Residency in RMB City: Adrian Blackwell, Yam Lau and GestureCloud: Judith Doyle+Fei Jun

Cao Fei,  RMB City, SecondLife  Video Still
Cao Fei, RMB City, SecondLife Video Still, Courtesy of RMB City © 2008
The first time I check out the online community of Second Life, where users interact via 3D avatars, I try something I would never do if I was a flesh and blood visitor to an unknown place: look for the X-rated entertainment. Plugging ‘xxx’ into the site’s search engine, I teleport to one of SL’s many sex clubs. Seeking out the curious spectacle of avatars having sex seemed to me the point of the exercise. What else was there to do? To the uninitiated, Second Life can be a rather lonely place. You can traipse about for ages and never meet another soul. Your avatar might be able to fly, traversing sparkly digital oceans, but this doesn’t help all that much.

A couple years later, I visit Second Life again, this time with a more ‘legitimate’ destination. I am going to RMB City, a project of the Beijing-based artist Cao Fei. Still my experience is much the same. Where is everybody? I am suffering from a disjunction between real the virtual, a dynamic Cao Fei had explicitly set out to explore. My experience helps to shed light on the problem, but it’s of the unintended sort. If my navigations through the world of Second Life are cumbersome and alienating, it’s because I have a sub par computer. It’s an issue of processing speed. Inadvertently perhaps, Cao Fei’s ambitions in Second Life provide a metaphor for the looming dilemma faced by the West. We are lagging behind but lack the drive needed to overcome this predicament.

Disjunctions between the real and virtual worlds, often unintended, also dominate the Residency in RMB City project. Because it is located in the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in the Toronto suburb of Don Mills, the Gendai Gallery is somewhat hard to get to. With this exhibition Gendai curator, Yan Wu, puts the venue’s peripheral status to good conceptual use, proposing a show that can be, in part, accessed by computer. Working with the artists, Adrian Blackwell, Yam Lau and the collaborative duo of Judith Doyle and Fei Jun (known as GestureCloud), Wu creates an exhibition that combines a gallery presentation with digital artworks created for Cao Fei’s Second Life property.

Made up of an amalgamation of references to Chinese architecture, RMB City features the Herzog and de Meuron Bird’s Nest along with shiny skyscrapers, motorways and sidewalks, warrens of small shops selling take out food and the like, all of it organized around the central structure of the Forbidden City, Beijing’s Imperial Palace, which dates from the Ming Dynasty. Although Cao Fei promotes her project as a platform for artist collaboration, miscommunications meant that Wu found her initial proposal to create an artist residency in RMB City rejected by the artist. Further communications remedied the situation; as of press time, the artists are soon to begin moving their projects to the Second Life location. In recognition of the changed status of the project, this second phase will now be termed Intervention into RMB City. A publication about the project, called From Residency to Intervention will be published in the spring.

In the Gendai gallery, Blackwell presents Lóng Sùshè (Dormitory) (2011) a plywood maquette of a workers’ dormitory proposed for RMB City. Trained as an architect, Blackwell has lived in China, teaching architecture there at an offsite campus of U of T. With Lóng Sùshè he provides infrastructural context for Cao Fei’s metropolitan fantasy. An interest in sculpture as a platform for public discourse has been the long term focus of Blackwell’s practice. Referring to an actual dormitory in the industrial region of Shenzen, one that is continually being built in an effort to meet the growing demand for worker’s housing, Lóng Sùshè, helps to clarify certain questions that will emerge along with China’s growing economic dominance. What kind of public will China’s new global order create? How easily do traditions of the West translate, and are they even relevant? The notion of a public sphere is amongst the highest ideals of a functioning Democracy, but it’s not clear how it will figure in a country that has little in the way of democratic traditions as they are known in the West.

Writing about the legion of workers that power the engine of China’s economic expansion has become a journalistic trope in Western reports about the country. China’s nineteenth century industrial conditions are a subject of some fascination in the West. Such reportage helps provide a salve for the conscience of those enjoying the products of cheap Chinese labour. Judith Doyle and Fei Jun’s GestureCloud (2011) uses the space of Second Life to rewrite this narrative, to great critical effect. In place of the whole, but nameless, Chinese worker, the artists create a virtual inventory of the gestures factory employees are forced to repeat, ad infinitum, when doing their job. Based on video documentation of the duties performed in a printing factory in Beijing, GestureCloud represents these workers in terms of their real world effects. This distillation by the artists’ creates clarity: like everybody, really, in global economy, the factory workers are mere nodal points within a vast system — or to borrow a 19th century metaphor, cogs in the machine. As with other multi-user online environments, Second Life has a real world economy, money changing hands in the form of Linden Dollars (San Francisco’s Linden Labs is the company behind the site). For the RMB City stage of the project, these gestures will be available for purchase via a vending machine in Second Life, the animations being useful presumably for avatar-related Second Life labours. Gesture Cloud’s ultimate ambition is to return the money they make back to the factory workers in Beijing.

