|ALWAYS THE SAME WITH REPETITION?
Conversation between Cornelia Sollfrank and Silke Wenk following the opening of the re.act feminism exhibition,
Academy of Arts Berlin, in December 2008
One of the fascinating principles in your
various works—from the Warhol Flowers to the
shooting performance after Niki de Saint Phalle
at the opening of the re.act feminism exhibition
last night—is that of repetition, or even a repetition
of a repetition. You yourself once called it a
“contemporary method of gaining recognition,”
and I still find that convincing.
C.S.: A repetition is certainly one possible “view” of an “object,” an approach—or perhaps also a way of distancing oneself from it. Why does one repeat exactly that, which one repeats, and why does one repeat it? In my Revisiting feminist art series, I limit the object of repetition to feminist artworks. So it is not only an abstract question of repetition as such, but rather always also a question of the object; I think the question of what the object has to do with the method is not insignificant.
S.W.: Of course it matters what you choose for repetition. In a different complex of works it is the Warhol Flowers. They are significant, since they are works by an artist who reproduced what had already been reproduced in the new media of his time. Using popular mass products, he not only provoked the established (American) high brow art business, but also made a name for himself as a unique artist and author at the same time with the critique of the idea of the original, art work bound to a unique signature. This paradox is an important starting point for your Warhol Flowers—the “Sollfrank-Warhol-Flowers”—in which you practically play through the question of the duplication or the reproduction of originals, which are not originals in a classic sense (such as the photographs by Patricia Caulfield, for instance, which Warhol used as models for his prints), at the next level of media development, of digital (re-)production. You include yourself as an “author” and question this position at the same time by taking Warhol’s “I want to be a machine” seriously, or as a “smart artist,” who lets the machine do the work, setting it to endless reproduction, in a sense.
C.S.: I wouldn’t exactly call the method I use for the Warhol Flowers repetition. Unlike Elaine Sturtevant, for instance, I don’t attempt to get as close as possible to the “original,” but leave just enough of it still recognizable as a reference. I ultimately limit the pool of images by entering a search term; then a machine and the principle of chance enter in—in other words, certain automatisms that form a collage of images from existing ones. I also use the store of images from the Internet because the images I get for a certain search term are constantly changing and multiplying. I have been making collages with the net.art generator now since 2004, and there are constant aesthetic shifts which are not a result of the program, but the source material instead. In this way the net is also reflected on as a medium in the image series, but without me having any control over it. That is also a reason why I have worked so long with the same motif: to really be able to read these changes. In this sense, of course, it is also a repetition.
S.W.: This makes it clear that repetition or even reproduction is never just “repetition.” In fact, I would like to call your method of repetition a subversive one, a re-staging of an already existent and highly effective system of rules and meaning which first produces “art” with its essential parameters of authorship, authenticity and original. Here I think you increasingly slip into the role—albeit in different ways, when I think of the exhibition Originale und andere Fälschungen (Originals and other Fakes)—of the various agents of this system, art history and critique, the museum and, not least of all, the law, probing and testing their common rules (certainly not always consciously) in this joint game. I mean a subversive repetition in allusion to Judith Butler, which plays through the construction and its rules and regularities—in this case not of “gender,” but rather of “art”—thus making it recognizable.
C.S.: I think this idea is very important, because it has often been suggested that art is simply there and not subject to any rules—especially “good” art. This vehement negation of an existence of rules for art, according to which it first appears as such, in other words its constructedness, is what makes it necessary for me to seek out these rules and visualize them with artistic means and as part of my work as an artist. Repetition is an obvious choice, because it directly causes the disruption of the mechanisms important to the art system. And sometimes it is not even necessary to repeat, but simply to appropriate what has been repeated by others. The oil paintings of the Warhol Flowers manually produced in China are the pinnacle of this. Most painting factories have them in their standard repertoire; the motif is well suited for both the United States and the European market. And I can simply order them.
S.W.: Warhol in oil is exciting. Works by the pop artist who turned against traditional criteria of value like the originality and uniqueness of the work—which is what oil painting stands for— now return from a different part of the world “ennobled” or re-auratized. Is it something like an unintentionally subversive act that reflects the mechanisms of the western art business back to us?
C.S.: Or maybe just a gigantic art action: the endless repetitions of western art history, including all the modern and postmodern approaches— all hand-made and in oil … Even the entire Louvre is repeated: not only in Dubai, but also in Dafen (a suburb of Shenzhen and the center of Chinese painting factories). The fact that this will cause—presumably surprising— feedback to the western art system, especially in terms of questions of authorship and originality, seems “pre-programmed” to me.
A nice anecdote is that I additionally commissioned a flower motif generated by the net.art generator as an oil painting, which is much more difficult to paint due to its pixelated structure, so it was almost twice as expensive as the Rembrandt copy I had previously commissioned. The “material” certainly is rebellious! Fortunately there are already oil painters in the painting factory who specialize in pixels.
