THE OBJECTIVES OF THE OBJECT
an interview with Tino Sehgal by Silvia Sgualdini
SS: How much time have we got?
TS: As much time as you need...
SS: I would like to start by talking about your exhibition at the ICA
in London. It is the first of a series of three solo shows at the ICA
over a three-year period. This is quite an unconventional way for an
institution to present the work of an artist. Is it to do with the unique
nature of your practice? How did the structure of the shows develop?
TS: It was Jens Hoffmann's decision, but I don't know why he made
it. I think it's because he likes the work or he thinks it is interesting
maybe just to follow the work over a certain period of time, but I don't
think that there is some inherent connection with the nature of my work.
SS: You didn't discuss this?
TS: No, I wasn't sure if it was true until the moment the ICA announced
it in public.
SS: You have worked with Jens Hoffmann on several occasions. Was your
first collaboration in 2001 on the exhibition A Little Bit of History
Repeated in Kunst-Werke, Berlin?
TS: No, but it was that same year when he invited me to the Tirana
Biennale. That was the first thing we did.
SS: How did you meet?
TS: Jens saw this piece I did called 20 minutes for the 20th Century,
which is me dancing in 20 dance aesthetics of the 20th Century naked,
kind of my body becoming a museum. He saw it at the Moderna Museet in
Stockholm in the auditorium and he thought it had a lot to do with another
conception of the museum. By that time I had already done my first work,
which is what is on show now, so that's how we got into a discussion.
SS: You have a background in choreography and political economy. How
did you start working in the field of visual art?
TS: I always wanted to work in art, but it was just not easy to be
an artist who does not produce any objects, so I had to find my way
somehow. I knew that I wanted to work with singing and the spoken word
because I found that their mode of producing - transforming actions
- was politically interesting. I wanted to invest in these media on
a craftsmanship level so that I could deal with them. But it was also
clear to me that I wanted to enter into a tradition of visual art and
its discourses. In practical terms, it started at S.M.A.K. Gent, when
I showed the work that is now in the Lower Gallery here at the ICA.
It was a very local thing, they asked a group I was part of if we wanted
to do something. Then, having done a piece made a big difference. My
whole thinking was around visual art being a celebration of production
and, in my view, quite a reactionary celebration of material production.
For me just to put something in the museum that was not a material object
was quite a political act, and my first piece was just that. I didn't
think of myself as an artist but when the reactions of the people were
really quite strong, I realized they were experiencing exactly what
the work is about. They were shocked that this was not an object. Some
people even thought it was a puppet or a robot. It was very strange.
So I was motivated even more than before to keep on going, since I felt
that I had found a form which can produce an experience which has something
to do with the point of the work and not just talk about a certain point.
SS: The exhibition at the ICA features exactly this piece Instead of
allowing some thing to rise up to your face dancing with bruce and dan
and other things (2000), which references the video-work of American
artists Bruce Nauman and Dan Graham. Could you briefly describe the
work and how you see it in relation to the practice of these artists?
TS: On the one hand it is a critique of these artists, on the other
hand it is continuing a game that Dan Graham played. Bruce Nauman was
influenced by the Judson Church Dance group, you know, and Dan Graham
was also... well, Dan Graham is another story. Bruce Nauman put himself
in the studio, turned the camera on and eventually brought his videos
into the museum. From a certain perspective, he was importing the aesthetic
of Judson Church into the museum via video. All this is totally fine
of course, but from my point of view and from my interest in things
like the spoken word or singing or dance, he kind of lost the decisive
thing on the way, which is how they produce - this simultaneity of production
and de-production. You do a movement and then it's gone. You say a word
and then it's gone. This is exactly what Nauman lost on the way because
he made the work into a material fixation. Then Dan Graham took the
game further by saying: "Yes, Nauman is interesting but he never reflects
the use of the camera. I am going to redo his work but integrate the
camera into the work so that you can actually see the camera." If this
was a game that one could play, I was going to do the same thing again,
but take out the material support, the video screen and the video player.
To maintain the simultaneity of production and de-production which they
were losing in their import, I would have the person immediately there
in the space. On the other hand, I wanted to acknowledge that bringing
something like movement into the museum had already happened. My point
was to do this import again but in a decisive other way. Of course,
one only understands these references through the title. I think the
piece works on a more general level: you see this person, in a mise
en scène, in a way like an object, but you know it is not an object.
