Ed Atkins: “I Am Not an Authority on Who I Am”

Video Artist Ed Atkins Talks Post-Internet Identity

  • Interview: Timo Feldhaus
  • Photography: Christian Werner
  • Images/Photos Courtesy Of: The artist, Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi (Berlin), Cabinet Gallery (London), Gavin Brown’s Enterprise (New York, Rome) and dépendance (Brussels).

Good Wine, 2017

“I map the movement of my own face to that of the CGI model. It’s my face contorting, performing behind this immaterial mask—attached to my traumas and losses, whatever they are,” says Ed Atkins. An expert on melancholy, ennui, and death, Atkins is infamous for his hyper-realistic CGI format films, and the characters that he has generated within them. They occupy spaces in limbo, through various stages of anxiety.

When the video artist enters Cafe Einstein, one of Berlin’s older restaurants, he looks refreshed. Atkins just arrived from Italy, his first vacation—and the first time he’s tried to remain offline—in years. Born in 1982 in the UK, he currently lives and works in Germany’s capital. It is here where he became "one of the great artists of our time," according to Hans-Ulrich Obrist. Over the course of four hours and a few glasses of white wine, Timo Feldhaus chatted with Atkins about why he hates nostalgia, his very new experience of being a father, and the rise of artificial agency.

Good Wine, 2017

Good Wine, 2017

Timo Feldhaus

Ed Atkins

What is your main interest with your work?

I hope to make work that does not necessarily know what it is. At a certain point I became less and less interested in producing meaning—but instead a kind of uncertainty. I was always more interested in how something feels, rather than what it means.

You do almost all of your work on your own. I guess being a video artist is a very special way of living on this planet, no?

It’s very cowardly. I think about it all the time. Why am I doing this? I really like moving people. A lot. I totally want people to be impressed. I am a big believer in style, I suppose. Stylishness, rather than an inimitable style. And manner, and eloquence. I love words, I love images—I believe in that as some kind of fact. And I guess working on my own makes my work peculiar and unjustifiable. Though I feel alone, I work very closely—if remotely—with one animator, Adam Sinclair, who deals with so much of the technical stuff. I get to “find” the animation like that. Still, it’s deeply solitary in practice.

Ribbons, 2014

Hisser, 2015

Is there someone you look up to?

The genius animator and filmmaker Jan Švankmajer made a very big impression on me very early on. But generally speaking I tend to look up to people who have somehow done lots of different things. Polymathic people. I adore and admire people like David Bowie or Jim O’Rourke, for example.

That’s surprising. When I was watching all your videos I was very impressed by how early you had developed your style, which is quite rare.

But I don’t want that! What I actually want is to be unrecognisable, if profoundly styled.

You’ve said that your art is mostly driven by the existence of loss—why is that such an important thing for you?

The lost. Something you don’t know and so its retrieval is, at least temporarily, impossible. Thinking of art as something that’s ideally not solvable, that has no end, in terms of knowledge production. The loss of this enigmatic object, which remains unknown to me, is maybe the ground on which all art is made.

In your 2017 exhibition “Old Food,” shown in Berlin at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, the theme of Frankenstein played a subtle but important role. The Frankenstein monster is seemingly the first reference for an artificial intelligence.

Artificial intelligence strikes me as the most threatening in its profound banality. If you think of the decisions happening in the movement of capital and the movement of power and the giving over of agency slowly to the computer… It’s not Terminator, but more a slow, aimless, effortless process. The fact that I do not have to memorize information anymore, that we do not have to know what time it is because the thing knows, my phone knows. This is maybe less artificial intelligence but rather artificial agency. I would dearly love to not have to be online at all times, but it’s just a ridiculous idea, isn’t it? Why even make artificial intelligence at all? Why make life when life already exists? The crux of that desire.

Ribbons, 2014

Ribbons, 2014

We make it, because we can, right? That’s perhaps the only reason.

