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Danish artist, co-founder (with Lise Skou) of the collaborative project ‘C.U.D.I.’. (Centre for Urban Culture, Dialogue and Information). Lives and works in New York and Copenhagen.
In your practice, what is the balance between individual work and collective work, what is your preference? What is that decides that you want to do a particular project individually or in a collective?
Hmm… It really depends on what kind of project it is but usually I prefer to work, if not collectively, but in a collaboration.
If you could just tell me why is that, it would be a good starting point.
First of all I think this is my personal approach, so personally for me social interaction, collaboration with people can make what I produce in art better. That collaboration might be with another artist, it might be with the curator – just in general, (what is important is) the discussion that’s going around what you are doing. And I think why my approach is very often collective, it’s because it’s tied to a sort of a site specific art practice. It’s just a way of approaching sites. Which makes often not even necessary to collaborate with other artists, as it can also be collaboration with the people on that site, for various reasons: it might be that people I’m working together with spend more time on that site, have another knowledge of it than I do – so it is about collecting knowledge in certain sites that makes important to me to collaborate with people.
In my experience a certain kind of site specificity requires this kind of collaboration, but even in those cases the proper artistic work, artistic decisions are still being made by the collaborating artists.
Actually, that’s the fight I’m actually taking off, because – that’s a very important question – because often for me it’s not that important to control the aesthetic outcome, which, on the contrary, often is important for artists. And that’s where often you see artists collaborating with non artists but they put in the agenda that the aesthetic expression is going to take place in a museum or in a gallery or wherever it takes place, and there for me it’s actually important to give up that authorship, so to speak. I know I kind of just got into a blind alley in terms of collectiveness but it’s just interesting, because you know this tendency in activist art, activist practices where artists actually work together with non-artists, other people or other activists, that they tend to give space for collaboration on the content side, but in terms of aesthetics, they are very much controlling (the result). There is a certain aesthetics that comes with the activist practice and that’s the aesthetics the artists often try to force through, basically, very powerfully, so that often they don’t even negotiate. And for me that’s actually as an important place to negotiate than the content side of what you are dealing with.
Well, even in cases when we don’t push for aesthetic authorship, that’s also an aesthetic or artistic decision. Somehow just the fact that we are people trained in art, or mainly interested in art, makes it that there is a kind of gravitation that gives an aesthetic character to decisions. But that’s maybe just a detail. I wanted to ask you to speak more concretely about C.U.D.I., as that is the collaboration of yours that I know the most about. When you started doing that collaborative project, what was the main motivation?
C.U.D.I. is interesting in the sense that it was a collaboration between another artist, Lise Skou and myself, we were the ones who initiated the project. And then one of the reasons why we didn’t put our names but used the collective name C.U.D.I., was that we actually wanted to dissolve the borders in between ourselves as artists and the people, the residents of where we lived (Vollsmose, Denmark), so we were also residents – so it was really about wiping out some of the borders between who is an artist and who is not. And that was actually the reason why, when we moved out of that site we had been living for over a year, we stopped using the name C.U.D.I., because C.U.D.I. was not only us as artists, but it was also all the people that we had collaborated with and did several projects together. So C.U.D.I. was a collective of a lot of people, and not only Lise and I. Basically, it was a method to distance ourselves.
But as soon as you moved out of that district, also the collaboration between you and Lise finished, didn’t it?
Yes, it did. And, funny enough, it just started again. Not as C.U.D.I., only as a small case collaboration, as we wanted to go back to some of the projects – we want actually to produce a book-project on the suburbs in Europe, which, mostly after the riots in France seems to be very contemporary to deal with.
Do you think that collectivity is also a kind of a political tool?
Here I think a distinction between collaboration and collectivity should be made. And, being here in the US, I’m often dealing with the problems of being in a collective with other people, especially artists in groups and so forth. It’s actually a very hard job for people having a common agenda. So it often ends up being a collaborative work and not necessarily collective. And for me I think personally is important sometimes to have a collective, you know, that you have an ideology to share, you have a common goal, for me that is part of the activist or political way of acting. And I think it is very important because basically I am quite much of a structuralist or poststructuralist that actually believes that there are certain structures that hold sway and therefore you have to act against that.
Why do you think it’s difficult to have this kind of collective in the States?
