Digital Twist and Turns
By Linda Dawn Hammond
Digital Twist: new work on nakedness by Johannes Zits.
Spin Gallery in Toronto is currently playing host to Johannes Zits’s
latest body of work, Digital Twist.The press release enticed visitors to the March 8th opening with promises of, “a game of naked Twister and digital prints of streakers, exhibitionists and other provocative individuals.” Hard to resist!
On display until April 8th are 14 digitally manipulated chromera prints, each portraying a public act of nudity derived from a readymade (objet trouvé) image sourced on the internet. Zits transforms the original photo or video clip, opting to reveal or even recreate that which is generally subject to censor in the public media, the nude body.Conversely, he obscures the surrounding melee, be it police or bystanders, through distorted pixilation, punctuated with colour squares derived from sampled pigments within the image itself.
Located in far corners of the gallery are two body painting stations, and secured with pins on nearby walls, a set of documentary photographs. These are the work of 5 photographers, depicting an event similar to that which we are about to witness. Unlike the images lifted from the internet, the photographers’ names are credited on a list, but individual authorship is likewise absorbed within the project. This could be interpreted as appropriation, ‘though Zits may prefer to view it as part of his concept of “sharing.” Asked about copyright concerns, he adamantly rejected any, stating, “If the images are out on the internet, it’s out to be shared. We’re too wrapped up with this copyright thing and I find it very irritating to be so concerned about our creativity. We’re artists and we should have the freedom to explore the boundaries.”
He does have a point. It is a longstanding tradition among collage artists, of which Zits is one, to borrow from a variety of source material not of their own making. It is the manipulation or combination of such which results in an original work of art, over which one can then claim authorship. Taking liberties are integral to artistic practice, and has created important works which help ensure that ideals such as “freedom of speech” are upheld.
John Heartfield (born Helmut Herzfeld) comes to mind. His ironic political collages were highly dependant upon his ability to plunder news sources at will. Heartfield’s satirical photomontages critiqued Hitler and his Nazi cohorts, inspiring others to speak out and resist. If Heartfield lived today, he would undoubtedly rifle for material though the same channels as Zits- sites such as Flickr, YouTube and Google.
Copyright is a hotly contested topic on the Internet, which is presently engulfed in a legal and ethical debate on who owns the right to a given image.
Is it the subject or the image taker, and when none exists as in the case of surveillance tape, does it then belong to the corporation or government agency that controls the equipment. Or the unwitting passerby, caught unawares by a robotic camera. Material is often illegally uploaded in the first place. Any artist who downloads images and creates works of art from it is quite low in the hierarchy of ownership in this battle.
The spirit of freely shared information, which was the original intent of the early academically oriented (post 1983) internet users, is being attacked by corporate interests whose primary concern is making money from it. And to make money, you have to exert absolute control, hence the necessary eradication of the dangerous concept of “sharing”. It’s ironic then, that those presently making the most money from the Internet, decidedly the pornographers, are being used as the excuse to eliminate internet freedom. Part of the ongoing debate is that in order to protect us from this “threat to the moral fabric of society” (with a focus on pedophilia in particular, to achieve general consensus), we have to willingly relinquish the “free for all” nature of the internet, and cheerfully accept restraints, censorship and ultimately, corporate/ government control.
Perhaps it's time to return to the game...
In the center of the Spin gallery, a “Twister” mat awaits, surrounded by yellow caution tape, similar to that used to cordon off a crime scene.
Twister is a life size party game in which players are destined to become physically entangled on a large plastic sheet. Zit’s “digital” version of course substitutes coloured pixels for the traditional circles. Since its introduction in the late ‘60s, Twister has been held suspect as an instrument, if not instigator, of lax moral behaviour. As such, it was particularly embraced by college students. Inclusion in the show is therefore appropriate, as many of the exhibited photographs are of naked public sprints which originated in the context of frat dares and
Photography may be encouraged during the performance but public participation in the Twister game is NOT (at least, for this particular event!) One of the dedicated exhibitionists in the crowd, octogenarian Naked Marvin, gripes as he has to content himself with the mere removal of his shirt. By the time the scheduled performance begins at 21:00, the gallery is packed.
