Henrik Plenge Jakobsen
Henrik Plenge Jakobsen: I did spend four or five years outside Denmark – in France, Sweden and the US - but I got homesick… Even though the art scene here in Copenhagen is rather small, it is where I have always felt most at home. There has always been a core of people doing interesting work here despite the depressing talent drain to other countries. Of course there are personal reasons for staying too. My partner Pernille and now my son Niels too were also pivotal to my decision to remain here.
Around 2000, I began feeling disaffected with the travelling circus that working with art can be. Spending every two or three weeks in a different place was detrimental to my working practices: it becomes hugely difficult to concentrate once you get caught up in this trash jet set mindset. You might also say that my staying here is an act of defiance. In Denmark there is a resistance to the notion of being a nation with a strong investment in culture and the arts, despite our considerable wealth and the priority given to adult learning provision. And lastly, some of the themes that inform my work are typically Nordic – angst, for instance and the tormented soul… [laughs]
LBL: Let’s stay with the existential themes for a moment. You grew up in the suburbs, enjoying a middle class background that you share with most people in Denmark. And one of the overarching subjects in your work is transgression – the desire to upend the established order. However, in your case it isn’t so much a question of transgression in the old avant-garde sense but rather a deconstruction of this idea. Is this a way of staging the desire to break away in order to find an otherness that is kept out of the suburbs?
HPJ: I am a great escapist! I grew up on the outskirts of Copenhagen and I have always been trying to get away. As a kid, I’d go to the bog to hang out on my own. In my early teens, I discovered Copenhagen’s post-punk music scene and that marked the moment when, mentally, I left the suburbs. A lot of what I am today was made possible by this anti-establishment youth culture. For the first time I met others with the same urge to pass up on the status symbols of suburbia – the house, the car, the dog. It is about not being able to accept the condition intended for you. And it was then that the question occurred to me whether I wanted to make art.
But being an artist is an act, a put-on, because the fundamental question is whether there really are alternatives. Is opting for suburbia or New York City a genuine choice between distinct alternatives? Irrespective of whether you are an artist or a caretaker at a kindergarten, you are still dependent on what happens on Wall Street (indeed, you are even more dependent on it as an artist). Escapism contains its own negation within itself because you can never really get away. Transgression is the idea that through some sort of total and instant transformation you can pass into another realm, into a different reality. If you look at the Sex Pistols, for example, they pulled a double bluff: they gave the impression of being transgressive, but actually they embodied a commercial stunt and certain fashion interests.
As for my own work, I have never conceived of it as being radical. Rather it contains a vision of radicalism whose realization is impossible from where I stand. As a visual artist I produce imaginary spaces – that is all I can do. And inasmuch as these spaces are fictitious, they can never be truly transgressive.
LBL: In your recent work Marx has surfaced as a reference. Are you keen to translate your political concerns as a visual artist into self-organization or activism?
HPJ: No. I was very much involved in various movements when I was young. And I am not a Marxist – a disappointed Marxist, if anything. In the twentieth century, avant-garde art retained strong links with Marxism, and I believe that the Communist Manifesto remains an incisive analysis. But what are Marx and Engels actually proposing as an alternative? The Soviet Empire was hardly what they had in mind. I am very interested in the political legacy of countries – such as Italy or France – where communist movements have been strong. It is interesting to compare these with the Scandinavian model and its values, which are in the process of being stripped away in the Nordic region since that is what the corporate world wants. Marx’s writing is very poetic and visionary, but at the end of the day the aesthetic dimension found no place in his philosophical system, and this omission enabled it to become a totalitarian ideology. We can only regret that he never wrote his book on aesthetics.
LBL: But how can we invest art with particular ethical qualities, or replace politics with ethics? Considering for example how Nazism aestheticized politics, I am not sure that aesthetics is an antidote to totalitarianism. On the other hand, you said earlier that being an artist was an act, a put-on, which is a provocative idea and certainly at odds with the notion of art having an ethical potential. Maybe you could expand a little on these points.
