Proto-tools considers the role of the tool within artistic practice, both as a means to create material effect and as a device to progress a way of thinking. Locating the point of energy of the artwork not at the moment of its encounter with an audience, or indeed the market, but rather at the site of production, Proto-tools interrogates the interaction between the artist and the object in production. In what ways do the often ‘proflexive’ (or unknowing) activities involved in making inform reflexive understanding in the work of the artist?
16-17 Nov 2013,
Flat Time House
Open floor discussion (verbatim transcription)
Antonia Blocker: We are hoping that we can pick up on some of the things that people have said and anyone (audience) can bring something to the conversation, that'd be ideal. I don't have an introduction per se but I'm going to try'n make some links between what everybody was saying. And it seemed there were a couple of things that over-lapped. So the idea of systems or relations – systems of value and power, systems of production, especially in the first couple of talks – and then moving on, ideas of copies and repetition, also the author function in relation to tools. One thing that I thought was very interesting in your talk Verina, was the idea of post-production and it made me think of this quote that I had been thinking about, it’s from the latest e-flux article by Hito Steyerl, Too Much World: Is the Internet Dead?, so she's talking about post-internet, she says, "Under these conditions, production morphs into post-production, meaning the world can be understood but also altered by its tools. The tools of post-production: editing, colour correction, filtering, cutting, and so on are not aimed at achieving representation. They have become means of creation, not only of images but also of the world in their wake." So I was just very interested in this – the process of the interview that you (Verina) spoke about and in particular this idea of post-production – the negotiation, editing, reformatting involved in that process and also how the interview goes through these various value systems, almost similar to the Seven Lives of Garbage work by Alÿs. So, primarily being a proposal in the first instance that becomes an exchange that leads to a transcript that leads to a publication which is a book, which is a product. So I don't know if you want to talk more about that or if you've said everything you had to say?
Verina Gfader: I agree the interview itself, the actual conversation is malleable – in terms of material agency, if you like. And whatever is involved in editing, which I think over the last few years became an expanded practice so to speak, this ‘editing’ involves all kinds of things, reading, interpreting, selecting, extracting, but also leaving out. And for me most interesting is to also think about, 'Where is the place of the thing?' I mentioned that before that whatever it is it shapes, it co-produces the very context – –
Alex Schady: I was taking as you were speaking then, that it's not just the post-production that's an expanded field, it’s in the world of Skype and telephone interviews and however else we might do it, that the interview itself has become an expanded practice. And I was thinking about Errol Morris' approach to interviewing where rather than sitting in front of the person he's interviewing, he'll have a monitor in front of himself and a monitor in front of the interviewee with a live feed, so you're only ever talking to the television version of the person you're interviewing, as a way of producing some distance. And I think there's something about the way in which that interview, or the possibility for the interview itself has shifted dramatically in the last 10 years.
VG: But also its status in the market place – who spoke about market and distribution etc? I mean the interview is probably not the same any more, as it was 20 years ago. Its place in the art world, in contemporary art, in terms of knowledge and informal knowledge and what we understand about knowledge production. And again – the most notorious interviewers, Hans Ulrich Obrist – you can think about interviewing in very different terms, I mean what he's doing is mainly to look, to speak to artists he's interested in – it’s always a different angle to interviewing, as such, which also involves different processes and different post-production.
AS: And then we also have the film about the interview, the Nixon/Frost interview. And that in itself has become – –
Mark Harris: That's - it seems to me the flaws within that medium - it seemed that the objective - or how that particular exchange was valued was that Frost was able to illicit a confession from Nixon, so there's a sense in which the interview on that level is intended to reveal something that's concealed. And typically that's not such a primary objective with artists’ interviews which, I think you indicated, has more to do with the construction or the furthering of careers. The construction of artists’ identities. And not something that was intended to trip the artist up into making a mistake or revealing something that's not – –
VG: But also this idea of fictionalising the artist’s practice like what Antonia talked about - in terms of Frieze (art fair) – or Mark was talking about.
Andrés Montenegro Rosero: Also I think you (Verina) mentioned something about the interviews being a matter of time. I was wondering, can you speak a little bit more about how you see this interview as being an issue of time, which I find really fascinating.