Each of the six performers strip naked and head for the painting stations to apply colour to each other’s skin, The exception being Johannes Zits himself, who will perform unpainted.
The artist as blank canvas, in effect. Throughout the Twister game, body contact with the 5 painted players is intended to leave him smudged with their imprints.
The choice of colours are in homage to those preferred by French artist Yves Klein. In 1958 Yves Klein pioneered the use of naked performers as “living Paintbrushes”. He personally elected however to remain untouched by the pigments and the process, thus calling into question the traditional role of the artist, a point emphasized by the wearing of a tuxedo as he directed from afar. Klein has been quoted as saying, “In this way I stayed clean- I no longer dirtied myself with colour.”
Zits’ decision to include himself, naked and willing to get ”dirty”, is in itself a conscious twist from Klein’s legacy. As he explains,“This show does have links to Yves Klein, but not as directly as the last show, where I was doing direct body prints. This is more the use of colour and the use of solid form. I’ve always had a thing about monochromatics and painting the body a solid colour. While it’s great in ideology it’s never true in reality. Put one beside the other, while these bodies look like they’re perfectly red or blue, they’re not when you look at the streaks and that sort of thing. And there’s always that transformation from that one state to the other that I’m interested in. Whereas Yves Klein was more interested in the purity of blue or the body being a brush, and being these formal, dogmatic statements, which I’m not interested in at all. I’m more open and more interpretive, and letting people into the story. That’s where my work is. I’m very interested in him, but more as a source rather than the end product.”
A crowd gathers near the painting stations, but nevertheless maintains a respectful distance, while Susanne Abate becomes absorbed by (RED), John Caffery (BLACK), Aries Cheung (WHITE), Roxanne Luchak (GOLD) and Coman Poon (BLUE)
As opposed to the audience, the photographers are decidedly, “in your face”. Decisions are being made- to include, or not, the other photographers within the camera frame.
And what of the photographs on the wall? Their close proximity to the painting stations is all part of the artist’s strategy to have them included as inner frames within any new documentation. Of their particular role in the game, most photographers remain oblivious. One daily news photographer is more absorbed with the dilemma of exclusion- he can’t show genitals in his published images and they are inescapable.
Coman Poon is now covered from head to toe in “International Klein Blue”, Yves Klein’s signature (and patented) colour. For Poon, however, it rather evokes characters from film (Henry and June), literature (Not Wanted on the Voyage) and possibly even the deity, Krishna.
What is it, to be within his skin during this event? Poon explains, “For me, it’s a very visceral experience. Being painted is like having make-up put on you, but instead of just localized on your face, it’s your whole body. For me, when I’m being painted my consciousness leaves my brain and goes to my skin. It’s a very sensuous experience. The studio was 25 degrees (Celsius) but the paint is NOT 25 degrees. So there’s a differential of temperature, and it’s slightly cooling and slightly stimulating, to have the foam of the paint applicator be dragged across your body in the most intimate places that you don’t normally have repeated stroking. The whole body is sensitized. It’s just an interesting physical experience, that for me is grounded in a different way of being.”
Asked if he detected any sense of voyeurism coming from the audience, Poon replies, ”For the most part I think that people were engaged with the playfulness of the piece. After a couple of minutes of initial surprise it normalizes. I feel that shift- no longer are people looking at me in a prurient way, but they’re engaged with the way in which I play. So they’re no longer looking from the outside, but looking with one foot in my subjective experience which is interesting. As a performer, it’s a way of drawing people into my body.”
