Interview with Alison Gigeras for Phaidon (2004)
Alison Gingeras: You were first trained as a graphic designer, and only later did you make a conscious decision to abandon graphic design to become an artist. Given the that your art practice is very much engaged in notions of political commitment and questions the role of the artist-activist, I’d like to ask you about how that choice to change your vocation relates to your vision of artistic practice.
Thomas Hirschhorn: That choice is actually important. It was a clear choice, but I’m wary of making too much of it, because if you don’t get things exact, they lose their significance. I studied at the ‘Schule für Gestaltung’ in Zurich. There was no proper ‘art department’, nor was it a school of applied arts like the École des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. The educational philosophy at the ‘Schule für Gestaltung’ was inspired by the principles of the Bauhaus, but in a degenerate and rather deviant version. Of course, it was neither the Bauhaus, nor the Ulm School, yet it adopted the precepts of both. As Thierry de Duve pointed out in his book Nominalisme Picturale , the very name ‘Schule für Gestaltung’ implies these two affiliations. It’s important for me to stress this point, because the teaching at the school was generalized: the vague and the ‘unsaid’ dominated the official discourse. None of my student-colleagues wanted to become a ‘graphic designer’ and work in advertising. But everybody did knew that ninety to ninety-five percent of job opportunities were in advertising. We learned a great deal about the legacy of the Bauhaus including – something that I thought was positive and we were taught about the history of graphic designers, fashion designers, architects and artists. I was fascinated about the production of Russian revolutionary artist from the beginning of the 20th century, Malevitch, Rodtchenko, Tatlin, Kloutsis, El Lissitzky, Popova and Stepanova—figures who are very important for me. On one hand our training positioned us against the advertising industry, yet at the same time we were completely left to figure things out for ourselves. Not to mention that our teachers were great Swiss German graphic designers who had worked in advertising. So this was my foundation at that school, with all its intellectual vagueness, the things it left unsaid and its equivocations.
Alison Gingeras: Its ambiguities?
Thomas Hirschhorn: Yes, its institutionalized ambiguities.
Alison Gingeras: But I would imagine the school’s hybrid leanings was an important early lesson for you. I am thinking specifically of a teaching about art that also included a philosophy of its use-value?
Thomas Hirschhorn: In the midst of all that ambiguity I always really wanted to be a graphic designer. My goal was clear. I was agree with the use-value of the work of a graphic designer and in the same time I was fascinated by the radical work of Malevitch. I had friends who wanted to become artists: they painted, they drew, they sculpted and they actually did become artists. They had chosen that school because it was a good school. They were my friends but I didn’t share their vision at this time, so for example I refused to take certain classes.
Alison Gingeras: The ones devoted to fine arts?
Thomas Hirschhorn: Yes, the classes devoted to drawing and painting. I didn’t take those courses because I thought that as a graphic designer you didn’t need to know how to draw or how to make a sculpture. It was boring but, well I rejected the idea. It all came to a head around an old Bauhaus principle according to which everyone had to know how to draw a pack of cigarettes. I figured that there was no need to draw a pack of cigarettes, you could take a photograph. Despite the school’s philosophy I didn’t take the life-drawing classes, telling myself that there was no point if I was going to be a graphic designer what I wanted to be.
Alison Gingeras: When you left school, did you intend to give a political meaning to the profession of graphic designer? How?
Thomas Hirschhorn: I really wanted to work with existing images, with photographs, with texts, with forms. I wanted to find a way to confront my work directly to an audience. I really was agree with the use-value of graphic-design, my idea of graphic design. But I wanted to work for a cause or an idea which I agreed with, to which I shared a commitment. It was then that I started claiming to be a graphic designer ‘of myself’ “graphiste de moi-même”, as I put it; that is to say a graphic designer who doesn’t work on commission, but creates himself, independently – but for others. To me this was not a contradiction. When I attended a lecture by a collective of politically engaged graphic designers from Paris called Grapus in Zurich, I was impressed by what they were exposing to us: their posters, posters for the Communist Party, the CGT union and other cultural events in Paris. So I wanted to go to Paris to integrate Grapus and I thought that I too wanted to make posters, prospectuses, brochures. I wanted to do pictures with an immediate impact. I wanted to address me to a streetpublic. But I thought I don’t need anyone to commission them, I wanted create on my own.
Alison Gingeras: You don’t need clients.
Thomas Hirschhorn: Yes I was thinking I don’t need clients. That is where this notion of ‘graphic design of myself’ came from. Of course I was completely out of reality, that’s why I spent only half a day with Grapus in their studio in spite of all the admiration that I had and continue to have for them. Because I did realize, they too were executers of wishes from clients, even when the wishes came from the Communist Party or the Worker-Union. It was a ordinary creative graphic-designer studio with its own hierarchy and own clients.
Alison Gingeras: Working on the same commercial model as in the capitalist system, they still had clients. Was that the start of your disenchantment with being a graphic designer?
Thomas Hirschhorn: It was when I started to question what to do, how best to use my forces and strengths. I started question what I really wanted to do and what I really had to do. I was lost with my idea of a being a graphic designer. I was lost with my idea to go to Paris and to work from myself, I was lost with my idea “graphic design from myself”. I was thinking of how to put together existing pictures, design forms, cutting text, crop photographs. I had this potential – it wasn’t just the result of any particular training at school. I was always interested in giving forms and in working with two dimensional forms. I did basically worked out that the profession of graphic designer implies being the servant of someone else.
Alison Gingeras: As a graphic designer, you were essentially someone who provided a service.
Thomas Hirschhorn: To be a graphic designer means to be not totally free and not absolutely responsible for what you do. But I wanted to be free and responsible for my work. I wanted to be the author of my work. I needed a lot of time to figure that out, it was the beginning of my quarrel with graphic design. After all I did understand that wanted to be a graphic designer for political reasons. It wasn’t a question of work that determined whether what I was creating was graphic design or art, it was my own intention that determined its status. I was in a “cul-de-sac”.
