Interview with Björn Behrens

Linda Lendvai

What are your photographs currently about?
On one hand my work is about the essential characteristics of photography that are staying in relation and against oneself; and there are the technical features such as light, perspective and abstraction. On the other hand, the content features why people take pictures, such as a proof of something. According to Susan Sontag, described in her book On Photography, photography gives people the imaginary possession of the past, a proof of existence and our desires caused by advertising photography. With Based on Truth my idea is to indicate that we are all influenced by diverse theses of truth.

Do you think the night is more truthful than the daytime? And what does that mean to you and to your work?
It is true that I feel very alive at night. I work often at night even if I am not taking photographs. Also, the darkness plays a major role in my work. The orientation in the dark is difficult, it demands more focus, and I have to rely on my senses. It combines photography with viewing habits witch we know from classical painting. In addition, the boundaries between staging and found images are obscured.

On your photos light has a very dark mystic aura. Why did you choose these 5 light sources for your series called Light? I feel they all somehow belong to our darkest sides.
I like your interpretation! This work is about reduction and thereby the following abstraction, which comes from the medium of photography itself. In this series of photos, I am concerned with the simultaneous attraction and repulsion of diverse colored light sources. The series consists of five images. Each photographed object is producing light. An insect trap, a small plastic cross that is used in the southern countries in places where people have died, a Bengal fire which is used in football games, and a blue light that prevents to see the veins. These items are captured in medium format black and white negative. Then, I developed a single contact of each of these negatives by hand on a 30,5 cm x 24 cm Baritt paper. Later, the original negative is fixed on its own contact image. The original and the depicted image create together a straight angle of view a black square of 6 x 6 cm.

It reminds me of Malevich’s Black Square.
Yes, however it can be described better with Hiroshi Sugimoto’s portrait of Henry VIII and a work of Jimmie Durham. The court painter Hans Holbein around 1537 painted the King of England, based on this painting there is a wax sculpture at the Madame Tussaud and Sugimoto photographed the portrait of this life-like figure in the style of the Holbein painting. I am amazed that these three art Mediums have bridged 500 years. With photography to awake the association of a painting is still great. In 1996, Jimmie Durham claimed he had poured an egg in a cement block. He describes this piece with the phrase Do not open it before 2996. In this way he has created a 1000- year-old egg. In the series lights, I liked that notion that everything that keeps the spectator from seeing behind the negative is that we collectively learned, art can not be touched, especially not the holy negative of the photographer. Also, I find it interesting to observe the viewer by applying attraction and repulsion on him, which was also the initial idea by photographing these light sources. The viewer has a lot of different ways in which he uses his own experiences and his own imagination to make this work to learn.

Why do you work with the exit light of the gallery?
The images were taken at night by long exposure. The only source of light is the emergency exit light. In the series of empty spaces there are venues in which the images are exhibited later. The large-format photographs are printed on shiny photo paper. As a result, the viewer can see his own reflection on the images. I like to observe the exhibition visitor in the space where the artwork is presented. After a while it becomes clear that the image they are looking at is part of the space in which they are located. This creates a shift in perception. This green light is always there, it is only a matter of light and time to recognize it.
It is a bit scary to find your reflection in the empty version of the gallery space where you are standing at the moment, filled with images. It creates such a lonely feeling to me, especially with the title ‘Based on Truth’.

Tell me about the NY series. The theme is really grotesque.
The pictures show the New York skylines. The images are stuck on a broken glass pane. These pieces were once on the front window of a small casino in a village in the north of Germany. I am fascinated by the thought that the owner of a casino has considered how to tempt people to play with money. These images are articulating the promise that if you win you can finally get out of here.

Is that, where the title Based on Promise comes from?
The group of works from this exhibition called ‘Based on Truth’. Here I am engaged with the idea that photography claims the truth. Based on promises that refer to the concept of what is behind the work. The concept consists of a description and the title, which occupies an important part of the work. The New York images were the first time I worked with found photographs.

Björn Behrens (b. 1976 Bremen, Germany) was educated in Bremen where he received a diploma in fine arts. Behrens had solo shows in Bremen and Brussels also his photographs have been exhibited in numerous group exhibitions in Germany. Based on Promise is his first solo exhibition in Budapest, Hungary. This project includes three of his photo series, NY (2016), Visible Light (2014-2016) and Based on Truth II (2014 -2016).

