About transformations that could change our lives forever
BY SANDY STRASSER
Michael Najjar is one of the most renowned German photographers. With his art, he makes things visible that frequently remain hidden to human eye. In terms of contents, his focus here lies on the primary components of a society controlled by computer and information technologies. His works bring to light things that are often concealed underneath data-based surfaces.
Mr Najjar, you are considered a visual futurist, interweaving science, history and philosophy and using them to shape visions and utopias of future social structures. How should we concretely imagine your work?
Michael Najjar: In my art work, I focus on the influence of new technologies on our social order and how they are shaping and changing the 21st century. From talking to scientists, researchers and engineers and from studying thematically-related specialist literature, I develop ideas that are subsequently transformed into visual picture concepts and ultimately into works of art.
What media do you use in your work, and why?
M. N.: Photography, video and highly-complex digital image processing. I studied media art in Berlin in the 1990s, where the interactive handling of technical picture media is the key course element, which has since continued in my work as an artist.
How can art help us graphically portray visions of the future? Why, of all things, is it the ideal medium for your concepts?
M. N.: Scientists and engineers often develop exciting and pioneering ideas, but have difficulty making these accessible to a wide audience. Besides, they often only analyse things from their own perspectives. Art, on the other hand, analyses complex issues from different perspectives and can also transport these on an emotional, visual or intellectual level.
What elementary components are these concepts based on?
M. N.: On the media-reflective level, my works are undoubtedly strongly characterised by philosophers such as Vilém Flusser and Jean Baudrillard. This is down to my training, when I began to very intensively focus on these media theories. The key elements, such as dematerialisation, virtualisation and simulation, can be found in the visual implementation. At first glance, many pictures appear real, but are however always a construct of reality – they constantly oscillate on the narrow margin between reality and simulation.
Where do you take the inspiration for all your projects from?
M. N.: Primarily from literature. Along with media philosophy, science fiction novels and specialist literature; but also from films. I am a passionate movie fan and go to the cinema as often as I possibly can. Key works, such as the novel ‘Neuromancer’ by William Gibson and the movie ‘2001 – A Space Odyssey’ by Stanley Kubrick, are reflected in many of my works.
For many years now, you have been observing the transformation of such megacities as Shanghai and New York, looking at their urban environments and their information technology development. What key statements can you make here?
M. N.: I believe that the central developments are densification and interconnectivity. Urban space is being subjected to a tremendous densification process, both in terms of the actual urban structures and the information and data space in cities.
How do you come to these conclusions? What conventional, but also scientific, methods do you employ here?
M. N.: It is a mixture of talking with architects and urban planners and my own experience, because I also travel constantly between many megacities.
In the future, how will our world continue to change with regards to information technology? What other areas of life that we are currently not aware of will this ‘major change’ affect?
M. N.: Information technology will – to an ever greater extent – initially impact on those things immediately around us. In the subsequent phase, it will massively migrate into our bodies to enable people to totally network with their environments. Artist and media theoretician Peter Weibel describes this development as ‘Exo-Evolution’, the next phase of human development. It is controlled by machines and information technologies, which in turn represent natural extensions of the human body.
Furthermore, scientists and researchers across the globe are also already working on one day being able to influence and control the human evolutionary process in accordance with our wishes. Biotechnology and nanotechnology, in particular, are making huge leaps forward here. What concepts are conceivable to you? Which do you think make sense?
M. N.: By means of these technologies, the human body will detach itself from its natural aetiology and become a modifiable and predictable construct. The life expectancy of people will possibly be programmable. Whether this makes sense or not is not the question, as it is an unavoidable development. The question here is what this means for society and how we will deal with this. What impact this can have is showcased in such movies as ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘Gattaca’, for instance.
To what extent is the desire to quite literally handle everything oneself beneficial to human society with regards to ethical principles?
M. N.: Technology is a self-referential and self-productive system. Whether we actually handle things ourselves in the future seems questionable. We will be metamorphosing from a human social structure in a post-human structure, in which completely different ethical principles will then apply.
For you, as you yourself claim, no target is too high. To this end, you are currently working on your new ‘outer space’ project series. What precisely is it about?
M. N.: The current series of works is quite literally aiming very high. The ‘outer space’ project looks at the latest developments in space exploration and how these will change both our life in space and on Earth in the future. I am one of Richard Branson’s ‘Virgin Galactic Future’ astronauts and will be travelling into space with the newly-developed ‘SpaceShipTwo’. Within this context, I underwent professional cosmonaut and astronaut training, in Russia’s ‘Star City’ and also at the German Aviation and Aerospace Centre. These included centrifuge training, space-walk training in a gigantic hydrolab, a HALO jump from 10,000 metres, zero-G flights as well as a flight into the stratosphere in a MiG-29 fighter jet. Video or photographic works of art were created during all these training sessions. The performative aspect of this new series of works is incredibly important.
What fascination does the universe harbour for you?
M. N.: First and foremost, it is a gigantic void with dimensions that are barely comprehensible for the human mind. This is of course excellently suited to artistic visions and utopias.
To what extent do you believe that life in the future will not just be on Earth, but also in space or on other planets? What are your ideas and visions in this respect?
M. N.: We will have to expand our existential frame of reference. In future, our living space will also include Earth’s geostationary orbit, the moon and Mars. Numerous space stations will inhabit Earth’s orbit, we will build a moon base using excavator-sized 3D printers and mine helium-3 on the moon, with which to supply Earth with new energy sources. And we will establish a Mars colony and therefore become a bi-planetary species, which will fundamentally change our human and existential self-perception.
In view of how diverse your field of work is, you are very demanding as far as the results are concerned. With what intention do you start each new project?
M. N.: To do something that I have never done before. Each project basically begins at zero and develops into a new cosmos of ideas, experiences and pictures over the years.
Michael Najjar is an artist, adventurer and future astronaut. Born in 1966, he has lived and worked in Berlin since 1988. His works have been exhibited in museums, galleries and at biennials throughout the world for many years now. He works with the media of photography and video. In terms of contents, his focus lies on the primary components of a society controlled by computer and information technologies.
This article was published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue Q2 2016. Picture credit: netropolis | shanghai © Michael Najjar