Emile Gostelie is an artistic researcher working with photography, and a recent graduate of the Fotoacademie in Amsterdam. His project, Laws of the Haystack, was selected for Carte Blanche at Paris Photo 2021, exhibited at Photo Tallinn 2021, and subsequently released as a self-published book. Lucy Rogers spoke to him earlier this year.
Lucy Rogers: In Laws of the Haystack, you describe your first encounter with an ordinary haystack while on holiday in France as the moment which started you on a quest to rediscover its structure. The project then takes on a methodological structure inspired by the Austrian physicist, Ludwig Boltzmann, and his ideas around micro-configurations and probability. How did you first begin to bring these ideas together?
Emile Gostelie: This went through a couple of steps. Boltzmann stated that the small parts in any object move around, forming different configurations. At a certain moment the basic idea just clicked in my head; I could take parts of the haystack and configure these into alternative shapes – in the spirit of Boltzmann.
I then started to experiment with this basic concept in different ways. Firstly, using the programming language Python, I reallocated the individual pixels of the haystack randomly. However, this resulted in grey noise and not in recognizable shapes I was looking to discover. I then started to cut up and assemble the photo in small blocks by hand. This turned out to be very frustrating as the small blocks were difficult to manage and any combination turned into an abstract image. It was only when I played around by hand with much larger fragments that somehow recognizable shapes emerged. So, through trial and error I had found a basic approach that worked for me and that was inspired by science.
During this period, I did additional “research”. How many unique combinations were possible with a given number of parts? What configurations create strong feelings and can I describe those feelings? What had other artists done with the concept of fragmentation and assembly?
As I got more results Ellen Sanders (my tutor at the Fotoacademie in Amsterdam) and I took a hard look at the results and the process. We realised that some images were not in line with the implicit concept. I therefore spent quite some time thinking about the essence of and layers in the work and translating these into explicit rules that describe my working process. This was to protect the integrity of the concept and Boltzmann’s ideas. These working rules became the “laws” and describe the final process. For example: I am not allowed to work towards known shapes, the configurations need to be stumbled upon through play – in line with Boltzmann’s laws that state that every configuration has the same probability of occurring.
The “laws” may sound rigid and clinical, but they are a tongue-in-cheek reference to science and a way to force me to let chance and play happen.
LR: It sounds like your method developed to reflect an intuitive approach to the handling of images.
EG: Yes, you are right in a way. The “laws” may sound rigid and clinical, but they are a tongue-in-cheek reference to science and a way to force me to let chance and play happen. This is slightly different from intuition, but of course overlaps. I am trying to investigate what we cannot see, but what could be. The inspiration from science, combined with the freedom that art provides, stimulates my imagination and intuition.
LR: On first encounter, I was surprised by the size and scale of your book – it’s a hefty publication, quite literally a ‘stack’ of images and although the cover and the light paper are quite delicate, it is bound similarly to a directory. Did you always imagine the project taking the form of a publication?
EG: From the start I wanted to make a “lab report” – a straightforward way to show the results. The book is hefty in order to give you a physical sense of the multitude of possibilities. The paper is light and slightly transparent to communicate the temporality of each configuration. Each configuration is printed at the same size, as each configuration has the same statistical probability of occurring. The index follows the order in which the images were created (per type) – to make you follow the process and as a (absurd) reference to “science”. The blank pages refer to those images that were not shown in the book. We did that for two reasons: to respect those images that have the same statistical right to be seen, but were just too much alike others, and to build in some stepping stones for the reader. The recognition of the types did not happen during an edit, but happened from the start; for me each type is fundamentally different – like types of birds or insects – and requires its own space.
LR: Your response to your findings is often poetic and reflective. It’s a subjective and sometimes even emotional response to what at first glance, could be mistaken for quite a clinical project. I’m thinking of your short introductions to each section, they speak of ‘found species’ and sometimes even painful emotions. What made you decide to include yourself in such a way?
EG: I indeed felt a magic, a connection, while doing this and I wanted to provide this perspective to the reader. In itself this is dangerous and can be paternalistic, and I still wonder if it was the right thing to do. However, I wanted the reader to somehow look over my shoulder and be part of the discovery, the surprise of stumbling upon a shape that one can connect to. The basic narrative which flowed through the project was the investigation of an image using science and art/imagination. I wanted the reader to feel a sense of curiosity; the need to discover where the haystack image is hiding. I also wanted to embrace Boltzmann’s theories around re-configuration as an inspiration for the working approach (hence the formulas). And lastly to reference science by using laws to describe the working process. Slightly absurd, but also to keep me honest and to allow real play, chance, unpredictability (in line with Boltzmann’s statistical approach).
During the process I experienced the magic of discovery, of adventure. Of seeing “nature” at work.
During the process I experienced the magic of discovery, of adventure. Of seeing “nature” at work. I also realised that I developed a strong connection with the process of “stumbling upon and getting to know” a new type. Maybe as a result of these feelings, the process became quite an obsession for me, an obsession that has not ended yet.
