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. http://www.observer.com/2010/daily-transom/evils-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) http://www.e-flux.com/journal/view/94 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 






Phil Collins talks to Rosemary Heather

That political conflict can be located in the mother tongue you speak is familiar to anyone living in Canada, with
its Two Solitudes, so called, of French and English. When visiting Kosovo, Collins stumbled across a much more complex situation of a particular language being suppressed in the aftermath of war. The sensitivity of the situation called for use of the film apparatus in its documentary mode, something of a departure for the artist.

Shot in black and white, Collins makes film a medium of self-expression for those caught up in history’s wider machinations. He gives voice to a little known consequence of the war in Kosovo, creating in the process a valuable historical document.

Can you tell me the title of your new film?

It’s called zasto ne govorim srpski (na srpskom) (2008). The title is in Serbian, and it means “Why I don’t speak Serbian (in Serbian)”. I have been working in the Balkans for the last 10 years, quite regularly, and have spent a reasonable amount of time in Kosovo. I’m really interested in historical and social contradictions that the conflict has thrown up.

One time I visited, in 2003 maybe, I was with a friend from Croatia. We were at a video conference, and it was really cold.

In order to warm up, we said, “Well, let’s go and get a beer.” So we went to the local shop. My friend said to the guy in the shop, “Have you got any beer? Bierra? Beer?” – we were trying to speak Albanian. Then we started miming, the international language of mimes! You know, just to buy a beer. And the guy didn’t understand, he pulled a blank, and my friend asked again “Imate li pivo, molim?” – in Serbo-Croat, a language which isn’t in use popularly or publicly. And this very strange moment occurred. The guy replied in Serbian, “But I’ve not spoken this language for such a long time.” Not in a hostile way, but in this moment of almost tenderness and wonder, which was then disturbed. The shop door opened, somebody else came in, and the moment was gone. So we left , but I never stopped thinking about it. I thought everybody of my age or older would have been able to speak or withhold the language, but it’s a language which had been abandoned by the Albanian majority – for obvious reasons. It was used as the official language, and so it became a language purely of the police and the military, of jurisdiction and repression; or so it was felt. But I wondered if it had been, previously, also a language of poetry or academia, or how else had it functioned? These are powerful impulses, to speak in a language which had become taboo. And I wondered what forms of memory are accessible only through speech? If language describes experience, what happens when we
repress this impulse?

And so I went back in 2008 to begin this project in which I asked people to explain, in Serbian, the reasons of why they no longer speak the language. It happened around the time of Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia, so there was a certain charge to such a proposition. I went around explaining the project and trying to get the contributors, which was very difficult, because even to perform the language becomes a fraught and troubled experience for most people. But it also took me to different places, so I interviewed people like, Azem Vllasi,
who was the former head of the Communist Party in Kosovo; Bujar Bukoshi, who was an ex-Prime Minister; journalists, public figures; and then in the second part, I interviewed a Serbian language teacher, which took the film in an entirely different direction.

I thought it was interesting that at last night’s screening in the Q&A people pointed out; “Oh, this film’s not like your other work…it’s more of a straight ahead documentary” and you said, “Yes, but when it’s screened in Kosovo, that’s its intended audience – it has a meaning there. Outside of Kosovo it’s read as something simpler, possibly.” And I like this answer, because it was in disregard for these other audiences – the mainstream art audience – which is, supposedly, white and English-speaking. It’s as though you’re really Globalist. You’ve travelled so much, so you don’t think the audience of ‘the centre’ – wherever that is – is the most important one.

I think that’s true. One of my first videos, how to make a refugee (1999), was shot in Kosovo. And my other works are more rock ‘n roll – about popular culture, its genres and how we used them. But this piece is about something very specific. It is different, and still it’s part of my continuing investigation into troubled invitations and troubled platforms for certain forms of expression. I don’t think any of the projects are easy in their execution, you know. The Smiths project, for example, always comes under, or invites, certain kind of criticism as well.

