Tuesday, June 7, 2011

e-terview with Dani Ploeger

Dutch performance and installation artist Dani Ploeger explores the dynamics and tensions among body and gender, social and cultural, technology and space, sound and matter, and everything in between. His works have been featured in China, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia, Switzerland, the UK, and the US. When not traveling around the world to showcase his work, Ploeger divides his time between Berlin, Germany and Brighton, UK.

How does your background in music affect your art? When did you make the transition from performing arts to performance and visual arts? If you still practice both, how do you negotiate both modes of being/thinking/living/expressing?

I usually describe my current work as ‘performance installation’: I make installations that involve the spatial arrangement of artifacts and my own body, with a performative element. The performances taking place inside these installations consist mainly of minimal sequences of actions, often intentionally constrained by their environment. My work Feedback, for example, is a performance installation which takes place in two separate spaces. In the first space, I am merely standing, facing the wall, whilst a Doppler heart scanner registers the movements of my heart and metal pins on a modified loudspeaker prod my back according to the signal of the Doppler device. In the second space, a television showing a close-up of the pins prodding my skin, as well as a loudspeaker playing the sound of the Doppler device are installed, accompanied by packaging material of the device.

In most of my work, sound plays an important role and this is doubtlessly also a result of my background in music. However, my approach is multimedial or intermedial (in the Higgins sense), which means that I do not consider sound to be the most important medium to which other media are subordinates. Rather, I am interested in how combinations of sonic, visual and haptic impulses generate new tropes of meaning and evoke unexpected experiences. My primary focus is always on the wider cultural connotations and meanings of the body and the artifacts I use. I like to see my art practice as a sort of practical cultural study. Accordingly, my decision to use the heart scanner ‘AngelSounds™’ (a cheap commodity for intended for pregnant women to listen to their unborn child) and the exhibition of its packaging material in Feedback was a conscious strategy to shift attention away from the fetishization of a ‘cool sounding gadget’ toward an engagement with the cultural signification of the technologies used in the work.

This interest in a cultural critical approach to the artifacts I work with was also the main reason why I lost interest in working as a performing musician. As a classically trained trombonist, I specialized in the interpretation of so-called 20th and 21st Century art music. On one hand, I felt that a large part of the contemporary art music scene in Europe and the US still dwells on Greenberg’s modernist ideas, and accordingly asserts that music should only be about sound for its own sake. As such, I think this scene to some extent ignores the potential meanings for music and its performance in a wider socio-cultural context. On the other hand, I realized that the majority of contemporary music theatre with musical instruments mistakes the instruments’ presence on stage as a given, somehow believing that these artifacts could simply be detached from their role as signifiers for their own cultural context and history.

In the end, the only interesting ‘art music’ I could think of, vis a vis the hypermedial world around me, is work that critically engages with its own mechanisms of cultural production. Thus, a work involving a trombone only interests me if it considers its history, cultural politics and material presence. Rather than working as a trombonist who perpetually engages with subcultures of wind band performance and the institution of the concert hall, I became interested in exploring mass-produced technological commodities and their role in the cultural representation of bodies.

In retrospect, which art work steered you in the creative direction you currently find yourself in? Is there a pivotal or catalyst work?

Maybe quite obviously, my current work often responds to Stelarc’s and Eduardo Kac’s performances with their bodies in conjunction with technology, especially those from the 1990s (e.g. Stelarc’s Amplified Body  from 1996 and Kac’s Time Capsule from 1997). Whereas my stance towards Stelarc’s and Kac’s work is often rather critical (I’m not so fond of the ‘hard body’ aesthetic they seem to favor), the uncannily intimate, yet vulnerable presentation of endoscopic camera and contact microphone recordings of Mona Hatoum’s body in her installation Corps Étranger (1994) appeal to me as a contrasting point of reference. I have also been fascinated by Orlan’s surgery-performances (1990s) and her photo series self-hybridations (1997-2008), especially how these projects destabilize the beauty-politics of plastic surgery and media imagery.
In a more general sense, my earlier experiences of Paul McCarthy’s and Jason Rhoades’ installations have been more significant in the direction my work has taken concerning my interest in the body in conjunction with consumer culture and notions of the banal. My current work circles around issues that are also touched on, albeit differently, by Rhoades’ Hemorrhoidal Installation (2004) and McCarthy’s Bossy Burger (1991) installation. Though they have an apparent interest in the abject that lies below the surface of our polished world (definitely another trope of inquiry I am interested in), my practice is more clearly focused on the technologized body.

In addition to being a practicing artist, you are currently finishing a PhD on performance art and sound at the University of Sussex. You have also taught at the University of Sussex, Brunel University West London and will be a lecturer in the department of Performance and Digital Arts at De Montfort University in Leicester starting  this coming September. How do these two related professions feed into your artistic practice? In your view, what is the role of theory and pedagogy in your work?

I really see the three strands of my work – artistic practice, academic writing and teaching – as an intertwined and interactive process. My artwork has always been rooted in a quite extensive framework of theoretical reflection and my writing, in turn, is always motivated by an interest in the cultural landscape around me and how this world may be reflected in my own and others’ artistic processes. In my work as a university teacher, I draw from both my artistic practice and my theoretical work. Accordingly, several of the courses I teach alternate lectures on the theory and history of art and culture with practical seminars in which students develop their own original artwork while critically engaging with the material discussed in the lectures. For me, the thrill of teaching lies not only in the fact that the exchange and shared inquiry together with the students often also refreshes my ideas concerning my own work, but also in that I consider teaching as a valuable creative output in itself. I really enjoy stimulating (and at times provoking) people to consider the world around them from new perspectives and I think that teaching art in combination with cultural theory is a great context to do this in. Therefore, I also really enjoy teaching non-art majors. It gives me a great sense of fulfillment when I see that a practical performance art project or a discussion on the cultural aspects of an historical artwork has contributed to an anthropology or history student reconsidering perspectives on issues in their own discipline.