When the action moves to the Digital Twist board, a palpable excitement builds in the room. People press around the mat, separated from the performers only by tape. The event begins to resemble a boxing match, sans the violence. Over the buzz of ‘80s tunes, Leila spins the Twister dial and calls out positions to the performers, who begin to move across the board, inevitably bumping into each other and becoming entwined in increasingly compromising and physically difficult positions. The audience responds with laughter and shouts of encouragement, as players drop out one by one, to
eventually relinquish the game to the last men crouching.
Once over, the painted performers mingle with the guests, who no longer appear to register the naked people among them. Poon later finds himself in yet another role. As he removes his paint in the bathroom, several people from the audience, evidently affected by the experience of watching him perform, approach and according to Poon, ”…without cue confessed times when they had been naked to me.
Times when they had painted their bodies and how they felt. So in a way it opened up the dialogue around how people feel about nakedness, how people feel about the contour of the body painted and how that changes their perception of being naked.” If Zits’ aim is to create an open dialogue between the artist and subject, viewer and performer and naturalize people’s acceptance of the human body, the evening is an unqualified success.
Johannes Zits, 42, is a Toronto based artist, who moved to from Holland at age 6. He received his BFA in painting from York University in 1984 and has exhibited widely. Zits is presently teaching a course at OCAD (Ontario College of Art and design) in “Digital Painting”, which combines drawing, painting and computer arts.
The idea for the new series surfaced when Zits joined his partner in London, , who was there to participate in an art residency.
Zits found himself intrigued by the “journeys of the Naked Rambler” and his “freedom to be yourself campaign… you are yourself without your clothes”. Further thoughts on the subject were stimulated by readings on German nudism. A show at the Tate Modern gallery served also as an inspiration, in that it dealt with Utopian ideals. An idealistic world, and, “what that would be like, the garden of Eden.” Finally, French performance artist Yves Klein remains an important influence.
Through his present work, Johannes Zits is creating a world which reflects his own values of openness, acceptance, sharing and “freedom to be”. A conversation with Johannes is punctuated with bursts of exuberant laughter. He is curious, thoughtful, playful and as multi-layered as his imagery. Zits took me on a tour of his show at the Spin Gallery in Toronto…
Digital Twist: new work on nakedness by Johannes Zits
Interview conducted by Linda Dawn Hammond, Tuesday March 13, 2007, at Spin Gallery with
LDH: You’re essentially a collage artist and a painter
JZ: This is one of the first shows I’ve done where they’re straightforward outputs- there’s no collage,
no paint on top of them.
LDH: How did find the images you chose - did you do a Google search – if so, using which words.
JZ: I basically did a search for “naked” and (something else), or “stripper”, “exhibitionist”, and that’s how I got at these images, on Flickr and other websites.
I also used YouTube for some of the images. They’re usually the more course ones… I looked for contrast between the images in terms of coarseness, clarity.“Streaking though the library” is also a YouTube image. “Streaking through snow”, “Running through snow.” I spent a lot of time on the internet trying to decide which kind of images. After I got a wholebunch of images of guys running, that became boring after a while, and I wanted more than just seeing guys’ bums cause that was too easy, and so I was looking for provocative poses. Classical images as well, which I consider this one- Twickenham Streaker- the original from 1974. It’s quite famous- it’s one of the first (recorded images of) streakers, but I put his genitals back in the image. In the original there’s a “bobby’s” (UK Policeman) hat covering the genitals as they’re hauling him off the court. So this guy here (escorting policeman) doesn’t have a hat on, so I just took one of the hats (cloned from another policeman in the photo) and moved it over.
LDH: The blue square- is it an ode to Yves Klein?
JZ: No, it’s referring to “Bobby” Blue, policeman Blue, that’s how I chose that colour, but most of the other ones have some kind of reference to colours in the image, for example, the yellow is from the
jacket, the white’s an extension of that stripe.
LDH: Where’s does the image of the nude woman shopping originate?
LDH: I think that my preferred image is the one of a man being photographed by his wife. As seen from the perspective of the viewer, they appear to be within a concrete box. (Did they realize that a third person was documenting them, or was this prearranged, that a voyeur would provide us with the image and perspective we see now?)
