My curiosity is greater than my fear

Helmuts Caune

An interview with Clemens von Wedemeyer


Clemens von Wedemeyer (1974) is a German visual artist who specialises in video art. After initially being more interested in cinema, von Wedemeyer later turned to arts that, by his own admission, provided much more opportunities aesthetically and experimentally – especially the medium of video. Having graduated from the Academy of Visual Arts Leipzig, von Wedemeyer now works there as a professor of media art and divides his time mostly between Leipzig and Berlin.

Having been influenced by Elias Canetti's book Crowds and Power at an early age, for most of his career von Wedemeyer has been attracted to group dynamics: the imagery of masses and invisible forces that drive social behaviour; this interest is markedly exemplified in many of his video works, in which he often combines documentary footage with original content and data in various configurations. From time to time his attention latches onto other topics, for instance, his project The Fourth Wall, in which he researched contradictory stories told about the mysterious Tasaday people ‘discovered’ by Western researchers in the early seventies in the Philippines. However, the bulk of his work still remains dedicated to covering the social issues of modern societies.

Von Wedemeyer's works on view at the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art are exhibited in the main venue, the former Faculty of Biology. In the sound and image installation Transformation Scenario, he focuses on his interest in so-called ‘digital extras’: a concept once used for mass imagery in video games and cinema that is increasingly being applied to real life simulations, and which could eventually have an impact on them as well.

Von Wedemeyer's works are the property of various remarkable collections such as MoMA in New York, Tate Modern in London, and Museum Ludwig in Cologne.

Transformation Scenario (2018)

Arterritory: How long have you had this keen interest in the topic of ‘the imagery of the masses’?

Clemens von Wedemeyer: In 1999, when I was a student, I made a very simple video called Mass; it consisted of found footage from the 1920s. In the film, I over-exposed film extracts from the 1920s showing demonstrations and mass gatherings, and I do it so often that it eventually becomes a grey surface. I edit more and more images of individuals, and in the course of the three-minute video, it goes back to the masses. The inspiration for this, and also for other works, comes from the book Crowds and Power by Elias Canetti. Do you know it?

I know it.

At the moment, I'm looking again at this book for a new work I’m doing.

You read it in the 90s?

Yes, I read it in the 90s, and it became quite important for me.

How, exactly? Could you name three or four points or theses from the book that inspired you?

Now that I've read it again, I recognise Canetti’s subjective point of view and can see it in comparison with other authors on mass psychology, but at the time, I took his theses on mass behaviour for granted. He's emphasising a division – you have the individual, and then you have the crowd or the mass, where an individual is no longer a valid point for research. A huge group becomes a new entity, and Canetti describes the different types in terms of how they grow, transform or discharge. Canetti refers to the 20th century, especially the situation between the wars in Germany and under the Nazis – that’s what he witnessed.

The book was published in 1960. The question for me is – what happened after 1960? With the images of masses? And what's the difference now, what's the new specificity? In this work here at the Biennial, I'm trying out a speculation on digitally produced masses. 

Right. But you said you have returned to this topic – you worked on it in the 90s, and then, I believe, you covered the topic of indigenous peoples and isolation, as in your project The Fourth Wall (2009); and now you have returned to the topic of masses. Why is that? Were you motivated by recent political shifts?

It’s not really a juxtaposition. I've always been interested in group dynamics and media. You can actually draw a line from anthropology to the digital revolution. What Elias Canetti describes as ‘invisible masses’ can be ghosts in certain cultures, as well as big data in ours. Both can create paranoia. 

In that it impacts us somehow.

Yes. Many people are scared of data today.

Rightfully so, don't you think?

Hmm. It's difficult to know exactly what's going on. 

I'm not someone who uses duct tape to cover the webcam of my laptop, but really, it is super difficult to understand what's going on right now.

Even if you do know, it’s still difficult to find or produce an image of it. 

You mean the difficult part is that we don't know how to imagine and visualise data, how to think about it? That we don't have a coherent image of it – at least in our minds?

Yes, exactly. Images are formed by a person's cultural background or a dominant aesthetic, but at the same time... My background is that I've been interested in cinema and film for a long time, and cinema is a modern laboratory of images; at its essence, cinema has been trying to simulate life since its start; it even aims to produce images that are ‘bigger than life’. So my question was then – OK, let's see what cinema can provide as a means for visualising data.

And what did you find? 

For example, a company like Weta – which was responsible for creating the digital extras for Lord of the Rings – won an Oscar for their mass simulations. What they introduced was the autonomous agent – in order to give a digital extra in the background some form of liberty. They brought data to life by giving it bodies and some automated social behaviour. 

