Aleksandra Mir

Interview - Haaning, Laurette & Mir

Institute of Contemporary Art, London, January 2003
By Cristina Ricupero

29 Jan - 16 March 2003
Institute of Contemporary Art, ICA Galleries, The Mall, London - UK

1. All of you seem to share the same interests and have a common sensibility in the way you approach art. Throughout your works, you have each dealt with legal, economical, media, social and political fields. At the same time, the processes you generate within these fields are quite different. How do you approach these fields?

Jens Haaning

I have approached legal economical, social and political fields in my work but not really that of the media. My most recent works are related mainly to social, political and cultural issues. The way I approach these fields is by creating cases that question the social, political and cultural aspects of coexistence.

Aleksandra Mir

You can't help but deal with "these fields" by simply going through your day. I guess the three of us just have different days.

Matthieu Laurette

I never decided "Oh yes great, tomorrow let's work with media and TV or legal fields!" They are surrounding us, we are part of it, so it seems clear to me that I have to deal with them. I'm just trying to find the best "spots" to develop activities that often interact with different audiences. I'm trying to "hack" or "hijack" contexts, media, audiences, budgets etc., to produce disjunctures. Disjunctures often generate their own tools, which one can in turn appropriate and use.

2. All of you give special emphasis to the conditions or the context in which the works are produced. Does that mean that the context determines the form of the projects and your choice of media?

Jens Haaning

In the process of making this exhibition I have noticed that I do not spend as much energy on influencing the context of the show as the other two artists. Somehow I believe that my works or concepts are able to survive the meeting with reality and I do not want to be in charge of everything surrounding them.

Almost all my concepts start without having any thoughts about which media they will use and the final choice is a quite rational decision. For instance, when I wanted to transport water from A to B and back in my piece Gwangju Imgingak (Water Exchange) (2002) - where I swapped water between the exhibition site of the Gwangju Biennale in the Southern part of South Korea and the city of Imgingak, the last civil South Korean city before the border with North Korea - I was first thinking of doing it with a bottle but was a little disturbed by establishing a performative moment centred around a human body (the body of a person filling or emptying the bottle). My conclusion was that it would be a good solution to use two pipelines, but that was too expensive and I ended up with a water truck which was able to realise the concept of transporting water from A to B and back. My concepts can quite often be scaled up or down and somehow I don't mind that the realisation also reflects the conditions under which the piece was produced.

Aleksandra Mir

I'll use any media, and I'll use myself in any role required for the work to function and be real. In Cinema for the Unemployed (1998) where I showed disaster movies for free during working hours, I employed myself in the project to screen the films and clean up after people for a week. In First Woman on the Moon (1999) I performed the protagonist for ten minutes, but 99% of the work there, over the course of five months, was collaborative administration at the Casco office in Utrecht and interaction with local people who we got involved to participate on the actual beach location two hours' drive away. So, in that case, paperwork, driving, meetings and sunbathing were probably my primary media. It varies a lot.

Matthieu Laurette

I'm a "self media" using tools that surround us and include their own systems of production and their own audiences, I don't work 'in vitro': I "really" went to TV shows, I "really" spent my production budgets on a car, or football score and scratch card games, I'm "really" trying to gain more citizenships etc. I also "really" bought Moneyback Products for the last ten years. I "really" did street interviews on the Champs Elysées where "real" people were quoting The Society of the Spectacle in front of the TV camera. All those realities (including exhibitions) require and generate their own media and forms.


3. Your projects generate active processes and the audience is forced to react or interact with your works as potential users or as critical actors. Could you give an example of how this principle functions?

Jens Haaning

For instance, in Trade Bartering (1996) it was possible to buy salami, beer, ham, snacks, wine and sweets alongside catalogues and posters at the ticket counter of Kunstnernes Hus in Oslo. The goods were purchased in Denmark and legally imported as art objects, thereby making it possible for visitors to the exhibition to shop at prices 40% cheaper than Norwegian supermarkets.