JZ: This is one of two. This one on exhibit is the first image.
In the second image the nude guy is looking at his own image, that his wife has taken the photograph of, and so he’s looking down at thedigital camera. I find this such a strange photo because she’s off on one side so she’s basically taking a photograph of his arm.
And it’s much better from the point of view that we’re looking at it now. (Frontal nudity) But I also love this image because of the square, the frame within the frame and the way it’s trying to conform and it’s not conforming to the grid pattern.
LDH: Do you have any copies of the 14 photographs on line?
JZ: Yes, they’re all on the Spin website- spingallery.ca
LDH: The way the photographs are positioned in the gallery, did you take into consideration where you were doing the actual painting of the bodies and that these (images of past body painting) would be juxtaposed, becoming a frame within a frame again because the new photographs will include them?
JZ: Yes! I deliberately tried to do couplings so that these two were together. Here you can see it’s a photo of Stewart (Pollack, the co-curator of Spin) holding the camera, and this is the shot (he was taking) of the top of the head. So it’s not only a photo of the body being painted but it’s also a photo that comments on photography. There’s a direct link that way. You could say, is it a photograph or is it about painting. It’s kind of interesting to make a photograph about painting, and then it’s painting on the body- a combination. (Points to a photo on the East wall) This particular photo I just love- I have this one on the website because of the drip. If you want to talk about painting, the drip is the most quintessential image about painting. There’s one famous image by Picasso where he actually has that drip. When I’m editing 500 photos, which is what I had to choose from when I was doing this, because there were 5 photographers (who documented the body painting images seen on the wall) I chose images which talk about the wetness, the paint, the manipulation of the body. Something interesting that someone said is that when the body becomes painted, it also becomes an object as opposed to a personality during the game. I was the only one which was not painted, and therefore I was identified as being human, whereas the other people became…
LDH: well, one becomes disconnected from their sexuality and their nudity…
JZ: Exactly- it’s an interesting thing about what is the artist, and the artist’s role, how does the artist position himself and when you have photographers taking images for your show, how does that work.
LDH: when one’s either masked or painted, or in a costume, it gives one licence to become someone else, to do anything, so you were actually the only one who was completely naked. I called you a blank canvas, because you’re allowing the other ones to put paint on you through the body contact during the Twister game, so in a sense you were the original blank canvas.
JZ: “The role reversal of the artist and the model and how I’ve changed that relationship.
I consider these people to be performers rather than models, and me as an artist- how does that relate to what’s going on in this exhibition. I’m throwing that authorship into question. ”
LDH: Another difference from Yves Klein is that he mostly used female models
JZ: With this particular show I’m broadening out from being strictly gay or gay identified, and that’s why I included women for this show, because I think the body issue goes beyond just gay… although the two women who were in my performance are gay! (laughs)
The painted guy in BLACK, John Caffery, and the GOLD woman, Roxanne Luchak, are in a band called Kids On TV, a pretty much gay-identified band. I’m helping them on a rock video and an upcoming performance.
LDH: Do you belong to any pro-nudism groups?
JZ: I go regularly to TNT!Men events (Totally Naked) Toronto – a men’s group that have dance events,swimming events, a book club, etc. I find it free and liberating, dancing in the nude.
LDH: What are your views on internet pornography?
JZ: I don’t watch a lot of porn. It’s interesting as source material and for a time I was incorporating it into my collage material and looking at it for figure studies. At the moment I’m not that interested in it. It comes down to stereotypes- idealized versions of human beings- and I’m not that interested in the ideal. As much as I’m as vain as the next person or I want to have a flat stomach when I’m performing in public. I’m conscious of that, and I’m getting older, my hair chest is getting longer…La la la. It doesn’t conform to the stereotypes that porn is trying to present, and I want to say that I’m… beyond that.
LDH: Do you find that as an artist who works with nudity and the body, that people expect you to reject all forms of censorship? Where do you set your limits – at any particular point?