Can you elaborate on that?

Well, with a lot of the projects, they revolve around the idea of exploitation, and also around an imposition. On one level, they appear generous, and on another, they seem to be exploiting the subject. And I think they have to – in a way, they must manage these two opposing axes. So, for instance, with The Smiths karaoke trilogy, people will say: “But why aren’t we seeing a Turkish singer or a Colombian singer, why is it the imposition of English language and an English language group?”

But who’s making that objection – Western people?

No, no – people in the countries themselves. They see it as a neo-colonial exercise, which, of course, is what I am interested in as well. How does an alternative group from Manchester, singing about a very local experience, about Whalley Range, Dublin and Dundee and Humberside – how does that translate to a very far away context?
I wrote down that line from that Smiths song about being “ crashed by a bus” – and in the film, they’re singing it in a cheerful, joyful sort of way. It’s a very joyful sequence, that sequence of the film. So yes, I think zasto ne govorim srpski (na srpskom) also follows these avenues of investigation, but its strongest dialogue is between Serbia and Kosovo. And if we, as an audience, are placed as outsiders, and if this also throws up our own lack of understanding, then that’s what the film is about as well. It’s not a particularly inviting film. It doesn’t give us all the signage that we need in order to understand what happened there. And it returns again and again to the fraught nature of language itself. People are
speaking a language which they generally refuse to speak, and explaining how that feels, some of them fluently, some with great hesitance and faltering recall. In the beginning, there is a moment when a contributor can’t remember Serbian word for ‘memory’. I was particularly interested in these slippages – the way in which we try to find or recall language, or a position. I mean, in the boldest terms – and it’s something which I don’t like to use – this is “the language of the enemy”. What does it feel like to adopt this position for a short period, and to investigate its
tenor, its palate?

Speaking about the coherence of your project as a whole, I would say that, in contrast to the idea that you’re investigating the exploitative nature of our relationship to forms of representation, there’s the flipside as well,
that’s also in your work, in The Smiths film, and even in the Kosovo film… For instance, the most heartbreaking moment  in ‘zasto ne govorim…’ is when the woman shows the photo of her son who was killed in the ethnic
violence. This shows how the photo works as a memento. It has very important role to play, a photograph; and maybe now video works this way as well…

So you have a nice coherence in your art, because it contains both sides of the implications of representation. It’s almost as if you’ve discovered this universal theme in the Globalist expanse of your practice, which is this quest for validation through mediation…

I think it’s not universal in that it’s not necessarily similar in different locations. These sites of self-expression – karaoke, the talk show, reality TV, photography – also have very local registers. But I am interested in seeking out moments of
becoming, of temporary transcendence. So within very basic familiar structures, like ‘testimony’, like ‘photography’, especially ‘domestic’ or ‘amateur’ photography, there is an inescapable, ineluctable beauty which appears democratic in certain ways.

Okay, not everybody does have a camera, but with a point and shoot, almost anybody can pick it up and use it. And what’s interesting to me is what information we’re generally not given about a place. People would be surprised that there was reality TV in Turkey in that it’s perceived as an underdeveloped economy, or that the cultural factor of Islam might mitigate against this kind of entertainment.

For me that’s hilarious. Turkey has an enormous range of reality TV, some of it very interesting in the sense that it also has to manage cultural restrictions or specificities. So you have dating shows where a mother-in-law picks for the son. Or Big Brother can be structured very differently in the Middle East to the way it’s structured in the West, because of gender relations and all of the problematic things this can pose.

I’m interested in the specifics of location, and what that might introduce. Because in a city of 20 million such as Istanbul, you’re going to find everything, you know. It might not be enormously popular – if we’d done Metallica or the Stones instead of The Smiths, it would have been much easier because metal and classic rock fans are easier to find. But it really isn’t about easiness. It was about finding this very slim, unrepresentative demographic in order to try and think through place.