Residency in RMBCity installation at the Gendai Gallery
Residency in RMBCity installation: Yam Lau, Princess Iron fan (l), Adrian Blackwell, Long Sushe (r)

One translation of RMB City is Money Town; a mordant commentary on the breakneck pace of economic development in China, Cao Fei’s project also creates a narrative for the transition China is currently undergoing — and the implications it has for the rest of the world. Anyone with a computer and an internet connection can use Second Life; the language of software is more or less universal. With Princess Iron Fan (2011), Yam Lau gives expression to the heterogeneity of elements from which this new Global culture is being constructed. Princess Iron Fan is character from a Chinese folk tale, adapted for a film of the same name, which was the first animated feature film made in China, in 1941. Lau adopts the figure of Iron Fan as it appeared in the 1941 animation for his Second Life avatar, but with important alterations. Presented in pleasingly anachronistic black and white, the avatar is given certain ghostly characteristics. It is visible from the front but not the sides or back; the artist slyly attributes vaporous qualities to a thing that already has no substance. In the gallery, the projected animation appears from time to time, mimicking the avatar’s movement through the virtual world; in Second Life, Princess Iron Fan is programmed to similarly ambulate around. However, she never appears in both places at once: Princess Iron Fan is perpetually destined to exist on the threshold between the virtual and the actual. In metaphorical terms, the virtual animation of a Chinese folk hero points to the changed cultural landscape that will characterize the 21st century – an expanded world no longer necessarily bound by Western ideas or traditions.

By Rosemary Heather

Residency in RMB City is a project of Gendai Gallery, Toronto.
This text originally appeared in Bordercrossings, Issue 118.

Ryan Trecartin Makes Art Cool Again

Ryan Trecartin, K-Corea INC.K (section a), 2009.

By Rosemary Heather


The third time I visited Ryan Trecartin’s show of video installations,  Any Ever in Toronto, it was near the end of the exhibition. People moved from room to room, notebooks in hand, recording their thoughts. Like few other art events I can think of, the show contained within it the seeds of a conversation. See Ryan Trecartin’s work and you want to talk about it.

Trecartin opens up a space that is innate to video’s technological capabilities; yet, before him, no one had quite dared to go there. And treading where others fear to tread can produce fear itself. Fear and a reluctance to engage is one response his work tends to get. Fear because a goal of sensory perception overload would seem to be one of the first principles from which Trecartin operates.

Ramping up the confusion, he leaves no aspect of the world within the frame unaltered. His performers, some of them former aspiring Disney child stars, wear a hybrid of clubbing gear and campy almost-drag. Spaces are filled-up with bodies and things; in one video, a gaggle of boys and girls in blonde wigs simper and scream while crowded onto a bus. Competing with the actors are layers of motion graphics, of the kind you might see on an infomercial – that is, the graphics normally relegated to a netherworld of bad video aesthetics – which are overlaid or inset, or spin and scroll across the screen.

Trecartin himself, ubiquitous throughout his work, sports bitchy attitude and mastectomy scars. Faces are adorned with self-tan, white lipstick or day-glo swatches of colour; this is make-up applied to bring the work’s human element into alignment with its tawdry mise-en-scene. The scenarios play out among the accoutrements of a cheap Florida vacation; Trecartin produced the videos in the nine rooms of a rented house in Miami. His use of disposable IKEA dreck makes sense, considering the casual destruction the performers wreck on the place.

People break things and smash Blackberries against the floor. Posters of things like fluffy white dogs on the walls further help to fragment the screen space, and everything is accompanied by the drone of cheesy synthesizer music. When the actors speak, their voices are sped-up, an especial irritant for some viewers. People talk into cell phones, or mimic this by holding thumb and pinkie up to their face, all the while mugging for the camera.

Trecartin’s extreme emphasis on artifice helps to reinforce the feeling that you and the performers in his work exist in separate worlds.  The focal point of a single camera lens means you peer into the frame, and they peer out at you. Trecartin’s actors seem stuck in a box; one in which they are always compelled to perform for the camera. Of course, such an existential state of affairs would only seem like hell to a portion of Trecartin’s audience. The actors he works with are adept at suggesting this is their native habitat. It’s a naturalism of sorts, if of a world organized along the lines of a hilarious late night trip to the 711, where fluorescent lighting, a riot of purchasable items and the drugs you took are responsible for your disorientating experience of the place. It’s a world as seen through the frame of TV, but with no discernible narrative – Sit-com or otherwise – to give it coherence.

