The Berlin-based artist on Perec, surveillance, and an economy of images.
Ilya Lipkin is a Berlin-based artist who was born in Riga, Latvia, and raised in New York City. His recent photographic work deals with the merging of public and corporate space, offering us a glimpse of our new social commons. Employing a cool, observational approach, he documents the continual flow of bodies through supermarkets, coffee shops, gyms, shopping centers, and banks, producing candid portraits of contemporary city dwellers immersed in a variety of mundane activities. Though Lipkin’s photos are taken in New York, Berlin, and other cities, they impart an eerie sense of sameness, with differences in location often evident only from the language of the instructions on an ATM, for example. A selection of his bank photographs were recently featured in “The New Humanists: Hybrids in Purgatory,” a group exhibit on display at Autocenter, in Berlin.
Chris Cumming Tell me about these photographs in the show.
Ilya Lipkin With these pictures, I wanted to work in places where I find myself spending a lot of time anyway: semi-public, corporate spaces. Due to the nature of this particular exhibition I felt it was important to have some sense of seriality to the work, so the photos are almost entirely shots of people in ATM kiosks. But these are just part of a larger set of images on which I am continually working.
I guess it’s important to add that neither the individual images nor the series as a whole—which is ultimately what is most interesting to me—is intended to have any kind of inflection regarding meaning. At least I hope they don’t come across that way. They aren’t meant as a critique or something like that. They are just photographs. I simply try to take the approach of just observing without judging.
CC But I would say there is an implicit critique. They’re shot in a way that suggests a kind of intrusive surveillance.
IL Okay, maybe that makes them creepy, but why critical?
CC They suggest the constant surveillance that takes place in banks and other semi-public, corporate places, which is something we’re all aware of but rarely think about consciously. They also emphasize the social atomization of these spaces—each person standing at his or her own separate ATM, completely absorbed in the interaction with the screen and unaware of anybody else.
IL Something you notice when you come to New York is that there is no public space without corporate culture and police surveillance. This applies not only to New York, of course, but I just use it as an example as we are both from there. In New York, for instance, the only public lavatory is in a Starbucks. And in general, my impression is that, increasingly, the only public space you have is one where you have the option to buy something or to be surveilled by the police. And that’s actually kind of funny, because when I was doing this, I did ask myself, what did photographs of public spaces look like twenty, or thirty or forty years ago? For example, in the heyday of New York street photography. Obviously, there’s a vast tradition of producing these kinds of images, especially in New York City in the 1960s and '70s, so it is almost impossible to generalize. However, for the sake of argument, take a look at Garry Winogrand’s work. It seems to me that in his photography, as in the work of many of his peers, the idea of the street is that it’s a site of encounters, of a certain kind of energy or spontanaeity. My feeling today is that the city, any Western city, is now the opposite of that, if it was ever even like that in the first place. Contemporary urban space has nothing spontaneous about it. It’s a site of police surveillance; it’s a site of corporate control and fragmentation. I make no judgement about that, but that’s just the way it feels to me. To be honest, I don’t know what else to really say about it, besides that this is the “city” in which I live, be it Berlin or New York or wherever. The fact that this is my space, the site of my daily routines and interactions, is what makes it interesting to look at from the perspective of taking pictures. Just to see what this kind of space, and the bodies inhabiting it, look like to a camera.
CC I think bank branches provide a good measure of the change you’re describing. If you went to a bank twenty years ago, there would be a guy at a desk who would try to sell you a mortgage, and there would be a counter where you would get your money out by talking to a person. Now, banks have replaced all that with interactions with a machine. And they also have been on the forefront of the move toward total surveillance.
IL The artist Douglas Huebler had an ongoing project to a take a photograph of every single person in the world in order to make a full representation of the human race. Obviously, this was a tongue-in-cheek approach. But the irony is that it’s been realized today, at least in the Western world. Practically every single person in New York has been photographed by a camera that belongs to the MTA, or a police camera in Times Square, and everyone who has gone into a bank has had a photograph taken of them. And we can talk about whether CCTV really constitutes photography, but I would say it does. The photographic record exists, but probably in a rather different context than the one imagined by Huebler.
CC The images in this show are part of a larger series. Are you looking at other kinds of spaces or are you continuing with banks and other semi-public, semi-private areas?
IL It’s continuing along those lines. I just became interested in the question, where do people congregate, where do they spend their free time? That, and I liked the idea, although it’s overly simplified, of following the way in which money circulates.
CC You mean literally? Like from the bank to the store, in other words?
