Artist Turns E-Waste Into Colorful Fabric

Fabienne Hess' silkscreens incorporate materials from surveillance cameras, browser histories--even the Apple Bar.

Working with found and retrieved digital images from the bins of private and public computers--downloaded from the internet or sought out from the security firms entrusted with CCTV (Closed circuit television) footage--Fabienne Hess is a digital image panhandler.

Born and raised in Switzerland, Hess has also lived in Venezuela and New York (where she worked as a graphic designer for design studio 2x4) , she now lives in London having graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2012. Since graduating from the RCA, Hess has moved away almost entirely from her former career in design; she now works solely in the world of art.

Olympia Bastards, Image Archive, 2013

2013 was a great year for Hess: a residency at The White Building, the new London center for center for art, technology and sustainability, a talk at The Serpentine Gallery and an exhibition, currently ongoing, at Baltic 39, in Newcastle UK. The show at Baltic 39, entitled RIFT, will see Hess take the final part of the exhibition, with others, from January 22nd until 2nd March 2014.

Hess now often works at a desk at the British library: “I just do artwork; I go and I read and write there, I enjoy just sitting in this archive as someone that preserves memories,” she says.

Recovery From Oblivion

“I never thought about glitch until people started to talk about it in reference to my work,” says Hess of the aesthetic feel of her art, “I felt slightly alienated because, to me, my work is about recovery. Images come out of this depth of oblivion of my computer; they're not an 'error' even though they are associated with failure because they have been deleted."

Asking about Hess's work process, particularly in the Corrupted Portraits and Corrupted Sky and Water series of images brings an insight into the obsessional behavior of an archivist–a term she is happy to use alongside that of an artist. Admitting that she only uses 'glitchy ones' Hess viewed over 160,000 images in order to find those that spoke of a journey to her. Hess explains “A  journey is one that the image has been drawn out from, the journey of being overwritten and the journey of transformation of a digital image, the glitch or the corruption talks about where the image comes from." Hess then goes on to explain the blur of corruption in saying “corruption almost seems like a continuation–a harmonious relationship with the previous image–a continuation of the original image is the place I look for.” 

Unknown Face Fragments II, 2013
Digital print on silk

Fabienne Hess, Sunrise

Fabienne Hess, Starry Night

Salvaging CCTV

“I don't think you can avoid being political to a certain extent if you start talking about CCTV,” says Hess, talking about her CCTV portraits from earlier this year. “Its almost unavoidable not to think about CCTV if you live in London because it's so omnipresent, but I am more interested in the lost footage and memory traces,” explains Hess. 

CCTV, Digital print on silk

The self portraits--the making of which became an almost performance piece in their own right--were conducted through the state run CCTV cameras in place in the area where Hess lives in Central London (although such is the ubiquity of cameras in the UK, the work could have been conducted almost anywhere). Hess mapped out the cameras and then walked a route through her neighborhood before writing to the council to ask for the footage. Under law in the UK the council had to acknowledge and send Hess the footage which she then turned directly into pieces. 

CCTV, Digital print on silk

Interestingly the distortion and pixelation is 'as was' in the original, the quality of the footage is not as clear as could be expected. But again, as with the 'glitch' it's not necessarily the obvious that is under surveillance--it's the personal journey of an image into the trash that is under scrutiny, not civil rights.

Trash and Deletion

“I don't have a smart phone, I don't have a camera, but then I harass my friends to send me pictures from the weekend,” laughs Hess, before admitting that some of her images come from further afield. Hess became increasingly interested in digital leftovers and visited public libraries and internet cafes of North London. “I pretended I'd lost my files to be allowed to run a recovery on the machines, but I didn't find anything apart from my own browsing history so it was pretty much protected, but then I went into the Apple store, and it was all there, you could just go onto a computer and look into the trash and there was dozens of images of people,” explains Hess, adding “these images were those that people have taken of themselves and then left behind, so I just go into the store on repetitive trips and empty the trash bins." 

Fabienne Hess, Bowie Corrupted

This slightly alarming admission (it was decided that she didn't want to publish them on this site, she's quite happy containing them on her own website) is off set by Hess's genteel approach and honesty of art, it also raises the question of 'trash' and ownership of discarded digital material in the public domain. Is anything ever truly discarded if it's on a digital format?

“I think the word 'trash' really needs to be reframed, and I think my work does talk a lot about the reframing of it,” says Hess. Is there a difference between trash, deletion, and archive in digital? “I noticed that for instance Gmail or Facebook now won't speak about deletion they'll speak about archiving,” says Hess,“my work is framed within this dichotomy that nothing is deleted, but at the same time there is a lot of oblivion as well and things do go away--they get stored, they get corrupted, they get forgotten. In a way digital life is just like memory, it gets distorted and filled in with imagination with untrue facts and imagination–there IS deletion.”

Fabienne Hess, Recovered

Asking Questions about Remembering & Forgetting

2014 will see Hess traveling to Colombia as part of an artists residency program, “I used to live in Venezuela, and I have an affinity with the area,” explains Hess. The residency is based on communication and is a place for doubt, something that Hess is clearly looking forward to feeling when she says darkly “the place has a history of violence and much people debate around what should you forget or remember. I want to ask questions about 'remembering' and 'forgetting' --how does it reflect in people's life or work?” 

Hess is fearless in her attitude to panhandling digital, an archivist and a romantic, responsible for holding up the mirror whilst finding cultural gems. Her work tackling deeper cultural idiosyncrasies will be worth searching for.