Some simple intelligence?

Yes. And choices, so that they could behave accordingly to their surroundings.

Transformation Scenario (2018)

Were they the first to do something like this?

I believe it had already been developed in computer games.

But they were the first to do it in cinema?

I think so. It makes it easier – you could skip individual programming and enjoy looking at your automats [machines] with a behaviour defined by their relationships. In the background of a film, you excuse some mistakes, of course. Sometimes they were doing weird stuff, but it fits in with armies of weird characters like Orcs. But then this method from fiction emerged in other fields. For example, similar algorithms are used by sociologists today to simulate social relations in city life or to predict migration. A company that worked in cinema is now simulating the world.

But if you want to simulate the real world, you would have to expand this algorithm of what the individual can do. 

Exactly. This way I could try to better understand what Elias Canetti describes as this shift from the individual to the group. There are more questions connected to the work, such as this scandal about Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, about mass opinions and election behaviour.

Have the works that you brought to the Biennial now helped you answer some of your questions?

(Thinks.) I hope I'm carrying these questions further. I've done several interviews with scientists, with computational technologists, with biologists who work, for example, with fish and try to build robots that can simulate fish behaviour in order to build a robot that can lead a school of fish, and so on. I made use of some of these interviews in the script that I wrote for this video. And the answer that I got through my research is, I think, that having a combination of traditionally divided skills now all in one hand produces so much more power in understanding society than initially planned. Imagine a combination of data... like Google, Facebook and Apple merged as one... well, maybe it already is kind of like that… So, my thought experiment was actually to connect the possibilities of cinema and sociology...having them merge into one entity to exploit.

Could you elaborate?

It’s about tools that were developed in the film and game industries now being used in sociology, in city planning, in crowd control, etc. My video is a speculation; it might already be old-fashioned today because we have probably reached that point by now. I am speculating on how we came to arrive at this point.

And this program used by the Dutch police to simulate protests – is that linked with this? Do they use these same methods of digital extras with artificial intelligence?

No, their extras are actually quite stupid because the demonstrators are very simple and universal. These really are extras: they don't have a goal, they don't know what they want, they can move from A to B, but only if the police instructor agrees to do so. But I was also working with (and still am working with) scientists in order to test some group dynamics. As described by Canetti. Because this would be, for me, an interesting thought – to prove the theories of Canetti by programming digital agents, i.e. give them Canettian goals and seeing if it works out.

If this is just the first chapter of the project, what would be possible future works?

I cannot tell you everything, but…

What can you tell?

Now I'm really getting more interested in the influence of digital media on human relationships; I think I want to direct a film with things that I learned through games, programs, etc. Sounds abstract, huh?

A bit, yes.

At the moment, I am working on scenarios for catastrophes. We always plan for the worst; for example, if we build a house, we need to imagine where to exit in case of any emergencies.

Transformation Scenario (2018)

Some would call it taking precautions.

Precautions, yes. That’s probably very human.

Well, if something happens, no one wants to get blamed.

Exactly. But I find it interesting that it has become a norm. It has a lot to do with imagination; for instance, if you imagine a certain catastrophe, you also need this skill as a film director. There are so many films about catastrophes that I want to make something about that fact; but what, exactly, I don't know yet. In terms of my general interest, it's often like – I work on a theme for some time, and these thematic things come back, such as my interest about group dynamics…

When did you relaunch this interest?

I would have to think about it. I think it's because things have changed and we are looking for help to understand...the recent transformations in society.

Sure, but we're still just at the beginning; in the manner that – we are within the digital revolution. It's hard to look at it retrospectively, or somehow from the outside. 

Yes, and what would even be this ‘outside’ now?

That is the question. When you say you have an interest, or a long-lasting interest, or an interest that comes back, some topic, like group dynamics or images of masses... What do you mean by this ‘interest’ – is it more like that of a scientist, i.e. theoretical, or is there some passion, fear or worry that drives you?

In Germany, for example, the streets have been overrun in the last years by more nationalistic and right-wing populists. That worries me.

Not only in Germany.

Exactly. But if you know German history – and you can call this an interest in taking precautions – there's fear, of course, that things could get worse.

What does German history mean to you, personally? Would you say that you feel some collective guilt? Do you identify with that?

Call it whatever. I don’t identify with a crowd. But I venture that Canetti wanted to understand how fascism evolved, and how people would do things as a collective body that they would not have done as individuals.

Well, it's perceived that even Germans who were born after World War II are somehow extremely sensitive on that topic – that they feel a shared burden of responsibility, or are concerned about their image...

Maybe. But some Germans show exactly the opposite – not at all sensitive, and think that we have to go back to the past where everything was much better. With Hitler, you know.

