The extra, the ornament and having a long lie-in

250 Not all artists are comfortable in their environment and Koen Theys (1963) is a case in point. He was ahead of his time with some works; others failed to fit into existing categories. If they weren’t visual art and they weren’t film, what were they? It was difficult to know what to make of his 1980s videotapes, for there was nothing else like them in Flanders. And even Theys’ later works were not easily categorized. In a nutshell, they are visual productions in their own right, which suggest a broad cultural interest often against a background of media-theoretical questions.
Besides his many notable video productions, in the last twenty years Theys has produced scores of photographic works, objects and installations, and he has even acted as organizer and spokesman for other artists. Each work or activity relates to another. A retrospective is well overdue.

His first trashy and sometimes frankly violent videotapes stand squarely in the tradition of punk. They are reminiscent of works which sprang to fame at the end of the 1970s by ‘garage artists’ like Paul McCarthy, Mike Kelley and Tony Oursler and by Metro Pictures artists like Robert Longo, Jack Goldstein and Troy Brauntuch. Together with the original punk movement these artists showed that trash and violence could no longer be translated into conventional representations. The representation had to be represented again, as Dan Graham wrote.
Theys also looked for new forms to express his fascination with powerful ideograms for ‘re-presentations’ of myths, sex, repression and authority. In this way Theys and other artists gave expression to the loss of reality in a world in which everything is visualized.

In the ambitious videos he began producing in the mid-1980s, Theys’ ‘cultural negativity’ is a cross between pastiche and parody. The grotesque – for Theys first and foremost a visual application of the Nietzschean expression “Without cruelty there is no festival” – was here to stay in his work. He frequently uses reversals, distortions, duplications and reflections, and not least extravagant, ornamental forms. Theys’ dramatic narrations are often brutally comical. In the 1980s European and American visual art was dominated by a sense of weariness. Is it now only possible to negotiate an intellectual and material luxury like the ‘production’ of art while chuckling? Koen Theys likes to chuckle and he chuckles a lot.

This type of approach is not new in the story of ‘Belgian’ art. Just think of James Ensor, René Magritte, Marcel Broodthaers, Roger Raveel, Jef Geys, Jacques Charlier, Jacques Lizène, Luc Deleu and Guillaume Bijl. To those visual accounts of the problematic situation of visual art and of the visual artist Theys adds components from the world of analogue and digital media. He is genuinely interested in mass culture, the amateur artist and the world of spectacle. In his video opera based on Wagner’s ‘Ring’ cycle, the torture chambers and horror scenes from his first videotapes become spaces for art as in early-Renaissance panels. With the help of video techniques, in them he experiments with human material with complete abandon and strict logic.

Apart from the reckless visual associations Theys manages to create, the video epic ‘Lied van Mijn Land’ (Song of my Land, 1984-1989) is really his ‘coming-of-age’ work. ‘Lied van Mijn Land’ is not only a classic opera for and by young people, it is also an act of defiance. Theys literally and figuratively abuses the – inadequate – cultural infrastructure available to artists in Flanders at the time. Wagner’s world of gods is deployed by way of a statement about the challenge, responsibility and difficulty of making art for both the artist and his environment. To this day that theme runs like a thread through Theys’ visual work.

We meet on a terrace at a marina near Brussels to discuss his work then and now. The noise of excavation work encroaches. The traffic on the nearby motorway roars past. There could scarcely be a more fitting environment to discuss Theys’ bizarre visual stories.

Three years later we meet again and continue our conversation on another terrace in Brussels. In the meantime I have moved from Munich to London. Theys has a new home with studio in Brussels and has developed a real knack for getting his work financed. Europe is in recession. Theys’ new works are a wonderful reflection of the time: they visualize the age of the internet, of the Homo Precarius, of the loss of politics and the decline of demos.

Crime 01

Chris Dercon: 'Crime 01' was your first work, wasn’t it?

Koen Theys: Or at least what I think of as my first official work. I was fascinated by two amateur ‘pastoral’ films of Adolf Hitler: one of him with his German shepherd dog Blondi on the terrace of the Eagle’s Nest at Berchtesgaden, and another film showing Eva Braun bathing naked at a waterfall. I used them as the starting point for a couple of videos, and later on they provided the basis for lots of other works.

CD: Why the title ‘Crime 01’?

KT: At the time I was squatting in an empty property with a few other students from the art academy in Ghent. The squat was to be our workshop and to celebrate our new ‘acquisition’, we put on an exhibition. For my contribution I wanted to make a work featuring a German shepherd dog as a response to Hitler’s film. I went along to the dogs’ home and by chance they had just put down two German shepherds. I said I wanted to have them stuffed for a drawing class and I was given both. Once I had them, I exhibited them on a gallows in our squat. At the opening I did a performance in which I hacked off the dogs’ heads and legs and draped them round a baby like a still life. Later on I made it into a hat-stand, with the caption ‘My honour is called loyalty’. A video recording was made of the performance and I was really pleased with it. But as a result of that action, I was sent down from the academy. That’s why I regard it as my first official work.

