Althea Thauberger – The Consternation Effect

By Rosemary Heather

If the Heisenberg principle describes the effect observation has on the thing observed, the consternation effect is more specific. It refers to the feeling one gets when watching video works by Vancouver artist, Althea Thauberger.

What to make of them? And are you changed by the experience? These are high claims for art, which usually settles for less ambitious goals.

Thauberger’s work is capable is provoking the extreme discomfort of the sophisticated when confronted with the naïve. This is especially true of “Songstress” (2001-02) the work that first brought the artist attention. “Songstress” has the all the hallmarks of Thauberger’s oeuvre: which consists of creating portraits of social groups by initiating some form of collaboration with them. A work on video, “Songstress” began with an advertisement in a Victoria newspaper, looking for young female singer songwriters. Much has been written about the mawkish work that resulted. Against a backdrop of the rugged BC landscape, each girl sings her own original composition. Shown in succession, each performance is framed differently, but the similarity of the sentiment expressed means that each time the spectacular setting gets reduced to a kind of sappy mise en scene of each girl’s not particularly original Lillith Fair-like ambitions. And this is only the least malicious of tricks Thauberger precipitated on the girls, the worst of which was to allow them to perform in the first place.

The charges of exploitation, the sheer consternation occasioned by Songstress, suggested that Thauberger had hit on fertile ground for the making of artworks.

Reid Shier, an early curator of the artist’s work, now newly appointed Director of Vancouver’s Presentation House Gallery, notes that few artists can polarize opinion like Thauberger. She demonstrates a consistent talent for being on the wrong side of the art viewer’s ability to identifying with what they are looking at. Thauberger disrupts her audience’s viewer’s child-like desire to be at one with the world, and the expectation that artworks should be a surrogate for this wish. 

Subsequent projects by the artist have a similar effect. In the video, “A Memory Lasts Forever,” (2004)  four young girls in their late teens or early 20s, all aspiring thespians, enact four different versions of a story based on an experience from Thauberger’s youth. Without wanting to give the plot away, the scenario focuses on the death of a dog, a drama well suited to the expression of overwrought emotions. The story repeats four times, each girl in turn assuming the duites of dramaturge, librettist, and of course, starring role. Although it has the polished look that its professional crew brought to the production, the video suffers, like “Songstress” from the hard-to-stomach amateurism of its performances. Again this leads to the assumption, as Thauberger comments, that the subjects of her work “are meant to look somehow foolish.” Or as the Toronto writer Terence Dick suggests, discomfort arises when looking at Thauberger’s from the suspicion that the girls “do not know how they appear.”

Even amongst art consumers – professionals in the analysis of representation – the desire is for artworks to be pleasing, or at the least to challenge us in ways that we already understand. In Thuberger’s work, these expectations are confusingly undermined.

The best developments in art are those motivated by a personal need that somehow connects to wider cultural developments. An obvious frame of reference for Thauberger’s work is the now ubiquitous genre of reality televsion. Reality TV is an industry predicated on the exploitation of its willing participants, and this is probably where the assumption comes from that Thauberger has similarly dishonorable intentions.

To dismiss her work on these terms, however, is to perpetuate the wish that when it comes to self-representation the distinction between professional and amateur – and indeed between high and low art – should be maintained. Look beyond the surface of these works and the narratives that inform the popular imagination become apparent. These include not only aspirations for stardom, but also which occasions permit the expression of true emotion and which sentiments are appropriate.

Thauberger’s project, “Murphy Canyon Choir” (2005) is especially revealing in this respect. Commissioned by INSITE, a biennial event that asks artists to make works about border-relations between the wealthy city of San Diego and Tiajuana its impoverished Mexican counterpart. Thauberger made the unpopular choice of proposing to work with families from San Diego’s huge military community. Because the population south of the US border is generally considered more sympathetic, and because as now, in 2005 the Iraq War was showing no signs of abating, the artist’s proposal initially met with, as she says, “ambivalent reaction.” Murphy Canyon is the largest military housing complex in the world. Despite this, as Thauberger notes, the San Diego’s military population “remains invisible… especially to the educated and the affluent.”

