[This text was originally published in Fillip 19.]
In 2008, shortly after discovering her work, I wrote a text about Lene Berg for C Magazine entitled “Glad the CIA Is Immoral,” focusing on her project Gentlemen & Arseholes (2007) and how it spoke directly to so many of my ongoing concerns about art, how art may or may not become political. The text ended by going a bit over-the-top, with a last line that read: “Lene Berg is the artist I have been waiting for all of my life.”
In 2011, Lene and I collaborated on the project Big Brother Where Art Thou?, a work that took place entirely on Facebook and mixed reflections on George Orwell and his work with research into how the state security apparatus uses social media to monitor the lives of those who use it. Each day for one week we sat at our respective computers—Lene in Berlin, me in Montreal—and talked on Skype as we posted material on these themes in response to each other’s posts. The Brother Where Art Thou? Facebook page still exists, an archive of a moment in time before the recent NSA scandal broke, a period in which the possibility that governments might use Facebook to infiltrate the lives of its users still seemed more like vague Orwellian rumours than reality.
It is worth noting that Lene Berg often takes a historical footnote as the source material for her projects and employs her ensuing research to reveal paradoxes and gaps in how we see history and its relation to current predicaments, for example: how an anti-communist discourse promoting modernist artistic freedom laid the groundwork for our current, considerably less free cultural field. Her work suggests that consensus views of politics, history, sexuality, etc., are often misleading, that they reveal considerably more in what they exclude, in how they leave things out, than they are able to tell us about the machinations of the world or what happened in the past.
Our conversation took place over email.
Jacob Wren: When I first discovered your work what struck me most was how concretely you addressed the relation between art and politics. I was wondering, since you address it quite often, if you have some general thoughts about how art and politics relate? And if your feelings around these questions changed at all in and around the Stalin by Picasso (2008) scandals, when your project examining a single 1953 drawing that Picasso made of Stalin – a project that consisted of a video, a series of drawings and three public banners – had the banners unexpectedly removed, I believe we can say censored, by the presenting institutions in both Oslo and in New York.
Lene Berg: There is no clear line between art and politics. But the relationship between the two is not static and it is not always easy to spot or to define. It is full of contradictions. It changes. It can also be very specific for certain situations, individuals, or institutions.
One of my starting points for the project Gentlemen & Arseholes was the feeling that I lived in a free world, but that, at the same time, there were very strict and definite limits to that freedom. The problem was, and is, that these limits are often so ingrained that they are not perceived as limits, but rather they are regarded as laws of nature. In the beginning of the project I was stunned by how manipulatively art and philosophy were used during the Cold War by the CIA and its allies. At the same time this confirmed that there is power in these fields. The beauty is that artistic power is different from political power, even if at certain times they can collide. Artistic power is about spreading ideas, and no one controls the impact of a film, a text, or an image completely—even when one funds them.
What happened with Stalin by Picasso confirmed just how contentious, in this sense how powerful, art can be, in many ways and on many levels, but the force of the reactions against it was much stronger than I could ever have imagined. The visual illiteracy of some of the criticism shocked me. Since then, I more and more have the feeling that we in the so-called West, or in the former West, live in a quite restricted and narrow cultural environment. What is discussed within an art context, in terms of what an image represents, for instance, has not reached a broader public and therefore has very little bearing outside of the art scene (for lack of a better word). Images printed in a newspaper or art shown in a public space are still to a high degree read as propaganda or illustrations. The public and the press can in general not deal with complexities or ambiguities. This is a democratic problem as it promotes stupidity, ignorance, and manipulation.
I find the definition of “political art” problematic. As I see it artworks that address political issues are not necessarily more political than other works, they often just look critical or political, like a style or a genre. A lot of left-wing art, for example, is merely reproducing ideas that are accepted and acclaimed in the social circles of the artists and curators distributing them. As they mainly illustrate established points of view the potential impact is minimal. I do not wish to illustrate my opinion in my work—on the contrary, I try to challenge and question my views. At the same time, there is of course a relationship between how I think and what I produce. There are no clear lines. And one has to remember that art and politics are on one level only words, two abstract categories that do not necessarily describe reality very accurately.
