An interview with David Kulhanek
From the press release for On Look But Don't Touch at Display, Prague, 2006
David Kulhanek: Could you tell me a little more about the way you "perform" your slide lectures? Is it to make it look like science, or to illustrate research, or is it a kind of story-telling derived from the reality? Is it formal or casual?
Christian Sievers: I'm a big fan of the traditional slide lecture. Everyone is familiar with the form and knows how to approach it. I’m hijacking a very formal way of presentation and use it for something else. No, my lectures are not improvised at all, and they really don't have a casual feel to them. I like to say they're magic lantern shows, pre-scientific.
Do you repeat the lectures, or is it always a new look into the archive, searching for new connections?
I quite like repeating them. The montage of text and images, finding the right order, all of that takes a long, long time. That's the hard bit. Once they are completed, once the collage glue has dried, my part of the process is finished. I can just go and read it out. The lectures are very much a hardened product, an artifact. It’s then up to whoever cares to listen and watch to re-trace my steps, or to walk down a completely new path. It's great fun (well I hope so), trying to match captions to images that have been dislocated, constructing a narrative out of heterogeneous elements that you suspect have something in common. But you don’t know what it is. It makes new sense all the time.
It’s really about slowly revealing one image after the other, and the same for the text. It’s about a certain chronological order, to which the ‘lecturer’ has to stick. That also means that the lecture ‘script’, that details what is said and shown when, is not revealed. I’ll never print the whole text, or show all the images at once. It's a bit like striptease.
Could you describe your method? How do you classify the material you collect?
There’s nothing so special about it. It’s how artists work, you play around with things until you get a configuration that works. It starts with a certain image that then develops some kind of gravity and pulls in other images to complement it. Then of course I have to decide what I want this to be about; which questions to send out to people. That then triggers more images, and so on.
Do you apply randomness in the process?
Of course there’s the randomness of what I see and can take photos of while going to work, or what replies I get to the questionnaires. But in the end it's a conscious collage of all these things. It’s like modelling a sculpture that has to look good from a lot of angles.
Could one describe your work as a sort of research in non-linearity or rhizomatic structures of the "real"?
It makes you believe that everything is connected to everything else. I’m trying to craft it so that the elements feel non-hierarchical, that every element has the same weight. I ’m voicing these very diverse statements and opinions, gathered from the questionnaires, as if there were no contradictions.
Is your individual view-point, a sort of sculptural capturing of the real material, a point of departure? Is it a certain self-orientation system as well?
The process of compiling the work and phrasing the questions helps me find out what it is about these issues that makes me come back to them again and again. You could say, everyone who replies to the questions helps to articulate the (sculptural) problem.
Could one classify your lecture projects as non-spectacular?
What do you mean? Yes, very, but only in a small, intimate setting.
I am interested in the "sculptural background" of your pieces, so if you can just briefly comment your relationship to sculpture?
I like to think that the ‘foundation’ of the lectures are the physical reality of things. The way one object relates to another. ‘Tough Guys and Soft Guys’ for example was on a basic level about hard and soft boundaries, and the volume that’s inside, rigid forms and flux. Those are sculptural categories.
A conversation with Anna Colin
on the occasion of Do Not Interrupt Your Activities, Royal College of Art Galleries, 2005
In his lecture performances Christian Sievers has developed a peculiar format involving a collection of images presented as a slide show alongside a scripted text. His scripts often collage together contradictory impressions and opinions that he has gathered through questionnaires. Sievers’s presence on stage evokes a sense of vulnerability, an uncomfortable moment of mise à nu. Like a test one has to pass in front of an audience, Sievers’s difficult presentation often concludes with a personal process of understanding and resolving the issue raised in his performance. The ostensibly severe lecture performances, however, are lightened by humour and parody.
What follows are excerpts from a conversation which took place in South London in February 2005.
AC: What made you choose the particular format of your performances?
CS: I once had a strange encounter when I was still at college. I showed someone around who was interested in studying there. She appeared a bit confused, said thanks and left. A few weeks later I received a VHS tape from her. It said on it that you could play it only once and then it would self-destruct. I gathered some friends to watch it with me. It was very short and very weird. I still don’t know what it was. I’ve always found that extremely interesting: What do you see if you know you won’t get another look?
AC: By adopting the slide lecture format, you engage the viewer in an experience similar to the one you have just described, in so far as the projection of images is a consecutive act where each image is shown once in a linear progression. As a result, one is likely to concentrate harder. What matters to you in the act of showing your pictures to others and what does that process help you realise?
CS: I’ve always liked showing slides of my work. In college you have to do it all the time. Some people hate it. It always gave me the opportunity to look at the images in a fresh way, and by talking about it with others, to change their meaning. When I got my first digital camera, I took thousands and thousands of photos. All kinds, from snapshots of family and friends, to streets and landmarks. Then, as I was going through these pictures, I started to identify certain recurring themes and sculptural issues. When I started working on Tough Guys and Soft Guys, I had been thinking about hard and soft sculpture for a while. I suppose the title came from a TV review of a programme where a British man went to live with an Ethiopian family and go hungry for a month. It said he was a soft man who does a tough thing. After editing the images down from an initial trawl of several hundred, they ended up being photos of my friends. Who all turned out to be softies. The lectures are a methodical way to identify those unresolved questions, filtered down from this large archive of images. I can draw in other, disparate material, and expand my understanding of the problem. I always need material to fill some missing link so I’m constantly on the lookout. It all feeds into the next lecture. Everything is connected to everything else. I enjoy that.
AC: On what subject did you base your first performances?
CS: Originally, the lecture series were supposed to be some kind of personal news update. They were called The Christian Sievers News of the World and took place monthly. It went on for two or three months, but soon became impossible to sustain. Also, there wasn’t that much happening.
AC: To your life?
CS: To my life and also to the world. It was the beginning of 2003 and the war in Iraq was about to start. Everybody was angry, and all you could do was to watch. When I say the exercise went on for only a few months it is because I never considered the third lecture finished. It was called On Look But Don’t Touch. It was a pretty tough piece about powerlessness, even more so since the text was very personal. But at least I managed to keep my eyes open. The images were of barriers, fences and other obstructing devices in the street; reflective and fogged-up windows. When asked to propose a work for Do Not Interrupt Your Activities I thought I would come back to this lecture and finish it. I have sent out a questionnaire to friends and acquaintances and asked among other questions: ‘What do you prefer, darkness or light?’ and ‘Where would you rather be right now?’ Somebody answered: ‘I like sex in the dark’. This funny quote summed up quite well the issue of whether you prefer to see or not to see. Another person said: ‘It’s easier to orientate and tell colours apart, without light I could not work, shower, cook, drive a car, could not tell who is in front of me or which is the way home.’
AC: Are there any disciplines located outside the arts that inform your practice?
CS: The Wunderkammer approach interests me. This is the German term for cabinet of curiosity. It is a collection of everything there is in the world gathered in one room. It leads to asking questions about the world and how these objects relate to each other. My lectures work similarly. An image of the world in 30 photos is a bit like a baroque Wunderkammer. It also makes me think of German art historian Aby Warburg and Image-Atlas MNEMOSYNE, the great atlas of the visual world he developed in the 1920s.
AC: How these objects relate to each other is not only up to the person who has installed them, but also relies on the narrative or interpretation supplied by the viewer. This is also true of your performances that, at first glance, look very formal and prepared, but are at the same time cryptic and very open to various interpretations.
CS: The beauty of this is that regularly people tell me about the connections they have made, often ideas I had never thought of during the research process.