Well, there aren't many who openly admit that, are there? Those are some really marginal radicals.

At the moment, we do have a Neo-Nazi party in the parliament; they are called AfD (Alternative for Germany)…

But AfD doesn't really praise Hitler. Although they are a right wing party, and pretty extreme at that, they don't – at least openly – say that we have to return to the ideals of Hitler.

No, but they say, for example, that Holocaust memorials should be removed, because it's only an obstacle for the development of German culture... They want to get rid of any guilt or how you call it...They want to forget, by any means.

So that is your worry?

That's a significant worry, yes.

Transformation Scenario (2018)

I was curious as to why you were interested in the Tasaday people of the Philippines, and other isolated people – tribes still using stone-age technologies and such. What piqued your interest in that to the point of making works about them?

I was actually studying anthropology for a year…

Was that before you went to art school?

Yes. I came to it somehow when I was invited to an exhibition at the Barbican Arts Centre in London in 2008, and sometimes when you get an invitation…

You don't know what to do there?

(Laughs.) If you do site-specific works, you need to get to know the place. I went there right after having done a very site-specific work, so I wanted to do the exact opposite. I thought – what could be an exact opposite to a metropolis like London?


A non-site-specific work. So I thought of some remote corners of the world and of so-called un-contacted groups. Through this research I found out more about the Tasaday.

Or stories about them.

Yes. And then I decided not to go to the Philippines and to only make a work on the stories about them. Almost like Baudrillard's simulacra... So that was the reason, and then I suddenly had many ideas for my own films. This exhibition was called The Fourth Wall, in which the Tasaday are the main reality, and it can also be seen as a starting point for exhibitions like this one here, which evolved from research in the archives – collecting stories, finding footage, and so on. And to do a solo show which looks like a group show. I mean, it's not like that here, but it will be like that in one year’s time, as I continue working on this.

Just out of curiosity, do you think the Tasaday were genuine or a hoax? I know you chose deliberately not to answer this question in the exhibition, but what do you think?

I believe (and this story is about belief) that it was neither; it is right in the middle between genuine and a hoax, between truth and fiction. Most likely the Tasaday were directed a little bit in the 70s – to look perfectly like a stone age tribe...just as they were forced to do that a bit in the 80s, which is  when they were declared a hoax. The hoax theory is wrong, and the real theory is wrong. The media made both.

But how can that be?

I think that the most probable version goes like this: A guy came to the Tasaday and said: ‘I want to help you; you are great, but please, don't use all this modern stuff. Why do you have these earrings and clothes…?’

So they actually existed, but were much more advanced?

They were more advanced; they were in contact with people from the area. But some might still have had leaves around their waists, and the guy might have said – leaves for everyone are much better! I will help you, but you have to do this and that. I'm pretty sure it was like this. But they probably had their own language and they also knew lots of techniques for surviving in the jungle. They were used by others for the production of stories.

Do you regret the rise of technology?

No, I find it great.

Well, what would you do without it as an artist...


But considering all of the side-effects and still unimagined implications in terms of using it for power and...

But my curiosity is greater than my fear.

And what is it that you are most curious about, regarding the future perspective of technology?

Um, good question. (Thinks.) Probably the only fear I have is a combination of too much technology in one hand, state, or company.

So, it should be decentralised.

Yes, that would be better, but that is against the idea of a computer being a machine that can do everything. So it's hard to say how to actually foster that, given the pace of its development. (Points to his telephone.) I really have no idea anymore how this actually works.

(Points to the voice recorder.) Well, I don't even know how this works! But alright, let me ask you what will probably be my last question. What do you consider as being ‘a success’ in your art practice? When do you think that you have ‘done well’? What is success for you? – When you have achieved what you wanted to?

I don't know. I mean, this word ‘success’ is also something that I don't use, but what you probably mean is that something is relevant or becomes relevant, or could possibly contribute to a discourse.

And how to decide whether that has happened – does it come from audience feedback, or something else? What are the criteria for determining if something has or hasn't been relevant?

As I said before, there is this idea of interest and what I want to understand... And in terms of the audience, it's clear that art happens in the public space; it's not only for me. It needs to be published, and success is probably measured by the fact that it either has or hasn’t been published. This whole process. For example, I’ve compared doing a work in a public space with a transplantation.

An organ transplant? Why such a comparison?

Because you’re introducing something new. You’re putting something alien in an existing body and you want it to stay there – so that it doesn't bleed or is rejected. But it also enhances the body – it either aids in its development, or it produces enough conflict so that something has to change.

Transformation Scenario (2018)