The Street, by Richard Whitlock
Richard Whitlock’s The Street
Richard Whitlock’s video projection The Street (2012) captured my attention by reimagining a specific spatial location in ways that visually undermine the mechanical and hierarchical approach typical of Western European representation. Perhaps it is no coincidence that this work reconstructs a specific geopolitical place at a moment of crisis. Living and working in Thessaloniki, Greece, the artist meticulously assembles moving images of the city taken precisely as the EU forced Greece to adopt austerity measures, with dire economic and social consequences. Curious to learn how formal, even painterly, concerns about light, color, verisimilitude and perspective were entwined with the materiality of an actual time and place, I spoke with Richard Whitlock about The Street.
Gregory Sholette: What drew me to your project was its deceptiveness—specifically, the way it appears initially to be a simple photographic projection of a normal urban street scene, yet after a moment we begin to notice movement within the image. Is it a live scene from a camera obscura? Impossible. We are in Flushing, Queens, over seventy-seven hundred kilometers from Greece. The Street turns out to be a highly manipulated looping video of great visual complexity. What process led to its realization, and why does it seem to turn the rules of perspective “inside out”?
Richard Whitlock: I wanted to see whether it was possible to modify the perspective of a moving, cinematographic picture. The Street is a seamless composite of many photographs and videos that looks like a still photograph, an everyday street scene, only that all the things that move in the scene—the cars, the trees, the sky—are indeed moving! This should not be strange, but, as you saw, it is. I had made quite a few photographic prints without perspective, using parallel projection, like an architect’s elevation, and I found that everything in the picture acquired a strange vitality, a lifelike quality you don’t normally find in photographs, and this influx of life fascinated me and drove the work along. I began to realize that before the digital era, photographers’ hands were tied, as they could not renegotiate perspective—they were bound to the vanishing point created by the lens. Digital image-making has given us back the full range of perspective positionings that painters always had at their disposal—the power to reposition us in relation to the world, the image of the world, and each other. And, as a bonus, it also allows us to make our pictures move!
GS: Expand on this notion that, as visual imaging technology advances from lenses and film stock to computers and digital bits, it allows artists to move “backward” in time to explore imaging methods prior to photography. Do you see your project as having a relationship to time as well as to history?
RW: Yes, I think this work reaches out in both directions—back into the distant past, and forward into a post-photographic future, beyond the photograph as we have known it until now. It is made in high-definition video, but turned vertically, linking it to the hanging scroll of the classical Chinese painting tradition, in which many viewpoints were also preferred. I also found myself going back even further, to ancient Egypt, where a flat pictorial space had been used for thousands of years by artists who also aimed at vitality: they wanted not just to represent the world and to replicate the appearance of living things, but to make things that were alive, to create life itself! In Greece, where I now live, I discovered an entire painting tradition, inherited from Byzantium, which also eschewed perspective. Byzantine artists created pictorial spaces of enormous subtlety using many representational systems at once, including reversed perspective (distant things larger than near things), which positioned the viewer inside the picture, looking out. We were taught at school that this was “primitive art,” i.e., not art at all, but this tradition came back into the Western mainstream, in a way, via the Russian avant-garde, feeding modernism with anti-perspective. So perspective comes and it goes, and right now it is under question again thanks to the digitalization of the image.
In regard to time itself, I found that if you collapse linear perspective you also collapse linear time. The cars in The Street stay the same size as they recede into the distance. They are not going anywhere. They are just “doing their thing”—like the trees, the people, etc.—living in the present, in the present continuous tense. So time and space are interconnected: a change in perspective entails the creation of a new space-time. Without perspective, linear time is replaced by cyclical, repetitive accumulations of time. This challenges us to supply our own narrative: we are free to choose the order in which we view the various elements of the work.
GS: The intensity of detail and sharpness of color in The Street adds up to a visual uncanny—and I mean this word in its literal sense, as something both familiar and simultaneously strange. For one thing, the way you constructed the image allows us to focus on much more than a human would normally be able to see, including someone’s bright green sleeveless shirt caught by a beam of sunlight, and an array of bottles sitting neatly on an otherwise cluttered balcony. But it is also the overall quality of the light in the final work—the cool green and blue lighting and slowly moving, looped sky—that produces a continuous presentness and a particular allusion to painting. I am curious about what kind of challenges you faced with the actual footage and whether there were any technological limitations as you reached for this effect of collapsing linear perspective and linear time. How did you make that sky, for example, Richard?
