A CONVERSATION BETWEEN LIBIA CASTRO, ÓLAFUR ÓLAFSSON, AND ELLEN BLUMENSTEIN
At this very moment, celebrated Spanish-Icelandic artist duo Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson are representing Iceland at the 54th International Art Exhibition—La Biennale di Venezia 2011. Showing at the Venice Biennale is of course a great honour for every artist; indeed most of Iceland’s finest have participated on the nation’s behalf over the last decades. We thought some of you might be interested in knowing what the pair are getting up to in Venice, so we got kind permission from the Icelandic Art Center to print this conversation with the pair that appears in the official Biennale literature. To learn more about the Venice Biennale and Iceland’s participation in it head on to www.cia.is, otherwise read on and enjoy.
Ellen Blumenstein: You come from dance and painting [Libia] versus multimedia [Ólafur]; your influences range from (neo-)concretism to conceptualism, institutional critique, and relational aesthetics, to name just a few.
Libia Castro: Yes, I finished my bachelor’s degree in painting and Ólafur his in multimedia. But when we met in the master’s programme, I started exploring multimedia and Ólafur delved into painting. Knowledge of painting was important for both of us in the development of our early environments and for our photography and video work, too.
Ólafur Ólafsson: Yes, we had differing artistic backgrounds as a result of our studies and obviously different cultural backgrounds as well. We found it exciting to learn about and from each other. I had good teachers in the multimedia department at the Icelandic Art Academy and the conceptual aspect was strong. The school was poorly equipped in terms of audio-visuals, though, so any experiments in that direction were low profile. When Libia and I started working together, we wanted to merge the physical and the concrete, the conceptual and the contextual. This brought us to environments where we could experiment with these different elements and approaches.
EB: I intuit that finding each other as a Spanish-Icelandic couple and artist duo with different cultural and political backgrounds was not so much the trigger for the multifacetedness of your work, but an effect of this joint interest on a very visible level. Would I be right in describing this diversity as a major common ground, on a deeper level than your obviously similar interests and aesthetics?
L+Ó: Yes, it’s also an attitude towards life, and a desire to listen carefully, even if it doesn’t fit the average format…
EB: I’d argue that this open-endedness defines your position towards each other, towards the art context and towards the “real” world better and more comprehensively than any attempts to name your influences, interests, and sources could do.
L+Ó: True, but on the other hand we question those influences. Our practice is a result of our living conditions and without understanding this it would be misread. We have been inspired by the avant-gardes of the 20th century, such as Dada, surrealism, conceptualism, arte povera, and the situationist/interventionist movements. From the Icelandic context we feel a direct influence from Fluxus, live Art and Dieter Roth. To be based in the Netherlands was also important. Friends like Jeanne van Heswijk, Bickvanderpol, Lara Almarcegui, Jeroen Jongeleen, Marc Bijl, Nicoline van Harskamp, Rosella Biscotti, Wendelien van Oldenburg, and architects, thinkers, and cultural producers such as Emiliano Gandolfi, Lucia Babina, and their collective Cohabitation Strategies, come from different age groups and were part of our scene, which at different times shared with us the possibility of socially committed or critical forms of art.
EB: I would describe your field of interest in the broadest sense as a political one—but this ranges from gender relations to identity politics or subjectivity, to the civic arena, (immaterial) labour, migration, and more.
L+Ó: All our works involve people and their living conditions, and they include social matters and political awareness. Why do you say “but”? These subjects are all treated in the discourses of emancipatory philosophies, and as such they are all directly interconnected. An art that tries to reflect on these matters needs to develop a vision in dialogue with them.
EB: I was connecting my remark with a “but” because I find it significant for your work that it is fed more by an involved/committed attitude towards the world that surrounds you than by a specific political concern. These are obviously two possible but different approaches which I am trying to isolate in order to clarify yours. I would like to know more about the way in which you establish this dialogue between philosophy and art.
