Let’s begin with your workplace.
Some people still think that an artist can only work in a studio and sell recognisable objects such as paintings and sculptures. As you explained at a symposium on art research at MACBA, you once had to go through the ordeal of having to explain to a tax inspector in Belgium -where you were living at the time- how and where you worked.
Yes, he didn’t understand how anyone could declare their home as their workplace. The reason my house is my workplace has a practical origin. I worked in a studio for five years, until I had my first son. After he was born I didn’t go as often, so I gave it up. There are many ways of dealing with having kids, some artists change their work routine because of them; in my case it wasn’t like that, I incorporated my son to the point that I couldn’t work if he wasn’t with me. I’ve become accustomed to combining my work with my domestic life, and I haven’t suffered from it too much, I’ve always had my kids around while working.
Has working under these circumstances, in a domestic environment, affected your work?
Most likely. I used to work in the living room, which meant that what couldn’t be done there had to be done elsewhere, at other people’s studios… but little by little I stopped doing things that required space, and so the gallery became my studio. In this way, the work had to be made on site. Everything would be done inside the gallery, I didn’t get the chance to test things out beforehand, so I got used to this suicidal way of working, accepting that the results might not work out. Following this, I began to teach and travel a lot, so I spent less and less time in the living room. I got used to working everywhere: airports, train stations, bars, and, most of all, in libraries.
Could you tell us about the process of preparation for your projects? Many of them appear to involve a very long and thorough research phase. You worked on the Stasi archives for years, or on figures such as Lenny Bruce or Martin Kippenberger. The process is very intense, and for that to occur you have to be passionate about the subject. As you have affirmed on some occasions, it comes close to what could be called a personal hobby. In this sense, art and life are very much connected.
Yes, I do spend time researching as part of my working process. I spent two years working on the Stasi and three years on Kippenberger. They were amateur investigations… you never know where they will take you when you begin. When you ask for money for a project and they ask you about its final aim, it’s hard to define because at that point you still don’t know how the project will be. Regarding the art/life dichotomy, I don’t understand why people separate them. It’s like saying that a gallery is a space where time stops. I remember that with the Steal This Book project, some students who were invigilating at the Lyon Biennial, where it was exhibited, proposed a “heist”: to take the books and place them inside a supermarket. The aim, according to them, was to relocate the books in a “real” space. What makes them think that a supermarket is more real than a museum? To separate art and life is an outdated idea.
You appropriate the working methods of the people you are researching as part of your creative process. Frieze magazine published an article where they spoke about your form of appropriation in terms of plagiarism, in the best sense of the word.
That tendency is there, but each case is different. In the case of Martin Kippenberger, I was struck by his take on performance. In 1999 I began to work with performance. I had already thought about it before, but it generated a conflict for me: I really wanted to carry out actions, but at the same time I disliked being looked at. So I thought of asking someone else to carry out the action. Many people thought it was cowardly not to do it yourself, or that I was taking advantage of others. Around 2002 people started talking about delegated performance because by then many artists were using this strategy.
I’ve known Kippenberger’s work for a long time, and I was interested in his piece on William Holden because it was a perfect case of delegated performance, way before the term was ever used. Kippenberger was convinced that he looked like the actor William Holden, and decided to create the William Holden Company. One of his students in Frankfurt asked if he could help him, very insistently. Kippenberger decided to give the student an impossible task: he sent him to Africa ,where he had to cover several kilometres each day in order to collect things, which he would send back through the post. These things were then included in the exhibition The William Holden Company. I was invited to carry out a project in Frankfurt, and I picked up on that story. In the case of 18 Happenings in 6 Parts, by Allan Kaprow (at the Tàpies Foundation), it was different because it was a commission. I learned a lot as a result of that action. For example, I didn’t know about his work as a teacher, which is very important, or about the idea of the disappearance of the audience.
In this particular action of Kaprow’s the audience might feel they are being manipulated… Are you interested in provoking discomfort in the audience through actions-performances?