Keeping the operatic pitch of Trecartin’s vision in check, ensuring that, finally, there is order in this world, is the absolute brilliance of the artist’s language and editing technique. As with every other aspect of the work, the lines delivered by the performers are fragmented and nonsensical – but what poetry! “Don’t worry, my death was really sexy and ultra tan!” Or in the opening moments of the video, K-Corea INC.K (section a) (2009) “I really need a case of atmosphere. Are you finding Position? It’s such a hunt.” He achieves the imagined ideal of an invented language that remains comprehensible. The same could be said for his work as a whole.

In response, people I’ve talked to have called Trecartin’s work “empty.” “Visually stunning but vapid” opined a friend; another disparaged it rather grandly as “outtakes from the world’s worst reality show.” In contrast to this opprobrium, the most intriguing comment I heard is that Trecartin’s work gives us “a new way to look at the world.” Let’s shorten that to “new”, as in “what kind of news does this artist bring us”? My guess: Trecartin answers the question about exactly where contemporary art fits into the cultural landscape. As with the response to his work, the news is both good and bad.

In his excellent book, I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay (2010), John Lanchester observes that a postmodern era in finance led to the 2008 meltdown: “value, in the realm of finance capital, parallels the elusive nature of meaning in deconstructionism.”  The financial world of course runs parallel to the artworld; at many points, the two intersect. As recent events have shown, both realms are adept at conjuring value out of practically nothing. Compared to the art profession, the financial world is a relative latecomer to this game, one who found itself seduced by the question: how far can you abstract monetary value away from its origin in real things before it collapses?  It is still digging out from the wreckage of the answer it got. By comparison, the art system proves its resilience. It produces value around consensus that, however specious sometimes, is far from reckless. Art offers a model for the management of risk that is finely calibrated, and though it may conspire to elicit the occasional bad bet, it probably won’t ever collapse.

Trecartin’s work confirms something about this truth of the art world as purveyor of bankable assets. But he does this by showing us how the artwork as a value unto itself survives in spite of that. That’s the good news. The bad news is that, while the art business might be a centre of value production, it for the most part isn’t a centre of cultural energy today. It’s easy enough to find this energy elsewhere; I hardly need to name the culprit: suffice to say, if you are reading this, you are looking it. Trecartin smuggles some of this energy into the art gallery and its inhabitants, who are used to more calculated outrages, are amazed.  Even the Guggenheim, while acknowledging YouTube’s power with its Play Biennial, balked at going the full distance in their efforts. Almost all of the 25 shortlisted videos are slick graphic animations. This isn’t what people care about on YouTube, which is at its best as a hybrid vernacular entertainment medium and communications tool. I took note when I heard my friend say Trecartin gives us a “new way to look at the world”, partly because it’s such a big claim, but more important, because it begs the question why is Trecartin accorded this honour and not Facebook and YouTube? Isn’t the Internet the new way we look at the world, so obvious we can’t see it staring us in the face? Why is it we need art to tell us what we are seeing is New, confirming the truth of what we already intuitively understood?

Trecartin relates to this new internet-defined field of play first of all as an unselfconscious participant. As a performer, image-maker and manipulator, he is one among the thousands who upload material everyday to the web. Second, Trecartin acts out his affinity with web aesthetics in his use of what Hito Steyerl has termed the ‘ poor image’. While not making degraded images per se, the sheer busyness of Trecartin’s videos places his work within the visual field of the degraded image produced by illicit copies, cellphones, handheld video cameras, and webcams. Widespread access to video technology means the image proliferates, and on the whole, its legion of producers isn’t too concerned about quality. The degree of visual noise Trecartin crams into his videos, places his work on the low end of what Steyerl identifies as the contemporary hierarchy of images, with “sharpness…and high resolution” being at the top; as Steyerl points out, this competition between image qualities is a form of class struggle. In Any Ever co-curator  Jon Davies’ characterisation, Trecartin “transforms the space of the screen into that of the computer desktop with hundreds of windows open.”  He degrades the video image by overloading it with information and indulging in its worst aesthetic tendencies.

A wildly accomplished practitioner of his craft, Trecartin is widely lauded but his work does tend to inspire a certain amount of aversion. I suspect this is because he single-handedly revives the dynamic between high and low art; something a largely ossified artworld had forgotten about. However, even though Trecartin’s work might expose other visual art conceits to be hopelessly dated, the significance of the work he makes goes beyond that. Trecartin is important because he reaffirms the value of art beyond its monetary worth. He shows us the role artworks can play in reducing the world to its purely visual dimension. His work helps us extract what is New from the morass of everyday experience so that we can see it as historically specific, of today and therefore quite alien to any idea we might have of the past. It’s the Shock of the New all over again; how surprising to discover again that artworks have to the power to deliver it.

