When Balder Olrik was enrolled at The Royal Academy of Arts in Copenhagen, Denmark, at the age of sixteen, he was one of the youngest students ever to be accepted. Over the next sixteen years, he became one of the most significant young artists in Denmark. For the next sixteen years after that, he was an internet pioneer and digital inventor, until he returned to the arts in 2014 with photography as his preferred medium.
The texts in this book are based on past conversations between Balder Olrik and author Anna Ebbesen, which were edited in the summer of 2018.
Anna Ebbesen: When you made your return to the arts, it wasn’t a continuation of your previous career as a painter. Why did you move from painting to photography?
Balder Olrik: I explored different methods and art forms—within painting and sculpture—but photography quickly hooked me, as it gave me that addictive sensation of seeing the world anew. I had a deeply euphoric experience over the course of a few days in March 2015, where I felt like my brain was a big magnet that turned 180 degrees. The liquid it floated in changed color from a deep magenta to a translucent azure, and suddenly I could see the world in a different way. Rarely have I felt so happy in my life. To me, it confirmed that returning to arts was the right choice. And that I’d found my new medium.
AE: Had you experienced that sensation before?
BO: I’ve experienced the same eureka moment with painting, but it doesn’t come often as an artist, and there can be several years in between. But when it happens, it’s amazing and the next couple of years are all about exploring this new form of expression, which is a very satisfying time. But at some point, I begin to yearn for that joyous experiencing of seeing the world anew. I now know that it requires lots of hard work and failed experiments for it to happen again. Though sometimes I ask myself why, I just cannot help challenging my own perception of reality. I have to keep pushing.
AE: Is that search for the new way of seeing the world the thing that drives you?
BO: In a way, yes. But it’s more the urge to challenge and explore how we all experience the world, than just seeing it in new ways. Looking back, I’d say that the thread running through all of my work has been a fascination with human perception. I am amazed by it daily.
One of the greatest mysteries of perception is what art does to us. Especially the unconscious processes in which we analyze and interpret what we experience. When we just do something—without understanding why—what’s actually happening in those moments? And how can I, as an artist, trigger parts of the unconscious perception processes so that it clashes with the conscious—so that we get two interpretations or opinions that we need to actively negotiate between. As Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself.”
AE: What is it about perception that you find so intriguing? Other artists tend to focus more on expression than perception.
BO: I’ve always been curious and surprised by just how imperfect and subjective our understanding of the world is. When I was a kid, people always had rigid ideas about what kind of a child I was. But they rarely saw the same child, so their definitions varied accordingly. I also often found myself in situations, with my parents, where we had diametrically opposed opinions about what we just experienced together.
Later in life, I witnessed the same thing with my paintings. I often had a fairly clear idea of what I was going for. But people read very different things into the pictures. I perceived it as a deeply frustrating restriction. Not only of my paintings, but by all kinds of art and communication in general.
But at one point I realized that it wasn’t my intentions they saw, but something within themselves. It struck me that I wasn’t making paintings, but mirrors. The good artwork is a mirror that can reflect something deeply and hidden in the viewer that she suddenly has to relate to. What exactly they mirrored was something I had limited influence on. But it was quite clear that some images mirrored something more profound than others.
AE: I know that your work, among other things, is inspired by modern research on perception, such as behavioral researcher Daniel Kahneman’s thoughts about the two ways we make sense of the world. How has that influenced your work?
BO: Kahneman describes our perception system as being split in two. The automated System 1 that in a split second is able to understand a given context, based on our past experience. Some describe System 1 as our intuition, but it’s only a half-truth. It might as well be called our “categorizer.” System 2 is significantly slower, but capable of analyzing our impressions and coming to new realizations. We will always try to read the world through our System 1 unless we are lacking vital information that hinders an easy categorization. Only then do we switch to a conscious System 2 reading.
Kahneman’s theories resonated deeply with me as they matched my own experience, and they inspired me to do a series of experiments on how we read images and see if I could trick people into moving from System 1 to a System 2 reading. And what that would then be like. Even after the first attempt, it was clear that I was on to something. My perception of the images changed radically.
AE: How did you start experimenting?
BO: Initially, I started shielding the parts of the image that System 1 uses to categorize with, simply by removing signage or doors and windows. But things really started to happen, when I began inserting different types of “blind spots,” dots or squares, where some will only be seen when searched for. Together, they prevented a quick interpretation and had you engaging with the image in a completely new way. And when you then start to discover the different types of “blind spots,” it’s an intuitive reminder that at first sight we don’t see everything. Ideally such an experience will make you expand your System 2 reading.
AE: In this series, you have combined images of buildings under reconstruction with very personal quotes from a young woman. How did the texts come about?
BO: While I was making the images for Under Reconstruction, I had a series of conversations with a young woman who was suffering from a postpartum depression. Something that involved a violent identity crisis or reconstruction, if you will, as she transitioned from only being a woman to also being a mom. It was quite a boundary-crossing experience, and extremely insightful to me as a man to hear these raw feelings and try to understand just how violent the transition to motherhood can be.
Initially, I hadn’t thought that these conversations would appear with the pictures, but while working on the series, I was fascinated by how that story could affect what I saw in the images.
AE: The conventional approach would be to have the conversation lead to inspiration for titles, like “I’m all alone.” Why did you decide to let her actual quotes be the context for the images?
BO: With her permission, I began to match her words to the pictures. Intuitively I began to see a connection between text and image, even though I knew that none existed. But this new context was made real when text and image were paired.