CD: Did you see it as a snuff film or as a ritual?

KT: The tape has been called ‘the snuff film of video art’ because of the brutal black and white film style. As I wore a Disney dog mask during the performance, it is seen as having an affinity with the performances of Paul McCarthy – who I didn’t yet know. Some have compared the action to the work of Hermann Nitsch, but for me 'Crime 01' had nothing to do with Nitsch’s purification rituals. The video shows a baby lying between two dogs’ heads, which could be seen as new life after death or after a sacrificial act, because the baby is lying there like a Christmas child between Joseph and Mary. But for me it was more about the suggestion – like at the end of a horror film – that after the death of the monster, evil could return like a cyclical process.

CD: Art as a crime and a means to exercising power?

KT: I was brought up with the idea that art and culture are the highest good on Earth. But while I was studying at the art academy in Ghent in the early 1980s, that image became somewhat tainted. I began to understand that culture could also stand for manipulation and the expression of power. What was presented in art as beautiful and idealistic could be made for very different reasons. I wanted to illustrate this principle in a Faustian or Nietzschean way – for example, by presenting a concentration camp in the form of the Sistine Chapel, or vice versa. So art as a crime and a means to exercising power. That’s also how I wanted 'Crime 01' to be understood. In the end art is always recuperated through power, despite the efforts of artists in the past to get away from that. So it would be better to think of recuperation as the starting point for art, in its negativity.

'Diana': video and negativity

KT: I felt that video and new media would be a much more efficient way of expressing an awareness of negativity than more traditional disciplines.

CD: The negativity with which Adorno discussed the tension between high and low culture?

KT: Yes, for example. In those years I was preoccupied with all that. But also because you subscribe more positively to tradition with those classical disciplines. New media on the other hand, like photography, film and video, have caused a much greater rift with tradition than modernism has. They have created a distance between the maker and the work, between the medium and the image and I was interested in that distance, that alienation.

After being excluded from the art academy, I realized I was not cut out for any traditional art course in Belgium and so I began studying film instead of sculpture. I was very opposed to the capitalization of the traditional, unique artwork and only wanted to make reproducible work. At film school my work was regarded as too ‘artistic’, but at least they let me get on with it. The first videotape I made there was 'Diana', an interpretation of the Hitler film with Eva Braun and a sequel to 'Crime 01'.

For the Greeks Diana (or Artemis) was the goddess of fertility and of war. For the Romans – and this is perhaps a synthesis of the two – she was the goddess of hunting. It was this ambiguity, the idea of fertility and war in one and the same figure that interested me. In-between images of a naked actress, who seems to float with bow and arrow over the bunker landscape of Normandy, I edited archive images from the Second World War alongside footage I had filmed on a shooting weekend in the Ardennes. I worked on black and white Super 8 film, which I then colorized in the video studio at the academy I had been thrown out of. The technician, Didier Leroy, let me in through a back door outside opening hours.

CD: 'Diana' was suddenly an international success. You won several prizes for it and the Museum of Modern Art in New York even bought it!

KT: Yes, I couldn’t have wished for a sweeter revenge after being thrown out of the academy!

CD: ‘Diana’ is very cinematic. How does it relate to visual art? Was it conceived from the standpoint of a film-maker or a visual artist?

KT: That is a conflict I wrestled with for years. Should I go on thinking of my work as visual art, and so distribute it through more traditional channels such as galleries and museums? Or should I opt for outlets which are more typical of video, such as television, cinemas and festivals? The use of video was my way of standing on the sideline of both visual art and mass media. As both a maker and commentator. But it was an existential artistic conflict. Only later did I come to understand that you can only think of art from the perspective of art, whatever form it takes.

CD: But perhaps that conflict was actually the essence?

KT: I see the conflict between art and mass media, or between our so-called higher and lower culture, as a very interesting dramatic subject and it is an important theme in my work.

CD: In modernism attempts were made to remove that conflict by drawing a clear dividing line between the two. People wanted definite solutions, whereas of course they don’t exist.

KT: The only solution is to accept the conflict, the drama.

CD: ‘Accept the drama’? Is that what led you to Wagner?

KT: In a sense, yes. At any rate, exploring the idea of power in art through Wagner seemed to me a logical next step. Moreover, his opera cycle ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’ is built up around two protagonists in whom I recognized my own dilemma. On the one hand, there is the supreme god Wotan, the personification of a higher, traditional culture who still represents a certain morality. On the other hand, there is Alberich who personifies the newer world of money, nihilism and decadence and wants to use it to challenge Wotan’s power.