After the Truth!

Städtische Galerie Bremen

Ingmar Lähnemann

Setting the stage at the beginning of the exhibition Björn Behrens – Nach der Wahrheit (Based on Truth) at the Städtische Galerie in Bremen is a large-format print of a high-seat hunting platform, whose faded grey provides a strong graphic contrast to the black background. The same image adorns the invitation to the exhibition. In this way, hunting is shown to be a central theme of this presentation and the summation of the four series of works and five motif series by the artist. Björn Behrens’ previous work shows that he does not belong to the classification of ­sedentary artists who till the soil of their imagination to come up with ideas for pictures. Instead, he is a hunter who discovers his motifs on the go – but one with a clear idea of the images he is tracking rather than a collector of random impressions found along the way. The analogy between artist and hunter is confirmed by the placement of the cover image in the exhibition. It provides one way to approach his photographs and refers to an artistic self-reflection inherent in all his series of works, demonstrating how consistently Björn Behrens has focused on developing his own personal vocabulary and a specific visual repertoire since receiving Bremen’s Visual Arts Award in 2010. Hunting is a nocturnal activity, and all Behrens’ recent series display night scenes. Memento Moriendum Esse (2012) shows young men clad in dark leather jackets and seen from the back, in pubs whose condition suggests that the hour is late. Burnt-out cars, relics of Germany’s latest popular nocturnal activity, are one motif of Based on Truth I (2013). The second motif is a group of images of glowing white seagulls aloft against a dark sky.
Based on Truth II (2014) represents the above-mentioned high-seat hunting platforms, which Björn Behrens converted for the second part of this series into pinhole cameras. The latter’s long exposure time produces images corresponding to a hunter’s patient gaze into the landscape. The photos from the series Based on Truth III (2014) are also exposed in a lengthy, procedural way. Here, details of night-time interiors are illuminated only by the green light provided by emergency-exit signs. Upon closer examination, viewers can identify the interiors as the exhibition rooms of Bremen’s Städtische Galerie. Their green colour is reminiscent of the view through night-vision goggles, which are used by the military and also by hunters.
Because of their paparazzi-photo qualities, the back views of the young Memento Moriendum men can quickly be classified as images of the hunted. Initially, this impression overlays even the important conceptual level of this series: the minutely defined basic pattern of all the shots, which arose from an original image of the artist himself in the same pose on a night-time pub-crawl. He is hunting doppelgangers and reveals this in the sequence of single images – a narcissism directed against himself, in which personal characteristics and apparent individuality are taken as a point of departure and then, with each photo, repeatedly negated.
Ironically, the photographically fixed, “immortalised” people represent the traditional art-historical Christian iconography of the title, Memento Moriendum Esse.
They are just as ephemeral as the fleeting photographs themselves, which Björn Behrens printed for the exhibition on large-format but fragile newsprint. Returning to the metaphor of the hunt, this series relates to an absurd identification of the hunter with his prey, his victims. Their character as trophies of his hunt for images is undeniable, although, being rather unspectacular, they can by no means fulfil a representative function.
The burnt-out cars have a similar trophy-like quality. In their nocturnal isolation from their everyday environment of houses, streets and people, many of them seem like artistically crafted sculptures. Sublime, exceptionally beautiful – if horrible – objects, they stand out from the dark background like the flying seagulls facing them, bringing the birds, so to speak, back to earth. Photographically, the burnt-out cars, like the birds in flight, are difficult to capture, because one rarely comes across them by chance, even nowadays when the igniting of vehicles is a popular night-time activity. It requires patience, intuition and a network of informants.