IL A bit. It was just another excuse to look at things and to take certain kinds of pictures, and to give a logic to my otherwise random wanderings during the day. It was also very important for me not to class-inflect the work or to project too much of anything I feel onto it. For instance, in the ATM images, there are young kids taking out money, you have banker guys, old ladies, middle-aged people. Here in Berlin, I would catch myself photographing the contents of a shopping cart in Lidl. Then I would immediately think, I should go to the Acne store as well, so it doesn’t look like an examination of middle-class drudgery. To me, the images should all be equivalent and interchangeable. Avoiding inflection, like I mentioned in the beginning. Whether you shop at luxury stores—where consumption is conflated with action, almost as if you are executing a creative deed through your purchase—or if you shop at H&M or wherever, to me it’s all the same. Whole Foods or Met Food, it doesn’t really matter for my purposes. Therefore, I just try to keep an even approach and to allow myself to photograph not only in mass-goods stores but also luxury shops, for example.
CC So you’ve been going to like, Mitte, and taking photographs of people?
IL Yeah, sometimes. And the third component of this series is photographing commodities without any people at all. I was thinking a lot about Georges Perec—
CC Oh, I love Georges Perec.
IL Do you know Les Choses? Things: A Story of the Sixties? What I really love are the long descriptions of the stuff that the young couple was buying or of the objects in their apartment, remember? Perec’s description of a certain type of leather handbag or the wood of a table, or carpets, prints, cushions and so on.
I’m interested in observing these things. The way the light at a certain time of day hits a bank window, or how the bottom of a pair of New Balances looks when they’re flipped upside-down by the doorway, or an Ikea plant, or terrycloth towels, a juicer—the banal stuff of everyday life. Just some bits of plastic and rubber and cloth onto which we are encouraged to project identity and meaning.
CC I think I understand what you’re saying. Perec is a good analogy because he was not simply critiquing mass consumption and commodity culture—when he writes about family life exclusively through descriptions of their commercial activities, it can actually be very beautiful. And the same is true of your pictures: they’re quite lovely images, these pictures of commodities and corporate space. Look at how lovely the edge of the Bank of America logo looks when it’s shot through the glass façade of the building, for instance. It’s not a strident depiction of our relationship to objects of commercial culture.
IL I have been thinking about Karl Ove Knausgaard lately. I just read the second volume of My Struggle. There’s something in his style of writing—his sentences, his descriptions—which calls to mind the Perec we were just talking about. However, with Knausgaard, I found myself interested in the points he makes about anti-liberal philosophers, as well as his criticism of the Scandinavian social-democratic state—the idea that the contemporary, consumer culture of Northern Europe is a direct outgrowth of social democracy, of its premise that everything and everyone should be equal. I guess eventually people figured out that money is the great equalizer.
CC Yeah, everyone’s money is worth the same.
IL I like the idea that photographs are a bit like this as well. They’re all equivalent and make things interchangeable. That’s why I like it when I see a book of pictures and they’re all the same size, one to a page, very simple, like a catalog.
CC There really is a beauty and pleasure in commodities, as well as this sort of horror. Both of these attitudes, Perec’s and Knausgaard’s, are bound up in the way we feel toward these objects. And photography has always played a role in forming these attitudes.
IL That’s true. Photography has always been tied to to commerce and consumption. The way we encounter and speak about products today is almost exclusively through visual images. One could argue that images have become a primary language, almost as if they’ve replaced writing. The history of photography is inextricable from this shift in the way in which we relate to the world, as well as to our desires. I find this interesting; although, I do not really ever think in such broad terms when I am working.
CC Is this one of the reasons you began to focus on photography after your earlier, more conceptual work?
IL Partially. I also think that for a variety of reasons the things I was looking at and feeling inspired by have changed. I stopped going to exhibitions as much and started to look more at film, particularly documentary. Frederick Wiseman has had, and continues to have, a really big influence on me. I just love what he does. I also make films and videos together with the artist Joen Vedel, and our ongoing collaboration and friendship has greatly informed the way in which I approach my solo work. A book by William T. Vollmann, Poor People, left a big impression on me in relation to the possibilities of journalism and documentary. I suppose there are lots of reasons. Maybe it’s also a question of personal disposition—I like spending time the way I do, alone, out and about, taking pictures. I find it pleasurable.
CC But what about specifically commercial photography? Does this interest you at all?
IL Absolutely. I like the completely commercial side of photography and video-making. I’ve never personally engaged with it, but I look at it often, like everyone else does—sometimes willingly and sometimes not. Fashion photography especially seems to me to exemplify the opposite of the convoluted, structural thinking of certain kinds of artistic production, because fashion photography generally seems to function through a suspension of disbelief. There’s a story, some kind of fantasy—an editorial, a layout—and you’re asked to suspend your disbelief and to give in to the images. It’s whimsical, if I can say that. For me, as the consumer of these images, this gambit usually fails, but on the rare occasions when it works it is a powerful example of what photography is capable of.
Ilya Lipkin is an artist and photographer based in Berlin. His work has recently been exhibited at Electronic Arts Intermix in New York, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, and Autocenter in Berlin, among other venues. He also produces films in collaboration with the artist Joen Vedel, under the name Downstairs Productions.
Chris Cumming is a financial reporter who lives in New York City.