Well, that’s a very complicated question, I think. You know, from the beginning it’s been very interesting. I’ve been doing things in the schools, and the students are not very used to work in groups, so often they simply don’t know how to do it either, at least in the schools that I’ve been visiting or doing projects with, or after-school programmes, whereas I come from a very social democratic culture where we in the school would be always forced to do projects in groups. On the other hand the students here are very good at expressing their individual needs which I wasn’t very good at when I went to school.
Are you better at it now?
Am I better at it? Well, I don’t know. I think that’s a life-time project, isn’t it? But I don’t necessarily think that the one takes the other. I think it’s very important that you can be an individual in a group, and I think that’s why it’s interesting what Toni Negri and Michael Hardt are writing about or the whole Attack movement, that is, that there are other ways, possibilities to organizing where you don’t necessarily have to wipe out individuals, but it is still a collective movement.
Have you ever been frustrated in collaboration?
Hmm, actually right now I am in a collaborative group here in the US called Camel and I’m very often frustrated. It’s a group that looks into previous activist practices, specifically in the city of New York and is trying to learn why actually these collectives dissolved, what have changed and why it’s difficult and why these activist practices are often just feeding into the art circles and don’t actually create changes in political terms.
Is this the reason for you to be frustrated?
No, that’s just what we are doing.
So your job is being frustrated…
Actually I think it’s a very important process, I think you are often frustrated if you are in a larger group, because of the lot of compromising that you have to do and that often creates frustration. But I also think that compromises are important things to do in a group.
It sounds a bit paradoxical…
I mean it’s like a dialogue. It’s basically a belief in democracy, I guess. That you, through a dialogue, get into the terms of admitting sometimes that something else, somebody else’s idea might be better than your own.
Is it easy for you to accept that?
No. I have very hard discussions sometimes. But I’m definitely willing to go compromise if I can see that it’s a better goal.
In a more restricted collaboration, two or maximum three people, what is your strategy? Do you tend to dominate, or you are going for compromises? What’s your general attitude?
I don’t think necessarily that I’m very dominating in a group situation. Often I tend to start out by listening to people, but you know, sometimes I have some very clear ideas of what I think would be good to do, and of course, then I pursue them. I also think it has something to do with your age. As old I get, I’m better at standing that an idea might be better than mine.
How would you describe yourself in a collaborative situation?
It’s interesting, because I’m doing group therapy – you know, if you move to New York, you somehow are obliged to do that, to feel to be a real New Yorker, a little neurotic – and the group therapy is all about coming into terms of how do you act in a group. And you get the reactions from people, you know, as honestly as people can be, because, you know, in other groups, outside, in reality, people are not necessarily honest to you, when they respond to you. And this is very interesting, it’s like a mirror, and you know, how you are in one group situation, often mirrors yourself in other group situations.
How is this image that you are gaining about yourself through group therapy?
You basically learn how to share your feelings better, and to find out that actually even to share some of your not very nice feelings can be actually very gaining for a group situation; that for people actually, if you share your less nice feelings, it can be a way for them to connect to you. On the contrary, if you don’t share these feelings, it makes very hard for other people to connect to you. You know, this is very much like existentialism, in a sense: it’s about me and a collective… I just think of those differentiations between my personal individuality and then some kind of ideology or structuralism. I don’t know, somehow it seems that this differentiation has to be made. One thing is how I work with myself in a group situation, and how I can improve myself, which is of course interesting because it just tells that democracy is not equal – people come with different burdens and that effects how they interact with people. That’s how I work on improving myself, but from that part to a kind of ideology, I strongly believe in collectiveness. Just to give you one example, here in the U.S, which is quite interesting, which I’ve been observing as very interesting: the discussion about gentrification. Because everyone here, especially artists, talk about gentrification, all the time – of course, because often they are the people that are claimed to create gentrification or used to produce gentrification.
Maybe just their bad conscience about it…
Yes, but the interesting thing is not about gentrification itself, but that everyone here accept that the term ‘gentrification’ is always about the bad people who come in – and who the bad people are?, you know, the closer people go to the term, then it (comes out they are the) professionals. And it’s just interesting because if you accept the term ‘gentrification’, it’s really a problem, because gentrification is just decentralizing the responsibility, out of the individuals. And I basically don’t believe in that. I believe that there is a political responsibility to this, I mean, to the structures that make it happen practically. And it’s basically just taking the responsibility from politicians and put it out on these evil individuals. This is just a typical example of how actually neo-liberalism succeeded to decentralize everything. And for me it is very important to say, you know, that it is not only about making fragments – us, individuals as individuals –, but there are also structures in place. This is a typical discussion that connects to this topic of what collectivity is – there is a collective responsibility that you cannot always decentralize.
