joan fontcuberta

A.D. Coleman: What are you doing here in the United States?

Joan Fontcuberta: I'm mainly here as a visiting artist and professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for the fall semester. It's been a kind of pretext to develop other activities. I'm working on my own stuff together with teaching, travelling, and planning other projects. Let's say that a multidisciplinary approach has brought me here.

Coleman: What are your current photographic projects? You've mentioned you're doing some work on the computer, for example.

Fontcuberta: Well, in fact, being in Chicago, taking advantage of the facilities that they have at the Art Institute, a wide range of new ideas came to my mind. In concrete terms, I'm using computers to go on with the project of the fantastic animals that was already presented here in New York at the Museum of Modern Art in 1988. In fact, this is a switch in the project. The project was conceptually finished at that point, even a little earlier — in 1987 when it was first presented at the Folkwang Museum in Essen.

Coleman: This is the project called "Dr. Ameisenhaufen's Fauna"?

Fontcuberta: Yes. Until now, all the animals were actually dissected by a professional taxidermist. This means that these animals actually exist. They are not alive but I have all of them at home scaring my visitors. Since the exhibition is still circulating in different cities — there's even a tour for the United States, and we're going to present it in Japan in two different locations; also, there will be a new version of the book published in Japan — we have been requested to produce new "monsters" for each new location. We do that corresponding to the legends, traditions, and superstitions of the place. For instance, in the springtime the exhibit will be presented in Montpelier in southern France, so we'll do something related to the Provençal mythology from the Middle Ages. Then it's going to Japan, so we'll take the Japanese mythology from the northern islands to create a dragon, or whatever.
I repeat, the project is conceptually over, but we're still going on with adding new animals. I've seen that working with computer imaging is an interesting switch because until now we've been working with a kind of collage method, like taking a snake body and adding some chicken legs. It's an assemblage. But with computers, we can shape nonexisting forms like aliens or characters taken from science fiction. This could be an interesting switch, an interesting improvement, or at least it could complete the scope of our project.

Coleman: You say "we" and "our" . . .

Fontcuberta: It's because Fauna is teamwork. I've been working with a friend, Pere Formiguera, who is writing the text for that project.

Coleman: You consider all of this to be part of one larger project?

Fontcuberta: Yes, it's a kind of multimedia project that basically relies on photography and discusses the issue of authenticity in photography. It also includes text, videotapes, objects, and sound. The narrative dimension is very important. There's a literary value that for us is something also to be considered. My friend and I are both co-authors; technically, I do all the visual parts, for instance, taking care of a falsified or fake X-ray or a motion picture, and he's dealing with the writing.

Coleman: How did you meet your collaborator?

Fontcuberta: Well, we attended the same school when we were children. We met later because he is two years older than I, so we were not in the same class. But he is also a photographer and we met in the early seventies and became very good friends, very close friends. This is the first collaborative project we've done together.

Coleman: This really started with the project that resulted in the book "Dr. Ameisenhaufen's Fauna"?

Fontcuberta: There's an earlier project: the book Herbarium, which anticipated what Fauna was going to be. There was a publisher in Barcelona who wanted to publish a portfolio with Herbarium plates, and I requested Pere Formiguera to write an introduction to that portfolio. He avoided a critical analysis; instead, he wrote a kind of short tale in which these strange flower arrangements, these nonexistent plants, were coherent in the context of a narrative discourse in that he invented some situations that could explain, in a kind of literary, fictional way, why these plants came to exist. This went so well that we thought another project would be an interesting initiative for both of us. Since we already did that with plants, we thought the coherent way to go on was with animals — so we were encompassing all the different disciplines of the world. Maybe the third one will deal with the geological and cover it. That's how we got to the idea of producing the project on nonexisting animals.

Coleman: If what you're doing now collaboratively is extending the Fauna project with the computer work, do you have other photographic projects you're working on independently?