The works I encountered when we first met back in 2008 seemed to deal more with space and movement via the body, with technology playing an ancillary role. It seems that the more current work places technology and the body at its center, with space and movement taking a back seat. Could you talk a little bit about this? Have these choices been made consciously, are they a natural progression of your practice, or are they more informed and transformed through your research?

There is usually a mutual interaction between my artwork and my scholarly work. The development of my work over the past few years and our meeting in St. Petersburg in 2008 are a quite good example of this. You saw the documentation of Box Piece (2008), which – on a conceptual level - was indeed primarily focused on an exploration of body movement and sonic space.

In conjunction with the exhibition of that material, I presented a paper that discussed historical and theoretical contexts for this work. I think I never really told you this, but the discussion we had about my paper at that event did play an important role in the development of my thinking and practice afterward. In my recollection of our meeting, you basically argued that although you liked my paper, you also thought, based on your experience of the exhibition, that my artwork had some very prominent features my research seemed to ignore. Most notably, concerning the role of my own body and its idiosyncratic or autobiographical aspects. After having become aware that this aspect of my work was indeed something that interests me, I started to explore scholarly writing in this area and subsequently used my research as a framework for the conceptualization of more recent work SUIT (2009-2010) and Feedback (2010)). So I would say that in addition to the mutual interaction of practice-led developments and my theoretical research, academic exchanges with other scholars/artists have also contributed significantly to the direction my artwork has taken over the past few years.

I am currently working on a new work, entitled Electrode, in which activity of my sphincter muscle is registered with an Anuform® anal electrode connected to a sensor interface. The collected data is used for digital sound synthesis. My interest in this work is to heighten the presence of my body’s interaction with the technology connected to it, whilst undermining common expectations concerning the representation of male bodies in a technological paradigm. In this context, using an anal electrode to obtain data from my body was a conscious decision: The anal electrode is, on one hand, a technological artefact that tends to be very conspicuous in a performance context (wiring coming out of my anus). On the other hand, this sort of taboo medical technology (people usually don’t publicly mention their use of a device like this) draws attention because it is usually excluded from the realm of stereotypical utopic visions of a future with superman-cyborgs.

There is, in my view, an implied or underlying layer of humor in your work, mostly engendered by the discomfort some of your performances cause. I believe that to be the case because your work is centered on the continuous use of your body as both object and subject, as well as (self) nudity (which at times is perceived as sexual/voyeuristic, specially from an American perspective). How do you consider the abject in relation to your work? What about exhibitionism?

I am very pleased that you experience a humorous aspect in my work. Sometimes, I am worried that my work may be perceived as trying to be overtly serious and ‘deep and meaningful’. As a matter of fact, I am often trying to mock stereotypical expectations concerning my white, male body in a technological paradigm by creating performance-situations in which I am more or less stuck in an exposed condition. In SUIT (performance #1: hanging/spinning), for example, I am merely hanging on a rope from the ceiling, whilst being trapped inside a transparent PVC suit and wired to a computer and audio equipment. Likewise, the performative element in Body Surveillance #1 (Ruhrpott Boogie) (2011) involves no more than breathing into a plastic bag and attaching the bag to a fan when 100% humidity has been registered inside the bag. This is a strategy to reduce my performance possibilities so that it becomes difficult to lapse into vanity posing (which, I think, most performance artists are naturally tempted to do). I guess this regularly results in a sort of simultaneously serious and silly display of contrived action. The strategy of installing myself (or my body, if you like) in a pre-designed environment where I fulfill an assignment in a physically constrained condition, probably connects quite well to your description of a simultaneous use of my body as both object and subject.

I often exteriorize activities taking place inside my body by means of sonic representation based on body signals (which is often reminiscent of medical surveillance practices concerning the body’s interior) and I frequently use close-up video and sound projection which magnify processes of physical exhaustion involving sweat and provoke experiences of intrusion of the spectator’s personal space. I think Julia Kristeva’s concept of the abject - as something which used to belong to the body but, since it has become separate from it, becomes an object of aversion and disgust - is indeed an area of interest in my work. One could probably say that the contrived performance situations, which I described above, often push my body in the direction of becoming abject: the performance is aimed at diminishing my subjective influence during the performance by means of treating the body more like an object which is installed in a certain environment. So far, I have not really done any further direct explorations in this direction, but I am currently engaging with Lacan’s concept of the fragmented body and the uncanny in relation to sonic and visual fragmentation of the body. I am also experimenting with the use of different sound spatialization strategies to influence spectators’ experiences of proximity and intimacy towards a performer, building on E.T. Hall’s theory of proxemics.

Nudity in performance, as your question already suggests, is interpreted quite differently in various cultural contexts. Even between Western countries such as Germany and the UK/US there seem to be big differences in the signification of nudity in art. Sometimes this can be a bit difficult, especially when some people in the UK and US get so excited and distracted by the nudity that this aspect seems to overshadow their perception of other aspects of a work. However, I think that in certain cases the nature of a work does not allow there to be additional garment that hides part of my body from view. The SUIT project, for example, involves a transparent PVC suit with a loudspeaker and biosensors and thematizes the interaction between my visceral body and this technological prosthesis. I think the work would be weakened if this interaction (which is also visible in the form of condensation inside the transparent suit) would be interfered by underwear worn inside the suit. Similarly, my performance Play, Play (2008) involves taping plastic China-made toys to my body. My interest here is the connection of my skin and the plastic. Underwear or other garments would simply disturb the concept of the work. Another prominent motivation behind the nudity in some, and the explicit exposure of part of my body in most of my work may be related to the exhibitionist tendencies in a lot of my work, which you also suggest in your question.