I think artists as we know them in the last two hundred years or so, have been the professionals of individualism. And in the end that makes it that this kind of superficial or forced collectivity can actually come out of bad conscience. What you were saying, for me is a typical example of that, say, creating a discourse around gentrification or even around ‘collectivity in art’, which is an overwhelming discourse in the last about five years…
I think more in Europe that here in the States…
Yes, I think so… and recently I’ve been feeling that this might be to hide something.
So you are very suspicious about it?
I am. And also, sometimes I found that it holds for me, too. Okay, my belief in collectivity has deeper routes now, but I remember that originally as it has started, it was more a reaction to that kind of emptiness that I felt being an individual artist, a student that is supposed to create himself.
Yeah, that’s really the problem that we are somehow schooled to believe that we are so free as artists, and the whole society is trained to believe that, and in reality we are not free at all.
We are free but we also feel the consequences of that freedom – see gentrification…
You’re right, there are all these different strings that are moving us around, you know, the capital, the gallery, the critic, so there’s a whole structure behind the so called free artist. None of us is really free. But all these people are making claim on behalf of that. Of course there’s this sense, like C.U.D.I. had this sense of, okay, like how can we counter that, like: let’s be collaborative… I don’t know if that worked. Because in the art world it could have worked much better if we hadn’t have started at all, or if we continued for seven years, right?
Yeah. For now you could have been an international brand as Superflex. By the way, recently I’ve been doing a research on art and activism and had to realize that Denmark is very strong in producing art collectives, as Superflex, n55, C.U.D.I. and so on.
Yes, here you come back to the function of the art-schools, and how the art subject is created through the art school, and the function of the big artist visiting the school and telling about his success, and then you wanna be like them. So the school doesn’t necessarily want to convince people, but stands in examples of the typical kind of art that is being dealt with, that is being produced around, and obviously Superflex and n55 were among the groups that were coming to our school and made their presentations. So already that system is creating a certain agenda. You, as a young artist would say, ‘hey, there’s a lot of collectives!’, so that’s something interesting.
In the end of the day having collectives is reasonable, as human work in society is built up on the basis of collectivity. People normally work together, so a factor of artists’ nostalgia (towards normality) can also take place.
Yes, there’s something gaining about it, for the person. You can’t just do so much yourself, but with several other people, working together on the same project, when your network is bigger, you can produce more. You can produce more knowledge. I remember that professor of semiotics who used to say, ‘okay, you are wise, but two persons are four times wiser’.
I was talking with someone about the same topic, who told me an interesting thing about personal tendencies, she said that when she finds herself in more casual collaborative groups, she tends to throw in her second idea, being afraid that the first idea would be too radical.
As a way of protecting herself, you mean?
Possibly, and at thinking about it I could understand part of it. Because on the one hand is true that while collaborating with other people, the discourse is richer, and in the brainstorming you could have more ideas, but it’s also true that compromises are a central feature…
Here’s one difference – because in a collective you definitely have to compromise. In a collaboration you can maybe create parallels.
…and therefore you can also advance compromises, not only accepting them as something necessary.
That’s really a pity, from a democratic point of view. Maybe that’s why democracy was never made for that many people. Because it would be impossible in its ideal form. Like the Greek democracy was for about 1500 people. In democracy, the keyword ‘participation’ is actually not a big part of it, and that’s where the big problems present themselves about democracy: there’s no room for participation, they don’t know how to incorporate, as if it was about participation, the modern state would collapse. In the same time democracy for me is not about the institution but more about dialogue. And in a dialogue it’s a pity if you are compromising yourself already at the beginning, as the dialogue would definitely gain something if participants are as radical as they are and they express it. Because then maybe the compromise to make would also be more interesting.
It would definitely take more time…
Collaborating with people takes anyway a lot of time. Sometimes it seems very unproductive but it is productive in many other ways, maybe what you actually produce is less, in a materialistic sense, but on the other hand you have to consider it in another way, considering how people are growing in it, how they become more attached to each other.
