Claudia Larcher: “architecture can create, change, or destroy our environment”

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Pau Waelder 

Claudia Larcher’s work explores video animation, collage, photography and installation with a particular cinematic approach to storytelling and the ability to extract narratives from apparently nondescript, everyday spaces. Based in Vienna, she has presented her work in numerous exhibitions in Austria and abroad, including Tokyo Wonder Site (Japan), Slought Foundation Philadelphia, the Weimar Art Festival, Centre Pompidou (Paris), Museum of Contemporary Art in Roskilde, Manifesta 13 and Anthology Film Archives in NYC.

Larcher currently presents two artcasts on Niio focusing on her interest in architecture: Un/heimlich, a selection of videos exploring interior spaces that suggest an uncanny atmosphere, and Less is More, More, More! which brings together several artworks addressing the language of modern architecture and its promises of a better world. In the following interview, she elaborates on the themes that inspire her work and the narrative techniques she employs in her films.

Claudia Larcher, YAMA (2010)

A central theme in your work relates to architecture, both as an artistic discipline that finds its expression in form and space, and as the built environments we live in. What do you find most interesting about these two aspects of architecture? 

When it comes to architecture, I am really drawn to its power to create, change and destroy our environment. 

I am interested in how our everyday living surroundings shape us, how we shape them and how, in turn, our interactions with these spaces shape our mental and emotional states. I see the built environment as a kind of interface between the inner and outer world, a place where these two worlds meet. I am also interested in how our built environment reflects our political systems, our values and our sense of identity. 

Contemporary architectures are also riddled with algorithms with specific functions and thus determine objects that enable, restrict, or deny access. This can be experienced for example in my work Empty Rooms: Most of the places you can see in my videos were inhabited by me or shaped my attitude towards certain things. However, this personal fact should not be the main focus. Rather, I am looking for a common ground in the story to address several people with my work. 

When I install my digital works in exhibitions, I am very interested in uniting the exhibition architecture and my work in an installation to create a seamless immersive experience. 

Claudia Larcher, Empty Rooms (2011)

I see the built environment as a kind of interface between the inner and outer world, a place where these two worlds meet.

The traveling shot is a key narrative resource in some of your videos. This technique is used in cinema to immerse the viewer into a space and also to create a certain tension, an expectation. How do you use the narrative potentialities of the traveling shot in your work?

I think at the beginning I used the traveling shot as a kind of suspense tool, then I realized that it could also be used to create a sense of place, my personal impression of a place, but in a dream-like manner. I plan the shot ahead of time. Technically it is very difficult to remove elements at the end of every animation process, as the built environments are nested within each other, and influence each other. While building my scenes of the environments digitally, I’m thinking about the rhythm and the pacing of the shot, but I’m also thinking about the unexpected. I want the viewer to feel like they are in this new space with me and that they are experiencing the unfolding of the shot in real time. I want them to feel the tension and the anticipation of what is going to happen. Some of my films work with a narrative that needs a beginning, a cinematic arc of suspense and an end (for example my film Heim) But I also like to use the effect of the seamless loop, which describes a closed space (Empty Rooms) or a body (Self).

I want the viewer to feel like they are in this new space with me and that they are experiencing the unfolding of the shot in real time.

Claudia Larcher, HEIM/ HOME (2008)

The collage technique allows you to create heterotopias: spaces within spaces, with their own logic. What does this technique bring to your creative process, and to the concept of space you are working with? Do you see the screen as a heterotopia in itself, a space that becomes “other” and inserts itself into our living environment

The digital collage allows me to create a new space, an alternative space that is neither real nor imaginary. This space is the result of a combination of elements that have been taken from a reality or from an idea. It is not a utopia, nor a dystopia, it is another place. This alternative space is a place where I can experiment with different possibilities. With the collage technique I can take an element from a street or a building and place it in a different context, in a new space that I have created. 

