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JOAN FONTCUBERTA'S META-ILLUSIONS

August 30, 2010, 4:53pm

Here in Spain we have these things called "siestas." They're awesome. We get to take a break from work in the early afternoon to take a nap or masturbate or go to the bar. It also gives us an excuse to be late with a lot of our contributions to the US office because we can be all, "Oh, sorry, we were siesta-ing hard as fuck. Must've lost track of the time," and they can't say anything because it's like one of our cultural traditions or whatever, and if they gave us shit about it we could probably have them arrested for a hate crime.

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Such was the case this morning when we realized we forgot to send them our interview with Joan Fontcuberta, whose photo ran in the Spanish edition of the Still Lifes issue last month. Fontcuberta is one of those photographers who's so renowned and has won so many awards when you hear about him it's like, "enough with the Fontcuberta already," but then you see his work and you remember why he's so adored all over the world.

His work lies in a sort of gray area between reality and fiction. In 1997 he made up a story about a Russian cosmonaut named Ivan Istochnikov who was lost in space and deserted by the Russian government. The exhibition, titled Sputnik, caused all sorts of outrage until people realized it was all a big fat brilliant hoax. He wants his viewers to be skeptical without being closed minded, but above all he wants everyone to wake the fuck up.

Phyllocactus chumba. 1984--This series, made at the beginning of the 80s juxtaposes the sublimity of the natural world with the artifice of Naturalist drawing, and the idea of deciphering the nature of photography through photographing nature. What looks like a cactus is in fact plastic crowned with a fiberglass sponge.

Vice: How do you feel about the way images are used in mainstream society? Do you think people put too much faith in the truth of an image?
Joan Fontcuberta: The image as I see it is visual merchandise. We're at a point in history which Vicente Verdú termed "capitalism of fiction," where we've surpassed the marketing of physical objects and moved into a market where fictions, illusions, and most of all images, are traded. Today we live in the image--the image makes up our world, our universe, our iconosphere. The image shapes our spirit, decides politics, and justifies economies. It's become the axis of contemporary existence.

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What about that old saying "seeing is believing"?
That's where mirages come in. We're seeing mirages that for us represent absolute truth. But if you rationalize them you can say that what we're seeing is a false interpretation. A simulation.

I consider the Internet our revolution. Not just culturally, but economically and politically too. The web has changed the world in many ways and has had an unfathomable influence on our lives. I see the Internet as a copy of the universe--the "noosphere" that Vernadsky and Teilhard de Chardin predicted. There are many vectors involved, but the one that's closest to me is that it's supplanting the roles of paper and libraries. If Cervantes were writing Don Quixote today, his protagonist wouldn't go mad reading novels about knights in a library, but on the Internet. It also distorts reality due to the sheer amount of narratives, facts, and information that abound indiscriminately. That said, its indiscriminate nature is the Internet's fundamental characteristic. And for me it's immensely freeing. It's another space to work in.

A space that also generates mistrust, paranoia, and blind faith, or as you've explained on other occasions, that blows apart the didactic authoritarian discourse, cemented by outdated powers like the press or television. You've also said that it de-monopolizes technology. How do you see the democratizing effect of the bit on photography?
The first impression we have with digital photography as it relates to the Internet is that is signifies a loss of historical credibility in the photograph as a document. Chemical, analogue photography was unquestionable. It was seen as irrefutable evidence. Conversely, today we know that digital photos can be easily manipulated--any kid with Photoshop knows how to change the way they look, to deform faces and so on. So, as digital technology and the Internet have grown in popularity, there's been a proportional decline in the validity of photography. On the other hand, reporting of events like the outrages at Abu Ghraib, could only have come to light thanks to digital photos and the Internet. The metaphysical status of the photo has been discredited, but there's a greater potential for more images to come to light--new realities that otherwise would pass by unobserved.

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Centaurus Neardentalensis. 1988--Professor Ameisenhaufen enjoyed a reputation as a dyed in the wool neo-darwinist: the Theory of Evolution was correct, but like all theories, it's the exception that proves the rule. Biological monstrosities, mutations, hybrids… like this magnificent alpha male centaur, which by its very presence refutes the absurd metaphysics of Creationism and Intelligent Design.

Toni L. Querol [Vice Spain editor, who was also present for the interview]: Years ago I worked at Playboy. I always thought that the real star there was the guy who did the retouching with Photoshop. I saw how it got progressively worse until there was an issue in 2005 or 2006 where the women were basically mutants. In the places where, anatomically speaking there should have been something, there was a pink blur. The worst thing was that nobody seemed to care. They'd gotten to the point where they could get people horny by showing them pictures of girls without vaginas!
Ha ha. That's for sure. More than technology, "digital surgery" has enabled us to create monsters. It's something that a lot of people in artistic fields have been working on. In my recent book, La Cámara de Pandora there's a chapter titled "The mystery of the missing nipple," and it's about how for aesthetics, people will fill out the breasts, slim the waist, and create these mutant bodies according to ideals of beauty from God knows where… You get this transformation of the body--an imposition of ideals, and an idea that I find perverse and mistaken, which is the obsession for perfection. There's a sort of paranoia in trying to be perfect that makes the result unreal, cold, and distant. I agree with you. Real bodies with spots and some individuality.