And also, of course, my works are very much about performance, about what it means to speak. Sometimes the question for me is, you know, it feels inhumane to keep recording when we’re faced with distress, but it also feels inhumane to turn the camera off in those moments. Because, whilst we might encounter a surfeit or an excess when we face trauma, this moment can also be very instructive and powerful for the subject. This is where that basic idea of ‘the witness’ comes into play.

That moment when Desanka holds up the image of her son, is something very recognisable, especially from tales of ‘the missing’ and how photography functions in this traumatic scenario. And her language is very beautiful. She says, “This is a photo of my son. Perhaps it will be moving for someone.” It’s very powerful, but reductive as well, this moment of representation for the lost person, a lost family member.

I wanted to ask you about the origins of this project. Your work, “How to make a refugee” – that was shot when?

In May/June 1999, which was during the Kosovan war. At that point NATO had bombed Belgrade for 78 days.

To stop the conflict?

Well, that’s the interesting question. Because really it was a controversial intervention. It was the first time, I think, that NATO had intervened within a sovereign dispute. So it wasn’t like Iraq invading Kuwait – this was within a national territory. There was a humanitarian catastrophe going on, but that bombing was an intervention the reverberations of which we’re still living with today.

I was going to say, it initiated a new era of international relations.

Yes, and at that time I was at college in Belfast, and I just got a ticket and went to Skopje in Macedonia, and started visiting the refugee camps. I was also looking at how the West was thinking about this conflict – how they began structuring imagery of Kosovan Albanians, which was already very defined. It was largely rural, so you saw a lot of tractors and headscarves. It was about the spectacular, in a way, and the exotic also. And then I made a piece in Belgrade soon after called, young serbs (2001) which was a set of intimate portraits. So I’ve consistently made work over there…

So at the beginning, your motivation was an interest in areas with conflict zones…to bring another side of the story, through representation – that was your motivation?

The thing is, specifically if you are a British subject – because of course the British aren’t citizens, they’re subjects of the Crown and still live under the tyranny of the Royal Family – there are certain obligations in relation to the politics of the British Government, on the most basic level, to go and see for yourself. So when I visited Baghdad, or the West Bank, or Kosovo and Serbia, it was also on an impulse simply ‘to see’, to understand a little of what was happening in my name, without the meditation of the BBC or CNN, or the other news agencies, that largely support the ideological parameters of the government. So, in the Iraq War, you hardly ever saw civilians on telly, or comprehended what was their position in the conflict which was being enforced on their behalf. Similarly, the understanding of Kosovan Albanians
and Serbs was very much pre-defined in its iconography, and suited, it seemed to me, the ways in which the British government wanted to proceed at that time. I think, even when someone’s portrayed as a victim, this is also something which becomes a burden, a burden of representation. It’s something which shackles and has a heavy imprint on the psychology of the place…

On that person, on the people…

On a nation, as a whole – and largely in order to mobilise support or interest. There’s very little interest in the Balkans now, in that the news media and the world have moved on to other conflicts. But that becomes a specific harness, a specific shackle, because it embeds a very unitary form of self-understanding and self-representation.
Against, for instance, the global image of America, who looked very progressive when they elected Barack Obama as President…Globalisation means the so-called Western democracies become nations of outsourcers – to Indonesia, to Turkey, to Taiwan – and are reliant on slave labour, which becomes endemic and indentured in the Far East. So my projects hope to perform not the sanctimonious idea of the generous Utopian artist, but to show the
prickly aspects of the nature of production. Pick up a piece of clothing, take a sip of coffee – at each moment we’re complicit in the web of globalisation which isn’t always something particularly happy and fluffy, but can be incredibly unfortunate and distasteful and sour.

Hopefully, my work reflects back on this, or loops back on to such modes of production. I am not an artist who offers redemption through these processes, but one who hopes to negotiate in some way these sticky networks.

This interview originally published on apengine.org (now defunct), September 2010.

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 apengine.org (now defunct) in September 2009.