This text orginally published on (now defunct), December, 2010.

Hito Steyerl talks to Rosemary Heather


Hito Steyerl Interview

Your work is very complex, combining an art practice with theoretical writing. And you’ve produced a lot. In my mind, it exists as an entity – a very dense one. You could even say it has exceptional spatial characteristics. There is a particular conceptual reason for this: the web. When deciding how to approach a discussion with you, I realized the answer is obvious. We are doing this interview on the occasion of a number of exhibitions you are having in the UK and Germany; however, our immediate context is the site where this interview appears. So let’s talk about that – or at least focus our discussion in a way that will allow us to incorporate links, images and videos on this website.


One of the forms of your practice is the representation of data; or more specifically, its characteristic of being in motion, and so to a certain extent being beyond representation. I love that you take this on; it is so very defining of our contemporary existence and yet rather an elusive idea to conceptualize. It occurs to me that your work also represents this idea as it is manifest in the contemporary condition of the dispersal of attention, which is something I know I struggle with. As if to prove my point, while writing this question, I checked my Twitter feed and clicked on this link, a rather tongue in cheek screed about the Evils of Saving. So with this web-induced diversion of my attention, I find an analogy for the subject at hand: Capital too wants to be in motion. So that’s my question. In so far as your work engages with form in its most contemporary manifestation, is that your true subject: Capital?


HS: Lets step back a little and consider the relation of Capital and movement. Whilst Capital, for sure, is moving, this doesn’t necessarily mean that every movement is fully captured by Capital. There is an asymmetrical relation between both. Movement – as for example in the case of diverted attention online – can also constitute a flight from labour or other capital-based relations (of course these evasions are immediately recaptured, but again not fully). Capital is not able to fully come to terms with evasion, resistance, distraction, irritation, sleepiness.


I am fascinated, though, with the ways Capital registers digitally, how it becomes visible, how it matters, so to speak. One might like to think that it is purely abstract and invisible, but it leaves stains and traces as it moves.


One example: In one of my most recent works, I subtracted the copyright marks from WWII photographs sold on eBay. The pictures were made by German soldiers on the Eastern front and show all sorts of war scenes.  The more violent, the more expensive the photos are. eBay vendors add copyright signs to affirm their property rights, and also to cover representations of war crimes, swastikas and other illegal content. In my work, I’ve subtracted the photographic images and left the copyright marks as they were. They represent the original photographic picture seen from the angle of their existence as digital commodities. This is their contemporary form of circulation and movement. Yet, in a negative and subtractive way they retain the traces of the resistance of the persons originally shown in the pictures, mostly captured female Soviet soldiers, who were fighting against the Nazi invasion. Those women constituted one of the groups who were to be immediately killed after their capture; they had no chance of survival. So in some cases, a very abstract form of their negative imprint is preserved.

web art criticism
Hito Steyerl, Bilder, News, Infos aus dem Web


These are their portraits in 2010, under the condition of digital capitalism, and I’d argue that these are documentary images, because they show the reality of the contemporary movement and dispersion of the original photographs.


RH Aside from being documents of our contemporary digital reality, the compositions of your EBay works are unmistakably reminiscent of abstract paintings. This brings up all kinds of issues. For one, I am tempted to say the works have the effect of re-contextualizing abstract painting, as seen in its 1950s heyday, as being a kind of blunt instrument of forgetting – something I hadn’t thought about before. This idea makes sense, I suppose, if you consider the postwar ascendency of American culture as being somehow amnesic in intent. Your EBay works also evoke ideas about the dematerialization of the artwork. Conceptual art prefigures the regime of the virtual we now live in. Abstract painting also fits within this narrative: abstraction prefiguring abstraction. In your essay In Defense of the Poor Image (2009) you note that “dematerialized images…[are] a legacy of conceptual art.” You write very persuasively about the importance of the degraded image; and of its capacity to enact a form of “resistance against the fetish value of visibility”. Given that relevant precedents for these works are abstract painting and conceptualism, I am curious to know, what form do they take when presented in an art gallery?


HS I hope that, in a gallery, this work might inspire people to think about the form what is considered sublime takes: purely formal and self-referential art. Because this installation may look every bit as fetishist as if it were Art with a capital A; but it is not – it is found material from the junkyards of the web, powered by a dubious digital scopophilia. It is actually copyrighted military porn; if not worse. So what is the relation of this type of mobile image to abstract art?