LR: Many photographers seem haunted by the idea of a “good photograph”, often focusing on the limitations rather than the possibilities. Your approach seems to ask for a new way of thinking, based on “finding” rather than “creating images”.
EG: One of the layers of the investigation was the multitude and nature of possibilities. I was amazed by the enormous number of alternative configurations. I felt like Darwin on the Galápagos Islands, stumbling across many types (species) and variations. I had never envisioned finding different types before I started, but they just happened. I did not create them, but “found” them.
Of course, one will never know if “finding” or “stumbling upon” a photograph was not really a subconscious act of “creating” (and maybe that is called imagination). In general, I view my photographs more as the start of a process than as an outcome. Almost every time I look at a photo, I feel the tension between what I see and what I know/believe/imagine on the other hand, and I can just feel how my brain is moulding the photo to fit my needs. For me exploring this tension and the process of interpretation and discovery is important. Ideally, I would like to “discover” or find” new worlds – but the reality may well be that I just recycle stuff from my imagination and (collective) memory. I am quite inspired by Sol LeWitt who mentioned that he focuses on the “idea” behind the work (often based on intuition) and then lets the creative process work as mechanically as possible, often outsourcing this to others.
LR: You studied physics before turning to photography?
EG: I did indeed once study physics. When I was very young, I dreamt of becoming the next Heisenberg or Einstein. Clearly lacking some of the required skills I ended up doing my master’s in engineering. But the artistic process is a great alternative way to do research. I call myself an artistic researcher, rather than an artist.
LR: I also want to pick up on the point about recognisable forms. Though sculpture need not be functional as such, I wondered how you decided on your criteria and if it connects to architecture?
When I was very young, I dreamt of becoming the next Heisenberg or Einstein. Clearly lacking some of the required skills I ended up doing my master’s in engineering. But the artistic process is a great alternative way to do research. I call myself an artistic researcher, rather than an artist.
EG: The laws required the selected configurations to be “structures” of some kind. This was just to force some limitation – and I am indeed fascinated by architecture! I spent a lot of time thinking, can one really avoid aesthetics? So I made an effort to find research on what we as humans find attractive to look at in landscapes and forms. And more importantly, why? What is the reward system that generates that fuzzy feeling – not unlike the reward system we experience when we eat sugar. I have not found a lot of meaningful research on this. Why do we like sublime pictures of large mountains? Why do we all like high trees on an empty plain? Is it because we recognise the shape – is recognition actually the criteria? Or are there biological markers for survival that our mind needs to see? Or is it when our collective (and culturally) defined memory is triggered? I don’t know but if one defines aesthetics broadly, I think, it is almost impossible to avoid this as an implicit or subconscious criteria. I would actually like to do some real research into this, possibly with neuroscientists and biologists. Beauty must have a function.
LR: There is something deeply satisfying in certain types of images. I wonder how universal this is or how much it is down to the individual? Some people find minimalist shapes and forms particularly satisfying. It’s interesting you should compare it to sugar – almost like visual ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response). But maybe I’m taking it a step too far…
EG: I have the same. I really love looking at minimalist shapes, but I can’t really explain why I get that “delicious” feeling. Nature, nurture…?
LR: The ‘haystack’ images exist in multiple forms, as grids or collage, the photograph of the collage and the ‘original’ photograph. I’ve always been interested in photographs of photographs and I wonder, where does the work begin and end for you?
EG: I don’t have the grids anymore, but I could always make them again. Where did it start? Where does it end? I am now making 3D structures by hand, based on the photos from the book (as if I found the book) and will then re-photograph these. I have never really exhibited the grids, but I have used a large grid, which I changed on an hourly basis, during an expo.
LR: There seems to me also a question of language in your work; the universal language of science and language as signs, shapes and symbols, but also the language of images. I’m thinking of the German ‘Bildsprache’ – the idea that photography is itself a language, which has its own grammar.
I am still looking for that which I saw in that original picture, and I am starting to realise that this search may never end.
EG: I absolutely “suffer” from “seeing” (hidden) temples, portals, tells and traces in a lot of imagery. I guess this is strongly influenced by upbringing and the personal library of visual memories. Bildsprache is an interesting thought, I like that: a “hidden” language of codes and signs.
Most of the shapes reference to classical shapes (temples, obelisks, mountains, etc.). Is this my subconscious intuition at work, collective memory? If someone from another cultural background would have done this, would the same shapes and types occur?
LR: The rules make the experiment theoretically repeatable, yet without the original image, the grids would be impossible to reconstruct. In the spirit of Sol LeWitt, who wrote instructions for others to follow, how do you feel about others responding to the works?
EG: I would love it if others would be inspired enough to create their own experiments. Even with the original photo – I would be very interested in potentially different outcomes! I am trying to do this myself in a way, by assuming that I found my book and trying to start from there. By photographing images from the book and again deconstructing and assembling these, for example. Or by creating 3D “models” based on the images from the book, deconstructing and assembling these and photographing them again.
I am still looking for that which I saw in that original picture, and I am starting to realise that this search may never end.