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Single-channel video installation, 20 min. English.

In the background of blockbuster films, algorithms have replaced human extras in postproduction. By now we are used to automated masses filling the screen, animated by algorithms that let them interact, similar to computer games and agents in computational sociology. Such artificial masses are stepping in the foreground. Simulating life began in the movies and computer games, but influences many fields today. In architecture, city planning, and traffic navigation as well as in predictions of markets and trade, virtual scenarios influence society and change the way we live.
Transformation Scenario’s speculative narration on the impact of emulated group behavior in society might well be inspired by Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Gai Savoir (1969): “To find the solution to a problem, be it a chemical or political problem, one has to dissolve it: dissolve hydrogen, dissolve the parliament. Therefore we will now dissolve images and sounds.” The film is part of a long-term project referencing Elias Canetti’s “Crowds and Power” (1960), shifting the view to imagery of society, crowd control, and the potential of masses today.

Clemens von Wedemeyer, born in 1974 in Göttingen, West Germany, is based in Berlin. He studied photography and media at the Bielefeld University of Applied Sciences (1996–1998), followed by studies at the Academy of Fine Arts Leipzig (MFA 2005), where he presently holds a professorship in the expanded cinema class. His work has been presented extensively in group and solo exhibitions and film festivals worldwide.

An interview with Clemens von Wedemeyer

Helmuts Caune: How long have you had this keen interest in the topic of ‘the imagery of the masses’?

Clemens von Wedemeyer: In 1998, when I was a student, I made a very simple video called MASS; it consisted of found footage from the 1920s. In the film, I over-exposed film extracts from the 1920s showing demonstrations and crowd gatherings, and I did it so often that it eventually became a grey surface. I edited more and more images of individuals, and in the course of the three-minute video, it goes back to the crowds. The inspiration for this, and also for other works, comes from the book “Crowds and Power” by Elias Canetti. Do you know it?

HC: I know it.

CvW: At the moment, I’m looking again at this book for a new work I’m doing.

HC: You read it in the ‘90s?

CvW: Yes, I read it in the ‘90s, and it became quite important for me.

HC: How, exactly? Could you name three or four points or theses from the book that inspired you?

CvW: Now that I’ve read it again, I recognize Canetti’s subjective point of view and can see it in comparison with other authors on mass psychology, but at the time, I took his theses on crowd behavior for granted. He’s emphasizing a division – you have the individual, and then you have the crowd, where an individual is no longer a valid point for research. A group becomes an entity, and Canetti describes the different types in terms of how they grow, transform or discharge. Canetti refers to the 20th century, especially the situation between the wars in Germany and under the Nazis – that’s what he witnessed.
The book was published in 1960. The question for me is – what happened after 1960? With the images of crowds? And what’s the difference now, what’s the new specificity? In this work here at the Biennial [the Riga Biennial, where TRANSFORMATION SCENARIO premiered in June 2018, editor’s note], I’m trying out a speculation on digitally produced crowds.

HC: Right. But you said you have returned to this topic – you worked on it in the ‘90s, and then, I believe, you covered the topic of Indigenous peoples and isolation, as in your project THE FOURTH WALL (2009); and now you have returned to the topic of crowds. Why is that? Were you motivated by recent political shifts?

CvW: It’s not really a juxtaposition. I’ve always been interested in group dynamics and media. You can actually draw a line from anthropology to the digital revolution. What Elias Canetti describes as ‘invisible crowds’ can be ghosts in certain cultures, as well as big data in ours. Both can create paranoia.

HC: In that it impacts us somehow.

CvW: Yes. Many people are scared of data today.

HC: Rightfully so, don’t you think?

CvW: Hmm. It’s difficult to know exactly what’s going on.

HC: I’m not someone who uses duct tape to cover the webcam of my laptop, but really, it is super difficult to understand what’s going on right now.

CvW: Even if you do know, it’s still difficult to find or produce an image of it.

HC: You mean the difficult part is that we don’t know how to imagine and visualize data, how to think about it? That we don’t have a coherent image of it – at least in our minds?

CvW: Yes, exactly. Images are formed by a person’s cultural background or a dominant aesthetic, but at the same time... My background is that I’ve been interested in cinema and film for a long time, and cinema is a modern laboratory of images; at its essence, cinema has been trying to simulate life since its start; it even aims to produce images that are ‘bigger than life’. So my question was then – OK, let’s see what cinema can provide as a means for visualizing data.