In his book The Century (2005) Alain Badiou writes about the “passion for the real”, which according to him, dominates the 20th century. This passion is characterised by a desire to tear away the veils of mere appearance and deception and to uncover the real essence of the thing under investigation. Politically, this unleashes a huge amount of paranoia against people who are not deemed pure enough or traitors of a cause. The passion for the real is not only a motor behind many of the massive purges and maybe also ethnic cleansings of the 20th century (there are other motors as well), but as Badiou argues further, it can also be detected in abstract art works (his example is Malevich). These works evacuate the frame of everything deemed superfluous, they literally purge color and form. It is quite interesting to think about this link between the genocides of the 20th century and abstract art, both aiming for an essence, a purity to be achieved on the one hand by elimination on the other by subtraction (obviously, and Badiou insists on this: by completely different means).


In the case of the eBay work, both somehow collide: what looks like a sublime and completely self-referential minimal artwork is actually a coincidental trace of war crimes, its price tag, if you will.



RH Could you speak a bit more about the relationship of your practice to the concept of the poor image and the image in motion?


HS I have been interested for a long time in traveling images, in the ways in which their meaning and appearance changes. These, for example, are samples of pirated Chinese DVD covers on which a new peculiar language emerges.  This language is called Spamsoc, as you can see.

art web criticism

Hito Steyerl, Spamsoc


Spamsoc is generated by online translators, automatic scanner recognition tools, and travels on the back of pirated DVD’s. It exists in many countries and knows many local dialects.


Probably it emerges late at night on the desktops of digital shockworkers, who compress, rip, and transfer audiovisual data and create covers and blurbs on the side. It is a language that is created within multiple conflicts, most of all conflicts over copyright. This is also why it is a broken language. I see it mainly as a great improvement on the English language and proof of how backwards we are, because we are not able to fully decipher this language from the future. Spamsoc’s multiple neologisms express disagreement over the ownership of audiovisual content, the domestication of translation and other aspects of digital shockwork. I love the automated “Freudian” slips (which are no longer Freudian of course), which lay bare the digital unconscious of the period. Take for example this genius term “the pubic performance”, in the jpeg below.


art web criticism
Hito Steyerl, Pubic Performance

In one decisive blow, it expresses the decline of the public sphere; the demise of traditional cinema and its replacement by private home cinema; the transformation of an always illusionary public defined by rational deliberation into a pubic sphere that thrives on spectacle, shock and scandal; as well as the performative character of these elements of the private running amok in public…

The pubic performance is the production of self on countless webcams, endless chatter on social media, confessions about trauma on Youtube, post-oedipal drama on morning TV.



RH I love the precision with which you have been able to pinpoint these one details, Spamsoc, the pubic sphere, which are fantastically emblematic of Globalism. I have read your explanation, understand it, and yet I still do not know what Spamsoc is. As you say, we don’t understand it because we are not from the future. It’s also like a spot on the far horizon, the arc of the future, the jet plane of Globalism flying over our heads to a place we will never visit. I am interested to know how Spamsoc figures in your work? It’s a file you made from a scan of a pirated DVD that you sent to me by email. As such, it embodies your interest in what you call “travelling images”. This brings up a question for me: if images travel do they ever come to rest, and if so in what form? In turn, this opens up onto the bigger issue of how a digital file relates to what we traditionally think of as an artwork? I realize this may not be the right question to ask, because I can see your work exists as a kind of matrix of text-plus-image-plus-gallery shows. Still I would like to focus on this problem because it touches on much bigger questions. It is hard to credit a digital file as a “real thing,” which points to what I see as the epoch-defining cultural confusion about what is “real”; or maybe more specifically: what is truth and what is fiction? The examples of this are legion but can perhaps best be summed up by the fact that “reality” itself has become a genre, one that “everybody knows isn’t real (sort of).” Can you talk about this problem in relation to your work?
HS Very concretely. I’ve written a text and made and interview with Jon Solomon, a translation theorist, who is based in Taiwan. Both deal with the production and circulation of Spamsoc. I also made a file, which documented those DVD covers visually, though I do not consider it art. Generally, I think this question about whether something is art or not is a bit overrated – because essentially the question is mostly about gatekeeping and declaring that certain types of art shall be excluded. Paradoxically the non-art thus becomes essential for defining and sustaining the art with a capital A. But obviously, there are works with more or less formal concerns, or even different formal concerns, which may or may not be challenging enough to create a productive uncertainty (which might be my provisional definition of art: emphasis on productive). It’s about the question of form in information, the relation between both. For me, pure form is just as uninteresting as pure information.


So, can a digital file be art? Why not? Depends. It’s more important though, that there is something challenging, motivating and unpredictable about its relation it poses between form and information.