JW: There was the incredible irony that when Pablo Picasso first made the drawing of Joseph Stalin, it upset people because it was seen as tarnishing the image or memory of Stalin, but when you showed the exact same drawing in Oslo and New York people were upset because it was seen to praise him. These are both highly charged reactions. I wonder if a strong, immediate emotional reaction to an image might short circuit a more nuanced reading. If some of the same people who denounced your work might also be able to read images in a more complex way in other circumstances. Your work often heads directly for societal sore spots: political control of art, sex work, etc. You want to be in precarious territory, but once there you provide such a complex, nuanced perspective. How do you see this dynamic between emotionally charged material and a more critical view?
LB: As a matter of fact, I did not at all foresee that Stalin by Picasso would evoke such strong feelings, which in hindsight might seem naive. I thought some people would be provoked or annoyed by the fact that Picasso had made a portrait of Stalin and that this possibly would lead to discussions around art, independence, post-WWII battles, and maybe even about the myth of the lonely genius. But it turned out that Stalin was the problem, more than Picasso. And it was in fact not so much the image of Stalin that was a problem, even if that also created some of the anger, but his role in Western history. No one wanted that history back on the table. In other words I hit a sore spot, but not exactly the one I had aimed for.
But yes, I think you are right, very charged reactions are often a product of immediate emotional responses based on second-hand information. And one has of course very limited control over the reception of one’s own work, if at all. The interpretation is more often than not dependent on one or more middlemen or middlewomen—distributors, curators, critics, etc. When the general press/media is involved there is no way to control the presentation or the discussion. After all, news journalists tend to seek controversy, not meaning or content. The media-driven nature of the discussion somehow takes on a life of its own.
For instance, a stranger attacked me quite violently at a party once during the controversy around Stalin by Picasso. He accused me of being an egotistical artist trying to deliberately smear the labour party and hurt people to get PR for myself. He had only seen a photoshopped image in the paper and read the statement from the party secretary who took down the banners. Some time afterward he apologized through a common friend as he had realized that the project was much more and quite different from the impression he had gotten from the media.
So even if I am not afraid of controversy, and even like to deal with topics that potentially are controversial, I don’t really believe in simple provocation. It often has the consequence that people close themselves off and then nothing new can enter.
JW: It’s a striking moment, this hitting “a sore spot, but not exactly the one you had aimed for.” There’s always something electric when we hit the wrong targets, when the meaning of a given work gets away from the artist. Also something distressing.
Your film Kopfkino (2012) features eight women who work as dominatrix’s telling stories about their work, seated along a table reminiscent of the Last Super (perhaps also a twist on Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party.) This is territory that could definitely offend a certain kind of person, maybe not someone in the art world, but certainly someone in the American religious right. In Kopfkino, I suspect the relation between art and politics is different than some of the other projects we’ve been discussing; that is, that it has more to do with giving these women an opportunity to speak. Was there anything the women in the film said that surprised you, or that was unexpected? From your perspective, what does it mean to have these women speaking for themselves about their work?
LB: The starting point for Kopfkino was actually questions more about storytelling and fiction than questions about sex workers or S&M. I got the idea after a dinner with one of the ladies where she told me about her work as a dominatrix. I was always interested in the function of stories, and how the structure of a story shapes the content and vice versa. Apart from being entertaining, stories are of course vehicles to spread ideas, knowledge, experience, and morality, as well as myths, lies, and propaganda. The stories Dunja Eckert-Jakobi told me that night were very concrete and very personal. Without having to force it, they automatically opened to so many charged and central themes, such as hierarchy, money, gender, social roles, and of course sex. I was also fascinated by the way she told her stories, how she described her clients and the situations, and how she built the narratives.
There is a lot of humour in the film, but some of the things the women talk about are so intricate and complex that most people have a hard time figuring them out. Such as the discussion about a pedophile client: Should one help him live out his fantasies in order to protect kids from him or will the staging of his fantasies actually make it easier for him to realize them afterward? This discussion is relevant for movie making as well as other artistic expressions. For instance, when you picture violent events, abuse, or discrimination, are you presenting a cathartic experience or are you in fact inspiring people to do the same, giving them visual examples of how it could be done as well as a structure, a story, that makes sense of such actions?
