Saskia Holmkvist (artist)
in conversation with Riccardo Giacconi
First published on Flash Art Online (read)
In your work, you are concerned with the “performative aspect” in life, even in everyday life. We all play a role, we all perform, and it is hard to escape this condition. I am wondering what could be the way out. Can there be an “authentic” dimension for human life within contemporary society? Or maybe the institution of a society already implies a “performative aspect” for its members?
I believe you're right in saying that the institution of society implies a performative aspect for its members but in a different way today than let's say 20-30 years ago when other roles were performed. I believe that the more secureness a society gives to its members the more authenticity you will get. But as long as the neo liberal hegemony is prevalent in the world I don't believe that what's authentic is given space easily. Authenticity is today an ideal and we live in a form of illusion about the authentic and estimate it highly but modern society doesn't go in that direction as I see it.
I don't want to be a pessimist but I believe that todays individualistic goals as a difference to collective once hinder what's authentic. There is such a heavy focus and pressure on every individual to succeed in their private lives as well as in their careers. That pressure on individuals has given rice and acceptance for different kinds of corrections and control mechanisms that can help us out in life. Pedagogical approaches, coaches of different kinds, therapies and so on, all of which are strongly norm forming. And as it's our behaviour primarily that is being affected or worked on today one has to say that a part of that authentic individual is being lost.
Is there a relation between your work and theatre? Watching two of your your last videos (In Character and Role Control, 2008) I felt as if there was a sort of connection with the Scandinavian realism of Ibsen and Strindberg. And, in relation to what you just said, I was wondering if their “fourth wall” had anything in common with all the Big Brother phaenomenon.
TV-film and the narrative traditions around documentary film of today have to a great extent originated from the social drama and realism of Strindberg and Ibsen. So my relation to that tradition is more like a sediment as my main influences come from the tradition of documentary film and how one creates credibility around the documentary genre. I brought that relationship into my work with the actors in my latest films and mixed it with theater.
So I have actually just started my relation to theater in my latest work as it's the first time that I work with performing actors. My initial idea was to work in a similar way to what I had done before. By talking to people that work with interviewing and counceling in their professions and edit the recorded meetings into a dramaturgy of that material, a kind of doku-drama. But after a while I realized that I actually wanted to create a kind of drama and realized that it wouldn't happen with the "reality" material I had. That's how I decided to write a script from the answers I had gotten and fictionalize the narrative.
In working with the actors I was very keen on obtaining the feeling of realism and documentary as the rupture between the dramaturgy of fiction would be stronger then. I wanted the viewer to almost forget that it was actors they were watching, which is as you are saying working with realism. The films are both a blink towards theater and performing in daily life. The titles In Character and Role Control both allude to acting and role playing in society and my thought was to make it unclear weather they relate to the actors acting in the films or the roles acted out in our lives.
There were many interesting discussions with the actors on how to perform the roles in the script and we came to the conclusion that they should try to keep as close to their own way of being. But it's not as easy as it can seem, because of course they are still acting and then it's not natural to be yourself.
When it comes to Big Brother and "the fourth wall" I would say that the program is based on the same method of working that I wanted to use for my films for a start. A situation is set up on the hope that the real persons are interesting enough to edit an interesting dramaturgy from. It became problematic in my case and it is also problematic for the Big Brother phenomenon. There is no drama to start with, only a big pressure on each individual to create an interesting material for the editors. How could anyone be authentic in such a situation? It's not possible. But the world of media isn't at all interested in the authentic person only in persons that can seem authentic. The better someone is at creating the wanted image, is good for the credibility of the program. And when something is credible we believe in it as authentic. The big problem for the Big Brother phenomenon is when what is happening between the four walls isn't interesting enough. Then "the fourth wall" can't be obtained which I'm certain is the goal with these kinds of programs.
What is and what is not “interesting enough” for reality: probably this is the question of our time. The expression reality show is in itself very emblematic. Reality becomes a show; reality (as like truth) is produced through a careful process. We always have to be aware of that: this seems to be a point that you are making in your work.
What is "interesting enough" is a really hard question. But I would say that reality gets "interesting enough" when it involves us in new emotion or maybe just emotions that give us experiences or thoughts that lead on to involvement. If we take politics as an example and I'm probably influenced by the thoughts of Chantal Mouffe whom I'm reading right now. She argues that as most European political parties position them selves in the centre, social-democrats as-well as conservatives, it has created fake polemics as they are actually in consensus about most questions. People see through this and loose their engagement. If the politicians on the other hand would have positioned their views far apart, people would have to take a stand to a greater extent. Thereby they would have to involve own emotions, thoughts and arguments. And that engages.