Perhaps it’s not so different from the way we can make sense of two completely unrelated things like two people who have the same birthdays. Not only is the image a mirror depicting the viewer, but it’s also an interchangeable mirror influenced by its surroundings, which does not make it easier to make a good one. In extreme cases, an image is actually able to be both brilliant and horrible at the same time.
AE: This series is quite different from the other series. You constantly switch between the different mirrored images, going from side to side, instead of the more random exploration that happens with your other images, where you get lost in a moment. How did it come about?
BO: The idea for this series actually occurred a bit by chance. I had a symmetrical photo, cut in two pieces. When physically separated, they immediately changed my perception of the original motif. When it was split, I suddenly saw much more in the image. When I tried to put them together again, my vision became unfocused and lazy—until I split it in two again.
I realized that something happens with our perception when we look at two almost identical pictures. We start comparing one with the other. In the same way you would when meeting a pair of identical twins for the first time, noticing all the small details that might differ. It may be related to the way we remember: We build on what we already know and focus on making sense of the new additions or differences. The same thing happened when I mirrored one of the sides or made other variations. Each time some new detail appeared that I hadn’t paid attention to before. And on an emotional level, the motif itself also appeared to be different.
AE: Are you also looking in a different way, as you start to focus more on the image than what it reflects back to you as the viewer?
BO: Yes, I think so. Maybe that’s why I find them quite meditative to look at. If the other series have been mirrors for the viewer, then the experience of this series is one that lies outside of oneself. And in a world of constant mirroring and self-promotion, maybe it’s actually a bit liberating to put self-reflection on pause?
AE: What does the title refer to?
BO: In the fifties, Eastman Kodak Company made a very powerful advertising campaign: “The Kodak Moment,” encapsulating the perfect moment in a memorable photo. The beautiful sunset, the happily married couple kissing each other, or a dramatic event—those moments where we instinctively grab for the camera to capture it for eternity.
“Nodak Moment” is the opposite of a “Kodak Moment.” It’s the places and scenes we hardly register as being a place or a scene at all, because we find them utterly unimportant. The places we walk by every day and wouldn’t dream of photographing as there would be no point in doing so.
AE: Why the interest in these non-moments? The non-Instagrams of today?
BO: Some years ago, I decided to be more conscious about what I chose to see and not to see and realized that I did not pay any attention to most of the topography around me. To challenge my own perception of what’s memorable and what’s not—what’s worth photographing and what’s not—I began turning my camera toward these non-moments.
For two years, I had my camera with me everywhere I went and deliberately took photos at the places that got overlooked. In the end I had accumulated a trove of over forty thousand images.
AE: How do you then decide what’s interesting—what to keep and what to leave out? Is there such a thing as a good Nodak moment?
BO: I quickly found out that if the Nodaks were clearly from somewhere specific—a major intersection in central Copenhagen or a countryside in the south of France—they tell too familiar a story, and the allure of the non-place is lost. It’s just a bad Kodak Moment. With those, you would look, categorize them as typical for a certain place, and move on. The specificity gives way to System 1 thinking, which I still wanted to avoid. The really interesting reactions happened at the genuinely non-places, where I could remove enough clues to avoid System 1 yet add enough in to keep the viewer exploring the image.
AE: It sounds like this project was as much about what’s worthy of an artist’s exploration, as it is about challenging the perception of a particular image?
BO: Both in my work as an artist as an inventor, I’ve learned that the new and interesting is always in the opposite direction of where everybody else is looking. So “Nodak Moments” actually encapsulate this way of working quite literally. Earlier you described me as one who captured the zeitgeist. That’s funny for me to hear, because I’ve often felt very alone with my ideas in the moment, just to find them nicely fitting the zeitgeist a few years later.
But while I was working on this project it actually surprised me how much rich scenery I had overlooked in the past—just on my way to the local grocery store. It was a kilometer that I had walked more or less daily for the past twenty years, yet I kept seeing new motifs. It made me wonder what else I missed. What other sceneries and details had gone unnoticed? And not just by me, but by all of us, because we tend to always look in a certain direction and at certain things.
AE: You’ve talked a lot about perceptions of the world around us, and in your photos in particular, but for all the talk about this very human element, there are no human beings in your photos. Why is that?
BO: Similar to how I don’t want to lock viewers’ perception of an image and do want to challenge their immediate responses to it, I often feel like images of people will do the opposite. A face in an image devours all of your attention, and you will most likely miss everything else.
We are so drawn to each other that we’ll miss key parts of the image—even a visible elephant in the room would go unnoticed. There was a viral video a few years back of a basketball game, where, during the game, a gorilla walked across the screen. Normally, that’s something you’d find quite disturbing. But people didn’t see the gorilla! Not until they were asked if they’d seen the gorilla and returned for a second viewing.
Freeing an image of humans allows that scene to come to life on its own. The challenge for me is to then make the image interesting, despite the lack of people, so it can lure you in and have you start guessing why this image has been created.
AE: Does removing humans from the image also make it easier to relate to? A better “mirror” if you will?
BO: I think so. Our dominating System 1 is obsessed with categorizing other people’s gender, looks, class, race, age, et cetera, and compare it to oneself that we don’t see anything else.
With no humans depicted, you start to explore where you are. In removing all signage that would give a place away too easily, that is, the location of the shoot, I’m also making these places more like somewhere in the Western hemisphere, where you could have been. It makes you wonder if you’ve actually been there and just not noticed this particular setting.
If there’s one overarching goal here for me, is to have people rediscover the world that’s right in front of them, with a renewed curiosity and a greater understanding of their own perception.