So the viewer is constantly asking: "I am looking at this, objectifying
this person, because the museum is the place of objectification. It
is staged like an object, but it is not an object. And how can I deal
with this? What is the difference between the two?"
SS: What kind of reaction do you expect from the viewer?
TS: I think that people negotiate the work in different ways. "Is
it an object or not?" If they are sure that it is not an object, lots
of people think: "Oh, he is sick and fallen over!" That still happens
after five years of showing the piece. It still happens. There was one
guy today running and saying: "How can you be standing here?" to the
people in the box office, "don't you see that this man is in despair?"
He couldn't categorise a person lying there as art, because the definition
of art is a material object. These kind of slippages happen a lot and
to different degrees. I think they are interesting because something
breaks into the discourse of what art is when it cannot be categorised
as art but will be categorised as a person who is sick. You have to
categorise it somehow, because obviously your eyes are telling you:
"I have seen something", and your brain has to say: "what is this something?"
SS: In a way you play with this ambiguity. Here at the ICA the exhibition
is mentioned in the program, but once you enter the gallery there is
no press release, there is no label that tells you what you are seeing.
When someone walks into the gallery, if they are not familiar with your
work, they don't know what to expect and what to make of a person lying
on the floor.
TS: I don't think so. First of all, the work has a label. A really
classical label on the wall. It is my only work that has a label.
SS: Is there? In the gallery? I didn't see it!
TS: I don't think it would make a big difference. If the exhibition
was announced on the wall, people would still have the same approach
SS: I think it works much better without an announcement or press release
because the work is more subtle. It plays with an element of surprise...
TS: I agree, but on the other hand there is a text in the program of
the ICA, so in a way it is like a press release, it is just not a sheet.
You also have to consider that, here at the ICA, most people pass the
Lower Gallery for the restaurant. They don't care if there is a press
release or not or of it says 'Tino Sehgal' on the wall or not. They
just walk past. Today this business guy asked: "Is this art?", then
he looked for half a minute and went to have his lunch.
SS: You mentioned movement in relation to this piece. For the group
show A Little Bit of History Repeated, young artists were invited to
reinterpret or elaborate on past works of performance art. The piece
you presented related to the work I am Making Art by John Baldessari,
in which the artist uses body movements reminiscent of Bruce Nauman's
video work, while continuously repeating the words 'I am making art'.
Why did you choose this piece by Baldessari as a starting point for
your work in that instance?
TS: It was Jens' concept to have one younger artist doing something
in relation to an older work. My piece existed before. It is the work
I mentioned, where I become a museum of dance for one hour. I started
working on the piece in 1999, this was 2001, so it had existed already
for two years. I really liked John Baldessari's I am Making Art. Although
he is on video - which poses for me the same problems I mentioned with
Bruce Nauman - somehow I like the Duchampian 'this is art' transforming
into 'I am making art'. There is a strong relation to my approach -
the idea of someone making art by transforming their actions - although
I would prefer it to be something maybe without an I. A motto for me
would maybe be 'they are making art' or something like that. With this
in mind, Jens proposed that I could show my piece in relation to that
of Baldessari and I wrote a text about it for the catalogue.
SS: Why did you choose to use this piece again for this project?
TS: I think that my piece was a lot about 'I am making art.' It was
not about showing different dance aesthetics, it was about how meaning
or art can be produced through other means than just making an object.
But it was also a kind of crossing out. I mean, I was crossing myself
out because I was acting out every possible aesthetic so that, at the
end, you couldn't say what the content of the piece was because it had
every kind of content and you couldn't say what the form of the piece
was because it had somehow every kind of form. So the only thing you
could say is that I was using a medium, which involved moving and speaking.
I think 'I am making art' is actually more appropriate to my work than
Baldessari's, because of the immediacy of doing it in that very moment,
whereas he was making art, in that moment, then, when he did the video.
SS: At that time would you have related your work to performance at
TS: No, never.
SS: So what would you say is the core of your work?