VG: In what sense?
AMR: I don't know, that's why I wanted to ask.
AB: You (Verina) said it's an event, which I suppose is the same thing.
VG: Yeah interesting, the interview obviously has a lot to do with what has not yet been discussed or has not yet been revealed in someone’s work or life. So it's kind of both in the past and in the future. So it's looking backwards but also projecting into the future. That's one issue I'm quite interested in, especially for example with the Negri interview, I went back to that time in '68 with these publications and his involvement with these journals and it's a side of Negri which is not yet in the public sphere. And for him - he then told me that he agreed to the interview precisely because of that. He was just researching this time, for him, in his life he had to just cover up, for political reasons, but also for personal emotional reasons.
AMR: I think that is really interesting because I feel - some other examples as you were speaking, especially in contemporaneity, Christine Ross's book The Past is the Present, It's the Future Too, which is all about contemporary art practices which try to bring the past closer to the present and future. To conflate and produce new temporal models perhaps as a way to resist heavily formatted or very straightforward notions of time, so I just thought it was really interesting that – because I hadn't really seen the interview as a matter of time, especially, as you were saying, there's been a whole outburst of interviews. And interviews have become the format for a lot of contemporary artists and it treads a very fine line between self-advertisement and actual interviewee – finding new knowledge and so forth.
VG: But maybe there is also this aspect of a certain intimacy inherent to the interview, and at the same time it's already public, what you are doing. I'm quite interested in that level as well. Because obviously you share this time with a particular person and you touch upon certain things which are not constructed beforehand and not anticipated beforehand.
MH: There's an aspect of what you're say where Negri agrees to be interviewed by someone who is knowledgeable about his background, someone who has already invested time and scholarship in it, and there was some years ago the concept of the star interviews, the star artist being interviewed by the star interviewer. And the artist declining interviews that don't produce an event. And the case I'm thinking of is Luc Tuymans being interviewed by T. J. Clark in America and hundreds and hundreds of people attended in a great hall and you would expect something penetrating from an interview like that, but actually I find with Clark, the closer he gets to the present day the less effective he is or the less interesting he is as a commentator; and so it was in this instance where none of the questions were sufficiently probing to illicit anything except a new form of adulation of Tuymans. As an event it was successful, especially as it coincided with a one person show of Tuymans.
AS: I think it’s also intriguing - thinking about celebrity status - as the interview in popular culture recedes - and I might just be making this up but it seems to me that your Oprah's, you know, those big interview formats that were on TV, that moment of the mass celebrity interview seems to be falling back and it’s as that's happening, as it's loosing some purchase on popular culture that it becomes something very important in the art world, and whether there's any relationship there?
Peter Fillingham: I was brought up in a generation of watching television - face-to-face interviews on television; look at Alan Whicker and the questions he asks - back to Mark’s point, it's all about the intelligent person who's done his homework and the interview is actually a very intelligent place, and I think this sense that the history is not taught and the history is not acknowledged, these momentary celebrity things do not represent for me anything apart from taking a particular moment to be sold. Thinking about a Frieze (art fair) way of looking at it – it's so particular of a moment and of course that takes away all of the intelligence that I enjoy when I look at certain interviews. I've looked at many interviews which were not about speed, like Graham Norton's show is now - and the... [transcript interruption] ...interview by Chuck Close, it just shows another way which is not so fast, which is not about celebrity. I think it challenges the lack of history that's allowed to come in. A Hans Ulrich Obrist type of interview is of a particular moment.
Colm Lally: Do you think there's a difference between interviewing, let’s say an artist and interviewing somebody who isn't an artist, like Negri? Like if you're relying on his memory, as you spoke about, and also I think you spoke about the deformation of history, where – it's possible you have an obligation to some kind of idea of historical objectivity to things that happened at this time and also to negotiate his non-intentional or intentional, or his personal desires to portray that particular history in a certain way. I mean he would have to be an amazingly objective person to not to bring his own desires to that retelling, but if you're interviewing an artist then well, you know, it's fine – during the break we were talking about Philip Auslander who talks about the reactivation of something through documentation, where let’s say the historical figure that Negri is, it's not ok, maybe, to reactivate, reinterpret that time, especially because of his pivotal role at that time, it's not ok in a kind of artistic context – what do you think of that?