Over a period of six months, Thauberger, a local choir director and a choral composer based in New Hampshire, worked with 8 military spouses to compose an original repertoire of songs they then performed in a school auditorium in Murphy canyon. In the production period for the work, many of the women, all of whom are in their twenties, confided in Thauberger, describing the difficulty of being left to raise children alone, while their husbands were deployed overseas, often to the uncertain circumstances of combat in Iraq. Despite these problems, the women authored songs that were sentimental and patriotic. Titles such as ‘I am the Wife of a Hero’, ‘Waiting’ and ‘The Story of Love’ giving some indication of the group’s collective view of their circumstances, as well as their ideas about how their feelings about it should be properly expressed. By bussing in an art audience from San Diego for the performance, Thauberger brought two for the most part, ideologically opposed, worlds together, creating a dynamic and emotionally charged situation. The idea that artworks can push boundaries is a commonplace – if not a cliché – of the business, but in Thauberger’s insistence on reexamining assumptions about which communities are the appropriate to work with tangible boundaries were breeched, a realm of possibility being correspondingly expanded. Joe Bloggs, director of the event called the Murphy Canyon Choir, “the most audacious project INSITE has yet produced.

Thauberger has commented that she sees her work as creating “a situation of witness to something.” It is a curious ambition, even when considering that community collaboration is acknowledged as a leading edge of contemporary art practice. Thauberger’s work has much in common with this trend, which includes among its most well known exponents, the British artists Jeremy Deller and Gillian Wearing, although their respective practices are quite different.

Writing about the phenomenon of social collaboration in Artforum, Claire Bishop characterizes it as an avant-garde practice that carries on the modernist call “to blur art and life.”[1] This provides a poor description of Thauberger’s work. If what she does shares something with this trend, it is because it derives from her desire to find a wider relevance for art. But for the Vancouver artist, her interest is not in the blurring of boundaries so much as it is in the directing of a focus of attention. Thauberger’s concern is not to aestheticize a social relationship, or to use the social sphere – real people – as the material for art, both typical explanations the artistic enterprise generally known as “relational aesthetics.”

Rather, Thauberger would seem to have a preoccupation with using the entire apparatus of art as avenue to direct experience. It says something about the complexity of the contemporary world that this directness–reality as it were– might be found by employing popular genre and the mechanisms of its representation, but doing this on terms that ensure basic aspects of its conventions will not be met.

Real people do not look or act the way that “real people” are portrayed on TV and in the cinema. Maybe this is the true subject of Thauberger’s art: failure to meet the conventions of the real as representation makes it difficult to recognize. In Thauberger’s terms, wishing that the real looked otherwise betrays one’s “complicity with popular forms of representation.”

However, considering the care that Thauberger takes when initiating a project to use industry professionals with those groups she collaborates with, this stance is somewhat disingenuous. As Reid Shier notes, “the performances do not meet the standards that the production values augur.” He argues that making works to industry standard is a mark of the artist’s sincerity, conveying a measure of respect for the performers intentions. Still, giving her works a professional gloss sets up an expectation in the viewer that her novice performers will inevitably disappoint.

Thauberger says that she hopes her work sets up the conditions for empathy or identification. She is working to open doors that the art world tends to prefer closed. Halfway through a year-long artist residency in Berlin, for her next project Thauberger will work with young men in the city who opt for a civil service fulfillment of their obligation to undertake nine months of military duty. A rather shopworn institution in Germany at this point, the authorities at the Zivildienst, were happy to approve Thauberger’s proposal as an official project, for those enlistees who have performing ambitions.

Thauberger estimates she will work with eight young men to produce one or a series of short musical films of their own devising. Thauberger proposes to shoot the production in the same place where the films will be shown, the chapel of the Kunstlerhaus Bethanian, home to the international artist residency of which she is a participant. In this way, she will further open up to the public the conditions under which film productions are made. It’s a logical step in the artist’s project to use the mechanisms of representation as a means of its own demystification.


[1] Bishop, Claire, “The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents” Artforum, February 2006, p. 179.

This text originally published in Canadian Art Fall 2010.

Army of YouTube

Faced with the awe-inspiring popularity  of web-monoliths like YouTube, contemporary art  risks becoming nothing more than a quaint relic of the 20th century.

It’s probably not fair to compare contemporary art practice with YouTube; yet there is evidence to suggest that somewhere in the ulterior of its collective brain, the art world does just this, and finds itself lacking. How else to understand the ongoing assurances given in art exhibition press releases and catalogue essays about the important  role the viewer plays in the construction of meaning – and the intention to facilitate it with this very exhibition?

