For her installations consisting of images, writing and sound material, Alice Creischer researches the history of local political contexts in Germany and other countries. Interweaving facts and fictive narratives in her work, Creischer visualizes new possibilities for representing power structures in politics and economics and how art can confront history. She often works collaboratively and invites other artists to contribute to her projects or works, such as for the opera A Feasibility Study on the Negation of Labour for Documenta 12, Kassel, Germany. The political potential of the aesthetic strategies she choses to work with became the focus of our talk.
Judith Raum: What interests me in this talk is expressing an ethical and political stance through specific ways of dealing with artistic material.
When talking about your ExArgentina project , you and Andreas Siekmann refer to Foucault’s concept of genealogy and to what he calls “subordinated knowledges”: a combination of education-based knowledge buried under functional connections and formal systematizations and a local, regional, differential knowledge of the people which has been disqualified by the hierarchically organized standards of knowledge and science. It is exactly these revolting, subordinated knowledges that make critique possible and can be inserted into current tactics. However, these ways of knowing cannot be mediated through institutionalized science and its centralizing means. The local particular knowledge, or anti-knowledge, rather works non-efficiently, fighting the power effects of a discourse considered to be scientific. It is against the science that establishes normative categories that have the implicit danger of governing life or codifying experience in some way. Similarly, you ask how to visualize this non-normative, unofficial knowledge or history and communal experience. You ask how to transfer thought to a non-efficiency model through your methods. As artistic practice these serve to make politics visible as artistic categories or methods (again, separate from knowledges of supposed truth such as science). This would mean avoiding, as you call it, artistic categories, which, in arrogating autonomy, have acutely polished their optical tools.
I want to dig deeper into this notion of the non-efficient in the aesthetic realm.
Alice Creischer: I think that there is a difficulty there. Probably it is hard to solve this from the perspective of artistic methodology. I believe that an artistic method can turn into mechanized routine finally becoming a professional deformation when you do not take a break. Artistic methods require disruptions of mind (Erkenntnispausen), otherwise they become like an Ücker-nail or a Thomas Demand. You arrive at being a medium-sized enterpriser. Breaks to contemplate are not only breaks where thinking and research happens. They are also breaks for the making of experiences. Like traveling to other countries or cooperating with other people and the experiences connected to that. This connection of knowledge and experience is more important than knowledge and research alone.
When I have political discussions with younger people I often get the impression that to them these discussions are something like intellectual disputes. But I get more and more convinced of the idea that political debates rarely gain any traction without political experience. I find this way of looking for experiences very important, to step outside of your profession and leave it for a while because it becomes more important to free yourself from it for a while and to do real research and cooperate. And it rather results from such a process that you do works that can eventually contain all this better. It is about taking the visual instruments out of your hands so that the moment you get back to them they are new and unfamiliar and express experience better.
JR: The reference to experience fits well to describe aspects of how your works are executed. When cutting paper for example, you allow for the scissors not to cut in an even and perfect way, the edges are left frayed instead. The direction with which you glue paper sentences on the background seems to develop out of the moment and no specific attention is paid to compositional aspects. When looking at all of this, it seems that one can sensually retrace the proximity of thinking and making in the working process, how decisions happened, settings were taken, how you would rather carry on following the flow of thoughts than perfect single elements, not work meticulously on single spots.
AC: That is true. I used to make a much clearer distinction: first comes the research, then the execution. Nowadays things are much more interwoven, the way working with sources flows into the manual process has become much more direct. Especially in the case of the Aparatus for the Osmotic Compensation of the Pressure of Wealth During the Contemplation of Poverty , where you are not exactly sure. You have not come to any judgment or conclusion. Then new perceptions that you gain flow in very directly. It can happen that you paste something up again, or that you do not know what things amount to.
