Amidst today’s constant tick of openings, galleries and museums often employ performances to lend exhibitions a sense of temporal distinction. It’s not an opening like any other: it’s an event; you had to be there. At best in these situations, performance is a testament to the fact that art is still best experienced physically, in person. At worst, they relegate performance to the status of side-show – fleeting amusement that invariably gives way to the main attraction. Performance artist Christian Falsnaes (*1980) knows this conundrum well. Born in Copenhagen and trained in Vienna, Falsnaes wins his audience by actively dismantling the performer/spectator binary with group chanting, mock demonstrations, and fist pumping sing-alongs. In this interview, Falsnaes ruminations on the techniques, politics and ethics of breaking down the fourth wall.
Carson Chan: You studied with Peter Kogler, Constanze Ruhm and Daniel Richter at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna; none of them are artists who I would associate with performance art. How did you come to focus on performance?
Christian Falsnaes: I started making performances long before I entered the academy. Actually, my way into art was through writing graffiti in the suburbs of Copenhagen. When I got bored of it, I realized that what I liked most about graffiti was its performative aspect – the action, the doing.
You have painted a whole train …
Yes, that’s one of my oldest performances. This was in the early 00s, and at the time I made a lot of performance-like actions on the streets.
Did the passersby know they were watching a performance? Important in any performance is the implicit acceptance of spectatorship.
That’s a good point; this was not something I was thinking about at the time. The first time I was invited to perform in an art context, I remember thinking about all the new possibilities of art performance. I was reading a lot on media and art performances, its history, the various performance groups and contexts from around the world. I looked at a lot of Paul McCarthy’s work. All of this is not so important for me anymore.
You seem to reference history quite a lot in your work. For performances like “Existing Things“ (2010), “The Whole Picture“ (2011) and “Elixir“ (2012), engaging your public, empowering them as participants in the piece and actively changing the way they think about art reminds me of early Futurist strategies. Filippo Marinetti and Umberto Boccioni did things, stunts rather, to elicit strong public reactions. You often have your audience move around the city as a group, holding banners, chanting. Marinetti induced an actual riot in 1910 at the Teatro Rossetti in Trieste, when he challenged the theatregoers’ bourgeois mores.
Yes, but the main difference to my work is that they saw their audience kind of like their enemy. They were doing extremely noisy things or throwing things at people. And, like those by the Viennese Actionists that came after them, many Futurist performances centred on negative confrontation with the audience. I try to do the opposite. I’m telling them, “You are the audience, you are powerful, you can do something.“
Let’s talk about the references to social resistance in your work. You’ll get people to march down streets, punch the air, shout slogans; you get them to act out social or political engagement. You draw out the absurdity in both the performance of art and the performance of politics.
I find the language and imagery of public demonstrations very powerful. The emotions they evoke in the demonstrators are also very powerful, but I’m not interested in the agendas. I can imagine that my performances would collapse if they tried to promote specific political or religious ideologies. By engaging people in absurd or nonsensical situations – situations done in their own right and not for the sake of another agenda – they become more aware of the language and imagery of demonstration. This is what I find interesting.
But is it enough to say that you find the tectonics of demonstration interesting? Particularly in the past year, with ideology changing manifestations on Tahrir Square in Cairo, the demonstrations in support of Pussy Riot in Moscow, and the Occupy protests throughout the U.S. … Would you see your performances that call on your audience to partake in mock demonstrations as a critique of these activities?
Of course, there is an element of critique in my works in that they reveal the mechanics of rituals and groups. But I think it would be too narrow to see the work purely as a critique of political demonstrations. I don’t make these participatory performances as statements, but I see them as compositions of actions, events, installations, videos.
The recent works seem like compositions for illustrating the potential that exists in the feeling of conviction. When actions happen in an art context, their effects rarely cross over into the general civic sphere in any real way. People from the Occupy movement were invited to take part in this year’s Berlin Biennale; they were given full use of the main exhibition space in the main venue. During the press conference, they were full of conviction and purpose, so I was shocked to see them at the opening party drinking champagne with the VIP guests. Performance, whether in real life politics or in the arts, requires an “on/off“ dynamic. Your work is a critique in the way that it provides a mirror to the theatre of everyday life.
I definitely think that art has the ability to investigate life in a more thoughtful way. When people are cheering and screaming at a rock concert, they are not thinking about what they are doing, but if you invite them to cheer and scream and chant at an art opening, then suddenly there is another level of reflection. At a rock concert, these actions are ritualized, but at an art opening, even after the long history of performance art, these actions seem absurd. Decontextualizing our rituals makes us question them. This is the critical element.
