Lecture at Kunsthalle Exnergasse
The Centre of Attention (Pierre Coinde and Gary O’Dwyer) made a pirate copy of all the video works in the Reality Manifestos exhibition, and sold the resulting dvd as their own feature-length work (Copywrong) at the opening. Following is the transcript of their speech at the later theoretical symposium accompanying the exhibition.
Pierre Coinde: This is Gary O’Dwyer. I’m Pierre Coinde.
And we are criminals.
We abused the trust of Dimitrina for financial gain.
We also made friends with the artists, and then we’ve been stealing their work.
We have been hijacking an exhibition to make a feature film.
We are thieves.
We are pleading guilty…
We’re not really feeling sorry for it... It is quite appropriate that the room here looks like a tribunal…
What I wanted to do today, was to try and understand our criminal behaviour, and see perhaps, what has made us go from respectable artists like many of you, to petty criminals and a life of crime, abuse and exploitation.
And I think it started in 2006, when we were invited to present a work at Kunsthaus Graz, by the curator Adam Budak. We said to Adam, well, we’re not going to tell you what our work is going to be. And I think already you can see that there was some dishonesty here, from us. So, we wouldn’t tell him. Our work was simply to put a ticket desk at the entrance of the Kunsthaus. And then we charged people who wanted to get out of the museum. So, if they didn’t pay us, if they didn’t buy a ticket, they couldn’t get out of the museum.
We said to them that the outside was our installation, called Prosumer, which had taken us a lot of work to do, and therefore, you know, it was well worth it, and they could pay us two Euros a ticket, or not be allowed outside and become a prisoner of the museum. So they had many reasons to buy our tickets and to see our installation… Which goes to say that perhaps, this was like a dérive. You know, going into town, and actually, we thought, a dérive in the contemporary world, is only going to work if you pay for it.
Because if you’ve paid to get out, then you want your money’s worth. So, you’ll be actually looking at things differently than if I just say to you, go outside and have a look at the world… Having this commercial relation to the work, and with the authority given by its price, would create immediate value for the visitor.
Well, that worked, people paid up.
And the financial profit for us made it easy for us to try and take things further for our benefit.
A few months later, when I heard that Caroline Bourgeois and Elisabeth Lebovici were doing a show at Le Plateau in Paris, which was about L’argent / money -and in the show, if you’ve seen it, there was a lot of visual representation of money, symbols, a lot of mapping, artists love mapping- I said to Elisabeth, what we’re going to do, we want to be in this show, because it’s a good show, it’s a good institution, it would be great for our career, our prices will increase, we will have a better profile, so we’re going to pay Le Plateau. We pay Le Plateau, and you just include us, The Centre of Attention, as an artist in the exhibition. We don’t want to show any physical work. That’s, you know, that’s too much work. So we just want our name to be in the press release, on the poster, in all the publicity, and that’s our work. That’s enough. It doesn’t matter too much whether the public has something to watch, to see, or not, as long as our name is in the exhibition…
I wasn’t surprised when she said yes. It cost us money. But that’s money we make back with, you know, we get more shows from shows...
So, with these two key works, I think, that’s probably when we started to be on a slippery slope, explaining how we have ended up today as criminals.
We didn’t have the resources that you have in an art centre, both in terms of budget, in terms of space, publicity and all this, and so another approach we’ve started to take has been to exploit all available assets; and, what felt to us very under-utilised as a capital, was the public. In art centres, galleries, museums, people were there. We thought it could be quite interesting to use this as a free workforce. Free labour for us to create work.
Because we are artists, we need to create work, and we thought the best is to use real people - they’re free, they’re authentic, and they are available. The exhibition becomes a place where we actually create work because our tools and our material, the people, are there.
