In a follow up to our article on the premiere of artist and tattooist David Schiesser’s exhibition, “Spectator Mode,” we speak with him about the conceptual questions behind his many projects. Schiesser elaborates on ideas of representation, perspective, and dimensionality in his multimedia line-drawings, considering the implications of digital technologies and their effects on embodiment.
In the text that accompanied your August exhibition, “Spectator Mode,” you speak of the "limits of the line" as a set of questions about representation. You explain your aerial depictions (and the impossible perspectives attached to them) as explorations in preserving recognizable forms at the edges of planarity, perspective, and dimensionality. One of the tensions animating this work is that the scenes depicted will collapse into something illegible or unrecognizable. These problems of representation are also your way of asking questions about embodiment and its absence. Why the conjunction of those two themes—(dis)embodiment and representation?
Understanding representation as an abstract depiction of what’s real—the idea of a simple, informal line and its boundaries remains my focus. In these informal and efficient line-drawings, the question of perspective is always linked to the human body itself: for example, we are used to seeing trees from the side, airplanes from underneath, and a mouse from above. It follows that it’s more or less logical to use viewer perspectives for informal representations. That said, a line itself—one executed by hand—is always a direct trace of the creator’s body, the movement that the hand leaves. In that sense, my approach was to separate the body from its representation. I was researching pictures created by external devices and machines in order to find solutions for line-drawing. Through the conjunction of these two themes I researched line-based representations through perspectives that were new for me. It’s a form of exercise that probes the boundaries of the media themselves, and explores how they resonate with the mass of images produced by extended devices. The limits of the line? As soon as we estrange our learned and inhabited perspectives (by looking from above, for example), we’re confronted with totally new strategies of representation.
All image and video copyright David Schiesser. The accompanying images are selections from Schiesser's oeuvre. For images on his August exhibition, "Spectator Mode," see part one of this feature.
This inquiry into the limits of the line is also a kind of testing—there is something very technical and calculated amid the spontaneity. That testing seems to me like a constant refining of the parameters of the line—so that by leaving out shading, color, and so on you are actually attempting to get at a depiction which is more precise. These technical limitations you impose on yourself while making each piece—as in your book "Extra, Extra," which consists solely of drawings done on A5 paper—are also things it seems you want to transmit to your viewers. For example, you mention that limitation forces you to realize the essence of every idea, and it is that essence which you want to pass on to the viewer when you suggest your drawings be read as "freeze frames."
It is definitely right to interpret these drawings as form of research and refining. But they are also assemblages—a constantly growing collection of representations of things, shapes, narrations, and documentations. It’s kind of a personal archive. The format and the technique allow me to produce a large quantity of these drawings; it’s very efficient. I attempt to show a broad spectrum of motifs and their interrelations, all of which are linked by the formal simplicity of the line. What might seem to happen spontaneously always includes experience—the years of learning how to draw and finding one’s own solutions. So yes, it seems to be spontaneous and quick, but as you said it‘s technical, calculated, and requires training. Some of the drawings can be read as stills; as a distilled representation of a moment which took place before and after the drawing.
In "Spectator Mode," your exploration of the limits of the line also stages their disappearance. You associate these drawings with the loss of embodiment and floating perspective associated both with contemporary first-person shooter video games as well as the ubiquitous surveillance of technologies such as satellite mapping and drones. What distinguishes these points of view from earlier perspectives is not only the fact that they're aerial but that they tend to occupy impossible positions. It is common to discuss these perspectives in terms of a loss of materiality—as perspectives that only machines have—and your example of "Spectator Mode" only occurring after a player has died in-game only reinforces that. How do you understand the question of materiality in the drawings you create?
By using these aerial perspectives, I embody those technologies. These drawings represent the view of drones, satellites, but also of birds, or simply humans looking downwards. In general, I tried to accumulate different aerial perspectives, also to show what differences appear based on the distance of the viewpoint from the ground. This might also explain why the device itself is never shown—it’s a view through its lens.