Tell me about the role of »being normal« in your performances. You often wear your everyday clothes in the performances: slacks and a button-down shirt. The normative is broken by unexpected actions. In “There and Back“ (2010), you start sliding around, shouting, on a greased up piece of parquet, and in “Ich Finde die Landschaft Hier Auch Einfach So Geil“ (2009), we see you masturbating on top of a mountain. Are your clothes meant to collapse everyday life with performance?
It’s quite important for me to wear everyday clothes. I never wait backstage before a performance; I’m hanging around with the audience and then suddenly I just start. There should be a fluid transition into the performance. I want to suggest that everyone could step out of the crowd and direct the situation like me.
Has that happened before?
No. When I started to do these things, around the mid-00s, I was very concerned about how people would react to confrontation, about how far to take things. I’m inviting people to project their fears and inhibitions onto my identity and body. I think I relieve a lot of anxiety when I take the lead and be the front man. No one wants to be the first to do something, but people will naturally participate 100% when they see me putting in 200%. There are moments of uncertainty amongst the audience when I start shouting out of the blue – it’s awkward, people are questioning themselves, whether they should follow my instructions. They look around at other people to see if they’re following. I put all my energy into this, I don’t question the awkwardness, and after a short time people accept the situation. By this point there is almost no resistance.
Sometimes doing something that seems different is not different or new at all. This was evident in “Existing Things“. You started the performance by showing video documentation of your past performances and physically re-performing abridged versions of each one. Then you said, “And now for something different,“ marking a break with your artistic history and declaring that everything to come is going to be completely new. You then asked one audience member, a young woman, to direct as a number of other people lifted you up and used your head as a paintbrush to make a painting. It becomes obvious that this completely new thing, this supposed complete break with a past, is basically a reenactment of Yves Klein’s “Anthropometry“ body painting performances of the 60s. The most interesting thing in this performance for me was how you relinquished control of the situation, but the woman you gave it to never took advantage of that power. She could have directed people to throw you to the ground, rip your clothes off, pour paint down your throat, but she didn’t. The performance exposed a very particular cultural understanding of power, agency, authority and control. We should add that the performance happened in Vienna.
The balance between power, control, freedom and improvisation is very difficult. The more freedom I give to the audience, the more difficult it is for them to act. If I say, "Take this spray can and write this word on the wall," as I did with “Elixir“, everybody will do it immediately. If I say, “Here’s a spray can,“ or “Choose a color and paint whatever you want,“ then people hesitate. If I leave spray cans on the ground and say, “Anybody who wants can go and spray the walls,“ then nobody will do it. It’s difficult to create a context for interaction. I’m constantly trying to create both a frame and the freedom within it.
What is the difference between participation and the illusion of participation? You could have cast the woman in “Existing Things“ and asked her to be more transgressive. This might have given the other audience members license to be transgressive themselves. This, I would say, is the political potential of your work; our observations of it could easily be brought into a public or political realm.
Right. You could walk down a street in whichever way you like. You could walk in a zigzag pattern, if you wanted, but we generally walk in a straight line because we’re framed by the design and the context of the street. Even though you are acting free, you still perform within a limited structure.
What’s revealed is the difference between freedom and choice. If you’re given only one choice, but you have the freedom to choose, you’re not really choosing. Is it possible to script freedom? Is it possible to script enjoyment and pleasure? I recently spoke at a symposium at the University of Linz, and many people took issue with my assertion that exhibitions, if not art, should be entertaining. We demand other art forms like music, literature and film to be both intellectually stimulating and entertaining, but why don’t we require that of art? Performance art though, I think, occupies a position where entertainment wouldn’t be seen as something low.
I’m not too worried about approaching taboos like entertainment, where people have to ask themselves if what they are looking at is indeed art. Having said that, it has taken me many years to have people accept what I was doing, precisely because it is entertaining. I have the feeling that many performance artists today deliberately make their performances boring, because they don’t want them to be confused with theatre or recreation. I think these are strange things to be afraid of. Entertainment is a very powerful tool.
It’s powerful, but it’s also dangerous. The danger is that people will view your work purely as a form of amusement and the intellectual engagement doesn’t begin. Another danger, of course, is the commodification of performance art as pure entertainment. Last year, Marina Abramović and Jeffrey Deitch hosted a fund-raising dinner at the Museum of Contemporary Art in L.A., where they featured nude models performing Abramović’s works as centrepieces on dinner tables. It was crudely exploitative of both the form and the performers.
That’s a particularly ugly example, but most institutions habitually use performance art as fun diversions for openings and other events. I’m very aware of not being a sideshow that fills the programming gaps.