VG: I don't really understand your question.
CL: Whether there's a difference between, let’s say, historical figures who – where an interview might have a certain currency in the domain of art but when you interview somebody in a different domain, in the domain of politics where peoples’ lives have been effected, I guess, is there a different kind of currency?
VG: It's always very different I think, whatever profession the person you're interviewing has. It's less the profession of someone but, again, what is the main objective of interviewing this particular person.
Audience member: Is there an element of performance involved during an interview? Especially when interviewing someone like an artist who is very intimately involved with his work, he is almost a representative for it, so whatever he gives off through his body language or through what he says, it’s as if – when we were talking about the tools for accessing knowledge, I guess we could consider the interview as a tool for accessing this knowledge, in a very literal sense. Where as you could interview someone who is maybe a scientist who has discovered something and we're not really interested in him as a person, we're interested in his discovery, so you would ask him historical questions of context so that we have a text book type of reference. I guess I'm interested in the interview as a tool to access things, because this happens spontaneously during the interview which you would've had expected.
VG: But also with an interview the person and the work and talk is always very close together. In a different encounter you might not have that. So on that level you can always see it as a performative act. And it can go pretty wrong as well.
AMR: Doesn't it run the risk of re-sneaking the author through the back door? Basically, of highlighting the figure of the artist, doer as a celebrity, culty person. And sometimes skewing the actual reading of the works. And it feels like, at least in art history, as a field we battled against that kind of interpretation of the artwork as relying on the artist’s intentions, desires and so forth, for many years, but that now it seems to be biting us in the ass and sort of returning through the interview format as the artist as really the soul advertiser or soul validator. Very smartly, and very marketably, so not smartly, but with a view on self-promotion.
CL: It's kind of self-mythologising and it provides that platform to do that. And revisiting – which is fine, maybe it's fine, you know, as an artist.
AMR: Sure. It's just that my fear is that it will re-establish the cult of the artist, the figure of the artist as soul provider of meaning.
MH: There's the opportunity to misuse the tool. There's quite a nice example online, Kenny Everett interviewing Kate Bush, it's a very short sequence in which she is answering out of step with him so it makes no sense and at the end he says, "I've been speaking with Kate Bush and she's been speaking with someone else." But I think David Burrows did a wonderful interview with someone showing at the ICA, I can't remember who, and again they un-synced the two texts. And way back the critic Peter Fuller, famously in Art Monthly, interviewed, I think it was Carl Andre, and this was before email so the text was sent back and forth, and Peter Fuller came under massive criticism for altering what Andre said in the interview. He wasn't just correcting it, he was actually altering. So his respondent said, "This is not the question he asked me, I'm being misrepresented here," and I can see that as being a productive device.
VG: That's really a question of editorial decisions because Alex, who is quite a tough editor – I thought it's not the same interview any more, almost. He left out quite a lot of stuff which I think creates more ‘life’ in the interview. But that's totally specific to the actual interview – but these questions come up.
AS: I've been interviewed a few times for something that'll end up in print and I'm always amazed, because I know what I sound like and I know how banal my answers might've been like in the interview, when they come back to you, when they've been polished up by someone - they've caught the essence of what you're saying [laughter] but in that process it absolutely becomes something else.
Audience member: Did you make the interview in writing in the end, because you sent the question one week - -
VG: He said he wanted the questions in advance but when I arrived he said he didn't have time to look at them.
Audience member: And did you have to send the finished interview to him?
VG: Yes of course, he has to sign off.
