by Nathalie Vissers

© Philippe Braquenier from the series ‘Palimpsest’, AT&T Tower – New York, USA – 15/07/02015

Philippe Braquenier (b. 1985) is a young Belgian artist focusing on conceptual and documentary photography. He received his BFA in photography from the HELB (Brussels) and has exhibited in FOMU Antwerp, The Brussels Royal Museum of Fine Arts and Aperture Foundation in New York among others. In 2016, he was one of the ten emerging talents selected by FOMU Antwerp. His biggest project, Palimpsest, was recently on show at the Ravestijn Gallery Amsterdam. I am meeting Philippe Braquenier in Brussels, where he lives. His work, however, takes us all over the world to cover the topics he is interested in. We sat down for a conversation on his past, current and future works.

Let’s start from the beginning, how did you get into photography?

Philippe Braquenier (PB): The first picture I ever made was when I was around eight years old I guess. I was on Holiday with my parents in Scotland and made a picture of the mountains and some camping tents. I don’t know why, but that’s pretty much the first picture I ever made. Around 16, I started buying disposable cameras to take pictures of friends, parties, school and things like that. After, I went to college. I studied architecture for a year but I convinced my parents to switch to photography.

When I started my studies, I didn’t know what kind of photographs I wanted to take. I just got a feeling of wanting to do photography. It was not rational. I am not sure why I wanted this, because no-one in my family is an artist, absolutely no-one, I am a UFO (laughs). My parents didn’t want me to study photography at first, because it’s such a chaotic profession.

Did you like studying photography?

PB: I chose the most technical school, because I didn’t know yet what kind of photographs I wanted to make. A technical school ensured that I could still do any kind of photography.
After my bachelor years, I wanted to go for a master, but instead I immediately got a job at an advertisement studio. I worked there for eight or nine years.

When did you start making personal projects?

PB: I started making personal projects during my time in the advertisement studio, but I didn’t have a lot of time, so I was restricted to working in the holidays and when I was free. After a while, I wanted more time to focus on personal projects, so I quit the advertisement world.
Now, I am combining work on personal projects with part-time jobs.

How did your photography approach change over the years?

PB: When I compare my approach from the beginning till now, it did change. In my beginning years, I was more experimental, but the photography school limited this a bit, so I began to work in a more classical way. My graduation work was a project about violence (titled inertia). With that project, I found what I wanted to do as a photographer and then continued to follow that path.

© Philippe Braquenier from the series ‘Inertia’

Tell me about the path you are following, what are the topics that interest you the most in photography?

PB: Everything is interesting (laughs). I am reading a lot of scientific articles, such as articles from Science magazine, the MIT newspaper, articles from friends who work in scientific fields, but also things I read in the news or other random things I encounter. I don’t really know how I decide to go for a certain topic, maybe because some topics are bigger than others? Anyway, I need to have a strong topic to start a project and then try to question the medium in filigree.

Let’s take your project 'Palimpsest' as an example. How did you start this project and how did it evolve?

PB: I was reading a scientific paper from one of the directors of the CNRS, a scientific center in France. He explained that CDs, DVDs and hard drives will become obsolete soon and as a result the memory of humanity is collapsing. That sounded like an interesting, even a kind of impossible, project: Trying to visualize knowledge and how humankind is preserving or storing its knowledge.

At first, the project started out more architectural, but it evolved quickly to something more conceptual. I took more pictures, went to more places, and the project started to build itself, like an organic process. After a while, I started to focus on the disturbing elements in these spaces where knowledge is stored. The decision to focus on these elements also relates to the way I work. I am doing this project with a 4X5 inch camera, which quickly becomes expensive. As a result, I only allow myself a maximum of five pictures per location, which makes me focus on the most atypical, unexpected and disturbing elements.

© Philippe Braquenier from the series ‘Palimpsest’, Pont d’Arc Cavern – Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, France – 06/07/02016
The Pont-d’Arc Cavern is the largest decorated cave replica in the world. It features an extraordinary collection of paintings, drawings, and engravings reproduced from the original Chauvet Cave, closed to the public since its recovery in 1994. The construction of the replica began in October 2012 and it was opened to the public in 2015. The cavern covers 3000 square meters of floor surface. 150 kilometers of metal rods were welded to form grids imitating the shapes of the original cave. The replica is enveloped by 8000 square meters of geomorphically diverse walls. Based on 6000 images, sculptors were invited to model the wall surfaces with special mortars. To create the facsimiles of the original cave decorations, they worked with pigments and charcoal, the same materials as did their distant ancestor. The ambition was to create an environment that would resemble the original Chauvet Cave as closely as possible. This meant having the characteristics of the subterranean climate, including humidity and darkness.