We started by making a film, which is called Action Diana. It’s a feature film. A feature film which would be a remake of a 1960s film. So what we would do is, in various galleries and institutions, put something that looks like an installation, add some other artists’ work on the wall, perhaps maybe a bed if we have interior scenes to do, maybe we’ll use something else for the bed. So we created this exhibition as decor. So there’s always something to look at. But at the same time, if you had, say, five or six visitors, we had also prepared on cards the dialogues that these people would perform.
We had them in our hands.
Our aim was to shoot every scene of the film from the same angle as the original film, not using the original images, not using the original sound, but using the visitors to create these scenes. We were interested in keeping the narrative of the dialogues, but at the same time for instance the lead actress in the original film would be played throughout the film by hundreds of different women, sometimes even men, scene after scene. And visually it would then become very difficult for the spectator to make sense of what the story is, because a sequence might begin filmed in Berlin with certain people. The end would have been done in Glasgow, Bute or in Soho with others.
So we did this, and then reality caught up with us. And Canal Plus contacted us to say, it’s all very nice, but actually, can you stop making that film, because we own the rights to that film. We pleaded, can we do a bit more, and this and that, and they said no. And then we showed the film in Liverpool and Manchester, to which they said, yes, but that’s the last time.
Pose Plastique is another work which exploits visitors to art exhibitions -here on the slides showing it was at Manifesta in Murcia-. We arrive somewhere, we cut out news images from that week, and we’re just trying to make these people impersonate someone that they are not. Here is an image of immigrants who tried to smuggle in illegally through Cartagena but really, they are just art people who took the trouble of showing up to see the Manifesta. This is a series of photographs that we’re continuing to do every time we are showing somewhere. Whatever is on the news at that time is just what we do, that’s what we use. We use the most random material on the news. And we use the people that are on location, and then we’ve got a photograph. We don’t pay any of the participants. But the artwork is for sale for a lot of money.
Now you realise fully that we are in a very bad moral state. And that’s why I think when we came to this exhibition in Vienna, our first thought was to, again, abuse people, the art institution that invites us, the artists, and we feel we have been letting people down indeed.
I think, partly, a certain confusion that has built up with us over the years.
Or perhaps it’s a dissatisfaction with things that we were seeing and that we cannot quite understand.
For example, a lot of the work we have been seeing has been very sort of 'progressive' in ideas, but most of the time this would be packaged in a very formally conservative way. That is, in terms of its product, it is not questioning the medium at all in which it is being presented. Also further down the sort of production line, in a sort of übercapitalistic way, its distribution, and specifically I suppose for video art, where, you know, video is supposed to be accessible -its specificity is reproduction-, but video art, there aren’t many copies of it and you have to go somewhere specific –and time-limited- to actually view it. And many people will not see it. So video art works are often not about being seen. Just about being seen by the right people.
So that confused us.
That sort of mixed values… and also perhaps the way that, you know, artists or institutions, some of them talking a lot about 'resistance', and sort of opposition to the mainstream, but at the same time they are completely state sponsored. So, that gets us very confused. We’re thinking: can we trust these people? Are they being instrumentalised? Or are we being instrumentalised?
So I think this is partly ... our excuse, in, you know, doing art that is not necessarily ethical, in the confusing messages we ourselves receive from the art world. I know it’s probably a weak excuse, but I’m just trying to explain why we behave the way we do.
So, this brings me to COPYWRONG the video, it’s a feature film that we made this week. We’re very proud of it. It’s a great film. What we were trying to do with COPYWRONG is have a work which contains several layers in itself. So we have, you know, the commercial work, the original films, as used by artists in the show as their own starting point. That has been, you know, made most of the time from the commercial angle, but not always. So that original work is captured in our film.
Added to that, we would have the artist’s work which uses that commercial film to create his or her own work.
And added to that, the other layer that our feature film would also contain is the exhibition. And whether you consider that the exhibition is an artwork or not, it certainly is… an ensemble. And, you know, we were thinking perhaps that would be a bit like the Louise Lawler photographs of art works in collectors’ houses. Only here, video art exhibited in public institutions. So here we’re also documenting work. And we’ve been doing it where it is, in situation, the situation of an exhibition which, relatively speaking, is quite new, a few hundred years old.