S.W.: The game of original and reproduction can be reopened with your form of a re-“originalization” of the Warhol Flowers—whether as an oil painting or a screen print. As we have already learned from Walter Benjamin, the one is unimaginable without the other. You make this explicit and demonstrate it to us as a game whose rules you are parodying at the same time.
S.W.: But what is the relationship between this work complex after and with Warhol and the Re-visiting feminist art performances? What are the similarities and what makes up the difference? First of all, one thing is obvious: here you are involved with your own body and act with it. When exactly did you start this series?
C.S.: I came up with the idea for this in 2005; the first performance took place in 2006. One day I got stuck on VALIE EXPORT’s dog performance. I had often seen the photos, which are now almost iconic, and I imagined what would happen if I took her place. It is feminist art that was important to me as an artist; it involves the portrayal or exercise of female aggression and the question of the significance that these historical works still have, could have today. I didn’t want to just think about it, but to really experiment practically with it, also to find out the extent to which EXPORT’s intervention strategies can still be employed today—counter to their appropriation by the art business. Since we are from completely different generations of women artists, very different notions of art (including the concept of the work and the image of women artists) and feminism collided as well. This performance took place in a shopping mall in Hamburg-Harburg, by the way, while a Peter Weibel solo exhibition was being shown at the same time directly next door at the Falckenberg Collection. The video from the street performance from 1968 was also shown in the exhibition.
Surprisingly, this self-exposure also led to a series of personal experiences for me.
S.W.: What kind of experiences?
C.S.: For example, the experience of moving through a city as a voyeur and secretly taking pictures in the “Spring in Paris” performance. That also means exposing myself to physical risk—which was also the case in the Harburg dog performance. And then there was also another kind of interaction, that with my “dog,” with Monty Cantsin. No matter how theoretically or conceptually you approach it, something unforeseeable always takes place between the participants.
S.W.: But the performances amount to more than just your own experiences.
C.S.: They are public actions with an audience. However, I can’t speak for the audience’s experiences, only about what I observed of the audience. What do you think is happening there? What is happening for you?
S.W.: Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to be there for the dog action. But what I find fascinating is that certain feminist art performances can be called to mind again, as for example in the re.act feminism exhibition. So it can come into view again, what significance the works by various women artists had for opening up seemingly natural gender positions—as well as for critically questioning traditional notions of the work and the artistsubject. I am happy that these works are being recalled into the “collective memory” again. At the same time, though, a possible danger of museumization is also recognizable here—especially when the works by women artists are de-contextualized, in other words presented separately from the social movements of those years. I find it problematic when these feminist interventions are assumed into an art historical canon as presumably closed works, merely supplementing the list of masters’ names. But that is only the one hand.
On the other hand, I am also wondering: What is the other, the new that occurs when early feminist projects are re-enacted in the first decade of the twenty-first century? Surely it is also true for these kinds of re-enactments that something else is revealed with each repetition.
What is attempted here with re.act feminism can be seen as part of a broader movement: for some time now there have been recurrent attempts in different places to transfer art actions and methods, not only feminist ones, from the nineteen sixties and seventies to the present. I share this fascination and understand the wish that these kinds of art performances might have a similar impact today. However, some attempts at repetition or re-enactment seem to me to have more of a sobering effect, if not indeed a boring one. What is left is often a kind of nostalgia. I think it becomes clear that if a re-enactment wants to be subversive, it should also contain a strategic translation. What I mean is that it must also include a reflection on how the media environment or gender relations as well have changed since then, what shifts have taken place. After all, there have been tremendous developments over the last forty years, particularly as a result of the so-called “media revolutions” and the tremendously accelerated circulation of images resulting from them.
C.S.: First the question of audience experience: I wrote down several observations directly after the dog performance. For example, one is that the majority of the passers-by in the shopping mall where the performance took place immediately took out a mobile phone or even a digicam and filmed the performance. That means that the people no longer directly watched, didn’t just expose themselves to the experience, but held a technical reproduction device between themselves and that what irritated them.
S.W.: VALIE EXPORT’s action is now processed for every camera and every computer at home with these new media. The effect of the remake— as one result—is general availability.
C.S.: That is certainly an important aspect, but it then immediately raises the question of what this general availability means. I found this hiding behind a lens almost more important, hiding behind the media to protect yourself from what irritates you.
S.W.: But not wanting to be seen looking has always been part of the phenomenon of voyeurism. (VALIE EXPORT also already addressed this, for example, in Tapp und Tastkino.)
C.S.: Another observation was that the images of the dog performance suddenly overlapped associatively with pictures of the American soldier Lynndie England, who only a short time before had tortured and humiliated Iraqi prisoners of war in Abu Ghraib prison by leading them on all fours on a leash, among other things.
