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Stock photos and skyscrapers with Maja Cule

Discussing the state of the digital art scene with the artist taking our oldest image-making clichés and making them new

As part of our new summer US project States of Independence we've invited our favourite 30 American curators, magazines, creatives and institutions to takeover Dazed for a day. 

Today, it's the turn of Tumblr, the platform that has turned self-publishing into an art form. For their exclusive guest-edit, we’ll be exploring the Tumblr aesthetic in its many forms – from the dA-Zed of Tumblr art, to pop quizzes with our favourite Tumblr publishers and spotlights on some of the best net artists blending IRL and URL(s) in radical new ways.

Maja Cule is one of the most exciting artists working with/in internet culture today. Her ability to take the most clichéd, banal aspects of our offline existence – stock photography, old movie tropes that we've seen hundreds of times, and even the chairs we sit on – and make them new in the context of her practice is capturing imaginations from NY to London. Her new film, The Horizon, appeared at the Phillips Paddles On! auction last week. We caught the NY-based artist whilst she was still on English soil, to talk about the appeal of women who laugh and eat salad, how Tumblr influences her practice and the state of the digital art scene today. For a lesson into how to turn cliché into contemporaneity, read on.

Could you tell us about The Horizon, as seen at the Paddles On! auction?

Maja Cule: The Horizon is a reconstruction of a classic film trope wherein the lead character, in a state of crisis, is drawn into a struggle on the roof of a skyscraper. The action scene, and accompanying fall, is often depicted in two frames: the first frame shows the hero desperately grasping at the roof’s edge and the second frame shows the distance to the ground, symbolizing the character’s demise. In The Horizon, a model is caught in an infinite loop, hanging off the edge of The Trump Building located at 40 Wall Street.

Why the Trump Tower in particular? 

Maja Cule: The Trump Tower building in the video represents the symbol of the financial crisis. In this area, the security measurements are so strong that it's impossible to open a window, so this scene could never actually happen. Financial district is also very interesting public sculpture site, the window where scene is shoot is overlooking the Isamu Noguchi's Sunken Garden, and the Jean Dubuffet's sculpture "Group of Four Trees", commissioned by David Rockefeller (who was then chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank).

Do you feel like being in New York and being in that environment has a big effect on your work?

Maja Cule: For sure. There's a lot of things that I really like about New York but I feel that it's probably the only place where I oscillate from feeling detached from surroundings and than again completely engaged so many times a day. It's so dense, sometimes real life feels like being online and scrolling for way too long.

Your work uses recycled imagery and takes them out of their contexts – is there something of the ‘retweet’ or ‘reblog’ in that process? Do you think the uniqueness of self-publishing processes influences your work?

Maja Cule: I think Tumblr is such a powerful blender that recognition of ingredients is impossible. I used to spend a lot of time trying to see it all, but now I feel like the only thing I get from all that viewing is a red eye. I'm interested in placing images in the context, and self-publishing processes that are more than an impulse or a reaction.

Yeah, I think we're all trying to figure out ways to talk about this art and there exists only limiting labels at times.

Maja Cule: What’s interesting to me about Tumblr is that most of the people on display are either very familiar or a completely unknown model. There's nothing in between. 

Let's talk about your work with stock photos. Your collaboration with DIS magazine on their DIS images seemed really fruitful for you. What draws you to stock photographs as an artistic medium?

Maja Cule: I decided to work with the "Women Laughing Alone With Salad" meme because I think its one of those fascinating memes that's completely unnecessarily assigned to gender and portrays an image of health that doesn't actually have anything to do with being healthier! According to stock photography, woman laugh while shopping, eating salad and exercising; man laugh while talking on the phone, by the laptop, after meetings, and reading newspapers; kids laugh just always. Obviously, DIS images was attempt to invert these stereotypes. Stock photography is a code without a message. It’s reached a point where content has been reproduced and mismatched so many times that it’s completely lost its meaning.

The context of a single image changes so much from its original use, online. With the DIS images, there's almost a sense of tragedy in the falsity of the smiles. Do you see a sense of sadness to these stock images?

Maja Cule: Well, in ancient Greece, laughing portraits were associated with madness, arrogance or ignorance. It wasn't until the discovery of the chemical processes and the direct influence of laughter on health—that this association became common. The satisfaction as a result of consumption that is typically portrayed on stock images is a bit sad. The starting point for was to invert the existing stereotypes in stock images. 

“What’s interesting to me about Tumblr is that most of the people on display are either very familiar or a completely unknown model. There's nothing in between” – Maja Cule

What is inspiring you right now in your work?

Maja Cule: I'm working on a new video, that will be shown at Arcadia Missa in October, it continues to explore the limits of image production, given shape by technical, financial, cultural or architectural borders. I'm exploring how the so-called "sharing economies" like Airbnb changed the (previously) private spaces.

More generally, with auctions such as Paddles ON!, there’s a growing sense of net art reaching a turning point in the public’s awareness. Where do we go from here? 

Maja Cule: With so much critical thought around internet art, it can only become much more interesting. I feel that people are making work that is so much more focused on specific segments of net economies, then it was couple of years ago when this term was starting to be introduced. Conversation online are creating new audiences. People can now recognize the groups they belong to, and mediate the conversation online, this used to happen in a private letter with one view and one Like.