(This article first appeared on NeoAztlán in 2008.)
By Kate Green
Beat Streuli shoots images for his large-scale photographs, videos and photographic installations in dense urban spaces. Focusing on single people in crowds, his works capture both the daily drama of individuals and the rhythm of the multitude. Titled by the city where and date when they were taken, each image is site-specific yet universal. The portraits present the people and styles in the city at the moment and the feeling of being alone yet surrounded.
Streuli’s camera transforms the everyday action of the public sphere into the extraordinary, combining the history of street photography with the more exclusionary realm of contemporary art. The works pivot between the popular and the conceptual, both portraying and engaging the eyes of all.
Kate Green: Much has been written about the ability of your work’s mapping of urban space. Do you feel like your projects only work in cities? Are they more about density of people then urbanity (or maybe the two are one in the same)? Do you frequently shoot in urban sites because density is easiest to capture there?
Beat Streuli: Ever since I moved out of my parents’ house, I have lived in cities. For some reason, I never even thought about moving somewhere else than to another city. It’s the same with travelling. Beach holidays excepted, it has mostly been big cities.
I don’t think this is a very important, conscious decision of mine. It just happens that a lot of people spend most of their time in cities. What you call “density,” or the constant flow of people to meet or just to watch – and the tons of things to see – must be a main attraction and also a bit of an addiction. “Density” also in the sense of a condensed image of life and the world in general.
In my work, I have simply tried to deal with what’s on my doorstep wherever I have lived or spent some time. I was hardly ever searching for something, rather trying to avoid “intentions” and work in some sort of an “écriture automatique” kind of way.
KG: What else is it about shooting in urban spaces that most excites you? Is it the anonymity?
BS: The somewhat cliché expression “theater of modern life” probably describes what keeps me fascinated and working in urban spaces. Each day, you see so many different possibilities of how people live. I think I always found this mind-blowing – the sheer numbers and multitudes, watching all these people, sometimes trying to figure out what it might feel like to live and be like some of them.
It’s probably my curiosity about life and human beings (including myself) which drives me to try and catch glimpses of all the millions of different sides of reality. It’s true about the crowd and its anonymity, but it’s also the intimacy that comes with it that allows for more indulgent people-watching freedom. The number of people you actually meet and talk to is very limited. Watching is an important way to get the “broader picture.”
KG: You have had the opportunity to shoot images all over the world. What city or place has provided the most satisfying shooting experience and pictures?
BS: Right now, I am fascinated with Brussels. It’s where I spend most of my time these days. But it’s probably because it’s the most recent fascination.
New York was very important for me. Rome and Paris were the first cities I started to go into the direction of my current work. Most cities I have ever worked in have been a unique experience even smaller ones such as Marseille or Kraków.
In Brussels, I did not expect much in terms of taking pictures. It was more of a practical decision and a bit of a coincidence to move here. And then I found this unbelievably multicultural reality, again right on my doorstep. So, it has become quite natural to deal with a very different reality from my own where before I have not had nor imagined many opportunities.
KG: Has any city not lived up to your “shooting” expectations?
BS: No, but it’s true that some mostly commissioned work I’ve done (in some German cities, for example) turned out to be not that inspiring even when my expectations had not been overwhelming.
KG: Where are you shooting next?
BS: I am still photographing in Brussels in the immediate surroundings of where I live. Before, it was more around the large weekend markets in the city center (which is very nearby too) where lots of people from all parts of the city gather. Brussels is special in that many immigrants who in most other cities live in the suburbs, live right in the center.
Apart from that, this year I’d also like to photograph in some of the “really big” cities of the world. I’ve already spent some time in Mexico City and I might travel to China in the fall. Cairo is also on my wish list. After having explored very different realities in Brussels, I feel better able now to deal with these, to me, quite exotic places without falling into the objectifying photo journalism trap. There’s also a commission in Venice ahead and another maybe in San Francisco.
KG: Do you shoot pictures when you go to villages or the countryside?
BS: I have hardly ever photographed outside big cities. I did one large series of images on Australia’s most famous beach, Bondi Beach, and a commissioned slide installation in the Australian desert. I was really happy with the outcome of both projects, but, for some reason, I don’t see myself taking pictures in a village.
KG: Do you find the pictures that come out of commissioned or commercial work as compelling as your other work?
BS: I have hardly ever done commercial work. Not because I wasn’t interested, but doing my own work when there are lots of opportunities to show it is the priority. Also, most agencies are so used to working with commercial photographers in certain ways and structures that it’s hard for them to loosen up a bit.