Alison Gingeras: So you were trying to create visual form that had use value, not some sort of aesthetic value?
Thomas Hirschhorn: Yes, but no one was commissioning it, no one was interested in it and I did not had any audience to communicate with.
Alison Gingeras: What happens to a ‘graphic designer’ when the client disappears? Perhaps the ambiguity that this dilemma posed, directed you to think about making art?
Thomas Hirschhorn: I couldn’t resolve this dilemma by talking with other graphic designers. They were no help to me at that point, because as far as they were concerned art was defined by painting and sculpture. I had to find the exit from this “cul-de-sac” from myself. At the same time as I was having this dilemma, I became more familiar with the work of Hans Haacke as well as that of Barbara Kruger – both work of whom I found interesting. Their approaches were close to those of graphic design, the forms used in graphic design.
Alison Gingeras: …yet their work was placed in a different context?
Thomas Hirschhorn: I realised that I was almost the only person in my circle of peers familiar with this kind of work. I particularly remember an exhibition by Hans Haacke in the Centre Pompidou. His exhibition in the groundfloor was going on simultaneously to a conference on graphic design for “public-use” going on in the basement of the Centre Pompidou. The graphic designers in attendance had not seen the exhibition. I was shocked! I was the only one! There I was, in the milieu of Parisian graphic designers. I was isolated. I was being supported by my friends at Grapus or around Grapus who did appreciate my way of thinking, but ultimately I was on my own because they weren’t interested in Hans Haacke’s work or other works of art.
Alison Gingeras: Was it at that moment when you began to question a definition of political commitment that was based only on negation and denunciation? I recall you telling me on another occasion that you were working in a climate of suspicion about art in your circle. There was a consensus that art was reactionary and mainstream.
Thomas Hirschhorn: Yes.
Alison Gingeras: At the same time, it seemed you maintained a certain pragmatism in this early period of questioning. Perhaps this pragmatism came from your training, imbued as it was with the ideas of the Bauhaus. While you were eager to question the commercial models specific to graphic design, you were simultaneously trying to find a different political or critical model, one that wasn’t based in Marxist ideology, in negative dialectcs…
Thomas Hirschhorn: I was alone with my ideas, I don’t want complain, but my notion of ‘graphic design of myself’ exhausted itself, I couldn’t do it anymore. I did realize I had to take a decision. At the same time I still went on seeing exhibitions, as I made it since my studies in Zurich, I read about art and I had no quarrels with the world of art – I just was outside of it! I had seen the work of Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol, who had both impressed me a lot, but as far as I was still stuck in my dilemma.
Alison Gingeras: So it sounds like this was the turning point in your work. Can you speak a bit about when you shifted roles, and began to be comfortable with the notion of being an ‘artist’? I was thinking that in your first ‘art works’ you often used to term ‘display’ to describe your work. It seems like this was a bridge term between your work as a designer and that as an artist?
Thomas Hirschhorn: Basically my transition to become an ‘artist’ took place over several years. In describing this transition, I would like emphasise two or three determining factors that influenced me. First of all I had some important encounters. Not with artists. Not with graphic designers, but with intellectuals. However brief these encounters were, they put me in contact with people who helped me to take my trajectory really seriously. They helped me to understand that my choice was political and not artistic. They helped me understand that I was refusing all the time to become an artist for a confused reason. I was negating a certain category of art on the grounds that I found it too navel-gazing or too technical. The fact was that I simply found art to be too formalist. I did realize that I have to make the choice to be an artist. I decided to be an artist because only as an artist I can be totally responsible for what I do. The decision to be an artist is the decision for freedom. Freedom is the condition for responsibility. I did realize, to be an artist is not a question about form or a question about content, it is the question about responsibility.
The decision to be an artist is the decision for the absolute and for the eternity. That has nothing to do with romanticism or idealism, it is a question of courage. I want to be courageous. During times of crisis, people often need to look for role models. In my case of crisis, I read about artists, such as Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol in particular. I also read about Otto Freundlich and Piet Mondrian. These were artists who had, as far as I was concerned, spent their lives being true to an initial idea. Their work wasn’t connected to only a form. The best example for me was Andy Warhol. I’d seen the exhibition at the Fondation Cartier in Jouy-en-Josas called ‘Warhol the Illustrator’. It was at that point that I understood that throughout his whole life, Warhol remained true to what he had been at the outset. Because he never deviated from this initial approach, this spoke a lot to me and he’s work spoke to me. The Work of Any Warhol implicates me. Warhol understood that he didn’t have to be either a painter or a sculptor, he understood that ‘commercial graphic design’ fell under the heading of illustration. Having grasped that, he just developed, repeated, industrialised. It was that understanding that gave his work all its formal strength, and introduced the critical dimension of his work.
Alison Gingeras: I suppose that Warhol’s work also revealed a sense of humour. He also had a conflated view of the notion of high and low culture, such as you developed in your own work later on…
Thomas Hirschhorn: That’s why Andy Warhol is important to me. He stayed true to that little drawing of shoes that he had coloured in gold. His approach helped me when I was questioning myself. When I made the decision to become an artist, and to break with my notion of being a ‘graphic designer of myself’, to break with graphic design and to break with the world of graphic design, I understood that from that moment onwards I had to stay true to what I was looking for but as well to be liberated myself from the constraints of format, of material and support that I had imposed on myself before.
Alison Gingeras: From your very first works until now, you have questioned the categories of sculpture and installation—this is most apparent in your early works such as Fifty-Fifty or Les Grands Buffets. These works fall into the category that you termed ‘display’: they are essentially two-dimensional works that combine text, image and flat objects. Is this what you were talking about – is that a kind of continuity with your principles that were displaced into another context?