But I think our main driver for COPYWRONG has been to be making a feature film, and a beautiful art work.
That feature film, perhaps like some détournement films, has often a sort of built-in comic aspect. So not necessarily of the What’s up Tiger Lilly type maybe of Woody Allen, but even in a serious détournement film, there is always that disconnection between the images and the voice. In fact, that disconnection is something that the Lettrists were interested in even earlier than Debord’s writing, in terms of the idea of breaking that link between the sound and the image.
But I think you could also see that film as a dérive into an art exhibition, and a realistic representation of that experience. If you put the sound here on the extract showing in the background, but you will hear not simply, or not even always, the sound of the artist video filmed, but, sometimes perhaps in fact during this work, you can also hear technicians in the back discussing some other work. And then you can hear another video with the sound much louder than the one on the screen. So reflecting or capturing at least that disconnection perhaps was for us a push towards a certain realism, because when you are in an exhibition space, you always start to sort of make abstraction of what’s around, and just focus on one work. Or at least that is what the curator wants you to do. But actually when you film it, you realise that while you might do this in your mind, the camera records quite a lot of things that are also happening at the same time, and that’s a lot of different things that are competing soundwise, lightwise, for attention within an exhibition, artworks, visitors, pillars, conversation. The artwork is never shown in a neutral isolated way. And I think this is what we wanted to show in the film.
Here again, actually, we capture the dérive of going through an exhibition, because when you arrive in a room the work is not necessarily at the beginning. It’s just the halfway through the middle of the video, and when you’ve had enough you move to the next one. So you create your own path and dis-order through the exhibition. And I think this is what our feature film is about.
Now the other driving principle to us is that the exhibition creates the work. When we tend to approach our works, we see them not as, you know, something that’s prepared in advance, and where, you know, you’re out in some overseas country and, tada! There it is!
And we don’t see it either as a lecture, you know, that’s telling you what’s what, a sermon, but also it’s not for us a showtime.
We’re trying to approach it more as a sort of conversation, and a conversation can be a discussion, or an argument, something that happens onsite. So it’s not a situation where the artist can say 'here’s a conversation I prepared earlier' we don’t prepare our conversation in advance. We just go there, we don’t quite know what other people are going to say, so you can have an idea of the sort of things that you want to get out of it, the sort of arguments you want to discuss. But you have to improvise as well partly because of the response that you get at that time. And I think we are just interested in the work not being determined from the beginning, and not being a presentation, but something that’s slightly out of our control.
Giving up this control drives us, and giving up the authority which, you know, the artist in an exhibition will have –and indeed of the exhibition as a very controlled environment-, for example, in the performance that we did this week at the Kunsthalle Exnergasse opening, where we were selling the DVDs on a rug on the floor outside the formal exhibition space, probably looking not quite right, I’d say, because in London or in the UK, people who sell DVDs don’t really look middle-class like us. So while our performance was perhaps appealing to a certain situation, it was not getting that situation quite properly. At the same time, we were, you know, performing in a sort of normal way of speaking. You could talk to us, and we could talk to you. We were not acting a role. And one of the people at the opening, an Irish guy, said to me, oh, you know there’s this performance tonight. Do you know when it is? And I said to him, well, this is the performance. It’s you having bought that video from me.
So I think what we are trying to do is partly make things uncomfortable for everyone. That the artists are uncomfortable because they don’t know what this is about, that their film has been pirated. We’re uncomfortable because we’re not putting ourselves in a position of authority, but we’re just, you know, selling a DVD. You can treat us like shit if you want. And actually we might treat you like shit. So it’s perhaps a bit dangerous for everyone with inherent potential for conflict. And I think one sentence, we talked about the Mode d’emploi du détournement, earlier, one sentence that I had noted was, when we talked about détournement, it says 'loin de vouloir susciter l’indignation ou le rire en se référant à la notion d’une oeuvre originale, mais marquant au contraire notre indifférence pour un original vidé de sens et oublié' that is, far from aiming to arouse indignation or laughter about the original work, it would express our indifference towards this meaningless original, and concern itself with rendering a certain sublimity.