MH: I was interested to have learned that in Italy – from a man who was deeply involved in the punk scene internationally – that in that period, in the 1970s – he asked me, "Where were the Italian punk bands?" because they exist in every other country. He was saying that it was extremely hard for musicians to do anything disruptive, not involved in radical left politics. And I think at one stage Lou Reed was prevented from playing in Florence. There was a very small number of punk bands and they were very brave because they would get their gigs smashed up and broken. When one thinks of these left movements as being in some manner liberatory but the opposite seems to be have been the case, where in Italy with certain forms of culture at that time – –
VG: It's quite a militant activism, so to speak, as well. Especially also in the actual conversation he (Negri) – there was this movement which is mentioned in his book Multitude, with Hardt, called ‘The White Overalls.’ This was a social centre activity in the 1970s, near Florence. And we discussed a little bit the social spaces at the time. And how they remained active, in resistance. And he said the police were just not let in those places, there was a barricade.
Audience member: I was just thinking about this work that you (Alex) did with your students. I felt that it was really like interviewing them in a way. I wonder could you have bad answers? Could they have reacted in a way that you would not have made the film in the end?
AS: That's interesting. I don't think so. I was fairly confident, given the remit of what I as doing, that there wasn't that much space for them to do something that would've been disruptive. And that's not because they couldn't have stood up and broken the camera – but given the relationship that you have with your students, given established power relationships you have with them, there are certain ways in which we all understand we're going to behave in a lecture. So I wonder – –
Audience member: They could be laughing the whole time.
AS: They laughed at one point, and I kept it in. The most disturbing version I've had in a lecture was when I gave some lectures in China where I was being translated, and I would say a sentence and the sentence would get translated, and they warned me before I went in that this particular group of students were working very hard and they use the lectures as a space to sleep and I had about 50% of the pupils completely asleep within 3 minutes of me starting. And that felt really extraordinary because it genuinely felt like it was doing something that was very challenging to what one imagined were the rules of this encounter.
AB: They disturbed the power relation. By sleeping they're refusing to enter into your process of exchange.
AS: Although on the one hand I'm interested in that power relation being confronted in that way, you know on the other hand I can't be that comfortable because the next day I warned them about this, "The last time a number of you fell asleep, I've got a camera in my pocket and I'm making a piece of work, anyone that falls asleep I'm going to take their photograph,” and that kept a lot more of them awake.
AB: So you grabbed the power back.
AS: I know. I did. I guess for me it's always about declaring when I'm grabbing it back. And that doesn't make it ok but at least it acknowledges it. Because I think it's inevitable that you're within that power dynamic – –
CL: Do you feel that you're doubly in power because you're using the camera as well which is already this powerful tool and you're in this position of authority.
AS: Yeah, that was really manipulative of me, absolutely. And I had no confidence that these photographs would ever become anything other than something amusing to show colleagues when I got back. Which again is slightly suspect! [laughter]
AMR: I think it’s really interesting – some of my research is on Santiago Sierra and his delegation and buying of performers time and body. So there are many resonances with the kind of work that you're trying to do, but yours seems to be somewhat less coercive in monetary terms but a little bit more coercive in ideological terms perhaps because your game is – they're not being paid for this in any way, shape or form. Their subjectivity is being very limited by the conditions that you give and in some projects they seem to go through this principal of individuation, this power the students either take on or not, I was wondering, in particular if the production of behaviour – because what you're playing with is the behaviour of other people, how far are you willing to go?
AS: I don't know, I was talking to someone during the break and I said the next piece I proposed to Tate after He Made Me Do It, was I wanted to go into a class room and gaffa tape the students to their chairs. And they said no but I'm still talking to them about possibly doing that. And I don't have an objective in mind, I don't think I want to get it to this stage. I don't think of myself as particularly – –
AS: No, not at all. It's like, here's a button, press it. It's almost, "I wonder what happens if I do this?," and I am deeply troubled by the power that I understand that I have within an educational context. I feel very uncomfortable with it – and we all know that we've moved away from the idea of a teacher having knowledge that they impart; but some of that still exists and it seems to me that what it’s been replaced with now is equally problematic – one in which students understand entitlement and what they're entitled to. And these two things seem to conflate within these institutions and they are both deeply troubling in terms of the power dynamics that exist, and so I think it's because of an anxiety that I feel about them that I just keep needing to prod at it and see what happens.
