Landmines in the Gallery, Kendell Geers interviewed by Jerome Sans
Jerome Sans: The question of South Africa where you were born is very sensitive. And your work has been often read as post-Apartheid. Don't you think this is a misunderstanding?
Kendell Geers: I really hate this question and it comes up so often. Of course my work is connected to where I was born inasmuch as any artist is connected to where they were born. But coming from South African it seems to always get stuck there and never move on the really important issues about art, about the strategies I use and why. It would be like speaking about Damian Hirst's work only in terms of his being British or Mathew Barney as being American. The world today is a small place and as an artist I am influenced by all sorts of things that are not only about being African or having lived most of my life in the Third World.
JS: But what about the violence, the fear in your work?
KG: Naturally, by growing up within a perverse context like Apartheid South Africa I witnessed first-hand all sorts of atrocities that continue to influence what I make and how I see the world. But you must remember that these things are not as much about South Africa as they are about the human condition. Look at what's been happening in Kosovo, in Mexico's Chiapas or even the streets of the Paris suburbs - the things that we human beings are capable of. For me its about where we lose everything that we think makes us cultured and our words fail us, about the moment when we find all that we have learnt and been taught is not enough to express ourselves. It’s not just about violence or fear but about any emotion or condition.
JS: Do you mean you are talking about the fragility of the human being?
KG: Absolutely! With my installations I try to create a situation in which the viewer is made conscious of their body in space, aware of the act of looking and thus implicated in the work itself. When you are standing in the centre of a piece like T.W. (Shoot) you are being assaulted visually by the images pounding away on both sides of you whilst the extreme sound track crawls inside your stomach, all the while trying to negotiate your steps through the loose wires strewn across the floor like landmines. You begin to understand just how fragile you are as your senses begin to fail you and you feel totally disorientated emotionally as well as physically.
JS: It seems that each time in your installation you try to create such a destabilisation?
KG: It was my experiences in the fight against Apartheid that alerted me to the power of destabilisation as a strategy. We are fighting a war against the mediocrisation of art through the purging of everything that is not banal or decorative. I am not interested in passive viewers who walk by the beautiful invisible spaces that pretend to be art. I try to create pieces in which the viewer has to accept responsibility for their presence in the work of art. Of course they are always free to walk away or move on but if they decide to engage with my work then the process becomes an active one. On a very literally level if you are not thinking about where you are walking and what you are doing there is often the danger that you could in fact hurt yourself. Danger is something that I think is present in all my works even if its sometimes more covert than others.
JS: Is it a strategy to oblige the viewer to take a position? Art as position?
KG: Is that not what life is all about? Every time we cross the road we make decisions that are about staying alive, about one position or another. Art has lost touch with reality and the sorts of decisions that are about living in the world today. It seems to me that the White Cube has become a quarantine from life and in turn generated some very boring art, which is about nothingness as a strategy. As an artist all I am trying to do is maintain contact with the world that I am living in.
JS: Is this why you are producing a kind of infection or contamination of the traditional frozen or generic White Cube space for exhibition?
KG: Oh yes! I use sound as one element of contagion precisely because it cannot be contained or disinfected, leaking out all over the place and infusing the walls and floors that ultimately consumes the viewer. The silent halls of the gallery or museum always reminds me of a hospital or a place where something has just died and we need to speak in whispers. My sounds are not necessarily always loud but they always cut to the bone, sink inside our flesh and blood to that point where we are most human, and most fragile. The art world itself is fragile as well but it refuses to accept that about itself.
JS: Is this why as a cultural terrorist your actions are most of the times site specific?
KG: If I did not think carefully about where I was exhibiting and respond to the history and politics and psychology of that place I would be just another decorative artist. Whenever I create a new work I always try to respond to that site but I don’t think its site-specific work as such because I am working with the human being at the centre of my thinking and how the human fits into history and into space. I understand objects and histories and places as being the residue of the humans that have lived there and left these things behind as memories or the physical embodiment of their deepest fears, guilt and desires.
JS: Do you still believe in art? Do you think art can be efficient?
KG: I am not sure I know what art is and I most certainly do not believe in the things I see being exhibited in art galleries and art museums. I have no faith whatsoever in the things we generally call art. It has become way too easy to be an artist and for that matter especially much to easy to be a curator. On the other hand I still believe in a strain of logic and a process of making meaning that could be understood as art. I don’t think about art or even think that what I do could be art – rather it’s a process of reflecting upon the world I live in and making that world more complicated and introducing questions into what we call reality. I also do think that it’s very possible to be effective today and to even change the way things work but it’s very difficult because there is so much noise out there. If an artist or a curator does create something that could be effective there is the danger that it could get lost in all the noise.