Thomas Hirschhorn: I thought that from the moment when I worked on a sheet of paper, on some cardboard, on other easily available material I wanted to do it with a two-dimensional- spirit. This implies that I can look at it in all directions, that it could be turned in all direction, that there is no directed reading. I wanted to do a three-dimensional work in a two-dimensional-spirit, that means for example not to think about the volumes. I was never interested in volumes, weights or dynamics of forms.
Alison Gingeras: But it also acquires the status of an object?
Thomas Hirschhorn: It becomes something else, like a map, it could be read like a map. All of a sudden another dimension appeared, not a dimension that I had created, but a dimension that made a vision possible. It’s for that reason that my earliest works, such as the ‘displays’, were conceived as though they were being perceived by a pilot in a plane on a wall who can make out shapes from above the earth. In fact, it was a post-post supremacist vision.
Alison Gingeras: There’s this play of perspectives…
Thomas Hirschhorn: That’s why I talk about ‘displays’ or ‘lay-out’, so as not to refer to the history of painting or drawing. The term is supposed to indicate something other than a finished product. When I say ‘displays’, it’s something banal, unspectacular, it is like something in a shop window that is ‘put there’ ‘like that’. At the same time you can look at a shop window from behind as well, from all sides. When I use the term ‘lay-out’ to describe these early works, I borrow a term from graphic design that means to juxtapose elements in order to obtain a form, albeit one that isn’t definitive. My ruminations on the question of how to expose my work became urgent. I understood that I was abandoning the format of the A4 page, books and of other elements of graphic design to which I first limited myself while also making a clear choice not to make drawings or paintings. I still had to come up with an alternative to this. This is where the idea of ‘display’ or ‘lay-out’ presented itself: how to expose my work, not like a product or as an object, but something in a process.
Alison Gingeras: If I’ve understood correctly—and I think it’s important to stress this—this early work could be read as a partial a critique of sculpture, of the autonomy of sculpture, as well as the term ‘installation’—a term that has dominated recent art practices, often replacing the category of sculpture. But that this critique was born out of a genuine pragmatic drive: your desire to be faithful to your beginnings as well as to a certain aesthetic that was part of both your graphic and artistic practice?
Thomas Hirschhorn: I was visiting galleries and museums, and already had a critical attitude towards the ‘white cube’ and towards glorified, mystified artworks, or manners to expose artworks. I always hated a certain aesthetical form to present artworks who wants to intimidate the spectator and who wants to make authority. Often, I did felt myself excluded from an artwork or the way to present an artwork. I hate the suggested importance of the neighbourhood in the presentation of artworks. From the outset, I wanted my works to fight for their own existence as artwork, so I wanted them put in a rather difficult situation. Nonetheless my early works were intended to be a critique of what I was seeing, because I didn’t want to make like what I was criticizing I wanted to try an other way.
Alison Gingeras: This brings me to the question of materials you consistently use in your work. From the very beginning through to you most current works, you have consistently used banal and ephemeral materials such as cardboard, packing tape, aluminium foil, Plexiglas etc.
Looking at your material vocabulary, it’s tempting to project the notion of ‘precariousness’ on all of your works. These materials are all very cheap; they all share a functional role in our society as ‘wrappings’ for commercial merchandise that ultimately becomes the refuse of consumer society. Was the choice of these materials essentially pragmatic? Was it part of the struggle that you wanted to set up in relation to the status quo of the art world?
Thomas Hirschhorn: I thought that the layout of the work was a key important, that more often than not a work had to fight among others in order to exist, I found the question of material quite decisive. The issue of the choice of material is political but it is also pragmatic. I’d like to take advantage of this interview to clarify a couple of points. This question of materials is the only reference I make to the work of Joseph Beuys, who said, ‘I work with what I’ve got, what I find around me.’ In my case, I do not have fat or felt, I do not have sandblasted glass around me, nor am I surrounded by gold and marble. I haven’t got a big light box. What I’ve got around me is some packing tape, there’s some aluminium foil in the kitchen and there are cardboard boxes and wood panels downstairs on the street. That makes sense to me, the materials around me. But when I say ‘around me’, I am using a broader sense than just what is in my kitchen. Secondly, these materials have no energetic or spiritual power. They’re materials that everyone in the world is familiar with, what is important to me, they are ordinary materials. You don’t define their use in advance, they aren’t loaded. There’s no doubt, no mystery, no surplus-value. The material I am working with, I have to like its and I have to be patient with its. I have to like its, in order to not put the importance on it. And I have to be patient with its, in order to not put the importance on me.
Alison Gingeras: You can’t project a mythology on to them…unlike Beuys’s use of fat.
