Keep Frozen: ARt-Practice-As-Research. The Artist´s View. Published in 2015 in connection to the Keep Frozen exhibitin series.
Hops Hopsi. Hulda Rós Gudnadóttir. Published by Program, Berlin, in 2010 as a catalogue for the exhibition Hops Hopsi
Jonatan Habib-Engqvist from the book publication 'Keep Frozen: Art-Practice-As-Research. The Artis´s View.'
Rather than expressing something about what Keep Frozen is about, this text will deal mainly with what it is not about. The purpose of this approach is twofold. First of all, there is a practical reason: some parts of the work that I would like to talk about have not yet taken place. Even if these parts never happen, they seem important in order to appreciate the aspirations of this particular project. Secondly, there is an annoying and recurring problem when it comes to the reception of certain kinds of artworks, which often takes place in their absence, and to which this undertaking undoubtedly can be tied. The problem is mainly of a discursive and moral nature and often tinges works that have been categorised as collective, research-based or political; it is especially pertinent if the artwork requires a number of non-artists in order to take place. Moreover, this seems to be a difficulty or phenomenon that to a certain extent is created by the art world itself. Oftentimes the construct in turn permeates the non-art understanding of it. So the text might also deal in some measure with the art world.
The irritating thing is that in art discourse and in public discussion certain works are received, evaluated and interpreted in moral or ethical terms instead of political ones. Often this happens because the internal logic of the work in question is not placed first. They are, in other words, not (primarily) understood in their capacity as artworks. When understood politically, for instance, it is not the politics of the work but the politics that it superficially seems to represent that are debated. This leads to reviews and discussions of the artist’s, institutions’ or artworks’ broader intent and moral status (two positions, incidentally, that also tend to be confused quite frequently). In turn, this prompts a discussion that precipi- tously abandons the situation that triggered the discussion in the first place.1 In short, the artwork becomes a representation of something else, and it is the something else that becomes the conversation topic. This instrumentalising or sometimes even self- instrumentalising tendency is, in my view, not helping many works of art and can even impede the ambivalent, open-ended power and political potential specific to visual art. The contradiction of uncertainty is oftentimes the political of art, or at least the political in art. For this reason, and as a means of example, I imagine that it might be meaningful to state the evident: Keep Frozen does not represent a political position.
So what politics are at play in Keep Frozen? On a general level, we might say that in this specific project, and in Hulda Rós Gudnadóttir’s practice in general, there is an attempt to articulate her actions from inside her process. From a so-called Duchampian point of view, one could say that the work does not exist until a viewer perceives it. When an artwork is stored, it is not an art- work. It is simply potential. However, when looking more closely at the structure of the orchestrated working situations in many of Gudnadóttir’s works, this is not a sufficient model for understand- ing what is going on. The role of the audience, co-creators, actors, non-actors or other participants is beyond that of mere perception and participation. Rather than witnessing a downright performance, it would seem that everyone becomes part of an event. When using this unfortunate vocabulary, it seems necessary to make distinc- tions: The performance is here understood as a staged or choreo- graphed event which an audience completes through perception and experience, whereas an event is something that is impossible to have oversight of. It can only be experienced from ‘within’, as a powerless singular perception that simultaneously is constitutive for the situation as it unfolds. The event is experienced primarily as a temporal unfolding and as such, a space within which the unexpected can happen. While we are at it, I would also add that Keep Frozen obviously does not represent labour. It might well be labour, and one could ask if it is relevant to question whether it is labour as art or art as labour. This is beyond my task here, so I will keep it brief. The representation of labour in art has of course been a recurring topic in recent decades, so there is quite a lot of material around. In order to not entangle myself in the discourse on art and labour, I would somewhat crudely propose that the cur- rent state of affairs could be divided into questions concerning the representation of labour vis-à-vis labour itself. This is in itself quite interesting, as contemporary art otherwise spends quite a lot of energy on positioning itself as something that primarily does not deal with representation (since not representing something else is what makes it an artwork rather than something else), except perhaps for the odd representations of non-art as art. One of the non-representational positions is somewhat ironically the idea that contemporary art should primarily be understood (or justified) as knowledge production. The kind of knowledge that is produced, and for whom it is produced, appears to be of secondary impor- tance. Lately, there has also been a new wave of discussions about how to even talk about the ways in which precarious workers ought to be represented in an art context without imposing some kind of unjustifiable filter, or simply exploiting people twice over.
It might in other words seem that the prevailing discourse is mostly interested in itself (sic!). That it is engrossed in exploiting the bad conscience evoked by the sensation of exploiting someone else (seldom is it taken into account that A: the ‘precarious worker’ might very well understand the artwork; or B: the main target audience is in fact often the educated, predominately white middle- class museum visitor – who, incidentally, seems to enjoy feeling guilty about being just that). Likewise, the question of the pre- cariousness of the art-labourer is habitually used as a model to understand the mechanisms of neo-liberal capitalism (e.g. how the dream of ‘making it’ can perpetuate underpaid or unpaid work; how this relates to gentrification and how difficult it is to do any- thing about it). In short, the idea is that in Western society, the artist has become a role model for contemporary work (flexible, cheap, creative, self-sustaining, etc.). A quick analysis would be to state that Keep Frozen places itself at the centre of these ques- tions: it is an art project about the transformation of harbours, the creative industries and the self-exploitation mechanisms of a glo- balised post-crisis Icelandic community; the project has then been expanded to include the ports of Essaouira (the location of Orson Welles’ famous film version of Shakespeare’s Othello), and in the docks of New York. On top of that, the artist engages a number of Icelandic dockworkers to perform something that resembles the tasks of their daily labour in the exhibition space. Indeed, the argu- ments sketched out above have all been present in various ways in the reception of, and understanding surrounding, the Keep Frozen project, not least in the summary of audience reception published in this book.2
However pertinent these questions are, we can safely say that the actual (art) work rapidly seems to become of secondary importance to the demands of symbolic representation or morality when dis- cussed according to these terms. To phrase it a bit more harshly: the current moral or representational aspects induced by our individual projections onto the work would seem to become the measure with which it can and should be judged. This does not necessarily have to be a bad thing. But firstly, we should be aware of these mechanisms and secondly, there are a number of under- lying postulations in these discussions that one could find prob- lematic. First of all, there is the assumption that art is produced to communicate, and moreover, that it communicates differently to laymen or to professionals. I would prefer to think of those who are invested and those who are not. The unique thing about art is that the audience cannot be understood as either professional or non-professional, but as attentive and concerned, or not. Also, the analysis is empirically incorrect. For instance, the workers in the performance receive the same salary as they would for the cor- responding amount of labour in the harbour, which means that at least the Icelandic workers are the most well paid people in the entire exhibition production. We should be clear in distinguishing between art world problems and real world problems. Art is fully capable of dealing with both, and it often manages to approach one through the other. But it is good to know at what point we are talking about which particular issue.
