Sabeth Buchmann is an Austrian art historian and art critic, and a Professor of Modern and Postmodern Art at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna.
Sabeth: We have spoken in the past about collaborative and participatory strategies in art as they relate to the idea of Probe [rehearsal, testing]. How does the concept relate to what you do in terms of production, for your work Experimental Archeology: The Space Beyond All Illusions, for example? I’d be interested to hear how this process works— do you first have an idea and then test or rehearse the idea with the other participants? How does the viewer or audience come to be included?
Mathilde: I see rehearsal as something open that has yet to be nailed down … where participants have a say in whatever happens within a given framework. My first concern after coming up with the idea is how to build up this kind of production. What are the critical artistic moments and who designs them? I see my projects as a collection of building blocks that deal with one—or several—artistic questions. I create a structure or framework that I then gradually fill in or invite others to fill, and I leave room for participants to make suggestions within these building blocks. If there is camerawork to be done, for example, then I will find someone who understands my construction and can use this free space to be creative and contribute to the structure herself. Then we would go through and think about which role the camera and its operators could have in the overall project. The camera in Experimental Archeology wasn’t just an efficient documentation tool; it was conceived as a kind of participant in the project. You can hear the camera in the recordings, and the focus on the cameraman’s work with all of the lenses and prisms, rather than what was supposed to be captured.
Sabeth: But those are framework conditions. This is a regulatory act, so to speak.
Mathilde: Yes. The project begins with the question, the framework conditions and the regulation of these building blocks. Then the participants come in with their abilities and bodies, but also their own needs and desires. The ayahuasca community that I worked with is a great example of this. The people in this temporary community have a desire to “break open” material reality, to share something spiritual and search out personal strengths and weaknesses so that they can examine them and develop them further. It involves an act or set of activities that has yet to be determined. It develops in the moment and is negotiated as it arises. That is the rehearsal. But this project, it also had to do with psychedelic experiences and the art that comes about as a result—why these are so often tied to clichéed images. And also what clichéed images mean—whether a cliché is actually an empty formal language that can be activated and understood at a basic, experiential level. And where the image dissolves into cliché because it can be experienced and understood. I also have the clay figures that were fired at a low temperature, another process. Ceramics has a lot to do with “grounding” in an earthy sense—pulling clay from the ground, the “physical mass” that turns from a soft consistency into a clearly defined body. Traditionally it was always associated with fire, with all that is irrational, spiritual and animating. The ceramics community is very divided on this aspect. There is a kind of dualistic reasoning as far as the physical, rational and spiritual are concerned. My project looks at how we can connect these things, and lift this artificial division. These were also important questions for the ceramics community as well. I work with other people so that we can find a solution together, because the projects and questions they raise are complex. They are not so easy to solve.
Sabeth: This is also interesting when you look at the theatrical rehearsal as a metaphor: it’s the only moment (and you see this in documented rehearsals) where everyone—performers, director, sound man or sound woman, technicians, dramatic advisor—everyone is visible and present in the scene. It is a classic transparency tool, showing conditions of production but also the moment where the audience is not present. The audience is only there at the dress rehearsal. But everyone I listed are the first viewers of the scene. So the audience is already implied, but they are still on the outside, so to speak. Still an imaginary, phantom, “phantasmagoric” presence. The first viewers are the ones who evaluate and judge a scene, and these are the decision-makers. But how do these decisions come about? And in making them visible, you of course see how situative, random, and capricious these often are. Can you see this in your work as well?
Mathilde: Yes. It’s a very interesting question because you are dealing with people. And the moment you see this production actually consists of people and everything they bring with them, then the most important thing is the community. What reinforces this community? What makes it valuable to the people involved? How can they be accepted into the group with their bad moods and everything that comes up, but without poisoning the final product? Or if it becomes part of the project’s line of inquiry. Then you suddenly see that this material is the essence of what it’s all about. The decisions are not simply decided; they emerge in the community. There’s magic in that. It was very interesting to see that the shaman who was there knew what this means. That ultimately it’s the moods and emotions that you end up working with, and you can re-think these forms in a new way. In what sense does this community and this group need rituals to make itself felt? Felt in the sense of “how does every individual come to belong?” Fist you make a circle, for example; everyone arrives and all are heard, seen—anyone can talk and participate in creation. At that moment I’m still just an observer. I can build a structure, make contacts, I can create relationships, contextualize artistic questions, and communicate these to others. I thought this was fantastic because I noticed how the people take responsibility for temporary community that emerges in a structure or framework and specific problem, and they develop it further. They keep testing it out, even without me to a certain extent. And in the end, everyone has the feeling that he or she has contributed something.