You mentioned earlier that you think of your performances almost like musical compositions and that the audience is your artistic material.
Well, for example, with “Rational Animal“ (2008), I had sketched out a sequence of events, each made up of a number of objects, video projections, actions. At one point I had thought to hire a group of actors to take part in the work, but then I realized that I had a group of potential actors with the audience. Two years later, when I performed “There and Back“ in Malmö, I gave different people in the audience instructions to contribute to the composition. Some had to describe a video they watched, a man had to reel me in with a fishing line, others had to throw pies at my face, and so on. I realized that the interaction between the audience and me was more interesting than the composition I had planned. I began to see the audience as a material I could engage with.
Have you developed specific techniques for directing or manipulating the audience?
No, not at all. I don’t have any training, but when I recently spoke to a social psychologist, he thought that I had studied psychological techniques to engage people into action. I’ve learned from doing. In the end, I’m not interested in controlling how people behave. I’m happy to let situations develop, to leave them unscripted.
Do you talk to people in the audience after the performance?
Yes, I do. Generally, I get a lot of response after the performances. People email me afterwards, too. A lot of people have been really positive about their participation, they feel that it was a strong experience and that it made them think about all sorts of things. Others tell me that they had a good time during the performance, but that they felt used afterwards, particularly after they see themselves performing in the video, behaving in ways they don’t usually identify with.
How do you react to these responses?
I want people to feel something, so their response is always a kind of recognition. Positive or negative, a reaction is really good.
Well, then the work could never really fail in regards to audience reaction, right? What would be an illegitimate reaction?
A reaction that would signal a failure would be if someone didn’t feel an urge to participate and if they didn’t understand why they should have. Even if people don’t join into the performance, I want them to be conscious of the choice.
I was in the audience of “Elixir“, and your call to participate was clear. After a group of volunteers from the audience had painted on the walls, broke through it, and after you had sung a song, you asked us to spray the word “Elixir“ on wooden signs. I was one of the first ones handed a can of spray paint, and I remembered thinking that the reason to participate was for the sake of participation. This goes back to the distinction between choice and freedom, and, as it was somehow unclear at that moment, I felt aggression. I sprayed the words »Fuck you« instead, and afterwards I remember being even more annoyed because whatever I would have done would have been incorporated into your performance. I had no choice in the matter.
Even if you had sat there and refused to react, that would have been your participation, and the camera would have recorded it.
The totalizing world you create in your performances is perhaps its most powerful aspect, for me. Especially when you use the aesthetics of demonstration, protest and politics, it seems to highlight the theatricality of real-world politics. We talked about how the convictions and feelings of agency you bring people are fleeting; they cease the moment the performance stops. But there might be value in scripting feelings in any case. If you’re in a bad mood and you artificially pull your face into a smile, you actually feel better. The causality between action and emotion seems to be reversible.
Of course, that’s why I start almost every performance by doing some really simple group action, like saying, “Now, okay, everyone say, ‘Yeah.‘ No, I mean, everyone say, ‘Yeah!‘ Come on, ‘Yeah!‘“ Even if I have to repeat it three or four times until everyone says “Yeah!“, you have them already – they’ve emerged as a group. It’s the same as forcing yourself to smile. Getting people to shout slogans and to demonstrate, even if it’s for some silly reason, has more of an effect than showing them images of other people shouting slogans and demonstrating. Your body tells you that you’re creating something, that you’re part of a movement, that it’s great, and you emerge from the piece changed.
You assume the role of the artist-hero-leader.
A performance always has a hierarchal structure. There is at least one performer, and everyone else is in the audience. At the very least, a performance imposes a duration of time. When we were shooting the music video “Influence“ in Salzburg, I directed everyone to run outside onto the grass, because I wanted the performance to end, and everyone would just wander off. When we got out of the building, I really felt that people wanted something else to happen. We all started to give each other high fives, hold hands, people started to hug. Suddenly, I had an image in my mind where I was naked, lying in a big pile of people. I took off my clothes and threw myself into the audience, and they started to carry me around. Someone yelled, “Take him back inside!“ When we got in, someone else shouted, “Put him on the stage!“ The audience took over. That was the best way to end the performance.
Christian Falsnaes born 1980 in Copenhagen. Lives in Berlin. Website
Represented by PSM, Berlin
Carson Chan is an architecture writer and curator, based in Berlin. He is a frequent contributor to books and magazines, including 032c, where he is editor-at-large, and Kaleidoscope, where he is contributing editor. In 2012, he curated the 4th Marrakech Biennale.