LC: We’re drawn to emancipatory questions, utopias, movements, philosophies; it’s the idea of emancipation and the wish to understand (or simply engage with) the human condition and its paradoxes, its beliefs, dreams, and desires, and the “real” material, economic, social, and historical conditions that shape (our) society and culture and (our) conflicts. We translate these aspects into the artistic context we participate in, and we want to reflect on them from an experimental perspective.
EB: Tell me how you decide on the issues you examine.
L+Ó: We come to our subjects through our work, through dealing with questions that bring up other questions, desires, or ideas. A Buddhist would say, “we are trapped in samsara”. The issues are all interrelated with the work, our life, and other people’s lives (and societies). The internal questions the work poses also determine how to proceed. The sites to which we travel and work in are also important. Indeed, our projects always have an investigative character and for us they only make sense if they can be placed in relation to life and the in-between of art and life. We examine questions about our context, our time, our background, and our possible future. These questions are a continual redefinition. We work intuitively. The first research phase can be focused or quite expansive—it depends. We might get lost somewhere only to come back with something substantial that caught us.
EB: I’d like to get hold of a certain expansiveness I sense in your work, to trace the source of your strategy of deliberately juxtaposing topics, influences, and materialities, and of re-referencing previous works of yours. I am especially thinking of your early environments, like your project at Platform Garanti in Istanbul, ‘20 minus Minutes’ (2003). One project, ‘Your country doesn’t exist’ (2003, ongoing), for example, came out of this exhibition—and you have decided to develop a new form of it for Venice now.
LC: Our early environments were sensual, informal, sculptural, and conceptual models for exhibitions as situations. We questioned the context, expected forms, and frame of the given space, but also entered into an open dialogue with its immediate surroundings. To reflect on the “now”, we wanted to create a layered situation and sensitise it. The idea was to set up an open fieldwork to zoom in on some particular aspects and work on them in depth. The environments were the starting point for an approach we then pursued in subsequent works.
ÓÓ: Juxtaposing those elements you mention is a game of giving a new significance to familiar signs. On the one hand we reveal their constructedness according to a set of rules and values, and on the other create a space for transforming them into another relational order. This took us to Brecht’s ‘Verfremdung’, and to the tremendous changes Duchamp brought about by inventing the ready-made and opening up new levels of perception.
In ‘20 minus Minutes’ and the other environments the viewer is immersed in this initially disorienting space which prickles the senses and simultaneously addresses the concrete and the symbolic space. Many elements are “estranged” through their new role or relation to the space or to each other and ask for an engagement with a somewhat disconcerting and at times dissenting setup.
LC: The aspect of re-referencing is a nomadic approach; it’s a way to rework earlier projects in relation to a new site, and it enables us to link aspects that originally related to a different site with the new environment, both formally and in terms of content.
‘Your country doesn’t exist’, for example, is a work that originated in the laboratory of the environments and has since developed its own trajectory. The environments were our studio, which moved from place to place; there are other works that came from this context. We were interested in working in and out of a space under its given conditions, and in generating concrete links between different spaces. ‘Your country…’ was intended to travel, to examine different territories, and pass through different languages. While always staying the same, the work changes each time through its manifestation on site; it’s like a mirror.
EB: Are there any threads running through your work, or patterns that reappear in different projects?
LC: You could say that there are two main paths which feed into and question each other. One is an interventionist approach, appropriating and reinventing given structures. The other observes, maps, and portrays reality.
L+Ó: Our slide carrousels, which were always developed as part of our environments, map places and portray people in their lived-in surroundings. Since the environments themselves were always a synthesis of us encountering the place, the slide shows introduced a distance into their immediacy and concreteness. They enabled us to ask questions about a particular reality and how it could be represented, and they paved the way for the later video works. All our videos are portraits, documents of performances or actions/interventions. The portraits are either of people working or giving testimony about their situations and living conditions. The documents of intervention-performances record us or others performing a public action.