The interpretation that these motifs derive from the hunt is one that the viewer willingly accepts. And it is obviously an interpretation with which Björn Behrens himself has grappled, with regard to his specific artistic approach and his way of appropriating the world photographically. We know this because he concludes that he also should visually capture the hunt for images itself, by making the high-seat hunting platform a motif. The ambivalence with which he views the image of the hunting photographer – how he negates it while using it – can be seen in the special photographic processes that he uses especially for this series, Based on Truth II.
To photograph the high seats, he draws on cameras that hunters use to capture the landscape. Movements trigger these cameras automatically. Björn Behrens adopts a significant reversal of position by directing them towards the actual observation post – a static element in whose environment something must move in order for its picture to be taken. Although he lies in wait like a night-time hunter whose trophy is the image, the artist cedes control over his prey – an absurd act in the analogy between hunter and artist (especially given that the unnatural object in the landscape, whose only aim is to be the hidden eye that usually captures these images, is illuminated like a monument).
The step of using this central emblem of the hunt (along with the rifle, the dog and everything that goes with them) as a photo machine immediately after it has become an image itself – of alienating the high seat platform from its own identity by converting it into a large pinhole camera – adds another decisive aspect to the analogy. For despite all other named correlations, the identification of the photographer as a hunter is based mostly on the analogy between picture-taking and shooting – in other words, a definitive moment, a definitive action.
In this image, the deadliness of the real shot lends the photographic shot and the resulting picture a form of finality that appears grossly exaggerated, given the materiality of the photo (as film, as print). Yet with all its impact, it aptly characterises the meaning of a picture and its contents.
On the other hand, this analogy, which has become ubiquitous not only because of paparazzi but also through photojournalism and especially iconic war imagery, generates a pathos with which photographers have wrestled for years.
Hence, Björn Behrens is making a far-reaching statement when he chooses, while still at the beginning of his career as a photographic artist, to emphasize the analogy between his photographic gaze and a hunt. This is especially true, since he refers with this metaphor to a definitive photography of the past. For despite all indifferences, the metaphor of the hunt works mostly for choosing motifs exclusively in analogue photography. Since pictures, however, are no longer primarily taken by pressing a shutter button but rather through digitalisation – where the moment of photographing is only one of numerous, equivalent decisions in the process of making a photographic image – the metaphor of the hunter has become anachronistic. This is true even when only analogue photographs are shot, as is the case with many series by Björn Behrens.
Socially, however, it is precisely the general availability of photographic reality management in digital processes that makes the image of a photo-hunt seem even more dominant. With the English title he has given his most recent series and the German version that appears in the exhibition and catalogue, Björn Behrens proves that he is entirely aware of why the metaphor of the hunt and the undeniable impermanence and decision-making power of the photographic image are so significant. In her essay in this catalogue, Yvonne Bialek refers pointedly to the temporal moment, which in the German title, Nach der Wahrheit, suggests a “post veritas”; in his English title, Based on Truth, the artist describes his photographic approach in an even less ambivalent way.
In so doing, he claims for himself precisely what continues to be associated with photography and expected of photography and the way photography still is mostly used: to be a direct likeness of the truth. Every photo is a visual statement – “This is the way it was!” – as well as an accurate shot in space and time that is captured and bagged. The photographer as hunter is a truth finder. In the pinhole-camera photos of Based on Truth II, with the altered hunting machine and its spatial use as a camera body with a light-admitting aperture, this “shot” is not so much manifest as it is ironic and questioning. It is precisely the application of the hunting principle that ultimately dissolves the analogy between hunter and photographer, between shot and recording (quarry and image), and between hunt and search for motifs.
