Taken from the November 2013 issue of Dazed & Confused:
It’s almost impossible to escape the virtual world. For an entire generation, using the internet is like breathing. Cam boys, cryptocurrencies and digital schizophrenia are slowly becoming the norm, and for the majority of us, our social lives are played out online for all to see. For Belgian artist Peter De Potter – who says “having a computer is like having a fridge” – youth culture’s candid social relationship with the internet is both a major subject of and platform for his work. By publishing several ongoing series of artworks exclusively on Tumblr, De Potter uses and comments on contemporary culture simultaneously, creating his own unique dialogue with the virtual world. It’s a simple process. He downloads and screengrabs photographs of strangers from their own social networking sites, often re-working explicit scenarios, and elevates them into something else that at times verges on the spiritual. But over the course of our telephone conversation, it becomes clear that for De Potter this is not some sort of sociological experiment. This is art.
“I could easily make 20 shocking books with stuff I’ve found on the internet – and I’m not talking about porn, I’m talking about social networks”
“I could easily make 20 shocking books with stuff I’ve found on the internet – and I’m not talking about porn, I’m talking about social networks,” he says. Over the past three years, he’s downloaded almost 200,000 images from other people’s online profiles. It sounds obsessive and slightly manic, but given our image-driven culture, why does the act of dragging an image on to our desktops seem so absurd? For De Potter, it’s instinctive. “Why do I download these images? Quite simply because they’re available. Living with the internet is as common as muck! It’s not some kind of statement.” At times, his online acts reflect an almost adolescent approach towards self-expression – the kids that used to spend hours sewing Manic Street Preachers patches on to their jackets now start their own Tumblr shrines instead. It’s the same process, it’s just moved online, just like sex, money and porn.
The emergence of social networks caused a big shift in De Potter’s life and work. “I remember just stumbling upon them and being completely perplexed by the enormity and diversity of the images that were right in front of me,” he says. The first of his digital projects was Angelic Starts, a homoerotic series of grainy black-and-white works of semi-clothed men, some strung out over a bed, some wrestling each other on the ground. They were made in just one week and gradually published online over a three-year period. “It’s funny, when some people talk about this series they think it’s a tribute to chavs or something!” he says. “Of course, I can see it from their perspective: ‘Okay, it must be about drunk boys with gold neck-chains!’ But for me, it’s about going far beyond that.”
“I was interested in the way students would scrawl on each other’s backs when they’re drunk. I call them ‘twilight’ moments – you know, people falling asleep or making a fool out of themselves. These moments are always documented in a crass and crude way. I hate that because they are actually very personal and honest."
This notion of going beyond is where his work verges on the spiritual. For Angelic Starts, he chooses his adolescent subjects in moments of calmness and graffitis their bodies with words. “I was interested in the way students would scrawl on each other’s backs when they’re drunk. I call them ‘twilight’ moments – you know, people falling asleep or making a fool out of themselves. These moments are always documented in a crass and crude way. I hate that because they are actually very personal and honest. It’s just too easy to dismiss them: ‘Oh, there’s a guy with flip-flops lying half-drunk in Ibiza.’ You have to look beyond the content.”
De Potter thinks of the words in Angelic Starts – words like “duty”, “privacy” and “refusal” – as values. They transform the hazy images of drunken boys posted on Facebook into something statuesque. But for him, this isn’t a shift from low culture to high culture. The pictures don’t go from the internet to the walls of art galleries – they remain online. In a sense, the age-old process of “appropriation” takes on a new meaning.
When Richard Prince appropriated images from Marlboro cigarette campaigns for his Cowboy series and Garry Gross’s photo of a nude ten-year-old Brooke Shields for “Spiritual America”, there was a disconnect between the original context and intention of those images. In a similar way, when Barbara Kruger covered found images with text slogans it raised feminist questions about gender and identity. But De Potter claims his process “is more like shapeshifting – adding more meaning, championing, paying tribute even, all within the same ‘location’, the same realm. The social network areas are source, medium, template, filter and supporter to the work.”
