VARIOUS ARTISTS 3.0
Elke Van Campenhout, August 2017
The artist as a donor body
The artist is no longer. Managed into production-slavery, or experimenting himself into oblivion, the creative act has become formulaic, or has disappeared into oblivion. Caught in the binary trap between the ‘to be’ and the ‘not to be’, the individual artist has shrunk before his own recuperation. Or embraced the market to the point of his own extinction.
Or should we just stop name-calling and look at alternative ways of conceiving of the art’s coming-into-being process. A Copernican turn might be needed to free the art work from being flattened by labeling and art promotion. And let it reappear, free from signature, there where it always came home to itself. In the middle of life, in all its mechanical beauty and decay. In this interview with the caretaker of the artists collective Various Artists, another perspective is opened up on the production process of art works, as collective, scripted, and mechanically induced processes of transformation. Goodbye to expression, welcome to the corporate culture of art making!
Various Artists 1.0 tot 2.0
“Various Artists developed basically in three phases. The 1.0 phase was not so much a comment on the arts scene as it was a way out of a concrete deadlock the facilitator of the Various Artists, Trudo Engels, found himself in. After winning the Price of the Jeune Peinture, I no longer saw myself developing work under my own name. Because I didn’t know whom I should become: a painter? an installation maker? a carpenter? My mother already told me early on that I was unable to concentrate on one thing, that I was kind of herky-jerky. And this tendency translated into my creative process. When a - now famous - artist visited my first exhibition at the time, he called me an artist bricoleur, and he didn’t mean that kindly. But I kind of embraced that derisive term, and started to see myself as a puppeteer. Not making art for myself but for other artists.
Between 1990 and 2010 several of the Various Artists started to emerge at the workspace Plateau (later nadine). They all had their own names, characters, biography and their specific aesthetic strategies. It became my ambition not to have to be an artist, but still to create art. The Various Artists started to proliferate and consolidate into a critical mass, that could produce work as a group. In 2010 I realised that this Various group of artists created within its body probably more specialist knowledge than whatever individual specialist could sustain. Instead of the idea of ‘the’ artist, the work become the outcome of ‘an’ artist. And this shift translated into the Various Artists 2.0.
The Various Artists at that point started to work in couples, and we organised a series of workshops called ‘Being ….’, in which you could participate to get the transmission of the formula of the work of one of the artists. Which would then make you eligible for becoming a producer of that artist’s works. In other words: the work became somehow reduced to a formula. Which could be interpreted as a critique on the contemporary arts production mechanism. In which the formula, or a particular esthetic philosophy is used as a kind of vertical movement: you focus on one thing and then dig in deeper and deeper, using repetition and variation to sustain the assembly line.
Whereas I have always been attracted to artists for whom the soup of works was the way they wished to produce their art. Which always has been problematic to the art market. Philippe Vandenberg was one of these artists changing his work every two years. He alienated himself from the collectors and buyers that rather wanted to continue on a winning streak. If your work is hitting a nerve, the market kind of forces you to stay in line.
All this has to do with branding logics of course. And these are more powerful than ever. My question from the start was to see if it was possible to produce ‘brandless’ art. You can choose to become anonymous, and start painting street walls never to be claimed. Or you can choose to become radically generic, a ‘typical’ artist, universal and ubiquitous. The problem with this second choice is probably quality, which I tried to break down through quantity. Through sheer production, ongoing creation, letting the work develop offspring and spin-offs, a growing complex network of branches, allowing all forms of speciation to come into being. That can seem like a frustrating and demanding practice, but it is also very satifying if you keep track. Works that would normally take you a week to finish, now get done in two days, because you, as a ‘caretaker’ become so skilled in managing your microtime, your minimal actions, to goad each of the artists along. Time seems to be the key factor in this process. Time and peace of mind probably.
So the first phase 1.0 was rather a game, in which the puppeteer brought a whole group of artists to life, and let them live out their biographies through their works. In the second phase, 2.0, the resonance between the artists became much more important, and the works kind of lost their recognisability, they evaded any form of branding. The Various started to copy and parasite one another. Not consciously maybe, but in retrospect it became clear that some formulae started to travel throughout the work of different artists. Which made it also possible that some artists, that did not really produce anything themselves, started to influence all the others. A good example, and the levering influence that brought the Various Artists into phase 3.0, was the appearance of the Japanese artist Mu Mei, who introduced the idea of corporate culture into the group. This idea was in her case not a conceptual proposal, but could be distilled out of her earlier works, and then got picked up by the other Various Artists. The principle is to let 23 of the Artists work together to produce the work of the 24th, who then becomes visible in his absence. If you pour 24 buckets of paint together, or you allow 24 musicians to play at the same time, there is probably not so much to perceive. But if you take away the 24th and develop all variations on the one missing factor, you create 24 blurs that all are essentially different, through subtle variation. You do still see a kind of physical or mental monochrome, but the subtlety is so profound that the visitor almost has to start doubting himself, and his capacity to perceive difference in seeming repetition.