HPJ: Firstly, to pick up on Marx, I recently produced some balloons for a project on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Printed on them was a quote from Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto that runs "all that is solid melts into air." While the legend on the balloon was in English and Russian, I did not use the original Russian translation of the manifesto since instead of "all that is solid melts into air" the sentence was rendered as "all classes will disintegrate." So I had a new translation done in order to put across Marx and Engels’s poetic and visionary qualities in Russia today. This little episode arguably demonstrates that the communist regime was founded on the basis of an incorrect translation. Totalitarianism and aesthetics also play an interesting role in the context of Russian history since the Soviet regime instrumentalized vanguard aesthetics during and immediately after the Revolution. But the aesthetics in question, and artists such as Mayakovsky, Malevich, Tatlin, etc. were soon abandoned by the regime and some of them even banned since their art was disturbing and constituted a form of opposition to totalitarianism. In the case of the Nazi regime it was not really, as I see it, a case of groundbreaking aesthetics holding sway, but a debased form of Neoclassicism – as was also the case in Stalin’s heyday, which saw the glorification of the farmer and the worker. I do not think that aesthetics is an antidote to totalitarianism, but I do think that non-instrumentalized aesthetics within totalitarianism is an impossibility. Modern art needs capitalism and democracy. In referring to the artist as act, what I mean is that, to me, art is a fictitious device or a kind of game if you will, and that is why art turns sour when it is instrumentalized. But it’s a fictitious space that can and must speak of reality, ethics, and so forth. The act must be informed by a purpose, but it has to remain an act.
HPJ: I am still very interested in the field of biotechnology. Together with financial and digital services it constitutes an avant-garde industry in terms of globalization and the transformation of the premises of everyday life. My previous work was inspired by the biotech revolution and the ways in which it opens up opportunities for the manipulation of the building blocks of life. Today we find ourselves in an immaterial economy where the accumulation of wealth is driven by the creative class, which includes designers, advertising people, and professionals in the media and the entertainment world. It is crucial to investigate these vanguard phenomena to be able to diagnose everyday life.
LBL: But how do we counter this accumulation of wealth, seeing that as artists, curators and critics, we are ourselves part of the same creative class?
HPJ: I believe the creative class has annexed the idea of what it is to be an artist. To Adorno, art was the sole utopian possibility. In recent years, I have given a lot of thought to the spectacle culture and to how social relations are conveyed through images. The money channelled into art, the media industries pressuring art to deliver entertainment value, etc, compromises the autonomy that one might want for art. Even though artists must engage with everyday life, I believe the time has come for them to turn their backs on the world.
LBL: Artists should make an exodus from the mainstream?
HPJ: Yes, in a way. I’m not a believer in ivory towers, but the interests of capital are becoming increasingly powerful. Art should not be popular culture. I am no elitist; I don’t seek to be exclusionary, but art is not a service. We must fight for the protection of imaginary spaces which open up alternative approaches while simultaneously remaining aware of the world in which we live.
LBL: In recent works you have recuperated from history some of your own imaginary spaces. For example, J’accuse, and the brilliant piece entitled If the People Have No Bread, Let Them Eat Cake, where you coloured a flock of sheep purple and perfumed them.
HPJ: When you project history into the living present, you can create a perspective that goes beyond your ego or your own mundane existence. The purple sheep are actually the enzyme of the French revolution! They symbolize the upper classes whose depravity ends by provoking a reaction from the proletariat. The work is in fact based on an apocryphal story about Queen Marie Antoinette. She did indeed have sheep for her own amusement and acted out her pastoral fantasies as a shepherdess in the park of Versailles, but there is no evidence that she dyed them purple and perfumed them. Along with the Enlightenment, the French Revolution is one of the events that really changed the world. The belief that things could be different… It is one of the key fundamentals in my own thinking – against the backdrop of the current global situation.