JS: But you exist and work through the system of the art. You have galleries, you exhibit in institutions, participate in group shows with other artists with whose vision you radically disagree with. How do you reconcile this?
KG: I have often thought about that contradiction and often considered giving it up entirely but then that would be too easy for the art system. My being around makes life very difficult for curators and museums and I like the fact that I am often seen as a thorn in the side or the sand in the Vaseline. I am not sure that it was ever any different – history cleans out the trash and we remember only a few artists from any moment. I know its complicated the ways in which some are remembered but I do think that in the long term the ego of artist dissolves and we are left with only the work. I do think that at this moment in time there are a handful of artists and curators working whose processes and work gives me enough hope to continue working.
JS: You have become very successful in the last five years with your very powerful and violent installations. You recently affirmed the de visu of a new direction in your work. Why and where are you going?
KG: In June 2000 whilst I was installing my piece Truth or Dare (Jan Hoet) for Sonsbeek I suddenly fell very ill for no apparent reason. One morning, I was simply unable to wake up, to even complete my work or attend the opening and have lunch with the queen of Holland. I was delirious and slowly made my way back home to London where the doctors were unable to diagnose the cause of the illness. I now put it down to an Art Sickness because, in between my dementia and hallucinations, I realised that what had caused the collapse was really a loss of faith in a system that I had, up until that moment been living for. Whilst I had always taken the system with a pinch of salt and made the difference between Art and the System that surrounds it, I had still somehow managed to lose my way.
I think it was the painful realisation that success or failure in the art system does not really have anything to do with what you make or your belief system, but that its rather about whom you charm or don’t offend and how many business cards you hand out at the Venice Biennial. I also came to the painful realisation that art had become spiritually bankrupt and had absolutely no relevance to the world I was living in. Visiting exhibitions has become as boring as it is tedious. I have spent most of my time since researching the signs and symbols that predate the stupidity of twentieth century art and return to a conception of art as something that can make a difference to the way the world functions.
JS: Why a search for something more spiritual? It sounds like Malraux’s idea that "the 20th century will be spiritual or not" and the body and the mind must be on the same track.
KG: It’s very French to look for a French theory behind every idea. After my collapse I spent a lot of time in the National Gallery in London and especially with the work of artists like Jan van Eyck, Lucas Cranach and Bosch. When I speak of spiritual its certainly not some hippie idea of free love or even anything vaguely religious. By spiritual I mean a belief system that extends beyond the physical and even beyond our conception of reality. My understanding of the spiritual has more in common with Edmund Burke's concept of the sublime than anything from the Malraux's mouth. Even though his thesis was written in 1757 it remains one of the most powerful and dangerous theories of art, which is probably why so few people have even heard of him. It is something like experiencing a feeling of intense and uncontrollable vertigo just by thinking about the possibilities and potential of art. Yes sure the body and the mind should be on the same track – I truly believe that our politics constantly manifests and reproduces itself in our quotidian actions.
JS: Do you consider yourself a political artist?
KG: I have always tried to create works that are complex in ways that demand of the viewer to assume a position in relation to it. It is always important for me that the viewers accept responsibility for their presence in the work as much as the gallery and curator have accepted responsibility for their collaboration in the process. You are free to walk away but if you decide to enter the work, physically or otherwise, then you should accept the consequences for the decision for I conceive of art as an active process rather than something passive. In this way the positioning that takes place is political or emotional or psychological and makes the participant conscious of themselves and the process of constructing value and meaning. I hate so-called political art where the artist has made a moral judgment and prepackaged their propagandist opinion. It’s very arrogant for artists to think that their political position is superior to anybody else’s and then still to be paid large sums of money for the objects that announce that position. Advertising who they voted for does not make an artist or their work political, for everybody votes and in that way artists are just like everybody else.
JS: But you cannot deny that there is a strong political aspect to many of your works?
KG: The kind of politics that interest me are the daily decisions that we make, the quotidian. What you decide to eat, wear, who you will have sex with, how and where, with a condom or without, what music or film you will watch or listen to, these are all quotidian decisions that embody and inscribe our politics revealing who you really are. Making those processes complicated is an inconvenience that becomes a portrait of your true political being. The bourgeoisie hates anything out from the ordinary or different from the comfort zone and so will be repelled by and reject any art that invites them to get out from Matisse's sofa and accept responsibility for their privilege.
