Roundtable: Can One Make Works of Art Which Are Not of Art?

Spike Berlin, 2015

It has become an all too common cliché that everyone from brokers to Uber drivers is employed under the model of the artist. Over and over, you hear that the boundaries between art, pop, and creative industries are blurring. What sets the artist apart from the non-artist? What sets the art object apart from other objects? A discussion with artists Natascha Sadr Haghighian and Simon Denny, and exhibition maker and gallerist Alexander Koch, moderated by Kolja Reichert.

Kolja Reichert: Simon, what brings you out of bed in the morning? 

Simon Denny: Deadlines. 

Kolja Reichert: The art world has turned into an industry where you have to keep your work circulating to stay visible and have a voice – does this have consequences for your practice, Natascha? 

Natascha Sadr Haghighian: You have to decide if you want to feed into the structure of that logic of visibility and of affirmation. I think there are relevant practices that just don’t appear in these regimes. If you talk about what makes you get up in the morning, I think the question starts with what your practice is aiming at. 

Kolja Reichert: So what makes you get up in the morning? 

Natascha Sadr Haghighian: Frustration.

Kolja Reichert: What frustration was it today? 

Natascha Sadr Haghighian: I guess there is a general frustration, maybe you could also call it an anger at the world. One reason to have an artistic practice for me is to try and feed other types of worldmaking into the imaginary and thereby not lose my voice. 

Kolja Reichert: When you complete a work like the trolley that slowly rolls back and forth on a plastic bottle with a microphone hanging over it, does frustration turn into something else?

Natascha Sadr Haghighian: Yes, it suddenly has a sound, the sound of the cracking of plastic. It is a very precise expression of the frustration that I have. 

Kolja Reichert: Alexander, how did you get involved with the initiative the New Patrons?

Alexander Koch: It was actually frustration that brought me there. In 2002 I started thinking about the idea of artists dropping out of art. It was a moment when I wasn’t sure if it made sense to invest in artistic practice myself, or in theory. At some point in 2007 I met François Hers, a Belgian artist, and what he suggested struck me immediately. He said that in any given culture at any given moment, the people in power were the ones commissioning cultural producers to work for them. Why is it that in a democratic society you still have very few people who own that privilege – and not potentially anybody? So, 22 years ago, he designed the New Patrons program to reorganize the commissioning of art. We started a chapter in Germany in 2007.

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Kolja Reichert: Do you have an example of one project?

Alexander Koch: In 1997, in Marseille, three nurses working in a cancer hospital found that there was no adequate place for relatives and friends who had just lost someone. Since Marseille is a multi-confessional community, how can you create a symbolic place answering to different spiritual needs? The New Patron’s mediators suggested that Michelangelo Pistoletto could design a multi-confessional space, and brought all religious representatives of the city together. So in the beginning it’s not about art at all. It’s about what you want to change, about the conflict you have. It can happen that we have a two-year discussion before even thinking about if there’s a need to make an opera piece, a sculpture, or a school.

Kolja Reichert: Is this rewarding, working outside of the aura of the art world?

Alexander Koch: Totally. It’s the counterbalance I need, especially when I do projects in Cameroon, Nigeria, or in other countries where I am confronted with very different questions than the ones I usually have. You have a legitimation for producing something because there is a real demand. Whereas if you have an independent studio practice, you are never so sure about the demand. Often galleries try to create it afterwards.

Kolja Reichert: It is said that bankers always talk about art, while artists always talk about money. Do you and your friends talk more about money or art?

Simon Denny: We do talk about bankers and money. I subscribe to the Financial Times. [Laughter.]

Kolja Reichert: Your work circumvents certain routines of fine art. Do you have this old notion that the artist has to work against art, has to sabotage art somehow?

Simon Denny: No. I think it’s good to respond to a situation, be that in a day-today practice or for specific commissions, like a pavilion. A national pavilion for Venice is a bit similar to what Alexander talked about: there are lots of people involved who need different things out of it. And I think to work in a way that acknowledges the complexity provides a good way forward to make something engaging.

Kolja Reichert: Natascha, let’s go back to what you said about not feeding into certain formats. You avoid portrait photos and reject sending CVs. Instead, you invite cultural producers to exchange CVs via the website bioswop.net. What was the initial impetus behind this?

Natascha Sadr Haghighian: I just thought that CVs are boring.

Kolja Reichert: That can’t be the only reason, there has to be some political interest behind it as well.