Fontcuberta: Yes. In fact, I always deal with several projects simultaneously. As I mentioned, Fauna is already a project that I consider conceptually complete. Right now I'm dealing with two other projects. One is almost done: The Frottogram Series. That's f-r-o-t-t-o, from frottage. I took the frottage method from the German Dadaist painter Max Ernst and then transferred that to photography. This means that technically, I'm photographing any kind of object — it could be a plant, an animal, my body, whatever — using Polaroid positive-negative film, which means that after shooting I have an immediate result. And I take the wet negative and rub it against the actual object, the actual model. This means the negative gets damaged in that rubbing, or it gets scratched; for instance, I can photograph a cactus, or my beard, and then scratch the negative against the superficial structure of those objects.
The picture that results from the printing of those negatives not only presents the visual appearance of the objects but also a kind of physical dimension. Because, for instance, the spines could hurt, produce scars, more or less deeply, gently or violently; the process implies the action, the gesture, the pulsant energy. It could be very soft or very aggressive: I can touch the object very lightly, or I can really hit the object. So it's a way of expanding the information the photograph can carry.
We photographers are usually considered outsiders — people who experience the world from a distance, without any intervention or contact. With my method, I introduce some sensuality because you must not only see but go and touch. You must really be very close to the object, experience metaphysically the object. Sometimes there is even a kind of energy transmission. For instance, I did a long series on cacti and sometimes I got scarred, some blood from my own body spotted the negative, or elements from the cactus — dust, spider webs, or small insects that are usually on the objects I photograph — got stuck on the negative. This means that the final image is not only a visual recording of the object but somehow the object, or fragments of the object, help or collaborate in the image-making.
To me, this also involves different chapters from art history. I mentioned the frottage from Dadaism, which was an interest in letting nature be depicted by itself, by its own structural qualities; it corresponds to automatic writing — it's a kind of automatic drawing. With the frottograms I also involve the idea of gestural art and the idea of materic art — I don't know if you say that in English, "arte materico," like Tapies, for instance: an art concerned with the very deep nature of matter itself. Usually, photography is merely transparent, a neutral window between reality and its image. But with this method it's like the window glass is broken and you realize that there was a window. Because the negative is providing its own image, it's making evident that there's also a thickness there, a kind of nature that is able to collaborate in the final picture. Somehow this is related to the idea of noise. Usually, in conventional photography, scratches, spots, and dust are a kind of noise . . .

Coleman: You mean noise in a communications-theory sense?

Fontcuberta: Yes, as in cybernetics theory. I'm taking advantage of noise somehow. What we usually avoid is, in this process, one of my main concerns, one of the elements that help me produce a picture. In this regard it is related to the Frottograms.
Another project, which is really my current work, is tentatively called "The Pencil of Nature." This is of course a parody of Fox-Talbot's book published, I believe, in 1844. There was the assumption that photography was a kind of innocent device that could transfer organic forms of the physical world onto paper. This project consists of recycling different kinds of objects that I find in stores — wallpaper, wrapping paper, shirts, dishes, plates, anything that incorporates floral representations for decorative purposes, cartons, fans, anything decorated with forms taken from nature. I coat these objects with a light-sensitive emulsion — cyanotype, silver process, whatever — and I produce a photogram on those objects. So my work consists of an intervention that will reflect on the nature of how this representation has been done, because I'm using similar objects to those that are depicted in the wallpaper or wrapping paper. For instance, I take wallpaper with roses or birds that is coated with emulsion and match the formal patterns with actual objects — stuffed birds or real flowers. So what is happening is that these surfaces become absolutely black, except for the shadows that the actual objects produce, and through those shadows we still see little bits of the patterns of drawn or painted images. It's a way of producing a vast dialogue between nature and culture, between representation and a kind of straight way of depicting objects by the action of light.
To put this in semiotic terms, I tend to produce a confrontation between signs of different nature: on one hand, the symbol that is artificially created and corresponds to a cultural convention; on the other, the index that keeps a physical connection with the object it refers to and that is the result of a cause-effect relationship.

Coleman: And how is it evolving?