Kaprow wasn’t interested in the audience as such, he thought that the audience had to be part of the action. The public is inclined to maintain its role as the public, which is why I try not to let them know where they should stand. I’m interested in proposing something unexpected for them, and seeing what decisions they make. But I have no interest in so-called “participatory” performances.
Is this idea of positioning the public present in all of your work?
There is always some element of that in the performances.
On a first impression your work appears to be difficult, but as soon as you engage with it you realise that it is easier than you expected, and that there is even humour and irony in it.
Humour comes naturally to me. About difficulty in my work… I’ve been hearing this since I was at school. I’ve never understood it. I’m perplexed by it. That it’s hard to enter, that it’s pretentious… I have no intention of it being perceived in this way.
Perhaps it is demanding.
Everything is. A monochrome by Art&Language may appear not to be, but it is doubtlessly complex.
One could say that you have many “father figures”, people who have influenced you, whose work you have based your research on. But we could also talk about “sons and daughters”; younger artists with whom you share similar working processes.
I don’t like the “sons and daughters” thing so much. I don’t see them that way… At a workshop I gave in Nau Côclea, in Camallera (Girona), I had the opportunity of establishing relations with Luz Broto, Jorge Satorre, David Bestué, Marc Vives, Jeleton (María Ángeles Alcántara Sánchez and Jesús Arpal Moya). As a result of the workshop, a television programme called Splitscreen was created for Canal Nord, in Figueres. It consisted of shooting and broadcasting in real time. It was a really great experience. Martí Manen invited me to Centre d’Art la Panera and he was one of the first to mention this idea of “sons and daughters”. There is an age difference, a generational one, but that’s all. Overall, I have learned a lot from all of them. I don’t like to speak in those terms because it establishes a hierarchy, and I dislike the way the press does so, for example in the article published by La Vanguardia about “MACBA’s children”, which was really unfortunate… But many of these young artists have a clear interest in text, and this is something we share.
Your most recent projects deal with psychosis, anti-psychiatry, and altered states of consciousness. Your reflection on these movements could be read as political, because these movements are somehow connected to biopolitical thinking. The project you presented at the Venice Biennial, The Inadequate, is a compendium of all these practices. Are you still working on this? What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on a new film, together with a production company, and my aim is to make a more professional film. I want to make a 60 minute feature, but I’m not sure I will manage. My latest film, The Joycean Society, was very successful, obviously within the circuit of artist film. I worked with a small team: a camera operator and a sound technician. The film was basically constructed in the editing room, out of lots and lots of hours of footage… I would like to spend more time working on the script. At the moment I am in the process of looking for financing.
This new project is a film about Oscar Masotta, an Argentine psychoanalyst and art critic who left Argentina to flee the dictatorship. He went to Barcelona, where he founded, among other things, the Freudian Field Library. In Buenos Aires he had been a great “happening” specialist, connected to the Torcuato Di Tella institute. He had been close to Roberto Jacoby and other artists who participated in Tucumán Arde.
I am also working on a project about Philip K. Dick and his idea of possession in language, a phenomenon that deals with literature and revealed books. Just as almost every sacred book was revealed through divine inspiration, many writers say their books were revealed through dictation. K. Dick said that language bombarded him at night, and that he would get up in the morning to write. He had a moment of anamnesis: he was taking sodium thiopental to recover from a tooth extraction, and a girl from the pharmacy went to his house with more medicine. The sun’s reflection on the Young Christians fish pendant that the girl was wearing generated a moment of revelation in him, where everything acquired new meaning. His posthumous book, The Exegesis, has just been published. His work talks about literature, science fiction, philosophy…
When did you begin to take an interest in psychic issues?
