Interview with Saskia Holmkvist

January 27, 2009

Riccardo Giacconi: In your work you are concerned with the ‘performative’ aspect in life, even in everyday life. We all play a role, we all perform, and it is hard to escape this condition. I am wondering what could be the way out. Can there be an ‘authentic’ dimension for human life within contemporary society? Or maybe the institution of a society already implies a ‘performative’ aspect for its members?

Saskia Holmkvist: You’re right that the institution of society implies a performative aspect for its members, but in a different way today than let’s say 20-30 years ago as the roles are in constant transformation. Strangely, today as there is little space for what’s authentic, the authentic quality has become highly estimated. Or maybe it’s not so strange? It increases the awareness of what authenticity is, but somehow that awareness spoils the possibility of ever becoming so.
Today’s individualistic society puts a heavy pressure on every individual to succeed in life on many different levels. That pressure has given rise to, and acceptance of, different kinds of corrections and control mechanisms to help us out. For example pedagogical approaches, coaches of different kinds, therapies, all of which are strongly ‘norm’ forming. And as it’s primarily our behavior that is being affected or worked on today one has to say that a part of that authentic individual is being lost.

RG: Is there a relation between your work and theater? Watching two of your last videos (In Characterand Role Control, 2008) I felt as if there was a connection with the Scandinavian realism of Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg. And, in relation to what you just said, I was wondering if their “fourth wall” had anything in common with the Big Brother phenomenon.
SH: TV-film and the narrative traditions around documentary film of today have to a great extent originated from the social drama and realism of Strindberg and Ibsen. My relation to that tradition is more like a sediment as my main influences come from the tradition of documentary film and how one creates credibility around the documentary genre. I brought that relationship into my work with the performing actors in my latest films. My initial idea was to work in a similar way to what I had done once before: by talking to people that work with interviewing and counseling in their professions and edit the recorded meetings into a dramaturgy of that material, a kind of docu-drama. But after a while I realized that the drama wouldn’t happen with the ‘reality’ material I had. That’s how I decided to write a script from the answers I had gathered and fictionalize the narrative.
In working with the actors I was very keen on obtaining the feeling of realism and documentary so the rupture between the dramaturgy of fiction would be stronger. The films are both a blink towards theater and performing in daily life. The titles In Character and Role Control both allude to acting and role-play in society and it’s puposely unclear whether they relate to the acting in the films or the acting in our lives.
When it comes to Big Brother and the “fourth wall” I would say that the program is based on the same method of working that I wanted to use for my films from the start. A situation is set up in the hope that the people are interesting enough to edit an interesting dramaturgy from. It became problematic in my case and it is also problematic for the Big Brother phenomenon. There is no drama to start with, only a pressure on each individual to create interesting material for the editors. How could anyone be authentic in such a situation? But the world of media isn’t at all interested in the authentic person, only in persons that can seem authentic. The better someone is at creating the wanted image, the better the credibility of the program. And when something is credible we believe in it as authentic. The problem with Big Brother is when what is happening between the four walls isn’t interesting enough. Then the “fourth wall” can’t be obtained which I’m certain is the goal.

RG: What is and what is not “interesting enough” for reality?: probably this is the question of our time. The expression “reality show” is in itself very emblematic. Reality becomes a show; reality (like truth) is produced through a careful process. We always have to be aware of that: this seems to be a point that you are making in your work.
SH: What is “interesting enough” is a really hard question. But I would say that reality gets “interesting enough” when it involves us in new emotions or maybe just emotions that give us experiences or thoughts that lead on to involvement. If we take politics as an example, and I’m probably influenced by the thoughts of Chantal Mouffe who I’m reading right now, she argues that because most European political parties position themselves in the centre — social-democrats as well as conservatives — it creates fake polemics as they are actually in consensus about most questions. People see through this and loose their engagement. If politicians on the other hand position their views far apart, people would have to take a stand to a greater extent. Thereby they would have to involve their own emotions, thoughts and arguments, which engages.
When it comes to “reality shows” I believe that the construction of the program is linked to post-modern thought on the deconstruction of reality. And the interest in deconstruction of reality has brought a decrease in interest for dramatized fiction. But as reality is most often quite boring, the only solution for the “reality show” concept was to bring in the advantages of fiction and dramaturgy to engage the viewer from a reality set-up with the help of selection, representation, delivery and so on. This kind of manipulative reality in our society has as you say been central in many of my works within different domains. I’m especially interested in aspects of credibility and trustworthiness, which is an area that is severely beset or strained in today’s society. It’s strained because people loose faith in, for example, a democratic tool such as journalism when we know that media is dominated by lobbyists and pre-articles or when social professions are more and more controlled by methods for the meeting with a client or customer to control and maximize production and efficiency to the benefit of society rather than meeting the person. And here we are back to what I was saying earlier about the diminishing of authentic contact between people.