If artists once played a leading – avant garde – role in providing a complex and forward-looking framework for reflection on the contemporary world, it now seems most comfortable bringing up the rear, providing explanations for developments already intuitively understood and widely enjoyed by the culture at large.

Of course, the argument can be made that conceptualism’s emphasis on the disembodied life of the mind presaged our current embrace of virtual experience; and that the early networks fostered by post-minimalism and its precursors – Fluxus, mail art, conceptualism, etc. – anticipated today’s social media. Emphasis on the relational in the last decade of art practice can likewise be seen as having the relevance of putting face-to-face human interaction back into the social media equation.

Still there is something desperate in the artworld’s current desire to kowtow to its audience – through invitations to throw coloured darts at a map, or converse with one another on bean bag chairs, or whatever. By all accounts the Guggenheim New York’s recent theanyspacewhatever, which featured work by known Relational practitioners like Liam Gillick and Rirkrit Tiravanija was a boring show. A cursory Google search will turn up dismissive blog reviews of the exhibition as such by its intended public; viz.,  Apparently, drinking coffee and standing around is art. Who would have thought ... 

In a recent E-flux article, Dieter Roelstraete voices similar doubts about contemporary art’s relevance, but from a different angle. In The Way of the Shovel: On the Archeological Imaginary in Art he ponders the reasons for current art’s archaeological tendency – which ranges from artworks that investigate modes of museological display and historical re-enactments, to those artists who undertake actual archaeological digs. In Roelstraete’s analysis, such practices are symptomatic of two conditions: the first, to function as a corrective to a mass-culture that consumes its own products – movies, pop stars, best sellers – so quickly that it threatens to suck all cultural memory into a black hole of oblivion; the second, more troubling and readily suggested by the art world’s small army of past-reconstructors: an inability to imagine the future.

According to Roelstraete, this amounts to a failure on the part of current art practice to live up to its role as the avant-garde of our culture. But I would argue that the author’s reliance on a modernist framework when thinking about this problem, a construct that believes in the necessity of an art avant garde, is itself misplaced. Clues to what the future of our culture will look like are abundantly available elsewhere. All you have to do is look on YouTube.

The site is an ongoing argument for why its millions of users everyday have little reason to care about contemporary art practice. That said, it is only fair to point out that in terms of video technology’s cheapness, ease of use and sheer pliability, 70s art practice undertook some essential R&D that was cannily predictive of the technology’s current user-generated centrality to our culture.  For instance, when I look at the videos put on YouTube by San Francisco’s Jib Kidder to accompany the songs, sample-derived mash-ups, from his album All on Yall, I think of the 70s video work of, say, Dara Birnbaum or Christian Marclay’s work made in the decades after . But it’ iss hardly important to know these art historical precedents to enjoy what Kidder does.

When I asked Kidder by email why he chose to use the cut-up technique when making his videos, he responded that the data itself solicits this response to it: “It’s what it’s best at –  being copied.” In Kidder’s video for the song Windowdipper, morphic resonances between each seconds-long “slice” of data creates  a visual tempo connecting with the music’s beat. At the same time, through these resonances, the images editorialize not only on the artist’s chosen technique but also their context of presentation: YouTube itself.

Windowdipper’s rhythmic edits of video-viral clips of kids dancing visually reinforces the rhythm of the song. B By doing this, the artist  points to the way content on the web tends to self-replicate – the reason why the metaphor of ‘the viral’ – played out as dance fads and the hundreds of ‘answer’ videos that users’ uploaded daily – is so aptly applied to YouTube as a phenomenon.

Kidder’s videos provide a glimpse into YouTube’s labyrinthine grandeur. His comment that the data – a lot of it sourced from YouTube – elicits this response from him, is a reflection on the awe-inspiring amount of material that is available to be viewed at the site. It is also suggestive of the way that certain entities on the web are manifesting characteristics of an emergent intelligence.

The standard example of what a properly defined emergent intelligence looks like is provided by the social world built by ants. Possessing only the most infinitesimal of mental capacities, these insects work together to create a second level intelligence: the exceptionally well-run entity that is ant society. Strictly speaking, the web at this stage of its development is far too heterogeneous to meet the criteria of an emergent intelligence. But still, it makes sense to suggest that there lurks within the myriad of hands that continually contribute to the social world comprised by YouTube a kind of autonomous intelligence that wants to be organised into a second level of meaning.