Thomas Hirschhorn: It isn’t Beuys’s fat. These are materials that don’t require any explanation of what they are. At the same time, I wanted to make poor art, but not Arte Povera. My work has nothing to do with Arte Povera. Because it’s poor art, the materials must be poor too, materials that make you think of poverty, quite simply. To make poor art means to work against a certain idea of richness. To make rich art means nothing else then to work with established values, it means to work with a definition of quality that other people made. I want to give my own definition of quality, of value and richness. I refuse to deal with the established definitions. I am trying to destabilize them. I am trying to contaminate them with a certain non-valuable aspect of reality. I am working against the concept of “value”. I am not interested in the concept of “value”. I cannot defend them. I am fascinated by experiences or events that are indicating the limit of the value system. The value system is a security system. It is a system for subjects without courage. You need values to ensure yourself, to enclose yourself in your passivity and anxiety. You need the idea of quality to neutralize your proper freedom, the fact that it is you that decides what is valuable or worthy for you. You need quality as a phantasm that helps you to flee the real in its purest, catastrophic dimension. The idea of quality is an idea of a subject that wants to dissociate itself from reality. To make poor art is a way to fight against this principle. Quality no ! Energy yes ! It is my way to defend freedom, not as a value, but as an absolute fact, the absolute fact that constitute the human situation. That is what I learned from philosophy, that there is an indissoluble difference between freedom at this absolute fact and freedom as a value, as a quality. To make poor art is my way to refuse freedom as a value. It is my way to refuse the value-system above our culture or civilization is built. Freedom is much more fundamental, it is a much more traumatic thing. To be free means to be responsible. There is no freedom without responsibility. It means, like philosophers says, to be a subject. The subject of decision and action. The free subject must fight for freedom, for objective freedom. I want to be free with my own. It is possible to say that the idea of richness and the systems of values always interrupt this aspect of freedom. But freedom is something you cannot destroy because you have to kill the subject of freedom when you want to exterminate his freedom. Freedom is a synonym of life and art. To live means to be free, to make art means to be free. To live means to live in the space of immanence. The richness of live is in its poorness. There is no exit, there is no next-world, there is no next-chance, there is no transcendence. All I have as a subject of immanence is in front of me. I do have to live my life without values, that’s the disaster of freedom. But being without values, working with this poorness is another word for freedom. That is why I am defending this notion of poorness.
Alison Gingeras: So the reference to ‘poverty’ in your work operates on many levels. The association with the homeless person on the street corner whose built a little cardboard shelter, that’s a deliberate and direct reference in your work…
Thomas Hirschhorn: All of the materials have some local or vernacular usage: the aluminium foil you see in rural discos, that’s deliberate. The photocopies you see stuck up in universities, that’s deliberate. The packing tape you see everywhere, that’s deliberate. The wood and cardboard I can find on the street, that’s deliberate. The cheap reusable paper, that’s deliberate. All those possible suggestions, from drugs bagged up in plastic and scotch tape, to the bag that bursts at the airport and you have to tape it quickly up again. All those local or vernacular references are deliberate, they’re used out of necessity, as an emergency, there used with and in energy. It’s a political choice.
Alison Gingeras: In this context, I’ve always thought that a political reading of your work—specifically a reading that was exclusively political—neglects an important part of your practice. Despite the absence of mythology connected to the materials you use, the materials nonetheless help to underscore the self-effacing, humorous perspective that you have in regards to your role as an artist. To give an example of this self effacing humor, I am thinking of one of your earliest works, the performance entitled ‘Someone is interested in my work’. You had placed a number of your sculptural objects on the sidewalk, at the edge of the street curb, and then you documented the sanitation workers throwing them in the bin. By placing these works in awkward position—where it was very hard to differentiate them from general garbage—was a very laconic way of positioning yourself as an artist. Did you actually consider these actions as an experiment?
Thomas Hirschhorn: I said to myself ‘ if my works are like canvases by Picasso abandoned on the street, perhaps the guy isn’t going to throw them away. He might say, that’s beautiful, I’ll take that home and I will hang it up, it’s like a Picasso and it’s valuable. He might say that – or not. And yet my objects didn’t have any value. But what I had put on the street wasn’t rubbish, it was works that I made at this moment. At that time my work had not any market value in fact, these works come from a series of works that I still own. I didn’t want to put the person to the test. Instead, my idea was to hold an exhibition with active spectators, hence the title Jemand kümmert sich um meine Arbeit, ‘Someone is taking care of my work’. The fact that I filmed the action was similar to all the exhibitions that I document. Even if everything ended up in the bin – it was the same as an exhibiting in a gallery or a museum to me.
Alison Gingeras: That event dates from 1992.
Thomas Hirschhorn: Yes, I filmed and photographed it twice with different works from two different places: Jemand kümmert sich um meine Arbeit was photographed in Paris, and Les Monstres was the video-film I made in Montreuil.
Alison Gingeras: Such as in the case of “Someone is interested in my work”, humour is an agent that activates the political meaning of your work. In the same way, I wonder if the recurrent use of collage in your work is also supposed to emphasise a political will? Your collages articulate very clear political commentaries—without being devoid of a certain brand of humour. They also seem to refer to the politicized tradition of collage in art history in the work of artists such as John Heartfield and Rodtchenko, who you doubtless studied in school.
Thomas Hirschhorn: Collages, from those of Heartfield to those of Schwitters and others, made always a big impression on me. First of all because those artists worked with what they had within reach, they didn’t use other materials. I always liked making collages. I like the fact to bring together what you can’t bring together. The stronger the contrast in the juxtaposition, the better it was. I liked that material constraint and I did like the easiness of making collages. I did like the ‘stupidity’ of collages. I tried to ensure that the message was immediately apparent. I was surprised that the critique was restricted to the Rolls Royce juxtaposed to the hungry black child, I made. During my studies, we were always encouraged to go further than Rolls Royce and the hungry black child. Indeed, it took me a long time to understand that the really important thing was the Rolls Royce juxtaposed to the hungry black child! The first action of putting two things who have nothing to do together, it’s the principle of collage.
Alison Gingeras: The juxtaposition…
Thomas Hirschhorn: Juxtaposition is essential, that’s where politics is. In today’s society meaning is diluted by an overload of information as well as through the tendency to over-explain everything. We’re getting further away from the Rolls Royce and the hungry black child. They are examples in John Heartfield’s work that showed the same direct, brutal juxtaposition-process. Heartfield said “ use photography as a weapon”. If it is a weapon, you can blow your own head off, it’s just as dangerous for you. I really like working in a political vein. With Deleuze and Guattari you can define philosophy and art as a search for your weapon. It is the question how to arm yourself , while fighting against the established power. Philosophy and art are “machines de guerre” (war machines). I did understand this and I like this. A “machine de guerre” is a tool to struggle for freedom, to exterritorialize yourself, to get out of the whole shifty art-, culture-, power-system. There is nothing new, no creation, no action without this “machine de guerre”. The subject of art and thinking is a subject of permanent self-mutation. It is a machine of permanent self-deconstruction and of self-mutilation.You have to overtax yourself again and again. I want to overtax myself again and again. Self-exploitation could be an effective and precise weapon. Self-exploitation is a strategy of self-deliberation. It is the will and the technique to fight and to live.