Money can be seen as the first mass medium. For the ancient Greeks its origin had the same consequences for culture as what Walter Benjamin would later describe in ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ as the decline of the aura. Money first appeared in the outer provinces of Greece where it was issued as payment for the soldiers and that is also where the first secular philosophers came from, namely the Pre-Socratic natural philosophers. Those early coins bore effigies of a cart, a donkey or a god and they could be exchanged for, for example, a bag of potatoes. This came as a huge shock, because before that images of gods were preserved in temples, in places only accessible to priests. The images could only be seen during ceremonies and were venerated as if they were the gods themselves. Just as today some people still believe that the Virgin Mary really does live in a weeping statue of her.

So suddenly everyone could have five Apollos in his bag to exchange for something else. A greater twilight of the gods is almost unthinkable. Those coins were also the first mass products, the first mass medium, intended for widespread distribution. That’s why in our video adaptation – I made that work with my brother Frank Theys – the gold or the money was replaced by the television screen. After all, the mechanism is the same. With that fundamental change in the scenario, the friction in the story was immediately apparent: the problem of transferring a work of art like the ‘Ring’ to television.

CD: You were just twenty-two when you started work on Wagner’s ‘Ring des Nibelungen’. How did you imagine you would ever get it off the ground?

KT: With hindsight it was of course an absurd undertaking. But the initial intention had been to make a short video. However, we had so many ideas we wanted to pack into it that it got longer and longer. So the production is one big patchwork of large and small financial and infrastructural contributions. At the time, the Belgian government didn’t regard video art as a serious art form because it didn’t represent economic power and so there were no subsidies we could apply for. We had to be very creative in coming up with ways of financing it.

For example, we set up a division of the cultural department of the Socialist trade union, specialized in making videos. Of course the main department knew nothing about our Wagner project. We told them we wanted to make a video about the class struggle, which was not completely untrue because, for one thing, Ernest Hemingway once wrote a Marxist interpretation of the ‘Ring’.

However, the largest contribution came from Ronny Courtens, who ran a porn studio in Kortrijk. At a technology fair for montage studios, a firm had given us permission to use their equipment free of charge for a day. The owner of that firm was interested in our work because we were able to get more out of his machines than he had ever dreamt of. The firm produced mainly pornographic videos, but at weekends when there was no activity, we were allowed to work on our project there. So for three years my brother and I spent every weekend in that studio. We were let in on the Friday evening and worked flat-out on our video editing and visual compositions until the Monday morning. Without sleeping. Every image was put together from many different layers, which also had to be synchronized with the music. There was no computer and so everything had to be done by hand.

CD: Quite an appropriate method for a porn studio!

KT: Yes! (laughs) We had to do pretty well everything ourselves. But thanks to the support of a couple of individuals – patrons in the true sense of the word – we did manage to finish our videos. The conservative Flemish broadcaster was not interested of course, but thanks to Jean-Paul Tréfois, the producer of video art programmes on the RTBF, Belgium’s French-language broadcaster, we were able to finish off the sound mixing in a professional way with the help of technicians. While at the studio we were not allowed to say what we were doing there, because nobody was to know that work by Flemish artists was being produced at a French-language network. That’s why the RTBF never transmitted the first part, ‘Das Rheingold’, even though they were the coproducer. But the second part ‘Die Walküre’ was transmitted twice and at prime time. One and a half hours of experimental video on national television at 8 o’clock on a Sunday evening! That would be quite unthinkable today.

No more video art

CD: After that you stopped making art videos for quite a long time, didn’t you?

KT: The Wagner tapes were shown internationally in just about every major museum, art institute, art house and video festival, and we hoped that as a result we would obtain the Belgian government’s recognition of video art, but we didn’t succeed. There was no government support and there was a complete lack of infrastructure. Galleries weren’t yet interested either. You were pretty well the only curator here prepared to espouse video art, but then in 1988 you moved to New York.

At the same time the end of the 80s, beginning of the 90s brought a revolution in terms of media. First and foremost on a technical level with the switch from analogue to digital television. Video studios began working with complex computer-controlled systems, which they were unwilling to let artists loose on. Cable television also arrived on the scene, which meant that public broadcasters like the RTBF had to compete with commercial channels. They had to work in a more populist manner and pulled the plug on video art. All the television stations which had produced video art stopped producing it around that time. For all those reasons – lack of infrastructure, the digitalization of editing systems and the commercialization of television stations – video art was almost completely wiped out worldwide at the end of the 80s, beginning of the 90s.

It had taken us five years to make the first two parts of the ‘Ring’ cycle and so it would take at least another five years to finish the remaining two. The storyboards for the third and fourth parts were largely complete, but I no longer saw their execution as a real artistic challenge. I knew it would only prove to be a productional Calvary. And I thought it would be more exciting to start something new, something I didn’t yet know the outcome of.