© Philippe Braquenier from the series ‘Palimpsest’
State Archives of Belgium / National Archives 2 - Jospeh Cuvelier repository – Brussels, Belgium – 08/10/02015
Based in the old paper mills buildings of Haeseldonckx, the Joseph Cuvelier repository can accommodate up to 49 kilometer of linear archives. The building was built in 01912 by the famous Belgian architect Fernand Bodson. It was later rebuilt and extended several times, occupying five hundred neighbouring plots in total. Facades, roofing, bearing structures as well as some interior elements are on the heritage list, as a monument, by the government of the Brussels-Capital region, because of their historical and artistic interest.

Where does the title ‘Palimpsest’ come from?

PB: Palimpsest is an ancient term. It was a document from which you erase the content to rewrite on it. There was not a lot of paper at the time, so they saved the paper, but erased the knowledge. Besides this, in architecture, Palimpsest is used to refer to the accumulation of design elements in a particular place over time.

The project required you to go to different knowledge storing facilities, such as data centres, libraries, state archives etc. Was it difficult to get access to these locations? 

PB: Yes, the project requires patience… a lot of it. I started the regular way, sending an e-mail, waiting, sending a reminder, waiting. Now it is starting to become easier, because I have something to show, but at first it was really complicated. The first difficult place I got access to was CERN. After a start in Belgium, CERN is where the project really started off, it was my first trip for Palimpsest. I went by car for two weeks and made a European work trip.

Practically, I had to plan a lot of meetings in these two weeks. I had to be efficient, otherwise the project would become too expensive. Later, in other countries, like Spain, the US and Stockholm, I worked in a similar way, combining locations and meetings within one trip. So far, I’ve done five or six trips and photographed a total of 34 places.

Of course, if you are combining different locations in one trip, planning becomes more difficult. And yes, the institutions are not easy to get into, but once you get in, they are quite nice. The hardest thing is to get your first answer. The authorization for the WikiLeaks data centre in Stockholm, for example, took me almost seven months of e-mails. Finally, I got in because a friend in Stockholm who met a guy, who knew a guy, etc.

© Philippe Braquenier from the series ‘Palimpsest’
CERN – Geneva, Swirzerland – 19/03/02014
All servers in the main room of 1,450 m2 is the level 0, the first point of contact between the LHC experimental data and the Grid. The 95 000 processor cores and 10 000 servers hosted in its data center run 24/7. A remote extension of the CERN Data Centre is hosted at the Wigner Research Centre for Physics in Hungary. The CERN and Wigner Data Centres are connected via two independent and dedicated 100Gbps circuits, with a bandwidth equivalent to the transfer of 5 full DVDs per second. The LHC experiments produce over 30 petabytes of data per year. These are transferred to the data centre where initial data reconstruction and archival is performed. Over 100 petabytes are kept in mass-storage systems.

© Philippe Braquenier from the series ‘Palimpsest’
Wikileaks – Stockholm, Sweden – 04/11/02014
Wikileaks has multiple servers in Sweden and Iceland to optimise the safety of its data. In 2010, The Swedish Pirate Party made a deal with Julian Assange to host several new Wikileaks servers. In addition, The Party provided free bandwidth to assist the organisation with its efforts to increase the transparency and accountability of political establishments internationally. Wikileaks opted to move some of its servers to Pionen, a former civil defence centre built in the White Mountains in the Södermalm Borough, Stockholm. The facility was originally constructed in the 1943 during The Second World War to protect essential government functions from bombings. The underground bunker was converted into a data centre by the Swedish broadband provider Banhof in 2008. The bunker is buried under a hoard of 30 meters of granite, secured by 40 centimeters thick door, backed up with generators from German submarines, and is only reachable via single entrance tunnel. This said, the likelihood of the law enforcement to physically seize or destroy the organization’s equipment is much less likely than a legal attempt to gain direct access to Wikileaks’ data.

When will Palimpsest be finished?

PB: Never, I will continue to work on this project forever. I won’t end it. Knowledge is constantly evolving too, so I have no reason to stop this project. I am sure the topic will continue to interest me. In fact, there are so many places I still want to visit. In the US, but also in the Middle East. Especially the Middle East is at a very critical moment right now, maybe too critical for me to visit now, but it would be a very interesting addition to the project, to show that knowledge is purposely destroyed.

Is that why you’ve included some screen shots of ISIS footage in the project?

PB: Yes, like I mentioned, I really want to go to the Middle East, because there are some interesting stories to tell there. People over there are trying to keep their heritage and culture safe, but others, like ISIS are destroying culture and knowledge. To me, destroying these things is the bottom of humankind, so it was important to me to raise questions about that.

About this footage, I decided to turn 100 screen shots into one image. In all my own images, I am showing a disturbing element or chaotic side in these locations, because knowledge itself is also always evolving and impossible to constrain. The destruction of a city is such a chaotic event in itself, so I wanted to rationalize it, to give it some structure, that’s why I combined these 100 screen shots in a structured way. But in the end, this picture might just be a teaser for when I manage to make the trip to the Middle East myself.