I think exhibitionism is a nice topic to conclude this conversation with. I think that most performance art has an aspect of exhibitionism to it and although for some reason there doesn’t seem to be a lot of interest in this among critical writers, I think many performance artists are very concerned with having a normative, ‘fit’ body. If we look at the cover of Marina Abramovic’s book Artist Body, I think this becomes quite obvious; Abramovic presents herself in a sort of Barbie-setting, dressed in a bikini on a sunny beach, holding a beach ball above her head. We may read this as some sort of an ironic joke, but if we consider her toned body at - as we learn from the photo credits inside the book – the age of 48, I think it becomes apparent that there may be something else at play as well. To keep your body in a condition like this when you’re in your late forties most probably demands a disciplined training routine, very much in line with the popular obsession with life-style fitness. From this perspective, then, there seems to be an interesting tension between the transgressive spectacles documented inside the book and the exhibitionist display of the artist’s normative body on the cover (cultural theorist Niall Richardson recently published an interesting book which considers related issues in popular culture and film). I think that this aspect also lies at the core of the exhibitionist tendencies in my work. I am really quite vain, careful to eat healthy food and a compulsive gym customer. One of the main interests underlying my current work is to unbalance and complicate the stereotypical expectations concerning the performance of my carefully maintained normative white male body in its interaction with technology. The performances do often display my body in a quite explicitly exhibitionist fashion, but this macho stance is then undermined by the conditions of the performance which make conscious vanity posing impossible and render the scenario into an ambiguous text where the stereotypical macho cyborg is presented as a pathetic effect of the banality of everyday commodity culture. (I discuss this in more detail in my forthcoming article ‘Sounds Like Superman? On the Representation of Bodies in Biosignal Performance’ in Interference: A Journal of Audio Culture).

Maybe my work can therefore be read as an attempt to consolidate my suppressed fascination with, and belief in, the world of magazine-bodies, impulse-buy commodities and fetish technology with my role as self-chosen, critical outsider to this world. Or maybe the returning theme of forcing body-exhibitionism into an uncomfortable framework of repetitive work-for-its-own-sake can be traced back to the anti-hedonist ethos of the Calvinist culture in the Dutch countryside I originate from. I don’t really know. I guess that if I would know, I would probably not feel an urge to make the work anymore. I hope we will have a chance to talk about this again some day, when I’m old and wise and at ease.

Upcoming events (ELECTRODE)
Virtual Futures 2.0’11, University of Warwick, 19 June
Ostrava Days 2011, Ostrava, Czech Republic, 26 August

Please visit his work at http://www.danielploeger.org/

Monday, April 11, 2011

e-terview with Monica Bowman

Monica Bowman is the director of The Butcher’s Daughter (TBD) Gallery, in Ferndale, MI. Her gallery opened in 2009 with a splash and has already made its mark in the local and regional scene, in addition to bringing a much-needed reconsideration of Detroit art to the national arena. This is the first of a non-sequential series of e-terviews in the upcoming year with art practitioners and professionals from the Detroit-metro area.

Many people would consider opening an art gallery in the midst of the worst economic crisis of recent times to be complete insanity. What drove you to do so? How are you faring so far?

Options brought me back to Detroit. After grad school, I knew I had to hit the ground running but New York wasn’t providing the sustenance I was looking for. Or perhaps I should say, I didn’t see an immediate option for the type of sustainable future I was looking for.
Practically speaking, rents were affordable here and I was encouraged by what some people were calling a thriving “micro-economy” made up of an existing collector base, (still) concentrated wealth centers and a number of outstanding academic centers producing young artists.
I am doing what I love and it pays me back.

In the exhibitions I have been able to visit (I’d say my record is close to 100%), you have selected artists from the immediate region and the east coast. You have also shown mid-career artists, people fresh out of school, and almost everything in between. How did you select the artists from your current roster? Do you have a specific strategy for future selections?

Artists are very much a part of my life. When I go into a relationship with an artist, it is a personal and monetary investment. It’s about growing together. There’s this great book called Art/Work that I use at CCS to teach business practices that likens the artist/dealer relationship to a romantic relationship: the group show is like first date, the solo show is like an exclusive relationship, artist representation ‘like a marriage and so on… It’s fictitious but puts into perspective the responsibility of maintaining a professional art business relationship.
My strategy is to continue to follow my instincts and be prudent about the opportunities I can provide artists. It’s got to be win/win or it’s not worth it for me.

Many galleries that display contemporary works focus on one-person shows, usually proposed by the artists whom they represent. TBD presents a lot of curatorial exhibitions, meaning that the director acts more like a curator akin to that of a museum – the proposal comes from the top, so to speak. Has this been a conscious decision or an organic outcome? Do you see the possibility of exhibiting works from varied artists sans theme? How do you think your projects affect the artists’ own practice?