Iceland is dependent on the fishing industry. It constitutes the foundations of Icelandic culture and identity. But being a far-from- glamorous assembly line process, the fishing industry has received little recognition from Icelandic cultural workers beyond the documentary. I recall a conversation with the Icelandic artist Magnus Sigurdarsson who moved to the US some twenty years ago. When asked about the specificity of Icelandic art and how Icelandic culture determined his artistic expressions, he responded: “I am here because of the fish.” What I believe the artist was pointing out is how important the influence and economy of the fishing industry is for Icelandic cultural identity, while also being disregarded. At the same time, he also pinpoints the denial of what constitutes the very core of this society. It would seem that Keep Frozen also investigates the pathology of an attitude which Gudnadóttir describes as “not wanting to smell your own society.” The investigation does not operate through what the work is, represents, or communicates
– but through what it generates – what it does. When staging an everyday situation in a non-everyday context, it is an acknowledgement of precarious routine work – and of the supporting structures constituted by the globalised Icelandic fishing industry. Through a conscious approach towards the specific rather than the generic, the support structures are furthermore disclosed as the architecture that houses and shapes our a priori perception of certain artefacts and activities. It becomes clear that the assembly lines and structures of the fishing industry not only feed the artists; as such, they immanently reflect the predicaments of the art world and the aforementioned timely discourse on contemporary artists as role models for workers at large (creative, flexible and inexpensive). But instead of expressing this through analogy or representation, it is part of the work of the work itself. Admittedly, I am fairly sure that Keep Frozen is an artwork, and that it therefore harbours a number of political properties; or at least that seeing it and engaging with it as an artwork is an efficient way of understanding several layers of what is going on. The polyphonic expressions in the power of the structuralist film captions, compositions and broken narratives, together create a specific ambivalence (understood as art) that allows Keep Frozen to make both the art world and the non-art world more complicated. Whether something is art or not is not primarily an ontological question, but something that can be deter- mined by the very efficiency of the work. Most of the time, it does not really matter what we call it. In some cases one might choose not to call it art, or to say that sometimes it is art, and sometimes it is not. In some cases no one would take it seriously if we called it art – and it would simply be taken as a prank. In other cases no one would take the time required if we did not call it art. We are, how- ever, definitely facing a problem today when it comes to dealing with ‘socially engaged’, research-based, political and activist art as it surfaces in Keep Frozen, which demands a confrontation with the definitions of what art is. As long as artworks are received, evaluated and interpreted in moral or ethical terms instead of political ones, or read from an entirely aesthetic horizon, the reception and interpretation of them will remain posturing. If we do not grasp the politics at the core of these processes, we cannot even begin to reflect on their significance as art. It will take more to solve this problem than a short text reflecting on a singular project’s position in this mess, but let us start by treating Keep Frozen as a work that does not represent anything, and see what it does.
Discovering the reasonable beauty of the world
Interview with philosopher Valur Antonsson from the book publication 'Keep Frozen: Art-Practice-As-Research. The Artis´s View.'
VALUR Hi Hulda. Shall we begin?
HULDA Yes, I am all yours.
VALUR First of all, I would like to situate ourselves both in space and time. Last time I interviewed you, I was living in Chinatown, Manhat- tan, and you were in Berlin. This time, I’m in Reykjavík and you’re back in Berlin. In the meantime, we had the opportunity to meet in person and spent some time in the west of Iceland to discuss your current project, Keep Frozen.
HULDA Yes, indeed. Like political leaders, we took a trip together to a secluded cabin to discuss and contemplate. Who knows? Perhaps we plotted our own little take-over and perhaps not.
VALUR In a recent interview, Ragnar Kjartansson, one of the best known Icelandic artists of our generation, commented regarding his exhibition in the Colony in MoMA’s PS1 how the much advertised creativity of Icelandic artists could simply be a material fact of the close-knit community in Reykjavík. Since there are no unnecessary intermediaries, artists could engage each other much more readily than in larger cities. And, unlike other smaller cities, Reykjavík still claims to be a capital and therefore hosts a variety of international art exhibitions. To clarify, Kjartansson is a poster child for a generation of Icelandic artists who, at the beginning of the 21st century, emphasised romantic ideas about the artist; the dualism between reason and emotions; body and spirit; woman and man; the western technological society and oriental spiritual society.
These are all ideas that divide the world into two opposites. It is akin to Romanticism as we know it from the end of the 19th century. The beauty of the world is something that belongs to the Romantic artist and is the opposite of the critical thinking and reason that characterise the sciences. In this regard, it came as no surprise that Kjartansson’s exhibition was all about intimacy and childlike creativity, almost like a vaudeville show coming to town. In contrast, your project – from the outset – might be interpreted as a deconstruction of such ideas of the noble savage. You take the position that critical thinking is by no means the opposite of beauty, similar to the perception held by scientists about creativity not being the opposite of reason. It is a big part of the scientist’s role to go out and discover the world and its beauty. In my opinion, that is how the job of the artist resembles that of the scientist. The artist is not only expressing him/herself or his/her emotions or making some object. He/she is going out into the world and discovering it in an empiricist sort of way, without preconceived ideas. The very title, Keep Frozen, would of course mean that in some way, your pro- ject has to do with your personal relationship with Iceland; at the same time, you are dealing with a more ambiguous nature of that relationship. At least intimacy might not be as innocent a concept as expected. Your project deals with issues of labour relations, and how a new class of creative administrators might be obfuscating the true nature of such relations. Perhaps the fact that you are an expat, an artist living in Berlin, makes this particular project possible; that in fact, a certain distance is necessary to truly shed light on Iceland in a creative way?
HULDA Sure, that could be the case, but I think that before I moved away, I tended to take on more of an outsider role, while Ragnar Kjartansson takes the role of the affirmative insider. At this very moment as we are doing this interview, I’m editing a video in which I revisit a character from an art piece I did in 2006 – while still very much living in Iceland – that emerged in the atmosphere of the pre-breakdown Icelandic art scene.1 It is the character of the Icelandic artist as puffin, a savage turned ‘krutt’ or ‘cute’ through the identification process of the 1990s and early 21st-century inter- national music press.2 Ragnar Kjartansson very much emerged out of that scene, while I always felt the whole thing was a bit twisted and kind of castrating for the complex narratives of Icelandic art- ists. Now, eight years later, I decided to place the artist puffin as a character in a video I shot in Reykjavík’s harbour, the new centre of the emerging creative classes. Although the video has an obvious local reference to the touristic puffin soft-toy-shops taking over the landscape of midtown Reykjavík, the subject matter of the film is universal. I ́m addressing this fascination of the creative classes with the rough industrial areas that seem abandoned to them. That is where my romantic nerve comes in. While I understand this fas- cination with what appears to be abandoned, I am also critical of it. In the video, the artist masked as a puffin is exploring his own fascination with the material reality of the harbour and the pervert tendency of wanting to change all that he is attracted to.
VALUR Well, even if the connection between puffins and politics might not strike the reader as an immediate one, I hope they will bear with us, because it is an apt symbol, if not an icon, of the ongoing changes in the harbour of Reykjavík. In Keep Frozen you revisit a space which we – towards the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st – had or have a tendency to regard as spaces belonging to a bygone era, to the time of industry, of transportation etween countries in trucks, ships and containers with the help of heavy cranes. In the present time of the internet bubble, it’s as though people in general don ́t imagine that people and goods are still transported via sea between countries; that nobody is making objects in factories. The reason you see beyond this more than your peers is precisely because you have travelled the path of research. You started out with a very personal interest and set out to discover. You observed that there was something strange about how our generation was touched by some morbid Romantic feel- ing when entering industrial areas with their rusty aesthetic. Why do we find it so beautiful to visit such places and claim that they are abandoned, and to be filled with eerie feelings of loneliness and even nostalgia? At least you discovered changes occurring in Reykjavík harbour that were invisible to me. I hadn’t realised how much I’d also started to talk like everybody else: ‘Yes, here is a dead industrial area that is being brought to life. Now it can finally flourish!’ I didn ́t understand the arrogant position I was adopting by not even having gone there and looked at what is already there. And I ́m not talking about abandoned buildings or rusty cranes, or some objects in the shipyard. I’m referring to the people who are there. And that is what you did!
