How Georg Gatsas captured people who made their mark

Georg Gatsas is an artist, photographer, and musician based in Switzerland. Gatsas' practice focuses on sound, recollection, and public spaces interaction. He travels all over the world between different urban landscapes and takes pictures of people in their surrounding worlds in his portraits.


text: Uliana Kalush

visual art

In recent years, Georg Gatsas' work has been presented in numerous solo and group exhibitions, including Kunstmuseum St.Gallen (2017), FRAC Nord-Pas de Calais (2015), Museum Bärengasse Zurich (2013), Aargauer Kunsthaus (2012), Kunsthaus Zurich (2008, 2011), Coalmine Galerie Winterthur (2010), Contemporary Art Centre Vilnius (2009), Swiss Institute New York (2007), Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen Rotterdam (2006) and Kunsthalle St.Gallen (2003).

Georg Gatsas

photo made by Manel Justo

In 2017, he released the book Signal The Future, which unpacks many layers of London's dubstep era. Through photos of clubbers, producers and architecture of the city, a narrative uncovers how the urban environment affects music and vice versa.

You work in different fields: photography, music, fine arts. Can you tell us about your education and your background?

Like many kids, I went to the gymnasium, which I finished in 2000, it's the entry-level before you go to university. After that, I attended Institut Kunst in Basel. They didn't have a photography course, just a Fine Arts program, which I got my degree in. However, 18 years later, I wanted to get my masters degree in Fine Arts and went back to Institut Kunst for another two years — I just finished it. Everything in the fields you mentioned, I've learned as an autodidact. I think when you are an artist, you always learn things on your own or with the help of others by just asking them. You don't learn to become an art school artist, but the school can guide you or help you with new approaches or ideas. I went back to school because I was interested in connecting with other artists from different fields, so I enrolled in the master's program of Fine Arts.

What was your deciding moment? How did you understand that you wanted to work with photography or with art in general?

When I was attending gymnasium, I started taking pictures. I was obsessed with images and films from a very young age, (same as with) music and literature in general.

So, I basically just followed my passion, as cheesy as this sounds.

Taking pictures became more serious for me when I went to New York City. I wanted to get out of Switzerland after finishing gymnasium, so I booked a flight ticket to New York City in June 2002 and stayed there much longer than planned, for about 13 months. On my first visit, I started shooting my first series, The Process, which was the starting point. I always thought of it as training because I wanted to switch to the moving image which I do now sometime.

Are You Can You Were You. 2007

How did you develop your style? Your works have been compared to works of Nan Goldin, somehow I understand why, but cannot make the connection...

Obviously, in the 90s, the works of Goldin, Basquiat, Warhol, Johns and other influential artists of that time resonated with me when I discovered them as a teenager. I was especially intrigued by Goldin’s photo books, as they opened up the world of her protagonists to me. I could empathize with them. Maybe that’s a common denominator?

Later the people I’ve shot for my first series were very influential: Ira Cohen, Lizzi Bougatsos, Brian DeGraw, Kembra Pfahler, Genesis P-Orridge and Lady Jaye, Jim Thirlwell, Suicide, Stephen O’Malley from Sunn O))), Ben Tischer and Gala Verdugo of K48 Magazine and all the people around them. Talking to artist and video pioneer, Michel Auder also had an impact. I met him in New York while working part-time in a restaurant called Lucien. Michel Auder was a regular customer, so we started talking and invited me to the screening of a retrospective of his video work at Anthology Film Archives. I was introduced to the New York avant-garde cinema through him.

I was really into the New York music scene, which was blooming at that time. You could go to this place called "Tonic," one of the best music venues that have ever existed. Unfortunately, it doesn't exist any more. You could go there every week because there was always someone very interesting playing. Gang Gang Dance, Marina Rosenfeld, Tony Conrad, Orthrelm, Mick Barr, Christian Marclay, Devendra Banhart, Michael Gira, John Zorn, Jim O’Rourke — I’ve seen them all playing there in this small venue. The audience was mixed with music lovers and musicians; you could easily speak to them. Musicians and artists from other countries like Japan, Germany, the UK and other European countries also found their way to the venue. That's when the series The Process started. It was incredible to just meet all these people in this short time.

Genesis P-Orridge, Lady Jaye...

Yes, I've also met Genesis P-Orridge and Lady Jaye for the first time at "Tonic," they played a Thee Majesty show.

The Process. Breyer P Orridge

I approached them after the concert and asked if they would be up for a portrait shoot. They replied: "You have one shot. You can take a portrait in one take and if we like it, you can do another shoot with us."

I took their portrait in one take, and it turned out well, so I sent it to them. And then Genesis replied - they liked the picture and invited me over to their house in Ridgewood, Queens for another shoot.

They were your landlords, right?

