INTERVIEW BY ASHLYN BEHRNDT
Anna-Sophie Berger is an artist based in Vienna. Last spring she mounted a solo show at Ludlow 38, Growing Horns curated by Vivien Trommer. Exhibiting objects of different media and materiality, the show acted as a multidimensional analysis of processes in consumption and production juxtaposed with the more intimate relationships that structure our life with objects. The show included a live performance piece in collaboration with Dena Yago.
ASHLYN: Much of the focus in Growing Horns is placed on objects and processes that exist outside of commercial production, like the recipe for example. In previous works you talk a lot about direct examples of consumption and the processes of acquiring or creating objects. Can you talk about your purpose for confusing the layered or maybe parallel ideas of commercial production and personal practices and what their relationship is. I guess I am curious if you are purposely trying to confuse the two to show their similarities or their reciprocal effects.
ANNA: It is true that I compare and confuse commercial, often industrial, and personal or artisanal modes of production. The most simple answer would be that this serves my point when claiming that all of them are motivated by the complex desires of individuals, the interplay of yielding and resisting. But on a more broad level, I think this comparison is also essential in overcoming a simplistic dualism of good/bad, true and false when talking about objects. It’s quite interesting to look at fashion’s historic connotation as vain and a tool for disguise juxtaposed against the notion of a supposed underlying true self. Curiously, while the fetish of objects or the notion of a reality constituted of simulacra is ubiquitous we still live in a tradition of the degradation of the object—be it man made product of culture or even natural. This tradition has been carefully constructed out of emphasis put on human’s constructivist understanding of reality and their capacity to think in representational, semiotic terms. Simmel for example talks about clothing as media for deceit. He accepts that it can perform powerful tasks, but essentially argues that for the intelligent thinking being—the man at this point in time of course—such disguise of the true ideal state of human, the issues of the mind needs to be called upon as merely serving a surface need, far away from thought. This seems outdated eventually, but I think in contemporary discussions about objects as part of consumerist culture or even better consumerist critique, we can commit the same old error deeply established through aesthetic theory—derogating the things we live with as hostile, polluting unnecessary necessities that we had best finally get rid of altogether through acts of sudden liberation or chastity—if only we could? We cannot though, and the reasons in my opinion go beyond us being spoilt by capitalism. These reasons are connected to the capacities of objects—again clothes serve nicely as example since they display the convenient symbolic as well as physical proximity to our bodily-selves. Objects not only constitute parts of our feelings of self, they perform symbolic emotional tasks, they carry time and meaning, they shape our feeling of reality. They can physically extend our emotions, highlight our fears—in brief they mirror the complex existential desires of individuals. Also, and this is something I love about reading on material culture, they have the capacity to convey meaning that lies beyond the semiotic threshold. Something Gertrude Sandqvist calls silent knowledge or intuition. They can never be fully bent to perform exactitude of signifying precise meaning, they leave room for play- and grey-zones and contribute greatly to the subtle processes of cultural change. That said, I believe that through understanding these capacities as powerful, we enable a productive critique to actually change our relationship to them—e.g. not to buy something, being more careful with something, protecting something, like an ethics of objects almost.
Is the recipe a device that’s used metaphorically for the exchange of commonalities? Due to the fact that a recipe holds cultural specificity within a larger structure of exchanging values would you say it has similarities to a form of commerce in its intrinsic value?
The recipe performed different symbolic tasks. Definitely exchange of commonalities was of my interest in tackling the exhibition as a whole. In abstract and poetically speaking, and this is what I dealt with in my text for the show, I was looking at a recipe as a way to transfer meaning from one area to another and the process of change that can occur while an overall structure is kept stable. I used recipe almost as metaphor for coping as an individual.
Then there was the recipe that actually resulted in a very specific object—a cream–that became symbolic for a feeling or belief in safety as connected to a specific thing. Lastly the title of the finished sculptural work, the cream in a bowl—A Promised Cure—referred back to doubts connected to the beliefs we foster in our relationship to the world. As the cream is not just displayed, but also in practice “used” on the photographic works, it performs the process of supposed healing connecting all elements in the installation. I am not sure if a recipe to me ever holds intrinsic value. The way I used it, was more concerned with its pointing to the instability of things and as catalyst for change while providing the palliative skeleton notion of security—Like a link between two conditions.
The remedy you use as an example in your work is a homemade medicine that is used to treat and comfort but at the same time highlights and obscures the creation of compound materials. These remedies are modeled on Western Medicine but still operate as a form of emotional therapy in that their properties are meant to provide an idea of wellness. The current structure of remedial therapy still draws from a framework of commerce pre established by Western Society, whether they involve commercial or social intercourse. For example, the deducing involved in buying a new product seems like a romanticized enactment of tradition in itself, in that the consumption of the product is supposed to fulfill a missing piece, make something right or lead to understanding, all various forms of therapy. Yet, traditional and personal remedies are unique because of their sentimental value and context.
