“With this Apple appliance, you can capture live videos / Still motion pictures shot at high frequency / blurring, blurring the line.” These were last week unveiled as the lyrics to Wolfgang Tillmans’ “Device Control,” the experimental techno track which went on to become both the intro and outro to Frank Ocean’s visual album Endless.
It’s unsurprising that these words were born in the mind of Wolfgang Tillmans; the German-born photographer is often described as the “documentarian of his generation” and is renowned for ongoing visual observations of the world around us.
What was surprising, however, was that these musings would become lyrics set to music. Although Tillmans’ has previously waxed lyrical about his love for techno and club culture, his first official EP was released only this year. In celebration of Tillmans’ burgeoning musical career, we scoured the archives to compile a concise yet comprehensive guide to the pioneering polymath.
His First Exhibition Was Organized During Community Service
Wolfgang Tillman was born in Remscheid, West Germany in 1968 but soon relocated to Hamburg to complete 20 months of community service, a then-mandatory alternative to military service. He spent the first 10 months working in social health, helping nurses clean patients and assisting the elderly before moving to a switchboard job in central Hamburg.
There, he had full access to a phone and a photocopier – these were, it transpired, all that was needed to make his first exhibition a reality. The result was a compilation of his own photographs and the photographs of others which had been systematically enlarged, dissolved and destroyed.
Photographs of His Best Friends Made Him Famous
It was in 1990 that Tillmans relocated to the United Kingdom, initially enrolling at the Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design. Two years later, however he set his sights on Britain’s notorious capital and subsequently drew critical acclaim for his portrayals of London’s hedonistic nightlife.
It was in 1992 that Tillmans created a series of imagery which has gone on to become his most recognizable: photographs of his two school friends, Alex and Lutz. Although initially published as fashion editorial in the pages of style bible i-D, the images soon infiltrated the art world and were featured in various exhibitions – a rare achievement which symbolically dismantled the infamous elitism of the art industry.
He Honed His Craft in the World’s Best Nightclubs
Much of Tillmans’ most poignant photography has taken place in queer safe spaces worldwide. From Russian gay bars to expansive, inclusive London nightclubs, nightlife filtered through his gaze becomes a sort of diverse modern utopia. It was on these countless nights out that Tillmans experienced ecstasy, spending adrenaline-soaked hours discovering himself to the sounds of acid house and techno.
The political messages intertwined throughout his imagery are impossible to ignore – they make even more sense after discovering he lost the love of his life, Jochen Klein, to AIDs in 1997. A brutally honest interview with ArtSpace saw Tillmans reflect on a youth spent fearing the effects of the disease – it’s an epidemic which filters often into his work alongside issues of equality and gender identity, all of which have collectively combined to earn him a reputation as a queer icon.
He’s a Recipient of the Prestigious Turner Prize
Art-world accolades don’t come much more prestigious than the Turner Prize. The fund, established in 1984 and named after 19th-century artist JMW Turner, was initially conceived as a way to support British-based or British-born artists and provoke critical debates around art.
It was back in 2000 that Wolfgang Tillmans became a recipient; he was nominated for various works and subsequently awarded £20,000 as a reward for his contributions to the art industry. Jurors famously praised his ability to “challenge conventional aesthetics” and take photography in new directions, as well as his “ability to look at often unregarded aspects of the everyday and create striking images from them.”
His Non-profit Exhibition Space Was Created to Avoid Censorship
In 2006, Wolfgang Tillmans opened his non-profit, artist-led exhibition space Between Bridges in East London – a second venue was later erected on Keithstrasse in Tillmans’ part-time home, Berlin.
The idea was to showcase political artists whose singular, often controversial voices were ignored by the art industry but, as he explained in a 2006 interview with Louise Gray, the focus was also on “art that doesn’t necessarily have a voice, because the artists are either dead or of no commercial interest.”
The first exhibition spotlighted David Wojnarovicz, an interdisciplinary American artist and AIDs activist whose life was snatched by the disease in 1992.
He Introduced “Playback Rooms” Into His Exhibitions
Wolfgang Tillmans has spent a vast majority of his career reprogramming the way we think about art. It was in 2014 that he first introduced a “playback room” to Berlin’s Between Bridges, explaining in an interview with The Guardian that “in my life music functions on a par with art – it evokes similar feelings and understanding of the world.”
He then went on to bemoan the lack of care often shown in the ways we consume music, describing records as “perfect artworks – but you just cannot go anywhere to listen to the way musicians heard it at the mastering stage. While you can play them on your stereo or iPhone there is never a space dedicated to them and you can never listen in studio quality.”
His idea quickly snowballed and became a project in its own right – he built another “playback room” in Munich at the start of this year.
He’s a Famous Fan of Colourbox
The “playback room” quickly became an exhibition dedicated to English group Colourbox, established in 1983. Although the band was only active for five years, they honed an eclectic soundscape which combined elements of electronica, reggae and soul; they also pioneered the practice of sampling, which later became commonplace in pop music.
Wolfgang Tillmans explained his decision to focus on the band in the same The Guardian interview, describing their “incredible freedom” and citing them as the “perfect band” for the “playback room” due to never having played a live show.
This Year Was His Formal Musical Debut
Aside from his upcoming Device Control EP, Wolfgang Tillmans released another 5-track EP just two months ago entitled 1986/2016. As the title suggests, the project is a juxtaposition of recently-recorded tracks and deep cuts from 30 years ago; deep house and techno references picked up throughout his experience at the world’s best nightclubs clearly shine through, but the overall result is perhaps more avant-garde and experimental than most would have expected.
His musical journey continues in September with the release of Device Control – just days ago, a haunting clip for Salem’s remix of “Make It Up As You Go Along” was released, building yet more hype for the upcoming project.
He remains modest with regards to his musical transition – he recently explained his doubts surrounding the EP release to The Fader. “There have been so many good musicians making bad art and vice versa. I asked my close friends again and again “Can I do this? Is it good enough?” I guess I now have to accept it maybe is.”
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- Words: Jake Hall
- Lead image: Alasdair McLellan