Somewhere within the dynamic tension that exists between its excess and its accessibility, the web offers its users the tools for potentially profound moments of self-reflection on their use of the medium itself. For instance, the numerous Flash Mob tributes to Michael Jackson available on YouTube in the wake of the pop star’s death function like a metaphor for this possibility. Organised via the web and instant messaging, each such tribute is filmed in public space from a high-enough angle to facilitate the pattern recognition that is central to the meaning of the event.

Choreographed with the idea that the individual movements of a few dancers will ripple out, so that within minutes the whole crowd is moving in unison, the Flash Mob dance event creates itself in the very image of the self-organising entity – ie web culture. In this way, it performs the function often attributed to contemporary artworks – to provide a framework of intelligibility for tendencies in the culture as a whole.

The ant-YouTube analogy has further application in that it suggests a demotion of the individual in favour of the many. In this sense, YouTube makes good on Joseph Beuys’ faith in the universal potential of human creativity. Absorption of the one into the many also provides a fair description of the art world today – as it functions, if not how it currently sees itself.

If the phenomena generated by the web do what art is supposed to do, only better, then at the very least this should expand and clarify the definition of what art is – but it also has the effect of relegating much of the activity that currently takes place within the art context proper to the status of mere mannered relics of a bygone age.

The author would like to thank Ann Dean, Willy Le Maitre and Jacob Wren for their comments on this article.

Jib Kidder’s music can be purchased at: http://www.statesrightsrecords.com/

Originally published, September 2009 at the now defunct site apengine.org

Kelly Richardson Talks Sci-Fi Futures, Life On Mars And Mariner 9

Kelly Richardson Mariner 9 2012 Installation view Courtesy of the artist and Birch Libralato / photo Colin Davison
Kelly Richardson Mariner 9 2012 Installation view Courtesy of the artist and Birch Libralato / photo Colin Davison

As part of the Future Projections program at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, UK-based Canadian artist Kelly Richardson brought a scaled-down version of her amazing new work Mariner 9 to the Royal Ontario Museum. A panoramic video installation, Mariner 9 presents a detailed portrait of the surface of Mars as it might be seen in the future—littered with space junk, but still apparently uninhabited.

Commissioned by Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle, the TIFF installation offered North Americans a foretaste of the touring mid-career survey of Richardson’s work (also organized in the UK) that will arrive at Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery in February 2013 and, in smaller form, at Vancouver’s Contemporary Art Gallery in 2014. This survey promises to be an event in itself, with eight rooms at the Albright-Knox to be taken over by her work. In this email interview, Richardson talks about the origins of Mariner 9, our fascination with life on Mars, and what that might mean for the future of life on Earth.

Rosemary Heather: There was an almost unnerving coincidence at seeing Mariner 9 in Toronto at the same time that NASA’s Curiosity was exploring Mars. It makes your project seem more real, almost as if you are doing the advance work—mapping the mental territory—for this new era in space exploration. Care to comment?

Kelly Richardson: The idea for Mariner 9 did come about before I became fully aware of when Curiosity would embark on its mission to the red planet. The opportunity I was given to develop the work was during a residency as part of Tyneside Cinema’s Pixel Palace program. The timing was perfect for the commission to be presented in parallel with the Mars mission.

Because of the unique problems the piece introduced, I spent the majority of time during my two-month residency researching and developing the various approaches I could take to produce the work so that, by the end of it, I would be ready for production to begin. Interestingly, by this point—the end of the residency and the beginning of the creation of Mariner 9—Curiosity had departed for Mars.

As we had planned to launch its UK exhibition within days of NASA’s anticipated landing, roughly eight months later, the work was produced entirely during the time it took for Curiosity to leave our planet and arrive on Mars: simultaneous missions. Mariner 9 premiered in the UK three days before NASA’s landing, and given that I had included Curiosity in the work itself, I was obviously thrilled when it landed successfully.

RH: One goal you’ve said you have for the work is to produce an immersive experience for your audience, which the installation delivers when presented at full scale, as it will be for your show at the Albright-Knox. Is it correct to say this effect in part derives from the authentic look you were able to give the piece? Can you also say something about the kind of research you had to do to achieve this look?