There are various reasons why galleries make certain curatorial decisions. Mine are driven primarily by curiosity and a desire to promote progressive artists making relevant work that I can secure clients for. The marriage between an artwork and patron is serious business.
Does all this effect the artist’s process? That’s a great question that I address with each of the artists’ I’ve shown.  I think the market is a concern for every professional artist but should not be the driving force behind the work. I mean, unless you want to be like Thomas Kinkade or something.
Seriously, I have experimented with various types of exhibitions (solo, group shows, themed…) and will continue to do so. I think my business and educational background lends itself to my vision of conducting exhibitions that are culturally curious and continue to sustain my business.

In these speedy, almost two years since you’ve opened the doors, your gallery has found and filled a niche much needed in this area. It has also asserted itself as a serious place for business and culture in town. Both your opening receptions and your salons are very well attended. How does TBD differ from other galleries in the region? What role does it play in the local/regional art scene? What do you believe this region still lacks/needs?

Those things you list make The Butcher's Daughter different or at the very least stand out: generating serious business, creating and exploring cultural discourse and offering artist exchange.  I like to think of the gallery as a catalyst for cultural enrichment: a place for individuals to learn from and teach one another.
I think Detroit needs greater confidence in itself, more writers and informed participants –more sharing, more intimacy, more discourse.

What is in the future of TBD? What are some of your upcoming projects you’d like to share?

I have a show up at The Butcher’s Daughter that features plans too big to be currently realized called Who Dares Wins. It features sixteen artists from all over. ‘Really excited about it and I have a solo show coming up around the corner to round out the second season.
I’m also pretty thrilled about my first curatorial project outside TBD that is happening in April at Fred Torres Collaborations in New York. It’s called Live From Detroit and features twelve artists from our community. I feel like it’s a game changer for me.
The future is about adapting, being flexible and staying true to my mission to create context and market for emerging artists. The future is about ideas. 

click here to visit The Butcher's Daughter gallery.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

e-terview with Wolfgang Stiller

Wolfgang Stiller is presently based in Berlin. His art works encompass sculpture, drawing and installation, displaying a complicated but subtle interest in bodies and organisms, human and otherwise, via scale, subject and materiality. Stiller's artworks have been exhibited in group and solo exhibitions throughout the US, in Austria, England, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Turkey, China and Japan. His upcoming solo exhibition will take place at the  Kalos&Klio Showroom in collaboration with LoLa Nikolaou Gallery, in Thessaloniki, Greece, May 2011.

1- One of the first things I noticed about your installation work was the implied presence of the human figure. In some of your early works, which assumed the appearance of laboratories, or experimentation rooms, the space between the objects and furnishings, as well as their quasi-similarity to spaces most people have been to, brought forth the absence of someone or something. There is also a feeling that what we see are remnants and residues, or the waste of something else (rather than the things themselves). What is your intention with these spaces? Are viewers allowed to transit and interact within these environments?

The presence of the human figure is relatively new in my installation work. The “matchstick men” installations are actually the first series of installation that show the actual human figure. It was back in 1989 that I started developing my “ Laboratory series” of installations. My motives were various. First I wanted to exploit the idea on a metaphorical level, because I see science as a mirror of society’s moral values. Second I am fascinated by science. In fact, I considered my studio a laboratory for artistic research, a sort of alternative science lab. The very first laboratory “creatures” was a sort of abandoned Lab. I was interested in creating a situation, which implied the presence of human beings through absence of the same. I played with the idea of a laboratory, which was abandoned by its scientists and left by itself. Looking at those “creatures” it seems difficult to determine whether they are in a state of decay or “come to being”. All those creatures are made from industrial metal waste, leftovers, one could say, which get recycled later on. They are like repetitive patterns. All of them look very organic.

I normally work with simple, man-made forms. I never create organic objects; that wouldn’t be a challenge. It strikes me as useless to compete with nature – to try to copy it. It is the “unnatural” that interests me: the hidden charms we can find in ugly, industrial objects. Trying to define what is natural and what is artificial was one of my favorite subjects, although I have still found no definitive answer. The latex installations, which I made in the early 90s have a similar approach.

During the ‘90s our attitude toward life became increasingly superficial. Appearances were valued above everything else. People paid more attention to how elegantly something was packaged than its content. Or, on a broader scale ”concept” outweighed “substance.” Contemplating this trend led me to start examining the surface of things. I wanted to try and rediscover the inside by exploring the outside. I made casts of objects to isolate their “skin”(latex proved to be the perfect material for this process).

Peeling off the surfaces of humble, every day objects revealed a strange beauty that we are unable to appreciate, precisely because we use them every day. I like to display these “skins” as though they are in the conservation department of a natural history museum. It’s like taking a peep behind the scenes. Drying is often used as a method of conservation, so I decided to adopt it for my purpose. By twisting and deforming this rather dull, simple skins they became something “organic-looking” and unique – something natural. I have always been fascinated, though in a very amateur way, by the insect and butterfly collections displayed in natural history museums. I see collecting as one of man’s basic activities; those displays of insects reflect this in its most beautiful way. My collections are really anthologies of nonsense. Presenting them in a scientific manner, however, gives them an aura of importance.

When people look at my work, I want them to feel they are standing in front of something that merits careful contemplation, something to be experienced with all the senses. It is more important to create real experiences than amass knowledge, which nowadays amounts to nothing more than information anyway. People are welcome to transit through those labs but there is no space for interaction. I like to create the impression that they entered a world they are not allowed to.

2- Another prevalent element is the one-of-a-kindness quality the objects you create have, even if they are extensively repeated. This attention to details at times is almost imperceptible. Along with the scale of your works, this approach indicates a great amount of time spent with each piece. What is the role of labor in your work? Do you aim to equate the studio as a production space, much similar to that of an industrial site or scientific laboratory? Is your work in any way a reflection of your creative process, meaning do you believe that your work is a metaphor for an artist's thinking and working space/mind? 

