What’s the red thread between the 1989 Monday demonstrations in Leipzig, the extras’ rebellion at the Cinecittà Studios in the ’50s, a Black Friday event, and social distancing measures? In his latest cycle of works, the German artist and filmmaker examines the power structures in group dynamics, social behavior, surveillance and mass manipulation.
Words by ADRIANA BLIDARU
Over the course of his artistic career, one of Clemens von Wedemeyer’s most intriguing subjects of investigation has been the visualization of how power shifts from the fringes to the center, by looking specifically at group dynamic and cinematic spaces.
Originally trained as a filmmaker, von Wedemeyer transitioned to art to expand his research and to experiment with different approaches in new media. Following the legacy of some of the directors that he admired for the way in which they challenged the relationship between reality and fiction (such as Antonioni, Andrei Tarkovsy, Aleksandr Sokurov), Wedemeyer’s own videos often intertwine historical and contemporary research with fantasy, allowing non-linear narratives to weave together in one body. Wedemeyer’s techniques differ from work to work: sometimes he hires a full cast of actors and a film crew, other times he films everything himself; sometimes his videos are a montage of surveillance camera footage, computer-generated images, and found footage, other times, a video is shot in one take. However, in exhibition-settings, his practice tends to expand beyond the moving image, into sculptures and installation.
What seems to be the most important aspect of the work for the artist, is the act of bringing into the foreground what usually lays “behind-the-scenes”, in order to ask new questions about things that otherwise might be completely overlooked or perceived as obvious. A few good examples of these instances, which also constitute major themes that appear to be cyclical in von Wedemeyer’s practice, are his interest in film extras, the concept of backstage or backdrop, and, perhaps most importantly, his ongoing interest in crowd psychology and its representation via different mediums: from film footage to data visualization.
Wedemeyer first started thinking about the changing dynamic of crowds and violence in 1999, when he used found-footage from the 1920s of mass demonstrations and clashes between communists and police and fascists. In the video, the focus shifts from one specific individual, to the body of the crowd, and through a process of overexposure and abstraction, the composition becomes a grey monochrome.
The video work Transformation Scenario, from 2018, is another investigation into how crowds are depicted via simulations fed by data. A dialogue between a man and a woman is juxtaposed with a variety of changing, interlaced images of crowds of people celebrating, praying, mourning and protesting, from the past, present, and in the form of simulations for the future. The dialogue is a kind of debate that, on one hand, is highlighting the tensions and anxieties around the accumulation of data by certain corporations to predict behavioral patterns, and, on the other hand, is presenting the possible advantages of avoiding certain unfavorable or dangerous situations through these predictions.
Von Wedemeyer’s most recent video work: 70.001, from 2019, uses computer animated crowds to recreate the Monday Demonstration in Leipzig. These demonstrations expanded throughout different cities in East Germany, and manifested sporadically over a period of three years, from 1989 to 1991. People gathered in city squares peacefully protesting against the German Democratic Republic (GDR), and the lack of freedom and opportunities in East Germany. In revisiting the history of the city in which he studied and in which he currently resides, von Wedeneyer wondered: what would have happened if the protesters never went home? Thousands of simulated bodies walk through a virtual Leipzig, as day and night revolve every 7 seconds in the video. The anxiety grows as the never-ending protest swallows faster and faster. Artificially generated sounds mix in with buzz from bees, horses galloping, and other familiar sounds, and feed into the original soundtrack of the protests.
Although 20 years apart, these three works seem to be following the same thread: investigating the representation of crowds via new and evolving technologies, and the impact that these representations might have on society.
But the questions that Clemens von Wedemeyer seems to instigate through these works, feel relevant today. He is asking: How is it that crowds ‘know’ how to behave as one? What is it about being in a crowd that brings about this social coherence? How is this social coherence controlled and further used, and for what? By whom? How has the image of crowds been evolving, and what’s the new specificity of this evolution?
In von Wedemeyer’s work there are no answers, only an inquiry. In the wake of the latest world-wide developments—the coronavirus global outbreak, overlapped, in the US and elsewhere, with the recent eruption of the BlackLivesMatter protests against systemic racism and the killing of George Floyd—questions of crowds behavior and social dynamics take on new relevance.
Clemens von Wedemeyer (German, b. 1974) is an artist working with film and media installations who lives and works in Berlin. He participated in group shows such as the 1st Moscow Biennale (2005), the 4th Berlin Biennale (2006), Skulptur Projekte Münster in 2007, the 16th Biennale of Sydney (2008) and dOCUMENTA (13) (2012). He had solo shows among others at MoMA PS1, New York; ARGOS Centre for Art and Media, Brussels; the Barbican Art Centre, London; Frankfurter Kunstverein; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Hamburger Kunsthalle.
Video courtesy of the artist and KOW, Berlin.
Photo credit: Jens Ziehe