By Sabine Niederer & Koen Poelhekke
Impakt Festival 2010.
As part of Impakt Online – “The City as Interface.”
Koen Poelhekke (KP): What are your (creative) backgrounds?
Robert Willim (RW): I have been working quite a while with ethnographic research and cultural analysis, currently I’m associate professor at Lund University. In this work I’ve been mixing cultural theory with ethnographic fieldwork. Parallel with this practice I’ve been working with different kinds of music and sound projects, mostly with electronic tools.
Anders Weberg (AW): I have been working as an artist and filmmaker full time for the last 15 years. As with Robert I also have a musical background playing in various electronic bands.
KP: How do these backgrounds connect to the current focus of your work?
RW: My work as a cultural analyst has been crucial for how the concepts of our artworks has been developed. The ideas often stem from questions related to my research, like spatiality, questions about representation and the potential and shortcomings of different media.
KP: Have you been working together before the Elsewhereness projects, and if so on what kind of projects?
RW: Yes, we first started to collaborate in 2003 when Anders made a video to a project I curated called Industrial Cool. The first project that we made together that can be related to ideas in Elsewhereness was called Surreal Scania (2006). Here we started to examine the relationship between place and representation, and how imaginary geographies could be evoked. Since then we have made a number of other projects, all relating to some kind of imaginary geographies or the surreal dimensions of place representation. Many of them juxtaposing the site-specific with the digitally dispersed. This year we took these ideas a step further with the live-performance Sweden for Beginners, which we perform at various venues. In the performance we use electronic improvisation to evoke stereotypes about Sweden.
KP: The Elsewhereness projects are well-balanced combinations of sound and image. What comes first when composing and editing the work: sound or image?
AW & RW: Sound and image emerge parallel in the project. One of the main ideas with the series is to examine the relationship between distance and closeness, alienation and intimacy. So we have chosen to work in a way that also evoke these relationships. We start by having a discussion about the city we are about to approach. Then isolated from each other we collect images and sounds. We also make the first sketches of image and sound in solitude. Anders compose the images, Robert the sound. Then some time into the project we have the wedding moment when image for the first time meet sound. In this way we try to surprise ourselves and find room for the serendipitous. The final composition is made in a more close dialogue. So, this is a way for us to accentuate the relationship between distance and closeness, which is central for the ideas behind Elsewhereness.
KP: You’ve stated you want to subvert traditional forms of site-specific art, what is your main motivation for doing so?
RW: I guess that there are a number of reasons for this. One is rooted in my background in ethnographic research. Site-specific art has (according to Miwon Kwon and others) during the last decades been oriented towards social dimensions, this parallel with the emergence of a number of community-arts-projects, where dialogue and interaction is in focus. In these contexts ethnography has often been used. Ethnography, with a colonial genealogy and coupled to disciplines like anthropology, ethnology and sociology has become more and more widespread. It is often used when researchers are about to approach the eveyday lives of people. It is often associated with a kind of empirical intimacy and possibilities to come close to and gain knowledge about what people do, feel and practice in different contexts. In art, and often site-specific art, ethnography has been embraced. Hal Foster write some critical words about this in ”The Artist as Ethnographer”. We don’t want to reverberate Fosters’ critique, but we still want to give some perspective on ethnographic and socially oriented site-specific art. Within ethnography and much social oriented site-specific art we’ll find certain ideals embraced: participation, proximity and ideas about being ”loyal to the field”, bearing witness, giving voice to people etc.”. We wanted to instead make a site-specific work where distance and even alienation is instead evoked. Not in order to achieve some kind of nihilistic stance, but instead to examine the elongations of the site-specific and the ends of ethnography.
Another reason for dealing with the site-specific is grounded in a striving for not being labelled ”new media artists”. We certainly use new media, we are interested in the potential and shortcomings of the digital, but we do not make art that is only about new media. Instead we find more interesting couplings to different kinds of site-specific artists in our focus on ”imaginary geographies”. I can see some relationships to the ways that Robert Smithson worked with ideas about ”site” and ”non-site” in his land art, when monumental works like Spiral Jetty was represented in different forms in galleries. He used photos but also soil and stones that was removed from the places of the artworks to galleries to create links between the sites and non-sites. Similar relationships between the site-specific, the situational and more distant representations can be found in the walks and works of Richard Long or Hamish Fulton. Our imaginary geographies are attempts to by digital means evoke and further examine these questions.