HC: And what did you find?

CvW: For example, a company like Weta – which was responsible for creating the digital extras for LORD OF THE RINGS – won an Oscar for their crowd animations. What they introduced was the autonomous agent – in order to give a digital extra in the background some form of liberty. They brought data to life by giving it bodies and some automated social behavior.

HC: Some simple intelligence?

CvW: Yes. And choices, so that they could behave accordingly to their surroundings.

HC: Were they the first to do something like this?

CvW: I believe it had already been developed in computer games.

HC: But they were the first to do it in cinema?

CvW: I think so. It makes it easier – you could skip individual programming and enjoy looking at your automats [machines] with a behavior defined by their relationships. In the background of a film, you excuse some mistakes, of course. Sometimes they were doing weird stuff, but it fits in with armies of weird characters like Orcs.
But then this method from fiction emerged in other fields. For example, similar algorithms are used by sociologists today to simulate social relations in city life or to predict migration. A company that worked in cinema is now simulating the world.

HC: But if you want to simulate the real world, you would have to expand this algorithm of what the individual can do.

CvW: Exactly. This way I could try to better understand what Elias Canetti describes as this shift from the individual to the group.
There are more questions connected to the work, such as the scandal about Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, about mass opinions and election behavior.

HC: Have the works that you brought to the Biennial now helped you answer some of your questions?

CvW: (Thinks.) I hope I’m carrying these questions further. I’ve done several interviews with scientists, with computational technologists, with biologists who work, for example, with fish and try to build robots that can simulate fish behavior in order to build a robot that can lead a school of fish, and so on. I made use of some of these interviews in the script that I wrote for this video. And the answer that I got through my research is, I think, that when a combination of divided programs is united in one hand will produce huge powers in understanding as well as controlling society than initially planned. Imagine a combination of big datas... like Google, Facebook and Apple merged as one... well, maybe it already is like that… So, my thought experiment was actually to connect the possibilities of cinema and sociology... having them merge into one entity to exploit.

HC: Could you elaborate?

CvW: It’s about tools that were developed in the film and game industries now being used in sociology, in city planning, in crowd control, etc. My video is a speculation; but in its concept of a „parallel future“ it might already be old fashioned today – because we have probably reached that point already in another way. I am speculating on how we will have become to arrive at this point.

HC: And this program used by the Dutch police to simulate protests – is that linked with this? Do they use these same methods of digital extras with artificial intelligence?

CvW: No, their extras are actually quite stupid because the demonstrators are very simple and universal. These really are extras: they don’t have a goal, they don’t know what they want, they can move from A to B, but only if the police instructor agrees to do so. But I was also working with (and still am working with) scientists in order to test some group dynamics. As described by Canetti. Because this would be, for me, an interesting thought – to prove the theories of Canetti by programming digital agents, i.e. giving them Canettian goals and seeing if it works out.

This interview between Clemens von Wedemeyer and Helmuts Caune was first published by Arterritory on 20 July 2018.

Production Clemens von Wedemeyer. Production company Clemens von Wedemeyer (Berlin, Germany). Written and directed by Clemens von Wedemeyer. Editing Janina Herhoffer, Clemens von Wedemeyer. Sound design Jochen Jezussek. Sound Studio Funk Berlin. Voice-over Megan Gay, Ian Dickinson.


selection: 2003: Silberhöhe (10 min.). 2004: Die Siedlung (20 min.). 2005: Otjesd (Leaving) & The Making od Otjesd (15 min.). 2006: Metropolis, Report from China (with Maya Schweizer, 42 min.). 2007: Von Gegenüber / From the Opposite Side (38 min.). 2008: Die Probe / The Test (12 min.). 2009: Against Death (9 min.). 2012: Muster (Rushes) (79 min.). 2013: Afterimage (6 min., Forum Expanded 2014). 2016: ESIOD 2015 (39 min., Forum Expanded 2016). 2018: Transformation Scenario.

Photo: © Clemens von Wedemeyer

Funded by:

  • Logo Minister of State for Culture and the Media
  • Logo des Programms NeuStart Kultur