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Faking The Truth


interview by Susanne Gottlieb

Christoph Schwarz was born 1981 in Vienna and graduated from the University of Applied Arts Vienna in 2006 where he studied with Peter Weibel, Karel Dudesek, and Tom Fürstner. He got additional education at the Academy of Arts, Architecture, and Design Prague, conceptual art studio Jiri David. Schwarz´s projects mainly emerge out of self-involved set-ups, in which he blends fact and fiction into humorous narratives that can find their respective formal shape in performance, installations and short film.

Austrian filmmaker Christoph Schwarz knows how to unravel pointed observations of life and society by playing ironically with elements of documentary and fiction. Schwarz's film 'wieso es gibt 3633 emojis' celebrated its Viennese premiere at an exhibition at the Austrian Development Agency (ADA) yesterday.

Eating in the cafeteria. Watching TV. Having coffee. Eating in the cafeteria again. Maybe having an important business meeting. Followed by watching more TV. The early sequencing of ‘Der Sender schläft’ (2013) bears very little conventional action, a deliberate choice for this particular filmmaker’s oeuvre. Watching a short film by Christoph Schwarz is the experience of watching an array of non-astringent episodes, a peek into a life that bears no real highlights. “Because life isn’t like that,“ Schwarz observes with a smirk. He is right. Therefore, his films never culminate in this one specific plot point that conventional cinema is rooted in.

Being a filmmaker, however, is a term the artist is still somewhat at odds with. Coming from an art and media installation background, film is but one medium, with which Schwarz has reflected on identity construction, the art industry, environmentalism and the modern media landscape. Born in 1981 in Vienna, he started his career by working with friends on little analogue video projects. A fun pastime, but originally not a calling for Schwarz. “I was interested in looking at the whole package and not just settling in for a film education. That’s why I chose a major at the University of Applied Arts.” Studying media art allowed him to further dip into the disciplines of sound and concept art.

In 2010, after spending a few years creating installations, video art and performances, he started refocusing on short films. “I realised that you get better attention in cinemas.” Exhibitions were prone to the disadvantage of having a huge array of artworks and the audience not giving them prolonged attention individually. “I always got more feedback from film festivals”, Schwarz elaborates, “so it was suddenly clear that I would move more strongly in that direction.”

“My way to shoot movies,” he adds though, “is so different from everything else. It’s more of an artistic approach to life. To transport ideas.” These ideas stem from his personal experiences in life. In most of his work, Schwarz makes a medialised alter ego of himself the protagonist. So when this Schwarz gets addicted to an old childhood game in ‘Civilization’ (2021), it comes from within a place of remembrance. “I think the things that have fascinated us as children, stay with us all our lives.”

Another personal involvement is the Notgalerie, meaning plight gallery, which he first showcases in ‘Die beste Stadt ist keine Stadt’ (2019) and later revisits in ‘Ich werde nicht dulden, dass ihr mich alleine lässt’ (2022). An artistic space run by his colleague Reinhold Zisser, the building used to be a church located on a terrain that was repurposed as an urban development space. Moved to a small hill vis-à-vis the growing Viennese quarter of Seestadt, it represents many of Schwarz’s recurring themes: sustainability, the ecological footprint, and a critique of the cultural sector.

Another early example of this is the first ‘Supercargo’ (2010), touching upon the market push and pulls. Schwarz travels on a cargo ship to China for an exhibition. While moving around onboard, he starts opening containers and discovers that not all of them are carrying cargo. The actual cargo, hidden beneath these empty “shells” is elevated to a supercargo.

Taking It Up With His Craft

In ‘Die beste Stadt ist keine Stadt’, his camera, when not focusing on the Notgalerie, rests on untouched nature and its threat by continuous urban development. Creation of living space, but at what price? The awareness of humanity’s ecological footprint and climate change is a topic Schwarz has taken to heart. “I want us to finally succeed in living ecologically in a more sustainable way.”

In ‘Ich werde nicht dulden, dass ihr mich alleine lasst’ (2022), his latest short, he revisits the fate of the Notgalerie, now that the urban development is edging in. This cross-referencing in his work is another typical feature of a Christoph Schwarz film. “I draw pleasure from the fact that you learn something new in one short film about another.” His 2010 ‘Supercargo’ is thematically connected to the ‘Supercargo’ of 2015, as his supercargo container exhibition idea gets combined with the wooden tech replicas of artist Peter Moosgaard, the protagonist of the latter film. Early shoots of ‘Ibiza’ can be seen in ‘CSL’, whereas ‘CSL’ is repeatedly mentioned as at a script stage in ‘Ibiza’. ‘Civilization’ flashes back to the first ‘Supercargo’ and the fact that Schwarz first rediscovered the game during solitude onboard.

When it comes to the theme of media gratification and addiction, ‘Civilization’ is one of his more recent cinematic examples. What kind of a parent and role model can he be, Schwarz ponders in the film, if he can just as easily be corrupted by a popular game. Similarly, Peter Moosgaard struggles with creative purpose in ‘Supercargo’. As an artist, he is constantly up against “continuous self-marketing in social media”. Any idea he has might already exist online. “The idea is dead, for nothing, the original is from the day before,” the voiceover says.