I have worked on quite a lot of commissions though for museums and installations in or on public buildings like the window installation at the Dallas/Fort Worth airport. I also photographed Credit Suisse employees for one of their annual reports, but as with other similar projects, this was labeled an “artist’s project,” so there was quite a lot of freedom for me.
I find it inspiring to have to figure out slightly different ways of working by virtue of the obligations and limitations of a specific project. I always learn things I wouldn’t have otherwise and I get inspiration for my work, in general. There are also all the interesting people outside of contemporary art’s Ivory Tower I meet while working on these projects.
KG: Is the ethnic diversity in your recent work a conscious resistance to the prevalence of xenophobia at this political moment?
BS: Of course my work is very much trying to avoid messages, but it also presents realities in a certain way so it delivers visual material which is good starting point for talking about many issues. It might also already be some sort of a political thing to just see and show groups of people we usually just talk about in the sense of using them as figures that represent certain social or political realities.
To deal with those realities in unromantic, unexotic ways and not in a socially critical context is something I try to achieve.
The world will inevitably become more and more of a mixed place so it may be a good idea to open our eyes to it and our position in and towards it in a matter-of-fact way and from an everyday and visual point of view – not just an intellectual one.
KG: The candid gaze seems to be a focus in your work. Where does this interest come from for you?
BS: My parents subscribed to Du Magazine, a rather important Swiss publication which published great photography by Swiss photographers such as René Burri, Werner Bischof and Robert Frank. I liked them all very much.
As a teenager, I liked impressionist and other figurative painting. Later, I studied art for a few years and became fascinated by American minimal and conceptual art. I never studied photography and never really considered myself a “real” photographer even if I have probably become one by now. The background for my work was always art, not photo history, I think.
The “candid” aspect of a large part of my work to me is just a practical way of working. There’s simply no way of asking everybody for permission when working with street photography.
KG: What was your work like before you started exhibiting significantly in 1990?
BS: Almost immediately after my art studies, I started to work with photography as a medium almost exclusively. For a rather long time, my work looked more like Russian constructivism – montages of elements I had found on billboards, but also which I had photographed myself.
An artist like Gerhard Merz was an inspiration at the time, but also Barbara Kruger, among others. Basically, combinations of faces, text fragments and rather abstract objects all of which I later re-discovered in the urban space when I started to introduce more and more fragments of reality into my work.
I ended up with rather straightforward street photography, but in the context of contemporary art.
KG: What exhibition or commission experience has been most satisfying?
BS: Hard to tell…
There have been lots of great experiences. What comes to mind is maybe my participation at the Sydney Biennial curated by Jonathan Watkins in 1999. It was a huge billboard in the Central Business District of Sydney and the large slide installation shot on Bondi Beach I mentioned before.
Or the Oxford Street slide installation I did for London’s Tate Gallery. On a smaller scale, I think that my recent exhibition at Galerie Erna Hecey in Brussels was quite a success in the sense that the show came rather close to my vision and ambitions of a complex, well-choreographed and balanced view of some aspects of reality.
KG: Where would you like to present your work that you haven’t yet?
BS: Difficult to say. One never knows what comes up next, so it’s hard to wish for something specific. A few more large shows in really good museums might be top of the list, quite simply.
KG: What would be your ideal imaginary conversation between two people in front of one of your images? Which image would they be standing in front of?
BS: They might be driving by the window installation I did for Erna Hecey, catch a glimpse of the large, brightly backlit and colorful images of Brussels city life, and say, “Wow, looks great,” just as if they were passing some billboard not caring whether it’s art or not. That’s a casual way of answering your question.
KG: What artist or person whom you haven’t met (dead or alive) would you most like to discuss your work with?
BS: Maybe Jean-Luc Godard? He was a big influence on me in the beginning. Even if I haven’t seen much of his work in the last five or 10 years, I think he is an amazing figure and artist. I’m sure though that he’d be very critical of my work, so I’d have mixed feelings about just giving him a call.
Kate Green holds an M.A. from the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College and a PhD in Art History from the University of Texas at Austin. From 2001-2003 she worked at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center and Dia Art Foundation, both in New York. As a curator at Artpace San Antonio from 2003-2007 she developed single-artist shows with Trisha Donnelly, Kota Ezawa, Luis Gispert, and Frances Stark, among others, and group shows such as “City Maps,” “Power Play,” and “Spanglish.” She has contributed to publications such as Artlies, Art Papers, Modern Painters, and NeoAztlán.