Alison Gingeras: If we consider that photography involves an ambiguity, that it implies a ‘détournement’, not just in the political sense, but a humorous, indeed mocking one, I find that you’re adding a second clause to that sentence of Heartfield’s.
Thomas Hirschhorn: I don’t know exactly what it is that I’m adding, but there’s a secondary meaning that interests me in doing collage. There’s a problem with doing collage because even if you want to make a simple collage, the problem of scale, remains because often when you want to juxtapose two things one is too big and the other one’s too small. It isn’t easy to get collage to work in terms of laying it out on the page in order to looking as real. It’s rare, or else you have to be highly organised, like the graphic designer Roman Cieslewicz. He was organised and he did work with a big picture archives. As for myself, I’m not an archivist at all. I haven’t got any archives about killed people or Rolls Royce’s or Rolex watches. Within those limitations, there was something that had to be taken as read if you were making collages. I take two prints, two pictures, I mix them and I don’t care whether it’s big or it isn’t. That problem preoccupied me a great deal as a graphic designer. Technically, you can easily manipulate the print, the existing pictures so that it’s on the same scale, but then the collage losses its strength. But something had to be found that would help me maintain the strength of the form: That’s where art comes into play. I had to decide that I don’t want to manipulate and so it could keep all its strength. That decision had to do with an artistic assertion and not with technique.
Alison Gingeras: Can you talk to us about the moment when you decided to show your works in public space and deal with the question of public space in your work?
Thomas Hirschhorn: From the moment I decided to be an artist—relatively late in life—it was clear that my choice of materials, how and where I confront my work became important. Immediately, I wanted to expose my work in a museum, in a gallery, in artist’s spaces, at people’s homes, in an apartment, in the street. I wanted to be responsible for every question concerning my work. That is what I call ‘working politically’ – and not making ‘political work’! I wanted to work at the height of capital and the height of the economic-system I am in. I wanted to work at the height of the art market, I wanted to confront my work with it. I do work with it but I do not work for it! I do not work for these systems and I do not work with their methods and their strategies. I do not work with their power. I am not afraid and I am not anxious. I do not have to win. But I will work with all I have; I want to give all I have. Overall I confront my work, into the museum and on the street. At that time I had discussions with friends they were very critical about the “system”, of museums and of galleries.
Alison Gingeras: I can imagine that there was an assumption that the art shown in those places were corrupt a priori…
Thomas Hirschhorn: They were preoccupied with the fact that art in galleries and museums became institutionalised. As far as I was concerned, museum-exhibitions and gallery-exhibitions weren’t a goal to me as an artist. I just realized that from the moment I’m an artist, I have to confront as well my work in a museum and in a gallery. But I also tried and continue to try to expose my work in the public space or in an alternative gallery or in a squat. From the very beginning I’ve tried to head in this directions at the same time. The work first – where to exhibit it, is secondary, until now this is my guideline! Of course at the beginning of my work I couldn’t do an exhibition in a museum or a gallery, but I did made exhibit in public space. Until today I made more then forty projects in public space, so my work hasn’t developed from public space towards the museum, neither from the museum to the public space, but towards all these places at the same time.
Alison Gingeras: In this sense, you had no sense of hierarchy between exhibition spaces or opportunities?
Thomas Hirschhorn: I do hate hierarchy, every hierarchy. In the course of many discussions with other artists, I remember that I was always quit alone with this position. In the alternative venue called Zonmee, in Montreuil where I worked for a while there were many discussions about hierarchies, strategies and about fighting against the museum, the system, the market, the institution. I never really understood the critique of the institution. It’s important to stress that I’ve never based my work on the critique of the institution or the critic of commerce. I do not want to fight against. I want to fight for, I want to fight for my work. I want confront trough my work and with my work. I want confront the audience, criticism, the market, the institution, the system, the history, but it isn’t an end in itself.
Alison Gingeras: This brings up the question of struggle—a notion that recurs in all yours works. It seems that you systematically integrate a certain form of struggle within your work. There must be a variation between the way struggle is inserted in a work conceived for public space and a work conceived for a closed space? Or the way struggle is involved in a commercial or museum context? Can to talk about these strategic and formal changes in the conception of your work in relationship to context?
Thomas Hirschhorn: There is no change. I try to continue my work. There are basically things that I can better expose in a museum and in a gallery or on the street, because it is inside or it is outside. The ‘working out’ may seem harder. I have to be more careful. That’s the difference. For example in public space the precariousness is more intense because the project is limited in time, the work is confronted to weather and to vandalism. I could say that the work is more precariously exposed. But for me it is only about scale, everything is almost equally precarious inside, in the museum as outside on the street. I think that the Egyptian pyramids are as well precarious. I like this term ‘precariousness’, my work isn’t ephemeral, it’s precarious – like everything! It is the human who decides and determines how long the work lasts. The term “ephemeral” comes from the nature, but nature does not decide.
Alison Gingeras: We’re not talking about Process Art.
Thomas Hirschhorn: That’s another reason why, for me, materials don’t change between public space and the museum. Its stay the same. The public as well does not change, there is only another composition of the audience, but its public, as well. What changes is the opening-hours. In public space, the exhibition is open twenty-four hours. For me, the fact of confronting with my work on the street and in the museum, doesn’t change the work – because I want to work for a non-selected audience.