I spend a lot of time in the studio working on many different things at the same time. As you mentioned before I have a broad scale on different works and many of them are very time consuming, since they involve a lot of labor. I don't have an assistant so I need to do almost every thing by myself. This is sometimes a disadvantage but very often I make astonishing discoveries while working in the studio. I start out with a certain idea (or shall I say imagination), of how the work will look like. But during the process of doing it I discover something which turns out to be much better than the original idea.

If you hire other people to do your work they just follow exactly your instructions and there is no space for experiments and accidents. I guess in that aspect I consider my studio a laboratory of a different kind: the space where I explore and research. When I started my laboratory series I thought about using the artist studio as a kind of research facility and present it later in the same manner- that was always a very important aspect of the original concept.

Repetition was another important issue of those lab series. If a scientist wants to prove a hypothesis he has to repeat one and the same thing over and over to make sure he gets the expected result. In my first lab with those creatures I used those metal waste parts that were industrial manufactured and looked completely identical. I would use the exact same parts over and over again to create little insect-like looking creatures, which were later displayed in boxes. At first glance they all looked alike. But by looking more carefully, all of them were slightly different because they are all handmade. The differences are not significant from one piece to another but as a whole it leaves a very organic impression that somehow contradicts the original material.

Spending so much time on details becomes almost contemplative while doing it – it allows me to reflect about other things. I am very attracted to all kinds of materials, their physical presence. It is wonderful to explore the possibilities one and the same material has to offer. My love and patience for details always gets rewarded. When I showed the creatures lab in Japan, people would spend sometimes up to 3 hours in the show since there were so many things to watch and explore.  To be honest - sometimes I would love to have at least one or two assistants to do some of the very boring repetitive works which are anything but creative - but still needed to be done. There will be always enough opportunities left for creative accidents.

3- For lack of a better word, I am very drawn to your drawings. At first they almost seem to be completely unrelated to your other works, but upon closer observation, it is easy to correlate the repetition, the abjectness, and the gestalt in them. Some of them have however, a more immediate quality to them, because they seem so gestural. How do you engage with different mediums? Do you work simultaneously with different materials and subjects, and later assemble them together (in drawing or otherwise), or is everything carefully planned beforehand? How do you incorporate the drawings with other media in exhibitions? Are you inspired by the space in which you show your work (meaning do you make work to fit into a space), or do you make the work already made fit within the space given?

I do very different types of drawings. The motivation for doing them varies as well. Sometimes I just sit down and make a couple of drawings- absolutely not thinking about the outcome. Those drawings are very spontaneous and mostly unrelated to my 3 dimensional works. They are more like gestures, as you mentioned, and allow me to react to a certain feeling, emotion or thought that pops up in my mind. They reflect very often a subconscious side of myself.

Then I do whole series of drawings which explore specific subjects, as well as possibilities of drawing itself. Take for instance the Jellyfish series. Those drawings are related to my general interest in scientific subjects that occur in my installation works. One aspect in those drawings is the transformation of the negative/positive (black and white). Using black lines on white paper demand a different approach from its opposite - using white on a black background. Jellyfish have this wonderful transparent quality. If I used pencil on white paper I could never reach this quality of transparency and this feeling for floating in an endless space.  I spend many hours on those drawings. If the shape of the jellyfish is just a little bit off, they will look dull and without any charm. I do them every once in a while to keep a fresh quality. 

Another series of drawings are the Aspect of Life. They are done on paint chips I collected from a paint store in New York. I lived there from 2000 to 2007. In 2004 I became seriously ill and couldn't do any hard physical labor. So I made more than 2,500 of those little drawings over the years, with very different subjects and styles to reach a broad spectrum of themes. I showed them several times all on one wall. From far away they look like a very pretty colorful pattern or decoration. Getting close, one could get lost in an endless world of details. That is something they have in common with the laboratory works. 

I do drawings, sketches, for my sculptural and installation works. But I have never showed them in an exhibition yet. I can't tell exactly why, but somehow they don't seem to be complete without the actual realized 3D work. But I don't like to combine or include them when I show my installations. I am not interested in exhibiting the process of finding an idea when I show an installation. I want to create a certain atmosphere one can get sucked in. Combining those 2 different elements would prevent this experience. It would have a very didactic aspect, which I try to avoid in my work. 

As I mentioned before, I work on a lot of different subjects and themes at the same time. There is a simple reason for that. I get bored when I work only with one material. After a while one develops a certain virtuosity, which is deadly and leads into mannerism. It is so much fun to try out different materials and explore what is possible to do with them. I always feel sorry for artists who get stuck with one and the same thing for their entire life. I know it is not a very smart decision in terms of the art market, but it guarantees maximum pleasure in the studio.

Most of my 3 dimensional works need to be planned beforehand - when one works with wood and metal one has to make a decision before starting to cut the materials. First I get an idea for an installation - motivated by a certain subject I am interested in. The next step is to figure out which materials can deliver the best possible result. I have absolutely no restrictions of media, but I will always make sure to master it. Nowadays there are too many works out there showing an incredible discrepancy between the concept and the actual skills of the artist. Pure concept is way too overrated these days. I admire works with a strong concept, and the ability to transform this concept into skillful artistic language.