After finishing the score of ‘Die Walküre’, a shortage of money forced Wagner to stop work on the ‘Ring’. Given the impossibility of getting our opera produced in Belgium, my brother and I decided to make a statement by following Wagner’s example and, like him, stopping after the second part. As it turned out, Wagner met Ludwig II of Bavaria and was contracted to complete the ‘Ring’. No such royal commission has come our way as yet! (laughs)

So my brother went into the theatre and I concentrated on my sculptural work. But we still went on doing everything we could to get video accepted as an art form in Flanders so that at least a younger generation would have the benefit of resources. For example, with a few friends we set up Argos, a centre for video and new media art in Brussels. We started out in my brother’s kitchen with the acquisition of a computer, a telephone and a cupboard from IKEA to keep the tapes in. That centre is now one of the most innovative of its kind in Europe, even if it took years for the Flemish government to recognize its importance.

Sculptures and photomontages about the public

CD: How did that transition from your Wagner tapes to your new sculptural work come about?

KT: Actually I never stopped making sculptures and installations. Whenever I got a commission, I would use my fee to finance new footage for the Wagner adaptation. In fact, I saw those three-dimensional works as studies for the tetralogy. But the sculptures I made after that took the end of the ‘Ring’ as their starting point.

Let me explain briefly. Wagner regarded the ‘Ring’ as a metaphorical account of the history of Western culture in four stages. The first part, ‘Das Rheingold’, is a metaphor for classical antiquity with the introduction of money. The second part, ‘Die Walküre’, can be seen as a metaphor for the Middle Ages with the debate about predestination versus free will. The third part, ‘Siegfried’, stands for modernity with modern man having freed himself of all the old ties such as his relationship with the gods. And in the fourth part, ‘Götterdämmerung’, modern man falls prey to decadence and dies. So at the end both the gods and the heroes are dead, and only the people are left, abandoned to their fate.

We conceived the third part, featuring the modernistic hero Siegfried, as an abstract collage in which many of the video images would be generated purely electronically by the sound itself. So the story would unfold literally within the electronics of the medium. Then in the fourth and last part, a metaphor for postmodernism, Siegfried would step out of that electronic world into the real world where, as an avant-garde artist, he would be invited to come and discuss his work in a talk show. That’s why we wanted to film the whole of that last part according to the rules of the multi-camera technique, with an audience in the studio and ‘the whole works’. The idea was to make the opposite of what was understood by video art at the time. And we would turn Wagner’s music into a schmaltzy pop song. We would have the characters who die in the opera ‘knocked out’ as in a television quiz. And at the end only the audience would be left looking at itself on the large video screens in the studio... For me that last image was the most important, with the audience on the stage and in the studio, and so looking at itself.

CD: That was brilliantly staged in Patrice Chéreau’s performance of the ‘Ring’ in Bayreuth in 1980. A great crowd of people assembles by the apron of the stage and looks the audience straight in the eyes.

KT: The one is the mirror of the other. There is little difference between the two, yet great tension is created.

CD: Like in that 1977 work by Dan Graham, ‘Performer/Audience Mirror’.

KT: Indeed, even if the Wagner-Dan Graham combination is not an obvious one of course. But for me that image was the essence of what I understood by postmodernism. The gods were dead, the avant-garde hero was dead and all that was left was the audience in the studio looking at the audience on the stage, and vice versa. That idea gave rise to my new sculptures and photo-collages. So I needed Wagner to arrive at Dan Graham! (laughs)

CD: Can you say a little more about those sculptures?

KT: They were frames, windows or loopholes which had the effect of splitting the audience in two. The viewer was both viewer and viewed. They were rather like television screens that absorbed the world around them. They were like a wedge in the middle of the space and were more for looking through than for being looked at.

Years later I took that idea in a different direction in the ‘Meeting William Wilson’ project. I invited a hundred identical twins to the opening of an exhibition at the Dhondt-Dhaenens Museum in Deurle. They were asked to dress identically and to stay together all the time, mingling with the ‘real’ visitors to the exhibition. It was wonderful to see the real visitors’ reaction on entering; they thought there was nothing on show until they suddenly saw all those doubles. Some people were totally bewildered, others were driven mad by the optical effect confronting them. You can see that clearly in the video I made of it.

CD: Your photo-collages were much more baroque than your sculptures. How did they relate to each other?

KT: In a sense the photo-collages were the opponents of the sculptures. The visual material I used for them consisted of what I imagined took place within the framework of those sculptures. For example, the public dropping by. In the beginning I translated this literally, as in the series ‘Composities met Mensen’ (Compositions with People) in which I reproduced on paper the form of some sculptures and then stuck photographs onto them of crowds of people of various kinds. Later on those crowds took other forms, as in the series of photo-collages of Belgian houses and academy artworks. They were always groups or families of certain objects which I brought together as in a collection until you had a great mass which you could imagine might reproduce ad infinitum.