Now, you’re the daughter of a small industrialist who manufactures plastic tubs for the fishing industry. Since you were a child, you’ve witnessed the changes of the Icelandic harbour environment; from a crude industrial workplace to the ongoing reinvention of the har- bour as a cosy creative spot in the urban area, where artisans and artists meet. It is in fact this personal dimension of your project – your relationship to the dockside, the harbours, the shipyards, the fish factories of this island country – that might hold an interest for a wider audience now, when economic issues should have become more relevant. By economic issues, I do not mean the simplistic language of politics that entered the jargon of the art world in the wake of the ongoing financial crises of 2008, but rather issues that relate to the ‘economic’ in a deeper sense; relations of labour, which ultimately is a question of human relations; of various techniques we employ to keep some people at a distance, and, as crude as it might sound, a technique that allows us to ‘manage’ relations, to manage intimacy with other people. ‘Economy’ in this wider sense, should encourage the artist not to mirror the simplistic language of politics, but to seek out invisible relations, to shed light on the various places where this struggle to keep a distance to something / to maintain intimacy with something, takes place. Money is merely one technique of many to manage relations; ideology – and all of its manifestations – is yet another. Tell me about these changes, and how, in your project, you seek to show how this ideology on the part of the creative classes to occupy old industrial places and create thriving neighbourhoods is in fact obscuring labour relations, and keeping certain people invisible?
HULDA This is a very good question. This obscurity you talk about could be examined in the puffin video. There is obvious alienation. The puffin is fascinated but focuses on the objects or structures rather than relations between people. He doesn ́t really know what world he has landed in. He is blind to the actual work that is going on. Perhaps because he doesn ́t understand it, its significance, he doesn ́t see the people, the work, the actions, only the architecture and the objects, the view.3 For him, the area is first and foremost a playground, a beautiful location for his leisure. He tries it all and plays around and finds outlets for his material fantasies. It is like porn. But back to the question of change. You don ́t belong there, so you want to make it your territory by putting a veil of your own aesthetics over it all. Perhaps it is the frontier now within the city limits, something to conquer and change, and perhaps the creative classes are simply being used as the very instruments of change. In the case of Reykjavík midtown harbour, the common word is that city authorities are injecting life into the harbour by encouraging the building of condos and the take-over of offices, design shops and tourist restaurants in the traditional harbour buildings. Meanwhile, the workers themselves are reminding me that the harbour is actually the largest fishing harbour in Iceland in terms of fish being landed, and that the small one-man service companies like baiting men are forced to leave the traditional bait- ing houses when they can ́t afford the rent anymore. What people in general noticed was when half of the shipyard was dismantled, as that issue keeps on being the only one that surfaces in the media. Manual labour doesn ́t seem to be considered part of ‘life’ anymore. It was especially interesting to me when I was listen- ing to interview recordings my assistant did with a former dock worker (who ironically happens to have reinvented himself as a creative worker) and heard his point of view. He celebrated the ‘life’ being brought to the harbour with the restaurants, cafés and creative spaces. He celebrated that Reykjavík’s midtown dock was becoming like all other midtown docks abroad (“í útlöndum”): a place to eat a lobster, not to transport one. This particular ex-dock worker echoes the dominant voices in the mainstream media, of politicians and high-ranking city officials. There are hardly any jour- nalists getting different points of view even though the harbour is currently a battlefield. When the workers experience the constant repetition of the ideology that is being thrust at them from every angle, they start to believe it themselves. It is a classic mechanism of an identification process. This transformation process has been and is still happening to fishing and industrial harbours worldwide. It is not only about real estate. It is also about a lack of connection. Perhaps the answer lies in an interview I did with an elderly man in Red Hook, Brooklyn. He was a son of a dock worker who lost his job in the late 1950s, just like everybody else there. He was flattered that I wanted to interview him and not the movie stars living on the top floors of the area’s converted warehouse lofts. He mentioned that his grandson living in Manhattan also worked in film, and that it had proven to be the right decision, despite his grandfather’s disbelief in the value of non-material training. “The descendants of labour workers want to become creatives today”, he remarked. This resonated with my own experience of being the granddaughter of a fisherman (who, around the time my father was born, became a landlubber, making my own experience a ‘word of mouth’ tale like the grandson’s, rather than a direct one). It would be simplest to blame this on the fact that dreams changed with more affluent middle-class lifestyles and education, but I would like to point out in this context what happened in the aftermath of the revolution of containerisation in the 1950s. The dock became a very obscure place when it lost its connection to the larger com- munity, after the search for cheap labour changed the structure of the workforce. Instead of the workforce being recruited from the close community, the workers were recruited from an international migrant workforce. To shed light on this, I took my whole family and lived for a few months in a fishing town in Morocco, Essaouira, and thus integrated what I call participatory research. Large num- bers of the inhabitants of that town have something to do with the fishing harbour, either as a boat owner, fisherman, net-maker, tea salesman, shipyard worker or buyer of fish that is being sold on the pier. Our days revolved around the tasks of buying fish and spending hours making authentic meals. The harbour is perceived very differently when it is part of everyday routine. In places like Reykjavík, the docks have become decentralised in people’s minds, and the docks have become the arse of the city instead of being at the heart of everyday living. And you are right: as a result of the creatives’ returning by occupying that space, the invisibility of the humans who are already there is being reinforced.