JZ: No, and I wouldn’t want it. Sure you can say, when it gets violent, when it gets abusive, when it gets manipulative, those are my boundaries. I don’t want to see them- I wish they didn’t exist. There are people out there that control it. I will voice my opinion against those kind of things but I’m not someone that will control it – so, in terms of censorship, I will take a stand if someone’s doing a
direct point, but I’m not one to sign protests much either.
LDH: How would you respond to criticism that this work isn’t original?
JZ: I’m trying to make things more complicated– on the surface, you can see these photographs of painting the body on one level- glamorized photographs of the body, but in my mind it goes
beyond. I don’t know if I’m conveying that. As far as these digital images, are they manipulated enough to say that they’re going beyond the source? In my mind, they are.
LDH: If they don’t go far enough beyond the source, then authorship comes into question, in terms of the original photographer.
JZ: Exactly, and I’m trying to manipulate the viewer’s attention, and the way the image is being pushed and pulled. Do they go far enough beyond that? I don’t know. I’ve since found out that the image of the first female reporter to conduct an interview of a guy in a male locker room is coming from Naked TV. They’re interviewing me later and I’m kind of curious to see what they will say of that.
LDH: Do you mean, if they’ll claim authorship?
JZ: I don’t know- I’m kind of curious about that. And, is the image manipulated, because obviously it wasn’t taken by them, it was taken by someone else who was on the internet and posted it. And the
woman standing in the foreground is actually the subject of the photograph- well, sort of the subject of the photograph.
LDH: And some photographs could have been taken by video cameras placed on the street.
JZ: Such as YOUTUBE
LDH: Which means it didn’t originate from one particular artist or photographer, it’s just street surveillance, and who owns that- the corporation? It’s all very complicated.
JZ: In terms of being out in the world and being a solid object, now that’s what this is, in terms of disappearing in two weeks from an internet posting. It’s sort of preserving it in time. That’s part of what these images are doing, especially with the Twickenham streaker. It’s like bringing things up and rehashing them and bringing things to the front, every time, that’s sort of what artists do, is bringing things to the attention, constantly re-evaluating things, looking at things, interpreting things like when I’m talking about Picasso’s drip, it’s about a particular painting in a particular time bringing those kind of analysis to the fore again and constantly wakening up and stirring the pot, like, how can you combine Picasso with the internet, it’s an interesting combination, you know, about the destruction of an image and the way he manipulated paint. I sort of see myself doing that the same way with the manipulation with the computer.
LDH: Where are you taking this project next?
JZ: I’m applying for other spaces. I’ve got a show coming up in Cannes, , where I want to take some of these images and juxtapose the urban environment to nature – man in nature as opposed to man in public, kind of thing, and how does that work. The man in nature will be painting on outputs. The outputs already have their pixelized grids over it I’m playing with that pixelized grid and trying soften it with paint. That’s a new series I’m working on. I might make it broader than that, and I want to get back to painting.
LDH: You also mentioned a book project.
JZ: I want to make this into a book project so I can actually illustrate the three different components of the show- the manipulated photographs, the painting on the body, and the game itself. I want to
have this as three chapters.
LDH: By documentation you mean the actual game itself (Twister mat, spinner)?
JZ: The game, with all the muddiness of the body prints. I’m actually going to be varnishing it so you can see the fingerprints on the piece itself. We’re going to be having a nude reception on Friday night, March 16th, and I want to varnish it before we have the reception so the guys can play on it.
LDH: I’ll be away
JZ: Hmmm- Well, It is men only! (Laughs)
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Linda Dawn Hammond is a journalist and fine art photographer, in possession of an MFA from York U. She is a devoted Montrealer, now based in Toronto for reasons of love. Recently published work can be found in: NOW, MOJO, Big Beat, Blue Suede News, POV and "Red Light- Superheroes, Saints
and Sluts". Website: www.indyfoto.com