“Who do you think you are?”
My personal and historical heritage project is approaching it’s fifteenth year, growing, evolving and offering new possibilities and more aspects to research. I’ve now been investigating the Wałbrzych Mausoleum (1) since 2012 when Michał Wicher, an architectural heritage enthusiast based in nearby Wrocłow, asked me to look at it and I decided to create a visual interpretation from discoveries online — perhaps as a kind of remote digital archeology. The Attenborough Arts Centre of Leicester University have asked to exhibit this in their newly built gallery in 2020.
I thought that investigating the mausoleum — or its online manifestation — acted as a visual metaphor and focus for several layers of experience and questioning. This process grew out of my family connections with Germany, England and Europe that started in the 1960’s. History: personal; family; conflicts of culture and heritage; the idea of ‘forgetting’ “Don’t mention the war”; an interest in propaganda — both historical and contemporary; and new forms of fascism — whether political or corporate, and the qualities of how we learn, see and process both digital information and fictions. Although there is no official information online, images of the much graffitied 1930’s ruin pointed it to being a document recording a century of European history through a piece of architectural propaganda.
Q&A WITH MIK GODLEY:
CC: What do you hope to achieve though merging history with new technology?
MG: On a personal level, I grew up in the Yorkshire coal fields during the 60s and 70s, so not that long after the war. When I got to school I realised that it wasn’t healthy to be half German, so for survival’s sake refused to speak German, spoke like a native (to my parents despair) and sadly rejected half of my heritage.
I’d not been interested in the rote learned history of the dates of kings and queens of England in my very academic schooling, I knew a lot more about art history than “real” history, so accessible technology later gave me a “way in” as the Internet has become the way to discover things — we Google — both from “trusted” sources and others. When I first got a computer in 2003 I simply started looking to see where my mum had come from, Lower Silesia, and quickly came across a mass of war time stories and conspiracy theories, like the Nazi UFOs and foo fighters that were supposed to have been secretly built in Albert Speer’s gigantic complex of underground factories in the mountains above Mum’s birthplace. But also I looked at live-streamed webcam images of the Sudeten Mountains, Silesian towns and cities, or discovered what the population looks like now (via dating agency sites, after Googling the Polish for man and woman) as the Germans were thrown out of Silesia after the war as the border moved westwards.
Computing’s increasing sophistication connected to what I recognized after the first Iraq war, the “Video Game War”. Being glued to watching precision bombs fall live on TV, the screen giving an experience that affected our lives — showing real life and death — with talk of cases of remote PTSD, but also the growing realisation of manipulation, propaganda and “embedded” media bias. We could see and know more, but this could be channeled.
So I gained new perspectives on looking at the continuum of history (after many years of grumbling at the news) realising that many aspects of my daily experience — rubbing up against what looked to be new forms of fascism in neo-liberalism — had their roots in the European history that I’d rejected as a child, and I wanted to know more to try to understand it. It seems obvious to want to use that technology to put it back out again. I was delighted when I Googled and found a UFO website had used one of my drawings. But the history is also a kind of metaphor and perspective for looking at today’s world.
CC: You often use Google Earth as an artistic tool in your practice, what does that add to your work?
MG: We now exist in a “mixed reality”. Even people on pretty low incomes have smartphones and I’ve been fascinated, in a very practical sense, by how we perceive our evolving — having looked at this for 15 years now — digital ways of seeing, learning and experiencing. As someone who has spent 30 years teaching life-drawing the nuts and bolts of perception, how we see, is at my core, so I was intrigued to think about digital looking.
I use several Google products because the project “Considering Silesia” has been primarily an Internet investigation and Google offers so much for free. Reams of Polish and German are translated through Google. Accessibility is important, both in terms of cost to myself, but also in allowing people to understand. The seductive digital images with their not-quite-right colours, distortions, glitches, especially in the early days, clearly showed their digital properties. I did once have to tell a grumbling couple at an exhibition “No, they’re not landscapes — they’re paintings of jpegs”.
Recently I’ve concentrated on Street View, and it has thrown up interesting issues about corporate censorship and propaganda — what they allow us to see or direct us to see — as Google has deleted streets while I’ve been working on them for no apparent reason. This connects with ideas of hiding (in this case the Nazi past) and post-war active “forgetting” of trauma and inconvenient truths in Germany and Poland, so what else aren’t we allowed to see?
CC: The pieces you create become increasingly abstract and distorted as they continue, why?