RW: This was exactly my experience: a mixture of familiarity and strangeness created by this non-perspective, which I could not understand but found fascinating. I think the vividness is due to the fact that the eye is not used to this way of seeing. It is constantly moving, trying to adjust to the new logic of the picture. And the brain keeps sending messages back to the eye asking for verification, for more information. It is as though you were seeing everything for the first time. It is like the moment when you wake up from a snooze and open your eyes halfway, when the world looks like a flat and intensely beautiful array of colors and shapes, before you realize what you are looking at and normality regains the upper hand.
I found that there was nearly always a tool at hand, in one compositing program or another, to solve the technical problems I came up against. One problem was that the video shots were often incomplete. A woman on a balcony might be hanging out the clothes, or beating a rug, and would then go back into her apartment again, but I would not have the footage of her coming out in the first place. I would have to splice in a reversed clip, which is why some of the women come out backwards. I could not do the same with the sky, however, as clouds never go in reverse. It would look as if the wind were suddenly blowing in the wrong direction. So I faded the sky loop back into itself, which worked fine. I chose this blue sky, with white fleecy clouds, because it has a magical feel to it, an optimism.
GS: The color of optimism is found not in a tube of paint or color wheel, but captured as an impossible digital skyscape. But The Street also inevitably bears witness to the geopolitical crisis in Greece, no? I mean, in so far as your project is pieced together from actual documentation of Thessaloniki made over the course of the economic meltdown, one could say it therefore compresses the cultural aesthetics of a particular southern European social space at the very moment it collides disastrously with the instrumental imperatives of the euro zone and global capital.
RW: I photographed this street throughout the period of the crisis, but with no intention of making a commentary on its social effects. When I started, in 2009, no one knew just how bad it was going to get. The choice of the sky came much later on, when everyone was in high anxiety about losing jobs, pensions and houses, and falling into poverty, as is still the case. In fact, I wanted to delink the work from place altogether, which is why I called it The Street, not Kassandrou Street. I was tired of so many art events revolving around place, tired of the in situ, the site specific. This just happens to be what my adoptive city, Thessaloniki, was like at this time.
The cruelty of the crisis in Greece is that it was planned. In the United States, the sub-prime crash could be put down to greedy financiers, but here the social costs, the suffering, the deaths due to despair or poverty, were factored in at the planning stage. There was a clear intention to punish Greece for its “profligacy” through the high interest rates of the first “bailout” loans. Germany borrowed at one percent and lent to us at six percent. We now see that the euro zone was designed with the interests of the rich core countries in mind, the peripheral states of Europe being assigned a subordinate role, allowed to consume but not to produce.
What can we do about this as artists? In the struggle for power, in the fight for economic domination, there is also implicit, it seems to me, the struggle to control the way we see the world. In this, art is a key player, keeping open the road to many different possible realities, positioning us in different ways in relation to the world and to each other. We feel more human in some of the models it proposes, more alienated in others. In a non-perspectival picture like The Street, the subject/object divide of classical perspective is deactivated, and we get the feeling of being at one with the world. I think you feel these are not strangers sweeping their balconies and driving their cars, but people “like us.”
GS: How does the economic meltdown affect you directly on a day-to-day basis?
RW: There is a lot of tension, anxiety about the future. Art budgets have been slashed, and many creative activities are being scaled back as we think of how to survive on a practical level. We almost never eat out or go to the cinema any more. I do a lot more baking and cooking, making jam and salting olives.
GS: How are people in art circles in Thessaloniki reacting to the crisis, and in particular addressing the rise of the far right? Does the far right have a cultural agenda?
RW: After an initial phase of numbness, in which people felt crushed and impotent, I think that now people are reacting more strongly, both as individuals and as artists. The private galleries are having a hard time of it, and public cultural institutions are being run down and starved of funding. So artists are looking elsewhere and questioning their role, forming groups rather than working alone, and doing street actions and performances rather than doing gallery work. Exhibitions may take place in non-art spaces such as apartments or hotels and, in Thessaloniki at least, three artist-run, nonprofit art spaces have started up recently. But it is perhaps in the performing arts, theater, and music that the reaction to the crisis and the rise of the far right is most evident. Pavlos Fyssas, the musician murdered recently by a Golden Dawn party member, was a hip-hop singer who sang anti-fascist songs. A theater in Athens that staged a play criticizing the extreme right was the scene of a violent conflict with the Golden Dawn. This party consciously models itself on the Nazi party. It is violently xenophobic and homophobic. Their cultural agenda? Well, they like the national anthem a lot, and necrophiliac tattoos, shaven heads, black gear, knives, guns, attack dogs—you name it.
There is perhaps little cause for optimism but I think there is an inherent optimism in art, as despair would mean stopping and doing nothing at all.
Gregory Sholette is an artist and writer based in New York City.