Natalya Serkova: I would like to start with a reflection on the explicit oddness of objects you both create. Although talking about the weirdness of things has become a commonplace of sorts, your objects look as if they deliberately flirt with this regime of oddity. Angry slugs on fire; recorders, stuck to the sinks; irons that have overcome gravity; cut dreadlocks—all these objects seem to create a sense of perplexity, because if you try to analyze them using familiar approaches of art criticism, you simply cannot understand what side to approach them from. You wonder where that magic button is that turns these objects into art. In your opinion, where is this button today in general and where is it located in the objects that you produce?
Paul Barsch: First of all, we have to distinguish between the artworks we make as individual artists and the objects that were made collaboratively. There are, of course, similarities and intersections, but all of the mentioned objects are part of different series that follow different approaches and thematic questions. So, the sinks are part of a constantly evolving and ongoing collaborative object/image series called Sanitary Ceramics that Tilman and I started in 2016 and in which we try to redefine domestic objects via specific minimal changes, extensions, enhancements and conscious staging to transform them into a somewhat sublime state, while operating on the edge of the Readymade, as well as (superficial) artistic expression. The same goes for the flat irons that appear in an animated form for video productions and in a sculptural form to be presented in a physical space or for image productions. Whereas the involvement with the sinks is a serious attempt, the funny and comical character of the iron works is intentional and the core to this work lies in them being the goofy actors of the transmission.
The other objects mentioned – the slugs on fire and the cut dreadlocks – are the works of mine that follow individual paths. But, of course, there are similarities in how I approach and handle them. The dreadlocks are part of a speculative scientific product development and Brain Computer Interface research project I have been working on for some time now. Generally speaking, both our individual practices are taking different directions but have many overlapping zones, mostly in the thinking and in the approach towards art and artmaking and its presentation. One main approach in our joint ventures is to create persuasive images using materials that are not commonly used (or consciously avoided) as art materials by many. There, it becomes central to overcome one’s own taste, which is crucial in order to stay open, fresh and true to art. We try not to be biased towards art because of our own meager personal taste or common conceptions. Each taste and superficial style are traps of some sort…
To speak about the oddity and perplexity, it is maybe important to mention that the collaborative objects like these sinks are only loose manifestations of an idea and are in constant flux, always in relation to their specific documented or staged form. So it is not so much about the one specific object but more about the imaginary object or an idea of an object that appears between all of them (and displays a way of thinking about an object); an image of an object between all of these similar objects, and all of its image manifestations and the relations of objects and depicted surroundings. Simply spoken, you cannot judge a movie by a single frame or scene …
So I would say the button you are searching for in order to understand some of the contemporary art is right there, in ‘watching the whole movie’ instead of a single frame. A single frame might be beautiful in and of itself, but detached from the rest so you cannot tell what the movie is about. Or the other way around: a single frame might be odd and vacuous or even disturbing, but the whole movie might be a beautiful love story.
Vitaly Bezpalov: Nice tune, tho. Let us talk about your graffiti background now. As a former graffiti writer with 15 years of experience under my belt, I can say for sure that for ordinary people graffiti usually remains incomprehensible and worthless. In effect, the main audience for the pieces are the writers themselves, Vandal Squad and the train police who basically make all the documentation, try to decode and read the messages. Paul, you have mentioned that the approach in your Sanitary Ceramics is serious enough, but it is also a project where you use a lot of graffiti writing. This cannot but ruin the chance for almost everyone to ‘read’ each work properly because of the impossibility to read the letters. So the question arises: to whom are these works addressed considering that only a few in the field of contemporary art could potentially decode them? And furthermore: what role does documentation play in this project? Do these sculptures, unlike graffiti pieces, remain irl?
PB: The (graffiti-)styles that appear in the Sanitary Ceramics series are not meant to be decoded, they are just meant to be ‘graffitis’ or ‘tags’ in the most common sense of the word and should be read as such. They also do not really represent our approach towards writing or our particular taste. We wanted the graffitis to look as generic as possible, slightly on the edge of cheap ‘interiour design graffiti’ also to avoid any references pointing to the discourses within graffiti. The styles function in the same way as the mint leaves or the recorders; as carriers or surrogates of wider contexts and interrelations. As it is with a shark that you see with cleaner fishes; alone it is a fearsome animal but in combination with other fish it is quite a different and less violent picture that speaks about a lot more, the ecosystem, etc … if that makes sense.... Graffiti as an art material is also very difficult to work with. Most artists and art professionals avoid touching this subject. And that is exactly why we think one should work with it. How do you deal with such a charged substance?
Somehow, if I think about it now, and maybe this is nonsense, but all of these attachments, the graffitis, the mint leaves, the recorders trigger or refer to different human senses; the visual, the olfactory and the auditory sense and thus enhance the generic ceramic objects and drag them out of their domestic habitat and into wider fields of meaning.
