Maeve Mulrennan and Stine Marie Jacobsen in conversation

May 23, 2013

(This is the first in a series of articles from former Node residents. Maeve Mulrennan is currently curator at Galway Arts Centre, Ireland and was a resident of Node in summer 2012.)

When asked by Node Center for Curatorial Studies to write about working with an artist during my time on residency, I immediately thought of Stine Marie Jacobsen[1], precisely because I haven’t worked with her. Jacobsen took part in the exhibition Letters from the Field[2], but I worked with 3 other artists for this. Upon returning to Ireland, I began planning a residency and invited Stine to take part. However, this residency programme, ‘Public House’[3] is temporarily on hold due to the closure of the venue where it is usually held.

I first began not-working with Stine Jacobsen when I missed a talk she gave upon completion of her residency in Künstlerhaus Bethanien[4]. However as luck would have it, Stine became my German teacher. We began a promising relationship as teacher & student, and in this time, we also spoke about her work, common interests, books and other artists’ works.

MM: Stine, one of the books that we spoke about & both read last summer was Tom Carthy’s novel, Remainder.  Reading that book, where the protagonist reenacts everything from a fictitious memory to everyday events in his neighbourhood, sparked an interest in reenactment and repetition for me. What is it about reenactment and repetition that interests you, and what is it about it that urges you to use it in some of your work?

SMJ: Tom McCarthy – how could you as an Irish person forget the Mc:)? This is your teacher speaking. (The teacher leaves the room.) Yes brilliant book (and rumor is that Omar Fast will filmatize it). The main character reenacts memories of fragmented reality scenes that happened around a traumatic experience. The trauma, the accident itself, he does not remember and I guess we as readers are not meant to ever know what the trauma is concretely. This is what I like about it. To leave a space open for “projection” from the beholder. To never write into the core of an idea, because that means death of discourse and thought. I want to keep ideas in a constant flux and negotiation…and hopefully never kill your expectations.

Reenactment and repetition is linked to an idea of the body in crisis and ideas of a traumatized self. Whether this trauma is based on real experience or human condition. I most often reenact movies to look at gender or violence representations and structures of power mechanisms inherent in society or the cinematic apparatus itself. As an analogy to the real world or as Ranciére puts it: “And Cinema goes on: which also means that cinema continues to be a privileged form of representation of our world.” And reality and fiction intermix – the viewer (over-)identifies with film characters and vice versa film copies reality – reenactment is to me looking directly at this moment of intermixing or identification and what that means to us as beholders.

Repetition is deconstructing the mental transmission happening when we embody images. With repetition or robotisation, the body is reduced to a virtual image, to a moving image, to 25 frames per second, where time dissects the flesh and one can see it as the vessel of content and potential it is, opening up or closing the reading of the body as sign. Ironically when you edit film, you can follow the blinking of your eyes to cut the film. So it is a very interrelated affair.

I think repetition is an existential human trait, think of our everyday breathing repetition. Like that moment, where you wake up in the night and your body for some weird reason forgot to breathe and you wake up gasping for air? You were maybe subconsciously trying to kill yourself, who knows. What a trauma that is or let’s say, if breathing is life then a sneeze is a revolution. I have allergies, so I am often at war…with my own thoughts. But then again I don’t want to reveal everything, or be absolute, so I work just as much with the absence of the image and leave it to the viewer to think the rest. Maybe I should remove every 8th word in this answer?

MM: I like the idea of the maker / actor of repetition attempting to reconcile something, or do penance – I am from a Catholic country after all! It goes against the idea that if you keep doing the same thing, you’ll get the same results. At the moment I’m obsessed with a film called ‘The Beaver Trilogy’ by Trent Harris (2000)[5]. Have you seen this?

The filmmaker reenacts an event from 1979, once in 1981 and again in 1985. You can see that he is trying to do penance and put things right for taking advantage of an amateur performer & Olivia Newton John impersonator, ‘Groovin’ Gary’. Gary has a change of heart and does not want Harris to screen the footage he took of him, as he is afraid that ‘people will get the wrong idea’ of him singing badly while dressed in full on, and very bad, drag. Harris goes ahead. Two, and then six years later, Harris remakes the film. In the first reenactment, it has a happy ending, with Gary being asked to perform again. In the second, Harris is portrayed as a mean, manipulative character. I’m obsessed with Harris’ guilt and penance. Does the idea of penance or atonement through reenactment interest you?

SMJ: Yes I know the film, though I think I’ve only seen part of it. I think someone made me aware of it while I was filming with my American neighbor Kirk Douglas Sample pretending to kill me from the back seat of my car while I was driving. I got an (verbal) academic warning from one faculty member at CalArts for doing this video. Aw. The person felt I was acting morally incorrect and that Kirk did not know what he was doing. But he did and does! This presumption that people are ignorant, I think is a very dangerous and arrogant attitude. Penance and atonement are definitely a big interest of mine and it points in two directions, inwards and outwards. What can you do in the name of art? Coming from a protestant Scandinavian culture, I grew up with Christian ethics and norms, which very unconsciously in the beginning drew me in the direction of rituals, resurrection, trust and manipulation.