Ironically, the auratic landscape photos, which resulted from visibly long exposures, seem composed, and in their most simple photographic process reminiscent of photography’s earliest days. They throw the act of hunting back on itself and reflect the gaze (of the hunter, the artist, the observer), leaving behind an extremely poetic emptiness.
The ultimate truth – a shot, for example – simply disappears in a space into which time has inscribed itself; thus, despite its representational simplicity, the space shows itself to be more than a surface, a unity, a literality.
The self-limiting photographs of the hunter’s platform-turned-camera visualise a reality behind the actually visible; this effect is also achieved by the strange appearance of the high seats, produced by means of the special hunt cameras. The photos look like X-ray images, like grisaille paintings, like chalk drawings but scarcely like photographic images. Björn Behrens may hunt for truth, but this hunt has nothing to do with pulling a trigger; in this picture he is, instead, the tracker. He traces the path of truth and portrays it as an appearance of the reality behind the reality. This becomes especially clear in his interior shots of the Städtische Galerie in Bremen, which convey a distinctive aura in the exclusive nocturnal illumination of the emergency-exit signs. Although the lights also burn throughout the day and familiar spatial boundaries such as walls, columns and windows remain unchanged, the rooms in these photographs appear virtual, reduced – like another category of room, an abstraction of themselves. This effect of resembling a spatial option, a spatial aspect, a spatial appearance is enhanced by Björn Behrens having produced these photos for the exhibition in the very same rooms. They thus develop a kind of self-reflective quality, which works like a spinning top: once set in motion, it rotates so swiftly that it suddenly seems to stand still.
In principle, observers would have to become dizzy. The artist responds with his form of presentation. For one thing, the green rooms are the only series presented on panels in front of the wall, setting them off clearly from the rest of the room. Secondly, they are printed on high-gloss photographic paper, creating light reflections that make their visual contents difficult to recognise and that integrate the viewer into the picture. We appear in these rooms ourselves but – like the rooms themselves – in a ghostly form.
In the exhibition, in order to enhance this self-reflecting, spherical effect, this series is placed opposite the faceless, non-individualised but otherwise much more clearly discernible men in leather jackets. And if the latter images convey an obvious memento mori, a reminder of our own mortality, how much more so must it be with the ephemeral reflections of our shapes in the glossy surface of the green rooms?
The truth is truly not reassuring. And certainly not through the surreal, distorted appearance of the burnt-out cars, which only develop their impact as possibly real, gutted, fragmented forms of otherwise familiar objects through their contrast to the night. These cars reclaim their status as hunting targets because they are difficult to track down and only separate themselves quietly from the dark environment; yet they provide such wonderful pictorial motifs that one wonders if the artist himself weren’t the arsonist. It only takes one such thought about a possible staging of the motif, for the identity of “truth” to again be questioned.
The truth is not reassuring in the images of the fragile, far-too-beautiful seagulls against their black backgrounds; they appear to have been thrown into the air like paper airplanes, and they make the car wrecks opposite them suddenly seem so light that one fears that everything that could be identified as ashes would immediately be blown away. The truth is not reassuring in the paper doll-like, accordion effect of the leather jacket–clad men, nor in the juxtaposition of the ghost-like high-seat platforms and the ghost-like gaze from them – pictures that seem constantly to look back and forth at each other like an automated owl, to stick with the oft-used metaphor of the night-time hunt and hunters.
Björn Behrens’ works are about diverse truths, about truth after the truth, and also about the real truth of photography, for, as his series show, it is far from easy in this medium to hunt only the truth. In the end, the truth is too easily confused with the hunt itself.