In a sense, for our feature film... to me, it doesn’t matter which works are in there. Because it isn’t very much about this or that particular work, and me wanting to give you the best viewing conditions possible of this work. The film is something that tries to move you away from the notion of the curated exhibition, to that of seeing an art work knowing that this is an art work, and not helping noticing that you have a certain distance from this work and therefore heightening the experience of your own presence. Someone yesterday was talking about being trapped, and the visitor being trapped into some work. And I think what we’re trying to do is to just snap you back from that trap and slap you back into awareness.
So we don’t allow to lose yourself into this trompe-l’oeil immersive experience. And to me when I think of détournement, I think of détournement de mineurs (corruption of minors), I think of détournement de fonds (embezzlement of funds), détournement d’avion (hijacking of a plane). So it’s never a comfortable thing. But also it is not about the détournement technique for its own sake. If you think of a détournement d’avion, the plane is not being hijacked in order to share a smart comment or concerns about contemporary air travel. It’s for something entirely different, and it creates an entirely different situation, using the plane, as you said, as a tool. And the uncertainty and tension created is shared for all sides, passengers, highjackers and the law forces.
And as an artist, using someone else’s original work has nothing to do with our interest for the original work, but about using it as a material to say something else entirely. On a completely different scale of course, this discomfort is something that we think might be an interesting premise for making artwork.
As you realise that Gary and I are criminals, you are probably unsure whether you can trust us or not, and whether, tonight, I’ve told in fact you the truth.
Or have I just made excuses to justify something we wanted to do anyway. ...
So finally, I would just like to call three witnesses to perhaps help mitigate our case.
The first one was called earlier today in front of this room, it was Lautréamont. And he said: 'Le plagiat est nécessaire. Le progrès l’implique.' (Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it.) . You cannot progress intellectual thought without borrowing from the conversation that has taken place before, and borrowing it, transforming it.
The second witness is Isidore Isou, who kickstarts his film Traité de bave et d’éternité with the comment: 'I love the cinema when it is insolent and does what it should not.'
And the third one is the Stop Online Piracy Act, ('SOPA'), a proposed bill scheduled for debate, as we speak, in the US Congress. SOPA sets out to fight trafficking in copyrighted intellectual property. And so I’ll bring, on my side, Google and Facebook, who say that such laws choke innovation. And on my side as well, the White House, who says 'it will reduce the freedom of expression'.
So perhaps we’re starting to feel a bit less guilty…
But our primary objective was to, in our manifesto (well, if it’s a 'reality manifesto' as per the exhibition title...), was to use the moment the exhibition to create the work.
We wanted to also use, and we’re always trying to use, what is there. Whether it’s a space, a situation, people, things lying around. For us, it’s important to just work with what there is, perhaps we have a bit of an affinity to arte povera in our approach to making work.
And also we wanted to make a work which is related to here, today, so this is as well a portrait of an art scene, an art exhibition in Vienna 2012. And maybe when it becomes heritage in a few years, an archive for whatever. But we’re interested with now, and also, I think it is realistic about its, perhaps, lack of political or social power as an art work.
And it doesn’t lie, or it doesn’t try to lie about - or it does, and I don’t know it- about just being an art work.
In the end, and before you reach your verdict, I want you to consider that perhaps these arguments are justifying the crime.
Or perhaps, despite these reasons, perhaps, what is of interest to us is just the thrill of making that crime.
Vienna, January 2012 (transcript)
The Centre of Attention is a London-based contemporary art organisation curated by Pierre Coinde and Gary O'Dwyer. its experimental approach stems from an ongoing enquiry into the phenomenon of art production, presentation, consumption and heritage-ization.