What is an image today?
Eugenie Shinkle in conversation with Tobias Kappel

Tobias Kappel is a Berlin-based artist whose practice explores the translation processes between various image forms. As well as photographs, Kappel works with screen grabs, scans, and photocopies, often taking images through several stages of reproduction and transformation. Along with her role as co-editor of C4, Eugenie Shinkle has a long-standing artistic practice that explores many of the same themes. We spoke online and in-person, over an extended period between May 2022 and July 2023. 

Eugenie Shinkle: You work with photocopies, but you also make digitally-based work too, working with digital glitching and using your website as a ‘medium’. What’s the relationship between these two elements of your practice? It seems like they are all parts of a wider ecosystem of work exploring production, translation and reproduction.

Tobias Kappel: In a way it’s all inter-related, of course, although I created the website some years ago and at the time it was important for me to mediate a sense of Gleichzeitigkeit (the concurrence of things). My website shows a broader spectrum of my work and thoughts on images, image-making and ‘imageness’. It features quite a few single images (works), mostly from the time after my graduation when I felt a strong desire to work against many prevalent tendencies in so-called ‘photoland’. So many are results of questions that I had about photography per se, or the processes behind currents of it as well as explorations of the means of my praxis. The website was  meant  to be a tool, a showcase so to speak, that should also be about the ‘materiality’ of my works and digital images. On a large high-resolution screen, for example, you can almost see the pixels, while on a smaller device the images  appear more in relation to each other, like in a Petersburger hang in a museum or gallery space. And on a mid-size device, like an iPad, it offers the greatest usability as you can easily flip it according to the image orientation (vertical/horizontal). In retrospect, I usually relate to this phase – of which the website probably marks the endpoint – as ‘in-between’. 

Photography has become one of the most democratic mediums, but still misses so many opportunities to be freer and something of its own. 

Today, I am more concerned with two tendencies in my work: the copy/scan works and something I would refer to as ‘painted pictures’. Both strands ultimately deal with the phenomenon of the in-between as a characteristic of our time (possibly even as the most striking phenomenon my generation has to deal with and doesn’t even know it) as well as the translation processes that are its consequence. In that sense you are absolutely right, spotting my ecosystem and its different layers. In my own words I would probably say that photography, painting, objecthood and the question ‘What is an image today?’ are the  underlying premises of my practice.

ES: I’m very interested in this notion of the ‘in between’ that you discuss, and how it relates to ideas around materiality. The distinction between the digital image as something with no physical form, and the ‘real’ image as an object in the world seems like a natural one, but it isn’t. In fact it’s been imposed by photographic theory and by the art world as a way of setting boundaries between particular kinds of practice, and certain kinds of objects. It’s quite puzzling that such an unnatural division should be so persistent. The photographer’s workflow, for instance, can no longer easily be divided into digital and physical/analog processes – most photographers will move back and forth between the two, although that ‘movement between’ isn’t necessarily foregrounded as part of the work. I’m assuming that such movement is an important part of your practice? 

TK: Yes indeed! You’ve made a good point here by referring to the difference between the digital image as a file and the physical presence of the work in print, and the back-and-forth movement between digital and analog in the photographer’s/artist’s workflow. This ‘in-between’ is really an important part of my practice, but also the feeling of being lost in translation. At the end of the day, all of what we just pointed out are hidden forms of translation (Übersetzungsprozesse) that ultimately lead to abstraction based on grids (or underlying systems of order, structures). This has always been the case in the world we live in and how we have understood it as humans, but especially in the printing processes of silkscreen, photocopy, etc. The grid, for example, served in art and later in the media to transfer an image or a three-dimensional view into another medium. The subdivision of the surface into smaller units enables the enlargement or translation. The grid has been a persistent form in both mathematics and the arts for millennia – Carsten Nicolai’s book Grid Index assembles historical forms of the grid that can be traced all the way back to Plato.

And the moment photography went digital was so crucial. I would argue that it was when the first digital imaging techniques emerged that were able to store, convert, and transform a moment of reality into ones and zeros that perhaps we should have coined a different term and theory for it. But photography remained and became such a theoretical behemoth that also too often felt like a burden. All of this has helped to create the boundaries you mention, and furthermore made it so difficult to be accepted in the arts. Photography has since become one of the most democratic mediums, but still misses so many opportunities to be freer and something of its own. 

ES: Seeing your work displayed in a gallery brought to mind a couple of further questions about presentation. Is the transformation of the image by the support/surface (for instance, the reproduction of a digital work as a photocopy, or the display of a photocopy on a screen) an important consideration for you? There’s something really interesting going on in your images in relation to legacy media forms, and the way that the surface of the photocopy (particularly the very abstract way of working that you have) emulates the pattern of electrons on an old cathode-ray monitor. It also suggests that your website isn’t simply a site for archiving and displaying your work, as it is for many photographic artists, but that it’s actually a ‘medium’? Is this a good way of thinking about it?