VALUR I like that image you’ve evoked: “The artist masked as a puffin exploring his own fascination with the material reality of the har- bour.” I can’t help but laugh, but in fact you’ve also forestalled a critical argument I considered along the lines of this alienation, which, in the case of the artist, can become quite comical. Perhaps it’s necessary, these days, to emphasise that this was not always the case; that the term ‘relations of labour’ would immediately be interpreted as a question of class relations. It seems to be ancient history that such a term would have been interpreted in the post- structuralist language of identity politics, in the non-Marxist sense, as a question of ethics, say, between gender and race, or simply as an irrelevant question, a curiosity harking back to some early modernist age. Yet, I would like to present a few ideas simultane- ously in order to triangulate your approach before I continue with the interview, bearing in mind both the personal dimension of this project and these more general questions relating to ‘economy’, which coincide in a symbol, perhaps only visible to the artist in the classical sense, where the symbol materialises something very mundane – objects we might call ‘icons of change’. So why not? Instead of the lobster, let’s consider the puffin. One prime symptom of capitalist labour relations is the tendency to be fascinated by the object, and what can be exchanged for that object, and to simply forget the maker of said object, the relationship between makers, i.e. the relations between us humans. One might be led to assume that in such a system, people would at all costs want to avoid see- ing other people working. However, in line of this argument, ideology is not invented to keep people blind to other people’s menial labour, but to keep people under the illusion that they are actually seeing everything there is to see. Therefore, labour, and in particu- lar manufacturing labour, must be part of the worldview, which satisfies the need of the socially and environmentally-conscious middle class in order for people – in this managerial class, this class of idea-exchangers – to feel as though they have a complete picture of the world. Labour must be exhibited. In order to keep our conscience guilty, so to speak, such that we try to rid ourselves of those images, rather than keep on seeking a clearer view of what might yet be invisible to us. In other words, we’re blinded, not by an absence of displayed objects of labour relations, but by an illu- sion that said objects give a complete view. This state of affairs makes it all the more difficult for the artist – or the thinker, the poet, the scientist – to enlighten, to bring something new to light, because he or she must first undertake the task of dispelling peo- ple’s notion that nothing remains to be seen; nothing remains to be discovered or disclosed – the artist needs to dispel this notion that all there remains to be done ... is to act! This constant demand for action is, paradoxically, precisely what pacifies people in an ever- descending spiral of feeling inadequate. How do we then go about evoking the simple need for curiosity? Especially about something that is as politically saturated as people’s work? In this context, it is also important to consider the problem of ‘authenticity’. You men- tion somewhere that dock workers are forced to entertain the idea of what the ‘original’ dock worker looks like, often as mere enter- tainment for cultural tourists. Authentic work, one might be led to assume, takes place without the idea of a spectator. Slavoj Žižek is of course no stranger to these lines of thought; however, after his Lenin-ian turn, his constant obsession on the question What Needs to Be Done? has waylaid him from considerations that are more per- tinent to the artist or the scientist. But he warrants a mention here before I turn back to your project. He likes to relate a story on the subject of interpretation, which is no different from Susan Sontag’s clear message on why we should not interpret. He tells the story of when he first saw the Wachowski Brothers’ blockbuster The Matrix in 1999 in some theatre in his hometown Ljubljana, Slovenia. At the very moment the main character Neo swallows the pills and enters the Matrix, a person sitting behind Žižek in the theatre blurts out:
“My God! It’s all an illusion!” And Žižek proceeds to say that this stupid person’s shock is precisely the ethos or attitude the rest of us should embrace. However – and remember, he is mainly speak- ing to an audience of twenty-something radical students – we have so many clever ways to avoid this moment of shock, preferably by
‘engaging with the issues’. Which brings us – naturally, I dare say tongue-in-cheek – to Santiago Sierra and the municipal politics of Iceland’s capital, Reykjavík. Sierra is well known for exhibitions that include day labourers putting on display empty frames, etc.; all the while, the spectators have already arrived, not knowing (or knowing) that the labour itself – not by artists, but by day labour- ers – is what is being put on display. In a recent exhibition in the Reykjavík Municipal Art Museum, Santiago Sierra provoked an angry response from a prominent Icelandic politician on the left, Sóley Tómasdóttir, who accused Sierra of being no different from the great industrial capitalist in how he might be exploiting cheap labour for his own benefit. Leftist artists responded to this uproar, saying that the politician didn’t understand the art work; if anything, the uproar should have been coming from the right.
Back to you. What initially attracted my interest was how you tackle the conceptual challenges of your work from different fronts, the language of which is distinctly different one to the other. Clearly, in your project, you’re touching upon the question of the division of labour in society – all relating to a specific place, the harbour, which has a personal connection to your own biography. You engage in work as the conceptual creator: the witness, the journalist, the
entertainer and also as a researcher; the scholar, the scientist and the inventor. All of these roles are of course highly engaging and yield full agency to the worker in question, i.e. you, the artist. How- ever, they are also enviable roles to a large majority of the work- force in society who are, more often than not, alienated from these aspects of the objects they work on. They often do not have any role as a pioneer, story-teller or researcher. You mentioned the puffin in this regard: “The artist masked as a puffin exploring his own fascination with the material reality of the harbour.” I wonder how innocent this fascination is. And then the works of Santiago Sierra come to mind. What are your thoughts on this relationship? Between someone like yourself – who has access to these three empowering dimensions of creative work – and to your subject matter at hand: the coastline, the sea, the harbours, the objects found therein, and, perhaps most importantly, the workers?
HULDA I don’t think it is necessarily inherent in manual labour that it is unsatisfactory, or that you have no agency. After all, dock workers have been the initiators of great revolutions, both in Poland – which lead to the collapse of Communism – and elsewhere. It is more a question of who is the storyteller. Who defines what tasks are worth occupying yourself with, and yes, what is considered agency? I think artists and creatives are kept under the illusion that they are the great keepers of agency. A factory worker can easily have the view that office clerks have a monotonous job, while in general the opposite is considered to be the case. To the spectator, it looks like the worker is repeating the same movements, and he assumes that must mean his job is monotonous. He has no agency. But that is just a superficial appearance. Artists and creatives are masters of keeping up appearances. They have to guard their image after all to survive. What is demeaning about moving a rock? I just ask. It has to be moved. It’s useful for society. It seems to make much more sense and could be much more satisfactory in many ways than, for example, writing a grant application for an art project. Or does it only become demeaning when it is no longer invisible? Why doesn ́t the journalist ask the rock mover directly how it was and why he is doing it, instead of asking someone from the office? I think the perspective of the mover could be much more revealing to the whole situation. The problem is much more the attitudes of the holders of that defining power towards labour. Menial labour is not seen as a dignifying pursuit in our society today. We don ́t value our labourers. Why do we take for granted that one cannot be satisfied by the accomplishment of moving a rock? Why is tell- ing the story dignifying but not being the story? Why is it more dignifying to sit and write on a Mac than moving a rock outside the café where I am sitting? It’s not because the former is better paid; it’s not. But it is because the society we live in celebrates the former but not the latter. It wasn’t always like that when you look at other cultures than the dominant one today. We can look both horizontally and vertically into history for examples. In former East Germany, one’s biggest asset was the ability to do something man- ually, the knowledge of how to install a toilet, or fix a roof or plant a seed. This knowledge had exchange value, which meant one could exchange one ́s know-how, one ́s labour skills, thereby increasing the quality of life for one ́s family. The labour, the use of one ́s body, was valued and more visible in the mainstream. The workers had a voice, they were not hidden and neither was their work. They were actually the proud symbol of the country. The problem was that they lacked individuality, but that is another issue. It is, after all, not all about money, much more about being heard, respected, being able to define the world. It can be done in various ways, through actions, words, art. And it is ridiculous to maintain that manual labour doesn ́t require any learning, skills, creativity or agency. It’s just that people don ́t see it anymore. It is not celebrated in the media and in culture in general. The reactions of Tómasdóttir are just a verification of the attitudes on behalf of the politician who doesn ́t consider workers to be doing something dignifying. Sierra might be an expert in conceptual thinking, something we value, but we overlook that there is nothing undignified about moving a rock. It takes skill and thinking, planning and contemplation.