CD: Marcel Broodthaers’ ‘art as production as production’ as his reaction to Kosuth’s statement ‘Art as Idea as Idea’?

KT: Yes, Broodthaers has been very important to me. And in fact I saw those collages of Belgian houses as a metaphor for the production of contemporary art in general because diverse styles randomly placed side by side are typical of house-building in Belgium. Modernistic houses next to rustic, Swiss chalets next to Spanish haciendas, etc. as each owner tries to express his personality. But at the end of the day all those individual buildings look sad and impersonal. It makes me think of what Andy Warhol said: if everyone could choose freely, in the end everyone would choose the same thing. A little house with a garden in front and then the addition of a light personal touch. I feel the same when I go to an art fair. Those stacks of diverse individual expressions fill me with sadness. I may well be interested in some individual works, but I find the idea of that general production much more interesting.

The artist as curator

So I try and look at things from a distance so as to get an overview. However, my starting point is always the position of ‘image-maker’ in the midst of other image-makers. Gilles Deleuze would say: nose to ass in the middle of a pack of wolves. But from there I try and zoom out so as to get an overall view of all those image-makers together. And even when I make a small photo-collage, I still approach it like a curator trying to bring separate things together within a whole.

CD: Broodthaers again!

KT: Yes, Broodthaers was the first artist to adopt the standpoint of curator. He didn’t believe artists should leave the whole choreography of exhibitions to curators, because that way they might just end up as walk-ons, as extras in someone else’s script. And I think that that problem is even more topical today. At any rate, I am conscious that I, too, am just an extra among the other extras in that pack of artists. I believe it is important to consider that pack in its entirety, but at the same time to consider my work from the position of that pack.

CD: Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari discussed it in their book 'Mille Plateaux - Capitalisme et schizophrénie'. Multiplicity in thinking …

KT: When I came across that book in a bookshop at the end of the 80s, I had never heard of Deleuze or Guattari, but I was drawn to the subtitle ‘Capitalisme et Schizophrénie’. I saw my own situation as an artist as schizophrenic. You are engaged in immaterial, spiritual things, but then you have to try and sell them in a materialistic, anti-spiritual system.

Multiplicity in thinking: new videos

CD: At a certain point you started working with video again, didn’t you?

KT: By the mid-90s home computers were powerful enough to generate video images. And even a studio of your own became affordable. For those first computer-generated videos I used photographs as the basic material. I animated them by for example having the image glide past, or having one photo merge with another using morphing techniques. I still didn’t have a video camera and, what is more, I had been thinking in static images for years. That’s how I gradually reintroduced movement into my work. On top of that, I had to get to grips with working with a computer.

So in those first videos I placed static images one behind the other, without a story line. The viewer moves through them as he would walk through an exhibition. And really all my videos since then have been built up according to the narrative structure of an exhibition. In fact my very first computer-generated video installation was called ‘Expo Champêtre’. It was a montage based on photographs of all the artworks I had ever made, so a sort of retrospective exhibition. But then one in which all the objects come into view and slowly move past, as if scattered over a vast landscape through which you are driving. There are also tourist coaches driving through that landscape, and as a viewer you feel you are sitting in one of them. The landscape consists of a large white plain, like a vast expanse of snow, in which the objects are shown in perspective. The white is a nod to the white cube, but then a virtual cube, which has no end.

CD: You see that work as rounding off a particular period. How did it differ from what came next?

KT: It is not that a revolution took place in my work. I started working digitally with my photo-collages in 1993, but by that time computer technology had developed so much that it was no longer restrictive. Consequently, I could actually choose to work with a computer. But I am definitely not a technology buff who doesn’t think you can still make relevant art with older media. However, I do think that by working with the resources of your time, you stand a better chance of getting to the essence of that time. Moreover, by working in the virtual digital world, I could adopt a more independent attitude to the art market.

CD: In ‘Expo Champêtre’ you lined up all the works you had ever made. Literally. But it didn’t really matter what the works were because individually they were barely recognizable.

KT: They were interchangeable extras. I was more interested in the image as a whole than in putting the spotlight on my individual works. I took this a step further In ‘Busby Berkeley’s Village’. Busby Berkeley was a Hollywood film director from the 1920s and 30s who made a name for himself with his musicals featuring lavish ballets with scores of or even hundreds of girls. Those girls didn’t necessarily need to be able to dance well, so long as they were the right size and could move an arm or a leg at the right moment. All those arms and legs together formed an ornamental entity, often in the form of a flower. But then a flower with the mechanical discipline of an army. In ‘Busby Berkeley’s Village’ I also used a whole variety of uniform objects as basic material: street furniture of the sort you find in any city in the world - lampposts, benches and rubbish bins – but also public artworks – mainly abstract bronze trash. They all provided a sort of international uniformity. So ‘The Global Village’ but then à la Hollywood.