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Natascha Sadr Haghighian: The first impulse was to make fun of CVs and to destabilize their function. When I start a project, I always look at a specific situation: What does it do, what are its elements, do I like what it does to me. I start to play with it, start to loosen some of the screws, see where it starts to wobble and what it does when it becomes unstable.

Kolja Reichert: In the art world, you increasingly have to be present as a name and a face, a brand. We have to pay into the bank of gazes to be seen at all. By rejecting portrait photos, you somehow work against that.

Natascha Sadr Haghighian: I think all forms that are taken for granted are not interesting. What interests me is what you can attach or take away from them so they are suspended and start to be negotiable again.

Simon Denny: But what you are doing with that project in particular, for me, is you are creating better marketing. You’re right, CVs are boring, no one wants to read them. If you create something that has a point of difference to a normal CV, then you are essentially creating a more interesting CV. You are distinguishing your brand better by disrupting conventional engagement flows. It’s like a classic Malcolm McLaren move: Punk anti-marketing made sense in a marketing spectrum of an over-promoted industry. It’s the same thing. If you are able to diagnose a norm precisely and differentiate yourself from that norm, then your brand value increases. That’s a marketing question. And that’s why I like what you do, because your marketing is more interesting than others. [Laughter.]

Kolja Reichert: When we were doing portrait shots of all the speakers tonight, you came up with the idea of a smiley on the wall. So you are not present as a face, but as a drawing. Is this not the more powerful picture, the non-picture? In a world populated with proxy photos, is the silent picture not an even louder picture?

Natascha Sadr Haghighian: Simon would be much better at analyzing this, probably ... [Laughs.]_

Simon Denny: Yeah, you’ve got two boring mugshots of two people, and then a drawing where you expect a picture. Again: better product.

Alexander Koch: This is an interesting moment. Whatever you do, whatever you say, is being pulled into a context of profit and branding So you don’t even look at the gesture. I am not confronting you necessarily, Simon … [Laughter.] But that’s the mechanism at work all the time, whatever you do. We know this argument very well. Hey KOW, great, you are working on a gallery program that is aware of societal implications. Great business model! We don’t really use the term political, but others do.

Simon Denny: [ Jokingly.] That’s even better, let the media do your promotion!

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Alexander Koch: Isn’t that a cool brand, I mean, what a cool distinction, right? That’s probably the best success strategy that you can have. It wasn’t meant to be one, but true: if we’re successful then we are not saying no to that. It’s about making positions and beliefs that we share visible because we think it’s important to push these arguments further into society, make those voices louder that should be heard. If you don’t believe in that then you shouldn’t make a gallery. We believe in the production of art objects and the influence they can have on the social imaginary; the long-term effects. You need instruments for that, and a gallery is one of those. But it doesn’t mean that we are doing this for success. We want the project, and the success is one way to make the project work.

Simon Denny: Right, so there’s no conflict. Part of an artwork is creating an audience for the artwork. Whether it is an experience or an object or whatever, it’s still a product. And you want to position that correctly, and one way to understand that is as good marketing. 

Natascha Sadr Haghighian: Can you explain what a product is for you?

Simon Denny: For this conversation, a product could be anything that one consumes, in any way, shape, or form. It’s a format for an experience.

Natascha Sadr Haghighian: Is there any experience outside of consuming? [Laughter.] Isn’t that an interesting question? I would be very curious to know.

Simon Denny: I’m not so interested in this question; I don’t think finding an answer is important for me.

Natascha Sadr Haghighian: We are on Rosa-Luxemburg-Straße, and Rosa Luxemburg said that capitalism always feeds on the outside. If you want to kill it, you need to stop creating an outside. I’m shortening the argument, but: You could best kill it by basically over-affirming it, right? Or is that not even a goal for you?

Simon Denny: I don’t want to kill capitalism, no, that’s not my goal.

Natascha Sadr Haghighian: What do you want to kill? [Laughter.]

Simon Denny: That’s just not my goal, my goal is to make interesting content.

Kolja Reichert: Isn’t art increasingly becoming content, whatever it does? For galleries, it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference exactly which artists you have in your roster, only that it’s diverse. For artists, it seems necessary to surf the most different formats and be present at the most different occasions. But it increasingly seems to make less of a difference what you actually do in your work.

Simon Denny: It’s a marketing question. Some positions work very well if it’s an extreme, and only an extreme of the brand. Some work with a broader range. I think it’s a different type of profile.

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Kolja Reichert: Natascha, do you share this perception?

