Umbigo x Paul Hutchinson
in conversation with Josseline Black
Has your artistic practice changed through isolation?
In a way it does affect my work, because usually I would be surrounded by more people, and therefore more people would appear in it. Now, it’s more secluded in the way that I am spending more time with my family and my girlfriend and her kids, and there is less social interaction outside of that. On the other hand, the energy goes elsewhere. So I don’t really mind. From the beginning of March to the beginning of May we had a pretty tight lockdown here in Germany. But I personally found it calming as, usually, I would have to travel a lot for work and meet people and the lockdown provided space to refocus my energies. I continued working 5 days a week, wrote more, finished a book design.
What is your approach to collaboration at the moment?
I don’t really work on any particular collaborative project at the moment but a lot of my work comes to life through conversations I have with family and friends. Things I think about in my daily life. I guess that’s my form of ongoing collaboration. Dialogue is really essential to me.
With your book Pictures and Words (2018) did you generate the text out of dialogue?
No, the texts don’t stem from dialogues. But, similar to my photography, a lot of my writing happens on the go, in the ubahn, on the bus, while I’m traveling – it can be two words or two hundred that I note down. I have an archive email address I send these texts to. And then I’d usually start further working on them / with them whenever I find time and purpose to do so: a book project, a reading, a magazine contribution. A lot happens subconsciously. There is a good term in German, Kunstwille. Aiming for something to be art. And I try to refrain from that and let the work come of itself, not to force it too much. I think art shouldn't be about the desire to make work, but about the work itself.
How would you define the present moment, metaphysically/literally/symbolically?
I guess we’re experiencing a point of transformation in the world. And to be honest I am optimistic about that. A lot of things weren’t going too well in the world, I believe. And maybe it wasn’t so obvious to people. But now due to the pandemic some things have become more visible. The gain of few due to the work of many – seems ever more apparent. That’s painful. But I think people can actually learn from that, and try to make a change. Not wanting to disregard the obvious suffering and many negative things this pandemic causes. But I do think this can also be a time of optimism.
Do you see the potential for renewed support for cultural production in spite of macro and micro economies which are currently rapidly restructuring?
Being in Germany…we are very lucky to be here. I received a grant on behalf of Corona, which really helped me, whereas in other countries people don’t get anything. But within that privileged context, I think the problem lies elsewhere: The opportunities for creative production are still relatively hard to reach and elitist within German society. And therefore such an occupation can seem far-away and mysterious to people of the general public. Though we receive a lot of appreciation from the state as practicing artists, by means of funding opportunities, free higher education, healthcare infrastructure, I think it’s almost more important to break down the borders between the supposed „Elfenbeinturm“ (ivory tower) of artistic production and other members of society. We are all workers, essentially. And there’s no mysticism behind, for example, what I do.
How do you feel this time is influencing your perception of alterity in general?
I think at the moment it’s a little difficult actually because people increasingly rely on media from their own bubble, fed through often commercially minded algorithms. So, less and less people are they faced with things they don’t know. This is dangerous because through social media you can easily fall into the trap of only seeing your own thought reflected. Particularly at times like these when one relies so much on digital media, people need to face the other, the unknown. I think being aware of the things you don’t know, your own blindspots and fallibility, is ever more important as unlimited to access to information can easily create an illusion of knowledge.
Is there a connection between working with portraiture and solidarity?
Yes, I think that connection is empathy. Actually that’s a really important word within visual discourse, especially photography. I wouldn’t say I could make a good image of someone that I despise. I can only make a good image of people that I feel close to or that I have some admiration for. That needs to be the baseline for me to work. Once in a while, however, I get the opportunity to steer away a little from my usual mode of making portraits. For example, last Autumn I was asked by the Münchener Kammerspiele theatre in Munich, which is a very well known, politically active theatre and to portray their actors. I was flattered by the invitation and met 32 people there who I previously didn’t know. Within an hour or an hour and a half each, I would have to establish some kind of personal connection to justify my particular way of trying to make a valid representation of someone. So that was really interesting. Some of these encounters where really touching and I believe you can tell in the images. But that’s an extraordinary situation obviously.
Your most recent publication, Stadt für Alle (transl. City for All), can you speak a bit about it’s content?
While I was working on it, it carried the working title “Ugly baby”. It’s 240 pages thick but relatively small in dimensions, a mono-thematic investigation. It basically looks at the changes we are experiencing in society, mainly taking as example the gentrification of inner city Berlin: A lot of previously state-owned property was sold off in the early 2000s because the city was broke. The results of that we are experiencing today with investors building plastic luxury real estate and invading large parts of the inner city. In turn, rents skyrocket on regular flats. A few years ago I noticed myself photographing these construction sites, and the architecture of these buildings some of which I find highly questionable. These kinds of images accumulated over time, and in 2019 I realised that I had to do something with them. It took another year to gather funding and finish my working on the texts that are also included in the book. Stadt für Alle raises the question of who the city is built for. Overall I guess it’s a pretty well-known and somewhat pathetic narrative any major metropolis goes through from time to time. Just with Berlin I obviously feel personally affected as I witness my own culture being pushed out. And the velocity of this happening seems so particularly vulgar. Famously liberal values being turned into neo-liberal competition.
What is your utopia now?
Hard to say but I guess my utopia is a sense of justness. There will always be a certain divide, and I don’t want to seem too naive, but even in my short lifespan I’ve seen the gap between rich and poor widening, especially in urban contexts, and I want to question that. I lived in London for 2.5 years and I’ve seen what an increasingly profit-driven system can do. I simply don’t think it’s healthy for people, even people with money. And I want to question what that system does to me, my body, how it pulls apart my home. Upholding these values and questions within the art world is obviously difficult, too. Another system whose mechanism are questionable. But on the other hand there will always be money involved and wealthy individuals, institutions or the state will have to support practitioners without monetary means. I fully believe that, eventually, a healthy discourse is beneficial for society as a whole and that that kind of investment will pay off at some stage. Despite my earlier criticism, I always felt that Britain, for example, is great at making art accessible to the public and tearing down supposedly intellectual barriers and this inherent perception of class I often feel in Germany. Then again, here we have the system of the Kunstvereine in Germany, which are great for critical discourse and showcasing voices that might be overlooked by larger institutions. I guess everyone tries their best in their own way.
What are you reading at the moment?
I‘m currently looking at the journalistic side of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ writing. He is similar to Orwell in that way that they both were mainly journalists, which I find really interesting. Both their writing is really easy to read and I find it really enjoyable, especially the non-fiction. There is another book, only recently published, on Marquez’s speeches. It’s only a tiny book, a compilation of speeches he held all over the world. It’s full of humor and warmth and to me it’s really inspiring how he manages to disguise his thinking on social injustice and class somewhere within that. He basically does the same in his prose writing. After all, I guess that’s something I try to do with my work as well – provide somehow appealing hints that tempt people into thinking about the larger issues we’re all facing.
interview with Josseline Black, published in February issue of "Umbigo Magazine", 2021