KR: I’d say the convincing Martian landscape certainly contributes to the immersive quality of the work. I wanted people to feel as if they could step onto Mars and I did overhear a number people in the UK telling one another that that’s exactly how it felt.

This is the first piece I have done that was entirely digitally produced. Usually I begin by filming existing locations, which I then alter digitally to create the work. However, as I couldn’t film on Mars I had to take a different approach.

I discovered that NASA knows exactly how Mars is constructed and that it had made this data available to the public, which could then be brought into a 3-D program to faithfully create the lay of the land. Using images of the surface of Mars taken from various rovers as a reference, I could then texture my digital version by creating similar rocks, sand, etc., to produce a photorealistic terrain. So that’s exactly what I endeavoured to do—and of course, it wasn’t nearly as straightforward as I’ve made it sound here.

I put a great deal of research into actual missions that had gone to the planet to recreate digitally the graveyard of partially functioning and corroding remains from various spacecraft you see in the work. And as it is a “futurescape” several centuries from now, I also researched current thinking about what future rovers may look like.

Lastly, I wanted the scene to be set during a dust storm, which is one of the most difficult effects to achieve in 3-D. Research aside, the skill set required for the whole of this work was huge. In the film industry, it would have required a large team of people. Two of us (my partner Mark Jobe and I) worked on the project full-time for 10 months. We basically started from scratch, as we had to learn several new programs and methods of working to achieve the desired look.

RH: I love the way, even when describing the project, you convey a sense of why it is so compelling to you—the recent Mars exploration adding extra urgency. I am wondering about the sound. You took great pains to include details that give the piece visual verisimilitude; is this true also of the soundtrack? I recently saw Christian Marclay’s The Clock and noticed how the sound from one segment will often carry on over top of subsequent clips, providing an element of continuity (along with the timepieces) to the artist’s otherwise disparate selection of movies. Can something analogous be said about Mariner 9? Is the soundtrack what makes it truly immersive?

Kelly Richardson Mariner 9 2012 Installation view Courtesy of the artist and Birch Libralato / photo Colin Davison
Kelly Richardson Mariner 9 2012 Installation view Courtesy of the artist and Birch Libralato / photo Colin Davison

KR: I’d say it’s equal parts visual to audio that makes the work immersive. The installation, at 43 feet by 9 feet, takes up far more than your immediate and peripheral fields of view. In fact, it’s so large that you really can’t take in the whole of the piece without physically moving around it.

In England, it was common to see people sitting in front of one area for a good while, and then relocating to another area for an equally long time. Holly Hughes, who is curating my mid-career survey at the Albright-Knox, also noted that when you walk around the work, the light changes as it would in front of a physical landscape and many people have noted how three-dimensional it looks, without the use of 3-D technology.

The sound does play a huge part in the immersive quality of Mariner 9, though. During my research I discovered that we don’t actually know what Mars sounds like. All attempts to record audio on Mars have failed so it’s mere speculation at this point as to how it would behave on the planet.

In lieu of this information, I created a soundtrack which, again, attempts to convince the viewer that they’re there, providing the tools for a suspension of disbelief. It is 5.1 surround sound, made up of a dust storm swirling around the room; faint, strange, rhythmic sounds; and mechanical sounds associated with the movement of spacecraft. The nature of the sound also reflects the function of the visual, which is both hypnotic and strangely beautiful, but equally unsettling.

RH: Finally, I guess the biggest question is, Why Mars? Aside from the current focus of American space exploration, are there other reasons this project took Mars as its subject?

KR: Over the last few years, I’ve been increasingly interested in the way science fiction allows us to experience what life might be like in the coming century. Scientists and futurologists can speculate on what the future might look like, but artists are capable of visualising those futures, making them tangible. If hindsight is always 20/20, experiencing these potential futures offers us a window through which we can view our present time and the direction we are headed in with some measure of clarity.

Mariner 9 presents Mars as littered with the rusting remains from various missions to the planet. Despite its suggested abandoned state, several of the spacecraft continue to partially function, doing their job to look for signs of life, and possibly transmitting the data back to no one.

That search for life—to know that we’re not alone in the universe—is fascinating on many levels, but it’s also a beautiful, endearing endeavour, particularly for us as a species. We are destroying much of life as we know it, literally consuming our planet, at a truly alarming rate. I’m interested in that contradiction at this critical time in history when current predictions for our future are not just unsettling, but terrifying.