Mass ornament

CD: You had already incorporated Busby Berkeley-like compositions into earlier works. I am thinking for example of the famous Ride of the Valkyries from your Wagner tapes, with sex dolls flying around and girls in mini-skirts with shaved heads.

KT: I gradually began to bring together all the themes from my previous work. I also discovered Siegfried Kracauer’s text about the mass ornament which enabled me to place my way of working in a wider historical context. Kracauer describes the phenomenon of the Tiller Girls, the predecessors of Busby Berkeley’s ballets. He gained aesthetic pleasure from the abstract formations the dancers’ bodies produced. Unlike other intellectuals of his time, who regarded this genre as vulgar popular entertainment, Kracauer saw it as the expression of the modern era par excellence. The dancers were only too happy to perform their role as cogs in the factory wheel. Modernism on the other hand regarded ornamentation as the great enemy; take for example the slogan ‘Ornament und Verbrechen’ (Ornament and Crime). But Kracauer saw things differently. The ornament became the objective in these ballets, pure abstraction, the human body abandoning itself to the technological utopia of its time.

CD: Ornamental ballets were also performed at the time of Louis XIV, with the king looking down from his balcony on the dancers in the courtyard below.

KT: Even the Marquis de Sade would have written a similar sort of ballet. So it seems this way of looking at people does have something to do with the idea of distance and the sense of power it evokes. Foucault discusses this in his book ‘Discipline and Punish’ (Surveiller et punir). And not long after De Sade, Napoleon choreographed his troops in a similar way – an idea I developed in the video ‘Waterloo Forever!’ The dancers, actors and soldiers were stripped of their individuality to be just colour, form or pawn in a larger choreography. I like to compare this to the way Thomas Hobbes saw his ideal authoritarian state: as a Leviathan, a monster made up of lots of little people.

The use of film makes that distance even greater of course. In the 1930s you start to see the mass ornament appear in large-scale popular film productions by the three political power groups of the time: Eisenstein’s ‘Potemkin’ in Communist Russia, Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘Triumph des Willens’ in Nazi Germany and the musicals of Busby Berkeley in capitalist America. I drew inspiration from those films to construct similar ballets using video. I started from photographs or found footage. This resulted in ‘Mouvement Académique’, ‘Mediastudien (nach Heinrich Hoffmann)’, ‘Ornamente des Willens’, ‘Starring’, ‘Painting with Picasso’ ‘The Dynamite Show’, etc.

CD: But you wouldn’t associate the characters you presented in them with a crowd: film stars, Adolf Hitler, Pablo Picasso, etc.

KT: They are all people on the other side of the crowd. But by making them part of an ornamental ballet, I wanted to create a reversal. Just as Andy Warhol took stars and reproduced them as an industrial product. This worked really well with the images of Hitler. I based them on photographs taken in a studio by his private photographer Heinrich Hoffmann and animated them using the morphing technique. By duplicating the images electronically, I obtained ballet-like compositions with different Hitlers. The photographs were taken in 1927, so before Hitler came to power. He used them to practise poses he thought might come in useful during public appearances. So if he was a precursor in something, it was in the way he went in for media training, which these days is the norm for politicians.


CD: There is something spectacular about many of those works, or they use spectacle. I am thinking of ‘The Dynamite Show’, ‘The Vanitas Record’ and also ‘The Final Countdown’.

KT: After Guy Debord sooner or later you do have to give an account of it. In these works I wanted the spectacular to be over the top. For ‘The Dynamite Show’ I purchased hundreds of explosions from special effects studios in Hollywood. I then used them to make compositions, a ballet of explosions. Putting together the sound tape was quite a challenge. I had collected thousands of recordings of cannon shots, rifle shots and explosions which I edited down to forty sounds and layered them one on top of the other to achieve exactly the right pitch for a specific explosion. When this work is shown somewhere, I send the instructions with it: “Play it loud! Project it big!” It requires a robust sound installation so that the gallery walls start to vibrate and the public gets a gentle internal massage. Consequently, of course, the opportunities for showing it are limited and people always try and negotiate the sound volume. But I want to push up the spectacular so much that physically it is barely possible to look at it.

In ‘The Vanitas Record’, too, I explored the spectacular, but then from its opposite. Small vanitas paintings are some of the most intimate works in the history of art. They suggest modesty and condemn seduction of the public through spectacle. But I blew this idea up to ‘the largest vanitas still life in the world’!

The work first existed as a huge installation, twenty metres long, twelve metres wide and four metres high, and on top of it I placed more than twenty tons of books, hundreds of candles, clocks and clock radios and 125 skulls. Throughout the exhibition 22,000 live snails crawled over the still life. They ate the books and left behind a trail of slime. The installation served as the basis for the video for which I used 35mm film so as to do justice to the ciaroscuro of the original paintings.

