darktaxa-project, interview, 2-2023

Fabian Hesse and Mitra Wakil, questions to darktaxa-project/Philipp Goldbach, Michael Reisch, via e-mail 11-2022

for: darktaxa-project at group-exhibition Expect the Unexpected, Kunstmuseum Bonn, 3-2023, catalogue


FH & MW: {What is darktaxa?} Already since the 2010s, people have been trying to define phenomena through terms like Post-Photography or later Synthetic Media, which are hard to grasp and keep withdrawing through various acceleration moments and development cycles - how do you come to the term darktaxa here?

dxp: darktaxa stands metaphorically exactly for an area of phenomena of extended photography and new photography-based digital working methods in an open, undefined situation, which you describe as "hard to grasp": "darktaxa is a term borrowed from taxonomy, there it denotes animals that exist but do not yet have a name or have not been assigned to a species", see also darktaxa-project.net.

FH & MW: How does this relate to your artistic work and research, how do you come to your approach?

dxp: The accelerated technological developments of the last two to three decades have led - and we all witness this - not only to ongoing permanent crises in photography, but far beyond that to a profound cultural change. This includes the socio-political environment in its effects on individual actors, as well as on our perception, our entire subjective and cognitive constitution, it affects us all existentially. In the face of these countless new questions, we try to develop artistic approaches and strategies that reflect the ongoing digital transformation. In doing so, we take an experimental and creative approach, we work with new digital processes such as machine learning/artificial intelligence, photogrammetry, 3D scanning, 3D printing, etc., and try to explore this new potential, but at the same time we act in a media-reflexive way. The theoretical examination and questioning plays a major role in our project. Most of the participants come from photography, some have painting or programming backgrounds, there are different age groups from "analog" to "digital natives".

FH & MW: {What does darktaxa want?} What are the main concerns of your artistic work, and do you still see yourselves as "photographers"?

dxp: The founding idea of darktaxa-project was not only to bundle the forces of the hitherto lone fighters, but also to gradually narrow down and better understand this unclear, new area of "photography" at the interface with digital working methods. Where does this field begin, where does it end? We are not documentary photographers, but neither do we simply move unspecifically in the post-digital environment. The "photographic" plays a crucial role for us. For us as artists, this also raises questions about our own identity: "Will photographers have to be programmers in the future?" is a question in our noManifesto, for example, without there already being an answer. We want to explore the photographic with the new digital imaging processes under contemporary conditions, redesign them, ideally develop prototypical artistic ways of working and thus come to a new understanding and self-image.

FH & MW: {And How?} How do you see your practice in relation to neighboring fields that concern, for example, questions of photography as a documentary/imaging practice - what is formulated, and what are your tools for it?

dxp: There is no hundred percent sharp dividing line for us. Very often we use hybrid ways of working. In our respective processes, digital-algorithmic as well as documentary-recording work steps are applied and superimposed, which usually comes from conceptual considerations. From our point of view, one of the issues in photography at the moment is to find new models of understanding for it. How, for example, should documentary-recording images go together with generative-photographic images under one heading? In addition, there are synthetically generated images that simulate photography in all its varieties: Document and fact-based representation meet artificial intelligence, machine learning and CGI, truth claims and fidelity to the image meet photorealistic renderings, simulation and digital fakes. There are images that can sometimes be described as photography in a traditional, classical sense, but sometimes only look like it, and are in fact something completely different and must therefore also be read and evaluated completely differently. By the way, the truth-fake theme plays an essential role in the contexts of classical documentary photography, such as photojournalism, so that there are definitely overlaps and parallels to the field of interest of darktaxa-project.

FH & MW: How would you describe your relationship and understanding of yourselves, for example, do you see yourselves as a collective, network, group, label...?

dxp: darktaxa-project is an artist run work and discourse platform. All participants have individual artistic positions and approaches, but they are photography based or deal conceptually with photography. So the spirit is pluralistic, but we meet amazingly congruent in above mentioned questions about the digital, which we share. There is an active core that understands darktaxa-project as a group, engages in a closer social interaction and conceives the joint projects, exhibitions, etc.. One of our concerns is to carve out a discursive space that not only exists theoretically, but is also tested in artistic works, in the joint exhibitions and publications. However, we do not see ourselves as a unanimous collective; we do not strive for a coherent formal-aesthetic program, dogmatic theory formation, or anything similar. Rather, in our previous collaborative works such as noManifesto, noPublication, and noAutopole, we try to make the discourse among ourselves a statement, to bring it into a polyphonic artistic form, and thus ideally generate a new kind of digitally informed (darktaxa) frequency, a communal artistic momentum.