J’accuse is a comment on the role of contemporary international law in relation to the war on terror. It deals with a very famous miscarriage of justice in early twentieth century France, a case in which the French army officer Dreyfus is wrongly accused and condemned for espionage. The case had anti-Semitic overtones, and the novelist Emile Zola wrote his famous essay – whose title I have borrowed – in defence of Dreyfus. He is finally acquitted, and in the wake of the case an addendum to the law is introduced that separates church and state. So my installation is about means of opposing the ways in which international law is overruled today. Although the installation comprises a black and white design, it is actually about the grey zones between religion, capital and the administration of justice.
LBL: But in terms of limit conditions, your works seem to be orientated in equal measure towards both poles of dichotomies such as subversion and excess, high culture and subcultures. In your project, there would seem to be room both for Miami Vice and institutional critique, so to speak.
HPJ: I am fascinated by the modern or pop elements in industrial design and by spectral colours, for example; colour-coded surfaces that are bright and alluring but which turn out to have unpleasant cultural resonances or a dark underside. It has to be playful… and in order for the creative execution to be fun, the works must have a visual entertainment value too. There is a broad field of formal options – murals, performance, sound, appropriation and so on. I am sometimes a little envious of Yves Klein who could confine himself to the blue that was his creation – but such a practice is hardly feasible today! [laughs]
But let me go back to what we were talking about earlier regarding autonomy. The issue is how do we define our own baseline? How do we avoid taking on the agendas set by society? Take the Populism exhibition for example [*]. I think that in many ways it had a lot going for it, but why was there so much George W. Bush and agendas dictated by CNN? Why so many counter-images? We must implement the notion of an artistic laboratory, because in the idea of the lab you can keep the Bush administration and the art market temporarily at bay.
LBL: But the laboratory is a double-edged figure, isn’t it? On the one hand it suggests free experimentation, but on the other it connotes a state of isolation, sealed off from elements in the outside world. Isn’t the lab simply the suburb all over again - a bulwark against otherness?
HPJ: The question is, what comes out of it? Art is not research as such. The frustration many artists feel is that we don’t have a goal – that we are not targeted towards making a difference in the real world. Superflex’s strategy is a case in point; they go beyond this purposelessness with their infiltration into the corporate world and their grassroots initiatives. Normally, I believe that you have the choice between entering the goal-driven, service-oriented art market, or the speculative art market, the gallery system and its ramifications. However, there must be some stance that does not involve structural alternatives, a position where one is in the world while also maintaining a maximum of artistic integrity. Perhaps that would be where things might evolve. And yet I always wonder about the rationale behind art creation - why I continue to add to the sum of things in the world?
LBL: Yes, but I’m wondering why you invoke the figure of autonomy. The background to your being able to create the art that you do is that the modernist zoning off between life and art has collapsed. This is also something you have been involved in articulating yourself: in 1996 you organized a seminar entitled Social Plastic, which was one of the earliest initiatives in the 1990s to involve the discussion of art and social space. How did you get from ‘social art’ to autonomy?
HPJ: Of course the autonomous and the ‘social’ artwork are two opposed movements in art. Inevitably, social interventions dissolve the figure of autonomy. I used to be very preoccupied with the notion of creating an art work that totally dissolves in its social context… one of the inspirations for this was Joseph Beuys’s work and his involvement in real political processes as a teacher and co-founder of the Green Party in Germany. These were radical initiatives which should be regarded as part of his artistic practice. Moreover, people and movements like Fluxus and the Situationists were sources for me in this respect.
But I reached a point where I was unable to defend an engagement with the dissolution of the artwork. It got out of control. In Beuys’s time the institution was a lot less mutable and flexible whereas today much artistic production is itself the product of an institutional context. I found possibilities opening up through reflection on autonomous space and on other types of work that would insist on their own intrinsic identity. Working in a social space easily leads to the premises of art being dictated to you by the very real economics that govern everyday life, or the work simply becomes invisible. In any case, I know now that autonomous space is the most potent form of resistance or otherness that I can bring to bear. However, I’m aware of my own residual irritation at the fact that I’m unable to produce a self-effacing, utopian work – as little as I am a fully autonomous work, which is also impossible and a dream.
