INTERVIEW WITH MATTHIAS STEINKRAUS
Leona Koldehoff: The photographs in Rote Rose were produced in the area around New Kreuzberg Center within a period of seven years. Why did you begin exploring this neighborhood through photography?
Matthias Steinkraus: I started out in painting. Two years after I graduated, I was stuck in a dead end. To get through that somehow, I went to a lot of bars during that time. Now, I really like short walks, and the New Kreuzberg Center is in direct proximity to my home—and practically always on the way somewhere, regardless of where. Through this combination of circumstances I discovered that the whole thing would be good material for me. Initially, I had strong reservations about approaching this cluster of themes with a mechanical process for reproducing pictures. Above all, because it’s the only way I can behave toward the things I find. Ultimately, though, I dropped painting and decided in favor of photography.
LK: In one of our first conversations you talked a lot about the relationship between photographic technique, analog and digital photography, and the book’s theme. To what extent is the use of both photographic techniques relevant to the image?
MS: Beyond the material questions of photography, I was interested in contrasting both techniques, because that creates a framework for formally capturing the content you’re dealing with. The main starting point, after all, is always the question of what lies behind things. How should the present day be read, and how can you react accordingly through photography. The book, after all, is more than just a recording of this area during this time period; thanks to the use of the broad range of analog and digital photography available, it is also a technical one. This results in a kind of echo of cultural history, between an outmoded technology and the next one; the book is formatted for in between these two poles. What is essential here is that photography—the recording invention of the post and late industrial societies—directly reflects technological progress. If the technology changes, then photography changes with it. The present day is generally constituted by something that can be described as a period of transition. The motion away from analog, toward digital makes an enormous number of recording techniques available for the moment. In this new period of upheaval in the relationship between humans and technology, it would be a backward-looking approach to use only the one or the other.
LK: Do you think that photography is also about capturing something that is about to vanish with a camera? After all, on a visual level you often reflect upon the relationship between surfaces and the layers beneath them. Via the material qualities of the subject photographed, you arrive at one of the themes of the book that has already been addressed: the connection between the present and the past and their relationship.
MS: That is true, in a certain way. Regardless of what you’re opinion is about social documentaries, “capturing” something is still the agenda that’s inscribed in the process of documenting. I’ve always considered the bar at the corner as more of a shelter in an “unfortunately” planned urban utopia. Time-space capsules in which the “old” Kreuzberg is still perceptible, even as it vanishes in front of your door. When I decided to leave the bar to incorporate more of the broader surroundings, I have directed my gaze toward just these moments or situations, where something of the previous character of this part of the city is still visible. During these obligatory “patrols of the Kottbus” I tried to be open to everyone and everything, but at the same time to systematically scan the whole area for the moments mentioned.
LK: What kind of relationship do you see your works having to the other social documentarians and their usage of the medium?
MS: Social documentary photography is a dead genre. The usual declinations that you simply run through and conceive of, that can be used to explain something, aren’t interesting to me. Running through things from A to Z ruins everything. After all, I’m not breaking with traditional methods just for the sake of breaking with them, but because it corresponds to my form of truth. Especially when you have a look at what has already been handled formally in painting, how the most diverse “vocabularies” can be applied, of course you wonder why so few reflect on the material of the medium and what is depicted. It’s also remarkable how much takes place with a weakness for the serial. The serial is too serious for me. Maybe the closeness to the social documentary style can be best understood in the sense of an appropriation through imitation, which provides the commentary right along with it. So the problem is to be able to move as freely as possible within narrow boundaries. Heterogeneous visual material per se is already like a kind of resistance to the selected structure, which has predetermined the hidden course. Although I deliberately tried to leap over the obstacles. This also includes visually parodying certain clichés, exaggerating them, and including moments that you always stumble over in the course of reading the book. Under different auspices, I think, it is also no longer possible to show a disco ball.
LK: The portraits, on the other hand, work very differently. They are of people who are not as visible in between the hip young people with their carefully chosen clothes and the mostly Turkish community, but who still influence the area around New Kreuzberg Center. I think that many people who hold Rote Rose in their hands, or read this interview, won’t come into contact with them. How did you approach them?
MS: In terms of the portraits, I’d like to pre-empt the notion that I’m parodying people; rather, the parody is of social documentary and the motifs typical of the genre. But you’re right, it is a milieu that isn’t necessarily visible and accessible to most people. I’m curious by nature and can contact people quickly. I just approach them. With one or two exceptions, everything happened on a very cordial level. Initially, most people are skeptical, also because they notice that they aren’t often perceived. But as soon as they recognize an honest attitude, they’re pleased that someone is interested. The portraits, however, also reflect the encounters I had with people. Sometimes I was more of an observer of the situation, and sometimes I was more involved in events and in a direct exchange with the people in the portraits. So, in opposition to the usual pattern, I also appear as an interlocutor. Someone once told me that the way home from the bar can also be seen in some pictures. I thought that was a good way to describe my presence in my own work.
LK: What does the Rote Rose have to do with the projects you’re working on next?
MS: You always get stuck in different works somehow. But as far as Rote Rose is concerned, it’s the first of a three-part cycle about Kreuzberg in Berlin. The book is a condensation of eighty pictures from a piece that has a total of around three hundred photographs. There is a process underlying Rote Rose that is about to be completed. The ensuing project deals with the transformation and decay of neo-liberal architecture that dates back to the economic boom of the post-war era, and within the framework of the piece, deals with a development that has already occurred. The third part, on the other hand, examines the theme of life, with its absurd moments that one rarely sees in everyday experience. In the cycle each part takes on a specific way of realizing an autonomous character, which in itself, as well as in its entirety, makes it possible for each to be read on its own.
Leona Koldehoff (*1991) studied Art and Visual History as well as Philosophy in Berlin. She works as a curorial and artistic assistant.