Alison Gingeras: Yet I have seen a sort of evolution or shift in the works you make for public space. For example, in the earlier works you made for public space such as Skulptur Sortier Station in 1997 at the Munster Skulptur Projekte or the work at the Guggenheim Soho, Very Derivated Products, or the work in Bordeaux, Lascaux III—these works all took the form of closed structures, of “vitrines” that the public could look into but not physically enter. Some of your more recent works, such as the Bataille Monument or the project we are currently working on in Aubervilliers—the Musee Precaire—are structures that allow for the public to use, to enter into, to occupy and animate. In regards to this shift in your work, I was wondering if your earlier public works sought to provide a critique of the much talked about model of “relational aesthetics”, championed by Nicolas Bourriaud. This model emerged about the same time as your early public work and supposedly had some claim to political meaning.
Thomas Hirschhorn: In my two last public space works, the Deleuze Monument and the Bataille Monument there is a development. Clearly there’s a difference between such a work as the Abandoned works on the Plaine Saint Denis and the Bataille Monument in Kassel. The difference is the scale on one side and the possibilities of implication for the spectators on the other side. But I am not an animator and I am not a social worker. Rather then participation I want to implicate the audience. I want to force the audience to be confronted with my work. This is the exchange I propose. The artwork do not need the participation, it is not an interactive work. My artwork has not to be completed by the audience, it wants to be an active, autonomous work and it wants to give possibilities of implication. But I wanted to multiply the possibilities of implication. That is the development of projects such the Deleuze Monument and the Bataille Monument. Before, when I made larger-scale works – I’m thinking of the work that I made in Langenhagen the Kunsthalle Prekär, in Metz the M2-Social, or in Münster and later in Paris the Skulptur Sortier Station I was creating closed structures. There was no other possible implication for the spectator then thinking about – what is of course the most important activity an artwork can provoke – the activity of thinking! This is one, real implication.
Alison Gingeras: It sounds like confrontation was more of the issue than some sort of participation, or supposed “community” activity, as suggested in the relational theory of Bourriaud…
Thomas Hirschhorn: Confrontation is key. You get that again in the Altars, in the earlier works such as Abandoned works, and even in one of my earliest work in Jemand kümmert sich um meine Arbeit, in which there was already the will to confront. I’ve always thought that the work of art must exist even if no one looks at it. Work does not only exist in relation to someone. Because if a work of art only exists because someone uses it or employs it in some way, there is a non-will that I reject. The artist has to take the responsibility of the artwork. Also the responsibility of failure or non-success.
This criteria was applied to Skulptur Sortier Station when I installed it under the Stalingrad metro station in Paris. The critics said my work wasn’t working because it had no use-value. This reproach never bothered me. With an artwork in the public space you have to stand out this kind of misunderstanding. It’s important to be able not to see the work or not to use it. It is important to give the possibility to ignore the artwork. Because an artwork in public space is never a total success but as well it’s never a total failure. Anyway it does not need this criteria of ‘success’ and ‘failure’, it does not need to function. In fact, what I am criticizing in the participatory- and interactive-installations is the fact that the artwork is judged as being a ‘success’ or ‘failure’ in regards to whether or not there is participation. And sometimes the artist does not resist to this criteria when he’s conceiving his project. I understood that this kind of work is totally delusional. I made one work in this ‘participatory’ vein, Souvenirs du XX ème Siècle, at the Pantin street market.
Alison Gingeras: The work took the form of a sort of market stall where you sold different things you made such as t-shirts, mugs, banners, and football scarves with the names of artists on them?
Thomas Hirschhorn: Yes, that’s this work. That project was a “success” because we sold the lot. But let’s be honest, of one hundred percent of objects sold, about ninety percent were bought by people I knew, who did knew about the project, who were collectors and knew that this was art project by me. Then there were about five or eight percent of people who were passing through, who might have known Deleuze or liked Mondrian and bought a mug for that reason, without knowing it was my work of art. Only one or two percent of people just bought them for no reason other because they needed it and it was cheap. I particularly remember a woman who bought an ashtray for what was five francs in those days, with a portrait of Robert Walser in place of an advertisement or a decoration. I was certainly aware of the reality of my project, but this one or two percent is still important. The danger with these types of projects is to think that it’s a success when it’s actually a failure. So I’m suspicious of the interactive side of art projects. It’s important to not fall into the trap of “success”. What I’m criticising is the idea that failure is not accepted, that it’s hidden. I wanted to stop hiding failure, stop hiding the fact that you might be wrong. So I’m not bothered about the critics who say that this or this project of my works was not a “success”. I have to assume that always as a distinct possibility.
Alison Gingeras: So there’s never any ‘premeditation’, any ‘pre-conception’ of what the spectator’s participation will be? Even if your work has developed away from closed sculptures towards more open sites? Your recent series of Monuments in Avignon or Kassel – where inhabitants of the community where the works were installed were directly invited to participate – created a social environment that involved the participants maintaining or animating the work. When you speak of the idea of success or failure, it implies a kind of ‘pre-conception’ of what should come out of the social relation created by the work. It seems like you can not avoid creating some sort of social contract in these works.
Thomas Hirschhorn: Concerning the Monuments I made, the only social relation I want to take the responsibility of was the relation between me, as the artist, and the inhabitants. The artwork did not create any social relation from itself, the artwork was just the artwork, autonomous and open to develop activities. An active artwork requires that first the artist give from himself. The visitors and the inhabitants can create or can not create a social relation beyond the artwork. This is I think the important point, but it is the same in the museum. The idea of success and failure is as well present in the museum: a lot of visitors pass in front of the exposed artwork, but who knows about the visitor’s implication ? It’s this shabby contract, it’s this shabby phenomenon that people want me to subscribe too, with my projects in public space. The Deleuze Monument and the Bataille Monument was much more, they were experiences.