TS: For me it is like an experiment with myself. How can I produce
something, which is in a way something and nothing at the same time,
and how can I produce an income out of that. The big question of our
times is that I have to produce an income, like everybody else has to
produce an income, in order to buy food and housing. But actually there
is nothing which is really necessary - except what, say, 5 % of the
population are producing in terms of housing and food. If the rest of
production is unnecessary as well as problematic for other people in
the world or other people in the future, but I still need to produce
something to have an income, how can I turn this equation, i.e. just
produce something that is somehow also nothing and make an income out
of it. By that also mediate or reiterate this whole problem. Today we
have enough material products to the point that they are becoming counterproductive,
but we still need to produce things because we need an income. So what
else could we produce? And are these things then interesting? I think
the experimental side of my work is that I produce things which fulfill
certain criteria, for example the criteria of being sustainable. But
then the question is are they attractive or are they just boring?
SS: Your work deals directly with the problematics of economic production.
Currently, other artists are questioning this in a different way, signaling
the shift from an economy of production of goods to a service-based
economy. In your case, the question is different because you don't acknowledge
this shift, you are trying to work on the object itself and its dematerialisation.
TS: I think that the notion of the object is interesting as a cultural
technique. We need to have objects. There is no social encounter tout
court, we are always encountering each other via an object. Now we are
talking about my work so the work is an object, and as soon as we go
out of this room, you will know more about me and I will know more about
you. There is an object we are creating, which is my work, and now we
are centering around it, we are communicating around it. I think objects
are quite necessary as a cultural construction to enable a social encounter.
SS: Do you think social encounters are always mediated by the presence
of an object around them?
TS: Yes, not necessarily a material object though. We are always talking
about something. If I ask you who you are, I am talking about your personality,
but your personality is something we construct as an object. What is
your personality? I construct your personality as an object and you
construct your personality as an object. Then you are there with your
personality speaking about your personality. We are constantly creating
objects. The decisive question is how they are produced, of which order
SS: I would like to relate the dematerialisation of the object to practices
in the late 60s and early 70s, when conceptual art and performance replaced
the art object by process or action. This signaled a desire to resist
the commodification of the art object by bringing it out of the circuit
of the market. In your work, there is a strong awareness of the relation
of visual art to the capitalist economy of production, but you don't
seem to take a position against it.
TS: No, I take a position for it! That is what people have trouble
understanding, because they can't believe that this is the case. I think
that the practices you mentioned were quite naïve concerning this point,
since you are part of the market economy not by fate, but by decision.
Even if it is not a conscious decision, every one of us makes the choice
between being autonomous in supplying oneself with necessary food and
housing, or producing something else, which can in turn be exchanged
for that. The very moment you decide for the latter you are in the market.
How you are in the market is something different. To regard that the
sole objective in life is to sell as much as possible to as many people
as possible is a cultural assumption. I think that the work of the generation
you mentioned was a bit naïve, since it was obvious that they were totally
inside of the market. Then the fact that they claimed they wanted to
be outside of it, didn't really make any difference to the way things
were on a hard-fact level. In the end, there were still material artworks,
which were produced and sold. I think it is necessary to recognise that
you are inside the market to take care of the parameters at play and
of how you want to deal with these parameters. How to deal with these
parameters is also something you can define. Exchanging is a fundamental
thing we do, I don't see any problem with it. The problem is that we
have certain cultural assumptions on how we think one should use the
market. Yesterday at the Goethe-Institut talk, someone asked me: "Well,
why do you sell your work? Apart from the obvious reason that you want
to become rich." No, I don't want to become rich. It is not really interesting.
I don't believe that to have a higher income will necessarily make me
a happier person. It is not the only value in life. To think the higher
your income, the better your life is, is just culture. Today people
tend to over-emphasise market economy. There is no problem with exchanging
things. The question is what one exchanges, how one exchanges and how
much time one spends exchanging things. It is not that interesting,
it's just a tool.
SS: There is a difference between an economy based on exchange and
the capitalist economy of production.
TS: I think this would require a larger frame than this interview
can provide, but I think there is no categorical difference. What you
call profit is the exchange value people get for the time, energy, risk
etc. they invested into a certain project. How high this exchange value
is depends not only on the production costs, but also on how important
it is for a buyer to have a specific product. To say that products in
themselves have a certain fixed value is to adhere to a kind of essentialism.