Natascha Sadr Haghighian: No, of course not. Because I follow a different strategy than Simon. For me, content is completely irrelevant. Not because I don’t enjoy it. I’m also a consumer of content on a regular basis, but I’m more interested in structure. And so for me the file format would be the more interesting …

Simon Denny: And how is that not content?

Natascha Sadr Haghighian: For me it’s structure. Content would be the data that is in the file, but the file itself is how it’s formatted.

Simon Denny: But there are artistic strategies that make structure content.

Natascha Sadr Haghighian: Well, it would depend on how that’s done. If it’s made content to just be content, then it stops being interesting for me.

Simon Denny: But then that means that’s not good content, it’s not interesting content any more. I agree with you that structure is very important to how we receive content, or that the way we receive content is a part of the content.

Natascha Sadr Haghighian: The reason why I would lose interest would not be because I don’t like to consume content, but more for strategic reasons. Because there is a system in place that tries to keep me busy with content, so that I don’t think about structure. So strategically for me it is more important to lose interest in content, to turn towards structure and to see what things are built out of.

Alexander Koch: I don’t like quoting Niklas Luhmann, but I think he said: “Art is interrupting communication”. It’s a question of whether you want to fulfil the flow of exchange and communication of content, or whether you create a structure that is actually a problem. So a structure that interrupts the flow of communication might make us create content. That’s the notion of emancipation that I have as a viewer.

Natascha Sadr Haghighian: If you look at content today, I would see it as comparable to the idols of a different time, when pictures were representations of something. Now content seems to be the dominant representational model; one that we don’t necessarily connect back to the things in the world it’s representing. Our browsers have 30 different tabs open because of content someone fed into social media that seemed relevant. We visit art shows that have 20 videos, each of them one hour long, all referring to an important political topic that someone spent years researching. All of this is content that stems from real events in the world but it comes in settled forms and formats. I wonder how you can link it back and create that pain that exists between the representation and a thing or a problem.

Simon Denny: You want the content that has more material in it, that has more discomfort; or you want something that means that you question xyz more. To me that’s just a better experience.

Alexander Koch: I just want to be clear about one thing: I really do not believe that artworks contain content. I think content is the sense that we make out of it. I would never say that an artwork contains content, because that would mean for me that it’s a piece of communication: Someone puts something in and I get it on the other end. When communication starts to find new ways, when we have to doubt our concepts, our terms, and our vision, this is where we start getting somewhere else.

Simon Denny: Then maybe it’s a question of semantics. I also enjoy a very complex art experience. And I would say, what cultural experience is there that is so one-to-one? If I engage with any cultural product, be it a TV show, a movie, or whatever, it’s most interesting when there are lots of questions about how you are receiving it and what it is doing to you. That makes a great product. And art is able to work with formats in a different way than TV is. There are so many different formats available to art. The format can then become a part of what you question when you look at it; it can become a texture. I guess you are defining content as something very flat, and I don’t think content is flat. For me, boring content is boring content and great content is great content, which is nuanced, sophisticated, complicated.

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Kolja Reichert: So for you, the forms involved and the formats being used are part of the content that the work provides.

Simon Denny: Of course! And any sophisticated maker of any kind of content is aware of that, be it an advertisement, a shoe or whatever. You don’t make a great thing by doing something that’s boring.

Natascha Sadr Haghighian: Your work is so much about formats.

Simon Denny: Yes, a lot of it has been. I mean you have to know the craft, right. An exhibition is a craft, a non-exhibition is a craft. A text message that bites you in the ass is a craft. You have to know the craft to deploy the material well, it’s as simple as that.

Kolja Reichert: But is your work defined by the formats that you combine and put together or is there something else? Simon Denny: My product is making exhibition experiences.

Kolja Reichert: And is your product aiming to be disruptive?

Simon Denny: It’s using disruption as a term to be considered. “Disruption” is a word that is used a lot right now in different contexts, and I think that makes it a great thing to question. I’m a big fan of both of the people and practices here and what they do because they make really complicated products. When I look at a project by Natascha, it’s so rich, and there’s so much to get into and experience in many different ways. That’s what I aim for in my own production.

Kolja Reichert: It seems like Luhmann’s idea of interruption has been fed into a system as something that is actually driving the system. What does it mean that the idea of artistic disruption has now informed a whole economy based on that idea? How does art still distinguish itself from other productions, when the startup guy who pitches to an investor has to present himself like an artist?

Simon Denny: It’s a different market. It’s a different model. There are so many differences, it’s hard to make a generalization. I’m not trying to start a tech company. You could start a tech company as an artwork, and that could also be interesting. Clayton M. Christensen’s book The Innovator’s Dilemma was a really interesting thing to look into in order for me to understand the context. The basic idea is that if a successful company has a product and it’s going very well and sales are good, then if there is some new approach or potential product identified that seems absurd and might work out in the future, they can’t justify the budget to fund it. And a young company can; it’s more agile, is more able to develop whatever product has no market at that point; there is less inertia. That’s what disruption is in the tech world. I think disruption in the way we relate to it in art is something outside of that.

Alexander Koch: I come from a very different position. I ask myself why the role model of the artist is so omnipresent and seductive for so many different people in so many different contexts. Understanding the contingency of the self, of all of us having dropped out of historical traditions, institutions, and concepts of the self, we understand that we are creators of our reality, despite the fact that there are all these other factors that create us. It comes down to a phenomenon of creation. At a certain point, you come to a perspective where the artist somehow becomes the mythical godlike creator who is able to turn water into wine.

Kolja Reichert: Which is also what financial speculators offer to their clients. Alexander Koch: It becomes an overall vocabulary that everybody is a creator of himself, of society, of the world. This is where the artist comes into play as the classical creator. And in the next step, this role model is instrumentalized in many different worlds. The question is: How do we relate to this?

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Natascha Sadr Haghighian: That’s a myth, and that myth is extremely powerful and successful, while also being completely hollow. In the Duchamp quote that you used for this evening, “Can one make works of art that are not of ‘art’?”, I made two circles: one around “one” and one around “make”. How do we understand the sentence now? Who is the one that makes the art today? Is it everyone, because everyone can be an artist? Is it the intern, the assistant, the fabricator, the production company, or the sculpture factory in China? And what is actually the “making” in art? Is it the skill of coming up with the idea? Or is it the actual process of craft? All these things are really pending, but they can’t be negotiated because this myth is so successful. The artist has to stay the creator by any means; that is the asset that is being bet on.

Alexander Koch: The myth of the artist is much more traditional and conservative outside of the art world, that is certain. But the fact that artists seem to be so seductive and attractive for many people in many different societies is not something that we should just be frustrated about, and say we’re instrumentalized. There is also a chance: What can you make out of that opportunity?

Simon Denny: Definitely.

Alexander Koch: We’re on the same page! [Laughter.]

Simon Denny: That was always my opinion.

Kolja Reichert: But is the interest really in what we are calling successful content, or is it not more in the artist itself as content. Take Miley Cyrus: People who have everything, who can be everywhere – it seems they still need to become visual artists today. Why is that?

Simon Denny: Because it’s a great form. One way to take what Alexander just said is that there is an increasing audience for what we do. Miley Cyrus: very smart producer. Why would you not want to include that in your skill set? Alexander Koch: You could also say that it’s the myth of self-determination. It’s interesting for Lady Gaga to say: I’m self-determined, and the art world is a place where I can show myself in a selfdetermined identity, maybe even better than in the music industry. This myth has something to offer all those who are responding to conditions they don’t control. There’s a desire to have control over your life, your productivity, your voice. The artist-model promises that. 

Alexander Koch (*1973) trained as an artist and is co-director of KOW gallery in Berlin. In 2008 he co-founded the German league of the New Patrons, an international network that helps citizens commission artworks in response to social concerns. In 2013 he expanded this initiative to Nigeria, Cameroon, and South Africa. He curated the show “Gestures of Disappearance”, which opens at Kunsthalle Bergen on May 28th 2015.

Simon Denny (*1982) is an artist and lives in Berlin. His solo exhibition at MoMA P.S.1 in New York opens on April 3rd 2015. Parallel to this, his work will be featured in New Zealand’s pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale. Simon Denny is represented by Galerie Daniel Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne, T283, Naples/Rome and Petzel Gallery, New York.

Artist Natascha Sadr Haghighian (*1987 in Budapest) has taken part in exhibitions at Scobart Projekt, Budapest (2011); FIKA, Pécs (H); and the group exhibition “Prostitution” at Demo Gallery, Budapest. She lives between Budapest and Berlin. (This bio is borrowed from bioswop.net). Natascha Sadr Haghighian is represented by König Galerie, Berlin and Carroll/Fletcher, London.

Kolja Reichert is a writer and editor at Spike. He lives in Berlin.