Take for instance the installation Industrial Deposits. I wanted to create an environment reminiscent to a dripstone cave. I was looking for a material that could both reproduce an icy atmosphere and embody the passing of time. I decided to use wax to create a cozy, soft work with a cold, remote air. When we think of wax, we normally summon up images of warmth, melting and glowing candlelight. The way I used it, however, evoked something icy and frozen, giving it qualities exactly opposite to its common associations. I like to surprise and challenge people's notions about how particular media can be used. I want to test and push materials to their limits, adding new dimensions through an unorthodox approach.

I always prefer to see the exhibition space beforehand, which allows me to take its unique atmosphere into consideration. Sometimes I react to a given situation, like in a show in Beijing, where i showed the installation Killing Fields. At that time I was living in Beijing and just found some left over helmet inlays in an abandoned factory. I was totally fascinated by that material that looked like a human skull. There was a fragile air to it - something that is supposed to protect the human head was somehow transformed into the thing it was suppose to protect. When I saw the recessed floor in the exhibition space, I knew right away that this was the perfect place for that installation.

Other installations can't react that flexible to a certain space situation but I always try to use the space as part of an installation. So one and the same installation has a very different face depending on the space. That is one of the most important aspects of an installation. I want people to forget they are in a museum or art show.

4- In more recent works, such as the Matchstickmen, there is almost a reversal of the use of space from the earlier works, where the figure takes central stage and we imagine their surroundings. What is the relationship between the work you produce and the culture you find yourself immersed in? Was this particular work in any way related to your experiences while living in China? Do you mean to represent the massive amount of people living there, as well as the fleeting quality of life, of individuality? Or is this work a commentary on violence, on human rights, and so forth? 

The installation Matchstickmen focuses for the first time on the actual human figure. It is hard to say if I did the work because I was living in China. Normally I don't really react to my cultural surroundings - even though they might have some influence in the long run. The idea for the Matchstickmen started with playing around with things I had in my studio. Most of the time I have a subject I am interested in, which leads to a new body of work. Sometimes I find materials that offer an idea I hadn't thought of before. I would even go as far to say that without finding a certain material I would have never thought of this work at all. These rare occasions are like an unexpected gift and therefore very precious and exciting. While playing around with new possibilities my brain starts to think about a context where I can embed such materials.

Matchstickmen has two aspects. It is certainly a commentary on society - the way we treat ourselves and other human beings.  To be "burned out" is a term we can find quite often in magazines those days. I don't want to see it only as a critique on the Chinese system. Any other system in the world has the same problem. Big companies exploit their employees to make larger profits, all over the world. As long as we have affordable T-shirts or sneakers, we don't really want to know whether they are made by children in India or not. Large societies like China or India have definitely a different view on the importance of the individual. That comes with a huge population. I think the West deals with the same issues just on a smaller scale. So I like to see this work more as a general commentary about the waste of  human resources.

The West likes to forget that they exploited China in the most disgusting way for an entire century. England made China almost entirely dependent on opium to avoid paying their debts for silk and tea they bought from them. Right now Western countries complain about human rights in China, while looking for cheap labor forces in the very same country. I don't think we should close our eyes to violation of human rights, but we should also keep these facts in mind when we point our fingers on other countries. The fact that all my Matchstick-men have Asian faces is just a result of being in China when I started with this work.


The other aspect of the work is a more playful and humorous one. Streichholzkopf, the German word for matchsticks, refers much stronger to the human head in a literal way (kopf=head). When I set up this installation, each time differently, I like to make them look like someone played with matches and tossed them around. I always hope that people get both aspects - the enjoyable, light one, as well as the more serious meaning behind it.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

e-terview with Hernan Khourian

In June of 2010 I had the opportunity to live in La Plata, Argentina, make art and meet local artists. One such encounter led me to video artist Hernan Khourian, who, in addition to exhibiting his videos around the world, is also a professor of video art at the Universidad Nacional de La Plata, the Universidad Nacional de Lanús and the Universidad del Cine. Utilizing a documentary-like approach, Khourian beautifully composes poetic collages of time, in time, that are simultaneously mesmerizing and disturbing, verging on the personal and yet resonating to broad perspectives. To view samples of his works please visit the link at the end of the page. This is e-terview's first bilingual interview *.

When did you begin working with video? Why did you choose this medium?
Empecé a trabajar en video en primer año de la Universidad, porque todo era mucho más flexible y esto me permitió tener una mayor libertad e independencia para indagar cuestiones artísticas.
I started working in video on my first year in college, because it was much more flexible and that allowed me a greater freedom and independence to pose artistic questions.

Though video refers to the apparatus that you use for me creation of your works, the end result could well fit into experimental cinema and even experimental documentary film. Could you address any distinctions between these categories and your work? Are they important? Where do you place your work within a broader video art practice (if at all)?
Nunca me preocuparon las categorías, porque siempre me he esforzado por tratar de mantenerme al margen de esas clasificaciones. La idea es que hay algo a descubrir, un desafío que siempre queda abierto por más que lo querremos dominar y encasillar, obligándonos a encontrar sus respectivas alternativas. Además, utilizo los procesos creativos para darle cierta indeterminación a las situaciones y a las acciones cierta libertad, permitir a los espectadores imaginar las otras dimensiones posibles.
Categories never concern me because I always strive to stay on the margins of classifications. My approach is that there is something to be found, a challenge that stays open no matter how hard we try to dominate and label it, forcing us to find respective alternatives. In addition, I use the creative process to imbue some uncertainty to some situations and freedom to certain actions, allowing viewers to imagine other posible dimensions.