© Philippe Braquenier from the series ‘Palimpsest’
Video footage from Isis - Nimrud, Syria - 11/04/02015
One hundred images of the destruction of the antique city of Nimrud.

You mention this idea of structuring the picture, because of the inherent chaos of the content. I’ve noticed this element in your other images too, they appear clear, objective and rational. Is this also a way of giving structure?

PB: Indeed, the concept in itself is complex enough. If I make it more aesthetic or messy, I will lose viewers. I want to send a clear message, that’s part of my job. My interest is to question our society, I find it more interesting to ask a simple question about a complex topic than the other way around. It’s like explaining a complex project to a child. I am not saying my audience is like a child, but it’s always more interesting to use simple words to explain something complex than the other way around. I guess I am trying to do something similar with my photography.

Are you planning new projects besides 'Palimpsest', or will this stay your main focus for the coming years?

PB: At the moment, I am actually already working on three other projects. Two that I would like to finish in the next year, but the other one will be another long-term project. In the meantime, 'Palimpsest' will continue too. I have some new authorizations granted, but I am waiting to plan until I have enough money for the next trip. For now, the project was recently on show at The Ravestijn Gallery in Amsterdam and I am planning to make a (first) book of the project this year. 

© Philippe Braquenier from the series ‘Palimpsest’
University of Neuchâtel – Neuchâtel, Switserland – 18/03/02014
This is one of the tiniest miniaturised atomic clocks in the world. Atomic clocks are the most accurate time standards, regulated in correspondence with the vibrations of particular atomic or molecular systems. The future plan is to add atomic clocks in portable devices to improve synchronisation of communication networks, and increase transfer rates through high accuracy coordination between devices. Atomic clocks are useful in telecommunications for time multiplexing techniques. When transferring data from point A (e.g. a mobile phone) to point B (e.g. a base station of the cellular network), atomic clocks allow multiple users to transmit information packets on a single channel or frequency. This requires highly accurate synchronisation of emitters and receivers to identify time gaps between each of the signals. The more accurate the clock, the more data can be sent over a single channel.

Why did you decide to make a project about digital data and knowledge archiving with an analog camera?

PB: I started the work digitally, but quickly realized this didn’t make any sense. With the project, I am trying to show that saving knowledge digitally could be dangerous, so it wouldn’t make sense to make my images digitally. Moreover, I generally prefer working analog. The end result, the colours, the grain and especially the need to think before taking pictures. This way of working suits me, I really need it.

Talking about our digital society, could you explain your other project ‘Digital Native’?

PB: In that project, I wanted to raise a question about the new generation, who will always live with digital technology. It starts from the very early on, kids that are only two years old already have an IPad in their hands. These generations are almost spending an equal amount of time in a digital world than in real life. As a result, they have like two personalities, a digital avatar and their ‘real’ person. I wanted to ask a question about what it means to grow up in this digital society.

© Philippe Braquenier from the series ‘Digital Native’

© Philippe Braquenier from the series ‘Digital Native’

In your project ‘New Frontier’, you are also experimenting. In that project, you didn’t just document, but also added your own boundaries to the environment. How did you come up with this?

PB: The project ‘New Frontier’ is about borders, boundaries and territories. To me, the most important aspect there is not the real frontiers or boundaries, but instead the mental projection of boundaries, how humans are creating these boundaries themselves. Of course, territory also exists for animals, but we are the only one to create real physical boundaries, so it made sense for me to create the boundaries myself. I decided to make crime scenes, because it is a place where no-one can enter, except for specific persons. People are respecting these boundaries, I wanted to confront them with that. So, I made the crime scene, took the shot and then left it. I don’t know what happened afterwards.

© Philippe Braquenier from the series ‘New Frontiers’

Which artists or photographers inspire you?

PB: I really like American photographer, Trevor Paglen. In his first renowned project, he was using telescopes to make pictures of CIA secret bases. Usually his projects are very conceptual. In one project, for example, he took pictures of drones, but all you see is a beautiful sunset or sky and the drone itself is just a very small part of the image. His focus was primary on military and state surveillance systems.

A couple of years ago, I also discovered Taryn Simon, because a friend compared my work to hers. She did a project called ‘An American index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar’, where she made images in secret or difficult to access places.

And lastly, during my studies, I was really interested in the work of Alfredo Jaar. He was a photographer during the Rwanda genocide and when he came back to the US, he looked at the pictures and found them to awful to show, so instead he put them in black boxes and put these on the floor in the exhibition space, so the pictures themselves were invisible. I think this was something like a revelation to me.

Have you seen any books or exhibitions that inspired you lately?

PB: Not recently, but there is one book I really love about photography. It is called ‘Photographs Not Taken’, edited by Will Steacy. In the book, photographers explain about those moments they saw something, but didn’t take the photograph. It’s a really powerful book.


Philippe Braquenier
urbanautica Belgium