Except for this piece and Travel Agency (1997) and Super Discount (1998), where the audience could also participate by shopping, I don't really think that my works are especially interactive, and it's not really an aspect that I am interested in anymore.

Aleksandra Mir

I don't believe you can force anyone to anything in art. I try to create open systems that allow people to interact with the work at any level. Some will ignore it; some will contemplate it; some will take it further while someone else will destroy it. That sort of negotiation goes on all the time if you are serious about the public, and that is all acceptable and part of the work if the politics of the situation are made clear.

Matthieu Laurette

For example I asked Harald Szeemann for La Biennale di Venezia 2001, to write letters to the Ambassadors/Permanent Representatives to the United Nations in New York of the 112 countries that were not officially represented in the Venice Biennale that year. In these letters Szeemann asked each country if they could provide me with a citizenship if, in return, I represented them in the Biennale. We received only three answers and I'm still, so far, only a French citizen. The 112 letters were glued onto an official advertising billboard from the Biennale at the entrance of the Giardini, this billboard became the Other countries Pavilion (2001). Reaction from the audience was very varied, some felt offended that I wrote also to Afghanistan or some dictatorial countries asking for their citizenship, others wrote that Szeemann and I were neo-colonialists, some described me as a very hardcore political and conceptual artist, others didn't notice the work, others thought it was institutional critique. This is all probably true in many ways but from my point of view it was also a way to question my (and our) relationship with such art events where provenance tags are attached to artists.


4. How do you deal with public exposure and how do you articulate this (or not) in your work? How do you deal with mass media?

Jens Haaning

Public exposure and mass media are not really things I am spending a lot of time on in my praxis. I have always contacted other people through the traditional institutional channels and somehow I see myself as a very classical artist, even though I sometimes do pieces outside the traditional frame of the art institution and use some advanced media. Maybe this is because I have found a way to pose the questions I want to pose in the institution and I am satisfied with the responses and exchanges that I have with other human beings through the art channels.

Aleksandra Mir

I was a Media & Communications major in college before I made art, I wanted to work with publishing and I supported myself with freelance work in that realm for a long time, so the field is familiar. Depending on the situation, I now treat it as a parallel industry that I may or may not want to engage in. Some methods can be useful to carry over. In The Biography of D. C. (2002) I tried to be a journalist and get a personal story out of a stranger without getting emotionally involved. Regarding personal exposure, not every “opportunity” is productive, most aren't, but during the production of the First Woman on the Moon (1999), I decided to do it all and up the ante in the project. We initially turned Casco's tiny non-profit office in Utrecht into a fully-fledged communication centre, sending out press releases all over the world, announcing the event as an actual news item. We also put the whole production budget ($2000) into an advertisement. Next day, we started from scratch, building a goodwill economy that eventually involved a steel factory, two municipalities, fifty volunteers and Hasselblad, the camera producer that NASA employed, for the purpose of documentation. When the feedback started coming from the press, first locally, then growing bigger and bigger, we pursued this all the way. On the actual day, I welcomed three TV news stations with their teams covering the event for the purpose of global dissemination. It was interesting, because the live appearance of the teams on site, the stereotypical performance of the media, and their impressive equipment, added to the event and gave it further importance. We had effectively just turned a pile of sand, (there was nothing else there, unless you came to play make believe with us) so the news had to be made up on the spot. People got really excited because the “TV was there” and everyone was suddenly photographing one another, insisting on the event's historical importance. It came full circle that way but I remember my populist strategy causing some inside friction and offending several Dutch art professionals who considered it a sell-out. The point all along had been to refer back to the original moon landing, which we were there to beat. Only twelve men supposedly ever went. For the rest of the world population, it has become but a mediated reality, spawning a whole culture of conspiracy theories around it. I would find it difficult to reach that level of insight into the anatomy of such events (both real and fake), without having had any actual engagement with the forces that create them in the first place. I'd love it if more contemporary artists would at least intern at the media and gain access to the production of News, or maybe more media people could drop into art.