When it comes to "reality shows" I believe that the construction of the program is linked to post-modern thoughts of deconstruction of reality. And the interest in deconstruction of reality has brought a decrease in interest for dramatised fiction. But as reality is most often quiet boring the only solution for the "reality show" concept was to bring in the advantages of fiction and dramaturgy on how to engage the viewer from a reality set-up with the help of selection, representation, delivery and so on. This kind of manipulative reality in our society has as you say been central in many of my works within different domains. I'm specially interested in aspects of credibility and trustworthiness which is an area that is severely beset or strained in today's society. It's strained because people loose faith in for example a democratic tool such as journalism when we know that media is dominated by lobbyists and pr-articles or when social professions are more and more controlled by methods for the meeting with a client or customer to control and maximise production and efficiency to the benefit of society rather than meeting the person. And here we are back at what I was saying earlier about the diminishing of authentic contact between people.
Let’s talk about interviews. One of your most well-known works is Interview with Saskia Holmkvist (2005), a sort of conceptual mise-en-abyme on the interview medium, where you hired a media relations expert to train you to deliver a short statement about your work with apparent sincerity and authority. But also all your recent works somehow seem to explore this form, in different ways. The device of the interview is very much connected with the “performative aspect” of human relations, which we were talking about before. I would like to know your take on that. Do you think an interview can be considered a challenge, a duel?
Yes, an interview will always be a challenge or duel between 2 parts according to me. 2 parts that have prepared what they want to get out of the meeting. And most of the time they don't want the same thing. That's why there exist so many interview techniques and answering techniques to be able to master the situation. The interview is a situation of limited time were the aim of the interviewer is to reveal or at least get behind a supposed facade that the interviewee is putting up. It has many similarities to a normal discussion as the techniques around interviewing depart from the critical discussion. But the interview is about creating a discussion with a point, depending on what kind of interview it is.
People that get interviewed in media are often people in official positions which means that they have training in how to master the journalist. In these interviews there is more or less always media training involved from the responding part which creates a very special kind of interview where the person being interviewed can be the one mastering the interview. But aspects of interviewing exists in a long list of professions that we don't think of at first when when we consider the word interview.
Interviewing is used by social workers, job recruiters, the police, lawyers, psychiatrists, councellors, political mediators, UN-ambassadors and all use specialised methodology in the process of meeting or interviewing people. People in these professions meet people that aren't necessarily as well prepared for the situation of the meeting or interview as someone exposed to the critical questions of journalists. But these situations have one common denominator which is very crucial for the "performative aspect" of the situation, which is that the meeting or interview will affect that persons life somehow. By that I mean that the more the interview will have an affect on your life the more you will try to prepare for the situation. And most people are aware of this so it's an act of self awareness to prepare your statement or how you want to come across, as the interviewers are doing so aswell. The interviewing techniques are constantly modified as political goals are changed but also to be able to get behind these pre-arrangements as people get more and more sophisticated at it. I mean even people working at a kindergarten are today instructed on how to tone down critical things when the media arrives. This means that every person in today's society walks around with prepared answers to be able to defend themselves, their organisation or company.
In my performative work "Interview with Saskia Holmkvist", which was my first work on interviewing made in 2005, the aim was to reflect upon the commodification of artists who are expected to deliver statements about their work for media attention. And the better you are at it the more media you will get. I have also made proper documentary interviewing in a few films and in my latest works "In Character" and "Role Control" its exactly the role-play or the faking in the interview situation that has been in focus. In an acted scene the power structures that are embedded in different forms of interviews are played out. The gap between the friendly discussion were there is no power relation to the interview and the prosecution is examined in "In Character." And in "Role Control" I was dealing with psychology related interviewing for conflict management, such as therapy in private life to social councelling and mediation in political conflicts.
Talking about the “performative” aspect of the public sphere, maybe sport is an interesting example. Some say it is a contemporary substitute for war and religion. But it can also be seen as a metaphor for our performative society. How do you see the sport phaenomenon within Western contemporary culture?