The three works that I watched, Norberto's Bedsheets (2003), Puna (2006), and Spleen or Missing or Nonetheless (2007), could be categorized a video portraits; the first a portrait of its subject (and to some extent the institution he lives in), the second of a region and its people, and the last of an apartment and yourself. Are these areas you specifically aim to address or do they naturally occur in your work?
Por lo general empiezo un proyecto pensándolo geográficamente, territorialmente. Tengo un deseo de descubrir algo lejano o desconocido, explorar, deambular perdidamente las zonas escogidas como en Áreas pero también en Esplín o Errar o Sin EmbargoEn Puna obviament, está más claro porque es una región en el norte de Argentina. Pero Las Sábanas de Norberto, que es un retrato de un discapacitado, lo pensaba también como un recorrido espacial, un retrato del espacio (el hospital) que contenía una posible historia de sensaciones de Norberto y su imaginario. Por eso el sentido se fuerza en torno a las presencias, aunque también a las ausencias: como ver personajes en los paisajes o paisajes en las personajes.
Usually I start a project thinking geographically, territorially. I have a desire to discover something distant or unknown, to explore, to wander aimlessly in chosen locations, as in Areas (2000) but also in Esplín o Errar o Sin Embargo. In Puna this is obviously clearer, because this is a region in northern Argentina. But in Norberto’s Bedsheets, which is a portrait of a disabled person, I thought also as a space journey, a portrait of a space (the hospital) that contained a possible history for Norberto's feelings and his imaginary. Therefore meaning surrounds both presences and absences: like seeing characters in the landscape, or landscapes in characters.

Given the fluid nature of your works, how do you begin working on a project? 
No sé bien como funciona, pero lo que sí creo que los proyectos que más me han hecho crecer son los que respiran una necesidad. En Las Sábanas de Norberto, lo que de alguna manera latía en el proyecto era que por primera vez iba a trabajar sobre un retrato, pero más que nada sobre un relato en donde la utilización de la palabra iba a tener un peso muy relevante por primera vez. La dación de sentido pasó a combinarse potencialmente entre palabra e imagen. En este video existe un diálogo secreto y no tanto entre el hilo invisible abierto tendido hacia lo poético, lo indecible; y un hilo de lo visible que se aferra y hace sentido desatándose hacia algún lugar en apariencia más cercano.
I don’t know exactly how it works, but I believe the projects that make me grow most are the ones that breathe a necessity. In Norberto’s Bedsheets what somehow happened was that at first I went to work on a portrait, but a narrative that utilized words took on a heavier weight for the first time. Meaning began to potentially combine with word and image. In this video there is a secret dialogue and still an invisible thread opened and extended toward the poetic, the unspeakable; and a visible thread that clungs and made sense by unraveling itself somewhere in appearance, nearby.

How do you negotiate your integrity as an artist (meaning what and how you choose to present), with potential ethical issues of (mis)representing your subjects?
Mi tesis Áreas es del año 2000 y mi último trabajo, Memoria es de 2010. Esos 10 años fueron recorridos navegado (me) por mis ejercicios de indagación de lo poético, del paso del tiempo, de la articulación del azar, del plano. Pero por encima de todo, sobre la observación y la superficie de lo real, explorando su duración, transparencia, opacidad y su inevitable ética estética. Toda obra implica elecciones, exigencia y compromiso por parte de su creador. Pero cada vez más rescato la capacidad asociativa, intuitiva y por momentos crítica de una misma realidad. Y quizá, lo indeterminado, siempre termina teniendo de alguna manera un peso cada vez mayor en mis videos, y si se quiere hay algo en ellos que subyace y que tiene que ver con suspender el sentido jugando en el límite de lo (re) presentado. Pero en definitiva no creo que las cosas se puedan separar tan fácilmente, es más una zona de contagio.
My thesis Áreas is from 2000 and my last work Memoria is from 2010. Those 10 years passed navigated (me) through my inquiries into the poetic, the passage of time, the articulation of chance, of the plan, but above all, on the observation and the surface of reality, exploring its duration, transparency, opacity and its inevitable ethical aesthetics. Every work implies choices, demands and commitment from its creator. But more and more I undertake the associative capacity, intuitive and at times critical of the same reality. And perhaps, the indeterminate, always somehow ends up with an increasing weight in my videos, and if you want something behind them that has to do with the suspension of belief on the (re) presented. But definitely I do not think that things can be separated so easily, it's more of contamination zone.

There is a specific syntax to your video works; the manipulation of speed, the juxtaposition of images and the layering of audio is present. One other reoccurring strategy is the sudden cut to black. Could you speak about that? What do these cut to black mean or symbolize to you? Is that a carrying pattern or in each project it operates differently?
Hay algo en el circuito de intercambio simbólico o informacional que siempre me ha interesado: que es esta idea de crecimiento de lo insignificante, de lo obtuso, lo trivial, y lo que se diluye en lo evanescente, suspendiendo el sentido, volviéndolo intervalo. Me interesa incomodar o problematizar los puntos de vistas del espectador desde distintos recursos (como por ejemplo las interrupciones en blanco o negro). Estos recursos me ayudan a darle lugar a cierta reflexión en su imaginario.
There is something in the cycle of symbolic/informational exchange that has always interested me: this notion of expanding the insignificant, the obtuse, the trivial, and what is diluted in the evanescent, suspending the meaning, transforming it into interval. I want to bother or problematize the perspective of the audience through these specific means (such as interruptions in white or black). These strategies help me to place a certain reflection into your imagination.