PB: The Sanitary Ceramics are not particularly meant to remain irl. They have been and are shown physically but only their making and staging for documentation is what really interests us with this series. They can be easily reproduced in any quantity everywhere on this planet. The most important part of the work process and the work itself, is the documentation. The images of the objects are more vital than the objects; also they are more vital in terms of circulating and reaching out. They are like spreading spores while the objects are like mushrooms that pop up locally once in a while out of the fungus rhizome which is the idea and core of the work, ... kind of :)
NS: Yes, today graffiti can be seen as a colored background for the eyes of bored citizens of big and small cities. It comes as a new nature, which no one is paying attention to because of its ordinariness. It seems to me that you, Paul, resist such a commonness of the capitalist landscape when you show art to cows in a barn. It is as if you make us pay attention to an ordinary barn by embedding paintings into it. In this case it is not the art pieces that are meant to be unusual and strange but the cows themselves that look at this art. How can you, as artists and curators, determine the goal of such a defamiliarization of things and objects? In your opinion, what will become of the world once it reaches the critical point of this defamiliarization?
PB: I was not sure if the term defamiliarization really meant ‘Verfremdung’, the term we use in German language and that I would use more casually in describing art, but after double checking its origin I can see why you have brought it up. We felt that this ‘over-automatisation’, that Shklovsky speaks of, is at play in standardized presentation of art, an automatization that actually prevents the creation of art and causes individuals (in this case the curator, but also the artists) to "function as though by formula" as he states it. That is one reason why we created the platform New Scenario: to break free from this boredom and to experiment with other forms of art presentation, and also to somehow increase the difficulty and length of the perception on both the presentational and documentational level with creating something that is able to stand out and has the ability to break ones scrolling routine. But also in our own practice or other exhibition projects like this “paintings for cows” show, that you have mentioned, we seek to avoid (habit) automatisation. What interests us is how an ordinary object or a situation – or anything you want, basically – can be transformed into a different state of being through the use of some little effort and intervention.
It is not so easy to work on the transformatory edges of things, it requires some thoughtful precision and effectiveness to maintain a balance between attractiveness and disturbance. Sometimes this process starts with simple scrutiny, intuition or a finding, but from there on it is all about the uncompromising decision-making. The cow show I curated, however, was in a true sense created for an animal crowd (the paintings stayed on the wall of a cow shed for up to three months). I wanted to present the cows a rough picture of how we see ourselves as humans from the painters’ perspectives. In the end, of course, by viewing the documentation, humans are the main spectators (of the whole scenery, combining the paintings and the first level animal spectators). And, of course, on the second level the show was made for humans as well, to reflect on these questions of spectatorship and related ambiguities and human-animal power relations and many things more. The cows did not really care much about the art or ‘us’, and that is ok, although their milk tasted better after the show ;). Defamiliarized objects or things (or whatever else) — to get back to your question — eventually become familiar and form a part of our perceptive routines. So I do not think that there is a critical point that effects ‘the world’. I think, if something is overly defamiliarized, it looses its effectiveness in revealing any sort of artistic language (it will then be ignored and maybe unfolds only later, once the perceptive routines have caught up).
VB: You say that one becomes a spectator again thanks to the cow. Now we can all observe the rise of a discourse in which a human being is as much a part of ecology and the environment as a cow or the grass that it chews. Our dependence on cows and grass starts to seem deeper and more complicated than ever. Eventually the logic of such conceptual convergence also concerns the product that the human and non-human beings produce. For instance, both the artist and the cow can not control the effect of what they have made after the production process is over. In your opinion, how far can we go in such equalization of human and non-human beings and what will the art of this world of shifted distinctions look like and be?
PB: I would argue that this relationship was always deep and complicated but was unhealthily simplified through western or generally monotheistic worldviews and hierarchical concepts of anthropocentrism and human supremacy. Only now in the dawn of the sixth extinction, public and scientific discourses actually draw more attention to this and other ecological dependencies and interrelations, the stuff that often seemed to be common knowledge among the past or ‘primitive’ cultures. On the other hand, this ‘new found’ entanglement should not obscure the fact that this current environmental crisis is man-made and does not only effect humans in the long run (in the sense of his present state) but most violently has already affected all other (vulnerable) creatures. In the same way there is not really a non-human product or production process in the sense of a human-product. The very purpose of a product is to be sold. And what is sold, is not so much its material state, but a promise of improvement (regardless of whether or not the product can fulfill this promise). Non-human beings do not buy and sell and do not produce to do so. It might be right that we cannot control the effect and impact of products to a certain degree but on the other hand it is somehow obvious where most of them end up: in the trash. It is important to look at the direction of the vectors of equalization: it should always be connected to legal definitions that grant equal rights. Within art one does not have these problems. It is very hard to predict the art of any future and how it will look like, but structurally, there is usually little change.