I wish it was a substitute of war and religion. But what's true is of corse that sport does engage the masses which is a very powerful position to have in society today. Becuase as fast as there is great engagement it there is a support in money. Sport has the unique constellation that it combines playfulness, commitment by young people, heroism and local patriotism in one act. It comes back to what I said earlier that when there are clear bounderies such as between teames or nations it creates stronger emotions which creates greater involvement. Anybody can almost instantly feel which team they want to support in a match or game and then just follow the drama of the game. And in teamsports it has a tendency to produce antagonistic emotions.
This drama played out is much picked up on and produced by media in collaboration with the sportsmen and women to spread the engagement even further. In that sense the sportsmen and women are like marionettes in the hands of media and investors. This is also clear now that I have been following the Olympic Games a little lately. What's interesting is how the political issues about having the Olympic Games in China are being treated in relation to the sports activities. It's 2 completely separated discussions. Sportmen and women silently agree to the top poiltics that are being played out so that they can continue their careers. They are the working class in that chain. Just as artists are the working class in the art world. To have sportsmen speaking their minds about the politics surrounding their sportsactivities would endanger the whole agreement. That's what happened to Tommie Smith and John Carlos in 1968 when they did a black power manifestation as they were awarded with medals. They were completely suspended from continuing there careers. Big sports events are a light disguise of politics and metaphors for political agreements or acceptances as in China. This hasn't escaped anyone now in China and it has been harshly critisized and although it's not being stopped. China is just too economically powerful to turn down. So China is the big winner of these games which was ofcorse the aim. Both in medals, politics and economy.
I am interested in knowing more about the way your work is informed by the institution that shows it. For example, for your exhibition at Arnolfini, one of the pieces was your Preview Talk, which you did with a media trainer, offering you advice and comments on how to present the exhibition the best way. It may seem that this practice takes its steps from the Institutional Critique approach, but in fact I think it is much more complex.
To speak of institutional critique today is very complicated as the institutions a lot of the time have taken over the role from the artists of speaking of institutional critique. It's become a way of reflecting upon ones own position as an art institution.
In most of my work dealing with institutions I've been interested in the relation between the artist, the institution and its' audience and how I in my position as an artist can alter the roles. I don't work in a drastical way. I'm more intersted in slipping in differnces into the normal cermonies of an institution. It's actually been role playing by switching the parts slightly but also by introducing new professionals as mediums into a discussion. ´Preview Talk´ was announced as a normal Preview Talk by the artist before the opening. By playing with the expectations of the audience of that situation I could problematize the role of the artist as a persona and someone who is expected to perform or talk about his or her work. Basically the hierarchy of the situation was being dismantled by talking about the work, some of the preparations, insecurenesses and so on that one works at before such a speach. In a way I was rehearsing with an audience at the premiere.
I have also done work on communication with other institutions. In 2 different projects for example I have been working with Pr companies, altering the roles by working together on the promotional ideas behind an exhibition and then exhibiting that process or as in the other case focusing on the educational departments' outreach work, rather than the artist, which is normally the person used to communicate what's going on in the institution. And in yet another work "Internship in Private" at Shedhalle in Zurich I invited the staff of the institution and 3 of their former interns to go and see a psychiatrist. I was interested in the problems around unpayed labour and the debate of Generation Praktikum (http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generation_Praktikum). The sessions were filmed and the psychiatrist was instructed to talk to each person about their relation at work and expectations of the situation when working together during the short period of 3 month of an internship. My intention was to get close to how they dealt with the politics in their work on a personal level. It was clear that the situation was quiet frustrating for both sides. More evident for the interns who are in a vulnerable situation and more surprising how the curators were torn between feeling guilt and feeling fed up with repeating the same thing every 3 month to the next intern.
What are your plans for the future?
Well, over the year 2007-2008 I have produced 4 new works of which all are quiet longterm projects so now I'm going into some research and time to reflect. I have 2 commisions but they are both in 1 years time so I still have time. I have a 2 month residency at the moment in Belgium and I try to leave all ideas open at the moment which is a very fortunate situation. It's great to have the freedom of time. I have a few books that I have been wanting to read for a while also.
But of course I will continue to investigate social structures and I'm interested in discovering new combinations of staged discussions and real ones. I'm also interested in bringing in more political issues and the dynamics between people when it comes to political questions as this is a big interest of mine which hasn't been represented in my work so much before. Just slightly now in Role Control. But this is something I'm quite sure I will develop more in the future.