Fontcuberta: I'm currently expanding that project to use any object that I can find in a museum shop — posters, shopping bags, shirts, or whatever — that is decorated with reproductions of paintings from their collection, usually, impres-sionist paintings — for instance, Van Gogh, Monet, Cézanne, Renoir — that deal with landscape and still life, including fruit and flowers. I'm taking those posters, which are somehow objects because they're reproductions of images that sell as objects that are decorative in another context — a private home or whatever — and I'm trying to find the same fruit or the same flowers and, again, match these two elements and produce this kind of photogram confronting the painted element with the shadow produced by light.
I'm playing here with a small irony in the way I title these pieces, for instance, "Photogram On a Van Gogh Original Reproduction." It introduces Benjamin's idea of how we can restore the aura to a reproduction. The reproduction lacks aura because it's a multiple, a piece from a series. But from the moment I take a reproduction and use it as an object myself, it regains its aura.
This, to me, is quite sarcastic about all this post-structuralist theory of the original and the reproduction, and works that refer to other works, pictures that refer to other pictures.

Coleman: Do you agree with Benjamin? Because it's my belief that "aura" is not something that is, in any sense, inherent in certain kinds of objects; it's a projection that we make. And I find that people can become very nostalgic about, and treat as sacred relics, yellowed newspaper clippings, for example, which they know exist or existed in multiples. People become attached to the formica dinette sets that used to be in their parents' kitchens, of which there were millions. And so it seems to me that human beings are capable of "auratizing" any object at all. It doesn't matter whether it's a single handmade object or a multiple — it's a human tendency.

Fontcuberta: I agree with the existence of an aura, and maybe we could relate that to the distinction that Roland Barthes drew between the studium and the punctum. In fact, what I disagree with Benjamin about is the explanation he provides to make a distinction between originals with aura and reproductions without aura. This theory relies on the idea of a reproduction by mechanical means.
To me, the important thing is not how the reproduction is done but how the producer, artist, or image-maker decides what's an original and what's a reproduction. For instance, in photography the negative may be the only "original," but we don't ever consider the negative an original. This means that what, for the photographer, constitutes an original, could be the first print or the print that fulfills in the darkroom the photographer's expectations or needs, and maybe other prints will follow the model of this "original" print. This means that, even having the capacity, technically, of reproducing and multiplying a number of copies, the photographer can decide that one of these many copies is the original and the other ones are reproductions or copies. So, to me, the question relies on the author's position, not on the technical process of reproduction.

Coleman: Does this mean that you disagree also with the idea Benjamin and other people have propounded that the notion of authorship is in fact outdated and irrelevant, and that there is no such thing as authorship — in the sense of the individual creator?

Fontcuberta: That's a fashionable statement, but I don't agree with that completely. Because even artists or intellectuals claiming and supporting that theory would like to be acknowledged for having this theory. So it's a kind of contradiction. If you want to abolish, say, the copyright idea, but if in behaving like that you want to be credited for that idea . . .

Coleman: If you want to be credited for introducing the idea that ideas have no introducers . . .

Fontcuberta: . . . that's a kind of contradiction. It's interesting, but it's absurd in itself. To me, the important point is that those attitudes have raised an important debate on the issue of the property of ideas, on the issue of whom theories belong to, which is, I believe, a very contemporary issue.

Coleman: Although there's a lot of theorizing in your work, or a lot of theoretical background to your work, and a great deal of awareness of history and theory in photography, there's also a lot of wit and humor, absurdity and play. What do you see as the function of humor in your work? Why have you gone down that path so consistently?

Fontcuberta: Well, I consider myself a conceptual artist using photography, and my critique of traditional historical conceptual art is that it is absolutely boring. The problem is that we tend to confuse or identify serious with boring. In fact, I think that art should be appealing and intelligent, make people think and enjoy at the same time. As I mentioned, I think that good art pieces should be appealing, attract the audience's attention. This means that in my own work, irony and sarcasm are important strategies — especially irony, which is said to be part of the Mediter-ranean classic heritage. The Catalan architect Gaudí has stated that irony was one of the traits of Mediterranean culture. I agree with that. Irony or humor is the gentle facade for a very deep criticism, making or assessing important statements that are very strong and not very pleasant, but in a diplomatic fashion.