Yes, from late 2006 till early 2008. I got invited for a solo exhibition at the Swiss Institute in New York in 2007. I planned my whole exhibition at the Swiss Institute, including a concert series by the end of the show. It was a three-day festival with performances by Tony Conrad, Ira Cohen, I.U.D., The Young Gods, Dälek, Tomas Korber and Norbert Möslang. It was quite a success! I shot my second series Five Points right after the Swiss Institute show because I got obsessed with taking pictures, the energy of my surroundings also helped.

Therefore, I was looking for a place to stay in New York as I was back in Switzerland at that time. The offer to stay at Genesis’ and Jaye’s house came through Edley ODowd, a former drummer for Psychic TV, who also lived there. It was a crazy time living there — people broke into the basement and stole Psychic TV gear. Another time somebody wanted to break into my apartment during the daytime while I was there, but the police caught the burglar on the spot. I didn’t even notice it until the cops rang my bell to inform me of the attempted break-in!

Was it hard to work with them?

The photoshoot was quite nice. Both of them were very polite. Lady Jaye was obviously very influential to Genesis. Working with Genesis is another thing. It wasn't my experience with her, but you can sense that s/he played the dominant part in collaborations. I think you've had to be aware of this: the collaboration had to turn out the way Genesis wanted it. If it didn't go that way — you probably would have had a problem.

Returning to your work. Zweikommasieben magazine compares your photos to photographic essays, and when I look at your work, I see the story behind each portrait. Once you described your photos as a "second portrait." What do you mean by this term?

I want to subconsciously “layer” the portraits I take. I want to catch the atmosphere, energy, maybe even eeriness of the moment when I take pictures. In short, I want to get to the point where we live. It works best by taking portraits because I have a counterpart — I can speak to the person, and usually, I get a lot of biographical information about the person I shoot, so I also get a grasp of what’s going on in the person’s life at the time of the shoot.

You can also see it as a mediation of our times. For example, The Process series was much wilder. The series was shot in New York between 2003 and 2007, and you can definitely describe these years with these adjectives: Right-wing politicians started taking over the political discourse, the welfare state became weaker and weaker, the financial crisis was only a few years away, and so on.

But it was still quite a free and wild time compared to the social media-obsessed lives we live now. There should be something you can read out from the pictures I take, something that appeals to you. I think that’s when I am content with an image. 

We were talking about The Process and Signal The Future. What is your approach to a series?

Usually, I stumble upon something. Signal The Future started because I went to London to show parts of my Five Points series at Zoo Art Fair with my former gallery in 2008, which was just a month after the financial crisis. The sales were a disaster; nobody bought anything. Luckily, I was there for a week, and I could stay in a friend's apartment in Brixton. Brixton was one of the birthplaces for dubstep nights, namely DMZ at Mass. I was really into dubstep for a couple of years already — Mary Anne Hobbs' Warrior Dubz compilation, Benga's Diary of an Afro Warrior, Skream's debut album and all DMZ 12"s. I was astonished when I first heard them. And I still think these records are timeless classics. Fortunately, The Bug & Flowdan and Darkstar played the same week in South London, and I had to attend the show — it blew my mind! Not only by the performance but also by the low, bottom-end frequency which was moving through my body. As well by the energy of the audience, they went mad! I immediately started taking pictures of the dancers that night and on my way home a few shots from the streets in Brixton. These few pictures turned out well and were the starting point of the series. I convinced the editor of Interview magazine to do a feature on them. A month later I went back to London and started shooting some of dubstep's pioneers and key players for the magazine: Mala, Loefah, Benga, Mary Anne Hobbs, Sarah' Soulja' Lockhart and Stuart' Rat' Boccaro of — and Caspa. I was also surprised how close-knit and ethnically diverse the scene was, how the city and the love of bass music were absolutely integral to the lives of the people in my book, it united them strongly. There were always new producers with new tunes coming out, so I took portraits of those who captured my ear with their sound. Some of these artists wanted to use those images as press pictures, so I started collaborating with them on shoots — for example, Ikonika, Scratcha DVA or Kode9. Or I shot portraits of them for magazines like Zweikommasieben or Wire. The club music isn't called dubstep anymore, it now goes under the name of "bass music" or "UK bass", the music itself became very diverse. Nevertheless, I couldn't stop shooting the series until 2017.

Right from the beginning, I also took pictures of the streets, tube stations, and the city's architecture, first in Brixton and later in other parts of the city. You can see how architecture has changed from 2008 till 2017. Gentrification took its toll on every part of the city, especially after the Olympics. It was quite responsible for the gentrification of certain areas in East London.

Signal The Future. 2016.
Light Underground
Signal The Future. 2011.
Highbury & Islington Underground Station

In 2017, I put out the series as the book. The first pages of the book start in 2008 right after the financial crisis and in chronological order comes to an end in 2017, right before Brexit, so my book is also a portrait of London of these years. 