By Rosemary Heather

This text was originally posted at canadianart.ca

More info about Kelly Richardson can be found here.

Kelly Richardson is represented by Birch Libralato.

 

Anri Sala: Air Cushioned Ride

Anri Sala
Anri Sala, Air-Cushioned Ride, video/film, 6 minutes 4 seconds (2006)

The romance of the truck stop may sound like worn-out material for an artist to draw on. The idea would seem to evoke a familiar landscape ¬- one that is, let’s face it, from the last century. In Air Cushioned Ride (2007) the Berlin-based Albanian artist Sala makes the territory his own. A car-mounted camera slowly circles a row of 18-wheel vehicles, a scene that is set against the dazzling blue big sky of some nameless open country. Along for the ride is a soundtrack that alternates between two songs, on a country music and a classical music station, respectively. For the show’s opening, Sala had this composite tune arranged for live performance. Producing a full-bodied replication of the work’s soundtrack was a combined and rather large group of authentic-looking country/western and classical musicians. It was a novel accomplishment and something of a technical feat. What it added to the piece as a whole is less certain. The artfulness of the adaptation is its weak point proving that, in conceptual practice at least, antipathy to technique remains steadfast. Sala’s film, on the other hand, is entirely artless and so that much more successful. Initial assumptions about the time and place of the work give way to the realization that the scene you are looking at is not necessarily in the proverbial mid-western US. Country music and long-distance trucking are Americanisms that are at this point merely part of the general condition of things in the West. It is this fusion of old world and new that the artist neatly encapsulates on his soundtrack. By articulating an idea about the universality of placelessness, Sala achieves an absolute contemporaneity. Bypassing the easy clichés of pop culture, he carves out a concrete piece of the present.

By Rosemary Heather

This text originally appeared in Flash Art, July-September Issue, 2007
Anri Sala is represented by Johnen Galerie, Berlin

Kelly Mark: Always Working

Kelly Mark

Kelly Mark: Always working

By Rosemary Heather

The fusion of art with everyday life has been a perennial ambition of contemporary art, but today it seems forgotten. An obvious explanation: this goal has already been achieved. The future as predicted by the avant-garde is here, in other words. The signs for this are ample, if poorly organized in the contemporary psyche; futurologist Alvin Toffler has made a career out of the insight that the rate of change in the West far outstrips our ability to adapt to it. Even if the avant-garde’s penchant for prognostication is now a thing of the past, art continues to be adept at creating the templates to help us recognize change, to see the reality of it. For a template close at hand, look no further than the work of Toronto artist, Kelly Mark; or rather look to the artist, Kelly Mark, fusion of art and life.

Tracing her history, it is easy to see how the changes undergone within Mark’s art-making parallel changes undergone within the wider culture. Starting out a hardcore conceptualist, the art she makes today has more in common with what Mark terms, “re-creativity”; this shift in thinking about her practice is in part inspired by the wholesale changes in culture being wrought by digital technologies. All the while, the work she produces retains the elegance that only the formal solutions found within art can provide.

An artist of prodigious output, Mark’s artworks bear the distinctive attributes of Canadian East Coast conceptualism. Originating at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD), this is a legacy that begins with the 1967 appointment as Director of Garry Neil Kennedy, himself an inveterate conceptualist. Kennedy’s 23 year long tenure transformed the school, in part because he initiated a visiting artist program that featured leading-edge practiconers of the moment, including Vito Acconci, Dan Graham and Sol Lewitt. The rugged costal outpost of Halifax proved to be an ideal backdrop for the imagining of the spare de-materialized artworks characteristic of first generation conceptualism. This combined with the 1972 launch of NASCAD University Press, which published monographs by influential artists’ like Michael Snow and Yvonne Rainer, helped to cement the school’s reputation, one that lingers to this day.

Sol Lewitt famously described ‘the idea’, the core attribute of conceptualism, as the “machine that makes the [art]work.” In its purest form, this type of practice can consist purely of verbal statements, either written on the wall, as in the declarative sentences of Laurence Weiner, or existing as a set of instructions, as in the Fluxus-aligned work of Yoko Ono. Although seemingly easy to do, the difficulty of making artworks in this vein finds its best summation in the colloquial expression, “ideas are a dime a dozen.” Because it begins with an idea, the conceptual artwork is necessarily anchored in the person of the artist. For such an artwork to become ‘real’, the artist must be unwavering in their commitment to the concept that makes it possible, maintaining it in whatever way is necessary.

