Michael Stipe's Visual Record
In a new book of photography, the former R.E.M. frontman confronts his anxieties about our digital future—and admits he only looks at Instagram for Patti Smith's posts.
Michael Stipe, 3-D Scan, Early Technology, (Detail)
He’s best known as the frontman for R.E.M., but for more than four decades Michael Stipe has also been carrying around a camera, capturing images of doorways, hands, moire patterns, and his famous friends—things that speak to his own curiosities. His photographic archive, both analog and digital, is massive. Stipe estimates he’s shot between 30,000 and 40,000 images, many of which are housed in his Lower East Side apartment or in various storage facilities throughout the world. In a recent discussion at MoMA PS1, his friend and collaborator Douglas Coupland described him as a hoarder.
After several years of keeping a relatively low profile, Stipe is making a bit of a comeback. He recently released the first song from his long anticipated solo project (his first since R.E.M disbanded in 2011) to coincide with the Extinction Rebellion’s climate justice protests on October 7, with all proceeds from the song going to the grassroots environmental movement. Stipe also recently published his second photo book, a collaboration with Coupland titled Our Interference Times: A Visual Record.
Described as “a contemplation on the tug-of-war between pixels and halftone, between past memory and new memory and their vagaries of representation,” the book is perhaps the most obvious expression of where Stipe, as both an artist and activist, is at these days. Most notably, it addresses his anxiety that digital technology is eroding people’s association with the analog world and driving a wedge between humanity and nature, between young and old. Stipe has long been a staunch environmentalist. At age 11 he believed that his generation was going to radically reduce its dependence on fossil fuels. “It just went in the absolute opposite direction,” he says. Our Interference Times is his way of commenting on the stark generational differences that are disrupting progress in these increasingly desperate times.
Garage recently spoke to Stipe about the clash between digital and analog technology, his views on Instagram, privacy, and the selfie as a form of self-portrait.
You have a massive digital and analog archive. How did you select images for this book?
Whatever was on the top of the pile. The archive is enormous. I had a clear idea of what I wanted the book to be about and I just started digging.
You’ve described the book as an investigation of how analog imagery is crashing on the shores of our digital future. Can you provide a little more insight into what you mean by that?
I just feel like we’re in this odd purgatory moment, where we’re feeling this seismic shift from analog to digital. Most of the world is digital at this point, but analog is still a part of most people’s lives, whether it’s through books or magazines, or if it’s just the way you saw the world when you were growing up. I feel like we’re approaching this massive generational divide between those who had that analog beginning, and those who did not. And then how analog enters into the digital realm is pretty fascinating, if you think about apps that alter how images look digitally to have this almost sentimental nostalgia—a look that defines the 1970s or the disco era or whatever—for people that were born in the year 2000, the equivalent to me would be World War II. It’s something I never experienced firsthand, but through images I have an idea of what I think it was like. So things are shifting very radically and we are in this in-between stage that’s worthy of comment.
Do you think it’s problematic that some people don’t associate with the analog world?
No, I don’t think it’s a problem, but it’s altering more than just the way we look at images, it’s altering the way we communicate with each other, it’s altering the way we think about ourselves, the way we present ourselves, the way we operate our daily lives. If you consider the impact of Instagram, and someone who is very active on Instagram, how radically different their day-to-day might be from someone, say, fifteen years ago. Then how we think of ourselves, and how we regard such instrumental aspects of living in a free society; aspects of privacy, aspects like, how much of yourself do you give to a person and how much of yourself do you not. How much do you share within anyone and everyone, and how much do you not share.
You cited privacy as a reason for deleting your own Instagram.
I don’t like that Facebook bought Instagram. I deleted it three times and the third time was the last, I just won’t go back. I do go and look weekly, though, because Patti Smith is on Instagram and I love how she radically changes that platform to fit her, rather than allowing the platform to change her. When I use the term seismic, I really think we are in the midst of a seismic shift, culturally, politically, environmentally. The way we look at ourselves, and the way we look at images is a huge part of that, and it is something that needs to be discussed, considered and addressed so that there is a way to move forward, a way to communicate generationally that serves all of us.
A lot of photos in the book have imperfections. What attracts you to those types of images?
I love mistakes. I think that God lives in the mistakes and that’s where our instinct creeps through. Whether I’m talking about music or photography or sculptural art, I think when something comes out that is unexpected the response is often to get rid of it, to move towards something intentional, but I think that is often ourselves overthinking it and allowing our brain to get in the way of our instinct. Part of where we’re moving, through this technology and our move towards nature, is I think a recognition of the power of instinct, and the power of recognizing a mistake and examining and wondering, what here makes for a more compelling conversation? What makes this a more interesting piece? So there’s a lot of rephotographing images through screens, allowing the moire pattern to remain, allowing the pixel or the fractal of the digital image to become exaggerated or remain, rather than running away from it to make it look quote, unquote, good or professional.
I love mistakes. I think that God lives in the mistakes and that’s where our instinct creeps through.
Digital technology allows us to remove mistakes or imperfections. Have you ever had to restrain yourself from using the tools that allow us to do that?
My boyfriend and my friends tell me that the way that I use digital technology is completely backwards. I would take those tools and I would use them to create more mistakes, and there is abundant evidence of that in the book. There are images that are just completely wrong, that I’m calling art. It’s not art, they’re just completely wrong. But in looking at them wrong, for instance flipping each image so that they’re all portrait rather than landscape, you further abstract what it is and you’re able to look at it in a different way. I think there is power in that.
There are some intriguing images taken through windows, where your own image is reflected in the photograph a bit like a selfie. What is your opinion on the selfie as a form of self-portraiture?
To me—through Instagram, and through the idea of selfies presenting a kind of fictionalized narrative of what our day-to-day is like—it’s become extremely compounded by Instagram. But it also responds to this idea of late-capitalism and ourselves becoming the final product. When someone tells me that their branding is on point, or they refer to themselves as a brand, I just cringe. It’s the most horrifying thought or idea to me, that we would be that immersed into a capitalistic mentality that we would see ourselves as a product. Yes, there are people who have made fortunes doing nothing other than branding themselves as one thing or another, but I find that to be quite destructive.