That would be the ideal, but collaboration in art is often suitable to having more work done in a shorter time…
There is a tendency in art collaborations that is more about the form and the structure of a collective, and not that much about why we are a collective. Although that is the important question to ask: what is the content of the collective, I mean, what is the purpose of us being a collective?
Yes. And it needs a deep research into yourself to be able to decide on that.
Because also many of these so called activist groups are not that necessarily activists. What they do is often more like a repetition… it pretends to be a certain kind of activist collective but they only imitate it in their form, not in the content. And you tend to see a lot of those practices. It is again back to the aesthetic question: it’s more about the aesthetics than it would be needed to change social agendas.
If you see a project in any material form, can you sense, only by looking at it, if it was made by a collective or an individual?
Well, I don’t think I can answer that question…
Okay, it was a stupid one.
But can I ask why you and Dominic, so why Big Hope dissolved?
I think it happened for a variety of reasons. One was that our work in the last time became a kind of a routine, as most of the time we were working for invitations, and also the fact that we are living in different towns of Europe. And even if many things can be discussed in email or regular meetings can be enough for a time, after a while, by having different lives and contexts, you realize that the bases for the collaboration disappeared.
That’s interesting, the moment when a museum invites you, that’s where the structure starts to take over the ideology.
But on the other hand it can create a framework where you can develop your own ideas. It’s not only about economical features, budgets, but also challenges that some people, like me, might need. And in collaborations that are rather based on a kind of agreement, and not on a deep friendship or love, even, it is more about work – like fulfilling tasks, making projects – so these kinds of more distant factors.
It relates to why it actually was good for us to stop C.U.D.I. – because we were also having invitations from institutions that were somehow expecting that we would imitate doing what we had done in Vollsmose, in other sites. But the ideology that fuelled what we had done there was not there in those other sites; what we perceived was how the structure tried to incorporate you or instrumentalise you, to neutralize you politically. And that’s interesting because collectivity at the beginning started as a form of institutional critique, like Fluxus and other early groups.
Collectives of this kind normally dissolve, not only in art but everywhere in the alternative scene or activist scene.
Yes, they have their time. And I think they should dissolve, if there’s this kind of idealism behind them, you know, that you want to change something, and when you get to the point where you see that you don’t change or got institutionalized or instrumentalised, and then I think you should dissolve. I think the situationists are a very good example of that. It’s a whole other discussion if you can use art as a political instrument.
That’s mostly about the political side of it, but I think for me it has been also important watching how the pure fact that something is produced by more than one persons decreases this heroic aspect of art making.
You denounce authorship, right?
Or it creates a totally different kind of authorship. That was that stupid question of mine about, because I can sense some difference.
I just wonder if that is because groups try to imitate a certain aesthetic. If there is something like a ‘group-aesthetic’?
How is that?
I think artwork-wise group aesthetic and activist aesthetic dissolved into each-other, into a certain anti-aesthetic aesthetic. Like, you shouldn’t use nice wood, but plywood instead. Kind of ethical points of views that molded themselves into activist art practices which with time transformed into a kind of an aesthetic in itself, like the work shouldn’t look like finished or done… it should look something that everyone would be able to do… like you are not supposed to draw a too straight line or so. Now it turns out to be often as imitations, as an aesthetic that is disconnected from the ideology behind it. You can see Thomas Hirschorn as he tapes something with gaffer tape and sells it for millions.
When I was mentioning aesthetic, I didn’t mean in this practical sense, but like the simple fact that two brains are considering the same problem, that would have an effect on the matter, it would be as a plus dimension that is given by the collaboration… but I also agree with your colder point of view.And you know, that’s why there is this fight of mine in the group, to give up aesthetic authorship in collaborations, which can be interesting and that makes the museum totally afraid because they don’t know what would come in – a good example of it was the Sparwasser exhibition in Hamburger Bahnhof where we both were in (‘Berlin North’, 2003.) – there it was the fear that something like carnival masks made by children would come into the exhibition space, and that was enough to censor. And that shows that it is not about ideology but about aesthetic expression. I’m not blaming the curator for that, it just shows how people instrumentalise themselves, just like I do in cases, when these kinds of dilemmas turn up.
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