Q&A with Rachel Reupke: Constructing the stock image
“Clean, mirror, indoors domestic room, close-up, panning, reflection, colour image, hotel room, real time, no people, establishing shots…” The preceding series of Internet search terms describes some of the quotidian habits and objects examined in the video and installation work of Rachel Reupke. Sourced from royalty-free stock footage libraries, Reupke appropriates a range of still and moving imagery to consider the combined impact of technology and seductive language of advertising on our daily lives. Previously showing the video 10 Seconds or Greater (2009) as part of the Artists’ Film Club series at the ICA in 2011, Reupke returns to the institution on the occasion of the LUX / ICA Moving Image Biennial for a screening of her video Containing Matters of No Very Peaceable Colour (2009), included in the film programme A Blurred Boundary is still a Boundary, curated by Shama Khanna.
AMY BUDD: The soundtrack to Containing Matters of No Very Peaceable Colour (2009) comprises computerised descriptions of advertising, which seem to bear no direct relation to the oblique series of towel images depicted on screen. How would you describe the association between moving image and sound here, and why this particular combination?
RACHEL REUPKE: Towels are often used to dress a location for a shoot. Fresh piles of towels symbolise well-being, luxury and wealth. I was playing with the idea that through a reading of the quality of the towels: differences in fluffiness, colour and arrangement. The viewer might nonetheless understand something of the commercial message of the unseen clip. The audio lists the search terms used to catalogue the various clips, and towels are always listed as a feature. I presented the towels in isolation to encourage a closer reading of both the objects, and of the text, which, while factually describing everything ‘in shot’ can be interpreted in myriad different ways, depending on which words trigger what in the imagination of each viewer.
AB: Including the image search terms into your work, through sound but also your video titles, seems to add texture and context to the footage, while meaning remains elusive. Is this to allude to the economy of stock imagery, the way its produced, categorised and disseminated online, as much as the ambiguity of its content?
RR: A man selling paintings at a boot sale recently told me that pictures of boats sold particularly well. Likewise with stock footage, certain types of image sell better than others. I was interested in both the choices of keywords used, as an indication of what was desirable within a marketing image (towels, for example) and, more specifically, what type of person was desirable within a marketing image (which gender, age, race, and so on). These identities could be read as either the target audience for the clip, or something more aspirational.
AB: What is it about these type of images, with their banal visual language and myriad of associations, that is of interest to you?
RR: There is something very interesting in the contrast between the content and the style of some of this material. There’s one clip of an elderly couple walking in a beautiful sunlit wood. The man has a heart attack and the woman calls for help on her mobile phone. The lack of context – that this isn’t part of a bigger story – as well as the bad acting and the style of cinematography makes this terrible event possible to watch. Anything more realistic would render the clip too traumatic. So it is a banal visual register that allows the literal representation of a difficult subject. And I am particularly interested in difficult subjects, or lets say embarrassing and mundane subjects – health, loneliness, general worry etc.
AB: Your work has previously been described as interrogating the social tastes, trends and habits promoted by commercial advertising. Is there a political dimension to your work, where you’re attempting to critique the social stereotypes and lifestyle choices habitually endorsed through popular media?
RR: I think of social stereotypes as a kind of control (as in a scientific experiment) against which you can compare your own ‘progress’ through life. The point when the control bears little or no resemblance to your reality is an interesting position. The contradictory impulse to both submit to and resist the pleasures of social conformity is a quiet question that underwrites quite a lot of my work. Of course, the stereotype is often a faulty one (a political construct or simply out of date), which makes this dilemma all the more complex.
AB: To talk more formally about your modes of production, once appropriated, you subject the images to a series of manipulations. You animate or edit them into larger digital assemblages. Is this to drive them further from the ‘real’ physical objects they represent, to highlight the inherent artificiality in these images?
RR: I think the construction of the images is an attempt to highlight the artificiality of this type of footage, rather than the digital object itself. The way I ‘arranged’ the towels is slightly ridiculous and totally over the top as dressing for a location shoot, so I was pushing the aesthetic of the clip as a whole, including the part you have to imagine – somewhere slightly strange.
AB: The clip with the towels and search terms descriptions is followed by an unexpected sequence of abstracted bathroom tiles and dance music at the end. Why did you decide to include these two distinct visual registers in the same video?
RR: I wanted to take the viewer from this highly constructed world of advertising and the imagination, and place them back in the real world at the end of the video. The photography is amateurish (positively lazy), the tiles aren’t totally clean, flash bounces of the surfaces. And there are no clean towels.
AB: Given that it has this highly constructed aesthetic, it’s tempting to read the video through the lens of online image distribution. Hito Steyerl states that Internet users become the “editors, critics, translators and co-authors” of the widely available yet aesthetically degraded poor image. Do you see yourself as occupying a similarly complex position, both co-author and critic of the stock image?
RR: I’m not sure about co-author. I haven’t, after all, put the work back out into the Internet marketplace. And except for the one clip of the woman dabbing her nose, and the search terms, everything else is from other sources.
AB: The content of Containing Matters of No Very Peaceable Colour has also appeared in other formats, such as installation, where sculptural assemblages of towels are paired with text-based advertising descriptions. Was this an attempt to take the 2D image outside of its digital context, and render it as something more tangible, more physical?
RR: The installation was really a formal experiment. I wanted to see if it was possible to translate a digital collage made up of identical, duplicated units into something three-dimensional, made up of identical, duplicated units (mass produced towels, for instance), and still retain this constructed fantasy quality. It half worked…What was interesting was the loss of control over the viewer, and I realised that being in control of the looking (the style of camera movement, for example) was an incredibly important part of the work.
AB: The video is being screened in one of the cinemas at the ICA, as part of the biennial, but I imagine this isn’t the usual context in which a viewer would encounter your work. How important are the viewing conditions in understanding the content of the videos? Would you prefer it if they were experienced through the television monitor or via a flat screen surface?
RR: Containing Matters was originally made for the Internet, but I love seeing it in the cinema. It turns into a bit of a monster – these huge fluffy piles of towels…What the cinema does to scale and sound is incredibly seductive. I’m fairly promiscuous in how I screen work. I enjoy the change in contexts.
A Blurred Boundary is still a Boundary, curated by Shama Khanna, Friday 25 May, 4pm, ICA Cinema 1 (followed by Q&A with the curator) and Sunday 27 May, 4.30pm, ICA Cinema 2