JS: What is your relationship to the quotidian?
KG: I have always tried to work with the concept and strategy of recycling objects, images, texts and such from the quotidian into the realm of art. I am curious about what happens when you try to translate the untranslatable aspects of colloquial culture into high art. The brash rawness of toilet humour or drunkard politically incorrect jokes, pornography, horror and B-grade films and children’s games are extremely difficult to assimilate into the cold detached an-aesthetics of art. The parochial is the anti-universal and the contrary of internationalism and thus I feel very much at home in that space. It’s what makes me an individual and different from something detourned by Nike or Diesel’s globalist agenda.
JS: Why, as a biography, do you give a list of historical facts, a history of revolution?
KG: I hate the idea of the CV in art, because it reads to me more like a trophy room than anything else. Whenever I look at a CV, even my own, I’m reminded of an old musty study with the heads of dead animals on the wall, the smell of cigars, no light - it’s very macho in a way. More than that, when I look at my CV I don’t recognize myself in it: I see the art-system machinery working its little cogs, and not much else. So I decided many years ago to steal this space back for myself, and I reworked it into a list of events that had truly had significance in my life, had authentically changed me and influenced what I think. If you read my CV as a history of revolution, I guess it’s because I’m interested in radical methods of change. I’m influenced by the notion that barbed wire was used for the first time by the British in their war against South Africa in 1890, and by the fact that thousands of South Africans died in British concentration camps in the same war. I was also influenced by the deaths of artists like Marcel Duchamp, of thinkers like Debord, and of musicians like Sid Vicious. Perhaps I’m as influenced by the idea of death and disruption as by anything else.
JS: Would you say that you were fortunate to have been born in South Africa?
KG: I call this the perversity of my birth and the birth of my perversity. I can’t say whether or not it was a misfortune to be born into that context, but it certainly affected me. Growing up in a country under siege, where a bomb was hidden under every chair, a spy behind every bush, and the thought police in every corner, obviously permeate one’s thoughts and one’s understanding of reality. The fall of Apartheid gave rise to rape, murder, and other crimes, and the old paranoias and aggressions became the monsters that crawled out from the abyss. I will never be able to exorcise these demons from my unconscious, but at least they’re now resting. I’m not unhappy to have been born into such a perverse context, where one witnesses firsthand the depths to which a human being may descend. It continues to influence my conception of human nature. At the struggle’s most extreme, even those fighting Apartheid stopped at nothing. This fight for basic human rights, and finally the failure of the so-called revolution, colors my understanding of art and its role: how can one create decorative or unengaged work when the world is so obviously unequal in its distribution of wealth and privilege?
JS: Would you call yourself an activist?
KG: That may be the most difficult question you’ve ever asked me - I’m not sure I can answer it. Yes, on the one hand, of course I think of myself as an activist, but on the other hand I don’t think such a position is sustainable today. In my understanding, being an activist implies that a belief system can exist that is contrary to the status quo, and, more than that, that it’s possible to effect change either through subversion or through engagement. That may have been true in the ‘60s or even in the ‘70s, but today the notion of truth has never been more fluid or more obscure. Take the photographic image, for instance, whether it’s a reality-TV video or even an archival photograph - that image can today be altered and changed so perfectly that even the people present in the image may begin to doubt their own memory of the event. More than that, the technology needed to create the shift is neither expensive nor difficult to access. Even more depressing is the fact that politics today is no longer about having a position or a point of view, or even any sign of a policy, but about image. Witness the recent elections in the United States, Germany, Italy, and Austria, where presidents have been elected to positions of ultimate power on the basis of their image alone. There’s no difference between the left and the right in Europe and America. So what does it mean to be an activist today? I don’t know.
JS: How would you describe your stance, then?
KG: Before anything else I’m an artist. While I can’t say what that means, I do think it makes me somehow socially unstable. If I were not to some degree maladjusted I’m sure I would have chosen a more stable way of life. I embrace life as an activist in the sense that I actively engage my daily rituals and activities with a sense of subversive curiosity. I’m always looking for the limits, when I find them I try to collapse them, and then I start again. We understand ourselves and our world through limits such as morality and social etiquette. The worst limit of all is habit.
JS: What are your limits?