Why do we emulate and personalize these medicinal frameworks within our own intimate rituals and remedies?
I think the process towards buying or—if we take a step back—of choosing and owning and object, be it to heal, to feel well, to decorate or to adorn ourselves is necessarily romantic. The alienation from objects through over-commercialization is an unfortunate process that disrupts that romantic relationship and leads to our longing for an idea of an object to compensate or fix things. It’s therefore a narcissistic relationship, in which we do not necessarily know our own feelings nor recognize the object.
Given that digital environments blur a sense of historical context and cultural coordinates, how do you see the perception of historical culturally significant frameworks evolving? What value is added or taken away to these schemas through our digital methods of sharing and reappropriation?
This is truly a very hard question since it refers to the potential to name or state the “good” scenario in terms of cultural development or status. I was schooled in the traditional western European framework of humanism that places emphasis on substantial knowledge and professionalism as expressed through time-consuming long period research and investment. I worked myself through a curriculum of cultural linearity and the notion of logical stability and even if unstated the idea of modernist progress. Nowadays as for most anyone in my generation my life is so profoundly submerged in digital environments, my communication happens digitally, my life is to a large degree structured by visual representations of the world, my informational intake is often associative, evasive and focused on links more than on facts. This seldom frightens me, I embrace it for the most part. I notice my own reluctance towards long in depth procedures, I grow agnostic towards strategies of “specialist” knowledge meticulously and laboriously trained as well as all concepts of legitimizing artistic revenue through perfecting a technique over time. Permanence seems increasingly more irrelevant. The immediate stimulates me. I am drawn to processes that blur dualisms or distinctions in favor of associative drifting and multi-themed contents. I like to flip from image to image, from wiki to wiki. Now do I think this potentially harmful is a whole different question that I cannot tackle easily since I think change is base to culture. I suspect a sort of existential trap in the notion of overflow of stimulation, like a way to sedate oneself, or build up a successful strategy to prevent one of accepting the finite—since what could be more powerful a remedy than to place all emphasis on the Here/Now as provided by an instantaneous communication and informational system. I think there are dangers in each epoch’s technological and political attitudes towards past/present and future. What is most relevant maybe is to ask what is at stake and what can be lost and this is probably where we end up having to talk about social environments, rather than cultural loss. I am not really worried we will lose art forms or historical narratives – we seem to be quite good in preserving those. Socio-cultural frameworks are more complex already. How do we deal with geographic fragmentation and our yielding to un-localized socio-cultural environments? This clearly effects the communities we actually live with and share cities with. Do we at all connect in practice to our physical social environment anymore? And if we do not share mundanity with a group of people, can we take responsibility for them? Late capitalist’s hyper individualization plays a role of course in the dis-attachment from frameworks that are locally specific and encompass responsibility in return. The question of whether through an acceleration of time as perceived digitally and online our relationship towards a still physical world is altered or impaired—i.e.. us growing impatient, inattentive or evasive is of great interest to me. Eventually, out of an altered behavior as shaped by digital environment, might we commit harmful acts against the environments we inhabit? This is on a different level encompassed by Virilios idea of the administration of fear, that refers to our increasingly synchronized collective perception of time and space as one, regardless of where we are in regards to reactions to situations of crisis. It is the discrepancy of our perception of virtual processes and yet still physical processes as well as their functional reconciliation—regardless of what we consider “reality”—that present the biggest challenges to social life.
How does memory take form as a pacifier or mediator for determining what is significant and what is futile when thinking about value or delimitation of value? Particularly, I’m thinking about the homogenization between cultural histories and specific symbols that remain.
I view memory mostly as a very functional tool to create structure and meaningful connections within an increasingly homogenized cultural commons of universalisms. Memory is sort of what allows the alienating process from A to B to be perceived still as a subjective reality. It’s like a fluid surrounding the often anonymous phenomena, the signs, that populate our cultures. It’s like we create stand ins for types of affects and universal values, like a symbol for love, a hero for sadness, a dignified person etc. etc. These symbols, rooted deeply in mass and pop culture are beautifully compliant and fit the image based perception of reality—be it digital or as reproductions. Yet since we are conscious beings that depend on subjective narratives, we have memory glue together these phenomena and while doing so we actually take active part in creating value for ourselves. To this point this is simply a result of accepting an epistemology based on constructivist thinking. But what I think is different now is that we actually all handle the tools to a representational real time archive of all phenomena. I would say what differs is that now we get to compare and align anything from anywhere as image , tumblr would have been an early example, and this contributes both to homogenization of cultural perception, as we start to see patterns in everything Also, alienation from the actual complex realities of all things including there past and future. Thus we turn everything into symbols yet often dysfunctional ones. The signified is cut from the sigil leaving us with emotive rests rather—like a T-shirt that states: “Home is right here where I most want to be”.