My position would be on the other side, of a performative constructivism.
To pursue ones life trying to make as much profit as possible or, as
a consumer, making the lowest price the only criteria for buying a certain
product are just cultural attitudes. They can certainly exist within
markets, but they are not structurally inherent to market economies.
SS: How does your work exist then, if not in the here and now when
it's been enacted? How does it function when it is sold?
TS: People can acquire the piece and have the right to show it forever,
if they want. Of course they have to employ interpreters to enact the
work. I mean, no museum is doing this at the moment but some have said
they want to, so let's see what happens.
SS: So, your work has been bought by private collectors, or also by
TS: Both. SS: It is quite a difficult type of work to own!
TS: Private collectors also have to enact the work themselves. They
really go from having something to being something, which I think it
is quite an interesting step.
SS: Going back to the show at the ICA, your first piece is presented
together with your most recent installation, which is This objective
of that object (2004). The exhibition was conceived as an introduction
to your practice and shows its development. How do you say your work
has evolved during these years?
TS: In Instead of allowing... I was trying to fulfill all conventions
to make my work comparable to a traditional sculpture. There is a person,
who kind of looks like an object but it is not an object. From there
on I just wanted to become more specific to my own medium. I have people
enacting my work and they can become much more than just a solid material
can. I just tried to be more media specific. I create situations which
use the capacities of these people, and make them increasingly more
SS: In this particular piece you have five interpreters and then the
viewer plays a part in it. Can you explain how the piece works?
TS: Basically, there is a kind of prologue, which seduces the viewer
into saying something. If they do say something the piece reacts and
says: "We have a comment! We have a comment! Who will answer? Who will
answer?" The interpreters judge the viewer's comment or speak about
it much in the same way the viewer would judge or speak about an artwork,
or a critic would speak or write about an artwork. SS: The viewer is
invited to have a reaction but, once he/she responds to the piece, the
fact that this evolves by itself excludes the viewer. This works, for
me at least, to reaffirm that this piece is more like an object than,
say, a performance. TS: I am not sure...
SS: In a way you find yourself being commented upon. Even if you try
to intervene again, you cannot become part of the discussion. The interpreters
discuss something that you initiated, but through their body language
of turning their backs to you, shutting you out and simultaneously not
allowing you to walk away they exclude you...
TS: This is their decision, it is not mine. Once you make a second
comment, they can speak with you. They can speak with you but they don't
have to. I prefer when they speak with the people but I leave it up
to them to speak about or to speak with.
SS: So, there are two possibilities.
TS: Yes, two possibilities. So, you could try to go back and say something
different and possibly they will start talking with you...maybe you
just said something they didn't like.
SS: They were talking about it for a long time, but not with me...
TS: What did you say?
SS: What did I say? Oh, I forgot! First, I asked whether we could
have a discussion. I said we and they started bouncing off of one another
discussing what a discussion is and talking about novels and all kind
of interactions. Then some other people came in the room, but they didn't
say anything so the piece collapsed on its own, because there was no
reaction. When the interpreters were on the floor I said: "Can we still
speak when you are lying on the floor?" They livened up again and they
started to discuss speech and the difference between the written word
as something lying down and the spoken word as something standing up!
I thought this was really funny, but when I tried to say something again...
I realized... I think it is a type of role-play. When the interpreters
get to know one another it becomes very much like a game. They start
running this circle of discussion and somehow you can feel that there
is a sort of conspiracy between them and that doesn't really include
TS: I prefer when they include the people a little, but I leave it
up to them to decide. It is their decision and not mine and the fact
that it is their decision is part of the work somehow. I like when the
viewer becomes ontologically the same as the players, so you can also
make your own comment the object of a discussion, i.e. comment upon
it. When I showed the work in Cologne, they were almost not speaking
about but only speaking with. I guess, here at the ICA, I rehearsed
them to speaking about maybe a bit too much and now they are really
quite violent. I said to them: "You are violent when you do it", but
they are on track and they are going for it. This is fine by me. But
maybe it has also something to do with the acoustics.
SS: I think it is a very interesting piece... Yes it is violent because
I have noticed other people leaving quite terrified! I like that the
interpreters are wearing their own clothes and they could be, or be
mimicking other visitors. As you walk in, though, the piece starts again
from the beginning, so there is really no mistake that they could be
TS: Some visitors have been asked: "Are you also part of the piece?"