LBL: I guess this conflict is also familiar from your experience of working between white cube projects and public ones. Working between the lab and the street, so to speak.
HPJ: I did this Internet project Double Helix Intervention in 1996. That was probably my first public work, although public in a different sense from the traditional drop sculpture that sits in a park or a square. It was a live broadcast from the Department of Biology at Copenhagen University, showing scientists working in a gene-splicing lab.
Apart from that, most of my public works have been simulations. In Kiel, I did this surveillance tower, which might in principle have been there for real, but at the same time it represents an absurdity, as if the city of Kiel had set up some rigid school discipline form of surveillance of its citizens. It is a radically different experience to get beyond the gallery space and work from other premises. You often end up confronted with utterly unpredictable conflicts and situations that need negotiating. Another element is the enforced spectatorship: you actually constrain viewers to relate to what you do. I have a lot of respect for the power involved in that, which also implies that you have, ethically, to be very alert. I find this combination of compulsion and compromise in working with public art very compelling! Basically, the white cube is coded along the same lines wherever you go – whether it is Stockholm or Marseille, the setting is the same. But as public spaces, Stockholm and Marseille are extremely different in terms of politics, economies, cultures.
LBL: This discussion of power relationships in public space arguably adds a new twist to what Poul Gernes proposed in the 1970s in talking about the monument as a generator of popular identity and democratic belonging. You employ some of the same strategies as he did – spectacular industrial colours and the politics of scale for example – but you invest them with dissonance and negation.
HPJ: The pointing up of dissonance and melancholy delivers a negative starting point for an ongoing discussion: how are the ways in which we have structured our society legitimised? What are we confronted with in living and dying? That is the question that informs my work. Social art projects are typically conceived as positive meeting points, and since the late 1990s we have seen the emergence of an endless number of bars and cinemas, to the extent that cinemas and bars have become a genre in themselves. The Danish artist FOS created a public bar at Israels Plads square in 1999, which turned out to be an altogether different kind of gathering point: it was actually a kind of Enlightenment project, featuring talks and events. Projects like these make Rirkrit Tiravanija’s and Douglas Gordon’s film bar of 1996 look like a kind of fancy hangout, although for quite other reasons that was also a brilliant piece.
LBL: To me this feel-good element was the biggest flaw in Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics. Here the term 'social' was loaded with all the positive connotations but not with the violence and exclusion that also informs social space.
HPJ: And in the end it wasn’t as inclusive a notion as he would perhaps have liked it to be. Many of the artists he discusses are engaged in an entirely traditional practice. Jes Brinch and I took part in Traffic in 1996, the exhibition Nicolas staged at the CAPC in Bordeaux to introduce Relational Aesthetics. Our contribution was a social sculpture that encouraged people to hang out. But Traffic - for all its interactive art - became a totally different exhibition after the in-crowd had left. I think that that was a disappointment to everyone, and for me a major part of my disillusionment with social sculpture. I think that the positivist approach that is somehow part and parcel of working with social sculpture is often what subverts its thrust.
However, in Traffic, the way the curator contributed in terms of content on the basis of Relational Aesthetics as a kind of manifesto was a very positive experience: a group show that has a statement is unfortunately a rarity.
LBL: At the beginning of this interview, you polemically diagnosed the art world as a 'trash jet-set'. So let me turn the tables and ask if this diagnosis of yours is motivated by ambition or if it is a criticism of the artist’s lot? My point is, of course, that we do indeed spend a lot of time travelling, but on the other hand it is a measure of success to be paid to travel. So what do you hope to see yourself doing as an artist – dropping the trash and becoming the real jet set?
HPJ: I probably belong to the first generation of a broad swath of artists who circulate internationally, often on pretty unenviable terms. I’m not aiming for a business class life style: rather the discussion goes back to the old dispute about how you get paid for your work. As an artist you often get a really bad deal compared, say, to someone working in the corporate world - or the rest of the corporate world, to be more precise! - or relative to someone employed in the public sector. There is still a resistance in art institutions to the professionalization of art. You often have to ask to be paid a fee, whereas that should be standard procedure. Some institutions operate with high standards but others have a lot of catching up to do.
