Artist Profile: Sascha Pohflepp

The Supertask (Yesterday's Today), installed at LEAP, Berlin, January 2013

Your work displays an interest in the interplay between narrative and identity. How do those notions inform your practice? 

My interest there mainly originates in questions around myth and reality in regard to the development of new technologies, which all tend to have their proper narratives. Any such effort requires the expense of resources and as such has to be 'sold' to society in one way or the other. In the twentieth century this often happened for political ends whereas today arguably narratives of business are more dominant again. Technologies that originated in vast government projects have transitioned into something else. The Golden Institute from 2009 which is set in an alternate history 1980s America was the first project to have the question of the technological narrative at its center and also the first piece in which I worked with an actor. This was a conscious move that aimed to give this fictitious narrative an identity – in this case the strategist of a think-tank which develops and deploys fairly radical energy technologies. The character, Douglas Arnd, is loosely based on historical figures such as Herman Kahn, who was one of the first to point out the importance of narrative in regard to technology. In Forever Future from 2010 he was joined by another character, Robert Walker, who in a sense is the disillusioned customer of the dreams of the 1950s, yet refuses to let go of his dreams of life in space. As a reaction, he constructs a sort of earth-bound spaceship, helping those unfulfilled visions to survive while also hoping that this may be a cure for his own nostalgia for the futures that he never got to live. Both men's identities are probably fairly American, but because of the global proliferation of dreams and realities I do believe that they have a certain universal relevance. I am hoping to add more characters in the future as new angles on these questions may emerge in my work.

What attracts you to the open-ended research project as artwork, as in Yesterday's Today (The Supertask), or The Golden Institute, which you describe as, "A vehicle for an ongoing investigation into questions about energy, visions of utopia and present-day ecological challenges"?

In the case of The Golden Institute the appeal was to create a universe which can engage in feedback loops with reality. Since 2009 I found out that much of it indeed has counterparts in reality. At one point I even had the bizarre pleasure of meeting a Mr Golden who used to be involved in secret US government project almost identical to one my fictions. Most of my current work, however, tends to take a dialogue with experts from other fields as a starting point for an explorative process, and I think here open-endedness may have taken on a slightly different meaning. For instance, in the case of The Supertask, my collaborator Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and I work with the complexity science department at Southampton University, who invited us to look at their questions from our perspective. We were drawn to the use of models and made an assumption about their use as technological lenses on the world and created a sort of hypothesis on it. This hypothesis then adapts as one gains a better of understanding of the subject matter and the open-endedness of the work is partially owed to this process, which is often mirrored by the scientists as they understand what we are getting at with sometimes different means. I would argue that it is in itself highly enabling as an interface in regard to the exchange between such different practices, because – and that's the real hypothesis – ultimately the core interest of many of the individuals working across those fields is strikingly similar. It has more to do with a common wish for erkenntnis than with the different methods that are being employed to obtain it.

How does your writing process affect your aesthetic production? At what point does a project transition from writing to art, if at all, or vice-versa?

Writing definitely plays a key role in my own practice as it seems to help these hypotheses take form. Sometimes it will come before the making of a piece of work and sometimes it comes after, providing a sort of bridge to the next piece. I guess the latter would have to be my preferred mode as it hopefully helps in giving my work and my personal curiosity a certain degree of coherence. However, there are pieces of writing which have not yet moved into the realm of the physical yet and I actually believe that this this is okay – a published essay is in a sense no less of an object than a sculpture. Inversely, reading is equally important and in a similar process I do tend to get an overview of a new field by reading widely until I feel comfortable enough to make a statement with my work.

What do you feel art can learn from science fiction? Your Growth Assembly project especially seems to play with the potentials of science fiction within an arts context. 

The key question behind Growth Assembly, that of a world which is depleted of raw materials, actually emerged when watching the science fiction movie Soylent Green. Science fiction historically has had a degree of a cultural monopoly on asking "what if" which, once you start thinking about it, is almost strange because everybody is equally affected by the constant arrival of the future. Yet, a problem with popular science fiction is that it is often very much locked in the aesthetic of the prop. In Growth Assembly we made a very conscious choice to use water color illustrations to allude to the natural history work of Ernst Haeckel and his contemporaries. Not as an imitation, but rather to create a link between today's promise of engineered life and the belief of a static, machine-like nature that these men thought they were cataloguing, which was of course a reflection of what was going on in the western world at the dawn of industrialization. Doing so opened a brief gap between the cartoony imaginary of DNA, which is also the default in the inherently invisible world of microbiology, and something different. A bit of that then fed back into the scientific narrative itself. Having witnessed this tempts me to make a case for the inversion – that art, design and writing do have a definite impact on science and its fiction at the right moment.

Location: London and Berlin

How long have you been working creatively with technology? How did you start?

When I was much younger I apparently went back and forth being fascinated with photography and computers, especially all things three-dimensional, so I guess it makes sense that I am now working creatively and looking at notions of modeling in science.

Describe your experience with the tools you use. How did you start using them?

The tools tend to vary with the piece and its focus. Being true to my personal history I feel most comfortable with cameras and computers but as installations have since become a part of my practice the cordless drill has begun to feel fairly familiar in my hand as well.

Where did you go to school? What did you study?

I went to school at the Berlin University of the Arts where I mostly worked with installation and film. Later I studied in the Design Interactions department at the Royal College of Art in London.

What traditional media do you use, if any? Do you think your work with traditional media relates to your work with technology?

I tend to use the medium that is most appropriate for the point I am trying to make, so it really depends. Any other way would be ideological.

What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously? Do you think this work relates to your art practice in a significant way?

I am teaching at various Institutions such as the Royal College of Art, have written on art and design and did some design work.

Who are your key artistic influences?

Chris Marker, more recently Chris Burden, Mike Mandel & Larry Sultan and Wolfgang Tillmans, but definitely also friends, mentors and their work.

Have you collaborated with anyone in the art community on a project? With whom, and on what?

A collaborative and explorative process is a significant part of my practice. Most of my collaborators are currently people I met at Royal College of Art such as Daisy Ginsberg and Chris Woebken. Apart from them being long-time friends this is probably owed to a shared focus and a mindset of purposely ignoring perceived boundaries.

Do you read art criticism, philosophy, or critical theory? If so, which authors inspire you?

In the recent past I have been inspired by Georges Bataille and Georges Canguilhem, most recently by Ilya Prigogine.