Only recently. I have always been suspicious of artists who veer towards darkness… But there are several interesting episodes I’ve been struck by: Matt Mullican and his work on hypnosis, Mike Kelley’s obsession with psychodrama, and Hannah Weiner, the poet who hallucinated words…There is another movement that is closely related to anti-psychiatry, with a beautiful story behind it, which was the starting point for the The Hearing Voices Café project. They say that between 60 and 80 percent of people hear voices. In The Netherlands, during the 80s, a psychiatrist who treated people who heard things decided to create a television programme where his patients would share their experiences. The phenomenon of hearing voices was well-known up until the 17th Century. It happened to Joan of Arc, for example, although since she was a woman they just said she was crazy, but it happened to Dickens too. Anti-psychiatry is, above all, a political movement.
Is there a project that you have always wanted to make, a dream that obsesses you and haunts you?
In The Impossible Artworks project I deal with impossibility, with actions whose interest lies in imagining them. On a more realistic plane, you do come across unfeasible projects, but not because they are impossible to make, but as a result of a lack of resources. I however tend to make cheap projects so that they are realisable.
My dream is to have more time at my disposal. Books pile up but I don’t have the time to read them. Right now, my source of income lies in education, and it takes time away from other projects. There is also a certain pressure to produce. It’s hard to explain… It would be great to free oneself of this social pressure. But this is my fault, because I shouldn’t allow myself to be conditioned by it.
In some interviews you say that your trajectory can be divided into two moments, marked by the discovery that it was possible to do nothing. Tell us what you meant by that.
As a young artist, your biggest problem is what to do. And it is always about what to do inside the White Cube: what to put there. At one point you realise that this is a false problem. Art doesn’t really have to respond to physical questions, it doesn’t need to have measures, or be portable… The question isn’t what to do or what for, but for whom. And depending on that, which language to speak, and what you decide to do. The question is not in the object, but in the field you work in. For example, regarding the question of legitimation, I often hear young artists say that the institution legitimates them. You can’t wait for others to legitimate what you do! Only the artist legitimates what he does. Once you abandon these ideas, art production gains true freedom.
When I started working with the Internet in the early 90s, what was truly fascinating was the fact that you had an audience that was independent from institutions. You could find people with whom you had common interests, who you could contact directly. This was an incredible discovery for my generation. In my opinion, the great revolution has been the digital revolution. Something that irritates many people is that nowadays anyone can be a photographer, a writer, etcetera. To panic over that is rather reactionary.
This leads us to the art scene in Barcelona’s current situation, where many projects and initiatives have been emerging outside the institution. Somehow it seems that after a crisis, and a certain degree of paralysis due to the budget cuts in culture, the art sector has realised how dependent it was on institutions, and has reemerged with a will to move forward and make things happen with the means available to them, independently.
There have been some very interesting things happening in the political sphere, which are related to that, and which boil down to a separation between the government and the people. There used to be a very paternalistic view from the government, and now there is an aversion to it, a confrontation even. The confrontation emerges against institutions too. Within this situation you are very poor, but you also have more freedom.
On one occasion you said that you don’t talk about art with your friends. This is evidently ironic because it is obvious that you talk about art, and furthermore, you have many artist friends…
This affirmation was a boutade, because I do talk about art with my friends, but not only about art. We talk about everything, but from an art perspective.
One of the participants in the seminar we mentioned earlier said that people only talk about art at school. At exhibitions or art fairs people talk about strategy, movements, work conditions, professionalization. Aspects that are related to the art circuit even though they are not in themselves art. So, to talk about art is something you do with very few people, but it does happen. On the other hand, people are reluctant to talk about artists’ works. People talk about others when they are not present, but there isn’t an open debate with the protagonists. It’s very difficult to tell an artist that you’re not interested in their work without them feeling insulted.
Everyone interprets the works from their own perspective and knowledge. Some artists have a very narrow vision of their work and it’s hard to generate an exchange of opinion with them. How do you handle this? Do you like to know what the public thinks of your work?
The Venice pavilion was a great gauge for this. There have always been people who haven’t liked my work, but I had institutions and curators who filtered this. At the pavilion I faced the criticism alone, and it was not aimed at the curator (Katia García Antón), but at myself. Many insults were said. But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
But many people defended the project.