Who are your protagonists in Signal The Future?

Almost the whole Hyperdub family. Scene champion Marry Anne Hobbs and her weekly BBC Radio One show was very influential on the series. She would play the latest tunes from all those dubstep pioneers I mentioned and also from producers who just started out and established them right on the spot by playing them on national radio. She sent me all the contacts from those producers and recommended me to take their portrait as well. Other protagonists are the crews around, the city’s indispensable pirate radio station before it became legal in 2011. Mala and Loefah, producers who were on Swamp81 and Deep Medi, Blue Daisy aka Kwes Darko who took me to the first Boiler Room shows when they started out — he’s producing for Slowthai, Footsie and JME at the moment. A few Grime MCs like Flowdan and P Money. Grime producer Youngstar, Bok Bok and Night Slugs. Later some of the PAN artists, alongside Nkisi, Sky H1 and Mumdance.

I was looking for a certain attitude and a certain sound of each producer, something which resonated with me. Mary Anne Hobbs, Sarah “Soulja” Lockhart and Scratcha DVA were the ones who kept me going. They introduced me to a lot of the protagonists of the series.

Marry Ann Hobbs
Sky H1
P Money
& Stuart
"Rat" Bocarro

A description of the book refers to the ‘dubstep scene’ as anti-celebrity and underground. Is that philosophy close to you?

Around 2008/2009 yes, definitely. I've also started the series shortly after the British club phenomenon received wider international acclaim, but it was still a community. You could easily spot and meet other producers as guests at club nights, especially at the ones hosted by They would also take you to other club nights or have drinks with you. I've met producers around that time who didn't want to have their picture taken (Shackleton for example) and refused to do interviews or even play live. They did it because they just felt uncomfortable about it, not because of a media strategy. There was still a gap between underground/anti-celebrity and mainstream in music around the time, and I obviously tended to be on the underground/anti-celebrity side. I think, at a certain point afterwards, those two realities merged more and more, particularly also to the influence of the hardening of economic conditions and social media.

It's kind of a bold and polemic statement, but if you want to discover things that are more "underground" these days, then you don't have to look in big Western European cities, you have to go somewhere else. There's a producer based in Kuwait named Van Boom, for example. He got on the government blacklist when he set up Kuwait's first and probably last rave. If he ever organizes another rave or plays his music publicly, he will face severe consequences. The only way he can reach out to an audience is through the internet, and fortunately, he got invited to play NTS Radio and Boiler Room. His music resonates with me because it drives from an urgency: it's an uplifting force built out of frustration/anger. For some time now, I am not even interested in signature sounds, in local connections, in scenes. I am at some point in my life and work now, where I am exclusively about the experiment and the potential of collaboration. I am really into people who found their voice, who are just doing their own thing. Wherever they come from, whatever their status is — underground or not, I don't care.

But to go back to my past: you can say the music scene of my youth influenced me the way I work today. From the mid-90s till the early 2000s, I was part of the local and sometimes (international) Hardcore music scene, underground and anti-celebrity. I set up shows with His Hero Is Gone, The Locust, From Ashes Rise, Ink And Dagger, Y, The Van Pelt, Ted Leo, The Get Up Kids and others in my small hometown the Eastern part of Switzerland. The approach to music and a certain DIY attitude from this scene stuck with me ever since.

What pitfalls did you have while preparing the book?

There were a lot of obstacles. Shooting the series was quite crazy. I stayed three times for a longer period in London, and afterwards, I moved back and forth. The fundraising of the money took a lot of work and time, and it had to be done quickly. I wanted to capture the protagonists of Signal The Future at the right moment, so the timing was equally crucial. I've had to figure out a balance between finances, the right timing and place all the time. I couldn't wait too long because the momentum would be gone — it wouldn't make sense to shoot all these producers now, for example. I wanted to be there when everything was happening. And the city itself with its new buildings changed very fast as well…

I was fundraising the money for the book for a year and a half to pay the writers, graphic designers and the printing. I've also had to make sure that everyone in the book is still up for being published. Sometimes I couldn't remember where I shot the streetscapes or tube stations, so I needed to find out by asking friends or browsing the internet for hours. I wanted to make sure that everything is right, that there are no mistakes. Proofreading was also quite time and energy consuming. The book's layout took some time — to resume with the words of Studio NOI, the graphic designers: it was the most complicated book they have been working on.

While you researched, were there any interesting events you attended?

I went to FWD>> at Plastic People whenever I could go. Nomad (working at at that time) and Loefah took me there — you could see the producers playing in a tiny club, only about a 100 people would fit in. The venue was pitch black, there was just a small bar that nobody really cared about, but the soundsystem was massive! They installed a huge Funktion One soundsystem and the way they did it was just perfect. You could feel the sound physically, the vibration, the sub-bass would go through your body and lift you up. All the producers brought their own sounds and their own identity to the club night, but there was always a connection between them. Many producers tested their new tunes. Sometimes you could hear those tunes a year or two before they came out.