Coleman: In the recent issue of European Photo-graphy there are two pages of extracts from the visitor's book at a gallery where the Fauna project was being presented, which were quite wonderful to read — because it has everything, from people who understand that it is a farce and appreciate the satire and the humor of it, to people who understand it's a farce and are angry at you for trying to fool them, to people who believe it and are angry, to people who believe it and are delighted. This kind of range of response — what does this mean to you? Does any of that bother you? Does it bother you that people believe these pictures? Does it bother you that people don't believe these pictures in some cases, or see through them? What edge are you walking there?

Fontcuberta: I believe all these reactions could be predictable. In fact, the only one which amazed and surprised me was that of the visitors who thought this was effectively a farce but that the museum didn't realize that, so they tried to warn the museum, saying, "Hey!" . . .

Coleman: "Don't be taken in by these charlatans."

Fontcuberta: Exactly. "You should take care with these guys, they're trying to tease you. I'm very open-minded and alert, with a lot of knowledge about the subject, and I realize this cannot be right. Museum staff, be careful next time because it's just a fake!" So there are people who want to warn the museum administration because they believe the animals are faked but that the character [Dr. Ameisenhaufen] really exists.

Coleman: What does that name mean, by the way?

Fontcuberta: It's another joke, the name of my friend Formiguera means, in Catalan, "anthill." In German, "Ameisenhaufen" is also "anthill." His partner, the photographer, is called "Hans von Kubert," which is phonetically the translation of my name: "Hans" is "Joan" and "von Kubert" is "Fontcuberta." There are a lot of small jokes and references dealing with the art scene, ourselves, and our environment.

Coleman: What is your background? Are you trained as a photographer?

Fontcuberta: I'm self-taught in photography. I wasn't trained in fine arts but studied communications. In Spain, this means information theory, history of media, semiotics, sociology, psychology, a kind of humanistic approach to mass culture. Maybe this explains my deep concern about information. Photography has been, at least until now, a discipline that involves ontology — the issue of truth rather than dealing in the field of aesthetics — and the issue of beauty. I don't know what all this radical and dramatic change with digital images will produce in the future. But right now, looking at a photograph, we still experience a sense of truth, and I believe that all my work has been a fight against this convention. This has been done as a critique of representation, which means that the semiotic approach for me has been very important. I would like to emphasize the fact that it's important to me; I don't expect that, after my works are accomplished, this becomes an important element for the audience. For my creative process I need to follow a very clear theoretical outline. This helps me to produce some visual works that I consider later to be autonomous, able to stimulate other kinds of readings in which the viewers will project their own backgrounds, cultures, and imaginations.

Coleman: How do you balance your own activities as a photographer, teacher, critic, historian, curator?

Fontcuberta: In the beginning my time was divided into three sections — as a photographer; as a critic, writer, and curator; and as a teacher. From 1979 to 1986 I was a professor at the at the University of Barcelona, School of Fine Arts. The reasons for this division lie in the special situation of photography in Spain in the seventies.
I always believed that being a photographer in Spain in the seventies was like writing letters in a country in which there was no postal system and that we photographers should create our own infrastructure; otherwise it was like speaking in a desert. So some few people concerned with that lack of infra-structure did very diverse activities in different fields — as you mentioned, in criticism, in historical research, and so on.
Now I tend to concentrate more and more on my own work for several reasons. first, because right now there's another generation of graduate students who are able to accomplish all of those functions, and I think they are maybe better trained, they have more capacity; another reason is that, after a few years, I became very successful with exhibitions and projects and I can now earn my living just with my own work. This is not pushing me into teaching as a need for my financial survival. So the combination of these elements, together with the fact that, little by little, the efforts in the past years, by a group of very concerned photographers, are now showing some results. In Spain we now have more galleries, collectors, and publications that exist on their own. This means we can now come back to our prime function of being image-makers.

Text: © Copyright, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. and the authors.