But they were foreigners. I have never understood how an art project can generate such rage. Whether you like it or not, that’s acceptable. But to go as far as making comments on your intellectual capacity, or saying that you have connections with the establishment, and that you won the competition because of it… Perhaps this also happens in other places.
Don’t you think that the pavilion brings about this sort of criticism? Lara Almarcegui also received very harsh criticism.
I have seen similar things in other countries. But, apart from the misogyny in this country, what I find surprising is the lack of solidarity, and the hostility. I discovered social networks at the time by opening up a Facebook page, which I maintain to this day . The guestbook filled up with very extreme comments, some of which were atrocious. It was interesting as a sociological experiment. There were lots of penises. I was surprised, gobsmacked… They even said that the pavilion was half empty when there were many things in it, many objects and lots of activities. We could sum it up with Marcel Duchamp’s sentence: “Not everybody is an artist, but everybody is a fucking critic”.
Was it received with such hostility in other fields?
Not at all, nothing of the kind, on the contrary, it was very well received.
You are the only Spanish artist to have been selected by Okwui Enwezor for the exhibition All the World’s Futures, at the 56th edition of the Venice Biennial. Tell us a little bit about the project.
Its starting point is an “unofficial” translation of Le Sinthome, Jacques Lacan’s 23rd seminar, of which I made a publication in the form of a score, giving each of the 10 chapters in the seminar a series of body movements. The seminar deals with the relationship between James Joyce and art, and stems from the idea that art fulfilled a function of substitution of a paternal lack. Copies of the score are placed inside the exhibition space, and may be used by those participating in the performance, or read by the viewers visiting the space at that moment. The score needs two performers to work: one reads, the other interprets the movements freely. The performers are volunteers I recruited, or who contacted me to carry out the piece for the duration of the Biennial. Anyone can carry out the movements, they are made for people with no training or practice. And the roles between the reader and the performer/dancer may be exchanged.
Is this a new piece?
No, I presented it at Kunsthalle Bregenz in 2013. The difficulty of taking it to the Biennial lies in something that few people know, which is that you are invited, but each artist has to look for their own funding.
What has your relationship with curators been like throughout your career?
Generally quite good. I’ve never had any serious issues. I’ve worked well with Chus Martínez, Agustín Perez Rubio, Yolanda Romero, Katia García Antón, Eva González Sancho, Martí Manen… It’s been a rich relationship, very fruitful, which has brought plenty of good things. I’ve never understood the aversion some artists have towards curators. They generally suffer as much as artists do, perhaps more. I only have good things to say about them.
Your work is based on creating fictions. Is Dora here right now or is this a fictional Dora… Or perhaps there are many Doras?
When I made The Beggar’s Opera, which could also be seen as a delegated performance, people wondered who the beggar was. And it’s clear, all the characters are the author, after undergoing many metamorphoses. I used to answer like Flaubert: Madame Bovary is me.
We begin the project Site-Specific Conversation with a conversation with Dora García (Valladolid, Spain, 1965). At the moment she is one of the Spanish artists who are most active internationally. She has participated in: 56th Venice Biennial (2015); dOCUMENTA (13), in Kassel (2012); the 29the Sao Paulo Biennial (2010); she represented Spain at the 54th Venice Biennial (2011). Her works have been exhibited at Kunsthalle Bern (Berna, Switzerland); S.M.A.K. (Ghent, Belgium), Kunsthalle Frankfurt (Frankfurt, Germany), Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (Madrid, Spain), Kadist Art Foundation (Paris, France), Jeu de Paume (Paris, France), among others.
We carried out the interview in two parts: a first meeting at the Pulitzer Hotel in Barcelona (February 20th, 2015), and a studio visit (Barcelona) for the photo session (May 18th, 2015).
Interview: Beatriz Escudero and Zaida Trallero. Photos: Roberto Ruiz
Translation: Alex Reynolds