TK: In the exhibition at Frontviews you refer to, I showed inkjet prints, photocopies and a looped video. Although my intention at the time was to present something that felt more like an open sketchbook – so I wouldn’t even consider most of the  works finished – it clearly presented some ideas on the transformation of the image material through the support/surface as a key element for me. These shifts, offered in the various happy endings of my images/works, define many of the thought processes I mentioned earlier. For example, the work below was presented as an object in a plexiglass box that showed the same image on both sides, only flipped. Its title, imagine, refers to the moment in which the viewer would interpret it. The image is simply an iPhone snapshot of a corner in a museum. It was only as a photocopy that it came to life and can now function as a seascape (like a bootleg Sugimoto *haha) or a sunset, or a place above the clouds, like heaven. To me, it actually means a lot how this tiny change made this image, which, before, was basically nothing worth looking at. That is where another important part of my practice came into play, deriving images from my own perception. It’s a key element of many painters’ practice, sometimes also photographers, to sort of distill works from their own ways of seeing . ‘autumn_2020’ is another example of this. It came about during an autumn walk where I noticed that whenever my gaze stopped for a moment on the many coloured leaves and then moved on,  an ‘after-image’/ Nachbild emerged. This observation of my own perception thus led to the approach for this ultimately abstract image.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call my website a medium – though the idea was there when I thought about it and set it up. I really appreciate your perspective, even if the result for me is nothing more than an experiment or a kind of unfinished business. It urgently needs an update to be clearer, and a person with programming skills to really break through the limits that all content management systems set for their users for ‘safer use’. But I do wonder why more artists aren’t moving towards websites that have a chance to become something else, a ‘medium’ in their own right, as you so aptly put it.

ES: I like the idea of a reproduction process – the photocopy, in your example – ‘bringing an image to life’, turning it into something worth looking at and thinking about. What you suggest here is something I’ve always believed: that the image, at the point when it is created, is really only the starting point on a journey that can consist of many transformations and combinations. This is the way I’ve always treated photographs in my own practice – as raw material for larger assemblages. In the piece shown below (Ideal City/Somebody Else’s Landscape), I’ve rebuilt sections of four paintings by WJM Turner, using contact prints of images I shot when I first moved to London in 1998. Coming from Canada, I found the city very claustrophobic, and so I was aiming my camera mostly at walls or at the ground. 

You’ve also drawn attention to a very subtle but important point about the nature of translation: ‘at the end of the day, all of what we just pointed out are hidden forms of translation (Übersetzungsprozesse) that ultimately lead to abstraction based on grids (or underlying systems of order, structures).’ Of course, any image is an abstraction from reality, although in most cases (certainly in conventional definitions of the photograph as a document) the ‘reality effect’ of the image overrides this abstraction, so that the process itself is not the focus of the viewer’s attention. In one sense, then, the work you are doing is pointing out the technical/conceptual limits of all photographic images, digital or analogue.

The idea of the website as a medium is also a really interesting one – especially now, when the artist website is often more of a sales and advertising platform than a creative medium. It got me thinking about the artistic duo JODI who were one of the first (beginning in the 90s) to use the web as an artistic medium, rather than simply a platform for displaying work. They created pieces out of mistakes in code, for instance, or introduced glitches and mods into popular video games to make them unplayable, so your attention was always drawn, as a viewer or user of their work, to the limits of the medium, the points where it failed. There’s an affinity with your practice here, in the sense that you’re not using technology to ‘enhance’ the aesthetic power of your images, but more conceptually, as you say, to produce work that draws our attention to the process and nature of reproduction. 

TK: Many of my pieces touch on themes of transformation and recontextualization. What I found striking in the copyworks shown below is the ‘new’ perspective on the materiality of these works. Isn’t it interesting how this line that is created during the scan in image 2 and image 3 becomes its own element in the aesthetics of the work? Or the slight blur in image 4. And then those rich textures in images 1 and 5? I would love to touch/feel them on my screen. This tells me that I really need to find ways to produce large prints based on these files maybe on a canvas, because I see these works as paintings. 

ES: I use high resolution scanning a lot in my own work. I love the new dimensions of perception that it introduces into an image. The work below, from my ongoing project Morphogenesis, started with scans from negatives shot on film, from which I made low-quality prints on a laser printer. I then cut these prints up and reassembled them into crystalline-based structures using archival adhesive tape. The resulting ‘built’ pieces were then scanned at a super high resolution, and a final set of images were made by simply grabbing rectangular selections from the resulting (very large) files. I love what’s going on in these works: details of the original photograph that are revealed by extreme enlargement, and artefacts of the reproduction process too, the way that things like the serrated edges of the tape, and the rough texture of the paper I used for the copies become part of the structure of the image itself. For me, works such as these are not about ‘seeing’ an image in the normal way – unpacking its meaning on the basis of what it signifies – they’re about creating a field of perception that invites the viewer to question the very nature of the image.