VALUR To be fair, I believe Sóley Tómasdóttir, representing the Left-Green Party in Reykjavík, did mention something to the effect that con- temporary art should be appreciated in how it brings socio-political issues to the forefront within the cultural sphere. She did, however, find the very act of displaying the workers, for the sole and simple task of being put on display – as she interpreted it – all for the benefit of Sierra’s artistic authorship, to be demeaning. However, as you point out, what she overlooks might be that her very reaction is precisely the conceptual thrust intended by Sierra’s work. The exhibition was quite simple and minimal in its conceptual scheme, but these reactions bring to the forefront our ambiguous relation- ship with, and attitudes towards, menial labour. But while Sierra might not be interested in the inherent value of labour (say, the craftsmanship or skills), but rather in displaying or exposing how labour is made invisible in the art world (and, consequently, our hypocritical attitude towards the exchange of labour under the Iron Law of Wages), you have a more substantial point to make when it comes to these issues. At least you’re not dealing with any old form of labour, but rather with dockside work, in the harbours and shipyard. Do you see your work as an opportunity to redeem this inherent value for these workers; that their work is put on display, not the objects of their work but the process itself – that this should not be regarded as something demeaning, not reduced to a simple question of wages and exploitation, but rather an opportunity to bring to light something empowering in the very work itself; some- thing that yields the worker some agency and freedom in his or her life? You speak somewhat to that effect, and this might put you at odds with Sierra, at least in this regard.
HULDA Certainly. One cannot forget that the attitudes of the culture around you, or how others identify you, affect you in the end. You end up not understanding your own agency; you start to regard your work as something shameful, something that is not good enough. You should be doing something else. Artists greatly identify with this process, especially in the provincial context of Iceland, where artists are generally despised as vultures on society, scapegoats for spoiled politicians. Perhaps it can become empowering when a storyteller such as myself is catalysing and pointing out one ́s value, one ́s worth. In Keep Frozen part two at the Reykjavík Arts Festival4 I will be focusing partly on labour by playing with warping the roles. In the photographs, the artist tries on the outfit and movements of the worker. In a performance during the exhibition opening, the workers will in turn take on the role of the artist by reciting poems written by one of them, with elements of their own work as the subject matter. Why not write a beautiful and witty poem about plastic straps when you can do the same about moss? But I also see some dark sides to engaging in role play between dock workers and artists. Dock workers and artists have in common that they are non-contractual labour that is being exploited while slaving under the illusion of freedom inherent in their life ́s task. The illusion of freedom makes them both collude in their own exploitation. It is the genius mechanism of neo-liberal capitalism. It is only the context and methods that are different. And yes, of course, the audience.
First we take manhattan, then we take berlin
Interview with the artist by Valur Brynjar Antonsson
To give the reader some sense of space, I am presently here in New York City, while you are in Berlin and between us is Iceland. In a way this discussion by proxy brings about a couple of themes you seem to be working with, e.g., separation.
Hulda: Yes, You are close to Coney island while I´m close to Kulturpark Plänterwald, aka Spreepark – similar products of different ideological systems. These ideological systems also create a separation that I experienced in a very emotional way as a child and teenager living in Iceland, the country in-between.
Valur: From what I gather, you are working on many levels simultaneously: on the one hand, there are general phenomenological considerations of space and time, and on the other, an analysis of ideological space and how the manipulation of the former produces different affections in the latter. Were you specifically interested in how theme parks, whether Spreepark in Berlin or Coney Island in New York a century ago, are literal testing ground for an ideological warfare?
H: During research in this project I was very inspired by Rem Koolhaas' theories of the Coney Island project as a testing ground for strategies ultimately intended for Manhattan. He saw the Coney Island theme park as a model for modern Manhattan and called it the Urbanism of Fantastic Technology. Manhattan is with its glorious architectural manifestations the capital of capitalism, of course. So you can see that both sides, New york City and the GDR, used the theme park in an instrumental way to control the masses, or rather, to create an illusion. In Manhattan it was private enterprise that invested in building the illusion, while with the GDR we are talking about the government, of course. Entertainment is an ideal way to get into people´s heads without them really noticing so much. People are entertained and relaxed – thus unguarded, and what goes on easily becomes the norm.
V: Which brings us to ta key concept in your exhibition, that of illusion. According to the Aristotelian formula of aesthetics, people are entertained because they suspend their disbelief, hence the Brechtian agenda to shake people out of their stupor. What I find interesting is how your exhibition brings together two different critical aspects that are all too often divided in the art world, in line with the theoretical framework of the curator, the art critic, etc. Each one has an apolitical approach towards a phenomenology of space and time, very much in vogue before the financial crash of 2008, (or maybe still today, as in the Venice Biennale of Daniel Birnbaum), or deals with an idealogical critique, often with psycho-social dimensions. By drawing our attention to a theme park you point out how these are intrinsically linked. A park is a supposedly apolitical place, an escape from daily life. In a recreational park the art of illusion is brought to a peak: funny mirrors, strange houses, disproportionally built animals, disfigured dinosaurs and even the Ferris Wheel brings us to heights where houses below seem so small and our daily worries are so far removed. So we are dealing with the manipulation of appearances when we are in the park. One wonders why park-goers would be even more vulnerable to ideological indoctrination in a theme park? In this regards, I wonder if you are influenced by the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who has stated that ideology works like that on a fundamental level, whereby the best illusion is one which comes in the guise of another illusion. It is precisely in a space where our perceptions of space and time are literally being manipulated, a space in which we should be highly on guard, that we are the most susceptible to ideological suggestion; it is precisely because we know we are being fooled in the theme park that we suspend our disbelief.
H: I have read some of the Zizek's work and saw a lecture during his visit to Iceland. Zizek is brilliant mind, but I cannot say that I was directly thinking about his writing while researching the project. But as with everything else I read or experience with other senses, it influences me of course. Zizek is in my world. I concluded through practicing my artwork that the best way to reach the audience, the guest or whatever you call the people you are in dialogue with, is to approach them with play. That is play on the surface level. Create a moment where the audience doesn´t know how to interpret the work. Should they laugh or be serious? People thus let go of their guard, and then you can kick them. Kick them really hard. I don´t like political art that points a finger or is disgustingly shocking. I´m not trying to convert people to my belief or say that I´m right. Some art can become like mass media, or at least doesn´t reach audiences with the same potential as art. This is an indescribable level to which art is a gateway. Francis Bacon had a point when he said, 'If I could say it, I wouldn´t paint it.'
But sure, The illusion, Zizek was right. In the work I draw parallels between the illusion created by a totalitarian communist government and its breakdown and the illusions and subsequent breakdown from the power elite of neo-liberal capitalism now in a time of economic crisis. A broken down GDR amusement park was the best place to build a metaphor for this narrative. It is an illusion in itself, and now in its rundown state, where nature takes over the man-made structures and the facades reveal themselves as just that, the processes of illusion-building and the consequences of its breakdown become very clear. I think neo-liberal capitalism has been like a religion to the masses, and many people are still holding on.
V: Yes, there are many references embedded in the exhibition, some of which point to your own personal history, I believe? When you introduce a Cowboy character from an older work exhibited in Iceland 2007, you are playing with the special significance that number has in Iceland; '2007' has become a signifier in Iceland in a similar way to '9/11', and Iceland itself has taken a central role, even as a signifier, in the financial crisis.