One of the themes in Kopfkino is the floating division between fiction and reality. Even if we believe we can separate the two, fiction and reality are intertwined in many ways and forms. One might say that fiction is reality as long as we believe in it. And as a culture Westerners live with a hard-to-handle cocktail: a fundamentally Christian morality on the one hand and on the other hand a capitalist ideology, which sooner or later accepts almost everything that is commercially successful even if it is morally suspect. Except maybe for prostitution, which is still illegal in most of the Western world. This fact was of course also important in the idea for Kopfkino and how to stage it. From the start I knew I wanted it to be about fiction; not fiction as the opposite of truth—on the contrary, fiction as a way of revealing something true, or perhaps rather something real. I wanted the women to speak as subjects and not as victims. I wanted to avoid stigmatization and pity. In a sense I wanted to normalize something that is regarded as bizarre and perverse. These women sell their time and their bodies, but most people do that in one way or another and I have a much bigger problem with intellectual prostitution than with what they do. Since they are dealing with things that sometimes are dangerous, sometimes disgusting, and often extremely demanding, they are forced to reflect upon their own responsibility and limits, including the role of money in their work. Does the fact that they are being paid mean that they have to deny their own pleasure? Is “a professional” not supposed to be fully present, just giving his or her services without using his or her own personality, judgment, or desire? Such questions are of course relevant far beyond the world of S&M.
JW: How do you think Kopfkino relates to feminism? In one sense, the women are empowered, have a lot of control over their lives and, within the film itself, on how their stories are told. But in another sense they are still employed by men. Do you think Kopfkino relates to feminism at all or is that a misleading way to watch the film?
LB: Even if I never try to illustrate my opinion or a specific theory in my work, I think Kopfkino fundamentally is a feminist film. But I have also met people who find it anti-feminist. It depends on how one defines feminism I suppose. And it is a tricky film to place within any category really. Some of the role-playing games described are very archaic and old-fashioned. Almost scarily so. You have to wonder how these often medieval hierarchies have survived through centuries, in the shape of sexual fantasies and desires. At the same time, the variety of female personalities, in spite of the clichés they are dressed up as, is impossible to overlook and adds other and unexpected dimensions to the picture.
I find it interesting that Kopfkino can be read in many different contexts and using different theories. The women’s stories are very rich and full of questions that are relevant to various discussions – about gender, sex, labour, power, and alienation, to mention a few. Then there is another level, which is about how they tell their stories and comment on each other’s experiences. And on another level there are questions about authenticity, staging, and reality, which lie in the way the film is shot and edited.
I personally find the mix of reality and fantasy in the stories themselves very intriguing. Since desire is one of the things one cannot fake, there is some sort of truth, or reality, to the role-playing games these women stage. There is also the aspect of shifting roles: that one individual has several possibilities to express herself or himself, including sexually. But one needs a stage, a setting to be able to go outside of one’s social role. S&M is one such scene. I also see several parallels between their profession and filmmaking. There is a certain degree of illusion and a lot of timing involved. These are hard to define skills, but they are central to human communication, to storytelling, and to acting.
What does it mean to play a role for money? Is it empowering to handle other people’s sexual desires or enslaving? I honestly don’t know, but I do not perceive these women as particularly oppressed. Some of them seem to be in possession of knowledge about their own sexuality and about sexual desire in general that I have seldom encountered in such a frank and non-idealized way. At the same time, I do think their work can be boring, degrading, and exhausting both for the mind and the body. Most of them also have other jobs or they study.
JW: I feel your work doesn’t play a game I often see in visual art: the artist keeping all the cards close to his or her chest, creating works that are unreadable without a certain amount of background information, often to be found in the catalogue or brochure. In your work, I often don’t need any other information apart from what I experience in the work itself. Do you agree with this assessment? How do you see this aspect of your practice? (Perhaps it also makes your work more difficult to write about because so much of what needs to be said has already been conveyed.) Might this directness also have something to do with your background in film?