The other aspect is that working as an artist isn’t at all the kind of jet-set life-style that some might imagine. The artist class as a whole perpetuates a dream of freedom which often turns out to be tightly circumscribed. The fascination of travelling around casts a kind of spell, and it is easy to become somewhat bedazzled by this mark of success. Over the last ten years, the illusion has taken hold that the best place to get new ideas for your work is in an airplane. For some people it works, but is it really what you want? The plus side, however, is that you get to know a lot of people from all over the world – from the US, Japan, Thailand and so on.
LBL: What are you looking forward to doing next?
HPJ: There are a few film or video projects that I should like to embark upon. I have an idea for a sci-fi project, a follow-up to Circus Pentium, and I am keen to give social sculpture one more try… I am also working on a sculpture project which is a follow-up to the Adorno works, exploring ideas around the object. I was familiar with Adorno as a composer many years before reading him. The 12-tone music for which he made himself the spokesman is deemed a failure today. Heralding the phasing out of classical music, it never achieved the normative status that it was intended to have. At the opening of the Adorno exhibition at Frankfurter Kunstverein I DJed some of his twelve-tone music, dating from the time when he was a student of Anton Webern and Schönberg. I wanted it to be a sort of tongue-in-cheek tribute, but it was fairly badly received by the opening crowd - ironically enough, since it was something Adorno had fought for his whole life. He wasn’t very much into the visual art of his contemporaries, but it was interesting to see how well the post-conceptual work in the exhibition worked – it made much more sense to create an exhibition of this kind than to show the visual art of his time. But his music is still quite fresh and modern sounding.
LBL: What about collaborations?
HPJ: I have always made the development of my own artistic practice the primary thing, but I have been involved in quite a few collaborations over the years – with Jes Brinch, for instance, or Remarks on Interventive Tendencies, the seminar that you and I did together with Superflex in 1998, or the Update festival in 1996 that I organized jointly with Jonas Maria Schul, Michael Elmgreen, Jens Haaning and a number of other people. Collaboration is a way of challenging ideas of what an artist is. Lately I have tended to be quite self-centred you know! [laughs] But some of those collaborative energies can be picked up again of course… Recently, I worked with the composers Dan Marmorstein and Goodiepal on Circus Pentium, but they were acting rather more in the capacity of artists contributing to my project, than as actual collaborators. Together with Jakob S. Boeskov, I am working on an idea for a collaboration in Russia.
Also, circumstances themselves generate collaborative undertakings. In Copenhagen around 1990 there was no infrastructure and absolutely nothing was going on, so we were practically forced to collaborate. Obviously, the institutional infrastructure here is still woefully inadequate, in terms of the programming of museums and public galleries. I’m continually saddened by the fact that you can’t just pop out and see a great solo exhibition of Adrian Piper, Simon Starling or some of my Danish colleagues.
LBL: Yeah, Update was amazing. It’s a shame that you never produced the Update catalogue, because that project was one of the most energy-filled I have ever seen – the way it was at the same time a concert venue for electronic music and a constantly mutating art exhibition. It is always the anarchic projects that get forgotten.
HPJ: Strangely enough, it seems that the spirit of that project is still alive and well. It’s arguable that a project like Utopia Station, at the 2003 Venice Biennial, is the mainstream version of Update. As far as the catalogue is concerned, we were absolutely shot when it was over: we never wanted to have to deal with Update again, so we dropped the catalogue… The whole thing went really well though, we didn’t go over budget, everybody worked for free and I met tons of cool people who came flying in simply because they liked the ideas behind it. It was full-on con amore and a key moment in my life as an artist.
The interview was conducted in Copenhagen on May 19 and June 23, 2005.
[*] The Populism exhibition was a group show on the theme of political and artistic populisms taking place in Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Oslo and Vilnius in the spring and summer of 2005. Jakobsen participated as an artist and Larsen was one of the curators.