H: Everything is personal. How can you create a narrative to which you have no personal connection? I think that the personal is the gateway to the universal. It is much more fruitful to tell the story from your personal point of view than from a macro level. The macro level just adds to the confusion or the illusion. You are always addressing another person and you can just assume that she or he is somewhat similar to you. Yes, 2007 has become a signifier in Iceland much as the word plasmascreen. But that is another story. Following the economic breakdown of Iceland some kind of re-evaluation of the values dominant in recent years has taken place and is still continuing. The numbers '2007' referring to that year have become a signifier for a certain kind of behaviour and thinking. The phrase 'It is so 2007' is now very common to refer to extreme consumerism, arrogance or naïve belief in financial investments and neo-liberal values such as the uncontrolled free market. It was not so much this number with which I was playing. It was more the intention to bring the character from Don´t stop me now. I´m having a good time into the current work because he is the embodiment of this neo-liberal dude, the money-man and the free cowboy. In the videos he has stepped down from the horse pedestal I built for him in 2007, and now he is suddenly here in the middle of this broken down GDR illusion. Perhaps after having been exposed, he has lost the appearance of the free cowboy winning over new lands, and is now revealed as an Illusionist. Still playing silly games, of course. In Iceland there was a religious cult created around those young men that dealt with investment. All the media was busy praising them. The gossip papers talked about the amazing parties, the stars they associated with and the glamorous lives they were leading, while the more serious press reserved the front page for corporate and stock market news. They were idolised, and I found the whole thing very silly. The situation as a while reminded me of the situations described in post-colonial African literature dealing with corruption and the new local elite. Iceland was a true banana republic with newly-rich boys at the control buttons. Everybody played along. There was little space for something else. The 2007 work was my critique or satire on the reality I encountered in my home country and was my graduation work. It was not very well received locally (apart from the grand size of the metal horse the rode that for a long time was kept in the beer garden of the now closed artist bar Sirkus), and the graduation projects that was thought to be the most successful that year was awarded a large grant from one of the banks. They had their fingers everywhere.
V: And references like that are tricky! They often take a life on their own. When you remove the money-cowboy from his initial place and introduce him in the rundown park, in my mind some highly ambiguous interpretations present themselves. Of course, the direct link is established between the crash in Iceland and the fall of communist GDR. But something else happens, too. A couple of distinct signifiers collide. Ever since Kennedy's 'Ich bin ein Berliner' speech in 1963, the Berlin Wall came to signify the Iron Curtain of the Cold War and the abstract concept of Freedom literally poured in concrete. In the minds of people living in America and capitalist Europe, the people in the GDR were living behind the wall. But then that wall was torn down in 1989, and since then, the global laissez-faire market was considered infallible. In the meantime, you have this park, Spreepark, That is run down and enclosed, and people are not allowed inside. It is almost as a reminder not only of the park itself, but a souvenir of how it is to have closed space in the city, as if the people in Berlin can´t let go of that past. From your exhibition one gets this sense of abandonment, as in a children´t playground from a horror movie, a dream that refuses to go away. It is very eerie. It is a place of zombies, of things that can´t die. And you bring this money-man of Iceland, whom so many desired during the financial boom, into this park. The result is ambiguous. Nobody desires him anymore. But he is still going strong. Don´t stop me now. A irrepressible drive, as if people can´t let go of him even now after the crash. People want to live in that dream. I wonder if this ambiguity was intended. Or did you have a more directly political message in mind?
H: That is a very interesting reading of the work. What is special about Berlin is that history is so strongly felt here. While the rest of Europe has gone clean, Berlin hasn´t covered its wounds; the bullet holes are still there in the walls and many of the buildings are still in ruins. The past hovers over an art scene that is otherwise very contemporary. Perhaps this breathing presence of a painful history facilitates the possibility for a thriving contemporary art scene. It is a place for contemplation, meeting and production but not necessarily for the market. My experience of former 'Easterners', not only Germans, is that many have nostalgia about the Communist era. They ad jobs and security and didn´t really feel the control breathing down their necks. As you say, there has been very little re-evaluation of history. The story is still about people rescued from life behind the Wall, bringing their economic problems with them in the time of hard adjustments to the Western model. There has never been any thought of looking at what could be of value in the culture that was created during those decades. I remember that as a young girl I thought of Eastern Europe as being greyscale. I couldn´t imagine nature or colours behind the Wall. Now I consider myself to have been brainwashed as a young child. I would never have imagined an amusement park behind the Wall, and neither would West Berliners. Of course they atmosphere of the work is very eerie. It has a playful surface with a serious undertone, like wanting to hide under a blanket. It is a very scary thought to be living in an illusion, to be played with by those who might benefit from it. The horror movie motif is a cliché and a very easy touchpoint to use with this material. I really tried to avoid it. We didn´t use the obvious sounds of fun rides or merry-go-rounds that are already too closely connected to horror films. Instead, there was a unique soundscape with some hints to computer game music. Those are still relatively free of fixed meaning.
Last year the 20t anniversary of the fall of the Wall was celebrated all over the world. This is a time of crisis. I agree with philosopher and historian John Gray when he says that we are experiencing a historical geopolitical shift in which the era of American global leadership is over. Today the crisis can perhaps be felt most strongly in Iceland and even Spain and Greece, but it obviously has a global impact. Somebody once said that given its small, unconventional but still demographically homogeneous population of 320.000, Iceland is perfect testing ground for trends and new products. It is so easy to get everybody on the wagon. This quality was used by those young investors. Iceland became a testing ground for hyper neo-liberal capitalism at its most extreme. Therefore the crash has been very hard. Of course, people that have lost their security and jobs want to believe that this is not permanent, that the boat will keep rocking with the next aluminium factory being built. And of course there is a whole generation born after 1980 that doesn´t know much else. But the important point, as John Gray has mentioned, is that with the nationalisation of crucial parts of the financial system, the American free-market model has destroyed itself. It is an entire model of government and economy that has collapsed similarly to the fall of the Soviet Union. We live in awkward times, just like the whole enterprise of the money-man in an abandoned theme park. He can´t let go of the game despite the world crumpling down around him. He finds himself being displaced. I think many people today feel this displacement.
V: Yes, and to come back to the eerie atmosphere that you mentioned, it is poignant how readily the horror motif comes to mind in a theme park, a cliché to such a degree that you had to disassemble our preconceptions with a different soundscape in order for us to see past it. Beware the self-evident, as Brecht would have us learn! Because there are some pertinent ideological reasons for these perceptions. First, as you mentioned, our sense of displacement. It is a tragedy of every human endeavour that our idealised world view changes much slower than the symbolic order. Our desired role models, or our ideal ego, if you like, are transfixed even as the socio-economic horizon under which they were born comes to an end. In the case of the money cowboy, the displacement between our ideal ego and the social criteria by which we judge ourselves is far more disconcerting than a simple case of thwarted expectations. In a usual case of personal angst we become depressed because we don´t live up to our dreams; however, in this case, it is desire itself – the mirror image – which is displaced because the social order has been reconfigured. It is desire without a place. This is perhaps the hidden kernel of so many horror movies and therefore springs to mind immediately. Old desires come and haunt us. So even if you avoid any cliché in substance, there is something in the very form itself that is nightmarish.
On the other hand, there are other familiar themes that come to mind. While you were conscious of the horror motif and worked around it, did you also take into account the post-apocalyptic theme with which our generation born under the horizon of laissez-faire capitalism seems to be obsessed? There is and has been for some time an infatuation with the 'beauty' of a post-industrial and dystopic future: the overgrown city after a nuclear attack, now reclaimed by nature, rusty and weathered iron structures, abandoned factories, etc. This anaesthetisation of rust and weed represents some kind of an endpoint to what was possible to imagine. Why do we – or did we – find this 'beautiful'? And were you conscious of these background tropes when you were working in Spreepark?
