in 1992 and took a taxi from there to Alexandria. On the route I saw numerous newly developed, not yet inhabited buildings. I had no idea what their function was and what would eventually happen to these places but I found them extremely interesting.
I only shot one roll of film and upon my return home I could only find one book about what I saw, housed in a library in East Germany. Years later, in the mid 90’s it became easier to find information about new developments across China and the United Arab Emirates although I was baffled by the fact that no one was talking about the monstrous developments I had encountered in Egypt. The reason is probably that there is no financial, no architectural interest in that area, therefore nothing to get out of it.
This changed of course; in the mid 2000’s I still had that one roll of film from my trip and successfully applied for a project grant in Switzerland(Le Grand Prix international de photographie de Vevey, 2004). From that point on my real research on the subject started. I made several trips there, photographed, visited numerous sites as well as talking to people and researching online.
A/À: Have you ever exhibited Desert Cities in Egypt where the project was created?
AK: I never exhibited there although I was invited to take part in a symposium. The response was very interesting as the people attending were fascinated that a photographer coming from outside Egypt was covering this particular subject that hadn’t been surveyed by any local artists. A few of them had made personal projects although none of them dealing specifically with the theme of urban planning and architecture.
A/À: Are there any parallels to be drawn between the suburbs in Desert Cities and others encountered elsewhere? If so, what is the role of migratory fluxes and socio-political changes in the shaping and re-definition of urban limits?
AK: I wouldn’t necessarily define what can be seen in Desert Cities as suburbs.
These 16 cities were planned for about 500.000 inhabitants each. In Desert Cities we have areas that are extremely different in terms of urban planning, politics and general concept to what we can identify in North-American suburbs for example. There are a wide range of aspects to consider in relation to suburbs and the shaping of them, mostly in terms of urban development and the adaptation of the inhabitants to the structure of their city, something I observed quite often by renting a plane and flying over cities in order to get a better understanding of the suburbs and their structure.
In terms of migratory fluxes and socio-political changes, we have to take each area on a case by case basis in relation to recent historical changes and national policies. I have experienced a rather different reality between Mexico City, Cairo and Brussels, my hometown. The concept is extremely elaborate and full of variables; social class is surely a very prominent aspect of the outskirts yet it is extremely diverse. In one country the ‘outskirts’ are green areas were rich people have their villas, in other countries it’s the poor population’s settlements.
Whilst working on Desert Cities, I discovered that new cities were being built; my aim was not an administrative documentation of these cities but rather to think about these phenomenons therefore I focused on the few that I knew I could visit and spend time in. Something very interesting happened in-between my first visit (early nineties) and my second, twelve years later; globalization became visible, impossible to overlook. Both south and north of Cairo are protected from new developments because of the presence of the pyramids and the only small agrarian section of the country; this enabled a very rapid and careful construction, throughout the 1990’s, of new cities going both east and west, with new communities of investors from outside Egypt and neighboring countries sprouting in-between the planned cities like mushrooms, facilitated by the stable political situation found in the country during that period. Quite recently I found out that there is a plan to build New Capital City, something initially intended by Anwar Sadat before his death; a development entirely dedicated to the institutional government headquarters with the aim of solving part of Cairo’s overpopulation issue.
A/À: What is your relationship with the photographic medium? The final presentation of your work within exhibition spaces has been described by Antonio Guzman as a ‘dismembered and discontinued atlas’, referencing your use of installation, scale, video and diverse printing methodologies. Tell us about how you approach the final stages and presentation of your projects.
AK: Architecture expresses the values of how we think; one of the ways of expressing these values, publicly, is through photography’s ability to render transparent the way urban society is ordered. The title of my first book Elasticity, condenses perfectly what my approach is towards the photographic medium and architecture. I was never interested in the framed, glossy object, the objective is to push myself, my perception of space. Being primarily very interested in architecture and ‘space’, I started to integrate, very early on, the images that had to do with architecture within the architecture of the exhibition space itself, giving them a new physical experience.
Creating an exhibition is always a challenge, most of all one for myself. I approach photography in terms of function, all the images taken across the world cannot be defined as the final product, they are material, building blocks that form my archive. Based on the prospect of an exhibition or a publication I go back into the archive and start working on the accumulated material. The first step is always to study the space where the show will be held, subsequently I develop the project. Very often my work comes to light thanks to the parameters of the space, the unique conditions that then determine the final outcome.
A/À: Your body of work Carrara, deals directly with our (human) interaction with nature and the subsequent mutation of geological formations. What attracted you towards Carrara and what are the themes that pushed you to survey this particular area?
AK: My work in Carrara is closely linked to Desert Cities; a landscape manipulated and intervened upon by humans. In 2007 I started making 16mm films on sculptural architecture and Carrara was the condensation of what I was interested in looking at for my 16mm film work; it grouped landscape, architecture, sculpture and formed a link between the past, the present and the future. There is a dysfunction in Carrara that attracted me: our fascination with marble that can be seen in our constant use of it and our mimic of the object within cheap bathrooms across the world. The issue is that this fascination is slowly eroding and destroying something so monumental.
Paradoxically it is quite impressive, from the perfection in cutting the white stone to the transformation it creates, to the light reflecting upon it. Carrara is also a book, made after the 16 mm film and born from the film itself, as the layout is directly inspired by it both in terms of aesthetic and continuity. The cuts of the images on the pages are extremely sharp and distinct, referencing the act of the stone and film cutting.
A/À: “The community of human destinies is experienced in the anonymity of non-place, and in solitude”. Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity – Marc Augé.
This quote sprung to mind when attempting to dissect your work. The physical presence of human figures is absent within your images; anonymity and solitude seem to play a part in the relationship between the lack of humans and the aestheticization of the structures you photograph.
AK: As you can imagine this is a question I get asked quite a bit. All my work speaks about us, about how we interact with our surroundings and ultimately between each other; even though we are not present within the images we are the primary subject matter, the presence of the structures I photograph is inextricably linked and derivative from our existence. My intention although is far from imparting moralism, mine are observations of a subjects matter of personal interest that subsequently opens up a wider discourse relating to humans, architecture and landscape. I am not the artist/anthropologist, the artist/geographer, nor the artist/journalist, the perspective of my Desert Cities project is mainly based on the fundaments of my own artistic conviction. This means a reflection – on architectural and urban phenomena – that articulates my view on the organization of society from the experience of my photographic practice. My projects differ greatly in terms of their respective aims, yet they are all rooted in the same activity that has allowed me to compile a wealth of images, forming an archive that potentially covers a great deal of our efforts to live together in a built environment.
A/À: If possible, tell us about what you are currently working on and what lies ahead.
AK: I’m working on a new solo show for next year alongside a book and a film about a brutalist house in Italy. I am particularly looking forward to working on a new book, I love bookmaking as I believe it to be another space in which to work in, a perfect destination for photography and one that acts as a filter, allowing me to see the images in a completely different light once placed in that context.