Alison Gingeras: So there’s no ambiguity when you create a social contract, because there’s no fiction behind it. You are not creating a predetermined, fictional political act.
Thomas Hirschhorn: There is no fiction. There is reality and my will to confront my work with the reality. Art exists as the absolute opposite of it’s time, as the absolute opposite of reality of it’s time. But art is not anachronistic, art is diachronic. It confronts itself with reality. It crosses the reality of its time. I want do work with this ambition. I want to do artwork in the height of my time. As an artist – am I able to create an event? Am I able to make encounters ? These were the questions I posed myself. This became more and more clear to me with the last Monument project. So I did understand it is important to maintain the absolute assertion of the complete autonomy of the artwork. The Monument-projects want trust in their strength and they refuse to accept their weakness, the Monument-projects do not want include anyone in its passivity.
Alison Gingeras: So it’s a matter of suggesting things to the public without putting forward a pre-commitment on your part with regard to the inhabitants of the place where the installation is.
Thomas Hirschhorn: The Spinoza Monument, the first Monument I made, it already had all the elements I used in the later monuments: the sculpture, the photocopies of his texts I’d selected, flowers, a video I’d made, books that you could consult. It was also lit day and night thanks to a cable plugged in at the sex-shop opposite who supplied me with electricity. The Spinoza Monument was small, compact and concentrated. It was located in the red-light-district in Amsterdam. I thought it was pertinent for it to be placed there. There were a number of aspects to the Spinoza Monument: it provided a kind of nexus of meanings. But I thought that some elements could be more active, more exaggerated, more intrusive, more offensive, more present, more overtaxing myself and I wanted to be more involved in order to increase confrontation. I wanted to develop these aspects with the Deleuze Monument and the Bataille Monument.
Alison Gingeras: This desire—for more intrusiveness—gave rise to the works being able to be ‘inhabited’ by people. This habitation wasn’t necessary for its existence, they did not really need to be activated by a public…it was just part of taking it to another level?
Thomas Hirschhorn: The work only provides a possibility to be activated. It was not necessary to be activated, not for the work, nor for the spectator. Yet there was this possibility. The confrontation present in the Deleuze Monument and the Bataille Monument was dense. They were pertinent experiences that raised a large number of questions for my future works. The presence of the artist, the payment of the inhabitant for there work, the creation of the libraries as part of the Deleuze Monument and the Bataille Monument. Such projects have an aesthetic that goes beyond towards a service; it looses its strength as an object.
Alison Gingeras: The autonomy of the object is sacrificed in favour of an activism…
Thomas Hirschhorn: The Bataille Monument develops other strengths by the fact to be ‘used’. There is no favour, there is no sacrifice. The will to confrontation and the assertion of its autonomy works! The Monument still is resisting as a form because it is made with the will to give form. As a form who wants to assert.
Alison Gingeras: The monuments have no use-value or didactic mission—even if they often have libraries, videos, television studios? I think it is easy for some people to read this element of these works as some form of artist-activism, as your desire to spread the word of these philosophers…
Thomas Hirschhorn: There is no ‘use value’, it’s about the absolute value. Its too vulgar and too easy to communicate about the work of philosophers, there is nothing to communicate about artists, writers or philosophers.
Alison Gingeras: So you give a clue, you give a library.
Thomas Hirschhorn: The entire Monument was one form with different elements, the library was one element of the Monument. I did not give the library, I am not a politician and I do not represent something, but I did give form to the library. I want to give form – I do not want to make form. It’s a difference between giving form and making a form. I give a form, my own form and I only want to represent myself. I wanted to assert my love for Gilles Deleuze or Georges Bataille. I want to give form to this love. And I do think love can be infectious.
Alison Gingeras: Can you talk about the reception of your Bataille Monument that was part of Documenta 11?
Thomas Hirschhorn: I wrote forty-nine pages about that experience and its reception. I went through a process of self-criticism as well as public criticism. For four days straight I wrote everything down, so I can talk about it now. The most important decision was to be on the site during the entire exhibition period. After my experience in Avignon when my Deleuze Monument had to be dismantled before the end of the exhibition I realized that I had to be constantly on the site of the Bataille Monument. Since there was a strong possibility that the work would not last until the end of the exhibition, I was attentive to not repeat the same errors as with the Deleuze Monument and with the Spinoza Monument.
Alison Gingeras: Given that the work was actually physically destroyed in Avignon, how did you ultimately reconcile this event?
Thomas Hirschhorn: I accepted its early dismantling because it was my error. It was neither a success nor a failure, it was just what it was. I’ve worked out that if I had been in Avignon the whole time, I could have seen this Deleuze Monument through to the end of the exhibition. I was not on the site all the time, so it’s my responsibility. This became my primary preoccupation for the Bataille Monument: I wanted to learn from my error with the Deleuze Monument: As it is often the case with artists’ projects installed in public space, the artist is present during the installation period, on the evening of the opening, and sometimes for another day or two afterwards, then he goes away. I’ve understood that it was dishonest to some extent, it wasn’t clear with such a project. This kind of project needs a total investment from the artist. I’ve realised how much that cost in terms of energy, in investment and money. In the case of the Bataille Monument for Documenta11, I did everything I could to confront it while it was in existence, bringing my own presence to it, not as an artist, because I did care about it not as a communicating artist, not because I am the vehicle of the idea, but as a ‘house-keeper’, the person who tends to it. So in the end the reception of the Bataille Monument was enormous, there are critics I want to take into account. I think it was a complex work, a work which was problematic, which was difficult, but which was also beautiful and strong. I’m convinced that the gamble of getting to the end, of having held on, set new limits for me.
Alison Gingeras: That position places big demands on the kind of work you do next…
Thomas Hirschhorn: For me, and for others too! But I wanted to resolve this question, for myself.