If you’ve seen several videos of mine, you may have noticed that I use certain image elements multiple times. For example a plant which is illuminated with artificial light. This picture exists in my archive and is a kind of representative of a certain topic, in this case of global warming. This image then appears like an actor in different films.The idea of achieving a déjà vu in the viewer amuses me. But I also experiment with the audience, namely whether they perceive something as real or how far I can go until they recognize the “fake.” Sometimes I am surprised that the audience thinks it is a real, physical camera shot, for example in Heim, Noise above our Heads or Self, because they are not informed about the possibilities of CGI and cannot even imagine a manipulation. 

Yes, I think the screen is a heterotopia in and of itself, a space that becomes “other” and inserts itself into our living environment. I see the screen as a space that we are constantly occupying and interacting with. For me, it’s an extension of the physical space that is almost seamlessly completed, like the cell phone display that we look at several times a day.

I see the screen as a space that we are constantly occupying and interacting with. For me, it’s an extension of the physical space that is almost seamlessly completed.

While there is almost no human presence in your Rooms videos, this presence is felt through the objects scattered around, the doors, the handles… What do you find most interesting about depicting seemingly empty spaces that are filled with stories? 

In Empty Rooms for example, I look for the memories stored in spaces and their emotional qualities. These seemingly empty spaces that I depict tell a story in themselves, through the traces or objects that people have left behind. These rooms are a kind of witnesses of lived history, which are layered like the wall plaster. The objects you see tell something about the inhabitants, they are portraits in themselves, so to speak. I like the idea that objects are living beings and remind us of the history’s aftereffects that cannot be suppressed. 

Empty Rooms, in particular, recalls abandoned underground bunkers or rooms in an industrial warehouse or workshop, spaces that have no obvious use, non-places whose utilitarian architecture I examine as if they were monuments to their supposedly simple economic purpose. 

Claudia Larcher, Collapsing Mies (2020)

In many of your films we find an exploration of the uncanny, which is made more evident as the spaces become increasingly surreal, although at times this is achieved through a depiction of quite nondescript places, which become interesting through montage and music. Can you elaborate on the role of sound and the visual elements you choose in creating an uncanny atmosphere? 

According to Sigmund Freud, the uncanny is a condition of the mind in which one feels the presence of something strange and unfamiliar in the presence of something that is normally familiar. In the uncanny experience, the repressed returns in alienated form. The German word “heimlich“ (homely or secretly) is in two ways the mirror image of “unheimlich” (uncanny) – on the one hand it means the hidden, the concealed and on the other hand the homey – familiar. (See my film Heim/Home). The projection surface – the screen functions as the mirror, but is capable of much more than an ordinary mirror. I can charge it with images that go far beyond the reflection of reality. Thus, the steady camera movement, which visually drills deeper and deeper into the architecture of a single-family house, irritates the viewer. The uncut view is familiar and at the same time uncanny to the human gaze, since it omits the blink of an eye as a film cut. At the same time, in the deserted setting, the architecture and the things to be seen in it function as supposed actors with the contents inscribed in them. On the one hand, these are naturally determined by their owners, but on the other hand they are also “vessels” that can be brought to life through the projection of the viewer’s content. The secret biographies of the spectators are suddenly mirrored into the uncanny. 

The use of sound in my films is crucial. I think the uncanny is achieved by the juxtaposition of sounds and the lack of them. But there is no recipe for the creation of my sound tracks. Sometimes I design them myself (see my film Heim/Home), or an already existing piece of music by a composer serves me (Empty Rooms, composer Constantin Popp) or I commission a composition (Collapsing Mies, music by Alexander J. Eberhard). There are also cases where silence creates the desired effect and one has to concentrate entirely on the moving image. But what unites the music is the use of soundscapes, by which I mean the acoustic imprinting and shaping of certain places, for instance the individual acoustic spaces or soundscapes of biotopes or cities. Particularly in field recording, sounds from nature, technology and the environment are recorded with a microphone and used both unprocessed or slightly processed as well as electronically alienated. These approaches are present in all my sound tracks.

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