CD: Towards the end images appear of a great hoard of journalists who seem to be at your opening.

KT: I wanted to establish a link between the crawling snails and the teeming journalists with their flashing cameras so as to drive up the spectacle even further. After all, in many ways the two antennas on the television cameras at the back bear a resemblance to the feelers of snails. But of course that great hoard of journalists was not filmed during my opening. At the time I listened to the radio for weeks on end to find out if there was some mediagenic event taking place somewhere in Europe on which lots of camera teams would descend. That’s how I found myself attending, for example, the last days of the trial of Michel Dutroux in Aarlen, several reconstructions of Michel Fourniret’s kidnappings and why I was outside the hospital in Paris after the announcement of Arafat’s death. But each time something went wrong on site making the footage unusable. Either the light was not good enough, or there were too many members of the public in among the camera crews. Or on one occasion, the journalists were standing in a wood so that the images couldn’t be linked to my still life.

At a certain point I learnt that Georges Bush was coming to the NATO headquarters in Brussels. All the European heads of state were there too: Blair, Schröder, Berlusconi,... So enough media people to provide some usable footage. To get good shots of the camera teams, wherever possible, I had to go and stand on the side where the politicians were. Berlusconi was just a few steps away from me and I still vividly remember his face. He couldn’t understand why a camera wasn’t directed at him!

CD: Do you see your work as political?

KT: Not in the usual sense, for I believe that the politics of art lies mainly in its form and not necessarily in the subject. When the subject becomes more important than the form, sooner or later you end up with social realism.

So, in my view, in art you can only approach politics from negativity. I regard Santiago Sierra as one of the few really good political artists alive today. At least he doesn’t go about things as a disguised missionary, but continues the tradition of minimal art. So his work is closely related to the mass ornament. After all, minimal art is not so very different from Busby Berkeley’s ballets. Only Donald Judd, Dan Flavin and Carl Andre used uniform, industrially-made objects instead of uniform girls, or – in Santiago Sierra’s case – social outcasts.

Coffee break

CD: These days politics in art is increasingly taking the form of a culture of participation. We are seeing so-called ‘coffee breaks’ in visual art. More and more discussions, symposia, conferences…
KT: Sometimes these ‘coffee breaks’ are also regarded as artistic happenings in their own right. Anton Vidokle writes about them in ‘Art without Artists’. He says that curators and institutions are increasingly developing their own artistic practices by contextualizing as art things not normally considered part of the vocabulary of art. He shows how as a result the space of art is being shrunk, rather than its borders opened up.
CD: And visual art is considered a form of cultural production alongside other cultural products. With the difference that almost anything goes in art: chefs are brought in, fashion designers, pop stars…

KT: That’s what I wanted to pick up on in the work ‘The Many Things Show’. I felt it was time to dust off Joseph Kosuth’s text ‘Art after Philosophy’ and I used him as the structure. In that text Kosuth tries in a Wittgensteinian way to demarcate the borders within which art can function, taking the readymade as his starting point. Since that text appeared, the situation of art has of course changed quite considerably. So I had him read out by a female advertising voice, as if she was singing the praises of the images I was showing. They are all ready-made photographs which I downloaded from the internet. Illustrations of people posing with an object in front of the camera as if their personality depends on that object. It took me three years to find the illustration which literally comes closest to each phrase of the text. But despite that literalness, the result of course was one great cacophony of images in which you get tied up in knots about what can be understood by art.

The internet as mass ornament

CD: You have made several works based on images taken from the internet, haven’t you?

KT: YouTube and Facebook are vast mass ornaments. They provide a basic structure that allows people to share their ‘stuff’ with others. So people slot into existing structures. Those who designed those structures on the internet which others want to be part of now wield the power. Once that mechanism was set in motion, the Mark Zuckerbergs of this world only had to look on from a distance as everyone signed up to these structures as extras. That’s why I find the YouTube contributions in which people express their most intimate feelings or put the spotlight on themselves in some alternative way, the most painful, but also the most interesting. There are lots of similarities here with the way group exhibitions of contemporary art function.
‘The Final Countdown’ is the first work I made using short clips like that. It shows thousands of shots of people interpreting the well-known pop song ‘The Final Countdown’ by the band Europe. They play the tune on the piano or guitar, in a brass band or symphony orchestra or just sing along at the top of their voices in packed sports stadiums. The installation uses the form of a triptych. The final image shows a screaming crowd in a dark stadium, as if in hell, and in the middle just the conductor illuminated like a god in a Last Judgment painting.
I had collected a total of over 130 hours of basic material. It was one of the most difficult montages I have ever made, because the sound tape also had to be musically interesting, despite the sometimes very poor quality of the original films. Some video extracts I used separately, individually, but I put together more than a hundred others, mosaic-fashion. They all had to be synchronized musically. It was quite a job, I can tell you!