RG: Let’s talk about interviews. One of your most well-known works is Interview with Saskia Holmkvist(2005), a sort of conceptual mise-en-abyme on the interview medium, where you hired a media relations expert to train you to deliver a short statement about your work with apparent sincerity and authority. But also all your recent works somehow seem to explore this form, in different ways. The device of the interview is very much connected with the ‘performative’ aspect of human relations, which we were talking about before. I would like to know your take on that. Do you think an interview can be considered a challenge, a duel?
SH: Yes, an interview will always be a challenge or duel between two parts. And most of the time they don’t want the same thing. That’s why there exist so many interview techniques and answering techniques to be able to master the situation. The interview is a situation of limited time where the aim of the interviewer is to reveal or at least get behind a supposed facade that the interviewee is putting up. It has many similarities to a normal discussion as the techniques around interviewing depart from the critical discussion. But the interview is about creating a discussion with a point.
People who are interviewed in the media are often people in official positions, which means that they have media training in how to master the journalist. This creates a special kind of interview where the person being interviewed can be the one mastering it. But aspects of interviewing exist in a long list of professions. Even people working at a kindergarten are today instructed on how to tone down criticism when the media arrives. This means that every person in today’s society walks around with prepared answers to be able to defend themselves, their organization or company.
In Interview with Saskia Holmkvist, which was my first work on interviewing, the aim was to reflect upon the commodification of artists who are expected to deliver statements about their work for media attention. And the better you are at it the more media you will get. My latest works In Character and Role Control treat role-play or the faking in the interview situation. Here the aim was to reflect upon the manipulative power structures that are embedded in different forms of interviews.

RG: I am interested in knowing more about the way your work is informed by the institution that shows it. For example, for your exhibition at Arnolfini one of the pieces was your Preview Talk, which you did with a media trainer, offering you advice and comments on how to present the exhibition the best way. It may seem that this practice takes its steps from the ‘Institutional Critique’ approach, but in fact I think it is much more complex.
SH: To speak of institutional critique today is complicated as the institutions a lot of the time have taken over the role from the artists of speaking of institutional critique. It’s become a way of reflecting upon one’s own position as an art institution.
In most of my work dealing with institutions I’ve been interested in the relation between the artist, the institution and its audience and how I, in my position as an artist, can alter the roles. I don’t work in a drastic way. I’m more interested in slipping in differences to the normal ceremonies of an institution and by that give an insight into the structures of an institution. It’s actually been role-playing by switching the parts slightly but also by introducing new professionals as mediums into a discussion. Preview Talk was announced as a normal ‘Preview Talk’ by the artist before the opening. By playing with the expectations of the audience of that situation I could problematize the role of the artist as a persona and someone who is expected to perform or talk about his or her work. Basically, the hierarchy of the situation was being dismantled by a set-up with a coach as medium between the audiece and me when talking about the work, some of the preparations, insecurities and so on that one works at before such a speech.
I have also done work on communication with other institutions. For example, in two different projects at Gasworks in London and Göteborgs Konsthall I was working with PR companies, altering the roles by working together on the promotional ideas behind an exhibition and then exhibiting that process or, as in the other case, focusing on the educational department’s outreach work, rather than communicating the artist. In another work, Internship in Private at Shedhalle in Zurich in 2007, I connected the staff of the institution and three of their former interns with a psychiatrist to do individual sessions. I was interested in the problems around unpaid labor and the German debate of Generation Praktikum. My intention was to get close to how they dealt with the politics in their work on a personal level. The sessions were filmed and the psychiatrist was instructed to talk to each person about their relations at work and expectations of the situation when working together during the short period of a three-month internship.

RG: What are your plans for the future?
SH: Over 2007-2008 I have finalized four new works, all of which were quiet long-term projects, so now I’m going into some research. I’m interested in finding new combinations of staged discussions and real ones. I’m also interested in bringing in more political issues and the dynamics between people when it comes to political questions as this is a big interest of mine which hasn’t been represented in my work so much before.

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