H: The first time I visited the park I snuck in by climbing the fence and hiding from the guards by ducking behind bushes when the guards came around. My veins were pumping with adrenaline, but I couldn´t stop myself. I was absolutely captivated by the beauty of this abandoned place. I felt like I was in a secret world far away from the hustle and bustle, like I had discovered some treasure. I also love abandoned factories, villages and fjords. My fascination with these aesthetics is certainly the reason why I started working on this project in the first place. It is a very good question to ask why we find this beautiful. Personally I have always been infatuated with imperfection of an object or a human being. I find it romantic, exciting and intriguing. I think the answer lies partly in my psychological condition and partly in my socio-economic background and life status. Many people do not have this infatuation with the imperfect or the overgrown and abandoned, but value places, objects or humans that are clearly under control: orderly, straight, clearcut and predictable. For me coming from a typical Icelandic middle-class background in the west side of Reykjavik, my firsthand experience of anything outside of clean cut was when I came hitchhiking to Berlin in the 90s. Before that I had never seen a building that was not in the perfect state as intended by its architect. It is very complex how one develops an aesthetic for the post-industrial state of being. Perhaps it is reactionary – the longing to return back to nature, to the disorderly, the non-middle-class. When I was a child I lived very much in my own imaginary world, and I made many drawings of the circus. Each character in the circus got his own spread, his own profile picture. Perhaps it was that circus show the national television broadcasted on Christmas every year that influenced me. Life was pretty simple back then. A lot of state control. I have a lot of nostalgia for the 70s.
V: And you are not alone. To paraphrase your statement from a little earlier, the personal is the gateway to the universal. Therefore it is interesting that Spreeepark which represented for you a secret garden of hidden delights, was a garden that had escaped the meticulous and clean cut pruning of suburban life as you experienced in your childhood. In the garden you found imperfections. The irony is that the Spreepark is a remnant of the even tighter controlled environment in the GDR! And now that you have opened up this garden for a character that used to be the idealised hero of a petty-bourgeoise society, would you even say that he could be considered as a romantic figure now that he has been displaced, a candidate for the imaginary circus? Does he represent a certain kind of relief, a sense of immortality? Or does his presence there, rather, represent something of the order Leonard Cohen sung about, quoting an old jewish proverb, 'In every wall there is a crack...'?
H: I guess the work is some kind of satire after all. I´m not the only Icelandic artist that uses irony as a tool. I don´t really feel romantic about my money-man. He is too silly to me to be a romantic figure. But my works are very open to interpretation, and I don´t want to fix one single reading of it. I´m sure someone else with a different relationship to that era will feel romantic and nostalgic. In a way, they were the first generation of Icelandic businessmen that appreciated and supported the visual arts in general. They even sneakily stole the nation´s collection of Old Icelandic Masters, as the politicians that were busy giving away the banks during privatisation couldn´t see the value in them (I hope). Visual artists in Iceland are traditionally considered something like beggars asking for charity, so I can understand that many welcomed the positive attention and support. As you say, I do not swear that I might not rethink my relationship and paint the money-man in a romantic light at a later date, but at this moment I find it very unlikely. All this said, Leonard Cohen as a young man is on the other hand someone I would gladly accept a date with in my secret life at any time. Like he says in that song, the dealers want us to think that it is either black or white, but as artists I fell it is important to resist and open up more colourful areas of discussion.
Tackling the Fourth Wall and the Fourth Dimension by Markús Thór Andrésson.
Upon entering Program´s exhibition space through the entrance on Invalidenstrasse you find yourself in what appears to be a narrow backstage area. There are the unfinished backsides of three provisional walls, one of which reveals the rear ends of a couple of television sets embedded into the walls. The television boxes and their wiring are visible, not their images. From above the scenic construction you hear the sounds of the exhibition you came to see, so you should be at the right place. However, the walls stand so close to one another that there is no apparent way around them. If you don´t look carefully, you will be one of the numerous visitors who return out to the street, puzzled by this austere enterprise. But with sufficient curiosity you will notice a black curtain through which you can enter between two of the walls and be rewarded with the full experience of Hulda Rós Guðnadóttir's exhibition, Hops Hopsi.
Different art forms have to a lesser or greater extent put into practice what the world of theatre has coined 'breaking the Fourth Wall', i.e., disrupting the invisible wall between the actors on stage and the viewers in the auditorium. Performance art in particular has throughout its history been preoccupied with this exploration. As the tactic goes, during a moment of uncertainty an alert audience is provided with a platform to actively engage in a work. Guðnadóttir's double entry is a cunning gesture that catches the visitor to her video installation off guard. He or she enters as an actor would, from a side wing onto a stage, thus becoming a participant – a performer even – in the exhibition. Drawing on the themes of staging and manipulated experience embedded in the work, the artist´s strategy furthermore responds to the particularities of Program´s project space and its ambition to 'challenge traditional, domesticated modes of architectural practice and representation'.
Expanding on the notion of the Fourth Wall, a similar breach has occurred in the separation between the real (the viewer) and the fictional (the actor). One of the most fertile grounds for experimentation and development in this field has been the documentary film form. Thought some might make a point of denying that there ever was any distinction between documentary and fiction, the general comprehension has been that the former is closer to reality, as it is brought into being outside the grip of scripted intention through interviews, found footage, the observing camera, etc. Rather than only changing the essential features of the medium at hand, the nature of audience´s reception is challenged. Conscious of the fact that the material which is being presented is influence and directed from the standpoint of someone other than the subject, the viewer is provided with elements to engage with the work differently.
In this way, Hulda Rós Guðnadóttir explores, the theatrical and the performative on one hand and documentary filmmaking on the other. Her academic background in anthropology motivates her position as artist-cum-director. Recent works include videos, installations and live action where she plays with ideas related to identity. She regards identity in a broad sense, studying it from a personal or social perspective as well as in terms of locations and situation. The 2008 documentary, The Cornershop, which Guðnadóttir co-directed with Helga Rakel Rafnsdóttir, considers the nature of the relationship between the owners of a grocery store and their customers. Questions about the connection between fact and fiction, presentation and participation, media and mediation are all intrinsic to her practice. In Hops Hopsi, she continues her investigation, now drawing on the identity of a particular place. A character from her previous work reappears, the invented caricature of the modern day business hero, a spawn of the free market. The ten-screen video installation is an attempt to deconstruct the abandoned Spreepark theme park in Berlin and create a new environment in the gallery. Build in the former GDR under the title Kulturpark Pläntewald, this once popular park encountered hard times after the reunification of Germany when it was outshined by more elaborate theme parks in the West. Still standing are the defunct rides and derelict constructions overwhelmed b wild vegetation – a remarkable situation of timelessness irresistible to curious passersby. The playful title of the project is borrowed from Spreepark´s history and pays tribute to two clowns that used to entertain there. For a long time after the park closed, the open-air stage of the children´s theatre stood intact with the names of the clowns painted on its marquee: Hops and Hopsi.