I am currently preparing to discuss catharsis in art with the writer Maggie Nelson who wrote a book on the same topic that we are discussing now, called The Art of Cruelty. Catharsis is linked to the terms penance and atonement. I definitely think that art can offer a platform for catharsis for the participant and/or the beholder(s). It is a built in potential in the structure of art. What is your thought about catharsis (Penance and atonement) in art? I am curious to know.

Did I just do a comparison between God and Art? I just heard a voice say in the name of the father, the son and the holy spirit when I wrote: “What can you do in the name of art?” It could read like that. I need to explain that. What I meant is that there are ways to open doors in peoples’ hearts and minds with art, because they trust you, the artist, in another way, because you represent something philosophical or abstract, that they are somehow drawn to and most people I meet, actually have a deep respect for this. Also they know that there (hopefully) is no big bad conglomerate monster behind you. It is a 1:1 relation that I cherish and protect. I would not know what to do if there was no longer in people a participatory willingness to share themselves (with me and with us.).

MM: From a curatorial point of view, catharsis can be a contentious area. I come across a lot of artists who see their role as precisely the one that you defined as NOT being: they see the role of the artist nearly like a God, swooping in to the life of a person or group of people, and ‘healing’ them through art. Often the participants felt used and the art was awful. Maybe this is where the Professor in CalArts comes in – maybe they are guilty of doing this in the past! From an Irish perspective, catharsis in relation to art is prevalent in Modern & Post-Modern work: from artists such as Micheal Farrell & Patrick Ireland occupying the role of artist / activist to contemporary artists such as Dominic Thorpe who, through performance, has worked with our history of institutional abuse.

To go back to your thoughts on the equal position of the artist in relation to the participant, this addresses the power play between artist & non-artist – no one can be taken advantage of as the relationship is honest and both parties are aware of what can happen. I think the media has a different relationship with people – it is not equal and can take advantage of peoples’ ignorance. You see this in TV shows like Jerry Springer, Jeremy Kyle – is there a German equivalent? People are aware that they are being taken advantage of for entertainment, but are seemingly happy to accept this. What about the viewer – does this endless reel of guilt, blame, denial and revelation help the viewer with their own atonement?

SMJ: There are so many Jerry Springer equivalents in Germany…People think that if they “don’t publish they perish”, meaning that it is not enough to live or have lived. The subject is a project, you are nothing if you don’t have a project or if your subject is a product and if you do not have the possibility of fame, then reality show is the only way to immortalize/victimize yourself. The human condition is suffering and we have an urge and a history for sharing our pain in public. A victim culture. I do think the possibility to achieve catharsis in art exists. But when the expectations are too high or juxtaposed…that’s when you can read in the news, “I was manipulated by this and that reality show.” I once watched a clip from the British “Big Brother Show”, where one of the participants was hiding behind a plant. The plant was on wheels and he would literally wheel in front of him all the time so you could not see him. I thought that was hilarious. When do we ever hear of participants in an art project revolting or acting critically, that’s rare and to me very interesting. Being “beaten” by the non-artist mind-wise …or literally. A big corporation would never risk losing that control. The worker is free as long as they think of work constantly and as long as people are violent against themselves. “Bürgerkrieg der Sprache mit sich selbst” to finally bring in a German sentence – a quote that has been hanging on my wall for more than a year now. Could you translate the sentence for me Maeve?

MM: I’ll be honest I had to think about the word “Bürgerkrieg”; I had an image of town councillors hitting each other. “Language is a civil war with the self”???? I think there is a blur between a person’s life and their ‘story’ – I don’t think they are the same thing.  Apparently there is a novel in everyone. I’m not sure if it is wise to tell that story though – if you are looking for catharsis or atonement through the telling or retelling of a story, you might just be hurting or eroding the self.  To quote Woody Allen from an interview in Der Spiegel, is “Political questions, if you go back thousands of years, are ephemeral, not important. History is the same thing over and over again”. We never learn. Apparently the Vikings took all the good looking Irish people with them to Iceland. We should invite them back and see if they can give us some catharsis. Or I can invite you to Ireland and you can do a project where the Vikings apologise to Irish people through making art together, or by giving Irish people make-overs to atone for taking all the good looking people away.

SMJ: Ha ha ha brilliant, that’s a deal! Funny that you should mention the Vikings, just less than two days ago I talked to a Turkish taxi driver about me coming from Denmark and he told me that it was not my fault that the Vikings were so violent and evil. Phew, thank God that (a lot of) time heals wounds. Damn we have to work on your Genitive case when we meet again:) Language is feminine in German, “die” and here it became “der”, so it can only either be Genitive case or Dative case. The words are more like a title, it says: The civil war of language with oneself…

Images copyright Stine Marie Jacobsen

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