The internal dialogue displayed in some prior works speak on the need to step outside of a justification process involved in decision making to buy a bra. But this does not come without internal anxieties that stem from the lack of indifference involved in this process. It seems like we are often mindlessly devoted or predisposed to an internal discourse when seeking out specific items to purchase. Do you feel like there is a fetishization of the process involved in this decision?
The dialogue you refer to is from a press release of a show I did a while ago called “Just Feel”. Already the title suggests the complicated relation between a wishful natural unselfconscious way of being towards an overly thought through attitude of doubt. It’s a manifestation of the individual doubting their power over the world. The notion of which is ancient old. Locating it in the context of shopping is both just a contemporary setting but also a conscious focus on the emotional private aspect of dealing with and buying objects. Since most of us accept the commercial sector that dominates most of our lives at least in the cities as near pathologically invasive, suspicion to it comes naturally. But as I said earlier on, we also are inexplicitly drawn to objects nonetheless. So we find ourselves in the horrent situation of despising being victims of marketing in whatever we do, being targeted in real time, but still having intimate relationships to things and people we desire. I am not drawn to the description of “fetishization” since it implies lust whereas what I feel is more existentialism. The process of decision in which the individual battles to remain a conscious being capable of action and doesn’t give in to being completely dis-empowered by pre-determined strategies of a market is like the existential fight within the drama of life.
How do you explore these familiar processes of consumption in your work?
All my work constantly reflects individual struggle to remain productive towards life faced with existential fears. Yielding and resisting is metaphoric for any decision the individual makes—be it choice of clothes, way to live or what to buy. If the capacity to choose is lost, the individual cannot choose life which then becomes a travesty in which one is helplessly entangled and suspended. In order not to have that happen, we create culture, structures of thought, narratives and we search for love—the eternal optimists.
We’re living in a society that’s ruled by logical positivism and aesthetic empiricisms to a large extent. For example, we give higher value to what we have directly experienced or are already intimately familiar with. Our personal filters mirror this ‘data’ intrinsically by proximity and the ever present backdrops to our personal paths. But the fact of the matter is, our environment cannot always be fully interpreted through internal logic; in fact, this is largely a Western construct. Our frameworks of logic will often obscure our ability to purely perceive and be sensitive to elements within our environment. There are grey areas to explore that are often ignored due to our hard-wired rationale. You speak of fragmentation and a provisional state of futility. Can you talk about the parallels of low context cultures i.e. westernized linear and logical systems of thought and high context cultures which are more comprehensive and predicated on the common good, where justifications are not necessary but instead known., can you speak about the why you chose to interpret these grey areas through your chosen processes?
I am not sure if I feel well equipped to comment on practices of perception of reality as well as ways of life that are not of my own—also empiric—experience. I agree that “pure logic” will not do to enable our understanding of the world or at least to satisfy our existential questions and fears. I also agree that western narratives often serve to contain anxieties or to secure structures of power relying on a rhetoric of empiricism, but I do not question the existence and validity to logical positivism. To learn to accept “grey zones” that is the complexity of life that cannot be summed up through ratio has been a constant struggle for me as young adult. Art helps in a curious way since it is in itself constant proof of the value of intuition and the silent meaning inscribed to life and things—unspeakable things of sorts. I try not to construct unnecessary binaries or dualisms between an empowered rational attempt towards the world and the accepting of fluidity, transgression, complexity and change. It occurs to me that yielding to either side of the equation will have us end up in a state of non-action. If I were to adhere to a complete relativism this would run counter my feelings as lover, knowing exactly that I choose every single day. Yet I do feel suspended in complexity and irrationality and to curb my anxiety about that notion I need a mixture of accepting my agency as thinking being and the world as place of logic as well as near magical phenomena. The brain after all being to me a place of infinite admiration. It’s funny how one ends up theosophical as direct result of accepting life and its complexity…
Can you talk a bit about your performance at Ludlow 38?
The performance was a collaboration with Dena Yago. I have valued Dena’s work and writing for quite a while and wanted us to try working together. I have done performance work before though more correctly I perceive them as part of my Intallation practice. They enhance and inhibit installed spaces—be it this exhibition of myself, of others or blank spaces. In this light Dena’s text that she created for me to be performed within my own exhibition follows this tradition. It was a pseudo dialogue between author and receiving artist that I was reading out loud while also incorporating some of the object elements in the exhibition. The text dealt with remedies and strategies of coping with situations of expulsion and vulnerability of the body.