VG: Is there also the question of responsibility, taking responsibility? So you're talking about power, or not having power, or giving up power, how this has changed but still it’s lacking throughout. Nobody really wants to take responsibility, for whatever – –
AS: Yeah, because responsibility is dangerous. You're right and I think, again, that is very problematic. But we have to at least acknowledge that it's there. That for me seems to be the crux of it.
CL: Do you think that – it seems like you're walking this really delicate line and you're very aware of all of the issues involved in doing that but – I was looking at this video by Renzo Martens called Enjoy Poverty and so he's also walking this very – this line of the ethical dimension to what he's doing – so do you think there's a relationship between what he is doing and what you're doing?
AS: On a certain level - and I was told by someone who knows a lot better than me, that I should not mention the word ‘ethics,’ but on a certain level the question about the ethics of what you're doing in both cases is important. I think I'm probably within more comfortable territory because it’s much less edgier, because it's so much the institution I'm within, that I don't have to take a position outside of it, so on that level it's easy. But I can understand there is an ethical dimension to both, yeah.
PF: As you were saying during the break, when you were talking about the fact that they were drawing you, that made a lot of resonance with Renzo Martens' film. It is very much, and he does declare this at the end, that it's a question of pride and vanity. He plays the whole 'wrath of God' type of anthropologist, the Fitzcarraldo thing all the way through, and that tiny thing that you (Alex) were saying that 'they were drawing me' – that does have a massive resonance I think in putting you absolutely on the spot, I'd say it’s equally as dangerously, and probably even more dangerously if you're working somewhere like Tate. And I think the relationship between those two artists is actually really very interesting. I saw his film at a documentary film festival in a field and it brought the house down. There was a lot of violence going on between the journalism and the non-journalism. I think that it's a good artist to relate to Alex's work.
MH: I don't want to shift the discussion but I have a question for Andrés. I often wonder with Alÿs's work, who does the filming? And what's the relationship between the filmmaker and the artist? If you take someone like Bas Jan Ader we know who made the films. And he (Rene Daalder) made that wonderful recent film about his life Here is Always Somewhere Else. So if there wasn't a filmmaker there'd be no document, the work would be there but perhaps not written about.
AMR: This is perhaps one of the many problems with Alÿs's practice. It's very often doubted that he is the only maker. As if he was both walker and documenter at the same time of conceptual producer, sketch drawer and so on and so forth. He has a massive production team behind him. And in particular two of his closest documenters are close friends who are usually credited in the works in which they participate. And this is something unfortunately I came to think about when I came to the end of my PhD, which is this sense of duplication in the figure of the artist. It is for example Alÿs's walking that makes the practice but also it's Alÿs as documenter that makes his practice live on through documentation. So that's a long answer to it. Sometimes this issue of documentation overtakes Alÿs's work in my mind. And in particular I have the example, When Faith Moves Mountains, in Lima when he choreographed 500 people and then there's a very telling image in which you see everybody reaching the pinnacle and then there's a helicopter from which there's a massive camera crew taking the entire image. And you see how the helicopter whips sand into the faces of these people who are doing this arduous work of 'convivial building' bla bla bla bullshit in my mind. So there are some works that are more pointed towards documentation. And that particular work, I agree with Santiago Sierra that when he renames it 'When Fairs Move Mountains.'
MH: Is there a sense then that photogeneity determines the – –
AMR: Absolutely. And composition. Old school values of art, so crafting, the materiality, the sensuality of the works of Francis Alÿs, in my mind his hook is aesthetic. You get sucked into it through these very sensuous forms. These very neatly pared-down artworks. There's a lot of craft in giving a semblance of randomness and immediacy but it's actually all very crafted and defined. At least that's my interpretation of it.
VG: Also in the early works?