EB: Let me come back to your interest in the concept of “estrangement” which as we know was developed by Bertolt Brecht. His approach to theatre was always closely connected to participation and the transmission of a clear message—which you would probably define differently for your practice. Curiously, his term ‘Lehrstück’ is translated to English as “learning play”. The literal translation, though, would be “teaching play”. Here we are with the relationship between learning and teaching again.
L+Ó: Yes we have been inspired by Brecht’s ideas, but also by other artists who have furthered them in different ways. We like the radicalism of Brecht’s vision, with its participatory concern and use of distancing devices to reflect on the ideological construct of capitalist reality.
EB: I wonder if you see any parallels in your work to the didacticism of Brecht.
L+Ó: No, we don’t. There is a didactic aspect we play and work with, at least in some of our projects, but Brecht had a rather authoritarian idea of didacticism that we don’t have.
EB: Humour and play are important strategies in your work.
L+Ó: Yes, humour and play are very important indeed. They are relativisers; they are subversive and destabilising aspects, and that is how we use them. They are existential factors we can include. They can free us from constraints, and undermine hierarchies and reorder them.
EB: You have made critical work on social and political subjects, but you have also worked directly with political activist groups. How does this relate to your artistic practice?
ÓÓ: We work first and foremost in dialogue with the art context, but our practice is very often enriched by ideas from other fields. Working with political activist groups is a way of deepening our knowledge of social and political issues, and of bringing some of their experience into our work. For ‘Avant-garde Citizens’, for example, we joined De Bezoekersgroup, a group of people who regularly visit undocumented migrants imprisoned at the detention centre at Rotterdam Airport. We joined the group twice to attend a mass at the detention centre. Officially they were helping the priest to arrange the chairs, hand out the songbooks, and so on, while actually they established communication between some of the people and their lawyers and/or family and friends, or just listened to their stories or answered their questions. Those were weird experiences in which we witnessed oppression, manipulation, pragmatism, post-colonialism, patronisation, hope, and despair.
EB: Your relation to your collaborators on the one hand, and to the audience on the other, is an issue you renegotiate constantly. One ongoing relationship, for example, is to the composer Karólína Eiríksdóttir. She composed the music for ‘Caregivers’ and ‘The Constitution of the Republic of Iceland’ (2008/2011)—which you will also present in Venice—and she is also composing the music for the new version of ‘Your country doesn’t exist’. This relationship is special, for sure, but you have also collaborated with a choir, with activists, asylum seekers, illegal immigrants, caregivers, lobbyists, ministers—the list is long. Could you go into more detail about the role these different individuals play in your work processes and how far they shape the final work?
ÓÓ: People are our inspiration and our muses. Our friend Herman Kerkhof, for example, is a Dutch jeweller (fifth generation), clock restorer, gardener, cyclist, passionate provocateur, lover of people, and the instigator of chance meetings—the more absurd the better. He performed in a few of our early works and for a while he was probably the person who had seen most of our works in various places in the Netherlands and in Spain, Iceland, Istanbul, and Belgium—apart from us. At first we didn’t collaborate much with other artists. We were in dialogue with them, for sure, and that was and is very important for us. But for our projects we worked with people who were not art professionals and whom we met by chance. We met Chucci and Asdrubal in Havana, for example, when we started working on our project ‘… no te creas cosas’ for the 8th Havana Biennial in 2003. Chucci and Asdrubal were hanging out at a gas station where we stopped to buy rum, so we started talking. We showed them some of our posters, and in return they invited us to a party. They became our assistants, and we also collaborated with their families and friends. They were the ones who introduced us to the local saying “no te creas cosas” which means “don’t be smug about yourself”, and we picked that up as the title for our work, like we often do.
The idea for ‘The Constitution of the Republic of Iceland’ was motivated by our professional dialogue with Karólína Eiríksdóttir. From working with her we have learned how our concepts hooked up with our collaborators’ ideas and vice versa—in regards to time, space, abstraction, and engagement.