Alison Gingeras: You’re already answering my second question about public space, concerning the change or development towards more spontaneous projects in which you’re the one who decides to occupy a particular space without responding to the invitation of someone commissioning an exhibition. I find that, in this development, there’s a continuity of commitment, of work…
Thomas Hirschhorn: Yes. As I said in my reply to the other question, with regard to the Ephemeral Hospital, with regard to the Zonmee in Montreuil and the galleries I am working with now, it is a question of the mission, an impossible mission, I have through and with my work. In Münster, for “Skulptur Projekte” where I found that exhibition in the city centre artificial, what helped me to bear my own work was the knowledge that I had previously realised more then twenty projects in public space and that’s why I’m there now in Münster. Because one day someone saw my work somewhere!
Alison Gingeras: So it’s not Thomas Hirschhorn, ‘professional maker of public art’…
Thomas Hirschhorn: That’s right. The only demand I have to make on myself is to go on producing non commissioned artwork. And to rest alert, to stay attentive and to keep conquering.
Alison Gingeras: Changing the subject, there’s a parallel between those projects in public space – the Monuments – and the Altars: in both you use proper names in naming the works. The names of Piet Mondrian, Deleuze, Bataille and Spinoza, to name a few that are recurrent in these works…
Why these names? You’ve sometimes mentioned to me that these are human beings that you appreciate, but you are clear about them not being heroes for you. Aside from being figures who have ‘taught you something’, I also wonder if you aren’t seeking to allude to the exchange value of those names: the way they signify intellectual capital in our culture. You play a lot with those notions, and the kind of ‘devotion’ that they provoke.
Thomas Hirschhorn: That’s very perceptive of you, because I’m not interested “using” these names. Obviously what interests me about Deleuze and Spinoza is the value of their work, but not as ‘added value’ which I integrate into my work. If I love Deleuze or Spinoza, because the absolute value of their work, because they did give me strength – I need them as a human being!
Alison Gingeras: And what about Ingeborg Bachmann…
Thomas Hirschhorn: I love her, I chose her for her writings, for her magnificent poetry and for her beauty. Her work is close to the material that I use, it apprehends itself as an exchange value in the sense that I assert that I’m a fan. I am a fan of Ingeborg Bachmann. I give something, I uncover myself, I assert. The fan decides on his attachment for a reason involving himself. These reasons could be geographic in nature, or have something to do with his age or occupation. I like that idea: You’ve perceived this aspect of what I am saying when you use the term ‘exchange value’. So, even if you don’t know much about Ingeborg Bachmann, her work has an audience, and her work demonstrates the desire to go towards the public. Nonetheless it’s not necessarily about Ingeborg Bachmann’s audience, I talk about Ingeborg Bachmann’s audience, but I could equally talk about that of Lady Diana or JFK Jr. Fans share with other fans the fact to be fan, they do not share there “objects”. I made the Monument-series about people I am fan of. Someone else wanted a Michael Jackson- Monument, so when he is a fan of Michael Jackson he will found the energy himself to do it.
Alison Gingeras: The fan isn’t obliged to have a professor’s knowledge. This is an important distinction: I’ve heard people making critical comments about your work – along the lines of ‘Thomas Hirschhorn has never read all the works of Deleuze or Bataille…’
Thomas Hirschhorn: Of course, I did it not!
Alison Gingeras: When you photocopy these books in a German context as at Documenta, or works by Bataille in English, what does that mean?
It would seem to me that your being unconcerned about being didactic about their texts is a gesture about getting away from a purist or academic attachment to these figures. The strategy of being a fan, of being ‘a simple fan’ recurs throughout the whole of your work. It reminds me of something you said in our first interview together in 1998, when you claimed: ‘I like silly things, things that are a bit stupid,’ I wonder if you could link this statement to what is seen as intellectual references in your work…
Thomas Hirschhorn: I did only read a few books of Georges Bataille. But I read for example what he wrote about an ‘acephalic society’, one that’s headless, stupid or silly, in German: ‘kopflos’. I really like that ‘headless’ idea, acting without a head, that’s the concept! I want to take that concept of acting without a head with me. Basically saying that is bad faith or a complete failure to understand the work of an artist in general and mine in particular, it’s less serious for me, there’s no problem with that. I made the Bataille Monument for Georges Bataille’s book “La part maudite” and his text “La notion de dépense”.
Alison Gingeras: The ‘Kopf’, the head, isn’t yours…
Thomas Hirschhorn: Certainly, It’s my head. It’s not about to be a historian. It’s not up to me to be the scientist. This isn’t scientific work, it’s a artwork in relation to the world, that confronts reality, that confronts the time I live in. I’ve never claimed to be a specialist, a scientific or even a “connaisseur”. One fan may conceal another one: I’m a fan of Georges Bataille in the same way that I could be a fan of the football club Paris Saint-Germain. I’m not obliged to go and see all the matches, I’m not obliged to know the whole history of Paris Saint-Germain football-club. You can even be a very fickle fan, when a fan goes to live Marseille he can become a fan of Marseille’s football-club, he’s still a fan. That’s why I like the term ‘fan’, it’s not that I want to seem irreproachable, the fan can seem ‘kopflos’, but at the same time he can resist because he’s committed to something without arguments, it’s a personal commitment. It’s a commitment that doesn’t require justification. The fan doesn’t have to explain himself. He is fan. It’s like a work of art that resists, that preserves its autonomy. It is important and complex. When I made the Nineteen artists’ scarves, there was no one in Limerick (Ireland) to say to me, ‘I know Marcel Duchamp’. Never mind other artists I made scarves for such as Rudolf Schwarzkogler or David Stuart. It didn’t matter. This project was about the desire for non-exclusion. In the same way, the Bataille Monument enabled me to have a better understanding of what a fan really is!