I have always looked for ways to undermine various hierarchies and mechanisms of oppression. I ask myself how it is possible to distance oneself from a readiness to violence, and the representation of violence. Is it possible to communicate something positive without lapsing into kitsch, cliché or blatant symbolism? Is it possible to represent love in art without consciously conveying love as a concrete idea? A temporary community allows you to share something. How this is conveyed is a mystery to me, too; in this case, I convey in ceramic vessels. I sat there with the Polish shaman woman, we dug these ceramic vessels out of the earth and she started to sing. Because she thought it needed something, some kind of ritual. It was fascinating to see that she knew what she was doing; I thought her actions were really fitting. And in that case I was just an observer to be honest. I thought what she was doing was good and recognizable. This moment where I let go and am no longer the author—this is where a project is created in the community. It’s an interesting moment.
Sabeth: You said something else that seemed very interesting. I know nothing at all about voodoo, but I assume that unlike a rehearsal situation, which demands spontaneity, coincidence and mood, the voodoo ceremony is a relatively strict system.
Mathilde: On the one hand I’d have to say voodoo is very free. You can “copy” anything into this system of gods. But of course, many rituals follow a very strict procedure. Only certain people go into trance, certain gods have their own demands, for example. Then there really is a clear system of rules. But the question is whether these developed through a process of exchange in the community—negotiated in a rehearsal, so to speak—or did someone set these specifications as a strict system of rules? What I find very interesting is that voodoo represents a different dimension. One that cannot be comprehended like rational material, but nevertheless accepts it as complete “co-creator.” With its own intelligence; just like the body has its own intelligence, matter has its own intelligence as well. I also went there with the intention of meeting priestesses, for example. I wanted to know if it was based on a strict patriarchal system.
Sabeth: Is it?
Mathilde: I don’t think so. The voodoo thunder god Toulabo, for example, has both masculine and feminine components. In voodoo, both men and women can be priests. My ceramic objects are also hermaphrodites. They are oversized copies of prehistoric objects that very clearly connect the male and the female. You can allow something to materialize, so to speak. You create the god, and you command it to materialize something.
Sabeth: Magical belief systems. It’s not the presumed deity, so to speak but the produced deity. But of course this is also an interesting twist on this conceptual paradigm that always begins with the dematerialization of the object. With voodoo, the situation would be the reverse: it isn’t just the visible that is material, but the invisible as well. Maybe it’s only a proxy. A proxy we used to create permanent ideals, norms, or whatever fixed images. Somehow, I see it as a kind of proxy structure.
Mathilde: What I like about this is that it is such a reversal. Instead of saying “God commands us, God created us,” it says, “No, we command God, we create God.” We are sovereign people; we are the Divine. I think that in this joint project, it’s important to say—or actually to insist—that everyone also tests her own sovereignty. I think taking people’s sovereignty away so that they can become pure production cogs in economic processes is a disgrace. It’s what breaks people down in the end, because they are no longer perceived as sovereign human beings, with their own needs and decisions. With their own creativity too, because that is the inventive, creative aspect in the notion that “I am God.” It means, “I am the one who produces.” It isn’t God that produces, I produce. With this, we also produce the significance of what it means to be connected to one another. And this also includes matter: what can be embodied in matter, so to speak? It’s all reversed. I think this is fascinating. I am ultimately for the confrontation between patriarchy and matriarchy, for this understanding of how complex the connection is between these things, and that we also have to think in a complex way. It’s not so easy; I’m going to reverse a piece of the puzzle. It’s important to follow this complexity through to the end. Not that matriarchy is the opposite of patriarchy, but to say: there is another system that works completely differently. Dominance not to dominate something but to make room for something. That is another kind of rehearsal or “testing,” you could say. I’m not saying where it’s going, but I open the space to do something and see what comes out of it.
Sabeth: Ultimately there is an institutional framework, like a symbolic field. The question is how do you bring this into the group process—how does this fact connect to the moment of exhibiting?
Mathilde: It’s also about how to assume a different attitude. This alone opens up a lot of space. There’s of course the moment where the temporary community part is over and I’m left with the naked reality that no one wants to buy these artworks and I’m out of money. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that as a person, you experience these moments as you see fit. You do whatever you think is right, and that is very important.
Sabeth: Yes. This is generally a point of criticism with a lot of “collaborative” projects that include seamstresses or craftspeople, for example. It’s working with the creativity of other people, but in the end it is your name on it as the artist. This continues along the symbolic process and many artists do not acknowledge this. And then, the seamstresses’ names mean nothing, basically. You’ve absorbed the collective productivity.
Mathilde: That is the problem with calling it an individual result. The process is the most important thing, and whatever comes out of that is the most important thing. This shifts that point, I would say.
Sabeth: Will you be showing these drawings in the exhibition as well?
Mathilde: Some of them, I’m not sure which ones.
Sabeth: But all of them are your drawings?
Mathilde: No. That was drawn by someone else, for example. There are some texts by other people in there. They’re all different. Some of them I produced with other artists.
Sabeth: Which works do you plan on showing in the exhibition?
