That big photo in the middle is a sample of speed. It was mixed with water and then dropped from a pipette onto an exposed film negative. It was then allowed to react with the light-sensitive silver halide particles to create a visual impression of its own chemical makeup. These almost photos were made by the Berlin artist Sarah Schoenfeld, who says she's been interested in depicting the undepictable since she was a child. “First I wanted to be a musician,” she told me over the phone. “But then I became more interested in how things look. Now I'm always looking for ways to make the internal, visual.”
These are lofty words, but then how do you render a narcotic event visually, without resorting to tacky drawings? Looking at it this way, her drug series, All You Can Feel, nails the line between artistic depiction and scientific analysis, while somehow capturing something of the drug's psychological effect. So I called Sarah up to say "well done" and ask how she got the feelings so right.
VICE: Hi, Sarah. That image of speed somehow looks the way speed feels. How did you do that?
Sarah Schoenfeld: Well, I didn't think that when I first produced the work, but after I published the book (also called All You Can Feel) a lot of people said yes, this is how it feels. And what was really interesting is that I got a call from a drug rehabilitation centre and they said that they had run their own little experiment. Without explaining the images, they had shown the book to their patients and asked them to pick a favourite. Every single one of them chose their drug of dependence, with 100 percent accuracy. Even the secretary who only ever drank coffee chose caffeine.
Wow. So how do you explain that?
Well if I had to say, maybe it's that our understanding of reality is already shaped by our technology. We have these feelings, but don't realise that they're created by the things around us. So we think our feelings are our own, but here we recognise where those feelings came from. But I don't know. I also like the idea that it's not explainable.
Do you get asked to explain that a lot? Your answer felt suspiciously accurate.
No, most media people just ask where I got the drugs. And it's like come on. I live in Berlin, I just buy them. Do we need to talk about it? Because you know, LSD was legal until everyone started talking about it.
Do you take drugs yourself?
Yeah, sure, but something I also learned through this is that you don't need to. We have these abilities and chemicals within us. It's just consumerism that says you need to buy something to feel this way.
Is that an advertisement for meditation?
Yes, but then I also just like to work. I think working can create a high.
But have you taken drugs since you did this project?
Sarah's exhibition in Berlin
Do you have a favourite image?
I don't have a favourite image. In the beginning it was ketamine, because the effect wasn't predictable at all. It's like this 80s airbrush flower, with worms in the middle. But now, I don't know. I can't choose.
Talk me through how you came up with this technique. Did you invent it?
I think so. I haven't heard of anyone else who has done it. It happened because I was always working with negatives, because my work has always been in photography. I wanted to look at how drugs react with things and people, but at first I thought, Nah, this idea is too simple. But then it worked and I was really excited. I wasn't even doing it very well. At first I didn't clean the negatives and they had dust all over them. But then I started being more careful. I used alcohol sometimes with the drugs instead, if water didn't dissolve them. And then I experimented leaving them to dry on the negative for different lengths of time. Usually it's about a week, but the chemicals continue reacting. The same drug looks different after a month than a week.
Did all the images look good?
No, there were probably five that didn't look like anything. I didn't use THC for example, because it didn't make a good effect.
So what have you learned from this?
It's really reinforced everything I've thought about images. We're totally into images. They make us able to control and manipulate ideas, and provide a type of power over reality. It's like images let us control something defused and indescribable.
So now you've harnessed that power, are you feeling pressure to do a follow-up?
Well yes, I do feel like this has been this big stone and it's like, where to from here? But my friend says the artistic process just goes on and on, and sometimes things come out. I'll just keep asking the same questions—what is magic? How do we perceive reality? And how can I make something internal, visual?
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