There is also a destructive desire in it—a bit of a death drive. Elon Musk doesn’t talk about these things because he is genuinely concerned—he is fucking excited about it and he lies in bed like, “Yeah, the robots are coming and it’s my fault!” It’s a bit like speculating on Mary Shelley losing pregnancies and writing about a monster that’s made of dead bodies. You never know the wellspring and it has no rational, commercial, or capital reason. I can say that technology has served me very well in my work but in a really straightforwardly literal way I mistrust this whole thing.

Because technology made you a successful and rich artist?

Rich, not particularly, but successful, yes.

Safe Conduct, 2016

On the other side you are doubtful and anxious about many of the things that are happening right now—neither of us could have predicted these things when we were 15 years old. Would a world without algorithms be a better world?

No. I hate nostalgia far more than I hate the idea of technology. I am completely ambivalent about what the internet, the digital, or computers really are. But I am sure it’s just about people, really. People using them badly, or whatever. I mean, I sort of marvel at my videos as well, because I don’t really know what’s going on in there, practically speaking. I think it’s probably important to find them faintly miraculous. For the animations I buy a digital “model” and customize it a bit and pose it and it looks right. Maybe it looks like me, in motion. It’s more of a discovery than it is a creation; more editing than generating.

The protagonists of your video works are old men, young men, apes, babies, poets, piano players—always men, never women. Why?

Because I am a man and I am white and middle-class and Western. The category that need not be named. I am privilege. But I also want to be able to speak, I suppose. But being all these categories, I want to speak negatively— to undo speech as well. A gesture that sucks it back—though of course that’s impossible. I don’t want to speak for anyone else. My work should have as much emotional autobiographical feeling as I can put into it without being explicitly about me in any way. But it’s a complicated thing. I remember this first meeting I had with a museum director. She had been watching my videos, we talked and she said, “Maybe you should just shut the fuck up for 2000 years.” And I was like, “Yeah, maybe, yeah,” I mean, it’s not a bad idea at all, I kind of agree!

up:down, in:out, 2017

But you want to make work.

I hope there is a way of speaking but not affirming these categorical, hegemonic totalities. I try to make work that has a relationship to these constructions of identity and that, then, is uncomfortable. For me, at least. Even to be in a position where voice is a question of a place of authority, that’s already huge. It’s not a matter of protecting oneself or being careful or correct—it’s precisely the opposite. What is the right configuration of speech, of productivity, that is reflexive enough to break itself down. I don’t want to stop. Her question was good. What the fuck is my voice for?

You once said you don’t like to look in the mirror.

Yes. I don’t like to look at myself. Because I am an ugly and fat piece of shit. I hate my body and I hate the way I look. The idea of doing these videos and animations is that you can control everything; it’s a kind of megalomania, and a corrective.

Safe Conduct, 2016

Is there a way out? Your way of storytelling is always fractured, your protagonists are interrupted, stressed, not always able to tell their story.

I like the idea of allowing other people to be incoherent. To not be understood. Like, that’s a right. Because in a way and so often, understanding is a kind of violence inflicted by the coherer. What does it mean if you allow yourself to not “get it”? Because often this is a point of frustration that triggers a violent response. But the frustration can also be an exquisite state, a great gift. For me, it is some kind of ultimate way to think about otherness: to first and foremost, allow the other to not cohere. People ask me questions about my work, which is great, but in the end I don’t know either. I am not an authority on why I am making the work, nor on who I am. I am seriously as incoherent to myself.

Are happy people a pain in the ass?

No! Naive people are. Happy people—that’s amazing. If it’s ever a pain in the ass it’s because I am not, because my sharing in that is foreclosed somehow. You can be happy sitting at home with your child playing, or drinking and chatting with someone you like, but the idea of being generally positive in the world is ridiculous. I guess I think life is very hard. More hard for some. Relatively easy for others—but still, hard. I think it’s hard to have a good time. But that’s okay, it should be.

Timo Feldhaus is a writer and the editor-in-chief of the Volksbühne Berlin.

  • Interview: Timo Feldhaus
  • Photography: Christian Werner
  • Images/Photos Courtesy Of: The artist, Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi (Berlin), Cabinet Gallery (London), Gavin Brown’s Enterprise (New York, Rome) and dépendance (Brussels).