TK7 2- 2-20220626_001_vue-4800-06-2.jpg is a preview that just popped up briefly on my computer screen while scanning. But isn’t it absolutely crazy and beautiful at the same time, how this state ‘sleeps‘ for itself as a potential in the printed image and only the computer has the possibility to present it to us? I don’t know, but for me there is something there, like the moment in a darkroom when you witness when an image manifests itself. I found it super interesting! The same goes for 3-20220626_001_vue-4800-4_EDIT-1.jpg. Here Photoshop presents us with an abstract image that is probably due to a display error. Again, I’m madly in love with it.

ES: These sleeping images only emerge in specific encounters with (a) technology – they’re latent images, very much native to the machine, very much dependent on sets of circumstances that users can’t predict or control. 

TK: I first encountered this phenomenon while quickly flipping through a collection of image files on my MacBook. Since then it has stuck with me and I want to work with these errors, make them visible and eventually turn them into works for themselves. I see them as abstract works (like abstract paintings), but isn’t that too easy? Do I have to undergo a more time consuming/thoughtful process, like a painter for example? I was in a painting class last year and many fellow students didn’t understand my intentions with this image material. I was wondering why as we are living in this ‘big flat now‘, a term that I first became acquainted with through the 032c Issue 34 cover dossier that presents a guide to the flattened creative landscape of the present day, where everything can be anything at the same time. Based on this paradigm, I would say it’s fair enough to state that in the arts, the boundaries between the mediums are melting away. Aren’t they?

In Scan-1 complete (aggression) I’m trying to give a broader idea of how I look at these works/files. The same file looks totally different when you look at it with different software. And one big question I can’t answer so far is: Is it just something like a halftone effect (raster effect), similar to a moiré? I’m sure it’s not that far-fetched and somehow related, but who could explain it to me? Probably some mathematician or physicist knows the answer to my question. I’m still thinking about the right way to present them as abstract works.

I think it will be interesting to see how some of these artefacts will be remembered, because they will become invisible again eventually  as the resolution of screens improves.

ES: I’m fascinated by the possibility of taking these glitches and other effects that ‘sleep’ within the printed image (I love that idea, of a sleeping glitch), and making them into works for themselves. Is it too easy?  … I suppose this is a bigger question about what you feel obliged, as an artist, to contribute to the making of the work. In the context of a painting class I can understand why it might not feel like enough just to single out something that’s normally overlooked in a process of reproduction, and to grant that the status of an image. But (sidestepping all the obvious comparisons to someone like Duchamp, and the idea of the artist as one who simply ‘designates’ certain things to be art) having the idea to reproduce this glitch is only the very first stage of the process. All of our discussion so far has been circling around the idea of the materiality of ‘dematerialized’ images, so it seems to me that the decision to make these things into ‘paintings’, or something like paintings, is just the beginning of the journey. I mean, they have no material existence (yet) so that decision of how to make them into a material image – in other words, what do you choose as a substrate – is huge. That’s the point where you have to start to think like a painter – or at least, you have to think about the consequences of shifting them from their native format into a new format. It’s not just a matter of printing them out and you’re done. 

I’ve been re-reading a really interesting philosopher called Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe. In his book Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime, which was published in 1996, he discusses the difference between paintings and screens. He argues that painting gives us the ‘essence’ of the represented objects as ‘manipulated substance’ – in other words, the essence of the object re-emerges in a different form when it’s rendered in paint – and goes on to say that a screen can’t do this. The screen, as he claims, has no relationship to the image it contains, because it doesn’t have any kind of material continuity with it, so it has no way of ‘containing’ the essence of an object in the same way that painting does. This has significant implications for the imagery you’re working with, which has a very different nature – these glitchy things you’re showing me are ‘native’ to the screen, that’s where they originate – so transferring them into a different medium becomes a matter of working out how to re-present them while remaining true to their essence (if you don’t want it to become an aesthetic game). 

TK: I am aware of this tipping point, that is, from the digital (file) to the object (e.g. print), and have not yet found an attitude towards it. I still move very much in the moment of wanting to understand. It’s pixels vs. dots, or you could think of it as a battle of grids.

ES: Even though the end results are quite different, our processes are very similar: the preoccupation with movement or translation from one state to another, the treatment of the single image as part of a larger constellation, and the incorporation of chance into our practice – particularly the ‘latent’ artefacts brought to light by digital and analog forms of reproduction. The dynamic is a very different one from conventional photography, which regards the world ‘out there’ as source material, and the camera as a tool for reproducing it. There’s an element of control in the latter kind of practice that I think both of us are happy to surrender. 

TK: Thank you for putting it so nicely! I don’t think there is much to add except that I think it will be interesting to see how some of these artefacts will be remembered, because they will become invisible again eventually  as the resolution of screens improves. Plus, ‘conventional photography‘ as you rightly described, is entering an interesting phase as the majority of people really understand that the filtered perception of the world that we get through our technological devices has very little to do with reality as we experience it.  The way we navigate aesthetics as a consequence offers a tremendous chance to engage in an open discussion of how we define anything image-related other than ‘photography’.

All Rights Reserved – Images and Text © Tobias Kappel and Eugenie Shinkle