The performance-based works by the German artist, Tino Seghal, for example, are only realized in the moment of their enactment by performers hired by the artist, and are never documented. Forbidding any images to be made of his work ensures that Seghal remains the final authority of their verification; they ensue from and return to him, as it were. Seghal’s work represents one extreme of conceptualism’s contemporary legacy. Works by Kelly Mark on the other hand­ have more in common with minimalist strategies for art making, but employ a similar steely resolve in the use of self to establish their veracity.

Like a Donald Judd sculpture, many of Mark’s works’ find form through repetition. In the ongoing performance, In & Out (1997-), Mark punches a time clock installed in her studio every time she starts and finishes work since 1997.  That her studio doubles as her living space points to the fluidity the artist sustains between the two modes. The punch clock performance stands as a wry commentary on how very thin the dividing line is between the two for the artist. Adding a further dimension of self-deprecation to the piece, since 1999 it has been owned by the Toronto collector, Dr. Paul Marks, meaning that Mark, in effect, has a “boss” who pays her on a yearly basis for the work. Currently, employer and employee in this arrangement are looking for a buyer for the piece, preferably by a Canadian art institution that has the vision to match Mark’s long-term commitment to her art.

In & Out is an update on Tehching Hsieh’s Time Piece, one of a number of year-long performances enacted by the artist. Originally from Taiwan, the New York-based Hsieh punched a time clock once an hour, every hour, for a year, from April 11th, 1980 through April 11th, 1981. Each time, he documented the performance by taking a picture, resulting in a 6 minute-long stop-motion animation. Hsieh counts only six pieces in his body of work as a whole, all of them employing a combination of declaration (“I will…”) and action that often involved extraordinary feats of endurance (perhaps most famously, he spent an entire year tied to the artist Linda Montano by a rope, the two never touching.) His use of the calendar year to structure each performance gives his work a conceptual clarity, one that invites his audience to contemplate the meaning of time and the arbitrary nature of our frameworks for measuring it.

Mark has said that her own time clock piece will continue until she “retires.” Itself a work of endurance, In & Out resonates with certain conditions in the contemporary world in a way that distinguishes it from Hsieh’s Time Piece. If Hsieh’s work, in its conceptual purity, is the art world equivalent of the Great Wall of China as viewed from space, Mark approaches the goal of marking her time as an artist from a less exulted perspective. In a related performance that has been ongoing since 2003, she often wears a dark blue nylon windbreaker in public, sometimes in combination with a peaked cap each embroidered with the word, “Staff”, which is also the title of the work. For its humor and the insight it offers into Mark’s choice of art as a profession, a statement posted on her website about it is worth quoting in full:

“I tend to show up late. I usually leave early. I take long breaks. I have issues with authority. I don’t follow instructions. I don’t work well with others. I drink on the job. I complain a lot. But I’m always working…”

By her own account, she is a ‘bad’ employee, but the job requires nothing less than her full commitment. Setting herself up as an ‘art worker’, she comments on the 21st century conditions of both work and art. She is “always working” and yet, at least in the case of In & Out, faces potential job insecurity. Saving the artist from the prospect of ever experiencing real joblessness, however, is the purpose she applies to the tasks she sets herself, one that gives a whole new meaning to the term: ‘self-employment’. For Mark, art is not a job, it’s a vocation.

Mark’s refashioning of first generation conceptualist heroics into the register of mundane serves as a comment on the banal status of the object in contemporary art. This is a utilitarian approach to art making which privileges not the unique object but any ‘ready made’ substitute thought suitable for making the artist’s point. It’s a type of practice that dates back at least to Duchamp, although the use of what Clement Greenberg termed “extraneous elements” in collage, such as pieces of newspaper or graphics from commercial advertising marks perhaps the first appearance of the ‘everyday’ in art.  In an early work, Mark used a thimble to count grains of salt. Arriving at the number of approximately 52,000, she then used this figure to create Pillar: 100 Million Grains of Salt (1997). Composed of stacked identical sets of filled salt shakers, of the variety you would find in a greasy spoon, the work resonates with the readymade, minimalist practice, and the biblical story of Lot’s wife. It also demonstrates how conceptual rigor combined with the fact of sheer repetition can push meaningless activity–like counting grains of salt or punching a time clock–over an invisible line to a point where it accrues meaning within the field of art.