AMR: Yeah. I'm not sure when this transition particularly starts to happen but, for example, as I showed, Placing Pillows, there's only two images that survive of that work, one is the close-up of the pillow in the frame and another is Alÿs just walking around the city. So from the very beginning there seems to be someone else involved already in the documentation. It's my argument that that role becomes more and more prominent as the projects become more and more spectacular. So the more humble actions – –
MH: It seems then you have a dilemma between what Alex is doing and what Alÿs is doing - either you stand there as the performer or you film someone else doing your work for you, which I guess is what Alex is doing. But the precedence of the artist being there as a filmed performer exists deeply in contemporary art culture, you've got Beuys for example. And it makes you wonder what isn't represented – in the work I Like America and America Likes Me we are told he sleeps in a cage with a coyote but, no, he sleeps in the loft upstairs of the gallery space.
AMR: These are well crafted secrets. And in relation to your work (Alex), also, I think there's Tania Bruguera's work and the production of behaviour and the moulding and instrumentalisation of making art as a 'useful practice' – actually tooling people, or retooling them, refunctioning them so that they would understand different places and different positions in society; and in that her work couldn't care less about documentation for example. The documentation of the piece is done by the audience. Other people documenting the work. So I feel there is a way out of this deadlock of either performer or documenter, in perhaps delegating documentation to audiences.
PF: I see it as engineering, a kind of engineering because going back to the tool part and going back to have a look at the different ways, you can use a drawing as a form of transmitting a way of making something, or building tools as a way of making something. In this new kind of situation where everyone collaborates and there are workshops for all, the only real way of engineering a process of making is to actually know how to engineer a process. To come back to the Beuys piece of engineering, I think it's really fascinating that - here's Francis Alÿs and you get a sense that here's this one person and to hear about the engineering process is fascinating. And when I apply that to what we saw of Alex's work I think about how engineering takes place there and the storyboarding and the preplanning of something - it might has to do with documentation itself. It's really interesting to think of Beuys engineering something. And though we get the sense that the person with the camera has an equal voice, it can't always be the case and often those people are excluded, so I find it talks about who's excluded and what's excluded, as you (Mark) said.
AMR: It's not as spontaneous as we'd like to think, it's not as immediate. There's a lot of mediation.
AS: But also what it does to the audience – watching is also very dramatic. For Alÿs walking through the town, pushing a block of ice with no one recording him would've been a very different experience.
AMR: That also comes out through interviews, you get the sense that if the pictures didn't exist this work would've gone unnoticed in the context of the city. Nobody stops, and he's just a weirdo like any other weirdo. But now we consider this to be something else, precisely through his own documentation.
AS: But he might've been a more approachable weirdo had someone not been filming him.
AMR: I think that's true too. And not signaling the fact that something was happening through the camera, because it frames interpretation.
VG: But maybe there's also the question, in what way is Alÿs's work an urban analysis, an urban study? And compared to yours (Alex), an educational study?
AMR: Well I think there are always ethnographic elements to his practice. Usually on the periphery and the backdrop, for example, in the images of the ice melting it's the focus on him pushing the ice but there is background.
VG: Place and environment.
AMR: Yes tangentially it gives you a picture of place and a picture of site and demographic absolutely but sometimes not necessarily directly. Which I think is also – that's nice, to get a sense of a place obliquely, through different perspectives instead of this macro, mapped out view.
VG: To me his work is very much about city. Especially the projects he did in London. And all the control mechanisms in the city.
AMR: Absolutely. His background is urbanism and - we're giving back the author function to his practice - so I won't talk about it. [laughter]
PF: André Cadere is quite an interesting artist in relation to all this. It could be argued that none of this would've happened had he not pissed off so many people or walked as many places. And I wondered if that was someone you'd linked to historically?
AMR: No. Historically what I tried to do was reevaluate, particularly at the beginning, Alÿs's practice against Situationist readings. There's been a lot of literature that points to his walks as being little dérive-like things and I just think that's bullshit. Instruction in Alÿs's work hasn't anything to do with the Situationist International. His works are not instructive. They're not commandments for other people to do. They're descriptions of actions that he's done. And that's really my argument.
AB: I hate to interrupt, but it's five past 5 so maybe this is a good place to end. I think it's interesting that we haven't really been talking about tools as objects, we're more talking about tools as people, maybe the most interesting tools are people. Thank you all so much for coming. Thanks to the speakers and everyone for giving up your afternoon. And to Claire and Flat Time House.