In 2005, celebrated photographer of contemporary culture Wolfgang Tillmans felt he could no longer express what he wanted to say through photography alone. In response, he started to arrange newspaper clippings, photographs, drawings and objects in playful compositions on tabletops in a project that continues to the present day. The project, entitled “truth study centre”, examines what Tillmans refers to as the “science of truth” by making connections and comparisons between a variety of ephemera. For Tillmans, these arrangements can be understood as a type of collage consisting of minute fragments of a bigger global picture.
In many respects, “truth study centre” is the basis of “What is Different”, the sixty-fourth edition of the Jahresring – the longest running yearbook for contemporary culture in Germany – which on this occasion is edited by Tillmans. As with “truth study centre”, the subject of the book is truth, but this time Tillmans is less interested in “juxtaposing a cacophony of voices” than he is in examining how truth is formed, including where it exists in the brain. Tillmans poses the question: how did we get to where we are now – a period in which the fragility of truth is continually tested. In particular, “What is Different” concerns a psychological theory known as the “backfire effect”, which argues that if people are convinced by a statement they will continue to believe it is true even after being presented with the facts that prove it is a fallacy.
“What is Different” is a highly original and intellectual artist’s book that interweaves Tillmans own photographs, found images and press cuttings with interviews and essays. In order to explore this fraught subject, he interviewed a number of scientists, publicists, politicians and experts to access the contemporary situation where emotion more often than not overrides objective and considered thought. This is especially urgent in an era when politicians claim that people “have had enough of experts”. In retaliation, Tillmans presents a clear-sighted and rational study rooted in scientific and sociological research. “What is Different” seeks evidence over emotion. As Tillmans writes, “I need to observe. Not just talk and shout”.
The interviews and essays cover a range of timely talking points, including fake news, the filter bubble, extremism, resurgent nationalism, populism and digital tribalism. In one relevant essay, “The Power of Political Emotions”, philosophy professor Phillip Hübl of the University of Stuttgart writes, “When individuals with an intuitive style of thinking are shown that their beliefs are inconsistent, they tend to dig in their heels rather than revise their position. The desire that the world conform to their own norms is stronger than the interest in the truth”. This statement, which summarises the key theme of the book, is aptly illustrated by a photograph of a woman whose printed t-shirt reads, “People will believe something even though the opposite is true”.
However, it is not just about the cerebral texts: the images and collage-like compositions are compelling on their own terms, many of which have been printed using a colour photocopier from the ’90s. Recognisable Tillmans-style photographs sit beside reproduced screenshots and news headlines to create a startling record of our times. In this way, the cut and paste format becomes the most suitable medium to explore juxtaposing thoughts and ideas, allowing for new connections and comparisons to occur.
Ultimately, “What is Different” represents a desire for openness, curiosity, careful observation and humility. It is a plea to recognise how, aside from our differing politics, we all require the kindness and grace of others. Another photograph depicts a man whose slogan tee reads, “Don’t look down on anybody … Unless you are helping them up”. This sentiment is echoed in an extract from a poem by the artist Laurie Anderson, reproduced in fine print at the corner of a page, “cause we don’t know where we come from/ we don’t know what we are/ so when you see a man who’s broken / pick him up and carry him”.
“What is Different” is published by Sternberg Press and is available to order here.