LB: It is true that I like my works to be sort of self-contained, so that they can be seen without knowing the background discussion or my references. I try to avoid talking in codes or mystifying things, but my projects are often composed by contradictions and paradoxes, which may also make them hard to write about. When I start to work on an idea I often focus on the surface, what it will look and feel like. As the project develops this may change, but I like there to be a certain dynamic between the surface and the content, so that as one goes into the work ones perception of the surface will be altered and sometimes even completely changed in the process.
It is very likely that my background in film has shaped my way of working. Movies are in general expected to communicate immediately with everyone. This need tends to turn any content into the same kind of story or message, which is something I am trying to avoid at almost any cost. My method is probably most of all a result of the years I worked with the film company Hinden in Stockholm. We were a handful people working together on very different kinds of projects, from advertising to feature films, short films, art projects, etc. Sometimes I was directing, often not. Parallel to the practical work, which at times was quite hard and demanding, we discussed a lot of theoretical issues in relationship to what we were doing and producing. Without this mix of physical and practical work and the continuous discussions around it, I probably would have been a different person and artist.
JW: I’m still thinking about something you said earlier, about how we live “in a free world, but that, at the same time, there are very strict and definite limits to that freedom.” And how, over the past ten or so years, maybe since 9/11, my feelings around our apparent (Western) freedom have changed so much. How more and more it seems we’re no longer free to gather and protest, or how our confidence that we have privacy—for example, online or in an email—has lessened. And that the celebration of (illusory) Western freedom might have had more to do with the Cold War—with convincing the world that “democracy” was better than “communism”—than it did with any actual desire for, for example, free speech. (But then I think about McCarthyism, how little room for dissent there was during that period, and wonder if my sense of history is simply off.) Has your thinking around different kinds of freedom changed at all over the last ten or fifteen years? Do you think there’s been a significant recent shift?
LB: I had this feeling long before 9/11, but since then it has become more evident and tangible. Living off and on in New York has made it clear to me that a corporate worldview is more and more dominating. While politicians speak of pluralism and freedom, the preferred lifestyle is quite narrow and has very little tolerance for difference. Actually it is less tolerant or open now than in the 80’s when I was a teenager, which is quite surprising to me.
Sadly, what is going on now is not so different from the era of McCarthyism or pre-WWII: the law is used to suppress difference of opinion and to defend people of privilege. I suppose 9/11 made it easier to change the laws in this direction. The law is the key to rule the world, at least if you have the police and the courts to back it up, and the big corporations are better protected by the law than the individual at this point.
The West has so many blind spots in terms of what freedom actually means, or can mean, and very little consciousness about the actual conditions for freedom, or for democracy or pluralism for that matter. It seems to me that a lot of the challenges that were present at the beginning and middle of the last century are still with us. More and more often I experience how racist, sexist and nationalistic views are used as part of a social struggle as less privileged groups and individuals turn to white-supremacy, infantile nationalism or anti-gay ideas to oppose the liberal bourgeoisie, to use an old fashioned term.
JW: I now think my last question was too naive. (Though, at the same time, I’m always searching for ways to produce productive naiveté.) Something may have shifted with 9/11, but the history of Western unfreedom is such a long one. I’ve read a great deal of history, but often think not exactly that I don’t know history well enough (of course I don’t), but that I don’t feel history enough. And I did clearly feel the restrictions directly following 9/11, perhaps suggesting it’s not such an important even in generalized Western unfreedom, but was an important event within my own personal sense of it. (Much like Vietnam was a significant event for a previous generation.) With earlier works like The Weimar Conspiracy (2007) and The Drowned One (2008) you question how things enter history and what we actually know about them (versus what we think we know). Do you know how your interest in the paradoxes of writing and experiencing history first began? Can history be more or less objective? More recent projects seem to have moved away from the topic.
LB: This may sound strange, but for me history was never really my topic. I happened to discover some historical events that presented the possibility to deal with things that preoccupied me. As history is used to motivate present actions and ideas, turning and tossing historic events is a way to question the present perception and representation of things. Even if only indirectly.
I am interested in storytelling and the relationship between stories and the realities they depict. History is in a way our common story; it is used to shed light on the present. There are of course many ways to construct and tell stories, and depending on how they are told they will mean very different things and sometimes have very different consequences. That also goes for history.