Matthieu Laurette

I first appeared on TV in 1993, on the French television game show Tournez Manège (The Dating Game), as just another contestant. When I was introduced to the audience, the presenter asked me what I wanted to become later in life and I answered: "an artist". She went on to ask me what medium I worked in, "painting, sculpture?", to which I answered "multimedia". This was the first "rendez vous" in a series of Apparitions which I made between 1993 and 1995. In this context I was never introduced as an artist. From finding myself among the crowd applauding in TV audiences to being a guest on talk shows I was part of the image, I was one of what TV calls "real people". They were using me, I was using them. I am a product and I am a self-media.

In 1996, I decided to merge the mass media Apparitions with the "money-back products" activities I had been developing for several years. After being selected for the TV show Je passe—la télé (I'm on TV), I started to promote and develop this activity on TV and in newspapers. In a snowball effect, each show or article was generating other invitations and interviews. From trashy prime time TV shows to national evening TV news. I finally ended up in the British Daily Record being called The Freebie King! Most of the time the media never addressed my Apparitions as part of my "art activities". To make it more effective, it was clear to me that I should use air time and columns in newspapers to communicate my "money back life" system as a kind of "How to" method to live for free, without explaining why this also was perhaps art. I was not there to comment on my activity, I was there to make it. The DRINKS BY archive (since 1999) could also be seen as a comment on artists' public exposure. Recently with Déjà vu, the series of International Lookalike meetings in Paris, Turin, Perth and Seoul, there was huge media coverage, those events are also designed for that, Reality erupts within the Spectacle and the Spectacle is real.

5. All of you have dealt with the context of the art institution to produce or generate a new context within it. How do you deal with the institution as a public space and how are you developing this at the ICA?

Jens Haaning

The way I understand and deal with art institutions are as public spaces very much connected to, and part of, other aspects of culture and society. I often reflect on the art institution as a player in a bigger game by posing questions like: What is the political function of the art institution in Great Britain, and to what extent does it function as a reflection room for different issues, for example post-colonial questions?

At the ICA I am showing Foreigners Free, which offers free entrance to foreign visitors to art institutions. It deals with issues of immigration and racism, acknowledging the complexities of cultural exchange and integration on both sides.

Aleksandra Mir

By trying it out it like everything else. Timezone (2002), the set of world clock drawings that hang in the lobby, was first challenged by resistant argumentation from within the ICA, that as a public service institution, it could not be encouraging confusion about the time it displays on its public premises. As lame as some framed drawings may seem, it instantly caused a debate: installing the piece in this un-coded general area of the lobby, where the public had not yet entered the art galleries (and thereby not yet given their sanction to be mind-fucked) was considered potentially harmful and would arguably work against the intended (public service) purpose of the institution itself. It took two days to reach an installation agreement about this work.

Matthieu Laurette

The gallery space and its economy is just another tool and context I like to use when it's effective for what I'm doing. I don't consider gallery spaces more or less real than other public spaces. There are rules and formats like everywhere else. For example Déjà Vu - The 5th International Lookalike Meeting at the ICA will use and twist the format and codes of the 'traditional' public opening. Celebrity lookalikes and the usual art crowd attending the reception will mix and interact in front of the media. Susan Greenhill, a celebrity photographer usually working with the magazine Vogue, has been commissioned to document the event, lots of TV crews and journalists will also be there. Even if this public event will be in fact semi-private (you need an invitation card etc.) in many ways this is going to reach a much broader audience. The DRINKS BY show featuring Picasso and Damien Hirst also deals with popularity in another way.


6. A lot of the works presented at the ICA are the results of contexts you have created or are developing, but you obviously don't perceive this presentation to be merely a trace or documentation of the projects. How can you bring your public projects into the context of the institution without allowing them to lose their pertinence? How does this "documentation" take form and how do you perceive and define it?

Jens Haaning

All my projects are made in the context of art institutions. What I have done in the case of the ICA is move the projects from one institution to another. Of course seeing fragments or documentation of work at the ICA is a quite different way to experience the pieces than in their original form. But since the works I am doing are quite conceptual it doesn't really matter how somebody gets to know about them: seeing them live, in fragmented versions at the ICA, in catalogues or magazines, or even spoken about in a bar. The new work for the ICA, Redistribution (London-Karachi) works well just as a spoken concept. It consists of removing all the chairs from the ICA café and sending them to Karachi in Pakistan to be placed on a street where anyone who needs a chair can simply pick one up. This 'Robin Hood' act, in terms of "taking from the rich to give to the poor", aims to question the West's perception of the rest of the world and to raise issues concerning the global economy and cultural exchange. Of course the people who visit the exhibition will be in a privileged situation being able to experience one of the places that the piece is connecting (the café of the ICA and a street corner in Karachi) with all its details. But seen from my point of view, the piece is able to work even before I have physically realised it, and it will also make sense later on in other more reduced forms.

To give form to the presentation of earlier works at the ICA reminds me of the process of giving my works a title. I have chosen the media that I think are best to describe the intention of the work and have tried to be very selective in my presentation of information and objects in the hope of creating a situation that can be challenging and not too didactic. I have been asked several times why I don't document some of my works with video, and I am sure that some of them would create quite interesting videos, but the photographs and objects that I am showing at the ICA give a better introduction to the way I am thinking and the intentions behind the works. Because the works are presented without using video I never think in terms of storyboards, performance or process.

Aleksandra Mir

I have been interested in collaborating with Jens and Matthieu to explore the wealth of options that the paradox of staging a 'public art' exhibition in an institution opens up. I am not proclaiming that all of what you see on the walls is necessarily art. But it is certainly work: proposals, residues and ephemera, among stuff we've made to resonate for the occasion. My idea to create a replica of Stonehenge is five year’s old. Its realisation was proposed and rejected twice. With my cancelled proposals reaching critical mass, I started rethinking the validity of their presentation. I made a new 3D model of Stonehenge II this year, hoping to engage new collaborators in realising the piece to its full potential, taking more of a 'trade show' approach to it here at the ICA.

Matthieu Laurette

What you seem to call documentation are in my case forms made by others, products generated through a context that contains their process... In my view, the field of art starts - "takes off" - at the point where form begins. In reality, I feel I build the interpretation into the form, together with the commentary itself, which is implicitly contained in the work. Commentary is an aspect of the form (of the work), which operates visibly in the process and mechanisms. I've tried to give a form to these mechanisms, but also to take these mechanisms as form.

For example I have been turning rules and laws, globalisation and commodification inside out as in my Citizenship Project (1997 - ongoing) where I started by enquiring how to legally obtain more citizenships than the one(s) gained at birth. Initially it's a database (www.citizenship-project.com), providing information about links on citizenship and immigration resources. I'm also developing research into different contexts according to various opportunities I'm offered. I found that many foreign countries are putting out the welcome mat for various reasons - to stem a talent brain drain, for example, or to attract the tax revenue of cash-flush retirees looking for places to spend their golden years. Under its Economic Citizenship Program, intended to reward individuals who contribute to its economy, the tiny Caribbean nation of Belize was allowing anyone willing to pay $50,000 in fees to become a citizen. In addition, a fee was paid to licensed immigration consultants who prepared applications on behalf of the government. Belize has terminated the sale of its passports to non-nationals, fearing the programme could be abused by international criminals, after the September 11 attacks on the US. The constitution of the English-speaking Central American country has been changed to end the "economic citizenship investment programme" despite the fact that it has been a steady source of income for the government. But some other countries are still developing a similar programme. For example, to be eligible for Dominican citizenship, an applicant must give a non-refundable gift of US $50,000 to the Government. This covers individuals plus spouse and two unmarried children under 18. As Aleksandra said, at the ICA my approach is also more like a trade show, I want to set up financing contracts with collectors, and sponsors to obtain more citizenships - it's a long-term project!

7. Humour seems to be essential to your projects. The works appear at the same time generous and challenging, critical and playful. For instance, you have used humour when dealing with delicate subject matter - multiculturalism, immigration, unemployment, etc. Could you comment on this ambiguity and how it is important for you?

Jens Haaning

In my use of humour I often have Sigmund Freud in mind, who calls humour the small psychoanalysis, his theory was that humour is able to do the same thing as psychoanalysis but on a smaller scale. In some of my works I am stepping quite close to some loaded topics in Western society and the use of humour is motivated by an ambition to establish a moment of analysis or therapy related to the topic, which I hope creates a subtle and complex situation for the receiver.

Aleksandra Mir

A good gag takes care of everything.

Matthieu Laurette

It's good to have fun, why should art always be boring?


8. In your works, economics are dealt with on different levels, by either generating new economies, collaborating with other "economies", or by using the economy of the art context for different purposes. How do you characterise this situation?

Jens Haaning

My interest in economics is based on an interest in economies as cultural phenomena. The times I have included it in my work were mainly because I found the economic aspect an interesting metaphor for the cultural situation. For example, when I did works which were related to the price differences in different European countries I saw the economy as a metaphor for the cultural differences or divergences.

Aleksandra Mir

There is one very simple reason to work within the economies of the world at large: The Art World lacks the resources, speed, ease and competence to realise much more than a discourse and economy surrounding itself, there is therefore the constant need to unwind this perpetual circular argument.

Matthieu Laurette

I think those economies are some of our tools. Money, making money, spending money, wasting money is part of my activity. One of my long-term projects is to set up an offshore bank to produce other collaborative art economic projects. Currently its legal aspect is as a non-profit organisation that raises money. I also donated my production budget for my show at Casco projects in Utrecht (1998) to the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam, which was launching a subscription for its new wing extension.

9. You all work with and interrogate the public realm and have chosen collectively to name the exhibition at the ICA Publicness. Public art has traditionally been somewhat static in its approach, placing works in public areas with the assumption that they will add significance to, or decorate the area. Your projects seem to function in a very different way. What is your own perception of public art in relation to your practice and how do you define "public work"?

Jens Haaning

I am OK with the title, but since you are asking I must say that I find it somehow old fashioned, very French and post-modern, somehow ok and poetic but not really sharp and having the problem that it is not really living up to being contemporary - maybe a really good title ten or fifteen years ago, but the way it appears to me it is to play safe by not really taking the risk of stating anything. As I mentioned earlier, the art institution is for me very much a part of the public realm and somehow my thoughts about being in and out the institution stopped years ago and today I see all the projects I am doing as public art.

Aleksandra Mir

Hopefully this show can expand the received notions of some of that. I am not yet sure what I think of it. Support structures and means of communication about art are changing, so is resistance. I find it to be quite a wild zone at the moment and that's where I want to be working. As we were debating the title with Jens and Matthieu in English, a common language that isn't our first, it seemed appropriate to invent a new word for what we are collectively attempting here, by way of a grammatical flaw. I am excited to see that it is already working and people are bouncing ideas back. During a pathetic sunbathing attempt on a cold beach in Sweden in the summer of '99, and with no one else around but my family there, I spread out a bunch of exotic 80's cocktail party parasols in the sand, to simulate a more happening beach culture somewhere else, where I'd wished I'd been instead. The work lasted for about an hour before my mother decided we should pack up and leave (clean up the litter!). The photo was first printed for this show here at the ICA a couple of weeks ago and the first person who saw it, referred to it as an example of Private-Public Art.

Matthieu Laurette

I think every artwork is public work.