FH & MW: What role do production conditions in your opinion, play in post-photographic practice?

dxp: It is important to say here that we as artists, unlike Daguerre in his time, no longer act as developers in a very limited field of practical and theoretical basic knowledge. Above all, we have to react to what the tech industry is currently producing with all its economic potency, and in some cases is throwing onto the market in large quantities. Two different aspects are important for us: on the one hand, the highly accelerated technological developments of the last two to three decades have opened up numerous new visual possibilities for us as artists and photographers that we would never have dreamed of in the analog 1980s, which is something very positive. On the other hand, we also see the developments in a larger context very critically. For example, the hermetic nature of digital devices and the power imbalance between tech companies and their engineers as compared to all of us as users/consumers is talked about a lot in the group. The addressing e.g. critical questioning and opening up of digital tools and their modes of operation is an important part of the project. We hope that our artistic approaches will also make the more hidden aspects of digital processes visible and understandable in an exemplary way. In this regard, it is important for us to mention that photography-based digital tools have a key socio-political position and will continue to do so in the future, if one looks, for example, at government installed surveillance technologies and surveillance capitalism on a global scale. Through facial recognition in every smartphone, among other things, these technologies penetrate deeply into our privacy, they are very close to us and at the same time immensely powerful on a global scale. In that sense, it is important to understand the post-photographic conditions of production and photography-based digital tools also as part of far-reaching geopolitical and hypercapitalist power structures, and it is in this awareness that we work. Yet most of us are not doing Artistic Research in the sense of investigative strategies or a direct form of activist art. Rather, on a superordinate level, we are concerned with what is currently developing out of the new interaction between man and machine, and how this can be dealt with and expressed artistically in the climate of a technicized lifestyle and a technically experienced reality. The impuls to create and development of individual work forms are just as important to us as the above-mentioned media-reflexive processes and questions, the critical disclosure, the view into the machine room, so to speak. A leitmotif that runs through the approaches of almost all darktaxa artists is the (question of) interaction with the apparatus, the machine, the algorithms in the sense of a reciprocal relationship and influence.

FH & MW: How can non-human-centered and post-humanist perspectives for the planet/Gaia be envisioned and embraced?

dxp: In order to understand the ecological crisis, according to Bruno Latour (whom you address with the term "Gaia") and some others, we should first understand that there is no nature from which the human world sets itself apart in order to be able to function according to its own rules. Instead of the concepts of nature and culture, of which the latter traditionally implied technology, we need a view that allows us to grasp the interplay of countless things and living beings, human and non-human actors, beyond these distinctions. They all form an intricate network in a common habitat to which they owe their existence and in which everyone influences everybody else - precisely Gaia or the planet. Renewing our view of the Earth which we believed to know, rediscovering and reassembling it under the auspices of the ecological crisis from a non-human-centered and post-humanistic perspective, is one of the central social challenges of our time. Technology plays a crucial role in this in several ways: it is part of the problem and of possible solutions. In our noPublication, we focused primarily on the "technosphere," a term brought into play by geologist Peter Haff. He describes how technologies are no longer just means to perceive and manipulate the world, but are themselves becoming environmental on a geological scale - becoming a system that is equal to the "natural" physical environment, interacts with it, and in which we are all embedded. Our work is, after all, very much about engaging with technology, experimentally testing out different ways of interacting with technology and the potential for decision-making and action that is associated with it: Here, artistic production and artistic action can be a model or open up new perspectives. How can this relationship be shaped - on a larger scale also meaningfully and sustainably with regard to a functioning technosphere? Ultimately, it lies in the power of action of each and every individual, incidentally also in the ability to renounce certain forms of work and types of production. One thing is clear: If technology is to play a role as a first-rate agency beyond an anthropocentric view of the world, it will also limit our particular interests. We are in a decisive phase: that is why it is so important to practice a change of perspective.

FH & MW: Where do you see points of contact for a productive role of translational capabilities of the digital in the post-colonial situation?

dxp: From today's perspective, photography has often played an ambivalent role for colonialism as both a service and fulfillment provider. Remarkably, this is partly repeated in extended photography in times of post-colonial discourses. Categorization and classification, for example, are currently at the center of several discussions on artificial intelligence and its datasets (i.e., the training datasets for machine learning), because existing judgments and biases, e.g., of a racist nature, can be carried further by photographic-algorithmic systems. The objectification by algorithms and AI, their seeming scientific-mathematical infallibility, is problematic, because in fact the subjective-human judgments and prejudices of their programmers are often reproduced and reinforced in the application of AI. Existing power relations are thus manifested through the use of pseudo-objective digital tools and algorithms. A similar pseudo-objectifying function could be attributed to chemical-analog photography, as said, as aiding in the manifestation of class thinking and colonial structures, which is an interesting parallel. In order to be able to understand these facts in the first instance technically in the case of AI and then to be able to evaluate them critically, it is imperative from our point of view at the moment to understand the modes of operation, the range and the power of the new technologies, some of which have only been in use for a few years. This is part of the work of the artists involved and of the darktaxa-project - an enlightening impulse (Anna Ridler, for example, has made several very fascinating and insightful works in this regard, dealing with AI, datasets and categorization, also in our noPublication there are some pages on the topic). In any case, the "photographic genes" of the new digital tools clearly come to the surface at this stage, as does the power of the old and the new expanded medium.

FH & MW: What future? - and what about photography and Synthetic Media on this way?

dxp: We are only at the beginning of these developments, and we have the privilege of being there live, which is exciting and challenging at the same time. What is apparent is that all these contexts and micro-contexts, all the different photographic and photography-based practices that have been mentioned, whether conceived with documentary intent or as fake, whether as CGI or a product of machine learning, will in principle have to be examined separately in each case, as well as in their interplay, and considered in a very nuanced way. Whether this can lead to a functioning synthesis under the umbrella term "photography" is completely open and ultimately secondary. What is more important is a new practical and theoretical understanding of these complex areas.