Sabine Niederer (SN): The Elsewhereness projects are rather dark, sometimes even with a melancholy or gothic feel. Why do you think this is?
AW: This has become the affective hallmark of all our works. There is a similarity among the different works that in a way put them in the same parallel universe. I think one reason for that is growing up in Sweden and it’s darkness and gloom. The other is the musical bands that meant a lot to me during the teenage years like Kraftwerk, Einstürzende Neubaten, Depeche Mode, Sisters of Mercy and so on. I think they subconsciously still have an impact on all the work I do.
RW: I have some reflections on why I always end up in this emotional landscape. I guess that questions about place and belonging have some kind of resonance for me since both my parents came as refugees to Sweden from different countries. I carry their stories with me, stories about displacement, abandoned places and lost homes.
KP: How do you select your materials? Do you specifically query the Web for landmarks that symbolize the city you are working with? For example churches and universities, or is it a random selection of city-related materials that you then rework into an audiovisual assemblage?
AW & RW: The search is more serendipitous than systematic.
KP: Are you happy to hear that people see a resemblance with the city? Or is your aim not to catch the spirit of the city you depict?
RW: There should be some resemblance with the different cities. But there should also be similarities between the different cities, that blur the site-specific. This play between similarity and difference can be a comment to antropologist Marc Augé’s ideas about non-places. In the book ”Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity” he used the term non-places to describe urban localities that he meant lacked significant features. He wrote about airports, motorways, supermarkets or hotel rooms as examples of non-places. I wouldn’t agree with Augé’s a bit formulaic stance. But it is interesting to play with the ideas about what creates a non-place or the meaning of significant features of places. In Elsewhereness there is some kind of ”non-placeness” evoked. Namely the homogenous character of decay and decomposition. I’m intrigued by the ways that ruins are places where order is challenged. After a while the initial complexity of decay and decomposition processes turn into entropic similarity. Patterns become fragmented and broken down. If you search the web for the myriad of sites where urban explorers have presented photos from various ruins and abandoned places you first become struck by the intriguing complexity of urban decay. After a while, when you have seen X numbers of urbex galleries you are instead struck by the homogenous character of the various ruins. Concrete, metal, glass and abandoned stuff decay in a similar manner all over the world. Then again, look closer and you will find differences. I guess, that this kind of play between similarity and difference can be found in Elsewhereness. So, yes we are happy that people see resemblances with the different cities. But we are even more happy if they also see something else.
KP: Is there a city in particular that you would love to work with? What makes a city attractive to depict? Do you need a lot of presumptions about a city? Or very few ideas about what the city would look like? Are some cities more difficult to depict in this project then others?
AW & RW: I guess we fanticise about different cities to include in the series. Why not Manaus, Jerusalem, Nuuk or Los Angeles. But what have struck us with Elsewhereness is how affects, associations and the character of the piece emerge when we start working with a specific city. Utrecht was for an example not on any wishlist of cities to work with. But when we started working with it, it became a suggestive process.
KP: How much Elsewhereness are you planning to create before the Web of surreal associations is complete? Will it ever be?
AW & RW: There is still no visible endpoint or event horizon where the series will be sucked into the black hole of completion. The only problem we have is that we mustn’t have visited the cities we work with. So if we travel too much the web of possible cities will inexorably diminish, hehe.
SN: You’re making the works available for downloading and watching on mobile phones, pda’s etc. Would you recommend people to watch for instance Elsewhereness: Utrecht when in town? Or on the contrary, is this something to experience when in a different place, just like you when you made the work?
AW & RW: We encourage people to experience the work with a handheld device and headphones if they visit the specific cities. But we would also encourage people to watch the work when ”off-site”. In this way we want people interested in Elsewhereness to reflect on the significance of the framing of different representations. Another way to enjoy Elsewhereness is to watch the different parts in sequence to explore the play between similarity and difference. This kind of sequential viewing would be good to experience in a dark rom with a large screen and a good speaker system.
SN: Anything else you’d like to tell the viewer before they watch Elsewhereness: Utrecht?
AW & RW: Just enjoy, be lustful out there, and we would love to hear about how you experience the work.