JR: I am thinking of Brecht here and the comparison he makes between dramatic and epic theatre. In dramatic theatre the focus is on the outcome or resolution, whereas epic theatre aims at tension in each progression by eliminating or suspending plot resolution. Means are privileged over ends. In epic theatre, man presents himself as both changeable and able to cause change. It is about finding an artistic form that realizes a certain dynamic active notion of the human individual. Behind it all is a practical interest that these ideas could be communicated – that an urge for action shall be transferred onto the spectators.
I see similarities in your artistic methods, and I am especially wondering about the material level. When one can still read the accumulation of things in the way your objects are executed there is something participatory in that for me. To work through things, to analyze facts both critically and playfully is presented as something obvious, something that suggests itself easily. Is there a practical interest behind your works: a notion that it is possible to motivate or activate people who look at your work?
AC: Definitely. I understand the whole exhibition set-up in a way that people are not presented a totality of knowledge, where they will be able to read it all anyways. They shall rather be invited to think, “Oh, this here looks interesting, I want to have a closer look at this point. And here is a footnote, so let’s see what that is about.” So you are invited to infect yourself and develop a cognitive interest at different moments and points out of different reasons – be it words, images or the material itself.
About Brecht: you know that we sometimes do plays, musical plays. Each time when working with normal actors, I have problems with them actually acting. They are their role. But I myself feel always much more liberated when somebody stands there and reads the text out, when there is a distance between the represented and the one who represents. This means liberation for the spectator, one he or she can choose, and I myself as a producer also have more freedom. It might be that the way I tinker in my work, this non-professional way with which I execute my things, corresponds with such a moment of alienation, impose this gap between the represented and the intention or representation.
JR: You do not suggest that you have command over facts or material.
AC: You also do not suggest that the thing is just the thing. You rather make transparent that the work is actually produced and constructed, which is of course something like a discipline of conceptual art in the 20th century. I do not think that this has to do with a more or less shabby execution, which is the case with my work. It can also appear in a pretty clean constructivist object, in a video or a photograph. When a video includes a critical reflex on some software, it involves the same transparency of the constructed nature of the work as when I use my paper scalpel in a weird way. It is not a question of a media discussion.
JR: Well, I would like to insist on reflecting what the special features of your works actually do on a sensual level. Of course ‘constructedness’ can also appear in different aesthetic regimes, harking back to certain art historical movements. If you want to relate yourself to the tradition of conceptual art, you might work with a reduced material output, or in black-and-white, or with framed documents...
AC: It can also become an attitude.
JR: Yes. You, however, stress aspects of manual execution, and you jump between various practices. You write, collaborate in longer projects, you curate, do theatrical pieces, even operas, and then you work on objects again. Behind it all is a political orientation that has effects on your methods and the issues with which you deal, individually, and when collaborating with others. Solidarity plays a central role and certain notions of commonality. I have the impression that your way of dealing with material and your way of moving between media expresses something specific. There is a certain kind of generosity in it, a gesture of inclusion.
AC: You have to consider that artistic approaches and movements slowly become academic. The preoccupation with modernism is, for example, an academic one. Approaches attempting to recontextualize artistic works have become ‘academized’. Everything we were involved with during the 90’s, urban politics, conceptualism, gender, modernity, has become entirely ‘academized’. That time, for us, was about rediscovering a form of conceptualism. The 80’s had been a reactionary time at the academies. We only discovered very slowly that there had been something else before. This discovery was real work. Then the rediscovery of conceptual art and of modernity slowly became ‘academized’ during the 90’s. Nowadays it has almost become a repertoire at the art academies. A whole generation shows their Martha Rosler installations or the last ‘Frankfurter Küche’ once again.
I never completely identified with conceptual art. In the 80’s, it was pretty clear that handcraft and women don’t go together. You instead had to go to the metal shop and weld. You are emancipated when you are a man. It was not before the late-nineties that I could trace this bias connected to working with material of mine at all.
JR: As a conscientious decision you had made?