Is a digital file a “real thing”? That’s another question. It certainly has a reality on the material level – the level of electricity and material support. It is certainly also very much connected to reality through its coding and format. A VOB file on a DVD is pretty real, as it is tied to different networks and markets of raw materials, in this case, for example, metals and plastic, both of which are often recycled; not to mention hard disks, burning devices or other storage media. All these have the same level of reality as the material support of a photograph, or film stock. Thus there is often a history of the object, or objects involved in the storage, production and processing of a file. I made a work recently about recycling of aluminium from former military planes, and how this becomes the material support for DVD’s.

art, web, theory, Hito
Hito Steyerl, In Free Fall

I also have extensive notes for a history of glass in media, of the use of glass fiber cables, glass as a metaphor for transparency and communication. Glass is also one of the sensories of the social. Broken glass refers to destitution or insurrection. On all these levels – and surely, the art gallery with all its institutional codings can be included with these other material supports –  we could perform a material reading of the carrier medium, but also of the social histories of encoding and transmission. Obviously these are also tied to issues of copyright, audiovisual property and the social struggles around it.  This is real enough for me; or perhaps if it isn’t, it’s still interesting enough. The question whether the content of the file relates to reality or not is another question, which is ultimately undecidable.


But yet again, there is always a perspective, which looks at the reality of the fiction, if you like, its infrastructure, so to speak.  That is, in order to get confused about fiction and reality there needs to be a huge apparatus already existing in reality, which consists of hardware, software, institutional frameworks. Like in the movie Inception – in order to create the confusion about dream and reality you need a huge infrastructure in the first place. Cables, medication, game architecture; take this away, and the fiction (or in this case, dream) collapses. Same goes for the cultural industries, or perhaps more precisely the military-entertainment complex. It is the material base for all our confusions about reality, its matrix and it is very real.


So there is always – I think – a substantial degree of material reality to all digital things. But it may not even be so interesting to figure it out – perhaps it’s more interesting to explore the new realities created by fiction, digital or not. There is a constant transfer between reality and fiction, but as I see it, it mainly consists of misunderstanding, faulty imitation and mistranslation. People (like the urban guerilla in my video November (2004)) try to imitate fiction films; they fail, but produce new realities. It was Hannah Arendt, who said, that that ultimate creative force in politics were lies. Who could deny that the lie about the existence of WMD´s in Iraq created massive new realities?

Originally published by Animate Projects July 7, 2011 






Candice Breitz talks to Rosemary Heather

Berlin-based South African artist, Candice Breitz
Candice Breitz has been Professor of Fine Art at the Braunschweig University of Art since 2007

When forgotten, pop stars become like wallpaper in our daily lives. Once they become ensconced as icons, they take on an ulterior function. Probably only students listen to Bob Marley these days, but this doesn’t stop me from singing on of his songs, involuntarily, when walking down the street. This is one of the subjects of Candice Breitz’s work. By recording a popular song as sung by its multitude of fans, or taking the overly familiar images of media stars and breaking them down into their constituent parts, Breitz makes evident the unconscious roles these icons play in our lives. If the idea of ‘Clint Eastwood’ has become as natural to us as a tree, Breitz works to make sure he comes to seem unnatural to us again, helping us to decode our world and understand it a little better. In Factum (2009), commissioned for her solo exhibition at the Power Plant in Toronto, she worked with sets of twins to literally construct a composite portrait of their public selves. Splitting the one into two–two people on two screens who look all but identical–serves as a nice metaphor for her practice as a whole, which reconfigures the mediated world into a self-reflective entity. I spoke with Candice in September 2009 when she was in Toronto for the opening of the Factum exhibition.

You’re working with not necessarily the newest stars but the most established. Figures like Bob Marley, Meryl Streep are so ubiquitous they’re almost beyond conscious attention. Even when I was preparing for this interview, I got Buffalo Soldier stuck in my head…

Candice: It happens to the best of us! There’s an excellent German word for this phenomenon… a song that gets annoyingly stuck in one’s head is called an Ohrwurm or Earworm.

This goes the heart of what you’re doing. You could have chosen Colin Firth or Brad Pitt, so I’m just wondering what it is about those stars in particular that interest you? Is it because you’re a fan?

Well, I’m interested in the kind of patina that celebrity acquires with a little bit of distance. And I think that—with very rare exception—I haven’t really been interested in addressing things that are happening now, things that are too
contemporary, because I think it can be hard to understand things when you’re standing right in front of them. In a sense, I’m much more interested in material which has the potential to tell us something about who we were, who we have been in relation to who we are now, than in material that claims to be able to tell us who we are right now. So much of what is happening right now won’t remain significant in the long run; it won’t have that Buffalo Soldier quality. From the vantage point of now, it’s hard to tell which cultural moments will be collectively internalised and
become part of our shared memory and our ongoing cultural being: proximity can be blinding.