KG: My biggest challenge is to overcome the limits of language. Whether language is verbal or nonverbal, it acts as a structure that limits what can be expressed. I see it as a kind of bad habit: if one manages to do the same thing enough times, it becomes habit, enters into the realm of the known, and thus becomes language. Up until that point, however, it doesn’t exist. Language inscribes everything we are, our conception of morality, and the forms and expressions that are considered appropriate in a work of art. When one seeks the limit in order to understand the center, there are moments when one is likely to step over that limit, when what is said or created doesn’t fit in with any habit or memory, so that the expression becomes null and void. I don’t know what my own limits or tolerances are because they’re always changing with experience and of course with age. I would say my greatest limits are boredom and habit, but they’re also great incentives to keep me mobile.
JS: How does one break out of these traps of habit and language?
KG: For me it’s a process of searching out those experiences where language has no control. Those moments when you feel the burden of emotion, the pain of loss, the exhilaration of experience—the moments when you know what you’re feeling but have no way of expressing it in words. These moments can be extreme, as when you witness a car accident or feel vertigo, or subtle, like the experience of beauty or desire or even simply fear of the dark. These moments are exhilarating precisely because they’re indescribable, which makes them taste somehow like forbidden fruit. There’s an old political strategy, used by everybody from the Baader-Meinhof group to Frantz Fanon to the CIA: it’s much easier to change a system after first destabilizing its structure. In this sense violence and sexuality are strong weapons, for there’s no escape from them. The advertising industry uses sexuality to sell products as much as politicians use the threat of violence (from the so-called other) to get themselves elected. Whether implicitly or explicitly, we in the Occidental system tend to define ourselves in relation to violence and sexuality. I’m certain that this is why the image of the crucified Christ remains such an icon, for it is implicitly and explicitly both violent and sexual. It taps deep primeval urges — to be born, to die, and in between to procreate. In other words, it touches us outside language.
JS: Why are death and disruption central to your work?
KG: We will all experience death at least once in our life, and the knowledge, or fear, of that experience appears in just about every culture in the world. Even where death isn’t feared, it’s acknowledged and respected virtually daily. I’m drawn to the taboos that govern death and sex, because they imply beginnings as well as endings and because in both we are unable to control ourselves, no matter how rich or educated or sophisticated we presume ourselves to be. I frequently use the strategy of disruption, for, like death, it speaks both of that which has ended and of the consequence of the ending, and also, at times, it suggests new beginnings. Disruption is thus an in-between space that speaks as much about what it’s not as about what it is and what it could be.
JS: Do you believe in utopia?
KG: As with death, sex, and disruption, I’m much more interested in dystopia than utopia, for the former implies the latter and is thus so much more. Freedom can only exist when you have the ability and sense to accept the rules and the system and then beyond that to abandon them. I’m quite utopian in my thinking but only on the road to dystopia.
JS: What does freedom mean today?
KG: I can only speak from a personal point of view, and increasingly I find myself escaping into the space of my own thoughts and private world. As the world becomes more and more international and in effect americanized, so the differences between us are disappearing. Those colloquial differences are essential to my understanding of freedom, because they’re what defines me in terms of my own reality. They’re inscribed in the everyday decisions I make, which are built around my own everyday needs, as opposed to the idea of me projected through some soap opera or Hollywood film. Freedom to me is the ability to speak for myself, the ability to define myself, and the space to represent myself based on my own needs and experiences rather than on an external prescribed idea of me that serves somebody else’s needs or even their fears.
JS: Do you mean that there’s no more contestatory spirit, and that everything’s predetermined by the media?
KG: There has been a fundamental shift in the way artists work and understand the world around them. I think the shift began in the 1950s in Paris at the Beat Hotel with William Burroughs, and specifically with his theory and method of the cut-up. The simple technique of cutting up fragments of newspapers and books and reassembling them as entirely new texts changed the course of history, for from that moment on the artist was destined to become a consumer instead of a producer. Where that challenge was confrontational and militant to begin with, it has now become simply banal. Even as recently as the ‘70s, electronic punk bands like Throbbing Gristle or Cabaret Voltaire were still able to use the cut-up techniques and machines to make music that challenged the way we understood the world and our notions of beauty. Then, sometime, in the late ‘70s, the entire Western world shifted and we all started changing into professional consumers. The shift is now complete, to the point that we purchase our dissidence at Christian Dior or Diesel. Politically it’s the same, for the differences between campaigning political parties are growing so small as to be negligible. We vote for the most consumable president.