I‘m inspired by the fact that we get more and more familiar with perspectives we would not otherwise be able to occupy due to the restrictions that are a part of our bodies. We learn to use these external devices and on my canvases I tend to show screens and smartphones. Through these tools we consume and use the pictures produced by satellites or drones. The screen becomes the all-over filter for visual material. So in terms of the loss of materiality through those aerial perspectives, I think we could say that the screen is the rectangle where all the perspectives—both those that are “possible” and those that are “impossible”—reassemble.
"I‘m inspired by the fact that we get more and more familiar with perspectives we would not otherwise be able to occupy due to the restrictions that are a part of our bodies…I think we could say that the screen is the rectangle where all the perspectives—both those that are 'possible' and those that are 'impossible'—reassemble."
Where does tattooing fit into these questions about embodiment? It is the case that much of our encounters with tattooing today are rather with images of tattoos. These images also seem to activate some of the tropes we've discussed so far: they are everywhere; they do not necessarily have any material correspondence, or in any case that material connection is not the point. In contrast, tattooing as a practice almost literalizes a form of embodiment through pain, fatigue, physical contact, and so forth. How do you understand the relation between the themes you've explored in your exhibition and its relation to tattooing as a practice?
I guess we already occupy the idea of “Spector Mode” in our use of Google Maps to move from points A to B, by using drones as observation devices, mapping out the world in a desire to have a certain overview or supervision of our planet. And those desires are always definitely linked to our body with its limitation and potentials. My practice of tattooing might have made me sensitive to the transformations occurring between flat surfaces and three-dimensional ones. The process of drawing on a paper, applying it to a three-dimensional surface such as skin, and then taking a picture of the completed tattoo with a smartphone in order to show it on Instagram contains complex transformations between 2D and 3D, and it requires enrolling surfaces in order to make them commensurate with our viewing habits. And these habits themselves are always dependent on the devices and technology available at any given moment. As humans, we tend to flatten the things if they are to inform us. So this whole problem of (dis)embodiment is also linked to our requirements for flatness.
In the end, somehow everything ends on our smartphones. I‘m answering your questions with it. I’m using the Google Maps app in order to drive across the United States right now. Either I look out the window and have a side perspective, or I look at my phone and see the same place from above.
From drawing, to tattoo, to image—how do you understand this process (and its attendant transformation of surfaces) in each of its moments?
The relation between the flat and the three-dimensional is a good way to finish our talk. I wrote my MFA thesis on the enrolment of surfaces as a strategy of visualization. This might sound like a basic concern if only its geometrical implications are considered. Rather than focusing on the geometry of organic surfaces, I am interested in problems of projection such as when one attempts to display the surface of the world in a rectangular map. Invariably there are distortions or cracks in the unfolded, flattened surface.
In tattooing there are definitely strong dependencies between the craft itself and its digital reception. Instagram, for example, is a very good tool for tattooers to show their work. Knowing you have to document the surface of the body for a screen requires a certain strategy, especially around cylindrical body parts. For example, a full sleeve will often be displayed as many different pictures merged together. The tattooer basically manipulates the dimensionality of the tattooed skin, making it refer back to the original state of the design as a drawing on paper. This strategy is becoming more rare with the use of the video function, which is able to follow the surface of the skin in time.
The consumption of art through screens filters and flattens our whole reception of it. I think it’s not noted often enough that people interested in art and culture see most of it in books and even more on computers and phones. Compared to the painting or the drawing, where ‘flatness’ is a component of the medium itself, photography of a tattoo or a sculpture is something that differs drastically from the original referent.
I’ve often thought about the photography of tattoos: it is photography which conserves the tattoo and makes it last 'forever,’ whereas on skin it changes in time and usually dies along with the person. It is the flatness or the data of the photograph which makes it fluid, archivable, displayable, and also anonymous again. As soon as the tattoo switches into a photograph, the unwieldiness of the medium, skin (in which a tattoo is painful to apply, sticks to one human, changes in time, is hard to display, and requires a certain commitment on the part of the bearer), changes into a certain power within the photograph. It still resonates with us when we see it on a screen, but it’s also a flat photograph, with all of the advantages and disadvantages that implies.