You could say that I’m interested in treating the footage that I recycle almost archaeologically. I made an installation in 2002 that I titled Diorama, using short clips from the soap opera Dallas as my raw material. That was the first time it
occurred to me that the television screen is somewhat like a vitrine – you know, you visit a museum of natural history and they’ve got stuffed creatures and preserved artefacts displayed in glass boxes, objects that are supposed to open onto a greater understanding of who we’ve been or how we’ve interacted with our natural environment. And so within my installations, I like to think that the television or the plasma display becomes a vitrine of sorts: slightly aged footage can give off a lot of clues as to what our priorities were and are, what values we have aspired to, how current conventions came into being. With a little bit of historical distance, it becomes much easier to translate, to be in dialogue with footage.

And your formal strategies of breaking down the stars’ performances into memes. Do you think that that helps to break down our identification with them… or, as I said, our ability to disregard them, our tendency to treat
these individuals as sort of psychic wallpaper?

We wallow so much in images from the mainstream media, voluntarily or otherwise, that much of this imagery comes to feel almost like a natural landscape, so natural in fact that it can be easy to forget how contrived, how constructed much of this imagery is. To come at it from different angles so that it becomes legible in alternate ways, is a way to acknowledge that the language that is available to us via the mainstream media is a conventionalised vocabulary of gestures and expressions, not to mention constructed forms of behaviour. I’m interested in looking at what terms are privileged by the mainstream, in breaking the vocabulary down: I think of myself more as a minimalist than a pop artist…

Oh that’s interesting…

So sort of breaking it down — as you suggest — into memes. I haven’t thought of my process in those terms, but it makes sense. What are the basic building blocks of mainstream culture? And how do they aggregate to convey who we are? To strip something down—a love song, a blockbuster film, a soap opera—to the basic units that structure it, is to point to its constructedness, to the fact that it has been composed or put together rather than just existing in a natural state…

And that also shows that we do have a kind of intimate relationship with these characters. I think because you reconstruct these images, and present them as an installation, your work sort of acts out this process of the way we internalise these personalities.

It’s certainly not about taking cynical distance… Nor would I want to suggest that I stand outside of the culture that I interrogate or recycle in my work. I’m as prone to this culture as the next person. I think it’s important to avoid dismissing it too readily. Regardless of how self-reflexive and clever we’ve become about picking popular culture apart—understanding its effects and the ways in which subjectivity is inflected through it—it nevertheless has an affect which can’t be swept away, and which I think we have to seriously consider. I think it’s important to try and
understand this affect in its complexity rather than simply characterising it as a negative force and turning a blind eye to it. Why are people so affected by a song or movie that is transparently manipulative or that portrays complex, layered experience in deceptively simplistic terms? People are not stupid. Your average moviegoer understands that they’re being manipulated to some extent, that people don’t appear or behave in reality as they appear or behave on the big screen. And yet the affect remains. I think that’s worth thinking about.

Just to add to that, I was covering the film festival in Toronto and I was at the press office and there was a media scrum around Megan Fox. So I got a little glimpse of her… even though, basically, I don’t know who she is…

I don’t either, but I know the name…

Exactly. And I was still, like, dazzled because she looked so…

…Put together?

Put together. That’s the exact expression that I’d use…

I suppose what my work tries to do is to understand the ‘putting together,’ you know, the consequences of being exposed to so much ‘put-togetherness,’ not only for those individuals who are put together and made visible to us by various marketing forces, but also for those of us who consume the tribe of put-togethers via our cultural habits.

You could say that these globalised stars, like Bob Marley, did the advance work of globalism, because they were global stars before globalism. And yet we’re moving into an era where it could be argued that there’s more diversity and fragmentation of the people who are considered stars, there are lesser stars, the whole B-list to D-list phenomenon brought to us by Reality TV… I’m interested in the fact that your work is also moving in that direction. Your newest project with the twins, Factum (2009), for instance, moves away from stars to real people.

I’m not sure I would agree that working with ‘real people’ is a shift in my practice. Since I started making videos around 1999, I’ve pursued two parallel trajectories. On the one hand, I’ve made a series of artworks using found footage, which tends to address celebrity in its various guises. But I’ve also been interested in the flip side of this phenomenon, not just the people endowed with celebrity and visibility, but also the invisible others who sit and watch the screen, who consume what is on the screen. I’ve made a series of works, starting with a piece called Karaoke in 2000, which are about the reception of popular culture, the fans or consumers that make celebrity a possibility in the first place. My work has tracked both the ‘somebodies’ and the ‘nobodies,’ as Warhol might facetiously put it. In a work like Legend (A Portrait of Bob Marley) (2005), the fans are not telling their stories in a conventional sense, but I think they do tell us a great deal about who they are through their re-performances of the music, in the choices they make about how
they stage their relationship to the music. I think of Legend, and the other projects in which I have worked with communities of fans, as oblique forms of portraiture, attempts to get closer to understanding what it is about listening to music that creates meaning for people, why it is that a particular kind of music gains significance within a particular person’s life.