The artist´s commitment to the social implications of the work is plain to see. In a general sense you could say that the theme park is symbolic for genuine entertainment, a place for a social 'holding among', as in the Latin origin of the term. A deserted theme park, however, is symptomatic of how entertainment and spectacle have escaped their controlled frameworks and infiltrated the social realm, the urban environment and mass media. Entertainment is no longer a communal experience but an individual one, not contained but all-embracing. The amusement park also suggests a political metaphor, the strictly regulated and controlled environment based on facades and diversion. Guðnadóttir deliberately has her capitalist persona appear in a site emblematic for post war socialism; the failed objectives of both character and site are illustrated in her work. The compelling exposure to the work within the exhibition space is set against the backdrop of these social and political motifs. Here, the viewer is invited to discover a new place and a new paradigm.
The space on the other side of the wooden walls inside Program´s entrance, i.e. the stage, is activated to its utmost by way of Guðnadóttir's interventions. A single pillar in the centre of the room, a genuine part of the architecture, is used as an axis to support a huge red and yellow circus tent that is stretched to the surrounding walls. As the space is irregular, this fake ceiling is limpin in places, dropping down and hindering the walkway. The light reflecting from this structure gives the whole scene an orange shade, as does the light from the only visible window, because it has been covered with a composition of gummy bears suggestive of stained glass. The candy-pixelated image can also be seen from the street side of the window, showing the previously mentioned business hero posing with dinosaurs in the park. Videos are resourcefully projected onto the walls and displayed on monitors of different sizes. Stacks of colourful chairs here and there serve as plinths for TVs and projectors, and others are free to sit on. Particular attention has been paid to the cables of the screening equipment, wrapped in multicoloured tape to match the chairs. Spatially, the installation choreographs the viewer's experience, constantly diverting the visual focus points and never allowing for a complete overview. You have to move through and look all around to catch the fragments presented down by the floor, up under the ceiling around a corner or in a closed off room. The magic ingredient that binds all this together is the omnipresent sound-scape designed in collaboration with Magnús B. Skarphéðinsson. More than any physical or visual element in the space, the sustained and subltelaudio cacophony defines this textural matrix. Suspense in the air is maintained by an undetermined drone interrupted by stuttering and twitching sounds. It is as if breaking away from the linearity of time and entering a condition of stasis.
Following the sequence of the ten videos as they are installed from the entrance and onwards into the space, a recurring composition becomes clear. Each consists of a relatively short loop where a fixed camera reveals different locations in the deserted Spreepark. Sometimes you observe a short sequence of events, while other footage has been manipulated by editing. References to the history of the theme park appear in the videos, for example through the use of fruits. One of the rare pleasures of visiting the place in GDR times was that you could buy exotic fruits not available to the general public in stores. The first video, projected ons wall down by the floor, contains further allusion to the topic of groceries. In the high grass under a metal grid of one of the rides, some shopping bags from twenty years ago are juxtaposed with a bag from a contemporary supermarket. This sequence introduces the character that appears in many of the videos – a man dressed in a black suit with a huge smiling puppet head. He flickers on and off in the still frame, leaning against the metal grid. A double television display installed into one of the false walls shows the same guy at the red counter of disused bar. With a magic wand in his hand, he makes decorative tarts and drinks appear out of the blue to the sound of a delightful chime. On the twin monitors, the camera is pointed upwards, and above the bar through a glass ceiling the gigantic motionless Ferris wheel can be seen. The next video projected on the central pillar of the space shows a foot (in a cowboy boot) and hand (in a white glove) of someone crouching by a pond, and you can only guess that this is the same character again. He holds a spray bottle with which he spatters water on a couple of floating plastic ducks. In one of the corners of the space there is a large two-screen projection showing the tracks of a roller coaster half engulfed in lush vegetation. In one of the frames, the protagonist sits on the tracks leading into the open mouth of a haunted house ride, idly throwing bananas into it. The other shows a row of bananas appearing and disappearing on the tracks, accompanied by the lively sounds of something similar to a slot machine or a video game. The smallest monitor, placed on one of the stacks of chairs shows the large interior of a tent with a stage and auditorium There are rows of colourful chairs, the very same as in the space itself, and they seem to jump from one place to the next in sudden jerks. A repetitive clicking sound, not unlike a broken CD, reflects the shift of the chairs. Over the edges of a double corner in the gallery space, a distorted projection reveals train tracks on the ground. Watermelons come rolling from out of the frame along the tracks, followed by the ascending scales of plucked strings. The humming noise of what sounds like an organ comes from a video projected on a wall near the ceiling, and here the ever-smiling fellow is centred, sitting with a melon in front of him. He leans his arms over either side of the small wagon of a spinning teacup ride, the camera fixed on him as the environment blurs in the background. The final and most elaborate video is found behind a curtain in a separate room, an original part of the Program architecture. As if the small space were the control station of the whole installation, here the character can be seen working in the engine room of one of the rides. Abstract scenes from the theme park are edited in a disorderly manner together with the main footage, and the sounds come across as semi-musical gestures, offset in time. They echo throughout the whole space and merge with the audio loops from the other videos in a perpetual atmosphere of anticipation.
Time is the key medium of both performance and film, defining these art forms from two-and three-dimensional work. Yet Hulda Rós Guðnadóttir contests the fourth-dimension, playing with the pathology of the loop and the aesthetics of duration. This is reiterated in details, such as the image of the ferris wheel, the Sisyphean circulation of the pond water through the pump and the spinning funfair ride. Within the frame of a process, the end of mysteriously rolled into a hallway of the hotel in The Shining.
Within the frame of contemporary art, the project brings to mind several other associations, for example with the use of puppetry. Paul McCarthy notoriously lampooned the political situation of the year 2003 in his work Piccadilly Circus, where actors with giant puppet heads representing Bush, Bin Laden and the Queen went berserk in an abandoned bank. At one point the Bush character makes a deposit of tarts and cookies at a teller window, parallel to the banker´s magical catering in Spreepark's red bar. In Steve McQueen´s Giardini, contribution to the British pavilion at the 2009 Venice Biennial, the specific sense for time and place is comparable to Hops Hopsi. McQueen's two-channel film was shot in the exhibition gardens of the Biennial during the off-season when hardly anyone is present except for dogs and a few men seeking occasional encounters. This site, know to most only when bursting with the Biennial´s art and life, is rendered uncanny by the extended focus on the passive period of waiting. Similarly, Carsten Höller thwarted the familiar in Amusement Park (2006), examining the effects of spatial and temporal disorientation. He had several actual rides from a theme park installed in a museum setting and manipulated the mechanism of each so that they would turn and blink ever so slowly, the changes almost imperceivable.
By looking towards other productions in art and film, the basic elements woven into the fabric of Guðnadóttir's project manifest themselves. A further reading might be undertaken in light of the history and development in minimalist music, but hinting at it will suffice for now. Hops Hopsi reflects an interesting documentation of an odd place and a prolific research into ideological illusions. Both seem secondary, however, to the formalist concerns at stake. In light of the architecture of Program´s projects space, the piece is placed in a context that emphasizes the notion of structure, questioning the functioning of time through the problem of space. The careful installation work is an experiment in the art experience providing a compelling quandary for viewers. The audience plays a vital part as editor in a new narrative that evades the linearity of time. Detached from habitual perceptions of time and space your mind can take you in unimaginable directions. That and that alone is the work´s commitment to reality.