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Surface of the asteroid Kadoc and it's moon Hexar. Photographed on the suicide mission, and relayed by Soyuz 2. 1997--A platform of dried breadcrums and a floating potato suggest a typical spacescape. Once you've got a credible context, people will believe anything.

Complete at any rate…
Digital technology, in terms of the image, has given us an excess of control and an excess of perfection, and to me that's a loss. I'm in Mexico right now preparing a conference and the theme is "Towards an imperfect photography." As far as I'm concerned, what photographers are doing is awful. What artists are doing with it is pathetic, and the only hope we have is for photography without pretension, it's only through that spontaneity, that authenticity, that we find values that can save the aesthetics and concepts of photography from annihilation.

There should be space to make mistakes, and for luck.
Exactly, because really the history of art can be interpreted as a history of making mistakes. At least in terms of photography. What the vanguard did was see the mistakes as a tool. What before was an error or an accident, became a part of their vocabulary of expression and made it richer. This is the point where photography grew up, and I assume the same happened in other mediums. Going back to Playboy, do you know a guy who calls himself the Fake Detective?

(Left) Ivan and Kloka during their history making spacewalk. 1996--This image is inspired by Tintin on the Moon, and its deliberately fantastic style was meant to sound alarm bells and provoke a reaction. Technically this photo was really complicated. It's a photomontage made up of 12 different photos. A real life jigsaw.
(Right) Orographic survey of the east side of the Kadok Asteroid, taken using an electro-optical camera. 1997--This image formed part of the pseudoscientific aspect of the project. Beneath the inscrutable gaze of a specialized studio, whose specialization I've forgotten, it's revealed to be the random appropriation of texts written in Cyrillic script and made up graphics. The Asteroid's surface is a pancake lit by fluorescent light in my kitchen.

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No, who is he?
He goes through the Internet looking for fake photos of naked celebrities on porn sites, then he finds where the different components come from. So he catalogs the combination of faces and bodies; say the face of Farah Fawcett on the body of Jenna Jameson, for example. There are hundreds up on his site. He's this total OCD geek, finding all these erotic Frankensteins.

You've said that "All photography is a construction." What do you think about metafiction, or, perhaps more fittingly, meta-illusion?
This idea of the meta-illusion is something that I like to play with, mainly because it's a really useful tool. In Miracles and Co. we're talking about a transparently ridiculous situation: That in some far flung part of Finland, there's a secret monastery where a cult puts on courses--like training seminars--to teach the monks how to do miracles. It was such a stupid idea I couldn't believe anyone would buy it. So the story I wanted to tell was from the point of view of setting myself up as a journalist who was going to visit the monastery and debunk the whole myth, and along the way I make the exhibition. It blows me away when journalists come to the show and are like, "So how many months were you in the monastery?"

Incredible…
People really need to believe, right?

Like in the X Files: "I want to believe."
That's also the catchphrase for Disney movies. We want to believe that it's true so we can live in the myth, in the story. Even Bambi becomes real, and we love that.

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Part of the Sputnik installation in the exhibition "De Facto, La Virreina" - Centre de la Imatge, Barcelona, November 2008 - February 2009.

Your fairy tales have also infiltrated the real world. Many of your books crop up in libraries time and again in the wrong sections.
I love it when I find my books in the wrong section of the library. Whether it's Sputnik in the Russian History section or whatever, really. If you flip through them, yeah, they look like they're about Russians or plants or animals… and that gives the book another twist of fate. The shock that someone could get finding one of those books and thinking they were real is priceless. Of course today, with Google, the surprise doesn't last as long because it's much easier to check the facts.

Well in 2006 a Spanish TV station ran a series about conspiracies titled Cuarto Milenio. One Sunday they got their scoop from Sputnik, claiming a Russian cosmonaut had disappeared in space during the cold war. Afterward you received an apology for the fuck up, but it's unbelievable they didn't even search the story on Google.
I still don't believe that it went so far. I mean, how many people work on a show like that? There have to be 50 people apart from the guys who actually "broke" the story, and not one of them raised a hand to say "Er, I don't think this is true…" It was such a score! It's worth saying here though, that there's no one easier to trick than someone who wants to be tricked.

Tell me what you mean by "prophylactic fiction."
Fiction takes many forms. But it's safe to say that there's fiction that has economic or political goals, as well as an artistic fiction that strives for beauty. I propose a third type. An artistic fiction whose aim is to deconstruct and expose fiction that lies to us. I've got nothing against artistic fictions, although I do think that it sweetens the pill so to speak. They anesthetize us in terms of how we react to, and our capacity to deconstruct those fictions that actively mislead us for a purpose. So my proposal is "prophylactic fiction," in that it enables us to be aware of and to protect ourselves from those fictions that have an agenda.

Joan Fontcuberta's most recent book, La Cámara De Pandora, is published by Gustavo Gili Press.

www.fontcuberta.com.

TEXT BY MIKE IBÁÑEZ
PHOTOS AND CAPTIONS COURTESY OF JOAN FONTCUBERTA
COORDINATION BY TONI L. QUEROL