S.W.: Exactly, that was at the same time. And that indicates the contexts again, which can invert the meanings of single works or actions.
C.S.: The third aspect that very quickly became clear was that large sections of the population take dealing with pornography much more for granted, dealing actively or passively with SM practices. You can buy handcuffs and collars everywhere.
S.W.: To the extent, as you mentioned already, that your “repetitions” of these kinds of early feminist performances are also experiments to investigate their potential “explosive force” today. At the same time, the question of “female aggression” is also important to you. How much this matters today is the question you pose. It is of course highly significant that a connection is made between Lynndie England and VALIE EXPORT through your appearance. We have women soldiers who we see are no better than their male colleagues. At the same time, this picture of Lynndie England is highly charged. My thesis is that this picture had a function similar to that of the picture of the woman concentration camp guard after 1945, namely an exonerating function (I’m referring here to more recent historical analyses, which are published, for example, in the book Gedächtnis und Geschlecht [Memory and Gender] edited by Insa Eschebach and myself): England the soldier became a figure who could be accused of a twofold breach, not only that of transgressing the limits of military force by torturing, but also the rules of “femininity” by presuming to be able to do what men do.
C.S.: With that we have now found several examples of how repetitions can become productive. But I want to go back to your earlier remark that repetitions often end up becoming boring. I think that disappointment is an important part of repetition.
Regardless of what we repeat—something that we find fascinating, important, cool, radical, etc., or something we want to criticize—what emerges in the repetition will be something different. Especially with the subject of feminist art, there is a high degree of identification among many—as with other radical expressions of that time. The rebels of past are the heroic icons of today. They stand for something that one wants to be part of—perhaps by repeating it. And precisely that obviously doesn’t work. It becomes clear that history is being repeated and for that reason it cannot have the same effect. Perhaps some of the identification is even lost. Isn’t it precisely repetition that cures us of nostalgia and reactionary glorification?
S.W.: I would say, can cure us. To avoid falling into resignation or passivity, you have to want to accept the challenge to rethink and further develop the experiment
C.S.: Repetition and disappointment are a good starting point for that. You earlier mentioned the key word “female aggression.” That is what the works that I have chosen have in common: they stage female aggressiveness. And another work I am still planning is a reading of the SCUM Manifesto. That is still important to me, because its author, Valerie Solanas, fired several shots at Andy Warhol in 1968, seriously wounded him. This should also make clear that I have not been dealing with the Warhol Flowers for years because I have an oedipal or fetishist relationship to Warhol. Apart from that, the text is still highly topical, especially the part where she writes about the art business. And I can’t think of a more appropriate place for the reading of the Manifesto than the opening of an art fair...
S.W.: So you want to take up the role of the miscreant of the avant-garde of the latter half of the twentieth century, which is how Solanas is seen by quite a few people, and play it through?
C.S.: Repetitive actions are certainly well suited to produce statements about their object as well. It is just as certain, however, that they no longer trigger what they triggered “in their own time”; if female aggressiveness is the issue today, then we have to look for completely different images, forms and actions.
S.W.: I would like to phrase the term “female aggressiveness” more precisely, because it is obviously not about the fact that women in fact really exercise physical violence, but rather that their existence per se is not welcome in certain areas, or is even perceived and interpreted as an aggressive penetration into a territory where they were previously not supposed to play an active role...
C.S.: Aggression means rejecting the assigned role, expanding it or transgressing it. Depictions of female dominance, whether with weapons or simply even technical skills, stand for exactly this.
S.W.: So the problem would not be that a woman— especially in the concrete sense—turns violent, but rather that she presumes the right to do exactly the same as her equally qualified male colleagues do. It does not seem uncommon that this by itself is already perceived as aggression, also for the simple reason that the gendered privileges taken for granted are called into question. So perhaps we shouldn’t speak here of “female aggressiveness”, which also holds the danger of essentialism, but rather of structures and the projections produced through and in them.
C.S.: But doesn’t the repetition of a performance address exactly these structures and question whether and how they have changed over the past forty years? The boundaries have certainly shifted, but they are still there.
S.W.: So the question remains how art—as an experiment or even as a trial action—is able to further test and undermine the game rules that keep the art business running. Repetitions can affirm the rules—indeed, this is the only way they retain their validity. But their validity, their effect that seems to stem from a natural law, can also be called into question by a radical disclosure in an aesthetic experiment, if one attempts to take over the game rules and play them through to the limits of absurdity—thus exposing them to ridicule. Laughing at structures and the rules that affirm them can have a liberating effect, establish distance and thus release pleasure in the next experiment. In this sense, I look forward to your next actions.
Translation: Aileen Derieg