“The fact that they are trying to pass that bill totally shows that they don’t understand the nature of the internet. They think it’s some kind of monster that lurks behind your back and catches you."
It seems appropriate to bring up David Cameron’s plans to introduce a default block on internet porn in all British households. It’s not that De Potter’s work verges on being pornographic, but for an artist working online and with online imagery, it will certainly have implications. “I was totally shocked,” he said. “The fact that they are trying to pass that bill totally shows that they don’t understand the nature of the internet. They think it’s some kind of monster that lurks behind your back and catches you. No! Sex and pornography is inside of us. Twenty years ago the internet didn’t exist, but we still had a huge porn industry.” He pauses. “Am I ranting?”
What you should probably know about De Potter is that his fascination with youth codes (although he doesn’t like to use that term) pre-dates and even pre-empts the internet we know today. For most of his working life, he’s been collecting and publishing sets of images as a means of self-expression, just like Tumblr’s users do now. In a sense, it all goes back to his long-term collaboration with Raf Simons, who enlisted his help during the 00s to source and produce visual codes from the hidden layers of pop culture.
“Raf was completely obsessed with adolescence and its complexities,” he explains. Over time, Simons’ menswear collections became imbued with deeper meaning through De Potter’s visuals – most notably his AW01 show, Riot, Riot, Riot, which he dedicated to the much-mythologised 1995 disappearance of Manic Street Preachers guitarist Richey Edwards. The collection was presented in a disused factory in Paris to a soundtrack of Aphex Twin, DJ Bounty Hunter, Front 242 and Drive. De Potter spent months going through archive images of Richey, eventually appropriating, editing and printing items like a “have you seen Richey?” appeal issued by South West Wales Police, and the cult image of Richey carving “4 REAL” into his arm with a knife. The collection paid homage to one of the greatest vanishing acts in the history of British music. “Richey really rocked our world when the Manics released their first record,” explains De Potter. “But I don’t buy into the whole mythology of ‘poor little Richey’ – I actually don’t care about that. I was only ever interested in his ideas and what he stood for.”
“We could finally show the more honest side of adolescence – the complexities and the realness. Although I hate that word, ‘realness’. It’s so contaminated, isn’t it?”
His partnership with Raf is often brought up in relation to the work he does now, and in a sense it did ignite a way of working and engaging with found imagery. During their time together they also worked on the exhibition and subsequent catalogue The Fourth Sex: Adolescent Extremes with curators Francesco Bonami and Maria Luisa Frisa. The book, now somewhat of a cult object, is almost an encyclopaedia of youth subcultures; showcasing work by the likes of Larry Clark, Jeremy Deller and Nigel Shafran against images of Brooke Shields, Marilyn Manson and armed young women of the IRA, it distorts the cheerful propaganda associated with adolescence. “We had a blast – we could finally exorcise our demons!” laughs De Potter. “We could finally show the more honest side of adolescence – the complexities and the realness. Although I hate that word, ‘realness’. It’s so contaminated, isn’t it?”
At present, he has three ongoing Tumblr series – Angelic Starts, Routine Routine and I Am an Image Machine. Each deals with different themes and aesthetics, from the split-image format of I Am an Image Machine (which brings together shots of a boy sticking his tongue into a beer and that of a pigeon) to the DIY collages of Routine Routine. Hidden within are a few self-portraits, including “Anti Ashes”, printed below, which shows him topless, licking his bicep while having white powder thrown over him. We didn’t realise it was a self-portrait at first – it was only during a later email correspondence that he mentioned that it was actually him. That’s the beauty of this mix of appropriated and original images – De Potter presents you with a mass of unknown identities and nameless faces, and you are never quite sure of their origins.
“I’m not going to say it’s always easier to stop there,” he confesses. “There are times when I could actually cause damage to the person. That’s not what I’m about. I like the fact that my work, at this stage, is hovering out there, virtually, free of references, quasi-anonymous. It just ‘exists’, it just ‘is’ on the internet, which has the massive advantage that other people start investing new meaning in them, and most importantly, react to nothing else but the power and emotion of the image in front of them.”
Follow Isabella Burley on Twitter here @isabellaburley