There are also other examples of collaboration, for example nebusi and Mu Mei rewriting important historical letters, like the one from William Borroughs writing to the Noble Prize committee about why Henry Miller should be honored. That letter gets rewritten by replacing every letter by all the other letters typed on top of each other. The result is a kind of blurred page, impossible to retrace the original message, but full of the suggestion of information.
The same corporate system is used in a series of aquarelle paintings on canvas, for which every time all except one of the colours of the aquarelle box get used. Twelve colours make up twelve canvases, every one of them missing one of the colours. These concepts coming from the work of Mu Mei, but executed by the other artists.
About snow and confusion
I am myself fascinated by a kind of noise in art, a kind of blurring in which distinction is both drawned and rescued. My favorite TV show is snow. In de 1980’s I produced snow by painting every flake pixel by hand. You could see that the work of the Various Artists is demanding in that sense, that you can not see the forest for the trees. But it is the kind of work that is produced at the end of an era, on the verge of the age of artificial intelligence. In which robots will work more efficiently than we do, which they actually already do, but also will produce better art. Maybe I want the Various Artists to become an artificial intelligence artist machine. Fed by a program that designs artistic formualae that have to be maintained through micro-actions. You could even delegate that work, as a student job for example. Or you could further divide the artist into different actions, like 24 micro-actions, that could be done by different agents.
So on the one hand we move beyond the individual. And this in an age in which people get more hyper-individualised. Where the selfie becomes an inborn reflex, to put yourself out there, in the world, all the time. But on the other hand, it is also a fact that any kind of shift in the constellation of the Various Artists, has a huge impact on all the others. Mu Mei led the whole production structure of the group into a new phase. Maybe we have to see it more as a game. Artists are often seen as the mirror of society, and in that sense anything is possible. Some artists try, every day again, for 8 or 9 hours, to realise the artist ideal of a Rodin. We, as a machine, water down all that excitement and euphoria, we let go of the endorphins and the aha of transcendence, and reduce the whole process to a mechanical wonder of formulaic repetition, hazard and diligence. I always resented seeing my name published in a program note. It somehow felt too personal. I am hyper narcissistic, but in a reverse sense. I want to keep myself to myself. I like to look at myself from the inside out, not from the outside in. I refuse to be reduced to the image that is produced by the outside.
The working ethics of the Various Artists is on principle quite mechanical. Marcela.B who can be considered to be a female version of Marcel Broodthaers, actually only worked with spreadsheets, cataloging everything. And this way of working became the instrument for all the Various, who develop their practices through a series of ten or more spreadsheets that list the actions that have to be taken to produce their work. In fact, all I have to do is to work my way through these lists. Some of them are taken care of by nature, like molding or decay processes, that just have to be supported from time to time. Other tasks ask a more active contribution from my side. Like a painting that needs 200 layers, and gets one added every day. Some actions take 5 minutes, but they can last only up to 22 minutes. And I kind of try to perform about 50 actions per day. But an action can for example also be to contemplate on a possible collaboration between two artists. That pitch is then stored, and might later on be added to the spreadsheet actions to become realised.
You might think that these mechanical processes alienate you from the work process, but actually all the works get a biographic colour: the water I drink, the coffee I buy, the amount of hours I sleep, all becomes part of the spreadsheets. In that sense I am a data-donor, in a biographic sense. But not in an experienciable or expressive sense. This mechanisation is part of me. I could probably have become an artist like Roman Opalka, obsessive and monomanic. But on the other hand I always wanted to do everything, so I could never invest enough time in becoming an expert in anything. Maybe I am only interested in the story, or in the rhythm. Maybe all the rest is only camouflage.
Or maybe the whole point is to use techniques that are kind of mismastered and start to produce unexpected outcomes. Like layering aquarelle paint on a canvas, until it starts to look like mold. Or letting things decay, and observing the process.
Evolution and Life
I find it magical to think that life and thoughts are built up out of basically dead matter. Life is an art work that is constructed in a painstakingly beautiful way. It is so horrifying the way we treat this magical gift, how we live our lives so blindly. Culture has created such a distance towards life, that it is basically trying to suffocate it over and over. Culture is tyrannical, and the only way to escape from that tyranny is by diving into the work, into the mechanism of things coming into being.
The most important point Darwin made was that life is designed, but not by an exterior force, but by itself, in a poetic transformation of amoebes into more complex life forms. Some really absurd, like the coccyx that survives the loss of the tale, or the split up two sides of the brain. There is such wonder in there, even a cancer is so beautifully constructed that it inspires awe in anyone that dares to look. The fantastic thing about Darwin is that he can point that out. Every detail, every hair can be reverse engineered, the story traced back to its starting point. That is probably what I try to do in my work as well. To create a complexity that the viewer does not necessarily need to pick up on, but that somehow unconsciously manifests itself in the act of perception. A kind of grace that comes from within, not from a divine author.