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 √Čtranger (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/

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