The Homo Precarius

CD: Today the distinction between work and leisure-time, between paid and unpaid work, has pretty well disappeared; not least in the world of culture. The Homo Ludens has become a Homo Faber and Homo Precarius. Just as people upload films of themselves on YouTube, so too creative people often make themselves available literally and figuratively to institutions in the hope that it will lead to permanent employment. But this form of cooperation often results in further exploitation and self-exploitation.

KT: In our craving for recognition we do indeed fall into the trap of the institutions to which we defer. Ever since there have been museums for contemporary art and so the topicality of art has coincided with its own consecration and conservation, artists have had to subject themselves to those structures. A schizophrenic situation.

CD: The biggest problem is the availability of people. People are always available and constantly make themselves available. It is difficult to imagine that such individuals or groups would be the ideal producers and recipients of criticism. However, they are not only artists and art-lovers, but also academics, designers, publishers, journalists and the ‘free bloggers’. Interestingly enough, the latter get younger and younger.

KT: In the past art has subjected itself to the existing power structures. And where it didn’t do that, it ended up strengthening those structures. Hans Magnus Enzensberger wrote about how artistic opposition to capitalism breathed new life into that capitalism. Those, on the other hand, who are not prepared to subject themselves have to set up their own structures. So as an artist or intellectual, you could create your own website, your own magazine, your own record label, etc.

CD: These days everything is called ‘creative employment’. Perhaps it can be understood as a silent agreement by both left and right-wing political parties to stimulate and justify that self-exploitation. People work with enthusiasm because almost nobody earns anything from it. So we now have an army of hyper-enthusiasts, aged from 7 to 77 – like the target group of the Ravensburger party games –, who often don’t know which social group they belong to or what they should call themselves. The person able to control them through, for example, a party political programme or an economic model, has the power. Yet in the field of culture we see few if any individuals or groups studying tactics of resistance, as suggested by Paolo Virno and others.

KT: It is the structures that no longer shoulder their responsibility. Newspapers, magazines and television suppress everything that smacks of intellectualism or art that is too difficult. But the art institutions themselves are also suffering from the lure of populism. In the 1980s museums started imitating television through ever faster, topical programming.

Museums are now beginning to imitate the internet. Anyone and everyone can share their ‘stuff’ in a ‘democratic’ way within the structure of exhibition spaces. For example, the public can choose which works from a collection should go on show. Or exhibitions are organized where everyone in the region who calls himself an artist is allocated a square meter to present his work, alongside thousands of others. And if consideration is given to a serious exhibition concept, the curator plays the artist by exhibiting his own installations.

Fortunately, these are still exceptions, but I do believe we are going to see more and more of this participative culture in the future. And the artist and intellectual is there looking on. He is sidelined or seen as on a par with the amateur. The structure is the most important, and what is installed in it is up for grabs. The artist may be there acting as DJ or pouring drinks. Or he seeks refuge in the art market where as a cynic he can caricature the manipulation of that market. Oddly enough it is the art market which from its more conservative position still reserves a place for the artist and where more conservation is done than in the museums themselves.

CD: The image of the zombie comes closest to that new artist or intellectual. The zombie or ‘non-dead’ is not the embodiment of evil, but rather of the suffering which persists in a bizarre way in his sacrifice and exudes interminable sadness. The melancholic dead return because they were not buried in the proper manner. The zombie cannot stop suffering and that is why he is so angry. Angry with himself. He pursues his victims in the bizarre belief that he can be set free by their life energy. The processions of zombies are known for their interminable sadness which has an almost comical effect. The return of the dead proves that they have not found their place in the existing order. In recent years zombies have regularly appeared in your work. I’m thinking of ‘Last Man Walking’ and ‘The River’.

KT: They are indeed zombies. People from another world who are no longer at home here. They cannot stop; they have to keep moving, even if they don’t know where they are going.

CD: People should learn to question that availability. To say no.

KT: Like after the banking crisis people refused to open another bank account. But without an account you are seen as a vagrant and you can’t function socially. It would take everyone to refuse to open an account to bring about change. Until that happens those structures are sacrosanct.

CD: Yet a bank doesn’t necessarily need to be something pejorative. The basic idea of a bank can make a positive social contribution.

KT: Just as a museum can be something fantastic! What could be better than a good museum exhibition? Only the best exhibitions are often those which expose their own perversity. But how much longer can we go along with this without being burnt up by our own contradictions?

CD: We could practise wanting nothing anymore. Or regard sleep as a form of subversion, as in your work ‘Fanfare, Calme & Volupté’ and ‘PATRIA’. And having a long lie-in as the ultimate form of resistance.

Chris Dercon / KoenTheys - catalogue ‘Home-Made Victories’
mar. 2013