Thomas Kneubühler in conversation with Andreas Rutkauskas
Interview for the three-part exhibition «Dark Matter», Montreal, 2015
AR: Dark Matter unites two recent projects, Days in Night, and Land Claim. How are they connected?
TK: There is first a geographic connection since both deal with Canada’s far North. But there is also the theme of darkness. Days in Night is about the Polar Night, the limits of how much we can see, and the experience of living in the dark. Land Claim is about mining, which in the case of an underground mine takes place in darkness as well. Mine sites are not easily accessible, they are very controlled territories and hidden from the public eye. They are also in the dark in that sense, as there is a lot of secrecy around the mining business.
AR: How do you approach such a hidden subject?
TK: This is of course a challenge, but it is also the core of many of my projects: How do you access something inaccessible? How do you make something visible which is otherwise hidden? It starts with doing research on a subject. You also have to negotiate in order to get access to a specific site. In the case of Land claim, I went to a mine site in Nunavik, which is only accessible by a company plane. So the only way to get there is through the company. I had to negotiate for six months to get access, and once I was there, everything was controlled by the communication department.
AR: That mine is owned by a corporation based in Zug, Switzerland.
TK: It used to belong to a Canadian company, but then it was swallowed by an international corporation, which is using Zug as a tax haven. The mining business is global these days, yet the mining sites are more and more in remote locations. There is a tension between the local and the global.
AR: A lot of your work is about power, or power structures. In previous projects, you looked at office buildings, transmission lines and security guards.
TK: Historically, photography has looked elesewhere. There is an abundance of work which shows people or places on the margin. There is not much work which looks at power, for a good reason. When you are in power, you have also the resources to control your image.
AR: Do you see your work as political?
TK: It really depends how you define political, but I definitely care about social issues. My work is a way to look at the world differently, and hopefully that initiates a discourse.
AR: You show your projects regularly in Europe. Is the perception different than in North America?
TK: I am always surprised how in Europe they pick up on environmental issues much faster than here. I guess the audience is more sensitive to these issues. When I showed Office 2000 in France and Switzerland, I was always asked why lights are turned on in these buildings at night. It is also more common to see social or political issues in contemporary art, so people are open to these questions.
AR: You only started to work with video a couple of years ago. What made you interested in that medium?
TK: When I still lived in Basel, I programmed a cinema, so film and video was always important to me. With my own work, my background is photography, and you probably will notice it when you look at my videos, as I often work with still images. What brought me to video is the possibility to combine images with sound. For Forward Looking Statements, the starting point was a soundtrack of a conference call by investors of a planned iron mine. For Days in Night, I did an audio interview, and then combined it with one still image, which is slowly changing.
AR: Days in Night, and also your other video works, have been shown both as screenings and as installations in exhibitions. Which do you prefer?
TK: It really depends; there are advantages to both. With a screening in a theater, the audience is often more focused. With a gallery situation, you have better control over your work, you can create a context around it which helps the reading of the work.