FWD>> nights usually happened on a Sunday night. From around 8 pm at night till 11.30 pm and then the lights would go on, and everybody would leave. It was astonishing to see that people would go to FWD>> just for the music, to immerse in bass, to witness what was going on. They would go there and dance; there was no after-party or something like that. You could go deep into the music and feel it. I would step out by the end of the sets and feel refreshed. There were also Deviation, DMZ at Brixton Mass, certain nights at Corsica Studios or Fabric but for me, nothing will beat FWD>> at Plastic People night.

In the book, you have text written by Mark Fisher and other authors. How did you reach the balance between visual and text?

Usually, if you pick up a photo book from an artist, you will find many great pictures in it combined with a small text about the photographer or the pictures. I wanted to avoid this and have a “second layer” based on the written word in it. The essays included in Signal The Future make everything explicit: They probe deeply on so many of the strands that I visualised — community, the ‘underground,’ capitalism, the role of migration in sound, networked futurism, gentrification and more. I’ve met all these amazing cultural theorists — Mark Fisher, Mark Terkessidis, Adam Harper and Rory Gibb — while shooting the series: It made sense to ask them for a contribution. There’s also a “third layer”, the index by the end of the book.

It was a long term project. In the world, and especially in Britain, there are many concerns about economics, politics, and social problems. Where do culture and music fit into all this?

Music always expresses certain feelings, attitudes toward the present. If music transmits a feeling of the present, if it can make you see the world in a different light, if it can uplift you, then it’s perfect. The people in Signal The Future had a certain attitude towards the present, towards the circumstances they were living in, and they made the best of it.

Your major works are about New York City and London. What was appealing to you in these cities?

As mentioned beforehand, I never intended to spend so much time in both of these cities. But I was definitely drawn to these musical scenes which were strongly connected to a local scene. I can claim I was able to capture the last subcultures to be linked to a certain urbanity.

There are links between the series and portraits if you take a closer look at them — it's like a big family tree of different tribes that sometimes cross each other's path.

I kept this idea of a family tree for my photographic column "We Are Time" in Zweikommasieben magazine.

Your pictures are individually so powerful. Are they stronger when seen as a series?

Yes, it definitely makes more sense to see them as a series. But, I wouldn't say they are stronger. The great thing about photography is that you can work in series: you can use every kind of media available to show your pictures: exhibitions, books, magazines and also show them online. My pictures have to pass the test of time though — they shouldn't bore you after five or ten years.

Are You Can You Were You. 2005. Foetus

Your pictures are individually so powerful. Are they stronger when seen as a series?

Yes, especially now, when everyone takes so many images, and we’re overflowed by so much digital and online content. It makes you even pickier.

Your pictures are individually so powerful. Are they stronger when seen as a series?

Yes, especially now, when everyone takes so many images, and we’re overflowed by so much digital and online content. It makes you even pickier.

Definitely. That's what I also like about Zweikommasieben. They always change the layout for each issue completely. It's an experiment for them to always start anew. And it's coming out only twice a year which is great.

All in all, you can get lost in this mass media flow.

In 2017, you received the Manor Kunstpreis St.Gallen. You were the first artist working in photography to win this prize. The prize came with a museum exhibition, and it was your first solo exhibition in a museum. How does space affect your work?

I always have to check out the space first, what's possible in it and what is not. The part of the museum where I showed my work was quite complicated: there were almost no walls but a lot of windows, columns and doors. I had to figure out a few architectural interventions, then edit the pictures; define the sizes, hang them (framed or not), and define the prints' paper. All this comes into consideration and plays when you set up a show.

I started looking at my new series and looking into my archives — I decided with my curator to show a mix of all the pictures I shot before, from 2004 till 2017. Series called Are You… Can You… Were You? and all the images are somehow connected. We also decided on a chronological presentation of the pictures, which was the narration of the exhibition. At the entrance, you start in the present and the further you go into the exhibition, the further you go into the past.

It was like a flip, from present to past and from past to present, right?

Yes. And the latest pictures were all shot during daylight; the oldest were shot at night. So you would also walk from day to night.

Artists like you work in different fields. Is it still relevant for an artist to work exclusively in one field?

Every field has its demands, a certain set of rules for how you present something. You have to be aware of it. I love it. It definitely keeps me fresh. You can switch from one zone to the other. A lot of artists are working this way these days.

How did the pandemic influence your work?

I just tried out different things in lockdown, which I wanted to do anyway. The lockdown gave me a lot of time to focus on technical aspects without distraction — I didn’t have to show up to any event, so I did a lot of technical research and also just shot a series, digital this time. The series has been published in the new issue of Zweikommasieben.