Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin are a collaborative duo whose photography-based practice explores themes of institutional authority, surveillance, and consent in an era of rapid technological advances. Here they discuss their recent book, Spirit Is a Bone (Mack, 2015), as well as their first US solo exhibition, which is on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art through September 11, 2016.
IN MARK TWAIN’S 1905 pamphlet King Leopold’s Soliloquy, he assumes the persona of King Leopold bemoaning the arrival of the camera, the “incorruptible Kodak.” This new technology is able to bear witness to the atrocities the king was committing in the Congo, and undermining the lies that he could previously manage in the press. Surveillance, of course, has since reached new levels of horror. Our book Spirit Is a Bone uses technology developed in Moscow, just now being rolled out worldwide, which allows the state to create a three-dimensional photograph, a digital life mask, of citizens in crowded public places—made without any consent or knowledge. They call these “non-collaborative portraits,” and the phenomenon marks a fundamental shift in portraiture, where for the first time there is no relation between the imagemakers and the subject—the citizens. Using this same technology, we re-created August Sander’s entire life’s work in four days by casting all of his “categories” of people on the streets of Russia. Our poet is the wonderful Lev Rubinstein and the revolutionary is Yekaterina Samutsevich, from Pussy Riot.
We’ve spent some time in war zones, so when approaching new work, we decide to take some steps back and examine the beginnings of when young people give over to hierarchy, authority, and power. Virginia Woolf nailed it in Three Guineas, when she said that if men were not in control of education, business, and government, then perhaps there’d be a chance for peace. We gained access to a cadet camp in Liverpool—it’s a grim military base where schoolkids between the ages of seven and seventeen get sent to learn how to march, drum, drill, and obey orders. What we didn’t tell the military was that we were coming with a bouffon—a dark clown whose performance teeters on vulgarity. Each evening our bouffon held workshops with the kids, effectively getting them to unlearn the day’s discipline. This power play is the basis of our film Rudiments, which is currently showing at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
We typically work in spaces populated by journalists, not in an artist’s studio or on a film set. But we treat these settings as backdrops to a performance, a dance with authority that inevitably ends in us being booted out. We are curious about how these institutions of power function, from the military to psychiatric hospitals. The state’s increasingly insidious command of our lives is acutely troubling. As photographers we always try to remember that the technology of imagemaking is never morally neutral, that it always embodies the ideology of whoever uses it. So much of our work is about seduction—getting permission to enter these spaces to gain an understanding of the workings and then find some way of fucking them over, of exposing the machinery.