by Hans Askheim
From an email conversation between Gabriel Lester and Hans Askheim In the Cola Yoghurt Project you present encounters between you and a range of different Lithuanian scientists, inventors, artist, and others, all related to innovation in Lithuania. Can you tell me a little bit about what made you choose this country? There was never a real valid or specific reason to chose Lithuania, other than that I was invited to do a show there. Initially my idea was to investigate the similarities between artists and inventors, paired with one of few ways to get rich fast (i.e. successful patents and gambling) in the former Soviet Union. I wanted to make a documentary about a certain (creative) spirit in a “new modern world”. In the end the “Lithuanian version” was much like a performance: filmed and edited in ten days. I might do a proper documentary one day… The video is put together by many fragments and samples. Several narratives are woven together, creating a collage-feel to the video. What are your thoughts around fragmentation? Most of my work has some relation to fragmentation, since most of what I make is related to concrete composition, edit and sequence. I construct my work trough a selection of elements that constitute an environment (or virtual world) in constant flux. As such the artwork suggests movement and a possible solid state, rather than moving or being an actual solid state. In other words: fragmentation allows me to create a flexible model of representation and/or expression. The concrete is what spectator allows, desires and adds. Do you mean, instead of making only one dimension or narrative, fragmentation allows for different kinds of suggestions, making the work more ‘open’ and ‘neutral’ for the spectator? I have always enjoyed comparing my artwork and practice to improvised music. When creating a work, I set a certain frame, decide upon a set of rules. Much like with Jazz music, where rhythm, melody and harmonies are set but the individual instruments may improvise and look for the boundaries of what has been set, I desire a measure of liberty to work with. I think that the measure of improvisation in my work equals the measure of free interpretation that is given to the spectator. The fragmentation and multi-dimensions, you mention, are in a way there to create this space to freely interpret, associate and appropriate…. Is the ‘set of rules’ you refer to critical to, or questioning, the ‘spirit of innovation’ in a ‘new modern world’? I am also thinking of another work, ‘Welcome’ (2000), which had a more obvious critical element. In this work, performed at the Stedelijk Museum, you wrote a critical speech, pressed it onto vinyl and asked two DJ’s to remix it. Is there a critical, ‘resistance’ element in this work? I think one could view the works as a proposition rather than a position or direction. At the same time the rules and frame imply – or hint at – some kind of model. The spirit this should evoke is that of curiosity and – at best – the desire to question and provoke the model / models. I am not sure about the element of resistance, I think it is rather engaging, as such maybe provocative – is provocative engagement a form of resistance? In the case of ‘Welcome’, the DJ performance you mention, there is a clear example of provocative engagement – the text remixed is in itself topical, engaged and critical. The remix further emphasizes this by deliberately isolating parts of the text, but at the same time one could easily think that all of it is a text randomized by DJ’s freely cutting it up. So it comes across as a possible reading of the text; a proposition – a provocation. I find dilemma an interesting result of art. Could you say something about the ‘provocative engagement’ you mention even though it might not be described as ‘resistance’ in a politically or socially engaged way? With provocative engagement, I mean an attitude that questions, critiques, tests and provokes every day life, love, art and such. I think it was Emil Zola – a true provocateur – who described the intellectual as someone who always questions everything; someone who never accepts things just the way they are said to be – or appear to be. It is thus not so much an act against, a contra-action, but an act of critical investigation. Obviously, when one investigates anything thoroughly critically, chances are that something is discovered that leads to the adjustment or even resistance of the opinion and ideas before investigation. As an artist I want to continuously question things, look at things from endless perspectives, challenge things, weigh things. This is a modus of investigation and of creation. Would you say that there is an element of social or political engagement in your work? I have asked myself this question on several occasions… In my writings, standpoints, opinions and social and political analysis is quite common. In my visual art however, there is never a clear, in your face engagement. The fact that this apparent non-engagement is a conscious decision, might, in itself, be viewed as a form of engagement. Maybe it is, somehow. The fact is, that I do deliberately avoid making strong social and/or political statements. Then again, the absence of statements is very much a part of the work. Whether it is a spatial installation or a video like The Cola Yogurt Project, I am always trying to get the spectator to think, to question, to engage… Can you say a bit more what might be the reasons for the engagement not being explicit? Taking an explicitly engaged stands could easily render my work static and/or categorical. It is just not a way for me to achieve what I desire. It has to do with a look on life, an attitude, if you like. I find that most explicit expressions risk becoming one-dimensional – or at least the interpretation could easily lead to an over simplified view of things. I could say I don’t like directly pointing at things, rather in the direction of things….