Mathilde: I’ll be showing the project with the ceramic figures, called Experimental Archeology: Ontology of The In Between, along with a video installation from the week of activation and firing I’ve titled Experimental Archeology: The Space Beyond All Illusions. There’s also the Woman to Go postcard piece, along with a project I made with several sewing groups, migrant groups, refugee groups, artists and designers from Freiburg, Berlin and Hamburg. For that, I’ll be constructing a kind of flying carpet structure out of several smaller unites, where each person has a relatively large amount of autonomy and is free to do what they like. The rectangles are “free zones” that one or several people can decorate, and together these become a kind of landscape. They are made out of various multi-colored pieces of fabric that are then put together. It was also about connecting the group with one another. Some groups sewed the pieces; others embroidered them using various techniques. Some people use the pieces metaphorically while others put their own traditions and countries of origin into it, creating a large kind of map. The women who sewed this really enjoyed this idea that on the one hand it created a kind of landscape, and on the other side—the underside of the flying carpet—it becomes a kind of text, like a letter where you can say things you wouldn’t dare otherwise. We also wrote a song with Melissa Logan from Chicks on Speed and DJ Aroma from Berlin, and in this song it’s important that there is a message. I’m also doing a kind of survey with the participants to ask for their input on the project, and am trying to create a kind of workshop situation to get everyone talking. It’s fun to talk to each other, and that’s also why this project is here—something happens when we’re creating the song. The project is meant to activate something between people.
Sabeth: I see exactly what you mean. That so many different people are involved in the project.
Mathilde: It’s about the question as to what do we want, what do you want, what do you need? The song will be made into a sound installation, so that the song will dissolve into different voices in the space. This is a way of creating a kind of collective song. The important keywords for this project are “to be accepted or be seen” or “mutual giving.” With these projects, I give up part of my responsibility and put it in the hands of other people, so that I don’t know what will come out of it. My partner’s always saying, “You have no idea what will come out of it! It could also look like total shit in the end. You’ll ruin your reputation.” And then I think, “Well that could be.” But then that is the first decision. If I give up part the authorship (authority) in the project, then I also have to accept a certain degree of failure. If I can’t accept the possibility of failure, then I’m better off making something that is a clear, assessable product with a clear end result. In that case I would just pay the people to make what I want, so to speak, so that I can be the only author.
Sabeth: The fact that people can work on the material and make it what they want is also a form of shared production. You could also call it “networked production”—production that does not run through the structure of the art market, but expanded structures. It also reminds me a bit of conceptual art that works with editions, artist books etc., but also used this means of the certificate to undermine the centrality of the art market. Also a kind of “economic ideal,” to a certain extent. The question as to which producers are in fact part of the whole thing. At which level of the industry and does all of this take place? One could also say the work of an individual artist is more accessible than a community production, in a certain sense.
Mathilde: Joint projects or collaborations from artist groups are rarely accepted in the art market. The artist who does these kinds of projects positions his- or herself out of the commercial art market, which I think is a shame because these could also be beautiful “art objects” that could very well be sold as well. There is an artistic gap between the two methods of production, because there is the assumption that a marketable work of art is tied to an artist or artist group—to a specific person. These projects are of course by me personally, they are being shown in a solo exhibition, though I am only a part of it. This catalogue will also integrate many different individuals who will contribute in various capacities. For me, it was important to design the production so that it doesn’t look like someone is only there to produce.
Sabeth: I think this is a very interesting point—that it’s no longer just about producing. But it’s not about “not-producing,” either. Of course you have an end product, which is then shown in the exhibition. But the production aspect is one among many. It is also very relativized.
Mathilde: Right. When the production is in the forefront, then everyone is forced to keep the production process in mind. The production is an excuse, so to speak, to experience something together. Of course, this also raises the question as to what happens with a good artwork? Because some works spark something in you—set you “on fire” so to speak. These can be unbelievable enriching moments, even though if it’s only a fraction of a second in some cases.
Sabeth: Of course, with every community you will always confront mechanisms or inclusion and exclusion. As a viewer, you might be standing there looking at the work and thinking, “Well, looks like they had a great time. What about me?” That right there can also be a huge exclusionary factor. One would have to figure the viewer into it as well, because maybe the viewer doesn’t always want to be a part of the action. Maybe they want to keep a distance. I also think that’s what it is— a material production that opens up an entirely new form of access where these considerations are also manifested, where the role of materiality is given a value and autonomy of its own. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing.
Mathilde: No, I don’t either. For me it’s not about just inviting my pals over for dinner. It’s always about giving. That’s what I think voodoo projects are interesting, because the voodoo religion is very much based on the idea that this material matter is more than just material. That that’s of course what I hope I’ve done with these projects, and the ceramic vessels—I hope that that they also convey something. This is also where the rehearsal or testing aspect comes in. I’m adhering to these framework conditions; I assume that these objects are being charged with something.
Printed in: Performing Change, Mathilde ter Heijne, 15-24, Published by Sternberg Press in association with Museum für Neue Kunst, Freiburg