Interview

The Invisible Artist. Jean Keller in conversation with Jochen Friedrich

JK: When did you first realize you were an artist?

JF: Actually I didn’t. I am not sure what being an artist would mean today. There’s hardly anything left that could not be art, and if everything can be art because someone says so then everybody can be an artist. So being an artist doesn’t really mean anything any more. I have been writing little texts and I have been taking pictures for some years without doing much with them. When I discovered artists’ books I realized this could be a way to work that would make sense for me. So I started making these books. They seem to fit in the category, so I called them “artist’s books”. Does this make me an artist? Maybe.

JK: That’s a slippery answer but not a surprising one – you have always been a man of mystery. I was trying to understand when you first began collecting these travel artefacts and what spurred you to do so. You seem to be constantly traveling. Once, you even visited me in the Swiss Alps in a former nursing home I was looking after and were the only person I’d seen in three months. I was not in a good state of mind but that’s another story. The important thing is I noticed then your fascination for signs, especially those you couldn’t understand. The more obscure and incomprehensible they were, the more appealing they were to you. Where does this fascination come from and why do you have this impulse to collect them?

JF: Oh, the Swiss Alps. I guess too much snow is not good for you, also too much time in the mountains. I am a city person. And I am interested in the ways the city is being used and abused. Authorities and corporations and individuals leave their traces on the city’s surface. It’s an ongoing process of adding, replacing, and removing signs, often enough it is also a hassle of signs, labels, signposts, billboards, street art and what you have. We are told to do this or not to do that, to look at this, to buy this or to think about that. A lot of this seems to be blatant and obvious but the closer you look the more complex and the more enigmatic it gets. You get an idea of it when you leave your own culture, and the limits of comprehension become tangible when you travel to a country where you don’t speak the language or cannot read the script. Photographs and other visual artefacts seem to be universal but of course they are not. I am recording these signs that in my opinion are worth looking at.

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JF, Oui, la France, 2012

JK: There has been a lot of talk about us living in an age when signs are unmoored from any meaning and I see that many of your books are consistent with that idea. Take your French election posters; the posters’ only real purpose seems to be to testify to voters’ alienation from the political process, at least in the way you have chosen to represent them. The politicians depicted appear like caricatures, which is also how those defacing them are representing them. This makes me want to return to the original question I asked about being an artist. Do you see yourself as a recycler of lost signs?

JF: You can put it that way. I think in the process of cultural evolution we all developed filters of perception. We are the targets of constant bombarding. It’s a situation of over-kill. We try to ignore the media fall-out as well as possible. That’s why there are so many signs out there. The better we get at ignoring messages, the more they display. The makers know about our filters and hope to catch us in a careless moment. There’s hardly any spot left that is not plastered with messages of all kinds. When I go out I take off the blinkers and look at this madness and people’s reactions to it. The photos in my books show a part of it.

JK: I once worked as an intern in an advertising agency in Zurich and the responsibility of my colleagues was to go to as many exhibitions as possible. The office was filled with art catalogues and magazines and they spent their lives turning artists’ works into advertisement for the products they were paid to sell. The freshness with which artists recycled the junk around them was the very thing the advertisers needed. This is a depressing thought but seen in this context, do you think the artist’s book represents some kind of fortress for the artist’s ideas?

JF: I’m afraid there aren’t any fortresses any more, just as there aren’t any clear boundaries any more. I am not surprised the advertising guys suck up as much art as possible in order to find useful bits that they can incorporate into their shit. But then artists do exactly the same, they are inspired by art history, by everyday life, by science, music, magazines, TV, and even by advertising. They take an idea from here and another one from there, a feature from this and a bit of material from that, they mix it up, et voilà, here’s the new work. Everything is a remix, and there’s nothing wrong with this – except maybe that most advertising guys make much more money than most artists.

JK: Right, they’re paid more, which counts for something. I wonder sometimes if this repackaging of signs is what we’re all involved in; an army of ants accumulating, digesting, vomiting and regurgitating signs in a continuous cycle of production and consumption. Are there other options available to us? Is there somewhere we can continue our labours without being swallowed up by the insatiable market monster?

JF: The constant processing of information is just the way it goes, one thing comes out of the other. The only depressing thing is that all too often nothing comes out of it. We look at the same things again and again, endless variations of the same model, no matter whether you look at advertising or journalism or art. The latter is supposed to be the realm of the new, the unique and the personal, but if you look at it for a while, you realize it isn’t. Go through the galleries in any metropolis for one afternoon and you get the idea. Most of what we see is this year’s fashionable model in painting, sculpture, or photography, presented with a bit of ambitious prose that repeats the same phrases again and again. A slick dealer tells you that this or that is the artist’s personal creation; in the gallery next door you see the same picture made by another person who studied at the same art school, and the dealer recites the same text. We have two options: either we participate or we don’t. If you participate you have to produce commodities for the market, and the market makes the rules. If you don’t wish to participate you can make your own rules but you depend on the market as well, or the lack thereof to be more precise. I never even tried to make money with my artwork (or whatever you want to call it). I don’t need to sell these little things. If they sell it’s fine, if not it’s not a major problem.

JK: Ok, that’s the business side of it, let’s talk about the work. Who is it for? Who are you communicating to, if anyone?

JF: Oh, now the professional is speaking, the man who works in the field where they have target groups. I don’t have one. I simply make these books. They are not made for any particular audience. They are not important. I simply like to make them. If I wouldn’t make them, the world would not miss them.

JK: Ok, but when on the road you’re presumably looking for something. These books don’t happen by accident. They don’t look like the travel photos I’m used to seeing since there’s such a clear ordering going on. Is this related to your day job? Actually, what is your day job?