MG: I’ve been trying to document the business of how I look and respond to digital media, and the earlier work from blocky low resolution jpegs sourced from early websites looked to me like square brush marks so I simply used big flat brushes. From that point I focused on the qualities of digital images, the experience of looking at and through a screen and what that experience means as it becomes more of our lives.
Some of the source images are distorted, they may be digitally stitched, or I may be “flying” over Google Earth from a low angle, but the quality of marks I make, though digital, still retains the evidence of the hand and eye, how the fingers move, where I look across the image and in what order, and I prefer that to be a natural fairly immediate response — photorealistic approaches irritate me and I avoid measuring techniques as much as possible. So my “mistakes” become part of the “document” of my looking, right or wrong.
However, another aspect is my selection of source images, especially those using Google Earth and Street View. Here I can pan, zoom and crop composing my image, and I’m very aware that the abstract compositions, the design — even of a very figurative image — is the key to making a drawing or painting work. If the compositions don’t work for me they don’t hold my attention for long enough and they get deleted.
CC: What did you discover about using digital tools as a medium of art?
MG: A little over ten years ago I bought a new computer and the guy said “And do you want an iPod Touch with that?” I thought it might be useful to listen to music on my commute to art school but it stayed in its box until a friend showed me what Hockney was doing on his iPhone — I had no idea they could be used visually. I quickly became addicted through doodling until talking about my new toy to a friend strolling through the National Gallery he said “Go on then, draw that” and within ten minutes I had a sketch of Turners “Fighting Temeraire”. After that I used the little iPod constantly, producing an entire solo show of iPod Nazi UFO’s for the fringe of the 2010 Edinburgh Art Festival.
So, although my drawings usually take several days to produce, iPads and smartphones can be incredibly quick — you don’t have to wait for stuff to dry — and allow immediate online dissemination without the mediation of photography (photographing paintings can be a problem) you can post online or send files to be printed and exhibited anywhere in the world, so there is an international audience and dialogue with people beyond the geography of local physical exhibitions. The iPad and several of the apps are really easy to use, though some of the apps can be complex if needed, but they can also be used very simply, which suits me.
Then there’s the portability. My phone is in my pocket like a sketchbook and my iPad Pro is always in my work bag like a laptop but not as heavy, yet some of the iPad apps will easily print at over two meters, with vector apps far bigger, or create 4K video. The iPad is effectively a portable studio and can do pretty much everything I need. Current phones offer quite decent file sizes so a 20 inch print at 300 pixels per inch is fine, and the iPad Pro with the Pencil stylus now offers professional level precision — it’s no longer finger painting.
I’ve found that the digital and analogue inform each other in various ways, the iPad being especially good for quickly testing ideas. I like to work technically very simply, deliberately choosing few tools or “brushes” and colours, often monochrome, no special effects — though using layers is useful: I often draw or paint behind layers which you can’t do on canvas. Of course you can integrate photos with drawing, which I’ve had a play with, but I prefer to draw by hand: it somehow seems more alive.
Another plus is that after 30 years of drawing and painting I’ve built up a considerable storage problem — digital files don’t take much space.
The downside is that good archival printing is expensive, but I’ve been working with a very good print company and the results are fantastic.
CC: What does Lebensraum mean to you?
MG: A very helpful Facebook friend in Silesia, asked me to look at the Wałbrzych Mausoleum, or in German, Waldenburg Totenburg (Fortress of Death) which I’d not found in my virtual explorations. The developing survey of the Mausoleum looks at why it was built and sited there, the condition of the much graffitied ruin still remaining as a document of over 80 years of history, albeit hidden, screened by woodland, on a foothill of the Sudeten Mountains above a mining town in Lower Silesia. The German War Graves Commission still has no relationship with the Polish state so there is no official information online, which is why I began looking at Google Earth for clues. However I now think that it was a political decision in 1936 to site this edifice of Nazi propaganda in the newly expanded Gross Deutschland (Greater Germany) as the then mixed population was predominantly German though there had been insurrections between the wars. Why it wasn’t destroyed at the end of the war, as another Totenburg in nearby Upper Silesia was, remains a mystery to me.
I’m looking at this in the context of present “realms of influence” around the Far East, in Eastern Europe and South America, political and economic powers operating with ideas of Lebensraum perhaps more subtle but not that dissimilar from Hitler’s Blitzkrieg. Dominant powers seek to expand their grip. In Hitler’s day it was Darwinian economic logic and still is today.
Though using historical sources “Considering Silesia” has always had the relationship to the present, of regimes, empires, the continuum of history and its effects on our lives today.