JS: Do you think we are living in a period when creation is on hold?
KG: Yes, I do. I think we are living in a moment when the act of creating is defined, like everything else in our age, by acts of consumption. For a long time I wondered how so many artists around the world, simultaneously and without knowledge of each other, were able to create works of art that were almost exactly the same. Then it occurred to me that it was because so many young artists today are reading the same art magazines to look for ideas, and are developing their art based on those magazines. So of course they all arrive at the same conclusions since they’re consuming the same raw material. Every aspect of our lives, from the clothes we wear to the magazines we read and the television we watch, is based on the almost religious experience of consumption, and art is no different.
This is also something of a honeymoon period, because for the first time in history the individual has access to computers and software that can change, edit, reedit, re-create, mix up, and mix down any image, sound, song, text, or film. The power to control the image is no longer the exclusive domain of Hollywood or the magazine industry, and that changes everything. In music we’ve already seen how the idea of the author has changed with the rise of the DJ, hip-hop, and even so-called electronic music, where the act of consuming somebody else’s material is the basis of creativity. The spirit of this process, however, is in stark contrast to Guy Debord’s idea of plagiarism. It’s lost a great deal of its political implication.
JS: Does activism today involve using the political and its codes?
KG: I think it’s about being critical, trying to understand the limits of the languages of the present and to work them up into something more. I don’t miss the Cold War any more than I respect a fascist moron like George W. Bush. For me the real tragedy is the fact that we’ve lost all sense of the spiritual in Western culture. We have no faith in anything, whether art or politics or history; we live only to consume. I would say that activism today must first restore our sense of faith, for without that nothing matters anyhow.
JS: Since the mainstream fashion and mass media have co-opted all the codes of dissent, where do you think art can be effective?
KG: Yes, the mainstream has stolen every weapon of the underground, from sex to violence, and art has been reduced to simply another commodity designer fetish. What can one do today outside of total despair and capitulation? I’m not sure, but for my part I’m trying to shift the emphasis entirely away from the material body of the work, away from the commodity toward the content, and then above that to insist that the content be political. Instead of working toward the seamless, perfect image I’m trying to explore flaws, dirt, disruption, static, white noise, and decomposition of the image or object. This fracturing both affirms the perfect image through its absence and shifts the focus to other ways of understanding reality, on the other side of the comfort border. The sex and violence I use in my work and am interested in, and that I think remain effective weapons against bland consumerism, are not the sanitized clean poses of CNN and Empty V but the dirty, gritty white noise of a television set tuned to a bankrupt pirate station.
JS: Is there a difference between the Beat generation cut-up spirit and that of today’s urban guerrilla?
KG: I would say that the former were like a bomb exploding in an urban shopping mall whereas the latter are more like computer viruses. As soon as Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Brion Gysin, and the South African Sinclair Beiles came up with the cut-up for their collaborative project Minutes to Go (1960), the group was divided. Where Burroughs and Gysin understood that they had found a radical new way of working that would fundamentally change the way they understood art, the other two felt that they had in the process murdered the creative muse. Given the speed with which such challenges are processed and assimilated today, the artist must function more like a hacker or a virus, infiltrating the machine and cutting it up from the inside. There is no underground today because nothing is beyond the limits. Everything is equally without value, significance, and thus consequence.
JS: Why do you think things have changed so dramatically?
KG: On the one hand I think it’s because artists today are basically spoilt. Occidental society in general is characterized by extreme affluence and privilege, and there’s little to fight for unless you cast your eyes toward the Third World. Even unknown or unsuccessful artists today can earn a very good living, even if it means teaching, while fifty years ago even the most important artists were living on a breadline. With affluence comes an unprecedented amount of choice in terms of production methods: at little cost, a young artist today can decide to paint, draw, sculpt, work with found objects, make installations, or even buy a small, relatively inexpensive computer and edit video, sound, photographs, and so forth. Since the choices are practically endless, there’s a gratuity in the methods—the medium has definitely lost its message. Meanwhile the art system is extreme in its demand that each artist find a little corner and stay in it. Artists become typecast for a particular video editing or Photoshop method, or a way of assembling found objects, and they’re doomed to regurgitating that solution until every collector is sated, when the artists are expected to renew their trick for the following season. The political climate further compounds issues in that everything is possible, everything is accepted, so why bother to make art about anything at all when to make work about nothing is far more attractive? If you dress your nothing up as an emperor without a kingdom or a religion, all the better.