AC: Yes. I had made a few long breaks and engaged in a lot of discussions about whether individual artistic practice is not reactionary in itself. I wondered if everything should not rather be decided in the collective and if to work in the collective is the only possible way. This in turn produced a strong need to work individually. To decide the question whether to work collectively or individually in a normative way doesn’t make sense. A question complicated by being convinced [by others] that a political artist has to be this and that.
JR: So you would not necessarily locate the political in the decision between working collectively or individually. Is it rather related to the contents you deal with? Do you draw a line between artistic projects and activism?
AC: What is the political. It is not possible to name it in an abstract way. It is a concrete thing. The political depends on the subject matter that you devote yourself to. It consists in a very specific dedication of your work to very concrete historical and contemporary cases and situations. When devoting your work this way, you perform a big lapse with relation to art history – you leave the realm of universality. You work in a category that is not appreciated. What is appreciated instead is to remain general and stick with meta-symbols, rather than dedicating yourself to specific events and proceeding inductively from there in order to develop general conclusions.
JR: I think that there are quite a few artists around who actually do get involved with specific cases and detailed research. The level of articulation of a clearly readable political stance might (consciously) vary, though. But as far as I understand, you are talking about the risk that art works perpetuate paradigms connected with ‘high art’ – through modes of representation which they might apply or modes of perception they might provoke. To bring in one of those paradigms: you mention that you avoid a contemplative form or tradition of art. What exactly is the critique of contemplative art? Does it entail the notion of the spectator being pushed in a passive role?
AC: We sometimes use the word contemplation in a very polemic way. Then we talk about art that only deals with itself or that is satisfied with itself. But we disagree. We believe that your task as an artist is one of communication and engagement, and that it has always been that way. Malevich didn’t paint a black square for the sake of it being a black square. The black square becomes interesting in the context of the Russian Revolution. Seurat did not simply do Pointillism and paint neat people who are sitting on the river shore. It happened in the context of an anarchistic notion of a society freed from work. Art history systematically deprives us from such information; it permanently cuts off the whole political contextualization of artistic work. It does so in order to lead us into some form of bourgeois contemplation or, rather, agony.
JR: So the communication of content is very important.
AC: To communicate content is certainly one of the reasons why you do something at all. I remember times when you would just sit around and wonder what to do. When you are in such a situation where nothing really occurs to you, you better leave the studio and not do anything.
JR: When researching and communicating specific local history, or when collaborating with workers from the Brukman factory in Argentina for objects that are going to be exhibited in shows you have in Europe, for example – does it not become a problem that you actually represent other peoples’ problems?
AC: I do not see that as a problem, and I also think that this is a trap. You have to imagine it the other way round, which would come out as: “I am only allowed to represent my own problems.” If that is the case, we end up in neo-liberal society, where the individual subjects represent nothing but the individual subjects. Which is in fact the case. If you look at the culture of demonstration in this country, workers at Opel represent Opel workers’ problems, migrants represent migrants’ worries, and so on. It is a society of porcupines. This means, I do have to barge into other peoples’ issues. I have to contemplate other peoples’ problems if I want to establish something like political solidarity. And solidarity is one of the most important steps to develop politicization. If not, you stop at a society like the one Hobbes sketched out. Another important thing is that the political situations you tell about in your work do not just remain political situations and problems. The moment you narrate them they change their character and become a story. This story has a lot of poetry in it. It does no longer only depict a problem, it becomes a manifestation or condensation of the political situation.
JR: In this process of condensating, you introduce fictional elements. You mix up analysis of facts with absurd, invented, narrative components. Does it play a certain role to be consciously inaccurate?
AC: No, it is rather about being consciously accurate. I have always been interested in certain poetic traditions, such as the poems by Ezra Pound, or a certain literary school in Bahia Blanca in Argentina. Both permanently mix knowledge of facts with lyrical compression. This poetic method, to find ways to walk back and forth between factual knowledge and poetic condensation, really inspires me.
JR: So you would not say that you partly represent facts in an exaggerated or caricature-like way in order to develop a certain polemic?