In ‘Warum gibt es 3633 Emojis’ (2022), Schwarz minimises the verbal output to the bare necessity. The dialogue primarily happens via text messages. Schwarz's counterpart and co-director Markus Hafner keeps sending him short stories as told via emoji storylines, that get more abstract each time. It’s a hyper-reality, a superelevation that flips on them once Hafner tries to assign meaning to the nonsensical unicorn emojis Schwarz’s daughter sends him after having nicked Schwarz’s phone.

His critique of the artistic scene primarily happens through taking a dig at himself. In ‘Der Sender schläft’ (2013) Schwarz’s alter ego edits an eccentric montage of non-used public broadcasting footage, that is rightfully exposed by the TV station’s employees as the self-serving, non-subversive pomp of a well-off artist. In ‘Ibiza’, he unabashedly portrays himself and cousin Matthias Peyker as procrastinators, who have strife with the creative process.

“The artistic world and the art market is such an elite thing. I don’t feel strongly connected to it,“ Schwarz elaborates. At the same time, however, he admits to being fascinated by the social process. These cultural digs take a specific culmination in ‘CSL’ (2018), where Schwarz forms a Christoph Schwarz lodge with four of his namesakes. The film introduces a dramatic adviser, Robert Buchschwendter, who at first wants to help Schwarz turn this story into a film, before stealing the idea for his own script. It’s a cutthroat business, after all. Is art really art, or just narcissism?

“There is for sure something narcissistic in there, that I have been using myself for so many years as a protagonist,” Schwarz agrees. At the same time, he bypasses this problem in his shorts with their characteristic voice-overs. While Schwarz never removes the original audio, it is levelled down and overlaid by a narrator recounting the first-person point of view or commenting on what is happening on screen. By doing so, he is creating a distance between video and audio. “The audience realises that an unreliable narrator is talking to them, who adapts things according to his needs. Not everything can be taken seriously.”

This meta-level allows him to employ humour very pointedly. “It would be far too dangerous if this information ever came out,” the narrator warns when talking about faking online votes on Facebook in ‘CSL’. Yet, at the same time, the film is showing Schwarz supposedly doing just that, creating a sort of inverted image-to-text gap. Schwarz repeatedly uses this hilarious technique. When playing Civi1, he claims that nobody should know that “staying longer at work” is actually an excuse for long evenings of gaming. When flying over Seestadt with a drone, he notes almost casually that drones are forbidden. When Moosgaard worries about the curator at MUMOK finding out that he is faking Austrian cargo cults, he is shown assembling them with students in the woods.

Besides poking fun at himself or society, making himself the protagonist comes with further merits. “A film project,” Schwarz elaborates, “is also a beautiful excuse to dare to do things which one would normally not do.” One such thing will be the topic of his upcoming first full-length feature ‘Geldstreik’. Schwarz spent a year without spending any money to unravel how our society has become dependent on economic liberalism and economic constraints.
This exercise of constraint is, as in the majority of his work, set in his daily life. “I like it if the audience feels that it’s getting to see places that have not been fabricated artificially.” Locations should never look too good, too perfect. Rather, they should be composed of immediacy, an air of authenticity. “Also,“ Schwarz adds, “I like to work sustainably. Why create a scenery artificially, if it already exists somewhere?”

No Pay-Off

The banality and excitement of daily life lead back to the opening observation of the non-dramatic episodic storytelling. This merger of scripted plot, real people and a hang to let things unravel creates that specific narrative tone of a Christoph Schwarz short. Fictional elements only suddenly unravel themselves to the audience.

“I often think about the question if a story needs some kind of climax. Life itself after all has no climax either. However, film narration always seems to ask for that.” His most memorable turning the tables on that notion is the obviously contrived conflict in ‘CSL’. His dramatic adviser Robert Buchschwendter keeps complaining that the development of the lodge bears no payoff. Echoing the “film in a film” theme and pushing it again to a sly meta-level, ‘CSL’ becomes a film about making this film and finding a dramatic ending.

Other smaller-scale “climaxes” are the suspiciously dramatic moment in 2015’s ‘Supercargo’, in which a group of rural youngsters start taking apart Peter Moosgaard’s exhibition. Later on, a group of teens can be seen sitting at a town square, talking about their tradition of handing out wooden phones to tourists as a ritual. ‘Civilization’ builds upon Schwarz’s overdramatic double life of responsibility and gaming that will come crashing down. ‘Die beste Stadt ist keine Stadt’ promotes an unlikely new street name, the Silke-Maier-Witt-Straße. Named for a former RAF terrorist, it is implausible for this place to actually exist.

So why mess with reality? ‘CSL’ itself seems to answer this question. “From experience, there is always more fiction than documentation in docufiction.” Schwarz, however, has a few anecdotes about how people got fooled by his stories. “After the first ‘Supercargo’, people wrote to me asking if you can really travel by yourself on such a ship and where they have to sign up. In those cases I had to tell them the truth: that part is fictional.”

Walking the fine line between authenticity and fiction, poking fun at himself and society while also conveying a relevant and closely observed message about life: Christoph Schwarz does not need a broadly fleshed out plot for his stories. He has always managed to smartly bring across his point with restrained and authentic filmmaking.

© Images

1 Still from 'wieso es gibt 3633 emojis' (Christoph Schwarz, 2022)
2 Still from 'Die beste Stadt ist keine Stadt' (Christoph Schwarz, 2019)
3 Still from 'Supercargo' (Christoph Schwarz, 2010)
4 Still from 'CSL' (Christoph Schwarz, 2018)