Holding on and grasping.

Motifs in and behind Björn Behrens’ photographs

Yvonne Bialek

The truth is hard to grasp. It has not been proven to exist. Nonetheless, we rely on it constantly. Whether it concerns banalities of everyday life or existential decisions: We believe in the truth, trust in the truthfulness of the weather forecast, take the promises made by authorities at face value, and in general do not call the utterances of people we trust into question. We are often proven wrong. Still, we “hold fast to the truth,” in other words, we metaphorically transform something deeply abstract into a crutch that gives us stability and keeps us from falling. In our relationship with the truth, we accord photographs a paradoxical role. The photographic process was born in the 19th century from the spirit of science. Advances in physics and chemistry provided the foundations for fixing an image without being formed by human hand. That which was depicted would – according to the assumption – impress itself in the photograph on its own, like a trace of reality, and would therefore reproduce an unadulterated, true representation of itself. A pioneer of this time, William Henry Fox Talbot, explaining in 1839 how his house “Lacock Abbey” became an image on salt print, noted that this must be the first building that “was ever yet known to have drawn its own picture.”1 Fox Talbot called this process “photogenic drawing”: Not the hand of a man, but light alone created this drawing through the photographic process – but to him, the result remained a drawing once and for all. His choice of words brought the photograph close to art. But the recognition of photography as an artistic medium contradicted its documentary character and raised doubts about its ability to represent reality truthfully. This paved the way for the debate about the nature of the photograph: As either a document or work of art. The question as to the relationship of these images to reality has since driven this discourse, and it is precisely that moment of tension of withdrawing certainty that makes it an influential model of thinking.
Björn Behrens adds noteworthy positions to this discourse with his photographic oeuvre. The current context in which they come together is titled Nach der Wahrheit – “Based on Truth”, which right from the beginning, triggers irritation. “Based on Truth” must mean that the truth is a bygone moment here and that we find ourselves in a post-truthful phase. A condition without truth, however, is equal to free fall. “Imagine you are falling. But there is no ground,”2 writes Hito Steyerl in her text In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective, in which she refers to “societies as free-falling urban abysses”3 and asks, “if there is no stable ground available for our social lives and philosophical aspirations, the consequence must be a permanent, or at least intermittent state of free fall for subjects and objects alike.”4 If one follows Steyerl’s hypothesis, it is not surprising to find the motif of grasping recurring in Björn Behrens’ photographs. 
In the series Trost der Anderen (Consolation of the others), he confronts the motif and the viewer with a risky situation: one strain of the picture story takes place in the ­dizzying heights of a diving board. One sees parts of naked bodies of youthful, male divers, standing out against the dark surroundings in the very bright light of the flash. Their faces are turned away from the camera, their facial expressions remain concealed, and so one cannot read their feelings as they wait to jump. Is it anticipation or fear that drives them? An inherent tension can be sensed in the images, as the viewer assumes the situation of the protagonists. The composition of the image, taken from a steep perspective, enhances this tension even more. If one attempts to localize the photographer’s vantage point – he seems to be hovering someplace even higher than the diving board – the setting becomes entirely precarious. This tension is heightened through the pairing of the divers with their doppelgangers or adversaries – the interpretation is intentionally left open here: Each diver is accompanied by the image of a dog. Man’s best friend, depicted here as a forlorn, tousled loner, brings up various associations in the analogy with the adolescents, from familiarity and friendship to wildness and danger. All interpretations appear to hang in the balance, like the photographer himself. 
Perhaps that is precisely why the images radiate an aura of dignified calm. The bodies hold the tension. The moment of waiting is frozen in the image. It is not the spectacular leap that is depicted, not the falling, but the physical and psychological tension before the event. The holding and grasping of the moment itself becomes the main motif. The figures stand still for the photograph – but also in the photograph itself. They refer to the ability of photography to interrupt the flow of time and to form the events of this precise moment in an image. In their tension-filled waiting, the protagonists are simultaneously performing an action: Their hands reach for the balustrades of the diving tower, grasp the bars, hold on to them. The architectural structures that resemble abstract ornaments do fulfill a concrete purpose: They are a crutch for the protagonists, whose hands seek them out, find and grasp them.
The motif of grasping is to be found again in the series Memento Moriendum Esse. Let us first observe the scene into which the photographer takes us: In the smoke-filled dive with a broken cigarette machine and badly worn furniture, amidst the fog of alcohol and sweat, numbed by the bass and the hoarse voices of patrons who are drunkenly talking into each others’ ears, a figure emerges from the darkness. The camera flash alone gives it form, separates it from its surroundings, in which it appears hunted, turned away from the camera. As if a natural impulse were compelling it to resist the image. It tries to remove its countenance from the scene as if having its picture taken equals a finality that it seeks to evade. Yet the photographer pushes the button precisely at this moment. The instant of having one’s picture taken is the event that captures this moment in spite of all ­resistance. What emerges is a kind of negative portrait. Little information about the identity of those depicted is to be seen. The images are reminiscent of the well-known series by August Sander, who catalogued types of people (tellingly divided into categories such as “The artist” or “The woman” etc.) in his photographs. Behrens’ main subjects, however, are not the guys but their attribute – the black leather jacket, a kind of unofficial uniform that practically makes them become one with their surrounding in being both camouflage and protection. The flash, however, renders visible all their creases and traces of wear. The leather jacket as a symbol of rebellion and freedom seems rather outdated.5 The onetime heroes are seeking stability; the motif of grasping returns.