AC: Things do not have to be exaggerated. In fact, I deal with political or historical facts that are the way they are, although they might sound improbable at times. It would probably be irresponsible to exaggerate political facts. It is quite the opposite: how can I seize what I hear and witness.
JR: So to connect back to my first question and the possibilities of the non-efficient in artistic categories here, you say it is about reaching a moment in the artwork where it shows what was once perceived and in a way that keeps this original reaction vivid. The reaction one had when uncovering outrageous facts, a reaction of indignation and solidarity. There seems to be a mandate or mission implied in your work – you and Andreas understand yourselves fighting for something. You fight for a notion of the world, or of society that you wish to be realized instead of predominate conditions. How much can art do in terms of making proposals, giving inspiration or direction?
AC: The question if political art can change social reality is usually asked with a certain malice: “Haha, after all, it can’t!” I also do not think that it can. But what I believe is that art is a medium that helps getting over things. We are observing this right now very clearly in our preoccupation with colonial painting in Bolivia. It is pretty easy to imagine the power relations one hits upon in this context, why this kind of painting was implemented there, and the shock it is supposed to administer in the people and so on. At the same time, it happens that this colonial painting is integrated into celebrations and rituals. People suddenly emerge disguised as devils or angels. Weird forms of festivities and dances confront this power relation and transform it.
JR: Michel de Certeau talks about it. What he calls “ant-like activity” is the ability of individual actors in their daily lives to use external circumstances (produced by institutional power structures) in very subtly divergent ways distinguished from original purpose: that the consumers within the dominant economy tune culture in countless and endless metamorphoses of the very laws of economic exchange. The end result is a kind of micro- economy of their own interests and rules.
AC: Yes. It reminds me very much of films by Jean Rouch in which historic traumata are simply handled differently. Art has a remarkable way of getting over things.
JR: What exactly do you mean by “getting over something”?
AC: Getting over something... You are indignant towards something and you are helpless in this indignation, then you work artistically and try to get over it in some way or the other. You can call it sublimation. This sublimation, however, doesn’t emanate from a pathological state – as a kind of contemplation with a somewhat stabilizing effect on society. It rather gives you the power and energy to say no to a situation, to disagree with a situation. Art isn’t pathology. Rather, you arrive at articulating yourself through the means of art.
Often you are uncomfortable when you witness injustice or experience injustice. I think that artistic work has a possibility to overcome this form of helplessness. It is hard to articulate and reflect injustice. It is a cultural process. When taking part in a Harz-IV demonstration , you can go like “Fuck-off all of you!”... The articulation of why something is injustice and who might be involved in it is difficult, however. But it is what comes first, I think. Only afterwards you can start to talk about a process of change. But between that lies another form of action. This is where artistic work makes a lot of sense – that you reach an articulation.
JR: But you are really talking about the artist’s side of things, not the audience here? Where do you see the producers, if we distinguish between the artists who make the work in the first place and the people who look at it and deal with it in some way? For we could consider the spectator very active, too...
AC: I am not sure. Unfortunately I am on the producer’s side. Of course, when I see works that I think are good, they have a motivating effect on me. I saw this film by Jeremy Deller, The Battle of Orgreave.
JR: The Re-enactment of the clash between miners and police in 1984 in Great Britain...
AC: There are question about whether Deller is on the right side or not. That is not what interests me. The film itself is very inspiring, because it tells something about a historic reality. What is most stunning is that we hardly know anything. This always strikes me most when working in projects, that we do not know anything. When I do research on Potosi, on colonial painting, on indigene revolts in Bolivia in the 18th century, I realize that we do not know anything about all that. Nor do we compare these things: revolts in Bolivia with revolts at the same time here. For, it is the same regime. We argue about identities instead: Europe / America. This form of non-knowledge in which art takes over the specific task to mediate historical knowledge is what fascinates me. This is where I feel the urge to act.
(Thanks to Matthew Schum for the editing)