So working with ordinary people—as I do in Factum—is not really a shift as such. What’s perhaps new about this series, is that it attempts to ask the question, gingerly perhaps, maybe even neurotically, about the extent to which the
biographical experience of ordinary people can survive the overwhelming dominance of celebrity narratives that are at the heart of the culture industry. With genres like biography and portraiture, it’s hard to avoid certain claims for
transparency, certain tropes that imagine a lifetime of experiences as a kind of monolithic trajectory. Factum is my attempt to find a jagged way to look at how a mass of fragments comes together to make up a particular life or, actually, a particular pair of lives. Whether the works are ultimately interesting on those terms, I’m not sure… They’re still very fresh, very recently completed.

And yet you made the decision to dress the twins the same.

I guess that’s the arty part!

It’s beautiful – formally it’s gorgeous. But in terms of what you were saying about biography, there’s a splitting effect there which is interesting in relationship to your older work, it relates maybe to ideas about replication in relation to mass media. Are you maybe familiar with Robert Rauschenberg’s Factum paintings? Do you know them?

Yes, I am.

My series of double portraits of identical twins is named after those paintings. The two paintings are twins of a sort, twins that were separated at birth. One went to live in MoMA in New York; the second is in the collection of MoCA, Los Angeles. That said, I don’t think Rauschenberg was thinking about twins when he mad Factum I and Factum II in 1957. He was probably thinking about the tension between two different ideas about what a work of art is: the work of art as an exteriorized expression of subjectivity, as a product of a creative subject regurgitating its interiority or selfhood, versus the work of art as a thing that is subject, like all other things in the world, to various external forces beyond the
artist’s control. At that moment in time, industrial production—its capacity to produce things en masse through mechanical repetition—was one such force. When Rauschenberg takes a gestural brushstroke and attempts to duplicate it, as he does in his Factum paintings, he predicts everything that was about to happen with pop and minimalism: the work of art was about to be overtly serialised, artists were about to start producing their works industrially in a manner that would echo commodity production. The mythologies so dear to Pollock and the Abstract
Expressionists were about to be obliterated.

Though Rauschenberg may not have been thinking about twins, I think his Factum paintings basically ask questions about how a work of art comes into being… via the nature of the artist… or via the nurturing forces of the larger world as these impact on the artist. My Factum portraits I guess raise similar questions in relation to subject formation. Like Rauschenberg’s paintings, identical twins are at first glance overwhelmingly similar, but the more time you spend with them, the more apparent the differences—subtle and dramatic—become. Despite all the forces of sameness
that press in on us, and there are many, the idiosyncrasy of inner life nevertheless prevails. That of course goes for everybody, not just twins. Delicate as it may be, there is a resistance to homogeneity in the minute decisions that we each make in everyday life, and this is what interests me. Hence the title of the show at The Power Plant in Toronto – Same Same – with its silent ‘…but different.’ I’m interested in the small and quirky ways in which people manage to differentiate themselve under the duress of sameness.

People perform that…

I’m Canadian and it’s often observed that Canadians have a kind of outsider perspective because we’re living next to the behemoth of the US. And I’m just wondering if you feel, as a native of South African, that this gave you a particular perspective on these globalised stars that maybe you wouldn’t have if you had grown-up elsewhere?

In South Africa we only got domestic television in 1976. I wasn’t really born into television, if you know what I mean – television wasn’t there during my early formative years. I clearly remember the day my parents brought a television home for the first time – I think it must have been around 1978; I was about six years old. The single channel that was available was tightly controlled and censored by the state.

A bigger kick than television itself came with the arrival of VHS a few years later: the possibility to selectively view footage, to have some kind of editorial control over what one was watching, to be able to fast forward, rewind, pause. VHS gave my generation the technical tools to break the moving image down in a domestic setting, to start intuitively understanding the constitutive elements of footage and the ways in which it could be manipulated. And once you can break something down, once you start to understand how something is constructed—the very fact that it is constructed rather than existing in some kind of transcendent form—then you can also start thinking about putting it together again in new ways, translating it, rewriting it. Later there would be a number of technical innovations that pushed this process further, but VHS was—for me at least—the first opportunity to think of footage grammatically, syntactically. By shuffling the constitutive elements of any given sequence of images, you can get it to speak different meanings, make it accessible in new ways, prompt people to reconsider what is being said.

Well, and just as a last comment, something about your work reminds me of YouTube, not unsurprisingly, I suppose…

What can I say? Those guys copied me…! But on a more serious note, I don’t find it surprising at all when different people arrive at similar forms at the same moment. If everybody eats the same food, we’re bound to end up occasionally shitting the same shit!

This interview orginally published on (now defunct) in September 2009.