Beauty is usually not associated with video, but you manage to create strikingly beautiful images through the use of light and composition. What is the role of beauty in your work?
El punto de partida de Puna fue hacer un trabajo sobre la luz en esa región, que es el lugar del planeta en el cual más luz irradia el sol. La contemplación del paisaje (como los blancos en Las Sábanas de Norberto), su extraña luminosidad. En principio, creo interesante en mis trabajos forzar las lecturas y dejar solas a esas imágenes, entrar en su fantasmagoría hacia su composición, hacia sus sentidos. Pero creo que lo que se ve o lee en algunos de mis videos como bellos, tiene que ver con hallar otra dimensión temporal y visual encontrando tajos, intersticios en las realidades para dejar que ellas depositen en nosotros esa desviación de mundo. Lo que circula en mis trabajos es la mirada. Controlando las relaciones pero buscando siempre el azar, lo imprevisible, lo que está vivo y se nos escapa. Lo que se nos resiste siempre. Entonces, entre la evidencia de los acontecimientos y su apariencia, deviene una tensión entre descripción y narración. Un conflicto entre lo representativo y lo predicativo, aquello que se da a ver y aquello que se quiere decir o hacer pensar-sentir.
The starting point of Puna was doing a work on the light in that region, which is the site of the planet where the sun shines most light. The contemplation of the landscape (like in Norberto’s Bedsheets), its strange brightness.
In principle, I find interesting in my work to force readings and leave alone those images, entering their phantasmagoria created a composition, made senses. But I think what you see or read on some of my videos as beautiful, has to do with finding another dimension of time and finding visual cuts, cracks in the realities that let them point to us a detour from the world. What circulates in my work is the gaze. Controlling relationships but always seeking chance, the unpredictable, which is alive but escapes us. What always resists. Therefore, between the evidence of events and their appearance, a tension between description and narration occurs. A conflict between the representational and predicative, what is seen and what is told or done, to think-feel.

In Puna there is only one instance where text is translated, and that is the writing on the graffiti/cartoon of the natives and the colonizers found in situ, that I will paraphrase as "his name is Columbus and he says he is discovering us". Again there is the danger of romanticizing or exotifying the other, but with this translation and the showing of the tourists (as well as the second text in the piece, the ending credits where you mention there is no grant funding for your work), I get the impression you want to highlight the performative position of the native. Is that the case? And are you in any way interested in "anthropophagy"?
Toda imagen altera y secciona un espacio-tiempo. Quizá solo sea posible captar un gesto y a veces muy insignificante, clasificarlo, ordenarlo, mutarlo, vigilarlo. En todo caso esto es Foucault y la “Microfísica” del poder moderno, la cámara-mirada ejerce su control por momentos rechazando lo viviente. Digamos que lo que circula en Áreas pero también en Puna es la mirada, controlando la relación en el espacio entre las partes (cámara, realizador, sujetos) haciéndose patente en su propia auto puesta en imagen (escena) enfatizada por el trabajo hecho con el (des) encuadre, en el sentido que tiene para Bonitzer como desplazamiento del ángulo, excentricidad del punto de vista, focalizando zonas muertas, vacías, estimulando según el autor cierta ironía y sadismo.
Every image alters and sections a space-time. Perhaps it is only possible to capture a gesture, and sometimes very insignificantly, classify it, sort it, change it, silence it, watch it. In any case this is Foucault and the "Microphysics" of modern power, the camera-eye/gaze asserting its control, at times rejecting the living. Let's say that what circulates in Areas but also in Puna is the gaze, controlling the relationship amongst parts in space (camera, director, subject) making evident in its own self-imposition as picture (scene) emphasized by the work done with the (un) frame, in the Bonitzer sense of the displacement of the angle, the eccentricity of the point of view, focusing on dead zones, empty, stimulating according to the author a certain irony and sadism.

This performative position is also noticeable by your presence in the videos. There is a playfulness, a child-like curiosity in your works, where you seem to be experimenting with the video camera to see how things look when videotaped. This stance is very akin or in line with early video art practices in the U.S.. Early Bill Viola automatically comes to mind, specially in Spleen (...). What have been some of your influences, as far as artists? In literature, has magic realism a place in your work as well?
No tengo ninguna influencia cuantificable, o en todo caso estas siempre llegan tarde, cuando ya no las necesito tanto. Pero sí puedo hablar de una influencia buscada, que está más ligada a tener una experiencia de mundo, un encuentro vivencial con lo diferente y heterogéneo. 
I don't have any quantifiable influence, in any case these always arrive late, when they are not needed much. But I can speak of a sought-after influence, that is connected to having an experience of the world, a lived encounter with the different and the heterogeneous.

Spleen (...) was done during an art residency in Paris, France. It has a claustrophobic or isolating feeling to it (as all scenes are shot indoors, and any exterior imagery is seen through windows - actual or computer). Was that in any way a parallel to your experience there? Was that related in any way to language barriers?
En realidad en Esplín o Errar o Sin Embargo transformé el desvío situacionista por las calles de la ciudad y el flânerie de Baudelaire por el vagabundeo incesante por mi espacio íntimo-privado en el mismo atelier.
Quería relacionarme directamente con cierto efecto de encapsulamiento, necesario para capturar las vicisitudes y los procesos de la puesta del yo en situación.
Actually in Esplín o Errar o Sin Embargo, I transformed the Situationist derive through the streets of the city and the flânerie of Baudelaire through incessant wandering within my intimate-private space in the same studio.
I wanted to directly interact with certain effect of encapsulation, which was necessary to capture the vicissitudes and the processes of placing the self in a situation.

 *translations from Castellano to English by Juan Pablo Ferrer and Vagner M. Whitehead