It is interesting to note that Behrens’ chosen materiality for these images of tumbling has clear connotations: The photographs are printed on newspaper. The heaviness of the content is countered by the material’s lightness. In the exhibition space, the images thus gain momentum, seem practically unencumbered, resist the moment of falling through an inferred upward movement. With regard to reality, the newspaper strongly suggests a trustful reading; after all, printed media has long been considered a guarantor for the dissemination of credible information.
Consequently, the title of the next complex of works, which consists of three series, is Based on Truth. The title is a transformation of the figure of speech “based on a true story,” which, as in the half-title of novels or the opening credits in feature films, sheds light on the relationship between the content of the story to reality: what follows is based on truth, but is now something completely different, namely fiction (in other words, something “made up”). Further contradictions are formulated in the series by pairing opposites at the motif level. Lightness and heaviness encounter each other: In the first series of the picture story, seagulls in flight are depicted against a black background; in the second one, burned-out cars. These images, which resemble photographs of crime scenes, testify to destruction and violence. They are witnesses to a car burning that actually took place. We can read the event in the photographs without it being depicted, by interpreting the traces left behind by the fire. We see car wrecks, but we also see Charles Sanders Peirce’s model for explaining the index: smoke refers to fire, and this causal chain creates meaning.6 Here, this process of interpretation is exemplified in the image, and at the same time it refers to the definition of the photograph as a trace of reality. “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” the saying goes, suggesting that there’s a bit of truth in every rumor. The images may not show the billowing fire, but they do show a trace gone cold.
The situation is completely different with the almost abstract images in black and green. They embody the direct presence of the context in which they were created and presented. They are site-specific works that unite the places of their creation and presentation. They also combine two further components of the image into one coin, one side of which cannot exist without the other: The green light is the motif and agent of these photographs. It encompasses structures and makes them visible by making itself become visible. The architectural segments reflect the greenish rays of light and create an image – one is tempted to say – of themselves. Irrevocably, Talbot and the image making of “Lacock Abbey” come to mind. However, it is not the house but the photographer’s exhibition spaces that draw their own image here and imply this shift without it being named, a fundamental development of the context of photography since its invention.
As described at the outset, this story began with the hypothetical analogy of the photograph as a trace and thus as a witness of reality. In the final series of Based on Truth, which is also the final series of Nach der Wahrheit (Based on Truth), Björn Behrens shows that a photograph can be both a document and an abstract work of art, and provides proof that this is not a contradiction. One series of images shows wooden high-seats hunting platforms. These structures can barely be made out in the photographs; darkness dominates, one could maliciously call them poorly lit photos. And in fact, the light available to capture these images in the nightly surroundings was negligible. It came from a field camera that triggers infrared light and shoots a photo as soon as its sensor registers movement. The abstract images, which accompany the high-seats, bear witness to this moment of triggering the camera and the lightning in the nocturnal scene. Behrens mounted sheets of this light-sensitive photo paper in the peepholes of the wooden huts. The paper reacts directly when exposed to rays of light, gliding from white to black; a photogram emerges. In other words, this shot in the opposite direction from the field camera records the moment of being photographed; the abstract image clearly documents the photographic process as light shapes an image on paper. The composition is mostly camera-based and manages practically without the artist’s hand as it becomes an image. Nonetheless, we encounter these photographs in an art context. They are both visible documents of a true event, and highly constructed, almost abstract works of art. In the end, the highly complex composition of the images seeks to show something very simple: an actual event. “[F]alling does not only mean falling apart, it can also mean a new certainty falling into place,” writes Hito Steyerl as the conclusion of her hypothesis.7 If photographs as we encounter them here are capable of firstly bearing witness and secondly being material images, perhaps this is why we – in our state of being without security or stability, a state in which nothing seems truthful or fixed – ­continue to literally hold on to them.

1 Cf. William Henry Fox Talbot, The Pencil of Nature. Facsimile-reprint of London issue 1844. Ed. by Colin Harding. Chicago, London 2011.
2 Hito Steyerl, “In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective,” in: (Hito Steyerl) The Wretched off the Screen, Berlin 2012, 13.
3 Steyerl, 26.
4 Steyerl, 13.
5 It is telling that the clothing manufacturer GAP is advertising a leather jacket in its current winter collection with the slogan: “The universal symbol of rebellion. Or not.” And thus refers – rather unconsciously – to the transformation of the symbol into a commodity.
6 Justus Buchler (ed.), Philosophical Writings of Peirce, New York 1955, 107–111.
7 Steyerl, 28.