JF: Of course these are not the average travel photos you get to see. I would neither take pictures of monuments nor of picturesque sights or anything like this. I would not want to take artistic photographs either. I am not interested in making art photographs. I point the camera at things that in my opinion are worth looking at. It’s my perception of public space. The things I find worth looking at are part of the real world. I walk there and I find them. That’s different from sitting at home and searching for pictures on the web that seems to be so fashionable nowadays. Traveling and walking are closely related to my day job as a tour guide.

JK: I agree, there is far too much work being produced using the web. As though there is a concerted effort to keep us all indoors or to avoid physical life. What kind of tours do you take people on? And are your books a kind of deconstruction of your day job?

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JF, Im Reich der Zeichen, 2012

JF: I am guiding walking tours through various cities. Walking is the best, or maybe the only good way of experiencing a city, at least as far as European cities are concerned. I educated myself by walking through cities. I share part of my knowledge to make a living. Visiting more cities I expand my personal experience and also my job opportunities. The books are by-products of walking. They accumulate what I record on my walks. Im Reich der Zeichen may be a good example. It’s a series of photographs of street art discovered in various cities. Many of the works are tiny interventions, traces of a personal voice in public space. There’s a lot of great street art out there that is much more interesting than gallery art, and you only see it as a walker.

JK: Your works focus on cemeteries, toilets and streets. Are they an alternative city guide that you’re presenting?

JF: I guess only a complete idiot would try using any of my books as a city guide. There’s unlimited supply of books that proved to be more useful in this respect. If you are looking for the next public toilet in Paris, Peed is not very helpful. Apart from that, neither toilets nor cemeteries are the focus of my work, although both play a role in two small books I made. Peed is as much about toilets as your black book is about Africa.

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JF, Peed, 2012

JK: I was thinking of them in relation to the everyday tours you give and how these books offer tours of an altogether different kind; tours of a conceptual bent, tours of revolt or tours of fragmented signals floating in a traveller’s mind. The narrative repeated by a tour guide every day must be rather restricted and I see these books as a release from the work you are normally expected to do. It’s funny you should mention The Black Book and Africa because I consider that work to be my Heart of Darkness.

JF: Maybe we should talk a bit about you and your books. You work in a design studio and as I understand your books are made also in response to the work you are doing in your day job. What is the artistic status of Jean Keller?

JK: The print-on-demand books I make are just a scrapyard for my ideas. No one takes much notice of them which I find liberating. Everyone and their dog has an opinion on photobooks these days and it is very difficult to remain invisible. Thankfully I have no artistic status and I wish to keep it that way. Being an artist is over-rated. Don’t you agree?

JF: Hard to say whether being an artist is over-rated but there’s certainly an inflation, and as a result being an artist actually doesn’t mean a lot. It seems to be very desirable nevertheless. Ok, maybe that means it is over-rated.  Talking about scrap – do you mean your weird remake of Hitler’s book based on one of Blurb’s truly awful design templates? Do you prefer to remain invisible because of these books or is this a general preference in reaction to the system of branding and name-pushing that seems to be essential in the artworld?

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JK, Mon Combat, 2011

JK: As a designer, most days of my life are spent creating work that is clear, precise and desirable for a large and diverse audience. So when it comes to my books, I’m interested in the opposite. I use them to cleanse myself of all I do in my professional life. I do not think of them as art but as detox. When I look around, it seems that the world is nothing but a remix of significant and insignificant things colliding together and I do the same with my books. So with Mon Combat, why not throw Hitler in with Warhol and Blurb? It makes perfect sense because it doesn’t matter. It has no significance. It is a pure remix.

JF: I understand the desire to detox from this kind of work. However, as much as I sympathize with your attitude towards the art world, as much I have doubts about your conclusion. If it doesn’t matter, why not simply remain silent? “Pure remix” sounds so posh, but if it doesn’t matter, why make a remix of evil instead of simply going to the movies or to bed? There are hundreds or thousands of ways to spend a night in Paris, why do you make books that don’t matter? I don’t buy this. Something does seem to matter and make sense. For me these books are first of all comments on books and the way how books are made today. They are more than the exercises of a bored masturbator.

JK: You shouldn’t underestimate bored masturbators, they are determined and work very hard to reach their targets. If you look at my books, you’ll see a mixed bag of remixes. Sometimes I fill the pages with ink, other times I leave them blank. Sometimes I’ll remix someone else’s remix. Remixing is a pleasure to me so why should I stay quiet? A DJ in a nightclub gets pleasure from spinning disks over other disks. I get mine from making books.

JF: I particularly liked the last one, Paper Passion – a remix of Steidl’s perfume book, or rather a parody of it. Did you send a copy of it to Steidl?

JK: I did send him a copy but he didn’t react. He’s probably busy fucking the mid-tones.

JF: Maybe one last question – what would be your ideal book, the book you are dreaming of?

JK: That’s a difficult question. It would be a book so perfect and profound that no other tree would ever need to be sacrificed again. There’s no such thing of course. So the best I can hope for is a book that contains everything in it, with the risk that it is also nothing. You?

JF: I’d like to sacrifice another tree or two for a book that includes all my pictures, nicely organized in chapters. Each of the books I made so far and each of the ones to come would be one chapter. It should look like the catalogue of a stock photo agency. Maybe the editor should actually be a stock photo editor, we’d simply apply a process of reverse editing: All the photos the editor selects are out and all the ones the editor rejects are included in the book. This should do the trick.

(Jean Keller and Jochen Friedrich met in the ABC Artists’ Books Cooperative, a network of self-publishing bookmakers. In order to learn more about the individual practices, the cooperative’s members made a series of interviews with each other. This interview was an email conversation over the course of several weeks in the end of 2012. Both artists are no longer members of the cooperative.
Jean Keller’s books are available from Lulu.)