EB: On the other hand, there is the audience. Susanne Leeb writes in her essay that “your works are not participative in the sense that the audience would be directly involved in an activity”, but that within them you debate the role of the spectator by confronting different spheres with one another. I agree with her, and would like to follow up the idea of the status of the viewer rather than the collaborator. As mentioned earlier, you traverse differing social spheres—by entering public space, by opening up the art space to other social groups than the art world, by creating ambivalent objects or situations that function in different worlds, by producing a piece for television, to name only a few—and thus make your work accessible to wider audiences.
ÓÓ: We try to create different ways into the work. Because who is the art audience? Some of our latest videos are now being shown in universities, film festivals, NGOs, and activist websites and events. To a certain extent these audiences read the work differently from the art professionals. We are happy with that and want to connect to those different readings. For our MFA in Groningen we wrote a ‘Viewer’s Manifesto’: “Dare to be open. Dare to look. Dare to see. Dare to feel. Dare to touch. Dare to get surprised. Dare to be critical. Dare to disagree. Dare to look beyond. Dare to go too far. Dare to not get anywhere. Dare to experience”.
EB: There is the project ‘Uterus Flags’, in which you hung chains of those typical festive chains of flags across whole sections of different cities and thus inserted a carnivalesque moment into everyday street life.
LC: Like ‘Your country doesn’t exist’, the ‘Uterus Flags’ intervene into public space. They appropriate the well-known festive ritual of decorating the streets with triangular flags on a chain, as Daniel Buren has done. Formally, they play with repetition, because the abstracted figure of the female sexual organs is a triangle too. They go back to a basic form, to a strong signifier. When researching for the project, we investigated medieval heraldry and found out that it has almost no female symbols. The ‘Uterus Flags’ have something primitive and timeless about them, something Dionysian, as fertility rituals have. But while Dionysus is a male energy/god, this is female (sexual) energy brought to the street. The flags are a celebration of the female through an abstract representation of the sexual organs. The ones we have done up to now are gentle because of their colours, but they are also orgiastic and sometimes even disturbing to passers-by. I find it funny and sensual to see them flapping in the wind. We heard endless comments about them from all kinds of people, ranging from really erotic, hot stuff, to witty remarks and giggling recognition, to serious anger or aggression. Some people even cut them down. Predictably, response in Italy has been the loudest and most proactive so far. The work triggered a broad discussion. The press reported, and there were several letters to the editor for or against the work.
EB: You said elsewhere that your works are often site-related. If I apply this term to your sound works, how would you say that they reflect an interior environment? Perhaps you could talk about this in relation to the new version of ‘Your country doesn’t exist’ in the city space of Venice. The piece will be a performance recorded on video and audio, and will result in both a video and a separate audio work.
ÓÓ: It’s a site-related recording, since it will also capture sounds from the city, and this environment will directly affect the recording. Rather than talking about space, we prefer to talk about context; we’re interested in creating our works in relation to sites. Maybe our audio works are more related to context than site. ‘Living Room Reading – The Episode of Hrut and Mord Fiddle’, for example, reflects on Iceland as a site, and its construct through the centuries until today. The text that is read, the position it holds, and the foreign voice reading it, contrast with the site, though they are still part of it. For us site-relation is an attitude to perception or communication rather than a means in itself.
EB: Relational aesthetics is a term that the French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud coined in the 1990s to describe artistic practices which emphasise “human relations and their social context” (Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics p.113)—key protagonists being Rirkrit Tiravanija, Philippe Parreno, Pierre Huyghe, or Carsten Höller. But to me their projects oftentimes merely serve to highlight a social/communal activity within the art context—instead of questioning the relation between the art, its presentation, and the viewer on a more structural level. I’d say that your practice goes way beyond that, because it assesses the configuration of the audience and constructs the exhibition installation from there.
L&Ó: Yes, you could say something like that.