Early conceptual practice was often said to be engaged in a process of “dematerializing” the art object. In its immateriality and indifference to traditional forms of art-making it was thought to represent a kind of resistance to the art market. Considered thirty odd years after it began, however, conceptual art looks to have a wider ramification, that is: as a prefiguring of the very dematerialization of Western culture into the virtual world we semi-inhabit today.

Across her practice, Mark makes free use of whichever conceptual strategies she chooses, in which ever combination she finds useful. In the 20th century art parlance, such a bold repurposing of the work of one’s predecessors was given an oedipal narrative; aesthetic innovation required a certain degree of disrespect and even patricide of what had come before. Now it looks as if not only works of art, or oeuvres or traditions of art-making are under threat, but that an entire cultural order is coming to an end. The difficulty experienced by the music industry in preventing the sharing of music files on the internet is the most tangible symptom of this change; fatally undermining the argument that, although freely available digital music files should be paid for, is the ease with which new technologies abet such activity. Mark’s polyglot practice indicates the artist holds a similar viewpoint on ideas about ownership: conceptual strategies are in the ether, free for everyone to use. This is the obverse side of the readymade coin, and is an attitude given guileless expression on the button Mark occasionally wears and has been informally distributing since 2003 that says, “Everything is Interesting”.

The idea that everything is potential subject matter for art suggests that the postmodern dismantling of the dichotomy between high and low cultures has reached a point of synthesis. The culture we currently live in has a tendency towards the immersive; we are all insiders now, sophisticated manipulators within the spectrum of codes history has left to us. Many of Mark’s more recent works address this condition. Embodying the idea of the immersive is Glow House, a work that Mark has created three times in three different cities (Winnipeg, Birmingham and Toronto) since 2003. In it numerous TV sets are placed in every room of a house acquired for the project, all of them tuned to the same channel. Looking at the work from the street at night, viewers see the house gently pulsing from the collective glow of the TV monitors.  Taking her cue from the televisual flicker that emanates from residential neighborhoods every night, Mark metaphorically accumulates the ether of our communal entertainments to create a gorgeous, evanescent artwork.

Writing about the project, Toronto artist and curator Dave Dyment notes that, “we rarely think of televised images as made of light.” From this initial perception, Mark has gone on to make a number of works that use TV light as a source material. In the Glow Video Installation Series (Horror/Suspense/Romance /Porn/Kung-Fu) (2005), she records the pulse of light from different film genres as it is reflected off the wall. The films that result are then presented on monitors as sculptural works. Installed a number of different times with the monitors positioned back to back or pointing towards the ceiling, each permutation of the work is titled according to the film genre of its original light source, the different genres creating different perceptual experiences in rhythm and light. That the experience of TV is no less seductive with its content removed, speaks to a mass cultural preference for to live in a netherworld made up of molecules of light.

Writing about the effects of mechanical reproduction over 70 years ago, Walter Benjamin theorized that mass entertainments created a new form of reception, cinema viewers absorbing a film in a way that did not require their direct attention. Itself a kind of prophecy of the eventual fusion of art with everyday life, with the advent of digital technologies, this cultural capacity for distracted apperception has been multiplied tenfold. Mark’s epic work REM (2007) recreates this experience using cinema as its source. Over two hours in length and compiled from over 170 films and TV shows, REM creates a composite feature film from disparate clips she recorded off the television. The narrative presented is coherent because by definition film genre provides the building blocks of storytelling.  Watching the work, however, it soon becomes apparent that a semblance of coherence is all that is required; in REM following the ‘narrative’ is akin to the experience of being adrift in your own thoughts. The work is a parable for our culture lost inside the figments of its own imagination. Like her practice as an artist as a whole, it brings a syncretic intelligence to bear on film detritus to bring us the insight that our culture belongs to us. In the subtle shift in thinking that is required to grasp this idea is the future of our culture, one that we already living in today.

This text orginally published in Canadian Art, Winter 2007. 

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 apengine.org (now defunct), December, 2010.

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.