SS: "Yes, I am going home. I just finished..."
SS: In this later piece you seem to take the process a step further.
You employ as artistic tools elements of the theatre, such as the gesture,
the human voice, language and role-play. Although there is no stage
to separate the viewer from the interpreters, by working with the interpreters
through rehearsals and improvisation, your role is becoming similar
to that of the theatre director.
TS: Well, I think this is more related to composition, specifically
to pieces like John Zorn's Cobra, where the interpreters of the piece
can decide upon the composition. Also Xavier Le Roy's piece Project,
where the dancers are creating the piece while they are doing it. I
think that in theatre, as we know it, you will find very little of this.
Then, of course I always use these traditional media in all my works.
I mean, this craftsmanship totally comes from choreography or singing
or the spoken word. I think that an artist assembles meaning just as
a director assembles meaning. There is no kind of categorical difference
between what a film director does or and what a visual artist does.
They are both creating meaning. That they are working in these different
media makes of course a big, big difference in terms of meaning.
SS: In this piece is you allow the interpreters the freedom to bring
their own experience into the work, not just their personal voice or
their own personal movement but their personal thinking and background
as well. They are creating the piece but at the same time they have
a set of rules around them, like in a game. So they are not totally
inventing the piece...
TS: Yes, it is a sort of game. They are playing a game and that has
a certain development. It starts somewhere and the viewer is part of
SS: What's your favorite game?
TS: What is my favorite game? Probably football!
SS: Really? No strategic games?
TS: Well, It is a strategic game!
SS: I want to ask you something about the relationship of your work
to the context it is shown in. Specifically, the context of the institutional
space of the museum or the gallery. By treating your works as immaterial
objects of art you challenge the museological context of the museum.
In previous pieces you actually turned elements of the museum such as
the press release or the museum guards themselves into the material
of your work. How do you see your work in relation to the museum?
TS: I am introducing something into the museum that is somehow its
opposite, that is a kind of oral tradition. I just use existing points
of the framework of the museum to insert it. If my idea is to have somebody
doing something for the entire duration of an exhibition, as a work
of art, then I have to realise that there is already somebody standing
there for the entire duration of the exhibition. That is the guard and
the guard is an interesting figure, because it is the person who watches
over objects. The material objects are creating meaning, while the guard
doesn't create meaning. It is a strange relationship - in this moment
these objects become more important than this person. So, what I did
was to put meaning into the guard and say: "what if this person, who
is anyway there, creates meaning? What is the difference? What does
this imply in terms of how one produces things?"
SS: So, does this challenge the concept of the museum itself as a
machine that transmits meaning to future generations?
TS: I think that our idea today is that the library, the museum, the
archive transmit knowledge into history. But that is not the case -
this is just a small amount. We learn most things from our mother, from
the people we grow up with. It is a body to body transmission and this
is the most valid transmitter of ideas and values into the future. I
want to insert this more important, more valid tradition into the archive.
SS: There is a difference between the museum as transmitter of knowledge
and the museum as archive, a recipient of materials or objects from
TS: In my case this is quite conventional. You can say that the piece
This is good is from 2001, Instead of allowing.. is from 2000. You can
say that this is what people were interested in 2000, or this is what
this guy did in 2000. The cultural values attached to it are cultural
values the museum thinks are worth preserving. In that sense it is quite
normal. It will never say: "Tino Sehgal, This is Good 2065", it will
always say: "Tino Sehgal, This is Good 2001" forever. Time will pass
and it will be the same thing, 2001. SS: That is interesting because
every time it would be a different incarnation of the work. In 2065,
the person interpreting it would be very different from a person interpreting
it in 2001. TS: Then there are some interesting points.
SS: I have a last question, which is about the future. This year you
have been invited together with Thomas Scheibitz to represent Germany
at the Venice Biennale 2005. Can I ask you what we can expect?
TS: Yes, you can because you are working on the project but only when
you switch off the machine. So you can, the machine cannot.
SS: So, it's going to be a surprise. I switch this off and we can talk
about it. How I do I turn this off?
For information about Tino Sehgal's project at the Venice Biennale,
please visit www.labiennale.org