Also, for some years I had problems funding my work, and I discovered that I could use found footage, archival material, collages, etc., to produce quite complex things for very little cash. It gave me a certain freedom for a while, and I will probably do projects like that again, but I needed to move on. Or actually: to move back to where I came from. I like teamwork, working with actors, sets, etc. That is what I started out doing and it has been a great pleasure to be able to return to that.
Even if my projects look different and seem to deal with very different topics, some themes run through them all. I don’t try to pin these themes down though—they are simply part of my thinking and doing however I work, for good and for bad. I like every project to have its own challenges, even its own style and expression. For me an idea for a new project is more about knowing how to work on it and how to define the elements out of which the final project will be constructed than knowing exactly what it will look like in the end.
JW: The kinds of contradictions and paradoxes in your work usually aren’t formal aspects of the work itself, aren’t contradictions you create. More often they are contradictions and paradoxes you discover in the world and then focus our attention on. In this sense your work needs to be as clear as possible in order to present the full complexity of nuance and questioning that real-life paradoxes generate. How do you see the dynamic in your work between clarity and paradox? Do you know why you’re attracted to these kinds of narratives?
LB: I seek clarity as much as possible, that is true. But I distrust one liners and beloved simplifications, or clichés, if you like. There are many mysteries in human relations and conditions, and things that are made up of contradictions and paradoxes seem real to me. Also they protect me from confirming the obvious and from reproducing automatic thinking.
The following may sound a bit pretentious but I believe the human mind is incapable of grasping the truth as it is. Not only because the truth is often cruel, but because our minds are not conditioned for it. I do believe there are facts that are beyond fiction, but they are very few and to understand them we need a system, a fiction, if you like. I believe fiction, in a broad sense of the word, is a human way of making sense. Fiction is not necessarily about lies, but neither is it about truth in an absolute sense. The question is not so much whether something is fiction or fact, but what kind of fiction it is and with what purpose it is being told, reproduced and repeated. I am interested not in disclosing another fact that can be added to the general story but in presenting my material in a form that adds something and possibly also questions a dominating fiction. Such as the macho myth around Picasso or the notion that there is no ideology in the present liberal democracies, just to mention two very general examples.
That said, I have to add that language is not of great help when I try to pin down these ideas. The words and notions used to define things like fact and fiction easily create some sort of mental labyrinth when you start to challenge them. Sometimes I enjoy being in such labyrinths, at least for a while. With a bit of experience I have learned how to get out of them, otherwise I would have gone mad a long time ago.
JW: Language can certainly complicate or obscure as easily as clarify. Tools for communication can easily flip over into defense mechanisms. But, for me, there are so many aspects of your projects that cut through art, that speak so clearly and directly to the world. Would you like this work to be less marginal?
LB: I think some of my projects relate to very small circles, such as Gentlemen & Arseholes and Dirty Young Loose (2013) whereas others, like Stalin by Picasso or Kopfkino, are projects with a much broader potential. I do not think that it is important that everything reaches everyone, but I do think the current distribution systems are limited by old-fashioned categories: a lot of things can’t reach an audience because they don’t fit established genres or boxes. At the same time, such distribution barriers are only logical in a culture built on consumption. Poetry, art, and critical thinking are luxury goods in a way. I have no problem understanding that for a lot of people these things are, or seem to be, completely irrelevant to the lives they lead.
It may be a bit far fetched, but somehow it is relevant: I saw an interview with the musician Blixa Bargeld recently. When asked why he had always been rebellious and challenging, he said he was genetically so disposed. I found that very funny. Nowadays it seems like everything is explained by genes, but you very rarely hear our genetic material used to explain eccentricities, opposition or originality. And he could be right, maybe the desire to oppose and to question is part of some human beings’ genetic material just like illnesses and hair colour? But even if this is the case, we are still part of a collective where we take on or are given different roles in relationship to others. In an individualistic culture like ours this aspect is often overlooked.
To make something public is always a suggestion for the general agenda as I see it. But if only a few are interested in what I believe is important, it is in a way not my problem. There are much more powerful economic and political interests that choose what is to be central or dominant. The fact is I never felt very in sync with my time or with my generation. It used to bother me, but it doesn’t anymore.
You can find excerpts from some of Lene Berg’s films here: